The rain crashes down, torrential, as though the heavens themselves have broken under the weight of the tragedy they have witnessed. That is what he will remember, after: falling water like violence, beating its fists against the churned earth. Later he will think of the poeticism, and there will be a slantwise and sharp-edged satisfaction to know the world matched his misery.
Now, though, there is only the purple-white lightning, and a thunder so loud it rattles his bones, and Wei Ying, all shadow and smoke. Bichen is a dowsing rod in his hand, singing crystalline against the resentment. Chenqing hovers between them, a barrier, a challenge, a plea.
Wangji does not know how to offer out his hand.
“Wei Ying. Where will you go?”
“The world is wide,” he says, laughing that awful, jagged laugh. His mare sidesteps beneath him, as though she could escape her rider. “Surely there must be some place for us.”
Us. He does not think Wei Ying means him.
“Come back,” he says. “Come back to Gusu.”
“Lan Zhan.” It is unfair, he thinks, for Wei Ying to speak his name like this, with such tender cruelty. There is no laughter now. Only water. Only iron. “Will you stop us?”
There, again, us, and Wangji nowhere within it. He cannot read Wei Ying’s face from so far away. He has not been able to read Wei Ying’s face for some time now.
Lightning splinters around them.
He cannot read Wei Ying but Wei Ying must read him. Wei Ying must see his grip on Bichen slacken, must mark the settling of his weight in defeat. He is a good soldier, after all. He knows how to read a fight, and they are both well aware not all wars are won and lost at swordpoint.
The Wens churn up muck and water and perhaps even blood as they pass, fleeing into the open arms of the crackling night. He stands there long after they are gone, swallowed by the sheeting water, shadows grown upon sucking shadows the dark. Us. His umbrella falls.
Rainwater soaks him through, and absolves him of nothing.
“I heard,” says a Jin disciple whisper-loud while they wait for Jin-zongzhu to call the meeting to order, “that they rode off the edge of the world.”
“I heard he led them into the desert to starve them like the mutts they are.”
“Don’t be stupid. He sacrificed so many honest Jin for his love of the Wen-dogs. Why would he kill them now?”
“I heard he has a lover among them. A witch.”
“I heard even the Burial Mounds would not accept them.”
“Too sick even for the dead.” The disciple—he does not recognize their robes, though he knows he should—spits. “I hope they all rot.”
He does not startle—he is too composed for it—but his brother’s gaze is knowing when he flicks his eyes aside. Likewise he does not flush, even if eavesdropping is unbecoming. It is the only word he has had in days, the only word of a man and a bedraggled remnant that has disappeared into the dark without a trace. That it comes from a knot of gossip-mongering outer disciples does not make that any less true.
He settles his hands more surely upon his knees, the only sign of his embarrassment, if embarrassment is the word for it. He cannot say that what he feels is shame, exactly. “Xiongzhang.”
“Are you well?”
“Well enough.” There is no point in lying, even were it not forbidden. Not to Xichen, in any case; his brother is the one person in the world who knows his many faces.
Not the only one, whispers the small and traitorous voice in the back of his mind, the same one that questions if right is right and wrong is wrong and who is to say they are so. Its tone is familiar, a fact he has long since acknowledged. He does not entirely mind listening to it, but he does not know what to do with the thoughts when they come. It is… irksome.
Xichen’s gaze settles briefly on the knot of cultivators sullying Wei Ying’s name. But then, it is sullied already, is it not? What is a little more fuel atop a merrily burning pyre?
“I had hoped to ask your opinion on a personal matter,” his brother says. Focus, he means. Dear Xichen, always so diplomatic, always determined to soothe any ruffled feathers no matter what has disturbed them. It is a skill Wangji cannot match, and he feels his shortcoming more and more each day. If only he could so clearly walk the line between propriety and conviction.
“I am listening,” he says. Xichen smiles, small in the way of the truest ones, and inclines his head. His guan glints in the slanted sunlight. The brilliance in blinding. Wangji feels as though he is half in shadow, yet to emerge from the damp and dripping night.
But whatever matter it is his brother seeks to discuss, it is cut short by the arrival of Jin-zongzhu with Jin Guangyao at his side, demure and—if Wangji does not mistake it—somewhat anxious. The man glances up, briefly, to meet Xichen’s eyes. Wangji does not have to look at his brother to know he smiles; he can see the effect plain as the blue sky above in the way that Jin Guangyao’s shoulders settle.
At least, he thinks, not unkindly, there is someone who can appreciate his brother’s steadying nature.
“Esteemed cultivators,” says Jin Guangyao, bowing low. He looks small in his peony-embroidered yuanlingpao and his ridiculous hat with his wide, dark eyes. Small and standing tall above them, his father’s voice and whipping boy. Wangji does not envy him. “Thank you for your presence. We are grateful that so many of you have remained.”
It is not a formal gathering. Or, it is, but only in that when so many sects gather there must be formality. Wei Ying would find it funny. That does not mean much; Wei Ying finds most things funny. Even the terrible ones. Perhaps it is because if they are not funny they will devour him, body and soul.
Wangji would not mind knowing how to find terrible things funny. Perhaps this formal-not-formal gathering would not smart quite so badly if he knew that particular trick.
“As you are all by now aware, Wei Wuxian has freed the Wen prisoners serving their just sentence to rectify the wrongs wrought upon our world and fled alongside our enemies. Where he has gone we do not know, but it is the heartfelt belief of the Jin Sect—” And here he pauses, ever so briefly, to look to Jin-zongzhu, as though they may have forgotten who pulls his puppet strings. Only after the indolent sect leader nods does he pick up the dropped thread of his plea with a firm press of lips. “It is our heartfelt belief that he must be found, and the Wen remnant brought to justice, before any further harm is done. We all remember the blood and strife of the Sunshot Campaign.” He looks ill for a moment, then visibly pulls himself together to press on. They are all, Wangji supposes, not without their scars. “To achieve such an end, LanlingJin proposes a search, so that the traitor might be brought to face justice and the Wens returned to pay penance for their crimes.”
There are murmurs at the word traitor. Jiang Wanyin has clenched his jaw so hard a vein stands out across his forehead, but he remains resolutely upright and silent, spine stiff as iron. At his side, Jiang Yanli presses her lips together so tightly they turn white. Her distress is plain to read, and it does nothing to quiet the whispers.
Wangji would like to comfort her, but he has no words. His body is a long way away at the moment; he watches it from without as it sits there, marblesque.
They meant to hunt him. They mean to hunt Wei Ying like a dog.
“Well said,” declares Yao-zongzhu, clapping his hands firmly. Nie Mingjue, seated nearby, presses his lips together and stares as Jin Guangyao as though attempting to pick apart a puzzle. It is a cold, distrusting look. Wangji notes it distantly, without curiosity. They are going to hunt down Wei Ying and drag him back whether he wills it or no.
Irons would kill Wei Ying as sure as the point of a blade. Unless Wei Ying killed them all first. He does not think that is entirely outside the realm of possibility. The consideration conjures the feeling of a thousand tiny crawling insects, prickling and uneasy. He cannot say which part unsettles him more: Wei Ying in irons or Wei Ying in blood.
The world is wide. Surely there must be some place for us.
He blinks and he is himself again, or near enough. There is a small, tight ache between his shoulders. He rolls them out subtly as he can beneath the voluminous breadth of his robes and looks to his brother. From his tone of his voice and the expression on his face, this is not the first time he has called his name.
“Are you alright?”
He looks at his brother. He cannot find the words, could not give air to them even if he discovered them. That is alright. Xichen will be able to read his face. Xichen has always been able to read his face.
Will you stop us?
There is a biting pain in his hand. He unclenches his fist to find his nails have dug into his palm. He wraps his fingers around the smear of red. Wei Ying—
“Didi,” says Xichen, very gently, very quietly. He must look as untethered as he feels, then. With a deep breath, he makes the effort to collect himself, to reel the waving threads of his attention and his consciousness back within the bounds of his skin. His control is iron-tight. It does not take long.
“I will go,” he says to his brother. “I will look.”
“I will find him.”
Xichen makes no response to this declaration, but Wangji can read him in turn and sees the concern writ across his face for what it is. He does not try to assuage it. He isn’t certain he could even if he wished to.
“What then?” Xichen asks him quietly, while up above Jin Guangyao calls for quiet, murmuring crowd grown to a whitewater chatter. “If you find him?”
When, not if, but he does not make the correction. He gives his brother a long, searching look, and turns back towards Jin Guangyao as he begins to lay out the plan Jin-zongzhu has, in theory, pieced together. In truth, Wangji is near certain it is Lianfang-zun who took the time and effort. Troublesome work is not Jin-zongzhu's style.
He cannot answer his brother’s question because the truth of the matter is this: He does not know.
It is Jiang-guniang who finds him the night before he means to leave.
The hour is late by the standards of Gusu Lan; the sun has set and his unerring internal clock tells him that the hour is closer to hai than xu. He is seated—shamefully, nostalgically—upon the roof of the guest chamber he shares with his brother, guqin across his lap. He has not been playing it, only smoothing his fingers across its strings, checking it for wear, for tear, for any semblance of flaw or blemish. He has found none, and now he sits, waiting.
He cannot say for what he waits. Perhaps Jiang-guniang. Perhaps a ghost.
Her gaze finds him unerringly in the dark, as though she knows to look up. Perhaps she does. Perhaps she sees immediately the afterthought of her brother, lounging upon the roof tiles, unwilling to stay stuck fast to the steady earth. He has flown now, so very far.
Jiang-guniang curtsies neatly, lilac robes pooling around her feet. She is here as the sister, then, foremost, and the Jiang cultivator second. He banishes his guqin with a wave of his hand and drifts down from his rooftop perch to bow himself, as the—the what? friend, he hopes—and the Second Jade of Lan.
“Lan-er-gongzi,” she says. Her voice is sweet.
“Jiang-guniang.” He waits for her to speak.
Her mouth opens, and closes, and opens again. When she sighs, it is with an old and tired sorrow. She smiles, though. Wangji knows there is no blood tie between her and Wei Ying, but he sees a shadow of that eternal grin in her face.
“Would you care to walk with me?” she asks, and despite the lateness of the hour, he cannot bring himself to refuse. With one outstretched arm, he invites her to lead the way.
She does so, passing from courtyard to courtyard with a familiarity that might be amusing at another time, with another companion. He can imagine the complaints Wei Ying would level against all of the Jin for the simple fact that his sister knows the paths of Jinlintai, each no doubt more outrageous than the last. It almost draws forth a smile.
Jiang-guniang does not speak until they have made their meandering way through the outskirts of Jinlintai to the back of the mountain, where a vast forest unfolds beneath them, black under the deep purple blanket of night. Somewhere a lake shines, a blot amidst the shadows that glimmers now and then with the afterthought of moonlight. The breeze is soft and sweet and smells of the Jins’ flowers. Rain has washed the air clear. It is not unlovely.
Jiang-guniang stands near the long, low railing at the farthest edge of this distant courtyard and turns to face him. In the scant moonlight, she is ghostly herself.
“My brother is not a traitor,” she tells him. Beneath her voice lurks an edge like a challenge.
Wangji inclines his head.
“I don’t know,” she begins, and her voice catches. He waits for her to clear her throat and shake out her sleeves and fold her hands together to mask their shaking. “I don’t know what he did, precisely, and I don’t know why, but if a-Xian did it then he had a good reason. If he did it, then it was the right thing to do.”
Right. What a troublesome word that is. What does it mean? Who chooses? Jiang-guniang, perhaps, with all the fire and fierceness of an oldest sister. Wangji wonders, had he a sister like Jiang Yanli, if he would not feel pulled in so many directions at once, waiting to snap.
“Mn,” he says, when he realizes she has been staring at him for too long, waiting for some kind of response. “The sects will not see it this way.”
“I am aware of how the sects see it,” she returns, icy, and immediately thaws. “I know. It’s terrible. And we’ll look, of course, in Yunmeng, but there is so much work to be done and we have so few people, and I fear—” She chokes around it, but she does not need to say it. He does her the kindness of completing the thought.
“Someone else may find him first.”
It is his fear as well.
“A-Cheng and I have spoken, and we— That is, if you’re willing. If you find him, please, let him know he will be safe in Yunmeng.”
“You assume I will seek him.”
The looks she gives him is one he has seen on Xichen’s face many times before. Perhaps older siblings are all the same after all.
“I don’t pretend to understand the ties that bind you and my shidi, Lan-er-gongzi. But I am certain you will look for him, no matter where that search takes you.”
He does not respond, because there is no response to be had to such a declaration. Jiang-guniang stares at him for a moment with that same piercing look and then nods to herself and turns back to the forest below. Wangji takes a deep breath and remembers his control. His face settles.
“Jiang-zongzhu is in agreement?”
“He insisted upon it.” Her face softens, profile gentling. “As sect leader he could not come to petition you himself, but you must understand. A-Xian is our brother.”
Wangji thinks of Xichen. “I understand.”
She looks to him again, and nods once, firmly. “Good.”
“And the Wen?”
She blinks. “I’m sorry?”
“Wei Ying will be safe in Yunmeng. What of the Wen?”
Surely there must be some place for us.
Jiang Yanli looks over him for a long minute. He stands there, waiting for her answer. He does not hide anything. He does not know what she seeks, and so he knows not what would be worth hiding to begin with. Perhaps she is doing the calculations Wangji himself has done, of how to feed and house and protect dozens of hungry bodies, bodies who were, until one week ago, prisoners of war, bodies who are still hated for their bloodline, for their very existence.
