“Did you hear the terrible news? Yiling Laozu Wei Wuxian has gone beyond the pale! He has murdered Hanguang-Jun!”
This is the first thing the swan hears flying over Yiling, and it sets him to hissing. It’s the kind of sound he would never make as a human, but as a swan—a mute swan— hissing is the only form of communication available to Lan Wangji. So he hisses.
“Did you see that bird?” another villager says. “What the fuck. Is it asking to get shot down?”
Lan Wangji is not shot down. He thinks this is because no one in Yiling is expecting to see a swan flying overhead, so no hungry hunters or ambitious cultivators are prepared to shoot him from the sky. He flies over the city, hissing as he discovers that the only news being spoken of is the false reports of his murder. At the hands of Wei Wuxian.
It’s not true, is what Lan Wangji means when he makes the only noises he can in this small body. I am not dead! Wei Ying did not kill me!
No one listens.
They only point at him, his white wings against the dusky sky, and marvel at such a beautiful thing here in drab Yiling. He soars away when he sees some cultivators eyeing him too closely, turning his beak toward the lush forest and hulking mountains that grow progressively darker.
Wei Wuxian is there, at the Burial Mounds. Wei Wuxian, who everyone believes murdered him. Lan Wangji wants to go to him immediately, but he can already see a sliver of the moon peeking from behind a mountain. He hisses in frustration and wheels around, flying back to that cursed golden tower of Jinlintai, blazing even at dusk.
It wasn’t supposed to have gone this way. Lan Wangji isn’t sure how exactly it was supposed to go, but certainly not like this.
He has wings now. They’re not so different than his arms in billowing sleeves, except they are; they are much bigger compared to the rest of him, and lighter than he expects, and sensitive—the wind brushes every feather, and every movement directs his flying.
The flying is very difficult to get used to. It’s not like using a sword, where Lan Wangji’s spiritual energy powers his movements and his sword follows his every whim. He has to work for this flight, flap his wings and tuck his—feet? Webbed feet. He doesn’t like to think about those gangly feet, good only for paddling through water.
He soars, buffeted by the wind, and reminds himself that he has only been a day in this new body. And the thought makes him want to sob. Just one day.
Ahead of him, silvery clouds part to show a splintered moon, two sharp points facing east, and he doesn’t know why, but it ignites an urgency in him, almost a panic. He can see the small flickering light he’s looking for among the dark, foreboding mist, and he glides toward it.
And lands badly. Those ridiculous feet trip him up and he tips over as he hits the glassy surface of a large serene pool behind Jinlintai. He shakes the water off, irritated, and apparently his poor flying doesn’t matter because he’s turning to the wide grin of the moon and getting lost in the blaze of it, and then those feet are gone. Instead, human feet struggle in the water, and human legs and human arms, and his familiar fall of hair, snarled and heavy with water on his back.
“I almost thought you wouldn’t make it in time, Lan er-gongzi,” comes a serene voice from behind him. Lan Wangji treads water and turns.
Jin Guangyao stands there at the edge of the pond. Next to him are clean robes, neatly folded, a pair of boots beside them and a jar of liniment. Lan Wangji narrows his eyes.
“The transformation can’t be easy, I imagine,” Jin Guangyao says, as if in explanation, and he has the gall to sound concerned. “You seemed to become yourself easily enough, but that wasn’t the case yesterday when you became the swan. It sounded very painful.”
It had been painful. The cool water surrounding Lan Wangji now is a blessing, soothing the remnants of that horrendous metamorphosis, his bones shrinking and hollowing, his insides rearranging, his mind compressing to fit inside a small white head. Returning to himself is much easier. But come the dawn, Lan Wangji will have to face the transformation again.
“Come, now,” Jin Guangyao says, smiling from his place on the shore, fully clothed and dry. Lan Wangji will have to walk out naked and dripping, his body sore and weak. “Oh, I almost forgot.”
He reveals the contents of one lily-white hand. Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon is spooled there, looking pitiful.
Lan Wangji surges from the water, uncaring of modesty. Jin Guangyao doesn’t even rear back, just smiles and extends his hand. Lan Wangji snatches the ribbon in one hand and punches Jin Guangyao with the other.
Pain cracks across the left side of his face, and he staggers back just as Jin Guangyao hits the ground. The connection is one even he can see, making Jin Guangyao’s laugh completely unnecessary and wholly unwelcome.
“I urge caution, Lan er-gongzi. A blow to me is a blow to you.”
The spell. It must be part of the spell. Lan Wangji wants to scream, but he’s never made that sound in his life and isn’t sure how to do it.
“I failed to mention that yesterday, didn’t I?” Jin Guangyao says, giving a lazy little bow from where he’s still sprawled on the ground. “My apologies. But to be clear: every night you must return to this lake to transform, or you will remain a swan forever. And if any harm comes to me, it will come to you as well. So don’t think about killing me unless you also desire it for yourself.”
“Maybe I do,” Lan Wangji says.
They are the first words he has uttered to this monster, the one whose plans he had unwittingly overheard but failed to communicate to his brother or uncle in time. Lan Wangji is one of the twin jades of Gusu. He is Hanguang-Jun, a hero of the Sunshot Campaign. He is cursed to become a swan and tied to the life of a traitor.
Perhaps the right thing to do would be to die.
“I don’t think that’s true,” Jin Guangyao says. “If you die and take me with you, what will become of your Yiling Laozu? Who will protect him then, when even his brother has abandoned him? He is a convenience to me, a means to an end. To the sect leaders, though...he’s a threat that wants eliminating.”
He’s right, and Lan Wangji hates that he’s right. He bends to gather up the robes and dons them quickly. They’re LanlingJin colors, and they fit him poorly. He shoves his feet in the boots and ties on his forehead ribbon. There’s blood on one end, from the blow Su She dealt Lan Wangji and cast him into darkness. When he had awoken, it had been to a rising sun and the bright new agony of losing himself to a different body.
Like a summoned specter, a figure in white appears between the trees, walking toward them.
For a moment, Lan Wangji’s stomach drops—the silhouette looks so much like his own, white robes, high dark hair, a guqin at his back. It’s Su She, carrying a bamboo mat.
If Lan Wangji can get Su She’s guqin, he can use it to incapacitate them both without harming either. He would have all night to alert Jinlintai to Jin Guangyao’s crimes.
“My condolences, Hanguang-Jun,” Su She says, tossing the mat on the ground. “They’re saying you’re dead.”
Jin Guangyao had been clever in that way, spouting tales to make it seem like Lan Wangji went to the Burial Mounds and never came back.
“Zewu-Jun is deep in mourning,” Su She taunts.
“Do not speak his name,” Lan Wangji growls, fists clenched.
“Shut up, Minshan,” Jin Guangyao snaps. Somehow, the traitor still harbors feelings for his brother. It kindles a panic in Lan Wangji, to think of Jin Guangyao comforting his brother over Lan Wangji’s death when he’s here, cursed and tethered and humiliated.
“You’ll honor me with one last thing, Hanguang- Jun,” Jin Guangyao says, smiling that smile, that Meng Yao smile, that sweet, innocent, polite smile. “You will seal away your spiritual powers.”
If Wei Wuxian were here, he would burst out laughing. Hanguang-Jun, seal away his spiritual powers? You’re being too shameless, Jin Guangyao. He would never do such a thing.
Lan Wangji just clenches his jaw tight enough to strain the bone and makes no move.
“You need convincing. Fine.” Jin Guangyao faces him, his smile like plaster. “Your brother is disconsolate without you. Hearing the news of your murder at the hands of Wei Wuxian, he is considering even now sending GusuLan cultivators to sack the Burial Mounds and kill Wei Wuxian. My father and Chifeng-Zun will back him. Jiang Wanyin will have no choice but to let it happen.”
“No,” Lan Wangji chokes. No. He can’t let it happen. He can’t let his brother wrongfully kill Wei Wuxian! He can’t let his brother think such an act would be justice, he can’t let his brother kill his—
“I’ll convince him otherwise. I’ll talk him down from it.” Jin Guangyao shrugs. “My plans will work either way, but I can afford a delay. And I’ll give you this gift, if you give me something in return.”
He does the motions, seals away his spiritual energy, feels it drain from him until he’s hollow as a bird’s bone. It makes Jin Guangyao smile, and even for that, Lan Wangji wants to punch him again.
“Very good.” Jin Guangyao turns to leave. “Until tomorrow, Lan er-gongzi.”
Su She gestures to the bamboo mat. “Time for bed, Hanguang-Jun.” The title is such a mockery coming from him.
