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in the water grass, in the green

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-1-

For the first week of every month, Lan Wangji left his river behind and walked down into the human world. He did this because he loved his mother, who was human. The town where she lived had been small when Lan Wangji was a child, but now its edges crept nearer and nearer to the mountains, like the slow seep of spilled glue.

But his mother’s house had not changed in all the years she had lived, ever since her sons were children and she left the mountain and the river where they were born. Every month he arrived and knocked on the door, calling out “A-ma?” and every month she greeted him with a hug. He chopped vegetables for her to cook, and they ate half the food standing up in the kitchen or in the courtyard that adjoined the house.

Lan Wangji’s brother usually visited at the same time, so he spent more time with Xichen than most adult river spirits did with their families. The three of them took turns playing long games of chess, watching each other like hawks with mine. When his mother lost, she threw up her hands in exasperation and said, “What kind of son did I raise anyway? Can’t even let his poor mother win!” The joke was: she had not been allowed to raise them.

At the end of the week, he went back to the river. The human world felt itchy to him, like a fine layer of dust constantly settling on his skin. Sometimes his mother would draw him a cool bath in her tiny pastel-green bathroom, and he would tuck his long limbs into it and try to pretend that he was sitting in living water. When he dressed and came out to the living room, she would say, “Turning into a mermaid now, hm?” and tweak his ear. As a child, this idea had been horrifying and tantalizing in equal measure. A river spirit is nothing like a mermaid, and little Lan Zhan couldn’t bear the thought of the depths of the ocean, the cavernous dark below its surface.

He had always known that his father’s disgrace was in marrying his mother; that his mother’s disgrace was in being human, and a witch to boot. For a river spirit to marry someone whose practice of magic went so far beyond the pale was a deadly transgression, and only his father’s high status within his family had kept him from being punished more severely. The Lan elders were never shy about expressing their dislike of Madam Lan, as they reluctantly admitted she must still be called.

He never forgot who she was; he would never give her up.

Every month the pattern remained the same, engrained into the habits of Lan Wangji’s life. Until this early summer day, when he left the willow-shaded green of his home and walked down the dusty road to his mother’s house and knocked on the door, and she did not answer.

*

At first, he was not alarmed. She had fallen asleep, he thought. She might easily do such a thing in the heat of the day. A mulberry tree grew beside her bedroom window, and it made the room shaded and cool on long summer days. He knocked more loudly, but still no one came.

Eventually he did something entirely new: he used the spare key, hidden under a handy flower pot. “In case,” his mother had said, and “In case of what?” he’d asked, and now he knew. He unlocked the door. Inside, the house was still and silent. Had she gone out? It didn’t seem likely. She always did her shopping first thing in the morning and was home well before he arrived.

He found himself holding his breath as he stepped lightly into the house. He called out again, but heard no answer.

She was not in the bedroom, safely asleep. She had not stepped out into the courtyard, or the garden. He turned around in circles, wondering where else to look, what possible place his mother could be.

He found her in the kitchen. She was lying motionless on the floor, a small huddle against the worn tiles. For a moment his heart stopped. For a moment he could not manage to move a single inch. Then he knelt and touched his hand to her skin. It was warm. He took her wrist and felt her pulse beating under his fingertips. But he could not wake her.

Theoretically, Lan Wangji knew how to use a phone. He found his mother’s lying on the table nearby, and the screen gave him an option to call emergency services, so he did. His voice sounded breathless to him as he described the problem and gave his mother’s address and his own information. They weren’t used to dealing with non-human people, he thought, because they seemed quite confused over his lack of identification.

He wished he could call Xichen for help, but Xichen was traveling with Nie Mingjue, following the course of his own river as it wove across the broad plain. Lan Wangji was on his own, and now there was nothing to do but wait.

His mother didn’t seem uncomfortable, but she didn’t wake, or move of her own volition. They had told him that he shouldn’t try to move her, so he did not, but he straightened her dress out and smoothed her hair back from her forehead. She had always been someone who took pride in dressing neatly.

At last the paramedics knocked and he rose to let them in. They let him ride in the ambulance with her, although they still seemed bemused by his total lack of identification. They wouldn’t let him in the room while she was examined, though, and he paced back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, waiting. It felt like waiting was its own state of being, the time that passed impossible to reckon, tangled and ungainly. He thought of how he had walked down the mountain, already looking forward to that week, already wondering what they would cook together. He thought of how she had already been lying in the kitchen. He could not bear it.

“Lan xiansheng?” someone asked. He turned at once. His mother’s identification still bore his father’s name, so that must have helped them accept that their relationship was as he said. “The doctor can update you now.” They ushered him back to a sterile room where his mother lay on a bed.

“Lan Wangji?” The doctor was an older man. He thought his mother would describe him as distinguished. The doctor said, “I’m glad you called us as soon as you did. She’s stable and her vital signs are strong. So, that’s the good news. No major injuries, just a few bumps from when she fell.”

Lan Wangji listened very carefully to what the doctor was and was not saying. “You don’t know what’s wrong,” he said.

The doctor blinked at him. “Well—we’re still running tests.” A hedging answer. Lan Wangji hated it. “It’s possible that something will turn up. At the moment, I will admit that we’re not sure what’s causing the coma.”

“How—do you know how long?”

The doctor frowned. “How long what?”

“She was there.”

The man’s face eased a bit. “Oh, I see. I can’t say definitely, but I’d guess not very long. Are you—that is, she lives alone?”

Lan Wangji nodded. That early marriage, unhappy, quickly transforming into a separation. Her sons, growing up with their father’s family. “Yes,” he said. “She has always lived alone.”

The doctor said, “Well, there’s no reason to be too concerned at this point. We’ll certainly give her the best possible care.” He went on to tell Lan Wangji their next steps, and to assure him that he would be welcome during visiting hours every day, and that he shouldn’t worry.

Lan Wangji heard all of this, but he didn’t listen. He watched the slow rise and fall of his mother’s breaths and the slackness of her face. All her bright, warm smiles. He swallowed down a rush of tears that he refused to give way to in public.

“Excuse me,” he gasped out, and hurried down the hallway to the bathroom, where he allowed himself to cry for exactly two minutes before he washed his face and ran cold water over the backs of his hands and pressed them to his eyes. It was his mother’s trick that she had taught him when he had been a child who was easily upset and tenacious in his moods. It was a human gesture, one no river spirit would ever instinctively do. His eyes ached. His wrists ached.

He walked back to the room. The doctor was gone. He leant over the bed and kissed her forehead. “I’m sorry,” he whispered. He sat by the bed and held her hand as long as he could. Then he stood and left the hospital, and walked back to her house. It took him a long time, walking through the last glow of the sunset and into the grey-shadowed evening. He had a bedroom here, but he was too tired to consider making up the bed. He slept on the overstuffed floral couch that she refused to get rid of and woke, not very rested. He ate something. He didn’t know what. Changed his clothes and went back to the hospital.

Three days of this. Everything narrowed down to two rooms: his mother’s at the hospital, the living room at her house. The sun rose in a haze and set in a haze and Lan Wangji felt his skin prickle with heat and dust and exhaustion.

On the morning of the fourth day, he woke with one sentence dropped into his mind, ringing like a struck bell: What if it’s not natural?

*

When Lan Wangji was younger, he liked to hear about witches. Strictly speaking, they were a forbidden topic of conversation, but that didn’t stop generations of Lan children from telling stories during family events. Lan Wangji liked these stories because witches were human, but they knew magic. They understood the world he lived in. Secretly, he thought that when he was older, he would be able to be a witch and a river spirit at the same time.

He told his mother this idea once, thinking she would be happy. Instead she looked sad. “Ah, little rabbit, I don’t think that’s a possibility,” she told him.

He hadn’t understood, not until later, when his uncle told him that witches were devouring wickedness personified. He didn’t believe his uncle, because his mother was a witch and she made food and grew plants and kissed his forehead. But he knew then that his uncle and his father’s family would never permit any child of theirs to follow that path.

And his mother never spoke of it. Except once, obliquely, when he was newly adult, with his own river to watch over and his own power to grow into. That one time, she said, “Well, Zhanzhan, trouble always follows us, so be careful.” Then she laughed and hugged him. “You’ll be fine, though,” she told him. “You’ll be grand.”

What trouble? He wondered now. What trouble had followed her?

He ate and dressed and went to the hospital, where they told him there had been no change. He sat by her bed and watched her steady breath. Other people—his brother, for instance—might have talked to her. He didn’t feel the need to say anything; he never had. They understood each other.

He left earlier than previously, before sunset. The nurse at the reception station looked surprised to see him go. He paused for a moment and then walked back. “Excuse me,” he said, knowing that he sounded strangely formal to the man’s ears. “I have what may be a strange question. Do you know of any witches who live around here?”

It was a strange question. Too odd a question, in fact: the man reared away from him and gave Lan Wangji a baffled, distrustful look. “Any—no!”

“Ah,” Lan Wangji said. “Thank you.” He turned away.

He stopped at the store where his mother usually shopped and bought more food. He watched the cashier ring it up and then said, “I don’t suppose you know of any witches nearby?”

The girl stared at him. “Uh, nope.” She pushed the groceries at him and watched as he left.

He ate and washed the dishes and put them away. Then he turned on his mother’s ancient laptop and tried to search. But the results were all nonsense. Nothing trustworthy about any of them. He sighed and went to bed.

Perhaps he was wrong. But perhaps he was not.

On the fifth day, he tried asking his mother’s neighbors. They gave him strange looks and did not answer him. He went back to the hospital in the afternoon and sat with her while the sun slowly sank and reddened. He was almost asleep himself when one of the nurses came by to take his mother’s vitals.

“I hear you’ve been asking about witches,” she said cheerfully, when she was done.

He thought he was blushing, but he sat up and nodded.

“Funny you should ask, because I think the people down the street from me are—well, maybe I’m just being judgemental—but they seem like the type to do some magic.”

“Please,” he said hoarsely. “Can you give me their information?”

She could and she did. Only a last name and an address, but it was something. Hopefully enough. “Thank you,” he said. “Thank you.”

She blinked. “Well, sure. No problem. But you know it’s far more likely to be something natural.”

Lan Wangji did not try to explain his mother’s history or his own. He nodded and said, “Still, I have to try.”

The nurse smiled at him. “Lucky mother, to have such a sweet boy,” she said, and left.

*

Even in all of his worry, he knew that it was too late to show up at the witches’ house that night. He couldn’t sleep, tossing and turning on the couch. The room felt close and stifling. He had spent almost a week there and still had no answers. He had never spent longer than a week at his mother’s house. He didn’t know how long he could bear to be away from his river.

He finally drifted off to sleep at dawn and jerked awake two hours later. Ate, dressed, and found the paper where he had written the address the nurse gave him. He looked up the location and set off.

He wasn’t familiar with this part of the town and he got slightly lost before he finally found the right street. And there, at the end of it: a dark house with a foreboding aspect. He checked the numbers again and found that it was the one he was looking for.

Still, he hesitated before knocking on the door. What if they couldn’t help, or wouldn’t? He knew he had to try, but it took an effort to make himself move. At last, he pictured the hospital room and his mother lying still on the bed, and he lifted his hand and knocked.

Almost immediately he heard a crash from somewhere inside the house and then someone calling indistinctly. And then the door was wrenched open, leaving Lan Wangji standing on the step, his hand still raised.

“Hi!” The person who opened the door blinked at Lan Wangji. “Wow. Wow! Um, come on in? Don’t mind the mess.” He righted a bicycle and laughed sheepishly.

Lan Wangji hesitated for one more moment and then stepped across the threshold. The house was dim after the bright sun outside.

“So, how can we help you?” The man smiled cheerfully. His trousers and shirt and jacket were all black, but he had a daisy chain looped around his neck, so the effect was perhaps less intimidating than he meant it to be.

“My mother,” Lan Wangji said, and then he couldn’t go on. He swallowed twice, because he did not want to cry. He couldn’t cry, in front of this sun-bright stranger who had welcomed him into his house.

“Oh, hey,” the man said, tone quickly shifting to warm sympathy. He reached out a hand, almost touching Lan Wangi’s elbow, and then withdrew it before making contact. “Come sit down in here.” He waved Lan Wangji into a living room stuffed with toys and books and board games, and even another bicycle. “Just a second, I’ll be right back, I promise!”

Lan Wangji did not mind being left alone. It gave him a chance to compose himself.

“Here,” the man said, returning with a glass. “Fresh plum juice from our own trees. We’re using up last year’s batch. But Wen Ning made it, don’t worry.”

“I don’t know what that means,” Lan Wangji said.

The man threw back his head and laughed. “Fair enough. He’s just a much better cook than I am, that’s all. Wei Ying.”

“What?” Lan Wangji sipped the juice a little warily. It was good, though, sweet and cold.

“My name. And you are?”

“Lan Wangji.”

Wei Ying started and stared at Lan Wangji. “Like—oh wow. Like the river spirit family?”

Lan Wangji nodded. He guessed that this reaction meant he was in the right place, and they were witches here after all.

Wei Ying frowned. “I’ve heard of a woman who married into the Lans. A human.”

“My mother,” Lan Wangji said quietly. He set the glass down on the table and folded his hands in his lap. “She’s ill.”

“Oh damn, I’m sorry.” Wei Ying finally sat down on the couch next to Lan Wangji, folding one leg up so he could sit sideways. “What happened?”

Lan Wangji’s throat felt painfully tight again. He picked up the glass and took another careful sip of the juice. “The doctors don’t know. She’s unconscious. I thought—that is, I hoped perhaps someone here might be able to help.”

“Ah.” Wei Ying’s eyes went sharp. “In that case, we need Wen Qing. Unfortunately, she’s out right now. Do you want to come back later?”

Lan Wangji breathed out a sigh. He ached somewhere deep inside. Like a frozen river, only the depths moving. “Of course,” he said quietly. “I won’t take up any more of your time.”

Wei Ying opened his mouth to say something, but Lan Wangji never learned what, because a small and muddy person came running into the room carrying a huge radish, and launched themself at Wei Ying.

“Wei gege, look!”

Wei Ying caught the child and the radish with the ease of practice. “A-Yuan, we have a visitor! Where are your manners? Where are your uncles?” He glanced up at Lan Wangji. “I’m so sorry about the interruption,” he said.

“I don’t mind,” Lan Wangji replied.

“Oh,” Wei Ying said, as if he had seen something strange and wonderful.

And Lan Wangji realized that he was smiling at A-Yuan and the radish, the first time he had smiled at all during that long and dreadful week.

“If you’d rather,” Wei Ying said slowly, “you’re welcome to stay and wait for Wen Qing.”

Image of LWJ sitting on the couch, with WWX kneeling on the floor beside him. a-Yuan is running towards them.

*

A-Yuan wanted to show them where his radish had grown and tugged at Wei Ying until he stood. “You really don’t have to come along, Lan Wangji,” he said. He seemed faintly embarrassed, but Lan Wangji didn’t see why.

“I would like to see the radishes,” he said, because it was true. He did not want to sit alone while they were out in the garden.

“Okay,” Wei Ying said, giving in, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you!”

