He is with a-Yuan when the wards twitch.
The stick he uses to scratch out 温苑 stills in his hand halfway through the character for yuàn, and he turns to the road, almost certain he has imagined it, except that the afterthought echoes against his awareness like the tolling of a distant bell. No one else notices any change, save a-Yuan, frowning up at him from where he draws matching strokes in his own patch of dust.
His attention brushes along the bounds of their mountain, measuring tone and timbre of the wards, but beyond this subtle shimmer everything lies quiet, content. Unruffled. The day is bright, the sky cold-clear, bleached blue by winter sunlight, and nothing stirs save the wind caught in the boughs, turning the laundry on its line with a quiet shiver. And then it comes again: the barest brush of contact, courteous but firm.
For a moment, he is utterly baffled. None have come visiting in all the time he has been here, and now there is this: a knock.
“Come,” he decides, and sweeps a-Yuan into his arms.
A figure stands at the edge of their mountain when they arrive, white winter cloak falling neatly over upright shoulders, guan a glinting brilliance beneath the clear sky. Only the tugging wind catching at the trailing length of his hair, the lace-light layers of his robes, the ribbon tied around his forehead, gives any proof he is a living thing and not stone-carved.
Wangji’s heart lurches in his throat, and for the span of a caught breath, his stride falters.
His brother watches as he approaches, a strange, underwater reflection of his own arrival, when once he stood in the same place, in the same colors, in the same hope. Xichen’s face makes a polite mask, but a cracking one—relief slips through clear as the sky above.
“Xiongzhang,” he says when he is close enough for it, and he is nebulously pleased when his voice comes sure and steady.
“Wangji,” Xichen returns, and his voice shivers like the winter wind. Quiet sits between them, grasses hissing at their heels, sun a pale warmth. Wangji observes his brother as his brother must observe him, catalogues the new lines at the corners of his eyes, shoulders weighted by more than just his winter cloak. He looks older, aged in the fine details.
“Are you well?” Xichen asks into the quiet. Cold whistles against the rock, stings at his nose. “I had heard—” He blinks, and his eyes are bright.
He inclines his head. It is impossible to speak through the feelings in his chest, so he does not bother with the attempt.
“Wei-gongzi wrote me,” Xichen says, as though a question has been asked. Perhaps it has. His brother has always read his silence best. “I came to help.”
It is a strange thing, to stand on the other side of this conversation. Had he looked the same in his brother’s place, unsure and desperate with it? Unbearably bright amidst the sun-bleached rock and wild green? It had been spring then, the trailing end of the season and hot in the way of the long southern summers. Now it is chill winter, the new year settled bright and near upon the horizon, but it is not so different a picture painted: a Jade of Lan, out of place, coiled with hope.
Wangji takes the eddying emotion that stirs at the realization that Wei Ying wrote Xichen while he burned with fever and sets it aside. There will be time for it later, when his brother does not stand mere chi away, magic strung up between them imposing as any city wall and thrice as dangerous.
His brother, here. It should be one of his dreams.
At his hip, a-Yuan tugs his robes. He is a heavy weight, and his back aches from the walk here. The return will no doubt be unpleasant. Wangji hums his attention, eyes fixed upon his brother, as though he might disappear should he so much as blink.
“A-die,” says a-Yuan, quiet and still loud enough to carry. Xichen makes an admirable attempt to keep his composure, but as he knows Wangji, Wangji knows him. He might as well swear aloud, for all the surprise he fails to hide. “Who’s that?”
“My brother,” he answers, looking to the boy so that he might afford his brother a moment’s privacy to collect himself. “Lan Xichen. He is your bobo.”
“Mh.” When his attention returns to Xichen, his brother has found a smile to wear, small and careful, the kind to mask uncertainty. It twists in his gut. Wangji tilts his head, and with a flicker of intent the wards part enough that Xichen may pass through. They shiver shut in his wake.
“Xiongzhang,” he says, patient, each word immense in his mouth. “This is a-Yuan. My son.”
For the eternity of a heartbeat, Xichen stares at them, picking apart what he says and what he does not. A-Yuan squirms under such scrutiny. Wangji stands upright, back throbbing, and waits for his brother to come to his conclusions.
“Hello, a-Yuan,” he says finally, voice gentle, warm against the cold of the day. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Hello,” says the boy, shy. Wangji settles a hand against his back.
“Lan-bobo has come from a long way away,” he says, and does not pause to ask the why or the when or the how of it. There will be time. “We must show him proper hospitality, before he leaves.”
“Mmh,” a-Yuan nods, a whole body affair. Wangji winces at the sudden shift in weight, and immediately his brother is there, gaze searching, brow furrowed.
“Wei-gongzi said you were unwell.”
“I am recovering.”
Concern clouds his brother’s face. It is— unsettling, to see him so discomposed. More discomforting than the ache itself.
“A-Yuan,” says Wangji. “Will you permit your bobo to hold you?”
“A-die is ouchie?”
The boy hesitates a long minute—Wangji will not begrudge him his decision if he says no; Xichen is, after all, a familiar-faced stranger—and then nods, careful of his weight, his movement. He reaches for Xichen and Xichen, with a long look to Wangji, takes him.
“Ah,” he says, very quietly, and a-Yuan sucks on the back of his knuckles, staring. They are well-matched. Wangji is reminded suddenly of the first time Xichen found him with the rabbits. It had been the same then, momentary surprise yielding to the same dawning smile, the kind of light that burns steady and does not dim.
They have, Wangji notes with stirring amusement as they regard each other, something of the same nose.
“It truly is good to see you, didi,” says Xichen quietly when finally he looks away from the boy. His countenance has softened, the tightness of his shoulders eased somewhat. Wangji inclines his head and knows he must look unbearably, unbecomingly pleased because Xichen settles further into his smile. Zewu-jun is not the only one grateful to see his brother again.
“Will you stay for tea?”
“It would be my pleasure.”
They do not speak along the road, but they do not need to. Wangji watches his brother, and his brother watches him, observing no doubt the way in which he holds his weight, the almost imperceptible stiffness to his movements. And then they reach the village, and Xichen observes him no longer, too busy with the sights around them: the oft-patched homes and the wear of the Wen, their undyed garments and weathered faces, the endless toil. His brother’s smile falters and fades, and the Wen watch him pass with a wariness Wangji had almost forgotten.
“They are all that is left?” his brother asks him as they pass before the hall, and Wangji sends a pair of butterflies to warn Wei Ying and Wen Qing of their guest’s arrival.
“Yes.” And then, “They have done well here.”
Xichen’s mouth grows tight at the corners. If this is well, he does not ask, what were they before?
Wangji does not answer. It is an impossible thing to explain, in any case. Words cannot do it justice.
The xiaoshi is empty when they arrive. Wangji shows his brother to the low table and goes about the task of tea-making, leaving Xichen to observe his home in silence. The tea here is nothing like the aged, fine white blends of Gusu—one of the pettier grievances he holds, when he is graceless enough to hold such grievances—but the act of making it is soothing. His brother does not speak as he heats the water, nor as the leaves steep, nor when he pours it, and that too is soothing, a familiarity he has not missed exactly but that is pleasant to rediscover nonetheless. Even a-Yuan is quiet, playing with his grass-woven toys on the bed and watching Xichen with the same childish curiosity he once turned upon Wangji. It is a scene he has imagined many, many times, exact down to the way in which Wei Ying burst through the door.
