“Life is hard, Mr. Scoresby, but we cling to it all the same.”
“And this journey we’re on? Is that folly or wisdom?”
“The greatest wisdom I know.”
― Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials
The back hills are the perfect place to nap.
Wei Wuxian discovered this about two weeks ago, sometime between arriving at the imposing Lan gates and being chased around by Lan Wangji across the rooftops under moonlight, laughing as Emperor’s Smile spilled across his sleeves.
If this were Lotus Pier, Wei Wuxian could have sat down on that very roof –in broad daylight even, not just the shadow of night— covered his eyes, and let the heat of summer and sounds of water lapping on the wood docks lull him to sleep. He could have dozed into dreams pleasantly tipsy, muscles still burning from the way Lan Wangji’s sword slid against his own.
But this isn’t Lotus Pier, and Lan Wangji had quite unkindly ruined his plans for rooftop anything, so: the back hills.
It’s in those very hills, as Wei Wuxian is staring up at the sky and thinking idly about the taste of Emperor’s Smile on his tongue, that Suibian jumps full force onto his stomach and cries, “A-Xian, don’t be mad!”
The sheer force of her pounce knocks the breath out of him. He lets out an ooofhm sound, much different than what he wanted to ask: Why would I be mad?
The resulting pause is just long enough for Jiang Cheng, who up to this point has been laying rather peacefully next to him, to shoot up and demand, “Oh great, what did you do now?”
To be fair, the question isn’t exactly unwarranted. Suibian looks an absolute mess: twigs stuck in her fur, dirt smeared across the white fluff of her underbelly. She’s panting up a storm, little heh heh heh gasps that haven’t edged into her normal high-pitched laughter.
When her ears press back against her head, she could almost pass for pitiful.
“Bichen hates me.”
Wei Wuxian’s first thought is Why would Lan Zhan’s daemon hate you?, but it’s followed quickly by remembering exactly where he is, how little trouble he’s caused today, and the fact that he hasn’t seen Suibian for a few minutes.
A grin spreads across his face.
Jiang Cheng doesn't seem as amused; he groans so loudly that a group of birds flush from a nearby tree, and points an accusing finger at her. “Why are you always causing trouble?!”
“Hey!” A-Sui presses her ears back against her head as she glares at Jiang Cheng. “It was an accident!”
That earns her a roll of the eyes. “Oh, just like when you accidentally dropped a dead bird onto my plate last night—”
“It’s called instinct, I’m not trying to cause problems—”
“Ok, ok!” Breath back in his lungs, Wei Wuxian interrupts them before they can really get started. Despite Suibian’s apparent distress, he’s grinning when he looks down at her and asks, “What fun are we having now?”
“None!” she wails, and Wei Wuxian laughs. “A-Xian, you didn’t see, I’m dead!”
“Good,” Jiang Cheng mutters under his breath. Suibian whines again in response, burrowing into Wei Wuxian’s stomach so she doesn’t have to look at any of them anymore. From the way their bond is trembling, watery and distraught, someone might as well have died; but she's always been a bit on the dramatic side. He tries to jostle her off him without having to sit up, but the movement only has paws scrambling at his torso, A-Sui’s little fox claws digging through the fabric of his shirt.
When he tugs pointedly at her ear, she retaliates by nipping at his fingers.
“Ow, ow! Suibian!”
“She’s going to eat me!”
“Can a daemon even eat another daemon?” Nie Huaisang, who is a mǐ or so to his right with his daemon curled up in his palm, sounds suddenly nervous.
Suibian ignores the question, too deep in her fit of drama. “What if she never talks to me again?!”
“She doesn’t talk to you now,” Jiang Cheng points out, and A-Sui pouts at him. Sandu, who has been resting her head against Jiang Cheng’s legs, lets out a small huff of amusement and thumps her tail against the grass.
“Only because they’re fuddy-duddies,” Wei Wuxian says, and pulls Suibian’s face to eye level. “Alright, c’mon, spill it! What did you do, hmm, A-Sui?”
Suibian stares up at him with watery eyes, twitching in his hands.
“I nibbled on her tail,” she whispers.
Wei Wuxian blinks at her.
Around them, mild panic erupts. Nie Huaisang starts to frantically fan himself, looking as if he might bolt or faint or perhaps both. His mouse squeaks in alarm and darts into the nearest bush, while Jiang Cheng sighs like the end of the world is imminent and that sacrificing Wei Wuxian and his daemon will somehow make it more bearable. Sandu, bless her, lets out a defeated growl and shoves her face under her paws.
Wei Wuxian, meanwhile, starts laughing.
“Undignified,” he teases, and laughs harder as Suibian wriggles to try and shove her cold nose against his neck. He manhandles her higher into the air, high enough to be safe from scrambling claws and wet noses. “Ridiculous! Shameless!”
A-Sui doesn’t appear to be amused by the Lan impression. “Don’t make fun of me!”
“Why the hell would you mess with Lan Bichen?” Jiang Cheng demands. “Are you insane?”
“I was playing! Trying to play!”
“You really think any of those Lan daemons can play?” Wei Wuxian asks her, and Suibian does her best to look guilty even as she slips out of his hold and plops back onto the grass.
“I thought I could show her how! And it looked so fluffy and it was just swinging back and forth, and I didn’t think—”
“When do you?” Jiang Cheng sighs, but less meanly this time, and Sandu shifts so she can put a large paw on Suibian to hold her still. Suibian wriggles valiantly for a few moments but eventually admits defeat, panting a little.
“They… didn’t follow you, did they?” Nei Huaisang is still visibly nervous, looking around the clearing as if Lan Wangji and Bichen might miraculously appear from thin air to scold them.
Actually, that’s not so far out of the realm of possibility. Wei Wuxian sits up fully and looks around too, just in case. Nothing unusual greets his eyes. Just the grass swaying in the winds, the dappled shadows of leaves on the ground.
“No, they just… stared at me,” A-Sui says, and pouts as Sandu starts to groom the top of her head. Still, Wei Wuxian can feel her relax from the other daemon’s attention. “And then Bichen’s ears did something weird and I ran away.”
Jiang Cheng’s eyebrows furrow. “Lan Bichen, idiot, what if they hear you?! And stop trying to be friends with them.”
“No,” Wei Wuxian and Suibian reply in unison, making Jiang Cheng throw up his arms.
“Fine! Not like I’m trying to help you or anything! If she eats you, it serves you right.”
“You really should be more careful,” Sandu advises, calmer than her human counterpart, and A-Sui sighs deeply. A fond look crosses the wolf’s face, even as Jiang Cheng huffs and looks away.
“They’ll never want to be friends with you if you keep breaking their rules.”
Another deep sigh.
Wei Wuxian grins, pats A-Sui on the head. She’s definitely edged back into pitiful territory, a defeated line of red and white fur. He almost feels sorry for her; it’s really not her fault that she causes trouble so much. Whereas Wei Wuxian purposefully tries to stir up chaos (for fun! harmless!), A-Sui just has terrible impulse control.
“Wait,” he says, snapping his fingers to draw her attention back, “before you forget! Tell me: was her tail as fluffy as it looks?”
“So fluffy,” A-Sui confirms, staring up at him with huge brown eyes. “Like spun sugar.”
Wei Wuxian melts a little. Partly because he wants to pinch her little fox ears, and partly because the idea of Lan Wangji’s aloof, cold snow leopard being fluffy is just too cute.
Cute, and not fitting in the slightest; Bichen, after all, always looks about five seconds away from biting their heads off.
“Well,” he decides, “if it was for the valiant pursuit of scientific curiosity, there’s nothing we can do about it.” He plops back down on the grass, eliciting a squeak from A-Sui and a noise of protest from Jiang Cheng.
“Shouldn’t you—do something?!”
“What, exactly? I make Lan Zhan mad all the time. You don’t see me whining about it.”
“You do whine about it.”
Wei Wuxian pretends not to hear that particular tidbit. Instead, he closes his eyes and rolls onto his side. Out of sight, out of mind.
“I think I’ll go back to napping, thank you very much.”
There’s a grumble of agreement from Suibian, another defeated sigh from Sandu. The breeze blows across his face, the chill of it staved off by the sun and his own good mood. It should be possible to squeeze in at least a few more hours of dozing before they’re called back for dinner—and with A-Sui now by him, he can feel the pull of sleep like a physical tug.
For a few blessed seconds, it’s quiet.
“Um,” Nie Huaisang squeaks, breaking the soft sounds of their breathing, “Um, Wei-xiong, I don’t think napping is actually such a good idea—”
“C’mon, what do you think’s gonna happen?” Wei Wuxian asks, eyes still closed. Suibian is warm where she’s tucked herself into his collarbone, probably dirtying the white robes as she does. “It’s not as if Lan Zhan and Bichen would come all this way—”
“Fuck,” says Jiang Cheng, finishing the thought for him, and the world jolts into motion again.
Wei Wuxian groans even as his stomach gives an excited, happy flip. Sitting up provides him a better view of the hill’s slope and ah, yes—that is unmistakably Lan Wangji walking toward them with what has to be an uncomfortably straight spine, his daemon close behind.
Both are staring at the small fox now trying to hide herself into nonexistence behind Sandu.
“Aw, darn,” he sighs, trying not to smile in delight at the sight of them. Today really had been a good one, but he’s never one to turn down a little bit of excitement.
Jiang Cheng scowls. “Great! You’ve done it now. Wait until A-Jie hears about this…”
“Noo, don’t tell Shijie—”
“She’ll find out anyways!”
Their squabble is interrupted by another “Wei Wuxian!”
Lan Wangji is close now. He looks as composed and cold and perfect as ever, not even a hair out of place. Bichen is the same: ears perked in their direction, the spotted fur on her back impossibly smooth, as if the wind itself it afraid to ruffle it. There’s no canines showing this time, which Wei Wuxian will consider an improvement in mood from that time she hissed at them in the Library doing lines—but he can’t help but notice that Lan Wangji is gripping his sword hard.
The sight sends a low thrill through him. Wei Wuxian wants to draw his own sword and dive right in, feel the wild pounding of his heart like that one night on the rooftops.
“What do you think, A-Sui?” Wei Wuxian asks, looking down at Suibian. She stops trying to hide for a moment, tail flicking back and forth and she picks up on his playful tone. “Do we stay, and face the fury of one of the Twin Jades? Or…”
“Or…” she draws out the word, and her tail starts wagging in full, “Or we play tag!”
“Tag!” he agrees, jumping to his feet.
Lan Wangji and his daemon are only a few mǐ away. With each step they take, the frustration in their eyes becomes more apparent. That’s doesn’t bother him, though, given that it’s one of Wei Wuxian’s favorite expressions on Lan Wangji: his golden eyes on fire.
A pleasant tingle works its way down his spine.
“Ah, Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian calls, waving enthusiastically at the two of them. A-Sui weaves along his ankles, letting out her own chitter of greeting to Bichen.
Lan Wangji and Bichen seem to be caught off-guard by the greeting. They hesitate a few paces away, Bichen’s ears pressing back against her head.
“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Wangji starts, and ah, he’s mad, “you—”
“You can tell me later! You’re it!”
The smallest furrow appears between Lan Wangji’s brows. Wei Wuxian beams.
Then he and A-Sui bolt.
“Run!” A-Sui shrieks as they dash down the slope, her laughter intermixed with the sounds of Jiang Cheng’s protests, one last call of his name from Lan Wangji. He laughs as well, a white blur to Suibian’s red one as they dodge through the trees. It’s a full-on sprint that he knows he’ll get punished for later, but it’s worth it when he imagines the surprised look on Lan Wangji’s face.
Forget napping in the back hills. This is so much better.
They say Lan daemons are unlike any other.
It is one of the many rumors about those who live in the Cloud Recesses, but perhaps one of the most well-spread. Talk based on envy or pride spreads quicker, sinks its roots in deep, and the Lans inspire both.
Since the moment he joined the Jiang Sect, Wei Wuxian has heard little tidbits here and there, stories so repeated and well-worn that they now come to mind more easily than his childhood books.
According to the whispers, Lan daemons are elegant, and graceful, and always wise. More than that: they are so connected to the hearts of their humans that even several battlefields away, they could fight in perfect harmony. Their connection runs deep and pure, made purer by meditation, sullied by worldly things such as touch and desire. To be a Lan daemon is to embody perfection—a reflection of the humans they are paired with.
From what he’s seen so far, Wei Wuxian figures that’s ninety percent bullshit.
“This is Lan Yizheng,” Lan Qiren had told them on their first day, the look in his eyes matched near-perfectly by the sharp gaze of the owl perched on the wooden stand next to him.
At the sound of her name, Lan Yizheng had fluffed up a bit, then slowly swiveled her head back and forth as she took in the disciples sitting before her.
Wei Wuxian remembers the muted whispers: beautiful, majestic. Even thinking back on the memory now, it takes almost all his self-control not to burst out laughing. Lan Qiren’s daemon, a spot-bellied eagle owl, has one of the most ridiculous faces he’s ever seen. To think people were so starry-eyed that first day as to call her majestic—
“An instruction from her is equivalent to my own: you will call her Lan Yizheng or Lan-laoshi,” Lan Qiren had continued. His gaze had been piercing when he added, “As do I.”
Everyone had nodded. The Lan’s choice of using rather outdated naming conventions for their daemons was a well-known fact, and certainly a harmless one. Wei Wuxian had always found it a bit silly, really, overly-formal—but compared to some of the other three thousand rules they’d had to jot down that day, it was one of the more boring ones.
(That was, of course, before he had seen the look on Lan Wangji’s face when Suibian slipped up and called his daemon A-Chen. Then that rule had become very, very interesting.)
“Furthermore,” Lan Qiren had continued, face somehow still harsh in the morning light, “while you are being instructed, we expect you all to display the proper control and discipline of the Cloud Recesses. All of you, sit properly.”
Everyone had straightened up, as much as their already protesting backs allowed.
Lan Qiren had not looked pleased.
“I said all of you!” he had snapped, and pointed at Wei Wuxian and Suibian. “You! Inappropriate posture.”
Wei Wuxian had looked around, just to make sure that Lan Qiren was, in fact, pointing at him. Then, for good measure, he had pointed at himself and asked, “Me?”
That would be the first time Lan Qiren’s face turned an outraged red at something he said, but not the last.
“Not you. Your daemon!”
Suibian had looked up from where she was curled on Wei Wuxian’s lap, ears perked. They’d looked at each other, then back at Lan Qiren, blinking in twin confusion.
“Yes, you! Get off his lap,” Lan Qiren had ordered, and Suibian had scrambled to comply, a tangle of red and white sliding off his legs and onto the hard floor. “Sit straight! Straighter! Do not lean, keep the space between you.”
Then, after Suibian had done as instructed, sitting uncomfortably proper at Wei Wuxian’s side with her ears pressed back against her head and discontent buzzing through their bond, Lan Qiren had turned to the others.
“Now, all of you do the same.”
There had been a hush over the class as the words sank in.
They had, of course, obeyed anyways.
Or, most of them. Among the flurry of daemons abandoning their spots –some curled into laps like Suibian, others perched on shoulders, a select few tucked carefully into pockets— a brave disciple in the front row had raised her hand. Her daemon, a butterfly, had clung quietly to her fingers.
After a nod from Lan Qiren, she had said, “Thank you, Grandmaster. Forgive this humble student, but I do not understand. Our daemons are not permitted to—touch us?”
Simple, no further explanation. There had been another barely contained murmur among the group, many of whom now had their daemons in proper place.
Wei Wuxian had jumped in. “But why?”
Everyone had wanted to ask it, really—I mean, what kind of place expected humans and daemons to do something like this? But Lan Qiren’s eyebrows had furrowed, matching those of his (absolutely ridiculous) daemon’s.
“Control.” A click of Lan Yizheng’s beak. “When trying to reach the peak of cultivation, one must build their own tolerance for discomfort. In setting aside such needless distractions, in overcoming our base desires, one grows their skill.”
“That doesn’t make sense, though,” Wei Wuxian had shot back, annoyed despite himself. “It’s our natural instinct to touch! Theory has shown that the stronger a link, the better we can cultivate—so why fight against that? Won’t we all be more distracted like this?”
Jiang Cheng had kicked him under the table, a clear signal to shut up. Wei Wuxian hadn’t really cared. It was common knowledge that the Lan Sect didn’t touch their daemons in public, but he hadn’t thought it would extend to them, too!
“And besides,” he had continued, ignoring the increasingly furious look on Lan Qiren’s face, “there is more to control than setting aside worldly things! Why are we alive, if not to treasure that which we hold dear?”
That had been the wrong thing to say, looking back. Had Wei Wuxian been asked at the time to bet on whether Lan Qiren would go into qi deviation on the spot, he would have given it a 70-30 chance.
“You must abandon such flawed and childish assumptions!” Lan Qiren had snapped, Lan Yizheng’s beak clicking with renewed fervor behind him. “Are your links so weak that a single mi will impact you? No! If I am to instruct, then I will instruct you all, and you shall all model restraint and control. If your daemon is not holding themselves to the standards set for you, then you have already failed.”
“No!” Lan Qiren’s voice had echoed in the room, stopping any and all protest. “Set aside these foolish questions. While you are in this classroom, you shall uphold these expectations, or leave!”
And that, right there, had been the first sign of trouble for Wei Wuxian.
(Ok, maybe not the first. But a sign, definitely.)
“This is ridiculous!” he had exclaimed later to Jiang Cheng, watching A-Sui and Sandu tussle in the rooms provided to them. “First their three thousand rules, and then their headbands, and now this? Why can’t we just let them relax while we learn?”
“They think they’re better than us,” A-Sui had sniffed, earning a smack on the nose from Sandu. “Hey! What, you know it’s true! Why else would they do that? I can pay attention better on A-Xian’s lap than I can on that stupid floor, with my tail all twisted up and stiff!”
Wei Wuxian had frowned, trying to think it through. “I can’t believe the Lans are expected to do this all the time. What a boring, empty life they must lead, if they keep their own daemons so far from their hearts!”
“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli had scolded gently, “do not be so unkind. It is only while we are learning, and they must have their reasons for it.”
But even she had sounded unsure. Wei Wuxian had turned to Jiang Cheng, looking for support; his brother had simply scowled and offered a half-hearted shrug.
“Yeah, well,” he’d said, gazing out the window at Lan Wangji and Lan Bichen walking gracefully across the courtyard below, “you know what they say about Lan daemons.”
It’s been weeks since that first lesson, long enough that all his classmates have gotten used to their daemons sitting by their sides during lectures, resisting the ever-present urge to reach out and touch. They’re in the habit of using the formal names for all the Lan daemons, too, at least to their faces.
Lan Yizheng, the owl. Lan Shuoyue, the stag. Lan Bichen, the leopard. Paragons for daemons and cultivators alike.
Wei Wuxian still can’t bring himself to call Lan Wangji’s snow leopard Lan Bichen. He knows what Lan Wangji would say, has said, will continue to snappily say every time Wei Wuxian slips and calls her Bichen only:
But it still feels wrong.
Now, sitting at the oppressively quiet Lan dinner, Wei Wuxian glances down at A-Sui. She’s busy trying to chew on a pair of Gusu Lan’s expensive chopsticks without Bichen noticing her. It’s going well, if only because Lan Wangji and Bichen seem to be actively avoiding looking at either of them.
A-Sui senses his gaze and looks up at him. A single tilt of her head: yes?
He reaches out to scratch behind her ears, give her a little boop on her nose as the vibrant energy of their bond pulses through his core. Fondness blooms in his chest when she promptly abandons the chopsticks in favor of wriggling onto her back so he can stroke the red and white fur on her stomach. It’s soft under his fingers when he runs them through it, fluff now clean of the dirt and twigs from earlier thanks to an impromptu dip into the cold springs.
“Want some more?” he asks her, nodding to their bowls, and her eyes brighten.
“Do they have the fried pork belly still?”
She pouts up at him and he laughs, glances around the table. “Look, Sandu still has some on hers, you could—”
She’s already off, nosing her way up to Sandu’s side and putting on her best begging eyes. Sandu is, tragically, unmoved.
“Please, A-San, just a little bite?”
“You’ve had plenty, A-Sui.”
“But I’m still growing!”
“You most certainly aren’t.”
Wei Wuxian watches them, heart feeling like it could float up into the cloud-patterned ceiling. When he turns back to the table to take another serving of his (bland, terrible, boring) rice, he realizes Bichen is watching them.
Not with her eyes, which might be how it escaped his notice for so long. The interest is undeniably there, though: her ears are swiveled in their direction, spotted and small and absolutely fluffy.
His breath catches. This is new, having her attention pointed their way for seemingly no reason. He waits for the fallout—for her to signal that they’re somehow breaking a rule, or have done something worth copying lines for.
But she doesn’t turn to Lan Wangji so he can scold them. Doesn’t do anything, actually.
Just stays like that for a moment, gazing at the floor, before her ears swivel away.
“A-Xian,” Suibian says, coming back over to curl in his lap, tail wagging furiously behind her. There’s a piece of pork belly in her teeth, soy sauce and garlic and vinegar caught between her canines. “A-Xian, look! Do you think Xiaolien…”
He hums in response, only half paying attention as he stares at the carefully maintained bubble of space between Bichen and Lan Wangji. Needless distractions, Lan Yizheng had said, the words echoing in his head, the memory of her sharp gaze burning into his neck. Overcoming our base desires.
And a pair of patterned ears that had, for just a single moment, held something more than otherworldly disinterest.
“Ugh,” he says, loud enough that the table next to them look over. Jiang Cheng shoots a confused, warning glance in his direction; Sandu’s eyes immediately dart about the room. When she sees that A-Sui is still within a mǐ of her and able to be grabbed before trouble starts, she relaxes.
“A-Xian,” whispers Xiaolien, from where he’s tucked in Jiang Yanli’s lap, “please behave.”
“What, what, I wasn’t even doing anything!”
The daemon rolls his eyes and goes back to shucking oysters, his whiskers twitching in amusement.
Wei Wuxian chances another look at Lan Wangji and Bichen. It really is amazing, their control. Many of the other disciples around the table have their daemons in their laps, or shoulders, or perched on a knee; Nie Huaisang has his mouse curled up in his pocket, only her ears poking out.
But Wei Wuxian has never seen Lan Wangji and Bichen try to sneak even a wayward brush of contact. They barely even talk. For someone as quiet and uptight as Lan Wangji, it’s not exactly surprising that his daemon would be just as serious, but, well…
“Stop staring,” Jiang Cheng hisses under his breath, once he realizes what Wei Wuxian is looking at.
Wei Wuxian makes a face at him. “I’m not!”
He does, however, stop staring.
Jiang Cheng is right—all this thinking about Lans is making him very morose, really, even more than usual at these dull dinners. He’s going to get hives if this keeps up.
One last stolen glance. Looking at them, at their perfect posture and perfect silence and perfect everything, Wei Wuxian can’t help but agree: the Lans and their daemons really are unlike any other.
But he doesn’t envy them for it.
It’s only later that night, walking back from the Library Pavilion from doing lines, that his mind returns to Lan Wangji and Bichen.
“They really are strange,” he tells A-Sui, who is batting at moths in the cool night air. They flit between her paws, delicate wings turned almost luminescent under the moonlight. “Do you think they like it, being that distant?”
“Maybe they’re just shy.”
He hums, twirls his brush in his fingers. That doesn’t feel like the reason behind all the rules around daemons here, but…
“Or maybe we just haven’t figured it out yet.”
He looks down at her right as she finally succeeds in her quest, chomping into a moth with an unfair amount of gusto. A spot of bright red smears across her teeth and her tail goes wild, a fwip fwip fwip that drags on the stone path and cuts through the ever-present quiet here.
“Eww, Suibian!” Despite the protest, he feels himself laughing, her own happiness bubbling through their link and into his chest. “I just ate!”
“And now I did too,” she says primly, but she spits out the moth and starts weaving between his legs as he walks. He snorts, dodging her multiple attempts to trip him.
“A menace, you! And what do you mean, figured it out?”
A-Sui blinks up at him, pupils large in the ever-increasing dark. “How to make them pay attention without being mad. That’s what you want, right? For them to look at us? And like us?”
Wei Wuxian pauses, thinks on that. Is that what he wants?
He pushes the idea aside. No way! He’s been making Lan Wangji mad just for fun, really, for the intense look he gets on his face whenever Wei Wuxian presses his buttons. Lan Wangji has made it clear that Wei Wuxian does little outside of annoy him, and Bichen seems indifferent to their existence, so it’s not like either of them will be looking anytime soon anyways.
He doesn’t need their approval or his attention; it’s just fun to bug him.
“I don’t care if they like us or not. Lan Zhan’s face is just silly when he gets annoyed, you know me, I can’t stay out of trouble for long,” Wei Wuxian tells her, then narrows his eyes at the expression that crosses her face. “What?”
“I think,” she says, making each word slow the way she does when she thinks he’s being particularly daft, “that you have a cr—”
“Oi, oi! Hey!” Wei Wuxian says, crouching down to wave his fingers in front of her face. She’s twists her head away to stare somewhere past his shoulder, ears perked. “A what? I have a what?”
She’s not paying attention to him at all. Her nose is in the air, sniffing.
The audacity! He’s about to start lamenting about how cruel and unfair it is, really A-Sui, to leave him in suspense like this for no good reason, when the wind shifts, bringing the gentle breeze towards them instead of away.
The effect is instantaneous.
“Shit!” A-Sui squeaks and, in a moment of impressive acrobatics, gets half her body down the collar of his shirt before he can blink.
“Wha—” he starts, staggering to his feet in alarm, but all that does is get a layer of fur on his tongue and more fox down his shirt. He coughs, which just makes him inhale more fur through his nose. It’s a chain reaction from there.
She whines in his robes. “Shut up, shut up, they’re coming, I knew I smelled them!”
“What are you talking ab—”
A single, careful cough alerts him to company.
He spins around, Suibian’s fluffy tail still sticking out of the top of his outer robes, to see Lan Wangji and Bichen standing at the edge of path.
“Oh!” he says, surprise tucking itself into the word as he turns fully to face them. A grin breaks out across his face. “Lan Zhan!”
Lan Wangji and Bichen gaze at him, almost ethereal in the moonlight. Their stares make quite a pair, gold and blue, like rare jewels sparkling even in the dark. They don’t seem nearly as taken-aback as Wei Wuxian is, seeing them here so far from their normal place at the library or the training fields.
His question is cut off as Suibian wriggles and squirms against his skin, her tail smacking him in the face as she tries to hide further. Lan Wangji’s and Bichen’s eyes flick to her.
Wei Wuxian pretends very hard that did not just happen. He crosses his arms over his chest, trying to block all the movement going on under there, and puts on his best winning smile. He’s suddenly, viscously glad that Sandu isn’t here. She would never let them live this down. “I mean—unexpected, seeing you here at this hour! What a lovely night, huh? Good breeze.”
Another long, significant pause.
“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Wangji acknowledges eventually, slow and low.
“That’s me!” Wei Wuxian says with a laugh. Lan Wangji’s eyes flicker quickly away and then back to him, posture straightening. Wei Wuxian glances to Bichen: her ears are pressed back against her head again, body half behind Lan Wangji. She seems fixated on the small tip of red still visible from Wei Wuxian’s collar. He hastily shoves it the rest of the way down.
“Ha, well, I was just coming back from the library!” he tries, grin still firmly in place. Smoothing down his robes is made considerably difficult with the fox-sized lump now residing in them, but the Jiangs always say to attempt the impossible, and he’s not going to stop now. “You’d be so proud of me, Lan Zhan, I copied all the lines Grandmaster told me to. All on my own!”
He wriggles his ink-stained fingers at Lan Wangji, hoping for a reaction.
Nothing. Just silence, the clenching of a jaw.
This is—starting to get weird. Even Wei Wuxian can admit that there’s normally more yelling or scolding going on by now, when it comes to him and Lan Wangji. But they’re just standing there, the bright white of Lan Wangji’s robes like a beacon in the dark.
Like they’re waiting for something, but what?
“Seriously, Lan Zhan,” and Wei Wuxian can’t fully keep the confusion out of his voice, “what are you doing here?”
He knows it can’t be for them, after all. Lan Wangji never wants to be near them longer than he absolutely has to be.
Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow.
After a beat, he says, “Curfew is soon.”
“Ah, right, right,” Wei Wuxian agrees, trying not to wince as a fox foot jabs into his armpit. From the way Bichen’s ears twitst, he’s largely unsuccessful. “I mean, that’s more a statement of fact than an actual answer to my question, but that’s ok! Also, if you’re here to punish me, I object! It’s not nine yet.”
Lan Wangji hesitates. “That is true.”
“Close! But I’m not breaking any rules yet.”
They stare at each other, something hanging in the air. Bichen’s ears tilt back and forth between them.
“Is this about earlier?” Wei Wuxian blurts, unable to help himself, and yelps when Suibian bites his stomach. Lan Wangji’s left eyebrow lifts a millimeter, the expression quickly echoed by Bichen. Wei Wuxian laughs through the sting of teeth, a little breathless, “Sorry, sorry. Bugs! A single bug! A big one!”
They don’t look convinced.
“Anyways!” he says quickly, because he’s already committed to this path, judgmental Lan eyebrows or not, “Look, Lan Zhan, you know A-Sui didn’t mean to make Bi—Lan Bichen upset, right?”
Lan Wangji and Bichen stay quiet, so Wei Wuxian plows on.
“And if A-Sui were here,” (A-Sui wriggles under his robes), “I think she’d tell Lan Bichen that she really is sorry. It’s not her fault, Lan Zhan, don’t be mad! She’s just really curious and she’s not very good at controlling her impulses.”
Lan Wangji frowns. “Impulses must be controlled, or they control us. Rule—”
“Number four hundred and sixty-seven, I know, I know!” Wei Wuxian waves off what he’s sure is an oncoming lecture. Lan Wangji blinks. “It’s not in her nature, though! And she was just trying to play, but she did it wrong, and then she got scared.”
Somewhere during that last part, Lan Wangji’s mouth has twisted into something displeased.
His voice is quieter than before when he says, “Scared?”
“Oh, yeah, she definitely thought she might be eaten!” Wei Wuxian raises his voice a little to add, “And I’m sure she knows that is still a possibility, and that she’s very, very sorry, right?”
There’s a moment of silence, where Wei Wuxian looks down at his shirt and Lan Wangji and Bichen stare at him. Then the lump on his chest shifts and with a soft sigh, A-Sui finally pokes her head out.
“Yes,” she says, ears pressed back against her head as she looks at Bichen. Wei Wuxian can feel the nerves trembling through their bond, a genuine worry. “A-Chen, I’m very sorry, please don’t be mad at me.”
“Lan Bichen,” Lan Wangji corrects almost instantly.
“Sorry,” A-Sui mutters. “Lan Bichen. Right.”
Bichen, whose ears had perked up at seeing Suibian emerge from hiding, makes a faint chuffing noise in response.
“Like I said, she didn’t mean to be rude,” Wei Wuxian tells them. A-Sui shakes her head, dragging herself out of the folds of his robes and onto his shoulders. Ah, ow, there she goes again, those little claws! And Jiang Cheng is always asking how he has so many cuts on him—he’s lucky that Sandu never uses him as an impromptu climbing post!
Sandu is too big for that, now that he thinks about it. Can a wolf even climb things?
“What did she mean?”
“Huh?” Wei Wuxian blinks, yanked back into the moment. Lan Wangji is still gazing at him, the lines of his shoulders tense.
“By the attack.” Lan Wangji makes a short, aborted motion to Bichen’s tail.
It takes them both a moment to understand what he’s even talking about. When they do, Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, closes it.
“You thought—hold on, you thought she was—”
“It was dishonorable,” Lan Wangji continues, and he’s all tense lines again. “Opponents should not be attacked from behind—”
“Wait, wait, hey!” On his shoulder, A-Sui lets out a yip, overcoming her apparent shock to cut him off. Her ears flick across Wei Wuxian’s ear as she swivels them towards Bichen, the closest she ever gets to actual indignation. “What are you talking about? I wasn’t attacking her!”
Lan Wangji and Bichen turn their full attention on her. The effect is immediate: she flattens down and winds herself around Wei Wuxian’s neck, all nervous wriggles and nuzzling of the cheeks, the way she used to do when they were kids and a punishment was incoming.
He tugs gently on the tip of her tail: don’t be scared.
“Then what was the purpose?” Lan Wangji asks her, when she stays uncharacteristically silent on his shoulders.
A-Sui presses her ears back against her head at his tone.
“I was trying to be friends.”
Lan Wangji pauses. His face goes through a truly comical number of microexpressions, most of which Wei Wuxian can’t read. It settles into something closed-off and rigid.
“Friends?” he asks, very careful.
“Of course!” A-Sui says, and looks between them all. “I’ve been—I’ve been trying to play with you since we got here! Didn’t you notice?”
“I…” Lan Wangji looks almost uncertain now, if such a thing were possible. At his side, Bichen is openly staring at A-Sui, eyes huge. Wei Wuxian has never seen this expression on either of them.
“Me too, me too,” he adds quickly, grinning. He doesn’t like whatever this weird feeling hanging in the air between them is, needs to brighten it somehow. “We both want to be friends with you! That would be fun, don’t you think?”
He tries to make it teasing and playful—but Lan Wangji’s eyebrows furrow when he’s done. The softness of his face is replaced with an expression Wei Wuxian knows well: annoyance.
“Your version of fun does not interest me,” Lan Wangji tells him, cold as the springs they bathed in earlier. Wei Wuxian pouts at him.
“Lan Zhan! Come on, being my friend comes with lots of perks!”
Lan Wangji looks like he very much doubts that.
Still, Wei Wuxian rushes on, oddly excited by the prospect now that it’s laid out before him. “No, trust me, trust me! Here, I’ll introduce you to one of the perks now: I’m a great listener! As a demonstration, how about you tell me exactly what I need to do to be your friend! How does one go about wooing the famous Lan Wangji and Lan Bichen, hmm?”
He batts his eyelashes like the maidens in Nie Huaisang’s books. A-Sui snorts quietly. Lan Wangji clenches his fists and looks away from him.
“Ridiculous,” he hisses.
“I mean it!” Wei Wuxian insists, a grin curving on his lips. “Come on, tell me what we’re doing wrong! You love doing that, right? If you help me out, I can bring you another one of those books for us to look at in the library tomorrow, is that a fair exchange?”
The comment hits exactly where he hoped it would. Lan Wangji looks back at him, a familiar fire burning in his eyes. The fur on Bichen’s back raises.
“Shameless!” Lan Wangji snaps at him, ears tinted with pink. “Why must you be so unpredictable?”
Wei Wuxian, who was ready to fire back something that would get Lan Wangji to finally take out his sword and just spar with them again, pauses at that last part.
“Unpredictable,” he muses, philosophical. He turns to look A-Sui, the black of her nose taking up a decent amount of his vision as he does so. “I see, I see! Do you get it now A-Sui? Lan Zhan and Bichen want to be friends, too, but we picked the wrong tactic! We’ve got to be more predictable, and then they’re bound to be wooed!”
“That is not what I said,” Lan Wangji says, sounding distinctly horrified, even as A-Sui nods and wags her tail.
“I need to try a different approach!”
“Yes, exactly,” Wei Wuxian agrees.
Lan Wangji’s face is making an interesting pinched shape. Bichen is just as hard to read as he is, but Wei Wuxian is pretty sure her ears are tilting in a way that isn’t normal.
“So it’s ok if she knows it’s coming?” A-Sui asks them, now wriggling with excitement. “A-Chen, what if I warn you? Oooh! I could yell ‘boo!’ really loudly before I pounce on it—”
Lan Wangji’s face settles into anger again. “Lan Bichen. Yelling is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses—”
A-Sui is undeterred. “I can whisper ‘boo!’ before I pounce on it! Wouldn’t that be fun?”
“No tail pouncing.”
Bichen’s tail twitches as Lan Wangji says it.
“Alright, alright,” Wei Wuxian says. His mouth hurts from how long he’s been grinning. He sways a little closer to them, winks even as Lan Wangji goes still as a statue. “But what about… ear nibbling? Daemons and humans could do that, right, Lan Zhan? What do you think? A little ear nibble, between you and me?”
“Shameless,” Lan Wangji spits again. His ears are tinging a deeper red; Wei Wuxian does his best to fight back his smile and scold his face into a serious expression, wagging a finger at him.
“Hey now! What’s some fun, between friends?”
“Not friends.” Lan Wangji’s voice is firm and final.
“Right,” A-Sui says, eyes now locked on Bichen’s ears. “Not friends.”
Rymwitt: Publishing this fic finally feels like a mother bird watching her babies leave the nest except in this case we’re shoving the baby bird out of the nest and hoping for the best!
Snow: Title inspired by passages from Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider (1984): “She said that she had been searching for my eyes in the crowd all through her speech because she felt as if she were talking to my heart” and “I felt very strongly that our hearts spoke the same tongue".
Chat with us on twitter: @snow_main and @rymwitt
If folks want to know the specific daemon forms:
Suibian (WWX): Red Fox and the noises they make are amazing
Sandu (JC): Himalayan wolf
Qiaolian (NHS): Southern Birch mouse
Bichen (LWJ): Snow Leopard
Yizheng (LQR): Spot-bellied eagle-owl
Xiaolien (JYL): Small-clawed otter
“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.
Shuoyue (LXC's daemon) is a sambar deer
It says a lot about the effort taken to look for Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji when classes are canceled the next day.
There’s a barely contained ripple of excitement when Lan Qiren announces it at dinner—after, of course, waiting the Lan-appropriate amount of time for everyone to have put down their chopsticks and finished eating.
“Given the enormity of the search,” he says, while shooting a particularly dirty glance at Wei Wuxian that he considers very unjustified and very funny, “we have decided that everyone needs time to rest and recover their spiritual reserves.”
Nie Huaisang elbows him in the side and raises his eyebrows, as if Wei Wuxian is now his personal hero for making such a novel event occur. His mouse daemon squeaks happily.
“Good going, Wei-xiong!”
“This is so embarrassing,” Jiang Cheng mutters, even as Sandu wags her tail. She’s been wrapped firmly around A-Sui from the moment they sat down, licking her head and generally making a fuss every time A-Sui so much as sneezes funny. A-Sui, of course, has been taking full advantage of this, begging at least twice her normal share of meat directly from Sandu’s plate while Jiang Cheng is busy scowling at anyone who even glances in their direction.
For his part, Wei Wuxian is shamelessly looking forward to sleeping in as long as possible and doing nothing all day.
So when the next day comes, and the door to his room slams open so hard that it makes A-Sui dig her teeth into his arm in surprise and yank him out of his dreams, he can’t help but be a little bit sour about the whole thing.
“Oops,” Wen Ning says, standing wide-eyed and awkward in the doorway. He stares at the now-damaged frame, the intricate paper sliding that was once perfectly inlaid and most certainly isn’t anymore. “I didn’t—oops.”
Wei Wuxian groans.
“One day,” he laments, flopping face-first onto his pillow and lowering his arm from where it had darted out to shove A-Sui behind him. She wriggles back to her spot near his stomach, grumbling. “Just one day to sleep in, is that so much to ask for?”
“Ah, A-Xian,” says Jiang Yanli, from where she’s appeared over Wen Ning’s shoulder, “you have visitors.”
He moans into the pillow again in response, opening his eyes just enough to squint at the angle of the sun shining through the window. Too early. Much too early.
“Later, Shijie, have mercy—”
“Wei Wuxian,” and this new voice is the snap of a whip, “if you wanted to sleep in, you shouldn’t have gotten yourself into so much trouble these past few days!”
Wei Wuxian throws one of his covers over his head for protection on instinct alone.
“Noo, Wen-guniang! Morning is cruel enough already without your scolding!”
“A-Xian.” That’s his sister’s lovely voice now, dipped low in reproach.
With a whine, he pulls the covers off his head and looks at the now three of them, hoping he appears both innocent and pitiful enough to have mercy on.
“Did I do something again?” he asks Wen Qing, who is standing next to her brother with her arms crossed. “I thought you had yelled at me for everything already yesterday!”
Wen Qing purses her lips, looking generally unimpressed at Wei Wuxian’s existence. Her daemon is sitting on her shoulder and mirroring the sentiment, feathers puffed up in apparent annoyance. Their sharp gazes are enough to make him sit up and scrub at his eyes, grimacing all the while.
“No,” she says shortly, and he’s not sure which part of his protests she’s answering. There’s a bag slung across her shoulder with bandages and herbs poking out, red-tipped in a way that almost matches the vibrancy of her robes and her daemon. “Now make yourself decent; we’re going somewhere.”
“What?” he asks, even as she turns and walks out of his room. “Hey— Wen-guniang! Where are we going? What the…”
She’s already gone.
Wei Wuxian looks down at Suibian, mouth slightly agape, and finds the same confusion reflected in her still-bleary eyes. She makes no move to get out from under the little pocket of heat she’s created in the blankets, just tilts her ears at him.
Surely they could squeeze in a few more minutes of sleep—
They both look up.
Without Wen Qing in the room, Wen Ning is shifting back and forth on his feet, seemingly unwilling to meet his eyes. There’s a slight waver in his voice when he says, “We really are sorry to bother you, but w-we should probably leave soon. Um, A-jie is hoping to look at Suibian’s paws again.”
“Can’t she do that here?”
There’s a lump of fabric right above Wen Ning’s heart that keeps wriggling as they talk, tiny twitches under his robe. He lays his hand on it and takes a deep breath.
“I’m sure she would, but we need, um, we need to find somewhere with purified water for Suibian to bathe in.”
Of course they do. Wei Wuxian looks up at the ceiling, sending a brief complaint to whatever entity is supposed to be looking after him but clearly, clearly failing.
One day, he tells the rooftop. A single, glorious day.
“Alright, alright,” he sighs, swinging his feet out of bed as Jiang Yanli bustles away to make sure Wen Qing is being properly tended to. “Give me a minute, I’m coming.”
A minute turns into a dozen or so—A-Sui is not exactly a morning daemon, either, and he has to physically pry open her jaw from where it’s clamped around a pillow in protest. By the time he arranges his robes into some semblance of order and stumbles out into the main area of the quarters provided to them by the Lans, his sister has somehow managed to brew a full pot of tea and persuaded both the Wens to sit with her.
“I’m sorry that it’s over-steeped,” she’s telling Wen Qing, who gives Wei Wuxian a disapproving once-over when he staggers down next to her. Notes of jasmine float through the air. “I’m still getting used to the kettles here.”
Wen Qing offers her a polite smile, inclines her head. It’s amazing, Wei Wuxian thinks, how everyone here seems to be so courteous until they interact with him.
“It is already much better than what is in our rooms. Your hospitality is appreciated.”
“You have different tea in your rooms?” Xiaolien asks. He has been sitting patiently at Jiang Yanli’s side, but now a frown works its way onto his whiskered face. Wen Qing and Wen Ning exchange a glance before Wen Qing looks to Wei Wuxian.
“Well, are you ready?”
“Yes, yes,” he says around a yawn, as A-Sui wobbles up to Jiang Yanli and begs for a bite of her food. Watching her try to walk with the bandages is so endearing, the complete opposite of her normal fluid movement. She keeps almost tripping over herself and going to gnaw at them before she sees he’s looking. “We’re all ready to play in the magical purified water. Ooh, Shijie, A-Lien, you should come!”
Xiaolien shakes his head as Jiang Yanli stands with the kettle, bustling over to the stove for more hot water. They’re both frowning now.
“You’re exploring outside of the main area, right? It’ll be too much, and we have things to do here today.”
“A-Xian, really,” Xiaolien sighs, which he only ever does when Wei Wuxian is sticking his nose into something involving the Peacock, and picks a piece of dried plum off the table to give it to A-Sui. She takes it from his paws with her teeth, a smear of purple against shiny white, and bonks her face once against his forehead before leaping back to Wei Wuxian.
There’s a fond look on the otter’s face when he turns back to Wen Qing. “Would Zhiruo or Suyin like anything?”
“We have intruded on your hospitality enough already,” Wen Qing says, before either daemon can answer. When she stands, Wen Ning scrambles up as well, nearly knocking over the table in the process. A bit of tea spills from the cloud-patterned cups and pools on the cloth there, staining it dark.
Wei Wuxian waves him off; it’s not technically their table anyways. “The table will live—you should apologize to my poor doorframe! You’re stronger than you look, you know that?”
Wen Ning blushes, scooting behind his sister like she can hide him. Given that they both can easily see over her head, it’s not entirely effective, but Wen Qing makes up for it by giving him a single, piercing look that stops his teasing immediately.
He holds up his hands and steps back, laughing. “I don’t bite, I promise!”
“Stop wasting time.”
“Aiyou, ok, ok! Look, here I am, grabbing things and not wasting time.”
Since she hasn’t made it clear exactly how long they’ll be gone, or really where in the Cloud Recesses they’re going at all, Wei Wuxian gulps down his own cup of tea and grabs a few treats for Suibian before crossing over to join the Wens at the door.
They’re just about to step outside, Zhiruo fluttering over to Wen Qing from where she was perched by the window and watching the exchange, when Jiang Yanli finishes whatever she was doing at the stove and bustles over.
“Wait! Wen-guniang,” she says with a small smile, and presses two modest satchels into Wen Qing’s arms. “Here.”
Wen Qing looks down at the tightly-wrapped cloth, confusion written on her face as she. “Jiang-guniang, what—”
“It is a thank you,” Jiang Yanli says to her, and bows; a proper, sincere one at that, the dark strands of her hair falling across her shoulders from the motion. Wen Qing freezes. “You have looked after A-Xian with much care, and are helping A-Sui even though you do not need to. Please accept my thanks and appreciation on behalf of my family.”
There are a few awkward moments where it becomes clear that neither of the Wens know what to do with both the statement and the gift. Wen Qing is doing the closest to a gape that Wei Wuxian has ever seen on her face: lips slightly parted, unblinking. Wen Ning is staring at Jiang Yanli with huge eyes, his pocket twitching every so often.
Jiang Yanli just waits, smiling.
It is Wen Qing who moves first; she looks away, her face tight. Her hands are gripping the satchels so hard that her knuckles have gone white.
“There is no need to thank us, Jiang-guniang. I am a doctor. It is my job to do things like that.”
His sister smiles again, the smile that never fails to make all of Wei Wuxian’s worries float away into nothingness. “Well,” she says, voice calm but not made any less firm because of it, “I believe that I am giving thanks regardless, then. There is dried tea and plums for you, and some fresh melon for Suyin.”
“That is not—”
“When you run out, please come join us for tea again. I enjoyed your company; you are most welcome here. And I am always interested in medicine.”
The invitation hovers in the air between them. Wen Qing appears speechless, a muscle working in her cheek as she stares at Jiang Yanli and Xiaolien. It makes Wei Wuxian wonder what exactly their experience has been at the Cloud Recesses so far, for such a simple thing to throw her off like this. Everyone else has already made plenty of friends; surely, this can’t be that unexpected.
After a moment, Wen Qing’s gaze drops back down to the gifts in her hands.