The house was strange: a mixture of dark, gloomy corners and the cheerful sprawl of a busy family. Lan Wangji wasn’t quite sure who the people Wei Ying mentioned were, who A-Yuan was. He followed them through the kitchen, and out into the garden behind the house.

Lan Wangji caught his breath. It wasn’t a large space, but they had laid it out carefully. He could see cucumber and melon vines, tomatoes and eggplants just on the verge of blooming, poles for runner beans. A parasol tree grew in the back corner, with a picnic table in the shade underneath. In the center of the garden, under the plum tree, someone had made a pond, edged with stones, where lotuses might bloom later in the year. Lan Wangji felt a hum in the air like the beating of dragonfly wings and the slow growth of trees.

He thought that they saved their kitchen scraps for compost, the way his mother did. He thought that they started their seeds each spring and fussed over them until they were hardy enough to be planted outside. He knew the rhythms that they must follow, just as his mother did; just as she had taught him.

A-Yuan squatted down beside the radish plot. “Look!” he said, pointing. “That’s where my radish was.”

Lan Wangji bent down too, to inspect it. “Do you think the other radishes are as big?” he asked.

“No!” A-Yuan laughed. “I picked the biggest one!”

“How could you tell?” Lan Wangji asked, genuinely curious. “Did you pull all of them up and then plant them again?”

“I just knew!” A-Yuan shrugged and then put a muddy hand on Lan Wangji’s knee.

“A-Yuan—” Wei Ying started.

“When I was a radish,” A-Yuan said, very seriously, “and I had to grow up nice and big to be a boy, I liked to eat worms.”

“When you were a radish,” Lan Wangji echoed, concerned about the misconceptions in that sentence.

“Oh no, it’s an old joke,” Wei Ying said, giving up and crouching down beside them. “Right, Yuan’er? How many brothers and sisters are you going to have this time?”

“Do I count this one?” A-Yuan asked, holding up the radish he had picked.

Wei Ying made a thinking face, tapping his chin a few times. “I don’t know! What do you think?”

A-Yuan shook his head. “Then it’s—” he muttered to himself as he counted.

"Sorry about all of this," Wei Ying told Lan Wangji. "Wen Qing will be home soon and we'll get her opinion then. She specialized in medical witchcraft and she's really the best. If anyone can help your mother, she can."

"Ten!" A-Yuan finished, triumphant.

"Wow! Ten whole brothers and sisters for our little radish, huh?"

"A-Yuan!" someone called. "Wei Ying!"

"Wen Qing! We have a visitor," Wei Ying stood and shaded his eyes against the sun.

She walked up to join them, frowning against the sun.

"This is Lan Wangji," Wei Ying told her. "His mother's sick."

Lan Wangji stood as well. He could feel his heart thumping. If she couldn't help, or if she decided not to, he didn't know what he would do.

"Let's go inside," she said, after she had inspected him thoroughly. "I need some tea."

She and Wei Ying walked into the house together. He was bent towards her, saying something too quietly for Lan Wangji to make it out. She wore black too, and a red blouse. Not bright red: true blood red. Watching the two of them, Lan Wangji felt a prickling sense of their power.

"Gege, I'll give you a radish," A-Yuan told Lan Wangji. "That will help your A-ma feel better."

He smiled down at the little boy. His mother would love this house and this odd family. He wondered why she had never met them. Why she kept so much to herself. "I am sure it would," he said.

They made him sit in the living room again while Wen Qing made tea. A-Yuan carried out a plate of cookies, the tip of his tongue sticking out with the effort of holding it level. Lan Wangji still had to save it from tipping at the end.

"Thanks!" A-Yuan told him, and climbed on the sofa beside him to point out the best cookies.

"A-Yuan, you can go play," Wen Qing told him when she came in.

"No! I want to stay."

"Then you must be quiet," she said. A-Yuan nodded and stuffed a cookie in his mouth, perhaps to keep himself occupied. "Lan Wangji. Wei Ying says that you're one of the river spirit Lans. But your mother is human."

Lan Wangji swallowed his mouthful of tea. It was a lovely oolong, sweet and rich, tasting faintly of peaches. "Yes. She has lived here since I was young." He described what happened, trying to remember the medical terms the doctor had used. Wen Qing asked him a few questions about her symptoms and he answered them as well as he could.

"There are a few possibilities," she said at last. "But I don't know." She sighed. "I suppose Wei Ying didn't explain our situation?"

“No,” Lan Wangji said.

She nodded. “Well, I won’t go into all of it, but I don’t know that your mother would be very pleased to be treated by a Wen doctor.”

Lan Wangji felt a cold dread grip him at the possibility that a cure might slip through his fingers. “Please,” he said. “She wouldn’t—if she would be upset with anyone, it would be me. Please.”

She gave him a long, searching look. “Very well,” she said at last. “I’ll need to see her, and possibly the house. You haven’t felt any symptoms or illness yourself while staying there?”

He shook his head. Nothing except his worry and sorrow, which were natural enough in the circumstances. “When are you free?” he asked.

“Today, if you are,” she said at once, standing. “It may take me some time to work through the possibilities, so it would be better to begin at once.”

“Thank you,” he said, because it seemed vital to try to convey some of the gratitude that was threatening to overwhelm him.

She nodded once, briskly. “I can drive.”

She went to tell Wei Ying where they were going. A-Yuan, who had indeed been quiet the whole time they were talking, leaned over and put his hand on Lan Zhan’s knee again. “Gege, don’t be sad,” he said earnestly.

Lan Wangji looked at his large, round eyes. “Sometimes it’s right to be sad. My mother is very sick, so I’m worried about her.”

“Oh,” A-Yuan said, and frowned.

“Ready?” Wen Qing asked from the door. He nodded and stood.

Her car was small and red and dusty. Lan Wangji folded himself into the passenger seat while she put a bag of supplies into the back. Then she shut the door with a bang that startled him and waved goodbye to Wei Ying at the front door and they rattled away down the street.

She drove confidently and competently, leaving a fine trail of summer dust lingering in the air behind them. She did not try to make conversation, for which Lan Wangji was grateful. He felt that he only had one thought now, one emotion swelling through his whole mind and heart.

The road led them by the foot of Lan Wangji's mountain and his skin prickled with acrid dryness. It was worse, being so close to his river. He knew that he could not spend much longer in his mother's house without going back. The knowledge fretted at him for the rest of the drive, until Wen Qing pulled into an empty parking spot and they walked inside together.

It got worse when they entered the hospital. He had to greet the nurses and ask if there were any changes and ask for a visitor’s badge for Wen Qing: all the small moments of human life that Lan Wangji found difficult. But Wen Qing helped, suddenly adopting a friendly tone that smoothed the way. She said she was an old family friend and that seemed to satisfy one of the nurses who had been inquisitive. Lan Wangji leaned against the high counter and was once again grateful for her.

Then the room where his mother lay, small and shrunken under the thin blanket. He could not bear to think of it as hers, which would imply a duration, a giving-in. He rejected it. He went and sat in his usual chair and took her hand while Wen Qing went about her business.

He had imagined that she might chant or brew herbs or something. He still did not really know what witches did. But in fact she looked at the notes that had been left, and at the readings from the various machines. She held her fingers to his mother's other wrist and touched her eyelids, her lips, the hollow of her throat. Then she nodded briskly at him and stood.

"I have to go back soon," he told his mother. He would not cry, although he wanted to. "Please." He bit back the rest of the words. "I'll come as soon as I can." He kissed her forehead.

Wen Qing drove them to her house in silence. She parked outside the door and then sat, drumming her fingers on the steering wheel. "It's a spell," she said finally. "A curse. Which is the good news: that I was able to tell. But it's wicked. Not just morally, I mean. In the sense of a wicked problem."

He shook his head, not understanding.

She made a gesture with her hands. "I said 'a spell' but it's more accurately several, all bad enough on their own. They've been interwoven, so that if they're not all broken at once, they'll just rebound on each other."

"That sounds bad," he said, shaken.

She gave a short, humorless laugh. "That would be very bad." She looked at him full in the face. "I can break it safely, but it's going to take me time. The most I could do today is slow the effects."

"Thank you," he heard himself say. Everything felt very far away at the moment. He bit his own lip and felt himself settle into his body.

"Thank me when I've found the answer," she said, and sighed.

But he could tell that she was someone who liked a challenge. She got out of the car and he did as well, because he could not stay there alone. He stood, wondering how to say goodbye.

At the door she turned back. "Lan Wangji? Aren't you coming in for dinner?" And he supposed that he was.

*

They ate in the garden: eight of them squeezed around the picnic table. Wen Qing, Wei Ying, two uncles, a grandmother, A-Yuan, and Wen Ning, who was Wen Qing's brother and who had cooked enough food for twenty people. And Lan Wangji.

Wei Ying kept giving Lan Wangji more food that he thought he’d like. “Try this fish, Lan Wangji!” he said, and “Wen Ning makes really good noodles, don’t you think?” Wen Ning, who was a very quiet person, also dressed in black, just smiled across the table at both of them. It wasn't the same as cooking with his mother and trading bites of food in her kitchen until she shooed him away long enough for them to sit down. It wasn't the same, but Lan Wangji felt the same weaving of warmth around him.

He said goodbye as the sun finally began to set. Wen Qing told him that she would start work on the cure tomorrow. A-Yuan gave him a hug around his knees. Wen Ning gave him a container of food to take. Wei Ying walked him to the door and waved goodbye in the cool blue dusk. His heart full of their kindness, Lan Wangji walked back to his mother's house and, for the first time all week, slept well.

All the same, he knew he was running out of time. He spent the whole of the next day at the hospital. He rubbed lotion into his mother's hands and feet and told her stories that she had taught him. He smoothed her hair back from her face. It was growing longer than she liked to keep it. His heart was being torn in two.

He made his way back to the Wens' house after he finally left the hospital. He knocked on the door and waited for someone to answer. Wen Qing, in a grey dress this time, pulled the door open and raised her eyebrows at him.

"I have to go to my river," he told her. "Tomorrow morning. Will you send me a message, if there's any change? I'll be back as soon as I can."

She nodded, shielding her eyes against the sunset glare. "How will we find you?" she asked. So he told her how to reach his river. He had never given anyone these directions before. Anyone who needed to find him already knew. She nodded and then reached out to touch his shoulder once, gently. "We'll find a way," she said.

He could smell woodsmoke from someone's fire, the hot-dust smell of the road. He blinked, and blinked again. "Thank you," he said, and then awkwardly, "I don't know how you're usually paid, but—"

She waved him off. "We'll worry about that later. Go home and rest, Lan Wangji."

He nodded to her and walked the rest of the way to his mother's house. He picked peas from her garden and ate them standing up in the kitchen. He lay on her couch and dozed, until rain began to fall and cooled the air and filled it with water, until he could finally sleep.

*

The week that Lan Wangji was gone left him feeling more disoriented than usual. Thirsty and dried up around the edges, like his river in a drought. So he went straight to the deep pool underneath the waterfall and dove in. Down into the murky, green depths, the rushing power of the falling water above him. Down further, into the hollow under the overhanging rock where the water stilled.

He lost his sense of human time. He swam down the deep channel that the water had worn and was still wearing into the rock. Centuries and centuries of slow erosion. He felt it pass against his skin. He greeted the ancient catfish and the great turtle that lurked in the depths.

At last, the desire for warmth pulled him to the sun-dappled shallows, where he found someone waiting for him. A human someone, a person he recognized. Wei Ying. The silvery minnows danced around Lan Wangji and the dragonflies danced around Wei Ying as he passed under the hanging willow tree that grew by Lan Wangji’s river, and through the cattails, to crouch on the bank.

“Hi there,” Wei Ying said warmly. He was wearing black clothes again and a broad-brimmed hat to match. He should have looked sticky, but the dragonflies darted around him and a breeze played with the ends of his hair and Lan Wangji thought he had never seen anyone so beautiful.

“Hello,” he said at last, remembering how to speak.

“This place is beautiful,” Wei Ying said, craning his neck to look up at the waterfall, and then smiling down at Lan Wangji, who floated in the river, with the minnows darting around the hem of his robes, flashing like stars. “Hey, can I put my feet in, or is that rude?”

“Mm, that’s fine.” Lan Wangji moved closer, so he could prop his arms on the grassy edge of the bank. He thought about getting out of the water, so he could sit beside Wei Ying, but he didn’t want to. He wanted to stay here, with the minnows nibbling at his toes and the dragonflies humming around Wei Ying.

Wei Ying took his shoes off and rolled the hems of his trousers up and stuck his feet in the water, sighing with pleasure. He had long thin feet and bony ankles. Lan Wangji liked the shape of them very much.

"Oh, that feels so nice!" Wei Ying exclaimed. "So, Wen Qing sent me to tell you that she's been working on a counter spell for your mother and she's made some progress, but she's not quite there yet."

"Ah," Lan Wangji said. It was only what he had expected, he thought, and yet he felt a sting of disappointment.

Wei Ying pushed his hat back slightly. "Oh, and A-Yuan and I watered the garden."

At first Lan Wangji didn't understand why Wei Ying was telling him this. The Wens had quite an extensive garden and of course it needed to be watered, especially at this time of year.

"I kind of hopped the fence," Wei Ying admitted, watching Lan Wangji's face closely.

Lan Wangji blinked twice. "You mean, you watered my mother's garden?"

Wei Ying laughed and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees. "Yeah, what did you think I meant? Everything looked okay and we picked some of the stuff that was ripe. Wen Ning froze them, so we can always pass them on to you later. Once your mother's okay."

Lan Wangji could not speak for a moment. He didn't know what to say that would not be an incoherent jumble of emotions. Not a real thanks to Wei Ying. They had looked after his mother's garden, which she loved. She would have been sad if she came home to find it dead. "That was very kind of you," he managed at last.

"Eh, we were happy to," Wei Ying said. Then he glanced around, his eyes bright and interested. "This is your river, huh? Makes sense. It's also very beautiful."

Lan Wangji stared at him for a long time. He was glad that his hair covered his ears, because they must be red.

"Would you like to see something?" he asked. He had never shown anyone this trick. He had never had anyone to show. But now, he had Wei Ying.

"Sure," Wei Ying said, with a laugh.

Lan Wangji slipped into the middle of the river and closed his eyes. He let the edges of his body melt away into water, let himself turn translucent and clear. He did not do this very often, because it was hard to pull himself back into flesh and bone. Hard to make himself exist as anything other than this: almost the river itself, but not quite; almost Lan Wangji himself, but not quite.

He forced himself back into embodiment, to the weight of gravity, and sensation all around him.

Wei Ying was staring at Lan Wangji, his mouth open. "Lan Wangji…" he breathed, as if he had never seen anything so wondrous.

"Lan Zhan," Lan Wangji interrupted, his heart beating hard. "If you want."

Wei Ying smiled, like sunlight dancing on the water. "Lan Zhan," he said. "Thank you for showing me." He put his hand over his heart and inclined his head gravely.

"Hm," Lan Wangji said, slightly embarrassed. "You're welcome."

Wei Ying glanced up at the sky. "Hey, I'm supposed to watch A-Yuan this afternoon, so I should get back. But don't worry! We're taking care of things." He flashed another smile at Lan Wangji. "I'll come by again soon."

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji said. "Thank you."

