I. One Month
Wei Wuxian runs. And for the first time since he was cursed, he wishes he could fly.
Because he is cursed. The number of things he does know for certain have dwindled in the last month’s worth of nights. But the first thing he knows is that he is cursed. How else can he explain the fact that he comes back to himself at sundown, naked and windswept and unable to use his legs for long shivering moments that send panic flapping through him like wingbeats? How can he explain the fact that days in his mind are like fogged pieces of glass that break when he touches them, shattering into recollections—sunlight baking his dark back, his wings; the snap of a mouse’s legs in his mouth; soaring like he hasn’t done since—since before that mountain in Yiling.
The logical conclusion, as ridiculous as it sounds, is the second thing that he knows: He becomes a bird with the dawn. A raven, he thinks, when he sometimes opens his mouth to talk to himself and expects to hear a gutteral rasp. He also knows that it hurts to transform, the kind of hurt that he can’t think about or describe, but it makes the dawn an ugly, dreaded thing. And he knows that it is glorious to fly again.
How the curse happened or when—if only half of his brain would dust itself off so he could remember—
The third thing is this: There is a wolf hunting him.
Wei Wuxian runs and thinks that actually, it would be nice to be a raven right now. Ravens in the sky are safe from wolves on the ground, but Wei Wuxian has been trying to outrun this wolf for months.
At first it was just part of the nightmare. Waking naked and confused, brain clouded and compressed and ill-equipped to command his human body, and hearing the sound that has terrified him ever since he was a child. A howl in the dark, and paws trilling on the ground. He ran then too, the first time, and every night since. Sometimes he has time to steal clothes or food before he hears the wolf; sometimes his body cooperates enough to climb high enough into a tree that the beast couldn’t reach him.
Tonight he has time for neither. He runs through the underbrush and feels it cut his legs and sides. He wants his brother, who always scared the dogs away. Behind him, the wolf banks to the left. Wei Wuxian stumbles to the right. His body moves when his mind can’t, but his legs start to slow and find more things to trip over.
“No,” he hears himself say when he stumbles and hears his knee crunch against a rock. “No!” He keeps running, ignoring the pain that stabs up his leg when his feet hit the ground. Ahead, a bead of light cracks open the darkness. He runs, a boy on the streets again, scared of the big mean dogs. He runs, Yiling Laozu gone mad at last, streaking naked through the forest.
He runs right into the trap.
The light is an open fire, hours into eating the tree log being fed to flames, tucked into crevice in a mountain. By the time Wei Wuxian realizes that he’s cornered, he is close enough to feel the fire reach out hungrily for the hairs on his legs. He tries to turn and bolt from the crevice, but when he wheels on his unsteady feet, the wolf has already caught up to him.
The wolf is massive and monstrous in the faint firelight. Its dark fur smudges into the darkness of the forest and it becomes the darkness, tall as the sky, big enough to swallow him. Paused just beyond the orange ring of light, not pouncing or snarling or pacing. Just looking at him. Somehow it’s worse.
Wei Wuxian casts about for a weapon, still operating on the panic of his childhood and the bird-quick instinct of survive. He stumbles back, barely missing the fire, and snatches up the unburnt end of a log. It still burns in his hand, molten inside, but he grips it through the pain and wields it at the wolf. Which hasn’t moved.
“Good. Stay that way,” Wei Wuxian hears himself say. It comes out a croak, throat dry and searing with panting. His back meets the rock of the mountain. He wants to melt into it. How did Jiang Cheng used to command his dogs? “Stay. Uh. Sit.”
The two points of light in the dark blink, and then the wolf sits.
“Good boy,” Wei Wuxian says, cracking into hysterical laughter. He shakes so hard that the rock scrapes at his bare back. The burning skin of his hand feels dead with pain. There is a pack leaned against a rock that might have bandages in it or a gourd of water. There are even clothes folded neatly next to it. Perfect, if it weren’t for the hulking dog in the darkness. “Now—shoo.”
The wolf is less obedient this time. It doesn’t move at all. And then, it rises from its haunches and takes a step toward him.