Lan Wangji is so weary, so confused. He’s already anticipating the pain of dawn. He lays down on the mat and thinks: Wei Ying. What will you do when you hear?
It’s his last thought as Su She plays a spell for sleep. Lan Wangji is powerless to resist it.
In the morning, pain.
And after, after Su She has left his vigil of watching Lan Wangji all night, Lan Wangji takes flight, wobbling into the air and soaring up the backside of Jinlintai. He remembers where his brother’s guest rooms are, and he lands by the window, a little more at ease with his movements.
When he has touched down, he realizes that he has no idea how he will communicate with his brother. Lan Xichen has no way of even comprehending what has happened—no one could predict that Jin Guangyao would be the one working for his own ends, much less that he would transform Lan Wangji into a swan to do it.
He looks down at his black webbed feet. His calligraphy would be markedly less precise than usual.
But even that barely-there hope is dashed when Lan Wangji peers inside his rooms, heart leaping at the sight of his brother’s broad back, only to see Jin Guangyao at his side. Jin Guangyao clutches Lan Xichen’s hand. The sight makes Lan Wangji want to hiss.
He flits across the tower, hoping that his uncle has come to Jinlintai. He pauses above a singular lotus pond, recognizing the figure of Jiang Yanli, heavily pregnant, and beside her, her husband.
“I don’t believe it,” Jiang Yanli says, and anyone who thinks Jiang Yanli is incapable of raising her voice ought to see her like this. Lips quivering with anger, those kind eyes suddenly as sharp as Lan Wangji’s beak. “He would never harm Lan er-gongzi!”
“A-Li, your brother has changed,” Jin Zixuan says. “His demonic cultivation has altered his mind. No doubt Hanguang-Jun tried to help, but—”
“Nothing could change the way my brother feels about Lan er-gongzi,” Jiang Yanli almost shouts, and Lan Wangji falters in the sky for a moment. She’s waddling off, Jin Zixuan following after her entreatingly, but Lan Wangji is still caught on her words.
How does Wei Wuxian feel about him?
He can’t afford to think for long. It’s after the summer solstice, so the days are getting shorter. He flies off in the direction of Yiling, hoping to reach Wei Wuxian. Maybe his brilliant, eccentric brain could work out the puzzle of his identity—though not even Wei Wuxian is smart enough to look at a swan and think, You kind of remind me of someone.
Lan Wangji doesn’t even make it to the town this time. He ought to have traveled further than the day before, but he wasted time trying to reach his brother. He turns back as the sun sets and lands on the water mere minutes before the moon disappears behind the mountain.
Su She is waiting for him, a smirk on his face as Lan Wangji crawls out of the lake and dresses.
“How far did you get this time?” he asks.
Lan Wangji doesn’t say anything, just smooths his forehead ribbon and tries not to think of Su She touching it.
“Still too good to talk to me, Hanguang-Jun? You’re an actual animal half the time, and you’re still too arrogant,” Su She says with disgust.
“I could be an animal all the time and I’d still be better than you,” Lan Wangji says, surprising himself. His voice is rough from disuse and, presumably, hissing.
Su She’s lip curls. “So you do have a voice. Jin Guangyao was right to make you a mute swan.”
Lan Wangji hates Su She, despite the rules of his sect forbidding him to hate anyone. It’s a rule he takes secret delight in breaking. But he’s willing to suffer Su She’s company if it will prove profitable. Su She talks more than Jin Guangyao, who is careful with his words and only erred in whispering his plans when Lan Wangji happened to be able to hear.
“What does he want with me?” Lan Wangji asks, knowing that Su She won’t be able to resist a taunt.
Su She sneers. “Haven’t you figured it out? Not as clever as they say, then? Jin Guangyao will have a use for you when the time comes. Whether that’s keeping your brother aligned with the will of LanlingJin or summoning Yiling Laozu—he’ll have his way.” He crouches before where Lan Wangji has folded himself on the mat, sitting still, centering himself. “Just don’t think you’re too important. I honestly don’t see this ending well for you in any case.”
It’s true. If Jin Guangyao wants anyone to believe he’s not the villain he actually is, he will have to silence Lan Wangji for good.
“Then kill me,” Lan Wangji says, already knowing the answer.
“That would kill Jin Guangyao,” Su She says, like it’s the simplest concept in the world and Lan Wangji is a child. "And anyway, that wouldn’t do you any good, would it? Your future is either dead or living as a swan, unless you can break the curse.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t even blink, but Su She reacts like Lan Wangji gasped aloud.
“That’s right, you heard me. There is a way to break the curse. And it’s such a beautiful idea, really poetic. Want to know?”
Obviously, you colossal moron.
“The curse can only be broken by an act of love.” Su She smiles, and it’s ugly. “Easy, is probably what you’re thinking. The beloved Hanguang-Jun has no shortage of people who love him, right?” He laughs, and that’s even uglier. “Too bad all of them think you’re dead.”
Disheartening. But not impossible. Not technically.
He can’t reach his brother. Lan Xichen has secluded himself, he overhears. In mourning. How tragic.
The only person allowed to see him is Jin Guangyao.
Lan Wangji doesn’t let this bother him. He can’t speak anyway, so sneaking into his brother’s room will only alarm him. Without a means of communication, he’s just an animal. A pretty animal that tastes good at banquets.
Wei Wuxian is his only hope—and also the most convenient. Gusu is impossible to reach, but Lan Wangji is certain he can make it to Yiling if he saves his energy and flies hard.
He fails several days in a row. He has yet to make it past the town before knowing he has to turn back, before hearing the call of the rising moon. He keeps hoping for a strong wind to help carry him, but they all seem to be against him. Perhaps Jin Guangyao has made sacrifices to the wind gods.
Lan Wangji finds that Su She and Jin Guangyao talk more openly around him. Maybe Jin Guangyao thinks that Lan Wangji’s mind is dulled as his swan-self, that he only acts on desperate natural instincts rather than reason like a human. Or maybe he just likes the idea of feeding information to Lan Wangji knowing that there’s not a soul he can tell it to.
“The sects are moving slowly,” Jin Guangyao says one morning, a handful of minutes after Lan Wangji’s hellish transformation. “I stalled them thinking it would fuel their resolve later, but my father wants to appease YunmengJiang. He’s too impressed by Jiang Wanyin.”
“What should we do?”
“Jiang Yanli insists that her brother be invited to the celebration of my nephew’s birth,” Jin Guangyao says. “I’m going to encourage it. Jin Zixun, as you know, is desperate for Wei Wuxian’s blood. He’ll mount an ambush, and Jin Zixuan will be furious. With any luck, one or both or all of them will end up dead. And then I’ll be heir.”
The scheming turns the blood to ice in Lan Wangji’s veins, but he listens and is careful. So when the morning comes that Wei Wuxian is on his way to Jinlintai, Lan Wangji soars into the sky. Flying is easier now, but he’s not sure that he likes exactly how easy. The easier it gets, the more he feels he is losing himself to this life.
He’s determined to reach the Burial Mounds, but as he passes over Qiongqi Way, he spots a familiar dark head and a flash of scarlet. He’s diving before he can think twice, diving and hissing. He has always felt like a flooding river in spring when he sees Wei Wuxian, but it’s never been relief and desperation quite like this.
“Whoa!” Wei Wuxian calls as he descends. “What’s up with this fellow?”
Lan Wangji lands and almost forgets he is a swan. He opens his mouth to say, sob, scream Wei Ying.
What comes out is a hiss.
“Uh,” Wei Wuxian says. “He seems...not happy.”
And Wei Wuxian seems not well. The Burial Mounds have not been good to him. His skin is slightly waxy from hunger, stretched too much over his cheeks. He’s got faint sleepless bruises under his eyes, but those eyes are the same, free from crimson resentful energy. They’re bright and gray and looking at Lan Wangji like he’s feral.
Wen Qionglin stands behind Wei Wuxian, looking...well, dead. Dead but rather harmless, even though Lan Wangji knows Wen Qionglin could tear a boulder from the side of the mountain with his bare hands.
“It’s a swan, that’s all, Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian says. “We’ll just leave it be.”
They go to move around Lan Wangji to cross the narrow bridge up ahead, but Lan Wangji does his best to very clearly communicate: No.
It comes out as hissing, again.
Lan Wangji has learned that there are few sounds a mute swan can actually make. He tries sounding friendlier, prettier. It sounds like a snort.
“Do you think it’s rabid?” Wen Qionglin asks quizzically.
Lan Wangji rears at the insult, flapping his wings and hopping back and forth on the soft silt of the path.