Wei Ying raised a hand in answer and made his way back under the willow tree, which swayed towards him, down the cool green path that led to the town. The dragonflies followed him as he went, and Lan Wangji thought that perhaps a part of his own heart followed too.

*

Time slipped by, silver and green. On a rainy morning, Lan Wangji left the river and walked down to the town. He went first to his mother's house, letting himself in with the spare key. The rain made the living room cool and shadowy. When he was young, he liked to hide in its corners and read while his brother and mother talked. He closed his eyes and tried to remember what it was like to feel such contentment.

Now his brother was still traveling and Lan Wangji was not sure how to contact him. He wanted to have good news first in any case. But for a moment, he wished that they were both young again. He wished that his brother and his mother were being sarcastic at each other while he read in the corner, secure in the knowledge that the people he cared about the most were nearby.

He sighed and went to find an umbrella. He didn’t mind rain, but he didn’t want to drip on the floors. Then he walked to the Wens' house, nodding politely to the few people he met along the way.

"Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying greeted him. "Come inside, come inside. It's such a dreary day, don't you think? Or maybe it doesn't bother you, hm? Anyway, come in and have some tea! Wen Qing is out, but she'll be home soon and she won't want to miss you."

He ushered Lan Wangji into the dark hallway and waved a casual hand. Little lights sprang up at the tips of his fingers and Lan Wangji's breath caught. It was beautiful: the way it danced across Wei Ying's hands, casting his face into stark contrasts.

"Come into the kitchen, where it's warm," Wei Ying said. "I know it's summer, but our front room gets chilly." He led Lan Wangji back to the kitchen and pulled out the tea things, measuring the tea and arranging rice crackers and toasted sunflower seeds on a tray. "Wen Ning and A-Yuan are out in the garden catching snails and Popo is sewing upstairs. I'm not sure where the uncles are. Well, probably tinkering with the car. Here's your tea, Lan Zhan."

He set a cup and teapot on the counter. They were white, painted with a delicate green design that seemed like an abstract willow branch. Lan Wangji turned the cup around, admiring it, and then tried the tea. The flavor was grassy and bright, and he liked it very much. He liked it the way he liked Wei Ying: the pleasure of something unexpected and yet satisfying. He felt the corner of his mouth turn up in a smile.

"Is it good?" Wei Ying asked, leaning over towards Lan Wangji. His eyes were very bright. He was wearing black as usual, but the shirt sleeves were rolled up to his elbows and he had a small streak of mud on one wrist. Lan Wangji liked that too.

"Mm, very good," he said, still smiling.

"Wei Ying!" he heard from the front door. In a moment, Wen Qing appeared at the kitchen door. "Oh, Lan Wangji," she said. "I didn't know you were back. Well, good—I was going to ask Wei Ying to tell you. I have the counter spell ready."

Lan Wangji stilled. He could feel the rush of blood through his body, the tension of his fingertips still on the teacup. "Are you—are you sure?" he asked.

She didn't take offense at this question, only nodded gravely.

"When?" he asked. His voice sounded hoarse, he thought.

"Whenever you're ready," she said.

"Now?"

She smiled gently, transforming her face. "Sure, Lan Wangji. Wei Ying, will you get my kit and A-Ning and meet us at the car?"

Wei Ying nodded and patted Lan Wangji's shoulder as he passed. Lan Wangji made himself put the teacup down gently on the counter. He followed Wen Qing out into the rainy afternoon, feeling caught in a dream, like being in the pool under the waterfall.

They drove to the hospital in near silence. The nurses must have remembered him, because they let them all in without any arguments. His mother lay still in the quiet room. Lan Wangji sat beside her while Wen Qing unpacked her supplies and Wen Ning and Wei Ying assisted. They seemed very much a unit in this moment: less a family than a team.

At last, Wen Qing closed her eyes briefly, nodded once sharply, lifted her hands. They were steady before her, although she was breathing heavily.

Lan Wangji had imagined that a spell, especially of such intricacy, must be a dramatic thing. But at first he thought nothing had happened. Then a scent of water and grass and clean air blew through the room. The breeze circled around Wen Qing, who seemed calm now, the quiet eye of the storm. Her brother and Wei Ying stood on either side. They didn't appear to do anything except stand there, and yet Lan Wangji could sense both of them in the pattern of the magic: the contradiction of Wei Ying's bright darkness, Wen Ning's dark brightness. And Wen Qing holding both together. She made one more sharp movement with her hands that Lan Wangji could not quite follow and then the breeze was gone, leaving only the smell of rain behind, and all three witches gasping.

On the bed, Lan Wangji's mother stirred slightly, such a small movement that at first he thought he was imagining it. Then her eyelids fluttered and fluttered again and she woke.

He leaned towards her, everything else forgotten. She blinked a few times and glanced around, frowning at the unfamiliar faces. She caught sight of Lan Wangji leaning over her bed and smiled. She had not spoken, but she knew him. He felt a clot of tears in his throat and couldn't speak either, could only squeeze her hand gently.

"Bye, Lan Zhan," someone whispered. Then the room was empty, though only for a moment. The hospital staff rushed in and Lan Wangji had to step out into the hall, overwhelmed. She was well. She was awake. She had come back to him.

*

The doctor insisted that his mother stay overnight for observation, even though they both argued that she would recover better at home. Lan Wangji was finally sent away by himself. He walked back through the rainy evening to his mother's house and sat on the couch.

He woke with a jolt in the middle of the night and lay in the darkness of the living room, staring at the ceiling, struck with the sudden realization that he had never thanked or even said goodbye to Wen Qing. But he thought she would understand why. He would go back soon, to see what he owed her and thank them all properly.  

When he woke again, at his usual hour, he made breakfast and tea. It was still much too early to go back to the hospital, so he opened the door to his mother's bedroom, which had remained closed until now. He changed the linens on the bed; dusted the nightstand and the small row of knickknacks; went out to the garden to cut a few of the blousy peonies that grew along the back wall.

At last it was late enough that he could shower and dress properly and go to see his mother. She was sitting up when he came in, and smiled at him, holding out her hand. "Poor Zhanzhan," she said, sounding just a little quieter than usual. "I'm sorry I gave you such a scare."

He couldn't speak. He squeezed her hand gently. When the doctor came in, he was relieved to hear that she could go home. He didn't think he could bear to stay any longer.

The nurse helped him call a ride, and they took his mother down in a wheelchair. When they reached her house, Lan Wangji helped her inside, feeling the bird-like lightness of her bones with a pang. She leaned on him as they walked to the bedroom, but she brightened when she saw the flowers and the cheerful quilt he had thrown over the bed. Tucked under it, propped up on her own pillows, she looked more herself.

"Are you hungry?" Lan Wangji asked. "Would you like tea?"

"Just tea, for now," she said. "And then I'll sleep for a bit."

He made a pot and brought it to her. She sipped slowly and he sat on the end of the bed and told her about the Wens, and Wei Ying, and A-Yuan, and how they had helped her. He had thought that perhaps she would explain Wen Qing's mysterious comments, or her own past and what led to her curse. But when he finished speaking, he looked up and saw that she was asleep. So he merely sighed and took the tea things to the kitchen. He drank the rest of the tea himself and washed up.

It was only early afternoon. He was not hungry and his mother was asleep. He thought he would leave her a note and walk over to the Wens’ to thank them. Perhaps he could invite them to have dinner while he was still with his mother. Perhaps he would have time for another glass of plum juice. Perhaps he could sit in their garden and talk to Wei Ying.

Damp air rushed in when he opened the door, warm and heavy with the promise of rain. Lan Wangji blinked a few times and then saw someone hurrying up the path, calling his name. He waved and smiled. He would have to visit the Wens later: Xichen had come home at last.

-2-

Early summer haze hung heavy over the town. Lan Wangji cut up cubes of melon and fresh tomatoes from the garden. He sliced cucumbers and picked green beans. What they did not plan to eat at once, he put aside, or gave to his mother's neighbors. Xichen, meanwhile, sat in the bedroom to fan their mother and make sure her drinks were replenished.

"I'll be fine," she said, tartly, "if you aren't here for five minutes."

But Xichen said he did not mind. Lan Wangji thought that his brother was feeling guilty over his absence and was trying to make up for it by hovering. He could understand the feeling. He himself was not usually superstitious, but he kept feeling a nagging sense of tension, of waiting for something else to happen.

He did not see any of the Wens for two days, until Xichen insisted on taking their mother to an appointment at the hospital. Lan Wangji could have gone along, but instead he walked across the town to the quiet street and the gloomy house at the end of it. He was very warm by the time he arrived and knocked on the door and Wen Ning answered.

"Lan Wangji!" Wen Ning said. "Come on in! We didn't think we'd see you again."

Lan Wangji paused in the cool dimness of the entry. Had they really thought that? Thought he had gotten what he wanted and wouldn't even bother to thank them?

"Everyone's outside," Wen Ning told him. "I just came in for some drinks, so you're lucky I heard your knock." He ushered Lan Wangji through the house, taking a tray with him.

Everyone was indeed outside, sitting under the parasol tree. Granny seemed to be picking over a large basket of beans, while the others only dozed in the shade. Wei Ying, who had been lying on his back with his hat over his face, sat up when he heard Wen Ning coming. When he saw Lan Wangji, he blinked twice and then smiled. "Lan Zhan! You're here!" He sounded surprised, as Wen Ning had. They truly thought he would not have come back, then.

"I hadn't even thanked you," Lan Wangji said quietly. He felt out of sorts, although it didn't seem fair to blame the Wens or Wei Ying. They didn't really know him after all. "I'm sorry it took me so long to come by." He reached the shady grass under the tree and hovered, feeling quite awkward.

Wei Ying reached up and tugged at the hem of his trousers. "Sit down, come on." He and one of the uncles shuffled aside to make room for Lan Wangji, and Wen Ning handed out the drinks. Fruit juice, which Lan Wangji wouldn't usually care for; but this was cold and sweet-tart, and he sipped it slowly while the others talked in lazy voices about their plans for the day.

After a while, Wei Ying's hand appeared, the long first finger, tapping the back of Lan Wangji's hand twice. "Are you upset? Wei Ying asked, with what felt like startling insight. "We just thought you didn't need us any more." He shrugged as if the conclusion, that Lan Wangji would not even pay them the common courtesy of thanks, when he owed them the largest debt he could imagine, was reasonable.

Perhaps it was not about Lan Wangji, after all. He remembered that Wen Qing had thought his mother would be upset to be treated by a Wen doctor. He took a deep breath, letting some of the roiling tension in his chest dissipate.

"Not upset," he said, and meant it. "I am sorry I didn't come before. My brother returned from his travels, and we were very preoccupied with my mother."

"Oh." Wei Ying drew his knees up and watched Lan Wangji, his eyes bright and curious. "How does a river spirit travel, exactly? No, wait—how is your mother?"

Lan Wangji's ears felt warm. He ignored them. "Steadily recovering. She's still tired, but she walked outside yesterday."

"That's good! Wen Qing thought about stopping by the other day, but in the end she decided not to." Wei Ying's gaze slid away from Lan Wangji and he picked at the grass by his knees.

"Why?" Lan Wangji asked, bluntly.

Wei Ying gave an airy wave. "Oh, well, she didn't want to be a bother."

Lan Wangji paused for a moment. He tried to gather his thoughts. It was difficult, because they were all tangled up with how he felt about his mother, about Wen Qing, about Wei Ying. Even how he felt about the other Wens and their cheerful, gloomy house.

"Why did she think that?" he asked. When he could see that Wei Ying didn't exactly want to answer, he pressed on. "I'm not asking to gossip, but because I want to understand. My mother was cursed and we still don't know who did that. I don't know any witches aside from her and you. I don't understand why someone would do such a thing, or why Wen Qing thought my mother would be angry instead of grateful, when Wen Qing saved her life."

"Oh," Wei Ying said. "Oh, Lan Zhan." He touched Lan Wangji's hand where it lay in the grass, just for a moment. "Okay," he said. "Can you stay for lunch? Let’s eat, and then I'll explain."

*

When lunch was over, the heavy weight of a humid afternoon settled down over the town. Wei Ying hovered by Lan Wangji and blew a breath through his bangs. “Come on, Lan Zhan,” he said, and led Lan Wangji to a small room hidden behind the kitchen. The house seemed to expand at every visit, unfolding new rooms like magic.

Wei Ying flicked on the lights and revealed a desk with piles of paper and stacks of books. A small window overlooked a shady corner of the garden. Lan Wangji stood in the doorway, looking at the bulletin board, where a few photos and several scribbled notes were tacked up.

“Close the door so the cold air doesn’t get out,” Wei Ying said, and pushed the chair aside so Lan Wangji could sit on it. He himself perched on the desk.

Lan Wangji stepped in and closed the door.

“I came up with the air cooling spell myself,” Wei Ying admitted, giving Lan Wangji a glance that almost seemed shy. “Well, I’m sure someone must have come up with a similar idea in the history of witchcraft, but I did too. Like those animals that keep evolving to the same thing, right?”

Lan Wangji nodded, although he didn’t actually know what Wei Ying was talking about. “Is it usual to invent new spells?”

“Ah, no.” Wei Ying’s fingers tapped on his knee. He seemed to hesitate for a moment. “Lan Wangji, how much do you know about witches?”

“Almost nothing,” Lan Wangji admitted. "My father's family raised me and my mother has never tried to talk to me about that part of her life."

"“Well, most witches follow a particular tradition, right? They use the spells that were handed down from their teachers, or through families. There are a lot of different traditions and most of them are respected.” He waited for Lan Wangji’s nod before he went on. “But anything that messes with the dead is pretty strictly forbidden and most witches won't have anything to do with those who dabble in it."

“Mm,” Lan Wangji said. That all seemed understandable enough, especially to someone who had been born and raised within the traditions of his family.

Wei Ying tapped his knee. "Wen Qing and Wen Ning's uncle, Wen Ruohan, ignored that boundary. The thing is, Lan Zhan, death is powerful. And witches are always looking for a way to tap into power. So Wen Ruohan was using it like an electric line. But part of the reason it's forbidden is that anyone who uses that source of power tends to become pretty unstable."

Lan Wangji nodded again.

"So, I don't know. You can probably see where this is going. The family association means that my Wens aren't welcome in nice witch circles."

"Do you think my mother counts as a nice witch?" Lan Wangji asked. He meant it quite seriously, but Wei Ying laughed.

"Oh, I don't know! But if she's the person I was thinking of, there are stories about her. She used to travel around, bringing gardens back to life, planting trees to create magical currents, that kind of thing."

He couldn't imagine it; except that he could. For the first time, he caught a glimpse of what his mother had given up to stay in this small town, to wait for that one week out of every month that she was grudgingly allowed.

"The thing is, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying went on. He spoke with a brittle airiness that drew Lan Wangji's attention back to him at once. "The ironic thing about all of it is that I'm the one that dabbles in death-magic, not any of the Wens."

He watched Lan Wangji as he said it, so Lan Wangji schooled his expression carefully. He thought of what he knew of Wei Ying and of the Wens. He thought of every piece of magic he had sensed or seen done in this house. There was power in it, to be sure, and perhaps even darkness. But not the unstable power that Wei Ying had hinted at. He had never felt afraid here. He had never felt in any danger at all.

