“So does this mean we’re friends now?” Wei Wuxian asks brightly one month later, as Lan Wangji wraps his ribbon around their wrists in Lan Yi’s ice cave.
He’s shivering, the coldest he’s ever been, including that long stretch of time he spent starving on the streets. Suibian’s paws are like frosted riverstones against his skin where he’s tucked her inside his shirt to try and keep her warm.
Lan Wangji doesn’t look cold at all, even though there’s actual frost clinging to his eyelashes. He just looks annoyed.
Wei Wuxian pouts at him. “Not even a little?”
Wei Wuxian sighs, gives a good tug on the ribbon. Lan Wangji glares at him. “Not even friends, he says! You know, you’re colder than this cavern will ever be, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji looks away, lips thin. Bichen, however, lets out a low, one-note growl.
It startles him, if he’s being honest—if he didn’t already have goosebumps, that growl definitely would have done it. Even with daemons, and even with Wei Wuxian’s admittedly low concern for anything that could potentially kill him, there’s still a primal fear mechanism when something that big and with teeth that sharp growls at you.
“Ah, what, what?” he asks, and inches closer to Lan Wangji for cover.
Despite the pranks that he and A-Sui pull, Bichen has never growled at either of them before with that kind of intensity. In fact, she’s been strangely patient with A-Sui’s antics lately, significantly less glaring and showing of the teeth whenever A-Sui tries to sneak up on her or bat at her.
But she does not look patient now.
They’ve never actually looked at each other close up before, not like this. Proximity makes little details stand out like firecrackers, the way her blue irises sparkle from the light reflecting off the cave walls, the dappled pattern of her fur touched with ice. There is a steadiness in her that reminds him of Lan Zhan: like a mountain, unwilling to be moved by anything but the slow tick of time.
But there’s a fire too, held within that gaze. He doesn’t know her well enough to read it, but he thinks she’s glaring.
“Aiyo, what, don’t look at me like that! Did I step on your tail? What did I do?”
In truth, he doesn’t expect an answer. She’s never talked to him directly, and A-Sui has only heard her when she’s being nosy and trying to listen in on Lan Zhan’s conversations. There’s not a rule around Lan daemons talking, but there might as well be, with how little she speaks near them.
So when she looks directly into his eyes and says, her voice a smooth rumble that reverberates through his chest, “Do not be cruel,” he’s momentarily shocked into stillness.
He gapes at her, for once not sure what to say. Her gaze is pinning his tongue in place, more effective than any of the silencing spells Lan Wangji is so fond of casting on him.
Against his chest, Suibian stirs.
Before Wei Wuxian can figure out the tangled thoughts rushing through his head, Lan Wangji is moving. With only that single word and a pointed tug on their bound wrists, he starts walking towards the altar.
“Whoa! Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian nearly trips over himself as he’s forced to follow, splashing water as protests spill from his mouth. “Alright, alright, slow down—hey!”
Lan Wangji ignores him, yanking him onto the shore without even a single glance backwards. Bichen follows, serene and composed, looking regal even with her fur soaked. She leaps onto shore in a fluid motion that Wei Wuxian is frankly envious of, digging her claws into the ice to steady her landing.
A shiver inches down his spine when their eyes meet across the water.
Lan Wangji’s voice forces his gaze away from Bichen. This time, Wei Wuxian doesn’t protest when he pulls them another few steps forward to examine the altar in the center of the room.
“Think this triggers something?” he asks, and Lan Wangji makes a noncommittal noise in his throat, busy looking at the instrument lying there. Wei Wuxian sighs, glances around the cave for something more interesting. So far, it’s just them, the guqin, and the little bunnies that seem perfectly content to nuzzle into the frost. “Maybe it’s—”
“So bossy,” he complains, but falls quiet as Lan Wangji examines the guqin. It doesn’t last long; at the next pull of the ribbon digging into the tender stretch of skin, he grins. “Hey, Lan Zhan! When I imagined my wrists like this, I was thinking of something a lot more fun—”
He joins in the investigation this time, A-Sui popping her head after his robes after a few moments to look at the bunnies.