Xichen looks up from wherever his mind has wandered in the silence, gaze sliding from a-Yuan—beaming—to Wei Ying—breathless—to Wangji, who is fully occupied with pouring a third cup of tea and cannot possibly interrupt such a delicate task to meet his gaze, and whose hair falls in his face so his brother cannot see the pink of his ears. Only he is close enough to hear the tiny huff of amusement, and then Xichen rises into a smooth bow. Wangji watches Wei Ying return it from beneath this lashes, watches his brother catalogue everything about Wei Ying: the flute at his belt, the sill-missing sword, the pleasantly complicated sweep of his hair that Wangji pinned up only this morning, the dusty and dark whole of him. His brother straightens.
“Wei-gongzi. I apologize for arriving without sending word.”
“Oh, I’m not the one to apologize to,” he returns cheerfully, collecting a-Yuan as the boy reaches for him, catching him just before he goes tumbling off the bed. A-Yuan latches on gladly, folding into his lap when he sits. “Wen Qing will be here just as soon as she finishes with lao Bao.”
Wangji hums. “His cough?”
“Mhm. I think she’s worried about an infection. He never quite recovered from—” His eyes settle on Xichen, and he smiles, a wincing thing. “Ah, never mind.”
Wangji slides his tea across the table, meeting his eyes briefly. A wealth of expression dips across his face and disappears almost as quickly with the barest shake of his head. Wangji nods briefly. They will speak on it later, then. They will—his eyes glance aside towards Xichen, who watches them with one of his polite, sharp-eyed smiles—speak on plenty later, he is certain.
Wei Ying lifts the tea to his lips, and when he brings the cup down his expression has settled into something uncommonly serious, even as his mouth curves upwards in a smile.
“Zewu-jun. Welcome to our home. I hope we can trust your visit won’t disrupt things too much.”
“I am grateful for your understanding,” Xichen returns, equally polite, equally wary beneath the politeness. "And grateful for word of my brother's health.”
“I am well, xiongzhang,” Wangji assures him. Xichen nods to him, slow, and sips his tea. He does not make a face, quite, but there is a tightening around his eyes that suggests he would very much like to. Wangji smothers his own amusement. That is Wei Ying’s fault, he is certain, these flashes of mistimed humor. As though there is nothing in the world that cannot be laughed about.
“I’m glad,” Xichen returns. “Wei-gongzi’s letter spoke of a fever?”
“An infection,” he corrects. Xichen frowns.
Wei Ying waves a hand. “Ah, we’ll tell the full tale when Wen Qing is here. The doctor always knows best. You wouldn’t want to hear us muddle it up.”
“Of course,” Xichen allows, gracious, and returns to his tea. Wangji watches Wei Ying steadily, but cannot catch his eye. A-Yuan grows quickly bored, and climbs from his lap to entertain himself. Wei Ying watches him wander around the room with a studious attentiveness that goes above his usual caution when the boy comes too close to his work. He is avoiding Wangji.
His fingers flex around his cup and he sips his tea.
At the door someone knocks, brief and sharp, and then Wen Qing is there, face already set as though she expects trouble from this. Her eyes sweep the room: Wangji’s grip around his tea, Wei Ying’s careful disinterest, a-Yuan oblivious, Lan Xichen a blemish of rich blue and stark white. She bows to them.
“Lan-zongzhu. Please forgive my lateness.”
Xichen stands. “Wen-zongzhu. It is I who must beg your pardon for this interruption.”
Ah. So it is like that, then. It is no wonder Wei Ying will not look at him.
He pours her tea, automatic, and then sits with his hands upon his knees, perfectly composed so that he will not have to think too hard on the fact that he does not know what, precisely, he is to think. Wei Ying will not look at him, but he flinches nevertheless. Xichen looks between all three of them, expectant, uncertain. Wangji cannot imagine he does not see the shuffling of power amongst them. He is slow with his tea, and when he has finished drinking he turns to Wen Qing.
Wen Qing, for her part, does not so much as touch her cup.
“I have come to see to my brother’s health, and offer any aid I might in his recovery,” he says, carefully diplomatic. “I see now that he is well. I trust I have you to thank for it.”
“Wei Wuxian is the one who identified the source of the infection,” she says. Xichen looks mildly surprised at that, and then chagrined, as though surprise were the incorrect response and he is ashamed for the mistake.
“Of course. Wei-gongzi has always been timely with his solutions.”
Wei Ying laughs roughly and shakes his head. “It was my fault to begin with. I was only doing my part to right the wrong done.”
“Wei Ying.” He cannot, in spite of this uncertain displeasure, keep his exasperation to himself. Wei Ying waves him away, eyes never once leaving Xichen.
“You see, Zewu-jun, Lan Zhan assisted me in destroying the Stygian Tiger Seal.”
It sits in the air, ringing. Xichen blinks, twice, and inclines his head, and to Wangji it is clear as daylight that he has been utterly and completely blindsided by the declaration. Just as it is clear that Wei Ying’s smile has gone too tight around the edges, tense and wary. Wen Qing watches, silent. Wangji cannot tell if she understands Xichen’s windmilling shock.
It is… strange, to see this unfold. He is a long way away from his body; he observes himself sitting neatly folded with his hands upon his knees and catalogues the pieces of this game upon the board: Wei Ying, assuring a sect leader that there is no threat to be found here; Wen Qing, asserting the stubborn survival of the Wen; the pair of them demanding the leader of the Lan treat them with the same courtesy he would extend any other sect. It is a feat of politicking he, in truth, thought to leave behind when he descended the steps of Jinlintai. He can appreciate the artistry. He would appreciate it more had they spoken to him of it first. Do they trust him so little, after everything?
“I see,” says Xichen after the barest of pauses. Wangji cannot be sure the others have caught it. “And this was successful?”
“Oh, yes,” Wei Ying confirms, and there is something, the barest edge of an old bitterness, to the way his lip curls. “Have no fear, Zewu-jun. The amulet is gone.”
“And the… injury?”
“A backlash. Lan Zhan bore the brunt of it, protecting me. We’ve played Cleansing and I've done what I can, but Zewu-jun’s expertise in the Songs of Clarity would be much appreciated.”
“Of course,” agrees Xichen immediately. And then tripping on its heels, too heavy with relief to catch it, he continues, “You have done the sects a great service. This will soothe many doubts.”
Wangji is too well-raised to react impulsively, but his lips thin. Wei Ying is not so quick to hide his flinch, and of them it is only Wen Qing who perfectly masks whatever she may be feeling, reaching for her cooling tea and taking a silent sip. Xichen stalwartly refuses to look at Wangji.
“Indeed,” says Wen Qing when her cup rests again upon the table between them. She pins Xichen with her scalpel gaze, rosebud mouth pursing the barest moment as she observes him. The skin around his eyes tightens in response, but his smile never once slips. “Lan-zongzhu. Allow me to speak plainly.”
“I do not believe you mean my people harm. I would not have allowed Wei Wuxian to invite you if I did. Nor do I expect your help in anything other than the health and wellness of your brother. But I trust you understand, in no uncertain terms, that we are no threat to you and yours. What actions we have undertaken have been for our own protection, and of our own choosing. Leave assured we have nothing more to owe or offer you.”
She drains her tea, and stands, and bows. “Good day, Lan-zongzhu. If you have need of anything, Wangji will assist you.”
Her robes snap as she turns, every inch a sect leader in her own right, and the door glides shut in her wake. Xichen blinks, and blinks again, and after a long, cotton-thick moment fixes his smile around the corners, softens it enough to almost be real. The chagrin is true enough, Wangji is certain.
“I fear I may have spoken out of turn.”
Wangji stalwartly does not wince. Wei Ying has no such compunctions about propriety or grace.
