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.”
wen liuyan — 温柳艳
Routine expands, shifts, settles. Wangji busies himself in the morning hours and plays his qin in the evenings, music drifting over the town. No one complains. No one treats him with fear or distrust. Sometimes there are even requests.
Wei Ying spends three days locked away, only emerging on the fourth when Wen Qing parks herself on his doorstep and shouts at him for nearly half a shichen. He reappears gaunt and pale and with a dozen new concepts for tools and talismans, which he explains to Wangji while eating three missed meals’ worth of food slightly after midday, sweltering in the shade of the porch, desperate for a breeze. A-Yuan perches in his lap like a chicklet in a nest, cheerfully ducking Wei Ying’s waving arms, overjoyed to have his Xian-gege back.
“And you!” Wei Ying does not pause for breath between explaining the last of his new intentions—a compass of sorts built to detect the presence of malicious beasts and spirits—and addressing a-Yuan. “What have you been up to?”
A-Yuan looks to Wangji and giggles. Wangji nods to him in invitation. He trusts the boy will not give away their project, but that is hardly the only activity he has been up to these past days.
“Music!” he declares. Wei Ying looks between them.
“You’ve been teaching him?”
“Lan Zhan! And without me?”
Wangji kindly does not point out Wei Ying has been sequestered in the xiaoshi for days without a word of excuse. He does not need to say it; no sooner have the words left his mouth than Wei Ying winces. He shakes it off brusquely.
“A-Yuan.” The boy sits at attention as Wei Ying takes a solemn tone. “You must promise me something. You must never believe anything Lan Zhan tells you about the qin being the superior instrument. I don’t doubt he means well, but he’ll go filling your head with silly Lan principles and you’ll never truly appreciate the dizi for its versatility and clarity. Promise me, a-Yuan!”
Wangji flicks a grain of rice at Wei Ying while he is occupied with being overdramatic. It bounces harmlessly off his hand.
He blinks his blankest, most owlish blink. He is grateful beyond words to have Wei Ying back. “Mm.”
“I know what you did, don’t think I don’t. What happened to decorum during mealtimes, hm?”
“I’m not eating.”
Wei Ying huffs. “You’ll teach our son bad manners,” he grumbles, and then goes still, tensing head to toe. “Ah,” he says, and wets his lips. Wangji watches him, unable to move, unable to breathe. The feeling rooted in his chest bursts into bloom. “I mean.”
“Wei-gongzi. Lan-gongzi.” Wen-popo clears her throat, interrupting Wei Ying’s stuttering. She stands at the edge of the porch, and her expression is all too knowing, a smile like the cat in the cream. Neither of them can hold her gaze for long. “If you’ll forgive me, it’s time for this little one’s nap.”
Wei Ying clears his throat. “Ah, you better go, xiao a-Yuan. Otherwise we might get in trouble.”
“Wei Ying will play after you rest,” Wangji says firmly. Wei Ying will be here after he rests, he is saying underneath. He knows the confusing muddle of fear when faced with the unexpected lack of a parent. His— A-Yuan will not experience that, if he can help it. He swallows, and does not meet Wei Ying’s eyes.
A-Yuan looks between them, waiting until Wei Ying nods. Only then does he climb out of his lap and take his grandmother’s hand, and it does not stop him glancing back over his shoulder with unsure, unspoken concern. Wei Ying smiles and nods and winks until he’s out of sight, and then his good mood drips away like water. The haggard look is back, hollow and faded. Wangji would almost rather his bitter anger. At least there is a spark to that.
“Is something wrong?” he asks lowly. Wangji meets his eyes.
“He missed you.”
“I was right there.”
“He could not see you. You could have been in the room next door and it would have been as though you left forever.”
Wei Ying stares at him, brow furrowed. Wangji swallows.
“Everything is… bigger, when you are so small.”
Wei Ying’s gaze sharpens to understanding. “Did you— Your parents, I mean.”
Wangi takes a breath. He has not anticipated telling this to Wei Ying. He has not anticipated telling this to anyone. But.
“Mn.” He finds a point just past Wei Ying’s ear. It is almost like looking at his face. “My mother.”
“Xiongzhang and I were not allowed to stay with her. She had done something terrible and was in seclusion. I did not know the details.” He still does not, though the broad strokes have clarified with age and his brother’s anguished retelling. He tells himself there is no point in wondering, now. The only people who could give clear accounts have passed. Some days he almost believes he has made his peace with it. “Once a month we visited her. She would listen to our stories. Play music. Tease.” Always the teasing. He thinks she may have liked Wei Ying.
He hopes she would have liked Wei Ying.
“One day, no one took us to see her. It was winter. Snowing.” He can taste it in his memory, metal-cold, vivid enough that the fine hair of his arms stands at attention even under the sweltering of the afternoon sun. “I waited the day before her home. No one came. I would not leave, even when Uncle scolded me. I did not understand why she would not open the door. Why she did not want to see me. No one would tell me why I could not see her.”
Wei Ying stares at him.
“I returned the next month. And the next. I returned until Uncle forbade me from going, and when I went still I was punished. Eventually xiongzhang explained to me that she was gone and not coming back. That she would never open the door.”
He meets Wei Ying’s eyes. “Wen Yuan is a bright and sweet child. I do not wish him to ever know uncertainty like that.”
“Lan Zhan.” Sentiment overflows his face, emotion deep enough to defy name. Holding his gaze is like being flayed. Wangji does not look away. “I didn’t know.”
He very nearly shrugs. “How could you have?” It is not something he has spoken of before. He wonders if it is something he will speak of after, if he feels lighter or heavier for having shared it. He could not say. Right now, everything is unreal, insubstantial. Wei Ying stares at him and he thinks he may be drowning, and he is not certain he minds.
“I wouldn't do that to him. Or to you.”
“Mh.” He believes him. “You are not my mother.” There is something else, then, that must be said, the connective tissue of promises and past stuck fast. “Wei Ying. I would not take you to Gusu, if you did not wish to go.” He would never—he could never do such a thing. Not when he has seen what such imprisonment does to a person. He would carve his own heart bloody from his chest before he let such a thing happen to Wei Ying. That is why he is here. Surely Wei Ying must know that is why he is here.
“I— I understand.”
“Mm.” It sits between them, with the heat and the tepid breeze and the half dozen grains of scattered rice. Wangji leaves it to settle as he rises. If he does not he will do something mindless and terrible, like reach for Wei Ying, wrap his fingers around that too-thin wrist and cradle his face in the palm of his hand and never let him go. He will speak the sapling feeling in his chest, the whole blooming truth of it, and he cannot bear the thought of that. It is nearly as naked a horror as being held in turn. He cannot stand the weight of his wanting.
Wei Ying’s eyes follow him until he is out of sight.
They do not speak of it again, but Wangji cannot shake the certainty that something, somehow, has shifted.
“I heard you playing,” Wei Ying says from across the room while Wangji combs his hair. They are both seated in the xiaoshi, dressed down to the thinnest layers of their robes, too hot for anything more. Wen Qionglin has been moved from the center of the room to the back, roped in a knotted net clotted with talismans and hidden behind a crooked screen. Wei Ying has made some sort of breakthrough regarding his state of being; it is now only a matter of time. “When I was. Y’know. Sulking.”
Sulking is an unkind word for it. Wangji dislikes how easily Wei Ying dismisses himself. “Mm.”
“It was nice to hear.”
“I am happy to play for you.”
“I know. Cleansing, you’ve said.”
“Anything you wish.”
Wei Ying is silent. Wangji sets his comb down, staring at him. In another world, perhaps they are doing this in the jingshi, and there is Emperor’s Smile and tea and a cool breeze. The screens are painted and the door open to the garden, and the clear Gusu evening greets them with the soft smell of gentians.
In this world, they sit in Wei Ying’s cluttered workshop, still stifling from the day outside despite the propped-open windows, half-dead body hidden behind a hastily-erected screen of rough linen, tallow candles guttering.
It is not where Wangji would have seen himself. Nor is it what he would have chosen for either of them. But Wei Ying is here, and so it is everything he could want.
“I remembered where I heard a-Yuan’s song. You sang it for me.”
“In the cave, with the Tortoise of Slaughter.”
“It’s a very beautiful song, Lan Zhan.”
It is yours, he cannot say.
“Would you play it for me, sometime?”
“I would like that.”
“Then I will play it.”
Wei Ying goes quiet for a moment.
“Lan Zhan. Will you comb my hair? You said you would. Did you mean it?”
Wei Ying's eyes stay steady on him as he crosses the room, challenge mixed in with the uncertainty. Wangji seats himself behind Wei Ying with the very last of his oils, working his ribbon free to lie long and limp over his knee. It has grown faded and frayed these past months. He should have a new one. A new ribbon, new candles. Emperor’s Smile. Clothes that fit, and chili oil for his meals and everything else he wishes. There are so many things he wishes to give Wei Ying that he cannot.
He takes a breath, quiet, and turns his attention to the things he can give Wei Ying.
Unpinned, his hair falls down his back like spilled ink, swallowing the firelight. Wangji allows himself the indulgence of running his fingers through it, feeling out the tangles, the knots. It has been some time since anyone has done this. He finds at least one twig and coaxes it out to lie on the ground. Wei Ying hums and sighs, leaning into his touch. It is a heady trust. His mouth is dry. He takes up the comb.
Methodically he works his way from the fraying ends to the crown of his head, one long lock at a time. Wangji does not speak and neither does Wei Ying. The only sound between them is the soft rustle of comb through hair, and the small, sweet sounds of satisfaction that slip free of Wei Ying, and a low humming Wangji realizes only belatedly is himself, is their song. Tension seeps from Wei Ying as the candles sink lower; he lets Wangji move him without argument, shifting easily with the slightest press of his fingers. Calm curls comfortably about them, warm and settled for the night. Wangji indulges in the simplicity of the act, and Wei Ying allows it.
When Wei Ying’s hair is smooth and sleek and smelling faintly floral, Wangji sits back. He tucks away his comb and now-empty jar of oil and imagines sweeping aside the dark curtain to kiss the nape of Wei Ying’s neck, the jutting top of his spine. His fingers press against his thighs until the impulse passes.
“You’re done?” Wei Ying’s voice is soft and syrup-heavy.
He takes a lock of his hair, running it between his fingers in front of his eyes, turning it in the firelight. “I didn’t know it could do this. Usually it’s a mess.”
“It needs patience.”
“Good thing I have you for that then, Lan Zhan.”
Wangji’s heart thrills at the thought of being had. “Mn.”
Wei Ying twists around to look at him. Reflected in his eyes is the same feeling that grows in Wangji’s chest. He swallows.
“If you would like, I will put it up for you in the morning.”
“Oh.” Wei Ying looks delicate, fragile. “Yes. Okay.”
Wordlessly, he holds the ribbon out. Wei Ying glances down at it.
“Ah. You should hold onto it. So you’ll have it in the morning.”
They are slow to part. Even in the balmy night, Wangji regrets losing the warmth of Wei Ying, soft and pliant before him. He lies down upon his own bedding, against the far wall. Darkness falls as Wei Ying douses the candles one by one, until one point of light remains. Wangji turns his head to it, firelight painted golden across Wei Ying’s cheekbones, the oil spill of his hair. He looks unbearably human with the collar of his under robe pulled loose to off respite against the lingering heat.
He falls asleep like that, full with the image of Wei Ying knelt at his desk, glowing in the candlelight.
In the morning, he ties Wei Ying’s hair with his ribbon, a more complicated knot than he usually wears so he might have an excuse to take longer with it. Wen Qing gives him a long look when they sit down for breakfast, and Wangji is only half surprised to find the feeling draped over his shoulders is smugness.
It is not an everyday thing, but there is this: Wangji takes the long path into town and buys Wei Ying good candles, a sturdy comb and a fresh red ribbon.
“Lan Zhan. Are you awake?”
He opens his eyes. His voice is hoarse. “Yes.”
The room is rich with silence in the deepest hours of the night. The last dregs of his nightmare spill out into the dark—the war and the copper tang of death and Wen Yuan’s glazed face staring up from the limp body of a stranger’s child. He breathes against it, too harsh for the stillness. When he brings his fingers to his face there are tears.
Cloth rustles. Wei Ying, shifting.
“Are you alright?”
Silence, again, and then the unmistakable sound of footsteps across the floor. Wei Ying kneels at his side, and then slowly, carefully lowers himself until he lies next to Wangji. He is a heavy warmth. Wangji holds himself shocked-still.
“Jiang Cheng used to do this,” he murmurs. “When I had nightmares. Is it— alright?”
Wangji swallows, loosening piecemeal: shoulders, neck, back, hands. He nods and shifts to make room for Wei Ying, who rolls towards him in turn. Only the faintest shine of his eyes shows him to be watching.
His bedding is too small for them both to fit comfortably. Wangji is grateful for the crowding. It helps him remember how to fit inside his skin, to separate what is here and true from that which is dream and memory. There is far too much memory.
“I get them too.”
“I know.” Wangji is never sure if he should wake him from whatever horror bites at his heels or leave to what sleep he can steal.
Wangji finds his wrist in the dark. Wei Ying’s pulse thunders under his fingers. “It’s alright.”
This close, it is easy to match his breathing to Wei Ying’s steady rhythm, heartbeat settling. It is easy to lean into Wei Ying’s warmth, pulled towards it like a lodestone. Wei Ying hums under his breath, hand stroking Wangji’s hair. He breathes with it until closing his eyes does not conjure forth fresh terrors. His fingers slide away from Wei Ying’s wrist.
“Lan Zhan.” His voice is so soft above him. “I have a question for you.”
“You don’t have to answer if you don’t want to.”
The hand in his hair moves with an even rhythm, grounding them both. Wangji blinks against the dark and waits.
“Do you think it will help if you play Cleansing, even if it can’t reach my core?”
Lan Zhan shifts slightly. He cannot tell if Wei Ying is watching him in the dark. He is not certain if it matters, with the night so thick around them.
“It will help,” he says. He does not ask why it would not reach his core. If it were something Wei Ying could speak of plainly, he would not ask of it in the still heart of the dark, tucked together like frightened children. “Not entirely. But some.”
Wei Ying’s hand stills. He is quiet for a long time.
“It won’t hurt me, will it? I mean, the wards, or Wen Ning— It won’t stop any of that?”
“It should not.” Wangji hesitates. “I only know a little of your cultivation method. I cannot be sure.”
“No,” sighs Wei Ying. “Me neither.”
“Wei Ying,” he starts, and hesitates. “Do you want me to play for you?”
He will, right now; he’ll fetch his qin and play as long as Wei Ying needs him to. Whatever Wei Ying needs from him.
But Wei Ying only huffs. Wangji can feel the warmth of it against the crown of his head. “No, no. It’s late.”
He is almost asleep, when Wei Ying speaks again.
“I’m just so tired of being like this all the time. I don’t want to scare a-Yuan anymore. I don’t want to scare anyone unless I mean it. Lan Zhan. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know if anyone can help me. What if I’m just like this, forever. What if there’s really no one who can help me?”
“I will help.”
“But what if you can’t.”
He does not know why he cannot help. He does not know why Wei Ying does not cultivate the sword path, why it takes so long for his scrapes and scratches to heal, why he dives so deeply into his demonic cultivation. He does not know it like he does not know where Wei Ying was for three months of a war, in a not-looking sort of way, in the way of children with their blankets pulled over their heads as though solitude might ward off the terrors of the night.
But Wei Ying does not speak of it and he does not ask, and he can pretend that is balance, for now. Even if the scales tip more and more each day. Even if the strict lines that have been drawn, us and them and our and your, have begun to blur and run. He will wait. He will be patient. He will hide in the dark until the monsters show themselves and then he will show them why he is called Hanguang-jun.
“Then I will stay.”
Wei Ying sighs; Wangji can feel the force of it. His hand settles, unsure, against the span of his back, between his lungs. Wei Ying leans into it until they curl parenthetical around each other, the crown of Wangji’s head tucked under Wei Ying’s chin, one of Wei Ying’s warm hands resting against the curve of his skull.
“I really don’t want to be alone again,” Wei Ying whispers into his hair. Wangji’s fingers press against his back. “I don’t ever want to go back there.”
“Okay,” he says, nonsensical. Whatever Wei Ying wants.
He sleeps better that night than he has since Cloud Recesses burned.
Routine reorients itself. In the mornings he works with a-Yuan on a surprise he hopes will bring Wei Ying joy and in the evening he plays a song he hopes will bring Wei Ying clarity, and in the hours between he toils in the earth and under the sun and finds a peace in it wholly different from the strict scaffolding of GusuLan.
The only thing he misses, in truth, is his brother. And, perhaps, his rabbits.
He tries not to dwell on it. He has made a choice and he will keep it. It is the right thing to do. But now and then he wonders after him, after the Jiang sect, after the Jin. He wonders what has happened in their absence, if the hunt has been called off, if life has settled again without Wei Ying to point out their hypocrisies.
In his less gracious moments, he is bitterly glad Wei Ying has left them behind. They are not deserving of him, of his good heart and clever mind.
In the gentle hours of the dawn, when Wei Ying breathes quietly in peaceful sleep, he would give anything for the chance for Wei Ying to return home and see his family again.
What he wants is of no consequence. It changes nothing of the truth of the situation. Still, though, sometimes when he is seated in the hall after dinner with Wei Ying next to him and a-Yuan perched in his lap, Wen Qing wearing one of her rare true smiles and Wen-popo presiding over all, listening to Fourth Uncle tell the same story for the fifth time, all weary from a long day drawing life from their wedge of soil and earth—
Sometimes then he imagines they are home, and Wei Ying will turn to him with wine in hand, framed by the door of the jingshi—or in Lotus Pier, or with the Wen settled in Qishan without threat, or anywhere that is not this resurrected, half-wild corner of the world—and say, Remember when we lived in the middle of nowhere? Remember how hard we worked just to survive? We didn’t even have any wine, Lan Zhan! I’m certain you didn’t mind it, but it was terrible for the rest of us. How much better it is now, to be home.