"All right," he said calmly, and then when Wei Ying stared at him, "Did you expect me to run screaming from the room?"

"Well—yes, kind of," Wei Ying said. "Aren't the Lans supposed to be very upright?"

It was true that his father's family had that reputation. It was also true that Lan Wangji would have been both baffled and afraid had he encountered Wei Ying at some points earlier in his life. But he was not now.

"Mm, they are said to be," he told Wei Ying. He did not say: I trust you. He knew the wariness of wild things, and he saw the tenseness of Wei Ying's shoulders. He did not want to move too quickly and frighten him into bolting. "Thank you for telling me," he said instead. "It doesn't explain who would curse my mother, but perhaps she'll have some ideas. We haven't talked about it yet."

Wei Ying let out a long, silent breath and then smiled at Lan Wangji. Outside, a sudden rainshower drummed on the pavement. Lan Wangji could hear A-Yuan shrieking in the yard. Perhaps he was full of rain-drenched joy. Perhaps he was upset about getting wet.

"So you don't have any ideas yet?" Wei Ying asked. He rose and crossed the room to open the window. The smell of warm earth and water drifted up at once to greet them. It was not quite a river, but it felt welcoming to Lan Wangji, nonetheless.

"Not yet," he said.

“Well,” Wei Ying said, sounding thoughtful. “We can ask Wen Qing, you know. She might have some ideas about the kind of person we’re looking for. And, hm, I know a few people who have somewhat dubious pasts.” He said this with a weird sort of relish. He seemed to be assuming that he would help Lan Wangji find the person who had cursed his mother.

The thought made Lan Wangji feel like turning transparent, turning into the river. He blinked slowly. Like his mother's living room, Wei Ying's study seemed like somewhere he could sit in the corner and be quiet and welcome and safe. He breathed in the scent of summer rain and it felt almost like home.

*

That night, Xichen reported that the doctors were pleased, although perplexed. Their mother had fallen asleep after they returned from her appointment, and Lan Wangji made a simple vegetable stir fry for him and his brother. They ate at the small, battered table in the kitchen. Lan Wangji nodded when his brother told him this. He wasn’t surprised, considering what he already knew.

“Are you sure we can trust these Wens, though?” his brother asked. He frowned slightly. “I don’t want to think the worst of them, but do we really know anything about them at all?”

Lan Wangji swallowed and tried to remind himself that his brother had not met any of them, nor seen their house, nor felt the cool wash of their magic. “I’m sure,” he said firmly. “Perhaps you can come with me next time I visit. Wen Qing was busy today, but I plan to talk to her tomorrow.”

“Hm,” Lan Xichen said. “I will come with you, then. But explain who everyone is again?”

“There’s the Wen family,” Lan Wangji said. He had a sneaking suspicion that his brother had ulterior motives for his question. “Granny and the Uncles, Wen Qing and her younger brother Wen Ning, and their nephew A-Yuan. And Wei Ying.”

“Ah, yes.” And yes—there it came—Lan Xichen tilted his head and raised his eyebrows. “Wei Ying.”

“No,” Lan Wangji said, repressively.

“Mm hm,” Lan Xichen responded.

Lan Wangji stood up. “Good night,” he said.

He started to walk to the bedroom because he could not abide being teased at this moment, and especially not about Wei Ying. Lan Xichen laughed and caught his arm. “Zhanzhan," he said. He never used Lan Wangji's pet name, except for here in their mother's house. "Zhanzhan, don’t be like that! I just want to meet them, that’s all. You’ve never had so much interest in other people before.”

“They’re nice,” Lan Wangji said, trying to put it into words. “They’re like A-ma.” He waved at the familiar kitchen, as if that would explain it to his brother. “They care about people, and they take care of people. They have a garden and they make tea for each other. They’re not strange, not really.”

“All right,” his brother said. “I’ll come meet your Wens and your Wei Ying and see for myself.”

Lan Wangji sighed, but he knew his brother was also quite stubborn. So he didn’t argue any further. However, when he went into his bedroom, he paused. There were quite a few picture books on the shelves by the bed. He sat on the floor and pulled out a stack, flipping through the bright illustrations and simple text. He could remember when he was very young and sat by his mother on the couch while she read them to him, pointing out the words and the pictures. He smiled at the memory. They were probably very old-fashioned now, but he still set some aside to take tomorrow, for A-Yuan.

He read for a while himself before going in to say goodnight to his mother. He told her of his plans for the next day and that the guavas were ripening on the tree at the end of the garden. He would pick some and cut them up for her. He was good at careful tasks like that: scooping the pale flesh of the fruit from its peel. He remembered sitting outside in the garden with her while she did the same chore. "Open up, Zhanzhan," she'd say, and pop a slice into his mouth. When he was young, he hadn't liked the way the tiny seeds felt in his mouth. But he ate them anyway, for her sake.

"I'd like to meet them," his mother said, leaning back against her pillows.

"Mm?" Lan Wangji asked, still thinking about fruit.

"Your Wens," she said. "Invite them to have dinner here, whenever it works for them."

He nodded and smoothed the quilt over her legs. "I'll have to go back to the river soon," he said at last. He had been trying to avoid the thought, but it only lurked in the back of his mind like a thundercloud. "And Xichen will too. I would feel better with someone to check on you."

She laughed. "Alright, alright. If it makes you two feel better. And I'd like to meet your Wei Ying too."

Lan Wangji refused to look at her, but he rubbed her feet gently under the quilt. "You'll like him," he said quietly, sure that she would.

They might meet in a day or two. The Wens would come here, and they would all eat in the courtyard, and everyone would be together. He started to think of what he and his mother might cook, a summer meal, light and flavorful. Everything fresh and delicious. He smiled, thinking of it; went to bed still smiling.

He dreamt of sunshine and dragonflies and the flash of silver minnows, and woke in the middle of the night to a frantic pounding on his mother's front door. He went to open it in his sleep clothes, with his feet bare, Xichen just behind him.

Wei Ying stood on the doorstep, sodden with rain, holding a fretful A-Yuan. His eyes were wide and wild. "Lan Zhan," he gasped out, frantic. He reached out and grabbed Lan Wangji's arm, dampening the sleeve of his shirt. "Lan Zhan, you've got to help. They got Wen Ning."

*

Lan Wangji made tea, moving through the familiar rhythms without thinking, focused on the soft murmur of voices behind him. He poured for everyone and set their cups down in front of them, on the familiar scratched table that had been in his mother’s kitchen since he was small. His mother, wrapped in a flannel robe, patted his hand, and he sat.

Across from him, Wei Ying tried to smile. A-Yuan huddled into Wei Ying’s side, having refused anyone else’s attention already. The contrast with the bright, friendly boy he had met worried Lan Wangji. He knew quite well that children were resilient creatures, and yet he hated to see A-Yuan so diminished.

No one but Wen Ning had been affected, it seemed. “But Wen Qing is upset,” Wei Ying said. He was holding A-Yuan close, and trying to keep his voice level. “You have no idea what they went through—what she went through, trying to get them all away from her uncle. And now, when they thought it was all over…” He shook his head. He looked smaller than usual, and exhausted. Lan Wangji pushed a bowl of roasted peanuts at him.

“So I came over here,” Wei Ying went on. “I’m so sorry I woke all of you. I wasn’t thinking.” He broke off, and laughed, a hollow and bitter sound. “Well, I wasn’t thinking at all really.”

“What happened?” Lan Wangji asked.

Wei Ying drank some of his tea. “Wen Ning went out shopping. And when he came home, he was putting the groceries away in the kitchen, and we heard a crash. Wen Qing went rushing in—I’m so glad she was home—and he was lying there.” Wei Ying’s eyes slid over to Lan Wangji’s mother and then away. “She couldn’t wake him.”

“But don’t you have the counterspell now?” Lan Wangji asked. “Or would the one you used before not work?”

Wei Ying’s eyes abruptly filled with tears. “Yeah, it would, but—” He brushed them away with his sleeve. “That spell relies on Wen Ning to cast it,” he managed at last. “So I don’t know what we’ll do. Granny and the Uncles aren’t really witches the way the rest of us are. They have some ambient power, but it’s not...not focused. And Wen Qing and I can’t manage it alone, but we don’t really know anyone else who can help.” He blinked away the last of his tears and tried to smile again. “Anyway, it’s not your problem! I’ll go home once I finish my tea.”

As if on cue, a fresh gust of wind and rain hit the house. A-Yuan, who had nearly fallen asleep, shifted and murmured uneasily.

Lan Wangji’s mother reached over and gently flicked Wei Ying’s ear. “You’re not going out again tonight with that poor baby, and in wet clothes,” she said firmly.

Wei Ying, who had startled and grabbed his ear, stared at her. “But—”

She shook her head. “I’m not arguing with you, young man,” she said. “And in fact, you do know several people who can help.”

Wei Ying actually looked puzzled at this, as if he didn’t expect the Lans sitting around the table to do anything at all for the people who saved their family.

Lan Wangji sighed. “I’ll get some dry clothes,” he said and stood.

“Lan Zhan,” he heard Wei Ying say, but he was already going down the hall to the bedroom. He found a clean set of sleep clothes and set them on the bed. He would sleep on the sofa, but he wasn’t sure if A-Yuan would allow himself to be parted from Wei Ying. He pulled out another shirt for A-Yuan. It would be too large, but at least he would be dry. Then he made himself stop and take a deep breath.

Had it only been earlier this evening that he dreamed of a dinner with the Wens and his mother and Xichen all together? It felt like the quick-burning haze of early morning mist, already gone.

He turned and saw Wei Ying in the doorway, carrying A-Yuan and watching him with a frown.

“I found some clothes,” Lan Wangji said, “for you and A-Yuan.”

“Okay.” Wei Ying bit his lip and set A-Yuan on the bed, detaching the little boy’s clinging fingers gently. “I’ll—where’s the bathroom?”

Lan Wangji pointed it out and got a blanket and pillow from the closet for himself.

“Oh, I’ll sleep on the floor,” Wei Ying said, coming back and seeing this. Lan Wangji turned. His clothes were slightly too large for Wei Ying, and the pale colors were so unlike anything else he had seen Wei Ying wear. They made him look small and forlorn, almost like a ghost.

Lan Wangji shook his head. “I’ll sleep on the couch. That’s what I did all week when I was here alone,” he went on, to cut off Wei Ying’s protest. “There’s a shirt for A-Yuan too. I didn’t want to wake him.”

Wei Ying still hesitated, but at last he came over and took the shirt. “Thank you,” he said, almost too quietly to be heard. “Lan Zhan—I’m sorry about all this. I didn’t mean—” He took a breath and smiled at Lan Wangji. “We’ll be out of your hair in the morning.”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji said. He too flicked Wei Ying’s ear and ignored his outraged glare. “I believe my mother will want to go with you in the morning,” he said. “Wei Ying. Do you really think we’re going to abandon all of you when you helped us without a second thought?”

Wei Ying’s eyes filled with tears again and he turned away, picking A-Yuan up gently. “I guess not,” he said. “Yuan’er, I’m going to change you into this nice dry shirt, okay?”

Lan Wangji frowned. “I’m sorry about Wen Ning,” he said. He meant it; he also meant that he was sorry Wei Ying was so upset.

“Well,” Wei Ying said and sighed. He set A-Yuan down in the corner of the bed, tucked him up with the quilt. “Maybe things will turn out alright.” He didn't seem very sure of that, standing in the soft light of the bedroom lamp. Lan Wangji wished that they had known each other longer, wished that he knew what might comfort Wei Ying. This was too large a thing for empty sentiments. He remembered the easy sympathy he had found with the Wens, when his mother was ill.

"Do you want a hug?" he asked, because it was all he could think of. But Wei Ying nodded at once, so Lan Wangji held out his arms and Wei Ying tucked himself into them, tucked himself safe and warm under Lan Wangji's chin.

"I'm guessing your mother is the one who taught you about hugs," Wei Ying said after awhile.

Lan Wangji thought about what his uncle would do if someone offered to hug him, and smiled. "Mm, yes," he said. "River spirits aren't usually very physically affectionate."

"Well, thank you," Wei Ying said, stepping back. "You're clearly a very good student. Top marks."

"Good night, Wei Ying," Lan Wangji said, and went to lay on the couch and stare at the ceiling and fret.

*

Lan Wangji must have slept after all, because he woke, fuzzy and off-balance. His skin felt too tight, pressing in on his bones. He needed to go back to his river soon. But he was worried about everyone here, worried about leaving his mother without any protection, worried about the Wens. He had often felt that his heart was divided in two, but now the separate halves felt as if they were being pulled apart.

The house was quiet and the bedroom empty. Lan Wangji wouldn’t have thought that Wei Ying was the type of person to get up very early, but perhaps A-Yuan was. He changed clothes and went out into the garden, where he could hear the sound of voices. His mother and Wei Ying were sitting at the table under the jasmine bush, while A-Yuan ran from one end of the garden to the other.

They hadn’t noticed him yet, so Lan Wangji stood in the doorway and watched. Wei Ying was keeping an eye on A-Yuan, but chatting with Lan Wangji’s mother too. Then she set down her cup.

“You know,” she said, “I didn’t realize it until this morning, but I knew your mother.”

Wei Ying turned to her abruptly, his eyes gone wide. “You—you did?”

Lan Wangji had never asked who Wei Ying’s parents were, or why he lived with the Wens and not his own family. He stood silent, listening.

“Mm, we went to school together,” his mother said. “Two hoydens, always getting into mischief.” She laughed. “The last time we met was an accident, years later. We were at the same meeting, and we spent a long time talking about how differently our lives had turned out than we expected them too. It was such a coincidence, we thought, that we’d both turned out to be witches and we talked a lot about that, and about our babies, and being parents.”

Wei Ying wiped his eyes. “I don’t really remember either of them,” he said, quietly.

Lan Wangji’s mother squeezed his arm. “She was so proud of you,” she said, her voice full of fond memory. “And then she was gone, so soon after that. I should have tried to look for you afterwards, but I—things were hard for me at the time and I didn’t. I’m sorry, Wei Ying.”

He shook his head, apparently speechless.

“Gege!” A-Yuan shouted from the end of the garden and ran full tilt into Wei Ying’s waiting arms. Watching the two of them, Lan Wangji wondered what all of their lives would have been like, had things been different. Had Wei Ying’s parents lived and stayed friends with his mother, had he and Xichen been allowed to grow up with her instead of their father’s family. Would he and Wei Ying already be friends? Would they always have been friends?

But there was no use in imaging that past that never was. He left the doorway and came out to greet them. Wei Ying flashed him a bright glance, all traces of tears gone.

“We’re going to go to the Wens’ as soon as Xichen is ready,” his mother said.

“That’s good,” Lan Wangji said. He wanted to cry and didn’t know why. Could nothing ever be quiet and easy, the way that he wanted it to? He leaned his head against her shoulder and watched Wei Ying tip A-Yuan upside down, to shrieking laughter. He closed his eyes and thought of the murky green depths of the river and quick-darting silver minnows in the shallows.

*

The Wens' house was gloomy when they arrived. Not with the usual cheerful gloom that Lan Wangji associated with the family, but a darker and more fearsome thing. It made him remember all at once that they were witches; it made him notice the small animal skulls along one shelf and the mortar and pestle in the kitchen. Everything was very still.