“I’ll say,” he agrees, and drains his tea. “Well, I’ll leave you to catch up. If this one can perform any other great services, you’ll have to let me know.” He sketches a bow—mocking, a little, but not enough that Xichen will notice it—and still does not look at Wangji as he collects a-Yuan and leaves.
The silence sits heavy in his wake. Wangji picks up his tea—cool, now—and sips it, more brush of damp against his lips than anything else. It truly is a terribly bitter blend.
“Wangji,” says Xichen. He takes a breath and sets his cup down.
His brother sighs. He knows, then, that that was ill done. Wangji will not have to say it. Good.
“I did not intend insult,” he murmurs.
“Mn.” He is familiar with his brother’s delicate diplomacy, well-honed and steady. It has taken a grievous shock to startle him into misspeaking. Still, though. “They have given up much.”
“I— Yes. I see that now.”
He should have seen before. They all should have seen. But Wangji is as culpable as all the rest in that willful blindness, equally guilty, and cannot level such accusations. He hums. His brother sets his hands upon his knees and watches him over the breadth of the table.
“You mean to stay, then.”
“Can I not convince you to come home?”
His sorrow sits in the air between them, a tempered thing, its edges already worn. He knows Wangji's decision. To ask again, now, is not the consideration of a sect leader but the hope of a brother. Wangji knows it, understands it; his heart aches with it. But it is not enough to sway him from his promises.
“I cannot leave them.”
It is a selfish thing to claim another sect, and twice cruel to do so to the face of his own sect leader, his brother. But he swore an oath once to uphold justice and protect the innocent, and what else to the Wen have? Who will speak for them, who will stand for them?
How could he leave Wei Ying’s side, now, after everything?
Xichen looks at him a long, long time, and Wangji waits for his judgement, stilled by the force of his foolish, unearned hope, by how desperately he wants Xichen to understand this. Whatever his brother settles upon, it will not change his decision. It cannot. But it would be a kindness, if his brother understood.
“Uncle hopes you will return.”
He is less inclined to care for his uncle’s opinion than that of his brother. Still, though. “Is he well?”
“The Cloud Recesses?”
“Rebuilt. Thriving.” He pauses, a press-lipped smile. "Your rabbits are well cared for."
"They are not my pets." That would, of course, be forbidden. Xichen's smile curls a little wider.
Wangji hesitates. “Do the sects still seek Wei Ying?”
Xichen looks at him, and he sighs, a near imperceptible thing. The smile slips away.
“Jin-zongzhu sends out cultivators when he can spare them, but a-Yao believes it's only pride that keeps him searching, these days. The smaller sects have given up. No one cares to seek a ghost story when there is work to be done. Da-ge—” And here his mouth quirks into the faintest of smiles. “—thinks it pointless to search for Wei Wuxian if he does not wish to be found. He, at least, recalls the war.”
For the briefest of moments, Xichen’s expression flickers. “Jiang Wanyin will not speak on the matter.”
"If they saw the truth," Xichen says, quiet, "I do not think they would stand so proudly."
"They are the ones who forced them to this," Wangji points out, and does not bother to keep the banked fury from his voice. Xichen meets his eyes.
"Yes," he agrees. His head bows. "We are."
They are quiet, then. Wangji breathes, quiets his anger, acknowledges his guilt. Finishes his tea. Xichen, after a heavy moment, raises his head to cast his eyes across the room, the obvious proof of their cohabitation. His mouth quirks. It makes him look no less tired, but Wangji recognizes the teasing cant.
“You and Wei-gongzi have reached an understanding, then?”
He would have blushed, once. He is possibly blushing now, but that does not stop him from raising his chin, half a challenge. “Yes.”
His brother’s gaze settles on him again for a long, still minute.
“I see,” he says, finally. He is somewhere between heartache and happiness. “I do not know if you would seek it, but you have my blessing, didi.”
It falls like stone, sudden striking weight, and for a long, clotted minute he does not know what to say. It stings at his nose and his eyes and the back of his throat, and he can do nothing but breathe. Xichen watches him, expression a sorry, soft thing. Here he is, right in front of him, and Wangji misses him more than words, more all the countless li that have lain between them.
“Come,” says Xichen into his struggling silence, his voice gentle in a way it has only ever been for him. “I’ll play for you.”
Wangji nods, throat tight, and allows the familiarity of the scene to settle in his bones, guiding him in his meditation. He folds his legs more comfortably under him and turns his attention inwards to tend his qi while his brother pulls forth his xiao. Cool music washes through the room like mountain water, bringing with it clarity. Heartsore homesickness stirs in him, and he leaves it to eddy bittersweet, a countermelody threaded through his brother’s music. With his eyes closed, with winter cold around them, with the sound of the xiao and the balm of his brother’s steady presence, it is very nearly like being among the Cloud Recesses. It is very nearly a farewell.
After, when the last notes ring, he is slow to surface, and for all that his heart sits heavy in the bower of his ribs his mind is clear. His headache ebbs. He takes a breath, lungs expanding, and feels it settle all the way through him for the first time since Wei Ying drew his array upon the mountaintop.
He opens his eyes.
His brother’s expression is one of heartache, and understanding. It is Wangji who has to look away first. He rises, attention on fixing the fit of his sleeves, the fall of his skirts. Xichen straightens.
He stills. His brother is a light out the corner of one eye, shining in the dim cool of his simple home, watching him with steady eyes Wangji cannot meet.
“Are you happy?”
“Yes,” he admits.
Xichen nods, once, chest rising and falling.
And that is all there is.
Wangji leads him to the door. Outside, Wei Ying paces in the dust, a-Yuan no longer at his side—with his grandmother, perhaps, or otherwise occupied. He startles as the door opens, eyes finding Wangji a moment before they slide away. Xichen does not notice, or if he does he has no comment for it, silent or spoken.
“Everything alright, then?” Wei Ying asks, cheerful in a way that means concern.
“I believe so,” says Xichen, and glances at Wangji, who inclines his head. He does feel better, healed in the sort of way that he had not entirely realized he lacked. His back aches still; will for some time, and perhaps always if Wen Qing is to be believed. But the prickling cold, the low headache, the hurt stitched under his skin, that has abated, and he is easy with it, grateful.
Even with his face half turned, Wangji can see Wei Ying’s expression clear, and that too is a faint surprise, just how tightly he has held his fear.
“And now you’re leaving,” Wei Ying surmises. They descend the steps, and he falls into easy pace with them. “Can’t we convince you to stay for dinner, at least?”
“I have been gone too long already,” Xichen replies, and it is not guilt Wangji feels, though perhaps it should be. It is something softer, older, rotted resignation. He says nothing. Wei Ying looks at the two of them a moment longer, a moment too long, and nods.
“Of course Zewu-jun is busy with matters of his own sect. Perhaps this poor cultivator might beg a favor?”
Xichen blinks, expression shifting towards bemused. “A favor?”
Wei Ying smiles winningly and holds out a folded sheet of paper. “I have a letter bound for Yunmeng and no means of sending it. I’m afraid I have no silver to pay the messenger, but if you’d care for some radishes—” He lets it trail into suggestion, and Xichen laughs, faint.
“That’s quite alright,“ he says. “I will see it safe to Lotus Pier.”
“Many thanks.” Wei Ying bows, properly, and hands over his letter. Xichen tucks it into his sleeve, and startles briefly.
“Ah,” he says, delicate but honest with surprise. He draws something forth, similarly folded paper—indeed, even the creases are the same, and save for the slight yellowing of travel Wangji would have thought it Wei Ying’s letter returned to its sender. He passes it to Wei Ying, faintly embarrassed. “My apologies. I had almost forgotten.”