“Thank you,” she murmurs, so quiet that Wei Wuxian almost misses it. Then she gives a single, decisive nod and says, louder, “Wei Wuxian, you better not slow us down.”
Without another glance over her shoulder, she and Zhiruo whisk out of the room.
“I’m sensing a pattern,” Wei Wuxian mutters to A-Sui, who rolls onto her back the moment their gazes meet. With a quirk of his lips he scoops her up, then looks to Wen Ning. “Well, shall we? I don’t want to be the one in last place again, that’s for sure.”
Wen Ning practically flees from the room.
He sends one last, doting look to his sister (who looks quite pleased at this turn of events) before chasing after them.
“Wait for me!” he calls, rushing forward with A-Sui in a one-arm hold that leaves her legs dangling in the air and tail wagging furiously behind her, even as she yips at her own lack of purchase. Her little yips continue, a trail of rule-breaking breadcrumbs that have the other disciples they pass by whispering behind their hands, until he catches sight of the Wens around the bend.
“Aiyou, you walk so fast!”
Wen Qing barely gives him a glance as he falls into stride alongside her. Her eyes are a little red.
“Oh, do you get allergies too? Jiang Cheng gets real sniffly whenever the seasons change—”
“Shut up,” she snaps, and shoves a map into his hands. “Help me find this lake.”
It takes a few hours to find what Wen Qing is looking for.
There’s only so much ground they can cover with just them, and the map is clearly a hand-made work, lines slightly squiggly and a few ink stains at the corners. Wei Wuxian muses over it as they walk, Zhiruo scouting ahead while A-Sui whines about not being do the same with her bandages on.
“Looks like you have a thing for caves and ponds,” he tells Wen Qing, who gives him a sharp look. He points down at the map. “You made this, right? There’s still so much blank, is this why you were out and about when Lan Zhan and I were found?”
She snatches the map back from him with a scowl. Ignoring his protests (and his question), she places it into her bag and calls, “Zhiruo?”
The crimson-feathered shrike darts back to them at her call, landing gracefully on Wen Qing’s outstretched hand without so much as a stumble. “Nothing yet.”
“How exactly do we tell if it has purified water?”
Wen Qing turns to Wei Wuxian. “It will be unusually clear, with spirit grasses growing near it. I’ve been unable to find one that is easily accessible to those outside the Gusu Lan sect.”
“Why have you been looking for—”
“Ooh! I feel like I remember a place,” A-Sui interrupts, wriggling in Wei Wuxian’s arms and halting any further discussion of Wen Qing’s frankly suspicious side hobbies. “When A-Xian and Nie-xiong were at the Cold Springs, I wandered around and found this pond that might fit what you’re talking about.”
Wen Qing turns to her. “How far from the springs?”
“Maybe half a li or so?”
“Whoa, really?!” Wen Ning, who has so far been walking quietly behind them, draws all their gazes with his outburst.
“What, is there something wrong with that?” Wei Wuxian asks, and Wen Ning shakes his head, flushing deeply.
“N-No, not at all. I was just surprised. I didn’t know that Wei-gongzi’s cultivation was so strong, to be able to be so far from your daemon. Um, how long can you maintain that distance?”
“A few hours,” Wei Wuxian says, shrugging. At their shocked faces, he frowns. “What? It’s not a big deal. A-Sui is curious, but sometimes I just don’t want to get up, you know? So we worked on it. And it gets easier the more you practice.”
Wen Ning still looks impressed. “Suyin and I can’t go more than a few mǐ.”
The words are dejected. Wei Wuxian waves them away.
“Ah, that’s alright, don’t worry! There’s no shame in that, not when you have other skills that help people. Like healing!”
“A-jie is the healer! I just mess up,” he protests immediately, and Wen Qing rolls her eyes in clear disagreement.
“Well, maybe that’s for the best,” Wei Wuxian muses. “You’re more archery, aren’t you?”
Wen Ning flushes deeply again.
Wei Wuxian grins and leans in closer to him. “So don’t worry if you can’t be far from Suyin! I bet you won’t ever have to be. But, you know, I’ve heard rumors that Lan Zhan and Bichen can be apart from each other for nearly a day! And she settled when he was five, you know that? Now that is impressive! Although, when you think about it, it’s not surprising. He’s so skilled, I guess it’s just another great thing about him—”
“Wax poetic somewhere else.” Wen Qing has moved past her sisterly approval to step in and interrupt. He frowns at her, but she just shakes her head and returns to business. “Suibian, could you direct us towards that pond? Zhiruo can scout ahead when you think we are close.”
A-Sui is openly pleased to be given a task. As they walk, following her very good and very normal instructions (“After the brown rock, you will see a grey rock! And now you need to turn to the next brown rock!”), Wei Wuxian notices that the little lump inside Wen Ning’s clothing is twitching again.
When they next pause for A-Sui to sniff around and orient them, Wei Wuxian turns to him.
“Is that Suyin in there?”
Wen Ning starts, looking around as if there could be someone else that Wei Wuxian is taking to.
“Oh—um,” he glances at his sister, who is busy trying to interpret A-Sui’s directions from where she is now seated on top of yet another brown rock, “yes, Wei-gongzi. She’s not used to so many other daemons being around, I think, so she’s restless.”
“She’s so small, to fit in your robes like that! Can I say hi?”
Wen Ning’s nerves ratchet up in front of Wei Wuxian’s eyes.
“Ah, I don’t think—she is very shy, and doesn’t like the sunlight much.”
“Hmm.” Wei Wuxian thinks through this, frowning. But then he brightens, realizing, “But it’s just the six of us here, and we’re on the shaded path! So it must be ok, right?”
Wen Ning still looks unconvinced, so Wei Wuxian adds, “If she’s that shy, I can be very quiet, I promise! Cultivator’s vow, just for you and Suyin.”
The lump in his clothes shifts more intentionally this time; Wen Ning lets out a panicky laugh, looking at Wen Qing for help once more. She’s still facing A-Sui as the daemon speaks, but her head is tilted in their direction, clearly listening to their conversation now.
“Um, Wei-gongzi,” he starts, then falters when Wei Wuxian beams at him. “O-ok. I can show you, but please don’t be scared. Suyin is very harmless.”
“Scared?” Wei Wuxian thinks of the type of person Wen Ning seems to be and the myriad of daemons that would fit it. The scariest thing he can think of is some fluffy, harmless squirrel, which is so far from scary that it has him laughing. “Now you have to show me!”
Slowly, like Wei Wuxian is going to smack his hand if he moves too quickly, Wen Ning reaches into the top part of his robes. His hand cups around the small, shifting mass above his heart and then withdraws it to reveal—
“A bat!” Wei Wuxian says, delighted, and leans in closer to look at Suyin.
She’s absolutely tiny, fitting in Wen Ning’s palm without any trouble. In the shade her fur is such a dark brown that it’s almost black, a small beam of sunlight crossing her back the only indicator of the gold tones hidden there. She blinks blearily at him and yawns, revealing itty-bitty teeth and eyes that match the rest of her.
He stares at her, melting.
“Oh, she’s adorable.”
Wen Ning makes a startled noise. Then, the smallest smile starts to form on his mouth. “Yes? You think so?”
“I know so!” Wei Wuxian says firmly, pleased when Suyin shifts her gaze attentively back to him, and turns to Suibian. “A-Sui! Look, we have a new friend!”
Suyin and Wen Ning shrink back when Suibian hobbles over. Wei Wuxian scoops her up so she doesn’t disturb her bandages trying to jump up his side, then holds her closer to Suyin so she can say hi.
“Oh, you’re so small,” A-Sui gasps, tail wagging enthusiastically the moment she spots the other daemon. The force of the motion nearly sends Wei Wuxian off balance. “You look warm and fuzzy, like felt! What kind of bat are you?”
Suyin, who has been cowering in Wen Ning’s palm from the moment Wei Wuxian lifted Suibian up, starts at the question. She looks at Wen Ning, who appears frozen in place, and then back to A-Sui.
Her voice, when she speaks, is so tiny that Wei Wuxian can barely catch the words.
“A fruit bat,” A-Sui gushes, like that’s the best news in the entire world. “Oh, I love fruit. Do you have a favorite? My favorite is mangoes, they’re so sweet and yummy! Ah, but if you’re a bat, should you be asleep? Are you sleepy? I get sleepy during the day too!”
It’s a lot of words, all at once. Wei Wuxian watches, trying not to laugh, as Suyin visibly struggles to process all of it. She’s stopped her full-out cower, but she’s still far back on Wen Ning’s palm.
“Um…I…” Her words are slow and careful. “I…like mangoes, too.”
A-Sui gazes adoringly at her. “A-Xian, did you hear that?! She likes mangoes too!” Then, without even a single moment of hesitance, “I love you so much! Suyin, can we be friends?”
That seems like the biggest shock of all; Wen Ning makes a quiet noise in his throat, eyes widening, and Suyin actually jolts in his palm.
Her eyes are very big when she asks, each word careful and hesitant, “You… want to be friends?”
“Yes!” A-Sui says, vibrating, and Wei Wuxian does laugh this time. He shoots an amused look at Wen Ning, who is staring at A-Sui like she’s some otherworldly being. Honestly, Wei Wuxian can relate to that feeling: A-Sui is the best part of him, yet the depth of her love and the breadth which she shares it still leaves him reeling sometimes.
All progress towards the pond has stopped at this point. Wen Qing is keeping her distance, watching, the line of her shoulders tense. Zhiruo, meanwhile, has fluttered to the branch above them and is openly staring with sharp, dangerous eyes.
“A-Sui knows how to be gentle,” Wei Wuxian reassures them, as A-Sui does the opposite and tries to acrobatics herself closer to Suyin so they can touch noses. “She’s very good with Nie-xiong’s mouse daemon. Plus, I think Sandu accidentally beat her up enough when we were kids that she knows it’s not fun when someone is a lot larger than you and plays too rough.”
Something in Wen Qing’s gaze softens. She gives a small nod to Wen Ning.
“Ok,” Wen Ning breathes, as Suyin inches forward. With a chitter of joy, Suibian begins grooming her as soon as she’s in range, a single swipe of the tongue nearly as big as her body. Wei Wuxian holds her steady, making sure she’s not going to lick Wen Ning on accident.
Weird, he thinks, watching them interact. His stomach isn’t doing any strange flips at all! So then why was it feeling like that when Lan Zhan and Bichen—
“You really think she’s cute?” Wen Ning asks, breaking him from his thoughts, and Wei Wuxian looks at him with a tilt of his head.
“Why wouldn’t I?”
Wen Ning looks down, watching as Suyin gently grabs onto A-Sui’s noise with part of her wings. Both daemons are giggling; A-Sui high-pitched and loud, Suyin quiet and sounding almost out of practice.
“A lot of people are scared of her.” His voice is quiet. “You know, bats, not everyone likes them.”
Wei Wuxian does, in fact, know. Well, not really about bats specifically—but he knows the feeling. Of people taking one look at your daemon, or hearing their name, and thinking that they know everything about you.
Or, even worse, about them.
He’s aware a lot of the cultivators here think A-Sui, like her name itself, is silly. He had seen the question on Lan Qiren’s face, even if he hadn’t said it: Who names their daemon Suibian?
Her being a fox doesn’t exactly help their case, either. With her name and her form, they might as well be pointing an arrow at themselves that screams trouble.
Not that it matters—Wei Wuxian will never be ashamed of Suibian, nor the fact that he named her such. People who think it’s foolish are missing the point. He’s not like the Lans, who insist on calling daemons their formal titles and having fancy names for everything. He’s never needed that.
No name he came up with was right, because no name captured everything that was important, all the things she meant to him. How could a single name even begin to represent her kindness, her mischief, her excitement? How could one name capture how she curls up against Wei Wuxian’s stomach when he sleeps, or the nibble of her teeth on his fingers, or the way she looks at him with eyes full of love and adventure and life?
Her name has never been the most important thing about her. Suibian can be whatever, can be anything and everything, because whatever it is that she decides to do or be, he’ll love her. No matter what.
“Don’t let the opinions of others get you down,” Wei Wuxian advises Wen Ning, who looks at him with wide eyes before nodding vigorously. He twists his head to look at Wen Qing, a grin back on his face. “Oh no, does this count as me slowing you down? Please, Wen Qing, take pity on me! How about I offer our fearless leader back as a sacrifice?”
Wen Qing is staring at the daemon in question, a faraway look in her eyes. For a moment, Wei Wuxian wonders if she even heard him.
Eventually, she raises her gaze to his.
“I think we can wait a little longer,” she says, as Suibian starts telling an attentive Suyin about all of her favorite daytime hiding spots, and smiles.
Looking back years later, starving and in pain and scrambling to grow turnips, Wei Wuxian will envy the simplicity of those months spent in the Cloud Recesses. He’ll think back to the boring dinners, the daemons playing during their free breaks, the Wens smiling, and Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan—
But in the meantime, the months pass as they always have. Wei Wuxian’s affinity for trouble and the absolute gall of The Peacock to ever insult his Shijie have him packing for Lotus Pier early, only leaving behind soon-to-be local legends, some Emperor’s Smile for Nie Huaisang, and a pair of rabbits for Lan Wangji.
“Do you think he’ll like them?” Wei Wuxian asks, watching the black rabbit nuzzle the face of the white one.
“He liked the ones in the cave.” A-Sui has shown impressive restraint in not eating either rabbit in the thirty seconds he has left her alone with them. She makes a thoughtful noise and says, “Although, maybe we should have asked him if he wanted rabbits in the first place.”
Wei Wuxian considers that.
“Oh well,” he decides, and drops them off on Lan Wangji’s doorstep the next morning with a grin and an absolute refusal of his heart to let him say the word goodbye.
“See you later!” he calls instead, as he makes his way away from where Lan Wangji is standing, two unruly rabbits shoved into his arms. A-Sui looks back over her shoulder as they leave, even as Wei Wuxian refuses to do the same.
The trip back to Lotus Pier is uneventful. A-Sui keeps letting out long, wistful sighs as Wei Wuxian gazes out the window, not speaking much.
“What’s up with you?” he asks her eventually, after the sighs pick up in frequency to at least once a minute. She raises her head a bit to look at him, frowning. Whatever she sees on his face makes the frown deepen.
“Well you won’t do it,” she huffs, laying her head back down on her paws, “so I’m doing it for you.”
Wei Wuxian spends a significant portion of the summer annoying Jiang Cheng, avoiding Madam Yu’s increasing ire at his existence, and doting on his (heartbroken, damn you Peacock) sister. It’s pretty much same old, same old, minus the strange feeling he gets in his chest whenever he drinks a bottle of Emperor’s Smile, or sees a particularly nice cloud painted on parchment, or hears the rare sound of a guqin from the street outside.
“You’re really hopeless, you know that?” A-Sui tells him one night as he’s staring at the ceiling of his room and absent-mindedly rubbing his chest. They arrived back from Qishan Wen’s archery competition a few days ago, and he should be happy about winning, but he just can’t shake the tightness lingering there.
“What are you talking about?”
She stares at him from her place on the floor, unimpressed. She’s chewing on a meat bun, which she normally never eats if there something better around, and Wei Wuxian sees at least two different kinds of sweets within her reach.
“If you miss him, why don’t we just write them a letter?”
Her stare this time is longer, with lots of blinking. He frowns at her.
“Never mind,” she sighs, abandoning the bun in favor of crawling onto the bed to cuddle. He wraps an arm around her and she snuggles deeper against his chest, mumbles something into his robes.
“Hmm? Sorry, I didn’t hear that.” She shakes her head and doesn’t repeat it. “Hey, no, what’s wrong?”
One more shake of the head.
Gently, he expands his qi, and their bond rises to his awareness so effortlessly that he can’t help but sigh in satisfaction. As he lets himself sink into their link, searching for a clue to what’s going on in her head, he finds a strange sense of sadness. There’s disappointment there too, a little ache. It feels… homesick, almost, although that’s not quite right.
It’s not a good feeling, that’s for sure.
“I’m sorry you’re sad,” he tells her, and she gives a little wriggle in his arms that he knows means I love you. “We could go for a swim in the Lotus Ponds, if you want. Or we could get a red bean bun, to cheer you up?”
To his surprise, whatever feeling in her surges and sharpens at his words.
She just whispers, “No,” and is unusually quiet for the rest of the night.
So there’s that, whatever that is.
But all in all, it’s still nice to be home.
Then Cloud Recesses burn, and nothing is simple at all anymore.
Lan Wangji is hurt, and Wei Wuxian is losing his mind a little.
“Let me carry you,” he hisses to him as they walk across Dusk Creek Mountain, Wen Chao riding lazily along behind the group of cultivators. “Lan Zhan, listen! A-Sui can’t carry Bichen, but I can carry you.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t even look at him; he stares straight ahead, jaw clenched. He’s doing a good job of hiding his limp, even with the rocky, uneven ground beneath their feet. The closed-off look on his face reminds Wei Wuxian so strongly of their early interactions in the Cloud Recesses that his stomach sinks.
“Enough.” Bichen has kept pace firmly at Lan Wangji’s side, the hair on her back raising when anyone gets too close. Wei Wuxian and Suibian are the only ones she’s let within a mǐ of them, probably because he just never gave up trying. “Don’t draw attention. Just—leave us alone.”
Wei Wuxian frowns, but slows his pace so he falls a few steps behind them. Suibian slows as well, and they watch helplessly as the party continues their hunt.
“They’re not going to make it,” A-Sui frets. “We have to find the cave, fast.”
Both of them twitch when Lan Wangji stumbles slightly on a rock. His hand shoots like he’s going to grab Bichen for support, but he doesn’t (because of course not, he’s a Lan), somehow steadies himself on his own. It is with a visibly slow breath that he straightens back up; Bichen does not move from where she was waiting, the space between them smaller now.
“Having problems over there?” Wen Chao calls, and a hot bolt of anger surges through Wei Wuxian when he and Wang Lingjiao start laughing.
“Don’t,” A-Sui whispers as Wei Wuxian clenches his fists and opens his mouth. “They’ll just hurt him more. Or—” (he feels a jolt of panic through the bond) “—A-Xian, they wouldn’t hurt Bichen, right?”
Wei Wuxian feels sick just thinking about it.
“There’s no way,” he whispers, even as goosebumps crawl up his arms. To hurt someone else’s daemon… even in war, no one does that. It’s the ultimate dishonor; better to just torture or kill the cultivator than to do something so revolting.
He looks back at Wen Chao, who is watching Lan Wangji with a satisfied smirk on his face. His centipede daemon scuttles across his hand, and the dark look in his eyes seems to deepen.
A-Sui is right; they can’t risk it.
Still, Wei Wuxian’s blood boils as Lan Wangji and Bichen keep walking, one painful step after another.
“Don’t worry, Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, and he sees Bichen’s ears tilt toward him. “We’ll get him back for this. I promise.”
As it turns out, they really don’t have to wait that long. While the look of terror on Wen Chao’s face when Wei Wuxian presses a blade against his throat in Xuanwu Cave is immensely satisfying, to say that his plan goes without a hitch might be a bit of an exaggeration.
A lot of an exaggeration.
“Shit,” he whispers a few days later, half-delirious with fever. He knows that, at some point, they had a fire, but the blackness in his vision makes him think they don’t anymore. Water has soaked into his robes, but he’s not cold. It feels like little pinpricks are working their way across his skin, too hot, his body protesting every time he tries to shift.
His memory of the past few hours is getting foggy, and his qi feels all muddled and twisted. There’s something pressing on it from the outside: a disconcerting, intense energy that he’s too exhausted to try and trace the source of.
It’s strange, to be floating in the darkness like this. But he can still feel A-Sui’s warm weight by his side, so it can’t all be bad.
A pair of cool hands cup his face.
“Lan Zhan,” he sighs, not bothering to think how he knows the touch belongs to him. It feels impossibly good against the heat of his skin, and he chases the contact, leans into it without shame. “Lan Zhan, that feels nice.”
There’s no response except for Lan Wangji pressing a flask to his lips, the callouses of his fingertips rough against Wei Wuxian’s chin. He gulps it down like a dying man, only aware of how thirsty he is when there’s nothing left to drink.
Then he realizes that Lan Wangji must actually be here if he’s helping him, not just some nice near-death illusion, and he groans.
“Noo, Lan Zhan, what are you doing here? You should try to escape!”
“Foolish,” Lan Wangji murmurs to him. The words lack their usual heat. When Wei Wuxian tries to open his eyes to look at him, his vision swims, nausea building in his gut. His eyes must be playing tricks on him; Lan Wangji looks pale in the darkness, more so than usual, almost ghost-like.
“Lan Zhan, I mean it, you’ve got to—”
“Save your breath,” Bichen rumbles to him, as Lan Wangji’s fingers leave his face and work their way down to the line of his robes. She’s a smear of spotted fur on Lan Wangji’s left, eyes glowing in the dark of the cave. Her tail is curled around the bare skin of Lan Wangji’s ankle, like a vine twisting around a signpost.
He stares at the single point of contact, something bubbling in his chest at the sight. For some reason, he can’t look away from it. He doesn’t know why.
“I…” Wei Wuxian tries, but his tongue feels too heavy to continue.
He’s so tired.
“Is he going to be ok?” he hears A-Sui whisper, her voice shaking, and Wei Wuxian lolls his head to the right so he can look at her. She’s curled against his leg and staring up at him with huge eyes, ears pressed so far back against her head that he can barely make them out.
Clumsily, he reaches out to her—feels something sticky and wet. Her fur is matted under his fingers, and it takes him a moment to realize that the red now coating his fingers is blood, smeared across the entire front of her body and nose.
For a moment, he can’t breathe.
Then he realizes it’s his blood, not hers, and all his muscles relax.
“Of course I’m going to be fine,” he thinks he says, but he isn’t sure.
There’s a rustle of fabric as Lan Wangji finishes pulling back the cloth on his torso, caked with dirt and muck from the rotting water. The brush of it across his skin stings and he winces, hears Suibian let out a little whimper.
There’s another shift of cloth—and then a surprised, sharp inhale.
The long pause that follows does not reassure him in the slightest.
“It’s—that’s—not good, right?”
Suibian’s voice has gone high and shivery. He can feel adrenaline pumping through their link, acrid and jolting, a sharp contrast to the comforting warmth of her paws on his knees. It’s been a long time since he’s heard this particular brand of fear in her voice.
“What’s not good?” he asks, words garbled. It feels like he’s talking through water. “I’m good, I’m fine.”
“Suibian,” and that’s Lan Wangji’s voice now, deep and reassuring, “move off him. I need to transfer spiritual energy.”
Don’t do that, Wei Wuxian thinks, and automatically reaches for A-Sui’s warmth as he feels her shift away.
Instead, his hand falls on something else. Lan Wangji’s hand, he realizes, when he lets out a panicked “A-Sui!” and feels a gentle squeeze on his fingers in response.
“Wei Ying. She is safe.”
“A-Sui, where’s A-Sui—”
A hand touches his face and tilts it carefully, giving him a view of the space behind Lan Wangji. He has to blink a few times to process the sight.
Bichen has curled herself around A-Sui near the wall, far enough away so they don’t get in the way, but close enough that he could probably reach out and touch them if needed. A-Sui is trembling, staring at him with tear-tinted eyes as Bichen allows her to burrow into her side. She’s whining low in her throat, steadily increasing in volume each second she’s away from him.
“Oh,” he breathes, and A-Sui twitches, whimpers his name.
“It’s alright,” Bichen murmurs to her, curling somehow tighter. “It’s alright, Suibian.” She says something else that Wei Wuxian can’t hear, lost in the haze of trickling blood and pain.
What happens next feels like a small miracle. Somehow, the whining softens. Falters. And, after uncountable seconds, with Lan Wangji’s grounding touch on his face and Bichen a crescent moon of comfort around her, A-Sui… stops whimpering.
Staring at them, the sudden feeling of security sinking deep into his bones, Wei Wuxian is hit with such overwhelming gratitude that his eyes water.
She is safe.
“Lan Zhan,” he mumbles, as the world spins and he leans his head back against the rocky wall of the cave. He’s struggling to make his mouth form words, but he tries as the stream of spiritual energy starts to flow into his core. “You’re great, you know that?”
“Do not speak.”
Wei Wuxian has just enough strength to ignore the request. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I keep thinking…of all the people who could have been here, and I’m—glad it’s you.”
The hand holding his flinches back.
“Thank you,” he adds, and lets his eyes flutter closed again.
Lan Wangji doesn’t respond. That’s ok though, he thinks a few moments later, when Lan Wangji’s hand finds his again. He’s here, and that’s what matters.
He floats, buoyed through the dark by Lan Wangji’s touch and the slow spread of fever. A song reaches his ears, one he’s never heard before but feels familiar nonetheless.
“What’s that called?” he slurs. There’s an answering voice, the sharp flash of surprise through their bond from A-Sui—and he slips promptly into unconsciousness.
He wakes with his face bathed in sunlight, Jiang Cheng hovering above him, and A-Sui asleep on the pillow next to him.
Lan Wangji and Bichen are nowhere to be found.
He bolts up, twin shouts of alarm ring in his ears as his chest burns at the simple motion.
“What happened?” he demands, as Jiang Cheng tries force him back down into the blankets, cursing every time Wei Wuxian puts up resistance. Sandu hovers close at his side, tail tucked so low it brushes against the wood floor.
“You’re in Lotus Pier, you idiot, now lay the fuck down!” Jiang Cheng’s tone is all heat, the way he sounds only when he is truly, deeply worried. When Wei Wuxian blinks at him, disoriented, he adds, “You’ve been asleep for days, just listen to me for once, would you?”
Wei Wuxian lets himself be pushed back down onto the bed this time, brain scrambling to catch up. His memories are disorganized and only half-there, strings burned by fever and the rush of adrenaline.
Oh, he realizes, as the familiar sounds of Lotus Pier finally reach him through the fog in his head. Oh. He is home. Water laps quietly against the docks nearby, children’s happy laughter reaching him through the open window.
“Wait,” he says, and tries to sit up again, “how did I get here?”
Jiang Cheng looks downright pissed.
“Can you please stay still?” His next shove sends Wei Wuxian sprawling back onto the pillow with a thud, leaving him momentarily breathless. “After all we did to rescue you, you don’t even remember? You know what, next time, I’m not coming to save your ass because you were busy playing the hero!”
“What do you—” he starts, then pauses.
Things are starting to come back, slower than he would like. He remembers the burn of the fever and burn of the iron—the latter of which, when he opens his robe to examine it, is still tender and itchy. He remembers the fight too, the sticky, rotten insides of the Xuanwu.
And then he remembers the hands on his face. A-Sui’s red shape contrasting against Bichen’s light one.
His next surge of adrenaline is so strong that the room spins. It’s only Jiang Cheng’s murderous expression that keeps him rooted in place.
“Lan Zhan and Bichen?” he whispers, an uncomfortable tightness coiling in his stomach. They wouldn’t—there’s no way—
“They went back to Gusu,” Sandu says, voice hushed. She and Jiang Cheng at staring at him, eyes full of worry. Suibian shifts on the pillow with a snuffle, her ears pressing back against her head as she dreams. “We offered for them to come along with us, but…”
There’s no need to finish the rest of the sentence. Wei Wuxian can imagine the stubborn set to Lan Wangji’s shoulders, the way he would have bristled at the offer of help. There’s only one way that conversation could have gone.
A seed of worry plants itself in his chest. He might not remember everything that happened after the fight, but he knows that Lan Wangji had been injured, drained of spiritual energy. That was no state to travel in, especially without someone who could watch his back.
Was spending another moment with Wei Wuxian really so revolting that he decided to drag himself back to the burned-out husk of the Cloud Recesses instead?
“Are you ok?” Sandu asks, still staring at his face.
The churning in his stomach gets worse the longer he thinks about Lan Wangji’s face in the darkness, Bichen’s quiet reassurances. Something important happened in the cave.
No, a part of him whispers: that he said something important.
That someone said something important to him?
He can’t remember.
“Ah, I’m fine, I’m fine!” he says, when he realizes he’s been quiet for too long and Jiang Cheng’s hands are trembling. The fur on Sandu’s back is bristling. “Really, I am! Sorry that I worried you, I seriously owe you one, alright?”
Jiang Cheng scoffs and looks away, even as Sandu presses her nose close to A-Sui’s pillow and whines.
“Yeah, well, whatever. Just don’t do it the next time, or I’ll have to kick your ass all over again.”
He laughs, settling back fully into the bed and stretching his arms over his head. The room smells like freshly roasted lotus seeds, comforting and reassuring, some pillar of normalcy among the chaos.
“I didn’t realize you had kicked it in the first place—”
Jiang Cheng’s fists clench, the worry between his brows replaced with annoyance. His grabs the pillow not holding A-Sui and smacks Wei Wuxian in the face with it, nearly making him tumble off the mattress as he tries to dodge the second hit.
“Ah, Jiang Cheng! Lan Zhan didn’t keep me alive just so you could kill me now! I’m an injured man!”
“You’re an idiot, is what you are,” Jiang Cheng snaps, but he’s smiling now, too.
The wrestling match that follows is equal parts undignified and hilarious. They wake A-Sui up as they squabble, Wei Wuxian jutting his elbow into Jiang Cheng’s stomach and knocking the blankets off the bed as they go. The act of it makes the brand on his chest burn, but it’s worth it for the way Sandu’s tail starts to wag, how the furrow between Jiang Cheng’s eyebrows switches to something softer, something normal.
That’s how Jiang Yanli finds them later, a smile curving like lotus flowers on her lips, the rich scent of soup accompanying her through the door. Laughing, Sandu and Xialoien and Suibian a tangled mess on the floor, worries swept away like a boat on the lake.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t know it, but it’s one of the last happy memories of Lotus Pier that he will have for a long, long time.
Because Lotus Pier falls, and they fall with it.
Standing over his brother’s sickbed, watching the unsteady rise and fall of his chest, Wei Wuxian turns to Wen Qing.
“We have to try,” he tells her, grief and pain and guilt swirling in him with such ferocity that he’s afraid he might fall to his knees with the weight of it. A-Sui is grooming a sleeping Sandu; gentle, careful sweeps of her tongue that leave behind small patches of raised fur.
Wen Qing looks at him with open sorrow. “I don’t even know if I can do it. Just because I wrote the theory doesn’t mean—”
“We have to try.”
“There are risks! Not just for you and Jiang Cheng!”
Wei Wuxian looks at A-Sui, their eyes meeting from opposite sides of the bed. There are risks—not only to the transfer, and they know it. It’s impossible to miss how the lack of a core is impacting Jiang Cheng, impacting Sandu.
Even now, she’s whimpering in her sleep, just as lost as she was when Wei Wuxian was dragging Jiang Cheng’s limp body to safety.
Like—like they’re not even—
He shudders. The thought of that happening to them –of doing that to her— has fear seizing his throat.
“A-Xian,” Suibian whispers, and he blinks back tears he hadn’t realized were forming. She untangles herself from Sandu and comes over to him. Little paws scramble at his ripped robes and he raises her to his chest, struck by how weak his arms feel. In the dimness, the flush of white fur on her neck stands out like a beacon.
She gives him a single lick on the tip of his nose.
He feels it then, through their bond—the same unwavering dedication, the same tender, wild affection burning in their veins.
The unspoken decision, final, echoes through them both.
A-Sui tears her gaze away, looks at Wen Qing. “Wen Qing. Please. They’re our family.”
Wen Qing closes her eyes. Her lashes flutter gently against the dirty, pale skin on her cheeks. The hushed sounds of Wen Ning and Suyin drift in from their place outside the open window, keeping watch for anyone who might have followed them here.
“I understand,” she whispers, and that’s that.
Rymwitt: This chapter has it all: sweet daemons, sad foreshadowing, WWX being stupid, and LWJ yearning!
Snow: Here are the daemons!
Zhiruo (Wen Qing) is a Isabelline Shrike with Scarlet Minivet coloring (we wanted a red bird but also a shrike but also native to China, so we combined things, sue us)
Suyin (Wen Ning) is a Short-nosed Fruit Bat
Jiang Cheng wakes up to a world where Wei Wuxian is just—gone.
Not messing around in the distance, or busy sticking his nose where he shouldn’t, but gone. Missing.
The war deepens.
Lan Xichen watches it play out, fretting.
Rymitt says: PAINNNNNNNNNN!
Snow says: (ᵔᴥᵔ) Hang in there with us!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The intentions of a tool are what it does. A hammer intends to strike, a vise intends to hold fast, a lever intends to lift. They are what it is made for. But sometimes a tool may have other uses that you don't know. Sometimes in doing what you intend, you also do what the knife intends, without knowing.
― Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials
Jiang Cheng wakes up to a world where Wei Wuxian is just—gone.
Not messing around in the distance, or busy sticking his nose where he shouldn’t, but gone. Missing.
“He said he would meet us here, right?” he asks Sandu, sitting at a teahouse in the small village near Baoshan Sanren’s mountain. His hand is resting on her back, as it has been from the moment they woke up and found his core restored. Even the idea of moving it is unthinkable.
Sandu’s voice is patient, even though Jiang Cheng has asked the question at least three times in the past hour. She’s leaning heavily into his touch, openly raising her hackles at anyone who gets too close. The fur between her ears is still a bit untidy from where Jiang Cheng had buried his face into it and cried.
(The sheer joy of waking to a world with her again, of feeling their link flare bright, somehow even brighter than before, had been overwhelming.
It had also been short-lived.)
He smooths down the patch of black-and-brown as embarrassment heats his cheeks. What would his mother say if she—
She’s dead, he reminds himself forcefully, even as his throat closes. If he’s going to be Sect Leader, then he needs to stop acting like it’s any different. And unless you get Lotus Pier back, it won’t even matter what she would have said.
But how can he get Lotus Pier back without Wei Wuxian?
“What did you get yourself into now, idiot,” he mumbles, mentally sending Wei Wuxian a scolding for doing… whatever it is he’s doing right now. Just like him, to up and disappear!
Not like him at all, the worried part of Jiang Cheng whispers. Not when he promised to meet you.
He scowls, setting down his cup a bit harder than he means to.
“Where would he even have gone?” he asks, and Sandu lets out a huff. A thought hits him right after, sending his stomach shooting to his toes. “You don’t think we would have gone back to—”
“No,” Sandu says, loud enough that a few people look over at them. Jiang Cheng lowers his head, and they stay quiet until the other patrons’ gazes slide away and back to their own conversations. “No, they wouldn’t have. Not without us.”
Wei Wuxian had promised, after all. Together.
“If they’re not here, maybe it’s because we took too long. They could have gotten worried, and so they’re off trying to find help.”
“Right,” Jiang Cheng says, even as his mind screams from who?! The entire cultivation world has been thrown into chaos, and there’s only so many Sects that could help, let alone ones that Wei Wuxian would go to.
Maybe the Nie sect? No, that’s not it. They’re still recovering from their own slaughter. Wei Wuxian is ballsy, but he’s not always stupid. Definitely not stupid enough to go to Chifeng-Zun after they saw the destruction first-hand.
No, if Wei Wuxian were going to get help, it would have to be someone he trusted, someone who they already—
“Ah, fuck,” he says out loud, when he comes to the inevitable conclusion.
Sandu perks her ears up at him. “You think so, too?”
The scowl settles back on his face. Of course, why did he think Wei Wuxian would be anywhere else? That family is the only thing he talked about for the entire summer after he was kicked out. Wei Wuxian practically put that guy on his own hand-carved pedestal, with how obsessed he was. Who cares if the whole place had almost been burned down—if Wei Wuxian was going to get help, they’d be the ones he’d go to.
“Wei Wuxian,” he mutters angrily under his breath as he stands up, “when I get to the Cloud Recesses, I’m going to strangle you.”
“What do you mean, he isn’t here?” he demands, when he finally makes it to the Cloud Recesses and doesn’t find the brother he is looking for.
Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji gaze at him from the front of the room, twin surprise reflected in their eyes. He must have interrupted something, given that they seem thrown off by his presence, but he’s having a hard time caring about anything outside of the bombshell they just threw at him.
The words just don’t make sense. He keeps wanting to turn his head to look around, like Wei Wuxian might just be hiding behind one of the nearby tables.
Ta-da! Look, here all along! Funny prank, right?
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Xichen says, eyes cautious. For one wild, exhilarating moment, Jiang Cheng is convinced that his father must be standing behind him.
His breath catches in his throat. He half-turns, his heart racing—before he remembers.
That’s him, now.
The loss and pain hit him all over again, memories flashing bright and haunting before his eyes. When he turns back to face them, gritting his teeth, Lan Xichen’s already soft expression has gone sympathetic. Jiang Cheng hates it, hates being looked at like that, but he focuses on it anyways because it’s at least better than the completely blank, stoic look that Lan Wangji is wearing.
“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Xichen repeats, less surprised and more kind this time, “we… heard that Wei Wuxian was terribly injured during the attack on Lotus Pier. Rumor was that you were injured as well. We assumed that, were you alive, you would be together.”
Panic starts to worm its way into Jiang Cheng’s chest.
“What?! No! We…” His hands clench, and the smallest jolt of energy moves across his knuckles from Zidian. Sandu presses into his side, steadying him. “We escaped. And then someone hid us, for a while, until I… got better. He and I parted ways, but he said he would meet me in the village nearby, and I never found him. I thought that maybe…”
From the knowing twist to Lan Xichen’s mouth, he doesn’t need to elaborate further. His eyes stray to Lan Wangji, and Jiang Cheng lets his own gaze follow.
Lan Wangji is still staring straight ahead, unmoving.
He’s the picture of Lan perfection: calm face, perfect posture, daemon sitting by his side with her tail curled properly around her feet. The only way Jiang Cheng can even tell they’re alive is the small wrinkle between Lan Wangji’s brows and the tension in his shoulders, which feels like it’s always there anyways.
And he’s not even looking at Jiang Cheng. He’s just staring straight ahead at the door, like Jiang Cheng might as well not be here at all.
Like Wei Wuxian being gone doesn’t matter.
What was I thinking? he wonders with mounting dread. Lan Wangji hated his brother, thought he was the most annoying person on the planet! And he’s never been subtle about it, either. After everything, Wei Wuxian must have realized that. So why would Wei Wuxian have gone to him at all?
Besides, Wei Wuxian has no self-preservation instincts. If he was worried about them taking too long, he would have come to find them himself, right? He wouldn’t have—there’s no way he would have traveled this far away and risked missing their meeting in town.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
“He has not been in Gusu,” Lan Xichen says, his voice barely reaching Jiang Cheng through his own swirling thoughts. There’s a cut-off noise, almost like a hiss; when Jiang Cheng looks up to find the source, none of the Lans look any different. “Have you considered other areas he may be?”
I was so sure.
If Wei Wuxian is not here, then he was in town, and something must have happened. Jiang Cheng needs to go back there now.
It takes every ounce of self-control not to bolt from the room.
The hair on Sandu’s back is slowly rising, her ears pressing back against her head. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what his own face is doing, but when Lan Xichen steps forward and lays a hand on his shoulder, he knows it must not be good.
“Sect Leader Jiang.” Lan Xichen’s voice is almost painfully gentle. “He may be with another Sect. Perhaps you should rest here, while a plan is—”
The word comes out shaky and too loud, a knee-jerk reaction to the thought of waiting. It’s strange, he thinks, how young a single syllable can make him sound, make him feel. He can feel a blush rising to his face, everything else he wants to say clogging in his throat.
He doesn’t know what he’s doing. How can he get his brother back if he can’t even do something as simple as talk?
At the thought, Sandu lets out a near-silent growl; he can feel the vibration travel through her and up his fingertips. Determination pushes through their link, so strong and intense that he has to suck in a breath under the force of it. When he glances down at her, she is ready to meet his gaze, steady.
She’s right: they’re Jiangs. Attempting the impossible is what they do.
And A-Jie is waiting.
It takes him a few more seconds to compose himself, clear his throat enough for words to form. Lan Xichen thankfully does not appear insulted at being interrupted or having to wait. Instead he stands quietly in front of him while Jiang Cheng squares his shoulders, takes a deep breath, and starts over.
“This humble Sect Leader apologizes for my earlier interruption,” he says, and bows. “Thank you for the information, Zewu-Jun. And the offer. Please, I mean no offense, but I must take my leave.”
He turns to go.
“For what purpose?”
Jiang Cheng pauses from where he’s already halfway to the door.
When he turns back to face them, Lan Xichen is looking at his brother, eyebrows slightly raised. And Lan Wangji is still picture-perfect, standing straight-backed and staring—but this time, his eyes are firmly fixed on Jiang Cheng.
“Leaving,” Lan Wangji says, slower, as if Jiang Cheng is the idiot for not making sense of this out of nowhere conversation, “for what purpose?”
Hot anger flares in him at the absurdity of the question. “Well, I have to look for him, obviously—”
“I will go with you.”
The rest of Jiang Cheng’s sentence, which he hadn’t fully thought through yet but was definitely going to have at least one remark about how someone in this room needs to give a shit about his brother, dies in his throat.
Lan Wangji steps forward, Bichen on his heels.
“I will go with you,” he repeats, when Jiang Cheng doesn’t reply right away. His voice is not slow this time, but firm.
Jiang Cheng gapes at him, trying to wrap his head around the completely unexpected offer. He glances to Lan Xichen, half-expecting him to go fetch Lan Qiren and check for signs of a possession.
But he doesn’t. He doesn’t even protest, or tell him to take back the offer, or kick Jiang Cheng and Sandu out of the Cloud Recesses before they can bring more trouble to their Sect.
He just closes his eyes, lets out a soft sigh, and steps to the side.
There’s a long, drawn-out silence.
“…I can’t give you anything in return,” Jiang Cheng says eventually, because Lan Wangji and Bichen haven’t moved, and he can’t think of any other reason for what’s happening. Neither of them has given a shit this entire conversation, and now they’re offering to help? There has to be some kind of catch. “Lotus Pier is—ravaged. It’s going to take time to rebuild, and we won’t have any resources until then.”
Something in Lan Wangji’s face tightens. Jiang Cheng didn’t know he could look even more stiff.
When he speaks, his words are tilted and terse. “I do not want anything in return.”
“Right.” It’s Jiang Cheng’s turn to talk slowly this time, but it’s because he doesn’t believe it.
Then again, he thinks, as he looks at the tight clench of Lan Wangji’s hand: the Lans hate lying. Maybe, somehow, it’s true.
They stare at each other from across the room.
It’s Sandu who steps forward.
“If you’re going to help,” she tells them, as Lan Xichen quietly summons in a servant and asks for tea to be prepared, “then we have some ideas on where to start. But we need to act fast.”
Lan Wangji nods. He walks over to a nearby table, and, without sparing Jiang Cheng another glance, starts arranging paper and ink for them to work. Bichen looks expectantly at them as she follows and sits down, ears attentive and whiskers twitching. She doesn’t say anything, but the message is clear.
After a moment’s hesitation, Jiang Cheng and Sandu join them.
“Tell me,” Lan Wangji says, looking to them both. For the first time, Jiang Cheng can hear the conviction burning in his voice.
Hope flares in his chest.
“First,” Jiang Cheng says, and Sandu lays her head on his knee, “our swords…”
For three months, he has a single-minded focus.
And then, out of the corner of his eye: a flash of red.
The brother he finds is not exactly as he remembers; but when he lays his eyes upon this dark-clad Wei Wuxian, the tears come to his eyes anyways.
If Wei Wuxian’s three-month disappearance from the world is a shock, then his eventual return is a full-on bolt of lightning.
For a while, Jiang Cheng is too tired and drop-dead grateful that Wei Wuxian is alive to care about anything else. He’s angry, too –although, as Sandu will point out to him one evening, probably not as angry as he is relieved—but why shouldn’t he be? Here he was, working himself to the bone searching for him (and with Lan Wangji, for that matter!), and it turns out Wei Wuxian was just fucking around on his own.
On his own.
When he should have been with Jiang Cheng and A-jie, rebuilding Lotus Pier side-by-side like he promised.
Water under the bridge, Jiang Cheng tries to tell himself, sitting at a strategy meeting with the other sects and using every ounce of his self-control not to scowl at the whispers floating towards their table. He’s already yelled at Wei Wuxian, anyways, and it’s not going to do him any good to dwell on this kind of a thing.
At least Wei Wuxian was being useful, unlike usual. Hunting down the Wen bastards was a worthwhile thing, even if it just took some time for Jiang Cheng to catch up with him to help.
They’re together now. It’s fine.
He ignores the worried look that Sandu is giving him and stares straight ahead, trying not to fidget.
She’s been antsy all day, sitting on the opposite side of him from Wei Wuxian, eyes looking for Suibian’s familiar shape. There’s no point: A-Sui has been absent since dawn. It’s not… unheard of, for Wei Wuxian to go places without her, but Jiang Cheng feels like it’s been happening a lot more recently.
He can’t wrap his head around it.
It’s weird because—well. When they first found Wei Wuxian hunting Wen Chao, A-Sui hadn’t left his robes for more than few moments. She’d been tucked inside them the whole time they talked, even when Lan Wangji had started to get angry and Bichen had raised her fur. Even when Sandu had tried to coax her out, hours later; she’d just burrowed deeper.
“Ah, sorry, sorry, she’s tired,” Wei Wuxian had said, a smile on his face and his hands twirling a flute when they should have been holding a sword. “Try tomorrow, when we’ve all had our beauty sleep!”
And she had been better in the morning. Enough to give Sandu a lick on the nose, and grumble when she got groomed, and steal some meat off his plate when Jiang Cheng pretended not to be looking. Sure, she’d stayed close to Wei Wuxian, but then A-Jie had come in, and they’d maybe all cried, and Jiang Cheng had thought, with finality: ok, then—back to normal.
But now they’re hot-and-cold; like some days all A-Sui wants to do is be close, and then other days, the most they see of her is a glimpse of red fur.
It rubs Jiang Cheng the wrong way, is all. It's the same nagging feeling that he gets whenever he hears Wei Wuxian wandering around in the dark, well past when he should be asleep. How he sometimes twitches and turns in his bed, A-Sui's whimpers betraying what Jiang Cheng has learned to recognize as nightmares. How, despite the still-thin lines of their bodies, they don't show up for breakfast anymore.
He can’t figure it out.
“It looks like that Wei Wuxian didn’t bring his sword again,” whispers a voice, carried just a little too well to be an accident, and Jiang Cheng scowls.
He sees a matching displeased gaze across the hall: Lan Wangji, who is currently staring at Wei Wuxian. Even the sight of him pisses Jiang Cheng off—after all the shit he’s given Wei Wuxian since he got back, he has the audacity to look at him like that? Like he disapproves, when it’s not his business at all?
Jiang Cheng can’t believe he thought Lan Wangji cared. It’s clear he was just using it as an excuse to act better than all of them, just like he always has. Now that Jiang Cheng knows, he won’t make the same mistake again.
Sandu’s head comes to rest on his knee, heavy and comforting.
What do they matter? he thinks sourly, as Wei Wuxian laughs and takes a drink of the alcohol in front of him. At his side, there’s a perfect space for a fox to sit, if only she were around.
He understands his brother better than anyone. The rest of them can shove it.
The war deepens.
Lan Xichen watches it play out, fretting.
“You’ve been busy, these past few weeks.”