They found Wen Qing in the kitchen, staring at the countertop as if she had forgotten what she meant to do.

"Gugu," A-Yuan blurted out and ran to hug her leg. He let out a sigh that seemed to shake his entire self from head to toe.

She bent to kiss the top of his head but didn't move otherwise. "You're home," she said to Wei Ying. Lan Wangji couldn't read her tone at all.

"Yeah," Wei Ying said. "I'm home. How is he?"

She shrugged. "Exactly the same." She seemed to brace herself to be hospitable, but Lan Wangji's mother stepped forward before Wen Qing got any further.

"I'm so sorry to hear about your brother," she said. "Wei Ying explained the basics of your spell this morning and I believe that we can adapt it so I can take Wen Ning's place."

This was a surprise to Lan Wangji, in several ways. He had not heard that this was the plan and wasn't sure what he thought of it with his mother so recently ill herself. And also, he suddenly realized that his mother never did any magic when he or Xichen were around. He had grown up knowing that she was a witch, but he had never seen any actual evidence of it.

Wen Qing blinked twice and then pressed her hand to her mouth. "You must be Madam Lan," she said. "I—we would be so grateful, but you do understand who we are?"

His mother smiled. "Well, of course I do! And even if I weren't on the edge of respectability myself, I would still want to help after you and your family were so kind to mine."

Wen Qing took a deep breath. "A-Yuan, go find Popo and stay with her." She waited until he left the room and then said, "Very well. Thank you."

She led them to yet another new room. This one clearly acted as a kind of workroom for the whole family: a small loom, a potter's wheel, a row of bottles filled with different supplies, a neat workbench and woodworking tools. She went to a shelf full of notebooks and pulled one down.

"Here," she said, turning it so his mother could see. They bent over the text, murmuring quietly to each other. Wei Ying came to listen, though for once he didn't say anything, only nodded once or twice.

"Is it really that easy?" Wen Qing asked. Her voice was somewhere between hope and disbelief.

"Well, you did all the hard work yourself," his mother said. "And of course, you see before you a witch of experience and insight." She gave Wen Qing her rare mischievous glimmering smile.

Wen Qing bit her lip and looked at Wei Ying. He looked back at her, serious and steady. "It should work," he said. "It'll be different, since we're so used to working with Wen Ning. But it should work."

Wen Qing nodded once, decisive, and took the notebook with her. Lan Wangji followed along behind them to Wen Ning's bedroom. He wanted to see that Wen Ning was alright after all. He wanted to see magic done again.

He and Xichen stood just inside the doorway while the other three took up a place at the end of Wen Ning's bed. It was strange to see Wen Ning so silent and pale. Lan Wangji hadn't realized how lively he usually was until now.

The three witches consulted once again and then began their magic. Once again it felt like a rush of cool breeze, blowing through the room. Nothing wrong could stay there in the face of the freshness. But this time there was also a sense of richness: the sweet-sour tang of compost, the murk of an algae pool, the smell of green and growing things.

Lan Wangji caught his breath, realizing at once that this was the sense of his mother’s magic, which felt strange and utterly familiar at the same time. He had sensed it before, a quiet rhythm underneath their daily lives; so woven into the background that he had never really paid it close attention. But in Wen Ning’s silent bedroom, it twined around Wei Ying’s darker magic and Wen Qing’s bracing freshness, like vines growing up a tree, reaching for the sun.

On the bed, Wen Ning stirred. With a gasp, Wen Qing let the magic draw to a close and rushed to her brother’s side.

“Phew,” Wei Ying said. “Wow. Uh, that was something.”

Lan Wangji’s mother looked pleased, but she didn’t speak. Lan Wangji could understand why. If he had just done that, he would want to let it settle into the hollow of his bones, let it live there for a while before it faded.

“It felt so different than the last time,” he heard himself say, and all at once his mother and Wei Ying and Wen Qing were all staring at him as if he had suddenly come out in green spots or grown a second head.

“What?” his mother said, sharper than she had ever spoken to him.

“Lan Zhan, what do you mean?” Wei Ying added.

He glanced around, puzzled. “The magic? It felt different than when Wen Ning did it with you.” He turned to his brother. “I know you weren’t there before, but you know what I mean, Xichen.”

But his brother shook his head. “I didn’t feel anything,” he said.

Lan Wangji looked back at his mother, who was still looking at him as if she had never seen him before, her eyes sad and troubled. “A-ma,” he started, and then stopped. He didn’t know what to say.

“We’ll talk later,” she said.

Wei Ying came over and nudged his shoulder against Lan Wangji’s. “Come and have some tea, Lan Zhan,” he said.

Lan Wangji, feeling his heart turning over and over in his chest, followed him to the kitchen, where Wei Ying made a cup of ginger tea and pushed it across the counter to Lan Wangji. It did help, settling his stomach and easing his shoulders.

“You’re something else, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying said softly, his eyes bright and shining. He shook his head slightly. “You’re really something else.”

*

The house was stiflingly hot, but there was thunder in the mountains and so no one wanted to sit outside. They compromised by opening the doors so the breeze could blow through, such as it was. Lan Wangji felt the heat press down on him. His river was calling, with its green-lit shade and cool winds.

He wanted to ask his mother what he had said that was so wrong. But she was talking to Wen Qing and Granny and he didn't have the strength, or perhaps the courage, to interrupt.

"Help," A-Yuan said plaintively and handed him a tangerine. Lan Wangji peeled it for him and broke the segments apart, handing them over one by one. A-Yuan popped each one in his mouth, making loud chewing noises as he ate them and saying "Ahhhhhh" to show when he was done.

"Ah, A-Yuan, don't you know that you can't bother Zhan gege like this?" Wei Ying scolded. He settled into the couch next to Lan Wangji and lifted A-Yuan onto his lap.

"I don't mind," Lan Wangji said. It had helped, to be focused on someone else, to have the sweet-tart smell of citrus peels floating around him. "Wei Ying, I'll have to leave soon. I've been here almost a week again."

Wei Ying pouted and A-Yuan copied his expression perfectly, which made Wei Ying laugh. "I have to be careful what I do around him! They're little sponges at this age. Ugh, we'll miss you though."

"Will you?"

"Lan Zhan! Of course we will." He put a warm hand on Lan Wangji's knee for a moment. So despite whatever happened in Wen Ning's bedroom, Lan Wangji didn't think Wei Ying was angry with him. That helped him to feel steadier than he had. "Will your brother have to leave too?"

Lan Wangji nodded.

"Ah," Wei Ying said. He leaned in close, so Lan Wangji caught a faint scent of ash and unfamiliar herbs. "Don't worry, we'll check on your mother. We’ve got to figure this out." He tapped the side of his nose, sounding more determined than Lan Wangji had ever heard him: all of the light humor stripped out of his voice. "We have to figure out who's doing this and how to stop them. Don't worry, Lan Zhan. We'll manage it."

Lan Wangji wanted to say that he wasn't worried, that he trusted Wei Ying's abilities. But he was tired and sad and words felt beyond him. So instead, he nodded and then patted Wei Ying's knee, and Wei Ying's serious face split into a bright smile.

*

The ride back to his mother's house was very quiet. Lan Wangji looked out of the window at the town going by. When they reached the house, Xichen said, "I'll just..." and retreated into the kitchen, leaving Lan Wangji and his mother looking at each other in the living room.

"I don't see what's so wrong about magic," Lan Wangji burst out. He was aware that he was being childish, but he couldn't seem to help himself. "If you do it, and Wen Qing, and Wen Ning, and Wei Ying, then what's so wrong with it anyway?"

His mother sighed.

"Why did you never teach me?" he asked, and finally managed to stop talking.

"Zhanzhan," she said.

"Don't, please—"

"There's nothing wrong with you, or magic. But I promised that I'd never teach either of you any. I promised I wouldn't even do any while you were here. Those were the...the terms I agreed to, so they'd let me see you.”

Lan Wangji heard himself make a small, distressed noise, and his mother’s face softened. “You have to understand, it wasn't only that I'm a witch. The Jins are all witches and no one cares. But they have money and power. Not like me, wandering around the world, changing the balance of things. None of them liked that, especially not once your father married me."

It doesn't seem fair, Lan Wangji thought. He hardly knew what to say: his mother had never spoken to him like this, and he found it made him uneasy. He vaguely remembered hearing of a Jin family, with whom his own family has had some dealings, but he had never really had to pay attention. Now he wondered what he missed, focused on his river and his small life.

"If they knew," he said, "if they understood you and the Wens, perhaps—" He broke off at the look on his mother's face.

"Don't speak of this to them," she said. "Lan Zhan."

He swallowed. "I won't."

"They would take your river away from you," she said.

That was a fearsome punishment for any river spirit. To be condemned to a kind of grey, depleted existence with nothing to supply both responsibility and succor.

That had been his father's sentence.

"I've managed to bear everything so far, but I don't think I could bear that, after everything."

He blinked away sudden tears. "A-ma, I won’t say anything."

"Oh, sweet boy," she murmured, and reached up to wipe his cheek. "I know. I'm sorry." He knew that she meant it, and yet it didn't seem to help.

*

He and Xichen left that afternoon. The Wens had agreed to check on their mother every day, and he had to be satisfied with that. Anyway, he had no choice but to go: he could feel a strange weakness creeping over him. He and his brother said goodbye to their mother and walked out of town together. But they didn't speak about magic, or witches, or what happened that morning. They nodded to each other and went their separate ways.

This time, Lan Wangji retreated to the highest point of the river: the clear spring deep in the heart of the mountain. It gushed out of a cleft between two rocks, pooling beneath, before rushing down the slopes, dancing in the air. He didn’t come here often, because it was a deep place and full of power that even he didn’t entirely understand. But he stayed and watched the ferns that clung to the side of the rocks; listened to the buzz of insects humming over the water.

When he was upset as a child, frustrated by what often felt like an all-consuming emotion he wasn't able to find a way out of, his uncle would tell him to go somewhere quiet, and it usually helped. Being alone with the world reminded him that his heart could mend—would mend, even if it took time.

This problem wasn't so simple to overcome, but the spring still helped him to face it. I never want to leave, when I'm here, he thought. But I never want to go, when I'm there.

When he left the spring at last, he made his usual rounds, checking on the places where debris often gathered, greeting the ancient inhabitants of the deep still pools and the quick-dying summer insects alike. At night he watched the stars rise and the moon circle serenely overheard. It was almost enough.

He wasn’t sure how much time passed that way, until one night he was watching the moon and wondering what he should do next. The warm summer breeze brought the small night-songs of insects. "Psst," he heard from the far bank. He looked over sharply. A dark shape separated itself from the shadows and waved a hand. "Hey, Lan Zhan. It's me."

"Wei Ying," he breathed and slipped off the rock where he had been sitting, the untucked back of his shirt trailing behind him.

"Can you just breathe underwater?" Wei Ying asked. "Do your fingers never get all shriveled up? I have so many questions."

Lan Wangji shrugged. He had never bothered much with how things worked, but he could see that Wei Ying's mind operated in other ways.

"Hmm," Wei Ying said, sounding dissatisfied. "Anyway. We thought you'd like an update, but we're trying to be discreet."

"How long has it been?" Lan Wangji asked, surprised.

"A week?" Wei Ying thought it over and nodded decisively. He was still a shadow, limned in faint silver, but Lan Wangji could see the glimmer of his smile. "Your mother is doing fine. She came over for dinner yesterday, and I'm worried that she and Granny are going to end up accidentally taking over the world."

Lan Wangji smiled to himself at the thought. "And the curse?"

"Yeah. Wen Qing and your mother have been working on it. They're pretty sure it was a Jin witch. That's why we're being careful. They're a very rich family and we're...well, you know. Anyway, they're pretty sure about that part and they've set up some sort of special spell that anyone can trigger, in case they get all of us, somehow. But we're not sure exactly who's behind it, or how to fix it."

Wei Ying was talking very fast, like a rain-fueled rush of water downhill. Lan Wangji thought he sounded scared.

"My Jiejie is married to a Jin," he said, shocking Lan Wangji silent. "I don't think—Zixuan isn't even brave enough to do anything like that, and if he did, she would have some words for him. But I can't help worrying about her."

"I didn't know you had a sister," Lan Wangji managed.

"Oh," Wei Ying said. "Well. My father's friend took me in after my parents died." His tone implied that that subject was closed now. He sighed. "Jin Guangshan is nasty enough to be involved but if it is him, we have to be careful. He's wiley."

"Mm," Lan Wangji said, thinking about siblings and families and how they sometimes didn't exactly match up. He leaned forward slightly. "Wei Ying."

"Yes, Lan Zhan?"

The dark curled around them, made it easier for him to find the words he was looking for. "You can come in if you want."

Wei Ying didn't respond for a long moment, long enough that Lan Wangji considered diving below the surface so he didn't have to face whatever was going to happen next. "In the river? Are you—you sure?"

Lan Wangji nodded and then realized that Wei Ying probably couldn't see him. "I'm sure."

Wei Ying let out the ghost of a laugh. Then Lan Wangji heard him taking his shoes off. "Okay," he said. "If I fall in, please tell A-Yuan I love him."

"If you fell in, I would catch you," Lan Wangji told him. Then there was a small splash and Wei Ying was in the water, in his river. Lan Wangji had thought about this; he had even thought he was prepared for it. He was not. He gasped, without meaning to.

"Are you okay?" Wei Ying asked, from quite nearby, sounding slightly panicked.

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji said, and reached out with the river to pull him closer. He couldn't find any other words. The sensation of it, the way the water flowed around Wei Ying, the way the curious fish swam up to investigate his toes.

Then Wei Ying was next to him, warm and dripping, laughing faintly. "Lan Zhan," he murmured. "I knew you were a river spirit, but I guess I didn't actually realize it until just now."

Oddly enough, Lan Wangji felt the same way. Every sense felt more alive than usual. He helped Wei Ying back onto the flat rock and sat beside him. The stars shone fiercely in the night sky and the moon hung over the horizon, a silver-white disc. In its light, Lan Wangji could just make out Wei Ying's expression.

"Wow," he said quietly. "Lan Zhan, this is so beautiful."

"Mm," Lan Wangji said, still feeling that words were a bit beyond him.

Wei Ying let out a shaky laugh. "I bet everyone you show this to says the same thing."

Lan Wangji paused for a moment. Then he said, "There hasn't been anyone else."

"Even your mother?" Wei Ying asked, surprised.

"I always go to visit her."

There was a long silence. Lan Wangji watched the moon rise. He felt his heart beating; he thought that if he paid attention he could feel the blood rushing under his skin.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying said at last, "You don't know everything I've done. I don't deserve that." He sounded—embarrassed. Ashamed. Some emotion that sat uneasily on him, that made him sound quiet and small and sad. Lan Wangji didn't think that Wei Ying should sound like that at all.

He didn't know how to say what he meant: that Wei Ying's darkness was a deep underground well, leaves decaying, things dying only to live again. He didn't think there was anything Wei Ying could tell him that would make him change his mind. But he also didn't think Wei Ying would believe him if he said that. So instead, he took Wei Ying's hand, chilly and thin, in his. "It's my river," he said firmly.