“What’s this?” asks Wei Ying, fingers skimming over the paper but not yet picking at the seal. Xichen fixes his sleeves, hand settling behind him once more. They have by now reached the edge of the village, and as one they pause. Xichen looks between them a bare breath, as though seeking something, and his lips quirk.
“Jiang-zongzhu wished to join me in this visit but was unable to find the time. He sent a note in his place.”
Wei Ying’s face lights up in an instant. “You spoke to Jiang Cheng? Ah, you should have said, I’d have responded to him properly. Is he well? Is he—”
Xichen smiles, entirely in his eyes and thus entirely true. It loosens a tightness in Wangji’s chest. “He is well. He is occupied with the rebuilding of Lotus Pier, and the Jiang with it. And busy with preparations for a wedding.”
Xichen inclines his head. “Jiang-guniang and Jin-gongzi are to be married in the spring.”
“Oh.” Wei Ying takes that like a blow, graceful but hard. He steps back and Wangji catches him by instinct, arm around his shoulders. Wei Ying looks up to him, face a mask, impossible to read. “Ah, Lan Zhan, did you hear that? Shijie is getting married. And to that peacock after all.”
“Mh,” he agrees, and sets Wei Ying back on his feet with quiet care.
“Well,” he says, and bows again, collecting himself piecemeal. “Thank you for the news, Zewu-jun. Safe travels.”
“Thank you, Wei-gongzi.”
For a moment, it looks as though either of them might say something more, a twin hesitancy. Then Wei Ying laughs, and turns back towards the hall, and Xichen nods in the direction of the road, gaze distant with a thought still-growing, and the moment passes.
Wangji leads him back to the wards, so that he may allow him passage, so that he may see him away. It is harder than he would care to admit to let his brother go again.
“Goodbye,” he murmurs. Xichen sets a hand on his shoulder, surprise drawing his gaze up to Xichen’s smiling face.
“Be well, Wangji,” he says warmly, far too warm for such an occasion. His hand squeezes once, briefly. “I will see you again.”
When he leaves, he does not turn back. Wangji watches until he is out of sight.
Wei Ying has settled in the xiaoshi by the time he returns, busy with something at his workbench. The detritus of their afternoon tea sits out upon the table, and Wangji takes his time tucking cups and kettle away. He cleans carefully, dabbing spilled tea from the dark wood. He feels as though something has shaken loose within him, and it is difficult to find his balance, his bearings. The world drifts, unmoored.
“You should have told me,” he says, and is surprised by the coolness in his own voice.
He glances up to find Wei Ying watching him, pretense of work foregone. There is little by way of guilt in his face; nothing in the shape of shame or embarrassment or even contrition. He knows, and has done it anyway. Such is his tendency. It is, at times, infuriating. Wangji folds his rag in three, table clean, and sets it neatly at his elbow, edges squared off. Wei Ying stands across the narrow bounds of their home and watches him, unflinching.
“If you had told me I could have helped.”
Wei Ying hesitates, and there finally is a flicker of discomfort. “Ah, Lan Zhan. I wouldn’t come between you and your brother.” He curls a little, under Wangji’s steady gaze. “You deserved the chance to see him, anyway.”
He sighs, and sits across the table, close enough to touch and too tucked into himself to reach out. Wangji watches him.
“If it were Jiang Cheng,” he says quietly, “I would have done anything to be there. To know. I couldn’t— It would have been cruel, not to say something.”
He winces. “It isn’t a lie?” His lip curls at his own uncertainty, and he shakes himself all over, as though casting off water. “It wasn’t meant to be some big posturing move or anything like that. Just a chance for Wen Qing to, y’know, clarify our position.”
He shrugs, lopsided, fight seeping out of him. “We can’t live looking over our shoulders for our whole lives, Lan Zhan. Maybe he can go back and— I don’t know. Convince them to leave us alone, for good.”
"You trust him so much?"
"Don't you? He's your brother."
Wangji considers him for a moment, something uncomfortable pressed up under his lungs, a faint nausea. "So you told him of the amulet."
Wei Ying shrugs again, equivocating. "I told him because he asked. It's the truth, anyway. What he decides to do with that information is entirely up to him."
What he decides to do. Wangji takes a breath. He does not think Xichen would use such knowledge against them, but he knows too how thoroughly personal matters become political when the sects are involved, and how little choice there can be. It is a gamble, a dangerous gamble, a gamble made in full understanding of the consequences. It is a gamble, and they did not tell him.
His head is loud. He cannot pick apart his thoughts, his feelings; he is overfull and smothered both. The room is tiny; Wei Ying's gaze stings. He cannot, in this moment, continue to sit here, to think on it; it will swamp him, and he is not even sure what precisely it is.
Wei Ying watches, silent, as he rises, and crosses to the door, and steps out into the afternoon. He does not make to follow.
The village is busy at this hour, caught in the hurry to finish the day's work before the promise of the evening meal. He hears it, all noise and laughter, the bright sound of living even here at the edge of the world. He closes his eyes, stomach twisting, and makes instead for the faint, curling path north of town, disused, winding down to the flatland below. He walks until the village is out of sight behind a heavy jut of mountain stone, until the sound of it has faded behind him, until he is entirely alone, and only then does he pause, face tilted up towards the winter sky. He searches it, idle almost, and sees the nothing he expects to see. His brother is long-since gone, not even a gleam in the heavens to prove his passing. Wangji wishes he had said more. Asked more. Sought to untangle why precisely Xichen came, what he sought, what he found. What he will do next. He should have asked what will come next.
Smoothly, sharply, he draws Bichen.
It is an uncomfortable stretch. He paces through sword forms he knows as well as breathing and feels the effort of it, the drag at his shoulders, his hips. Slowly he warms into it, stretching disused muscles, led by the line of his blade. He has always enjoyed the artistry of the sword path, the fluid forms, the water-shift weightlessness of a well-executed attack or parry. He sinks into it now, the mindless peace of motion, pushes on and on until sweat sticks to his skin despite the chill of the day and his muscles are a pleasant ache. He pushes to the point of exertion and then past it, continues until his breath comes short and his lungs go tight. It is past the time for dinner when he finally sheathes his blade again, sunset bright over the western mountains. He sucks in stinging air, chest heaving, mind quiet.
Behind him, his silent audience rises to her feet. He cannot say when she arrived, only that she has been here some time, unspeaking, patient. He adjusts his grip on Bichen's sheath.
"Will you tell me why?" he requests.
He is, he decides, or has decided in the course of his practice, not angry. Even his hurt has largely settled, in that he understands why Wei Ying would not want to muddy a final goodbye. He fully disapproves, of course, and means to impress upon him that he would always, always rather stand with Wei Ying, regardless of the cost. But he can conceive of the reason behind such a decision.
What he cannot conceive is why they would bring up the question of the Wen's status in the first place, why they would invite Xichen to their hidden corner of the world both as xiongzhang and as zongzhu. Why they would wager their safety for the chance to play once again at the same politics that drove them from the world.
He is, more than anything else, confused. It is unpleasant. Grey is a troubling shade to live in.
Wen Qing looks at him a moment, and holds a hand out.
"May I?" she requests, and he lends her his hand. She presses two fingers against his wrist, eyes closed, a silent examination, and when she has finished she steps back.
"Well," she says. "I still say you should take things slowly, but you'll be alright."
Wangji waits, silent. She tilts her head at him, and sighs.
"I am not going to apologize."