“Go away, go on. Leave! Get away from me!” His voice is rising to a shriek. His back is buckling, scratching itself raw and he makes himself small against the rock, holding out the half-burned log like his sword. “Leave me alone! Help! Help me!”
The wolf stops next to the fire, and it looks—oddly it looks the opposite of wild. Like any moment it will open its mouth and speak. Instead, it lowers its head to the pile of folded clothes, which are light-colored, Wei Wuxian notices. And without the wild, cautious prodding of a beast among human things, the wolf nudges with its nose the pale coil of a ribbon spooled on the fabric before taking it into its mouth.
Then it looks at Wei Wuxian.
“Wh—” He doesn’t even know what he’s saying until he says it. “Lan Zhan’s—?”
The ribbon has a cloud pattern on it. The robes are white. And a month ago—or months? He doesn't know—when he stumbled into that odd array intending to give the Wens enough time to escape, someone had been with him. Someone stepped into the array with him, someone who wasn’t supposed to be there, someone had said his name as the marks beneath them glowed and burned, the smell of seared earth filling his nose; the sun, weak and small as always in the Burial Mounds expanded to a huge furnace of a mouth to suck him in and melt his bones and spit him into the sky. Someone had seen it and screamed his name, and followed him.
Wei Wuxian looks at the wolf. The wolf looks back at him, patient.
It takes one step forward, hesitant. Wei Wuxian can’t be more frozen with fear. Another step, a little tottering. The wolf is close enough that the shape of it blocks the fire. Big and black, and Wei Wuxian wants to scream and maybe he does, and—and it’s leaning forward to drop the ribbon in his lap, the damp linen of its nose accidentally brushing against Wei Wuxian’s chin in a clumsy, horrific kiss.
And then it is retreating, padding back to its original spot in the darkness, where it settles down onto its hindquarters, almost—politely.
Somehow, Wei Wuxian lets go of the fire log. His ashy fingers find the ribbon on his thighs, still a little damp from the wolf’s mouth.
Wei Wuxian understands now. “Lan Zhan,” he says. The wolf reacts with a terrifying whine. “Lan Zhan, what happened to you?”
What happened to us?
II. Four Months
“This curse is like nothing I’ve seen or heard of before. The power alone required to transform a human into something nonhuman—it would need the mana of more than one cultivator. Then again, I guess they only succeeded halfway, and with two people instead of one. I wish I’d gotten a better look at the array before—you know. Hey, maybe we could go back to see if any part of it remains. Most of it probably burned up in the casting, but—hey, Lan Zhan, are you listening? Lan Zhan.”
Wei Wuxian is perhaps twenty chi up a tree, his back against the sturdy trunk and his body wedged between thick snaking branches in a complicated, uncomfortable twist that would prevent him from falling to the ground.
Don’t look down. Don’t look down. You know what will happen if you look down.
Wei Wuxian looks down.
Instantly, his body in its awkward perch tenses, and he wobbles on his branch. His fingers are cold as he grips the tree to stay in place, sweat flushing uncomfortably across the back of his neck. His right arm aches at the wrist. And below him, Lan Wangji is there, his dark huddled form distinctly wolfish against the tree trunk, even in the dark.
Lan Zhan, his mind says.
Dog, his body insists.
If he doesn’t look, if he stays still and looks up into the spotted canopy and the leaves of starlight flickering among the shades of trees, if he doesn’t forget himself and catch a glimpse of the light reflected in Lan Wangji’s wolf eyes, he can pretend that it’s just them, just him and Lan Wangji spending the night under the stars. If he really imagines, he can transform the tree under him into roof tiles. He can take them all the way back, when things were simple.
“Lan Zhan ah, not even a tail wag for me? How am I supposed to know you’re listening otherwise, huh?” He’s been listening for it, the swipe of a tail across the ground that has become Lan Wangji’s standard response. There’s no reply. Wei Wuxian chances a second look down, just to be sure he’s not alone. Lan Wangji is slumped forward, head resting on his forepaws.
“Are you—Lan Wangji. Are you pouting?” Wei Wuxian has to look at the sky again and pretend the spike of fear away, but he’s laughing. “I’ve been worried and Lan er-gongzi is down there pouting. Lan Zhan, you’re so—” Cute, is the word that comes to mind. Or it would be cute, if it weren’t also somehow terrifying.