At least, he thinks with a note of satisfaction, it looks like Lan Zhan is finally feeling the cold: the tips of his ears have gone red. Serves him right, for being so mean. Wei Wuxian doesn’t know how he’s managed to fight off the chill for this long in the first place.
“I want out,” Suibian whispers to him eventually, eyes not leaving the rabbits. There’s a thrum pulsing through their bond, the kind that always rises up whenever she sees something both fluffy and smaller than her.
“Yeah? Gonna have some fun?”
Lan Wangji looks over at them at that, gaze sharp, and Suibian shrinks back a little.
“Just to look, I swear! Besides, Bichen is allowed to explore, can’t I? What if I find something really useful?”
“Down you go then!” Wei Wuxian says, before Lan Wangji can throw a fit or probably point out why A-Sui is suspect while Bichen is not, and untangles her from his robes. She looks, frankly, ridiculous: hair matted and sticking up in random directions, skinny with her normally lush fur weighed down by water.
It’s hilarious and undignified. Wei Wuxian loves her so much.
She lets out a happy chitter as he starts to lower her onto the shore, Lan Wangji and Bichen watching closely; but as soon as he plops her down, the air in the cavern shifts.
Wei Wuxian can feel the energy gather, then release, like the beat of a drum.
Suibian’s next noise is a yowl—one of pain.
A-Sui getting hurt has never been pleasant. He doesn’t feel the pain, exactly, not unless it’s a really serious injury. Most of the time it’s more of an echo, or an impression, like the ache after he trains too hard. He knows it varies a lot by person, how much they do or don’t feel, no real understanding why some pairs feel like it’s a mirror of hurt while others feel nothing at all.
But the link between them is strong enough that he can always feel the flicker of emotion behind the physical sensation. Given her propensity to get herself into trouble, it’s usually embarrassment, the faint tinges of anxiety or annoyance that she’s hurt. It’s been a long time since she was hurt enough to feel anything else.
The first thing he gets this time is sharp, acrid fear.
Dogs chasing them, dogs nipping at her tail, the sound of Madam Yu’s whip cracking through the air, the empty ache of hunger, pain, pain, pain—
His blood turns cold.
He’s lunging for her the moment he feels it, his entire back screaming with sensation as she tries to scramble towards him from the ice. It takes a single second to cross the distance, but every instant of it is like fire is shooting up his spine. As soon as she’s in range he yanks her into the safety of his arms, staggering back from the shoreline and forcing Lan Wangji with him.
“A-Sui,” he repeats, a gasp, almost dizzy with the pain and emotion clogging their link.
Someone is saying his name, insistent, low. Wei Wuxian tries to focus, can’t as Suibian starts wailing—loud, high-pitched cries that echo off the walls and leaving his ears ringing.
“My feet, A-Xian, it burned, it—”
Fingers clumsy, he manhandles her so she’s tucked against him on her back, grabs one of her little paws to examine. The entire pad is burned, blistered to blackness. Blood slowly runs down the side of them, staining the clear water below them with drops of bright red.
“It hurts, it hurts!” she yowls as Wei Wuxian gently touches her feet, and he makes a soft shushing noise.
“Let me see, stop wriggling—”
A-Sui obliges, but her cries pick up in volume and pitch.
Carefully, Wei Wuxian strokes his fingers along her feet, examining the damage. Now that she’s no longer on the shore, the wounds aren’t getting worse. It definitely looks painful, so burned that it’s blackened; but when he checks their bond, he finds it vibrant and sharp as always.
Relief hits him.
Whatever this is, it’s purely physical. They can heal that.
“Is she…?” Bichen breathes, and Wei Wuxian looks up to see that both she and Lan Wangji have stepped close, staring at the still-howling fox in his arms. For the first time, he realizes that Lan Wangji must have been the one talking to him. His hand is hovering near Wei Wuxian’s elbow, like he’s afraid he’ll crumple into the pool.