“Definitely,” Wei Wuxian says.
Lan Wangji is desperate. He can’t talk, can’t make any noise that doesn’t sound threatening. He can’t even make music—he can’t play the song that might tell Wei Wuxian who he is. He chuffs in despair and then has a final idea. He bends his long neck to the ground and starts dragging his beak through the silt.
“Poor thing must be absolutely mad,” Wei Wuxian says, sounding genuinely sorry. Lan Wangji thinks, yes, good, and keeps writing, forming vague character-like shapes in the sand that would make his uncle despair to see them. “Maybe we ought to put it out of its misery and bring it to Jinlintai as a peace offering for the feast.”
“Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning says reproachfully just as Lan Wangji does his best to hiss Wei Ying! It scatters half a character, and Lan Wangji fixes it madly.
“I was kidding! Mostly. Who knows if it’s safe to eat anyway?”
“Gongzi, look.” Wen Ning approaches Lan Wangji carefully, and Lan Wangji lets him, trying to look intelligent. Yes, look, see, read. Beware. “It’s—what is it.”
Wei Wuxian saunters over, swinging that flute of his, and the sight makes Lan Wangji ache. He’s never been so close and so far from Wei Wuxian before. He hisses sadly.
“This bird is crazy,” Wei Wuxian breathes. “Like—this has to be a coincidence. Right?”
Wei Wuxian looks at Lan Wangji, then at Wen Qionglin, then back to Lan Wangji.
Wei Ying, he thinks, focusing all he has on the name. Wei Ying, Wei Ying, Wei Ying.
“It says Jin Guangyao,” Wen Qionglin says, staring at the message in the dirt..
“Are you sure? It could be anything.” Wei Wuxian scrutinizes Lan Wangji. “Is it saying...the swan is Jin Guangyao?”
Fuck! No! He goes mad with hissing.
“That’s what it says,” Wen Qionglin says by way of answering.
Wei Wuxian is still watching Lan Wangji. “Huh,” he says, then rubs his nose thoughtfully.
Suddenly, an arrow whistles through the air and lands in the silt with a dull thud.
“Yiling Laozu!” comes a furious shout. “Wei Wuxian!”
Jin Zixun is here, still across the canyon, but drawing closer. One of his men knocks another arrow.
Wei Wuxian spares Lan Wangji one more glance, and then he’s dragging Wen Qionglin in the opposite direction. “Wen Ning, we have to go! We have to get back to the wards.”
The arrow lands perilously close to Lan Wangji, and he’s in the air before he can think. Every piece of him wants to trail Wei Wuxian back to the Burial Mounds, but more than half the day is gone already. He has to get back to the lake before the increasingly early moonrise.
There’s a sudden sharp pain in his left wing, and he falls sharply down at the feeling. No arrow pierced him, as far as he can tell, but it glanced his wing. Lan Wangji beats his wings furiously, pointed back in the direction of Jinlintai.
When he lands in the water, there’s another swan.
Lan Wangji looks at it, and it looks back at him. They look at each other and neither notices when the moonlight touches the surface of the lake. Lan Wangji melts back into his body and immediately wipes away the blood on his left arm, hissing at the pain before he realizes what a swan-like reaction that is. The gash isn’t too deep, though, and he’ll leave it as it is and hope it’s not noticeable.
A small water storm starts up next to him.
“Fuck! Fucking—! I can’t swi—!”
Lan Wangji has the man by the shoulders and is pulling him to shore, relying largely on instinct at this point. He’s so weary, and his arm aches, and without his spiritual energy he is frigid and weak and nauseated a little. But he’s not drowning, like the poor fool he pulled from the lake.
Jin Zixuan vomits water and gasps in huge breaths.
“H-Hanguang-Jun?” he sputters, then goes red and averts his eyes. “Oh god, you’re naked!”
Lan Wangji has long gotten over the shame of nudity, but he pulls on his inner robes and offers Jin Zixuan the outer.
“Do you remember what happened?” Lan Wangji says, realizing that this might be the first time in a very long time that he has actually spoken to Jin Zixuan, whom he has always ignored but still thought to be generally a pompous ass.
“A-Yao—he told me Zixun had gone to ambush A-Li’s brother at Qiongqi—so I said I’d go after him. And then—” Jin Zixuan is shivering, and then he goes still. “Those fuckers.”
Lan Wangji nods. “Mn.”
“You were a swan! Just now, you were—! Wait, was I a swan? I just remember hurting and then…”
Lan Wangji doesn’t know what to say to this, so he says nothing and lets Jin Zixuan arrive at the horrible truth on his own. Jin Zixuan clutches his head for a moment, breathes heavily, expresses the panic in every way Lan Wangji didn’t when he found out.
“So you didn’t die,” Jin Zixuan says eventually. “Wei Wuxian didn’t kill you? This is just some crazy conspiracy set up by—”
“Jin Guangyao,” Lan Wangji says, nodding again. “Mn.”
Jin Zixuan jolts to his feet, face contorted by the kind of self-righteous rage Lan Wangji has seen on Jin Guangshan’s face before.
“This ends now,” he says, like a heroic idiot. “My father will not stand for it!”
He’s stomping off toward the tower, and Lan Wangji contemplates going after him, but then Jin Zixuan is inching back toward the lack, spitting mad at the pointy end of Su She’s sword. Jin Guangyao strolls behind, looking pleased with his achievements.
“You won’t get away with this!” Jin Zixuan growls.
“Won’t I? I’m alive and you’re dead,” Jin Guangyao says. “My condolences to your wife and child.”
Jin Zixuan looks stricken and for once has nothing to say. Lan Wangji feels weary to the bone, but then he remembers Wei Wuxian’s keen gaze flicking from him to the message and back to him. That nose-rubbing that meant something, meant that Wei Wuxian, despite his jokes, was thinking.
Jin Guangyao looks to Lan Wangji. “Care to explain the rules to your new friend, Hanguang-Jun? Birds of a feather, and all that.”
Jin Zixuan doesn’t take the news well, but with his wife and child still living in Jinlintai none the wiser, he seals his spiritual powers and then they huddle on the bamboo mat for warmth. Jin Zixuan has very bony elbows and keeps asserting one at Lan Wangji’s side.
“Is there a way to break the curse?” Jin Zixuan whispers, shaking from the cold.
“Mn.” And Lan Wangji tells him as best he can with Su She next to them playing his dreadful music. It has certain soporific qualities, certainly, but if Lan Wangji concentrated, he could resist its effects. Meditation and clarity have been his bedside companions since he was small.
“An act of love?” Jin Zixuan says, as if he doesn’t understand the words. “What does that mean?”
Lan Wangji has been thinking about this, and about how if only his brother knew of this. Lan Xichen would do anything for him, he knows, and he has so much love that he wouldn’t be perplexed by the idea of an act of love the way Lan Wangji is.
“It means shut up, dead men,” Su She says. Clearly staying up all night to play and sleeping in the day is starting to get to him.
“You shut up,” Jin Zixuan mutters, and then falls dead asleep. Lan Wangji remembers that tiredness. He’s not that tired anymore. He thinks of Wei Wuxian and closes his eyes, completely awake.
“A-Li,” Jin Zixuan mutters in his sleep.
Lan Wangji means to tell Jin Zixuan his plan, but in the morning, he wakes to Jin Zixuan’s screams turning into pained snorts, and then he himself is put through that familiar wringer and comes out with feathers. Jin Zixuan waddles around frantically for a moment while Su She laughs, and then he takes off for Jinlintai. Lan Wangji lets him and strikes out on his familiar flight to Yiling. He feels like he’s flying through a fog, even though the sky is clear and the sun is low in the east.
He knows he won’t make it. He never makes it. He keeps trying because that is who he is, but he knows it’s hopeless. He might never see Wei Wuxian again, if Jin Guangyao gets his way.
The wou wou of his wing beats falter for a moment, and then he beats harder, flies faster, seeks a helpful air current with renewed determination. He can’t let himself believe this is the end. He can’t.
Lan Wangji intends to reach the darkness beyond the town, catch a glimpse of the Burial Mounds—which he never thought he would long to see—before turning around. But it’s the same as yesterday. He passes the gash of Qiongqi Way and sees a flash of red, and then with his heart beating fit to burst, Lan Wangji descends.
“Hello again,” Wei Wuxian says when Lan Wangji lands.
If swans could cry, Lan Wangji just might.
As it is, he can’t even bring himself to hiss or snort. He stands there, still and silent, his left wing still aching from his arrow wound, and takes in Wei Wuxian, who came back.