He pauses, half bent over one of the slowly recovering herbal gardens. The plants in it are doing well, small buds already sprouting in the now-fertile soil. Lan Xichen enjoys coming out to check on them whenever he and Shuoyue are done with their daily meditation; it’s a comforting reminder that while the fire took many things, it did not take their future.
“Mingjue-xiong,” he says, a smile growing on his face at the mere act of saying the name, and looks up.
Nie Mingjue and Baxia are watching him from the stone path, expressions torn between laughter and disbelief.
“I didn’t know you gardened.”
Baxia’s voice is tinted with amusement, as it often is. Unlike Nie Mingjue, she isn’t trying to hide it; when Nie Mingjue shoots her a look that would scare a significant number of the Lan disciples, had they done their job and properly escorted him to the guest chambers, she simply rolls her eyes, not intimidated in the slightest.
“And I didn’t know you were coming,” Lan Xichen replies, happiness bubbling in his chest, and stands to greet them.
They both look well, despite the past few months; as he crosses over the dark soil to come closer, the dirt soft and rich under his feet, Nie Mingjue relaxes his shoulders, and with it, the tense lines of his title. Baxia just rolls her eyes and huffs, a rough exhale of air that has one of the bushes nearby rustling in protest.
“Well,” she says, “your disciples tried to take us somewhere to wait, but we told them we could get around fine ourselves.”
Lan Xichen pauses halfway to them. He thinks of the two disciples he left today at the gates, with their small white robes and careful grips on their swords. How seriously they had nodded when he explained, just the week prior, the essentials of their duties there. How, no doubt, they would have done everything in their power to try and dissuade an unexpected guest, regardless of status, into wandering in on him gardening.
Then he looks at Baxia again. Something is alight in her brown eyes, regal and beautiful as ever, the shadows from the nearby trees dappling the bold strikes across her fur. The expression on her face makes it clear that whatever conversation occurred at the gates, it certainly wasn’t a very long one, and that the Lans most assuredly lost.
Lan Xichen cannot help it: he laughs.
It is a long-lost noise, one that startles him even as it leaves his mouth, fills him with a warmth that has nothing to do with the burn of fire and scarred ground. Ridiculous and too loud, but unable to be helped.
He would pick writing lines over facing off against a tiger her size, too.
“Then I am glad you managed to find me, despite their best efforts,” he tells her, and Nie Mingjue lets out an amused snort. “What do I owe the pleasure?”
“It looks like we are less of a pleasure, and more of an interruption.” Nie Mingjue motions to his dirty hands, half teasing, half gruff acknowledgement. “I had sensitive information I didn’t want to relay by message, but if you are busy, we can wait.”
Lan Xichen holds up said hands to stop any further diplomacy. “Please, there is no need. You are always welcome here.”
Baxia’s tail curls in the air.
“Well, then,” Nie Mingjue says, and there’s a smile playing across his lips now, too, one that sends that same warmth trickling down to Lan Xichen’s toes and reminds him of too many summers spent side-by-side as kids, “we will be taking full advantage of your hospitality.”
“Consider it taken.”
They grin at each other.
Baxia and Shuoyue are exchanging looks.
“We should not speak out here,” Baxia says eventually, and walks over to Shuoyue, leaving the faint outline of her pawprints in the dirt as she goes. He bows his antlered head to her, and she responds by rubbing her face against his leg. “It’s good to see you, Lan Shuoyue.”
“And you, Nie Baxia. I have missed you.”
Baxia’s tail curls in the air, a deep rumble in her chest as she laughs. “Then Zewu-Jun is not keeping you busy enough.”
Shuoyue smiles, turning his eyes to Lan Xichen. They write often to Nie Mingjue and Baxia, as both allies and close friends; surely, those two know that Lan Xichen and Shuoyue are busier than they have ever been, scrambling to make order out of chaos.
And yet somehow, they have still managed to miss them.
And perhaps, if the visit is any indication, been missed in return.
Stepping forward to close the last mi of space between them, Lan Xichen lays a hand on Nie Mingjue’s arm. When Nie Mingjue returns it, griping his shoulder with the same steadiness that Lan Xichen has always been able to expect from him, it feels like a physical weight has been lifted from his chest.
“Well, then,” he says. “Tea?”
They take their tea in the front room of the hanshi, the bamboo whistling as the wind blows through it. The blend is a gentle, herbal variety, one that Lan Xichen was first introduced to by Nie Huaisang. Nie Mingjue raises his eyebrows when it is poured in front of him, a knowing smile on his face.
“I see that my little brother is a shameless as always.”
Lan Xichen just hums softly, smiling. He hardly thinks that Nie Huaisang telling him about his brother’s favorite tea counts as shameless, but if it is, then perhaps it’s worth it for the sigh of satisfaction that follows after Nie Mingjue’s first sip.
“Have you been well?”
Nie Mingjue grunts. “You know how it is. I won’t be happy until all those Wen bastards pay for what they did.”
Lan Xichen tries not to wince at the wording. Since becoming Sect Leader, the politics of the various Sects have become increasingly more prominent in his day-to-day life. It is not a pleasant change, but a necessary one, and one that he embraces the best he can.
Still, during moments like these, he can’t help but wonder if his heart was not made for the ruthlessness of it all.
“Many share that sentiment,” he says quietly, and looks down at his teacup, lets the warmth of it soak into his fingers. “I heard the campaign on the Hejian front is going well?”
“Yes, and about time! That’s what I came to speak about. Thanks to the intelligence you’re getting on the Wens, we’ve taken a few of their supervisory offices. Soon, we may see the real fruits of our efforts play out.”
A tendril of guilt works its way into Lan Xichen’s throat. He is glad to hear that the intelligence has been useful. He also knows that Nie Mingjue would not be so appreciative of said intelligence if he understood where –or, more correctly, who— it was coming from.
He takes another sip of tea. The most he can do is pray his friend will be forgiving when it is all over.
“I am glad,” he says, and leaves it at that.
Strategy overtakes their conversation for some time. Each step, Lan Xichen thinks, is an intricate game of Xiangqi, one that he is dismayed to be getting better at playing. It drains him of energy, leaves him feeling weary and travel-worn.
Yet he keeps pouring tea.
By the time they finish, Baxia and Shuoyue have decided to occupy themselves with a game unbefitting for the daemons of two sect leaders: tag.
He watches as Baxia stalks carefully across the grass outside, Shuoyue standing still with his muscles twitching, ready to bolt. When she leaps, he takes off, bouncing across the clearing before she closes the gap. Her claws are retracted, and the impact is only enough to stagger, sending them both tilting into the nearby chrysanthemums before righting themselves with breathless laughter.
Soon they’re switching to Shuoyue in pursuit, hooves clacking against the stone path below them as he chases her across the courtyard.
Lan Xichen watches them go, a smile tucked in each beat of his heart. It is impossible to find it anything but endearing—after all, what kind of tiger would be truly caught by a stag? Baxia has always indulged them.
Then again, that indulgence is not new. From the moment he considered Nie Mingjue a close enough friend to invite to the Hanshi like this, they have been nothing but generous in return. He is grateful for it every moment.
“What about you?”
He looks back to Nie Mingjue, who is watching him with eyes that know too much. After all their talk of war, it takes him a moment to understand the picked-up thread of a conversation.
When he does, he sighs. “I am doing as well as can be expected.”
“Your brother doing ok?”
“He is… not pleased, that Wei Wuxian returned under such strange circumstances. However, I believe his physical health is acceptable”
“I heard they’re fighting.”
Lan Xichen tries not to frown and fails.
Nie Mingjue holds up a hand to slow his displeasure. “It is a well-contained rumor, Xichen-xiong. You know how the Sects can be. I only know from my brother’s idle gossiping.”
Lan Xichen does know how the Sects can be. That is exactly why he finds the idea of gossip about his brother so concerning.
“I…” he starts, and closes his eyes, takes a deep breath through his nose to steady his thoughts. “I have visited the Jiangling front several times to try and maintain the peace. It is not my brother who instigates such tensions, at least not intentionally. And try as I might, I fail to understand Wei Wuxian’s thinking.”
Nie Mingjue grunts again, more thoughtful this time.
“Something has changed in him,” Lan Xichen continues. “That flute he carries, the way his daemon hides away. Their behavior has always been unusual, but not like this.”
“War changes people,” Nie Mingjue says, matter of fact. “A-Sang seemed to trust him, back when they were disciples. And he has been invaluable on the Jiangling front, even if his methods are new. I for one, am glad to see others rising to the challenge!”
There is nothing he can say to that without lying.
He sips his tea again, trying to let the floral taste soothe the apprehension that has rattled in his chest since the first smell of smoke all those months ago. He wants, desperately and with every part of his heart, to agree. Wants to chalk the whole thing up to the fall of Lotus Pier, the horrors that Sect Leader Jiang and his family no doubt suffered. To excuse it as yet another necessity of war.
But he can’t.
Because every time he hears about Wei Wuxian’s efforts, his newfound place at the Wen Sect’s throat, his little brother’s haunted face the night he returned to the Cloud Recesses flashes across his eyes.
The memory sits suspended in his mind like a sharp thorn digging into flesh: Lan Wangji, pale as a ghost, standing in the doorway with trembling fingers curled around his sword.
“What happened?” Lan Xichen had asked, Shuoyue already half-risen from his place at the table. He had, for a terrible moment, feared that Lan Wangji would turn around and reveal to him a body.
“He’s back,” Lan Wangji had replied, controlled. No—numb. And then: “Wen Chao is dead.”
He’d refused to elaborate on how. Instead, he’d just bid him goodnight, Bichen silent and subdued at his side; and, despite Lan Xichen’s considerable efforts, they have not spoken of it again.
Now, after seeing the tension that boils between his brother and Wei Wuxian whenever they are in the same room, Lan Xichen knows that whatever Wei Wuxian did to Wen Chao extends far beyond some questionable talismans.
He doesn’t understand what happened, exactly, but to cause such a rift between them…
“I worry about him,” Lan Xichen confesses, a moment of weakness. Still, there is no one better to have it in front of: Nie Mingjue has long been the person who he trusts with them. He believes, or hopes, that he will understand. “He is so young.”
To his relief, Nie Mingjue nods.
“The curse of the older brother,” he grunts. They share a knowing look. “But with our eyes on them, how much trouble can they truly get into? Let him fight, Zewu-Jun, and win glory for our sects. If I could just get didi to do the same, then this would already be over.”
Lan Xichen smiles. They both know the chances of such a thing are low. Nie Huaisang is a youth of many talents, but a blademaster is not one of them.
“There is no shame in taking time for the small joys in life, as your brother does,” he says, looking out into the gardens. With fewer servants to tend to them, some of the bushes have overgrown; perhaps he should spend time tonight trimming back their wandering roots. “My family seems the opposite, doesn’t it? Ever since he was a child, A-Zhan has been so serious. I fear he carries too much. Even now, he acts as if Wei Wuxian’s new techniques must be solved by him alone.”
There is the soft clink of china on hardwood as Nie Mingjue sets down his teacup.
Lan Xichen tears his gaze away from the yellow and pink chrysanthemum blooms to find that Nie Mingjue is frowning at him. When their eyes meet, he reaches across the table and, taking Lan Xichen by surprise, lays a hand on his wrist.
It is a shock of warm skin.
“It is what I would expect from someone who shares your blood,” he murmurs, voice low, like a secret. Lan Xichen’s tries to swallow around the sudden tightness in his throat, the swoop of his stomach. “You should be proud of him—his dedication to his friend is admirable.”
The weight of Nie Mingjue’s hand is solid and grounding, gentle in his own way. Outside, Shuoyue has finally caught up to Baxia; they’re lying on the grass, panting, the tip of her tail brushing against his antlers.
The word is almost right, but not. He thinks of the way Bichen’s tail twitches toward Lan Wangji whenever Wei Wuxian is around; the relief on their faces when they got back from Lan Yi’s cave unharmed; how Lan Wangji’s ears had flushed bright red the first time he showed Lan Xichen the black and white rabbits hidden under his bed.
Lan Xichen knows what Nie Mingjue means. He also knows he is deeply missing the true crux of the matter.
“He certainly does have the passion of a Lan,” Lan Xichen agrees, and pours them another round of tea.
The true crux of the matter, as it were, is this: Lan Wangji’s crush has always been a well-known thing to Lan Xichen.
Even if Wangji does not wish to speak it out loud, Lan Xichen can read his brother in a way that others have never been able to. Not his uncle, or his elders, or his classmates. No matter how well Wangji may hide it from others, Lan Xichen knows.
When Wei Wuxian came bulldozing into the Cloud Recesses and caught Lan Wangji in the wreckage, he’d been… pleasantly surprised. Amused, even, to see his brother so flustered and infuriated all because of one person’s antics. And they’d been harmless antics, in the end: pieces of paper stuck to backs; pottery, rearranged but not stolen; alcohol down the throats of curious teenagers.
It had been nice, to see Wangji notice someone; and even nicer, to see someone notice him in return.
So he’d watched quietly as Wei Wuxian entered his little brother’s space and his life; and then watched with greater interest when Lan Wangji did not move away, like expected—but swayed ever closer, like a moth drawn to a flame.
Then Bichen had come back from Lan Yi’s ice cave with a tuft of red fur on her back, and Lan Xichen had known, right then and there.
Still, if he had somehow managed to miss the glaring signs of Wangji’s feelings, then they would have certainly revealed themselves to him by now.
“Didi, do not be unreasonable.”
Twilight is spreading itself across the sky of the Cloud Recesses like paper dipped in ink. Outside, a few of the younger Lans are wrangling rabbits into the hutch Lan Wangji made months prior, located just far enough from the main buildings that Uncle could not put up too large of a protest. It’s a much better location than the last one, Lan Xichen thinks, then winces when he is reminded of how the last one was destroyed.
Smoke and fire fill his dreams more often than he would like, even now. Even with the progress they have made, he sometimes looks across the Cloud Recesses and feels he has walked into another person’s home.
He has more pressing issues in front of him right now though—namely, the person he is still trying to convince to lay down and close his eyes.
“You need rest, didi,” Lan Xichen tells Lan Wangji, half-scolding, as his brother tries yet again to hoist himself out of bed. He eases Lan Wangji back to a resting pose; across the room, Shuoyue is trying to do the same with the cantankerous snow leopard sitting in quiet protest by the door.
They have been home for several weeks now that the war efforts are coalescing around the central cities, but Lan Xichen can see the signs of exhaustion still plaguing them both. He had thought, back when Wei Wuxian was missing, that there could be no greater toll on Lan Wangji’s health than that desperate, single-minded searching. Lan Xichen had prayed, more than he would like to admit and for largely selfish reasons centering around his brother’s sanity, for him to be found safe and healthy.
Yet now that Wei Wuxian is back, the strain on his brother has only deepened.
And worse: it seems that Wei Wuxian no longer cares.
“We don’t want to miss something, if there’s a composition we haven’t read yet,” Bichen tells them, even as her eyes droop. In response, Shuoyue bumps her gently on the head with his antlers.
“If you cannot keep your eyes open, you will miss it even if it’s right in front of you.”
That earns a small huff, the gentle bat of a paw. Lan Xichen smiles, relieved to see that they are not too exhausted for this familiar routine, at least.
He turns back to his brother, finds him staring at the guqin that Lan Xichen had (forcibly) taken and (ignoring many protests) placed against the far wall.
“You will find a song to soothe his spirit,” he tells him, because he cannot imagine what will happen otherwise, “but Lan Shuoyue is right. As of now, you could hardly play even if you had the score. Recover. Then search tomorrow, if you must.”
Lan Wangji does reply.
Lan Xichen sighs, feels the true weight of the past months as his lungs empty. There has always been a stubbornness to his brother. Until he believes he has done his duty, words will not move him.
Unwilling to leave, he goes to tuck the corners of the sheets around Lan Wangji. It’s a poor habit, one that is unbefitting of either of their ages, but it brings him a sense of comfort to do it nonetheless. Their mother used to do the same when they would visit her—let them clamber onto her lap and then wrap them both up, tuck them together in the blankets so they could curl up against her breast.
A-Zhan, A-Huan, she would say, holding them tight, look at how much you’ve grown!
He wonders if Lan Wangji remembers that. He isn’t sure whether he wants him to.
Lan Wangji is still staring up at the ceiling, almost unblinking. As offhand as he can, Lan Xichen says, “You know, I seem to recall that there are some scrolls within the Nie Sect. Perhaps I could send a letter to Chifeng-Zun, requesting them.”
The gaze on the ceiling turns sharp, then moves to him.
Lan Xichen smiles, relieved to have received a reaction. He does one final tuck of the blankets. “But letters take time to write. And until then, I expect you to sleep.”
The words settle between them as he rises, satisfied when Wangji doesn’t immediately try to get up again, and makes his way slowly over to the door. Either Lan Xichen’s olive branch of information or Shuoyue’s determination has managed to convince Bichen to give up her spot, too; she slinks past him over to the bed as he blows out the candles.
As he is about to leave, he hears the gentle shifting of blankets.
“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji says into the dark. Spoken quietly, strained.
When Lan Xichen looks back at him, Lan Wangji’s hand is curled in Bichen’s fur.
Even in front of family, he so rarely touches her. There are no rules against it, of course—they are free to do so in front of family and loved ones, in the privacy of their own shared spaces. But for his brother, the fact that he is doing so now, and holding so tightly, is unusually revealing.
Lan Xichen’s heart aches with the love he feels for him.
“I know,” Lan Xichen tells him, because he thinks he does. In that moment, he really, truly, thinks he understands the depth of his brother’s devotion.
He is wrong.
Years later, standing over his brother’s unconscious form while a healer lays bandages over a freshly-seared brand on his chest, Lan Xichen will think back on that night.
He will wonder how on earth he didn’t see it, the true intensity of it, laid out before him with every one of Wangji’s sleepless moments during those months. He will think: You were a fool, not to know.
How could he have missed it? He will make himself sleepless with that question, fretting with each beat of his heart. Bichen’s silent protest, Wangji’s quiet desperation, both of their hearts shown to him in the dimness of twilight. How could he miss the enormity of his brother’s devotion, ever-growing, leading them right to this very moment?
It will not be the first time he asks himself this, nor the last.
But it will be the first time he wonders, with a mounting sense of dread, if it will ever, ever stop.
Baxia is South China Tiger because Nie Mingjue deserves the sexiest daemon, we don't make the rules
Jiang Cheng doesn’t mean to be eavesdropping.
He really, really doesn’t.
If it were up to him, he’d be fast asleep in the Nie Sect guest quarters, dreaming up ways to make Wen Ruohan pay. With the end of the war so close at hand and the unofficial conference bringing everyone together, revenge is getting closer and closer to his fingertips. Surrounded by the other Sect Leaders and bolstered on by Chifeng-Zun, it’s the only thing he’s been able to think of.
Well. Not the only thing.
Which leads Jiang Cheng back to his current predicament.
Hiding in the bushes with the moon overhead is absolutely beneath the dignity of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect leader. He knows this, just as he knows that if anyone sees him, he’ll be the laughingstock of all his peers in a heartbeat.
Their sect is already fragile enough. He’s seen the way people look at them (at Wei Wuxian): always from the sidelines, hidden behind their hands, furtive glances stolen when they think no one else is watching. Like they’re impressed, but also scared.
So this is not the way to behave, not here.
But when Sandu had nudged him awake a few minutes earlier and murmured, moonlight spilling onto her fur through the window’s olive curtains, “A-Xian and A-Sui just snuck out of their room,” a little bud of—something, had formed in Jiang Cheng’s chest.
Not worry, he’d told himself, as he’d shoved on his shoes and nearly tripped over his own robes in his haste to get them on.
No, that tight feeling in his ribs was because he was annoyed. Annoyed at Wei Wuxian, for causing so much trouble and mischief that Jiang Cheng has to get up in the middle of the night to make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.
Or dangerous. Or—have something dangerous happen to him.
Not that there’s any reason to worry about that.
Which is why Jiang Cheng is strictly in the no-worry category as he peers through the dark, autumn-touched leaves, wincing when Sandu shifts her weight and makes a branch crack under her weight.
It’s a tiny noise, but with the tension working its way up his spine, it might as well be a firecracker. He glances over at her, frowning; she shoots him an apologetic look and tucks her tail.
Thankfully, it seems like Wei Wuxian hasn’t noticed at all. He’s sitting quietly on the stairs with his back to them, drinking and looking up at the moon. The shadow of the building stretches past his feet; in his black-and-red robes, the shape of him nearly blends into the darkness.
Jiang Cheng hates those robes.
You should wear Yunmeng Jiang colors, he thinks, not for the first time. He’s been trying to find the right time to ask, but whenever he starts to get up the courage to do it, to demand why Wei Wuxian hasn’t taken their sect’s colors yet, something stops him.
His eyes drift to the flute by Wei Wuxian’s side.
No sword again. The realization is bitter in his mouth, worse than any medicine he’s ever forced down. He worked hard getting that sword back, and Wei Wuxian hasn’t used it once.
When he goes to look for Suibian, he can’t find the familiar outline of her in the dark.
None of it makes sense, he thinks dizzily: the robes, that goddamn instrument, Suibian’s newfound obsession with hiding. Wei Wuxian said he wanted to be by his side—so why is he out here, wearing those, and not inside, with Jiang Cheng?
He’s not even doing anything. Just sitting there, like he can’t feel the chill of the air, like there’s not a huge, important meeting they need to be at tomorrow.
Like Jiang Cheng doesn’t need him by his side, a united front as the world burns around them.
Somewhere nearby, there’s an owl calling into the night. He can hear a mouse squeaking and chittering to their left, the skitter-scatter of its paws across the foliage. Wei Wuxian is still and silent through it all, a ghost tucked against grey stone.
What happened to him?
A thrum of alarm reaches him through the bond and jerks him out of his thoughts, Sandu picking up something he can’t; it’s just enough warning for him to retreat further into the bush before footsteps reach his ears.
Oh, come on.
Of course, he thinks drily, as Lan Wangji and Bichen appear at the opposite end of the courtyard from where Jiang Cheng is currently crouched. It is well past midnight, and they look the picture of Lan perfection anyways, the straight lines of their bodies breaking the otherwise sparse horizon.
Of course, of all the people in this place, they’re the ones who show up.
Wei Wuxian has noticed them too, at least if the way he quickly downs the rest of his drink is any indication. The alcohol spills onto his sleeve in his haste, and he tosses the jar to the side afterwards, hand coming to rest on Chenqing instead.
Lan Wangji and Bichen move across the courtyard towards him.
Even just seeing them has anger thrumming in Jiang Cheng. Those two haven’t been shy about how much they hate Wei Wuxian’s methods; if anything, they’ve been harassing him about them ever since he got back, going outside of their own sect business while they’re at it.
Sure, Wei Wuxian did some weird shit to Wen Chao. But he’d deserved it. Jiang Cheng would let him do it over and over again if it meant justice for what happened to their home, their family.
And now those Lans treat him like shit for it.
Something new flares in Jiang Cheng’s chest at the thought, the fur on Sandu’s back raising in tandem. She lets out a single, low growl.
He sinks down more in the bush, fist clenching around Zidian. Screw this—they’re going to stay. Just to make sure they don’t pull something on his brother.
When they’re a mǐ away from Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji and Bichen stop.
Wei Wuxian is already standing up, gathering his items like he’s getting ready to leave. With his current position Jiang Cheng can’t see his expression at all, but even from this distance it’s impossible to miss the way Wei Wuxian’s hand curls tighter around his flute.
“Lan Wangji,” Wei Wuxian says, and in the bright light of the moon Jiang Cheng sees something shift in Lan Wangji’s face. “What a surprise. A little past curfew for you, don’t you think?”
They look at each other from their respective places in the courtyard, opposing shadows on the olive and grey stone.
Lan Wangji’s reply, when it finally comes, is so quiet that Jiang Cheng nearly misses it.
“Lan Bichen heard something.”
“Sure, of course.” Despite the words, Wei Wuxian sounds far from convinced. “Why else would you be out here, middle of the night, right where I happen to be? That makes sense. Well, guess you found the source of the noise. Is it back to bed for you?”
The hand on Chenqing is now white-knuckled. “What? What do you want? For me to apologize for making noise? I didn’t even realize I had, ok, Lan Zhan?”
The tense line of Lan Wangji’s shoulders, which Jiang Cheng had been keeping an eye on in case he needed to intervene, relaxes a fraction.
“No,” Lan Wangji says. Bichen’s tail has curled in the air, the black tip twitching as she looks between them. “I do not want an apology for the noise.”
Wei Wuxian sighs, loud enough for Jiang Cheng to hear the slight quiver in it. He passes a hand over his face, a motion that Jiang Cheng recognizes from every early morning throughout their childhood when he’s had to practically pull him out of bed. It’s exhaustion and frustration combined into a single, efficient tell.
“Well then, what do you want?”
Jiang Cheng has spent a long time getting to know the subtleties of Wei Wuxian’s tone. Since he came back from—from wherever he went, it’s been harder, but he still gets flashes of understanding. The anger from before is gone.
Now, he just sounds tired. The kind of tired that lurks behind all the things Wei Wuxian does nowadays, the kind that has A-jie frowning into her soup when Wei Wuxian isn’t looking.
Lan Wangji says nothing.
Wei Wuxian stands there for significantly longer than Jiang Cheng would have before letting out a laugh that does not sound how it should.
“Yeah, ok. See you around, Lan Zhan.”
He goes to move past Lan Wangji, their shoulders bumping together when Lan Wangji doesn’t step aside—but at the last moment, a hand darts out and stops him.
Jiang Cheng and Sandu both jerk up, alarm roaring through their link. He places a hand on her back to cut off the snarl that he can feel forming on her lips, his own jaw clenching at the pure audacity of what’s playing out in front of him.
Lan Wangji’s hand tightens on Wei Wuxian’s wrist.
The word is clear even from their distance, the loudest thing Lan Wangji has said tonight.
And, against all odds, his brother obeys.
The quiet that follows is not an easy one. Wei Wuxian holds himself tense as he and Lan Wangji have some type of stare-off, tension coiled in the lines of their bodies, in Lan Wangji’s still-present touch. Jiang Cheng’s eyes go to Bichen, who appears preoccupied with something about Wei Wuxian’s robes.
It is Lan Wangji who breaks the silence.
“Let me help you,” he says, which is not at all what Jiang Cheng was expecting him to say. Zidian, which had started to glow a fierce purple on his finger, settles.
The opposite seems to happen with Wei Wuxian.
“I don’t know how many times I have to tell you, Lan Zhan,” he spits, and his voice is edged, almost—almost dangerous. “We don’t need any help. Just because you don’t like my talismans doesn’t mean you have the right to boss me around. And it’s not your business, you know that?”
Lan Wangji opens his mouth to reply.
“But you said we were friends.”
Everyone in the courtyard goes still, including him and Sandu. The words are bold, but that isn’t what shocks him. In fact, it actually takes him a few seconds to figure out where the voice even came from. It’s definitely not Lan Wangji’s.
Then his eyes go to Sandu, who is staring at Bichen—and his mouth opens in a silent what.
She—talked. Jiang Cheng has never heard her talk before, in all the years he’s known the Lans. He actually has a running bet with Nie Huaisang that she can’t.
Even Lan Wangji looks surprised. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know if that makes him feel better or worse.
“I…” Wei Wuxian’s voice is the quiet one now.
“Suibian?” Bichen says, her eyes still on the folds of Wei Wuxian’s robe, and understanding hits Jiang Cheng. He didn’t think a Lan could plead, but this sounds pretty close to it. “Suibian, please come out. I know you’re there. We just want to help.”
That seems to jolt Wei Wuxian back into reality.
“She doesn’t want to see you,” he spits, and jerks his arm out of Lan Wangji’s grasp. “Leave her alone. You can’t just—”
“Please,” Bichen says, and Wei Wuxian cuts himself off.
There’s a long, tense pause, where Wei Wuxian avoids looking at Lan Wangji.
This is another thing that Jiang Cheng doesn’t get.
Wei Wuxian used to be obsessed with Lan Wangji, following him around and annoying him and doing whatever he could to get his attention. Old Wei Wuxian would have been delighted at hearing Bichen so much as huff in their direction. Suibian would have been over the moon, already yipping and wriggling to soak in the attention.
But now they won’t even look at them. They avoid Lan Wangji and Bichen like the plague—no more showing-off of swordsmanship, or dramatic pranks, or talking so much that the silencing spell is second nature for all of them.
Where were you, those three months? Jiang Cheng wants to scream. But he’s tried that, and if A-Jie couldn’t get a straight answer out of Wei Wuxian, he won’t be able to either. At least not yet.
He will find out, though. Even if he has to yell himself hoarse to do it.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, and it’s the same thing he’s said so many times tonight, but for some reason it feels markedly different.
“I,” Wei Wuxian starts, and draws in a deep breath. There’s a desperate edge to his voice when he says, “Lan Zhan, please. I honestly just wanted some fresh air, I wasn’t trying to cause trouble. You have to believe me, ok?”
The response is so immediate and firm that Jiang Cheng blinks, taken-aback. Wei Wuxian seems to be in the same state; he twitches slightly, and finally raises his head to look at Lan Wangji.
Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what he sees on Lan Wangji’s face, but his next words leave him in a rush.
“Well then I don’t want to fight, alright? I’m—tired of arguing with you, Lan Zhan. And if we start to squabble, then Suibian isn’t going to come out at all.”
Lan Wangji nods slowly, like if he moves too fast Wei Wuxian is going to bolt. Some quiet, shoved-aside part of Jiang Cheng wonders that too.
“No arguing. Just talking.”
Wei Wuxian draws in another breath. Releases it.
“Ok,” he says, and clears his throat. “Not that I’m saying she’ll come out, anyways, because she’s tired and not feeling very good, and it’s really very unfair of you, Bichen, to try and make her feel bad when she hasn’t even done anything.”
A jolt of concern from their bond. Jiang Cheng frowns; A-Sui had seemed ok this morning.
“Say whatever you want to me,” Wei Wuxian continues, “but leave her out of it.”
Bichen flattens her ears and steps behind Lan Wangji.
“I didn’t…” she starts, but whatever else she says doesn’t reach Jiang Cheng’s ears. When her mouth finishes moving, the hand on Chenqing relaxes a fraction.
“Oh.” Wei Wuxian’s voice is subdued, almost sheepish. “I… didn’t know that.”
Bichen blinks silently up at him, her head inching out from behind Lan Wangji’s legs at the quieter tone of voice. Lan Wangji gives a small nod, and she moves out further, coming to stand beside him once again.
“A misunderstanding,” she says, almost soft.
Wei Wuxian adams apple bobs. Under the moonlight, the three of them look like opposing shadows, brightest white against darkest black.
He is, uncharacteristically, silent.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, as the silence stretches on, “let me play for you.”
The words seem to flip a switch; Wei Wuxian laughs, another one that doesn’t sound right, and whirls away from their hopeful faces. Jiang Cheng can finally see the purple bruises that have made themselves at home under his eyes, how his smirk is tilted just a few degrees off.
“Ah, but we’re not in the mood for music, not tonight!” he says, and even from here, it’s overly-casual, a paper-thin façade. “Be careful, Lan Zhan, didn’t you just promise we would only talk?”
“You know, this reminds me of something!” Wei Wuxian interrupts, looking up at the roof. Despite the tense way he’s holding himself, the faintest hint of—of something, something genuine, is curling on his lips. “Lan Zhan, just like when we met!”
Lan Wangji follows his gaze, hand tucked behind his back once more.
Wei Wuxian glances at him, so quick that Jiang Cheng almost misses the motion.
“Aiyo, Lan Zhan, don’t sound so disapproving!” A lilt of teasing has worked its way into his tone. “Not all roofs are stuffy as the Cloud Reccesses, you know! We can—do you want to go up there? I’ll even race you, if you want.”
There’s another long silence. Jiang Cheng pinches the bridge of his nose; Wei Wuxian can be such a fool! There’s no way Lan Wangji will agree to that. That’s breaking a rule, multiple, actually, and he wouldn’t—
Jiang Cheng’s brain stutters to a halt, mouth falling open.
He’s almost certain he misheard. But then Wei Wuxian blinks, turning to face Lan Wangji; and slowly, like the moon rising in the sky, a smile breaks out across his face.
Lan Wangji nods and moves to stand next to him.
Jiang Cheng watches, heart pounding in his ears, as Wei Wuxian leads them forward, as he wheedles Lan Wangji into not using his spiritual energy to get up, as they make their slow ascent onto the roof. There’s a gap of space between them as they go, no more of the handsy dragging that Wei Wuxian used to flit to with ease; but he laughs when he makes it up to the topmost tiles and accidentally sends one tumbling to the ground, all flailing limbs alongside Lan Wangji’s careful grace.
There’s the sound of shattering ceramic on stone, another laugh.
“Oh shit, think we can blame that on Jin Zixuan?” Wei Wuxian asks, and he sounds happy. Then, from Lan Wangji: “Wei Ying.”
It’s too much.
Jiang Cheng needs to get the fuck out of here.
The walk back to their chambers passes in a daze. It is Sandu who leads him down the corridors, who noses open their door with no more than a small creak; his mind is too busy looping the conversation over and over, trying to make sense of the nausea churning in his gut.
Whatever just happened was—was good, right? Lan Wangji doesn’t want to hurt his brother after all, or at least not right now. And if Wei Wuxian is speaking to Lan Wangji again, then maybe things actually are returning to normal.
Maybe Wei Wuxian— maybe he’ll—
Maybe he’ll sound like that with me again, too.
He tosses his shoes to the side without thinking, clambers under the blankets. They’re rough against his skin, but he doesn’t mind the scratch of it. Can’t.
“A-Cheng,” Sandu says, laying her head on the bed and letting the word ghost over him. He places his hand on the back of her neck, digs his fingers into the thick fur there.
They stare at each other in the dimness.
Let me play for you, Lan Wangji had said. Play what, exactly? Cleansing? Does Wei Wuxian—is he—
“There’s nothing wrong with him, right?” Jiang Cheng whispers. It’s the first time he’s ever considered the question out loud, and Sandu lets out a hot puff of air against his face.
“If there is,” she says, “then we can get him through it.”
The words settle something in Jiang Cheng. Right. He’s not alone. Sandu, A-jie, Xiaolien: they can help. They’re a family—whatever Wei Wuxian and Suibian are up to, they’ll help nag them into shape again. This is just one of Wei Wuxian’s phases, like that time he went a whole month thinking that he didn’t need to wear shoes.
Lan Wangji doesn’t understand Wei Wuxian nearly as well as he does, so he’s just raising red flags for nothing.
If there was something seriously wrong with Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng would be the first to know.
He nods, firm, and shifts on the bed. Sandu takes him up on the silent offer, squeezing herself into the narrow space behind his back and settling into the curve of him. She’s like a furnace, and he throws off one of his blankets so she can say close before closing his eyes.
Good thing he wasn’t worried.
A week later, back in the Cloud Recesses, Lan Xichen looks at his brother’s face and lets out a breath he has been holding for months.
“You talked?” he asks, as neutrally as he can, and Lan Wangji gives a single nod.
The relief is staggering.
It is, like too many things in war, short-lived.
It happens unexpectedly.
One moment, Sandu and Suibian are playing in the corner, Suibian letting out happy giggles—and the next, her laughter has turned to a scream of pain.
It’s so loud and unexpected that Jiang Cheng’s hand jerks, smearing a line of ink across the letter he was composing to Sect Leader Jin, congratulations for concluding the Sunshot Campaign. With Wen Ruohan dead and Qishan Wen scattered to the winds, he’s finally had the time to try and strategize on what’s best for their people, to forge alliances that will give them some sense of security moving forward.
Unfortunately, this particular attempt is now ruined. He splutters, yanking back his brush before it can drip more ink across the parchment, and looks over at their daemons.
“What the hell, A-Sui—”
His voice is drowned out by footsteps. Wei Wuxian, who has decided to grace Jiang Cheng with his presence today, unlike all the other days this week, is already halfway across the room.
“Move!” he snaps at Sandu, with so much anger and panic that Jiang Cheng and Sandu both freeze up. “Sandu, get off her!”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t think Wei Wuxian has ever spoken to her like that before, much less given an actual order—and he’s jolted back to reality when he realizes that he shouldn’t.
“Don’t boss her around,” Jiang Cheng snaps back, thrown off, as Sandu shrinks back from where she had been tussling. Her ears are pressed flat back against her head, tail tucked; she slinks over to Jiang Cheng like she’s in trouble. “What happened?”
“It’s ok, shh,” Wei Wuxian is murmuring to A-Sui, who is trembling like a leaf. Lotus Pier has never had large, ostentatious rooms like the Jins, but she looks impossibly small tucked into the corner like that.
She isn’t crying anymore. Jiang Cheng was expecting hysterics like normal, but she’s gone absolutely silent.
“I said, what happ—”
“Nothing.” Wei Wuxian’s voice is low as he gathers A-Sui in his arms. When he turns towards the door, Jiang Cheng catches the first glimpse of A-Sui’s face.
Her eyes are filled with tears. Jiang Cheng’s stomach jolts.
Sandu hasn’t actually played rough with A-Sui since they were twelve, after she accidentally tore off a chunk of A-Sui’s fur in a play fight gone wrong. Sandu had just settled into her form, and Jiang Cheng remembers the feeling of pride almost bursting out of his chest each time he saw her.
Pride, and the smallest touch of insecurity. It wasn’t a new form, not really. She’d shifted into a wolf a few times when he was a kid; infrequent, but enough that they’d had to convince Wei Wuxian and Suibian that no, wolves were nothing like dogs, the ears are completely different, would your shijie lie to you? Look, she’s scaring away the dogs, isn’t that so nice?
That logic hadn’t fully worked. Wei Wuxian and Suibian had stopped running away by the third shift, sure, but there was a resigned acceptance to it, and unease and fear that were hidden under the surface and left to fester. It makes something crawl into his throat whenever he thinks about it—the way they tiptoed around those early years, like their life was dependent on an eggshell fragility that would shatter at any wrong move.
The fifth shift, though. He remembers that one, Suibian’s trembling body and Sandu, teeth bared and growling, teeth still stained red from a fight with the stray dog that had chased Suibian across the marketplace. How the dog had tucked tail and run, yipping. How Suibian had stared up at Sandu, mouth agape—and started to wag her tail.
It was easier, after that. Much easier.
He’d just never expected her to stay that way.
The Yunmeng Jiang Sect had water daemons, everyone knew that. His father’s Kingfisher and his mother’s Sea Snake, and he got a wolf, of all things?
But then A-Sui and Wei Wuxian had staggered into the common area for breakfast the morning after she’d settled, and A-Sui’s eyes had gone all big and excited, and she’d squealed, “Oh, Sandu, you look so awesome! Are you bigger now? Your paw is the size of my face!”
And Jiang Cheng had decided a wolf was pretty much the coolest daemon to have, actually.
Still—she was all big paws and big teeth, and not used to them at all, and it had happened so quickly. A-Sui had run off with saltwater running down her face, cries that were quieter than normal but somehow meant more, and Wei Wuxian had chased after her without so much as a glance over his shoulder.
Jiang Cheng remembers it clearly: Sandu, eyes wide and shocked, staring at that single tuft of white-and-red left behind on the wood.
She’d been upset; not the most he’s ever seen her, but close.
(The memory, unwanted, rushes to the surface: Jiang Cheng, so frustrated at his father letting Wei Wuxian sit on his knees that he’s crying in his room, late into the night. A thought, also unwanted: Why can’t he love me like that? And Sandu, looking at him without blinking, molten earth ready to erupt.
It’s so vivid that it has his stomach looping. He forces it away.)
The point is they’d taken it seriously, even when A-Sui had tried to wave it off as nothing later. He and Sandu had practice wrestled for hours afterwards, Jiang Cheng enduring endless scratches and bruises until there was no doubt on how much strength she could use before hurting someone smaller than her.
She’s good now, when it comes to A-Sui. She’s gentle, and careful, Jiang Cheng knows she would never—
“Was I too rough?” Sandu has her body low to the ground, like if she makes herself smaller, A-Sui will stop having that look in her eyes. “It was just my paw, A-Sui. I didn’t mean for it to hurt.”
Suibian doesn’t reply; she’s busy pressing her face to Wei Wuxian’s neck as he smooths his hand down the fur on her back. Neither of them are looking towards Jiang Cheng and Sandu.
The longer they ignore them, the more the uncomfortable feeling in Jiang Cheng’s chest grows.
He sets down his brush with a clink.
“What the hell’s gotten into you?” he demands, and it comes out louder than he wanted, but he’s so tired. “Last night, you were too drunk to control your own spiritual energy and I hardly even needed to breathe on you to send you sprawling. Now A-Sui’s gotten all weak, too? Are you giving her alcohol?”
Something flashes across Wei Wuxian’s face, but it’s gone so fast that Jiang Cheng is left with nothing but an ache of wishing he had seen it better.
“It’s nothing,” he repeats, still quiet.
And walks out of the room.
“What the hell,” Jiang Cheng whispers, as the door closes behind them and they’re left with nothing but silence. His eyes drift to the wood where they were playing, searching for that same spot of white and red.
There’s nothing, of course. Just an empty space where a pair of playing daemons should be.
Rymwitt couldn’t think up an author’s not that didn’t contain spoilers or weeping, so this is Snow here saying: Back to Wei Wuxian and Suibian next chapter! ;) Thanks for hanging in there with us!
Here are the daemons! We never said their names directly but they are:
Zidian (Yu Ziyuan/Madam Yu's) daemon is a Yellow-lipped sea krait (some folks are afraid of snakes, this is a snake photo, just so you know)
Kaishui (Jiang Fengmian's) daemon is a Kingfisher
Rymwitt: *pulls pin, chucks this chapter grenade at you all, then runs for safety*
Snow: As Rymitt's A/N above indicates, this chapter does describe some flashbacks and references to what happened at the Burial Mounds, fulfilling the "hurt" part of our tags. We want to warn that this chapter also contains scenes where Suibian is in distress. We do not describe any physical violence being done to her; it is largely fear and the rough environment of the Burial Mounds that are shown. Just a warning in case, I know animals being scared can be very painful! <3
“Seems to me-" Lee said, feeling for the words, "seems to me the place you fight cruelty is where you find it, and the place you give help is where you see it needed.”
― Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials
They are dead, and everything is loud.
The wind screams around them, knocking them off their feet, dragging them through the parched earth like it is trying to bury them beneath it. There is nothing in him but the empty throb of things given, things lost, things whispered in his ears.
Suibian is sobbing—rough, shuddering gasps, wetness soaking into his skin from where he’s pressed her against his neck.
Everything is dark, and muddled, and loud, loud loud.
They’ll take her from you, the voices whisper, a harsh caress on his cheek. He lays there in the dirt and listens, the resentment pressing against his lungs as he struggles to suck in air. If they find out you were here, they’ll kill her.
He holds her closer, feels the press of her fur against his bloodstained fingers. No, he tries to say, but his tongue is swollen and bloody.
Don’t you want to protect her? they ask, and they’re so loud, so loud, please—
Don’t you want to live?
Don’t you want revenge?
Wei Wuxian, don’t you want—
He does. He does. The resentment shrieks in his ears as he struggles up, a dead animal on its last legs, staggering forward. Suibian has gone limp and quiet in his arms, head lolling onto his shoulder.
He reaches out and—
He reaches out, and grabs the seal.
The thing is: Wei Wuxian had known it wasn’t going to be easy.
He’d known from the moment they stood over Jiang Cheng’s and Sandu’s limp forms on the mountain, silvergrass swaying around them in the wind, Zhiruo a red splash of color among the nearby sparrows. When Wen Qing’s knife had entered his chest minutes later, it had hit him with such clarity that the first scream had caught in his throat, trapped like a fluttering bird in a barbed cage.
But it wasn’t supposed to be easy. It was just supposed to be right.
And then: Wen Chao, holding them suspended over the Burial Mounds. Helpless, Wei Wuxian’s blood dripping into the endless expanse below.
(Wei Wuxian’s blood, but never A-Sui’s. Never, ever A-Sui’s.)
He hadn’t known just hard how it would be.
But he doesn’t regret it, not at all. He’s alive, and A-Sui’s alive. Even if they’ve changed, they’re still them, and that’s enough for him, at least for right now.
He just wishes it could be enough for everybody else, too.
“I’m ok,” A-Sui mumbles, abandoning her spot on the sun-warmed wood of the pier to clamber into his lap. A group of children run by, shrieking as they avoid the water-slick planks, laughing when one of the aunties tries to scold them into going slower.
It feels too loud, too alive. Slowly, he breathes in the smell of lotuses, roasted lamb coated in chili oil, sticky-sweet candied haws.
For the first time in his life, it doesn’t settle him.
He smooths back Suibian’s fur with shaking hands, checking for—he doesn’t know what. An actual injury? The idea of Sandu hurting her permanently, of Jiang Cheng hurting him even by proxy, is ludicrous. It’s been years since they actually hurt each other.
But A-Sui’s cry of pain from minutes before is still ringing in his ears.
“It’s ok, right?” she whispers, looking up at him with pleading eyes. “I don’t think—she didn’t mean… maybe I overreacted.”
Wei Wuxian shivers, tightens his grip. “You didn’t.” Even if he can’t feel it through their link anymore, even if there’s now a raw, bloody string inside him that doesn’t connect to anything, he knows the signs of her pain. “Suibian—”
“No,” she whines immediately, already knowing where he’s going. “A-Xian, please, no.”
The empty space inside his chest throbs.
For nearly eighteen years, he had a sacred part of her inside him. Little sparkles of her tucked into the sinew of his muscle, the red of his blood, the gaps in his bones. Whenever he breathed, he could feel the golden trace of her there, like a shimmering dust that helped fill all the empty spaces inside him and made every breath a little lighter.
He thought it would follow him to the grave, that feeling.
(In a way, some twisted part of him thinks, it did.)
And now there’s nothing.
They hadn’t really known what it would be like when he lost his core. Wen Qing had theories, of course, largely based on Sandu’s reaction: the lost haze over her eyes, the confusion, how she had kept looking at Jiang Cheng as if she couldn’t sense he was there any other way.
How, after a single day, she had howled more, snapped her teeth, gone wild in the eyes.
“Your bond could break,” Wen Qing had told him, tucked into the corner of the room as Jiang Cheng slept listlessly on the bed. He’d expected that part. And then—“Without you, she could deviate,” which he hadn’t.
He’d heard of daemons deviating, of course. If someone is separated from their daemon for too long or across a distance they can’t maintain, the effects on the pair are substantial. The end result is always the same: pain, unbearable and unimaginable for both the human and the daemon.
But there’s another stage: the actual deviating. Because if the pair isn’t reunited in time, if the bond connecting them wears so thin and fragile that it breaks, the daemon reverts to animal instincts.
No talking. No emotions. Not even a hint of who they used to be.
Just pure, wild instinct.
Going feral is the harsher term, but probably the more accurate one.
The longest a pair has ever lasted apart from each other is two months. And after deviation, after the daemon has gone feral, well…
No one has ever survived that kind of pain.