“She’s alright, she’s alright,” he says quickly, bouncing A-Sui in his arms to try and quiet her down. A-Sui has always been a bit on the dramatic side when it comes to things like this. With the momentary shock of pain fading, now it’s just reassurance she wants, really.
“She is injured?”
Wei Wuxian glances up at Lan Wangji, who is staring at them with a slight furrow in his brow.
He and Bichen seem thrown off by the obvious, firework-bright distress that A-Sui is projecting. It’s a horrendous, disjointed noise, her crying—like someone being tortured. He can’t imagine what it sounds like to people who haven’t grown up with her and seen this very scenario before, but it can’t be pleasant.
Then, in a moment of realization, he remembers that Lans like things quiet.
He winces; Lan Wangji’s eyes flick up to his face and sharpen. Ah, this whole thing must be so annoying for them, so loud! No wonder they’re thrown off.
“It’s not that bad!” he reassures them, trying to pitch his own voice lower to compensate. “She’s just a crybaby when she gets hurt.”
“Says you,” A-Sui says, still whining high in her throat, but it falters when she twists her head to see that all three of them are now standing around her.
Wei Wuxian sees the moment she switches to her best helpless look, which is markedly different than her actual helpless look and doesn’t fool him for a second. She gives a wriggle and another whine, keeping their already undivided attention on her, and raises one of her feet high in the air.
“My paws, A-Xian, my paws!”
“Your paws,” he agrees, still saturated with relief, and kisses her on the nose.
Not satisfied with his reaction, A-Sui turns to the others.
“Bichen! Bichen, look at my paws! Do you see?”
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes; now that she has all their attention, all the fear he felt from her before has faded. Bichen inches forward, looking at the paw that has flailed its way out of Wei Wuxian’s grasp. Her entire tail is fluffed up, eyes searching.
Slowly, she says, “I see it. Are you ok?”
“I don’t know! How bad does it look? Will I be able to walk again?” A-Sui asks her, eyes big and wide and imploring, and Wei Wuxian snorts.
Bichen looks closer. A-Sui sits still for a few moments of careful examination, which is frankly more than Wei Wuxian can make her do most of the time, before Bichen steps back again.
“Given medical attention, I believe you will be ok, Wei Suibian.”
Both Wei Wuxian and Suibian make a face.
“Oh gross,” he says. The most Bichen has ever spoken to either of them, the first time she’s ever actually called A-Sui by name, and she has to say that. “Wei Suibian. Ugh, I feel like I just aged three thousand years. If I have nightmares tonight, I blame you, Bichen.”
Bichen’s ears go flat.
“No, no, I like it!” A-Sui says quickly, once its clear Bichen isn’t going to respond. “Um, it’s—unique? But you can just call me Suibian, if you want. I mean, I’d like that.”
Bichen’s tail, still a bit fluffed, curls in the air. She glances at Lan Wangji, who hasn’t moved an inch the entire time they’ve been talking. They must do whatever silent thing they do to communicate with each other, because after moment she looks back at A-Sui.
Appeased, A-Sui lets out a chittering noise and draws her paw back to her body. Wei Wuxian bounces her again, channels some spiritual energy into the burns.
“There,” he soothes, “that will hold you over until we get you to a healer, ok?”
She gives one last shivering whimper, more for the spirit of it than anything else, before quieting down. Her eyes settle on Lan Wangji and Bichen, almost accusatory. “How come Bichen can walk on it, but I get hurt?”
“Protection spell,” Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji say at the same time.
They blink at each other. It’s Wei Wuxian who laughs, delighted.
“Lan Zhan, you’re so smart!”
“Hn.” Lan Wangji looks away from him, toward the shoreline. His ears are pink again. “The magic here is strong.”
“Sure seems like it. And picky! I guess this place only likes Lan daemons, too, huh?”
“Mn. We should find a way out.”
“Wait, I thought you wanted to look more—”
“No. Out.” It’s oddly firm and insistent, given that Lan Wangji didn’t seem to be any hurry just a few moments ago.