Sometimes in these imaginings Xichen is there, or Jiang-guniang and Jiang-zongzhu , and they are laughing and Wei Ying is happy and so Wangji is happy. Sometimes it is only them, and Wangji reaches out and Wei Ying allows himself to be pulled into the cradle of his arms, where he will always be safe, and Wangji’s happiness is of a completely different sort.
“Ah, Lan Zhan! You’re smiling.”
But they are not in Gusu or Yunmeng or Qishan, and they cannot be. This is enough for the Wen, and it is enough for Wei Ying. It will be enough for Wangji as well.
“No, no, don’t stop. Do it again.”
So long as Wei Ying is happy, Wangji will be content.
The storm arises unbidden after a season of unflinching heat and clear skies. Heavy purple thunderclouds lurk on the eastern horizon, towering swells swept up into the blue sky, their weight pressing against sun-baked earth.
“It’ll probably miss us,” Sixth Uncle decides, face shielded from the glaring sun overhead. Wangji wipes his forehead with the cuff of one sleeve and peers out at the clouds. “Move northwest with the wind. Maybe we’ll get a nice sprinkle, if we’re lucky.”
“Maybe it’ll do something about this blasted heat,” Mu Haiying huffs, rolling up the cuffs of his sleeves. The missing finger on his hand stands out starkly as he shifts the grip on his hammer.
“Maybe it’ll reach us, and in that case we better have this roof fixed,” Wen Liuyan retorts. “These tiles won’t set themselves. Xiao Wangji, come help an old woman.”
She is hardly old. Wangji helps.
Wei Ying takes one look at the approaching storm and goes solemn-serious for half a beat too long.
“It’ll be here by, oh, nightfall, probably.” He stands on the porch of the hall with some half dozen members of the clan, stretching out his neck and peering eastwards. Wen Qing stands next to him, frowning. “We should get everything and everyone set up inside sooner rather than later. It’ll be a rough one.”
“How can you tell?” protests Fourth Uncle as Wangji approaches. “It’s got to be a hundred li out at least.”
“I’m YunmengJiang,” Wei Ying says with a rare flash of assurance in his ownership of the Jiang name. “Trust me. That—” He nods at the purple-grey clouds soaring above the green of the earth. “That’s gonna be a squall.”
“If you say so,” Fourth Uncle hums, dubious. Wei Ying claps him on the shoulder.
“I do. Ah, Lan Zhan! You’re just in time. Help me bring in the baskets out back, would you? I’d hate to lose them.”
Wangji casts his eyes eastwards. Fourth Uncle has exaggerated the distance, but the difference of a dozen li makes little difference—the clouds are inconceivably far-off, picturesque in miniature.
But there is no one who knows storms better than Wei Ying, with his very own pressed under his skin. Wangji nods, and follows.
The baskets are not the only thing that need tending to. Wei Ying and Sixth Uncle make a round of the buildings, picking out which are sturdy enough for shelter and which risk damage, which have foundations deep enough to hold fast if the muds hit and which risk joining the skeletal frames skid down the slope of their mountain. Wen Qing oversees the parceling out of resources, in the case they cannot leave for food or water. Wangji is roped into shuttering windows, wood and rope scrounged up to hold them closed against the storm. The town churns like a kicked-over ant mound as the wind changes direction, whipping around them cool and ozone-thick. The laundry snaps on the line as half a dozen hands work to bring it in, and the restless storm energy settles over town.
And then the clouds are low and thick upon them and there is nothing more to be done.
“I guess we’ll find out,” Wei Ying says softly aside to him as they take dinner on the porch, watching the sky go green-grey and the world dark even though the sun has yet to set. Electricity is a taste on the air, and their hair tangles in the stirring wind.
“If we’ve done enough to raise this place from the dead.”
“Everyone has worked hard.” The town is halfway unrecognizable from the rotting ruin that first greeted him. There are houses made whole, cleaned and swept and scattered with the unthinking signs of life. There are full fields of radishes and melon, cucumbers and beans. Soon they will have trade with the town in the valley, and then they will have more seed for planting, and spices, and soap for cleaning, and perhaps even toys for a-Yuan, who has weathered months of trial and hardship with nothing more than a smile and the love of those around him. One storm will not wipe that away.
Wei Ying looks to him and smiles wanly. “I hope you’re right.”
He is. He must be. He has grown too fond of these people, this place, to let water wash it away.
Wei Ying’s prediction is correct, unerringly so. Like clockwork, no sooner have they brought their bowls in, listening to the wind whip and whistle, than the first heavy drops of rain plunk against the twice-patched roof overhead. The rich, dusty smell of water against soil drifts through the air.
Lightning licks between the cracks in the shutters, lavender violent, and the thundercrack follows it loud enough to wake the dead. Everyone jumps.
Above, the skies open.
A-Yuan sits in Wei Ying’s lap. He makes a good show of fearlessness, though he startles each and every time thunder rumbles, turning between Wangji and Wei Ying so unhappily that they crowd closer together in order to sandwich him between them. Wei Ying tells scattershot stories, each more outrageous than the last, voice dipping in and out of the thunder and rain, while Wangji strokes a hand down the boy’s back, firm and grounding. The hour grows later and later until even the earthshaking terror of the storm cannot keep the child awake. The insistent pull of sleep does not stop his shaking.
Perhaps he is remembering their flight through the rain, leaving behind Qiongqi Dao and the rest of the familiar world. Certainly Wangji remembers it. When the lightning paints the inside of the hall purple-white he can see nothing but Wei Ying’s skeletal face, the shadows bleeding around him, tears and rainwater mingled.
Wei Ying meets his eyes in the gloom and smiles a hesitant, helpless smile.
“I’ve got to say,” he says, pinched and rough and for Wangji’s ears only. “This is going better than last time, at least.”
Wangji reaches for his hand and finds it searching towards him in turn. Wei Ying holds him too tight, burning and bruising. Wangji lets him.
Around them, the storm rages on.
He must sleep, despite the noise, because he is woken by shaking, the woolen warmth of dreams shattered in an instant. He comes awake immediately, hand closing around Bichen in a flash of sharp-honed instinct before he recognizes the grip on his shoulder and the voice in his ear. The sleep clears from his eyes.
Wei Ying crouches next to him, a burning talisman crackling to ash between his fingers. In the burning of the paper, his face is wild. “Wen Ning.”
The storm’s howling has settled into a droning whitewater downpour, and all around them the hall is busy with sleeping bodies. Only Wei Ying has risen, and Wen Qing behind him, lit by licking blue talisman light. It is impossible to tell the hour. Some time before dawn, but more than that Wangji could not say.
“I don’t know. He woke up. I set an alarm, in case something happened, but I didn’t exactly specify what.” At Wangji’s look, he throws his hands up, muted and quiet in the hush of the sleeping hall. Beneath the vibrating uncertainty he is clearly excited. “I’m working with cutting edge cultivation techniques here, Lan Zhan! I can’t say what’s going to go wrong!”
“Wei Wuxian.” Wen Qing makes no effort to hide her urgency, the tangle of hope and fear. It is the most discomposed Wangji has seen her. “Later.”
“Yes, yes, alright. Stay back, though. I don't know how he'll be.”
Wangji presses his lips together. He knows better than to stand between Wei Ying and his work. Wen Qing’s face is likewise set, all shadow and hard lines in her frail light. They share a silent look before they follow Wei Ying from the hall.
The water outside is a grey-black wall splashing down just beyond the boundary line of the porch. It sprays back towards them when it splatters against the rich-churned mud, dampening the hems of their robes even from beneath the shelter of the hanging roof. There is no light to the sky, no star nor moon nor hint of morning.
Wangji resigns himself to a soaking, sullen night. Wei Ying, standing just at the edge of the porch, a ghost against the rainfall, raises Chenqing to his lips and plays with purpose.
The bone flute trills out high and piercing, cutting through the fuzz of water. It is a wonder this is the same instrument he plays to send a-Yuan to sleep, the dizi that winds around the delicate melodies of his guqin on those evenings when the mood strikes them. This is music like a blade, all edge, made to cut flesh from bone and spirit from body. Even ready for it, even after fighting half a war with such haunting melodies at his side, it sets Wangji’s teeth on edge, stands the hairs on the back of his neck upright. Wen Qing grits her teeth and peers into the dark.
“Behind me,” Wei Ying says between breaths, and steps off the edge of the porch into the sodden night.
Wangji tightens his grip on Bichen and follows.
He thinks himself prepared for the rain. He isn’t. Water crashes down around him, each droplet stinging against his neck, his hands, his face. It runs in rivulets beneath his robes, but that hardly matters because his robes themselves are soaked in an instant. His boots, long-since leeched of their Lan white, squelch into the mud and the runoff, and he can feel the wet through to his socks. He cannot so much as see his hand before his face in the gloom and the water. He unsheathes Bichen a bare inch so that the sword's glow will give him at least enough light to follow Wei Ying’s silhouette.
And still, Chenqing whistles around them, a siren’s call.
“Keep going,” Wen Qing shouts over the drum of water. “Not so close to the hall.”
The only reply they get is a slight shift in pitch from the flute before them. Wangji shares another look with Wen Qing, herself little more than a flicker of blue fire an arm’s length away, and wonders how they will even see Wen Qionglin through the shroud of the rain.
He scans their surroundings with more than just his eyes, moving purposefully through the sheeting downpour. He has not been on a proper night hunt in some time. That is perhaps his mistake.
They are some two buildings west of the hall when the flute cuts out completely. Wangji’s heart lodges in his throat.
“I’m alright. Did you see—?”
It is all the warning they get before a shape black and wet as the night barrels through them, and Wei Ying goes flying.
The shape twists in the direction of their voices, and Wangji takes half a step towards Wen Qing. In the pale glow of Bichen, Wen Qionglin is a fluttering mess of tattered cloth and pulpy talisman paper and flat, black eyes without a spark of human intelligence. Resentful energy roils around him, sizzling in the rain. Even through the downpour, he hears Wen Qing’s breath catch as she steps forward.
“Don’t!” calls Wei Ying from some distance away, and then the flute starts again, piper charming a serpent. Wen Qionglin’s head snaps around so quickly something pops, and then he is gone, vanished into the rain. Wangji leaps after him, soaring in the direction of the coiling dizi. He lands light-footed next to Wei Ying, mud-splattered but unhurt. Their eyes meet, and Wei Ying shakes his head. Wangji sets his back to him and watches the dark. Wen Qing joins them shortly.
“Where did he go?” she asks. Wangji shakes his head.
Music curls around them, eight measures, sixteen. Wei Ying plays of power, a creeping, sideways melody. Wangji hones his hearing past the thundering rain to the night-hush beyond.
The flute goes quiet.
“Where is he?” Wen Qing demands. “Wei Wuxian!”
Wangji strains his senses.
“I don’t know. He— I don’t know.”
“Is he gone? Wei Wuxian is he gone?” She grabs his shoulders, shakes him so hard water sprays from his hair, droplets fanning out into the dark. “You promised! You promised me!”
Wei Ying has grabbed her wrists, is saying, “I know, I know, I’ll find him, I’ll fix him,” and Wangji is listening for something, for anything for—
There. His twists in the direction of the hall, heart lodging in his throat to hear such a tiny voice under the rain. Without a word he pushes himself forward, ground rushing past beneath.
He alights upon a scene that strikes fear into the heart of him. Wen Qionglin, wracked with resentful energy, a fierce corpse with neither mind nor mercy, stands squelching in the mud, rain pouring down all around him. Above him, at the top of the stairs to the hall, barely sheltered by the eaves with a flickering orange candle clutched in both hands, face painted with curiosity and hope, is a-Yuan.
“Ning-gege?” he says again, frail and sleep-muddled beneath the falling water. “You woke up?”
Wen Qionglin steps forward into the pooling orange candlelight. The rain slows. A-Yuan’s face flickers like pantomime; hope loses its balance and tips sideways into fear. Wangji’s foot slips in the mud. He stumbles.
The boy’s head turns, searching blindly, streaked with rainwater.
The fierce corpse of Wen Qionglin takes another step. Wangji rips Bichen free, sword glare glinting off a thousand thousand droplets. A-Yuan drops the candle. It rolls twice and sputters out, and in the dark a-Yuan trips backwards, falls hard.
Wen Qionglin sets a foot on the bottommost step of the hall.
From behind Wangji, something flashing bright knocks into Wen Qionglin with such force that he stumbles sideways, kicking up mud and water, and time snaps forward again.
Wangji lands before a-Yuan, sword drawn, stood between the boy and the man. Wei Ying strikes again, talismans ripping through the rain with such force the water skims off them. Wen Qing appears from the dark, fists clenched white-knuckle as Wei Ying strikes again, and again, and again. He moves too fast to follow, too fast for even the fierce corpse of Wen Qionglin to track: he is in front of him, behind him; he has relinquished his flute and draws charms in the very air itself, hissing and spitting under the stinging rain.
And slowly, slowly, Wen Qionglin grinds to a stop until he is stood stone-still. Wen Qing steps forward.
“Wait,” coughs Wei Ying, and wipes his mouth. “Wait.”
He closes his eyes and cuts his fingers against his teeth, and then with slow, aching precision sketches out a talisman so complicated Wangji can barely follow it. With one last heaving burst of intent he thrusts it forward, and it settles gossamer-thin against Wen Qionglin’s chest before it seeps in, oil swallowing light. The corpse’s eyes blink. The stark black runs like the rainwater and vanishes, leaving clear dark pupils to blink out at them.
Wei Ying sways and lands on one knee in the mud, propped up on Chenqing. Wangji sheathes Bichen in one smooth motion and scoops up a-Yuan, wet-faced and sobbing, holding him tight to his chest.
“A-die,” he is crying; his fists clench in his sodden robes and his little face presses against his neck, tears mingling with the rain. Wangji holds him as tightly as he dares.
“You’re alright,” he says, fighting to keep his voice from trembling. He closes his eyes against the crashing afterthought of panic, hand cupped against a-Yuan’s head. “I have you. You’re safe.”
He is unharmed. He’s alright.
Wen Qing squelches through the mud, stumbling. Her little light has long-since flickered out, but the rain is fading, and it welcomes the grey promise of dawn in its wake. It is enough.
Wen Qionglin turns from Wei Ying. “Jie?”
“Oh,” she says, and makes a noise that is equal parts laugh and sob and takes his face in her hands. “Oh, a-Ning.” Her laughter comes again, scraped-out and raw and joyous, and her arms wrap around her brother’s stiff shoulders. He brings one hand up, unsure, and pats her back, clear and human eyes looking between all of them, faint sheen of confusion settling over his ghost-pale face.
Wei Ying sits back on his heels. His eyes find Wangji with a-Yuan in his arms, and he wipes rain and mud from his mouth with trembling hands.
“Well,” he says. “It worked.”
They retreat just inside the hall, as the rain tapers to a misting drizzle, air washed clear and cool in its wake. Wilting sunlight colors the clouds a pale grey, the first brush of dawn. Faces blink blearily at them as they enter, roused from slumber by the fight outside. A-Yuan’s grandmother appears before them like a summoned spirit, pale-faced and fluttering. Concern redoubles when her eyes land on a-Yuan hiccuping in Wangji’s arms.
“He’s alright. Only frightened.”
The concern flickers but does not fade, and even when Wen Qing steps forward, her attention lingers on the boy.
“A-Qing?” Her voice is reedy and thin against the morning. “Is everything alright?”
“Yes, popo. Wei Wuxian did it.” And she shifts aside to allow Wen Qionglin to step forward, dripping morosely in the entryway. An unsteady gasp rises from the hall, stirred like autumn leaves. Wen-popo steps forward on unsteady legs, hands reaching. Wen Qing smiles at them both like the breaking dawn.
Wen Qionglin catches her by the elbows when her old knees buckle, and they kneel there in the doorway, damp with rain and with tears. Wangji turns away, leaves them to their reunion, and finds Wei Ying standing next to him. He is something beyond haggard, hollow and drained, all paper and straw-stuffed. He lists on his feet, so Wangji shifts his grip on a-Yuan to steady him. He folds easily into the embrace, turning his face into Wangji’s neck, breath ghosting hot. One hand comes up to rest against a-Yuan’s back, as though assuring himself that the boy is here, safe. Wangji closes his eyes against the gratitude expanding in his chest, a swell of relief that presses against his throat and tongue and eyes until even simple speech is beyond him.
How long they stand like that Wangji does not know. He would stay there forever, if he could, with Wei Ying’s arm loose around his waist, with a-Yuan burrowed between them. They are safe. It is alright.
But their robes grow chill and clammy, and more and more of the Wen rise to greet the day, and there is plenty yet to do. They are making a monstrous mess of the hall for one, muddy puddles pooling across the floor. Someone arrives with blankets and towels, handing them out to the dripping group. A-Yuan consents to be handed only to Wei Ying, so Wangji allows Wei Ying to take him, watching them press their heads close together in murmured conversation while he does his best to dry himself. Once he is certain he is not carrying his own seeping rainstorm with him everywhere he steps, he turns to Wei Ying.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying cannot fend him off with a-Yuan in his arms, but that does not stop him from making an attempt at it, face scrunching.
“Your hands are full,” Wangji points out, pressing the water from his hair, wiping away the mud.
Wei Ying mutters his sullen objection, but is dissuaded by a-Yuan’s heartbroken protest of, “A-die, no.”
“Aiya,” says Wei Ying, eyes shining. Lan Zhan dries the back of his neck and then allows his hand to rest briefly against the warm-damp skin. Wei Ying sinks into the touch, eyes fluttering shut. “A-Yuan, my sweet little radish, you’re going to have to call one of us something else or we’ll get confused.”
“He can call us whatever he wishes,” Wangji says, settling a towel over the boy’s shoulders. He has not borne the brunt of the rain, but he has been clinging to the both of them and his clothes have grown damp by proxy. Wei Ying rubs small circles against his back. “We will manage.”
“Hmph. As long as it’s not shushu.” Wei Ying shakes his head and visibly draws himself together. “Wen Ning!”
“Wei-gongzi?” He has not moved from where he kneels before his tear-streaked grandmother, looking quietly, politely baffled. “Is everything alright?”
“You’re the one who should be telling me. How do you feel? Ah, a-Yuan, it’s okay, really. He’s better now. See?”