It had never been something he worried about before; why would he and Suibian ever be in that kind of a position? But the thought had made him pause, sitting there on the floor, scraps of paper and wrinkled journals surrounding him like a talisman array.
Pause, but not stop; he and Suibian had gone ahead with it anyways.
Now, he runs his fingers through Suibian’s fur. It’s raised slightly under his fingers, rougher than it used to be when she wasn’t spending so much time hidden out of the sun. She shivers under his touch, pushing into it with more desperation than either of them care to think about.
“If what we were experimenting with weakens you that much,” he says, trying to breathe around the weight of each word, “then it’s not worth it.”
“We can’t risk it, A-Sui. Not when it comes to you.”
Because even with all their research, with the frantic hours he and Wen Qing spent planning and theorizing and hoping against hope, they hadn’t thought it would be like this: Suibian still has a core of her own.
Or, something like a core. There’s no way to know what exactly is sustaining her; all they know is that she hasn’t turned to dust, hasn’t gone feral, and is somehow, against all odds, managing to cling onto that things that make her, well, her.
They hadn’t expected it, but after what Lan Xichen told them about Lan Yi and her daemon, maybe they should have. After all, if a daemon somehow managed to use their energy to protect an entire cave after they died, just because their human’s spirit was still lingering there, then who’s to say A-Sui couldn’t somehow slow her own deviation down?
Daemons, it turns out, are full of surprises.
She’s clearly not getting her stability from him— it’s more like she’s self-sustaining, somehow, or maybe connected to something they don’t understand yet.
(He wonders, on the nights that Suibian is restless, where her little feet want to take her. Who is trying to call her away; or, when his thoughts edge dark and bloody, what is.
If maybe, he didn’t manage to tame the Burial Mounds quite as well as he thought he did.)
They have some vague theories on what it might be. His core is still around, after all, even if it’s not in him anymore. From the way Jiang Cheng and Sandu are acting, they haven’t noticed anything different about their link; maybe Wei Wuxian had a high enough cultivation that it’s sustaining all of them, including A-Sui.
Not like there’s any way to find out.
(“Well what exactly do you want me to do?” he’d snapped the first week they came back, trying to coax Suibian out of his robes so she could eat. “Go up to Sandu and ask, ‘Hey, by the way, feel anything different about your link? Like you’re, oh, I don’t know, sharing it with your sister now somehow?’ Come on, A-Sui.”
She’d stared up at him between the folds of black and red, little trembles against his skin, ones that had followed her out of the Burial Mounds and never stopped, no matter how hard he tried to soothe them.
“I’m sorry,” she’d whispered back, voice quaking. The noise had crawled down into his throat and lodged itself there, made it hard to breathe.
Guilt, guilt, guilt.
“No, no, A-Sui, shh, don’t be sorry, that was me, I shouldn’t have said that. We’ll figure it out, ok? Please don’t cry, I’m right here…”)
In the end, it doesn’t matter much, the whys or the hows. She can still talk, still think, still curl up against him on the good days. She can go wherever she wants now, as far away from him as the winds take her, and feel no ill effects.
What does matter is that while his core is gone, safe inside his brother’s now-breathing body, she still seems to have one.
The issue is that without his own core, with a link no longer vibrating between them, Wei Wuxian can’t reach out to it.
He can’t do anything at all.
It’s like losing a tooth, he thinks, running your tongue over where it used to be only to find the aching, hollowed-out socket in its place. Bloody, impossible to ignore. A constant reminder of the thing that used to be there, that you took for granted.
One that you’ll never be able to put back.
“Let’s try,” Suibian had said, voice nearly drowned out by the whistling winds, Wei Wuxian’s lungs burning from exertion. The flute had not left his lips for twelve hours, but he had gathered the strength to turn his head and look at her, fur so matted with dust and soil that she was just a smear of brown and grey curled against his leg.
And they had.
Tried everything, it felt like, anything that would give them a chance. Blood. Bones. New talismans that took advantage of every scrap around them, that had them digging through graves and bringing rotten-flesh nightmares to the precious moments of sleep that so rarely came.
It wasn’t the worst thing they’d done, those few months. Not the hardest, either.
Certainly the least effective. None of it had worked; no matter how hard he tried, he hadn’t been able to do anything without his core.
When they got back from the Burial Mounds, though –when they’d had more time and less voices whispering in their heads—they’d figured out that with enough focus and the right talismans, she could reach out to him.
“Oh,” she’d breathed one day, a restless one, where she’d run and run and he’d had to endure the long wait, playing Chenqing with a new edge of desperation, wondering if this would be the time he lost her, forever, if she’d just not come back and—
A shiver down his spine, like something brushing against the bones there.
“What was that?”
“You felt that?” she’d asked, her warm weight pressed against his shoulder (she’d come back, she’d come back) and he’d nodded, set down the flute. “A-Xian, I think—let me try again, but focus this time, alright?”
That had worked. Even now, if he opens his qi, he can sense it: the strange brush of her as she reaches out to him. It feels like a transfer of spiritual energy, faint and otherworldly, like Lan Wangji’s touch in Xuanwu Cave. Foreign to his body, but not unpleasant.
Like… extending a branch, for him to hold onto.
It doesn’t feel the same, not even close, but there’s the ghost of a feeling. Until now, Wei Wuxian had thought it was worth it, that the benefit of feeling even a fraction of what they had before outweighed the drain on them to maintain it.
But there’s no avoiding the harsh truth.
If they hadn’t been experimenting with sharing her energy to try and re-create some type of link for Wei Wuxian to grab onto, Suibian would have been able to take that paw just fine.
Whatever is sustaining her isn’t limitless. She isn’t limitless.
“I don’t want to stop,” A-Sui tells him, pressing so close against that it’s almost painful. “If it means I can’t play with A-San anymore, then maybe—maybe I just don’t play.”
The thought has Wei Wuxian’s stomach dropping. Jiang Cheng, even when monumentally pissed off, is still one of the most important people in his life. He knows what Sandu means to A-Sui.
“No. A-Sui, we aren’t going to do that.”
A-Sui whines high in her throat. “I don’t— When I can’t feel you, it feels all wrong.”
The Burial Mounds flashes through his eyes, unbidden and unwanted. She’d said something similar, back then, as they’d crouched over the graves and debated, hunger clawing up in their throats.
It feels all wrong.
For a moment, he doesn’t know what to say in response. The gentle lap of water against wood drifts toward them, the sounds of home that are so close but feel impossibly far away, and he closes his eyes, tries not to see just dirt and bone.
“We’ll figure it out,” he murmurs, rubbing at her ears. Then just in case, because she can’t just feel it anymore, can’t just know it in her heart, he adds, “I know that it feels bad. I don’t like it either. But if it makes you more likely to get hurt, then we aren’t doing it.”
It was the one thing he had told Wen Qing before she put the knife to his skin, an unconscious A-Sui to his left and a knocked-out Jiang Cheng and Sandu to his right.
Hurt me as much as you need to—I don’t care how much pain I’m in. But don’t let A-Sui feel a thing. Promise me, Wen Qing.
“We’ll figure it out,” he repeats, and doesn’t protest when she climbs into his robes and refuses to leave for the rest of the night.
Figuring it out isn’t as easy as it sounds.
“Some soup, Xianxian?”
“No thanks, Shijie, I’m not hungry.”
“Are you sure? You’re so thin still—”
“Ah, ah, don’t be like that! You’ll insult my masculine nature, how could Shijie be so cruel to her Xianxian?”
“…Yeah. Don’t worry about it, alright?”
“This song is called cleansing,” Bichen tells him, even as her eyes search the room for a fox that isn’t there. Next to her, Lan Wangji is watching him, mouth curved down at the corners.
“Great,” he says, so exhausted that his voice is something distant, something outside himself. He isn’t sure what day it is, how long it’s been since they last visited Lotus Pier to play. Weeks, maybe?
Why does it have to be a visit for this? Why can’t it be for—for—
“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji’s voice reaches him through the haze; and Wei Wuxian looks, because of course he does.
How couldn’t he, when it’s Lan Zhan?
Lan Wangji’s eyes are golden in the light filtering in through the windows, impossibly beautiful, endlessly out of reach. His hands twitch on the strings of the guqin, but his attention never wavers from Wei Wuxian’s face.
“It is most effective if both the human and daemon are present.”
Rage bubbles up in him, unwanted, a tide out of sync with the rest of him. As if he doesn’t know it’s better that way, as if he hadn’t spent hours trying to find her, as if he isn’t worried that she’s all alone out there. As if she doesn’t want to see them just as badly.
I can’t see her, I can’t, A-Xian, I’ll just want to tell her everything. Please, please, let me go, I need to, I need to run, please—
“If you don’t like it, leave,” he spits, and tries to ignore the hurt that flashes across Bichen’s face.
Lan Wangji starts to play.
“You know you can tell me anything, right?”
Xiaolien’s voice is soft and careful, something tender amid the dimness of the room. He steps towards them; it’s so quiet that the brush of his tail against the floor makes Suibian flinch from where she’s curled up in Wei Wuxian’s arms, interrupting the apologetic sweeps of her tongue against his skin.
Her answering swallow is just as loud.
“Of course, A-Lien,” she says, pinprick pain as her claws curl into his wrists. “Of course.”
“My brother,” Lan Xichen says, holding a cup of tea delicately between his palms, “does not have many friends, Wei-gongzi.”
Wei Wuxian’s stomach churns. The floral smell of jasmine drifts towards him, nauseating; Suibian appears unaffected, busy trying to avoid Shuoyue’s equally neutral expression.
“With all due respect, Zewu-Jun,” he replies, Chenqing comforting and cool in his palm, “I’m not sure why you’re telling me this.”
Lan Xichen has never looked at him like this: disappointed and disgusted all at once, with a poor attempt at hiding both. He feels, abruptly, all of six years old, passersby wrinkling their noses at the dirty child and fox begging for food on the street.
When Lan Xichen rises to his feet, Wei Wuxian doesn’t stop him.
“What happens if they find out?!”
“Suibian, it’s ok, they won’t find out—”
“They will, they will, and then they’ll take me from you, they’ll be mad that you—that you invented this stuff, and then they’ll ask how, and, and—”
“Shh, A-Sui, sweetheart, shh, you don’t need to worry about that, ok? Here, just come out from the under the bed, I have some sweets for you, isn’t that nice? I won’t grab, I promise, just—”
Long time no see! Your archery certainly was impressive at Phoenix Mountain, da-ge hasn’t been able to keep quiet about it! I’ve been asked to do so many sword drills that I’ve contemplated running into the woods and becoming a rogue cultivator, just so my arm doesn’t fall off…
Maybe you could help me! Lotus Pier is a nice place to vacation, isn’t it? Maybe da-ge won’t be so mad if he thinks I’m just visiting an old friend. Can’t I come and stay? Please?
Let me know! Qiaolian and found a book that you and Suibian might like, if you need a gift to convince you! For some reason we were never able to track you down at the hunting grounds…
At the very least, we’ll see you at the Flower Banquet at Lanling, right?
Leave some fame for the rest of us in the meantime,
The candle flickers, casting their shadows onto the wall. Wei Wuxian watches as flames work their way across the paper, Suibian quiet and subdued at his side, and brushes the ash off his hands afterwards.
“I said enough, Lan Zhan!”
The table rattles as he stands, anger burning hot behind his eyelids. It takes no time for Lan Wangji to stand as well, although he does it smoothly, of course, because he's Lan Wangji, one of the Twin Jades, a model Lan, and Wei Wuxian doesn't know how long he can keep this secret from him.
He wants to run, or throw something, find anything that will make the restless jittering in his body stop, just for a single moment. He's confined and untethered all at once, and Lan Zhan is just standing there, holed up in his bedroom like some unfortunate stowaway.
When he swallows, he tastes blood.
"No! Just go! I can't do your stupid meditation, just get out of here!"
“Stop,” Bichen hisses, as Lan Wangji opens his mouth, frustration making the corner of his eyes tight. Her own tail has gone slightly puffed. “Why are you saying these things? You told us you would let us help.”
“I don’t want—I don’t need your help, alright? You’re just wasting your time coming here all the time and playing, you should be back at Gusu doing—I don’t know what, saving babies or innocent people or whatever! But not here, ok?”
“We have no issue waiting for Suibian—”
“She doesn’t want to see you! No matter how often you visit, that’s not going to change, and I'm never going to go back there with you either! I don’t understand why you won’t listen!”
Gold and blue eyes. It’s always gold and blue eyes, looking at him, seeing him.
“Wei Ying,” and Lan Wangji’s voice is so much softer now. He’s looking, and Wei Wuxian hates him for it, sometimes, hates himself for ruining the best friendship he thinks he’s ever had. Knows that he can’t be selfish and try to keep him, regardless. “Wei Ying, we do not need to play. Or talk. Or go to Gusu. Do not walk out.”
“I," he starts, and it's like all the anger has blown out of him, leaving him hollow and wind-worn. "Lan Zhan, stop wasting your time.”
A laugh bubbles out of him without his consent, some twisted, dark thing that tastes like ash. “You don’t get to do this, ok? It’s not worth it. Gusu Lan should tend to their own affairs, and the Jiang will do the same.”
This time, Bichen and Lan Wangji speak in unison.
He looks at them, helpless and frustrated and angry, not knowing how to get them to give up. He’s tried, from the moment they came back, and it’s done nothing, nothing, they just keep pushing their way through the cracks and—
I didn’t mean to make her feel bad. We’re worried about you, Bichen had told him, standing there in the moonlit courtyard. And then, We—we still have your rabbits.
His throat clogs up.
“I can’t,” he whispers, and he doesn’t know which wish he’s trying to bury this time.
“Why can’t you just talk to me!” Jiang Cheng screams, Shijie and Xiaolien wide-eyed and pale at the other side of the table.
Wei Wuxian breathes through his nose. In, out. In, out. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Bullshit, look at her, something’s wrong!”
His raised voice pounds through his head, bruises on the inside of his skull. Suibian is digging her claws into the rug; when Sandu shifts to stand, she bolts from the room, knocking over the vase of white lilies as she goes.
It crashes to the floor and shatters, water soaking into the fine fabric.
“See? This is exactly what—”
Wei Wuxian downs the rest of his drink, ignores the cry of disbelief, and follows her.
It’s the one voice he doesn’t want to hear right now. He cringes internally, torn between the yearning skip of his heart and the rapid sinking of his stomach.
“Ah. Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji watches him from across the Jin Sect gardens. Behind him the sun is setting, tinting the landscape with red and orange like a brightly colored sherbet. Standing there, his shadow casting a long line onto the intricate pavestones, Wei Wuxian wonders how he manages to look so majestic with so little effort.
It’s been so long since he’s last seen him alone, absent of the harsh stare of Lan Qiren to his right and Lan Xichen’s searching eyes on his left. Phoenix Mountain feels like a lifetime ago. The flower he tossed to Lan Wangji to make his ears turn a pretty pink is no doubt shriveled and rotting with age by now.
Maybe he should have followed up on that, found out if Lan Wangji kept it or not.
But his heart just hasn’t been in it to try, lately.
He stays seated as Lan Wangji walks over, absent-mindedly running his fingers over some of the stones he’s been tossing into the Jin’s frankly overly elaborate and wasteful pond system. It’s no doubt the prized work of someone’s great-great-something-or-other, but that just makes it all the more satisfying. Fuck the Jins.
There’s a long pause when Lan Wangji reaches him. Wei Wuxian is too exhausted from today to try and fill it; he focuses on the shore instead, at the finches pecking away at the nearby flowerbed.
“May I sit?”
“Sure,” he replies, and tosses another rock. It skips across the surface a few times before hitting the edge and sinking.
He’s expecting Lan Wangji to ask questions, or demand to play music like he has every time he’s managed to get Wei Wuxian alone since the war ended; but all Lan Wangji does is carefully place his sword on the ground and settle down next to him.
They’re not close, at no risk of touching even at all, but something in Wei Wuxian tightens all the same.
What if they can tell? A-Sui’s voice replays in his head, one of those blade-sharp memories at the edge of the Burial Mounds and all the weeks after. He draws in a breath and puts just a little more space between himself and Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji’s eyes flick to him, then back to the water.
“Are you well?” he asks, and Wei Wuxian isn’t sure if he means in general or about today specifically. Even if he wanted to answer the question, which he’s frankly tired of doing anyways, he wouldn’t know what to say.
Lan Wangji is waiting for him to speak, but Wei Wuxian just goes back to throwing pebbles. If the way Lan Wangji’s eyebrows draw together is any indication, maybe that was answer enough for him anyways.
For a while, they just sit next to each other. The sound of the water isn’t anything like Lotus Pier: there’s no gentle back-and-forth, no touch of tides against wood. The flowers are different too: carefully contained blooms of gold and white, no wayward stalks spilling playfully onto the pathways and setting them ablaze with life.
But still. It’s not the worst.
It’s actually… kind of nice. To just sit, and not be lectured at. The longer they go without talking, the more Wei Wuxian muscles unclench, the line of his spine uncoiling into something smoother.
Then Lan Wangji says, “Is Suibian here?” and all the niceness evaporates.
“Why do you always ask?” he shoots back, and his voice comes out sharper than he intended. “Does she need to be here?”
Next to him, Lan Wangji has quickly fallen quiet again.
It’s not his normal quiet.
Reflecting back on what he just said, Wei Wuxian can’t even blame him. He sighs, rubs a hand over his face. Re-centers himself the best he can.
“Ah, don’t be mad, Lan Zhan, I didn’t mean to snap.” Before Lan Wangji can respond he adds, tone as light as he can make it, “A-Sui isn’t here right now. She’s out exploring. Fun, right? This whole place is filled with little hidey-holes! Perfect for a fox.”
Lan Wangji is looking at him, a slight furrow between his brows, hands tucked neatly into his lap. It’s only then that Wei Wuxian realizes someone else is missing.
“Wait, where’s Bichen?”
Lan Wangji inclines his head to the path behind him. “Looking for Suibian.”
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, exasperated and slipping into a whine without even meaning to, “are you serious? If you already knew she wasn’t here, then why’d you make me explain?”
“Lan Bichen cannot find her.”
“Oh!” Wei Wuxian leans back on his elbows just to add some chaos to all the order that Lan Wangji is bringing to the scene. “Well, there’s nothing you can do about that. If she doesn’t want to be found, she’s not going to be.”
He knows that better than anyone, now. If Bichen wants to find Suibian, then asking Wei Wuxian for help is pointless. He has absolutely no idea where she is; without their link, the most he could give is an educated guess.
They’ve been practicing not having to guess, though. Wei Wuxian thinks they’re already much better at getting her to come to him when she gets scared, instead of bolting away.
But they slip up, sometimes.
“I have been practicing a new score,” Lan Wangji says abruptly, bringing Wei Wuxian away from thoughts he doesn’t want to think about to more thoughts he still doesn’t want to think about. There is a determination burning in his eyes, one that can’t be brushed away.
Wei Wuxian sighs in defeat, turning fully to face him. Up close, he notices for the first time that Lan Wangji has shadows under his eyes. And his skin! He’s pale, so pale, like maybe he’s a little sick.
“Lan Zhan! What’s wrong? You look terrible!”
Lan Wangji blinks at him, which Wei Wuxian is learning is the equivalent of a full-on gape. Was that rude of him? It’s just the truth. Maybe Lan Wangji is just surprised; he’s probably never had anyone call him terrible or less-than-perfect in his entire life, especially not about his looks, but there’s a first time for everything.
“No, seriously,” Wei Wuxian continues, as concern flares in him. This can’t be because of him, can it? Lan Xichen had mentioned during his visit to Lotus Pier that Lan Wangji was working hard, but this hard? It’s only been a few weeks since they’ve seen each other, and Wei Wuxian had been distracted at that last one, but—this has to be new.
He wouldn’t have missed them looking unwell, would he?
Dismayed, he reaches out without thinking to trace one of the shadows. They look so out of place on his face, a sign of pain that doesn’t belong.
It’s only when Lan Wangji completely freezes under the contact that Wei Wuxian even realizes what he’s doing.
“Oh shit!” he says, unthinking, and jerks his hand back.
Lan Wangji stares at him, eyes huge.
“Ah, fuck, Lan Zhan, sorry,” he scrambles to add, once his mouth catches up to the sudden buzzing of his brain. Some primal part of him is screaming run, run, run, like Bichen is going to leap out of the bushes and hunt him. How could he forget how much Lan Wangji hates people getting into his space? “Sorry, sorry! I just—you normally look so good, you know, and I was just taken aback. Aiyo, all the stuffy Jin air here must be getting to my head!”
He forces out a laugh, shoving his hands into his lap so they’ll behave. Lan Wangji is still staring; some of the color has returned to his face, and his ears are red. Maybe his paleness was just a trick of the lighting?
He doesn’t reply.
“Anyways,” Wei Wuxian says, trying to power through and divert their discussion to something less embarrassing, “um, I don’t—you don’t need to play for me, Lan Zhan. I feel all healed up and rested! I’m in tip-top shape.”
Lan Wangji’s fingers twitch. He opens his mouth.
“You do not smell well.”
The new voice makes Wei Wuxian jump. He turns, protest already on his lips, as Bichen appears from behind them.
“Ah, Bichen, don’t just pop up out of the blue like that! Give a man a warning!”
Bichen just blinks at him before settling down next to Lan Wangji. His eyes are drawn to a small smear of dirt on her left foreleg that contrasts with the rest of her silky-smooth fur; when he looks back up at her face, she does not seem particularly apologetic. Just—strangely tired-looking, like Lan Wangji.
“I was not trying to be stealthy.”
“Aiyo, shots at my hearing now too?” Wei Wuxian mutters, and can’t help but think back to the Bichen who didn’t speak to them for the first two months they were in the Cloud Recesses. “Who knew you’d be so mean once you got comfortable enough to start talking!”
He means it as a joke, but it comes out harsher than he wanted. Bichen’s ears press back against her head; Lan Wangji shoots him A Look.
Wei Wuxian pivots quickly.
“Ah, ok, ok, I take it back! Don’t look at me like that, I was joking, you are truly the paragon of kindness and snow leopards! What’s with the dirt?”
Bichen looks to Lan Wangji, who nods, before putting her head on her paws with a quiet huff. “I thought I had caught scent of Suibian. But the path was too narrow for me to follow.”
“Ah.” Wei Wuxian clears his throat and looks away from her. “I see. Well, she’ll come out to play eventually, I’m sure.”
It’s a flat-out lie, but not the worst one he’s told. It’s been ages since Suibian played with anyone outside of Sandu or Xiaolien, and even that has tapered off. She was too scared, then too tired, and now… now, Sandu treats her like she’s made of glass.
It’s not playing, anymore.
But she doesn’t complain. She never does; not with things that neither of them can change.
(What if they can tell?)
“What do I even smell like?” he wonders aloud, A-Sui’s question whirling in his head again. He didn’t think that daemons would be able to smell something was off. Sandu never gave any indication that his scent was a problem, but if she somehow knows, then how on earth will they—
“Tired,” Lan Wangji says, thankfully before Wei Wuxian enters into a full-blown state of panic. Wei Wuxian turns to him, frowning. “Stressed.”
“We’re all tired and stressed, Lan Zhan. We just finished a war!”
Bichen shakes her head. “No. It’s hard to notice, but it’s different. It’s just… more, with you. Like…”
She trails off, eyes going wide. Lan Wangji has gone completely still, both of them staring at something over Wei Wuxian’s shoulder.
He twists around to follow their gazes, and sees two little pricks of light watching him from one of the nearby flower bushes.
His heart leaps into his throat.
She hasn’t shown her face to them since they came back. But here she is, and—
“Don’t move,” he breathes. Lan Wangji and Bichen already look frozen to the spot; still, he’s not going to risk not saying it and having one of them scare her off all over again. This is probably his only chance of the night to get A-Sui back before sunrise, and he is not going to fuck it up.
Carefully, slowly, so that Suibian knows he’s moving towards her but isn’t going to grab, he scoots his way over to the bush.
“Hey there,” he murmurs. She doesn’t bolt at his voice, which is the first good sign; just as slowly as he came over, he lies down on his side so they’re eye-to-eye.
She blinks back at him between the green-tipped leaves, eyes flicking over to Lan Wangji and Bichen.
Her voice is slightly hoarse, hesitant but not trembling. His chest aches, every part of him wanting to reach out and pull her against him, where she’ll be cared for, and safe, and loved. Where these horrible people and their cruelty won’t reach her.
Instead, he says, “It’s alright, don’t worry. We’re just talking.”
“Yeah?” she asks, the bushes rustling as her tail twitches, and he nods.
“I promise. We can leave, though, if you want.”
She whines low in her throat. “I…”
“Easy, easy, take your time. It’s ok.”
Slowly, her muzzle appears, then her head. There’s a low, cut-off mew from behind them that makes her freeze, eyes going to where Bichen must be watching. Wei Wuxian holds his breath, terrified.
Then: the cold press of a nose against his hand.
Wei Wuxian holds his arms open, heart thundering in his chest. She slides into them with a sigh, smooth and fluid, no amount of core transfers or severed links ever able to compete with over a decade of this exact motion.
He sits in the feeling of it, her warm body against his chilled one, and wishes it would never end.
“I miss them,” A-Sui whispers into his ear, too quiet to be overheard. “Can we stay?”
There’s an ache in his heart at the words. He nods against her head, kisses her on her nose; when every muscle in her body relaxes, it feels like he just won the biggest prize at a Yunmeng street fair.
When he hikes her up against his chest and scoots back over to them, Lan Wangji and Bichen have not moved an inch. They’re still as statues, and it’s only after settling back down next to them that he realizes they’re even blinking slowly.
Something tender settles in his stomach at the sight and he chuckles, making them twitch.
He doesn’t know what it means, that Suibian has decided to show her face to them tonight. If it’s because she feels safe or scared, happy or sad. Or if it’s as simple as what she said: the constant, ever-present pain of missing them, no matter how close or far away they are.
But tonight feels—different. Quieter.
And Lan Wangji and Bichen are looking at her like she’s the first spring bloom after a long, unforgiving winter.
“Hello,” A-Sui says quietly, an olive branch even as she refuses to fully meet their eyes, and Bichen’ ears flick as she breathes out.
Her voice is the softest Wei Wuxian has ever heard it. He watches as her tail curls in the dirt behind her as she says Suibian’s name, gaze not leaving her face.
“Did you have a nice dinner?”
“We did. I wanted to save something for you, but Lan Shuoyue thought that the Jin daemons would notice.”
“Oh.” Suibian wriggles a little in his arms, openly torn between happy and embarrassed. Her claws dig into his robes when she raises herself up more, making actual eye contact with Bichen. “Um—it’s ok. A-Xian has food in his pocket, I can smell it. Hey, you have dirt on your leg?”
There’s a long pause.
All of them stare at each other.
“Alright, alright,” Wei Wuxian says loudly, because the air feels strange and he can’t get hives on top of everything else. “Settle down, you party animals. If we keep talking about such indecent things, your Shufu is going to chase us down!”
It gets A-Sui to giggle, which is a success; and Lan Wangji’s face softens incrementally, which is another. Bichen, so slow that a sloth would be envious, positions herself closer to Suibian by moving her head near Lan Wangji’s knee.
A-Sui doesn’t jerk away.
“Let me play for you,” Lan Wangji says, and this time Wei Wuxian smiles weakly at him even as his heart clenches.
Don’t bother, he wants to tell him. Let’s just be here, instead.
He doesn’t say that. He doesn’t say anything at all as Lan Wangji pulls out his guqin and turns to face him.
The first notes of Cleansing ring in the air; even in the opening, Lan Wangji plays with such a single-minded focus. Each movement of his fingers over the string feels like a declaration—of what, Wei Wuxian doesn’t know.
Still, the effects are immediate. Bichen lets out a low rumble that morphs into a barely audible purr. With a matching sigh, A-Sui settles onto his lap and closes her eyes.
Wei Wuxian tries, he really does, to do the same. To settle into the music even though he knows it’s pointless.
But his mind is somewhere else entirely.
He knows that the voices have started to shift. The novelty of him coming back has faded now that the Sunshot Campaign is over; his already unstable position is being tilted off balance with every move he makes. It’s like this constant pressure, all the time, and part of him longs to go back to the days when things were simple, when his biggest worry was how to sneak alcohol into the Cloud Recesses without getting caught.
But he can’t.
Things aren’t simple anymore. And he’s so angry. Angry about the Wens being shot down at Phoenix Mountain. Angry that he doesn’t know what to do about it.
And wondering: how can others not feel the same way?
“Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, soft, and Lan Wangji’s hands pause on the strings of his guqin. Wei Wuxian looks away from him, out towards the pond. In his lap, A-Sui has started to doze; the music doesn’t work on him, but now he knows it does on her.
Wei Wuxian’s heart aches at the way he says it.
Tell me it bothers you. Tell me that you can’t get it out of your head, either. Tell me that you can see something is going on, something wrong, something terrible.
“Ah,” he says, and laughs a little, a broken thing. It’s not a happy laugh but it’s better than the alternative. “Never mind. I was just thinking that one day, there’s going to be a path that you just can’t follow me on, too.”
Lan Wangji stares at him.
He’s so beautiful, a detached part of Wei Wuxian thinks. In any lighting, really, but especially now. His hair is ink against the setting sun, his eyes a liquid gold that not even the Jins could hope to match. The curve of his mouth is like a lotus flower in bloom.
Something about it, the way they’re sitting and the air between them, feels final. Wei Wuxian commits all it to memory, just in case. He doesn’t want to rush past it unseeing.
“Keep playing,” he adds, when Lan Wangji’s fingers don’t drift back to the strings. “A-Sui really likes it, you know?”
Lan Wangji swallows. There is a look on his face that Wei Wuxian has seen a few times before but that he’s never been able to understand: a melting of the ice, even as his brows furrow, as his shoulders tighten.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t get it.
He wants to. He really, really wants to.
After twenty beats of A-Sui’s heart under his fingers, Lan Wangji lets out a low, controlled breath. His fingers return to the guqin, and the melody resumes.
“Thanks,” Wei Wuxian whispers, so quiet, and wonders if he’ll get the chance to say it again.
Wen Qing is exhausted.
Her brother’s body is a cold weight in front of her, tucked against her as his head lolls onto his chest. Curled in her pocket, wrapped in a layer of dirty bandages, is Suyin’s tiny form, completely unmoving Water slides down her back, sticks her hair to her skin and turns the bloody ground beneath them into mud. It is the kind of rainstorm that’s vicious and unforgiving in its torrent, that floods rivers and seeps into the bones.
There’s a sick, poetic feeling to it all. Here lies her heart, ravaged and ravaging. The outside world mirrors it perfectly.
The voice barely reaches them over the screaming wind, but Wei Wuxian freezes like a bolt of thunder just struck the ground under their feet.
Lan Wangji and Bichen move in front of their path.
“Doesn't it scare you, having your death close by all the time?" said Lyra.
"Why ever would it? If he's there, you can keep an eye on him. I'd be a lot more nervous not knowing where he was.”
― Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife
Wen Qing is exhausted.
Her brother’s body is a cold weight in front of her, tucked against her as his head lolls onto his chest. Curled in her pocket, wrapped in a layer of dirty bandages, is Suyin’s tiny form, completely unmoving Water slides down her back, sticks her hair to her skin and turns the bloody ground beneath them into mud. It is the kind of rainstorm that’s vicious and unforgiving in its torrent, that floods rivers and seeps into the bones.
There’s a sick, poetic feeling to it all. Here lies her heart, ravaged and ravaging. The outside world mirrors it perfectly.
The voice barely reaches them over the screaming wind, but Wei Wuxian freezes like a bolt of thunder just struck the ground under their feet.
Lan Wangji and Bichen move in front of their path.
Wen Qing hasn’t seen them since the Sect disciples were being held at Qishan Wen all those years ago; hasn’t seen anyone, really. Lan Wangji has gotten taller, somehow; his face is narrower, the baby fat from their teenage years gone.
And there’s something in his daemon’s eyes that is new—something apart from rigidness and anger.
She doesn’t care. If they gets in her way, she’ll treat them with the same kindness that their sect has treated her.
They won’t find it particularly pleasant.
Wei Wuxian sounds flabbergasted, the surprise coming through despite the exhaustion hanging on each syllable. In a moment of true madness, he halts their horses; Wen Qing turns to him, blood pumping in her ears, the dead bodies of her family still burned into her eyelids, and snaps, “Are you insane?!”
Wei Wuxian turns to her and lays a hand on her arm, keeping his gaze on Lan Wangji. In his robes, A-Sui sticks out her head and whines low in her throat.
“Stay here,” he tells her, “I’ll talk to him.”
“We have to go—”
“I know, I promise, just let me get him to move.”
She watches, half-numb and half-feeling too much, as he nudges his horse forward. She wants to scream, wants to send them all flying forward and away from this place that has taken everything from her, wants to run.
She doesn’t. Where would she go?
Instead, she pulls Wen Ning’s dead weight closer to her.
“It’s going to be alright,” she tells him nonsensically, and smooths back the tangled mess of bloody hair sticking to his face. As a doctor, she’s seen plenty of blood in her life—but nothing has ever been so disturbing as the way his mixes with the water and runs down his neck in a line of washed-out red.
On her shoulder, tucked under her matted curtain of hair to try and block out some of the rain, Zhiruo shudders.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are speaking, their conversation drowned out by the pounding of rain against the ground. There’s lots of gesturing going on, at least from Wei Wuxian; Lan Wangji is still, silent.
His eyes are focused on Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian only. Wen Qing would be insulted, but there’s no worse insult that could be given to her than the body in her arms.
It’s what she expects anyways; he’s never looked at anyone for more than two seconds when he could be looking at Wei Wuxian instead.
“A-Qing,” Zhiruo whispers. Wen Qing raises a shaking hand and runs it across her beak, leaving iron red in its wake.
“Thirty seconds,” she says, because she doesn’t give a shit about Wei Wuxian’s crush, but she has to trust him too, has to believe he has a plan.
He can get that long, but not a second more.
To her relief, Wei Wuxian seems to have finished speaking. He’s waiting, Wen Qing hopes, for Lan Wangji to step aside. Neither have gone for their weapons, but Wen Qing watches carefully anyways.
So when Bichen steps forward, venturing from her place at Lan Wangji’s side, her heart stops.
Please don’t attack him, she thinks dizzily, watching the snow leopard cross the carefully controlled gap separating Wei Wuxian from Lan Wangji. The Wen Sect has never had predators in their bloodlines, outside of Wen Ruohan; even without the pain and exhaustion from weeks of mistreatment, none of their daemons are strong enough to fight something of her size and strength.
Bichen stops right at the halfway point. Her tail is going wild, swinging back and forth, ears pressed back so far that it almost looks like she doesn’t have them. Her fur is soaked through, clinging to her body, but she doesn’t seem to care.
When she speaks, it’s so loud that even Wen Qing can hear the words.
“We’ll come with you!”
Wei Wuxian jolts on his horse and nearly falls off. Lan Wangji’s eyes go wide, his fists clenching at his side; but he does not scold her.
“Please,” Bichen continues, blue eyes burning, “please, let us come with you.”
There’s a terrible moment of nothing, where the only sound is the rain falling and the wind howling out a scream that Wen Qing cannot let loose.
Then a small red and white shape drops onto the ground.
There’s no fear in Suibian as she trudges through the mud towards Bichen. She’s so small, comparatively, so small that Bichen could rip her in half—but it’s without hesitation that, upon arriving, she places a single muddy paw on Bichen’s nose.
Her mouth moves.
Bichen yowls so loud that Wen Qing winces. It is a dreadful noise in an already dreadful place, something mournful and tortured and heartbroken. Goosebumps crawl up her arms and Zhiruo makes a reassuring, soft chirp in her ear, even as she trembles, too.
In front of them, Wei Wuxian dismounts his horse.
His pace is quicker than Suibian’s as he makes his way over to Lan Wangji, who has not moved from his position since the moment he called Wei Wuxian’s name. Just like Suibian, his pace does not falter as he gets closer, nor as he crosses into his space, nor as he reaches out—
And, without slowing down, Wei Wuxian throws his arms around Lan Wangji and hugs him.
Oh, Wen Qing realizes, watching Lan Wangji stumble back from the force of it. Wei Wuxian’s arms tighten around the white-clad shoulders; Lan Wangji’s hand makes an aborted movement to steady them, freezing halfway to Wei Wuxian’s waist before it can make contact.
They stand there, rain soaking through their clothes, Wei Wuxian’s face buried in Lan Wangji’s shoulder. He holds onto Lan Wangji like the world will fall apart if he doesn’t.
She had known, of course. Anyone with eyes had known.
She just hadn’t thought it would ever come to something like this.
Wei Wuxian pulls back from Lan Wangji with a smile on his face that is not happy at all. His mouth moves, a familiar shape: Ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.
She can’t read the rest of whatever he says as he tries to brush off the large smear of red and brown that he’s gotten all over Lan Wangji’s robes. It’s useless anyways; all he does is spread it farther, a dark mix of blood and mud, now permanently stained into the fine white fabric.
Lan Wangji stares at him, unblinking. He does not flinch away.
Slowly, Wei Wuxian’s hands fall from the fabric. He turns back to look at them, and when their eyes meet, she sees his rough exhale, the press of determination in his mouth.
He nods to her and turns back to Lan Wangji.
“Goodbye,” he tells him, loud enough to carry. Bichen yowls again, yowls louder when Wei Wuxian turns and starts slipping through the mud back to them. She halts just long enough for Suibian to lick her muzzle, just once, a shocked cut-off of sound—before picking up again, worse, deeper, as the fox scrambles away to join Wei Wuxian.
Lan Wangji watches them go, his hand still hovering in the air.
When he’s back on his horse and returned to their sides, Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath.
“Let’s go,” he tells them, gaze trained on the road ahead. His eyes are red-rimmed and shadowed; Wen Qing thinks she can hear the smallest hint of whimpers from his robes.
“Where are we going?” asks Granny, holding a dozing A-Yuan in her arms. He is thin, sick, terrifyingly mortal, and she is not going to let him die.
“I have a place. It won’t be easy, but I promise you: I’ll make it safe, for all of us.”
Up the path, Lan Wangji has stepped aside, umbrella long forgotten from where it fell during Wei Wuxian’s embrace. Bichen is back at his side and deathly silent now, mud coating her fur, for once looking less than the pinnacle of perfection.
They look, Wen Qing thinks, like spectators at a funeral.
There’s no time for her to dwell on the thought and what it might mean for their chances. The path is clear. There’s no turning back now.
As they tear away, galloping through the unsteady terrain and sending muck and mud flying through the air, Wei Wuxian keeps his gaze forward. His jaw is clenched, twin trails of water down his face that could be the rain or tears, she isn’t sure. But he is steady. Determined. He leaves Lan Wangji and Bichen without another glance.
So Wen Qing glances back, just once, at the lone pair of figures standing in the storm.
We haven’t seen the last of you, she thinks, Lan Wangji’s and Bichen specks of white in the distance. Not even close.
She is, as with most things, right.
It just takes time.
For a while, they’re so busy just making the Burial Mounds livable and getting Wen Ning to come back that she doesn’t even think about Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian. During that terrible space of time –where all she can see is A-Ning’s cold and unmoving body on the table, where the sound of Wei Wuxian’s frantic experiments and desperate guesses become commonplace—there’s no room in her heart for anything else.
Zhiruo says it with the appropriate amount of disgust, which Wen Qing appreciates. They’re fighting for their lives in a barren landscape that probably wants to eat them alive; there’s no time for lovesickness, not really.
They watch as Wei Wuxian wanders around the gardens, looking as if someone just kicked a puppy in front of him. Perhaps not a puppy, Wen Qing corrects herself, when she recalls what Wen Ning told her about Wei Wuxian’s time in the Wen jailcell.
Still. He is lovesick; sighing, pouting, brooding in his cave for hours on end. It’s only gotten worse over the past few months they’ve been here. At this point, it’s practically a public hazard.
“But he’s too stupid to realize it,” Zhiruo adds, fluffing her feathers.
“I think it’s very endearing.” Granny, who so far has been busy trying to keep A-Yuan occupied and out of immediate trouble, joins in the conversation with her usual positive attitude. Wen Qing turns to her, eyebrows raised.
“How is that,” she points to Wei Wuxian, who now has slumped in the dirt like he’s waiting for someone to bury him like a turnip, “endearing?”
“Young love! Ah, to feel that kind of passion again…”
Wen Qing rolls her eyes, and goes back to crushing herbs.
Still, she can’t help but wonder—when will Hanguang-Jun show?
Not physically, of course. That would be terribly foolish of him, to do such a thing. She’s expecting a letter, maybe, or some greeting passed along by others on his behalf, or for Wei Wuxian to overhear a rumor about him in town and come back with stars in his eyes.
Anything more, after all, would be too dangerous.
So one week later, when Wei Wuxian stops halfway through picking turnips and says, with the falsely casual tone that means something is most assuredly wrong, “Oh, looks like something just pinged the outer wards!” her first thought is absolutely not, Oh, it must be the illustrious and respectable Hanguang-Jun.
Instead, she brushes the dirt off her robes, stands, and thinks: if I have to help him kill someone today, then so be it.
And that’s when the visits start.
“Look who I found!” Wei Wuxian calls to her, when he and Suibian finally come back from their investigation with grins on their faces and Lan Wangji and Bichen at their sides, bright white among the washed-out landscape.
Wen Qing stares at them.
Lan Wangji and Bichen are carrying at least four different bags of various shapes and sizes, slung across their backs and practically overflowing at the edges. She sees the soft tips of chamomile, stalks of wheat, a heavy bag that looks like it’s full of rice. When they make their way towards her, she hears the clink of some type of glass coming from their qiankun bag.
“Holy shit,” Zhiruo breathes, and Wen Qing could not agree more.
“Wen-guniang,” Lan Wangji says, and bows, lower than she would have expected.
Slowly, she bows back. “Hanguang-Jun, Lan Bichen.”
It is an acknowledgement and nothing more. She still remembers who stood by when her family was being slaughtered.
Zhiruo seems to be in the same mindset. “What are you doing here?”
“A total coincidence!” Wei Wuxian gushes, before Lan Wangji can even open his mouth to reply. He’s still beaming, cheeks slightly flushed, more color on his skin than she’s seen for a month. “They were in the area and noticed our wards, and accidentally set one off! Wild, right?”
He sounds, stupidly, like he actually believes it. Wen Qing glances to Lan Wangji and sees that his ears have tinted pink.
“Right,” she says, drawing out the word, because Wei Wuxian might be absolutely clueless, but she isn’t. “What a coincidence. I didn’t know that Gusu Lan had to travel all this way to buy rice.”
Lan Wangji’s ears turn bright, burning red.
The next few minutes are—hectic. Everyone knows who Hanguang-Jun is, after all; partly from general sect rumors and mostly from Wei Wuxian’s endless pining between now and that night in the rain. Wen Qing was aware that her family could be gossipers, but watching them pretend to work while openly staring at Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian brings it to a whole new level.
“Look at his daemon.”
There’s a murmur of agreement at Wen Haiyun’s words. Her cousin has always liked pretty things, and with her spotted fur standing out against the dull greys of the Burial Mounds, Bichen certainly falls into that category.
“And so kind! Look at how gentle she is with Suibian!”
“Amazing! Why do you think she chose that form?”
Wen Qing sighs. Again: gossipers. When Jiang Wanyin and Sandu had visited, her family hadn’t been nearly as talkative.
Then again, she realizes: Jiang Wanyin doesn’t exactly inspire the same kind of whispers, does he?
“Like I said, young love,” Granny says to her as they watch Wei Wuxian bring Hanguang-Jun to the Demon Subdue Palace, a huge smile on her wrinkled face. Wei Wuxian is pointing to various parts of the village, probably rattling off facts about the makeshift houses and avoiding any and all discussion of his use of resentful energy. Lan Wangji nods along, but it’s clear he’s not looking at anything except the man in front of him.
Zhiruo fluffs her feathers and makes a vague noise of disgust.
“Ugh. I never want to hear it said like that again.”
Wen Qing agrees. Watching Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji alternate gazing wistfully at each other when the other isn’t looking is nauseating.
Granny’s daemon, ever the optimist, pipes in. “I think it’s cute! And look, Lan Bichen and A-Sui are talking. Maybe they can all be friends?”
Wen Qing sighs. She doesn’t think that they will be able to be friends, not with their current situation. The fact that Hanguang-Jun even visited is a minor miracle; she can’t imagine it happening often, if ever again.
Even if he did, the secret Wei Wuxian and Suibian are so desperate to hide doesn’t exactly bode well for a blossoming relationship.
She wonders what her gossiping cousins would say if they knew just how wrong the scene before them actually was. Her family never had the chance to see the way those four acted back in the Cloud Recesses; if they had been there and seen that, they would know that the mǐ of space Wei Wuxian and Suibian keep between themselves and the Lans is very telling, indeed.
Talking is not the problem. Wei Wuxian and Suibian can talk themselves hoarse; it doesn’t change the yowling fox that can be heard in the depths of the night or the steadily growing pool of blood in the cave they call home.
They are just very, very good at pretending.
And pretending, Wen Qing knows from experience, can only last so long.
“Well,” she says, and looks at the supplies that Lan Wangji just happened to need to get rid of before he returned to the Cloud Recesses, ones that coincidentally they would never be able to afford or grow or find, “friends or not, at least he’s being useful.”
Sometime between Wei Wuxian complaining about potatoes and being distracted by Suibian’s happy giggles, Lan Wangji and Bichen pull her aside.
“How can we help?” Bichen asks, and Wen Qing blinks at her.
She looks almost impossibly earnest, her ears perked attentively in Wen Qing’s direction, blue eyes sincere and steady. When Wen Qing glances to Lan Wangji, he shifts slightly, seems to somehow straighten his spine even further, like he’s getting ready for a fight.
Huh, she thinks, sharing a sidelong look with Zhiruo. They mean it, don’t they?
“What can you offer?”
There’s a flash of surprise across Bichen’s face; but Wen Qing isn’t going to let her family starve, isn’t going to choose her pride over another month of survival or something that could help A-Yuan’s frequent fevers. It hasn’t been easy on him here—even now, he’s tucked away inside one of the houses, fitfully sleeping while the rest of her family oos and aahs at the visit.
A shame, really. She thinks he would like Hanguang-Jun; he’s mildly obsessed with Wei Wuxian, after all, so she already knows he has terrible taste.
Bichen glances to Lan Wangji, who nods.
She barely holds back a sigh; she really should have expected something like that.
“We know,” Lan Wangji says slowly, when she doesn’t respond right away, “that you are in a precarious situation.”
Her eye moves to him, sharp. He meets her gaze and holds it.
The thing is: he’s right. They’re running on borrowed time. Wen Qing knows it, even if Wei Wuxian doesn’t seem to. So far, they’ve managed to scrape by undetected, relatively unbothered, low profile enough that the other Sects seem content to let them slowly starve to death instead of trying to kill them outright.
But at some point, the other shoe is going to drop.