Wei Wuxian is standing over the patch of dirt where Lan Wangji had written with his beak the day before. The wind has blown the message away, but Wei Wuxian is here anyway. Lan Wangji opens his beak and lets out a soft, fond “hhhh.”
Wei Wuxian smiles wryly, clearly perplexed, but he doesn’t make to kill Lan Wangji, even though the Wens would be overjoyed to eat something other than turnips.
“I don’t know what I’m doing here,” Wei Wuxian says, sounding as tired as Lan Wangji feels. Lan Wangji shuffles toward him but stops when Wei Wuxian gives him a look. “Talking to a swan. Maybe they’re right. Maybe I am crazy.”
You used to talk to rabbits. You were the one who taught me to talk to them, Lan Wangji wants to say. But even if he were human and capable of speaking, he probably wouldn’t. Words had never been his way, and they still aren’t.
“But I talked to Lan Zhan’s bunnies,” Wei Wuxian says lightly, and Lan Wangji straightens his neck in surprise. “So if that makes me crazy, then I’ve been crazy for years.”
This makes him laugh, and Lan Wangji basks in the beautiful, uncomplicated sound. Every part of Lan Wangji that’s still Lan Wangji thrums: Wei Ying Wei Ying Wei Ying Wei Ying Wei Ying.
Wei Ying. Not crazy.
“They’re saying I killed him, you know,” Wei Wuxian calls in that same light-hearted voice, but it’s false now. “I heard in the town. They say, Yiling Laozu murdered Hanguang-Jun, and his Ghost General killed Jin Zixuan. And now my shijie is a widow.” Wei Wuxian throws up his hands. “Jin Zixun got himself killed, certainly, but Wen Ning and I just ran. I didn’t even see Jin Zixuan here! And Lan Zhan I haven’t seen—in a long time.”
Lan Wangji does hiss now. He can’t help it. Wei Wuxian is sighing and looking sad for him, but he’s right here.
“There you go again, being all weird,” Wei Wuxian says, but he stumbles out of the way when Lan Wangji flaps his way over to the silt and applies his beak again. Wei Wuxian mutters as he’s at it, but he doesn’t move. He stays there, watching.
“My dear swan,” Wei Wuxian says, the insouciant bastard, “your calligraphy is awful.”
Lan Wangji snaps at Wei Wuxian’s hand, and Wei Wuxian trips backward. “Aiya! Just an observation! I can barely make this out.”
Lan Wangji hisses again. Try harder.
Wei Wuxian does, staring and muttering until he says, “Jinlintai? And—lake?”
A better message to give this time now that immediate threats aren’t a concern. Lan Wangji uses his beak to straighten a few feathers on his back.
“So. And this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever said,” Wei Wuxian says awkwardly. “Are you Jin Guangyao?”
Lan Wangji raises his head and makes whatever horrendous noise is available to him, flapping his wings, advancing forward.
Wei Wuxian is unimpressed. “I have no idea if that means yes or no.”
Lan Wangji lowers his beak and writes painstakingly: NO.
Wei Wuxian scratches his head. “Then why did you write ‘Jin Guangyao’ last time? And right before—” His face goes slack with understanding. “Jin Guangyao...was behind the ambush? Is that what you meant?”
Lan Wangji nudges his beak into the silt again. YES.
Wei Wuxian is shaking his head. “But it was Jin Zixun! He thought I had cursed him with some god-awful holey curse—”
Lan Wangji pokes a beak at NO and then rethinks because, well, YES, technically.
“What is that supposed to mean?” Wei Wuxian asks, throwing up his hands.
Lan Wangji tosses his wings up and jabs at the longer message.
“So you want me to go to the lake at Jinlintai, is that it?”
Relief floods Lan Wangji, imagining talking to Wei Wuxian again, maybe even touching him if he worked up the courage. Then he panics and searches for a clear spot to write on because Wei Wuxian cannot come during the day.
“Okay,” Wei Wuxian says. “The lake at Jinlintai at night. It’s a date.”
Swans don’t have ears that blush, thank goodness.
“Except how do I know this isn’t a plot to lure me away?” Wei Wuxian’s gaze and voice are suddenly hard, a ghost of that awful unyielding tone Lan Wangji heard before, after Wei Wuxian came back from his first time at the Burial Mounds. “So LanlingJin can storm the Burial Mounds under false pretenses and slaughter my family?”
Lan Wangji has no words, can’t write anything in the dirt for this. He shuffles forward until he could reach forward and peck Wei Wuxian’s knees through his homespun robes. And he sits there, quiet, gazing up. Please. Wei Ying.
Wei Wuxian sighs. “Yiling Laozu, the master of demonic cultivation. Done in by a swan.”
Lan Wangji returns to that wretched lake. And waits. He becomes himself and sleeps, and does his best to comfort Jin Zixuan, who is realizing the narrow boundaries of their cage. Jin Zixuan staggered from the lake that night and tried to strangle his half-brother, only to gasp for air himself, eyes wide like a fish as he began to understand exactly what Lan Wangji meant when he told him their lives were tied.
It’s a bad night.
“I have to get to A-Li,” Jin Zixuan whispers to him in the cold morning, both of them waiting in the frigid water for the blazing fingernail of the sun to slice over the mountain and transform them with pain. “I have to tell her somehow. She will perform the act of love, whatever’s necessary. People think she’s weak, but she’s the opposite.”
“Jin Guangyao will be watching her,” Lan Wangji cautions, mindful of Su She glaring tiredly at them nearby.
“We can’t let him win,” Jin Zixuan grits out, tears in his eyes as the sun finally rises and they both lose themselves in the agony.
Lan Wangji stays on the water after the last of the pain shivers away, and he’s left with his feather skin and soundless voice. Jin Zixuan launches away with a hiss, off to find his wife, but Lan Wangji, for the first time, does not begin his flight to Yiling. He floats on the water, finding a melancholy peace on it.
From the shore, Su She scoffs.
“The great Hanguang-Jun,” he sneers. “Finally tamed.”
Lan Wangji watches Su She go, wanting to thrash the skin from his face with his own sword. Later, he takes to the skies and enjoys flying without the rigorous panic of beating the sun. Jinlintai shines, gold and white, and Lan Wangji climbs until his prison lake is just a sliver among the green below.
His brother would love flying, he thinks, inexplicably. And the thought makes his heart plummet. And then he himself is plummeting, but with more grace, until the roofs of Jinlintai blind him and he descends into a peaceful, cool courtyard.
This is Jiang Yanli’s courtyard, Lan Wangji realizes. It’s the lotuses in the little pond that give it away—that and the white banners of mourning on every pillar, every wall.
Jiang Yanli sits at the pool’s edge, holding a swaddled infant in her arms. She’s wearing white, and she smells faintly of smoke, and he knows she has come to take a respite from the mourning services and burning paper money.
He must not be as silent as he thinks he is because she looks up with red-rimmed eyes and spies him in the afternoon shadows.
“You again!” she says, almost angry, but not entirely. “Will you never leave me alone?”
This is the first time Lan Wangji has been mistaken for anyone else, much less Jin Zixuan, but he can’t really correct her. He keeps away, not wanting to frighten or give the impression he’s threatening her bundle.
“They’ve started to say you’re courting me,” she says with a wry, tired laugh. Lan Wangji blinks at the implication. “A swan. They say my husband has reincarnated to a swan and wishes to marry me again.”
Marry Wei Wuxian’s sister? Lan Wangji lets out a snort and turns his head before he realizes that this might seem like an insult.
Jiang Yanli stares at him, then starts laughing. “It’s almost like you understand me!”
Lan Wangji has not perfected nodding as a swan but he does his best and shuffles around the edge of the courtyard, basking in the warmth of the sun against the stones under his hideous, awkward feet.
He hears a small gasp and turns back to Jiang Yanli, who is staring again.
“You’re—you’re not the same swan, are you?” she asks. “Your mark is a little different, now that I think about it. And you—you’re much calmer.”
Lan Wangji takes this as a compliment and tries not to think about poor, desperate Jin Zixuan trying to communicate with his wife. It makes him think about rooting his beak in the sand in front of Wei Wuxian.
Jiang Yanli seems to deliberate for a moment. “A widow has little to lose,” she mutters to herself—and Lan Wangji couldn’t agree less, knowing that she and her newborn are unwittingly in the clutches of a traitor—but she straightens her back and looks at Lan Wangji and asks:
“Can you understand me?”