He has not expected her to. So stubborn, the both of them. He huffs, exasperated, and she smiles in response, a small, tired amusement. The familiarity is a comfort. His shoulders loosen, if only a little.
"I want this place to be a home to them," she says. "And I would leave it tomorrow, were it possible."
He considers the sentiment for a moment, paradoxical, sensical. "You truly think he will help."
"I don't know."
"You hope," he revises.
"I know what I would do for my brother," she says, mild except for the expression on her face, and Wangji thinks of Jiang Yanli's river-swift heartbreak, and Jiang Wanyin's steel-jawed silence, and Wei Ying's tears. He thinks of his brother sat on the far side of a table and half a world away. He thinks it and finds his nose stings from more than the cold of the air.
"You could be wrong."
"Yes. We could all be in greater danger now than we have been. But at least we will no longer be waiting."
Above them, the sky slips from orange to purple with the evening. Wangji takes a breath, and another. He understands. He is not sure he likes it any more for his understanding, but so it goes with questions and answers; knowing the truth does not necessarily mean liking it. More than that, he trusts her. They should have told him. But he trusts her.
She gives him a long look and then turns in the direction of the village.
"I'll make sure popo saves you something to eat," she says, and then he is alone, sweat chilling against his skin, staring out at the gathering dusk.
The dizi greets him long before he returns to the xiaoshi, and for a minute he stands in the road, watching Wei Ying play on the porch, a dark figure among the dark of night, red tassel catching in the lamplight. It throws him sharply to shadow, glints against the suggestion of his cheek, his shoulder, the line of his jaw. Wangji doesn't know the song—something soft, sweet, light on the air. Only when it ends, last note lingering and Wei Ying slow to lower his flute, does he climb the steps to join him. Wei Ying watches him as though he has known he was there the whole time.
"Lan Zhan," he says softly. Wangji blows out a breath, slow and quiet. Wei Ying hesitates. "Are you alright?"
“I did not think I would see him again.”
He makes a face. “Ah, don’t. You’re right, I should have told you.”
Together they enter their home, and Wangji understands. Yes, he would leave it tomorrow, all the hard work of their hands, sweat and blood and tears, for Wei Ying to have the chance he has had to see his family once more.
Wei Ying goes about the business of lighting candles, glancing now and then back to Wangji, as though expecting he will have changed his mind, will decide to turn and leave again. Wangji watches him move, and when the room is glowing merrily he stands in the center of it all, turned toward Wangji, eyes searching. Wangji goes to him, and it is only a moment before Wei Ying wraps his arms around him. Wangji draws him forward, a sure and steady weight, and feels the sigh that uncurls through him.
"I would rather know," Wangji says. "Always."
"Are you sure? Sometimes it really sucks, Lan Zhan."
Wei Ying sighs a great, gusty huff and settles his chin on his shoulder. Wangji unties the ribbon from his hair, carding his fingers through it.
“I’m glad you got to see him, at least,” Wei Ying murmurs at his ear. “I mean it, I really am. And I'm glad that you’re okay, and we’re okay. We are okay, aren’t we Lan Zhan? Even if it goes wrong, we can take care of it together.”
“We’re okay,” Wangji promises. “I will stay as long as you will have me. No matter what.”
"Ah, Lan Zhan," says Wei Ying, a little shaky, tucking his warm face into the juncture of his neck. "Warn me first."
Wangji huffs and resolves not to, never, not when he can have this instead, Wei Ying's pink-shocked joy to know he is so loved. He should know it always, he should—
"Wei Ying." Wangji swallows, pulling away enough to look at him, heart kicking against his ribs. "May I give you something?"
"Hm?" Wei Ying invites, still flushed, curiosity bright in his eyes. "Surely you didn't get me a gift while you were off being angry. Rightfully so, I might add. I should be giving you something, really."
"Wei Ying," he huffs, and reaches up and carefully unties his forehead ribbon, pulling it free of his hair. Wei Ying goes still before him, eyes wide, falling to silence. It is in that silence that Wangji takes Wei Ying’s hand, and in that silence that he wraps his ribbon around his wrist, careful to keep the cloth smooth against his skin, cloud of the headpiece settled just inside his wrist. When it is finished, he ties it, only as tight as it need be to hold. He raises Wei Ying’s hand to his lips and kisses his knuckles, his palm, the cool metal headpiece. Wei Ying’s breath comes unsteady. When Wangji meets his eyes they shine.
“Lan Zhan,” he says, rubbing one thumb across the cloud pattern. His face speaks of understanding, heavy with the weight of this promise. "Lan Zhan, are you sure?"
"Yes." He cannot think of anything he has been more sure of. Wei Ying stares at him another moment, fragile as fresh-kilned porcelain, and then he laughs, wild and bright.
"Lan Zhan," he says, grinning. "Lan Zhan, is that a proposal?"
"If you would like," he says, ears and cheeks pink. Wei Ying laughs again and wraps his arms around him.
"If I would like, if I would like. What would Lan Zhan like, hm?"
"Wei Ying," he says. He feels slightly crazed; he feels as though it is the simplest thing in the world. "I would like to marry you."
"Yes." Wangji hasn't even finished speaking before it comes tumbling out. "Yes, okay. Yes."
“Oh,” he says. It is not a surprise; he is not surprised by it. It strikes him all the same. His hands shake.
“I love you,” Wei Ying says with a smile to rival the sun, to chase away all the winter cold. “Let’s get married.”
“Okay,” Wangji agrees.
“Okay,” Wei Ying echoes. And then he laughs, bright and shocked, and throws himself across the narrow space between them. Wangji wraps his arms around him and kisses him, troublesome and awkward because neither can stop smiling.
"Lan Zhan, ah," says Wei Ying. He laces their fingers together, raises their hands between them so he can see the ribbon stark around his wrist. His smile is incandescent. “Lan Zhan, my husband to be, Lan Zhan my love, I think you should take me to bed now.”
“Whatever Wei Ying wishes,” Wangji agrees, and does.
It is troublesome, perhaps, that the hint of white peaking out beneath Wei Ying's robes very nearly bowls him over each and every time he catches sight of it, and twice troublesome that he is not quick enough to hide it to save himself from teasing. But Wen Liuyan's winking and the uncles' hearty congratulations are a fair price to pay to see Wei Ying's undimming smile.
"Do I need to send for an astrologer?" Wen Qing asks two days later, looking between them with something between satisfaction and resignation. She gives Wangji a particularly long look, as if to say So this is how you've decided to deal with it. Wangji takes offense. It is not his fault Xichen folded his blessing in with his farewell. And it is not as though he hasn't spent many months of the past year thinking of Wei Ying in red. "Or have you decided to elope?"
Wei Ying laughs. "Ah, Qing-jie, Lan Zhan wouldn't just go off and elope with some demonic cultivator."
He absolutely would, provided said demonic cultivator were Wei Ying. He gives Wei Ying a long look to watch him flush. Wen Qing rolls her eyes.
"That's a yes, then?"
"Ah, no. I'm— I'm waiting to hear back from Jiang Cheng. I think."
Wangji blinks. "You asked for his blessing?"
"No, no. Well." He makes a face that is in no way an answer to the question. "Anyway, shijie's oldest and she's been engaged the longest. She should be married first. We agreed."
They had. They had, because Wei Ying had asked, half asleep, Do you think shijie would come if I asked? and then realized the question and crumpled like wet paper as Wangji assured him he would wait a year or twelve years or twenty if it was needed for Wei Ying's shijie to be there for his wedding. Wangji would, if it would bring Wei Ying joy, fly to Lanling to invite Jiang-guniang personally. Time will not change his love.