She’s not sure when, or how, or why, but she’s seen what the Sects can do to people who they don’t think of as human. Wei Wuxian’s talisman techniques aren’t perfect and can’t protect them forever, even if he insists he has it all under control.
From the look on Hanguang-Jun’s face, he knows it too.
“I have some ideas,” she says, because she has too many enemies already and she’d much prefer an ally instead, especially a rich one, and motions to his now-empty qiankun bag. “Do you have parchment? I’ll write you a list.”
“I need to ask you something.
Suibian looks up from where she’s curled up on Wei Wuxian’s chest. Her shadow moves on the wall behind her, cast from the flickering candle on the makeshift workbench that Wei Wuxian only just vacated.
The man himself is unconscious, some combination of exhaustion and the herbal tonic Wen Qing practically had to force down his throat so he would stop coughing up blood all over the clothes they’d just washed.
But Suibian is awake, little fox eyes bright in the dimness, attention now on her.
“Hmm? What is it?”
Wen Qing goes to join her on the stone slab that Wei Wuxian calls his bed, reaching out to double-check his breathing. His face is pale and drawn; even with all of Lan Wangji’s visits and supplies, Wen Qing still hasn’t figured out a way to reduce the strain that demonic cultivation takes on his body.
Somewhere outside the Demon Subdue Cave, Wen Ning and Suyin are going around, offering anxious, trembling apologies to everyone they accidentally hurt today. She can hear their voices, faint but reassuring, a reminder of just how much they might have lost today if Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian hadn’t gotten back in time.
And time is, as always, their most precious resource.
“After the transfer,” she says, and keeps her voice purposefully calm, a detached curiosity, because she’s learned that any hint of concern will send Wei Wuxian and Suibian scrambling to reassure and pretend, “did you ever want to touch Jiang Wanyin?”
Stay neutral, stay objective, even with the most forbidden topics. Her mother had taught her well.
It works: Suibian is so surprised that she gapes at her, wide-eyed and shocked.
“What?” she says, and her ears twist, genuine horror splashed across her face. She glances at Wei Wuxian and lowers her voice, like she’s afraid he’ll somehow hear them talking about it. “Qing-guniang, no! How could you ask that?! Why would I ever want to touch anyone but A-Xian?”
Wen Qing hums, noncommittal. “Well, his core is in there, isn’t it?”
“That’s—” Suibian starts, and she looks nauseated now. “I know, but—no. A-Cheng belongs to Sandu, not to me. I’ve never… Even though I can’t feel A-Xian anymore, I don’t…”
She trails off, cuddling closer to Wei Wuxian.
Wen Qing turns that over in her head. Interesting. It invalidates one of the theories she has, and raises about fifty more, ones that she doesn’t even begin to have the answers to.
But Suibian might hold a clue, even if she doesn’t know it.
“I know that sometimes you don’t always tell me the whole truth,” she says, because she’s not going to waste the precious time that Wei Wuxian is unconscious by beating around the bush. Suibian opens her mouth to protest, but Wen Qing holds up a hand to stop her. “Don’t try to deny it. I get it, I do; but he’s conked out right now, and he can’t hear whatever it is you’re so afraid of him hearing. If I promise that whatever you say stays between us, will you be honest with me?”
Suibian shifts, her claws curling into Wei Wuxian’s robes.
“I…” she whispers, and, like a nervous tick, licks Wei Wuxian’s cheek. “You could—he would find out. Whatever I said to you, he’d know.”
“He would! The Burial Mounds, the voices—”
She cuts herself off, eyes widening like she hadn’t meant to say even that tiny, half-formed glimpse of a sentence. Seeming unable to hold Wen Wing’s gaze, she turns her head away, tail tucked closely around her feet.
Great. Voices. Wen Qing closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.
This is exactly why she needs someone who will talk to her. Wei Wuxian is a lost cause; but Suibian has always been more honest, or at least more willing to slip up in saying something.
“I’ll either find out hearing it from you, or I’ll find out when something like this happens again,” she reasons, motioning to Wei Wuxian’s unconscious form. Suibian whines low in her throat and turns to face her again, all worried ears and whiskers.
Zhiruo hops down from where she was poking around Wei Wuxian’s bench, affixing Suibian with piercing gaze.
“Look,” she says, because Suibian doesn’t look convinced, and Wen Qing crosses her arms to add to the atmosphere. “We both know he’s getting worse.” Suibian flinches. “And we don’t know what the fuck is going on with you, but A-Qing think it’s interconnected. If you shoot straight with her, she has a better chance of helping you both before it’s too late.”
Suibian shivers; Wen Qing knows she understands exactly what Zhiruo is talking about.
There’s no research on what deviation is supposed to look like when the pair is no longer linked. Deviations are so rare, hard enough to study in normal circumstances and so terrible that few even want to try. So a deviation like this, where the pair probably should have died in the first place?
They’re flying blind.
Will it be a slow, gradual change, Suibian’s own energy somehow staving off the inevitable? Or will they wake up one morning, the sun struggling to peek through the dark clouds of resentment above them, and find that Suibian isn’t Suibian at all anymore?
She wants to find out the answer to that before it happens. And to do that, she needs information.
There’s a long, drawn-out silence.
“Ok,” Suibian blurts, and Wen Qing can feel the weight of the word as it’s ripped out from her, too big for such tiny, fragile lungs. “Ok. Sometimes I don’t know why things are happening, they just happen, but I’ll—I’ll tell you whatever I can.”
Hope, heady and dizzying, fills Wen Qing’s chest.
“Right,” she says, and turns fully to face her, mind abuzz. Time, time, time. “Let’s start easy: when you run, are you running towards something? Or just away?”
And, with a deep breath in, Suibian tells her.
Suyin covers her eyes with her wings at Wen Qing’s tone. “I’m sorry, A-jie. I just couldn’t get him to do anything.”
Wen Qing feels a muscle in her jaw twitch. “It was bad before. How is he somehow worse?”
They’re all staring at Wei Wuxian, who is busy gazing at the grass butterfly Hanguang-Jun bought for A-Yuan a month ago with an expression so morose it’s a miracle the crops around him haven’t wilted. He’s been standing and holding it for at least ten minutes, occasionally throwing in a pained sigh for good measure.
It’s been a while since Huanguang-Jun and Bichen visited.
Wei Wuxian is not taking it well.
“It’s revolting. And kind of fascinating,” Zhiruo admits, absent-mindedly plucking a feather from her left wing. She tucks it into Wen Qing’s hair. “But in a morbid way. At least he sold the turnips.”
Wen Qing pinches the bridge of her nose to stave off a growing headache. The turnips.
A few days ago, Wei Wuxian had gone into town with a full cart of them, as usual. She’d expected him to be gone all day—but he’d returned a few hours later with absolutely no turnips and a sack of money that was in no way, shape, or form equivalent to what he should have gotten for them.
“What…?” she had asked, as A-Yuan had run excitedly around her legs with another new toy that she had very much hoped was not a result of Wei Wuxian losing his mind and buying for him. “Wei Wuxian, this is ten times what they were worth—”
“Huh?!” He’d come over to look, a furrow in his eyebrows. “No way. I told Lan Zhan specifically how much we needed. Count again.”
She hadn’t counted again. She’d looked at him, said, “You ran into Hanguang-Jun again?” and then listened to A-Yuan wax poetic about Rich-gege, he bought me this toy, for at least five straight minutes, just like the last time. The melancholy longing in Wei Wuxian’s eyes during the entire conversation had made it perfectly clear what happened.
“He came back to Yiling and bought… all of our turnips?”
“Yep!” Wei Wuxian had chirped, a true, sunshine-bright smile on his face. “He said there was another night hunt in the area already, can you believe it?”
Wen Qing had not, in fact, believed it.
“I tried to give him a discount but he wouldn’t listen, he just gave me the bag of money and said he would arrange for them to be transported! Apparently they really need turnips in Gusu this time of year, he and Bichen were very insistent.”
Wen Qing, who had spent several months extensively spying on all aspects of Gusu Lan topography, including the gardens, had known for a fact that they were in absolutely no need of turnips.
“Who knew turnips could be so popular in the Cloud Recesses, huh?” he’d added, when Wen Qing hadn’t replied right away.
“Who knew?” A-Yuan had echoed helpfully.
Now, watching Wei Wuxian pine, a small twist settles in her chest. There’s a helplessness about the entire situation that she hates, one that she foolishly thought she was used to when working with Wen Chao. If they hadn’t been forced to flee here, if their family name hadn’t been slandered, then Wei Wuxian wouldn’t even be in this situation.
She shakes herself from that line of thinking. There’s no point dwelling on what-ifs.
“I bet he wanted him to come back and stay for the day,” Zhiruo says, and presses her head against Wen Qing’s cheek. “Do you think he’s going to be like this every time he runs into Hanguang-Jun, and Huanguang-Jun doesn’t immediately follow him around like a lovestruck fool?”
Wen Qing sighs. “Probably.”
“What should we do?”
Wen Qing looks to the small bat hanging upside-down from the branch next to them. “Us? It’s him who needs to do something. Not that he will.”
“You think so?” Suyin is frowning, a thoughtful look on her face. “I asked A-Sui the other day if Wei Wuxian missed him, and she just rolled her eyes.”
Zhiruo snorts, ruffling her feathers on Wen Qing’s shoulder. “Um, yeah? Because it’s obvious. As if she isn’t missing Bichen just as much! At least they’re open about it, compared to whatever weirdness is going on between Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian.”
Ugh. Wen Qing runs a hand over her face. Those four…
“Bless his heart,” Granny sighs dreamily, still watching Wei Wuxian. “Not the smartest boy when it comes to this, is he?”
She says it like it’s a good thing instead of what it really is: annoying. They watch as Wei Wuxian abandons the toy in favor of wandering over to the Lotus Roots to let out another huge sigh.
“Suyin is right,” she decides, clapping her hands together once so the rest of them turn to look at her. “This needs an intervention. Let’s give him a project.”
“We finished the houses already. What’s next?”
“Nothing he’d be useful for. Hmm. Someone fetch A-Ning.”
Her brother’s presence is usually enough to get Wei Wuxian to rally, since they’re still trying to figure out how to help Suyin’s fur grow back. It’s been patchy ever since Wei Wuxian was able to wake them both up (bring them back to life, her mind prompts her), and he’s been trying out some things to help.
It’s not the most pressing issue, but Wei Wuxian has been treating it very seriously. It should do the trick.
Suyin perks up. “Ooh! I’ll find him, A-jie!”
In a flash, she’s off. Wen Qing shakes her head, exasperated. Her brother and his daemon still can’t go that far from each other, so he has to be close, but whenever Suyin goes to find Wen Ning they inevitably get distracted by something before actually coming back.
This will take a while.
Still. She should be thankful that they can find each other. Even months later, that stretch of tear-stained weeks is burned into her nightmares like the brand on Wei Wuxian’s chest. Nothing, she thinks, could be worse than that. Not hunger, or discomfort, or uncertainty.
She’ll take anything over that.
Her brother is back, and still linked to his daemon, and that’s all she cares about. They’re grateful just to be together again, even if it’s not under the best of circumstances.
But watching Wei Wuxian’s face when he thinks they’re not looking, she understands what it means to him to keep trying to solve all these things. The need to fix—it’s one she knows well. She’s not going to take that away from him.
He’s a stubborn one. Stubborn, and self-sacrificing.
“I want to play with A-Sui,” A-Yuan says, tugging on Granny’s sleeve.
He’s still dirty from where Wei Wuxian buried him in the dirt earlier, smile on his face so bright that Wen Qing’s heart aches. His daemon spins joyfully in the air; A-Yuan is much too young for her to have settled or be named yet, but lately she’s been taking the form of a red-and-black moth.
Given the way A-Yuan openly idolizes and clings to Wei Wuxian, the color choice is not surprising.
“You’ll have to find her first,” Zhiruo tells him, fluttering down so that they’re eye level. Suibian had come back with Wei Wuxian and A-Yuan, but she’s disappeared somewhere in the bushes since then. “And you know what that means, right A-Yuan?”
“Hide and seek!” A-Yuan giggles, delighted, and tries to stand up. It takes a few attempts; Zhiruo watches and snickers while Granny tries to straighten his clothes before he goes tearing off.
“Be good, A-Yuan!”
“And ask Wei Wuxian for permission first,” Zhiruo reminds him, when A-Yuan makes it clear that he’s about to just start searching blindly.
Asking is part of the rules, because hide and seek with Suibian is a one-sided game that only Wei Wuxian and A-Yuan ever succeed at. Wei Wuxian, because he is stubborn and gentle; and A-Yuan, because Suibian can’t stand to see him anything other than deliriously happy. All it takes is him crying, or Wei Wuxian calling her name and encouraging A-Yuan to join along, and she’s back in a flash.
(As long as she hasn’t gone too far. That’s only happened once, and after seeing the stress that it put them both through, Wen Qing gave them a stern talking-to that she hopes showed up in their nightmares for at least a week.)
Sometimes, though, Suibian needs to just hide.
Hide, and not be sought out, and not be forced to slink back just because she feels bad for A-Yuan. Wen Qing doesn’t know how Wei Wuxian can tell the difference between when they can and can’t play, but he’s never guessed wrong.
The man in question has noticed their antics and wandered over, twirling Chenqing in his fingers. When A-Yuan looks at him with watery eyes and asks, “Hide and seek?”, he laughs.
“Sure, sure,” he says, and hoists A-Yuan onto his shoulders. A-Yuan giggles and tugs on his ponytail in a way that must be painful, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t so much as flinch. “But only if you use your big boy voice! Can you do that?”
“Good, good. A-Sui loves us very much, you know, but you have to be nice and loud so she knows we’re playing! Who’s going to count?”
“A-Yuan will,” Wen Qing says, unable to keep the smile off her face as she watches Wei Wuxian spin in circles a few times to make him giggle more. “He needs to practice his numbers.”
“Ah, very important, very important,” Wei Wuxian says seriously, and tugs on A-Yuan’s foot. “Listen to Wen Qing, alright? Knowing your numbers is how you’ll grow big and strong, like me!”
Zhiruo snorts, and Wei Wuxian sends her a dirty look.
“Hey! I heard that. I’m plenty strong, who do you think would win in an arm wrestle between you and me, hmm?”
“What? I’m a bird—"
Wei Wuxian laughs, waving her off. “Alright, point taken. A-Yuan, are you ready?”
A-Yuan looks over the moon. “Ready!”
“Ok,” Zhiruo tells them, still glaring at Wei Wuxian. A-Yuan’s daemon lands on his shoulder. “Close your eyes, and count to ten…”
Wen Qing watches them dash off, the sound of A-Yuan’s laughter floating through the barren trees. Seeing them play is a small comfort in a world full of uncertainty. There’s an ever-present tightness in her chest now: the side-effect of years of tension and hypervigilance that she doesn’t think will ever fade.
There’s no reason for it to. Jiang Wanyin’s words from when he visited ring in her ears: How can people live in such a terrible place?
He wasn’t entirely wrong. They’re not safe here, no matter how much they try to make it feel that way for A-Yuan. They’re living on borrowed time. But it’s time that she never thought she would get, dirty and starving on the streets of Yunmeng, hoping against hope that Wei Wuxian would come through.
He did. They all did.
Now, the most she can do is try to keep the clock going for as long as she can.
And she’s not going to just wait around.
“A-Ning!” she calls, and he scuttles out from one of the nearby houses with a sheepish expression on his face, Suyin’s nose peeking out of pocket as they get close. She sighs; really, did Suyin even remember to tell him that they were supposed to come back?
She grabs three planks of wood and places them in his arms, then grabs five for herself.
“Come on, I’ve got some ideas. Let’s give those talismans an extra kick.”
“So it’s easier to share energy with him when he’s asleep?”
Suibian nods from her hidden spot in the nearby bush, eyes glancing around nervously for Wei Wuxian. He’s in his cave, probably tinkering away at another talisman design. Wen Qing can see the ravens circling outside it; they always come by whenever he’s inventing.
“There’s just—less things, going on,” she says. “I don’t have to focus as much, and I—that thing inside me that I told you about, the core, or energy, or whatever? It replenishes quicker, compared to when we tried it when he was awake.”
“Hmm.” Wen Qing files away this information for later. “Well. Stop doing that, alright? You look like a gentle breeze could blow you over. We don’t know your limits yet, and I don’t want you testing it without me there.”
A moment of hesitation. Then: “If you say so, Qing-guniang.”
Not a yes. Wen Qing sighs, and lets Zhiruo hop down to try and groom her tangled fur.
Two months and a few neatly-sealed packages from Lan Wangji later, Wei Wuxian and Suibian return from town with red-rimmed eyes and huge smiles on their faces.
“She’s beautiful,” he tells Wen Qing, sniffling a bit. “Her dress is every bit what she deserves! Actually, no—nothing that the Jin Sect could give her is ever what she deserves, but she makes it look perfect. God, that Jin Zixuan and his stupid peacock better treat her right—”
“His daemon isn’t a peacock. You know that, you’ve seen her,” Wen Qing interrupts, trying not to roll her eyes or worse, smile. Wei Wuxian needs absolutely no encouragement with this particular matter. “Also, where are the turnips?”
“Ah!” Wei Wuxian perks up a bit and his grin gets wider. “You won’t believe it! I was telling Jiang Cheng about how Lan Zhan bought so many for the Cloud Recesses, and it turns out Lotus Pier is in shortage of turnips too!”
In the branches above them, Zhiruo lets out a long-suffering sigh. “Oh no.”
Wen Qing closes her eyes. Prays to the gods for patience.
“He said that, did he?”
“Mmhmm! He bought all of them.”
"You should have seen it,” Suibian adds from where she’s balanced on his shoulder. She looks ok today, fur brushed and eyes alight. “He was so mad! He said that next time Lan Zhan asks for them, we have to tell him they’re all reserved for Yunmeng Jiang Sect!”
Wen Qing might deviate. Or murder someone. She isn’t sure. She checks the coin pouch; it’s much heavier than it should be.
“I had no idea he liked turnips that much,” Wei Wuxian continues cheerfully, and then his eyes get all watery. “Ah, but Shijie loves turnips. Did I tell you about how beautiful her veil was yet?”
What an idiot.
Despite the supplies, the talismans, the moments of levity from the outside world, the Burial Mounds is not an easy place to live. But it’s not the first time Wen Qing has had to make the best out of a bad situation. It’s certainly not the first time she’s been faced with something that seems impossible, either.
No—long before the Burial Mounds, Wen Qing knew exactly what to do when presented with an overwhelming problem.
Sometimes the answers were obvious; often, they were not. When she was young and learning this, prone to frustration over a failed batch of tonic or a particularly tricky task, her mother would crouch down, lips pursed, and remind her: maybe she was facing it the wrong way.
“A-Qing,” she would chide, “step back. Look differently, and approach from a new angle. What do you see now?”
Wen Qing thinks of that lesson long after her mother has passed away; not just in her medicine, but when navigating the complexities of Wen Ruohan’s temper, her time at the Cloud Recesses, the building of the Burial Mounds. She has repeated it to herself many times over the years, in the good and the bad.
Step back. Look differently. Find a new angle.
For the particular problem in front of her now, she is not sure how many more angles she has left to try.
“Stay still,” Wen Qing snaps at Wei Wuxian, focused on running a hand over the scar from his core transplant to see if there’s an underlying issue. It’s more jagged than she wanted, but it had been impossible to keep him from writhing after the first incision. Still, it’s healed up well, considering.
“Sorry,” he mutters, Suibian curling a little tighter against his neck.
There’s no levity to the word: his good mood from seeing his sister has evaporated over the past few weeks, resulting in a general state of sleep deprivation and mounting agitation. It has made him absolutely miserable to be around, but if he thinks he can be worse than Wen Chao, he’s fooling himself.
“Let me see your eyes.”
A scowl crosses his face but he obeys, letting her tilt his head left and right while she checks his pupils.
She knows he hates being examined like this: he can’t hide the truth from her when she can read it in every line of his body. That is, of course, exactly why she keeps doing it.
Around her, talismans litter the floor of the cave. She recognizes a few experiments: sketches of lines for safety, alarms, random ideas he’s been testing on Wen Ning to return him to some semblance of his past normalcy.
To the side, carefully placed under other projects and likely worked on in the depth of night, are the ones trying to rebuild some of the connection between him and Suibian.
Wei Wuxian’s ideas have a strange tendency to work. Those last ones haven’t.
If anything, it’s getting worse.
The longest a daemon and a human have ever managed to stay apart without going into a full deviation is two months. When she was a little girl, Wen Qing had read the accounts: the cultivator Liu Daiyu and her daemon, Jiaying, forced apart by an unnatural flash flood during a night-hunt.
Liu Daiyu had been overrun by water ghouls in the chaos of it all, expending all of her spiritual energy just to survive. It had taken her three weeks to drag herself, legs and arms broken, to a village for help. The flood had swept her daemon far away; by the time they managed to find it, it could no longer speak.
And before they could capture it, begin the long journey back to where Liu Daiyu was screaming and sobbing in her restbed, it was too late.
Two months, and few hundred li of distance, and then they were dead.
What scares her is this: Suibian and Wei Wuxian are at seven.
Seven months, and no link, and Wen Qing doesn’t know how much longer they can last.
So far, the changes have been small; warning signs, maybe, if they’re lucky enough to get those. Suibian is clingy and nervous on her best days now, easily spooked. There’s a restlessness in her movements when she sits down to play with A-Yuan, to eat dinner with Granny, to watch Wei Wuxian do his blood-soaked work. She can still talk, and she hasn’t started nipping at anyone or picking fights, but each day feels like a new opportunity for something to happen.
Wei Wuxian isn’t exactly much better. The pool in his cave smells stronger by the day, growing with each new ward he puts in place. And there’s a look in his eyes, sometimes, when he gazes across the parched landscape—something not fully there.
He is a volcano waiting to erupt; given the right fuel, he would burn the world down to nothing but charred rock and smoke. Suibian deviating, it would…
Well. She doesn’t need science to guess what the fallout of that would be.
Hence the checkups.
“Are you in pain?”
“No,” Wei Wuxian says, right as A-Sui says, “Yes, his side,” and the two of them throw each other dirty looks.
Wen Qing scowls, drawing her fingers back from his eyes.
“Thank you, Suibian. Wei Wuxian, when are you going to learn to stop lying to me?”
All he offers is a meek, “It barely hurts,” which turns into a gasp when Wen Qing presses her fingers into his side. “Ah, mercy, mercy!”
“This was from some time ago. It hasn’t healed yet?”
“Without a core, my body barely heals,” he admits, which is not news to Wen Qing. It was her, after all, who wrote the theory on golden core transference. She has entire pages of hypotheses concerning what would happen to the donor.
Still. It’s disconcerting to see them play out before her.
“What about you?” she asks Suibian, who lifts her head from Wei Wuxian’s neck and flattens her ears.
“No.” When Wei Wuxian doesn’t offer up a protest or counterargument, Wen Qing knows she is telling the truth. “It never hurts, not physically. I’m just—um, I just get restless sometimes.”
Like I could just run forever, Suibian had told her that night. Like if I run fast enough, I’ll be able to find… something. But I don’t know what.
And then, right after: Please don’t tell A-Xian that it’s like that. He worries a lot already.
“Hold up your paws,” she says, and Suibian obeys. She checks her pupils and her ears, which both look fine, and instructs Zhiruo to land on her and ascertain her level of spiritual energy.
Wei Wuxian watches the process with dark, unblinking eyes.
“Have you been draining your energy more than normal?” Zhiruo asks her, a dangerous lilt to her tone, and Wen Qing purses her lips when Wei Wuxian and Suibian shoot each other a look.
“You told me you had stopped trying to share with him!”
“We did!” Wei Wuxian protests, starting to sit up, and yelps when Wen Qing pushes on his side in retaliation. He slides back down, pouting. “Ow! You’re so cruel to me—”
“Don’t try to distract me.” Wen Qing knows this tactic. It’s never worked on her. “Spill.”
Both of them are silent for a few seconds, avoiding her gaze. She waits with steadily decreasing patience.
“I wanted to test something,” Suibian eventually mumbles, and looks uneasy when Wei Wuxian tenses. “A-Xian… maybe Wen Qing can help—”
“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Wei Wuxian mutters. Wen Qing smacks him on the head, earning a few more ah, ah, aiyo! noises of protest.
“Shut up and let her tell me whatever you’ve been hiding! It’s insulting, you know, to have so little faith placed in me.”
“That’s not it, Qing-guniang,” Suibian says immediately, and Wei Wuxian’s shoots them both a betrayed look. “And it’s not A-Xian’s fault! We both decided not to bring it up, we didn’t think it was really a problem.”
They’re the worst patients she’s ever had. They could have a knife in their side and not consider it a problem, just laugh it off and wave it away as they bled out on the floor.
She tries to keep that thought off her face, though, so that Suibian will continue.
“A-Xian wasn’t sleeping well,” Suibian says, sounding like she’s picking her words very carefully, “so I got curious and tried to reach out. Not for long at all!” she adds quickly, as a muscle in Wen Qing’s cheek twitches. “Just to see if I could help. And it felt a—a little weird when he grabbed onto the link I was offering, so we decided to investigate. That’s all. That’s why my energy is low.”
“Weird?” Wen Qing echoes, and turns her gaze to Wei Wuxian. His hands are clenched. “By weird, do you mean ‘dark’? What about, say, ‘demonic’?”
“Wen Qing,” Wei Wuxian says, low, and Suibian lets out a whine. “Don’t.”
It’s a tone she knows. It’s the same one he had used when he looked at her on the mountain all those years ago and said, Promise me, Wen Qing.
She doesn’t give a shit. He’s never intimidated her, and that’s not miraculously going to change right now.
“How long were you sharing energy, Suibian?”
“I…” Suibian’s eyes are anxious, flicking between her and Wei Wuxian. “Qing-guniang, I swear he stopped as soon as we realized.”
Something in Suibian’s tone of voice makes it clear that it was Wei Wuxian who stopped her and not a unanimous decision. The confirmation of what she already suspected is satisfying. It means Wei Wuxian understands, even if it’s just subconsciously, that the energy he’s using is dangerous. Even if he’s in denial about causing himself harm, he knows enough to stop Suibian from being exposed to it.
This is exactly why she told him not to keep secrets.
When Wen Qing doesn’t respond right away, Suibian adds, quieter, “Please don’t be mad.”
Wen Qing is furious. Furious and so worried that it tightens her chest.
There’s guilt, too. Everything that Wei Wuxian is doing he’s doing for her family. He’s sacrificed so much for them when has no obligation to do so; they’re not his blood, and there’s nothing he’s gained from it. The opposite: he’s worse off here caring for them, risking his life and friendships to stand at their sides.
And they’ve all seen the toll.
She takes a deep breath, steadies herself. It was his choice; he’s made that clear. She told him to leave and he wouldn’t, so now she just has to make sure it doesn’t destroy him.
That, at least, she can do. She wasn’t considered the best doctor of her age for nothing.
“We’re increasing our group check-ins to twice a week,” she tells them, glaring when Wei Wuxian whines dramatically. Suibian, she notices, doesn’t protest at all. “And Zhiruo is going to check your energy every time now, Suibian, so don’t try to pull anything.”
“We won’t,” Suibian promises, digging her claws into Wei Wuxian’s clothes so she can still stay on him as he sits up. He shifts her to a one-armed hold as he ties his robe back in place, scowling.
“Good. If not, you’ll find Zhiruo has less of a bedside manner than I do.”
Suibian flattens her ears, looks at the shrike now sitting on Wen Qing’s shoulder. “I promise. But, Wen Qing? Do you—think you have anything, to help him sleep?”
The shift in Wei Wuxian’s tone is immediate.
“Hey, hey, I’m sleeping just fine,” he murmurs, gentle and reassuring, abandoning any semblance of complaining in favor of stroking her fur. “Don’t you worry about me. Focus on getting your energy back, ok?”
Suibian gazes up at him, unblinking; he makes a face and kisses her on the nose. She licks his cheek in response, wriggling so she can lay her head against the crook of his neck.
“Of course I’m worried,” Wen Qing hears her mumble into his skin.
It’s too much. She turns her back to them and busies herself with putting away the bandages she laid out earlier. Thanks in part to Lan Wangji’s continual care packages (so-named by Zhiruo, mainly because it makes Wei Wuxian blush whenever he sees a new one sitting quietly at the edge of their wards), the cloth joins an assortment of salves, herbs, and vials that clink together as she rummages around, looking for the most recent tonic she put together.
(She’s already thinking of her next recipe, one of the more… experimental ideas she’s been playing with. There’s an herb Zhiruo has spotted growing off the main paths, tucked into the places that Wei Wuxian doesn’t like them to wander into; tomorrow, they are going to go out and get it.
Desperate times. Desperate measures.)
By the time she’s done, Wei Wuxian is preoccupied with nuzzling his face against the top of Suibian’s head to make her giggle.
“If you’re not sleeping,” Wen Qing tells him, “I have some herbal drinks for you to start taking before bed. And this new one, to try and stabilize your energy. I know the other ones haven’t worked, but I think I’m getting closer.”
He glances up at her, eyes dark.
For a moment, she thinks that he’s going to argue. She’s ready for it, meets his gaze with a challenge in her own.
But she doesn’t need to be.
Because the moment she sees the vial, Suibian lets out a huge gust of a sigh, openly relieved. And Wen Qing watches as, without Suibian even seeming to know it, that tiny sound shatters Wei Wuxian’s resolve quicker than any argument from her ever could.
“Alright, alright,” he says, the lines of his face softening. With some effort, he finally straightens his clothes; when the black cloth once again obscures the jagged, white line of scar tissue, he looks significantly more at ease. “But nothing that makes me too tired. I don’t want to sleep through A-Sui’s bad dreams.”
Suibian gives him an affronted look. “I’m not a baby.”
“Nah,” he says lightly, and rubs the fur on her head so it sticks up the wrong way, “but you’re mine, so you have to deal with it.”
It’s her turn to make a face at him and he grins, dour mood from earlier evaporated.
Fondness swells in Wen Qing’s heart as she watches them bicker. Every laugh is a reminder of why she handed her bloody heart to them on the street corner, why she got down on her knees and begged when she had never once lowered herself to such things before. She had nothing to give—nothing but hope and the desperate, far-off wish that someone would still care.
That if she loved her brother fiercely enough, she could save him.
And here they are.
“Ah, why do you have that look on your face?” Wei Wuxian asks, jolting her back to reality. She scowls and smacks him on the head again, earning a yelp. “Hey! What did I do?”
“My face is fine.”
“I never said it wasn’t!”
“Don’t worry about us, Qing-guniang.” Suibian is watching her with bright eyes, tucked safely into Wei Wuxian’s arms. She’s always been more perceptive. “We’re fine, really.”
“Oh, yeah! Promise!” Wei Wuxian adds, and Suibian nods vigorously. “Never been finer!”
She looks at them: clinging to each other without even realizing it, so desperate to stay close. Taking on battles that aren’t their own because it’s the right thing to do.
In all her years of healing, she’s never seen a pair so determined to protect the other from themselves.
And she knows, heart heavy as she orders them to stop lounging around and clean up for dinner, that they’re not fine at all.
Rymwitt: Sorry for the pain, we're in it now!
Snow: This was a longer chapter, as the next one is shorter! We're back to WWX next week as well.
Rymwitt: pay attention to those tags! This follows some canon events and this fic has a HAPPY ENDING. With that said, I'm going to go hide in a bunker from the fallout of this chapter's explosion.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“I wish...” she said, and stopped. There was nothing that could be gained by wishing for it. A final deep, shaky breath, and she was ready to go on.
—Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
The letter sits on his makeshift desk, lit by moonlight.
Wei Wuxian can’t take his eyes off it.
Are you well? I have been asked to pass along an invitation to an event marking Jin Rulan’s one month celebration…
The words spin in his head no matter how many times he’s read them. A baby boy, his nephew! What does he look like? Shijie, probably, if he’s lucky. Wei Wuxian certainly he hopes he got her looks and her brains, or else poor Jin Rulan is in trouble.
The thought makes him laugh from where he’s curled up on the bed, A-Sui tucked against his stomach.
“Can you believe it? Me, an uncle!”
It’s not the first time he’s said it. He strokes his fingers carefully along Suibian’s back, smiling when she rolls over to look at him. It’s very late, late enough that the only sounds are the calls of the wind and the whispering voices in his head, but neither of them can sleep.
“Do I get to be an aunt, then?”
He laughs again. “Sure, I don’t see why not. She’s your sister too! Aunty A-Sui, now that has a nice ring to it.”
“I wonder what his daemon’s first form was.”
“Well, only the best one of course! Maybe he got lucky and it was a fox.”
She chitters, leaning into his hand. “I bet he’s so small. I hope I get to see them.”
“I’ll hide you in my robes if I need to,” he promises. He’s already thought through how to sneak her in if they put up a fuss; they’ve had the news for a few days, so he’s had plenty of time to plan. Long enough for the invitation to be rescinded, for it be real.
Long enough to worry.
The smile fades from his lips. A-Sui whines.
“It could be a trap,” she whispers. It’s clear she doesn’t want to say it out loud, but it’s what they’ve both been wondering. Even if Lan Wangji wrote the letter, there’s no guarantee that other people aren’t pulling some strings. It’s the first thing Wen Qing had warned them about.
“Yeah, it could.”
A-Sui wriggles closer. “We’re going to go anyways, right?”
“Definitely.” Nothing could keep him away, not when he thinks about how this might be his only chance to see his nephew. He’s already started working on the present.
They sit in silence for some time, thinking. They used to be able to do this: just sit and be so confident that they were thinking the same thoughts that it wasn’t even necessary to speak out loud. Just a quick check of their link, the smallest second of connection, and they would know.
Now, feeling how A-Sui hasn’t fully relaxed in his arms, he murmurs, “Tell me what’s wrong.”
She sucks in a little breath. “It’s ok.”
“A-Sui. I promise I won’t laugh.”
She’s silent for a moment, picking her words. She never used to do that. “What if… something really bad happens?”
He blinks, looks at her. The moonlight is only on half of her body, leaving her face hidden in shadow.
She fidgets in his lap, clearly uncomfortable with the conversation. “Like… if they hurt you. Or—capture you?”
He sits up so he can see her better, the frown on his face deepening. A-Sui has always been a little anxious, definitely more so than him, but it was never needless worrying. It’s gotten harder since the transfer to soothe her when the feelings come up, half of the things she says now tight with nerves, but the question still takes him off-guard.
“I won’t let them do that,” he promises. “And even if they did, then we’d be together and could figure out some way to escape.”
A-Sui is quiet for too long after his answer. She’s not settling down; he can feel it in the tiny twitches of her muscles. It’s the kind of quiet that means she’s not really asking what she wants to, that there’s something else lingering in her head.
“You don’t need to worry,” he murmurs, rubbing her back. Sometime during the last minute she’s started digging her claws into his clothes, trying to get closer. “We can be extra careful. I can make more talismans, and I’ll practice on Chenqing—”
“Don’t do that,” she whines immediately. “Not that. I hate how it feels in here after you play that.”
It takes most of his self-control not to wince. He knows, on some level, that she can see that his thoughts are turning darker, tinting red, etched with resentment at the edges. The brief contact she had with it scared her more than he’d expected, but he’s managing it fine, and there’s no way he’s going to let it spiral out of control. He knows what he’s doing, even if it’s not the most comfortable feeling.
“I won’t let anyone hurt you, A-Sui.”
She twitches, and he knows he’s getting closer to whatever it is she’s holding so tight.
“You can tell me anything,” he adds, lost, wanting to help but not knowing how. “C’mon, what’s wrong? You think I’d let them hurt you? They’ll never—”
“But what if you did let them? What if you stopped caring?”
The words freeze the air.
He sucks in a harsh, surprised breath, his hands gripping her tighter without thinking.
Words, when he finds them, come out numb. “What on earth are you talking about?”
Suibian presses closer to him, like if she burrows against him hard enough she can settle back into his golden core, match their heartbeats once more, find the perfect link that has frayed ever since Wen Qing’s knife broke his skin.
Her voice is quiet, trembling. “We’ve already done so many bad things. They hate us. What if it’s a trap, and we have to fight, and that—thing I felt in you takes over? It’s so creepy, A-Xian. What if you play for too long and stop loving me and then you don’t care anymore?”
Pain blooms in him, sharp and cold.
It’s with shaking hands that he pulls her away from where she’s clinging. She yowls, starts to scratch, whimpers until she realizes he’s not pushing her away, only bringing her up to his face so they can look at each other eye-to-eye.
How could she ever even think—
“I love you,” he tells her fiercely, each word packed with as much as he can give. His heart is screaming in his ears. “I love you more than anything—and I will always feel that way, no matter what. Nothing in the entire world could ever make me lose my love for you.”
He’s never had to say it before. They’ve always just known.
She’s trembling, broken, hitching sobs starting to form in her throat. “But what if whatever thing you’re doing—”
“I named you Suibian for a reason,” he whispers, voice thick and throat feeling too tight, “and I will love you until the day I die, and as I’m dying, and every single moment after. That will never change, A-Sui. I know Chenqing isn’t what you’re used to, but it’s keeping us safe. And I’ll kill every single person who tries to take you from me, who even thinks about hurting you.”
She stares at him with watery eyes, curls her claws into his skin. It hurts but he welcomes it; better this pain than the other, better her here than wandering off, distant. He can feel her heartbeat pounding against his fingers, too fast.
“A-Xian,” she whispers, and her voice cracks, “you’re frightening me.”
Oh. Another part of his heart breaks.
“Shh, shh, it’s ok.” He pulls her to him, tucks her against his neck and squeezes her tight. She bites his fingers, licks his cheek, whines low and continuous in her throat as he strokes his fingers down the fur on her back. “I’m right here. I’ll keep you safe, I promise.”
Her next words are a whimper. “I’m so scared.”
Me too, Wei Wuxian wants to scream—but this, he knows, doesn’t need to be said out loud.
“Don’t worry,” he murmurs instead, and looks outside where the darkness lingers. “It’s going to be fine.”
He wishes he didn’t discover this with an army of Jin soldiers leveling arrows at them from the top of a cliff, but—
“I don’t you who you are,” he calls up to the Jin who fired the first shot, Suibian cowering behind his legs, “but if this is a welcoming party, I’ve had better! You don’t exactly fit the part—were you just rolling around in the dirt before you decided to greet us?”
The man on the cliff glares at him. “You!”
“What, am I wrong?” he asks, because he thinks his assessment is perfectly fine, thank you. This Jin looks a right mess, all his gold and white robes disheveled, the hems coated with dirt. He motions to the red splash of color on his cheekbone. “Who punched you? Not that I’m concerned, mind you; I’d just like to know who I should address the thank you package to.”
Next to him, Wen Ning lets out a shaky, terrified laugh.
“My name is Jin Zixun,” the man calls down to him, sneering now. When he draws in a breath, Wei Wuxian sees him wince. “And I’m here for justice!”
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. He looks at the other Jins, and notices that unlike Jin Zixuan, all their robes and faces seem fine. Jin Zixun is the only one who had a rough time, it seems.
Interesting. Very interesting.
It’s quieter here than in the Burial Mounds, even with all the shuffling footsteps on stone, the occasional clatter of a rock from the Jin’s restless motion. It means he can hear the calls of the ravens circling overhead, Suyin whispering frantically in Wen Ning’s ear, Suibian’s tiny whimper as he steps forward.
He pays them no mind. He won’t risk one of those arrows missing and hitting Suibian instead.
“I really don’t care,” he replies, and twirls Chenqing in his fingers, grinning when all the Jins tense up. “It doesn’t matter who you are or why you’re here; I have a one month celebration I need to be at, so if you don’t mind…”
“You!!” Jin Zixun repeats, and grabs another arrow. “How dare you act like you don’t know why we’re here!”
Wei Wuxian crosses his arms. “Aiyo, I don’t know, ok? What, is your cousin’s farmland is running dry, and you think demonic cultivation is to blame? Or perhaps someone stole one of your most valued combs, and who else but the Yiling Patriarch?”
“A-Xian,” Suibian whimpers, but there’s anger burning in his belly, stretching across his muscles.
“Oh wait—I know!” he says, and grins. “Did your lover go missing? Have you thought that maybe she just ran away, so she wouldn’t have to look at you anymore?”
Jin Zixun’s face turns mutinous.
“Enough stalling! I’m warning you!” he shouts, and pulls back the bowstring. “This is your last chance! Show us where you’ve hidden Jin Zixuan, and maybe we’ll show you mercy!”
That gets Wei Wuxian to pay attention.
“Where I’ve—what?” he demands, right as the arrow flies loose and hits Wen Ning in the shoulder.
“Did you hear?” the Jin servant whispers to the other, hands covering red lips and gossiping tongues. Around them, the other servants bustle back and forth, trays sending wafts of aromatic jasmine and rich congee through the airs.
“Oh, have you missed the news? Why, poor Young Master Jin Zixuan was kidnapped just last night!”
A gasp, the clatter of a tray. “What?! How??”
“Jin-zongzhu announced it when I was pouring tea for the Nie sect not even an hour ago! I thought the clans were going to revolt right there in the room. Taken from his very home… that Yiling Patriarch, does he have no shame?”
“No way! The Yiling Patriarch, here?!” the other servant asks, breathless, and glances over her shoulder with anxious eyes. “Did they see him take the young master away?!”
“With all those crafty tricks up his sleeve?” The first servant scoffs and crosses her arms. “No, he’s too clever for that! He broke in during the dead of night and whisked him away. But a few of Jin-zongzhu’s favorites swear they saw him do it, and who else would do something so horrendous?”
“Mmhmm.” Another careful look around, an even lower voice. “Young Madam Jin’s handmaiden told me that she’s so devastated even her daemon refuses to eat! And little Jin Rulan is crying, day and night, no matter how the nursemaid tries to soothe him.”
The second servant frowns. “What else would you expect? Who knows what that monster did with the Young Master Jin Zixuan once he took him… We may never see him again, and least not alive.”
A somber silence, before a third servant pokes their head into the conversation.
“Everyone already knows what you two are saying! Want some real news?”
“Oh please, please!”
The third servant lowers their tray to their side, glancing around. “Have you noticed Jin Zixun is missing as well?”
“I thought Jin-zongzhu said he was busy planning the next steps?”
“I know what he said, but listen to this! You didn’t hear this from me, but one of Jin Zixun’s friends told me that Jin Zixun isn’t even in the tower! He was sent after that evil patriarch when he escaped, to try and bring Jin Zixuan back. But he hasn’t returned yet! Do you think maybe…?”
“Aiyo, now that’s really too much,” says the first servant, shaking her head. “I’ll believe many things you say, A-Bo, but there’s a hole in your story: there’s no way Jin Zixun has friends!”
The three of them giggle behind their hands for a moment, before a harsh voice cuts into their bubble of space.
“You three!” They all start, wide-eyed, and clutch their trays to their chests as Jiang-zongzhu rounds the hallway corner and finds them standing there. The thunderous look on his face has their mouths snapping closed so quickly their teeth clack. “Stop chittering in the hallway like petty birds!”
The servants bow low and bustle away, fleeing to the safety of their tasks.
Their words, however, echo in the empty darkness behind them.
“He wouldn’t, A-Cheng, he wouldn’t!”
“A-jie, please, you need to stay resting… this isn’t good for your health—”
“Not you too Sandu! Don’t tell me you believe that A-Xian, that he—that he’d take—”
The sound of renewed sobs, a harsh breath in. Quietly, the servant places the food tray she was supposed to deliver outside the door and scuttles away.
“This is bad,” Suibian whimpers, staring at Jin Zixun’s unmoving body splayed across the dirt. The air around him is slightly hazy from the leftover dust that burst into the air when his daemon dissolved, screaming and cursing, into nothingness. “A-Xian, this is bad—this is—”
Wei Wuxian turns to face her, heart beating in his throat. Just a few mi away, Wen Ning’s stands with black-orbed eyes, sword still drawn. He can see Suyin’s tiny body shivering in his pocket, her own little earthquake.
The Jins who managed to escape their wrath have long since fled. Now it’s just the four of them, a dead body, and Jin Rulan’s destroyed gift, the beads scatted across the red-stained ground.
Their path just got a lot more narrow.
“Let’s—” he starts, and has to swallow, force back the stinging at the corner of his eyes. He doesn’t have time to be sad, or confused, or heartbroken. Someone is trying to stir trouble. They need to get out of here, reinforce their wards, prepare for a retaliation.
And after, find a way to make the Jins pay.
“Alright,” he says, as rage builds in him, tinting the world dark. The voices start to whisper louder, snakes rattling their tails in a dizzying chorus. “Leave him here for the birds to eat. Let’s go home.”
(And then: a needle to the neck.
“Thank you,” Wen Qing tells them, as he and Suibian lay paralyzed in the Demon Subdue Palace, straining to do anything, to move, to speak, to stop them.
“And sorry,” Zhiruo adds, and that’s the last he hears before their already blurry forms fade into darkness.)
Standing at the gates of the Lanling Jin Sect, Wen Qing knows: the clock has run out.
Jin Zixuan is missing. Jin Zixun is dead. It does not matter that Wei Wuxian is only responsible for the latter, and not the former; what matters is that, finally, she can repay the favor.
She turns to her brother.
“Are you ready?”
He looks at her, wide-eyed. Shaking. “Yes.”
She is proud, so terribly proud of him. Over the pounding of the blood in her ears, she thinks that she has never been so sad and so grateful at all once to be his sister.
The terror coursing through both of them is not new; and it does not make her any less proud. Fear, after all, has been a constant presence by Wen Qing’s side for most of her life, perhaps her oldest companion outside of Zhiruo. There are times, too many to count, that it has crept up on her in the dark and tried to cage her.
She has never let it, in the end.
Because she has learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but action in spite of it. It is going on, step after step, even when everything seems hopeless. Of looking for a road when there’s nothing but empty earth for miles; of raising one’s head and daring to look up at what towers above you.
It takes courage to leave one’s home, to start over. To hope, when all seems lost, that those you love can be returned to you.
(Wen Qing is not alone in this knowledge. Years ago, miles away, a mother once wrapped her weapon around her children and sent them sailing away. She dared to hope for a future, even as the clouds of destruction closed in around her. A different place, a different time: a young woman stands and tells a room of golden-clad cultivators that their judgements can no longer hold her. She walks out, head held high, exchanges the comfort of her Sect for the freedom of an untainted conscience.
Soon, a sister will throw herself in the way of harm and dare to love someone who the world thinks is unlovable. She will choose compassion when the only thing around her is hate.
They will be scared.
They will do it regardless.)
Gently, Wen Qing smooths her brother’s bangs back from his face. Smiles. He has grown to be so kind, compassionate, gentle—everything that she had hoped, holding him in her arms as a baby. She will not let his last memory be of her cowering.
“I love you,” she tells Wen Ning, and kisses him on the forehead. Zhiruo and Suyin curl around each other, two bundles of warmth between their linked hands. “Thank you. And I’m sorry.”
Together, they step forward.
What am I to you? Lan Wangji had asked him, standing there on the slope of Phoenix Mountain, hair dappled with sunlight. Bichen’s whiskers twitching from her place at his side, both refusing to look away, gold and blue tucked among the green.