The swipe comes this time, emphatic and sharp, almost a slap. That’s a no. And again, a punctuated thump.
“Angry, then? Lan Zhan, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to get in your way before.” As a reminder, his arm throbs. He pulls back the sleeve of the homespun robes Lan Wangji found for him to prod at the marks on his wrist: two clean punctures and two messier scrapes where fangs tore at the thin inside of his wrist when Lan Wangji wrenched himself away. The marks feel a little hot, a little itchy. He probably should have washed them or something before he, well, ran away and found this tree and climbed it, intending to spend the whole night here.
“I really am sorry! I meant to protect our pack from the bandits, but one of them had a spear. I couldn’t let him gut you, could I?”
He chances another glance down. As if hearing him move, Lan Wangji’s wolfish head twists away until his whole body is curled in on itself, a shell made of fur.
Lan Wangji has been careful, all these months, to keep a safe distance from Wei Wuxian. They have to stay together, there’s no doubt about that now. Without each other, they have little chance of survival, even less chance of reversing this curse. And Lan Wangji seems to understand that the sight of him makes Wei Wuxian terrified. So he keeps in the shadows, safely far away during their nights. Something fragile twinges in Wei Wuxian now, thinking of all that careful maneuvering gone to waste because some bandits decided to steal their meager things.
“Are you upset? I hope you’re not upset with yourself.” Wei Wuxian tries to find a way to make this better. “You were protecting me! Which is kind of you, seeing as this poor weak man has no sword and no flute, and raising the dead would really give us away anyway. You were very good to do it.”
The bite marks in his skin sting and throb, a low humming tune of displeasure in his body. He’s no stranger to pain, not even this particular kind of pain, but he keeps thinking of that moment of confusion when Lan Wangji’s jaws had closed on his skin instead of the other man’s—his brain returns to it hideously, until Wei Wuxian’s stomach turns over. He thinks of all the times when he and Lan Wangji have touched. The brush of fingers against fevered skin in a dark cave. The brief wet meeting of hands wrapped in ribbon. The force and give of their bodies and energies when sparring. When was the last time he touched Lan Wangji? Was it grabbing his hand to pull him into a petal-strewn crowd? Was it that dreadful, hopeful day in the Burial Mounds? It doesn’t matter; what matters is that this curse has severed them from the world, from themselves, from each other. As a wolf, Lan Wangji had bit him. And all Wei Wuxian wanted right now was to hug him.
“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, laughing to keep the ache in him from growing. “I’m—I’m trying to think what you’d say to me if you could talk right now. Not that you talk much but I feel like you would have something to say.”
I’m sorry? I miss you? I hate being like this? I’ll find a way? Those are things Wei Wuxian would say. But he isn’t Lan Wangji.
“You’d say—you’d say something like ‘Do not harm innocents,’ right? I bet you would. But I’m fine! You barely scratched me, Lan Zhan. And it’s not like I’m an innocent, am I?” he adds, feeling brave.
A low rumbling comes from down below, barely audible. Lan Wangji is careful, like he is with everything, with his growls.
“We’ll agree to disagree, then.” He leans back, his body stiff and numb from sitting in the tree already. He sighs, warm breath billowing into the air. “This is some curse, huh? I wonder if they knew, somehow, about me and dogs. Assuming they could control what forms we took at all, and I’m not convinced they could. But it’s not something that usually comes up. I'm not even sure you knew.”
What would Lan Wangji, the Lan Wangji of the past, have thought of Wei Wuxian if he saw him cowering before a dog half his size? Ridiculous, probably. The thought makes Wei Wuxian snort.
“Shijie and Jiang Cheng know, but that’s because—it would have been hard to miss it. Jiang Cheng had dogs when I came to Lotus Pier. He had to send them away because I couldn’t stop being afraid, and he never forgave me for it. I can't explain it, I've just never learned how to look at a dog and see a pet or something harmless. They’re all the street dogs in Yiling in my mind.”