He crouches next to Wen Qionglin. Tentatively, a-Yuan unburrows from his shoulder.
“Yes,” says Wen Qionglin gently. “Hello. Sorry if I, um, scared you.”
“He won’t do it again,” Wei Ying promises, and Wen Qionglin nods in earnest agreement. A-Yuan looks between them, then reaches out to touch Wen Qionglin.
“Ning-gege,” he says, wobbly but reproachful. “You’re cold.”
“Ah,” says Wen Qionglin, and then goes silent when his littlest cousin pulls the towel from his own shoulders and wraps it awkwardly around him. He tugs up the trailing end. It is an endearing sight to behold.
Wen Qionglin makes as if to clear his throat and then realizes he cannot quite manage it. “Thank you.”
“Any discomfort?” Wei Ying interjects. “Lingering resentment? I would ask about the stiffness but, y’know, I’m not sure I can do anything about that.”
Wen Qionglin’s mouth pulls down at the corners, an abortive frown, and he works through the movement of his fingers, wrists, elbows, shoulders. He straightens, and squats, and straightens again. Twists his head one way and then the other.
“I think I’m alright,” he says, puzzled. “Did I die?”
“Oh.” He blinks. “Where are we?”
It is Wen Qing who answers, when Wei Ying hesitates. “A very long way from home. It’s safe here.”
“Oh. Um. Alright.” He looks at Wei Ying. “Thank you?”
Wei Ying, unfond of thanks, waves him away. “Don’t worry about it. Now we’re even.”
Wangji cannot read the look Wen Qing flashes him, but he does not miss it. Wei Ying will not meet her gaze.
“Isn’t there any food?” he complains instead, bounding upright in a paper-thin show of wellness. “You save a man from almost death and there isn’t even breakfast afterwards.”
Wangji cannot believe he convinces any of them; certainly Wen Qing’s expression sours around the edges. But Wen-popo wipes her face and gathers hands out from the sea of staring faces to help her in the kitchen. The doors and shutters are opened to let in waterlogged sunlight and fresh air, and the night’s makeshift bedding is packed away. Wen Qionglin is hesitantly queried, and when he has nothing to offer in return but polite shrugs and confusion, his relatives fold around him, sharing wild, mostly-true stories of all they have done these past months. The sour details of their flight from Qiongqi Dao are skimmed over in favor of the more embarrassing tales told at the expense of whoever may be listening.
Wangji takes a-Yuan from Wei Ying, who looks not unlike a reed bending in the wind. Wen Qing spends a long, crooked moment searching Wei Ying’s face, and there is a conversation of sorts had there, all thin lips and darting glances. The outcome is this: Wei Ying sits away from the crowd, feet folded under him, and Wen Qing steps away to speak with the uncles about assessing damages.
Wangji sits with Wei Ying. Now that all eyes are off him, he is pale and trembling, eyes rimmed red. Wangji reaches for his wrist, but Wei Ying pulls away.
“Don’t.” It is not snapping, but there is a warning underneath, raw and wounded. Wangji eyes him cautiously.
“You expended a great deal of energy.”
That and he has handled a great deal of resentful energy, and it licks at him, loath to let go. But Wangji knows now the curling, hissing defense Wei Ying makes of his unconventional path and the speed at which he will slam up each and every wall when he fears a threat, especially in the aftermath of a great effort. If it is patience he requires, Wangji will offer it to him, and stifle his own impulse towards lecture and argument.
More than anything, he fears to send Wei Ying fleeing into the unknown again.
“I’m fine,” Wei Ying returns. His shoulders rise, but as warnings go it is a weak one.
Wangji hesitates. “Wei Ying—”
“Not now, Lan Zhan.” The please is folded in, silent. Wangji presses his lips together and leaves the matter to lie.
Food helps. A-Yuan, fed and dried and assured that his Ning-gege is okay, grows impatient tucked in Wangji’s lap; when he has finished eating he wriggles out to toddle off with his grandmother, fear left behind with the rain. He is quickly fascinated by the dark veins climbing Wen Qionglin’s neck, perching in the man’s lap to trace them all the way down to his collar. Wen Qionglin bears it with tremendous patience. Even Wei Ying, wan and prickling, huffs a laugh behind his breakfast.
After, they return to the xiaoshi.
“You’re worse than popo,” Wei Ying sulks when he is stopped from sneaking off on his own by both Wangji and Wen Qing. Wangji offers her a silent nod of gratitude before he sweeps after Wei Ying with his calmest, most serene Lan stride and all the stubbornness he can muster. He’s heard it’s quite a lot.
Wei Ying makes a face and lengthens his gait.
From without, the building does not look unduly harmed, though the door hangs limply off its crooked hinges, forced in the wrong direction by Wen Qionglin’s exit. To Wangji’s senses, the energy within is no more dangerous than usual—a faint, low hum, like the beginning of a headache or the shush of the wind.
Still. Wei Ying prods the door open with Chenqing, duly cautious despite his complaints, and holds a moment before stepping across the threshold. Wangji follows at his heels.
They tread through a thin puddle where spitting rain has seeped in. The door sits slantwise in its frame, one hinge broken from Wen Qionglin’s exit. A triangle of pale light slips through the crack to print itself across the floorboards. Some of the bedding is wet. Wei Ying drapes it to dry over the desk and surveys the scatter of rain-speckled papers thrown around by wind and Wen Qionglin, the broken screen partitioning off the back of the room, the half dozen inventions strewn across the floor in various states of disrepair. The array beneath the old table has been smudged where a body has dragged through it, but the table itself is whole and intact. Wei Ying fits his hands to his hips and tilts his head in silent, shuttered-consideration.
“If you’re going to stick around you might as well be useful,” he decides, as though that is not the entire reason Wangji insisted on joining him in the first place. Because he is a grown man and member of the Lan sect raised with dignity and decorum, he does not point that out.
It is an unbecomingly near thing.
The most delicate of the work is neutralizing the array. Purpose served, it hums with latent resentful energy, prickling and snappish, far too powerful to simply strike through without considering the backlash. It takes nearly an hour to unravel it, and when Wei Ying smears through the last anchor point there is a palpable shift in the air, as though a screen has been lifted from a candle or a window opened in a stale room. Wangji had not realized how heavy pervasive the cloud of resentment had grown; he finds he can breathe again without ever having known he was suffocating.
Wei Ying sways.
“I think that’s enough for today,” he declares, and does not sit down so much as collapse right where he stands, legs folding under him. Wangji catches him halfway and eases him to the floor. “Whoops.”
This time when he presses two fingers against Wei Ying’s wrist he is allowed. Wei Ying is past the point of tapped; feeding him energy is like trying to fill the ocean bed with a leaking bucket. Only the ambient energy of his body pulses along his meridians, barely enough to sustain him. Wangji frowns, tight and tiny and burrowing between his brows.
“You push yourself too hard.”
“It’s fine,” Wei Ying says, eyes fluttering shut. Already his complexion is improved, shadows fading. It makes Wangji want to hold him by the shoulders, shake him, say, See, look, this is what it does to you, why will you not accept help. He doesn’t. It will change nothing save Wei Ying’s fragile, treasured trust.
“And anyway,” he adds after a quiet minute. “I have you to look out for me.”
Wangji keeps his eyes focused on their hands, on the cool stream of energy passing between them, its thread lost in the drought of Wei Ying’s body. It will do him no good to argue, no good to ask what will happen should Wangji be elsewhere, or incapacitated, or insufficient. What will happen if Wei Ying leaves again, goes somewhere he cannot follow?
He swallows his arguments one by one. Not here, he tells himself. Not now.
“You should rest,” he says gently when they have been quiet for some time, long enough for Wangji’s shoulders to unwind and his fear to pass through uncertainty and helplessness and settle as care. The patch of sunlight on the floor has crept from grey to yellow to white. “And wash.”
One eye cracks open in his direction, hazy. Wei Ying is somewhere between meditation and sleep, body rejuvenating itself in each and every way it knows how. A pout tugs at his lips. “Are you telling me I smell, Lan Zhan?”
Wangji gives a long, pointed look to the thick mud caked along his hem and smeared down his back and sleeves. It’s in his hair too, drying in clumps. Wei Ying’s other eye opens and he unfolds with a sigh, braced back on his hands. Wangji lets him go, flexing his wrist minutely. His fingers tingle from the flow of qi.
“Alright, alright, point taken. You’re no spring flower yourself, though. You look worse than you did after seven days in a cave and that’s saying something.”
Wei Ying had been unconscious with fever and infection after seven days beneath Dusk Creek Mountain and has no way to prove such a statement. He is also, unfortunately, not incorrect. Wangji cannot quite smother a grimace. Wei Ying laughs.
“Ah, Lan Zhan. You can bathe first, if you’d like. Probably better that way. You’ll have to make sure I don’t fall asleep in the tub and drown. I could sleep for a week right about now and I’m not sure I’d notice.”
“Mm. A-Yuan would be disappointed.”
“Yes, exactly, and I know you wouldn’t do that to him. Don’t worry, I’ll just tidy up in here.”
There is no reason for it, but Wangji hesitates. “You’ll stay.”
“Yes, right here. I won’t go charging off to do anything stupid for at least an hour, promise. And look, you can even hang your dirty robes over the screen to protect your modesty. Wen Ning doesn’t exactly need it anymore.”
His modesty’s protection does not concern him nearly as much as it ought. He is tired to his bones, and filthy, and the reasons he should say no do not hold a candle to the reasons he wishes to say yes.
So he rises and fetches water and, in a paltry indulgence, heats it with a talisman to keep it warm for him while he hangs his stained outer robes over the split in the screen. When he steps into the warmed tub he very nearly groans. He has made his peace with the simple living of the village, but heavens above he misses the comfort of a long, warm bath.
On the other side of the screen, Wei Ying is a blurry shadow moving lazily about the room to pick up and sort the mess scattered across the floor. Wangji follows the motion, eyes half lidded, and allows himself a minute to do nothing more than soak in warmth, easing tight muscles and stiff joints and listening to Wei Ying shift and bustle.
Then he scrubs himself free of the mud and the muck with brisk efficiency, washing his skin pink-clean, and dresses in a fresh robe to change out the bathwater. He heats it talisman-warm and finds tucked away in the bottom of his bag a handful of satchels his brother—he assumes, in any case; certainly no one but Xichen would have reason to gift them—slipped into his belongings before he left. He has been saving for some unspecified future use. They are somewhat stale with time, but they bloom and uncurl in the water. It is not much, as indulgences go. Were they in Gusu—
But they are not in Gusu.
When the bath is ready, he stands at the edge of the screen, barefoot and bare-headed and barely dressed. Wei Ying kneels on the floor, studiously filing his scrawling notes in a system clear only to him. He’s shed his outermost layer and with it a good deal of the mud, and his hair hangs loose around his face. He brushes it back now and then as it falls between him and his work. Wangji imagines what it would be like to go to him, to coax his attention away from the work and have it to himself, those eyes fixed on nothing but him. He steadies himself.
He takes another moment to shuffle papers around, then raises his head.
“Oh,” he says. “Lan Zhan.”
Dark eyes pin him in place; he can neither look away nor move as Wei Ying takes a breath. There is the brief pink dart of his tongue as he wets his lips. Wangji swallows. He is pleased that his voice does not shake.
“You should bathe while it’s still warm.”
“Right.” Wei Ying does not make to move. “Okay.”
Wangji inclines his head and moves himself away. One step. Two. Three.
He stops still. His chest is a confusion of birdsong and slow growth. Wei Ying’s voice comes soft and unsure behind him.
“Lan Zhan, you’ll stay too, won’t you?”
He sits upon the dry cloth of his bedding and folds himself to meditate, studiously facing the wall to give Wei Ying what privacy he can. It proves difficult to focus on his cultivation when he can hear the gentle rustle of Wei Ying disrobing, the soft splash of displaced water, the heavy sigh as he settles in the scented steam. He gives up, eventually, sits there in the strange, uncounted hours of midmorning and listens to the sound of Wei Ying.
Time drips and drags. His mind is still, for once, a careful balance between exhaustion and peace. He cannot remember the last time he felt so serene. It must have been before the war. Perhaps before his mother died. He thinks he dozes. He isn't sure.
Wei Ying stands wrapped in a thin robe, hair held out in one hand, comb in the other. He looks sheepish, and something more beneath.
“Can you help me? I can’t get the knots out.”
Wangji’s body rises of its own volition. “Yes,” his mouth says. His feet cross the room and his hand takes the comb. “Sit.”
Wei Ying folds himself next to the tub and Wangji settles behind him, knees pressed against the small of his back. He is warm through his robe, warm and clean-smelling and soft. Wangji takes a deep breath. He adjusts his grip on the comb. Closes his eyes.
Wei Ying has rinsed the last of the mud from his hair, but the knots and tangles remain. Wangji finds them with his fingers, gentle as he can, and coaxes them out with the comb, working his way from the trailing ends up the long, dark locks to the crown of his head. Wei Ying holds still before him, silent save for the odd, swallowed noise of something that might be pain.
“I’m sorry,” Wangji says, gentling his hands further. Wei Ying’s hair flows as he shakes his head.
“It’s alright,” he replies, voice tight. “Thank you.”
It is an eternity to finish. It is not nearly long enough. Wangji continues even after his task is done, comb running smooth and methodical from root to end. Wei Ying breathes into the rhythm of it, steady and deep. Wangji thinks of the back of his neck, the knob at the top of his spine, the tender places just behind his ear. He thinks of the small of his back where his knees press and the tapering of his waist and how it would feel to put his hands there. He thinks of his face and his cheeks and his quick, clever mouth.
He thinks about putting his mouth over it and swallowing all the quick, clever sounds it makes.
“Ah,” says Wei Ying. Wangji pauses, comb in hand. He pulls away slightly.
“Did I hurt you?”
“No.” He whispers it, airless. Wangji cannot see his face. He does not know what it means.
“Should I stop?”
Wangji hesitates a moment, and goes back to his combing. His fingers run through Wei Ying’s hair in the comb’s wake, as though he could have missed anything, and Wei Ying shudders, suddenly, unbidden.
Wei Ying twists to look at him and oh, oh. He understands.
“Lan Zhan,” he breathes, eyes dark, cheeks flushed. His lips are bitten with silence. The red collar of his robe cradles the long line of his throat, pulse point jumping. Tenderly, reverently, Wangji places his fingers over it. Wei Ying’s gaze shutters. His lips part.
His hand drifts from throat to jaw. His fingers settle into place against the divot beneath Wei Ying’s ear as though they were meant to fit there, and Wei Ying shivers. He needs no coaxing to tilt his chin up.
His eyes flutter shut when Wangji presses his lips against that red-waiting mouth.
It is soft and sweet as springtide, and Wangji cannot hear for the rushing in his ears. It lasts the length of an exhale—he has the impression of damp skin and warm breath and sun-chapped lips—and then it is over. His hand falls away as he pulls back into his own space, under his own control. Wei Ying sucks in a rattling breath. He does not move. Wangji waits.
Wangji will die for waiting.
“Ah,” breathes Wei Ying, eyes never once leaving his face. “Lan Zhan.”
“I am here.”
His head dips, nostrils flaring, and then their knees knock together, Wei Ying tangling himself in the skirt of his robes in his desperation to reach him. Wangji steadies him as Wei Ying’s hands bracket his face, holding him still to fit their mouths back together. He half rises onto his knees, and Wangji tilts his chin up in offering. He slides his hands around his waist, up his back, cradles the tender nape of his neck beneath his hair, skin-warm and clean. Wei Ying melts into his touch, a liquid weight Wangji could drown beneath.
And his mouth, oh his clever mouth, soft and wanting; Wangji swallows down the noises it makes, chases it when Wei Ying sinks back on his haunches. He could kiss Wei Ying forever. He cannot believe he has spent any time not kissing Wei Ying; he has spent years not kissing Wei Ying. He is every kind of fool.
Wei Ying shifts forward and his knee catches against the lashed wood of the tub, knocking it against the already-teetering screen, which goes over with a crash sharp enough to startle them both. Wei Ying jumps, spooked, then laughs at his own surprise. Wangji dips forward to capture the sound against his lips. It is sweeter than he has ever imagined.
Wei Ying presses into him and then pulls back, laughing again when Wangji sways forward. His hands slide from his shoulders to rest lightly against his forearms, touch warm through the fabric. Wangji settles slowly back on his heels, hands pulled away from Wei Ying’s waist to rest on his knees. Their fingers do not quite tangle.
“Wei Ying,” he says. He does not know what else to say, what could possibly fill this tender hollow between them besides the name that fits like a heartbeat. Wei Ying. Wei Ying.
“Lan Zhan.” How has Wangji never noticed how treasured his name is in this soft mouth? How carefully consonants and vowels sit on his lips, his tongue, against all the soft places between? He leans forward to kiss his name off Wei Ying’s lips, balanced carefully at the edge of something unbounded and blinding. Wei Ying sighs. His brow makes a smooth, untroubled line. It settles Wangji’s heart.
“You should rest,” he murmurs, thumb sweeping against the curve of his knee, cloth bunching and unbunching with each stroke. Wei Ying watches the motion and meets his gaze. This is how he looks kissed: mouth bruise-dark, color high on his cheeks, neat-combed hair mussed where Wangji has threaded fingers through it. Wangji memorizes it, folds it thrice and tucks it in his chest, buried among the roots of the sapling seeded within.
“How am I to rest after that? To kiss a man and send him off to sleep alone.” He shakes his head in mock disappointment, and then perks up again. “Unless Lan Zhan would care to retire as well?”
Wangji’s hand stills.
“After all, my blankets are all wet. We’ll have no choice but to share.”
He huffs. No matter how hard he tries he cannot keep the fondness from his face. “I could play Cleansing if you would rather.”
“Have you truly no pity?”
He has an immense pity. He has brought every ounce of cool disciple to bear in an effort not to lean forward again, to press Wei Ying against the floor and leave him wordless and gasping. “I do not wish to face Wen Qing’s wrath.”
Wei Ying’s face folds into resignation, and his hands slip from Wangji’s wrists to land in his own lap with a long, beaten groan. Wangji presses his hands briefly against his folded knees and then rises, ignoring Wei Ying’s curling pout, clinging tight to each ounce of trembling control.