“But who even knows how long this has been here, shouldn’t we at least look around to see if we find any more ancient relics or whatever—”
Lan Wangji shuts him up by starting to move back towards the shore, tugging Wei Wuxian with him. He must be getting worn out, given that these tugs at least don’t have him stumbling in the water like the last ones; he’s actually able to keep pace, at least until Suibian starts wriggling in protest as they get close to the ice.
“Hold up! I’m not going back there,” she says, curling deeper into Wei Wuxian’s arms. “It hurt. No!”
Lan Wangji pauses, looks at them.
“You don’t have to get on the shore,” Wei Wuxian tells her, even though it’s obvious that she’ll need to go somewhere. He can’t hold her and help look for a way out, and with her paws raw it’s not like he can just tuck her into his clothes again. Maybe he could rip up the robes and make a sash?
A-Sui is clearly thinking along the same lines. “Maybe you can float me?”
“In the water? You’ll freeze to death! This isn’t like Lotus Pier, you know—”
“Well I’m not getting on the ground—”
“Give her to Lan Bichen.”
Wei Wuxian blinks.
The words, separated, make sense. The words combined, coming out of Lan Wangji’s mouth in that specific order, don’t make sense at all.
He turns to Lan Wangji. “I’m sorry, what?”
A muscle in Lan Wangji’s jaw twitches, like having to repeat himself is the worst possible thing about this situation.
“Lan Bichen can carry her. On her back.”
Wei Wuxian pinches himself, just to make sure he didn’t somehow start hallucinating. It still hurts. Figures. He didn’t think his brain would have let him be this cold in a hallucination anyways, but it was worth checking.
He looks to Bichen, who nods; then to A-Sui, who twists her ears in a way that says, well, what else are we going to do?
So, feeling like he’s in a semi-fugue state, or maybe about to get his arm ripped from his body, he approaches Bichen and plops A-Sui onto her back.
There’s an awkward scramble, where Suibian tries to find purchase and hisses when it puts pressure on her paws. Eventually, after some deliberation and grumbling, Wei Wuxian arranges her so she’s draped over the snow leopard like a saddle, legs hanging uselessly in the air.
Bichen stays very still and very stiff throughout all of this. So does Lan Wangji.
For his part, Wei Wuxian is acutely aware of both Lan Zhan’s proximity and Bichen’s fur still so close to his fingers. He is exceedingly careful not to touch her as he tries to stabilize Suibian; his entire body feels cramped with how hyper-conscious he is of the distance between them.
Then A-Sui sighs, dreamy, “Oh, Bichen, this is so much better, thank you,” and the tension seems to rush out of all of them at once.
“Right, well,” Wei Wuxian says, unable to believe his eyes and wishing desperately that someone else were here to act as a witness to what must be a once-in-a-lifetime event. “There we go.”
Bichen, when she nods in agreement, is still a bit too close for comfort. The mere thought of accidentally brushing against her twists his stomach and he takes a step back, letting out a breath he didn’t even realize he was holding.
A-Sui has no such reservations. She’s turned into a boneless line on Bichen’s back, openly relieved to be off her feet and out of the water. Bichen’s head is twisted around so she can watch her, whiskers twitching a little even as the rest of her stays unmoving and steady. Frost has started to paint both of their coats, a sharp contrast against Suibian’s red, but a compliment to Bichen’s lighter colors.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t realize he’s staring at them until Lan Wangji gives a pointed tug on their bound wrists.
Together, they half-walk, half-trip over to the shore. Well—Lan Wangji walks, Wei Wuxian trips. His stomach is doing flips and he can’t figure out why. It’s not a distance thing; he’s cultivated his core enough that A-Sui can be a few hundred mǐ from him without any issue. The space between where he’s tied to Lan Zhan and where their daemons are standing isn’t even a tenth of that.
For some reason, just thinking about their daemons makes his stomach flip again.
“Do you feel weird?” he asks Lan Wangji, as they finally make it to the shore. “Because I feel weird.”
The gold in Lan Wangji’s eyes turns sharp again. “You are injured?”