The stars above him swim in and out of view. Wei Wuxian is cold up here, and stiff. He wants to be on the ground, sitting against something warm, a fire in front of him. He wants to talk and hear Lan Wangji’s voice answer him. His eyes drift closed thinking of it. Below him, he can hear a wolf breathing.
“Lan Zhan, you have to know I’m not scared of you, right? Not you. Never you.”
III. A Year, Maybe
As a bird, Wei Wuxian feels safe. He shouldn’t, always. Being small and flighty with fragile bones and no means of defense puts him at the mercy of all sorts of predators. He has to be careful of larger birds when flying. When alighted on a branch, he has to mind the hoot of nearby owls. And mountain cats and dogs, obviously.
But when he is a bird, he is with Lan Wangji, and he is safe.
Ravens are smart birds. Maybe it should feel like a compliment, to be transformed daily into a bird with the capacity to understand so much. As a raven, he can recognize Lan Wangji, even from high in the air as he flies to scout ahead. When Lan Wangji speaks to him, Wei Wuxian can, for the most part, understand his words, though most of them don’t survive his transformation back into a human after sunset. When Lan Wangji touches him, Wei Wuxian is happy.
This bird body is different. Small and light, unexpectedly strong in some places, terribly fragile in others. Sensitive, and that too was unexpected. His wings react to the smallest change in the wind, the smallest heaving of air pressure. In this body, he experiences everything so strongly, whole-body. When fear jolts through him, it jolts through his whole body. When he’s happy, the happiness swallows him.
That’s what it’s like, when he starts making a habit of soaring lazily through the air in the early morning—right after transforming, a flight helps to shake the lingering pain from his bones—and he ends by alighting on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. And Lan Wangji, whose eyes followed him into the sky and through the air and back down again, reaches out with a gently crooked finger to brush the soft feathers on Wei Wuxian’s breast. Touch like the wind, felt everywhere. Whole-body happy. Whole-body safe.
Whole-body glad, even, that his little bird body doesn’t seem able to wish that he could feel this as a human too.
IV. Two Years
Winter in Qinghe is sharp as a wolf's teeth. Wei Wuxian never came here in winter, before the curse. When he went to the Unclean Realm, it was summer, the smell of baking mud in his nose, the heat seeping into him like a wet cloth thrown over his shoulders. That was the summer before things went sideways, like the snow that cuts horizontally outside the mouth of the tent. It had been pleasant then, sitting on a rooftop at night, pond-water warm, drinking wine. Now, he’s huddled in his tent, shaking so hard his vision rattles.
“This is my own fault,” he hisses, rubbing his arms to engineer some brief warmth. He’s wearing Lan Wangji’s robes over his own, but it still isn’t enough to keep out the cold. “Should have—seen the storm—”
Outside the tent, barely audible over the shrieking wind, a growl disagrees with him.
He shivers again, “No, I should have! I just—thought we had time.”
Why have they even come to Qinghe? Wandering is their way now. Lan Wangji makes his way through the jianghu as Hanguang-jun, a rogue cultivator who seeks out chaos and night-hunts during the day. When the sun sets, Wei Wuxian picks up where he left off, suppressing spirits and breaking curses—the irony doesn’t escape him—all in the night that is his world now. They drifted north, but winter came early this year. He and Lan Wangji will have to find somewhere safe to pass it, an abandoned farm if they’re lucky, a cave if they’re not.
“I should have done something,” Wei Wuxian says. “I could have scouted a better place to pass the night. I should have seen it coming, of course it was coming. This is my fault, I’m sorry, Lan Zhan—”
He’s not just talking about the storm anymore. And outside the tent, Lan Wangji seems to know it. There’s a muffled thump as Lan Wangji lashes his tail at the side of the tent (“Wei Ying, stop it.”), followed by the slide of snow cascading down the side.
Wei Wuxian cracks up. It wasn’t too long ago that such a thing would have made him tense all over with fear, a reminder that Lan Wangji isn’t fully Lan Wangji right now. But he’s already tense with cold, and Lan Zhan—well. They’re both different now.
“Lan Zhan,” he grits out between his shivering laugh. “Get in here.”
There’s a long pause filled with howling wind, and Lan Wangji doesn’t move.