Lan Wangji gives his awkward almost-nod again and waits. Jiang Yanli barely blinks looking at him. She opens her mouth again to speak and—
Her mother-in-law steps into the courtyard, wearing white, and an unfamiliar animal panic rears in Lan Wangji. He heaves himself into the air with a hiss, hearing Lady Jin cry out with surprise.
“That swan! Let me send a guard after it with a bow, Yanli.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t calm the panic until he’s floating on the lake again, meditating, trying to push back the worry that it’s the swan in him taking over, growing stronger.
What if he stays a swan so long that he truly becomes one?
That night, Lan Wangji lays next to Jin Zixuan, who is passed out from exhaustion, and does the calculation in his head.
If Wei Wuxian left right after speaking—well. It was a kind of speaking—with Lan Wangji, then he could be at Jinlintai tonight. If he didn’t stop to rest or eat and if he didn’t get caught by guards or was recognized by townsfolk.
He frowns, hating that he’s disappointed, and surrenders himself to sleep.
But he wakes not long after—the moon has only slightly deviated from where it hung when he closed his eyes—and realizes that he’s awake because Su She has stopped his playing. Lan Wangji opens his eyes to see Su She slumped against a tree, snoring. His hands are still on his guqin, and it’s clear that horrible as Su She’s playing is, it’s effective enough that it caused even him, the player, to fall asleep.
Lan Wangji finds this hilarious. He can feel himself smiling.
He stands and checks on Jin Zixuan. He’s still fast asleep, and something about the slackness in his face makes Lan Wangji think that he’s not waking up soon. He looks weary and sad even in sleep. Lan Wangji wonders if he looks like that too.
He slips into the forest, skirting the edge of the lake until he’s at the far end, his back to Jinlintai and the splinter of the moon that has become so much more beautiful to him than it was before.
From this perspective, he gets to see Wei Wuxian emerge from the forest like darkness separating from darkness. He’s pale skin and black hair and faded black robes and that red ribbon and that bamboo flute at his waist. Lan Wangji finds he isn’t breathing. He’s standing, frozen, in his own body, in his own skin, as Lan Wangji, wearing the face that Wei Wuxian would recognize and call—
Lan Wangji can’t move. He can’t move and he can’t breathe and he can’t speak, he can only hiss, but he can’t hiss at Wei Wuxian—Wei Wuxian who looks so tired and ragged and perfect in the faint moonlight as he moves forward, eyes wide.
“Lan Zhan? What are you—why are you wearing—”
Lan Wangji’s lips are trying to move. His vision is going blurry. Is this part of the curse? Can he not tell anyone of his affliction when human? Will he just keel over now, blind and mute, within touching distance of the one person who can free him?
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says again, his voice soft as he reaches out to touch Lan Wangji’s face. Lan Wangji flinches into the touch, shocked and then hungry for skin on his skin. His human skin. His skin. “Lan Zhan, you’re crying.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji breathes. “You came.”
“I—don’t cry, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, cradling Lan Wangji’s face now, and Lan Wangji trusts the weight of his head to Wei Wuxian completely. “Don’t cry, I’ve never seen you cry. I’m here, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji stifles a sob. He’s so tired, but he is so solidly in his body right now, so prey to its whims and emotions, so desperate for more touch.
“Lan Zhan, what are you doing here? Why are you wearing LanlingJin robes?”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji tries, but he can’t say the words. He can’t say, I am the swan. Instead, he says: “Jinlintai. Lake. Night.”
Wei Wuxian blinks, hands still on either side of Lan Wangji’s face. “No,” he whispers, brushing away the tears that Lan Wangji keeps crying. The calloused tips of Wei Wuxian’s fingers rasp gently across his skin. “No, no. It can’t be you. It couldn’t have been you.”
“It is,” Lan Wangji says. “I told you to come.”
“And you warned me,” Wei Wuxian murmurs. “About the ambush. You—flew all that way. Ah, Lan Zhan, you’re too good.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t feel good. He—doesn’t want to think too much about how he feels. It’s altogether too different from his usual state. More than just his body has been transformed.
“Lan Zhan, what happened to you?”
Lan Wangji needs more steady earth beneath him, so he sinks down to the wild grass and Wei Wuxian follows, still caressing his face. The touch is soothing, grounding. He leans into Wei Wuxian’s hands, trusting.
“Jin Guangyao,” he says.
Wei Wuxian’s eyes go steely. “He did this? Why?”
Lan Wangji does his best to explain, even though his tongue feels wooden and Wei Wuxian’s gaze is quick and cutting like Suibian. Wei Wuxian is looking at him and seeing him, seeing him. The last time they saw each other was at the Burial Mounds, and Wei Wuxian’s regard had waxed and waned, fluctuating between warm and cold. Lan Wangji forgets their arguments and his scruples, forgets the demonic cultivation, the resentful energy. Wei Wuxian is the sanest person he knows right now.
“Come back to Yiling with me,” Wei Wuxian says when Lan Wangji finishes. “I’ll find a way to break the curse, and you’ll be safe from him. We’ll bring him down together.”
Lan Wangji shakes his head, feeling a little clearer, a little lighter having vocalized the impossibility of his situation. “Can’t. My brother. Jin Zixuan. Lady Jiang. He has too many people in his grasp.”
“And you’re bound to his life,” Wei Wuxian says, voice cutting. “So I can’t find him and tear his head off with my hands.”
Not unless you’d like to see the same done to my head, he thinks.
“Please don’t,” he says.
“Fine.” Wei Wuxian scowls. “So his plan is—what? Make himself the heir to LanlingJin? Then why keep the peacock alive?” Lan Wangji opens his mouth to reply, but stops because Wei Wuxian looks stricken for a moment, and then he dissolves into helpless snickering.
“What?” Lan Wangji asks, perplexed.
“Peacock. Is a swan,” Wei Wuxian manages, smothering his laughter with his hand.
But Lan Wangji is also pulling Wei Wuxian’s hand away because he wants to hear the full, bright chime of Wei Wuxian’s laughter. He needs it like he needs Wei Wuxian’s other hand still resting on his shoulder, thumb occasionally caressing his neck. He needs it to feel human. He needs it because it is beautiful, and it is Wei Wuxian.
“Sorry,” Wei Wuxian says, regaining his composure. “I don’t sleep much these days. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t understand what he’s after.”
Lan Wangji frowns. “He’s after power. As much of it as he can get.”
“It doesn’t matter. He won’t get it, and he certainly can’t use you to try.” Wei Wuxian’s tone is serious as reaches up to brush a wayward lock of Lan Wangji’s hair behind his ear.
Something about this soft gesture brings Lan Wangji’s attention to his sorry state: his dirty skin, his grubby bare feet in the grass, his lank unbound hair falling around his shoulders, his smell. Wei Wuxian is close enough to see every speck of dirt and smell every unpleasant marker of his time as an animal. And Lan Wangji is vain.
“Oh,” Lan Wangji says, almost involuntarily, and tries to move away.
Wei Wuxian catches on after a moment and scoots after him with a knowing smile. “I haven’t exactly been living in a rosebush, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji feels heat under his skin, and he averts his eyes, feeling grubby and foolish but also relieved. Wei Wuxian does not smell like roses, but he does smell wonderful. Like green growing things and chili oil and well water and musk. Lan Wangji’s heating ears sting in the cool night. Wei Wuxian notices and laughs again, and that’s a comfort.
“So,” Wei Wuxian says, after a moment of silence. “An act of love. That could be...any number of things.”
This does nothing to help Lan Wangji’s blush, but yes, he has thought of this. What would an act of love entail? Su She was not specific, and Jin Zixuan had been no help at arriving at a consensus. He seems to think anything from his wife recognizing his appearance to having her kiss him as a swan would suffice.
There are so many forms of love, and Lan Wangji is practically unversed in all of them.
“That’s all I know,” he says. “An act of love.”
“Well,” Wei Wuxian says. “I suppose, what would you consider to be an act of love? Since it’s you we’re freeing from a curse.”
Lan Wangji glances at him, confused. “What’s the difference?” Why would an act of love for one person differ from another’s?
“Love isn’t the same for everyone. I—” Wei Wuxian pauses, and his expression grows fond. “I play with A-Yuan and make sure he’s fed. I pretend like I’m listening to all the things Wen Qing tells me to do. I try to make Wen Ning feel alive. I tease my sister.” His fondness has taken on a small pebble of sadness. “I infuriate my brother. That’s all to show them I love them.”
“I—” Lan Wangji is speechless. He doesn’t have these relationships or this knowledge of how to somehow communicate love without saying the words. He doesn’t know if his brother is this mindful of him, or his uncle. He doesn’t know what an act of love would look like for him, and he aches a little when he realizes that his name was not mentioned in the list of people Wei Wuxian loves.