Exasperated, Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “That’s not—you know what, never mind! I bet you’ve never felt weird a day in your life, huh? Maybe I just ate something bad. You all serve rabbit food here, you know that? Oh, uh, no offense,” he adds, bowing to the rabbits on the shoreline. They don’t seem to care either way.
Lan Wangji gives him a long look.
“There is nothing wrong with rabbit food,” he says eventually, and touches the guqin before Wei Wuxian can comment.
“Well that was fun,” Wei Wuxian says.
It was not, in fact, fun.
In the space of a single hour, he’d not only been sucked into an ice cave, had his daemon injured, and discovered an intricate plot to unite an ancient relic that could bring destruction to them all—but he’d also pissed off Wen Qing, who inspires fear in the hearts of men on her good days.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, from where he’s sitting next to him, and adds, “Your posture.”
Wei Wuxian groans and plants his face on the table. “I wish we had stayed trapped in the cave.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t respond right away—he’s probably too busy thinking insults at Wei Wuxian’s prone, helpless form. Or fantasizing about poetry, or tofu, or whatever appropriate, Lan-like thoughts go through his head.
Wei Wuxian glances at him, just to check, and finds him resolutely writing on the parchment Lan Xichen had laid out for them earlier.
To keep you occupied, he had said, looking more at Wei Wuxian than Lan Wangji when he spoke, while we deliberate.
Wei Wuxian groans again.
“It’s unfair that they’re making us stay up and wait, don’t you think? We’ve been through distress. I’m distressed. Are you distressed?”
“You’re no fun.”
He sits up and goes back to his doodling, throwing occasional pouting looks at Lan Wangji. The candlelight flickers on his face, casting his shadow onto Bichen as she sits properly at his side. It emphasizes the symmetry of his features, as if the gods themselves chiseled his cheeks, his eyes, the sharp cut of his jaw.
He frowns and sets down his brush so he can rub Suibian’s ears. She’s curled up on his lap with all four of her paws covered in rough gauze, courtesy of Wen Qing. The salve underneath them is sharp and herbal, a hint of bitter florals, and her nose twitches every few moments like the scent has followed her into her dreams.
At his touch, A-Sui makes a sleepy, faint trill. “A-Xian?”
“Go back to sleep,” he soothes, and she settles, a happy sigh breathed between them. He keeps petting her, not looking up, expecting Lan Wangji to swoop in at any moment and order him to pick up his brush again.
No order comes.
Instead, gentle quiet settles over them. For some time there’s just Bichen’s soft breathing, and the motion of Lan Zhan writing in his periphery, and Suibian’s steady heartbeat beneath his fingers. The longer he sits there, the more Wei Wuxian can’t help but think that it’s actually the most at peace he’s felt in a long time.
The sound of the door opening breaks it.
All of their heads jerk up; but it’s just Lan Xichen, who smiles at him and Lan Wangji when he meets their twin gazes.
“My apologies for the wait,” he says, holding the door open for Shuoyue to come through. His daemon, a large sambar deer, practically glides into the room despite his size. He certainly doesn’t seem inhibited by the narrow space; when he passes by Lan Xichen, there is not so much as a single brush of skin.
“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji says, setting down his brush, then hesitates.
Lan Xichen smiles at them again. “We have done a thorough examination of the Yin Iron shard. While we have been able to contain its power for now, only time will tell what it is truly capable of. The immediate danger, however, has passed.”
“For Suibian as well?”
Wei Wuxian looks over at Bichen, surprised. She beat him to the question.
“Wei Suibian should make a full recovery, yes.” Something in Lan Xichen’s eyes seems to sparkle. “Any spiritual damage sustained the ice cave was mitigated before too much harm could occur.” He looks at Lan Wangji and adds, “The same can be said for Wei-gongzi’s health.”
Lan Wangji goes still, shooting his brother a look that Wei Wuxian doesn’t understand. Lan Xichen just smiles a bit wider and turns to face him. He bows.
“Thank you for looking after my brother today, Wei-gongzi.”