If there is a solution to this hatred, he does not know it. All he knows is that he hopes Wei Ying will come home with him, and the rest might be resolved in time. He and Wei Ying have always found their best solutions when working together. Perhaps that is enough.
“No,” she says unbidden, more to herself than anything, startling him from his thoughts. Her eyes fix on a point beyond his shoulder, unseeing. “He would not return without them, would he.”
It is not a question, and the shape her mouth makes is not a smile, for all that it tilts upwards at the corners. Wangji’s stomach knots, the pit-stone weight of fear—that he is too late, that he has failed before he has started. His hand shakes where he holds it tight behind his back, as though he could catch something already fled. Jiang Yanli’s gaze settles upon him again.
“The Wen will be safe in Yunmeng.”
He searches her face, seeking— something; he does not know what. Proof of a lie, perhaps. Proof of truth. She looks neither dissembling nor forthcoming; she looks tired and afraid and, beneath it all, angry.
He chooses to believe her. He knows very little of Jiang Yanli except that Wei Ying loves her, heart and soul, and if Wei Ying treasures her in such a way then Wangji can offer the honor of his trust.
“I will tell him,” he says, “when I find him.”
She smiles more gently than Wei Ying, but there is a similar light to it. It does not dim even as she bows.
“Thank you, Lan-er-gongzi.” Her hands fold in a salute, full and formal. She turns.
“What if he will not come?”
Moonlight paints the line of her back lightning lavender. Her shoulders rise high and fall. Her voice, when it comes, is cattail soft and heavy as river silt. It is the sound of heartbreak.
“Then I hope he will at least be safe.”
Wangji is grateful, then, that her back is turned. Air shudders through him, jagged edges knocking against the soft meat and muscle of his lungs. He swallows hard.
Her head inclines, hair a midnight curtain. “Goodnight.”
It takes him so long to pick his way back through Jinlintai that he misses curfew, but Xichen is not in their room when he returns. Carefully, methodically, he sheds the layers of his robes, hangs them, and lays himself down in the too-soft, too-big Jin bed.
Sleep is a long time coming.
Like the unfolding of a great fan, the Jin and their allies spread out in their search. In the west, the burned and blackened husk of Qishan is picked over, glinting cultivators descending like scavenger beetles upon its carcass. Nie Mingjue leads his men all the way to the edge of the great windstruck desert in the north. Search parties weave along the eastern coast, casting a net as wide as a nation. Lanling sits like a crown jewel upon the brow of the cultivation world, and under their watchful eye the sects comb their territories, fine-toothed and eager.
Wangji, when he descends the steps of Jinlintai, turns south. There is only his brother to see him off, heavy with concern. Wangji bows low and deep, and takes his leave. He does not look back.
If asked, he would have no reason to give for his chosen direction save that it feels right, and he cannot but hope that gut instinct will grant him better luck than cool logic when it comes to Wei Ying. It is foolish, perhaps, to tread a path along which the sects already search, greater and lesser clans alike pouring across their lands and overturning each and every stone as though the Wen might be hiding in the mulch with the worms. It does not sway him in the slightest.
He pitches south-west, skirting Gusu, and threads the needle between his homeland and the bulk of Yunmeng. The world grows greener, wetter; grain gives way to rice. Wei Ying has little more than a week’s edge on them and has made the most of it; wherever he stops, whenever he pauses to ask after a group in flight, be it to cultivator or common man, he receives no answer. Not a soul has seen the Wen remnant, or if they have they will not speak of it. Wangji cannot blame them, though the silence worries and frustrates him in equal measure. No news, he decides, must mean good news. It means Wei Ying has not been found, or captured, or killed.
Two weeks of steady sword travel brings him to the edge of the world he knows. There is no barrier to mark the divide, not even a lazy stream to herald the threshold. It passes beneath him, unnoticed, and when he descends from his sword at sunset on the fifteenth day, he finds the locals speaking a dialect he has never heard before.
Far from home though he may be, the innkeeper shows no surprise to see a sect cultivator upon his doorstep. His accent is strange, but understandable.
“Daozhang,” he greets when Wangji asks after rooms for the night. He is an older man, rounded with age, cheeks ruddy and creased in a way that suggests an easy smile. The easy demeanor makes a strange counterpoint to the shy, curling scar that runs down below his ear and disappears beneath the collar of his shirt. “What brings you so far?”
Wangji pays for a room and a meal and considers this man. It is Wei Ying who one told him once that winehouses and restaurants make the best mills for gossipmongering, and gossipmongering is what he is after.
He does not speak to strangers so easily as Wei Ying, but for Wei Ying’s sake he will try.
“I follow a group of travelers. A friend of mine is among them.” He is proud that he does not stumble over friend; he had thought he might. It is insufficient, but picking out the right word would be as arduous as collecting a thousand grains of rice, and he has not the time for such a task.
Zhiji, he had once been called. He does not know if he still has the right to use such a word. Certainly he does not feel he knows Wei Ying, no matter how ardently he wishes it.
The innkeeper counts his silver, gnaws it between two weathered molars without an ounce of contrition. Wangji folds his free hand neatly behind his back and waits.
“How big a group d’you mean?”
“Four, perhaps five dozen.”
The innkeeper arches one eyebrow, and it is nothing like an answer but it is the first glimmer of recognition he has had. His heart catches.
“Battered lot, yeah?”
“Yes.” He cannot keep the striving hope from his voice. The innkeeper laughs, a windy guffaw, and the meat of his hand slaps against the wood of the counter between them.
“A special sort of friend, I take it?” he asks with a wink. “She looked a sharp one, I’ll say, fierce as anything. Pretty too, under the muck. Ah, but that’s none of my business.”
Wangji does not bother to correct him. He barely notices the assumption, in truth; he has no doubt that Wen Qing is the one the innkeeper means. And if Wen Qing has passed through this meagre town, then— “They were here?”
“A week ago, just about. Looked like they had demons nipping at their heels. Stayed out past town, but that girl was here with a sallow boy. Looked half starved so I packed them off with what I could spare.” He shakes his head, fingers brushing the scar just below his ear. “They say the war’s ended, but it leaves its marks, sure as anything.”
Wangji struggles to swallow around the hope lodged in his throat. Sallow boy. Wei Ying.
“Their direction—?” His manners fail him alongside his word. The innkeeper’s face creases into a smile, worn and familiar and kindly in the way of those who have seen many generations bloom and grow.
“South. Towards Honghe, if I were to guess, but I’d not spread it around. Their business is their own, whatever it may be.”
Wangji folds his hands and bows deep. “I am grateful for your assistance.”
“There, there, none of that.” The man waves him off, clearly flustered. “Enough, enough, daozhang you’ll embarrass me. I’ve done nothing worth the thanks.”
“You helped them,” Wangji says. He is not sure the old innkeeper will understand what this means, how deeply this kindness has been felt.
“Was only the right thing to do,” he grunts and grumbles, and slides a key across the counter. “Dinner will be sent up, daozhang. If you need anything else, all you’ve got to do is say the word.”
“You have already done for me more than you know,” Wangji tells him, too-honest. Hope strips him raw. “Thank you.”
“You said that already,” mumbles the innkeeper, and Wangji does him the kindness of taking his leave.
He departs with the dawn, striking southward, and westward, and southward again. The land grows green, then mountainous, then green and mountainous both. The highlands rise up around him, vast and striking. There is not always news of Wei Ying, but when there is he has only just missed them, they passed through only recently, they are some few days ahead.
His hope does not dim, but it simmers down to a steady, tugging plea. It is the anchor-line, and he the kite.
The world is wide.
It is. He will search it over, twice, to find Wei Ying.
This corner of the world is mountain-steep and summer-green. Great tiers have been carved through the foothills for planting, and from the air they look like brushstrokes, suggesting the curve of hillsides and the shape of simple lives. Lakes speckle the landscape, serenely blue hidden between soft-worn crags. It is lovely, and lonely, and for days, for weeks, he traverses it alone, seeking. Doubt creeps in at night when he rests alone beneath hardwood trees, or spends his silver on a room for the night. Wei Ying may well have flown further afield; he may be losing precious time to pick up the fading smoke-curl of a trail. But his heart tells him this is the place to look, and he is learning to listen to heart-instinct.
In the end, he nearly misses them.
He has settled on walking today, for the exercise of it. The path twists underfoot, but kindly; like a willow ceding to the wind, it yields to the wandering whims of the mountains. Birdsong, unfamiliar and sweet, trills through the trees above him, and the air smells of warmth and wet and growing things, a world grateful for the simple pleasure of rich earth and shining sun. He walks for hours and sees no living person, but this loneliness is not the austere, upright cold of Gusu. Yes, he is alone, but the world sings to him, breeze and birdsong: You are here! You are alive! He sweats through two, three layers of fabric, and his hair clings sticky to the back of his neck, and it is a messy, imperfect aliveness that sweeps him up in such an alien wonder he very nearly misses the talisman carved into a standing stone as he comes over the bulk of the mountain.
The path overlooks a shallow valley, the kind that hide over each rise and swell in these highlands. A town, bustling and smoke-busy, nestles in the fold between the peaks. Across the width of the vale, a watercolor smear of terraces reflects the blazing blue of the sky, so brilliant it hurts to look at. It is only that, the instinctual wince against the dazzling glare, that turns his head towards the rock face, the carefully positioned stone with its characters carved in a rough hand. And then it is only because he is Lan Wangji, Hanguang-jun, the peerless Second Jade of Lan, that he can look past the gut-punch misdirection of the talisman to see it for what it is.
Forget me! The spell screams out with nearly enough power to convince him even as he stares right at it, but he steadies himself, finds the burning core of him and clears the cobwebs from his mind’s eye.
It helps too that he would know the touch of Wei Ying’s hand anywhere.
What is he to forget? He takes another breath, closes his eyes to sharpen his awareness, and when he opens them he almost wonders that he missed this forking road, wide enough for cart and man to travel abreast. The wards are strong for all that they are unwieldy; they have been thrown up quickly, but not carelessly. Forgetting is only the start. They knot like spider silk: here an alarm, here a deterrent, here a barrier so physical it flinches when he presses his hand against it. The amount of power it must require—
Wei Ying. Weeks of flight and still this. Is there anything left of the man, or is he all skin and bone?
Movement, then, at the end of the path, on the far side of the wards. It takes an agonizing moment to place the half-familiar figure; he will be ashamed later that the first thing he notices is the glinting blade, that the first thing he does is put a hand to Bichen, bare inch of steel slipping from the sheath. Only when she comes to a stop on the far side of the wards does he recognize her.
Wen Qing has lost a great deal of weight beneath the rough robes she wears. Her face is hollow and haggard, her shoulders high with the wariness of the pursued, and the jut of her chin is a voiceless challenge. The blade she carries is not a sword, nor even a saber; it is a kitchen knife, made for chopping vegetables. She holds it like she means to maim, like she will go to her own death if it means she can bring him down with her. There is a cornered-animal fear to her; it seeps into the air between them like blood through water.
Wangji loosens his hand from his hilt.
If she is surprised to see him, he cannot tell.
Now that he is here, he is curiously empty. There are things to say, surely, but he cannot recall them. He watches Wen Qing rake him over, sees her consider each and every inch of his travel-dusty robes. Self-conscious, he takes a step back. In response, she uncoils, ever so slightly.
“What do you want?” she demands, cold and cutting as iron. She has not lowered the knife. He does not ask her to.
“I came to find you.”
“I—” He begins, and stops. There are too many reasons. There are none. There is only one, and it is too big to put in words here among the dust and the heat and the wet-field scent of growing things; it goes to seed in his chest, unspeakable.
Wen Qing stares at him, contempt bleeding into the wariness. It stirs him to action.
“I bear a message for Wei Ying.”
“I will deliver it.”
He does not want her to deliver it. He wants to speak it himself. He wants to speak so many things. They all tangle in his throat.
He untucks Jiang Yanli’s words from a safe and sheltered place and gives them wings.
“His shijie and shidi wish him to come back to Yunmeng. They swear he will be safe.”
She does not react. It is worse this way; he cannot begin to guess at what she is thinking, feeling. After a moment, her head tilts down, jerky.
“I will deliver it,” she repeats. And then, over a long, pinning stare: “Do not leave.”
He could not even if he wished to. The whole of his hollowed-out being strives forward, toward Wei Ying; to go back now, without seeing him, without the certainty that he is still safe, still alive, would tear out the heart of him. Unspeaking, he seats himself tailor style just beyond the talisman rock, hands settled on his knees. The burn of her gaze is precise and sharp as a scalpel.
It is an uncomfortably long minute before her footsteps recede again. Wangji does not stir.
Meditation is calming, even here, even now. Wei Ying’s wards brush against his awareness, monolithic feats of power carved with a rough chisel, but there is artistry in their underpinnings. With time, Wangji knows they will be a bulwark, maze and labyrinth and sand-packed stone. Now they are all violence, brute strength.
There is an artistry to that too. There is artistry to everything Wei Ying does.
He sinks further into himself, ear half trained on the path ahead, and breathes in time with the rustling wind.
When Wen Qing returns, the sun is a heavy golden yolk in the sky, dripping towards evening, and there are two sets of footsteps. Wangji’s heart leaps to his throat and lodges there, red and wet and choking. He makes himself open his eyes slowly.
Wei Ying, says his heart like beating, and he swallows it down.