“Aiya, Lan Zhan, fine. I’ll rest. It’s unfair though, you should know. I’m barely going to sleep at all, thinking about when I’ll next have you to myself.”
“Wei Ying.” His ears are hot at the suggestion of continuation, of more, but his voice holds steady and mild. “We share quarters.”
“Your point?” But his jaw flexes, so Wangji does not need to elucidate. Wei Ying shakes his head—in disbelief, perhaps, or to clear it—and joins him in standing. Wangji has to look away so he will stop thinking about Wei Ying in red.
But for all his fussing, Wei Ying goes willingly to sleep, hands resting across his chest, eyes slipping dutifully shut. Within minutes his breathing evens, face slack with needed rest. Wangji watches him for a too-long minute, fingers against his lips as though he could feel the ghost of Wei Ying’s touch. They are still tender.
He takes his time setting the room to rights. He clears the bathwater, props the cracked privacy screen against the back wall, fits the broken door in its frame. It will need to be replaced. He hangs the damp bedding out in the sun where it will dry and not moulder and sops up the wet collected against the lintel and moves Wei Ying’s notes from the ground to his desk, mindful of their sorting. He sweeps the floor and then scrubs it, last of the array flaking under water and cloth and stubborn determination, and when that is done he opens the shutters to the noontide breeze and clear summer light.
In the lazy hour before dinner, Wangji sits on the porch of the xiaoshi, guqin across his knees. A-Yuan sits next to him, a weight gentle enough to not impede him as he plucks deep notes against the air. Wen Qing sits with her back braced against a pillar, watching idly as her little cousin waves a pinwheel in the spinning breeze.
“—you a lot,” he’s mumbling to himself. “I think you’re really neat.”
Wen Qionglin sits out of the sun. Everything is washed cool and clear after the rain. Even the sky is a gentle blue, leeched of its beating heat.
A-Yuan scrabbles upright as the broken door groans open, knocking against him. Wangji’s fingers lift off the guqin, and he waits for the final note to still before he dares to turn around, unsure of what he will find.
Wei Ying stands in the frame of the open door, a-Yuan plastered to his shin. He’s bent to settle one hand on the boy’s head, and looking out at the three of them in mild bemusement. There is color in his face again, and the bruises beneath his eyes do not stand out so starkly. He looks tired, but a mortal sort of tired. He catches Wangji staring and smiles, nearly shy. Wangji’s lips tug up at the corners of their own volition, and he makes himself busy wrapping his guqin away. Wen Qing’s eyes narrow between them.
“So it’s baba now, is it?” Wei Ying asks. A-Yuan tips his head back and beams.
“Don’t look at us,” Wen Qing returns. She rises in one fluid motion and takes hold of Wei Ying’s free hand, fingers pressed to his wrist. Her brow furrows minutely, and then rises in surprise, and she gives Wei Ying a long look as she releases him. He ignores her in favor of her brother.
“Wen Ning. How are you?”
“Alright.” He squints up and scratches at his neck. Someone has found him clean clothes and drawn his hair up in the Wen style. Were it not for the unnatural pallor and the veins creeping from his collar it would hardly be possible to tell that he is fierce corpse not living flesh. “Jie explained it to me, mostly.”
“Mm. Right. Well, if you have questions, you know where to find me.”
“Mmh.” He nods once, like bobbing, and then Wei Ying’s eyes are on Wangji.
Somewhere to the side, Wen Qing sighs. A-Yuan rocks slightly, looking between them. Wangji clears his throat.
“I would like to show you something.”
“It’s a surprise,” a-Yuan says from below. Wei Ying’s eyebrows rise. He looks slowly down to a-Yuan and up at Wangji again.
“Oh is it now.”
“That you two put together.”
Wangji glances aside at Wen Qing. “Many helped.”
“Ominous,” Wei Ying decides, following his gaze. Wen Qing gives nothing away, still busy with exasperation. Wei Ying leaves her to it, leaning all the way down to heft a-Yuan up into his arms. “What sort of surprise is it, xiao’er?”
A-Yuan smiles too wide to speak, so Wangji answers for him. “The kind better seen than spoken of.”
Wei Ying laughs. “Then this one shall dutifully follow.”
So Wangji shows him the rice fields.
It is clear Wei Ying knows their destination before they arrive. Wangji watches him realize, recognition shifting to confusion to curiosity to something that comes dangerously close to hope. Now and then his eyes slide aside to Wangji, never landing long enough for Wangji to return his gaze. Everything is crystalline in the aftermath of the storm, world rich and sated, and Wei Ying is uncommonly quiet. Wangji leaves him to his silence. He cannot think of anything to fill the space between them. He thinks, perhaps, it does not need filling.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” he says when they are just out of sight of the fields. “Should I cover my eyes?”
Wangji pauses. “Would you like to?”
“No. Not really.”
So they climb the gentle rise and stand where they stood a season ago, above the watercolor strokes curving down the mountainside. Rainwater turns the bare, abandoned rice fields to a mirror of the evening, blue-orange skyglow painted across land. Along the uppermost tiers, tender green shoots stretch skyward, lovingly tended by dozens of hands. It will be a thin crop, and another month at least until the grain grows brown for harvest. But it has grown in spite of all good sense, taken to the abandoned mountain much the same way the Wen have: with tenacity, with sweat and hard work and hope. Wangji is not in the habit of pride, but he is proud of this.
Wei Ying stands next to him, in the same place he ceded hope a season ago, and catches his breath.
“You did this?”
“A-Yuan assisted. And many of the others. They were insistent, when they learned of it.”
It had not been his idea. Wen Qing had found him mud-messed and sun-soaked in the early hours of the morning walking an equally dirty a-Yuan back to town and demanded immediately to know what he thought he was doing with her cousin out all alone so early in the day. So Wangji had washed his face and his hands and a-Yuan and shown her.
She had stared for a long, long time.
“All this for Wei Wuxian?”
“If he has elected to make his home here,” he had said with deeper assurance than he had felt, painfully aware of his position as outsider, “then I will do my part to make it the home he desires.”
“Lan Wangji,” Wen Qing had said, and nothing more.
But the next morning, he had come to see the upper field cleared, and so there had been nothing more that needed saying.
Wei Ying’s hand finds his. His fingers are warm and callused and fold neatly between his own.
“Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying. Sunset paints the mountainside the color of Yunmeng silks, dyed deep and rich. It is as beautiful as Wangji has ever seen it, the world washed clean and dressed in its finest.
He waits for whatever thought Wei Ying cares to share, but there is nothing. Wei Ying stares blindly at water and light. Wangji squeezes his hand, a question. He shakes himself from his thoughts, turns to Wangji with a shadow upon his brow. His smile is a bittersweet thing.
“Do we get to keep this? Or will we have to give it up too, one day?”
Wangji searches his face for a moment, then tucks a loose strand of hair behind one of his ears. Wei Ying sighs, pressing into his lingering touch.
He does not know. That is an unkind answer, but to say anything otherwise would be a lie. It has been months, months without sight or sound of any of the great sects, and still he cannot be sure that one day they will not be found. Perhaps this exile truly is all the wide and wild world has to offer them, an abandoned wedge of land perched upon a mountainside and the trouble of raising lives out of ruins with their own rough hands.
Wei Ying does not need him to speak it to see the answer written across his face. He nods to himself, as though he expected nothing less. Wangji swallows.
“As long as it is ours to have,” he says, a slantwise, sideways promise, “I will stay here with you.”
Wei Ying does not reply. His hand folds tighter around Wangji’s own, and he stares out at the sky-mirror of the mountainside, and he does not say anything at all.
“Lan Zhan. There’s something I need to tell you.”
They sit in the quiet of the xiaoshi, late. Wei Ying’s morose quietude has not yet fled; it settles into the corners of the room, where candlelight cannot reach. Wangji, patient with needle and thread, looks up.
Paper and ink sit on the desk before Wei Ying, but he has touched neither. The nail of his thumb picks at a score in the wood, digging it deeper. Wangji sets down his mending.
“You have to promise not to say anything. You can’t interrupt or ask any questions. I don’t think I’ll be able to say it, if I have to stop.”
“And you can’t be angry. Or, I guess you can, I can’t stop you, but I really— I’d really like it if you weren’t angry, Lan Zhan.”
Wangji hesitates. “Alright.”
For a long minute, Wei Ying stares at him, expression inscrutable, and then nods, the barest dip of his chin.
And then silence again. Wei Ying smooths his fingers over the desk, nail following the line of the grain. He draws a knee up halfway and then thinks better of it, straightening his spine in a perfect meditation pose. His hands settle over his knees. Only the wrinkle of fabric gives away the tension in his grip; he holds on white-knuckle. His eyes do not rise from the desk.
“I can’t cultivate the sword path,” he says clearly, and Wangji feels himself suck in a breath, knowing what is coming next, knowing with terrible certainty he has refused to look at head-on for so, so long, “because I don’t have a golden core.”
He is grateful to have put down his mending, so his clenching fists bite only into his own hands, not the needle.
“I lost it after Wen Chao attacked Lotus Pier.” And he laughs then, broken porcelain. “No, no, I didn’t lose it. I know I can be careless but I’m not that careless. I gave it away."
He is quiet long enough for it to settle between them. For Wangji to uncurl his fists and wait. Listen. Wei Ying breathes.
“You know why they called Wen Zhuliu the Core-Melting Hand?” He doesn’t look up for an answer. “I mean, it’s not that subtle, is it. It would be easier to just say he got to me. Maybe they'd understand. But I can’t, you see. I can’t, because after Lotus Pier burned they caught Jiang Cheng and they took him and they tortured him and Wen Zhuliu––”
His hands fist in the fabric of his skirts. He bares his teeth, and Wangji sees in him the man who hunted Wen Chao down and killed him in fear and misery.
It falls away. Wei Ying sucks in a rattling breath.
“Wen Ning rescued him. Him and Wen Qing, they rescued us, all three of us, gave us shelter and food and medicine. But there’s no medicine for having your golden core crushed out of you, no healing from that. And Jiang Cheng, he wasn’t getting better. He would never get better. My little brother, and he——” Wei Ying cuts off, harsh, hard. For a minute the only noise is his panting, is the distant rustle of the wind through the trees. “Yu-furen and Jiang-shushu told me to keep him safe and I didn’t. I failed.”
It sits between them. Then, quiet, so quiet and too loud in the straining silence of the night: “He told me he wished he’d died. That it would have been better to be dead than to live without his golden core.”
There are tears on his cheeks. He makes no move to wipe them away, only grits his teeth and straightens his already-flawless posture, a brutal perfection. Wangji waits. He listens.
“There was a theory, untested, a procedure we could try. Me and Wen Qing. It took… It took a long time to convince her. But I did.” He sounds proud of that, in a terrible, terrible way. “She has a little brother too, of course, so she— Yeah. So I told Jiang Cheng, I told him Baoshan Sanren, my mother’s shifu, could heal him. I told him I knew where to find her. I told him what to do, and that he couldn’t look or ask questions or anything, and I sent him up a mountain and Wen Qing was waiting for him at the top, and she— and we—”
His mouth moves without words for a long minute. He smooths his fingers across his knees, stark against dark fabric. When he speaks again his voice is steady.
“Wen Qing transferred my golden core to Jiang Cheng. He walked back down the mountain to become the sect leader he should be, and Wen Chao threw me in the Burial Mounds. And Jiang Cheng can never, never know.”
He takes a shuddering breath.
“So that’s why I can’t cultivate the upright and proper path. It isn’t that I don’t want to. I want to more than anything, I do. But I can’t and never will, so no matter what, even if the Wen are forgiven, even if Jiang Cheng and shijie welcome me back with open arms, even if you ask me to come to Gusu, I can’t. Demonic cultivation is all I have, Lan Zhan, it’s the only thing I can do. It’s the only way I can protect anyone. I can’t give it up. I won’t.”
And then, and then, finally, Wei Ying looks at him. His face is red and wet and ugly with tears, and he is smiling. Somehow, somehow he is smiling.
It is Wangji who has to look away.
“You can talk now,” Wei Ying says softly. “If you want.”
“Did it hurt?”
Wei Ying’s smile doesn’t once falter. It is worse, perhaps, that way.
“If I said no,” he murmurs, “would you believe me?”
Wangji takes a shuddering breath. He promised not to be angry and he is not. His heart is sick with sorrow.
“There, now, Lan Zhan,” he says, suddenly at his side. “It’s done already. What’s the point in crying about it now? I don’t regret it, anyway. Not when I look at it all laid out. It’s only— It’s only, sometimes I miss home.”
They would take him back. Wangji knows, he knows they would take him back. He knows it like he knows he would do the same for his brother, no matter what awful price was paid, no matter what horror was wrought in his name. If Xichen did that, if Xichen dug out the core himself for Wangji’s sake—
He chokes around a sob. He is so heartsick he cannot breathe. Wei Ying’s hand settles between his shoulder blades, rubbing small circles. Wangji raises his head.
Wei Ying wipes away his tears with gentle hands, smile small and sorry. Wangji swallows hard.
“I’m not angry,” he says, and it makes Wei Ying laugh, watery. Wangji catches a dripping tear against his thumb, presses his forehead to Wei Ying’s and feels the aliveness of him. He pulls him forward until they are pressed front to front and Wangji can wrap his arms around him, feel the warm weight of him across his legs and press his ear to his chest to hear the lub-dub of his heart. Wei Ying cards his fingers through his hair.
“Not fair for you to be all upset about it when you weren’t even there,” he murmurs, and Wangji tightens his grip. “Aiya, okay, okay. It’s alright. We’re alright.”
“I’m sorry,” Wangji says against his chest.
“Lan Zhan. What do you have to be sorry for?”
He does not know where to begin. “I wasn’t there. I was unforgiving and impatient. I didn’t stand with you.”
“You’re standing with me now. Mm. Sitting. Semantics.”
Wangji breathes in the smell of him, dusty and still-sweet from the bath and all Wei Ying beneath. He presses his forehead against his chest and then presses his lips there, over his heart. He hums low in his throat and kisses him there again, and then tilts his head up to capture his mouth. Wei Ying’s fingers lace through his hair, cradling the back of his head. Their lips slide together, unhurried, tasting of salt tears. The night drapes over them cool and quiet, the only sounds the rustle of cloth, the whisper of their kissing.
Wei Ying sinks lower in his lap, mouth firm as the taste of salt yields to the taste of him. Wangji holds him close, Wei Ying’s arms around his neck as they trade deep, slow kisses. Wei Ying is here, the kisses say. Wei Ying is alive. Wei Ying is whole and entire and warm against him. Wangji will not let him go.
“Mm,” says Wangji, pulling back a moment. Wei Ying follows him, stealing another kiss, two. “Wei Ying.”
“Yes?” He doesn’t let go, only sits up a little so that Wangji must look up to meet his eyes. Wei Ying’s gaze is low and dark and dizzying, and his lips are red and slick, and Wangji moves as though through deep water to run his thumb across them. Wei Ying’s breath hitches; Wangji feels the brush of air. The weight of Wei Ying’s gaze peels him open.
Words are not enough. There are no words he can give to Wei Ying to match this feeling; there is not language enough in the world for the thing inside him. He cups Wei Ying’s jaw and draws him in for a searing kiss, puts into it all the things he cannot speak. He worries his teeth against Wei Ying’s bottom lip, biting down when Wei Ying moans, a wanting sound. Wangji’s hands settle at his sash.
“Wait, Lan Zhan, wait.”
He pauses. Wei Ying watches him, eyes blown black, golden in the candlelight. His mouth is swollen with kissing. Wangji holds himself blade-still.
“We can stop.” He drags the words out, rough with effort. If Wei Ying does not want this, if Wei Ying does not want him—
“No, no,” he says, and laughs breathlessly. “No, don’t you dare, I just— You’re sure? You’re really sure about this?”
He does not say, about me, but he does not need to. Wangji reads it across his face. The doubt of it drives into him knife-sharp.
“Yes,” he says. He kisses his answer against his lips for good measure, and then his jaw, and then the hollow of his throat, and Wei Ying shivers against him. "Yes."
“Okay,” he agrees. "Okay." And then Wangji’s hands are replaced by his, fumbling until there is only cloth between them, too much and nothing at all. Wei Ying wriggles in his lap, hot and heavy and maddening, and Wangji pays him back against the delicate skin of his throat, overfull of the sounds Wei Ying makes when he puts his tongue and teeth and lips there.
The ties of his robes are impossible. He gives up on his own and focuses on Wei Ying, shoving endless lengths of cloth off his shoulders. They get caught around his elbows, wrist wrapping still firmly in place, and Wei Ying laughs, then groans when Wangji ignores his wriggling to pull aside the collar of his soft red under robe and kiss the hot skin there, where the Wen brand sits above his heart.
“Lan Zhan,” he complains, breathless. He’s hard against Wangji’s hip, and when Wangji firmly holds his wrists down to press another reverent kiss above his beating heart his cock jumps and he lets out a punched-out noise, gut-deep and desperate. Arousal crashes through Wangji, and he looks up to see the same breathless shock reflected back at him.
“Oh,” he says, licking his lips. Wei Ying stares at him open-mouthed. “Was that— alright?”
“Yes.” Wei Ying looks shattered. “That— Yeah.”
Wangji nods and carefully, carefully squeezes his wrists. Wei Ying’s face screws shut, mouth open and panting.
He sits back a little, catching his breath. Wei Ying’s chest heaves, half bared. Gently, gently, Wangji unwinds his wrist bindings, tugs off the sleeves of his robes so they pool around his waist. Wei Ying watches him.
“Do you not,” he starts, and stops, eyes on his wrists as Wangji smooths his fingers over them, turning his hands over. What would they look like tied?
His cock twitches at the thought. He closes his eyes and breathes in deep through his nose.
“Yes,” he assures Wei Ying. Yes, oh yes, he does. But— “Later.”
“Later,” Wei Ying echoes, like he is tasting the word for the first time. He nods and catches his breath when Wangji pulls his hands up to his mouth, kissing knuckles and palms and the soft skin inside his wrists. He bites against the meat of his thumb hard enough to leave a mark and then presses his lips to it in apology. Wei Ying’s voice goes thready. “Okay.”