Flustered, Wei Wuxian bows deeply back, rubbing the back of his head to try and laugh it off. “Ah, no, no, Zewu-Jun, you give me too much credit! Lan Zhan definitely did the looking, today.”
Another smile tugs at the corner of Lan Xichen’s mouth. “I’m sure he did.”
Lan Wangji’s ears are red when Wei Wuxian glances toward him. He’s staring resolutely down at his parchment.
“Um…” Wei Wuxian turns to Lan Xichen to try and understand, but he and Shuoyue just share a look before crossing the room and settling down in front of them.
“Let us discuss more serious matters, then,” Lan Xichen says, pulling out his xiao. “Given the exposure to the Yin Iron shard, Shufu is concerned that there may be residual resentment lingering in you. Normally the task would fall to you, didi, but given the energy you expended in the cave, we feel it is best that I play for the both of you.”
Wei Wuxian glances at Lan Wangji, impressed despite himself. He knew Lan Wangji was a prodigy with the guqin, but to be the go-to player to soothe resentment?
“You should play for me sometime,” Wei Wuxian tells him in an undertone, both teasing and not. Lan Wangji stares straight ahead, as if he didn’t even speak. “Lan Zhan—”
Lan Xichen coughs lightly, cutting of his half-formed whine.
“Please,” he says, and there is another smile playing on his lips, “open your spiritual energy to me.”
They settle into comfortable positions—Wei Ying cross-legged and leaning against the table with Suibian still in his lap; Lan Wangji straight-backed, hands folded.
Bichen, Wei Wuxian notices distantly, has the tip of her tail curled near Lan Wangji’s left foot, only an inch of space separating them. It takes him by surprise— he so rarely sees them come even close to touching. Wei Wuxian has no idea what it could mean, or why it would even be important, or why he even noticed in the first place.
There’s not enough time to comment before the first note of music rings through the air. The effect is almost instantaneous: like water trickling through a crack in the stone, tension starts to drain from him, a slow release of pressure.
Suibian is a warm, familiar weight against his body. He starts to pet her again without thinking, stroking his fingers through her now-dry fur. The motion itself is soothing; combined with the music, the flow of time becomes some fuzzy, muddled thing, easy to lose track of.
It’s nice, he realizes in some distant part of himself. To just sit here, to feel the melody wash over him and into his core. To be alive in this moment, with Lan Wangji and Bichen at their side.
His thoughts drift, boats on lotus ponds.
Today wasn’t a close call, not really—but he’d be lying if he said seeing her hurt didn’t affect him. For the longest time, A-Sui was the only thing that he had. His parents: dead. His home: lost. The entire world turned upside-down in a single moment, transformed into one of hunger and cold and snapping teeth.
But she had been there, always. An ever-present, precious companion.
“Do you think she was lonely?”
Lan Xichen pauses the music, and it is almost like a spell breaking, the way physical sensations rush back into the quiet of the room. Truthfully, Wei Wuxian hadn’t really meant to speak the thought out loud; it had just bubbled up and out of him as he gazed at Suibian.
He doesn’t really plan to continue it, either, until Lan Wangji says, “Who?”
Wei Wuxian looks up at him, finds his face framed by candlelight. His eyes are intent, the same single-minded focus he seems to give them whenever they cause trouble but, strangely, lacking any annoyance.
“Lan Yi. I mean, she was trapped there, in that cave. I thought that without your daemon you went crazy, but that didn’t seem to be the case with her. But her daemon wasn’t there, or else we would have sensed it, right? Do you think she misses them?”
Lan Wangji frowns. “Do you not know?”
“It…” Lan Wangji looks away, towards Bichen. She’s started to doze next to him, eyes half-lidded.
“Within our sect, it is a well-known story.” Lan Xichen has been watching their exchange; he puts down his xiao when it is clear his brother is not going to continue. “It is not… secret, exactly, but perhaps something that is more apparent within the Cloud Recesses. The soul and a daemon’s spirit will not part easily, not if the bond linking them is strong. If a bond cannot break, then it simply bends, rearranges.”