He is a skeletal figure next to Wen Qing, a hundred times more ghostly than the man from the storm and the dark at Qiongqi Dao. His cheekbones stand out sharply, the skin of his face pulled taunt over bone. His eyes are rimmed red, purple-black bruises like thumbprints pressed below them, exhaustion worn like a second skin. His robes are threadbare, rain- and mud- and travel-stained. There is dirt on his hands and at his too-sharp jaw. His hair has been pulled back with no thought for neatness or decency, and it tangles down his back, catching in the breeze. The only part of him that is not worn and weathered is Chenqing; the bone flute presses against his hip with the familiarity of a beloved pet, its tassel swinging in the breeze. Wei Ying’s hand tightens around it as he comes to a stop beside Wen Qing on the far side of his wards.
Wangji stands. Slowly. His heart jackrabbits in his chest. His throat is the northern desert.
“You have a message for me.”
His eyes flick to Wen Qing, but her face is mountain stone. Wei Ying’s gaze is a dark and deadly thing. Wangji wets his lips.
“Jiang-zongzhu and Jiang-guniang ask that you return to Yunmeng. They promise you will be safe.”
He laughs. That too is a dark and deadly thing, and rue-bitter. His thumb strokes along the line of Chenqing, hypnotic. “Jiang Cheng promises my safety? How strong has Yunmeng Jiang grown in these past months? Will they defy LanlingJin so openly as to welcome back this traitor? What, will they pluck down the moon next?”
It is an ugly jest, and Wangji finds he prickles on behalf of the Jiang. “They worry.”
“They shouldn’t.” His focus snaps back to Wangji. “I don’t need it.”
“Wei Wuxian,” says Wen Qing at his side, quiet. It is not chiding, but there is something warning about it, firm enough that Wei Ying bites visibly against his words and lets the silence linger, jaw hard. The breeze carries with it the tang of woodsmoke. Something, somewhere, is burning. Wei Ying’s nostrils flare, mouth going crooked. Everything about him is jagged lines.
“My safety. Kind of them. And what of my companions?”
Wangji is proud, in a roundabout way, that he has known this will be Wei Ying’s question, that he has thought to ask.
“They will be kept safe.”
Wei Ying snorts. “Oh yeah? How?”
Wanji is silent, not of doubt but of uncertainty. He cannot answer what he does not know. Wei Ying watches him with that cruel, helpless look on his face, and nods to himself. His laugh is brittle, breaking.
“Lan Wangji.” It strikes him like a physical blow, an open palm across the face. He rocks back on his heels, and all the while Wei Ying watches him, a cold and cruel and dead thing. He wants to be sick. He wants to cough up his heart right here in the dirt and mountain grass, so that he will not feel it festering in his chest.
Wen Qing watches them and says nothing, nothing at all.
“Why are you here?”
“I bring a message—”
“Speak the truth.”
He opens his mouth. Closes it. Closes his eyes for an aching moment and searches inside the bloody, wet cavern of his chest for an answer worthy of himself. Worthy of Wei Ying.
“I wish to help.”
“And what if I say no? Will you drag me back to Gusu?”
It hangs between them. They made an oath together, once. For the memory of that oath, of the friendship they once shared, he hopes Wei Ying will listen.
Believe me just this once, he begs silently, and I will never ask anything of you again.
Quietly, at his side, Wen Qing says, “He cannot go back.”
“If he has found us, how long before the next arrives?”
“I came alone,” Wangji says. He nearly stumbles over the words. It is important to say, to explain as best he can; he has undertaken this task alone, and alone he will see it done. “No one followed.”
Wei Ying gives him a long look, not so cutting. Contemplative, perhaps. There is an edge beneath it, but there has been an edge beneath everything Wei Ying has done and said since he returned from wherever the Wen hid him for three months. The Burial Mounds, the Wen-dogs had said, but nothing alive comes back from the Burial Mounds, and so that cannot be the truth.
“Wei Wuxian,” says Wen Qing. “He cannot go back, and you cannot go on like this. You’ll kill yourself.”
Wei Ying snorts, careless. It is perhaps the most horrible sound Wangji has ever heard.
It must show on his face, for when Wen Qing’s eyes flick towards him her face sets into a stubborn fierceness even Wei Ying cannot match.
“If you die,” she says, biting and unrepentant, “what will happen to the rest of us? What will happen to a-Ning?”
He flinches so sharply the tassel on the end of Chenqing sways. Wangji watches it pendulum to and fro, eyes sharp.
“He’s one of them, isn’t he? He shouldn’t be here. He should have minded his own fucking business.”
The last of it is directed at Wangji, offhanded. It does not sting nearly as much as the question that precedes it. Them. Us. There is a line in the sand, and he does not know how to cross it. There is a chasm between them, and he cannot find a bridge. His hands clench at his side.
“If you wish me to leave,” he says, measured, nails biting against his palm with his effort not to shake, not to let the barest thread of emotion splinter his composure, “I will go. I will not speak a word of what I have seen. I will inform them Wei Ying has disappeared. This is my promise.”
Wei Ying tilts his head. “You would lie?”
“To protect the Wen.”
He would lie to protect Wei Ying. He would die to protect Wei Ying. But if to protect Wei Ying is to protect the Wen, then—
The silence rings, and rings, and rings. Wei Ying stares at him with an expression he cannot read, all red and black and ghost-pale. The lines of his face are the edge of a blade. He looks sick. He looks like death.
“Wei Wuxian,” says Wen Qing. There is a message folded into the tone of her voice. He cannot parse it.
With a sigh so heavy it might move mountains, Wei Ying sags, slumping in on himself. Like this he looks small, and fragile, and easily broken. Wangji’s heart twists in his chest, a bird fluttering against the cage of his ribs. Would that he could catch it, sooth it, set it back in its rightful place. But it only beats and beats and beats, and Wangji can do nothing but breathe around it.
The wards split with a wave of Wei Ying’s hand, a sea parting. The edges lick against his skin as he passes, surprisingly cool. He has always thought of Wei Ying’s power as a hot thing, fire and sun and spice. This is rain-and-shadow chill, and he shivers as they snap back into place behind him, catching at the edges of his robes.
“If you want to help so badly, I guess you should come with us.” Wei Ying has already turned his back. Wen Qing levels him a long, indecipherable look and stands at his side.
Thus they strike out upon the path, Wen Qing and Wei Ying walking shoulder to shoulder and Wangji trailing behind.
It is some four or five li to the Wen camp, though camp is a poor word for it. As they approach from the road it is clear they have settled within the remains of an abandoned village that perches on the gently sloping northern face of the mountain. At the westernmost edge, buildings streak down as though carried by a landslide. Perhaps they were; perhaps this is the reason the village lies forgotten, left to weather the whims of time. Already some of the most distant structures have been stripped bare of their siding, nothing left but rickety skeletons dug at awkward angles into the earth. Their materials sit in neat stacks, and in the orange-painted evening men and women move like ants, carrying lumber wavering lines. Their backs bend under the weight of the work, but not one of them stops.
In the dark of night, it had been easy to fool himself into thinking it was the Wen’s cultivators Wei Ying spirited away. Here, in the golden light of the afternoon, they are nothing more than run-down, ragged refugees.
Wangji’s stomach twists. Wei Ying’s eyes land on him, heavy. He cannot meet his gaze.
He is spared a reckoning in the form of an old woman, older even that the worn and weathered faces toiling around them. On her bent back clings a boy, perhaps three years of age, with dark, watchful eyes.
Wangji is not in the habit of swearing, but he thinks he could now. A child.
“Wei-gongzi,” says the woman, her arms locked behind her to hold the child up. Her eyes glance at Wangji, then fix back on Wei Ying. “Dinner is prepared.”
“What are you telling me for?” asks Wei Ying, and in that moment he sounds almost like himself. “Let the others know. Here, I’ll take a-Yuan.”
“Wei-gongzi—” the woman protests, but Wei Ying has already stepped forward to collect the child, who goes easily, hands fisting in the dusty fabric of his outer robe. He watches Wangji, except for when Wangji looks at him—then he ducks his face into Wei Ying’s shoulder, shying away. Wei Ying smoothes one hand up and down his back with an ease that speaks of familiarity.
“Aiya, a-Yuan.” He speaks almost too softly for Wangji to make out. “It’s only Lan Zhan.”
“Bright,” mumbles the boy. Wei Ying huffs. That too is almost like himself. Muted, but familiar, a reflection seen through deep water.
“Well,” he says suddenly, attention swinging around, voice loud enough to carry. The edge is back, a thread of curling-cruel amusement. “Welcome to our humble home. As you can see, we are a dangerous group, prepared to strike the very heart of the cultivation world. Beware the Wen remnant, who will descend like plague to burn your crops and… other stuff. Eat your children?” He hefts the boy in his arms.
One of the passing men carrying lumber laughs. Wen Qing makes a complicated face, like she cannot decide if this is amusing or horrific.
Horrific, Wangji would tell her, if he could unstick his jaw enough for it.
Wei Ying, watching him sighs and shakes his head. He is not sure what judgement has been passed, but it is enough that Wei Ying tips his attention in the direction of one of the largest still-standing buildings.
“Come on, then,” he says, hoisting the boy higher up on his hip. “You heard Wen-popo . Dinner time.”
And Wangji is many things right now, but ill-mannered is not one of them. He follows.
Dinner is a serving of thin broth with thinner vegetables drifting atop, like autumn leaves in water, and the Wen survivors scarf it down with the hunger of a hard day’s work. He counts some fifty of them, old and battered and made mostly of skin and bone, haggard from weeks of flight, from months of labor in the Jin camps. The air is tight around them, and periodically he looks up to find eyes on him before they flick away again.
The broth tastes like ash in his mouth.
There are few seats in this hollowed-out shell of a building. It barely holds all of them. He sits crowded knee-to-knee with Wei Ying and feels every inch of contact, the feverish heat of him. You’ll kill yourself, Wen Qing had said. To see Wei Ying like this, he believes her.
And yet. Wangji does not miss how Wei Ying’s wilting vegetables end up in a-Yuan’s bowl, already the richest serving. The boy sits in his lap, oblivious to the hunger around him, the food that finds its way into his belly. To think Jin-zongzhu has upended the cultivation world to drag this paltry collection of survivors back in irons.
It is only his uncle’s voice at the back of his mind reminding him that the Lan do not waste food that stops him from abandoning his meal. It sits leaden in his stomach.
The bowls are collected after, and the Wen splinter into tight knots, eyes never long drifting from the gleaming Lan cultivator in their midst. He feels gaudy in their presence, overwrought. Something not unlike shame prickles at the back of his neck. He hands his bowl to a man weathered enough to pass for his grandfather and bows as best he can without getting to his feet, afraid to knock against Wei Ying and the little boy in his lap, or the old woman seated on his other side.
The man looks to Wei Ying. Wangji cannot read the conversation passed between them. He folds his hands on his knees and holds himself still in the hopes that will help prove him, if not a friend, at least no threat.
Eventually the man moves on, and Wei Ying sighs and lifts the boy off his lap. “Go play with popo, a-Yuan,” he murmurs, nudging the boy off. “Go on.”
“Aiya, don’t talk back. I’ll be back before bed, alright? I have to talk with Lan Zhan.”
The boy stares between them with those wide, dark eyes of his. What does he see? It must be something satisfactory, for he nods with the self-assurance of the very young and clambers around the crooked-legged table to crawl into his grandmother’s lap, smiling up at her. It is a bright smile, childish and unburdened, and Wangji does not think he imagines the way the whole of the hall settles a little to see it.
Wei Ying stands like a crane unfolding, lanky limbs settling into place, and looks down at Wangji.
“Well? Aren’t you coming?”
Outside, the sun bows its last farewell to the day. There are people on the porch; a pipe is passed around, its smoke acrid and drifting in the evening breeze. Some of them nod to Wei Ying as he passes among them. One or two even have something in the shape of a smile. They freeze and wither when they see Wangji. Wangji stares straight ahead and allows Wei Ying to lead him out of earshot.
They stop at the northern edge of town, where the hill sweeps down to the breadth of a plateau. Far to the west, mountains scroll on forever, the last kiss of daylight brushes their peaks. Wei Ying folds his arms and stares out at the world beneath their feet.
He is correct. It is wide indeed. Home feels unbearably far. Wangji misses his brother.
He shakes the thought away. One hand settles behind his back, gaze fixed before him. Like this he does not have to work hard to imagine they are back in an earlier time, a kinder one. If he ignores the eerie stillness of Wei Ying, this could be before the war, before whatever terrible thing carved out all of Wei Ying’s light. In a moment, Wei Ying will say something shameless and clever, and Wangji will respond with a quiet admonishment that belies his own fondness, and all will be well in the world.
Chenqing spins out of the corner of one eye. His fantasy disappears in smoke.
“I’d like to plant rice,” says Wei Ying, apropos of nothing. Chenqing tilts eastwards; he holds the dizi like a brush, sketching along as he speaks. “I think there’s enough water for it in these parts. There are old paddies already, down along— there, and there.” Wangji sees the suggestion of them, faded to shades of brown and grey from disuse. They are well placed: not so close as to endanger the village in the case of floods, but close enough to be easily tended. “And we’ll have summer and winter crops here—” Closer to the ramshackle sprawl of the gutted village, this time; Chenqing marks out neat blocks of land, already marked off. “And chickens, if we can find someone in town to part with them. I don’t think it’ll be too difficult, asking for chickens. An ox would be great, but it’ll never happen. Not this year, anyway, and really it’s really too late to plant rice, or will be by the time we get everything ready for it. But we’ve got to have food from somewhere, so our own hands are as good as any.”