“For example,” Wei Wuxian continues gently, brushing a thumb across Lan Wangji’s cheekbone. “Does touch seem like an act of love for you? You used to not like me touching you. Ever. I’ll stop now if you want.”
“No,” Lan Wangji says, too quickly. “I didn’t...dislike it.” Or maybe he had, in the beginning, until he got used to it. “And I don’t want you to stop.”
“Mmn,” Wei Wuxian says with a small crooked smile. “Okay. So, touch might be it, then. If someone who loves you touches you, maybe that’s an act of love.”
Lan Wangji wants to douse his head in the lake. Wei Wuxian clearly means something like this, what they’re doing, sitting close with arms nearly wrapped around each other, brushing skin softly, innocently. That’s not where Lan Wangji’s mind stops, though. An act of love. An act of physical love.
“A kiss, maybe,” Wei Wuxian says.
Lan Wangji almost lets out a garbled sound of pure want. Instead, he is silent.
Then Wei Wuxian leans forward.
Lan Wangji leans back.
“Oh?” Wei Wuxian says. “I thought—?”
Wei Wuxian meant to kiss him? Lan Wangji can barely hear over the music of his blood blaring in his ears. How many times had Lan Wangji thought about the kiss he had stolen, like a coward, from Wei Wuxian on Phoenix Mountain? How many times had he wished he had taken the blindfold off? How many times had he dreamed about Wei Wuxian looking at him like this?
“It’s okay if you don’t want to.”
“I—you would have to love me,” Lan Wangji blurts. His mouth feels so dry, lips cracked, completely unkissable. He longs for it all the same. “For it to break the curse.”
Wei Wuxian blinks. Then he matches the crescent moon with a brilliant smile.
“Well,” he says. “You are very beautiful, I’ve always said.”
Lan Wangji chokes a little, silently. “That’s all?”
“No,” Wei Wuxian says, leaning in close. This time, Lan Wangji does not move away. “That’s not all.”
It’s not like the last time. There’s no blindfolds, no forceful holding. There will be no disappearing when it’s done.
Lan Wangji is kissed, and he shakes with it.
Wei Wuxian is so gentle, pressing his lips to Lan Wangji’s, holding him like he’s precious. Lan Wangji’s awareness breaks down to the smallest of impressions: the faint smell of smoke clinging to Wei Wuxian’s hair. The heat of Wei Wuxian’s lips, like he’s blushing just on his mouth. The way Lan Wangji no longer feels cold. The tiny sounds he lets himself make as he's kissed. The way he forgets for a moment that he’s cursed and Wei Wuxian is doing this to help him. The way he lets himself pretend that Wei Wuxian is kissing him because he wants to.
After some time, Wei Wuxian pulls away with a smile, that same brilliant smile, and Lan Wangji hurts. The pretending is over, and the kiss was a gift. Wei Wuxian is a good friend to want to help, he tells himself, already boxing the kiss away in his mind, to be opened only as the most private of recollections.
“Well,” Wei Wuxian says, a little awkwardly, a little worriedly, “I guess we’ll find out when the sun rises. If that worked.”
“You can’t stay,” Lan Wangji says immediately. He explains that Su She will be awake by then, but he doesn’t clarify that the reason Su She is always awake for the dawn is because he never misses a chance to see Lan Wangji succumb to agony and transform into a bird. He doesn’t want Wei Wuxian to know just how much it hurts.
“Lan Zhan, I can’t leave you,” Wei Wuxian says. “Not for a single day! We have to free you—and the peacock, sure—we have to stop that fucking bastard.”
“I need you,” Lan Wangji says, tripping over his own words, half of him still thinking about the possibility of I guess we'll find out when the sun rises. “I—need you to tell my brother.”
Wei Wuxian’s eyes are pained. “Zewu-Jun thinks you’re dead. He thinks that I murdered you. This will have devastated him.”
“Please,” Lan Wangji says. “Tell him I am alive. I am here.”
“I will,” Wei Wuxian says, then presses his forehead to Lan Wangji’s temple, as if he’s seeking comfort. But it’s Lan Wangji getting the comfort, feeling Wei Wuxian so close and real. He wants to remember this tomorrow if—when he is a swan. “I will, Lan Zhan. You are alive. You are here.”
Hope makes home stupid, makes him slow. He's still thinking of Wei Wuxian—the last glance he'd given Lan Wangji before he had melted into the shadows between the trees—when he wades into the water at sunrise and lets the curse take him.
As soon as he is a swan, he feels a hand tighten around his long, narrow neck.
Swans are strong. Lan Wangji has flown miles every day he has had wings. He has lean, corded muscle under his snowy feathers, and he fights.
But the hand belongs to a cultivator, one that's not extremely powerful but still considerably stronger than Lan Wangji, who has no spiritual energy.
“Stop fighting, you fucking animal,” Su She hisses, and Lan Wangji hisses back, hoping Jin Guangyao feels every single one of these hand-shaped bruises. He is hauled backward, wings flapping like mad, beak snapping at the air. There's a final throb and then he's in relative darkness, the interior of a crate with only a small rectangular opening serving as a window.
He hears a hiss next to him. Jin Zixuan.
Su She kicks the side of the crate. “Don't make a sound,” he growls. Lan Wangji and Jin Zixuan exchange unimpressed glances because they are mute swans, and Su She has outdone his own idiocy.
They are to be silent because they are being carried through Jinlintai. The crate rises and dips, Lan Wangji in closer quarters with Jin Zixuan than he’d ever want to be—albeit as swans. He can’t let himself think about what this sudden movement means, if Jin Guangyao somehow found out about Wei Wuxian’s visit last night. Wei Wuxian. If something has happened to him, Lan Wangji will never forgive himself.
His stomach plummets further as they overhear frantic pieces of conversations on their journey.
“—don’t care if he was a hero of the Sunshot Campaign,” someone snarls. “Yiling Laozu has too much blood on his hands!”
“First Hanguang-Jun, then the sect leader’s heirs—and now the sect leader himself!”
“Murdered in his own bed! I bet Yiling Laozu had his Ghost General do the deed.”
Beside Lan Wangji, Jin Zixuan makes a broken little sound that can’t possibly express the full extent of his dismay. His father, murdered—but obviously Wei Wuxian is not the culprit this time. Jin Guangyao is fortunate, Lan Wangji thinks bitterly, to have such a readily available scapegoat for all of his most heinous crimes.
They come to a halt, and Lan Wangji’s keen ears can make out more familiar voices, distant but distinct.
“I have called you all here because of this dire situation,” Jin Guangyao says, his tone almost maudlin. “Please forgive the inconvenience—especially you, Er-ge.”
“I have been in seclusion enough.”
Xiongzhang, Lan Wangji thinks, heart throbbing. His brother’s voice is soft, weary, but determined. I am here. I am alive! He searched for the hinges of the crate and begins pecking at them, the serrated edges of his beak making only the smallest of indentations in the pig iron. Jin Zixuan hisses quietly and gets to work on the other hinge.
“I am grateful for your attendance, and for that of the other esteemed sect leaders.” Lan Wangji hates that voice, the way it sounds so polite and long-suffering, like some sort of spell on its own. “You have heard that my father is dead.”
“Murdered by Yiling Laozu,” come the gruff tones Lan Wangji recognizes as Nie Mingjue. He sounds—skeptical, and Lan Wangji holds onto another spike of short-lived hope. “What’s your proof?”
“I have it right here,” Jin Guangyao says. “I beg a moment.”
Footsteps, and Jin Guangyao’s voice is suddenly very nearby. Lan Wangji pauses his efforts, beak aching.
“Why have you brought them here?” Jin Guangyao whispers fiercely. “I said take them somewhere we can contain them!”
“There wasn’t time,” Su She says. “You said—”
“I know what I said,” Jin Guangyao says. “Shut up, I need to work the spell.”
Lan Wangji can’t make out the words muttered next, but he recognizes the swelling and release of energy, the give and take of qi, the faint burnt smell of an incinerated talisman.
“There,” Jin Guangyao says, satisfied. “All you’ve ever wanted. Come.”
Two sets of footsteps recede, and a black, gnawing feeling begins to grow in Lan Wangji’s gut. It’s the kind of feeling that he always followed, when he was human. He huffs and scrabbles more fiercely at the iron.
“I am your proof,” says a voice, and Lan Wangji and Jin Zixuan both freeze.
”Wangji!" breathes Lan Xichen.