Wei Wuxian leans forward, confused. “But daemons dissolve into nothing when their counterpart is killed. And even if the spirit of the human lingers, or they become undead, they don’t have their daemons anymore. It’s supposed to be painful—it is painful! Lan Zhan and I saw it when we hunted the Water Ghosts in Caiyi. All those people, screaming for their daemons. All that resentful energy, magnified.”
Lan Wangji shakes his head, lays out a new sheet of parchment. “Not nothing. Not always.”
Wei Wuxian looks to Lan Xichen, who smiles.
“You are correct in the underlying theory, Wei-gongzi. However, the daemons of powerful cultivators do not wither as others do. They contain their own unique energy. When the cultivator linked to them dies, they disperse from their prior form, but their energy does not leave the earth.”
“They linger too?”
Another shake of the head from Lan Wangji. “It is not lingering. It is becoming. They flow into qi itself.”
Wei Wuxian ponders on that for a moment. “You’re saying her daemon was there.”
Finally, a nod. “In the air.”
“And the water,” Wei Wuxian realizes, thinking of how the whirlpool had sucked them under like it was nothing. “The ground, too!”
“That may be why the protection spell surrounding the altar was so strong.” Lan Xichen has a far-off look in his eyes. “Many powerful cultivators have seen the end of their days here—peacefully, of course. When they pass, very rarely do they linger. But in the few cases that such a thing has occurred, we find that the spaces they linger have intense energy. Not resentful, but shielding.”
“It was the energy of their daemons, transformed?”
Lan Xichen nods. “Lan Yi was considered one of the best of her time. You are both skilled for your age, but given the immensity of the energy that her daemon must have, it is no surprise that you were not able to distinguish it from that of the cave itself. It would have been too overwhelming. As a perhaps frivolous comparison, you were looking for a single trickle of water to drink, but you were already drowning in a lake.”
“Huh,” Wei Wuxian says, stares at the corner of Lan Wangji’s parchment. “So that’s how she hung on without going crazy, for all those years. Wait! Now that she’s moved on, will her daemon be stuck guarding the cave?”
“No.” Lan Wangji glances at Lan Xichen, as if asking for permission; when Lan Xichen nods, he continues. “It happened before, a long time ago. The energy disappeared with the spirit.”
Wei Wuxian is turning it all over in his head. “Like they departed, together.”
“Mn.” Lan Wangji dips his brush back in ink, begins writing once more.
Neither of them continue. Lan Xichen appears far away, like he’s remembering something; his xiao lays loose in his curled fingers, evidently forgotten.
Something settles in Wei Wuxian’s chest.
“You know,” he says into the quiet, making both Lans twitch, “if that’s what happens, then maybe it’s not all so bad after all.”
They look at him, confused. Eventually, Lan Xichen says, “I’m sorry, Wei-gongzi, please elaborate. What’s not so bad?”
“All of it,” he says, gesturing around them. Lan Wangji’s brow furrows, and Wei Wuxian continues, “I don’t mean here. Or anywhere, really. But all this time, I’d thought that if we don’t attain immortality, or died before reaching the apex of our skill, then it would mean our cultivation wasn’t truly successful. That we’d failed. But…”
He trails off, looks at A-Sui still sleeping soundly in his lap.
“But if we just get strong enough to keep those we love close, then it’s not a failure after all. I don’t want to die—I’m willing to, if it means standing against injustice. But if I die and can still be with the one I hold most dear, then it’s really not that scary after all. Who wouldn’t want to spend an eternity with the one they love? That’s better than any immortality, if you ask me.”
Silence greets his words—a long one, even for the company of two Lans. Wondering if he said something wrong, he looks up.
Lan Wangji is staring at him, golden eyes wider than normal, his mouth slightly parted. His entire face has smoothed out—no annoyed furrow of the brows, no anger in his gaze, no downward turn to the corner of his lips. He’s looking at Wei Wuxian like he’s never seen him before, like he’s something brand new and interesting.