"We'll have a banquet," Wen Qing decides, looking between them. "We can at least pretend to do things properly."
“Ah, there’s really no need,” stutters Wei Ying, blushing, and Wen Qing laughs.
There is a banquet in spite of Wei Ying’s faltering protestations, a twinned celebration of the new year and their new union, meal replete with meat and laughter and wine that winds long into the night. In the new year, Wangji takes up the sword again, relearning his strength and himself with purpose, and more than once finds Wen Qing watching with her hands behind her back, eyebrows a comment on the stubbornness of fools. But she leaves him to it, the stretch and the discovery and the recovery, the free flow of energy. Wei Ying joins him sometimes, draws forth Chenqing and keeps by turns company and competition. They fought together, once, in the thick of war. It is an unexpected pleasure to return to that silent conversation with only the shadow of the winter clouds over them.
It is there Wen Qing finds them, Wangji stretching silently while Wei Ying plays bright scales up and down the morning. She carries a-Yuan with her, boy chattering away a mile a minute, and dumps him unceremoniously on Wei Ying with the proclamation that they ought to go into town, and take the child with them.
“He’s getting into my supplies,” she says. Wei Ying swings him up onto his shoulders and the boy squeals in joy. He does not even pretend to mind when she sticks a list in his hands, things to procure atop the duty of watching a-Yuan.
"We're on it, Wen-daifu!”
"Oh, just get out of here," she says, amusement lurking at the corners of her mouth as he bounds off.
"Make sure he doesn't do anything stupid," she adds, and Wangji hides his smile in a bow.
The town teems in the aftermath of the new year, promise of beginnings bright in the air alongside the spice-sharp scent of cooking foods and lanterns still hung from their festival perches. Wei Ying lopes from stall to stall, chattering with the aunties as though they are old friends, and a-Yuan sits upon his shoulders, teetering now and then but pleased to be so well complimented by warm voices thick with local dialect, hands about Wei Ying’s forehead like his own ribbon. Wangji himself is treated to more attention than he has prepared himself for, faces he would not expect to recall him asking after Wen Qionglin, the health of the village, what has happened to that funny headband of his. He offers his stilted replies, and upon the mention that he has been engaged in the custom of his people, he finds himself so overwhelmed with congratulations he roots in place, world closing in tight until Wei Ying interjects himself to soak up the well wishes, a relief in the face of such attention.
“So popular,” Wei Ying teases as they break free of the crowd, laden with sweet cakes and candied winter fruits and jars of huangjiu. In one fist, a-Yuan clutches a red string of copper coins. “I knew the aunties all loved Lan Zhan.”
“Mn.” His ears are pink from more than the winter chill. Wei Ying grins, a crescent-moon mischief.
“They’re right, of course. Aren’t they, a-Yuan?”
“Mhm,” the boy nods obediently, though Wangji isn’t certain he knows to what he is agreeing.
“We came here for a purpose,” he points out. Hardly a subtle distraction, but Wei Ying is hardly a subtle man, and so he only laughs once, pealing, and hefts a-Yuan off his shoulders.
“Yes, yes,” he agrees, setting the boy down and packing away their unexpected gifts while a-Yuan stands patiently at his side, reaching for Wangji’s hand and waving it between them. “Always work with Hanguang-jun.” As though he is not the one always eager to come to market. Wangji huffs quietly and is treated to the brief, bright joy of Wei Ying’s flashing grin as he straightens. “Where to first, then? What do we need?”
Plenty, it turns out. Wei Ying leads them from stall to stall, collecting cinnabar and ink and paper for himself and soap and needles for Wen Qing while Wangji trails behind, a-Yuan upon his shoulders, buying salt and tallow and a rice cake for the boy, crisp and sticky. Wei Ying flits back to them, cajoling a-Yuan to grant him a taste until Wangji indulges in a second, broken in two. He passes the larger half to Wei Ying, who takes it with a curling bright smile and tucks one arm into the crook of Wangji’s elbow, shaking his hair out of his face, eyes eager over the market. His joy spills from him like firelight, warm in the cool of the season.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says as if only to say it, leaning further into him. Wangji hums, lips brushing his temple. He had not known it was possible to be so happy.
A child dashes up to them, package clutched in one tight fist. She skids to a stop, parcel thrust out. Through a gap-toothed smile, she declares, “For you, gongzi!”
“For me?" Wei Ying raises his eyebrows and crouches down. His face is painted with curiosity, but it is an overwrought sort, a play-acting surprise. It catches Wangji's attention. "From who?”
“The messenger, gongzi. It's been waiting for you.”
“I see.” Wei Ying’s attention sharpens, but he smiles and winks for the girl and pays for her message-running with a slice of dried fruit. The child crams it immediately into her mouth, smile sugar-sweet. “Thank you, meimei.”
“You’re welcome!” she beams, mouth full, and dashes off again, hems muddy. Wei Ying watches after her and laughs, head shaking. But he is slow to rise, laughter fading as he turns the parcel in his hand. Wangji watches him, knows the look across his face.
"You were expecting this?"
"Yeah," he says distractedly, cracking the seal and peeling back the oil lining that shelters the paper within. "Sort of."
"What is it?"
“A letter,” he says, face furrowing. “And— oh.”
It is more than a single letter; a small stack of travel-worn paper sits beneath the missive, folded into even quadrants and tied in string. Wei Ying unknots it carefully, shuffling through pages while Wangji guides him from the flow of foot traffic to the open mouth of an alley so he can pour over the parcel in peace. Wei Ying sinks down onto his haunches, mouth making a strange, uncertain line, elbows braced on his knees as he skims over page after page. Wangji watches, muffled concern knocking against his ribs.
“It’s from Jiang Cheng,” he says, idly nearly, except that his voice catches. A frown pinches at the corner of his mouth. Wangji blinks down at him and carefully lifts a-Yuan from his shoulders.
It is not impossible, of course, that Jiang Wanyin should know to write his brother here. Not when Xichen himself has made the journey in its entirety, has played the part of messenger. But the space between awareness and action is a wide one, and it stirs a quiet worry in him to watch Wei Ying’s expression fold further and further as he reads more and more.
“Is all well?”
“He said he had something for me,” Wei Ying mumbles, half in response and half to himself. “Him and shijie. I hadn’t realized— Here.”
Wei Ying holds a single page out. The wind stirs around them, catching at his hair, the edges of the paper, the lanterns hung from the eaves above. The rheumy sun peers down from above, and Wangji swallows a frown and accepts the sheaf of creased paper cramped with Jiang Wanyin’s neat handwriting. Wangji wonders, momentarily, if the Jin know of their location as well, the Nie, the other sects. The cultivation world is not so large, and even when there are secrets to be kept, the walls have ears. He grits his teeth and puts it out of mind for the present moment. It is as Wei Ying said—whatever shall come, they will face it together. He sets his eyes upon the letter Jiang Wanyin has written from half a world away and reads.
And then, when he has read it all, he reads it again.
“Wei Ying,” he says, and Wei Ying leaves off the papers still in his hands to stare up at him. His expression has settled, hope layered over doubt like oil against water. Wangji knows it, because he wears the same emotion.
“He’s got it all here,” Wei Ying says, thumbing through the rest of the paper. “Merchant contracts. Land rights. He’s even got a report on Qishan, how it was partitioned off after the war, what’s still unclaimed. And your brother wrote too, here, look.” He holds out another paper, written in his brother’s flowing script, not entirely a letter but far more than a simple report, promising GusuLan’s assistance in relocation, reparations, righting wrongs. Wei Ying blinks up at him, eyes wide, face open with shock. “This is— This is months of work. This is— How long has he been working on this?”