Lan Wangji crams his small head into the rectangular opening. It’s facing the wrong way, so he can’t see his brother. But he can see what his brother sees.
Long, crisp white robes. A straight, proud back and wide shoulders. Sleek dark hair, tamed and pulled back. A GusuLan forehead ribbon—with the faint, copper brown stain of blood on one dangling end.
“Hanguang-Jun?” Several people gasp it, and Lan Wangji can barely move. He can see the side of his face—his own human face—but it’s not his face, because not only is he not wearing it, but he can see the small, snide curl at the edge of the mouth and he knows. He knows.
Jin Zixuan hisses, loudly, beating his wings. As if to say, That motherfucker.
Lan Wangji hisses in agreement, but weakly.
“Wangji,” his brother says again, and then his brother is standing in front of Su She. His face is pale and wan, and he moves like he’s a hundred years older than he is, stiff with grief and righteous fury. And now—a bright hope that makes Lan Wangji ache. “How? They said you were dead.”
“Xiongzhang,” Su She says, with his voice, Lan Wangji’s voice. Lan Wangji is beating his wings against the walls of the crate so hard the tips ache. “It is good to see you.”
“Hanguang-Jun arrived only hours ago,” Jin Guangyao explains. “I had him searched and inspected, and he is himself. Yiling Laozu didn’t kill him, it seems; he only wanted us to believe that. Instead, he held him captive at his lair in the Burial Mounds and tortured him.”
“Wangji!” Lan Xichen says a third time, and it’s half a sob.
“Wei Wuxian would do no such thing.” These are the harsh, biting tones of Jiang Wanyin, and for the first time, Lan Wangji is glad to hear them—defending Wei Wuxian, no less, albeit somewhat grudgingly. “He—regards Hanguang-Jun highly.”
“Is torture a sign of high regard?” Jin Guangyao says. “Is abduction? Next you’ll be saying that he respected my father, and that’s why he killed him. He is out of control, and LanlingJin will not stand for it.”
“And you control LanlingJin now, do you?” Jiang Wanyin’s voice snarls. “My nephew is still alive.”
“And an infant,” Jin Guangyao says. “I am safeguarding his future. If Wei Wuxian continues to live, A-Ling may not have one.”
“How dare—” Jiang Wanyin begins, but Jiang Yanli must also be present because she beats him to it.
“How dare you,” Jiang Yanli shouts, and a baby’s cry erupts at her words. Jin Zixuan goes mad, tearing at the side of the crate. Lan Wangji remembers this and begins to work at loosening the nail in the hinge while his ears ring with the words nearby.
“My brother would never threaten the life of my son! And he didn’t kill A-Xuan either,” Jiang Yanli says. “Lan er-gongzi, please, you know him, it must have been a mistake—”
“It was no mistake,” Lan Wangji’s voice says, horrifically emotionless. “Wei Wuxian bragged of killing Jin Zixuan. He boasted of his plans to kill Jin Guangshan. He must be stopped.”
“That’s not what you said last night, Lan Zhan,” comes a new voice, heralded by gasps and shuffling, swords being unsheathed. Lan Wangji aches to look out the crate opening, but he has loosened the nail enough to slide it a measure out. He keeps at it, imagining leisurely footsteps and maybe red-tinged eyes, a lazily twirled bamboo flute.
Wei Ying, I’m here, I’m alive, I’m here, I’m alive, Wei Ying—
“Wei Wuxian! You are too shameless to show your face here!” someone shouts. “Murderer!”
“Sure,” Wei Wuxian admits. “Wait, who did I murder, exactly?”
“You know full well,” Jin Guangyao says, false tears in his voice. “My half brother, Jin Zixuan. My cousin, Jin Zixun. My father, Jin Guangshan.”
“And charges of torture, I gather?” Wei Wuxian says, and Lan Wangji wants to shout at him to stop his antics. “I ‘tortured’ Lan er-gongzi, apparently? Is that what you call a kiss, Lan Zhan?”
No. Wei Wuxian can’t possibly believe—he can’t fall for the ruse too. Wei Wuxian can’t be allowed to think that his kiss meant nothing, that he had somehow been betrayed. Lan Wangji snorts and hisses and rages for his voice.
“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli whispers, disbelieving.
“Wei Wuxian,” and that’s his brother’s, Lan Xichen's voice, horribly cold. “I once vouched for you. But I can no longer believe that any good will come of you. You are the only mistake my brother has ever made.”
More quiet footsteps, the soft swishing of robes. Lan Wangji wrenches the nail a little way further.
“Your brother, Zewu-Jun,” Wei Wuxian says. “He asked me to come to you and deliver a very important message. That’s why I’m here. Though I didn’t expect to have an audience.”
“And what’s this message?” Jin Guangyao asks.
“That the man standing beside you isn’t your brother,” Wei Wuxian says, and Lan Wangji wants to sob, but he’s not breathing, not really. “I didn’t kidnap him. I didn’t torture him. I didn’t kill anyone who’s dead—shocker, I know. But the person who did all these things is here. And he also turned your brother into a swan.”
There’s silence, too much of it. So much that Lan Wangji and Jin Zixuan stop their efforts for a moment, terrified of being discovered. Then:
“What,” Jiang Wanyin says, “the fuck.”
“You—you go too far, Wei-gongzi,” Lan Xichen says, sounding shaken.
“A swan?” Jiang Yanli says. “A-Xian, did you say a swan?”
“A-jie?” Jiang Wanyin again.
“I—there has been a swan. Two swans, actually. They’ve—” She sounds like she’s flustered but determined. “Visited me. And there have never been swans at Jinlintai before.”
“Absurd,” Lan Wangji-Su She says, but he says it too quickly, too loudly. Forgetting that Lan Wangji hardly speaks in public unless directly addressed. He’s certain that Su She now has a number of uncomfortable eyes watching him.
“It’s not,” says Wei Wuxian. “The other swan is Jin Zixuan.”
Jiang Yanli gasps. Lan Wangji hears Jin Guangyao’s sickly sweet voice, pleading to his brother: “Er-ge, he's out of his mind…”
“This curse,” Wei Wuxian continues, “is strong and tricky. He’s human only at night when the moon shines. I was going to wait until tonight to take you to him, Zewu-Jun. But what’s even more tricky,” Wei Wuxian says, his tone growing harder as he addresses someone other than Lan Xichen, “is that Lan Zhan’s life is tied to Jin Guangyao’s, so I can’t hurt him without hurting Lan Zhan.”
A chilling pause. “You, however.” Wei Wuxian’s voice is so cold; he’s probably smiling. “You I can do whatever I want with.”
And music fills the room, high, trilling notes from Wei Wuxian’s flute, flitting dissonantly just as Lan Wangji gives the last tug on the nail, and the hinge is unrestrained. He and Jin Zixuan are shoving, throwing their bird bodies onto it until it creaks and breaks and they tumble out into the room.
Lan Wangji finally can see. He can see Wei Wuxian standing at one end of the room—the grand receiving room—standing in writhing shadow with red eyes, playing playing playing. He plays and a gust of dark air slashes across the room, wickedly precise, and sucks the breath from Su She, until his chest is concave and his eyes are bugging, face pale.
Jin and Lan sect cultivators are drawing their swords, advancing; Lan Xichen is shouting, reaching for Su She; and then Jiang Yanli screams.
Wei Wuxian halts his music, and the cultivators freeze. Su She collapses to the ground and becomes Su She again—a lackluster lord of light.
“A-Xuan?” Jiang Yanli says, looking between Lan Wangji and Jin Zixuan. Her son is screaming in her arms. “Is that you?”
Jin Zixuan hisses and flies forward. But before he can cross the room, Jin Guangyao—never the bravest, or the fastest, or the fiercest—draws his sword and points it at the throat of Lan Xichen. It wavers in his hand, but there are only a few inches between the shining tip and Lan Xichen’s throat. Lan Wangji hisses.
“Come near me and I’ll kill him,” Jin Guangyao says, and he’s addressing Lan Wangji, looking right at him, seeing him. Lan Xichen is looking at him too, eyes wide and confused. “And you—” This to Wei Wuxian. “If you want your Hanguang-Jun to live, you’ll keep your flute at your side.”
“Meng Yao,” Nie Mingjue growls. “You snake. You liar.”
“A-Yao,” Lan Xichen rasps.
“Remember,” Jin Guangyao says, ignoring both of them. “The curse is still in effect. You can’t touch me.”