It’s the softest his face has ever been. The look does something to Wei Wuxian’s insides, makes him squirm.
“Ah—what?” he asks, glancing between Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen. Lan Xichen is sharing more furtive looks with Shuoyue. “What’s wrong? Do I have something on my face?”
Lan Wangji’s expression shatters into something else, rigid and closed-off; he turns away, shoulders tightening.
“Hey, why are you mad? I didn’t do anything! You were the one looking at me weird!”
“You so were! Your face got all—”
“I believe that’s it for today,” Lan Xichen interrupts, and he’s smiling again, the same smile that’s been appearing on his face all evening since they came back. He puts away his xiao, bowing to both of them. “Thank you again, Wei-gongzi. I am glad that my brother has a friend such as yourself.”
Wei Wuxian lights up, even as Lan Wangji goes stiff next to him. Lan Xichen sends one last look at his brother before sliding out the door.
“Lan Zhan, did you hear that? Your brother thinks we’re friends! Wait until I tell Jiang Cheng—”
Ah, there’s the Lan Zhan he knows! The intensity in his voice actually wakes up A-Sui, who blinks open her eyes and gives a squeaky, drawn-out yawn. At the noise, Lan Wangji and Bichen freeze; silly, really, since they already woke her, and it’s not like moving makes them louder.
Wei Wuxian pats her on the head; in response, A-Sui shoves her face into his knee and slurs, “Whuzhappning?”
It’s the cutest thing Wei Wuxian has seen all day. He coos over her, rubbing her ears in the way he knows she loves.
“A-Sui, you missed all the fun! We’re friends with Lan Zhan now! Zewu-Jun said it himself.”
That wakes her up quicker than a splash of cold water. Her ears perk and she swivels her head to look at them. “We are?! I knew it! Does that mean you’re finally going to play with us?”
“Of course they will! I have so many new things we can do now that we’re friends,” Wei Wuxian says to Lan Wangji, winking. That appears to restart whatever part of Lan Wangji’s brain that’s responsible for motion, because he scowls.
“I want to take them to the lotus ponds,” A-Sui tells Wei Wuxian, her tail wagging, and he beams at her.
“Yes! Oh, and the market stalls! We could buy some peppers—ahh, do you think we could bribe the cooks to put some in Lan Qiren’s soup? Or maybe they would let us cook it together! I know you’d be worried about your robes, Lan Zhan, but that’s what aprons are for. Even better: no robes, just aprons! Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Lan Wangji’s voice is slightly strangled. “No.”
“Bichen could try sweet buns,” A-Sui adds, ignoring Lan Wangji completely, and Wei Wuxian nods enthusiastically. “Or we can get the meat ones, if you don’t like sweets. But I love the red bean ones!”
As Lan Wangji opens his mouth, most likely to cite some rule that says Red bean buns are strictly forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, Wei Wuxian, pick up your brush to copy it down fifty times, he’s interrupted by a low noise to his side.
Bichen’s tail is a delicate, relaxed curl in the air, her eyes slightly dilated and blinking slow.
She’s also, unmistakably, purring.
“Bichen!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, buzzing with delight as Lan Wangji stares down at her with an expression that is normally reserved for Wei Wuxian’s most shameless antics.
A-Sui is practically vibrating out of her skin at the noise. “A-Chen, you sound so cute—"
Lan Wangji’s face turns murderous.
Wei Wuxian holds up his hands, laughing. “She meant Lan Bichen! She’s just excited. Bichen, you can purr!”
Lan Wangji looks like he is genuinely debating whether to reach across the table and strangle him. Wei Wuxian scoots away from grabbing range just in case, beaming.
“Zewu-Jun is right. We’re definitely friends now,” A-Sui declares, eyes pinched with happiness. That appears to be the last straw; Lan Wangji stands up, glaring.
“Ah, Lan Zhan! Don’t be mad!”
Lan Wangji, as it turns out, is quite mad. If Wei Wuxian goes to bed that night with his sword arm a little more sore than usual, well—that’s his secret to keep. He’ll blame it on the cave.