The forest, quiet. The hunt, forgotten.
My zhiji, Wei Wuxian had replied, the words ripped out of his heart, A-Sui’s warmth against his skin. Hoping, scared, trying not to show either. Missing them so badly, even when they were right in front of him, close enough to touch.
(The one person who can truly understand us. The one who speaks to our hearts.)
He’d meant it, felt it so strongly that it cut through the dark haze in his mind, bright and pure and overwhelming. The thrill in his throat at Lan Zhan’s reply had kept him dizzy for days.
Wei Ying. I still am.
And now it doesn’t even matter.
None of it.
“Wei Ying,” a voice is saying, over and over, but Wei Wuxian just holds tighter to A-Sui where she’s digging her claws into his clothes. “Wei Ying, please.”
His body feels cold down to his bones, clothes sticky with patches of congealing blood. There is something hot and wet beneath him, a sharp pain poking into his back. It’s so dark, no matter how much he turns his head or strains his eyes—so dark, and loud, even though some part of him knows that there’s nothing around them but an empty cave and his own mistakes.
Wen Qing, he thinks, and a sob collects in his throat, building. Wen Ning.
The sob breaks out of him and he thrashes against the hands trying to keep him still.
“Wei Ying! Be still. You are…”
The rest of the words fade, even as the firm touch on his cheeks doesn’t. Something is pressed against his lips, and he swallows down a gulp of liquid before coughing it back onto the ground. A soft cloth wipes against his mouth and something in him thinks oh, I know that, even if he doesn’t fully understand how.
“Lan Zhan,” he breathes, the moment feeling too familiar, like a memory reaching him through the haze of endless years. A spot of white through all the darkness.
“I am here.”
No, he realizes, as it all comes back, as more tears form. No. You shouldn’t be.
He was wrong. He was so wrong, and Lan Zhan tried to warn him. Suibian tried. And now everyone is—
“Lan Zhan,” he repeats, and tries to touch his face. His bloody fingers scramble against white cloth, then a wrist. Lan Wangji’s eyes, when they swim into focus, are wider and more panicked than he’s ever seen them.
“It’s my—it’s my fault—she’s, she’s—”
It’s burned into his brain, behind his eyelids, in every shadowed crevice: Shijie’s and Xiaolien’s shocked faces as the sword went through her, resentment swirling around them all, Jiang Cheng and Sandu rushing to their sides.
He killed her, he killed them, he—
He doesn’t realize he’s talking until Lan Wangji makes a shushing noise, pressing two fingers to his lips. “Wei Ying, stay still. I will transfer spiritual energy—”
“No!” he cries immediately, jolting back so hard that his head hits the cave wall and leaves his ears ringing. In his arms, A-Sui lets out a shriek that’s sounds like a wild animal being tortured. “Don’t, don’t!”
They can’t find out, they can’t.
“A-Xian,” Suibian breathes, trembling, and he tries to soothe her through the haze of pain and fear clogging his mind. The voices are getting so loud. They scream and rattle against his ribs when he breathes in. “A-Xian, don’t leave me alone, please, please—”
He holds her closer, flinching when Lan Wangji moves toward them once more.
“Wei Ying, I will not hurt you.”
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, if Lan Wangji hurts him. Everyone that Wei Wuxian has ever loved is either dead or hates him. After all that, after all his mistakes, what’s the point?
It’s wrong, everything is wrong.
“Is he going to be alright?” he hears A-Sui ask—and like a flame coming to life in a bright room he’s a teenager all over again, in another cave, another time, with Lan Wangji’s hands cupping his cheeks. Feverish and young, A-Sui’s warmth ten feet away, so strange but for once not unwelcome, because he’d known—
Known she would be alright.
They had kept A-Sui safe, back then. And now…
“Lan Zhan,” he sobs, when the back of a hand presses against his forehead, skin meeting trembling skin, “you have to promise me. You have to.”
“Listen, listen to me.” Wei Wuxian needs Lan Wangji to understand, more than he’s ever needed anything. Him understanding is the salve to a bloody thought that has been rattling around in his brain since the moment he realized the inevitable end.
It’s unceasing, unrelenting.
I don’t know what will happen to A-Sui if I die.
It cuts through everything—the pain, the confusion, the fever. Their link is long gone; there’s no reason for him to believe that if he dies, she goes with him. So if he dies here, what happens to her? With her own energy, but no him, can she even pass on?
If they kill him will she linger, alone? Left on her own, forever? For eternity?
Will they—hurt her? Retaliation, an easy target for all the things he’s done?
“Promise me you’ll keep her safe. You have to, I—she’s going to need you,” he tells Lan Wangji, frantic. Lan Wangji, who stepped aside in the rain. Lan Wangji, who bought his turnips. Lan Wangji, who sent them what they needed. “Lan Zhan, please, promise me! If I die, you have to—you have to— take her, and make sure that she’s linked, and protected, please—”
“I do not understand,” Lan Wangji murmurs, even as Wei Wuxian watches him try. He grabs to onto the front of Lan Wangji’s robes, curls his fingers into the fabric. He wants to shake him, to force him to get it. “Wei Ying, I—”
“She needs you!”
A hand covers his own, gently untangles it from the fabric. In some distant part of his brain, he notices it’s shaking, a leaf buffeted by unsteady wind.
“Save your strength. Let me—”
“You have to take her,” he chokes out, and tries to hand over A-Sui to him.
Lan Wangji recoils back like Wei Wuxian threw a physical blow, nearly falling onto the stone in his haste to jerk away. Mouth hanging open, he stares, pale and confused, although Wei Wuxian can’t understand why.
A-Sui lets out a scream that’s so loud that all of them flinch in pain.
“No!” she shrieks, flailing, high-pitched kek-kek-keks as she fights him tooth and nail to stay put. She digs her teeth into his arm at his next attempt to dislodge her, sinks them in deep. He doesn’t even feel it. “No! A-Xian!”
“Please,” he begs her, tearing his eyes away from Lan Wangji’s outline in the dark. “It’s ok. A-Sui, it’s ok. They’ll keep you safe, like before.”
“I’m never leaving you, you promised, you promised,” she wails, and lets out a threating yowl when Bichen slinks forward. Her fur puffs under his fingers. “Don’t you dare! I’m his, you can’t take me from him!”
“Suibian,” Lan Wangji says, as Wei Wuxian’s head lolls backwards to hit the stone again. There’s a quiver there that is nothing like Lan Wangji, immovable as a mountain. “We are not taking you.”
“Don’t touch me.”
“Unthinkable. I will not. I just need to see his injuries.”
“No! Get away! Leave us alone!”
“Suibian,” Bichen’s voice, shaking in a way Wei Wuxian has never heard, “move off his chest. Just a few seconds. Just—come here, and then you can go back. I promise, I swear.”
There’s a shuffle of movement, then a pained snarl. Wei Wuxian’s eyes jerk open to see a steadily growing line of red dripping down Bichen’s muzzle. Horrified, he looks at A-Sui, whose teeth are bared and covered in blood.
Lan Wangji and Bichen are staring, frozen.
“A-Sui,” he gasps, and she flattens herself against him with a whine. “No, don’t hurt them.”
Her eyes, when she looks at him, are fierce. Instead of apologizing, she presses her face into his neck and clings.
“Never,” she sobs, voice muffled. “Never.”
She’s clearly done talking to any of them. Wei Wuxian would go back to begging, but there’s no more energy left in him. His limbs feel heavy, his tongue swollen and useless. With every drop of blood sliding down his skin, the world is getting darker.
Distantly he thinks he hears footsteps, sees the shadow of Lan Wangji tense and shift in front of him. Someone is talking, maybe, someone new. He doesn’t know—the world is spinning. Voices are whispering in his ears, so loud that A-Sui’s cries seem like nothing in comparison.
“Wei Ying,” he hears through it all, “please. Come back to Gusu with me.”
Anger turns his vision red, bringing reality back blade-sharp for a few precious seconds.
How dare you? he thinks. The same question, every time. Here he is, begging for his daemon’s life—and Lan Wangji is still thinking about black and white, right and wrong, punishment.
He holds Suibian tighter.
“Please,” he thinks he hears in reply. “Wei Ying. I—love you. Please.”
But that last part can’t be right at all.
His anger intensifies, coalesces with the confusion and the pain and the sorrow, and he suddenly hates, hates more than anything, those terrible voices in his head that make him hear things that aren’t real no matter how badly he wants them to be.
“Get lost!” he screams, the sound echoing in his head and off the cave walls.
And as the footsteps draw closer, the blur of white in front of him standing with the scrape of a sword from its scabbard as shouts echo off the walls, he finally sinks into familiar, flute-touched darkness.
He stays there for thirteen years.
Snow: Unless we physically write someone's daemon dissolving in front of you(screw you Jin Zixun, sorry Jin Zixun's daemon!), you never know what fate a character might have in store... and I mean that it a good way! Have some hope ;)
It is the shape of a shadow over his bed that wakes him. Not screams, or sobs, or, as he will think later, the fitting sound of the entire world crashing to a halt.
Just a shadow, and the gentle touch of his brother’s hand.
There is very little concept of time for him anymore. He knows that days have passed since the cave but he does not bother to count them and is not sure he could. They are marked only by the healers changing his bandages and the soup he is forced to eat each morning and evening.
“Didi,” his brother repeats, and it is in a tone Lan Wangji has not heard in a long time.
He does not reply. He is not sure, still, if he is dreaming.
“I need to tell you something.”
This chapter is entirely from Lan Wangji’s point of view covering all 13 years. Because of that, we would like to name some trigger warnings: Grief, Dissociation, a little bit of Suicidal Ideation (no methods or ideas named and VERY brief, more like "what is the point of being here without Wei Ying?") ,descriptions of physical pain. If any of these concern you please reach out to us and we can give you more details <3
Sorry that this chapter is so long—we didn’t want to break up any of the scenes or draw out the angst into more chapters!
(Also, Happy Birthday Sizhui! We're sorry that we made your dad sad).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
And then Serafina understood something for which witches had no word: it was the idea of pilgrimage. She understood why these beings would wait for thousands of years and travel vast distances in order to be close to something important, and how they would feel differently for the rest of time, having been briefly in its presence.
― Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife
When Wei Wuxian dies, Lan Wangji does not cry.
In fact, Lan Wangji does nothing at all. Because when Wei Wuxian dies, when the man who he loves so much that it aches is torn to shreds by demonic backlash, he is asleep. Feverish, tucked into a bed at the Cloud Recesses, deep in fitful dreams. Unknowing.
He will never forgive himself for it.
It is the shape of a shadow over his bed that wakes him. Not screams, or sobs, or, as he will think later, the fitting sound of the entire world crashing to a halt.
Just a shadow, and the gentle touch of his brother’s hand.
There is very little concept of time for him anymore. He knows that days have passed since the cave but he does not bother to count them and is not sure he could. They are marked only by the healers changing his bandages and the soup he is forced to eat each morning and evening.
There are no bandages in his brother’s hands. No soup. Not even candles. Just the otherworldly light of the moon filtering in through the Jingshi’s paper windows.
“Didi,” his brother repeats, and it is in a tone Lan Wangji has not heard in a long time.
He does not reply. He is not sure, still, if he is dreaming.
“I need to tell you something.”
Even the slight shift of the bed from Lan Xichen sitting next to him has the wounds on his back screaming. Bichen lets out a hiss that he will not, and Lan Xichen’s face twists.
“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, and moves sweat-slick hair from Lan Wangji’s face. “However, you have a right to know.”
The news, when his brother tells him, is incomprehensible.
Years later, he will remember the exact weight of each syllable, the specific tone in which his brother said it. Every pause, every breath, the way his voice tightened right before the last word. He will recall it with perfect clarity, have it repeated endlessly in his head when the rest of the world is silent. He will be tortured by it.
In the moment, it all becomes static in his ears.
Impossible, he thinks. He cannot have heard correctly.
He looks to Bichen. She is stricken, standing at the side of the bed with the moonlight dappling her fur. For a few precious moments, he is aware of nothing but the burning in his back.
Then a long, drawn-out yowl rips itself from her chest.
That, among all else, is what makes it real.
Wei Wuxian is dead.
It is—unfathomable. What is the world, without Wei Ying? If he is dead, then how has time itself not halted? How can the seconds continue tick by, the breath continue to flow into his lungs? How can his brother be here, cradling his face? How—
“How?” he asks, and it comes out in a rasp. He has not spoken since the first whip tore across his back.
It is twenty questions in one. His brother does not answer.
There is no answer, after all, that could satisfy him.
“I will let you sleep,” Lan Xichen says, still stroking his hair. But he does not leave, even as Lan Wangji’s world tilts dangerously on its axis. He does not leave, even when, a minute later, Lan Wangji empties his stomach over the side of the bed with a jolt and a scream, the static so loud that he can’t hear his own pained gasps. He stays, holding Lan Wangji’s hair back from his face, silent.
Somewhere behind him, outside of Lan Wangji’s sight and capacity to care, Shuoyue says something.
Wei Ying, he thinks, and feels the soft fur of Bichen’s head under his palm. She is the only thing that cuts through the noise. Wei Ying. Wei Ying.
Promise me you’ll keep her safe.
Suddenly, the pain is distant. The ache of his back is nothing. His body, when he staggers up from the bed, is separate from him.
Lan Xichen’s cry of surprise is so muted in his ears that Lan Wangji does not remember it until later. There is nothing in him that demands he consider it. It does not matter, not with the memory of Wei Ying’s voice and Bichen’s steady weight under his hand.
Shuoyue jerks forward to halt them; it is useless. He grabs his sword and they fly.
He goes to the Burial Mounds with a singular purpose: to find a man and, if he cannot find a man, a fox.
He comes back with a fever-ridden child and blood running down his back.
His brother’s voice is followed by a snarl so fierce that it shakes the bed and makes A-Yuan and Lan Wangji groan in pain. The edges of his vision are dark, but Bichen’s speckled coat stands out in the dimness of the room.
It is an unfamiliar sight. On one end of the room, at a standstill: his brother, Shuoyue. On the other, soaking the bedsheets with blood and fever: himself, A-Yuan, and a tiny daemon hidden in his dirty robes.
And between them: Bichen, spine raised, growling.
“You will not take him from us.”
Lan Wangji does not know how she is standing. The pain is immense, each breath sending agony ripping from his hips to his skull. He knows that she can feel it just as deeply in her own body, the pull and bite of ruined muscle.
Yet she guards them, fierce.
“Lan Bichen, step aside—”
“You will not separate them.”
She has never raised her voice to them in her life, much less hissed. She does both now.
In his arms, A-Yuan whimpers. His eyes, fever-glazed, have not once left Lan Wangji’s face. Jerkily, Lan Wangji reaches out and pushes his hair back, letting his sleeve wipe away snot and tears as he goes. A-Yuan, obedient and weak, allows him to.
“Rich-gege?” he whispers, hitching little sobs making the words waver. If Lan Wangji did not already feel as if his heart had been ripped from his chest, the fat tears streaming down his cheeks would finish the task.
“I am here.”
A-Yuan’s lip trembles, small sobs turning into larger ones, unforgiving of how desperately Lan Wangji does not want them. He does not know how to comfort a child when so much has been taken from them. He does not feel, lying there with sweat and blood sticky on his skin, that there is even much of a point in doing so.
Wei Ying is dead.
Still, when A-Yuan leans into his touch, Lan Wangji holds him. Counts his heartbeats. Ignores how every wound flares with each ragged breath they share.
“We will keep them together,” he hears his brother say, sounding very far away indeed, and finally lets his eyes slide closed.
“You cannot be serious.”
Lan Wangji does not respond from where he is lying on the bed.
“Shufu,” Lan Xichen says, muted and cautious, but Uncle does not listen.
“You bring back a child and refuse to tell us his origins, and now you demand the right to stay with him while in seclusion?” Uncle’s face is blotchy red, nearly purple with rage. “Wangji, you have crossed too many lines already. I will not allow it!”
Lan Wangji does not care what his uncle will or will not allow. He gazes, unfocused, at the open door of the Jingshi. Outside, A-Yuan is sitting in the grass below the wooden steps, watched over by Shuoyue. He makes very little noise, even when playing, and because of that they do not have him play alone. Early morning sunlight drapes itself over their bodies like a soft blanket, casting gentle shadows onto the ground below them.
“If you will not allow it,” says Bichen from the position she has taken in front of the bed, “then we will leave.”
Uncle sucks in a harsh breath. His brother, Lan Wangji notes with the same numbness to anything but the grief that has gripped him since that terrible night, does not look surprised at all.
“How dare you—” Uncle splutters, as Yizheng fluffs herself as large as she can on his shoulder. Bichen fluffs her tail right back. Something in Lan Wangji’s core goes sharp and protective. “I did not raise you to be like this!”
Lan Wangji thinks of closed-off rooms, of windows with bars, of shuttered doors that never opened again. Of crying into his pillow and running to his brother’s bed, certain he would be punished in the morning. Of control, and order, and silent dinners.
You did not raise us to be ourselves, he thinks. Perhaps it is an unfair thought. He does not care.
They killed Wei Ying. Fairness no longer holds ground.
“Shufu,” Lan Xichen tries again, when Bichen doesn’t deign to respond, “please. There is no harm in keeping him here, is there?”
“No harm? No harm?! Look at him, Xichen, have you also lost your mind—”
“You say you did not raise us to be this way,” Bichen interrupts, breaking several Lan precepts and turning Uncle’s face a darker shade of red, “and perhaps not. But we raise A-Yuan this way, or you do not see us again.”
Uncle’s mouth closes with a snap.
There are no words to describe the love Lan Wangji feels for her in that moment.
It is, he believes, the only thing outside of all-encompassing anguish that he still has the ability to feel. Ever since they were young, she has been the bolder of them, the more likely to act. She has been steady and unmoving since Uncle and Brother walked in the door.
The shared conviction thrums through their bond as she speaks the words he cannot: A-Yuan is all they have left.
He stays, or they go.
Uncle has gone quiet, jaw clenched. Outside, A-Yuan picks up something from the ground and shows it to Shuoyue. There’s a hesitant look on his face; Lan Wangji has noticed his eyes trailing to the open Jingshi every few minutes. Even after the few weeks he has been safely looked after here, he is a skittish, uncertain child.
Lan Wangji is trying. It is, he knows, inadequate.
Shuoyue tucks his head, allowing A-Yuan’s tiny fingers to carefully place a plum blossom onto his antlers, a flash of pink and white among brown. Their skin does not brush; A-Yuan, despite being so young, was well-taught by the Wens. He is very careful about not touching other daemons.
Or, perhaps, he is too afraid to touch theirs.
Not that it would matter if he did. He is so young that even if he were to touch, it would be excusable, nothing more than a shiver down his spine.
Lan Wangji draws in a ragged breath. So young, and his entire family is dead.
“He will be taught the principles,” Uncle spits out, and Lan Wangji slides his gaze back to him. Uncle is not looking at him, eyes fixed somewhere on the wall above his head. “And when he is of the appropriate age to begin cultivation, he will join the other children.”
He feels Bichen’s surprise through their bond, a quick flash in the dark. That is better than expected. More than they would have dared ask for.
Bichen looks to Lan Wangji, then nods once. “We understand, Shufu.”
Uncle’s eyes move back to them, tighten. It looks as if he wants to say more, but the longer he stands, mouth half-open, the more distant his gaze becomes.
“Good,” he seems to settle with, and walks out.
A-Yuan scrambles to move out of his path as he makes his way down the Jingshi steps, earning a scowl and a barked, “Stand proper!” that Lan Wangji can hear clearly even through the steadily increasing exhaustion that is turning the world muted.
Bichen growls, low and dangerous, and makes her way to the door.
“A-Yuan. Come inside.”
He perks up at her voice, darting up the steps and to Lan Wangji’s bedside with a speed that would infuriate Uncle were he not already halfway down the path. Lan Wangji reaches out, trembling from the simple motion, and lays a hand on his head.
“Look,” A-Yuan tells him, a shy smile on his face, and holds out another plum blossom for him. In his sleeve rests his daemon, nearly blending into the white cloth. “It’s so pretty.”
“Mn,” he murmurs, and stays still when A-Yuan places the plum blossom in his hair, tucked behind his ear. He touches Lan Wangji as if he is a daemon, too.
“Shuoyue let me put one on his antlers.”
“Lan Shuoyue,” Lan Xichen corrects, but it’s much gentler than Uncle’s voice has ever been. A-Yuan nonetheless gets nervous, fingers curling into Lan Wangji’s sleeve as he casts a glance at his brother. Lan Xichen’s expression turns contrite. “Oh, it’s alright. You needn’t be frightened. You’re safe.”
When A-Yuan turns his gaze back to Lan Wangji, he’s biting his lip. “No?”
“Lan Shuoyue is proper,” Lan Wangji agrees, and watches helplessly as A-Yuan starts to tear up. This happens often and he cannot read the ebb and flow of it. Caregiving is a language that he was never taught.
“I…” A-Yuan starts, and at Lan Wangji’s silence, the cries begin in earnest. “I’m sorry. I…”
Back burning, Lan Wangji makes a careful, slow movement with his shoulder, opening up space for a child to lay. This, at least, he has learned how to do. It takes no time for A-Yuan to climb into the bed with him, pressing a now tear-streaked face against his neck.
Lan Xichen and Shuoyue hover by the bedside, frowning. “I’m sorry, didi. I didn’t mean to upset him.”
Lan Wangji doesn’t reply. A-Yuan is mumbling something that he cannot hear into his robes, fat tears soaking into the white cloth. Even if could make out the words, Lan Wangji does not think he would know what to say. As unnatural as it feels to comfort A-Yuan with his touch, it is nothing compared to the idea of doing so with words.
Bichen’s head joins the bed, a gentle rumble coming from her chest.
“It is ok to make mistakes,” she tells the A-Yuan, better than Lan Wangji ever could be. “You are learning.”
A-Yuan’s fingers curl into Lan Wangji’s robes and tangle there. “You’re mad?”
“Not mad,” Lan Wangji murmurs. He has no capacity for anger. Each day is so consumed by the absence of Wei Ying that even breathing feels like too much of a duty, a superfluous act.
“You are safe,” he adds, echoing his brother’s words. They feel hollow in his mouth.
In his arms, A-Yuan continues to cry.
Lan Wangji allows himself a single moment to be viciously, achingly present in his pain. This is not what he wanted. Not what either of them wanted. He is not prepared to care for a child, and he is doing poorly at it. He thinks of A-Yuan’s terror at being alone, so much so that he sleeps in Lan Wangji’s bed every night. Of how he won’t ask for food when he’s hungry, or make too much noise while playing, or complain when he’s not feeling well. Of the constant, rabbit-like fear so deeply woven into his heart that his daemon will not leave his sleeve.
It is not what the Wens would have wanted.
It is not, he thinks, with such a hot pang of yearning and regret that the world spins, what Wei Ying would have wanted.
If only he were—
Shame follows. How weak he is, thinking such things. It does not matter how much they may have wanted A-Yuan to be happy: they are gone. Murdered. They cannot fix this. To wish for ghosts to solve the problem created by the living is foolish and selfish, out of place in a world that has already shown A-Yuan nothing but cruelty.
It does not matter that he did not want this duty. It is his.
So Lan Wangji takes a deep, painful breath. He conjures, with great effort, the words that he wished to hear more than anything when he was three years old and sitting on his mother’s lap, begging for a few more minutes of her warmth.
Halting, he tells A-Yuan this: “Even if someone is mad, it is alright.” And then, firm: “You will stay.”
The sniffles pause. A-Yuan looks up at him with puffy eyes and a red nose.
He says, in the blindly trusting way only a child can, “Promise?”
In A-Yuan’s sleeve, his daemon flutters. Lan Wangji does not notice over the sudden swimming of his eyes. He is lost a cave, his fingers holding dark robes stained with blood, eyes full of flashes of red and white.
Promise me you’ll keep her safe.
“I promise,” he whispers, and thinks: this is one I will not break.
Lan Wangji had believed, after his mother died, that he had some comprehension of mourning.
For years, merely passing by the empty house that she had been held in would cause the very depths of his heart to tremor. Gentians would turn his stomach, too reminiscent of the scent of her perfume and the flowers etched into her comb to feel anything but but forbidden. The call of a hawk would cause his heart to skip, even as he refused to turn his eyes to the sky and search for her daemon.
He did not have the words to describe what existed under the simple, ever-present ache of missing her. Even if he had, there was no one to speak them to.
It took him time to understand the depths of the pain.
When he did, it hurt. It hurt more than the slash of a blade across his knuckles, or the feeling of wood underneath his knees, of the blows from a discipline whip. So he separated himself from worldly feelings, desires, needs. Became numb. Thought: never again.
And then, unasked for: Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan!
All those years of self-protection: gone. All that time watching, preparing, guarding against the pain: wasted. Two words and his heart was ripped open and brought back down to earth.
Wei Ying woke him up.
Wei Ying died.
The grief is unimaginable and indescribable. It consumes his every moment, every footstep, every breath. Wei Ying made him feel, vivid-bright and potent, after so many years of muted blues and whites. The sudden absence of him, his light so violently snuffed out, is so deeply wrong that the world no longer makes sense.
It is an incomprehensible puzzle, the shattered pieces of his life without Wei Ying. Nothing seems to make the sharp, bloody edges of it fit back into place.
There is something new, though. Something not so terrible.
“She is beautiful, A-Yuan.”
A-Yuan beams up at him. Over the past year Lan Wangji has watched him blossom into a bright, curious child, even as his heart cannot understand how time is moving forward. His ribbon lays perfectly straight against his forehead, evening light highlighting the faint impression of clouds sewn delicately onto the cloth.
Sitting there in the Jingshi, crickets singing softly outside, he looks just as much a Lan as the Gusu-born children.
Resting on his palm is his daemon, who slowly raises and lowers her wings into the air.
They say that daemons hold onto parts of you that you forget; looking at her, he wonders. Gone is the black-and-red coloring that Lan Wangji and Bichen had found her with, chased away by nearly translucent green and whites. She looks so delicate that Lan Wangji fights the urge to cover her back up, place her back in the safety of A-Yuan’s sleeves.
She has been a Luna Moth ever since that feverish night. He does not think she will change again.
This is the first time she has ventured out from his sleeve in front of them. A-Yuan’s trust was slow and painful to build; hers seemed impossible to even glimpse, just like her otherworldly form.
They still have not heard her speak. He is unwilling to ask if she does.
“What will you name her?”
A-Yuan looks at Bichen, brows turning thoughtful. He turns to Lan Wangji, who shakes his head slightly.
“It is your choice.”
He has been firm on that. Rarely does he speak to Brother and Uncle, a combination of expected isolation and betrayal so deep (you killed him, you killed him, how could you, you knew how I—) that he is not sure if he will ever be able to the same way again.
But on this point he has been abundantly clear: A-Yuan will name his own daemon when he is ready. Not a moment before. No outside opinions.
“Hmm,” A-Yuan says, and looks back down at his daemon. “I think…”
He trails off. Lan Wangji thinks of a piece of paper tucked away under the Jingshi floorboards: two characters, messily inked onto parchment in a haze of misery and fever.
He knows the weight of a name. The one he has chosen for A-Yuan burns with each breath he takes.
“Take your time,” he advises, and A-Yuan nods. The smile reappears on his face, sunshine-bright.
“Can we take her to see the rabbits?” he asks, and it is Bichen’s turn to look at Lan Wangji.
He has been told, multiple times, that he should not move unnecessarily. He is, as the healers remind him, still terribly injured. The last time he tried to go with A-Yuan on walk nearly all the wounds on his back had reopened. After, surrounded by bloody bandages, Lan Xichen had expressed that perhaps he should not do that again. It had not sounded like a suggestion.
Lan Wangji sits up on the bed. Stands. Takes A-Yuan’s hand.
They see the rabbits.
That night, he dreams.
Losing Wei Ying has turned most of his dreams into muddy, broken things. Swirling colors, dark and red; shadows pressing in on him, a whirlwind of clogging resentment; the cold lines of a cave, with no grey eyes amid the darkness.
On the worst days, they show him his own memories, crystal clear and unforgiving.
He has woken up screaming on several occasions, broken his stitches and left his sheets soaked with blood on others. Sleep is not a reprieve, and he is grateful for that. He does, after all, not deserve one.
This dream is different.
He opens his eyes to a clear blue sky.
There is something soft pressing against his back; wildgrass, he realizes, as he slowly sits up and is faced with an endless stretch of vibrant green. Flowers bloom in every nook and cranny, chrysanthemums and gentians and peonies bringing sparks of bright color spinning in his eyes. Above him, gently shading him from the sunlight streaming down to soak the land in warmth and life, is a towering tree full of delicate apple blossoms.
It is so beautiful that for a moment, he can do nothing but stare.
Slowly, he gets up. There is no pain in his back; when he reaches behind himself to check, his shoulders do not protest, and there are not open wounds but merely faded scars that greet his fingertips. Bichen, when he turns to look for her, is nowhere to be found.
Something is calling him south.
He makes his way through the grass, the tips brushing his waist as he goes, longer than anything he could ever attempt to grow in Gusu. Birds and mice flush from his footsteps, only to clamber atop the grass and watch him pass. Soon there are no less than a dozen eyes on him; he has never seen animals look so curious, nor so bold, yet their attention feels like a gentle brush of fingers, not an unwelcome weight on his shoulders.
A flash of movement catches his eye. One of the birds has flitted close to land not even a mi from him. He pauses, watching as it preens and lifts up its wings to reveal a multicolor plumage, red and purple and gold layered together like the walls of a rocky canyon.
When it notices him looking, it tilts its head. Chirps once and then, taking him by surprise, flutters over to land on his shoulder.
He stares at it, holding his breath. The bird chirps one more before butting its head against his cheek, an insistent motion, as if trying to turn his head.
Lan Wangi blinks, and lets his gaze be moved. When it falls back to the South, he sucks in a breath.
A path has appeared before him.
It stretches between two trees with dark green leaves, towering well above the others, so far that he has to strain his neck to see the tips of them. Rich, fertile soil has made itself home under his feet, the grasses cleared out of his way; he digs his toes into it, finds it sun-soaked, pleasantly warm.
When he turns to look at the bird on his shoulder, it is gone.
It feels, oddly, like an invitation.
He follows the path.
It takes him through a forest, as expansive and all-encompassing as the clearing before it. The path weaves and winds through all manner of trees, dark green and pale green and impossibly bright green woven among each other like a tapestry, silk converging in perfect harmony. When he breathes in, he can smell wet leaves, fresh sap, moss on bark—signs of land that is old and healthy, a forest that has rooted itself well.
A trickling stream joins the path, the shallow water twisting next to him as he makes his way along. It is impossibly inviting: clear and cold, when he dips a finger into it, then refreshing as he cups his palms together and brings some to his mouth to drink.
This is a good place, he thinks, the thought bubbling up in his chest and grounding itself there. A nice place.
Wei Ying would have liked it.
It is at the very moment, crouched next to the trickling water and smooth stones, that he sees it.
A lotus flower.
Had he kept his eye on the path, he might have missed it; it is small thing, delicate, its white and pink petals touched with dew as it drifts lazily away from him, buoyed by the gentle water. Yet now that he has spotted it, it might as well be as vibrant and bright as the sun itself, for how quickly it blinds him to everything else.
It is without conscious thought that he makes his way towards it, his bare feet shocked with the cold from the water. Not unpleasantly so; the press of it against his skin feels like waking up, not freezing.
As he approaches, it moves faster, like it somehow knows he is chasing it. He picks up his pace, heart thundering in his chest, determined not to lose sight of it. It, in turn, rushes on ahead. Soon he is running, water soaking the hem of his robes, the sounds of birds and forest life drowned out by his frantic pursuit.
The stream curves, the flower following its path—and for a moment, he loses sight of it.
“No!” he shouts, louder than he has ever shouted in his life, lungs burning with the strength of it. And, with a burst of speed, he flings himself forward and rounds the corner.
There is a lake.
Gone is the forest, the stream, the dirt path that led him here. He is standing on a moss-covered shore in twilight, the world painted in dim blues and soft purples. Fireflies light up the air with tiny flicks of light, reflecting off the glassy water in a visual symphony of motion. It is quiet, peaceful, like how snow blankets the Cloud Recesses in winter and leaves everything comfortably muffled.
In that moment, Lan Wangji hardly notices any of it.
Because in the center of the lake, among the hundreds of lotus flowers that rest upon the still water, is a fox.
There is nothing, no entity on heaven or earth, that could stop him from wading into the lake towards her. Uncaring of his robes, he scrambles off the shore and into the water; it is warm on his skin, like it has been soaking all day in the sun.
Lotus flowers bob and drift as he pushes through them, feet easily touching the silty bottom, robes soaking through and clinging to his skin. The feeling is distant from him, mind only on small patch of land where the red and white fox is safely curled up out of the water.
Her eyes are closed, and fear shoots through him, heart leaping into his throat as he finally reaches her.
“Suibian?” he croaks, breathless with terror. She doesn’t reply.
The island is too small for him to climb onto, only big enough for her, so he leans forward instead, dizzy with dread, blinded by it. For a moment, he fears the worst.
Then he gets a better look at her.
The last time he had seen Suibian, it was with red-stained teeth and fear in her eyes, her fur matted with blood and dirt.
This time, she is sleeping.
It is a familiar sight, impossible to forget. How many times has she slept in front of them—curled up in Wei Ying’s lap, dozing in the library, trying to sneak in a nap during Shufu’s lectures? Just like back then, her breathing steady and soft, nose tucked under her tail as she lets out tiny, barely audible snores.
He stares at her, soaking in the details. Her fur is smooth and shiny, a healthy summer coat, no trace of ribs to be seen. She looks healthy, at peace—nothing like the fox that would occasionally show her face when he and Bichen visited the Burial Mounds.
The relief is staggering.
“Suibian,” he repeats, softer this time. Then, when she doesn’t stir, desperation rising up once again in his chest: “A-Sui?”
The mere act of saying it has him shaking, unfamiliar and forbidden on his tongue; but Suibian’s nose twitches and she lets out a tiny sigh, impossible to mistake for anything but contentment. Her eyelids flutter.
But she doesn’t wake up.
Promise me you’ll keep her safe.
The memory jolts through him, tilts his vision. It is like porcelain shattering on stone, a rock being thrown into still water, and he is struck by the sudden realization that he is dreaming. Asleep. That soon, he will wake up, and there will be nothing there but a world without Wei Ying and a promise he still has yet to fulfill.
This is his chance.
“Suibian,” he begs, as the edges of the lake starts to turn blurry, the unwelcome tug of reality pulling at him like a string around his wrist, “wake up. Tell me where you are. Help me find you.”
Suibian snuffles, paws twitching.
Another flutter of the eyelids. This time, she lets out a little hnnng, twisting onto her back as her body lengthens into a long stretch, all of her limbs extending. Her paw nearly brushes his hand, and he jerks back, water splashing around him in his haste.
A drop of water lands on her nose, making it twitch.
She opens her eyes.
They look at each other. Him, frozen; her, sleepy, muscles relaxed. She blinks a few times, lets out a squeaky yawn, and tilts her head.
“Oh! Lan Zhan?” she asks, the words slurred, eyes already starting to droop back into sleep as her tail gives a little wag—and then he wakes up.
“I saw her,” he whispers to Bichen.
It is the first thing he has managed to say in two hours.
The Jingshi is quiet. It is deep into the night, the moon only a sliver in the sky; thinking back on his dream, on the fireflies that had lit up the world like a beacon in the dark, the room feels empty and aching.
He had woken to Bichen pressing her face against his neck and whining, anxiety pulsing through their link, both of them shaking up a storm. She has been patiently waiting for him to speak; now, as the words leave his mouth, she jolts.
“Where?” she asks. Their bond trembles so violently that he has to suck in a ragged breath to stop the world from spinning.
“A made-up place.” It could not have been real. Nothing that beautiful could exist in the world, now that Wei Ying is dead. “She was sleeping.”
They are silent for a moment.
Then, voice trembling, Bichen murmurs, “Was she frightened?”
The opposite. Whenever he thinks back to it, to that otherworldly lake and her happy little snores, he can find nothing but peace in the twilight dimness of it.
Bichen nuzzles against his hand, something quiet and confused in her eyes. He is much the same.
Suibian has occupied their thoughts every moment of every day. It had not mattered, that they did not understand Wei Ying’s dying wish; they had left no stone unturned, no corner neglected during that stretch of fevered searching, blood running down his back, Bichen staggering alongside him as they called out Suibian’s name.
There had been nothing, of course. No scent, no energy, not even a tuft of fur. Why would there be? Those first weeks, when Lan Wangji had been half-here and half-not, too deep in the pain to understand, Bichen had overheard the whispers. Anxious murmurs as servants and healers bustled in and out-- that Wei Ying’s body was never found, destroyed by his own demonic backlash. That, despite the work of some of the land’s most skilled cultivators, his soul will not respond to inquiry.
If he is gone, then Suibian surely is too. Surely, she…
(A little fox, sleeping among lotus flowers.
Promise me you’ll keep her safe.)
Lan Wangji’s back burns. He sinks into the pain of it, embraces it like his mother used to hold him, tight and all-encompassing.
“Do you think she’s really out there?” Bichen asks, now staring out the window at the moonless night, but he can already feel it in their bond: the answer does not matter.
Maybe what he saw was real—some glimpse into her fate, more than a simple dream of a desperate man. Maybe Suibian really is there, curled up in a lake that isn’t of this world. Sleeping away the rest of her days, blanketed in safety and comfort.
But Wei Ying had begged them.
When they venture out into the land, they will look, just in case.
Time passes. It should not, but it does.
He sleeps, eats. Not by choice. Lan Xichen watches him, always worried. The healers tell him that he is recovering; he silently disagrees. There are scars deeper and more painful than the whips on his back, but no one speaks of them.
In truth, there would be little point in doing so: words, already so inadequate to express the turmoil under his skin, become worthless in a world without Wei Ying.
Nestled into his bones is a constant sorrow, a constant itch to act, that he cannot escape. By the time his isolation has ended, he knows the feeling better than the once-familiar faces in the Cloud Recesses. It does not deepen or lessen, has not since the moment he awoke to a sentence that should never have been said.
It simply stays.
Perhaps it is that feeling, that drift, that causes him to act so rashly.
Despite his brother’s best efforts, Lan Wangji knows when Wei Ying and Suibian died. He has calculated it down to the hour, perhaps the minute. Every year, he has marked the passing of the day in the way he cannot bring himself to mark others. Every year, it has been an insurmountable obstacle that leaves him so full to the brim with grief that he can do nothing but feel.
This year, his first out of isolation, he arranges for A-Yuan to play with one of his classmates for the day.
Then he flies to Yiling.
It is evening by the time he and Bichen land. His flying pace is slower now, his spiritual energy weak and easily drained. He is aware that the trip back will likely reopen his wounds, that tender space of torn flesh, if they haven’t already begun to bleed.
Standing on the outskirts of city, watching the night turn the sky midnight blue, he is unaware of the pain of them.
His heart pounds in his chest. He can feel Bichen’s worry quivering through their link, a silent question that he cannot answer. Lan Wangji, after all, is not sure what they are looking for.
A reminder? A moment of repentance? A fox, perhaps, drawn to their familiar scents?
It does not matter that the answer eludes him. Bichen has stood steady by his side through it all; and tonight, she does not protest as he steps into the town.
It is unusually loud for this time of night, and it soon becomes apparent why: a night market, painting the streets with activity. He hears it before he sees it, the sound of laughter and merchants and sizzling firecrackers, and like a moth drawn to a flame, he follows the noise.
It is a mistake.
To his right is a stall with vibrant red awnings, the sweet scent of hibiscus tea drifting through the air. On his left, a rainbow of lanterns flickering with candlelight. People bustle by him on the crowded walkway, bartering with sellers as they go. Spice floats through the air and burns the back of his throat as he breathes in, a chili-hot ache.
After years of muted colors, it is all so bright. Too bright. Alive.
That is another problem with grief, he has found: poems and texts told him that it would turn the world colorless, that it would halt, but the world is the same. Wei Ying is dead, murdered, yet the sights and sounds of the night market, of life, continue on unabated.
Nausea builds in his throat.
“Wangji.” Bichen is at his side, shaking. He moves through the stalls in a daze, unthinking. She leans heavy on his legs as he goes, slow step by step. Around him people move, talk, laugh, ignorant of how each moment paints his grief as inconsequential.
His feet, unbidden, take him to that spot.
Even after three years, it is painfully familiar. He stands there, trembling, memories rising to the surface like a tide washing over shore. He loses himself in the flow of them until his eyes see only dark robes and a red ribbon, until he feels only the weight of a child’s grip on his legs, until his ears hear only Wei Ying, Wei Ying, Wei Ying.
Oh! He’s mine!
He is going to be sick.
“Wangji,” Bichen repeats in a whisper, as he stumbles into an alleyway and fights against the urge to scream. He holds onto her with violently quivering hands, unable support his own weight. Louder: “Wangji, breathe.”
He cannot. What is the point of it? Everything should be drained of vibrancy in the same way it is drained of Wei Ying. That Wei Ying is dead while the world is so very alive is a grievance that is too great to bear and too monumental to ever atone for.
He has re-entered the world to find that it has left Wei Ying behind. Yet he will never be able to.
His breath comes in gasps, ragged rattling of his lungs that leave his throat burning. Each inhale brings another flash of memory, another regret. It sends his vision tilting, the ground beneath him spinning off axis, and he wonders what would happen if he just stayed here, let himself fall over the edge.
A sharp, wild sting fizzes through their bond.
“No,” Bichen rumbles, the sound reverberating through his palms. The warmth of her soaks into his skin and twists into their link; when she rubs her face against his knee, he feels, through the haze of nausea and anguish, a love so strong that it hurts.
She brings him back. She always does.
He chokes in the next breath, a frantic inhale as his lungs greedily drink in air. The rumble turns to a purr, her tongue coming to sweep gently against his fingers.
“Good. Good, again.”
Her voice trembles, quivers working themselves between the vowels. They are the same soul, him and her. He is aware, painfully, that it is not just him who suffers. In his fall, he has tugged her down too, pulled her into the shadowed parts of his heart.
Another desperate inhale.
She butts her head against his hand, a silent understanding. They do not need words between them, haven’t since his mother died. There are never the right ones anyways, not for his love or his grief. He cannot find them; in losing Wei Ying, he feels as if he has lost himself.
The voice startles them both. Bichen turns with a snarl, the hair on her back raising. He staggers to his feet, reaching for his sword.
It is Bichen who recognizes them first.
Mianmian stares at them, her body framed by the light cast into the alleyway from the market. It’s been so long since he last saw her that he hardly recognizes her without the Jin robes. She is armed but has made no move to reach for her weapon, hand resting on her daemon’s head instead. Behind her stands another woman, shorter and stockier, whose fingers are hovering over a sword at her side.
For a moment, they simply stare at each other.
She, shamefully, remembers her manners first. She bows. “Hanguang-Jun. Lan Bichen.”
It is ingrained habit alone that has him bowing back. His shaking body feels so separate from him that he could not command it if he tried.
The woman behind Mianmian steps forward, giving them a better view of her face and the civet clinging to her shoulders. He does not recognize her and does not bother to wonder if he should. That Bichen has not started hissing is enough of an answer.
“Everything alright here?” she asks, and Mianmian stops her before she can step forward more.
“It’s fine, A-Mei. We know them. Give us a second.”
“I know. Just a second.”
They talk in hushed voices as Mianmian’s daemon steps forward, their ears tilted curiously at them. Deming has always been friendly to them, not even half of Bichen’s size, yet Lan Wangji tenses anyways when they step into their space.
Bichen lets out a rumble as they approach. Deming curls their tail and pauses, halting the slow taps of their paws against the ground.
The golden cat takes one look at Lan Wangji and turns to speak to Bichen instead.
“Lan Bichen. We saw you from the street—are you both alright?”
The rest of the conversation is lost to him. He catches indecipherable syllables and nothing more, like drops of water attempting to trickle through tightly cupped palms. Wei Ying’s laugh is still ringing in his head, and he is back in a cave, staring at newly branded flesh and listening to bravado about scars. Pressing a cool cloth against flushed cheeks and hyperaware of Bichen soothing Suibian, of the long expanse of skin beneath his fingers. A song plays, so loud that he can’t hear his own breathing.
Bichen’s fur on his fingertips jerks him back to reality.
“Come on,” she murmurs, using her weight to gently guide him forward. Mianmian and Deming are waiting at the entrance of the alleyway.
He obeys, a ghost adrift, legs unsteady as a newborn foal. It does not matter where they take him; if it is not to Wei Ying, then it is all the same.
“Here,” says a voice, and a cup is in his hand.
They are sitting in a teashop.
It is nothing like the one he and Wei Ying visited, so different in décor that it must have been intentional on Bichen’s part, yet he sees Wei Ying in the shadows nonetheless. The smell of tea, grassy jingshan and mellow jasmine, should hover in the air between them, but he smells nothing. At some indeterminable point between the alley and now, it has started to rain. He listens to the patter of it against the windows and thinks: how?
It is the same question as three years ago. He still cannot fathom an answer.
“It’s chamomile. Drink,” Mianmian tells him, and he does. It tastes like nothing on his tongue, but he does not know what else to do.
A soft noise comes from his knee. He looks down and sees Bichen’s head resting there, eyes focused with unwavering intensity on his face. Instinct makes his chest tighten—they are touching, touching where they should not be, in front of strangers and old classmates and those who do not deserve to see it.
Only one person ever did. And he is dead, dead—
Suddenly he does not care who sees.
Shaking, he reaches out to her, digs his fingers into the fur on her neck. It is almost freeing, to do this: to toss aside the principles, an act of defiance that sends his heart pounding into his throat. Throwing himself over a cliff.
If this is a worldly desire, then so be it. He has greater sins for the gods to rule on.
Bichen stares up at him, whiskers twitching, the blue of her eyes sparkling from the lights hanging from the window. When he tests their bond, he feels it: uncertainty, deep and endless. So overwhelming that he almost misses the other emotion hiding there.
It occurs to him, for the first time since Wei Ying died, that perhaps he is scaring her.
Mianmian is watching them, a thoughtful expression on her face. Looking at her is strange, almost out of place. He has not heard anything of her since that day she walked out of the Jin halls; there had been no incentive to inquire about it, not when his gaze was so fixed on Wei Ying. There is a new curve to her shoulders, more relaxed, more confident. Her robes are worn but not ratty, her weapon polished at her side.
When she sees him staring, she smiles, nods to his half-full cup.
“Finish that. It will help, Hanguang-Jun.”
It will not. He thinks of Bichen, and drinks more.
“We didn’t expect to see you,” Bichen volunteers. He curls his hand deeper into the scruff of her neck, uncertain if he is trying to reassure or receive reassurance himself. She is still trembling. “Are you… well?”
Mianmian nods, refilling the teacup in front of him. “A few of us were on a hunt in the area, but we wanted to visit the night market first. If you didn’t expect to see us, imagine our surprise at seeing you two. I had heard you were in seclusion.”