He knows the way in which Jiang Wanyin loves his brother. He knows the lengths he will go, the bridges he will cross and unflinchingly burn behind him. Wei Ying had not seen him those three long months, mired in war and desperate for the faintest whisper from friend or foe alike, the last breath of the groaning dead. Wei Ying has not shared his campfire, his guttering hope, the understanding of what one might do in the name of loyalty and love.
But to see the proof here, laid out like this, bound and mailed and delivered as near to their doorstep as it is possible to come from a world away—that is something else altogether. A year of silence, and now this.
No, not silence. Action, awaiting awareness.
“I believe,” he says, and his voice comes rough, “we should speak to Wen Qing.”
“Yeah,” says Wei Ying softly, eyes fixed upon his silent face, and slowly the doubt clears away, leaving only a fractured, fragile hope in its place. His throat works once, twice, and he takes a breath. He collects the papers and then a-Yuan and stands upright. He meets Wangji’s eyes and nods once, shoulders squared, set. “Yeah, I think you’re right.”
Wen Qing has made something of an office among the back rooms of the hall, sleeping quarters long-since turned to storage. The room is dedicated largely to her own medical supplies, though a half dozen jars of yan luo bo sit against the far wall, sharp-sweet smell of pickled vegetables thick in the air. The desk is a heavyset thing, made from excess lumber, and it is behind it now that Wen Qing kneels, shifting through a few sheafs of paper cramped with monetary matters, the fine details of sustaining what is left of the Wen. A small tea set rests at the edge of the desk, and Wen Qionglin goes about the business of tea-making with a practiced air, glancing up once upon their arrival and then pausing, and looking up again.
“Wei-gongzi?” he asks, stilling in his work, and Wen Qing’s attention wavers from her papers. Her brow furrows immediately, eyes flicking between the both of them as they seat themselves opposite her. Her spine straightens, mouth a hard line, braced for impact. Wei Ying tucks a hand into his robes and emerges with Jiang Wanyin’s parcel. He sets it on the table between them.
“Jiang Cheng wrote,” he says by way of greeting. Wen Qing frowns narrowly at him and takes the parcel, peeling away the oiled cloth and glancing through the papers within, scanning first and then, more slowly, reading through each. Her face remains perfectly still in her silent examination, the only sound the rustle of paper and the faint scrape of spoon against clay as Wen Qionglin stirs tea.
The silence is suffocating. Not even Wei Ying breaches it.
When she has read the whole of it, she sets the papers down on her desk and sips the tea her brother has made. Wangji, seated beside Wei Ying, glances at the papers, turned the wrong way for reading from this side of the desk. Wen Qing sets her tea down.
“I think so,” answers Wei Ying. “I mean, yeah. Yes.”
It settles between them. Wen Qing returns to the papers a third time, frown settling at the corners of her mouth. It is not a look of disapproval—Wangji is familiar with that, the flatness of it, the stillness—but something quieter. Contemplative.
“This region,” she says, finally. “Shahe. Tell me about it.”
Wei Ying tilts his head slightly, and turns one of the papers to read it better. Wen Qing watches him steadily as his posture shifts, his shoulders settle, and Wangji sees in the change Wei Wuxian, shixiong to Jiang Wanyin, head disciple of the Jiang sect. He taps one finger against one of the papers.
“It’s predominantly agricultural,” he says. His voice is steady, sure. “Rich soil, well integrated with the river system, mostly small farming towns under YunmengJiang’s jurisdiction. Mainly produces rice and millet, staple crops. About, hm, twenty li from Lotus Pier, give or take.”
“Under the sect’s supervision,” he acknowledges. “And protection, in the case that the Jin or the Nie kick up a fuss. Not,” he adds, hasty to do so, “that I think they will. See, he's got— Um, this one, look." He pulls out a sheet, passing it to Wen Qing. "Shijie's getting married to the— to Jin Zixuan, and he's supporting the claim."
"A wedding gift?"
"I guess? Since he says it has to be after the wedding. But either way, if Zewu-jun is backing him then I think— I mean, we can probably count on the Lan, at least.” He fumbles for the missive and then glances at Wangji as though for confirmation. Wangji inclines his head, attention half fixed on the papers before them. If Xichen has promised the support of GusuLan, then it will be had. Wen Qing hums.
“So Jiang Wanyin invites us to play at prisoners close enough that YunmengJiang may bare their swords for or against us.”
It is a reasonable uncertainty. Wei Ying shrugs, attention swinging back around. “We’re a sect of five dozen farmers and healers. If the Jiang or anyone else decide to turn against us, it’ll be you, me, Wen Ning and Lan Zhan against the world. And Yan-jie’s saw, I guess.”
He says it as though it is a joke, as though it is not the entire reason they fled. The enormity of it, trust placed in absent men, smothers them, stills the room entirely. Wangji takes a deep breath, and another, and reaches through it.
Wei Ying asked if he trusts his brother, and he does. Does Wei Ying trust his own?
He must. He must, to bring this before Wen Qing, to wear his hope openly. Once, Jiang Yanli asked her that brother come home with no proof for his safety save her silent determination. Now, the Jiang asks their missing brother and his people home with every proof of their safety they can offer, an open hand stretched across an unbearable chasm. All that is left is to reach back, to take the hand and trust it will pull them up from the deep.
Wen Qing sits in silence a long minute. Wangji watches Wei Ying watch her, watches the quiet of his face and the frozen tilt of his mouth and the steadiness of his gaze, awaiting a decision, pinned by it.
“Jiang Wanyin is a man of his word,” Wangji says quietly. Wei Ying startles, turns to him, expression slipping slowly into the pleased shock of unexpected grace. “If he has made a promise, I believe he will keep it.”
Wei Ying takes a deep breath and reaches for him, a bare brush against the back of his hand. Wangji turns his palm up at the contact, fingers tangling, does not miss Wen Qing long, pensive frown, nor the way her eyes glide aside to Wen Qionglin, holding a conversation in a glance. Wangji’s thumb draws sweeping strokes against the back of Wei Ying’s hand. In the hall behind them, someone laughs, rich and loud.
“There are things that will need to be discussed,” she says, finally. “With everyone here, and with Jiang-zongzhu. If he is willing to listen.” Her voice betrays no emotion. Wei Ying squeezes Wangji’s hand.
“I think,” he says, and he swallows. “I think he’ll listen.”
She nods, and takes a breath. Wangji watches leadership settle heavy on her shoulders. “A-Ning. Will you call everyone for dinner?”
Wen Qing sends a letter the day after, carried by a messenger bird more spirit than flesh. One of Wei Ying’s creations, concocted over the course of a feverishly furious night. The bird disappears in the skimming light of the sunset, and those gathered to see it off catch their breath.
“What now?” asks Sixth Uncle, chewing straw. Wen-popo peers out into the sky, at the vanished speck of the messenger, at Wen Qing’s red-drenched silhouette in the spill of the evening. The light ages her, catches every crease and fold of her face, the tightness around her eyes, the slant of her mouth. Wangji, holding a-Yuan and watching alongside all the rest, feels as though he is seeing her, all of them, for the first time. How hard they have worked to live here. What they might give, for a chance to return home.
Wen-popo shakes her head, and turns back towards the hall. “Now?" she echoes. "Now we wait.”
Meanwhile, the spring.
It arrives warm and sudden, as though winter has grown tired of the mountain cold and let itself out in the night. It brings with it a heavy damp, skies bleached a wet grey, and it would be pleasant if not for the seeping, an all-over wetness heralding the beginnings of the rainy season.