"Lan Zhan!"

He didn't answer. He laid down on the rock and looked straight up. When he was younger, his brother had been the one to show him the different constellations. He had forgotten their names now; it was something Xichen cared about more than he did.

After a moment, they were blocked out by Wei Ying leaning above him. "You're not letting this go, are you?"

Lan Wangji shook his head and then reached up and ran his finger down Wei Ying's cheek, watching the way his eyes caught the moonlight. "When I first met you," he said, "I could hardly think of anything except how afraid I was. But I trusted you. I still do. I always will."

Wei Ying sighed. He was leaning so close that Lan Wangji could feel it, leaning so close that it didn't take any effort at all to reach up and pull him even closer, to kiss him, as Lan Wangji had been wanting to do since that first day. His cheeks were damp and chilly, with river water and maybe tears, but his mouth was warm and his hands clutched Lan Wangji's collar.

The kiss didn't last very long before Wei Ying broke away and laid his head on Lan Wangji's shoulder. Both of their hearts were thundering, echoing each other. It sounded like the distant thundering of the waterfall, like the hum of dragonfly wings. "Okay," Wei Ying whispered. "Okay." Then he sighed and fell silent, tucked against Lan Wangji’s side, his head tucked under Lan Wangji’s chin.

Lan Wangji slipped his arms around Wei Ying and held him close and watched the stars wheel on their appointed paths for a long, long time.

 

Image of LWJ and WWX laying on the rock in the middle of the river. The night sky is reflected in the water around them.

-3-

A heatwave rose up from the valley, even reaching the mountain. Lan Wangji sat near the waterfall and watched a storm sweep in, the line of rain visible from the heights. The smell of thunder and wet earth reached him before the storm did.

When he was small, he had loved rainstorms. The rest of the time he was a serious and diligent child, earnestly hoping to please the adults around him. But at the first sign of a storm, he would throw down his brush and rush into the wind, tilting his face up to feel the rain on his cheeks. It had worried his uncle. At the time, he had sensed this worry but not understood it. Now he guessed that it had something to do with his mother, and magic, and his uncle's worry that Lan Wangji was going to follow in her path.

He didn't rush into the storm now, but he did lift a hand to feel the raindrops, closing his eyes against the rising breeze. The storm blew over quickly, leaving a sticky heat behind. But Lan Wangji felt refreshed nonetheless.

He walked down to his mother's house that evening. He had been away long enough, and he was worried at the lack of news from any of them since the day Wei Ying visited his river. He waited until the sun had set and the worst heat of the day was past, until the cool shadows pooled under the trees.

The children in the town must have been out of school, because they were riding bicycles and playing ball, running around yards and parks. It gave the town a more life than usual. Lan Wangji nodded at the parents he passed and a few of them waved. He realized all at once that he had never given A-Yuan the books he'd set aside. They'd been forgotten in all the confusion and distress. Well, this time, he thought. He hoped. He wished he had heard from Wei Ying.

When he reached the house, he was surprised to see lights on in the kitchen. He went in and took off his shoes. Someone was speaking and then there was a quiet laugh. He stepped in to find his mother and Granny Wen sitting at the table, drinking tea and eating rice crackers.

"Zhanzhan!" his mother exclaimed. "I didn't expect to see you so soon."

He nodded to Granny and sat down in the empty chair. "I wanted to see how you were," he said quietly, to his mother.

She pushed the crackers towards him. "Are you hungry? I can make something."

He shook his head, but took a cracker because he knew she wouldn't be satisfied until he ate something.

"Mm," she said. "You're alright?"

He didn't quite know how to answer that. The strangeness of his last visit still lingered in the back of his mind, but he was glad to be here nonetheless. He nodded.

"Wei Ying will be glad you're back," Granny said. She didn't quite wink, but she looked very smug.

Lan Wangji could feel himself blushing.

"Oh, he will," his mother said promptly. She gave Lan Wangji a bright-eyed look, so full of mischief that he was tempted to leave right then and there. "He was very starry-eyed after he visited you, Zhanzhan."

"A-ma," Lan Wangji protested. "Please."

They both laughed at him and he ducked his head.

He had been thinking of Wei Ying and wondering how he was ever since that visit, ever since Wei Ying had finally stirred and said, I've got to get home, Lan Zhan.

Then Granny added, more seriously, "He's always talking himself out of things. I hope you'll manage to calm him down, Lan Wangji."

Lan Wangji could guess what she meant by that, remembering Wei Ying telling him that he didn't deserve Lan Wangji's regard. It was nonsense, but it was nonsense that ran deep in Wei Ying's heart, a hidden crack that would shatter if tapped.

"I'll go by tomorrow," he said, and then yawned.

"I'll find sheets for your bed," his mother told him. "Just a minute, let me say goodbye."

He found the clothes he kept here and changed into them in the bathroom. When he came out, his mother had stripped the bed and was trying to put the new bedding on herself. He hurried to help her, taking the other corner wordlessly.

"Do you need anything else?" she asked, when they were done.

"No," he said. But then, he remembered Wei Ying in this room, saying that his mother must have taught him how to give hugs. He held out his arms and hugged his mother tightly. "I missed you," he whispered.

"Oh, Zhanzhan," she said. She looked up at him, frowning. "You are alright?"

He shrugged. "I feel confused, I suppose. Mostly about myself."

She sighed. "I'm sorry."

He squeezed her again, glad to feel her hug him in return. "Not your fault. I needed to...I don't know. I needed to find out for myself who I am."

"Well, if you figure out how to do that, please tell me," she said, and laughed. "I'll let you get some sleep."

But he didn't sleep right away. He watched the moon glide over the foot of the bed and thought about who he was and who he wanted to be. It felt like a birdsong, always just out of reach. Like the moonlight, real but intangible. Like magic, changing the world in small and unseen ways. He thought of his mother's magic and how it had felt like coming home, how he thought he could sense it even now if he paid attention.

He breathed in deeply and turned over and finally slept.

*

He woke to rain and his mother making breakfast in the kitchen, humming along to her ancient radio, which she refused to get rid of. They ate at the table, talking about the garden and his mother's plans to visit a friend the next week: all of the small parts of life and none of the larger worries. Lan Wangji washed the dishes when they were done.

"Going over to the Wens'?" his mother asked, in a horribly knowing tone.

"Yes," Lan Wangji said.

She pointed to a plastic bag on the table by the door. "Take those cucumbers with you. We have too many."

"A-ma, they have their own garden!" he protested. "I'm sure they have plenty of cucumbers already."

But she had gone back to her book and pretended not to hear him. He sighed and took the bag.

He could hear voices as he approached the Wens’ house, and the front door opened just as he arrived. Wei Ying stepped out, looking fractious, and then stopped short when he saw Lan Wangji. “Lan Zhan,” he said. “You’re, um, you’re here.”

Lan Wangji was becoming very tired of how surprised Wei Ying sounded whenever he came back. “I said I would be,” he pointed out, and stepped closer. He gave Wei Ying exactly enough time to give him a wide-eyed, startled look before he bent and kissed his cheek decorously.

“Hahahngh,” Wei Ying said. “Well.”

“My mother made me bring you cucumbers,” Lan Wangji said. “I told her you probably had plenty of your own, but she ignored me.”

“Lan Zhan!”

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Ying sighed, but seemed to give up on protesting. He tucked himself under Lan Wangji’s chin, which was exactly where he should always be. “I have to go investigate a property,” he muttered. “We think Jin Guangshan is using it as a base of operations. I have a friend, well, a friend of a friend, who gave me a tip about it.”

“Should I come back later, then?” Lan Wangji asked. He didn’t want to, but he would.

“Well—” Wei Ying pulled back far enough to give Lan Wangji a speculative look. “You could come with me. You look very—” he gestured towards Lan Wangji, as if that meant anything.

“Very?” Lan Wangji prompted, when he didn’t go on.

“Imposing,” Wei Ying finally said.

“Mm.”

Lan Wangji wondered what they were planning to do when they had enough evidence against Jin Guangshan. Or perhaps it wasn’t about evidence at all. Perhaps it was simply accumulating little bits of power, so they could stand in the way of him hurting anyone else. He wasn’t sure, but his mother, Wei Ying, and Wen Qing were three of the small number of people he trusted unconditionally.

Wei Ying drove fast, faster than Wen Qing. The rain drummed on the roof of the car and the wipers wiped frantically. Lan Wangji held onto the handle of the car door and tried to stay calm.

"Okay," Wei Ying said, pulling over abruptly. This was an area of town that Lan Wangji was completely unfamiliar with: new stores and warehouses and a train track bisecting the street. "I'm going to walk from here. We're not really expecting to find anything today, but I want to get a sense of it. And I have a listening spell to activate. Wen Qing and I worked on it all last week. What I'm saying is, you don't really have to come along, Lan Zhan."

"Of course I'm coming with you," Lan Wangji said. "We can be lost boyfriends together, if anyone asks."

"Uh huh," Wei Ying said. He sounded very dazed and when Lan Wangji looked over, he was staring again. "Is that—never mind. Let's get this over with." He hauled himself out of the car and onto the sidewalk and stretched. Lan Wangji followed suit, taking Wei Ying's hand as he did.

"You really don't have to…" Wei Ying trailed off when he saw Lan Wangji's determined look. "You're a menace, Zhanzhan." But he sounded happier than he had before, so Lan Wangji did not let go.

They walked along the street in silence. The rain had let up for now and the sun was going to come out in a moment and turn the air into a steam bath. They saw no one else.

"I'm going to—" Wei Ying made a gesture and Lan Wangji paused, bending to fiddle with his shoe, as if he had a piece of gravel in it that wouldn't come loose. He felt a brief hum of magic, and then nothing.

"All done," Wei Ying said after a long moment. They made their way to the end of the street, looked around as if trying to locate themselves, walked back to the car, and drove away. It all felt surprisingly easy. Wei Ying turned on the radio and drummed his fingers on the steering wheel in time to the music, but he didn’t say anything and Lan Wangji felt a cool pool of worry in the pit of his stomach.

When they reached the house, neither of them moved to get out. Lan Wangji was gripped with the sudden conviction that Wei Ying regretted everything that had passed between them. The sun beat down and his head throbbed. "Wei Ying," he said at last, feeling choked. "If I—if I overstepped, I apologise."

Wei Ying swung round and stared at him. "What do you mean? You didn't do anything to apologise for!" Then he bit his lip, which contradicted that statement.

When he thought about it, there was one part that Lan Wangji regretted in particular. "I shouldn't have suggested we be fake boyfriends," he said, feeling miserable. "That wasn't fair."

"Oh, I mean—it wasn't a problem," Wei Ying said at once. He sounded too cheerful. Lan Wangji bowed his head, not daring to look up. "Hey, are you okay?" Wei Ying asked.

Lan Wangji nodded. He wanted to get out of the car, but he also wanted to finish this conversation, because he knew he wouldn’t have the courage to return to it. He wanted to be back on the river rock, looking at the stars, Wei Ying's heart beating steadily against his own.

"But you're crying," Wei Ying said, sounding very small. Lan Wangji had messed everything up somehow.

"I'm sorry," he said again. "I shouldn't have presumed."

Wei Ying went very still beside him. "What are you talking about?"

Lan Wangii sniffed and wiped his eyes with the back of his wrist. "I was being greedy," he said. "Taking what I wanted and not thinking about you." Like my father, he thought but didn't say.

"Oh, hey, no!" Wei Ying said. "Wow, no, that is not it at all." He patted Lan Wangji's knee. "Come inside for a minute, okay?"

Lan Wangji nodded, still miserable, and followed Wei Ying through the house and out to the parasol tree in the back corner of the garden, where the grass grew soft and the light filtered through the green leaves. Wei Ying leaned against the trunk and made grabby hands until Lan Wangji sat too.

"Hey," Wei Ying said, softly. "I'm sorry. You didn't...what was all of that, Lan Zhan? You didn't do anything wrong. You didn't do anything I didn't want."

Lan Wangii swallowed and took a deep breath. If he trusted Wei Ying, then he had to actually trust him. He did, he did, only he wished his head didn't hurt so much. He wished he could manage to think. He tried to pull the cool depths of the river around him. "All right," he said at last.

Wei Ying sighed and Lan Wangji reached out to touch his hand, briefly. It was too hot to hold hands, too hot to do anything but wilt. Then he realized that this wasn't entirely true. He reached out for moisture in the air and reminded it that it had been a river once, a cloud, cool rain. A breeze drifted over their heads and dew fell on the grass around them.

"What's that?" Wei Ying asked, sitting up straight and staring. "Lan Zhan, is that you?"

Lan Wangji nodded, hardly daring to move. It took a lot of concentration.

Wei Ying opened his mouth to say something and then closed it again, shook his head at Lan Wangji. "You keep surprising me," he said, but it didn't sound anything like a complaint. "Hey, can I ask you something?"

"Of course," Lan Wangji said at once.

"Is that—you came up with that, uh, word really quickly. Is that something you'd want? For real?"

"To be your boyfriend?"

Wei Ying blushed, but nodded. "I mean, you don't have to answer right now—"

"Yes," Lan Wangji said at once.

Wei Ying laughed, bright as starlight. "Okay," he said, still laughing. "Okay."

Lan Wangji leaned over so that only the tops of their shoulders were touching. He thought about his mother. "My family may be angry," he admitted. "But I don't care."

"Your mother?" Wei Ying asked, sounding surprised and slightly dismayed.

"No, my father's family," Lan Wangji said. "My mother will be too happy, if anything." He brooded about this for a moment until Wei Ying elbowed him. "River spirits aren't supposed to have relationships with humans."

"Lan Zhan, that sounds serious," Wei Ying said. He was frowning at Lan Wangji, so Lan Wangji had to reach out and smooth away the line with his thumb.

"It might be," he admitted. "But you're worth any trouble it could cause."

Wei Ying frowned harder and Lan Wangji knew that he was going to find a way to back out, to save Lan Wangji from himself, when that was the last thing that Lan Wangji wanted. He leaned forward and kissed Wei Ying, gently but quite thoroughly, so that there could be no doubt about his intentions.

Someone whistled behind his shoulder and Lan Wangji jumped and turned to see Wen Qing giving him a crooked smile. "Guess you two have worked some things out," she said, dropping down on the grass beside Wei Ying.

"Ughhhhhhhh, be nice to me," Wei Ying said. He toppled over by her knee and looked up with beseeching eyes.

"Seems like Lan Wangji has that covered," she said and flicked his forehead gently. "Are you staying for dinner?" she asked Lan Wangji.

He shook his head regretfully. He wanted to get home, to see his mother and talk about what he should do now.

He realized that he had never spoken to her directly about marrying his father, or leaving. She told her sons stories about her own childhood and about when they were babies, but nothing in between. He could understand why she wanted to leave the past in the past, but now he wanted to know. Now he needed to know, for his sake and her own.

*

He was tired when he reached his mother’s house. He thought she could probably be talked into an early dinner and a few rounds of chess before bed. Despite everything else happening, it was a congenial idea, and he found himself looking forward to it.

But when he stepped inside, he heard curt voices from the living room. He hurried in to find his uncle and Xichen, perched uncomfortably on the floral couch, with his mother sitting stiffly on a chair near the door.