Wangji guides his hands to the ties of his own robes and watches Wei Ying’s face as he fiddles with the knots, more complicated than his own. “Really?” he huffs, nails picking at the strings, and laughs when Wangji kisses his cheek, his ear, his forehead. “You could at least make it easy for me.”
“Hn,” Wangji disagrees, and smoothes his palms up Wei Ying’s bare skin, the dip of his hips and the span of his shoulders and the warm leanness of his chest until Wei Ying swats him away, laughing.
“Your ribbon, is it— I mean, do you—?”
“You can untie it.”
“Oh.” His breath catches, and Wangji brushes a thumb against his elbow as he pauses, hands hovering. His throat works. “Right. Okay.”
His fingers are gentle with it, delicate with the knots and Wangji’s long hair, and when it is loose and free he places it reverently upon the desk. Wangji draws him forward and kisses him again, slow, vibrant with meaning. They are both half bare in the candlelight, cloth pooled around them. Wangji’s fingers map out the lines and slopes of his body, his arousal is a patient thing, tempered by the novelty of Wei Ying, the way he shivers and sighs when Wangji touches him here, and here, and here.
Wei Ying is not so indulgent of his exploration. His hands tug at the strings of Wangji’s pants, and when Wangji catches his fingers he rocks forward, steady, sparking.
“Lan Zhan,” he complains. “Lan Zhan, Lan-er-gege, you’re being so cruel to me right now, you know that? Let me touch you, please, I want to feel you.” And then, because he is shameless, because he is so beautifully shameless, he leans in until his mouth is hot against Wangji’s ear and murmurs, “I bet you want to feel me too.”
Wangji stills, and it is enough for Wei Ying to wriggle out of his grasp, leaving his robes puddled at his feet, left in nothing but his pants. He dances backwards when Wangji rises up on his knees after him, and when he is well out of reach he pouts and flutters his lashes like a fool and holds a hand out and says, “Lan Zhan, won’t you come to bed?”
Wei Ying laughs, tripping out of his pants, and Wangji follows. He is all gleaming lines in the firelight: a shining flank, a shoulder, the proud jut of his cock. He tugs Wangji along, pushes him down against his bed and settles in the cradle of his hips, an endless press of skin. Wangji’s hands settle at his waist, drawing him closer, pulling him in, reveling in the heat of him. Wei Ying grinds down, rocking in tight, helpless motions, and it burns through him. Wei Ying gets an elbow under him and a hand between them, fist wrapping around them both and pumping slowly, and Wangji jerks up into it, hands clenching against Wei Ying’s hips. Wei Ying groans, head dropping against his shoulder.
“Fuck, Lan Zhan.”
“Hngh.” He’s panting, open mouthed, encouraging him to thrust forward into the circle of his own fist. Everything is hot and slick and skin and he is unraveling at the seams, Wei Ying all noise above him, sighs and moans and bitten-off sentences, “How do you—? Like this, is this good, Lan Zhan, is this—?”
Yes, anything, anything as long as there is Wei Ying. He pulls him down into a long, messy kiss, spells out his answer with teeth and tongue.
Wei Ying’s fingers tighten around them. His mouth is open and hot at the side of his neck, teeth scraping. Wangji draws his knee up and presses into the slick heat of his hand, and he groans. It’s so much, too much; it’s one bowline stretch of white-hot pleasure and then Wangji is spilling between them, unbounded, shivering-tender and electric. Vaguely he is aware of Wei Ying over him, the curtain of his hair and a breathless, “Oh, fuck,” and there is the sex-sticky weight of Wei Ying across his chest.
Wangji blindly settles a hand against the curve of his skull and relearns breathing. Wei Ying pants somewhere in the vicinity of his jaw, and Wangji tilts his head, searching for his lips. It is not a kiss so much as the touch of mouths, too boneless for anything more. His lips drag along his cheek, his chin; he noses at his temple. Wei Ying hums and presses a clumsy kiss near his ear.
“Fuck,” he mumbles, hoarse, and laughs. Wangji hums in agreement.
He cleans them with his discarded pants, coaxing a protesting Wei Ying to rise up enough to wipe away the mess and lobbing them in the direction of the rest of their abandoned clothing. He will deal with it, he promises himself. Later.
Wei Ying settles back across his chest, skin-hungry and pliant. Wangji draws the blanket over them and runs a hand through Wei Ying’s hair, marveling, and so it is a long, belated moment before he realizes that Wei Ying is crying.
“I’m alright,” he says when Wangji makes a noise of confusion and hurt, trying to sit up. He presses down on Wangji’s shoulder, then raises his head to rest his chin on one hand so they can see each other. He smiles as if to prove it, and closes his eyes when Wangji smoothes the tears away, worry fluttering in his chest. “It’s not you, stop looking at me like that. It’s just me, being stupid.”
“You have never been stupid.”
“Lan Zhan, I thought it was against your rules to lie.” Wei Ying’s mouth tilts, the shade of a smile. Wangji frowns.
“Foolish, perhaps,” he allows. “Reckless. Often ridiculous. Shameless.”
“Mm. But not stupid.”
“Fine. It’s just me being foolish then.” He does a passable approximation of Wangji’s voice, rumbling in his chest. Wangji hums, sketching characters against the candle-warm skin of his shoulder, and waits for Wei Ying to decide if he wishes to share whatever foolish thought has come to mind. Wei Ying settles his head again, warm breath huffing over Wangji’s clavicle.
“I just thought, if I told anyone, everything holding me together would just… snap, I guess. Like I would break into a million million pieces and never be whole again.”
“I would pick them up for you. I would put them right.”
Wei Ying’s face is hot when it turns deeper into the shield of his body. “Aiya, Lan Zhan.”
“Anyway, I wouldn’t ask you to.”
“You wouldn’t have to ask.”
Wei Ying breathes.
“Has it?” Wangji asks when he has been silent long enough to set concern prickling between his shoulder blades. “Are you— Is this alright?”
“I’m alright.” He taps dizi fingerings against Wangji’s chest, a slow and soothing melody. “Mostly just sort of… quiet. A good quiet, though.”
Wangji settles his hand at the small of his back and holds him tight. Just in case.
He rises with the dawn as always, and has almost extracted himself from the gentle-warm cocoon of Wei Ying’s bed when his companion stirs muzzily.
“What time is it?”
“Early.” He pulls the blanket higher and sets his feet on the ground. “Go back to sleep.”
Contrary to the last, Wei Ying cracks an eyelid, face one big, sleepy frown, and reaches for his wrist. “Come back to bed,” he argues.
He means to say no, he does. But Wei Ying’s fingers are warm and his face is sleep-soft and it is hard, it is so hard to deny him anything. More the fool he.
And besides. If these soft, sweet, smiling kisses are to be his reward for such a failing of resolve, he will play the fool gladly.
(“Alright, alright, pay up.”
“Not fair. I said bailu.”
“Well you missed it.”
“At least you’re not poor a-Yan.”
“I stand by what I said.”
“That’s because you’re a hopeless romantic. Come on, come on, pay up.”
“So who won?”
“I believe I did.”
“Ah, of course. Typical.”
“Mhm. Always trust a grandmother. We see these things.”
“This one hopes to one day achieve your wisdom, popo.”
“Oh, hush, you’re just mad you missed it by a month.”
“Half a month, please, I was still close.”
“If that’s what you call close—”
“Uh oh, look out, here comes shimu—”)
The harvest season slips by in a smear of sunburned days, burnishing noses and necks. The rice comes in last, a week to reap with the whole town turned out to the fields. Wangji gives himself over to the work with the rest, pants rolled and skirts tied and sickle in hand. Each and every finger and toe of his body wrinkles and prunes, and his skin goes soft in the water and then cracks in the evening cool, and it is worth it for the way Wei Ying’s smiles dart like minnows through the noise and bustle. Even little a-Yuan helps, eager to stack the sheafs in bundles that grow neater each day. In the evenings they eat until they are full, and Fourth Uncle makes the fruit wine he has spoken of all summer, and a-Yuan laughs and races about them, and Wei Ying sits at Wangji’s side warm and weighty and smiles a little brighter, a little easier.
It is nothing like Gusu. It is something like home.
xiaoshi (小室) — lit. 'small room,' like the jingshi or hanshi. a play on a-yuan calling it the ‘little house’
mu haiying — 木海荧
They are lying together in bed, deep into the night and slipping slowly into autumn, when Wei Ying rolls onto his side and says, “I’ve been thinking.”
Wangji smooths a thumb over the slow-fading marks around his wrist and hums. “Dangerous.”
Wei Ying flicks his shoulder. Wangji tucks a whisper-soft smile against his skin, just over the point of his pulse.
“I’ve been thinking about the yin iron.”
He stills. His eyes slide upward to find Wei Ying gazing steadily back, seed of a furrow between his brows. He presses another light, careful kiss to his wrist and sets it back against Wei Ying’s chest, feeling the heat of his skin and the beat of his heart beneath the scar of the Wen brand.
“About the Stygian Tiger Amulet, really,” Wei Ying expands, fingers of his now-freed hand skimming the ridges of his burn. He doesn't seem to notice himself doing it. “I’ve been thinking, and I talked to Wen Qing, and I think— I think I’d like to destroy it.”
He does not mean it to, but Wangji’s breath catches. Wei Ying’s mouth tilts, a clever, knowing sort of smile. An edge of old, brittle bitterness lurks beneath, but it slides away like water. Uncertainty pools in its wake.
In all the time he has been here, Wangji has not seen the thing, but he is not so foolish as to think Wei Ying does not use it—he had not seen it before either, not until it appeared in his hands when he stood against Wen Ruohan and undermined the man’s control of a power three times that of his own, and yet it had won them the war. He sees the imprint it leaves, the negative spaces where its absence paints the inverse of a picture. There is power to the wards that Wei Ying, coreless, cannot conjure forth himself; there is precision in Wen Qionglin’s transformation that speaks to the use of spiritual tools. To relinquish it would be to leave himself vulnerable, and Wangji wars with himself for a startled moment, leaping hope set against an unexpected fear.
The fear is foolish. He will protect Wei Ying better than any leeching, poisoned tool. It is a good idea. It is something that will help.
“Why?” asks his mouth.
Wei Ying shrugs, one shoulder slipping from the warm protection of the blankets. The air is cool, first pangs of winter felt most deeply in the hollow of the nights. His bare skin prickles in the chill. “Math, mostly.”
Wangji gives it his due consideration, fixing the blanket. “The fifth shard.”
They have spoken of it, in their long, winding discussions of Wei Ying’s cultivation practice and the war and the intersections of their own history. The arithmetic is simple: Wen Ruohan held three pieces of the shattered yin iron and Xue Yang hid the fourth, yet here is Wei Ying with his own tool forged of the selfsame stuff.
Wei Ying is nodding. “And Xue Yang is… well, wherever he is. If he managed to find us— or if someone else found it, if someone came looking— I mean, how long until they end up here, led straight to us because I couldn’t be bothered to give it up? And—” His jaw works for a moment, muscle tight over bone. Thorny resignation curls in the hollows of his face. “It will help me, won’t it.”
It isn’t a question because he does not need to ask. It sits between them, tired and true.
“I will help,” Wangji promises, and Wei Ying smiles, a soft and private thing all for him. He laces their fingers together within the warm cocoon of the blankets.
“I know. You always do.”
It is a heady, heavy trust to lay at his feet; it tangles him up, makes the tree of his affections shiver. He presses a kiss to Wei Ying’s gentle mouth, gratitude and oath and more.
He will help, and Wei Ying will let him. Whatever comes after, they will face it together.
This newest endeavor of Wei Ying's requires preparation. It requires weeks where Wei Ying buries himself in his work, muttering over scraps of paper, so Wangji occupies himself elsewhere. He learns the weave and weft of the wards, learns the balance of the energy they draw and all the interlocking pieces of them. It is akin to a duet; Wei Ying makes the shape and Wangji gives them dimension. He helps with the planting of winter crops and takes goods to market with Wen Qionglin, whom he finds soft-spoken and kindly in a way that is easy to reciprocate. He makes a concentrated effort towards a-Yuan’s education, an undertaking Wen Qing joins him in overseeing with what he has learned to be her own brand of unexpected good humor. He considers the encroaching winter and wonders what preparations they have missed, how the weather will turn, if there will be snow.
Through it all, he weeds the bed of his worry and plants trust in fear’s stead, tends it with quiet surety and is rewarded with the bloom of Wei Ying’s undemanding gratitude.
They are alone in the xiaoshi after dinner when Wei Ying and says, “Tomorrow, I think.”
Wangji looks up. It is strange, still, sometimes, to look up and rediscover all the ways this small, simple dwelling has transformed. A stove crouches in one corner, warding off the season's chill, dishes set to dry next to it. The screen has been made whole, hiding the tub, the bathing area. The door has been fixed and fixed wit ha lock; the window shutters fit properly in their casings, closed now against the sharp northern winds. His qin lies covered upon a low table made by Sixth Uncle for the purpose, and there is a shelf to hold Wei Ying's scribblings, with a sorting system known only to Wei Ying, who insists that there is a system, however haphazard it may look. Outside grows a tiny garden that Wei Ying has taken to tending in his free time, threatening to plant a-Yuan among the greenery should he muss with the uneven rows or pick the cucumbers too early. How strange it is, to look upon this lived-in place and think of it as theirs.
“What do you need of me?” he asks. Wei Ying fiddles with his inkbrush, spinning it like his flute between his fingers. Ink flecks his knuckles, his work drying on the table before him. An array of some kind, as best Wangji can tell from where he has left off his evening meditation upon the bed. Wei Ying gives his inkbrush a final twirl and sets it in its stand.
“A ride, if Hanguang- jun is willing.” He winks, flirtatious, and shrugs a little in something that Wangji recognizes as self-consciousness. “I would rather not try this anywhere nearby, just in case.”
“Do you have a location in mind?”
“The western hills should be far enough, I think. Anywhere with enough space for the array.”
“And— I’ve accounted for everything I can account for, but it’s not like anyone’s done this before. I fear this feeble man may need Hanguang-jun’s assistance, if things go poorly.” He smiles around the admittance, but does not sound nearly so teasing in this request as the last one. Wangji unfolds himself from the bed and joins him at the desk, turning the ink-damp paper towards him while Wei Ying watches with cautious eyes. He takes in the messy writing, notes the points of weakness where Wei Ying has printed nigh-illegible contingency plans in case something goes wrong. It is dangerous. There is no helping this. Wangji cannot see any way to make it less so, and he is only half so knowledgeable in this as Wei Ying.
“I will help,” he reiterates, and some of the tension seeps away from Wei Ying’s face, lines smoothing out around his eyes. “Whatever you need.”
Wei Ying graces him with a smile, soft and folded like a secret. “You really are too good, Lan Zhan.”
“Mn.” He is not. For Wei Ying he does his best. “Sleep now.”
“So early?” It is not early; it would be past curfew among the halls of the Cloud Recesses. Only Wei Ying could consider this dim, quiet hour of the night early.
“You will need your rest,” he points out. Wei Ying makes a face that means he finds Wangji’s explanation reasonable and no more palatable for its sound logic. It is a narrow thing to avoid laughing. He does not think he keeps it entirely off his face, if the further folding of Wei Ying’s expression is any indication. He feels his own soften in response. “Come to bed.”
“Ah, well. When you put it like that, Lan Zhan, how am I to say no?” He rises and douses the candle. Wangji spends a moment setting away ink and brush while Wei Ying disrobes, all rustling cloth. The room is a cool pool of blue-dark quiet; the bed welcomes him warmly when he settles himself, robes folded neatly. Wei Ying spares no time in curling against his side. The wind whistles past outside, a lilting lullaby.
“Do you think we could add a room to this house?” asks Wei Ying unprompted. “I thought it might be nice if a-Yuan could stay with us, if he wants to.” He pauses to consider that. “Well. Maybe not every night.”
“We could,” Wangji agrees. He would like that too. Though— Yes. Perhaps not every night. “I will speak to Sixth Uncle.”
“I’ll have to be more careful with my inventions, if he’s going to be around more often.”
“Maybe my own workshop. What do you think, Lan Zhan? You wouldn’t be exiled from your own home while I mucked about.”
“If you’d like.”
Wei Ying laughs, warm at his ear. “If I’d like. Haven’t you any opinion yourself, Lan Zhan?”
“If it makes you happy, it will make me happy.”
Wei Ying buries his face in his neck, as Wangji expects. His face is blushing-hot, and Wangji is smug about it, that of everyone in all the world he is the one to make Wei Ying speechless. He rubs small circles against his back and blooms with fondness.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says into his neck after a moment, muffled and clear as daylight. Wangji hums. “If something happens. If it goes wrong. You’ll take care of them, won’t you?”
His hand stills. His eyes find the ink-dark crown of Wei Ying’s head, face still firmly tucked where Wangji cannot see the expression it is making. He takes one breath, another. Allows the immediate gut-tight fear to well and ebb, and settles in the aftermath, the rationality.
“I will,” he says, true. And then, fiercer, “Nothing will happen.”
“I will not let it.”
Wei Ying raises his head. His face is clear, assured; this is something he has given thought to, then, something he has made his peace with. He is reminded of the churned-earth terror of the night he fled with some three score Wen prisoners at his heels; for all his face is dry tonight there is the same set determination, the same unflinching certainty of the choice he is making. Wangji is helpless to stand against him.
“Lan Zhan, ah, Lan Zhan.” And here is a smile, just for him, fond and wearing. “And because you say it, it must be so, hm?”
It is too much to meet his eyes; Wangji casts his gaze towards the ceiling, hand a possessive press against Wei Ying’s back. Of course not, and they both know it. If such were true Wei Ying would be home in Yunmeng, with his siblings, with this family grown from mud and sunlight kept safe and sound, with Wangji at his side and their son between them. If he could speak his hopes into being then all the suffering he has shouldered would be for nothing, and he would be whole and entire and never known such hollowness. He is not a fool.
“I will keep them safe,” he says, measuring his words, the water weight of them, “and you as well.”