This has been their agreement these last few years: When Lan Wangji is a wolf, he keeps his distance. He walks half-li circles around Wei Wuxian at night. He keeps to the other side of the fire. He locks himself quietly into sheds before the sun goes down. He never barks. He minds where his teeth go. He protects Wei Wuxian from a distance, and he never looks Wei Wuxian in the eye.
This would break the agreement. This would be him, Wei Wuxian, in a small space with a very large dog.
“Lan Zhan,” he says again. “Come inside. I’m cold.”
The tent flap parts with a little effort due to the wind, and then Lan Wangji inches into the tent. Wei Wuxian kind of has to close his eyes for a second because the wolf feels even bigger in here than normal. At least his racing heart is keeping his body warm.
Lan Wangji curls himself as best he can into the furthest corner, careful not to touch Wei Wuxian. Always careful, Lan Zhan. For Wei Wuxian, being a crow is like being himself if he were made out of wind. His thoughts tumble through his head and shift and change like patterns in clouds, faster than they do as a human, and he loses much of the details when he transforms. Lan Wangji as a wolf, though, just seems like himself, like he is fully present, like he knows to tuck his forepaws under his body to keep Wei Wuxian from having to see his claws. It’s so polite. It’s so very Lan Zhan.
“Good boy,” Wei Wuxian says. It’s become something of a joke for them, or at least for Wei Wuxian, but now he means it. “What a very good boy! The best. The best!”
Lan Wangji turns away and rolls his eyes as best a wolf can, and it makes Wei Wuxian laugh again. It makes him think of that expression on Lan Wangji’s face years ago, how he always looked like that around Wei Wuxian, like there was an unpleasant smell in the air. The unpleasant smell was Wei Wuxian, and bless Lan Wangji for putting up with him back then.
“Hey Lan Zhan, remember what it was like last time we were in Qinghe? You hated me.” He starts talking, and he keeps going when the action of it makes him feel warmer. “I followed you around and we ended up in Qinghe and I drank wine on the roof of your room. Wish I had some wine right now. I miss that. I miss a lot of things. Wine seems kind of unimportant when you think about how you haven't seen the sun in years, huh.” He squints into the dark. “You know, I don't even know what color you are? Like this, I mean. I can see okay and I know you're dark, but—are you gray? Black? Dark purple?”
He laughs again, and Lan Wangji turns his head toward the sound. Fear spreads through Wei Wuxian’s stomach at the sight of his slitted wild eyes. He whispers, “I can't believe I want to know what color you are as a wolf. I can't believe I can look at you.”
The wolf seems to shrink in on himself, turning away again.
“No! Not like—I've always been looking at you, Lan Zhan, you know that. Ever since I begged for your attention in the library, I—ever since then. You're a very handsome wolf, er-gege! the handsomest!”
This time, Lan Wangji raises his head entirely, and his expression is almost—almost—so purely Lan Wangji that Wei Wuxian laughs out loud at it, even as his body cowers back involuntarily.
“It’s okay,” he tells Lan Wangji. He needs to keep talking, otherwise the words might just freeze up inside him and he’ll never say them. “I’m okay. You know what this reminds me of? Xuanwu cave. We were cold then too, weren't we? Lan Zhan, is it possible to miss someone who's right beside you? It feels like it shouldn't be, but I do. I miss you frowning at me. I miss seeing your face. If I could, I'd close my eyes and wake up kneeling next to you in front of your uncle, getting whipped. It would hurt, but you'd be there!”
The wolf looks at him from across the tent, cold empty space between them. There is more between them now, in this tiny tent, than there has ever been. And yet also less. Skin on feathers, or fur on skin. Never just two boys sitting on a roof under the sky.
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian chokes, tears cold on his face. “I know you’re here, I know, it’s just—”
He can’t say it. He shuts his mouth and shakes.
Lan Wangji, head down, hobbles forward. His paws are still tucked under him, his eyes are closed. It’s just him nosing blindly, tentatively, toward Wei Wuxian. When he hears Wei Wuxian tense, he pauses. And then he moves again. Achingly slow, extending his snout out and down until the soft velvet of it rests against Wei Wuxian’s ankle. They both hold completely still. And then there’s a rush of air, and Wei Wuxian can feel the bloom of warm breath from Lan Wangji’s nose on his cold skin. This is the first time, he realizes, touching Lan Wangji like this. Being touched.