Lan Wangji forces the cup back to his lips. Only after he’s swallowed does he realize his tongue is burned.
“Over,” he manages, feeling as if he is talking through a haze, and Mianmian hums.
“I see. Well. It’s good to see you again.”
The sentiment takes him by surprise. They were never friends, at most uneasy acquaintances; all he can remember of Mianmian from before is the simmering, wild jealousy that she brought out in him for so many years. He had been overwhelmed by it every time he looked at her, thought about Wei Ying looking at her.
Puerile. Pointless. He feels nothing for her now but a sharp pang of envy. She was strong enough to act on her principles. He was not.
And Wei Ying died because of it.
Something must show on his face, because her smile fades.
“Sorry,” she says, and refills his tea. Deming leans lightly against her side when she settles back down, and Lan Wangji marvels at the apparent ease of it. How do they touch like this, and not feel like their very cores have been shaken by it every time? “I know that’s probably not what you want to hear right now, but I mean it. I was just thinking—I didn’t realize how much pain there was in the world until I set out on my own. We need more people like you to fight it.”
Mianmian looks at Bichen. “A few years ago, some of the other cultivators without Sects decided to band together. I joined up, figured I could learn some new things. That’s how I met Liu Meiling. We’re traveling together with some other women to try and help people who the Sects don’t.”
Bichen inclines her head. “That is noble.”
Mianmian shrugs. “Maybe. That’s not why I’m doing it.”
They all look at him. He is clutching his teacup so hard that he fears it may crack, but he cannot help himself. The question has escaped his lips without consent and is not the one he wants to ask, not really. The question, always, is: how? How did you walk out? How did you set aside everything, conjure the bravery, stand against so many? If not for nobility, then why?
He watches her pick her words.
“I think you know that just as well as I do, Hanguang-Jun.”
No, she is wrong. He does not know because he failed, and no matter where he searches he cannot find an answer.
He tries to speak but all that comes out is a shaky exhale. The world does not need more people like him. It needs more like her. Because if he had just stood up, walked out, then maybe—
“Hanguang-Jun,” Deming says, and their tone is gentle. Lan Wangji tries to look at them, but their shape is a blur. “What were you looking for in Yiling?”
His chest constricts.
There’s a long pause that none of them fill. At the table next to them, two merchants are talking about a new line of herbs the Jin are growing. The blurred-out shapes of passers-by flash past the window, parasols clutched in their hands. The bell near the door chimes as two women dressed in floral red hanfu slip inside, trying to get the attention of the proprietor.
Sitting there in the middle of it all, Bichen’s unease curling in his stomach, Lan Wangji feels trapped. His heart hiccups in his ribcage, a plea—whether to stop, or to keep going, he doesn’t know.
There’s the scrape of china on wood as Mianmian sets down her cup.
Her voice is quiet when she says, “I’m sorry for your loss, Hanguang-Jun.”
The world tilts again.
When he jerks to his feet, the table jostles from his haste. There is the shattering of porcelain on wood, warm water soaking into the bottom hem of his robes.
“Wangji,” Bichen whispers, but she is on her feet as well. Neither Mianmian nor Deming show any sign of surprise as he fumbles to pick up his sword.
He cannot be here, cannot have this conversation, can’t, can’t—
Other patrons are staring, whispers filling his ears. His mind tries to pick out a well-known tone, the chitter of a fox, but it finds only the dissonant echo of strangers.
There is no air in his lungs, and he cannot think, and he cannot live in a world that has been without Wei Ying for three years, three years, three—
If he does not leave now, he is not sure he will ever be able to get up again.
“Hanguang-Jun,” Mianmian says to his retreating back, and he pauses without looking back. He owes her this much. “When we next meet, I hope you’ve found what you need.”
The world shatters.
Impossible, Lan Wangji thinks as he stumbles out of the teahouse and onto the muddy streets. Bichen paws at his clothes, frantic, but it does not stop him. What he needs is Wei Ying, and he never had him in the first place.
Deep in the night, he returns to the Cloud Recesses and drinks an entire bottle of Emperor’s Smile. It makes Bichen sleepy, useless; it makes him desperate, seeking. The Forbidden Chamber, when he staggers into it alone, has never looked so welcoming.
What were you looking for in Yiling?
The pain of the metal searing into his flesh is a relief.
Another scar joins his body, above his heart. It’s not enough.
The day before Lan Wangji gives A-Yuan his courtesy name, he and Bichen pay a visit to his family.
The path to the Burial Mounds is dilapidated and unnervingly familiar. It has been five years since they last tread it, yet the shape of each tree is held in his mind like a poem read one too many times.
He had spent hours searching, that terrible night. Every nook. Every cranny. The foolish hope that had shot through him when Lan Bichen had murmured, “Wangji, look.” Curled by the tree, peering in, and he had thought—
Not a man, not a fox. The disappointment was immense, followed by such hot shame that his eyes had watered.
It will be yet another thing he will never forgive himself for: how his own selfishness turned him so cold and cruel in that moment. To think that he could have ever looked at A-Yuan and felt, even for the smallest of seconds, anything close to disappointment.
He keeps his pace slow. There is not a physical need to: the wounds in his back have not been torn open since the incident two years ago. Brother and Uncle have watched him too closely for such a thing to happen.
(He knows that even now, back at the Cloud Recesses, a close circle of trusted servants is looking for him. It will be pointless. This stolen trip is one he has been planning since the first feverish year of isolation, and he has had time to think through the steps.)
Still, it feels appropriate to walk without haste. This is not his home. All those who could have invited him are dead, so the least they are due is a lengthy warning of his arrival.
There are many stories about the siege of the Burial Mounds. Raising A-Yuan, he has heard some recounted when discussing his teachings for that day, has made an effort to correct a good number of them. Others he has sought out over the years, digging his fingers into an open wound. Even more have been told like ballads through the halls of the Sects, too loud for his brother’s careful words to drown out.
Regardless of their path to his ears, all of them are predictable. Hollow. Painting it as an act of glory, of righteousness; the defeat of an evil patriarch and an equally evil Sect.
Looking across the carnage of the simple place the Wens had called home, he feels sick with the one-sided injustice of such a retelling.
Makeshift houses torn down. Blood soaked so deep into the earth that it has left visible stains. Shattered pieces of bone scattered across the dirt. The land has been ravaged like the people, cut down and made into nothing but memory.
For some time, he looks. There is a story that the Sects will never tell in each dilapidated garden plot, the makeshift pond near the center, an abandoned toy poking out of the dirt. If Lan Wangji does not try to read it, then this story, too, disappears in the folds of history.
He cannot look at the cave. Not yet.
“Where should we start?”
Bichen has been sitting patiently at his side, a warm pressure against his left leg.
They start to dig. It is slow, laborious—he did not bring tools, and using his powers feels unbearably cheap. Dirt and dust work their way under his nails, tiny cuts crossing his fingertips from the hard earth. Bichen goes about collecting bones, the few remnants of Wen bodies that were not thrown into the blood pool or taken as sick trophies.
When they are done, they place the bones in the dirt. Cover it.
Standing back and looking at the unremarkable mound of parched soil that constitutes what is now the entirety of the Wen family grave, nausea clogs his throat. No one bothered to perform proper funeral rights after the siege, not in a place already so full of resentment. None of the cultivators who have been keeping an eye on this place have tried to do anything but look out for Wei Ying’s return.
This, a patch of dirt, is what the Wens get.
The injustice of it is dizzying. They deserve more than this, than his and Bichen’s inconsequential efforts. A makeshift grave, done by someone who they did not know and would likely hate, is not fitting for a family that suffered so much.
Still, he has little left to offer them.
In his pocket is a scrap of paper. He curls his fingers around it, takes a slow breath.
There are things that need to be said. It does not matter if he now finds it difficult.
He gets onto his knees on the ground, bows as low as he can to the mound of dirt. Bichen follows, smearing dirt and dried leaves across her fur, tail passing over the cracked earth with a ssssss when she moves it to curl around his wrist.
“You have suffered greatly,” Lan Wangji tells the bones, and swallows. The Burial Mounds is such a quiet place that even the simple sound feels too loud. “I am sorry for the injustice that was done against you.”
Nothing greets his words but his and Bichen’s breathing. They are inadequate anyways, undeserving of response.
“I am sorry,” he continues, “that I stood by and allowed it to happen. I cannot atone for it. To ignore it is to defile your history. I will not. As long as I live, I will not forget it.”
His throat closes up before he can speak the rest. The grief he feels has turned his body into a well. Every time he believes it to be full to the brim, too deep in sweeping torment to feel anything else, it somehow holds more. It is unceasing and unforgiving, greedy in its consumption.
Yet it is still nothing compared to the emptiness of the surrounding world that no longer holds Wei Ying.
With shaking hands, he pulls out the scrap of paper.
“I know I am not his father,” he tells them, voice cracking. The name inked into the parchment swims under his eyes. “But I have—tried. During his time with me, I have tried to keep him safe and happy. I have not always succeeded. I know you would not want him to be with me, and I am sorry. To be a steward of your legacy is the only consolation I can offer. I know it is not enough.”
He places the paper on the grave. It crinkles as he draws his hand away, a splash of white against sickly brown.
“I do not know what you would have named him. This is what I have chosen. I hope it is satisfactory.”
Tears are pooling in his eyes, but he pushes them back. He does not deserve to cry. Not with this.
“He has been kept from you for so long, and I will not deny you his name. Nor him, not forever. One day, when he is old enough to know without danger, I will bring him here. I will tell him of a family that I do not know, but that he belongs in. That was taken from him.”
One more breath. One last thing to say.
“No matter the path his future takes, I will support him,” he says. “I vow this with my life.”
The only sound that follows is the wind, blowing through the trees like a drawn-out sigh.
He stays prostrate in the dirt for some time, head so low that dust enters his mouth with each inhale. The mere act of speaking is exhausting, draining. When he finally rises, each limb feels almost unbearably heavy.
“We can leave,” Bichen murmurs, as Lan Wangji looks toward the cave. “There are other days. If today is not the right one…”
She trails off. They both know there is not a right day. Not for this.
Together, they make their way towards it.
When he steps in, he is too overcome by the sight to register the scent of blood. He had seen it all before, of course, years ago—but at the time his gaze had been blinded by Wei Ying presence, every starved, sharp line of him.
He had not properly observed, then.
Now, he walks forward in a haze, disbelieving. Any possessions have long since been looted or defaced, leaving only black stone covered with smears of red. It is such a barren cave, so cold, so telling of the pain that Wei Ying must have suffered through each and every night.
Demon Subdue Palace, he had called it. He had said it so flippantly, like it was a joke. Looking at it now, Lan Wangji does not find it funny at all.
It is as if he has walked into a prison. The only thing missing are bars.
The thought has him stumbling. How long has it been since he’s thought of those barred-over windows, just narrow enough that a hawk could not slide through? Of his mother gazing wistfully outside during their visits, the only sight that could ever draw her eyes away from his and his brother’s faces?
It hits him, then, why he hates this place so much. There is nothing here of the Cloud Recesses, yet there is no doubt this room is the same as his mother’s: a prison disguised as a home. A mimicry of living—not for the benefit of the resident, but for the comfort of those looking in.
As if on cue, he finally registers the congealing heaviness of blood in the air. Eyes free of the haze that has narrowed his field of view since he first stepped in, he looks to the pool of blood and decomposed bodies in the corner for the first time.
He had heard of what happened to the blood pool. He was not prepared for it.
Wei Ying lived here.
No, this was not living. Wei Ying was trapped here.
This time, the nausea is soul deep. He empties his stomach with a cry, so overcome that the room spins. Bichen growls as he staggers back and trips, legs unable to support him any longer. The feeling of the hard stone against his back makes him choke out a gasp.
“Wangji!” Bichen is helping him up, forcing her body under his so he is propped up against the cave wall. He grabs onto her, drowning, needing, and it is with a single smooth motion that she steps between his knees and presses herself to his chest.
Unknowing, ignorant. Why must he always be those things? How could he have been blind to it twice? The two most precious people to him, caged and hidden.
Always, always out of reach.
“How?” he asks her, tears forming in his eyes. She rumbles and he digs his fingers into the scruff of her neck. “How, he—I—”
It is too much. Too many emotions inside him.
“A-Zhan,” she soothes, as he starts to cry. She has not called him that name since he named her, since Lan Bichen fell from his lips with more pride than anything he would ever say again.
To hear it from her now starts the sobs in earnest.
The next word is a scream. “How?!”
Her rough tongue sweeps across his hair, his cheek. Neither of them have the answers; that is the problem. He could search forever, and unless it is in Wei Ying’s playful tone in, no response will do.
“I am here,” Bichen murmurs, so big in his arms that he can barely wrap them around her. He does anyways, screams endlessly into her neck so loud that his throat hurts; the force of his tears make him shudder, chest heaving with each sob. He is five again, holding a bunny for comfort. Seeking a hug that will not be returned by others. “I am here.”
It is the same thing she had said the night she settled, sitting out in the snow.
He remembers it clearly in a way that he cannot for most other memories in childhood, no matter how desperately he does not want to. It had been a surprise to his teachers: a five-year-old child with a fully settled daemon. A prodigy, according to some.
What a strong core he must have, to have his daemon settle so early, he recalls them saying. Very impressive. You must be proud, to have achieved something so great so early.
Now, the thought makes him choke out a wild, unhappy laugh. Fools.
The truth of the matter is this: Lan Bichen did not settle because of the strength of his core. It is ludicrous to think so. He has never believed it.
Lan Bichen settled because when his mother died, Lan Wangji was filled with so much fear and sadness and loneliness that he broke. He disobeyed Uncle and snuck out, sat outside his mother’s door all night, waiting. Waiting for her to take him inside. To open up, to call his name, the familiar shape of A-Zhan on her tongue. For her hawk to call out into the night air.
And when she did not come to the door, when the sun dipped below the horizon and he started to shiver, Lan Bichen had shifted from her rabbit-fast heart to a steadier one, a larger one. As the snow blanketed the earth, she had curled herself around him to keep him warm.
And she had not turned back.
So when he was five and mourning without even knowing what that was, with a daemon that could no longer bring herself to change, what the elders should have said was this:
I am sorry that your mother is dead, A-Zhan.
I am sorry that she is never coming back.
And I am sorry that we are pretending you never had her in the first place.
But they did not. They complimented his core, his intellect, the way he could sit straight-backed and still at dinner. They turned away from his tear-filled eyes, from his silent pain, from the night terrors that would send him fleeing to his brother’s bed wracked with sobs.
His mother’s story was buried like her body; the life she had led shoved into the shadows. Nervously ignored, the overwhelming pain of it all treated like something dirty and best forgotten. As if never speaking of her would make it so she never existed at all.
As if by simply not saying¸ they could make him forget her.
He feels the same way now, sitting on the blood-stained floor of the demon subdue cave, sobbing his heart into Bichen’s fur. They took Wei Ying from him with violence. Now they try to take his memory, his legacy, the truth of him.
Sitting in this cave, he sees it so clearly: Wei Ying suffered. He suffered so deeply and for so many years, and he never said a thing.
And they call him evil in return.
“We should have gone to them,” he sobs to Bichen, finally speaking the words that have haunted him for half a decade. “I should have been there.”
It does not matter that Wei Ying and Suibian told them not to. They should not have accepted Suibian’s answer to Bichen’s plea, the softly spoken, This path is a bit too narrow for you to follow, kindly given yet no less painful in its tenderness.
They should not have listened. Lan Wangji should have hugged Wei Ying back and forced the path wider. Never let go.
Bichen lets out a shaky puff of hot air against his face.
“It would not have changed the outcome. They would have killed all of us.”
So be it, he thinks, wrecked with pain. He had so many chances to stand by Wei Ying’s side—years and years of them, wasted, shied away from like a coward. The regret of it has twisted into his blood, unending in its invasion.
Bichen is right, but it would be better to be dead than this. Better to be with Wei Ying in spirit than to trapped here without him.
He is so tired of carrying the weight of his grief. No matter what he does, it will not lessen. How on earth can he keep going?
“A-Yuan,” Bichen murmurs to him, as if she knows what he is thinking. She does, of course. She is his, and he is hers. They will always know.
His mind goes to that little slip of parchment. Two characters in ink.
By the time he can walk, the sun has begun to set. Crying has made his eyes puffy and red, his voice too hoarse to speak. Bichen’s fur is matted with tears and dirt and blood, turning her grimy and disheveled. In the red light cast from the sky, they are a sorry sight.
They will stop somewhere and clean up before returning. He does not care what Uncle and Brother think, but he does not want to scare A-Yuan.
Before they go, he pauses one last time in front of that too-small mound of dirt. Reaching out his hand, he focuses all his energy into the earth. When he steps back, a small grave marker has been inlaid into the ground. The protection magic woven into it is subtle enough not to draw attention, but strong enough to deter any potential threats.
It is, he thinks, as Bichen lets out low purr, not enough. Never enough.
“Thank you,” he tells the bones, and bows.
Lan Yingyue, Lan Sizhui whispers to him, one name exchanged for another. His daemon sits in his hand, resting her wings on the smooth skin of his palm. Even after five years, she has never changed.
He repeats the name on his lips.
It is fitting.
In year seven, Shufu looks at him from across the table and says, “Marriage.”
It has been an otherwise quiet evening in his Uncle’s private quarters. Lan Wangji has been occupying himself with reading a scroll on inquiry techniques, Bichen silent and attentive at his side. The sudden noise is startling and technically against the rules (Do not infringe upon other’s moments of learning; There is no conversation more valuable than the pursuit of education); at the other end of the table, his brother sets down his book with a look that, for Lan Xichen at least, constitutes as wide-eyed and shocked. Shouyue’s nose twitches.
Lan Wangji does not put his scroll down, nor does Bichen change her pose.
They simply look up at his uncle, steady.
Uncle’s throat bobs a few times, the weight of their collective gazes all on him. His fingers curl tighter around the brush he was writing with, perfectly calligraphy spread across the parchment in front of him. There is a bead of ink threatening to drop from the tip of the brush, right over one of the characters; it is Yizheng who notices the incoming disaster and quickly flutters down to the table from her place on Uncle’s shoulder, grabbing the brush with her beak.
“Ah,” Uncle says, as she takes it from his fingers and carefully places it the side. He clears his throat. “Thank you, Lan Yizheng.”
The owl nods, before turning her head to Lan Wangji and Bichen.
There is a long moment of silence, where they do nothing but look back.
“Right,” Uncle sighs, and Yizheng hops onto his arm and back to his shoulder. It is not the first time he has said the word with that specific inflection over the years. “At least do them the favor of quick rejections, Wangji.”
Bichen’s heartbeat is steady through their link, matching his own. Lan Wangji inclines his head, and goes back to reading.
Lan Wangji was waiting for something like this to happen.
It was bound to, eventually, no matter how much he has tried to avoid it. He and Bichen have been absent at most large sect discussions and conferences in the decade since Wei Ying’s death; Uncle is not pleased with his choice to still wear mourning robes in public, and his brother seems convinced that he is a better fit as a teacher, anyways.
A pleasant lie. Those outside of Gusu, he knows, do not enjoy his company.
Still. The world is small, and he has been traveling it with greater frequency now that Sizhui has begun his own hunts and does not need to be looked after. It is not uncommon for Lan Wangji to travel on other sect’s lands. They could not avoid running into him alone at some point, not with their current goals.
That had not stopped him from hoping they would not.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
The day has been long and unfruitful. Lan Wangji came here on rumors of demonic cultivation to find that they were just so: rumors. Still, there are a few areas nearby that he has not yet checked, and this is the right habitat for foxes.
(They have never given up. It is an endless search; a raw hope for a lead, a hint, a trace of energy.
Yet here stands Jiang Wanyin, blocking their way to it.
Lan Wangji has heard some of him over the years, mostly from Gusu. It was Jiang Wanyin, after all, who reached out to his brother with the hopes of addressing Jiang Yanli’s unexpected condition. There has been no progress on that front, even after countless musical scores and ten long years; perhaps that is why Jiang Wanyin looks, frankly, terrible.
There are dark circles under his eyes, and the scowl on his face makes his eyes shine strangely in the light of the sun. Even the way Zidian sparks dangerously on his finger looks uncontrolled, off-kilter.
When Lan Wangji allows his eyes to drift to the daemon at Jiang Wanyin’s side, he finds her looking rather the same. Sandu never used to hold the same burning anger of her pair, but her eyes are fire as she looks at them now.
It is what he expects.
Lan Wangji has directly spoken to them only a few times over the last decade. It has always been in the safety of numbers, under circumstances that Lan Wangji finds unfavorable: sect conferences, formal visits, the yearly hunt.
Then again, any circumstance that forces him to so much as look at Jiang Wanyin is unfavorable by default.
Brother and Uncle are well-aware of this, as Lan Wangji does not hide it. After a certain incident a few years ago, he and Jiang Wanyin have never been allowed within a dozen mǐ of each other unsupervised.
(The incident in question is, Lan Wangji maintains, firmly the fault of Jiang Wanyin. Yes, Lan Wangji might have made some pointed comments to Jiang Wanyin during a hunt when it came to his stances on the Burial Mounds. Said comments might have contained an insinuation of his general lack of ability to be responsible for his own actions. And it might have ended with Jiang Wanyin storming out and the entire Yunmeng Jiang sect leaving early.
Lan Wangji has little to say about it. If Jiang Wanyin cannot stand to listen to the truth, then that is not his concern.)
Neither Uncle nor Brother seem keen to speak of it again. It is not forgotten, however. The last time the four of them were in the same room, Lan Xichen had taken extreme care to keep them separated from Jiang Wanyin and Sandu via several long, disciple-packed tables.
Now, with no one to mediate, he knows: this conversation will not go well.
“I’m talking to you!” Jiang Wanyin snaps, when Lan Wangji does nothing but gaze at the space just right of his shoulder. “Explain!”
What is there to say? The reason for his presence is clear if Jiang Wanyin would simply look at the sword in his hand and the bodies around him, slowly dissipating their resentful energy. If he cannot see that Lan Wangji was on a hunt, then that is his error.
Ridiculous, for Jiang Wanyin to think he would dignify such an unobservant question with an answer.
Ridiculous to think he would answer anything at all, after what he did.
Behind Jiang Wanyin are several other cultivators in Yunmeng Jiang robes, clearly disciples in training. It’s a sea of curious eyes; when Jiang Wanyin turns and snaps, “Stop staring,” they avert their gazes downward with mumbled apologies. One, Lan Wangji notices, is wearing Lanling Jin Sect robes. His gaze does not lower.
Lan Wangji recognizes the sword. So this is Jin Rulan. He has heard whispers about him over the years, usually snide: father missing, mother locked in limbo. Try as he might not to listen to them, he is powerless against a subject that was so close to Wei Ying’s heart.
He looks healthy, despite the rumors. Young. For a brief moment, their eyes meet.
Jiang Wanyin steps directly in front of Jin Rulan, blocking him from view.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he says, voice cold, and Lan Wangji blinks at him. A heavy pause hangs over them as Lan Wangji weighs his options.
The scars on his back throb, a quiet reminder.
“You were notified of our presence,” Bichen says abruptly, taking Lan Wangji off-guard. He is not the only one: Jiang Wanyin visibly pauses, eyes widening. She has never spoken to him before, Lan Wangji realizes, and had not expected her to do so now, each word saturated with an undercurrent of disrespect.
Jiang Wanyin’s face flickers with confusion. “What? No, we—”
“You did,” she interrupts, and glances up to Lan Wangji. Anger, simmering low and dangerous, coils through their bond. When he returns the look, assessing, he sees her own choice shining in her eyes. They both remember what happened the last time they stepped aside; she, it seems, has already picked her path.
Carefully, slowly, Lan Wangji gives her a small nod.
Satisfied, Bichen turns her gaze back to Jiang Wanyin. “Zewu-jun sent a letter.” She does not bother to hide the disdain in her voice when she adds, “Perhaps you misplaced it.”
At the words, a muscle in the Jiang Wanyin’s jaw twitches. Slowly, he grits out, “A letter was sent informing me that someone from Gusu would be undertaking a hunt in the area. He failed to mention it would be you.”
“It should not matter who.”
“Of course it matters!” Jiang Wanyin’s gaze is turning molten. Sandu shifts, eyes flicking between him and Bichen. “What—what are you even hunting?”
Lan Wangji keeps his gaze straight ahead. Everyone in the cultivation world knows what Lan Wangji has been looking for; he is aware of the rumors. To believe that Jiang Wanyin would somehow be unaware, when he has been systematically tracking down and torturing anyone who he thinks is Wei Ying since his death, is foolish.
They both know.
“Well?” Jiang Wanyin prompts, and sneers when Lan Wangji keeps his silence. “Really? Not going to even answer? I am a Sect leader, in case you forgot.”
Bichen’s tail flicks back and forth, restless. “Our sect is not beholden to you, nor are we. We will go where we please.”
Lan Wangji does not fully understand why it is those words, among all the rest, that cause Jiang Wanyin’s eyes to darken. But when his mouth opens in a harsh laugh, it reminds Lan Wangji of porcelain shattering across wood floors: sharp, unexpected.
“Right,” Jiang Wanyin spits, so irate that a few of the disciples behind him flinch. At his side, Sandu glances up at him with a swivel of her ears. Jiang Wanyin is not looking at any of them, though—his gaze is on Lan Wangji, burning. “So you’re just—doing whatever you want, is that it? That’s a new outlook for you two. Your Uncle and brother must be proud.”
It is a low blow. Lan Wangji tries to control the simmer under his skin, and largely fails.
“Do not,” he warns, breaking his silence, but Jiang Wanyin does not heed him.
“What, like I’m wrong?” Jiang Wanyin scoffs. “I’d heard rumors that you’d changed, but I guess they have some teeth. After all, it used to be all I could hear about: Hanguang-Jun and Lan Bichen, paragons of obedience. How’d you’d manage to lose that, too?”
The tension, already heavy in the air, escalates so quickly that his next breath feels charged with it. The words are a needle intended to pierce; that knowledge does not ease the painful tear of them across Lan Wangji’s heart.
It takes effort not to physically stagger. Bichen snarls, the hair on her back rising; Sandu turns to her with glinting eyes.
“Don’t,” the wolf warns. She moves in front of Jiang Cheng, hair on her back raised as well. When Bichen doesn’t back down, Sandu bares her teeth.
The disciples are shifting now, back and forth, a nervous tide.
There is a haze distorting Lan Wangji’s vision, the scene in front of him swimming as if he is looking at them all from across a blistering desert. Through the pounding in his ears and the searing memory of whiplines,
Lan Wangji takes a deep breath in. Releases it.
“I am hunting,” he says, each word slow and deliberate as he looks directly into Jiang Wanyin’s face, “something that you threw away years ago.”
For a moment, Jiang Wanyin and Sandu stare at him, openly taken aback. It is immensely satisfying, that momentary look of shock, the impact of his words across their faces. An eye for an eye, a mere fraction of his pain reflected back at them. Were Wei Ying here, he would be able to read it further: the flash of something dark that crosses Jiang Wanyin’s face, a slight droop in Sandu’s tail.
But Wei Ying is not here. He is dead, and Lan Wangji will not mince his words.
“You!” Jiang Cheng has gone from pale to flushed in the time it has taken for the words to settle into the clearing, his face cracking with rage. Zidian twists on his finger with a bright flash of purple. “You have some nerve.”
When he steps forward towards Lan Wangji, fist clenched, the disciples clustered behind him murmur restlessly. Sandu silences them with a growl.
“Threw away, huh?” Jiang Wanyin’s stares at Lan Wangji, face flushed with anger. Lan Wangji’s grip on his sword tightens. When he laughs, cold and harsh, Sandu glances up at him again. Whatever she sees makes her ears twitch back: she presses her head against his hand, and he curls it into her fur.
She says something else, so quiet that Lan Wangji cannot hear, and leans heavily against his legs. Jiang Wanyin, staring at him like he wishes for nothing more than to wrap Zidian around his throat, does not appear to hear her.
His next words are rushed, like a waterfall tumbling over a cliff, each one louder than the one before. “You must have been comfortable, huh? Tucked away in your mountains, judging the rest of us when we didn’t measure up to your standards! I remember, you know, the way you would look at us—like we were trash, ready to toss us aside as soon as we got our robes dirty! It wasn’t me who turned my back! After all the times you judged us, judged him and left him scrambling, and you really still think you have a right to Wei Wux—”
At the start of the name, something in Lan Wangji’s chest goes cold and sharp.
Jin Rulan gasps.
The noise, small, stands out more than Jiang Wanyin’s shouting ever could. Sandu turns to look at Jin Rulan so quickly that a few rocks scatter under her paws. Jiang Wanyin cuts himself off, seeming only to realize what he was saying after it was halfway out his mouth. He physically flinches, eyes wide, and glances back at his disciples.
Lan Wangji follows the gaze. Jin Rulan has gone red; the rest of the disciples are gaping.
“I mean—” Jiang Wanyin starts, and clenches his fists. He looks to Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji barely notices over the blood pumping in his ears.
There are twenty things that he wishes to say in that moment, but none of them are fierce enough to cause the suffering Jiang Wanyin deserves. They clog his throat, and leave him wordless.
Jiang Wanyin is staring at them, openly trying to gauge if they will attack. Such a thought is not unfounded: their daemons are eyeing each other, clearly poised to fight. When Bichen makes an aborted motion, Sandu mirrors her, claws digging into the dark earth beneath her feet.
Bichen looks up a him, a gentle upward slope of her head that is at odds with the tension in her body. There are years of pain held in her gaze, uncountable in their expanse— an ocean’s worth of grief, added to by daily rains. Through their bond, he feels a deep, staggering throb.
He pushes the feeling back at her: I know. That ocean has drowned him too.
But it does not matter how many waves Jiang Wanyin sends their way. Suibian loved Sandu. It was apparent, unspoken but no less said in actions. If Bichen fights Sandu, she will win.
And they will come to regret it.
Slowly, the fur on Bichen’s back lowers.
As the seconds tick on, and no one moves, Jiang Wanyin seems to reorient himself. When he draws himself up tall, Lan Wangji sees no hint of shame in his eyes.
Just an angry man, who killed his own brother without remorse.
“Whatever,” he scoffs, as if it is Lan Wangji who yelled, who made a fool of himself. Next to him, Sandu keeps her claws buried in the dirt. Her tail, Lan Wangji notes in the steadily growing exhaustion clouding his mind, has drooped again. “Get out of here. I don’t want to see your face anywhere in Yunmeng again.”
It is shamefully difficult to keep his voice even. “We are mid-hunt.”
“Then make this the end of it.”
Lan Wangji’s hands tighten. It is clear that Jiang Wanyin does not care about honor or integrity. Lan Wangji is on Yunmeng Jiang land; there is nothing he can do. If he continues to fight this now, the ripple effects will be immense.
He has made his point. He cannot be sloppy.
Lan Wangji sheathes his sword. Without bowing, he and Bichen turn and walk away, ignoring the noise of disbelief from Jiang Wanyin’s mouth.
“Jiujiu, who…” he hears, but he is already lost in the static.
That night, sitting at an inn on the outskirts of Yunmeng Jiang territory, he cannot get the words out of his head.
Hanguang-Jun and Lan Bichen, paragons of obedience.
“He was wrong,” Bichen says into the dark, laid out on the floor beside the bed. Her food, like his, sits untouched by the door.
Jiang Wanyin speaks like a hurricane: harsh, uncontrolled. The only thing Lan Wangji could hear at first among the storm was this: You lost him.
That part is true. He will not deny it, even if he refuses to be lectured by a hypocrite such as Jiang Wanyin. He may have lost Wei Ying by failing to stand with him, but he did not draw his blood. Should it come up again, Lan Wangji will have to remind Jiang Wanyin of that.
Still. It had taken him a moment to sort through the rest of it. What he missed was this, that second edge, the one that Jiang Wanyin had likely meant to hurt more all along: You’ve lost your honor. Your principles.
There are over three thousand rules in Gusu that Jiang Wanyin could have cited. Each is well-known under Lan Wangji’s hand, brought to mind and to parchment without effort. For the majority of his life, they provided structure. They taught him what should be valued: patience, order, control. They were reliable and predictable. When he was confused, scared, angry, in love, he turned to them as a lifeline on how to behave—and how, yes, to obey.
What Jiang Wanyin cannot grasp is this: when your heart is ripped from your chest, none of those things matter anymore.
What use is patience, when all it brings him is more long nights of sorrow, of more years in a world missing Wei Ying? What use is order, when the man he loves is gone and life has tilted on its axis, so far that Lan Wangji is left reeling with conversations he never had and wishes he can never fulfill? What use is control, when Lan Wangji had his broken by something as simple as a smile in the moonlight?
What use is any of it, when a flash of red or the sound of a flute in the air makes him drop everything and give chase? To then fall to his knees, feel the ache of his scars like they were made yesterday and not over ten years ago?
The principles are useless in a world that he now views with his eyes open. To blindly follow is no longer an option; it was his adherence to his Sect, not his defiance of them, that has tortured him for so many years.
He has broken more principles than Jiang Wanyin could fathom and been punished in more ways than he can count, yet no punishment could compare to Wei Ying’s death.
Slowly, he exhales.
Bichen raises her head so that his hand rests on it; it trembles against her fur, anger still pumping in his blood. He has not been able to stop shaking from it.
“I cannot do this again,” he admits. “Not with him.”
She rumbles, knowing. There is so little room in Lan Wangji’s body for anything outside of the constant, never-ending weight. If they speak to Jiang Wanyin like this once more, he will overflow with his hatred. It will, he knows, not end well.
“Then we will not.”
The finality of it is soothing.
“He is a fool,” she adds, and he runs his fingers through her fur. Another principle, broken: do not speak ill of others. He does not care.
“Mn. We will try again tomorrow.”
She nods. When she climbs onto the bed and lays against him, he buries his face into her neck and breathes in deep. The smell of her is so familiar that he could construct it from memory alone; it brings him home in a way Gusu no longer can.
It will not be difficult to sneak past Jiang Wanyin’s gaze. Their cultivation has grown by leaps and bounds these recent years, spurred on by their hunt for chaos. Now that they know he is watching, they will act accordingly.
Next time, Jiang Wanyin will not interrupt them.
Next time, if he does, Lan Wangji will not be so kind.
Lan Wangji wakes.
It is deep into the night. Outside, crickets are weaving a song through the chill air, mixing with the soft sounds of the forest. Moonlight streams in through the Jingshi windows and, for a single moment, Lan Wangji is back twelve years prior. A shadow standing over him, his brother’s hand on his.
The world spins. He blinks.
Sizhui is holding his sleeve, wide-eyed and trembling. Next to him stands Bichen, her eyes slowly blinking orbs.
No shadow. No hand.
No Wei Ying.
His heart breaks, there in the dark. It never fails to: every moment he wakes and remembers is as painful as the last. It is not twelve years ago. It is now. And nothing has changed in him.
“What is wrong?” he murmurs, sitting up and ignoring the pull of muscle. The healers have told him that the discomfort from his scars may linger for decades. He welcomes it. It is a burden that he deserves, a reminder that he hungers after. On the loneliest nights, he imagines the ghost of Wei Wuxian’s lips brushing over the wreckage of it.
“Nightmare,” Sizhui breathes. There are the traces of already-shed tears lingering in his eyes, and Lan Wangji slides his legs over the edge of the bed so he can wipe them away.
Sizhui has not come to him with nightmares for years, ever since he joined the children in cultivation practice and became fast friends with Lan Jingyi. He is almost sixteen and to see him trembling awakens such a deep feeling in Lan Wangji that he wishes to tremble, too.
He does not.
Instead, he takes Sizhui’s hand, watches how violently it shakes. No guqin tonight, then.
They go to see the rabbits.
The path is well-known to all of them. Bichen moves carefully on his left, watching for rough patches. On his right, Sizhui holds his hand with a grip too tight and clinging for someone his age. Lan Wangji does not mind. The junior is bundled up in several robes to stave off the night air, and he hums lightly to himself as they make their way toward the hutch. Ahead of him floats Yingyue, so ethereal in the dimness that she looks like she belongs in a dream.
When they open the hutch, they’re greeted by dozens of little eyes blinking open. A chorus of tiny rabbit yawns fill the air as they step inside.
“Remember to keep your voice down,” Bichen reminds Sizhui, whose tears had stopped the moment Lan Wangji took his hand.
He nods, obedient and well-behaved as always, and sits down with an expectant expression on his face. There is very little room for him to do so comfortably; he is much larger than he used to be when this was commonplace. Somehow, he still looks like he belongs there, tucked into the corner of the hutch.
Some of the rabbits have already gone back to sleep, too used to these nightly visits for it to be novel anymore. Others, the more affectionate and braver of the bunch, huddle close to the latches. Lan Wangji picks up a black rabbit and places it on Sizhui’s lap; unprompted, it starts nibbling on his sleeve.
Sizhui looks up at Lan Wangji, beaming. “Can we take a few outside?”
It is very late. Uncle would be furious if a member of the watch should spot them.
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, and hands him two more.
For a while, there is just this: the sounds of Sizhui’s quiet laughter, the night air cool on his skin, little dots of white and black in the grass. They sit side-by-side, Yingyue occasionally fluttering down to land on whatever rabbit is the subject of Sizhui’s attention.
“I like them,” she says. Her voice is minute, so much so that Lan Xichen often jokes she could speak at dinner all she wants and no one but Sizhui would notice. Lan Wangji has taken care to remind Sizhui that there is nothing wrong with such a thing; secretly, the fact that she can speak at all has never failed to relieve him.
Sizhui smiles, bright as sunshine. “Me too. Hanguang-Jun, which one is this?”
The return to a formal title is a good sign. It means, he hopes, that Sizhui has found himself on steady ground once more.
If so, then he is satisfied. Lan Wangji does not plan to ask what the nightmare was about if it is not needed. There is little point in prying; if Sizhui wishes to speak it, he will.
Instead, Lan Wangji focuses on the rabbit in his hands.
She is small, one of the newer litters that was birthed this Spring. The original rabbits gifted to him by Wei Ying have long since died, generations of rabbits ago. Still, he recognizes the shade of black that was passed down to this one. He has given up naming all of them by now, given how their population control has been a headache these past years, but he cannot help having a fondness for ones such as her.
“Heituzi,” he says, and Sizhui giggles. He covers his mouth quickly, flushing.
“Sorry, Hanguang-Jun. The name is fitting.”
It is alright for him to laugh. Lan Wangji knows he is not particularly good with names. In his entire life, he has only gotten three right.
Carefully, he strokes the rabbit’s head. She wriggles, restless, and Sizhui’s grip loosens. They let her leave, Yingyue fluttering in the air from the movement. The rabbit does not linger nearby, as many tend to when it is just him and Sizhui visiting; instead, she hops a few mǐ away, joining another rabbit that is busy eating grass.
Sizhui watches her go, a faraway look on his face.
“Father,” he says, and Lan Wangji’s heart lurches like it has every time since Sizhui began to call him that, back when he was still A-Yuan, “do you ever feel like you’re… missing something?”
Lan Wangji blinks at him. The past twelve years he has missed Wei Ying with more intensity that he had ever thought possible. Being without Wei Ying is being without direction, gravity, reason. He has been consumed by how much he misses, turned to a shell of what he used to be by the violence of it.
He does not think that is what Sizhui means. Still, he gives a quiet, “Mn.”
It is enough encouragement. Sizhui turns to him, wrapping his arms around his knees. He looks, Lan Wangji thinks, so grown and yet so very young.
“Sometimes, I just…” he starts, and pauses. Yingyue floats over to him, settling noiselessly on his shoulder. The effect is nearly instantaneous: Sizhui draws in a breath, muscles relaxing. He laughs, a little shaky. “I’m sorry. The nightmare I had, it was so strange. I don’t even know why I’m still thinking about it.”
Bichen lays her head on the grass, head close to Sizhui’s knee. “Perhaps telling us will help.”
Sizhui glances at Lan Wangji. It is a deeply searching look despite its brevity, unusually hesitant for eyes that often hold nothing but affection and curiosity. Lan Wangji keeps his face as neutral and steady as he can, unsure of what Sizhui is looking for there.
“Ok,” Sizhui whispers, finding whatever it was. He lets out a shaky exhale. “It wasn’t—I don’t know why it scared me so much. I was… somewhere dark, I think. But it didn’t feel bad. Yingyue was ahead of me, but at some point she drifted a little far, and I lost sight of her.”
On his shoulder, Yingyue quivers. Her wingtips brush across Sizhui’s cheek and he closes his eyes, lashes fluttering.
“So I started walking until I could see her ahead. She was still far away, just a little speck. When I caught sight of her, there was something else there. They were—it was—red, maybe, I don’t remember. But it was… important. I knew it was important. I knew that I missed it.”
Lan Wangji carefully controls his breathing. The red in his own dreams flashes before his eyes, closing his throat.
Sizhui continues on, oblivious, that same lost expression on his face again. “By the time I got to where it had been, I didn’t even remember what I was searching for in the first place. Yingyue was there, but nothing—no one else. And no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find it. I looked everywhere, and I—”
His breath hitches, forcing him to break off.
Sizhui has always been an emotional child: painfully empathetic, moved easily to tears. They are not always sad; at times, especially in the early years, Lan Wangji could see confusion written with each saltwater line down his cheeks. Like if he cried hard enough, he could figure out answers to questions he didn’t even know he had.
Tonight, the soft shine in his eyes is all too similar.
“You may cry,” Lan Wangji says as he watches Sizhui struggle to keep composure. It is what he has learned to say. It was what was never said to him.
It earns him a small sniffle and a watery smile.
“Don’t encourage me, I’m such a crybaby! Don’t tell Lan Jingyi, ok?”
Lan Wangji would have no reason to tell anyone. Still, he nods. At his side, Bichen has gone unusually quiet, matching the constriction currently twisting his chest into knots. Hearing Sizhui speak, it takes great effort to not get lost in memories of the other crybaby they used to know.
“Anyways,” Sizhui continues, once he has wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “It felt so familiar, but I can’t remember ever having it before. And when I woke up, I just—missed them, so bad.”
The slip in words goes unnoticed by Sizhui, but Lan Wangji feels it pierce him like a sword. His mind goes to a grave cut into dirt, the depths of a bloody pool, a promise. He does not know what to say in response. Knowing the true depth of who and what Sizhui is missing, whatever he could say would be hollow.
He pulls out his guqin.
At the first note, Sizhui perks up. Since he was very young, he has been hearing the guqin. At first it was in the Jingshi, soothed to sleep by a song that was not meant for a child’s lullaby; then in classrooms, cultivating his own skill. He has heard Lan Wangji play many things over the years, but he has never heard this.
It has been a long time since Lan Wangi played it at all.
The start, the choice to begin it, is always the hardest. As soon as the first string of melodies slips from his fingers, he is powerless to stop.
With a faint sigh, Sizhui leans against his side. His eyelids flutter closed, the true hour of the night clearly catching up to him now that he has spoken. The casual display of trust and affection never fails to stir something deep in Lan Wangji’s chest. He uses that feeling, presses it into each note.
Between them, the song drifts, a homage and eulogy in one.
“A-Zhan,” Bichen prompts, when the weight on his shoulder turns heavy and lax. He finishes the last note before resting his fingers on the strings.
He looks out over the silent expanse of grass, at the bunnies dozing safely under their watch. He feels the rise and fall of Sizhui’s breathing, watches the tiny twitch in Yingyue’s wings as she dreams.
It will be time, soon. Sizhui is a good boy: he is kind, intelligent, well-loved and loving in return. It is not easy to imagine him being moved to hate, but Lan Wangji will take his hate if necessary, rather than keep his family from his memories forever. Sizhui is not his, not anyone’s. The path before him must be one of his own choosing.
“Father,” Suzhui mumbles minutes later, as Lan Wangji carefully hoists him up into his arms. Bichen nudges the bunnies back into the hutch before trailing behind them, back up the path.
He replies with a gentle hum, unwilling to speak and wake him further.
Nonsensical, still mostly asleep, Sizhui breathes, “I hope we find them.”
The words halt his steps. He looks down at Sizhui, so overcome with love and sorrow that he can do nothing else. Sleep paints him soft as the moonlight shines down on his face, turning his forehead ribbon luminescent.
Lan Wangji never would have guessed, standing at the base of a tree in the Burial Mounds, that a single child could come to be so infinitely special to him. That he would watch him grow in a young man, rise to become the brightest sun in a sea of clouds.
“One day,” he murmurs, and gently moves Sizhui’s hair from his face, “maybe you will.”
It is less than a year later that Bichen’s ears perk up.
They are waiting near Dafan Mountain for the junior disciples to come back, tension rising higher with each passing moment. Jiang Wanyin sits across from him, each of them ignoring the other. Even if Lan Wangji was not in his head trying to puzzle out the strange events at Mo Manor, he would not bother to spare a glance.
Bichen, up until now, has been very still. The rise of her head, the slight tilt, catches his attention.
“Oh,” she breathes. Only he hears it; the language they speak is a quiet one.
She stands, staring up at the mountain. There is the slightest curl to her tail. When she turns to him, her eyes are huge.
“It’s the same,” she tells him, ears twitching. There is no context to her words, only the sudden quivering of their link. It is a feeling in her that he does not fully recognize. “A-Zhan, it’s the same.”
9He does not understand. When she takes off into the trees, he follows her anyway.
What were you looking for in Yiling?
Lan Wangji has obsessed over that question since he heard it a decade ago. He has many answers: another chance, another moment, another reminder to cling to. They have all been incorrect. He has been searching for the right one for thirteen years.
When he hears the first note of the flute on the wind, he finally finds it.
Rymwitt: *swirls your tears in a wine glass like I a sommelier* mmm delicious the pain feeds and sustains me
Snow: I want to say I'm sorry and that the daemons for this chapter are:
Deming (Mianmian) is an Asian golden cat
Yingyue (Sizhui) is a Luna moth (here is another picture they're just so pretty I-), although in the Burial Mounds before he lost his memory she looked like a Cecropia Moth
Wei Wuxian wakes up in a body that is not his, holding a daemon that he does not recognize.
There’s a fog over his mind that lingers in the gap between each breath, making everything feel slow and sleep-heavy. Curled up there on the floor with an unfamiliar warmth in his arms and rough hair against his face, it takes some time before he thinks, like a distant breath of wind caressing his face: huh.
"I will love you forever, whatever happens. Till I die and after I die, and when I find my way out of the land of the dead, I'll drift about forever, all my atoms, till I find you again. And when they use our atoms to make new lives, they won't just be able to take one, they'll have to take two: one of you and one of me."
— Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials
Wei Wuxian wakes up in a body that is not his, holding a daemon that he does not recognize.
He shifts, a tiny thing—the leaden, sleep-mussed movement of someone who is trying to resist the gentle pull of morning, unwilling to leave the sweet cocoon of dreams. It is a well-known feeling, one he succumbs to with ease; he lets his drooping, blurry eyes flutter closed, feels the way his ribs expand and contract, steady and soft. Under his fingers, the little form tucked against his chest does the same: slow breaths, in and out, broken only by the occasional twitch as reality tugs at its periphery.