Wei Ying stares at him for a long minute, a rough-raw and searching stare, and then shakes his head, hair a shifting curtain, and presses up on his elbows just enough to press a whisper-dry kiss to the corner of his mouth.
“Okay,” he says, like indulgence and something more, something damp-eyed and breathing, a wet heart weight upon his chest. Wei Ying shakes his head and nods and laughs a little, the kind of laugh he lets loose to relieve whatever pressure mounts inside him. “Okay,” he repeats, and tucks himself into Wangji’s side, cheek pillowed against the slope of his shoulder. Wangji wraps him up, holds him sure against shattering, and cannot be certain if it is his own or Wei Ying’s he fears more. “I believe you.”
In the morning, they wake early, and eat a quiet breakfast. They say farewell to Wen Qing and Wen Qionglin and a-Yuan. Wei Ying takes a long moment with each, especially the boy. Wangji watches, settled into a tight, helpless stubbornness he has not felt since he left home. Wen Qing joins him, face the careful smooth he would expect of Qishan’s last, best doctor.
“He’s saying goodbye,” she remarks, and does not mean in the sense of brief parting. Wangji inclines his head. His jaw is too tight for words.
Wen Qing looks at him slantwise, eyes a heavy weight.
“You’ll watch out for him.”
Another nod. Wen Qing hums, low and satisfied in her throat.
“We’ll be waiting when you get back.”
And then there is Wei Ying bounding up, mouth making a wry little tilt at their halfway conversation before he wipes it away. In his arms, a-Yuan reaches for Wangji, and he cannot refuse. He is a solid weight, Wangji realizes with some surprise; he has grown these past months, from baby to child.
“A-Yuan can come?” he asks, forlorn, understanding in the way of children that something important is happening and too small to know what. Wangji presses a kiss to his temple. Wei Ying’s eyes, when he meets them, are soft.
“Not today, little rabbit,” Wei Ying answers for him.
“A-Yuan will be good,” he protests, and even Wen Qing softens at that. She takes him with open arms, and it is an effort to coax him to let go. His lip wobbles when finally Wangji extracts his robes from fisting hands.
“We will be back by dinner tomorrow,” he promises. It is his hope to be back by dinner tonight, but he is not so foolish as to imagine they will have it in them to see to their task and also make the trip to and fro. He is a strong cultivator, one of the best. He is still human.
A-Yuan is unconvinced; he turns to Wei Ying. “Xian-baba, please?”
Wei Ying pinches his cheek and makes a face like heartbreak, there and gone in the blink of an eye. “Aiya, rascal. If Lan Zhan says so, how could I say any different? Be good for Qing-jie and Ning-ge while we’re gone.”
There are no tears, but it is a close thing. Wei Ying settles his hand on the boy’s hair for the briefest of moments, and nods to Wen Qing, and Wen Qionglin, and turns to Wangji.
“Well,” he says, with an afterthought smile, and Wangji nods. Bichen is cool in his palm, his qin tucked away in his sleeve, and the sun has just begun to crack across the horizon, spilling light. Side by side, they turn west, and when they reach the edge of town, Wangji unsheathes his blade and steps upon it. It takes Wei Ying a great, heaving moment to join him. He is plank-stiff when Wangji wraps a steadying arm about his waist, and facing their shadows, they rise into the air.
They make it perhaps a li before Wei Ying twists in his arms and vomits into the open sky beneath them.
He is off the blade as soon as they touch down again, folded over and retching up the morning’s meal. Wangji sheathes Bichen in one smooth motion, hand settling between the wings of his shoulder blades as he heaves into the dirt. There is a panting moment before Wei Ying spits one final time and straightens, drawing the back of his wrist across his mouth. His face is ashen.
“I’m alright,” he says. When Wangji remains firmly unconvinced he adds, “Truly. It’s just— been a while since I was up there. Not that I think you’re gonna throw me into a teeming graveyard or anything, but memories are. Hm. Not good.” He still looks slightly green, and his breathing is harsh and shallow through the grate of his teeth.
Wangji hesitates. “If you would rather we walk, we can.” It will take longer, of course, but for Wei Ying’s peace of mind—
He’s already shaking his head. “No, no, it’s fine. It will be over with faster this way. Just— Maybe I won’t look. If that’s alright.”
“I will not let you fall.”
“I know.” Wei Ying looks at him, draws one thumb over the line of his cheekbone. “I know, Lan Zhan. I trust you.”
Wangji had been horrified, once, by the way Wen Chao died. Now he thinks perhaps he regrets he did not have any greater hand in it.
They remount the sword, Wei Ying carefully angled to press his face into Wangji’s shoulder. He is an iron weight, heavy and unbending, but like this Wangji can at least be sure his hold is firm.
“I might throw up on you,” Wei Ying warns as they rise again, lost in the whistle of the autumn wind. Wangji tightens his grip.
“That’s alright,” he says. Alright is perhaps a stretch. For Wei Ying, he will bear it.
It garners him a rough, choking laugh, and then Wei Ying goes abruptly still again, breath hissing.
He is silent the rest of the way.
They touch down upon a flat-topped rise as the sun settles high in the sky. Wangji selects it for its lack of vegetation—it stands bare of trees, of shrub or brush; even the rustling grass, brown with the encroaching winter, is thin here. Wei Ying looks at it and laughs as though there is some humor to be found in this place. But he does not disapprove of the choice.
They eat a meagre meal, fortifying and simple, and then comes the painstaking task of drawing Wei Ying’s array. It is an endeavor of blood, all Wei Ying's—when Wangji attempts to offer his own he is treated to a distracted lecture on the purity of the spell and the making and unmaking of his amulet. Wei Ying has not spoken so openly of its forging, all qi and gore. Their thin lunch upsets in his stomach.
The sun has shifted noticeably by the time the task is finished, but Wei Ying waves off the suggestion that he take a moment to recover his strength.
"I just," he says, pausing only long enough for Wangji to feed him energy enough that the wounds will scab over. His eyes are flint-sharp. "I want to be done. It's so loud, Lan Zhan. I want to be done with it."
And how is he to refuse that?
He kneels to the side while Wei Ying folds himself into the dust at the southernmost point. The sun shines clear and bright, and the rustling autumn wind stirs the dying grasses around them. There is no birdsong, no chittering of living things—only the dusty wind, the cool sun, the pair of them knelt in the dirt. In the center of the array, the seal sits in two pieces, inert. Wei Ying takes a breath and meets his eyes, and it is not until Wangji nods his readiness that he folds his hands together. As one the two halves rise.
Wangji holds his breathing steady, holds himself ready for whatever might happen. Before them, the Stygian Tiger Amulet comes together, weeping resentful energy into the cloudless sky. It curls up against the edges of the array like ink spilled within a vase of water, probing at the edges. Wei Ying holds the pieces still and silent in the air, and—
He drops them.
“Shit.” He sits back on his heels, rubbing at his wrists, energy bleeding away. Wangji rises and goes to him, and Wei Ying waves away his concern but still leans against his legs, a warm body weight against his shins. He drops his hands into his lap. “Dammit.”
“It’s trickier than I thought it would be. I can’t manage the array if I’m focusing on the amulet and I can’t deal with the amulet if I’m triggering the array. I’ll get it, just— Give me a minute.”
“Mn.” He rests his hand a moment on the sun-warmed crown of Wei Ying’s head, and then kneels next to him. “I will manage it.”
“What—? No, Lan Zhan—”
“Would you prefer I used the amulet?”
“Well, no.” Wei Ying huffs into his obvious silence. “Alright, fine. But you have to do exactly what I say. Exactly. No matter what happens.” He pauses. “Lan Zhan, do you understand what I’m saying?”
He breathes out slowly through his nose. “I understand.”
“You have to promise me. Promise you’ll do as I say.”
Wei Ying’s eyes are a heavy weight against him. He turns slightly to meet his gaze, and can do nothing but breathe against the swamping affection that crashes through him. It turns him to stone where he kneels.
“I promise.” The words grind out from a hollow deep within him, beyond light and sense.
Wei Ying’s throat bobs when he swallows. His hand rises halfway to Wangji before he settles it back in his lap, dusty and too-pale against the dark of his skirts. “Okay,” he says. “Okay.”
He closes his eyes for a bare breath, and when he opens them again he is all iron, poised to strike. “No point in waiting around, then.”
With a breath, Wei Ying turns his hand together, palm to palm and a bare inch of air pressed between, and the Stygian Tiger Amulet rises, resentful energy seeking the barest crack in this resolve. Wei Ying’s face goes grey against it, a silent, striving battle, and it is an interminable minute before the tension eases enough that he can look to Wangji and nod. There is sweat at his brow.
Wangji draws forth a filament of spiritual energy, like wool to a spindle, and sets it spinning.
The array roars to life beneath him, a sucking, starving creature so greedy it nearly drags him over. He strains against it, jaw tight, refusing to feed it any more than the narrow, twisting thread drawn from his hands. Shadow-black energy lashes within its confines, and Wei Ying flinches but does not falter. His eyes have fallen shut. Wangji is overly aware of his presence at his side, heat and tension and struggle. He waits for a sign of change, for a word of direction. Everything spins and twists, rapid and then stilted, as they find balance.
Slowly, slowly, they steady.
“Alright,” Wei Ying says after a moment, voice tight. “Alright, go ahead, a little more.”
It is the sense of swimming against the current. He strives with every ounce of discipline to keep control of his power. This was not designed as a halfway magic; the resentful energy sinks its teeth into him and drags, unwilling to be bound, to be contained. He cannot imagine Wei Ying holding such resentment at bay in the same breath as feeding it. Surely it would suck him dry, burn him from the inside out, tear him to pieces.
He has to put the thought aside. If he lets the full understanding of it settle over him he will drown, and he knows now, he knows Wei Ying needs him. He will not let this take him.
“Okay,” grits Wei Ying next to him. “Okay, a little more.”
A roiling storm rises in a column before them, trapped as though within the confines of glass. The rage of it thrashes, hissing and rushing and crackling, the whispers of a thousand thousand dead. The sun burns high and distant overhead and Wei Ying trembles, fighting a battle Wangji is helpless to help in. He feeds a steady stream of energy to the array as Wei Ying struggles, just enough to hold it together, to give Wei Ying the chance to undo his own forge-work.
Sweat drips down his back despite the cool of the day. A headache thrums low at the back of his skull and in his temples, and his knees ache. He does not relent.
And then, barely noticeable: a shudder in the structure of the spell.
Wei Ying flinches against it, and within the bounds of the blood the steady spiral of the storm flickers, falters. Wangji’s attention snaps towards the weak point, the hairline fractures skittering out where it wears—a character, there at the eastern point, where rusty blood has been smudged by the wind. He shifts his weight.
“Don’t,” Wei Ying says. He is hard to hear over the hissing storm, its tendrils seeking out that point of weakness. “Keep going.”
“Wei Ying—” It will not hold much longer, and then, and then—
He returns his focus to the task before them.
Resentful energy eats at the crack, expanding outwards like pressed glass. Wangji grits his teeth and braces against it, shoring up the weakness, but he cannot stop it, not entirely, not while Wei Ying bends the amulet's power back and back and back against itself, the coiling of a spring designed to snap. He can only delay the inevitable, pressure growing with each passing instant. Wei Ying's face is a terrible thing, lips pulled back, snarling his control. Wangji roots himself and keeps going.
Slowly the fracture spreads, slowly and slowly and then all at once, with a sound like struck iron. The riptide drag of the array booms outwards, unshackled, and he is sent sprawling into the dirt as a thunderhead of dust and flaking blood and shadow swirls around them, turning the clear day to howling midnight. The sun vanishes, the mountaintop, the trees below; everything is swallowed whole. He cannot see his hand in front of his face. He cannot see Wei Ying.
He drags himself up to his knees against the pressure of the storm, a choking weight driving him into the ground, and fumbles forward, seeking blindly. His hands find Wei Ying, find him unmoved, statuesque in his dedication to this task. His grit teeth gleam in the dark. Wangji closes his hand over his shoulders and it burns, energy roiling through him like lightning. He does not let go.
“Wait,” Wei Ying orders him, voice deep and terrible. Wangji holds him tight enough to bruise, terrified that he will disappear if he so much as loosens his grip. The beating wind stings his bare skin. He is blinded by the dirt, battered by the wind and resentment swirling around them. There is no respite. He cannot breathe.
Wei Ying burns from the inside out. There is blood on Wangji’s hands where they clench around his shoulders; it drips from Wei Ying’s qiqiao, body in open rebellion against the task it has been set to do. He cannot sustain it. It will kill him.
Wangji does not know what to do. He does not know how to stop it.
Wei Ying does not answer, not in so many words. His mouth opens and he screams to the heavens, a ripping, tearing sound, red-wet and wounded. His body locks, spasms, and every whisper of resentful energy freezes in place for the eternity of a heartbeat before it sucks into the Stygian Tiger Seal with such suddenness his ears pop. The silence is deafening; the sunlight too bright. Wei Ying’s eyes find his. The amulet twists in midair, trembling.
“Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, as though surprised to find him here, and then his face turns all to relief, a peace so deep it aches. There is blood on his lips, a red-sweet smile. “Thank you.”
The seal shatters.
It is as though everything happens in half time, and Wangji does not think about it, not for a breath, not for a heartbeat. He takes the man by his shoulders and tucks him around so they are pressed back-to-front, Wei Ying cradled against his chest, and he puts himself between Wei Ying and the amulet as it explodes outwards.
The world screams, a shatter-pitch shriek that drives through him knife-sharp. He sinks into the well of his own flagging spiritual energy, shores up his body, skin and hair and keratin fortified against the battering ram at his back. Energy sweeps past him, claws in his robes, and he folds Wei Ying closer against himself, refuses to let the storm touch him. It will not touch him. He will die first.
He cannot say how long it goes on, how long the world is nothing but howling fury and lancing pain and the press of Wei Ying’s body tucked against his own. Eventually it slows. Eventually there is sun again. Eventually he can take a breath free of choking.
He leans over and spits blood in the dirt. Wei Ying slumps in his arms. Wangji pants, and spits again, and wipes his mouth.
Wei Ying he does not stir. His face is waxen, drying blood trailing down his cheeks, his chin, matting in his hair. He is a still weight, a dead—
No, no no no. Wangji eases him down to the parched, scarred earth and holds a finger against his nose, heart thundering. It lodges high in his throat, filling his mouth with blood. Please, please—
He breathes. Thin and unsteady, but he breathes. Wangji slumps over him, forehead pressed to his collar, and lays his open palm against his chest, feeling the faint, too-faint rise and fall. Relief prickles behind his eyes. For a knotted minute it is all he can do to curl above him, shaking storm-blown.
Beneath him, Wei Ying stirs. Wangji raises his head with effort as Wei Ying coughs into the open sky. One eye cracks open and then the other, lashes coated in dirt. His glazed gaze passes over Wangji, and then settles on his face as focus filters in around him.
“Oh,” he says. His voice is a torn thing, rough and feeble. He coughs again, and it brings blood to his lips. “Hi.”
“Do not speak,” Wangji tells him. He flexes his fingers, letting the dregs of his spiritual energy well between them to fill the parched-dry hollow of Wei Ying’s body. His headache creeps about to settle behind his eyes, a tight band of pain, but he does not stop.
Wei Ying, takes a long look around: at the blue sky, at the dead grass, at the perfect circle of blasted earth some feet away, the array wiped clear by the force of the explosion. There is no amulet. There is no anything.
He laughs a little. It sounds more like a cough, and then it is truly a cough. No blood comes up, at least. “I can’t believe it worked.”
“Lan Zhan— are you crying?”
Wangji presses his lips white-tight and directs his focus to the task at hand, staring at the faint blue caught between his palm and Wei Ying’s chest. Wei Ying’s hand slips around his wrist.
“It’s alright,” he says. “I’m okay. See?” As if to prove it he wiggles his fingers, twists his wrists, forms a fist and releases it again. “Good as new.”
It is one of Wei Ying’s more flagrant lies. Wangji takes a deep breath and feels the pull against his back, sharp and aching. “It would have killed you.”
It would have killed Wei Ying right in front of him, left him a dry husk and scattered the remains to the four winds and Wangji would have been left to do nothing but watch. His fingers spasm against Wei Ying’s chest and Wei Ying winces.
“It didn’t. Lan Zhan, look, I’m right here. Look at me.” His hand presses against Wangji’s cheek, insistent, drawing Wangji’s eyes to his. “I’m right here.”
His eyes close. He turns his head into the warm press of his hand, a tremor of effort, and kisses his palm. It tastes of dirt.
“Let me up,” Wei Ying says, struggling upright until he is seated. He wipes his face against his forearm and frowns when the cloth comes away smeared rusty red. Wangji takes his wrist to feed him more energy, but Wei Ying waves him away.
“We’ll need it for the trip home,” he says when Wangji levels an unhappy look at him. The truth of it does not make it any better. “I’ll be okay. Help me stand.”
Foolish, impulsive man. Wangji huffs his displeasure, straightening to help him, and doubles over instead as pain sears across his back. His hands dig into the dirt, fingers clawing as the distant sting of discomfort blooms to bright, angry agony from shoulder to waist. His vision skitters to black for a moment, and Wei Ying is abruptly at his side. Wangji can only see his knees, skirts dirt- and blood-stained, but the sound he makes is one of broken shock, and for a long minute there is only the rasp of their twinned breathing.
“What—?” he croaks, and even that twinges.
“Lan Zhan. Your back.”
He undigs his fingers from the earth and reaches, hissing, to feel. Wei Ying’s hand catches his before he can touch, and the motion brushes just beneath his shoulder blade. It drives through him, a bright spot of pain rippling out.
“Don’t, don’t,” Wei Ying says, voice high and frantic. “You’re bleeding.”
He takes a breath, and another, and makes space for clarity. Slowly, carefully, he unbends himself, ignoring the way Wei Ying flutters and hisses at the motion. “How bad?” he asks, kneeling upright. He can feel it properly now, a steady throb in time with his heartbeat. He turns his head to Wei Ying, his pale face. His eyes are slow to drag away from Wangji’s back, and he shakes his head.
“I don’t know. It’s— I can’t tell.”