He felt himself tense with a strange, distant feeling, as if he were observing someone else’s reaction.

“Lan Wangji,” his uncle said, noticing him. “Come in and sit down. You may as well be here too.”

He did, finding an empty chair near the window. He looked between them: his mother, face set and defiant; his uncle, stiff with worry and self-justified anger. He couldn't read Xichen's expression and that only made him feel more unsettled.

"The terms of our agreement," his uncle said, "were quite clear. You accepted them at the time and have never asked that they be changed. Now I find that you have gone behind my back—"

"The terms that I was forced to agree to, or be kept from seeing my own children?" his mother interrupted, furiously.

Lan Wangji watched his uncle's face darken. He thought of his mother saying they'll take your river away.

“That is a mischaracterization of events,” his uncle said.

His mother’s mouth tightened. “Lan Qiren, you can dress it up however you like. But I remember what you said at the time.”

Lan Wangji cleared his throat before either of them could go on.  "Uncle," he said. He found, to his surprise, that his voice was quite steady. "You made your agreement when we were children, and you were trying to keep us safe. But we're not children now."

He thought of his river: its strength and its clarity. He wanted to carry it in his heart, but he knew that if he backed down now, if he made himself less than he was, he wouldn’t be worthy of it. He could stay silent and lose himself; he could speak and lose his river. In the end, it was no choice at all. "Our mother was ill, and it was only luck that I found her when I did. My—my friends need help sometimes as well. I won't abandon my duties, but I have duties here too." Xichen nodded at him slightly.

His uncle said, "You don't know what you're saying."

Lan Wangji sat back and didn’t respond.

“Lan Zhan,” his mother said quietly. It was wrong for her to be so quiet. It made Lan Wangji wonder what it had cost her to give them the chance to know her, what ways she had made herself smaller so they could grow. If they all made it out of this, he promised himself to find a way to give back a little—even a crumb of what she had given him.

He wanted, suddenly and fiercely, so that he could hardly think of anything else, to take her and Wei Ying and Wen Qing and all of them to his river. To show them the silver minnows and the old catfish with his long whiskers, the deep currents and the green water-grass.

“Uncle,” Xichen said, “Wangji isn’t wrong. A bit precipitous, perhaps, but he speaks honestly. We have kept ourselves apart from the world for too long. It’s time to find a new way forward.”

Their uncle made a face and did not speak. But he seemed somewhat mollified, and Lan Wangji dared to breathe easier. He went to the kitchen and sliced plums, found a box of cookies they had been saving for a guest to visit. He brought the food in and put it on the table between them.

His mother gave him a tired smile as he passed, so he bent and kissed the top of her head. It was all he could do just then.

They ate plums and sipped tea. His uncle cleared his throat. “I did not realize you had been ill,” he said stiffly, not quite looking at any of them.

Lan Wangji’s mother nodded, still wary. “It was a curse. We’re not sure who cast it yet. Lan Zhan found me.”

His uncle frowned. “But you were the only one affected?”

His mother began to explain. Xichen stood and nodded towards the kitchen. He and Lan Wangji gathered ingredients for a cold salad, working together wordlessly.

“I’m sorry, Zhanzhan,” Xichen said. He sliced a bunch of fresh coriander leaves and passed them to Lan Wangji. “Uncle went to visit you and was so upset when he found you gone. I didn’t know how much to say, but then he insisted on coming here, and he and Mother were both quite annoyed with each other.”

“They seem to be alright now.” Lan Wangji paused. “Was he angry with me?”

“Worried, I think,” Xichen said. “I didn’t realize how concerned he was over my traveling, and then this.” He touched Lan Wangji’s shoulder as he passed behind him. “They all have trouble with the changing world,” he said, an oblique reference to the elders of their family that Lan Wangji still understood perfectly. Xichen’s river ran along a broad plain, wide and calm on the surface. He forgot sometimes how deep it went, how deep his brother went. “But they’ll come around. You and I are not our father, hm?”

Lan Wangji bowed his head; that old fear brought out into the light. “Yes,” he said, choked it out against a sudden tightness in his throat.

“And everyone else? You were out earlier,” Xichen said.

Lan Wangji mixed the sauce and poured it over the other ingredients. “They’re fine. Wei Ying has a tracking spell that he thinks will provide some answers.” He mixed everything together. “Shall we eat?”

They were silent during the meal, following their uncle’s preference. Afterwards, the long summer twilight cast a golden glow across the kitchen. Lan Wangji washed up and Xichen put away the clean dishes while their mother and uncle took a strenuously polite tour of the garden. He thought about what it meant to have his uncle here, seeing the human world, the quiet ways that this part of his family lived together. He washed the dishes and hoped, with all of his heart, that his world could change just a little, just enough.

*

After all of the upset earlier, Lan Wangji had almost forgotten what happened that afternoon. It wasn’t until he and his mother were making up a bed for his uncle that he remembered. “I think I did magic today,” he said.

She paused, the sheet still in her hands. “You think?” she asked.

He bit his lip. “I—made a breeze. Made it cooler.”

“How?”

“I reminded the water in the air that it had been a river,” he said.

She finished pulling the sheet up and smoothed it down. “That’s not any magic I know how to do,” she said. “But I’ve never heard of a river spirit that could do anything like that either.”

He shrugged, feeling helpless.

“I don’t mean it was wrong,” she said. “Only that you did something new.” She gave him a grave look, considering. “Do you think it was wrong?”

He shook his head. “Not exactly, but—” he sighed. “I don’t want to always be disappointing people, and it seems that no matter what I do, I will be.” He met her eyes. “But I don’t want to stop either.”

She didn’t say anything for a long moment. Then he realized that she was crying.

“A-ma,” he said, horrified at this unprecented occurrence.

“You’ve never disappointed me,” she said. “You haven’t. If it would be easier to stop visiting—”

“No!”

They stared at each other across the bed, both of them teary now. Lan Wangji took a deep breath. “I’d never want that. You gave up so much—I don’t want you to regret it.” He knew he wasn’t being very coherent. “If you wanted to travel,” he said. “Or—or go back to your old life, you shouldn’t worry about me, or Xichen.”

“I’ll always worry about you!” She laughed, wry but genuine. “I have plenty of regrets, but you two are not one of them. I promise. All right?”

He nodded. “But if you do want to leave,” he started and she smiled and rolled her eyes at him.

“I’ll let you know.” She paused for a moment, frowning. “It’s true that I’ve cut myself off to a certain extent. It’s been nice to meet these younger Wens you made friends with, and your Wei Ying. It reminded me that I don’t need to leave all of my old life behind.” She followed him out and pulled the door closed behind her. “I hope he’s comfortable tonight,” she said, not needing to specify who she meant. “I can’t say I expected this visit, but hopefully it’s for the best in the end.”

“Mm,” he said. He wanted to say that he was seeing her and his uncle in a new way, in a serious and adult way that changed the tone of so many of his childhood memories. But he didn’t quite know how to say it without sounding as if he regretted his childhood, and that wasn’t what he meant. So in the end, he said goodnight and went to sleep on the sofa, drifting away to the knowledge that everyone he loved was close by and safe. The wind blew through the chimes hanging in the plane tree, and the stars shone above them. His river flowed down the mountain, the water dancing across the rocks, the willow trees swaying serenely below the moon.

*

He woke in the dim grey light of a rainy morning and yawned his way through tea and breakfast. He was about to let himself out into the garden to pick whatever was ripe and do some weeding when a strange feeling like the gathering of a lightning strike came over him.

He turned back at once and almost crashed into his mother, who was rushing into the kitchen to meet him.

“Something’s wrong,” she gasped out, and Lan Wangji nodded. He knew it already.

“The Wens.”

For a moment there was silence in the kitchen while they looked at each other.

"Go and get Xichen," she said. "I'll gather my supplies."

It helped to have a task to complete, though Lan Wangji's heart still thundered in his chest. He woke Xichen and must have managed enough of an explanation to make the situation clear, although later he could not remember what he said to his brother.

Then there was a great deal of fuss about their uncle coming along, as he insisted he would, though none of them thought it a wise idea. In the end, they couldn't afford to waste more time arguing and all four of them piled into the car in a tense silence.

"I'm teaching you to drive, Wangji," his brother muttered as they pulled out.

Lan Wangji couldn't respond. The lightning strike feeling was growing and growing, until he thought he might scream if he opened his mouth.

A strange gloom gathered in the air as they neared the Wens' house, but when they arrived everything was still. No cricket chirped, no bird sang, no wind blew. It was the stillness of a dream, of death. The front door of the house was ajar and the hall was in shadow. Lan Wangji got out of the car and closed the door behind him very, very carefully. He did not want to make a sound.

He and his mother walked together into the house, Xichen and his uncle just behind them. The rooms were all empty, were utterly still. Then Lan Wangji thought, with that bell-ringing clarity, the garden. He pointed to the back door and his mother's eyes widened before she nodded in agreement. He eased it open and stepped out into a storm: whirling wind and dark tendrils curling through the air, reaching out.

The Wen siblings and Wei Ying stood in the middle of the garden, hurling spells at a strange man, who hurled them back. Granny and A-Yuan and the uncles were under the parasol tree, for protection, Lan Wangji thought.

His uncle sucked in a breath as he took in the scene. Lan Wangji did not wait to hear his opinion. He ran down the path towards the center of the garden, the plum tree and the lotus pond, where Wei Ying's curling energy reached out across thin air in a thousand arching branches.

"Wen Qing," he said, because she was closest to him.

She gave him half a glance over her shoulder, all she could spare. "Oh good, you're here," she said. "It's Wen Chao, my asshole cousin, of course." She said this last with a venomous disdain, and Lan Wangji understood at once why she had fought so hard to get her family away.

Then his mother came up and shoved him gently aside so she could take Wen Qing's free hand. Their magic twined together, fresh air and green sap. Lan Wangji turned to Wei Ying, who was watching him as he walked the last few feet to the place where the swirling darkness was densest, to the place where Wei Ying stood.

"Hi, Lan Zhan," he said. He sounded exhausted. Defeated. He gave Lan Wangji a wry smile. "Told you I hadn't told you everything."

Someone shouted, but Lan Wangji couldn’t spare any attention for what was happening elsewhere. He blinked at Wei Ying. The tendrils grew around him, like the fractal patterns of a fern’s branches, racing out to curl around Lan Wangji as well. Lan Wangji could taste the power of them in the air, the ozone tingle of a thunderstorm.

Did Wei Ying think that Lan Wangji would be angry or disgusted? By this? He couldn’t tell what Wei Ying was drawing power from, but he could tell what he made of it, and that was true and sound and beautiful.

"Wei Ying," he said, and held out his hand. He could feel the river's power run through his veins, run down the mountain; he felt the sunlight of his mother’s kitchen in his heart, warmth and love and laughter. He held it all out gathering on the skin of his palm.

Wei Ying laughed, a grating sound. "What are you doing? No. I'm not going to—to corrupt you."

"Nothing you do could corrupt me," Lan Wangji said calmly.

"Don't—please. Think about what everyone would say." Wei Ying looked close to tears now, more upset than Lan Wangji had ever seen him.

It was Lan Wangji's turn to laugh. "I don't care about what people say. Everyone whose opinion I care for is already here. Wei Ying, let me help you."

Wei Ying stared at him for one more breath, for two. The shadowy tendrils twined themselves around Lan Wangji’s legs and still neither of them moved. Then, at last, Wei Ying reached out, took Lan Wangji's outstretched hand in his own, wound their fingers together. His skin was cold and Lan Wangji stepped closer to him and put his other hand around Wei Ying's, trying to warm it.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying said. He sounded caught between two emotions, but Lan Wangji couldn't quite tell what they were. "You're really not afraid?"

"I have never been afraid of you," Lan Wangji said at once. He could feel Wei Ying's pulse now, beating against his own, a hum of life.

"Okay. Okay. Let's finish this then, huh?"

They looked at each other for one more moment, starlight and midnight, and then Lan Wangji felt some of his river's power shift into Wei Ying's hands. Wei Ying made a sharp movement and the tendrils seemed to solidify, curling around Wen Chao, holding him tight, pinning him down.

With a pop, the strange silence around them disappeared. A finch trilled.

Wen Qing marched over to where her cousin lay and kicked his shin, hard. "I hope it bruises," she told him. Then she frowned down at him. "That wasn't your magic, though. You've never had that kind of power."

"He made me," Wen Chao whined. "It wasn't my fault, Qingqing." And then, hastily, when she raised her eyebrows at him. "Qing jie."

"Who made you?" she asked. But he shook his head and wouldn't answer.

"You'd think the death magic would scare him more than this mysterious guy," Wei Ying remarked, "but I guess not." Lan Wangji looked over. There was still a shadowy quality to Wei Ying, as if he were standing in a slightly different place than the rest of them. But the tendrils of darkness had disappeared. He was still holding Lan Wangji's hand and he gave it a squeeze when he noticed that Lan Wangji was looking at him. "I'm okay, Lan Zhan," he said quietly.

"Jin Guangshan," Lan Wangji's mother said. "He must be somewhere nearby, to give this one access to that much power." She made a face. "It's like him, to use someone else to do all the dirty work."

Lan Wangji's uncle made an agreeing sound and then looked surprised at himself. "That's a very serious accusation," he said. "But I do bear witness that these people were being attacked in their own home and were acting to protect their family." He glanced around and Lan Wangji followed his gaze.

Granny and the uncles were still under the tree, but A-Yuan was nowhere to be seen. For a moment, Lan Wangji felt a cold terror, and then he saw the branches of the tree rustle and heard a faint, "Popo, I climbed all the way up!"

“Who are you, anyway?” Wen Chao asked, looking around at Lan Wangji’s family. He struggled against the tendrils that bound him.

Lan Wangji’s mother gave him a sharp-edged smile. “No one you would have heard of,” she said.

“Wen Ning and I are going to look for Jin Guangshan,” Wei Ying said. He looked at Lan Wangji for a moment, as if gathering up his nerve, and then kissed his cheek. “Will you check on Granny for me while we’re gone?”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji said. “Be careful.”’ He lifted their clasped hands and kissed the inside of Wei Ying’s wrist.

“Haha, wow,” Wei Ying said and tore himself away. Lan Wangji walked over to the parasol tree and did not turn around to see what his brother’s face was doing.

“Gege!” he heard from the branches. He looked up to see A-Yuan beaming down at him.

“We told him to see if he could climb up, to keep him out of the way,” Granny said. She took a breath and sighed. “Everything’s alright now?”

Lan Wangji nodded and then hesitated. “Wei Ying and Wen Ning are going to look for someone else who’s involved, but I’m sure they’ll be able to handle it.”

She nodded. “I think I’ll go inside now. Is your mother here? We’ll make some cool drinks for everyone.”

“Gege! Magic gege! Catch me!”

Lan Wangji looked up just in time to see A-Yuan falling and reached out to grab him. He clutched the little boy close. “Don’t jump out of trees, A-Yuan,” he said. “Even if someone is there. It’s very dangerous.” His heart was still jumping out of his chest.

“I knew you’d catch me,” A-Yuan said, unconcerned. “Popo, did you see me? I climbed up all the way.”