“I have food.” He and Wei Ying keep their eyes fixed on the land around them, the hazy dream of a flourishing community. It is, he is embarrassed to admit, easier than looking at Wei Ying directly and seeing someone he only halfway recognizes. “For traveling. It isn’t much. You can have it.”
Now he can feel Wei Ying’s eyes; the weight is unbearable, thick and heavy as the falling night. Wangji breathes against it, lungs expanding and contracting.
“You meant it, then.”
He does not need to ask to what Wei Ying refers. “Yes.”
He swallows. There are so many reasons. There is only one, and he cannot say it. It grows roots in his chest and he cannot tug it out.
“I promised Jiang-guniang I would see you safe.”
“Well, you have.” Wei Ying flinches only barely when confronted with mention of his shijie. “Here we are, safe and sound. You could go back now. Job finished. Well done.”
“I could not.”
He grits his teeth. Wei Ying’s propensity to push him on admittances he would rather let lie is one of his greatest strengths. Sometimes it is also deeply, painfully grueling. “It would be— wrong.”
“And the great Hanguang-jun cannot be wrong,” muses Wei Ying. Wangji does not know what to say to it. It is untrue, in any case; he can be wrong, has been wrong. It is as though the foundation of the world has changed, earth-shaken, and he is realizing he has been wrong so, so many times. He only hopes he can right some of those mistakes.
“Are there cultivators among them?” he asks instead of answering.
“A few,” Wei Ying acknowledges. “Healers, mostly; the DafanWen are a distant branch of the family, medical practitioners. Wen Qing’s people, y’know? Wen Ning has the most training, but he—”
Wei Ying stops abruptly and turns away. Like this, Wangji can see only the barest sliver of his face, the hand he presses across his eyes, the rictus grin gleaming out across the night, bereft of any sort of amusement or joy. He does not shudder, no matter how dearly he wishes to.
He thinks of how he has not seen Wen Qionglin at all this evening, and how both Wen Qing and Wei Ying speak around him, and swallows his questions.
“You really should go,” Wei Ying says, conversational, at odds with the taut line of his shoulders, the minute trembling of his limbs, as though he is straining every inch of himself. Straining for what, Wangji does not know. “Turn around, leave. Pretend you never saw us. I know you would, I know you wouldn’t give them up. You’ve seen them. Lan Zhan, they’re no threat. And what the Jin were doing to them, I couldn’t— I couldn’t.”
The world is wide. Surely there must be some place for us.
Wei Ying’s body twists back in his direction. Wangji meets his gaze, waits for the blow of judgement. Whatever comes, he will deserve it. If he had not made his peace with that knowledge at the declaration that the Jin sought to hunt Wei Ying, he would know it after seeing the people for whom he turned his back on his name and family and reputation.
They made an oath together, once. It is to his discredit that he has not upheld it to the extent he should. To the extent Wei Ying has.
But there is no judgement. There is only exhaustion, a hanging weariness that leeches the color from his skin and the light from his eyes. He is spent, overtaxed and unwell.
“Then you’ll go.”
“You promised you would let me help.”
Wei Ying stills. His eyes close, lashes fanning out across his cheekbones. “You’ll just get dragged into all this too.”
“Perhaps.” He does not say, Jin-zongzhu is lazy and this is a long way to look for a war that has ended, no matter how badly his pride stings. He does not say, the edge of the world hid you from the one who knows you, and it can hide me as well. He does not say, I want to be dragged in, hold me tight, do not let go.
“You’ll have to go back, eventually. Lan Zhan, your sect will need you.”
Turnabout, when it comes to Wei Ying, is sometimes fair play. “As YunmengJiang needs you.”
“They don’t.” He huffs. His hand goes tight around the flute in his hand, knuckles bleached pale in the gloaming. “I’d only bring them trouble. It’s better this way. Trust me.”
He disagrees. He has seen firsthand the anguish of his siblings, their desperation. But Wei Ying, for all his clever insight, is not particularly skilled at seeing his own self worth. Wangji does not know how to fix that.
He does not know how to fix many of these things. But he can help.
“I will stay,” he says, as gentle and firm as he can manage. He thinks of Xichen, what his brother might say here. “I will stay as long as I may be of help to you.”
Wei Ying laughs, as though he has shared a particularly thoughtless joke. Wangji holds back his flinching hurt, masks it by reaching his hand into his sleeve and pulling out a qiankun pouch there. He considers Wei Ying a moment, then tugs it open, reaches inside for a loquat. He hands it to Wei Ying, who is slow to take it up, tender and wary.
“What’s this, Lan Zhan?”
“Fruit,” he replies flatly, just to be difficult. Wei Ying gives him a sour glance, so familiar and easy he nearly sags in relief.
“I can see that.”
“You didn’t eat at dinner.”
“Wei Ying.” Please, he does not say, but it fills him anyway, helpless. There is a worry inside him that veers perilously close to fear. Wei Ying is so thin, so pale, so worn. He does not know how to fix it.
Wei Ying is still staring at him when he bites carefully into the fuzzy skin, and then his face transforms into an animal hunger; he chokes down the fruit, spitting seeds as he goes. Wangji holds another out to him, and a third, and a fourth as well, but Wei Ying only licks the juice from his fingers and shakes his head, eyes never once leaving Wangji’s hand.
“Save them. A-Yuan should have something sweet.”
So he returns it to his bag and holds the pouch out in offering. Wei Ying hesitates a moment.
There is a bead of juice at the corner of his mouth; it shines as it rolls down his chin. Wei Ying swipes at it distractedly, licks away the sweetness and scrapes his teeth against the pad of his fingers as though desperate for that last taste. Wangji watches him, mouth dry, caged-bird heart beating its wings so hard he thinks he must shake with it.
“I am certain.”
Wei Ying takes the bag with a snort, something between exasperation and doubt. He deserves such doubt. It does not stop him from aching.
“Alright. Guess we’ll have to find you somewhere to sleep. It’s nearly your bedtime, isn’t it, and the great Hanguang-jun can’t be roughing it out here with the rest of us.”
The great Hanguang-jun can be roughing it with the rest, and does so, in fact. Only the hall and one of the nearby houses have been repaired enough to be deemed safe to sleep in without fear of collapsing beams. Wei Ying attempts to foist a mostly-dry blanket and coveted spot in the corner on him, but Wangji ceeds it to the laughing man with the lumber from earlier—Fourth Uncle, they call him—and finds shelter under the eaves of a nearby building more shack than anything. But it looks sturdy to his eye, and he has spent time enough assessing fire-weak structures to trust his judgement.
“You convinced him, then?” Wen Qing asks as he settles himself upon the dusty porch, hands on his knees, back unerringly straight.
“Mn.” He does not think convinced is the word for it, but he has not been thrown out. He will accept it. It is more than he expected, and more than he deserves.
Her face does something small and knowing, but she says nothing, only shakes out the blanket in her arms and wraps it around her shoulders. She makes no move to lie down. He frowns at her.
“We have little reason to trust you,” she says bluntly. “They’ll feel better if I’m here.”
Ah. So she is to be his minder. He is unsurprised and she unrepentant, and in that they find a measure of understanding.
He inclines his head, and closes his eyes. Her presence grates no more than the damp cool of evening, the dust, the wispy threads of unbrushed cobweb hanging above.
He is not sure he will sleep. But routine proves a powerful pull, and Wei Ying was correct in surmising it is nearly hai shi. With Wen Qing’s gaze heavy on his back, he sleeps.
(“You were right,” whispers the last, best doctor of Qishan Wen. “He really did go right to sleep.”
“Lans,” scoffs a man who is attempting the impossible.
“Will you let him stay?”
“I think we’ll have to. We need the help.”
“Do you trust him?”
There is no response.)
Ragged dawn tears tatters through the fog, and for a bare minute he cannot recall where he is. Then he looks up to see the ghostly village and memory filters in like spring water. He stands, stretches, reaches for his rations before recalling he has given it to Wei Ying, who has need of it more than he.
With nothing to do save wait and nothing but the grey of the morning to light his way, he walks the village.
Roughly two dozen buildings clump together, built upon a wide street running roughly southeast to northwest along the slope of the mountain. They stand tall in the local style, their upper stories half rotted with neglect. The hall where they ate the night before stands highest and most central among them, its piebald roof patched with fresh thatch between old tiles. One of the buildings next to it, not quite so grand, has likewise been set to rights, and others bear the mark of work—mismatched siding where holes have been filled, roof tiles stained differently where someone has replaced old and cracked parts with those salvaged from the wrecked houses sunk low across the hillside. Here and there the Wen sleep out on the porches. A few have woken with the first touch of dawn; they watch him drift ghostlike through their half-dead village and do not speak.
He greets them with a nod and nothing more. He does not think they would appreciate his company, and he has no idea what he could possibly say to them.
He finishes his slow survey in the kitchen yard behind the hall. The hall itself is larger than the single cavernous room where they ate, additions tacked on with the hindsight of time. Sleeping quarters, perhaps, or a study, or another private space. The buildings here are not like home, with their light screens and open spaces; they are heavy and hardy and patchwork. The windows of the second story are all closed, shutters hanging at odd angles. It gives the impression of mis-set teeth. Something to swallow a man whole, chew him to pieces and never let go.
Pointedly, he sets his back to the grinning maw of the hall and looks upon the kitchen yard. The fencing has long-since rotted away, and there is something mouthlike too in the way the fallen posts stick out of the earth like blackened teeth. Everything here is hungry.
He is considering the kitchens—dark, cold, the baskets stacked against the wall empty save for the last few grains of rice—when footsteps startle him and a weight settles around one leg.
He looks down to find the boy, a-Yuan, staring up at him, sucking at the knuckles of his hand. Wangji stills, uncertain.
“Hello,” he says carefully. The boy pulls his hand out of his mouth.
He does not know what to say to that. He has never been gege before.
“Bright-gege,” the boy repeats, plaintive. “A-Yuan is hungry.”
His uncertainty compounds. Is he to search the kitchen for something to eat? After last night’s meal, he doubts he will find much. Certainly nothing to suit the palate of a young boy, and he imagines any attempt to cook with what meagre foodstuffs he might find will reflect badly on him. “Where is your grandmother?”
The boy shrugs, knuckles stuck back in his mouth. His expectant gaze is oddly heavy. Are all children so weighty in their silent moments? Wangji hesitates.
He dare not search through the village stores. But he knows where he might find something for the boy. He shifts tactics.
“Where is Wei Ying?” When it earns him nothing but a blank look, he clarifies. “Xian-gege. ”
It sits strangely on his tongue.
“In the little house,” the boy says and points westward, where the village ends in a ragged tear of misplaced earth. “A-Yuan is too small for the little house.”
If a-Yuan is small and the house is little then surely they are well-matched, no? It is a wry, lilting voice at the back of his head that says such a thing. He pays it only a little mind.
“I will come with you,” Wangji assures him. There is a dreamlike quality to the scene, the world misty-grey and the hungry mouths all around and the dark-eyed boy looking up at him as though he holds answers. Everything is brushstroke soft and unreal. He pulls the early-morning air into his lungs and centers himself.
Bending down, he lifts the boy off his leg and onto his feet and takes his hand—it is the sticky one, unfortunately, but there is no helping that now—and leads him gently in the direction of his pointing. Wangji knows nothing of children, but he is familiar with the care of small and delicate creatures, and this is not so different.
If Xichen knew he was comparing a child to the rabbits, he would never hear the end of it. It is good that no one is around to witness the great Hanguang-jun led by a boy.
The little house—it lives up to the monkier, little more than four walls and a cracked-tile roof and a narrow porch, door hung crooked on its hinges—crouches at the outskirts of town, spared the mudslide. It is a cold, abandoned place, swallowed by the fog at this early hour.
Wangji climbs the steps and stands upon the shadow of the doorstep to knock, twice. When no response comes, he coaxes the creaking door inwards.
A-Yuan’s hand goes tight in his own and he shuffles closer to his leg, a warm child-weight at his side. Wangji hums what he hopes might be a quiet comfort and enters.
The little house is one room, watery grey light seeping in where the roof does not quite meet the walls, its narrow windows set at odd angles in their casings. There is a long table in the center, high and sturdy. Perhaps it was once a kitchen bench.
Now, ghost-pale and papered over with dozens if not hundreds of blood-painted talismans, it holds the still, dead body of Wen Qionglin.
Wangji hisses and settles his hand atop the boy’s head, turning him into his leg and away from the scene before him. He does not understand it, but he knows this is Wei Ying’s work.
No wonder they do not speak of Wen Qionglin.
Movement stirs in the corner of the hut, faint and rustling as dry leaves, and Wangji twists towards it, curving to keep the boy behind him as he draws up light in one hand, ready to strike.
The pale glow of his talisman cuts deep shadows across the face of Wei Ying, Chenqing held before him like a warning, teeth halfway to bared. He blinks once, twice, and slowly lowers the flute.
Wei Ying holds for a moment, strung with tension so tight that he near vibrates, every inch of him poised for action. Wangji knows this feeling. There are nights when he too wakes tangled in knots, waiting for an attack that will not come. The war has left its mark on all of them.
Then Wei Ying sways, exhaustion bleeding through the panic, and Wangji reaches forward to steady him. Even through the layers of robes, he can feel the heat he gives off when his palm presses against his too-bony shoulder.
“Lan Zhan, what are you—?”
His eyes fall on a-Yuan, staring up in confusion.
Wei Ying’s gaze, when it snaps back to Wangji, could cut stone. Wangji steps back. Only concern for tripping over the boy behind him saves him from stumbling.