Methodically, Wangji flexes his hands, his elbows, his shoulders. He tips his neck forward and straightens it again. He sets his feet into the earth and rises, legs flexing. It sets his back to throbbing, a loud and branding pain seared just beneath his skin, but there is no weakness, no loss of movement nor lack of feeling. He will survive.
Wei Ying squawks, tripping upright, and sways like a river reed as soon as his feet are planted. Wangji catches him by the elbow.
“You—” Wei Ying starts, the rest of his sentence lost in the dizziness. “Careful,” he finishes pathetically, squeezing his eyes shut. Wangji does not let him go.
“We should descend.”
“But— your back.”
“There is a stream below. It will be easier to assess the damage after cleaning.” And Wei Ying needs water, and rest, and to wash the blood from his face. They will have to camp for the night regardless, and Wangji would rather it not be upon this exposed patch of dead land. He would, truthfully, like to settle as far from it as they can for nothing more than his own peace of mind. The very sight of the blackened earth turns his stomach.
Wei Ying’s face twists in displeasure, but his disagreements fall away. Wangji suspects he is too tired for it. It is perhaps shameful to be grateful for that small mercy right now, but that does not stifle his relief.
Still, it is a long walk, halfway propped against each other, picking their way through the scree to the treeline below. Wangji’s back throbs. Wei Ying slips and stumbles and sweats in the chill air. The breeze is too sharp; it digs at them. The night will be cold.
The stream, when the reach it, is a narrow, bubbling thing curving along the roots of the mountain. Wei Ying drops heavily onto a wide, sun-dappled stone and buries his fingers in it, swearing at the cold, and washes his hands and face clean. Wangji kneels more quietly and tugs the ties of his robes, struggling to peel them away from his back. He manages the outer layer with only a modicum of discomfort, but the inner has stuck to drying blood, and even freeing his arms proves difficult. He manages one before Wei Ying realizes what he’s doing.
“Aiya, stop that,” he says, water dripping from his hair. He looks more lively for washing, cheeks pink-shocked by the cold. He draws Wangji up and closer to the water, to the rock he has abandoned. It is warm under the sun, and Wangji is unexpectedly grateful for that tiny comfort. “Look at you, you’re going to open them all back up again. Let me take care of you.”
“You are injured.”
“All my blood’s inside me at least. That’s where it’s supposed to be.”
“Mn.” He is not nearly as amusing a man as he would like to believe. If he qi deviates tending to Wangji’s wounds instead of his own wellbeing, Wangji will kill him.
“Hush,” Wei Ying mutters, as though he is the one being unreasonable, and wets the sleeve of the already-ruined inner robe in the water, dabbing it against his back. His motions are gentle, tender, and though that does not help with the hurt, Wangji appreciates the care as he wets the drying blood enough to pull away cloth and bare his back to the open air. He prickles in the chill and holds himself still.
“I don’t know what you were thinking,” Wei Ying says as he works, his tone of voice suggesting he is speaking to fill the silence rather than in the hopes of garnering an answer. “Well, no, I guess I know exactly what you were thinking. Ah, Lan Zhan. I didn’t mean for you to get hurt.”
“Mn,” Wangji grunts, clenching his jaw as Wei Ying works a little more of the robe away. The weight of the cloth pulls lower down his back, but there is little to do but bear it. “It’s alright.”
“It isn’t.” He wets the sleeve again. “I hate you getting in trouble on my behalf. You’re already out here with us when you should be home. I don’t want to be any more of an inconvenience.”
“You are not an inconvenience,” he says. And then, “I am home.”
The gentle dabbing of cloth stops, and Wei Ying is silent for a long minute. Wangji cannot see his face; when he tries to turn his back burns, and Wei Ying’s palm against the curve of his shoulder stills him.
“Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, and he replaces his hand with the lightest brush of his lips. He takes up his work again, motions a little more sure. He works for a while in silence. “I should have tried harder to make you leave, the first time you showed up.”
Wei Ying huffs. “Stubborn.”
They are quiet for a while. The world lives around them, trees shivering in the breeze, birds trilling, brook babbling. Wei Ying is gentle at his back, and alive. Gentle and alive. It is all he can ask for. He is more grateful than he can say.
“Sorry you got hurt.”
For Wei Ying, it does not matter. For Wei Ying, he will bear any and all hurts. “A man should have scars.”
Wei Ying pauses for a moment, then laughs. “Do you think Mianmian will like them?”
Wangji twists around, heedless of the stinging, and allows himself a moment to appreciate the mischievous smirk across Wei Ying’s face before he shoves him in the water.
It is not particularly deep, and Wei Ying pops up immediately, shaking his hair out of his face, spluttering.
A smile tucks itself at the corners of his mouth as he straightens. His back protests the motion, but it is worth it for the laughter of Wei Ying behind him.
“You—!” he declares, smile thick in his voice. “Here I am trying to help you and this is the thanks I get.”
“Do not speak foolishly,” Wangji intones. Wei Ying’s knees are cold and wet where they knock against his hip as he settles himself again.
“How else am I supposed to speak?” Wei Ying complains. “Like Lan Zhan, all elegant and concise? I’d go crazy. All my thoughts would get stuck inside my head like wool stuffing and I’d never get anything done. You should try it, Lan Zhan.”
Wei Ying takes up his tender ministrations again. “Have it your way, then. I’ll be foolish enough for both of us. No, don’t say anything, I know how that sounded. I stand by it.”
Wangji closes his eyes. The afternoon is cool but the sun is warm where it slips through the canopy, and the stream burbles along with Wei Ying’s chatter, and he feels as though he only blinks and the sun has sunk to rest against the horizon and Wei Ying is standing before him, limned with gold in the slanted light. Wangji sits half bare in the late glow of the afternoon and stares up at him.
“Hi,” Wei Ying says warmly. “How are you feeling?”
He shifts his shoulders and discovers Wei Ying has bandaged his back, long strips of cloth wrapped around his chest. The remains of his shredded robe. “Better.” Stiff, mostly, and tender beneath, but better.
“Good. Wen Qing will have to take a proper look. I think a couple need stitches, but I didn’t want to chance it.”
“Mn. And you?”
“Fine,” he shrugs, which Wangji doubts in its entirety. Wei Ying must read it on his face, because he relents enough to add, “Hungry.”
So Wangji pulls on his discarded outer robe and fetches their travel bag. He builds them a fire a brief distance from the water, motions close and careful; only once or twice does he startle himself to hissing stillness by reaching too far or twisting the wrong way. Wei Ying helps as much as Wangji will let him, which is very little; he needs rest and healing, and Wangji has already enjoyed an accidental nap. Wei Ying, he insists, will take care of himself for once.
Wei Ying makes a face and skulks off to his rock to meditate, a gold-dark shadow in the gathering dusk. Wangji keeps half an eye on him as he works. It is slow going. He is well aware of the musculature of the human body, but he finds himself shocked to irritation again and again as even the simplest movements pull at his shoulders, his hips, the line of his back.
Once the fire is lit, dinner cooking among its outermost coals, Wei Ying joins him. He hangs his still-damp robes to dry and wraps a blanket around himself. Wangji is somewhat sorry for pushing him in the water. But only somewhat.
The temperature drops with the encroaching dark. They eat in their usual halfway silence, Wangji quietly discovering how to move while using the least amount of his body possible while Wei Ying distracts him with stories of a Yunmeng childhood spent just like this, lake-worn and fire-dry. He speaks sweetly of his sister’s cooking and laughingly of the tricks he would play on or with his brother, and nostalgia is a kind companion for the evening. They are warm memories; they chase off the chill as sure as the firelight. After, they discard the scraps of their meal and bank the fire.
“You’ll have to be my blanket,” Wei Ying informs him as he lays out a bedroll, taking Wangji’s injury in stride. He’s dressed down to his pants, robes still drying. “Since you went and got my clothes all wet it’s only fair. You’ll keep me warm and I’ll be your pillow. Is that an acceptable compromise, Lan Zhan?”
It is. Wei Ying is warm beneath him, and like this he can lay his ear against Wei Ying’s chest and listen to his heart pump blood to all parts of his body, which is here and alive beneath him. Wei Ying tucks one hand against the curve of his skull, as though to hold him near, and laughs when Wangji’s breath ghosts across his chest.
“This is nice,” he decides quietly in the chill dark. “Lan Zhan, you’re so warm. We should do this more often. Well. Maybe not the almost-dying part. I don’t want to do that again.”
Wangji wonders if he ought to bite him, but exhaustion drags at his limbs and he is too tired for it. It would only encourage him, probably. He presses his face against Wei Ying’s skin.
“You know, it’s sort of funny, but I’m actually glad to not be dead. I didn’t think I’d care, but I really am glad.”
All thoughts of exhaustion fly from his mind. He pushes himself up, regardless of the shock of his back, and looks down at Wei Ying, shadowed by the curtain of his hair. There’s a terrible knowing in his face. Wangji frames it with his hand, chest doing something monstrous and shattering when Wei Ying turns into his palm and presses a kiss to the flat of it.
“Wei Ying,” he begs, and can’t say what he’s begging for.
“Mm,” sighs Wei Ying against his skin. “I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t, I said I wouldn’t. But Lan Zhan, would it really have been so bad if I’d gone away and never come back?”
His cheek is warm under his palm. Wangji’s thumb settles against the soft-delicate dip beneath his eye. Cool creeps between them, raises the skin on his shoulders where the blanket has come loose and pooled around his hips. Neither moves to fix it. Everything is blue and deep and cold around them. Moonlight through the trees paints them in shifting silver and the stream skips over its rocks, and the world is thimble-small and enormous.
“If you go,” Wangji says, “I will follow.”
“You can’t give up everything for me, Lan Zhan. I’m not worth it.”
Can’t he tell? Doesn’t he know? How can he not, still, how can he not understand the unfathomable depth of Wangji’s devotion. He cannot speak it, cannot dredge the words up from within him. They are pressed too deeply into flesh; the seedling in his chest has filled out every inch of him, green and blooming and striving toward the sun that is Wei Ying. He does not know how to live without it.
“If you left,” he admits, “I don’t know what I would do.”
“Lan Zhan. My Lan Zhan.” Wangji shudders, and Wei Ying presses a hand to his face, a perfect mirror, two sides of a coin. He leans into the touch, fingers cool against his skin. “I really love you, you know. I think probably I shouldn’t, but I can’t help it.”
His heart is cracking open, pomegranate-ripe, baring the flesh within. “Good,” he says. “Don’t.”
Wei Ying laughs. Wangji could live forever happy in that laugh.
“Wei Ying, I love you.”
“Oh.” The laughter startles to silence, and he blinks up at Wangji with the biggest, darkest eyes. Fool. Wangji feels as though he is drowning. “Oh,” he says again.
He lowers himself, tucks his face into the warm place where neck meets shoulder and breathes shakily. Never leave, he wants to ask, and cannot bring himself to demand such a thing, cannot ask it any more than he can ask the sun to stay in the noontide sky or the river to halt its run to the sea. It does not matter, anyway, if Wei Ying leaves. So long as he does not send Wangji from his side, he will go anywhere.
Wei Ying’s hand settles in place at the nape of his neck, as though it were made to lie there. He pulls the blankets over them, careful of the tender-torn skin of his back, and Wangji breathes him in.
“I sent word to xiongzhang that I will not be returning,” he admits into the hollow of Wei Ying’s throat. Wei Ying stills.
“The first time we went to town.”
Wei Ying is quiet under him, still save for the rise and fall of his chest. Wangji does not look up at him. He does not know if he could bear it.
“Lan Zhan.” His voice is muffled against Wangji’s temple, thick and wet. “Don’t you want to, though? Don’t you want to go back?”
Yes. He misses it. He is not so stubborn a man he cannot admit to homesickness, to missing his brother and his uncle and the quiet comforts of the Cloud Recesses. His rabbits. But there are more important things in his world than homesickness. “I will return when Wei Ying and the Wen sect can walk freely beneath the heavens. Not before.”
Wei Ying breathes, slow, shaky. Wangji presses the barest kiss to the line of his pulse and feels his voice thrum against his lips.
“That could be never. We could never go home again, and I will never see my shijie or Jiang Cheng or Lotus Pier or—” A great, shivering sob trembles through him, drowning his words. Wangji finds his grasping hand and laces his fingers through it, holds him tight against the shattering. He brings it to his lips, kisses the chapped knuckles, the tender wrist, the web of skin between forefinger and thumb. He holds him, lips pressed to skin, as Wei Ying cries in the cold-dark night, and loves and loves and loves him.
“I thought he’d be the one I’d have to deal with afterwards,” Wen Qing says, unwinding the last of the makeshift bandages to examine the lacerations across his back. “I suppose I should be grateful you brought at least one of you back in one piece. Though it was stupid of you to fly in this condition.”
He listens to her gripe as she looks him over, movements precise and firm. The bandages have soaked through where he pulled half-closed wounds open again in flight, but he has kept his promise to a-Yuan—it is not yet time for the evening meal, and they are back among the Wen. They have settled in the xiaoshi, Wangji on his stomach across the bed while Wei Ying sits at the desk, attention split between entertaining the boy sitting on his knee and unsubtly watching Wen Qing tsk over her patient.
“These will scar. You’re lucky they’re not deeper.”
“Mm.” He has suspected as much. They are born of resentful energy, and he can feel his own body struggling to seal the wounds, like fighting through fog. He will muster his patience for it.
“I’ll send a-Ning into town for some medication. It won’t do much, but it should help a little.”
“It is bearable.”
“Don’t argue with Qing-daifu,” Wei Ying interjects. “If she wants to give you drugs, you should say yes and thank you.” His tone is light but his brow heavy, concern hooked around the edges of his smile. Wangji meets his eyes with a quiet surety. He knows full well how carefully Wen Qing parcels what resources they can afford, that if she thinks he needs the help of herbs or remedies it is indeed worse than it looks, and likely worse than it feels. But he is loath to take up more of their meagre resources than he needs, and his comfort is a low priority. He has not lied: it is bearable. Anything, for Wei Ying’s sake, is bearable.
“You shut up,” Wen Qing says in Wei Ying’s direction. “And you too,” she directs at Wangji. “I’m your doctor and if I say you ought to take something you’ll take it. Understood?”
“Yes, Wen-daifu,” he agrees, and is rewarded with an unimpressed grunt for his cheek. But Wei Ying laughs, so he does not mind it.
“I’m going to dress these,” she says around a sigh that, were Wangji to guess, is largely for their benefit. “Properly. They really should be stitched, but there’s not enough— It won’t do any good right now.” Not enough skin left, he thinks she means; it settles over him with a curious detachment. He is grateful that Wei Ying is so studiously distracting the boy who refuses to be parted from them. “And then you will enjoy the comforts of bed rest for however long I say you will. There will be no exertion. None. I will find you separate rooms for the entirety of his convalescence if I have to. Understood?”
He does not need to see her to know precisely which cool, unimpressed look she is leveling at Wei Ying, just as he does not need to look at Wei Ying to know which sullen, grimacing face he is making in return. There is a pleasant comfort in knowing them both so well, in anticipating the edges of their conversation, their friendship. He meets a-Yuan’s eyes and finds his own knowing smile reflected back at him. It nearly startles him to laughter.
“There will be no need,” he assures Wen Qing, who only hums her simmering doubt and dips a cloth in the bowl at her side to wash the wounds with something cleaner than spring water. Each touch lances through him, but he presses his teeth tight and bears it, watching Wei Ying play with their son in the light of the autumn afternoon with welling gratitude.
Wen Qing is true to her word. Wen Qionglin departs for town with the sunrise the following morning and returns in the latest hours of the afternoon with his bounty, and Wangji is fed a thin bowl of bitter broth that drains him of a pain so deep he had not recognized it as pain. In its place there is a bare-bone cold, fingers of ice dug into his back, burrowing into the meat and tissue of him, sapping him of warmth.
It does not last long. The medicine pulls his limbs, gives them blackwater weight. He sinks into a thick, cottony sleep, and does not dream.
Wen Qing comes daily to change the dressings. Wei Ying is there too, every time; he appears as though summoned to hover just beyond the reach of her ever-present needles, his concern a tight thing that saps his smiles of any cheer. Wangji dutifully keeps his bed and lets his hand be held too tight and makes quiet conversation with a-Yuan and Wen Qionglin and indulges in Wei Ying’s fretting and feels no different waking or sleep, save that sometimes the medicine takes the pain and leaves him cold.
“Mmm,” Wen Qing hums above him on a day that Wei Ying is not nearby for once, chased off to see to sect duties, or perhaps quite simply chased off—Wangji does not recall, having only just woken, mind thick and slow with the dregs of his drugged sleep. His back is a distant, throbbing ache beneath the cloudy edge of the medicine, and Wen Qing’s movements are firm as she trades out the dressing, murmuring to herself. There is concern in her voice, clearer than he has yet heard. Wangji shifts and feels it all up and down his back, a burrowing pain. He coughs weakly and is met abruptly with a bowl of cool, clear water at his lips. It burns his throat.
“How is it?” he asks, and her hands hesitate in setting the bowl down. He catches at it like a loose thread, tugs. “Wen Qing?”
“It’s fine.” And then, with a sigh, "It's healing more slowly than I would like."
He tries to shift to look at her and is stilled by her firm hand on his shoulder. Still, though, she moves so he can look her in the eye. That is kind of her.
“You are worried,” he notes. He has seen the look on her face often enough to know it, and there is an understanding between them that lets him speak it into the air without discomfort. Her expression goes tilting-wry.
“Don’t fancy yourself so highly, Lan-er-gongzi. I am no more concerned than I would be for any patient.”
He appreciates her dryness. He appreciates her candor more.
“This would have killed him, had he borne it.”
He nods slowly, carefully. Then that is all there is to it.
She sighs and returns to his side, hands careful at her work.
“You’re both fools,” she says. “When you’re well again, we’ll be having words, Lan Wangji, don’t think we won’t.”
“I would like the opportunity to kick your ass if needed, and I took a vow never to harm a patient.”
He laughs, a frail and huffing thing. His back twinges.
“When I am well,” he agrees and lies quietly while she tends his wounds, dozing again as inconstant sleep pulls him under.