She reached out and Lan Wangji handed him over thankfully. Wen Ning and Wei Ying weren’t back yet, and he didn’t want to start worrying over them. So he went inside the house and began straightening the living room. He couldn’t quite tell if it was a normal level of chaotic, or if Wen Chao had blown through, like a greasy and feeble wind. It made him feel better, in any event, to put things to right in this small way.

Eventually he looked around and realized that his brother was watching in the doorway.

“All right?” Xichen asked him.

Lan Wangji set a cushion down and nodded. “I don’t know how much you understood of that,” he said.

Xichen shrugged. “Enough, I think.” He hesitated a moment and then took a breath. “Wangji, what is it you want here?”

Lan Wangji stood in the middle of the Wens’ living room. He said, “I want to be happy.”

Xichen gave him a tiny smile. “And what does that mean to you, now?”

“I don’t exactly know yet,” Lan Wangji admitted. “But I want the chance to find out.”

His brother nodded. “I think I can manage to give you that,” he said, and then hesitated slightly. “No matter what happens, I don’t want to lose you.”

Lan Wangji swallowed painfully. So much of his childhood had been the two of them, Xichen patiently helping Wangji with a world he didn’t quite understand. Telling him about the stars, and how they would always watch over them. “You won’t,” he said at last, and meant it.

*

Everyone sat under the tree and drank chilled plum juice. Wen Chao sat nearby, still bound by the cords that Wei Ying’s magic had made. Lan Wangji found that when he looked at them from the corner of his eye, they sifted and pulsed, like a living thing. Strange, he thought, and beautiful.

At last, Wei Ying and Wen Ning returned without Jin Guangshan, looking dusty and frustrated. Oddly enough, it was Lan Wangji's uncle who soothed them.

"He has managed to get so far because there was no evidence against him directly," his uncle said. "Now there is." He sounded grimly satisfied, as if he had been personally waiting a long time for evidence against Jin Guangshan.

Wei Ying settled himself by Lan Wangji and sighed. "I wanted everything finished and done," he muttered. "But at least he won't be doing any magic anytime soon."

"What do you mean?" Lan Wangji asked him, surprised.

Wei Ying gave him a sidelong glance. "Well, I overloaded his power. Blew it out, like an electric transformer."

Lan Wangji didn't know exactly what that meant, but he remembered Wei Ying's magic and the power of his river joining and thought he had an idea of how that had happened. He found that it did not upset him at all, not when he thought of the small, silent huddle of his mother's body in her own kitchen.

Wei Ying looked out over their garden: the pond where the lotuses bloomed and the fish swam, the beans and cucumbers and tomatoes. Lan Wangji watched him and wondered what he was picturing. Then he seemed to come back to himself and turned his head to smile at Lan Wangji.

“Lan Zhan, this is maybe—I don’t know—could I come back to your mother’s tonight, do you think?” He laughed and shrugged. “I feel—I don’t want to impose, but.”

“Wei Ying, of course,” Lan Wangji said at once. He thought of Wei Ying eating dinner with them, going to bed in Lan Wangji’s quiet bedroom. Then he frowned, remembering. “Although my uncle took my room last night and I don’t know if he means to stay.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying said. “Well, of course, if it’s too much trouble—”

Lan Wangji heaved an exasperated sigh. “Wei Ying!”

Wei Ying blinked at him, startled. Several other heads turned.

“It’s not trouble,” Lan Wangji said. “There’s nothing I want more. It’s only that I slept on the sofa last night and there’s no room for two of us.”

Wei Ying abruptly started laughing. Lan Wangji couldn’t decide exactly how he felt about this. “Sorry, sorry, it’s just—you were so intense about it.”

Lan Wangji decided to feel disgruntled.

Wei Ying leaned against him. “Sorry,” he said again, more seriously. “Lan Zhan. I keep trying to find something that will make you change your mind, and you keep on not changing it. I never—I could never have imagined you.”

The wind picked up, tousling the ends of his hair. Lan Wangji felt the cool rush of water, the way the green water buttercups swayed in shadowed pools. He said, “I could never have imagined you either.” He kissed the top of Wei Ying’s head, felt the sun-warm silky hair against his lips. “I trust you,” he said quietly, and Wei Ying gave him a look he had never seen before: open and wondering and hopeful.

Lan Wangji’s uncle was watching them, his expression inscrutable. So it was not surprising when he caught Lan Wangji as everyone carried the dishes inside and began to talk about what to do next.

“I will return to my river this afternoon,” he began. “I must speak to some others and see what can be done. This situation has been allowed to go on for too long.”

“That’s good,” Lan Wangji said. “Thank you, Shushu.”

His uncle hesitated and then said, “You are determined to keep going as you have been.” It wasn’t quite a question, but there was a wistful element to it, as if he was hoping that Lan Wangji would deny it.

“Yes.” Lan Wangji waited. He had said what he had to say on the subject already, and he knew that his uncle would not be convinced by more words.

His uncle sighed. “Well. You are an adult now and I suppose you’ll make your own choices. I only hope that you understand why I chose as I did. I wanted to keep you safe. Neither of you remember what it was like, when you were children. Everyone wanted to exile you, deny that you had any rights at all.” He gave Lan Wangji a pleading look. “I wanted you to have a chance.”

“Shushu,” Lan Wangji said, and had to take a breath. “I don’t intend to turn my back on anything. I am grateful to you, for all the chances you gave us. For everything you gave us. But I will always be grateful to my mother too, for everything she gave up for us. I want to learn from her now. That doesn’t mean I will ever stop being who you made me.”

For a moment, Lan Wangji almost thought that his uncle would cry or hug him. But that would never be their way. Instead he inclined his head in acknowledgement, and said, “Well, I will speak to Xichen about what steps we should take next.”

It was a start, Lan Wangji thought to himself, as he watched his uncle walk off, back straight and proud. It was more than he had ever expected.

*

Wen Chao had no courage, or perhaps simply could read the way the wind was blowing. He admitted right away that he had cast the spell that cursed Lan Wangji's mother and then the one that cursed Wen Ning.

"We didn't even know there was another witch living in this town," he said, glaring at all of them, as if it was their fault. “We thought it would hit one of them, and we were pretty startled when it didn’t work.”

He wouldn't say the same of the person he had worked with, but Wen Qing was certain it was Jin Guangshan. She had acquired an old spell of his and it seemed that the residue of the magical signature was almost exactly the same. According to Wen Chao, the spell was supposed to slowly drain the person it was cast on of their magical strength, and then eventually their life.

Lan Wangji shivered, hearing this. He could imagine the results too well, and it seemed almost inexplicably cruel.

“And they say I’m dangerous,” Wei Ying muttered. Their gazes caught on each other, and Lan Wangji squeezed his hand. But he was right: if this was not technically death magic, then the intention of it came closer than anything that Lan Wangji had seen Wei Ying himself do.

They didn't know what to do with Wen Chao. At last, Xichen said he would ask Nie Mingjue. The burly tree spirit must have been nearby, because he arrived suspiciously quickly, giving Xichen a hug and tousling Lan Wangji's hair. Lan Wangji gave his brother A Look, which Xichen ignored.

Nie Mingjue examined Wen Chao and said, "Hm." He took Wen Chao out into the garden, ignoring Wen Chao’s protests. And then suddenly Wen Chao was a pine tree, growing near the fence where no pine tree had stood before. He looked prickly and somehow conveyed a sullen belligerence.  

One of the uncles muttered about shade and needing to move the tomatoes, but otherwise the Wens seemed to have no complaints. Lan Wangji felt surprised by the abruptness of the whole thing, but it was a solution. And perhaps Wen Chao would be a better tree than a human.

Then Lan Wangji's uncle said his goodbyes, and Xichen caught Wei Ying and spoke to him before Lan Wangji could prevent it, and Nie Mingjue slapped Wen Ning on the shoulder in a friendly way and nearly knocked him over. Xichen and Nie Mingjue went out into the summer afternoon together and were gone, leaving the house quiet and cheerfully gloomy, just as it ought to be.

"Okay, but who was that guy?" Wei Ying asked, breaking the silence.

"Nie Mingjue," Lan Wangji said darkly.

His mother laughed. "Oh, what, so you're allowed to date, but Xichen can't?"

"Of course he can," Lan Wangji admitted. "But then he acted so shocked at the idea when I mentioned it." He brooded on the unfairness of older brothers.

"Mm, he's just surprised you're all grown up now." She patted his hand. "He's a tree spirit, Wei Ying. His family has been close to the Lans for a long time. They often grow by their rivers."

"Is that—a euphemism?" Wen Qing asked. She sounded like she was trying not to laugh.

"No!" Lan Wangji resisted the urge to put his face in his hands.

"Do you have a Nie growing by your river? Should I be worried about that nice willow tree?" Wei Ying asked, and snickered. Wen Qing elbowed him, not subtly.

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji pleaded, but he knew it was a lost cause, and he let the rest of them have their fun.

*

He and his mother cooked together that night, making cucumber salad and tomato and egg stir fry. Wei Ying sat at the table and watched them, having been lovingly shoved out of the way when he tried to help.

"A-Yuan really wants to visit you at the river, Lan Zhan," he said after a while.

"Mm," Lan Wangji said. "That would be nice. I would like for all of you to visit." He glanced at his mother, who was calmly slicing tomatoes. He wanted to ask her if she had ever wished he would invite her, if she was hurt that Wei Ying had seen the river before she had. But he wasn’t sure how to bring it up if she didn’t. So in the end, he only handed her the chives he had snipped from the garden and she handed him the tomatoes to add to the wok.

After they ate, Lan Wangji washed the dishes and watched the sun sink down over his mother’s garden. When he went into the living room, he found his mother and Wei Ying looking at old photo albums, turning the pages and cackling to each other.

“This is unfair,” he complained, but he sat down beside them. He had forgotten how many photos his mother took when he and Xichen were young, carefully documenting all of the short time they were able to spend together. There they were, a baby Lan Zhan with large cheeks and an angry glower, squashing a very slightly larger Lan Huan. Then again, playing with sand in plastic buckets. He could almost remember that: carefully tipping the bucket over when it was full and then moving the pile back into the bucket, over and over again in the hot sun. Then again, alone, a few years later: his knees knobby under his shorts, his hair growing longer, as he held a giant melon from the garden.

He touched the photos gently as he turned the pages. For all that he was still angry over their family situation, he realized the preciousness of this shared memory, the warmth of the happy childhood his mother had carved out for him. It wasn’t necessarily the case for everyone. For Wen Qing, or Wei Ying, for instance. He tucked his free hand under Wei Ying’s elbow, just to be touching a piece of him.

“Okay?” Wei Ying asked, under his breath, and Lan Wangji nodded. He thought, at last, that he truly was.

*

The solstice came and went. Then the hottest part of the year arrived, bringing with it the droning of cicadas and crickets. Lan Wangji spent much of the daytime in the cool cavern tucked away behind the waterfall. In the evenings, he often swam for a while, greeting the ancient inhabitants of the deepest parts of the river.

But on other evenings he walked down to the town, to his mother's house or to the Wens'. He helped in the gardens; he learned a new card game; he kissed Wei Ying; he was happy. He talked to his mother about magic and about his childhood, all the things they had not been able to discuss before.

She thought she would travel. "In the fall," she said, her eyes far off, seeing a landscape that Lan Wangji couldn't imagine. He only knew his river and this town, and he didn't mind that. But he thought that if she ever invited him, he would find a way to go with her.

So the summer passed, rich and full, until the day that everyone was to come to Lan Wangji's river for a picnic.

It rained in the morning, but by afternoon the sun had dried the grass and the rocks. Lan Wangji waited on the bank, watching the minnows dart in and out of the waterthyme growing in the shallows, watching the dragonflies circle above the river, lazy in the warm summer light.

He heard A-Yuan first, calling out to someone else, and then his mother's voice, and then they had arrived and he wasn't waiting any longer.

Wei Ying squeezed his arm, and his mother hugged him. It felt strange to be so close to other people here, strange to have his mother looking around with wondering eyes.

"Zhanzhan," she said. "It’s so beautiful.”

Why had he never asked her before? Why had he accepted that the two halves of his life must always remain separate, that his heart must always be split in two?

"Come and see the waterfall," he said, and they all followed him through the butterfly bushes and cattails that grew along the bank, being careful and respectful. Something deep within Lan Wangji felt satisfied for perhaps the first time, as he watched them look at the sheet of silver water, the small rainbows caught in the sun, the shadowed green depths of the cave below.

They spread the food out at the edge of the pool and ate cold noodles and bean soup, fresh watermelon slices and small eggplants cooked with sesame and ginger. A-Yuan kept jumping up to look for turtles and fish; at first, Granny Wen was nervous about this, but Lan Wangji showed her that he could catch A-Yuan easily, even from the bank.

“Are you happy, Lan Wangji?” Wen Qing asked him, kicking his ankle gently.

Lan Wangji watched his mother and Granny bickering over their card game and the uncles dozing in the sun. “Mm,” he said. “I am. Are you, Wen Qing?”

She smiled, tipping her head back to look up at the spray of falling water. “You know,” she said, in a tone of faint wonder. “I think I am.”

Evening came, the slow blue light draping the world like a thin silk scarf. The sun set and the long shadows of the mountain lay across the water and the quiet bank where everyone was trying to recover from the picnic they had eaten. Lan Wangji sat near the willow tree and watched the river flowing by, running down the mountain as it always had.

Wei Ying lay with his head on Lan Wangji’s knee and A-Yuan sitting on Wei Ying’s stomach. They were making up a story between them, about a magic horse that they could ride far away into strange lands that were always full of noodles and fruit and no vegetables at all. Lan Wangji ran his fingers through Wei Ying’s hair and smiled.

Image of LWJ, WWX and a-Yuan sittin under a willow tree.

“Magic gege!” A-Yuan said, toppling off Wei Ying and squirming his way over to Lan Wangji. He put a hand on Lan Wangji’s foot and looked up earnestly.

“How come you’re magic gege, Lan Zhan? I’m the witch around here, and I’ve known A-Yuan for longer.” Wei Ying sat up and pouted at A-Yuan, who laughed at him.

“A-Yuan is a discerning young gentleman,” Lan Wangji said gravely.

“Lan Zhan! Now you’re ganging up on me.” But he was laughing too, leaning against Lan Wangji and making faces at A-Yuan.

A-Yuan climbed into Lan Wangji’s lap and said, “Look! Look at all the stars! I never saw all these stars before.”

Lan Wangji leaned back enough to look up at the sky. As the sky darkened, the stars sprang into being one by one, shining clear and bright above them. He supposed that A-Yuan, living in a town, would be unfamiliar with many of them. “Mm,” he said. “Do you want to know their names?”

A-Yuan nodded enthusiastically, so Lan Wangji began to point out the ones he remembered from Xichen’s long ago tutelage. Wei Ying leaned against his shoulder, warm and laughing, interrupting with silly exaggerations that had to be hushed. The fireflies danced around them, like sparks against the gathering dusk; the fish hid in the water-grass; the herons hunted for their dinner; the river flowed down the mountain, until it turned into a stream, running through quiet and hidden routes across old rocks and by bending trees, and then out at last to the sea.