“Get out,” Wei Ying hisses. “Get out! How dare you bring him in here—”
“He said he was hungry,” Wangji says. At his heels, a-Yuan begins to cry, great heaving sobs that stir panic in Wangji’s chest.
“Sorry,” the boy warbles. “Sorry Xian-gege—”
Wei Ying’s expression shifts like the ocean in a storm, each emotion a drowning wave. Fury bleeds into helplessness, and then with great effort he fixes a smile on his face. He crouches in front of the boy. Like this, Wangji could brush the crown of his head with his fingers, work through the tangles and the knots. He holds his hands steady at his sides.
“Aiya, aiya, okay.” For all his rage, his voice comes gently as the spring rain. Wei Ying wipes the boy’s tears with a knuckle, tender in a way Wangji has never seen. It burns through him. “There’s nothing wrong with being hungry, xiao a-Yuan. You just surprised me is all. You know you’re not supposed to be in here.”
“The fault is mine,” Wangji interrupts. The boy does not deserve a scolding for a wrong he has committed. A child never deserves punishment for the wrongs of his elders.
Wei Ying looks up at him, and more of the anger bleeds away. Without it he looks sleep-hazy and weary. Always weary. He sighs, but it is a sound more round with amusement than condemnation.
“Here for a day and encouraging him to break the rules,” he huffs. “Where’s the good, upright Lan Zhan I know, hm?”
Chrysalized, Wangji wishes he could say. Shed like snakeskin. He is a halfway creature, now, desperate to bend to save from breaking.
“He was hungry,” he repeats.
“And I have your food. Okay, alright, fine. Let’s do this outside, hm? He doesn’t need to see—” And he tilts his head at the too-still, too-pale body on the table. With only a little coaxing and the promise of a treat, a-Yuan allows himself to be led out to the yard, tears drying on his cheeks. Wei Ying produces a loquat for him.
“Careful with the seeds,” he says, and holds it out to the boy. A-Yuan holds it in two hands, uncertain, and only when Wei Ying nods his encouragement does he bite tentatively at the fruit. He chews at it for a moment, processing, and then his eyes go wide as saucers and he takes as big a bite as he can manage.
“Careful, careful!” Wei Ying flutters. “You’ll choke on the seeds, you little rascal.”
“Eat slowly,” Wangji says, and is almost surprised when a-Yuan looks to him and nods. “No one will take it from you.”
“Of course not,” Wei Ying says in Wangji’s direction, but it lacks heat. His mood swings like the wind, seasons shifting in the blink of an eye; the changes come sharp and swift and pass just as quickly. Wangji will have to learn to weather this as he has weathered all the rest.
“I apologize,” he says lowly, watching the boy eat. The sun has just begun to light the sky, peach-soft where the fog burns away. “I should have been more careful.”
“Yes. But I shouldn’t have snapped.” Wei Ying’s expression, caught distantly upon the rising sun, focuses. His mouth tilts wryly. “I’m sorry. I don’t sleep so well these days. You surprised me.”
“I will not do so again.”
“I’m sure you will, but it’s nice of you to say.” Something must read on his face, because Wei Ying waves him away. “Don’t be like that. Wen Qing does it all the time, and she’s stuck with me far longer than you have.”
“Mn.” It stings. It is not untrue. Wei Ying glances at him, inscrutable, and looks away.
The boy finishes his loquat, looks up expectantly. “More?”
Wei Ying laughs and rubs at one cheek. It looks terribly sticky. It cannot be pleasant.
This does not stop either Wei Ying or the boy from smiling. Unlike before, this one reaches Wei Ying’s eyes.
“Yes, alright, one more. And then you’ll have to wash up, before Wen-popo or Qing-jie get mad at me for dirtying you up before the sun is fully risen, hm?”
The boy makes a face at the possibility of a cleaning, particularly one so early in the day, but nods in beleaguered acceptance. The acquiescence is remarkably amusing on such a little face. Cute, even.
“Well?” asks Wei Ying as a-Yuan takes his careful, attentive time with his loquat, holding it in two hands and nibbling at it with tiny, curious bites. “Go on. Don’t you want to ask?”
He stands with his shoulders braced, smile pinned, hand settled on Chenqing like a comfort. It is the look of a man waiting for a blow. Wangji has seen this playacting plenty, turned on Jin-zongzhu and Jin-gongzi ’s sour-faced cousin and a hundred other shouting detractors. It saps his appetite and mood to see it here, now, in a space that should be his home.
“When you wish to tell me,” he reasons, “you will.”
Wei Ying’s expression is strange. “And if I don’t? If I never wish to? What if I’m doing terrible, unethical black magic on him, hm? What then?”
Wangji frowns. Wei Ying is good; he would not do such a thing. And regardless, he does not believe Wen Qing would allow it. “If you do not wish to say, I will not ask you to.”
The strange look on Wei Ying’s face grows and splinters and clears into an expression he knows: a low, surprised gratitude. It is the face he makes when treated to an unexpected kindness, when something he wants but will not ask for makes itself available to him.
It is a good expression on Wei Ying. It is an expression Wei Ying should wear more often.
“Done!” declares a-Yuan, holding out his hands to prove it. His expression turns down around the edges. “Bath now?”
Wei Ying is slow in turning his attention from Wangji; it dips and trails like willow boughs through water, stirring ripples. He taps his lips in mock thought. “Hmm. What do you think, Lan Zhan? Is there enough of a mess for a bath?”
Wangji tugs his attention from Wei Ying to consider the boy in his stead. It is true his face and hands shine with fruit juice, but beyond that he has done a remarkable job of keeping himself neat. Surely children are more messy than this?
“He has kept clean very well,” he admits. Wei Ying laughs, a true laugh this time, teasing and light. Wangji, if he could, would wrap it up to keep always tucked into his collars, near his heart.
“Ah, a-Yuan, you’ve gone and gotten Hanguang-jun wrapped around your little finger. Who knew Lan Zhan was so soft around the little ones? Alright, no bath. But you’ll have to wash your hands and your face, yeah? Can’t have you going around all sticky like a bowl of rice.”
The boy giggles. “Rice!”
Wei Ying runs a knuckle down the slope of his nose and a-Yuan returns it with a smile bright enough to rival the morning sun. “Mhm.”
Wangji looks between them, both crouched in the dust, both gleaming. He does not have a word for the feeling in his chest. “How may I help?”
“Ah, Lan Zhan, don’t trouble yourself.”
He means to trouble himself. He is here for the single, express purpose of troubling himself. Wei Ying sighs.
“You really want to?”
His mouth pinches down in a frown.
“Alright, fine. He’s all yours. Oh, and maybe you should take this back, so you don’t—” His throat works as he swallows his words, wincing when they go down. He tacks his blank-eyed smile back up. “This is far too early for me to be awake, Lan Zhan, I’ll end up fainting from exhaustion by midday. You of all people should know the sort of hours I keep. Take it to popo, if you’re so determined to part with it.” He holds out Wangji’s pouch. “I’m just going to finish up with—” He doesn’t say, but his gaze flicks back to the hut behind him. “Make sure it’s safe. For when he wakes up.”
He is looking at Wangji as he says it, slantwise, as though waiting to see his reaction. When he does not respond, Wei Ying looks away.
“You’ll need water, probably, ha. There’s a well, that way.” He points further up the hillside. “First thing we got working. You wouldn’t believe how much mud we cleaned out of it.”
“It was gross,” says a-Yuan with a great deal of enthusiasm. “Sticky!”
“Yes, that. You go with Lan Zhan now, alright? He’ll help you wash. And you say thank you when he does, you hear?”
“Thank you Bright-gege,” a-Yuan parrots. Wei Ying shakes his head. His smile, though small, is honest. Wangji’s songbird heart trills.
“Off you get. It’s far too early for any of this and I have work to do.”
So Wangji is left alone with the boy in the fading fog. The child looks up at him, considering. Wangji returns the sentiment.
“Up?” he requests, hands raised. Wangji blinks.
“Come,” he agrees, and lifts him. Fruit juice stains his white robes where little hands cling to him, but he does not entirely mind. It is right that he have some sign of his work here. His pristine clarity is a mark against him amid the dust and dirt and sweat.
There is indeed a well, with bucket and ladle, and he produces a cloth from his sleeves to wet and wipe across a-Yuan’s hands and face. It is perhaps a little more bath than either of them would care for––certainly Wangji, despite his very best efforts, does not remain dry––but in the end the boy is clean, and laughing, and even Wangji cannot help but smile. He understands why the whole of the village lightens when the boy laughs. All does not seem quite so awful with a smiling child.
“Oh, Hanguang-jun !” The boy’s grandmother finds them there, a-Yuan stubbornly insisting on washing Wangji’s face in turn, a damp and shockingly delightful undertaking. “You needn’t bother yourself with— A-Yuan! Stop that, leave him be, don’t you know who this is?”
“Bright-gege,” the boy declares, grin wide and infectious. Wangji steadies him with a hand and rises to bow.
“I apologize for keeping him.”
The woman stutters. “I don’t— Hanguang-jun—”
“It is my fault he was dirty.” A stretch, perhaps, but he is the one who gifted Wei Ying the fruit in the first place, and the one to suggest the boy be fed, so the statement is not untrue, strictly speaking.
“You truly didn’t have to.”
“I wish to be of assistance.”
“I see.” She studies him, eyes sharp and clear in the way of grandmothers. He bears it, patient. After a moment, she bows, shoulders not nearly so stiff. It is not acceptance; he would not mistake it for such. But some of the tension has seeped away, and that is and of itself a kindly change. He inclines his head in return, acknowledgement and gratitude both.
“Go,” he says to a-Yuan, and the boy gives him one last blooming smile before toddling over to his grandmother, who takes him by the now-clean hand and leads him away.
It is only when she has left him to wring out his handkerchief and dry his own hands and face that he realizes he has forgotten to give her the food. He finds his way back to the hall, where the gathered Wen watch him from the corner of their eye, as though afraid to leave him unremarked or stare at him straight-on. Only a-Yuan looks at him long enough to wave.
He waves back, motion unfamiliar and jerky. The boy’s grandmother, watching, hides an unsubtle smile in her sleeve.
“Hanguang-jun,” she says in greeting when he approaches, unable to bow with the boy in her arms, though she makes an attempt of it. He stops her with one hand against her wrist. “Good morning.”
“Good morning, grandmother.”
Her laugh is the crackling of autumn leaves, old and dry and not unpleasant. “You are a polite one, aren’t you?”
He cannot deny it. She laughs again.
“What can this one do for you?”
In response, he holds out the qiankun pouch. Her eyebrows climb, lines of her face folding up in surprise. She cannot take it with the boy in her hands, so she sets him down and allows him to pass her the pouch. When she opens it and glances within, her mouth makes a small, round shape.
At their feet, a-Yuan latches himself to Wangji’s leg.
“This—” she murmurs. “This is— Heavens above.”
“It is not much,” Wangji admits. Certainly it is not enough for nearly three score hungry mouths. But she only shakes her head.
“It is more than we had,” she says, and her firmness makes it the end of the matter. “Tell me, does Hanguang-jun know his way around a kitchen?”
An easy question, and an easy answer. He is grateful for such simplicity amidst so much uncertainty. “Yes.”
“Then you can help me with breakfast. Come along.”
After breakfast—simple, but rich fare compared to the night’s meal; it is appropriately gawked at and gossiped over by those gathered—Wen Qing finds him.
“Hm,” she says in greeting, eyeing the bowl Wen-popo holds out to her. “Thank you.”
She folds herself next to Wangji, eating quickly and efficiently. He waits for her to finish while in his lap, a-Yuan entertains himself playing some sort of game where Wangji’s hands are butterflies, flapping back and forth, murmuring to each other. Wangji does not understand most of what the child is saying, but he allows his hands to be moved and turned and folded and unfolded with patience. He thinks, if he stretches back as far as he can recall, he and his mother once played like this, though it was the playing of a guqin and not silkscreen insects he imitated.
Wen Qing watches. “Wei Wuxian will be disappointed.”
He looks up. Is this sort of play not approved? Surely Wei Ying of all people would not begrudge a child his games.
“He’s used to being a-Yuan’s favorite person. He’ll hate to have competition.”
Ah. Something warm curls through him.
Wangji is not used to being anyone’s favorite person, except perhaps his brother’s, and even that carries a faint tang of obligation. He glances down at the boy in his lap, oblivious to this conversation.
Wen Qing laughs at him. It is sharp and not unkind.
Once she has finished eating, she sets her bowl on the slats next to her and turns more fully to him. He waits under the consideration of her gaze. He has the sense that she, more than Wei Ying, is the one he will have to convince of his usefulness. He resolves to accept any edict or task given.
Surely a man who has lived his life governed by three thousand rules can manage to follow a few more.
“We’ve been repairing the buildings here so they’re fit to live in,” she says with the air of someone delivering a report, brisk and unflinching. “I know you helped to rebuild Cloud Recesses after it burned. We can use your experience.”
He inclines his head. He has spent his share of time stripping the broken husks of buildings, raising new ones in their place. This is something he can do.
“Wei Ying spoke of farming.”
“We found some seed in one of the old houses,” she acknowledges. “Not much, but enough to start. We’ve cleared land for planting.”
“Mmm.” Her mouth presses into a thin line. “There are old fields to the east. Abandoned.”
“He intended to seed them.”
“It’s late this year. We’ve missed the bulk of the rains.” She shrugs, fluid, and rises. “We can survive on vegetable crops.” Not well, her face says, but enough. “Rice is a dream. Wei Wuxian could stand to stick to reality for a little while.”