When he opens his eyes again, everything is pleasantly muted, out-of-focus. There’s a fog over his mind that lingers in the gap between each breath, making everything feel slow and sleep-heavy. Curled up there on the floor with an unfamiliar warmth in his arms and rough hair against his face, it takes some time before he thinks, like a distant breath of wind caressing his face: huh.
This is strange. Something about this, about the sun streaming onto the dark wooden floors through the closed windows, seems… off.
So when his brain starts to catch up, when he finally realizes that yes, he’s lying on the floor and yes, he’s awake—his first reaction is, of course: wait, what?
He has a few seconds of confused disorientation, of getting through the rest of who when where why—before the warm weight in his arms, which had been limp moments before, stiffens.
Whatever other thoughts he might have had are cut off by an abrupt, high-pitched yowl.
“Let me go!”
Wei Wuxian yelps as sharp teeth sink into his arm, the bite is so fierce that his entire body jerks back on instinct. The weight in his arms disappears; there’s a flash of tan and grey, and seconds later an unknown fox is pressed against the other side of the room, snarling.
“What the—” Wei Wuxian starts, and his voice is not his. It makes him cut himself off, confused all over again. Head spinning, he grabs his arm as a steady stream of blood starts to drip from the wound.
“Stay away!” the fox shrieks at him, ears pressed back against its head. He stares at it, heart hammering in his chest. “Where am I? Who are you?!”
Tough luck for this fox, but he doesn’t have the answers to those questions either. He has literally no idea where he is or why this desert-colored daemon is with him, and based on the sudden change of voice and how pale his hand looks when he holds it in front of his face, he has a sinking feeling that his name might not be the right one anymore either.
He remembers, vaguely, a voice through the darkness, of whispers that felt like a dream, of a pulling sensation in his head—
Mo Xuanyu, his mind supplies, but from where he has no idea.
And then, stomach dropping: You died, remember?
He draws in a harsh breath, taking in the rest of his surroundings for the first time. Is this his room? There’s barely anything in here, just some tables and a broken-down dresser coated with dust. Makeup is haphazardly strewn across the floor, half-covering a variety of talismans done with red ink.
Not red ink, he realizes. Blood. He knows those patterns.
It all comes together. Sacrificial Ritual.
It’s… a bit of a shock. A lot of a shock, actually. He’s back. He’s alive, somehow, even though he knows he is absolutely supposed to be dead. And—
Dread clogs his throat. Oh no.
No, no. He looks around the room, frantic. He’s alone. Where is she, where’s—
The fox lets out another yowl, baring its teeth.
“Let me out!” it –she, he realizes—screeches. When he doesn’t make a move towards her (too frozen with steadily building grief to think of anything but red and white fur, of how the last time he saw Suibian she was so scared, of the fact that now she’s missing) the fox takes the opportunity to try and vault up the wall and out a nearby window.
It’s useless: she’s either too uncoordinated or too weak. All she does is hit the wall with a thunk, causing a mouse that was sitting by the window’s frame to squeak in alarm and scurry under a nearby dresser.
The shrieks and sobs resulting from her failed attempt are so hitched and broken that pity shoots through Wei Wuxian, even through the haze of heartache.
This can’t be happening.
The pieces of the puzzle are coming together, and they’re unthinkable. If this Mo Xuanyu person was desperate enough to give up his body for some reason, then this is Mo Xuanyu’s daemon. It’s either unlinked and going to lose its mind, or now he’s linked to it.
And either one means Suibian is— is—
He stares unseeing at the floor as the grey and tan daemon howls itself hoarse in the corner, despair settling in his bones. No, no. no.
Then, with a wail so loud that it seems to echo in the small space, the fox sobs, “A-Xian, help!”
His head jerks up so fast that his neck cracks.
The fox is now scrambling at the walls like an animal trapped in a cage, leaving little claw marks across the wood. She’s crying, over and over again, “Help, A-Xian, help, where are you?! I’m here, can you hear me?! I’m trapped, there’s a lunatic, he touched me, A-Xian, where—”
And Wei Wuxian’s heart, which had stopped from the first call of his name, stutters back to life.
It takes him a few seconds before he manages to rasp, shaking and unbelieving, “A-Sui?”
The fox’s crying stops mid-howl.
She swings her head back to look at him, eyes wide. There are tears tracks running down the fur on her face, a smear of blood on her mouth from where she bit him.
The face itself is unknown to him, but he could recognize that expression anywhere.
There’s a moment where everything is still—where he stares at her, and she stares at him. Between them he feels what he had not thought to check for at first: a steady, unbroken link. And on the other end of it: someone he recognizes.
Tears fill his eyes.
Suibian asks, voice trembling, “…A-Xian?”
“I’m here,” he breathes, and tries to blink away that wetness that is making the shape of her into a blur. He wants to reach for her, entire body trembling with how much he wants to, but habit has him stuck in place, terrified to scare her off. “A-Sui, I’m here, it’s me—”
“A-Xian!” she cries, and launches herself across the room so hard that it knocks the remaining breath out of him.
He gasps, crushing her to his chest as she scrambles at his neck and shoulders, a wriggling mass of tears and yips. She is so different from her old form –smaller, rougher fur, all the wrong colors—and yet holding her feels so deeply right that his entire chest swells with it.
Her nose presses against his cheek, his eyelids, his ear, and he lets out a sob.
“I’m here, it’s ok, it’s ok.” He’s dizzy with relief, crying so hard that he can barely get the words out. “You’re safe, you’re alive.”
“You died,” she wails right back, the sorrow palpable through their link.
After so many years of not feeling it, of empty, the sensation makes him shudder. It’s magnetic, painful and wonderful all at once. For the first time in who knows how long, he feels himself pulled into their bond.
It’s a sensation that he never thought he would have again. Suibian is bright and alive, the tether between them tingling with the same energy. The feeling warms him more than a freshly made bath, a fire, and he’s hit with such an intense, unadulterated love that he trembles all over again. It’s all-encompassing, the kind of love that he used to feel every single day until that fateful one on the mountain.
It doesn’t feel entirely the same as their old link— Mo Xuanyu, he realizes distantly, must not have a very strong core. The bond is there, but he can’t feel anything from her outside the obvious, firework-bright feelings. Only one reaches him at a time, a never-ending loop of love-sorrow-relief, love-sorrow-relief, over and over again.
There’s no room for all of them at once, no subtlety or underlying sentiment, the complexity from their prior link gone. But he can feel something. Which means Mo Xuanyu has a core, and that their bond can be strengthened—and just that thought has him crying harder.
He clutches her tighter, unable to speak.
Suibian whines in his arms, high-pitched and frantic. He focuses on channeling his energy, reflecting the feeling back at her: this unspoken I love you that is bigger than he could ever make it if it was simply said out loud.
He thought it would be hard to do, after being without it for so long; but it’s easy, like breathing.
“A-Xian,” she hiccups, a broken noise, and they hold onto each other and cry.
Wei Wuxian doesn’t bother to keep track of how long they sit there on the floor, trembling, clinging. It is long enough that the shadows move a few inches across the room, that the hitching of their sobs ebbs into hoarseness. Long enough for the rapid beating of their now-synced hearts to rush forward, then calm.
Long enough for him to know: this is real.
And he has no idea why Mo Xuanyu did it.
“A-Xian,” Suibian says, and he makes a soft noise of acknowledgement in his throat. Neither of them have made any effort to move; she’s still tucked against him, and the idea of letting her go is unthinkable. Through their bond (their bond, she’s here, he can feel her), he senses the same lost feeling that is clouding his own mind. “What’s going on?”
Good question. He wishes he knew the answer.
There’s so little that he actually understands, let alone remembers. All the details feel fuzzy, just out of reach. He can remember flashes of his death (which he is not poking with a stick no matter how long it is, no thank you) but everything before and after is spotty.
He just knows is that it’s been dark, so very dark for so very long, like he was stuck in an ongoing, ever-present drift. Alone, he realizes—no brightness of her presence by his side.
Wherever he was, he doesn’t think she was with him.
“I have no idea.” His voice shakes; he hopes she doesn’t read too much into it. “Do you remember anything?”
He doesn’t want to ask it, not at all, but he needs to. If she was somewhere else, somewhere worse…
Suibian looks up at him, eyes big and confused.
“No,” she says, and the relief hits him so strong that his breath stutters. “No, not after all those sect members came to hurt us. I was at the Mounds and now I’m here. It’s all so fuzzy, like I just—went to sleep. A-Xian, where did we go?”
He shakes his head. If she can’t remember that strange stretch of time, the echo of a nightmare of being apart, then good. He shoves the rest of that thought away before it can spiral out of control. They’re both here and together now, and he’s not going to let anything change that.
He manhandles her so she’s tucked on her back, looking up at him with watery eyes. “You’re ok? You’re not hurt?”
She nods, still shivery. Her eyes go to the bite on his arm, and her ears press back against her head.
“I—I bit you—”
He shushes her, smoothing down her coat. “You didn’t know. You did exactly what you should, I’m fine, I’m fine.”
She wriggles, whining low in her throat in a tone he recognizes, and he brings her up to his neck so she can lick his cheek. As she does, he belatedly realizes that there’s lines of ink and powder smeared all over her fur; when he looks at his hands, he finds them stained with color as well.
Slowly, he touches a hand to his face. Makeup?
“A-Xian,” Suibian says, as the adrenaline fades and they let the rest of their situation sink in, “who are we?”
That, it turns out, is the easy question.
The better one, and one that is much more difficult to figure out, is: what’s happening? And by the time Wei Wuxian starts to get some clues to that, he has a bigger problem on his hands.
“Oh shit,” A-Sui whispers from where they’re hiding behind a pillar, staring at the shapes of Lan Wangji and Bichen on the rooftop.
Wei Wuxian’s heart is in his throat, stomach occupied with the unpleasant skip-sink that it’s been doing ever since he’d stumbled out of Mo Xuanyu’s room and realized he’d been absent from the world for thirteen years.
They look—Wei Wuxian doesn’t even know. Not different, because he recognized them the second they descended from the clouds in classic dramatic Gusu Lan style, looking like some ethereal beings sent from the heavens themselves. Lan Wangji is still unfairly beautiful, breathtaking in the light of the moon; Bichen is still elegant and regal, speckled coat standing out in the darkness. They have the same posture, the same line of their shoulders, the same intense gaze.
Even after all these years, it’s so clearly them that Wei Wuxian’s chest aches at the sight.
But something has changed, too. There’s a newness in the way their eyes flick over the courtyard like they’re searching it, in the twitch of Bichen’s nose. In the way Lan Wangji looks at the disciples, and they look back with awe-struck eyes.
Gods, he missed them. He missed them so much.
“Should we go?”
Suibian’s voice breaks him from his thoughts. She’s right: they really shouldn’t be staring at them. Not because it’s impolite, or whatever, but because there’s a literal sword swinging around through the air and trying to hack everyone in the courtyard to pieces. This is not the time for him to be distracted by an old friend, no matter how much he wants to go and throw his arms around Lan Wangji.
(Plus, Lan Wangji might hate him now. Hugging him probably isn’t anywhere in his near future, not anymore.)
With more effort than it should take, Wei Wuxian forces his eyes to the sword in question. It’s clear that it’s resentful energy, but from this distance, he can’t get a better read than that.
So when Lan Wangji tells the disciples, “The Stygian Tiger Amulet,” Wei Wuxian nearly has a heart attack.
His memory may be shit, but he knows he destroyed that.
“Let’s go now,” Suibian urges, a low whine in her throat as anxiety buzzes through their bond. He nods—if he’s caught near whatever this is, then everyone is going to assume it’s him who set the whole thing up. He needs about fifty more talismans in his back pocket before he can fight a group of cultivators this large; they need to get out of here.
He casts one last look at Lan Wangji and Bichen before stepping back into the shadows.
“Hey, where did that Mo-qianbei go?” he hears a disciple ask; but by the time Lan Wangji and Bichen step out into the street chasing the faint scent of a fox, they’re long gone.
“It would be faster to walk, at this point.”
Wei Wuxian groans, tugging on the reins of the donkey for the sixth time this minute. It’s currently munching on grass without giving him so much as a glance for him efforts, chewing in lazy, unhurried circles. Suibian watches from where she’s perched on a nearby rock, the tan of her fur standing out against the dark stone.
“I will not be out-stubborned by a mule,” he hisses in response, even as said mule proves otherwise. Another tug on the reins; another fruitless attempt.
Suibian sighs, glancing at the road a few mǐ away from where they chose to take a break for lunch.
“Maybe we could try finding a sword and flying?”
Wei Wuxian pauses just long enough to look at her, eyebrows raised.
Her ears flatten.
“Alright,” she sighs, and puts her head on her paws. “Definitely not.”
Yeah, there’s no way they’re flying. They’ve only had a few precious minutes test out these new bodies between when they woke up and now, and while Wei Wuxian is grateful to have one, to have her, he’s got to admit: it seems they’re both much, much weaker than they used to be.
Mo Xuanyu either didn’t have the chance or the inclination to push himself, and it shows: the most they can be apart is a dozen or so mǐ, and their spiritual energy drains quickly. Even the simplest exercises leave them shivery and tired, and the bite Suibian gave him the day before hasn’t healed yet.
They’re going to have to get creative, if this is the norm.
Then again, they’ve done more with less. Much less.
“We’ll figure something out,” he reassures her, and she gives a half-hearted wag of her tail in response. Wei Wuxian resumes his attempts with the donkey, shifting his angle so all his weight is pulling on the lead.
The donkey is, tragically, unfazed.
They don’t really have a plan, as of yet. Wei Wuxian’s first instinct is just to get as far away from Mo Manor as possible, so they’ve been doing that, but that’s not going to be much use if they want to figure out the last slash on his arm. The problem is that every place he’s thought of to look for information has at least a dozen people who want to kill him, or did kill him, so they’re directionless until one of them thinks of something clever.
Which they’re admittedly very good at doing, but it would be nice to at least have an inkling of an idea.
Not that a direction matters, if this donkey won’t move.
Suibian’s ears perk up as the sound of other travelers reaches them from the road, footfalls brushing through the foliage and a few muffled laughs. In a flash, she’s darted off the rock, flattening herself to the ground behind his legs and peeking her head out to watch.
He looks down at her with a frown. There’s been a residual, continual tension in her since that night in Mo Manor; her tail flicks back and forth, back and forth, the way it does when she’s truly anxious.
“Hey, it’s ok, we’re alright.”
She shushes him, eyes fixed on the road. When the group rounds the corner and comes into sight, a hodgepodge of strangers in unrecognizable robes, her ears finally go back to a resting position, the tense lines of her body uncoiling.
“See?” Wei Wuxian says, and goes back to the donkey. “Why are you so nervous? We’re in the middle of nowhere.”
Her tail fwip fwips against the dried grass, another anxious twitch.
“You don’t think they followed us or anything, do you?”
Wei Wuxian glances at her, managing a breathless, “Who?”
She shoots him an unimpressed look. Quieter, so they’re not overheard by the steadily approaching group, she whispers, “Lan Zhan and Bichen! Who else? It wouldn’t be hard to find us, Bichen has a really good nose, you know!”
“I mean they could,” he reasons, straining on the lead, “but why would they?”
“Are you serious?” She claws up his legs, making him wince, before leaping onto the donkey’s back and ignoring the indignant bray that follows. He only realizes that it was so she could get a better view of his face when she narrows her eyes at him over the donkey’s head. “Tell me you’re joking.”
“No? I mean, I get that we were friends, I don’t know why they’d bother now?”
Suibian blinks at him.
“Um,” she says, and her tone has edged into pure disbelief, “because they care about us?”
“A-Xian,” she huffs at him, her tail fluffing up in frustration, “don’t play dumb right now. If they think whatever happened with the sword is because of us, then they’ll figure out we’re back and look for us! After all the things they did to protect us in the cave, they wouldn’t suddenly just stop! They seemed really worried—and it’s not like anything has changed about us since then.”
Puzzled, Wei Wuxian stops trying to drag the donkey forward.
“What are you talking about? We fought that Xuanwu creature in the cave way before everything went down. We still had our cores and everything. Maybe Lan Zhan and Bichen cared back then, but things definitely changed between then and now.”
She stares at him. He stares back, confused.
Slowly, she says, “No, the cave. Like, near the end. Don’t you remember?”
He frowns, trying to bring the memory into focus. All he remembers from a cave is Lan Wangji’s face in the darkness, the burn of fever, Bichen trying to soothe Suibian. And the last time they were like that, it was because they were fighting Xuanwu.
With the sinking feeling he’s missing something important, he asks, “Um, what cave again?”
The disbelieving look that crosses Suibian’s face is one he knows well, tinged with some other emotion that he doesn’t. He feels a quick flash of something complex through their bond, but before he can grab onto it to figure out what it is, she’s opening her mouth to say something.
“The cave! You told them to—”
And then an apple hits her smack on the head.
“I’m sorry again about my daughter,” says the old woman, bowing to Wei Wuxian and Suibian as they part near the path to Dafan Mountain. Her daemon, a sundra pangolin, bows as well.
“Aiyo, really,” Wei Wuxian waves off their apologies, trying not to feel awkward about the whole thing. After all, if he just sets aside the way she and the rest of her group met them, they’ve been pleasant company. “We should be thanking you! How often do we find travelers on the road with so many good stories?”
The old woman smiles, but it doesn’t fully reach her eyes.
Behind them, her daughter and her songbird daemon are staring unseeingly at the outline of the mountain in the distance, thankfully no longer in possession of any apples. Unfortunately, she seems to still be possessed herself.
Her eyes are empty—as if there is no longer a soul within her that calls her body home.
(“She’s been like that since her husband went up the mountain,” the old woman had told them, walking alongside them on the road as the rest of her group had laughed and chatted away in front. She’d held her daughter by the arm, carefully guiding her over the bumps of the road and pulling her forward every time she tried to stop and dance. “He went up to get firewood, and never returned.”
“Then why is she like this?” Suibian had asked, ears twisted at the daughter.
The old woman’s mouth had started to wobble. “She insisted on finding him, would not take no for an answer. One night she snuck out, and when she came back, she was like this.”
“It’s those damn soul-stealers,” one of the men in front had called back, and Wei Wuxian had looked away from the woman’s grief-stricken face to find him watching them. At Wei Wuxian’s tilted head, he’d scoffed. “This place used to be blessed land, you know. Sometime over the past few years, it’s started to decline—and now there’s monsters, ones that snatch up people and eat their very souls!”
He’d lowered his voice at the last part, like he’d expected Wei Wuxian to cower in fear; but Wei Wuxian had looked at Suibian, eyebrows raised, and she’s wagged her tail in response.
“It’s all thanks to that damn Yiling Patriarch,” spat another, much older than the first, the wrinkled lines of his face drawing together in distaste. Wei Wuxian’s heart had skipped in his chest. “All that evil he sewed into the land before he died!”
At that, the rest of the group had perked up, murmuring to each other.
“Hey!” A younger man had turned to the older one, indignant, his sparrow daemon chirping in protest as well. “Don’t say that! Look at all the useful things he made. My compass has kept us safe this whole trip, and we have the Yiling Patriarch to thank for it!”
That had made Wei Wuxian bite back a smile, looking down at the road.
“Pah! You young folks, too eager and foolish to remember the lessons of history,” the older man had griped, while Wei Wuxian tried not to laugh. Really, how did all old men sound the same? “Safe, eh? Have you completely forgotten what happened?!”
“Lots of things happen in history, Shufu,” the younger man had sighed, and the older man had shaken a fist at him, scowling.
“Selfish boy, thinking only of yourself! Those evil tricks have hurt so many, and yet you claim they’re fine! Why, I’d like you to ask Young Madam Jin if she felt safe on that battlefield all those years ago!”
The words had whipped across Wei Wuxian like a physical blow.
“Oh,” Suibian had whimpered, an involuntary, shocked noise, the amusement in Wei Wuxian chest turning to ice. The rest of the group had gone hushed, glancing at each other with anxious expressions. Even the young man, so eager about the compass, had lowered his head, shame etched across his face.
Wei Wuxian’s heart had thudded against his throat, the regret threatening to choke him.
Shijie. Shijie, Shijie, I’m sorry, I—
The older man had looked at all of them, their contrite faces and Wei Wuxian’s hunched shoulders, and crossed his arms.
“That’s what I thought,” he’d said, his mantis daemon nodding sagely on his shoulder, and turned back to the road.
Wei Wuxian and Suibian had stopped listening to their conversations, after that.)
Now, he smiles at the older woman and her daughter, pushing back the hurt of the memory. “Thank you for your company on the way here. We’re sorry we can’t do more to help her, but if we find out anything, I’ll have someone send you a letter.”
“That’s very kind,” the older woman says, half-hearted smile still on her face. Wei Wuxian can tell that she doesn’t believe him.
“Do be careful,” her pangolin adds, and bows to them again. “And we are truly sorry about our daughter.”
Wei Wuxian raises his hands in the air, laughing. “Enough of that, it’s fine, it’s fine! An apple to the head is good for your health, or… something like that, right?”
They both blink him, confusion inked across their faces—and only then does Wei Wuxian realize they were probably apologizing for the young lady’s strange behavior throughout the trip and not what will, he is sure, go down in Suibian’s personal history as The Terrible Flying Apple Incident.
Ah, well. Different priorities.
“Thanks for the information!” he adds cheerfully before they can correct him, and waves.
Suibian grumbles quietly into his ear from her place on his shoulder, keeping a pretty smile in place while the group walks away. Like the very good fox she is, it’s only when they’re gone from sight that she starts to whine.
“She threw it so hard, A-Xian, what if I have a concussion?”
“You don’t have a concussion,” he soothes, because it was the first thing he had checked for when she’d been practically catapulted off now-named Little Apple’s back from the force of the throw. The panic that had jumped into his throat when she’d hit the ground is embarrassing in hindsight (it’s just an apple, a stupid apple, why was he afraid of that?), but given their past few days, he’s going to give himself a break on that one.
He doesn’t know how hard of a hit she can take yet. He’d rather not risk any hits at all.
Still, he rubs his hands over her ears, gentling the touch when he moves to the spot on her head that got hit.
“That never would have taken me out before,” she sighs, turning her face into his palm so he can scratch her neck. The sunlight streaming through the canopy dapples her fur with shadows, and he traces one, savoring the feel of her. “I’m so small.”
He hums in acknowledgement: she is. Not tiny or anything, but definitely smaller than she used to be. He knows it bothers her, just like her new colors, but he doesn’t mind it. Suibian could have been reborn as a goldfish and he would still love her; the fact she’s a fox, albeit a kind that he doesn’t recognize or know the species of, is yet another stroke of good luck.
He’ll admit it’s strange, though, looking at her in this form. Different and not.
But not bad.
He must be quiet for too long because A-Sui whines, turning self-conscious. “Do you not like that I’m small?”
“What?” He scoffs, turning his head and kissing her on the nose. “Of course I like it! You’re adorable. And portable!”
She makes a face at him. “But I can’t run as fast now.”
“At least you can run faster than Little Apple?”
Little Apple brays right after he says it, making A-Sui giggle. Wei Wuxian grins at her: mission complete.
“And hey, we finally got a lead!” he adds, keeping his tone cheery, and starts nudging Little Apple up the path. A soul-stealing entity definitely fits the realm of weird that they’re looking for. All he needs now is a few ghosts popping up, and they’ll be right in his normal wheelhouse.
“That guy said there was a hunt in the area, right?” Suibian asks, tail flicking against his collarbone as she swivels her head back and forth. “Think we’ll see other cultivators?”
“I hope not,” he says, even though he’s not actually sure what he hopes. There’s not enough time to examine the feeling in his chest whenever he imagines white robes under moonlight, of turning his back on them in the night. He looks down at Suibian. “Smell any snow leopard?”
A-Sui raises her nose in the air. It twitches a few times before she sighs, “Not yet.”
There’s an undertone of disappointment in her voice. He resolutely ignores it.
"I bet they're all busy playing politics," he says, and gives her a kiss on the top of her head. "Just you wait: we'll be in and out in no time."
That seems to cheer her up a bit. She raises her head to lick his cheek, tail wagging. "Probably. I wonder if—oh."
She stops halfway, staring at something ahead of them. Her head tilts, curiosity zipping through their bond—and that’s the exact moment that Wei Wuxian realizes maybe they’re not out of trouble just yet.
He looks back at the path ahead of them, prepared for the worst.
Instead, he sees two spiritual nets hanging from the nearby trees, full of the tangled outline of what has to be human beings.
“Well what’s this?” he says, as he and Suibian approach one of the swaying nets, Little Apple stomping and braying in protest at having to do his job and actually move. A few legs are kicking and wriggling against the gold beaded thread –Jin nets, he realizes, no other sect has ever been so ostentatious— and he watches as the branch above them bends from the weight. “Oi! Anyone in there?”
The legs stop for a moment, a surprised pause.
“Hello?!” says a muffled voice, and thankfully, Wei Wuxian doesn’t recognize it. Suibian’s tail starts to wag. “Hello?! Is someone there?”
“Just a passersby,” Wei Wuxian calls up to them, grinning. The legs start to frantically kick, voices clamoring all over each other and making it impossible to make out what they’re saying. “Hey now, calm down! What happened?”
“We got stuck in these nets!” the person calls back, and Suibian snorts.
“We can see that. How did you all even get up there?”
There’s a long, embarrassed silence.
“Can you just get out of here?” one of the voices calls back eventually, naively hopeful, and Wei Wuxian tuts. Suibian is starting to giggle on his shoulder, eyes bright.
“I don’t know,” he says, drawing out the last word and leaning against the tree. Now that he’s closer, he can see their faces—three young men and a young lady, all wearing Jin robes, with their daemons carefully pressed against their chests, out of the way of any accidental touches. They must be disciples; he grins. “How do I know you’re not monsters, waiting to gobble me up when I let you down? Maybe we should just leave.”
Immediately, they start to protest.
“No, don’t go away—”
“We’re not monsters, we won’t eat you, please help us down before Jin-gongzi finds us—”
“Have mercy, please—”
Wei Wuxian chuckles and straightens back up, wiping his hands on his robes. “Alright, alright. Give me a second, I don’t carry a fancy sword like you do, so I’ll have to get creative. Hang tight right here.”
Suibian nibbles on his ear, delighted at the pun, as he goes poking around to try and find something to get them down. Mo Xuanyu isn’t strong enough to break through a spiritual net, he already knows that; maybe something to break the tree branch itself…
“Oh no,” he hears one of the disciples say, and at that same moment, an arrow flies past his head.
Suibian yips in alarm and scrambles off his shoulders, landing on the ground with an unhappy ack-ack-ack before darting behind Little Apple. Wei Wuxian turns, dropping one of the rocks he thought might increase the weight of the net, if he could somehow pass it to the disciples, and spots a teenager working his way down the path towards them.
He’s a Jin, that much is clear—vermillion mark on his head, luxurious white and gold robes with a white peony fastened to his chest. He has the walk of a Jin, too: self-important, chin raised high as he approaches.
“What’s going on?” the kid snaps, eyes on the nets. Wei Wuxian finally locates the arrow that had flown past them, now embedded in the tree’s grey bark.
(Either a bad aim, or he wasn’t trying to kill them. Wei Wuxian has his fingers crossed for the latter).
“We got stuck, we’ve been hanging here for hours—”
“Jin-gongzi, help us—”
“This stranger showed up and said he had an idea—”
At the mention of a stranger, the young Jin whirls around to face him. Wei Wuxian has just enough time to make out delicate features and a scowling face before the kid’s eyes widen.
“You!” he shouts.
Wei Wuxian blinks. He looks to his left and right, wondering if he’s somehow missed another person joining them. Suibian pokes her head out from her hiding spot and does the same, ears pressed back against her head.
The Jin just keeps staring at them, surprise all over his face.
“Uh.” Wei Wuxian looks down at Suibian, then back to the Jin. He points a finger at himself. “Me?”
“Yes, you! What are—” the Jin glances between him and Suibian, hand curling around his sword. Wei Wuxian frowns when he sees look he sends her way: disgusted, and almost hesitant, like he isn’t sure if he should even be looking in the first place. His next words are directed at Wei Wuxian. “What are you two doing here?”
“Do we know you?" Suibian asks, scrambling up Little Apple’s side so she can insert herself into the conversation.
At her voice, the Jin does a double-take. His head turns her direction so fast that Wei Wuxian hears his next crack. He blinks at her; she blinks back, head tilted.
“You talked?” he demands eventually, and A-Sui tilts her head almost ninety degrees. The Jin turns to Wei Wuxian. “So you’ve both finally lost it enough to have her open her mouth, have you? I thought exile would get you to shut up.”
Exile? What the—
“My uncle made the right choice sending you away,” the kid continues, oblivious to their shared bewilderment. He sniffs, haughty. “I’m not surprised that the Mo Clan asked you to lock yourselves away after that. I mean, look at you.”
Wow. Wei Wuxian stares him down, annoyance prickling at the back of his neck. Even for a Jin, this kid is a brat.
“Hey!” Suibian protests, and all her fur puffs up, indignation on his behalf—or maybe Mo Xuanyu’s, wherever his spirit now lies. Hell, it might just be because of the tone. “That’s not a very nice thing to say! Why are you being so rude?”
“You should learn some manners,” Wei Wuxian agrees, and the Jin’s face tints red. The disciples in the spirit nets above them have gone deathly silent. “Who are you, even, to speak to us like this?”
That earns an accusatory finger pointed his way.
“You did go crazy! As if you don’t remember who I am!”
“You’re the one who’s acting weird,” Suibian mutters, a scowl on her little fox face. Wei Wuxian reaches out and runs a hand down her back, trying to flatten some of the fur there. “Where’s your daemon? Can we talk to them instead?”
Somehow, the kid’s face goes even redder, spreading down to his neck. He raises his chin and turns away from them with a scoff.
“Humph! None of your business, you weirdos! You both make me sick, get out of here—I liked it better when I couldn’t hear your annoying voice.”
The hurt that lances through Suibian at the comment is the last straw.
“I see,” Wei Wuxian says, as Suibian goes quiet from the ache of poking an open wound, one he’s had to soothe countless times over the past few days, “that you lack some maternal education.”
He means to say more, too—he really does. About the importance of proper introductions, and showing respect to your elders, and not insulting someone else’s daemon for no good reason; but the Jin turns at the comment, face pinched with sudden fury, and draws his sword.
“What did you say?!” he demands, and lunges without further warning.
Suibian launches herself off Little Apple’s back as he brays in alarm, which is good, considering that the traitorous donkey bolts away not even a second later. Wei Wuxian jumps backwards to avoid the blade, the edge of it nearly slicing off his hand; at the next swing, he ducks under the Jin’s arm and whirls around, slamming his hand into the Jin’s back and activating the talisman.
The Jin falls face-first to the ground, body bound by the spell.
“Aiyo.” Wei Wuxian stares down at him as he struggles to get up. He’s genuinely confused when he asks, “Why did you attack so suddenly?”
“You lewd thieves!” the Jin shrieks, and Wei Wuxian winces at the pitch.
“More names? Don’t waste your energy on that, kid, you’ll need it if you want to get up before sunset.”
Suibian inches forward and, once she sees the threat has been fully contained, makes her way up his leg. He wraps an arm around her so she’s tucked against his chest, warm and safe.
“This is cheating!” the Jin spits at them, eyes gleaming with fury. He wriggles again trying to get lose; Wei Wuxian is reminded of a particularly large caterpillar. “Not enough skill to cultivate, and so now you’re using these dirty methods?!”
Suibian frowns, the wind rippling across her fur as a breeze drifts towards them. “They’re not dirty, just different. No one gave us the chance to—”
She cuts herself off as another rush of wind crosses the trail.
“Oh,” she says, lifting her nose into the air as it starts to twitch. Her claws start to dig into Wei Wuxian’s robes, sharp pinpricks of pain on his skin when they punch through the fabric. Their bond jolts with panic. “Oh, shit! A-Xian, I smell a wolf, I smell—”
Sandu, which means Jiang Cheng, which—oh no.
She doesn’t even finish the sentence before Wei Wuxian is looking around, frantic, trying to find any nearby cover. Suibian’s nose isn’t that good, which means they’re close, which means they have to get out now.
There’s a grove of trees a dozen mĭ off the path, the opposite direction of where Little Apple ran, and he bolts towards them, ignoring the indignant, “Hey!! Where are you lunatics going? My uncle is going to kill you!” at his retreating back.
Of course, he thinks, as his lungs scream in protest. Of course they’d be here, of course—
They have just enough time to throw themselves behind the trees, a twisted web of gigantic roots making an alcove for them to huddle in, before the footsteps reach their ears.
“A-Ling!” calls a voice, and Wei Wuxian’s blood goes cold.
He recognizes this one.
“A-Ling!” Jiang Cheng repeats, and Wei Wuxian digs his hands into the rough bark underneath his fingers, closing his eyes against the flood of memories. Suibian nudges his hand. “What the hell are you doing?”
His little brother sounds pissed, but also confused—which was never a good combination when it came to Jiang Cheng. Suibian inches her head out from behind the tree, tail wrapped tightly around her feet. Whatever she sees has her ears going flat.
“Oh,” she says, one of the branches cracking under her weight and making them both flinch, but she doesn’t stop looking. “A-Xian. They look so grown up.”
Wei Wuxian can’t stand it any longer; he pokes his head out from behind the tree, desperate for even a glance. When he locates Jiang Cheng and Sandu, standing on the path and staring down at the kid’s still struggling form, all the air leaves his lungs.
Suibian is right: they do look grown up.
Jiang Cheng is swathed in purple, shoulders rigid and tall as he surveys the scene in front of them. Zidian is snaked around his wrist, inert but no the less impressive because of it. At his side stands Sandu, her head turning slowly back and forth, taking in the nets and the clamoring disciples. Disciples flank their left and right, heads held high.
It’s hard to make out much from so far away –he can’t see any of the subtleties of their expressions, what emotions his eyes are holding, whether Sandu’s nose is twitching—but there’s no doubt: their spiritual power has grown leaps and bounds from when he last saw them.
And so, it seems, has their sect.
Something tender and aching settles in his chest. Good.
“Are you waiting for me to help you up?” Jiang Cheng asks the kid, his voice just a tad too muted; Wei Wuxian rummages in his robes for a listening talisman, activating it as the Jin struggles through another valiant attempt to wriggle himself up.
It, like the last few, fail miserably.
“Jiujiu,” he whines, and it’s not the new loudness of it that makes Wei Wuxian blink. He looks at the talisman, wondering if he somehow messed it up, put down the character for nonsense instead of volume.
It’s only when Suibian turns to stare at him with huge eyes that his breath catches.
“Jiujiu,” the kid repeats, “I can’t get up!”
Wei Wuxian thinks that no one can blame him for being physically incapable of hearing Jiang Cheng’s response in that moment.
His head spins, the word (jiujiu, jiujiu, jiujiu) echoing around in his brain and bumping into all the scrambled memories held there. Of his sister, beautiful in her wedding gown, the red on her lips matching the rich fabric as she’d told him the news; of a letter, written in Lan Wangji’s elegant script; of sleepless nights in the blood cave, huddled over beads.
Jiang Cheng is this kid’s Uncle. Which means…
“Jin Ling,” Sandu says, the words rumbling out of her chest, and if Wei Wuxian wasn’t already sitting down his legs would have given out at the name. Suibian draws in a shaky breath, trembling under his hands. “Who did this to you?”
Wei Wuxian chances another glance and sees that Jin Ling (Jin Rulan, his nephew, his shijie’s kid, he’s going to cry) is now on his feet, hurriedly wiping the dust and dirt off his robes. He looks embarrassed at the question, moving his gaze to his feet and crossing his arms.
“It was that crazy Mo Xuanyu guy! Him and his daemon just appeared out of nowhere and started spouting nonsense!”
“And using demonic cultivation tricks,” Jiang Cheng spits. His fist is glowing; even from here, Wei Wuxian can feel the surge of spiritual power he put into removing the binding enchantment.
It’s—a lot. Wei Wuxian is pretty sure that level of power wasn’t necessary, not for such a simple talisman.
So. Maybe Jiang Cheng is still pretty angry about the whole demonic cultivation thing, after all.
“He ran away before I could deal with him properly,” Jin Ling tells Sandu. The fur on her back has started to rise; she turns her head to look off the path, and Suibian and Wei Wuxian jerk back, flattening themselves behind the tree again.
Wei Wuxian holds his breath, hoping against hope that there’s too many smells to pick them out.
There’s a whooshing noise, and a few thuds; the Jin disciples and their daemons, apparently now free of their self-inflicted trap, begin to profusely thank Jiang Cheng, relieved voices tripping over each other in their haste.
“Jiang-zongzhu, this humble disciple thanks you—”
“My father will reward you handsomely—”
“No wonder your daemon is so powerful, Jiang-zongzhu—”
“Enough!” Jiang Cheng snaps, a crackle of thunder that breaks the air, leaving ozone in its wake. Everyone goes quiet. Wei Wuxian peeks out from behind the tree to see a few of the Jiang disciples smirking slightly, watching the Jins as they stare on in wide-eyed fear. “What direction did they go?”
“South,” Jin Ling reports dutifully, and fuck, he’s right, they did go South. Little snitch. “It wasn’t that long ago, I’m sure we can catch them!”
Sandu lets out a low rumble, turning to Jiang Cheng. “I will go. There is no need to slow all of us down.”
Shit. Wei Wuxian moves so his hand is under Suibian’s stomach as Jiang Cheng turns back to Jin Ling and starts to scold him, ready to lift her up and bolt at the next opportunity. Sandu is fast—but if they can get a head start, maybe Suibian will be able to find a hole to hide in.
At the very least, Sandu might be willing to listen to an excuse if he talks well enough. She’s never been as much a spitfire as Jiang Cheng, surely he has a chance…
“Right,” he breathes, as Sandu starts to step off the path and into the woods, leaves crunching under her gigantic paws. She looks like she belongs there, the grey and browns of her fur blending in perfectly to the trees, tail held high. “She gets to that rock, and we run.”
Suibian nods, shaky against him.
Nerves are singing through their bond, but thankfully not fear. It’s hard, after all, to be afraid of someone you used to know like the back of your hand, even if they’re mad.
Even harder, when you know that their anger is justified.
Lacking maternal education.
Wei Wuxian winces, a twig cracking under his feet. Nearly at the rock separating the grove of trees from the path, Sandu stops, her ears twisting—and for a single second, Wei Wuxian is convinced that they’ve been found.
But then all the fur on her back rises, doubling her size. She turns her gaze not to them, but back to the path.
And she growls.
The sound sends a shiver down Wei Wuxian’s spine, and Suibian twitches, her back arching in an involuntary response to the noise. They watch, breath held, as Sandu backtracks, quickly making her way to where Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling are still standing on the path.
“Later. It’s them,” she says when Jiang Cheng shoots her a questioning look, inclining her head to the east.
All the muscles in Jiang Cheng’s body tense. Wei Wuxian sees the way his jaw clenches as he turns east, Zidian glowing a barely muted purple on his wrist.
“Who?” Suibian whispers to him, placing her front paws on his arm and trying to lift herself up so she can see better through the leaves. With her new size, it’s almost comical how little it helps. “Who? A-Xian, I can’t see, there’s so many branches in my face—”
He shushes her gently, curling a hand into the scruff of her neck so she doesn’t bolt forward.
The Jiang disciples have started to nudge each other, looking at a part of the path Wei Wuxian can’t make out from his current position. The two in the front, right behind Jiang Cheng, exchange a wide-eyed look and stand up straighter, hands behind their backs.
Then the white robes come into view, and Wei Wuxian can’t breathe.
He turns away, facing Suibian before he has the chance to do something absolutely stupid.
“Let’s go,” he whispers, as Jiang Cheng’s sarcastic, “Well if it isn’t Hanguang-Jun and Lan Bichen themselves! For what do we owe the pleasure?” drifts towards them. She nods, eyes wide, a drawn-out ache trembling through their link.
They take advantage of the momentary distraction, and creep away before anyone is the wiser.
“That was close,” Suibian sighs, hanging limply across his shoulders.
They’re making their way down a stream, Wei Wuxian ankle-deep in freezing water so they don’t leave any obvious trail for Jiang Cheng and Sandu to follow. The mountain stretches above them as they steadily curve around its base, towards the cave where the weird statue supposedly resides. So far, they’ve managed to avoid any more run-ins, but Wei Wuxian keeps his eyes on the trees anyways, wary of spiritual nets.
He doesn’t know what would have happened if the Lans didn’t show up. He’s not eager to find out.
“We’re going to have to be extra careful, if this place has that many cultivators,” Suibian continues, pressing her cold nose against his cheek so he’ll pay attention. “The Jins are bad enough, but if the Jiangs and Lans are here too…”
“I know,” he reassures her, nearly slipping on one of the algae-covered rocks. She yips when they tilt and he laughs, shaking his head. “If I don’t accidentally drown us first.”
She huffs, nibbling at his ear. “A-Xian, I’m serious.”
“So am I!” he protests, and reaches up to scratch behind her ear, earning a grumble as she reluctantly leans into the touch. “We’ll be super extra careful, alright? No more stopping for weird children caught in nets. All business from here on out, just you wait.”
Suibian frowns up at him. “If you say so.”
She doesn’t sound convinced.
“You never know,” he says, forcing cheer into his voice as they round the corner and the river starts to curve upwards, “maybe we'll luck out after all.”
“Or maybe not,” he pants a few hours, as they watch the junior disciples narrowly avoiding hits from the dancing statue.
Suibian stares at him from where he’s safely tucked her into his robes, her coarse fur tickling his skin.
“You owe me at least fifty red bean buns. Also, this is a terrible idea.”
“Yep,” he agrees, to both the buns and sentiment, and raises the makeshift bamboo flute to his lips. She hisses, an ak-ak-ak of displeasure, but what other options do they have? Behind them, disciples are engaged in all-out chaos. “Suibian, come on, we have to! I’m out of talismans, and those kids are getting their asses kicked.”
“We died because of this, A-Xian—”
He can feel her trembling, matching the waver in her voice. She’d been fine with the Dancing Statue, fine with all the disciples crowding around them and asking questions; but now, the only emotion he’s getting is gut-churning fear.
He’d sworn to himself he’d never let her feel scared like that again.
Not because of him.
“I know,” he murmurs, and it hurts, hurts to see the way she’s trying to wrestle back her doubt enough to listen to him. “But we’ve got to summon something powerful to come help. That’s all I’ll do, I swear. I promise, A-Sui. You can use this as a chewtoy once I’m done, I’ll never choose it over you, do you understand?”
“I…” Her apprehension jolts through their bond, making his skin crawl. “Be careful.”
“It’s not Chenqing,” he reassures her, and then lifts the makeshift flute to his mouth.
The motion is familiar, the stretch of an overlooked muscle. There’s something to be said for memory, habit; in the dark years leading up to his demise, Wei Wuxian was so used to playing Chenqing that it’s pitch would follow him into his dreams. Terrible, awful dreams—ones that would chill him down to the empty space of his non-existent core, leave him staring at the blood pool in their cave and wondering if it would be simpler to just let go.
But it was never hard to get the notes to flow from his fingers, after.
To his relief, that last part has not changed. He wasn’t sure it would be, with new lips and new lungs and no more voices screaming in his head, but it’s easy. It’s not his prettiest performance, but as he feels the energy gather in the air around them, he doesn’t think he needs to be.
He focuses on something powerful, something useful.
And then he almost stops playing entirely, the shock is so great.
Because, against all odds, there Wen Ning stands.
He’s covered in chains and tattered robes, flying fresh out of the trees like a—well, like a fierce corpse, landing in the middle of the clearing with an impact that sends dirt scattering under his feet. His head tilts at an unnatural angle, lolling to face them.
Responding to the call. To Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian’s first instinct is to drop the flute and rush forward. From the way A-Sui nearly falls out of his robes in her haste to see Wen Ning better, he’s not the only one.
How is he even here?! Wen Ning is supposed to be dead dead, not just living dead. Wei Wuxian looks around for a daemon, the tiny lump of Suyin in a pocket or the shape of her in a nearby tree, but there’s nothing.
Nothing but Wen Ning turning to face the statue, and Jin Ling’s pale face.
There’s no time for him to soak in details, to try to help—all he can do is play, and play, and play. It’s a blur from there: the disciples, blades swinging through the air; Wen Ning, smashing the statue’s core to pieces; and then the sudden rush of quiet as Wen Ning turns back to face him, confused disciples glancing between them with fear in their eyes.
“Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian says, and starts to step forward.
Some of the Jins straighten up at the name, gripping their swords tighter, and Wei Wuxian releases his mistake as new shouts start up.
“It’s him---Jun Zixun’s murderer!”
“The Ghost General!”
“Right hand to the Yiling Patriarch! Kill him!”
And soon a bunch of teenagers are rushing towards Wen Ning, with no idea what a gargantuan mistake they’re about to make.
“Get him out of here!” A-Sui whimpers, her cold nose pressing into his collarbone. Their hearts beat in tandem, a gallop of survive, survive, survive that fills his chest and brings him back to those three months of darkness, of scrambling across dried dirt, of the unthinkable between his teeth and into their churning stomachs.
He shudders, and lifts the flute to his lips one last time.
His first song is too intense, sending several disciples flying through the air and into the dirt with a scraping thud. He winces, tries to recalibrate. It’s a delicate balance, this control on Wen Ning. Easy to mess up, especially with the songs he used to play. There’s too much in them, too many emotions that he’s still learning how to channel.
He needs something new. Something gentle. Something… safe.
The song comes to him like a warm breeze across lotus ponds.
He doesn’t know where he heard it, why the moment the first note leaves his lungs he’s filled with a security that is staggering in its strength. The notes lead themselves, beckon him along, pushing back the memories of bloody whispers like a candle chasing back shadows.
Playing it feels, oddly, like coming home.
When Wen Ning turns toward them, one of his hands loosening from where it had been clutching a Lan disciple’s throat, Wei Wuxian knows it was the right choice.
He steps back with unsteady legs. Wen Ning steps forward.
Back, forward. It’s like a dance, he thinks, as all the disciples quiet down and stare. A very deadly one, tempered with a crudely made instrument. He pours everything he has into the melody, this unknown song that somehow has twisted itself into his heart.
“A-Xian,” Suibian says suddenly, paws scrambling frantically at his robes.
He glances down at her, raising an eyebrow as the song winds ever-on. Wen Ning is still making his slow trek towards them, one step at a time; they are almost to the trees, now. So close, just a few steps more and they can—
“A-Xian,” she repeats, high-pitched, “stop playing, I smell—”
A hand grabs his wrist. He turns, startled, the song cutting off with a discordant jolt.
The air leaves his lungs as their eyes meet.
Woohoo! Everyone is back in action-- and there's new mysteries to be solved! Here are the new daemons for this chapter:
-Suibian is now a corsac fox! She weighs 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds), about half the size she used to be <3
-They don't appear again, but the older woman's daemon is a pangolin; older man's daemon is a (bug warning) praying mantis