“Only an act of love can break it,” Wei Wuxian says, daring to take a step forward. “And you’ve made that hard, telling their loved ones they’re dead and gone. But I know the truth. And I—I’ve never known anyone better than Lan Zhan. No one braver or nobler or more selfless or more—beautiful. He is my greatest friend in this life, and you hoped no one would miss him, that people would be satisfied by a lookalike. But I know him and I—I love him.”
“Oh, fuck,” Jiang Wanyin mutters, face in his hands.
Lan Wangji feels the room spinning, and he can’t tell if he is becoming himself again or if he’s just going to faint. These are words he has never received, and now the whole room witnesses it. He sees Wei Wuxian jut his chin into the air and say it again, like it didn’t jolt Lan Wangji to the core the first time.
“Did you hear me? I love him.”
Jin Guangyao is smiling, horribly, sharp as his blade. “Is that so,” he says.
Then Jin Zixuan has had enough. He launches himself toward his wife and child, and at the movement—maybe Jin Guangyao can't tell which swan is which, or maybe he sees the flash of white and just moves. But the world slows to just this knowledge: Jin Guangyao is going to keep his word. He is going to kill Lan Xichen.
Swans are strong. Swans are fast. Swans are the most powerful when flying, and Lan Wangji has done a lot of flying. He spreads his wings and soars through the air as Jin Guangyao’s silver sword spears for his brother.
He is fast enough this time. He knows because he feels sharp severing of flesh in his side and hears Jin Guangyao scream. But he can’t scream. Swans don’t scream. He falls to the floor, and it’s cold under him, cold, marble on skin.
Hands and hair and lots of bare skin, and a wound in his side, setting him on fire.
Maybe it is him screaming after all.
Lan Wangji hears the servants talking. It seems everyone at Jinlintai does a lot of talking. As he recuperates, he doesn’t have a lot to do except listen.
“Yiling Laozu saved his life,” one says. “I was there, I saw it.”
That one’s a liar, and Lan Wangji wants to say so, but the other has beaten him to it.
“He saved his own life, and the life of his brother, and the sect leader’s.”
Sitting beside him, Lan Xichen smiles. It’s the best feeling in the world, seeing his brother smile. He still looks tired and pale, but he looks like a mountain has been removed from his shoulders. Jin Guangyao was that mountain.
“They’re right,” Lan Xichen says. He comes every day and leaves only to sleep, in a chamber next to his own. Neither of them seem at ease in this place anymore, though Jin Zixuan has made it clear that they are safe and that Jin Guangyao’s influence will be purged from the sect entirely. Jin Guangyao himself will be put to death as soon as Jin Zixuan wants to turn his attention from his little family to his traitor brother. Still, it is good to see his brother so often, good to know that he wasn’t torn apart by Lan Wangji’s false death.
“Exaggeration is forbidden,” Lan Wangji reminds him. All he did was dive at a drawn sword.
“There is no exaggeration, Wangji. Uncle will agree.”
Uncle is on his way from Gusu, now that he’s no longer mourning a nephew. When he arrives, Lan Wangji will have to recount yet again how it was that he came to be a swan who sussed out a conspiracy and cleared the name of Wei Wuxian.
“Your uncle’s coming?”
Wei Wuxian is at the door, looking suddenly like he did at school: always halfway between having caused mischief and in the process of causing it again.
Lan Xichen stands with a smile and sweeps by Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji wants to tell him to stay, but he hasn’t been able to talk to Wei Wuxian since the curse was broken. And Wei Wuxian looks very nice, clean and well-fed and wearing robes that fit him.
“Not to worry, Wei-gongzi,” Lan Xichen says as he ducks out. “I’m sure your punishment will be minimal.”
“Is he—he knows I’ve been pardoned, right?” Wei Wuxian looks perplexed. “Jin Zixuan pardoned me. So technically, I can’t be punished for anything.”
Wei Wuxian looks so good. His hair is clean and pulled away from his face, and it’s amazing what just a few days of good food and rest will do for a person. His skin isn’t waxy anymore, and there’s even more light in his eyes and in his smile. Part of that is probably the knowledge that the Wen remnants have been pardoned along with him—and given good farming land as recompense. Wen Qionglin has agreed to go to Cloud Recesses for monitoring of his unique state of being; Wei Wuxian still possesses the Stygian Tiger Seal but has sworn not to use it against any sect.
Which means he has been here at Jinlintai, helping the Wens get situated, spending time with his sister. He seems incandescent with contentment and a sort of nervous energy. Lan Wangji feels invigorated just witnessing it.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, sitting next to his bed.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji replies.
“You’re smiling, did you know that?”
Lan Wangji did not know that. He touches his mouth—perhaps his body isn’t functioning the way it did before the curse—but his lips feel straight to him.
“It’s small,” Wei Wuxian says, pulling his fingers away and then holding onto them. Warmth tingles in that hand. “But it’s there.”
Lan Wangji lets it be there, then.
“How are you?” They both ask, at the same time.
Wei Wuxian laughs. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I am so good! Really so good. A-Yuan is here, eating almost everything we give him. I’m just trying to keep him from making himself sick. And did you know, I have a nephew? I have a nephew, Lan Zhan! He’s so cute, he’s like one of your rabbits, only noisier.”
Lan Wangji hasn’t seen the moon since the curse ended—since he got Jin Guangyao’s sword in his side and, according to his brother, nearly died, save for Wei Wuxian playing his flute to coax the blood back into Lan Wangji’s body. But he remembers how beautiful it had been to him these last weeks, how singular and important it was. He gets that same feeling looking at Wei Wuxian now.
“And you?” Wei Wuxian asks, his thumb skirting over Lan Wangji’s knuckles.
“Good,” Lan Wangji says. “Fine.”
“Is that all you’re going to say?”
“It’s the truth.”
“I’m glad. I was really very worried when—suddenly you were there, you, and there was a lot of blood. I tore through the guards to get to you, Jin Zixuan wasn't happy. So I'm glad you’re good,” Wei Wuxian says. “I’m glad you’re fine. I—”
And he blushes. Wei Wuxian blushes, and Lan Wangji remembers him flushed and pliant under him at Phoenix Mountain, so receptive to his kisses. He remembers how hot Wei Wuxian’s lips had been that night at the lake. Moonlight is cool, and now Lan Wangji wonders if Wei Wuxian had flushed when they kissed.
“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian says.
Lan Wangji frowns. “For what?”
“I didn’t break your curse,” Wei Wuxian explains. Clearly, his blush had been one of shame, and Lan Wangji feels disappointment creep at the edges of his contentment. “I tried twice and couldn’t. I’m very sorry.”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says. Wei Wuxian rushes on.
“And—I know that day, I said some things. Things that shouldn't be said in front of brothers or sisters or sect leaders or strangers. I wanted to break your curse. But—I’m concerned, is all, that you might—” Another blush, a very sweet pink one that heats Lan Wangji’s ears. “You might think I was just saying it. For the curse. And I need you to know that—”
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji repeats, and Wei Wuxian shuts his mouth. Lan Wangji turns his hand over, and Wei Wuxian takes it. “If you said it, you would mean it.”
“I did,” Wei Wuxian says, softly, looking at their hands. “I do. I do, Lan Zhan, I really mean it. I meant the kiss too. I just—need you to know that.”
“I know.” Lan Wangji feels that small smile on his face again, and it feels good to have it there. It feels good to have Wei Wuxian see it and smile himself, widely and brightly, a solar eclipse of a smile. “Wei Ying.”
An act of love. Lan Wangji isn't sure which did it—Wei Wuxian's confession or his own self-sacrifice. Maybe both. He likes to think both.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, and then bends down to kiss him. This is gracious because Lan Wangji is still healing, still cultivating the remains of his spiritual energy, which he has unsealed. He wants very badly to kiss Wei Wuxian and is glad to have Wei Wuxian come to him.
“Ah, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says between small kisses that grow larger and longer and deeper. “You are so—! Completely unbelievable. So brave and strong and dignified, the best cultivator in the world, such a good musician, so sweet to bunnies and A-Yuan—”
“Wei Ying!” Lan Wangji is panting from their kisses and he almost lets go of a laugh inside him, because these words are ridiculous and they’re heating the tips of his ears, which Wei Wuxian has discovered and is kissing softly.
“And have I mentioned beautiful?” Wei Wuxian says, almost slyly. “Since you like me to show it and say it. You’re so, so very beautiful, I can’t even believe it. And you know what else, Lan Zhan?”
Lan Wangji is smiling a full, wide smile, but no one will see because he has hidden it in Wei Wuxian’s hair, a smile for just himself.
“You were a beautiful swan, too.”