Wei Ying has never once stopped to consider the constraints of the possible and it is unlikely he will begin now, Wangji does not tell her. She already knows, anyway; her exasperation reads clearly in her voice.
“Fourth Uncle will show you what to do. We are all watching you, Lan-er-gongzi.”
He rises, lifting a protesting a-Yuan from his lap, to bow to her. She watches him, demeanor unchanging.
“I will assist in any way I can.”
“Hm,” she says. “We’ll see.”
Her people shift aside for her as she picks her way through the hall. It is a flat, blank sea of distrustful faces that fall upon him.
Wangji shakes out his sleeves and takes his leave, eyes burning into his back as he goes.
Fourth Uncle comes to him as the sun clears the horizon. With him are some dozen individuals, all older, all worn. Some have tools: hammers, an axe; one woman sports a rusted two-man saw over her shoulder. Most are empty-handed. Wangji bows to them. Fourth Uncle eyes him.
“A-Qing says you know your share about carpentry.”
“I rebuilt my home when it burned.” That it was the Wen who burned it goes unsaid. Fourth Uncle nods.
“Good. We’ll take whatever we can get.” Even from a Lan goes unsaid as well.
There are too few tools to go around, so he makes use of Bichen. Never before has his blade served in such a rough task, but perhaps that is right. Methodically, as the sun climbs higher and higher in the sky, they strip down the broken body of an old building whose roof has rotted, one wall caved in. They pick it over like ants upon a corpse, and when it is nothing but bleached bones under the noontide sun they carry the remains up the hill to stack with what other materials might be reused, and descend again to start upon the next carcass.
In this way they strip down three buildings, each faster than the last as Wangji settles himself into the routine of it. He works silently, and though the morning passes in a tense hush, the Wen unfurl as he proves himself quick, quiet and useful. The stack of timber and tiles doubles in size as the sun makes its arc overhead. The effort is grueling and unforgiving and Wangji relishes it. There is something very nearly calming about the rhythm of the day: the flash of Bichen, the tearing down, the hauling. He has always preferred silent, stationary meditation or that grounded in music, but he knows full well there are techniques that focus on the motion of the body, and perhaps for the first time he truly understands the enticement of such cultivation practices.
The sun lurks low and large on the horizon when Fourth Uncle declares they have done enough for the day, and even Wangji is grateful for the reprieve. All around him the Wen groan and sigh and curse good-naturedly about how long he has kept them from dinner.
“You’ll appreciate it all the more, now,” Fourth Uncle says cheerfully, and receives an unsubtle and ungentle elbow from the woman with the crosscut saw.
Indeed, the smell of cooking drifts from the hall as they trek back, pausing briefly to wash dirt and sweat from their hands and faces, and his stomach clenches hunger-tight. Even a meal as limpid as the previous evening’s would entice him right now.
The hall is full when they enter. He rakes the crowd, seeking Wei Ying, but he does not number among the occupants. Wangji hesitates.
“Come on,” says Fourth Uncle when he stills just inside the thrown-open doors. “Sit, eat. You’ll feel better for it.”
“It’s even good tonight,” says another of the workers. Without Wei Ying and with no way to protest, he acquiesces to the invitation, sitting crowded around the low table alongside some half dozen of the men and women with whom he has spent his working hours.
The meal is indeed not bad. He eats methodically as conversation drifts around him. It does not touch him, but he does not mind that. There is an alien comfort in the rising and falling voices, a far cry from the sacred silence he has always associated with mealtimes. It makes the back of his throat burn.
Or perhaps that is only the spice that has been added to the night’s fare.
Wei Ying does not appear.
“Idiot’s been locked in his workshop all day,” Wen Qing says when he asks, once the bowls have been cleared and the men and women set to gather in their clusters. A-Yuan sits in his grandmother’s lap, counting out her fingers over and over again, one two three four five six seven eight nine ten. The old woman corrects him gently when he misses a number. It is a strange, sweet sight.
“Has he eaten?”
“Of course not.”
He waits for something more. She waves him away, impatient.
“You can try. Don’t blame me when he sends you away.”
So he takes a bowl of soup and picks his way to Wei Ying’s workshop in the hazy blue of the evening. He stands on the threshold and knocks twice, then waits, unwilling to breach the space without invitation. He does not want a repeat of the morning’s mistake.
Silence stretches. He takes a breath.
It is a moment before the door opens and Wei Ying appears, grey-faced.
“Lan Zhan.” There is neither curiosity nor expectation to him, only flat acknowledgement.
“I brought you dinner.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“You must eat.”
Wangji holds the bowl out like an argument.
“Fine,” sighs Wei Ying, folding with only a token of protest. He takes it in two hands, nostrils flaring as he breathes in, and freezes. “Is that— Is there chili oil in this?”
The tips of Wangji’s ears heat, and he is grateful for the cloak of his hair. “Yes.”
“You brought it?”
Wei Ying is staring at him, eyes big and full and terrible.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, soft. Wangji swallows.
“I hoped I would find you.”
It was the right thing to do. I want to help. I could not let you go.
He takes his words, one by one, and tucks them away. Wei Ying shakes his head.
“Come in, then, I guess. It’ll be dark soon.”
He does not mind the dark. He is Hanguang-jun; he has only ever brought light where he goes. The dark is nothing but a passing shadow in his wake.
He follows Wei Ying into the hut.
Candles have been lit to ward off the evening. Space unfurls between the flickering points of flame; there is more of it than there had seemed in the grey wash of dawn. Wen Qionglin lies in the center of the room, unmoving; the talismans upon his body are more numerous and differ from those Wangji recalls from the morning. Beyond that there is paper everywhere, scattered across the ground and the table and the low pallet in one corner that must be where Wei Ying sleeps, in this room of death and dark.
There is a desk too, small and slightly crooked and Wei Ying sweeps aside his notes without a second glance to kneel and eat. Wangji sinks down opposite. For once, Wei Ying does not speak over the meal; he is too busy gulping it down.
“Slowly,” Wangji cautions. It earns him a sour look, but Wei Ying slows.
“I had almost forgotten what flavor was,” he says when he has finished eating, wiping his mouth with the back of one thin wrist. Some color has returned to his face, to Wangji’s relief. “Nothing against popo’s cooking, of course, but I have really missed this.”
“You have done remarkably well with the resources at hand.”
“Ha. You mean we’re starving, but we’re going about it nicely.”
“Wen-guniang believes you will manage.”
Wei Ying laughs again, bitter and untrue. “That’s Wen Qing, unflinching optimist.”
In Wangji’s limited experience, he has found Wen Qing to be many things. An optimist is not one of them.
Wei Ying sets his bowl on the table. His false cheer peels away like birchbark, exposing the raw hopelessness beneath.
“I told her I would fix him.”
“Wen Ning,” he clarifies, though there is no one else he could mean. “I told her I would bring him back.”
“He is dead.”
“Mostly.” Wei Ying runs his finger around the rim of the bowl and does not meet his eyes, teeth scraping over the last dregs of the meal. “The Jin, they used him as bait, and it— Well, sort of worked, I guess. He’s in-between, right now. Trapped. I can bring him back, I can, I just— It isn’t working. Hasn’t been. And I thought, now that we’ve settled down, I would have the time, I could work it out, but it’s been weeks and he’s still—” He laughs, red-eyed, lips pale. “And there’s so much else to do, Lan Zhan, there’s so much to do and there’s always more of it. What if I’ve killed them all? What if I brought them here only to die just as slow and miserably as they would have back in that Jin camp, and so much farther from home?”
His hands fidget, clever fingers curling and splaying, drawing shapes against the wood between them. He does not look up.
“They are free,” Wangji says. Whatever else, that is kinder than anything the Jin sect offered them.
Wei Ying scoffs. “Free. What the fuck does that even mean?”
Wangji does not fidget; he was raised too well for it. He breathes steadily and picks his words with care, eyes settled on the table between them, on the minute flexing of Wei Ying’s hands against the wood.
“Fourth Uncle tells stories,” he says. Fourth Uncle does not stop telling stories, in fact; his voice has threaded through Wangji’s day, a clothesline consistency upon which others hang their commentary. “He speaks of wine and hopes for fruit. The others laugh and encourage him. A-Yuan smiles, and his grandmother is grateful. There is a roof to sleep under and no one to hate them for their name. They are people here, not prisoners.”
Wei Ying looks at him, open and wounded. He is impossibly far away.
“You have done well,” he says. The words are awkward in his mouth, but they are true, and so he must speak them. They will not consent to let lie.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying face is set, a fragile sort of stillness. “You have no idea what I’ve done.”
Night settles around their shoulders, tucked around them warm and gentle. Crickets sing and cicadas hum counterpoint, a chirruping symphony. The evening breeze worries at the loose tile above, and the candles dance, sending strange shadows flitting across the room. Firelight strokes Wei Ying’s face, lover-soft. Like this, he does not look quite so hollow, quite so brittle-sharp. Like this he looks young, and wounded, and lonely.
“Will you show me?” Show me what you have done. Let me be a part of it.
Wei Ying’s brow furrows. “You want to learn about this? Demonic cultivation?”
“If it will help you, then yes.”
Wei Ying pauses, and laughs, and shakes his head. “Lan Zhan. You are being far nicer to me than I deserve.”
He is not nearly good enough. He will have to try harder, for Wei Ying’s sake.
Wei Ying closes his eyes. The shadow of his lashes are brushstrokes across his cheekbones. He is beautiful.
“Alright.” He nods to himself, and laughs. “Alright.”
He sleeps upon Wei Ying’s porch that night, an inverted imprint of the nights Wei Ying has spent upon his rooftops. Wen Qing appears from the dark, silent, watchful, and is gone when he wakes to the pale and misting morning.
He rises silently and readies himself for the day. Wei Ying’s workshop is still and grave-silent behind him, and it is harder than it should be to leave it be. A-Yuan greets him outside the hall, small and curious and awake early in the restless way of children. He rises from the steps when Wangji approaches and insists on being carried until the sun and his grandmother rise. He is made all of childish chatter and direction, despite the hour: go here, look at that, explain this. Wangji answers his questions as best he can and ignores the instinct to curtail his curiosity when it strays too far. It is right that children be curious. It is right they know their questions will be answered, no matter how difficult.
He loves his uncle and does not doubt his uncle loves him in turn. He is grateful for his teachings and guidance. But he is not Lan Qiren, and each day he is more and more certain he hopes never to be.
After a meagre breakfast, Wen Qing sends him off to work with Sixth Uncle, one of the younger men with a burn scar that stretches from wrist to collar, who has taken charge of patching up the houses of the village. It is tricker, more fiddly work than the rote dismantling of the previous day, but when the sun sets there is yet another home for the refugees, and gratitude fills the air such that even their thin dinner tastes rich and full. In the evening, he brings dinner to Wei Ying and sits with him in silence as he speaks, stilted at first and then picking up speed, about his invention. He unwinds his thoughts into long-winded explanations that leave Wangji dizzy. The Stygian Tiger Seal does not emerge; he does not speak of the Yin Iron; even his flute sits cool and quiet at his side. It is nevertheless as well-researched a lecture as any his uncle has given, backed by familiar theories approached from unconsidered angles.
When Wangji, curious in spite of his own best efforts, interjects with a question regarding one of Wei Ying’s more far-flung assertions, the explanation stutters. Wei Ying stares at him a long, tight minute, long enough that Wangji regrets his interjection. But then he shakes himself and picks back up again with fervor, wearing his shocked-pleased expression, and Wangji cannot help himself from his next question, nor the comment after that, nor the flat look of disbelief that has Wei Ying backtracking half a paragraph to defend a particularly tenuous claim.
“Aiya, Lan Zhan,” he says, shaking his head. “Where were you when I was figuring all this out the first time, hm? You could have saved me months of trouble.”
He suspects he would have been twice as much trouble had he been at Wei Ying’s side when he took his first steps down this untested, unconsidered path. He has unlearned much in the time since Wei Ying swept into his life and upended his carefully-cultivated understanding of the world. Here, now, is a chance to make up for that shortsightedness, no matter how difficult.
In the night, he sleeps upon Wei Ying’s doorstep, prepared to rise and do it over again.
The days are hot and long, reprise scant even beneath tree branch or porch. It is nothing like the peaceable pattern of life in the Cloud Recesses—there is too much noise, too much dirt, too much muffled desperation—but it is routine nonetheless, and he sinks into it with relief. Most days a-Yuan meets him at the steps of the hall to while away the dawn hours in exploration or curiosity, and on the days that he does not, Wangji meditates. Each day Wen Qing sends him to assist with a different task around the town, building and planting and washing and all the other things he has not considered that need doing for so many to live so far out in the wild. It is a clever way to wean the Wen of their mistrust, he will admit. It is hard to stew in fear and hatred after you have spent an afternoon hauling dung for fertilizer and left any scrap of dignity in the shit.
That it has taken him two days and half of his remaining hair oils to remove the smell is a private, petty vanity he admits only to himself.
Or, not only himself: Wei Ying, awake so early Wangji doubts he has slept at all, catches him sitting on the doorstep with comb and oils and his nose wrinkled and laughs himself upright and bright-eyed, and offers his help. Wangji’s ears heat so badly he is certain they will stay red the whole of the morning, and he will never forget the feeling of Wei Ying’s hands through his hair.
“You’ll have to do this for me, sometime,” he says as he works, chipper and chatting, caught in an unexpectedly good mood. “It’s only fair.”
“Of course,” Wangji agrees, mouth dry. “You have only to ask.”
“Aiya, careful what you promise, Lan Zhan. I might actually take you up on it.”