It takes a week, by his count, for the fever to set in.
He is cold in the evening and burning by sunrise. Even lying down he is dizzy, rocked by it, and twisted with nausea. Wake and sleep tangle; time drips and drags, honey-thick and sticky. Clarity reigns for too-bright, crystal-sharp moments that make his head throb and his teeth ache and his back burn, ants under skin, and then cedes abruptly to clotted dreams, noise and sound and discomfort running together like muddy water. Long stretches of black nothing blot out the moments between, medicine sending him to something that is not sleep and not waking, and he struggles from the mire exhausted, waking only to dream again.
Everything is wrong around him, space and time and noise and voices. There are conversations, sometimes, snatches of it like whispers carried on the wind. There are figures that bend over him when he wakes, or thinks he wakes, or dreams of waking. He cannot recall what is truth and what is fiction. His back hurts. He wants to go home.
He dreams of the war. He dreams of Nightless City. There is blood on his hands and face and blade. He dreams of the puppets that fall and stand and fall and stand and fall and—
He dreams he is a puppet. He dreams he is all strings, limbs conducted by an unseen puppeteer. He dreams there is blood on his hands and face and blade and it is his brother’s blood, it is Wei Ying’s blood, it is his own blood. He dreams Wei Ying faces Wen Ruohan on the far side of a roiling battlefield, smoke and limbs and swordglare, and no matter how far he runs no matter how hard he tries he cannot cleave the strings that hold him, tangle him. He dreams Wei Ying falls down down down into an abyss deeper and blacker than any Wangji has known.
He dreams the ground breaks beneath him, and he is swallowed whole by the starving, grasping dark.
“I can’t. That's all we have.”
“There must be something—”
“It will pass or it will not.”
“Would you rather I lied to you?”
He dreams he is in the Cloud Recesses, dreams they are all there. He dreams the chill he feels is the winter snow, dreams it is winter, dreams he is the winter. Wen Qing is there, and Xichen, and a healer he knew once who passed when he was little, not long after his mother, and Wangji had understood then what it meant that the man was dead and understood what it meant that his mother was dead, and he had been angry angry angry for days, so angry he could not move, so angry he could not eat, that Lan-daifu had left, had gone away and would not be coming back.
A-Zhan, says Xichen in this dream, when he is ten and six and grown. A-Zhan, don’t be angry. A-Zhan, moderation in all things. A-Zhan, sometimes people leave. A-Zhan—
And then Wen Qing is there, and she is saying, Moderation in all things, Lan Wangji, sometimes people leave, it does not do to regret the past, live without regret, Lan Zhan, we said we would live without regret, and that is Wei Ying’s voice in the wrong mouth, and he is trying is he not; he is trying so hard.
He sees Xichen in the corners of his room, watching him, haunted and haggard. Wangji has left him alone too long.
“Xiongzhang,” he says, reaching for his brother with cold-hot limbs that will not obey him, “Xiongzhang I’m sorry.”
His brother turns away.
(“You said he was doing better.
“He is. He’s fighting.”
“This is fighting?”
“...It should have been me.”
“That’s not how it works and you know it.”
“Yeah well maybe it should be.”
He dreams he is at Jinlintai, and Jiang-guniang has taken him to the farthest courtyard. He dreams it is night and the moonglow bathes everything in stark, blinding light. He dreams the narrow railing falls away like ash and Jiang-guniang smiles at him and says, No, he would not return, would he. He dreams she steps over the edge and he grabs her and she is Xichen, she is Wei Ying, she is smiling at him and saying, let go, let go, let me go, and Wangji cannot; it will break Wei Ying’s heart to lose his sister and it will break his own to lose Wei Ying, and Jinlintai burns around them and even in the fire he cannot get warm.
He dreams he is choking—
“Stop, a-Yuan, stay back!”)
(“Get him out of here—!”)
—wheezing gasping freezing—
(“Hold him down a-Ning—”)
—an unmaking that skins cleaves rips-peels-tears—
“Wait, stay back, just—”)
—until he there is nothing left—
(“What’s wrong? Why is this—”
“I don’t know.”
“I don’t know!”)
—and black swallows him whole.
He sees his brother, his uncle, his father. They watch, ghostly. They do not touch him, do not speak to him, do not say anything at all.
He dreams his mother sings to him, and he weeps.
(“—should write to—”
“—would take too long—”
“—should know, though. Wouldn't you want to know? He should—”
“And if he comes? What then?”
“I don’t know! I don’t know. I can't do fucking anything—"
“I can’t lose him. I can’t.”)
He dreams he is at Lotus Pier. He has never been to Lotus Pier but he dreams of it, a world built of Wei Ying’s tales, long-stemmed river grass and sunny pavilions cooled by the drifting lake breeze. There are silks and drapes and bells, so many bells; the air itself sings. He dreams Wei Ying is there, sun-browned and smiling, taking him by the hand. He dreams he is underwater, drifting through the long roots, the play of sunlight against the lapping waves, everything gold-green and glinting. He dreams he is lying in the river silt, the softest bed he has known, and the chimes play a long way away. He dreams he drowns.
In his dream, it is a kindly way to go.
When he wakes, water-wet sunkenness traded for chill-dry air, the chimes do not cease, and it is a long, woolen moment to recognize they are not chimes at all. A dizi plays a melody, one his mind is slow to recognize.
“Cleansing?” he asks, speech like slurry in his mouth. Everything is sticky-hot around him, the humid, stinking warmth of a sickroom, the sweat of a broken fever. The music cuts out abruptly.
Wei Ying is before him suddenly, face swimming in and out of focus—or, no, that is the candlelight. It is late. Early? He cannot tell. He attempts to ask and coughs instead, each motion a low throb. Wei Ying vanishes for a moment and returns with water, holding it up so he can sip it slowly, angle awkward, throat working. It is warm from sitting out. In this moment, it is the best thing he has ever drunk.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” says Wei Ying as he drinks, “you scared us. You shouldn’t play at such theatrics. Don’t you know that’s my job?” His mouth smiles and concern lurks in the corners of his eyes, and when Wangji has finished the shallow bowl Wei Ying dries his chin with the cuff of his sleeve. Wangji blinks at him, slow with grit.
“I apologize,” he manages, unwieldy. He wets his lips. “How long—?”
“Eight days.” Wei Ying’s face is too somber, frightened. Wangji frowns, reaching for him, and is rewarded with a brief, stuttered, “Ah, ah, careful,” and then Wei Ying takes his hand, stilling its movement. He does not quite have the strength to squeeze Wei Ying’s fingers, and so it is a paltry assurance, but Wei Ying’s expression clears nevertheless.
“You are a stubborn man. Has anyone ever told you that?”
Wei Ying laughs, frail. “The stubbornest.” He slots their fingers together. Grey exhaustion colors his face. “My dear stubborn Lan Zhan.”
“Promised,” he murmurs. "Staying." Wei Ying laughs again and nods and kisses his forehead, lips cool and dry against his skin.
“Yes, yes, I know. You rest now. Rest and recover, and stay a long time, alright? Stay forever.”
Yes, he means to respond, but his eyes have fallen shut all on their own, and before he can pry them open again he is asleep.
It is days before he can so much as sit upright, and all the while Cleansing curls through the xiaoshi, a constant companion as he trades clotted dreams for clearheadedness. Wei Ying is slower than ever to leave his side, and Wangji is quietly grateful for his presence. It is a relief to not be alone.
Wen Qing who explains it to him later, removing the last of his sutures—how the resentment had burrowed beneath his skin, twisting healing to hurt, grown all the worse as he regained spent spiritual power.
“He figured it out, of course,” she says, eyes flicking to Wei Ying where he dozes near the fire, arms and legs folded, still halfway upright. She says it as though it were obvious. “It was slow to take. It would have been easier, if— I have a tea for such things, back in—” She cuts herself off, uncommonly impatient. He grants her the dignity of her bitter silence and does not think on how it would be easier if things were not as they are.
He takes in a deep breath and lets it out again, silent.
She pauses, and the twinge is not so bad when he turns to look at her, the furrow of her brow, the tight press of her lips. The air is cool, even with the stove lit and the windows shut tight. Winter has crept in while he has been stuck fast to his sickbed.
“You are one of us,” she says after a clotted minute, hands slow to take up their task again. “You are my responsibility as much as anyone here. You don’t need to thank me for this.”
He hums a little, low, and holds still while Wen Qing finishes her work. “Nevertheless,” he says.
To look back on it now, there is no point he can mark, no line he can draw, to define the change from stranger to friend, from friend to something he might, in his quiet, private contemplations, dare to call family. Once he had desired nothing more than to stand here upon this side of a sand-drawn line, but that is the trouble with sands: they shift, even underfoot. Sometimes he is not certain he has moved at all; it is only that his toes have dug into the river silt, and the water has carved change upon the riverbed all around him. It is not the crossing of a threshold that has brought him here. Rather, it is the steady, daily pace of slow change, tenderly tended alongside the vegetables and the village, grown with time and patience. No less precious for its mundanity, but the gentle rain, not the lightning storm.
Wen Qing breathes quietly, the edge of something not a laugh but warm nevertheless. “If you must thank me, thank me by healing quickly,” she tells him as she rises. “Maybe then Wei Wuxian will finally stop with all his fretting.”
“Doubtful,” Wangji returns, slow to pull his robe back over his shoulders, and she laughs her sharp, not-unkind laugh.
“One has to hope,” she says, and it rings true for more than Wei Ying’s hovering.
As with many things that matter, healing comes slow. It is a dragging headache of convalescence, days spent abed before he so much as makes a limping round of the xiaoshi with Wen Qionglin stood upright to brace him. There are moments, still, when the unconscious instinct towards healing sends him back to his sickbed, body’s own energy twisted against itself by a power he understands only the edges of. Wei Ying sits with him, then, soothing, playing his quiet Cleansing and doing more, something Wangji does not understand, that for a while at least rids him of the ice-sharp pain. Slowly he learns to leave his body to heal at its own pace, and focus his efforts elsewhere.
He suggests, once, sealing himself entirely so as not to tempt trouble, but Wei Ying’s horror at the thought puts the discussion to rest before it can truly arise.
“And anyway,” says Wei Ying, perched at the edge of the bed while Wangji sits before him, fingers digging into the tight knot of tension at his neck where he has grown stiff from holding himself so carefully against the constant ache, “you’ve got plenty of other places to direct it, haven’t you? If not you could always help me in the workshop.”
“I help you already,” he points out, eyes drifting closed as Wei Ying digs his thumbs in at either side of his jaw, pressing slowly upwards along his hairline. He sighs, long and slow, and feels it in his jaw and behind his eyes as his headache ebbs. Wei Ying does it again and it is an effort not to groan.
Wei Ying hums behind him. “Yes, but theory is theory and practice is practice. What’s the point in discussing hypotheticals without giving it a try every now and then? I thought I might fetch some supplies in town and see what all I can do. Without the— you know.”
Wangji twists around to look at him, and Wei Ying makes a face. “Ah, don’t be like that. It’s not like I’m saying I want to go off night hunting or anything. Well, not yet anyway. I only want to test a couple of new projects. Measure my limits, that sort of thing.”
“Mn,” he says, and turns front again only when Wei Ying pouts and prods at his shoulder.
“So distrustful, Lan Zhan.”
“Worried,” he corrects, and Wei Ying’s fingers still against his neck, touch feather-light. They breathe like that a moment, together, connection filament-thin, and then the brief press of lips brushes the crown of his head.
“I know,” Wei Ying says, barely loud enough to hear over the rustling of the wind outside. “It’s the same for me, you know. Especially when—” He does not complete the thought, but his fingers slide from the underside of his skull along the side of his vertebrae to rest like butterflies just where his neck meets his shoulders, careful not to brush the pink-tender skin. When Wangji turns to look at him, his expression has settled somewhere between rueful and uncertain. A smile flickers at the corners of his mouth and fades, overshadowed by the furrow of his brow.
“This was not your fault,” Wangji tells him quietly, and Wei Ying shakes his head.
“You don’t have to do that. I know I get people in trouble. Hurt. I just don’t know what I would have done, if you—” He takes a deep breath, unsteady. “I’m sorry.”
Wangji blinks at him, the cast of his eyes and the sweep of his lashes, and takes the slow effort to turn, knelt neatly before Wei Ying. Wei Ying watches him, heavy and silent, and Wangji catches his limp hands between them, brings first one then the other up to his lips, eyes never once straying from Wei Ying’s face.
“It is not something to apologize for,” he says. “Between us, there is nothing to apologize for.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan—”
“Wei Ying. It wasn’t your fault.” It was not, and Wangji would do it again without hesitation. He does not think that will be a comfort to Wei Ying the way it is a comfort to himself, that iron-sure conviction, but it is no less true for his silence. He keeps his gaze even, steady, and wills Wei Ying to believe him.
He must, at least in part, because he sighs, air shuddering between them, and tips forward until they are pressed forehead against forehead, skin against skin where Wangji’s ribbon has been shed in the comfort of his home.
“Lan Zhan is so good,” he murmurs. “So good and patient. What did I ever do to deserve this, hm?”
Deserving has nothing to do with it. But he cannot find the words to explain that, to speak of how Wei Ying is Wei Ying and that is all that needs saying of the matter. Instead he tips his chin up and catches his lips in a quiet, kind kiss, and hopes Wei Ying will read his answer there instead.
Wei Ying smiles against his mouth, so perhaps he understands.
“Anyway, it’s moot, really,” Wei Ying says when they part, a wry and comfortable amusement settled over him. “If Wen Qing lets you into town before the new year, I’ll eat my hat.”
Wei Ying has no hat to eat, Wangji points out with a twitch of his brows, and if he did he would surely find better use for it. Wei Ying makes a face.
“You know what I mean.”
“I have no doubt Wen Qionglin would go with you, if you are so impatient.”
“Ah, listen to you, so reasonable.”
“Mh.” He hardly thinks himself reasonable—certainly Wei Ying saps him of all sense with astounding frequency—but one of them must make at least a modicum of effort, and he cannot imagine it will be Wei Ying.
“Anyway, Wen Ning would be no help. He’d be set upon by the kids as soon as they caught sight of him, and then what would I do? All my shopping, alone? No, no, I’ll languish here and wait for Lan Zhan to accompany me.”
“Hardly languishing,” Wangji says, and Wei Ying laughs, full and true. It soothes his nipping worry.
“Yes, yes, I am rich with root vegetables and the uncles’ gossip and a very dirty son.”
“Perhaps if you did not so often plant him with the root vegetables.”
“Ah, but how else will he grow?”
Ridiculous. Wei Ying grins.
“When you’re well,” he says firmly, as though this has been any sort of argument, as though Wangji would not grant him anything he asked. “And in the meantime I’ve plenty to keep me busy here, yes, I know. You don’t need to tell me.”
“I hadn’t intended on it.”
“Ah, but it was on your face.” He presses a whisper-dry kiss to his forehead, the sun-faint spot where his forehead ribbon leaves his face paler than all the rest no matter his efforts, hat or no, and gently bullies him around to continue his work, fingers leeching the tension from his spine. “I’ll be careful, Lan Zhan. I don’t plan on going anywhere, I mean it. You're stuck with me now.”
For a caught-breath moment, tears well in his eyes and his chest and his throat. He breathes slow and shaky and more grateful than he will ever be able to say.
“Mn.” He wraps himself in it, both the assurance and the steady presence at his back, and his shoulders settle as he sinks into Wei Ying’s idle chatter about what other theories he means to test, and precautions he swears to take, and how perhaps, maybe, eventually, they might take up night hunting again.
“After all,” he reasons, “a-Yuan will have to learn at some point, won’t he? And there are no better teachers than us. And it would be terrible, you know, if we were so out of practice we couldn’t even instruct him properly. What would the great sects say, if Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian had grown old and fat living off the fruits of their labor?”
The fruits of the labor are nothing near enough for them to grow fat, nor anything close to it. Old and thin is a far more likely outcome for the both of them, knobby and weathered with dirt pressed into the creases of their palms, drawing the story of their life in the earth. He would not mind that, to see Wei Ying grey, the lines of his laughter printed across his face. To be with him for the weathering of it.
“And Wen Qing will teach him medicine, and he’ll grow up so clever and talented. And handsome, of course. A musician and a cultivator and a doctor too! Ah, Lan Zhan, he’ll be so good. I mean, he is already, of course but— Oh, you know what I mean.”
He does. And it is a good thought: Wen Yuan stood tall and strong, a cultivator in his own right. Their legacy out at the very edges of the world, planted in the earth and grown alongside the radishes and the rice.
daifu (大夫) — 'doctor'
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."
- lao bao (老包) — a nickname, lit. 'old bun'
- Jiang Cheng doesn't take it particularly well. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji spend a couple months bopping around as wandering cultivators before Jiang Yanli can make it from Lanling to Yunmeng and sit them down for Family Arguments Over Soup. emotions are expressed. tears are shed. Jiang Cheng argues Wei Wuxian into being head disciple again. this is ideal for everyone.
- Jiang Yanli does make it to the wedding. more tears are shed.
- Jin Ling is named Jin Ruying in this AU for Reasons. specifically yīng (英), which is the same pronunciation as 婴 from Wei Ying (魏婴) and means 'hero' and also 'blossom'. he still prefers Jin Ling.
- not sure about Wen Yuan's courtesy name in this AU. tempted to go with Qinglian (清涟, 'clear ripples') à la hunxi-guilai's meta. regardless, Wen Qing & Wen Ning get final say.
- as there are no (or few, anyway) Wen cultivators to teach him, Wen Yuan spends time as a Jiang Disciple before going off to study the cultivation techniques of the Wen. Jiang Cheng proves a useful, surprisingly available resource on rebuilding your sect from the ground up.
- it takes many years for the full Qishan debacle to be worked out. in the end, QishanWen falls in place of DafanWen, who are not a great sect in the way of the Jiang/Jin/Lan/Nie, but are known for the medical practices. Lan Xichen donates copies of existing Lan medicinal texts, Jiang Cheng provides Jiang texts, as well as everything that was salvaged from the Yiling office. Wen Qing, privately, after much consideration and at the request of Jiang Cheng, writes down her notes on the core transfer.