Anticipation proves the worst of it. The fields are dug anew, irrigated to save their crops from drowning. Lao Bao, with his cough, catches something else, musty and thick, and Wen Qing spends her days with him, mouth pinched. Even a-Yuan grows bored of the novelty of the season, of constantly watching the skies. It is like waiting for the sea change, and waiting for nothing at all. The world ends; life goes on. It doesn’t, the same.
Wangji cultivates his core and his patience, throws himself into work in the full knowledge that all this planting may well go to seed before the season’s end, and that it may well not. Wei Ying hems and frets and divides his days, walking the wards and pouring over his workbench and bleeding energy, wound so tightly he cannot concentrate on a single task for longer than a shichen. He goes into town with Wen Qionglin and returns empty handed and begins the cycle again.
“What if he changes his mind?” he asks, night muggy around them, sweat beading over skin. It makes Wangji wish for a bath, except that he also wishes to be entirely dry, if only for a moment. Wei Ying rolls halfway over, staring at the ceiling. “What if he doesn’t?”
Wangji misses his weight as soon as it is gone, in spite of the cloying warmth. He rises onto one elbow. “Then we will remain,” he answers, “or we will not.”
Wei Ying huffs. “How can you be so calm about it?”
“I am not.”
It gives him pause, coaxes him up to look him full in the face, eyes searching. His mouth makes a tilting brushstroke, deep red. He has been chewing at his lips with waiting.
“No,” he says eventually, gentle to the point of breaking. “You aren’t, are you. Ah, Lan Zhan.”
“Together,” he says, and allows Wei Ying to pull him in close. A breeze creeps in the open window, bringing with it the first shush of rain and the earth-rich smell of falling water. It cuts through the clinging heat of the season. Wei Ying sighs against him, tension held tight, while Wangji draws long ellipses over his back, nape to waist, nails the slightest scratch. Even that is not entirely enough to settle him.
“Wei Ying,” he murmurs, an invitation. They have not spoken of Jiang Wanyin's offer, not truly. Their days have stretched to the point of strain and still they have not spoken in so many words. He has thought himself patient, but perhaps it has been too long.
Wei Ying sighs.
“You remember when you found us,” he says softly. Wangji hums. It would seem a dream, except that Wei Ying is here now, in his arms. He presses the whole of his hand against his back as though a reminder and takes up his long, looping strokes again. Wei Ying’s shoulders shift, a concession.
“You said that he sent you.”
“Him and my shijie.”
“Mh. I would have come anyway.”
"I know, I know. But they asked."
It is a long minute of silence. Wei Ying’s breath is heavy at his shoulder.
“I don’t know why they would still want me,” he mumbles. “I don’t know why everyone won’t let me go. And to do all that—”
“Wei Ying,” he interrupts, fingers finding the pale cloth of his ribbon even in the dark, the reminder of how dearly he is treasured. Wei Ying shudders. Wangji wishes he could see his face to kiss his love across it. He settles his lips against the dark crown of his hair instead and takes up the sweep of his hand again, sure and grounding. Wei Ying breathes in time with it.
“Wen Ning thinks I should tell him,” he says, sudden. “About the— my— his— ugh. You know.”
Wangji’s motions still.
Wei Ying does not raise his head, still speaking into the quiet safety of his collarbone. “He thinks he’ll understand, if he knows why I did it. He thinks it’ll help.”
Wangji’s throat clicks as he swallows, and slowly his hand moves again, pads of his fingers guqin-rough. The room is rain-still around them.
“You disagree,” he murmurs, halfway lost to shushing of the water.
He snorts, a cloud of hot air. “What should it matter why I did it? It’s my trouble to bear.”
“Mn.” It will be their trouble, if it is to be trouble at all. So long as he is here, Wei Ying will not bear it alone. Wei Ying presses his head against his shoulder a moment as though bracing for an impact and then sits up, energy drawn all along the line of his spine, fists tight over his knees. There is an animal hurt to him, fear of a blow that goes beyond simple flinching. Wangji breathes steadily, patiently, waiting in the dark.
“You know what I mean,” Wei Ying says eventually, sour. “I made the decision. Why should I have to explain it to anyone.” And then, with a familiar, ugly bark of laughter, “It doesn’t matter anyway. I don’t even know if we’ll see him. He could refuse Wen Qing’s terms.”
He could. Wangji keeps his breathing steady. “Perhaps Wen Qionglin believes Jiang Wanyin will understand.”
“He won’t. He shouldn’t have to. It was my choice. I decided to give it up. What does it matter?”
Wangji waits patiently as Wei Ying’s anger flares, burns, settles. He sits slowly, a hand light against Wei Ying’s shoulder, and for all that Wei Ying curves farther into himself, he does not pull away. The rain shushes down.
“How,” asks Wei Ying, small, nose tucked into his knees, arms tight around himself, “am I supposed to tell him?”
“The same way you told me.”
“He’ll hate me.”
Wangji does not think he will. He remembers Jiang Yanli’s plea, remembers on whose behalf it was made. Remembers Jiang Wanyin and three months of seeking. But perhaps he is wrong. Perhaps the offense is unforgivable. He is neither Wei Wuxian nor Jiang Wanyin. He cannot speak to either of their minds.
Wei Ying hunches deeper. “What if it makes him change his mind? What if he never wants to see me again?”
“You will not be alone,” Wangji answers to the question beneath, to the mud-rooted fear dug into him. He takes Wei Ying’s hands, fingers clammy, and cradles them in his own. “I will not leave.”
Wei Ying’s breath shudders out of him. “Lan Zhan,” he says, turning finally to face him, and Lan Zhan kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him.
“He is your brother,” he says, after. Wei Ying turns his face into his shoulder, hides himself from the world. Wangji holds him tight. Just in case.
“I know,” say Wei Ying’s lips against his skin. “I know.”
The next day, Jiang Wanyin’s response arrives.
The rains come, in the end. Not the storm, not the roar, only the water. It hushes down all around them, steady, warm with the promise of a long, hot summer to come. It drips from the eaves, filling the paddies, the cisterns, the water under the ground that rises up the wells. Streams and rivers and lakes swell and the world grows green and rich and wild, earth-fed and alive. Wangji stands upon the porch of the xiaoshi and watches it fall, sword in hand, qin upon his back. It is not so different from how he arrived, save that everything is different. Transformed.
The door shuts behind him, and Wei Ying joins him, stood upon their stoop, watching the rain. Wangji slept here, once, a year ago. Now they stand, door closed, home emptied. Wei Ying takes a breath.
“That’s everything then.”
Down the road, outside the hall, the purple of YunmengJiang mixes with the drab robes of the Wen, hands working together in the damp to load carts, horses. A-Yuan sits upon Wen Qionglin’s shoulders, catching raindrops in his hands, transfixed by the people, the color, the change. It is kinder leavetaking than the last, though that does not rid it entirely of the sorrow of parting. Wen Qing stands beneath the eaves, passing orders to Wen and Jiang alike, heeded by all.
Her eyes, briefly, land on the pair of them, and she nods before returning to her task.
“What now?” Wei Ying asks. He has his bag over one shoulder, a simple thing. Small, after everything. His flute is in his belt.
“The world is wide,” he says. Wei Ying looks at him and laughs, unrestrained. A great weight rises from his shoulders.
“It is,” he agrees. He takes Wangji’s hand, leans in when Wangji tilts his head to kiss his temple, turns to kiss his lips. “Let’s go home."