That he hopes he will—that he would promise anything to Wei Ying and mean it with a burning, bleeding honesty—is a truth best left cradled in the cage of his chest. He holds it there, warm, as the sun rises to greet them.
He has been with the Wen little more than a fortnight when Wei Ying comes searching for him midmorning. Wangji is with Fourth Uncle and his crew, stripping down the last of the sunken buildings. He will miss the work when it is finished. He has, quite without expecting it, found enjoyment toiling alongside this comfortably irreverent group. It is nothing like his time with his fellow Lan disciples, or even those of the other sects; they care little for status amongst themselves, and as their wariness fades, the Wen take to him as easily as they have taken to Wei Ying. Indeed, one might think, watching them, that they have taken to him because they have taken to Wei Ying.
It is confusing, when he thinks too long about it, so he resolves to accept their acceptance with silent gratitude.
He trips down the hill in a confusion of billowing cloth and waving limbs, as though Wangji could possibly miss him, as though every inch of himself isn’t turned towards Wei Ying like magnetic north.
“I believe Wei-gongzi may be looking for you,” says Wen Liuyan dryly, setting down her long-bladed saw. Wangji returns Bichen to its sheath and rolls out his shoulders where they have gone tight from crouching over the foundation all morning.
“So I see,” he agrees, and is rewarded with a sun-glare flash of biting smile. It leaves him warm and pleased.
Wei Ying skitters to a stop with a low whistle and props his fists against the small of his back, craning his neck to take in the whole of their effort. “You guys are really coming along with this.”
“Hanguang-jun has been a great help,” Fourth Uncle says, perched up on the crossbeam of the house where he methodically pries up tiles. Wei Ying makes a show of nodding.
“It’s that Lan dedication,” he replies. “Very impressive.”
Wangji is certain his ears have gone red and cannot entirely say why.
“You needed me?”
“Of course.” Wei Ying grins. “How do you feel about a trip into town?”
“Go on,” Fourth Uncle interjects when he hesitates, unwilling to abandon his work halfway through. “We can finish up here. We managed well enough before you came along.”
He bows to mask the nameless emotion eddying in his gut and nods to Wei Ying, who smiles back at him with a grin so bright as to be blinding. His ears heat again. Someone laughs—it sounds like Wen Liuyan.
“I’ll have him back before sundown, I promise,” Wei Ying swears, and there is more laughter at that. It settles core-golden inside Wangji. Open laughter is not a sound he grew up with. He is finding these unexpected bursts of it worth the treasuring.
“I wanted to check the wards too,” Wei Ying admits as they set out down the path, Wangji steady and upright and Wei Ying bounding along next to him, all energy. It is good to see him in such high spirits; he has been sour the last few days. A recent setback regarding his attempt to heal Wen Qionglin, as Wangji understands it. Though Wei Ying stalwartly refuses to share any details, he has learned to read signs of progress by the changing of his moods. “Nothing’s touched them as far as I can tell, but it makes me nervous to go too long without looking in on them, and I’ve been— busy.” His face shutters for a heartbeat, but he throws the shades back with obvious effort. “But now you can come check them with me! That will be good, in case you need to raise them when I can’t.”
Wangji hates the casualness with which he speaks of defending the Wen’s budding home from a threat that lies countless days and distance away, the ease with which he assumes there will come a day that something will happen to him. But Wei Ying does not so much as flinch at the declaration, so he will not either. He can offer that, at least. And the promise that he will of course be here, should that day arise.
“I knew you’d say that.” He swings around Wangji’s other side, a body in orbit.
From this side of the wards, the artistry of Wei Ying’s work is even clearer. Watching him poke at their threads, testing their resonance, it is a marvel of design. Wei Ying has always been clever with talismans, with words and meaning; to see all that cleverness funneled and folded like steel beneath the smith’s hammer is a sort of honor. Wangji notes with careful, determined precision how it ties together, the snare trap and the powder blow. He will learn them, study this instrument until he can play it in his sleep. He will do whatever he must to protect those they shelter.
“It’s a bit of a mess,” Wei Ying admits when he has finished his assessment. Here and there he tweaks things, streamlining his shambling construction. “I always meant to come back to it, but they work well enough and there’s just so many other things to do. Once we’re settled, then I’ll see it done properly.”
“You have been holding these up yourself?”
“Who else is going to?” he reasons.
Wen Qing, to begin. And now— “I could.”
Wei Ying looks at him for a long minute and then laughs, too loud. “Ah, I’ve gotten used to it though. I barely notice these days.” When Wangji does not respond, his smile fades. “Look, if it gets too much I’ll tell you.”
He raises an eyebrow.
“I will! Promise.” He holds up three fingers to his temple in proof. “I know you’re trying to help. I’m… trying to let you.”
It is more of an admittance than he has heard in weeks, in months. He holds carefully still, worried he will shatter the moment if he so much as breathes. Wei Ying watches him with the dark, wounded gaze that always lurks beneath the cheer and the chatter.
“It’s just very hard,” he says. “I really don’t know why you bother.”
The truth in his chest, the one rooted deep, burrows further into the meat and tissue of him. He swallows. “It is what I should do.”
“Aiya, Lan Zhan. You’re so good, you know that?”
He disagrees. But if Wei Ying can try to accept help, he can try to accept this. Perhaps somewhere between they will reach each other.
The rest of the trip passes quietly, in as much as Wei Ying is ever quiet. His effusive good mood fades somewhat, but in its place settles a calmer warmth. Now and then he looks to Wangji, as though he expects he will disappear around the next bend, but Wangji only folds his hand more securely against the small of his back and nods to Wei Ying, or offers brief commentary on whatever point of conversation has caught his attention.
I am here. I am not going anywhere.
The town, unlike their paltry dozen ramshackle ruins, bustles and thrives. It nestles in the valley between two peaks, slopes cut into sharp steps for planting. The people they see wear richly colored clothes, and glance only briefly at the strangers in their midst. The wash of their dialect is unfamiliar, alien. Wei Ying drinks it in. He has always loved the discovery of new places. Wangji drinks in Wei Ying.
They buy seed first, and when Wei Ying makes to pay with a thin pouch fished from his collars Wangji stops him. He has good silver on his person and nothing to spend it on save this. Wei Ying protests, but is happy enough to stand back and let him pay.
“If you insist,” he grins. Wangji’s ears heat.
There is rice to buy as well, and while Wei Ying haggles with a woman with a face like mountain crags over the price of each sack, Wangji adds a bag of seed to their growing pile. While Wei Ying charms a man selling cakes of soap, he buys a grass-woven butterfly for a-Yuan.
It is his money, he reasons. It is not such a terrible thing to spend it on such small gifts.
There is one private task he sees to while Wei Ying clucks over cages of chickens, arguing with the stall tender in a way that speaks more towards the enjoyment of conversation than any true disagreement. It is some trouble to find anyone to take a message, but he is eventually directed to a long, low building tucked down an alley, where he pays a man a sum of silver to deliver a letter to Lan-zongzhu in Gusu.
It is short. He assures his brother he is safe but will not be returning home. He requests his brother not search for him and hopes they will see each other again. He offers no details or comfort, for he has none to give. He hopes Xichen will understand. More than that, he hopes his brother will forgive him for this. He may, he supposes, never know.
It is a heavy weight, but not so heavy as he expects it to be.
“There you are,” says Wei Ying when he steps out of the shadowed alley and joins him again. He has forgone the chickens, for now. “I thought I’d lost you.”
“Mn,” Wangji says, and settles back into his place at Wei Ying’s side.
The last place they visit is a tailor, which Wei Ying heralds with a hefty sigh.
“I do love to see you in these robes,” he admits quietly, gesturing to the white and pale blue of Wangji’s sect uniform. “But Wen Qing insisted. And she’s right, really, you do stick out. If anyone were to see…”
He understands. It is a scant fifteen minutes, and he returns dressed in dark, hardy cloth, something that will hold up to the hard work longer than his already-wearing Lan robes, themselves now carefully tucked into the bag on his back alongside a second set of roughspun clothes. He feels nearly naked in so few layers, sleeves bound neatly at the wrist so they will not trouble him while he works.
“Well,” says Wei Ying when he emerges, standing abruptly from where he has been lounging on the stoop of the shop. His gaze rakes him head to toe. Wangji does not think he imagines the way he swallows, throat bobbing. Then he laughs. “Your hair looks ridiculous. Here, let me help.”
Wangji dutifully bends down so Wei Ying can—here, out in the street, barely sheltered by the eaves of the tailor shop—unpin his guan, leaving nothing but a simple knot to keep his hair from hanging loose and improper. He is exceedingly delicate, never once even brushing Wangji’s forehead ribbon, the only piece of white he has kept.
He wishes he would. He wants it with a gut-deep hunger that leaves his mouth dry. He fixes his gaze on the patch of dusty ground between their feet and holds himself still and steady until Wei Ying steps back. His breath is uneven in his chest.
“Well,” says Wei Ying again. When Wangji looks at him, his eyes are wide and dark.
It is a different sort of dark from the bitter, blunt-edged resentment that sluices through him when his control slips. It is a different sort of feeling altogether. Wangji looks away first.
“It’s late,” he says stupidly. “We should return.”
He takes the silver pins and combs from Wei Ying, careful not to touch. His heart will not steady. The walk back up the mountain is a haze.
Dusk falls along the path, and when they reach the hall the evening meal is coming to a close with its usual hum of chatter. Wangji sheds their bags and baskets in the kitchen yard, keeping only his own small gifts, and borrows the moment of privacy as he sorts through the goods to settle himself. Only then does he return to the hall.
“Xian-gege!” A-Yuan can be heard before he is seen, waiting at the door with a blinding grin. Wen Qing follows behind him, wearing one of her rare smiles. Candlelight drips out around them, warming the night. “Xian-gege, up!”
Wei Ying laughs and leaves off a conversation with one of the women who oversees the planting to dutifully swing the boy up onto his hip, to the obvious glee of both. They are a well-matched pair, laughing and chattering back and forth as they enter the hall, lost in their own little world. Wangji follows, soft with fondness.
“A-Yuan. I have something for you.”
The boy perks up, attention swinging away from Wei Ying to land on him. “For me?”
“Wei Wuxian,” Wen Qing says, warning, but Wei Ying forestalls her.
“I didn’t have anything to do with it, I swear. Didn’t even spend anything, look!” And he fishes the purse from his collars and tosses it to her. She catches it one-handed, weighing it in judgement before her gaze cuts to Wangji, unerring.
“I had no need of it,” he tells her. She sighs.
“I won’t argue. Next time, save me the trouble of trying to explain a budget to this one.”
“Hey!” Wei Ying protests. Wangji does not miss Wen Qing’s smothered smile.
“What’s for me?” a-Yuan interrupts, curious and impatient, and so Wangji reaches into his robes and pulls out the grass butterfly tucked carefully within. The boy’s eyes go moon-wide.
“Oh,” he breathes, and nearly pitches out of Wei Ying’s grip in his eagerness. He takes it with an unbearably delicate touch. “Oh, pretty.”
“What do you say?” Wei Ying prompts. A-Yuan does not look away from his butterfly.
“Thank you Bright-gege.”
“A-Yuan, you can’t call Lan Zhan Bright-gege all the time. Look, he isn’t even bright any more, he’s all drab like the rest of us.”
Wen Qing snorts and says something under her breath.
“He may call me whatever he wishes,” Wangji replies. He hesitates. “You like it?”
“Yes,” a-Yuan says. “It’s pretty.”
“Yes, very pretty,” Wen Qing agrees. “Would you like to tuck xiao hudie into bed? It’s time for little boys and their butterflies to go to sleep.”
“That’s true. You weigh more than everything we just got at the market.”
“No,” he protests weakly, even as his head settles on Wei Ying’s shoulder. “Xian-gege, play?”
“Aiya, rascal. I’ll play once you’re in bed, alright? Only radishes who go to bed on time get music.”
A-Yuan makes a face at the terrible unfairness of bedtime, but allows Wei Ying to carry him through the hall. Wangji, not knowing what else to do, follows.
He was correct in his earlier guess; the rooms at the back of the hall are sleeping quarters, crowded with thin pallets, some little more than scraps of cloth on the ground. Wei Ying maneuvers around them, coming to crouch by the raised bed against the far wall. It dwarfs a-Yuan, but the boy does not seem to mind as he settles beneath his thin blanket. Wangji hangs back, watching.
“Play,” he insists, once both he and his butterfly have been tucked in to his satisfaction. Wei Ying laughs.
“Bossy bossy,” he says, pinching at one round cheek, and pulls out Chenqing. A-Yuan watches him, expectant.
“Close your eyes,” Wei Ying murmurs. “You can’t go to sleep if you’ve got your eyes open.”
Wei Ying sets his lips to his bone flute, scourge of the Wen, conjurer of demons, first degree spiritual tool and vicious weapon, and plays a lilting lullaby for an orphan boy.
No, not a lullaby. It is a song Wangji knows as sure as he knows himself. A song he poured his heart into, one he never thought Wei Ying might remember. To hear it now is the feeling of catching sight of one’s reflection in a clear stream: a shock of awareness, of being.
He does not sit down in surprise. It is a near thing.
When the music is ended, Wei Ying brushes a careful hand against a-Yuan’s temple, smoothing out his hair, and pads soft-soled out of the room. Wangji follows, helpless to do anything else.
“That song,” he says when they are back in the relatively empty hall. Wei Ying looks at him.
“Hm? Oh, yes. Pretty, isn’t it? It’s the one thing that sends him right to sleep. And believe me, we’ve tried everything.”