He’s terrified. He’s vulnerable. He longs to draw his leg back, but the breath is even and deep and warm, and Lan Wangji blinks his wolf eyes open, light liquid brown. And it’s almost as if he can hear Lan Wangji saying I am here, Wei Ying. If he listens closely, he can almost hear it. I am here.
“Wei Ying,” says Lan Wangji. Wei Wuxian will never get used to the sound of his voice.
“Shit, Lan Zhan, that scared me!” He is sitting on the roof of the jingshi, watching the black horizon blush slowly lighter. When Lan Wangji speaks, he jumps at the voice, a nervous laugh spilling out of him—and then stopping when he sees Lan Wangji limned in moonlight, standing on the roof. Silver licks across the black of his hair, puts gems of light in his eyes. He glows. He’s beautiful.
Nevermind how they got here. Does it really matter, anyway, that Wei Wuxian can’t remember all the details? He was a raven at the time, after all, until the eclipse cast its shadow, and then he was not. Then he was himself, large and ungraceful in his human body, in almost-daylight. He was himself, reaching out a shaking hand to Lan Wangji, who had frozen with the eclipse and looked at him. And looked and looked and looked. He was himself, breaking the curse with one touch to Lan Wangji’s hand. He was himself.
They are both themselves, he and Lan Wangji. They are safely in the Cloud Recesses, curse-free and recovering from a near decade of wandering. A-Yuan is safe too, sleeping with the other Lan disciples, not quite realizing the hand he’s had in saving them. It’s all a little surreal, like Wei Wuxian might wake up at any moment and be a raven again. The only comfort he has is knowing that his bird-self could never have dreamed something so detailed.
“The healer instructed that we should both get adequate rest,” Lan Wangji reminds him, moving silently across the roof tiles.
“The healer seemed to overlook the fact that I haven’t slept at night for the last eight years,” Wei Wuxian points out. It was the opposite for Lan Wangji, of course. “Oh, did I wake you? I tried to be quiet when I climbed up here, but—”
“You did not wake me,” Lan Wangji says, sitting next to him. His shoulder against Wei Wuxian’s is warm, and Wei Wuxian feels pulled to it like water over a cliff.
“Then why are you disobeying the healer’s instructions, Hanguang-jun?”
Lan Wangji looks up. “I wanted to see the moon.”
Oh. It will have been a long time since Lan Wangji saw it like this, heavy and full and bright in the sky, the pale middle of a halved apple.
“Well, there it is. Has it changed at all in the last eight years?”
“No.” Lan Wangji turns to him, assessing him with intensity. Wei Wuxian fidgets under his stare. Did Lan Wangji always look at him like this—like he was hungry for a look? “You are up here because you couldn’t sleep?”
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says sheepishly. “No. I mean, yes, but—” It sounds silly. Why does it sound silly? Why does everything feel like it’s tipped upside down now that he’s fully human again? “I wanted to catch the sunrise.”
Lan Wangji nods and nudges closer. They are touching through their clothes from shoulder to ankle, and the mirroring of it, the realization that Lan Wangji has a shoulder and he has a shoulder—Lan Wangji has a hip, and he has a hip, and thighs and calves and feet—it overwhelms him for a moment.
“I will stay with you,” Lan Wangji says, and a memory comes rushing back, an echo of those words said through the haze of transformation in those first jittery days of being a bird. Wei Wuxian is overwhelmed twice over.
“I’m cold,” he says, but even before he says it, Lan Wangji’s arm is around him, and his head is drifting down to rest on Lan Wangji’s shoulder. It feels right. It feels too much. Wei Wuxian holds and is held, and it’s like—having a stomach full of good food after being starving for eternity. Like having his deepest, most secret wish fulfilled with ease. It’s relief and fulfillment and coming home.
They stay like that, two boys sitting on the roof, saying the things they wanted to say to each other before but couldn’t, until dawn cracks across the horizon like a greeting. And for the first time in eight years, Wei Wuxian sees the sun.