Wangji digests that slowly, slow enough that someone brings them both dinner. They eat standing and in silence, Wangji by habit and Wei Ying clearly consumed by thought.
“It was kind of you. To get him a gift.”
“Children should have toys.”
“Mm. Yeah. He’s lucky to have a gege like you.”
Wangji is certain he must be blushing. He ignores it as best he can.
“He is lucky to have you as well.”
“He could do worse, I suppose.” His gaze tips towards the door and the child sleeping beyond. “Hopefully we don’t fuck him up too badly.”
Wangji turns in the same direction. He is loved and fed and cared for. There is no one here who does not wish his happiness. Measured against all he has survived so far, it is good ground for growing. “He will be alright.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan. Where’d you learn such optimism, huh?”
From watching Wei Ying, of course. He hums, and does not answer.
And then, later—
They sit across the low desk in Wei Ying’s workshop. Candles gutter; Wangji regrets not buying some when he had the chance. He has never truly thought about how many things a home needs. Next time, he resolves, he will find Wei Ying candles.
“Hm? Something wrong?”
“No. It— I brought you a gift as well.”
Wei Ying looks up from the scrap of paper where he has been scrawling variations of the same talisman, ink eating up blank space in tangled lines. Wangji recognizes the symbol for binding, and the water radical for life. Something for Wen Qionglin, then. His body rests behind them, constant companion. It is strange, what one can become accustomed to when given time.
“You bought something for me? What for?”
Wangji shrugs, awkward. Wei Ying pitches forwards, elbows braced on the desk.
“Well? What is it? A comb? A ribbon for my hair?”
Wangji presses his lips together and wishes he had either. “If you wish a comb, I will get you one.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan, I’m joking.” In the candlelight, his face looks flushed. “Come on, what is it? You can’t say you bought me a present and then not give it to me, that’s just rude.”
Wangji pulls out the pouch of rice seed. Wei Ying frowns at it for a moment in confusion, and then his expression clears.
“This is— Lan Zhan, you didn’t.”
“It is not a great deal,” he admits. “But if you wish to attempt it, I will help.”
“You always do, don’t you.” Wei Ying laughs. “Alright, yes. We’ll visit the fields tomorrow then, see what we have to work with.”
“Mn.” He rises in a smooth motion. “Sleep well, Wei Ying.”
He is halfway to the door when Wei Ying says, “Lan Zhan.”
Wei Ying is staring at him, looking at him with beautiful, wretched openness. His eyes are red and his mouth is smiling, just at the corners, a sweet thing. Wangji does not know what to do with it. “Aiya, Lan Zhan, do something for me, please. Don’t sleep outside tonight.”
“Stay in here. Will you stay?”
Slowly he returns. Sinks down. “Yes.”
Wei Ying smiles at him, damp and shining, and the seedling in his heart stretches towards it.
That night he falls asleep to the scratch of inkbrush against paper, and in the morning he wakes to Wei Ying’s slow, steady breathing. He sleeps splayed across his bed, puppet-limp, blanket kicked away. Wangji stands over him for a long, torn-edged moment, halfway to breathless just looking at him and unable to muster up shame enough to stop. In the end, he pulls the blanket back up over him as gently as he can before he leaves, chest constricting when Wei Ying huffs and snuffles into the wool.
He spends the morning in meditation, in desperate need of calm and control. A-Yuan finds him there and sits next to him, tongue poking out as he does his best to mimic him. Wangji unfolds long enough to help him settle, one hand braced at the small of his back to help him find his alignment, and then returns to his own meditation, explaining in a low voice what he is doing, and why. He is too young to truly understand it, and far too small to form a golden core, but he seems to enjoy the novelty of the activity if nothing else, fidgeting only a little. Wangji is, he will admit to himself, impressed by the boy’s dedication.
Wei Ying finds them after the sun has risen, still kind in these early hours of the day, before the heat settles. The door creaks open and he says—
“Oh, Lan Zhan.”
A-Yuan tumbles out of his meditation pose with a cry of “Xian-gege!” Wangji follows more slowly, breathing out long and measured before he rises, tucking one hand behind him. Wei Ying has lifted a-Yuan up to eye height.
“You two are exactly alike,” Wei Ying says, pinching one cheek. “So cute! Lan Zhan, I bet you were exactly like this, hmm? So small and so proper.”
“Mn.” He had been. It was not a trait much appreciated by his peers at the time, if he recalls correctly. Wei Ying’s smile grows.
“I knew it! Ah, it’s too much, too cute. You’re too cute, a-Yuan! Your poor old gege can’t take it.”
“Silly,” huffs a-Yuan, his tone so exactly like Wen Qing that it sends Wei Ying laughing again.
“Yes, that’s me, silly old Wei Wuxian. A-Yuan, we’re going to visit the old fields this morning. Would you like to come?”
“We’re taking a trip?”
“A small one,” Wangji says. The term is not inaccurate.
“A-Yuan will come.”
“Good, then, good. Let this old silly gege eat, and then we’ll see what we have to work with, hm?”
What they have to work with, in truth, is very little.
The fields are abandoned and overgrown, and Wangji cannot tell what may have once been rice and what is weed. Some of the upper fields, where old rainwater congeals in viscous puddles, have mouldered, yellowing stems wilting in stagnant water. Gnats and mosquitoes buzz sullen circles above the muddy mire, and the whole thing smells old and soft and rotted. Wei Ying’s good mood evaporates under the heavy heat of the sun. A-Yuan, perched on Wangji’s hip, looks over the hillside in confusion.
“What is it?”
“Old rice fields,” Wangji says, watching Wei Ying wither like the weeds. The lines of his face grow long and sour. “They have not had anyone to care for them, and so they are overgrown.”
“Overgrown,” Wei Ying echoes, and snorts derisively. “Wen Qing was right.”
“They can be cleared,” Wangji says gently. It will be a great deal of work, he is well aware, but he has seen Wei Ying overcome far more impossible odds than rank and unweeded fields gone to seed.
Wei Ying shakes his head. “Next year, maybe.” He is trying, desperately, to keep his mood up for a-Yuan, but it is flimsy as ribbon in the wind. Wangji sees right through it. “We should head back. There’s plenty left to do. No need to attempt the impossible.”
His lip curls; Wangji catches the bare, miserable twist of it as he turns away. He makes a dripping inkblot under the glare of the sun as he treks back to town.
“Xian-gege is sad,” a-Yuan says. Wangji nods. “Why?”
“Something he hoped for is not possible.”
“Oh. We can fix it?”
Wangji looks down at the boy, and over the abandoned fields. He considers the decay, the cloudless sky, the season. It is late for planting. They have missed the rains.
They have done far more impossible things than this.
“Perhaps,” Wangji says. “Regardless, we will try.”
Wei Ying does not emerge from his room all day, not even when Wangji stands on his doorstep after sunset with dinner and a plea. When night settles purple and cool around him he must admit defeat; he returns the bowl to the hall, untouched. Wen Qing greets him with gentle pity.
“He does this sometimes,” she says. “Shuts everyone out. He’ll usually snap out of it in a day or two.”
He does not miss the qualifier. She shrugs. Weariness is etched into each and every line of her face. Here is one more leader too young for the burden. War stripped too many of them of their childhoods.
“Give him time,” she advises. She is an older sister as well, weary and wise with it. In her face he sees Jiang Yanli, and Xichen.
He misses his brother like a limb. How long until his letter arrives? What will he think? Hopefully he will be kinder in his consideration than the rest of the world, but a small part of him still wonders. It has been months, now, since he left. What has happened in his absence? What are the Jiang doing without their missing middle piece? He hates not knowing.
He meets Wen Qing’s eyes and sees his own worries reflected back. It is more of a comfort than it should be, to know they are both afraid.
“I want to help him.”
“I don’t know how.”
It slips out unbidden, an admittance he has voiced to no one save himself in the dark and quiet moments. Her sympathy aches.
“You’re here,” she tells him. “It helps more than you know.”
It would be nice to believe such a sentiment.
“Help us,” Wen Qing says into his silence. “He’ll worry less if he knows they have you to look out for them.”
That, at least, is a task he can see done. He inclines his head, heavy with gratitude. Her hand falls away.
“Thank you, Wen-guniang.”
Her smile is as honest as any he has seen from her.
“I think you should call me Wen Qing.”
Only his hesitation belies his surprise. “Wen Qing.”
She hums. “Wei Wuxian is lucky to have you, Lan Wangji.”
It is the other way around, he does not say when she leaves. The luck is his, and he is no doubt undeserving of it. Still. It is easy to be selfish, when it comes to Wei Ying.
Familiar weight at his leg tugs him free of melancholy musings. He tilts his head down.
“Bright-gege.” He clutches his butterfly in one hand. “Mr. Butterfly says hello.”
“Hello,” he returns gravely. A-Yuan smiles at this, pleased.
“Bright-gege, where’s Xian-gege ?”
“He is— occupied.” The explanation is insufficient, but he does not know what else to say. Perhaps a-Yuan is familiar with Wei Ying’s clouded moods, because the boy frowns in something resembling recognition.
“Is he still sad?”
“I believe so.”
He considers this. “When a-Yuan is sad, Xian-gege makes it better.”
Wangji has no idea how to explain the wrenching, sucking sorrow of Wei Ying’s situation, of the estrangement of his family, how he has given up everything he has known to sequester himself in the furthest corner of the world in the hopes of keeping a-Yuan and all the rest safe. It is something even he cannot conceive in its entirety, everything Wei Ying has willingly let go in the name of doing what is right. He does not have the words to explain it to the boy.
“Sometimes,” he says, stilted, “the only thing one can do is be sad.”
“I don’t want Xian-gege to be sad.”
“Nor do I.”
“Bright-gege will fix it?”
Wangji swallows. “I am going to try.”
A-Yuan nods at that, as though pleased to receive the answer he expects. As if he trusts that Wangji can rectify the situation. It is a heavy trust to be placed upon him.
“If Xian-gege is sad, will Bright-gege play for a-Yuan?”
“If you would like.”
“Xian-gege ’s song?”
It does something bright and burning to his heart to hear the boy refer to it as Wei Ying’s song. He nods.
“Bright-gege has a flute?”
“No. I play a different instrument.”
The very concept appears to confuse him. “What?”
So he brings a-Yuan out to the wide porch and seats himself next to the boy, pulling his qin from his sleeves. He has not touched it since he arrived at the village, nebulously worried of somehow offending or upsetting his hosts with his playing. Now, with a-Yuan’s curiosity burning a hole in his side, it seems foolish to have kept it tucked away.
“Oh,” breathes a-Yuan. “Pretty.”
He keeps his hands carefully folded up in his lap, watching wide-eyed as Wangji plucks at the strings, checking the tuning. Each note rings clear into the evening.
“This is my guqin,” he tells the boy. “It is my spiritual tool.”
“Oh.” He does not look entirely like he understands, but that is alright. He is young, for lessons on cultivation. Music can come first.
Wangji wonders, idly, if Wei Ying and Wen Qing have considered his education. If anyone has thought that far ahead. His fingers brush over the strings as his mind drifts, careful to feed no energy to the instrument. A-Yuan sits, enraptured, as he plays a folk song from Gusu, one he remembers his mother teaching him as a child.
“You may touch if, if you would like.”
“I can play?”
It is not what he meant, exactly, but he nods anyway. “If you are gentle. Come sit with me.”
He indicates the space beside him, but a-Yuan clambers into his lap, leaning so far forward he nearly pitches into the instrument. Wangji steadies him with one hand, the other coaxing his fingers to the right shape. The instrument is far, far too large for him, as his mother's qin had once been too large for him. The thought aches, but kindly, the tenderness of muscle after a good day’s work.
“Like so,” he nods when a-Yuan cranes his head back at him. “Well done.”
A-Yuan beams. Wangji smiles.
When he looks up, Wen Qing is watching them with an expression he cannot read.
“A-Yuan,” she says after a heavy, silent moment. “It’s time for bed.”
A-Yuan pouts. Like his smile, it makes him look remarkably like Wei Ying.
“I will play for you,” Wangji tells him quietly.
“Okay,” he sighs, clambering off his lap. Hurriedly, then, as though recalling a lesson, he turns and bows. It is awkward, little limbs unwieldy, but perfectly polite. Wangji’s heart flips over in his chest. “Thank you, Bright-gege.”
He meets Wen Qing’s eyes and nods, and leads the boy to his bed.
Once a-Yuan is comfortably settled, he plays Wei Ying’s song. Their song. It fills the space of the room, less crowded daily as they finish repairs to other buildings, as the Wen make space to breathe and live and perhaps one day thrive. He is almost grateful Wei Ying isn’t here. He feels as though he has peeled back all the layers of his discipline, left himself fragile and bare. Even after the music is ended, last note faded into wood and cloth and quiet, he sits with the qin across his lap, breathing, desperate to hold himself together.
When the hai hour arrives, he puts his back to the wall next to a-Yuan’s bed and sleeps there, and the feeling in his chest grows and grows.
He wakes to little eyes watching him. A-Yuan puts one clumsy finger to his lips and points at his grandmother, sleeping next to him on the bed. Wangji nods, and picks the boy up when he gestures to be held, and the two slip out of the room.
“A-Yuan,” he says. He has gone to sleep with an idea and woken with something more than that, and he is not willing to set it down quite yet. “Would you like to help me with something? It will be a surprise.”
“Mm. For Wei Ying.”
A-Yuan’s face folds up in thought. “Will it make Xian-gege happy?”
“I hope so.”
He nods once, firm. “A-Yuan will help.”