Actions

Work Header

just as the stories say

Work Text:

The summer you turn twelve, you tell your aunt and uncle that you're ready to leave. They take you to where your mother is, and you bow and stay for a long time, dropping incense shavings into a brazier of hot coals. Mosquitoes land on your arms. They bite you. But you've taught yourself to remain still. You've taught yourself to ignore the limits of your weak body.

Your mind is strong.

You've been preparing for this for three years. Ever since his return.

It does not take you long to set the trap.

You stand in a clearing and admire your handiwork. Spirit lures embroidered neatly, your fingers calloused from the unforgiving work. The flags hung high in the trees, your palms scraped bloody from the climb.

The dead watch you, but you ignore them. Unlike your father, you have a strong mind. You don't feel compelled to listen to their whispers or whisper back — although you know they'd pay you mind if you did.

They'll pay you mind this once, when it's time.

Heat lingers long past sunset. In the darkness, the night is loud with bugsong and chirping frogs. There's a full, high moon. You think that is good. You'll need a little light to be sure it's finished.

You kick pine needles into a pile and make a bed out of them. Your arms sting under your sleeves where you rubbed nettles into the thin skin to make angry, raw marks.

You wait.

They come, just as the stories say they will. They come because you went into the village and wept and showed them the welts on your arm. As the villagers clucked over you and pressed cool cloths to the marks, you wailed about a demon wandering the dark woods. A demon who grabbed you and tried to drag you into a dank hole in the ground to eat you or — or worse, you sobbed. You let your face grow snotty and ugly. You hiccuped. You begged them to send for help from Gusu Lan. You invented a little sister. A hungry baby brother. You made your voice a child's stupid whisper and asked, "Will Hanguang-Jun come? Will he help us?"

The dead chatter around you, having gathered under the lures that hang like corpses, the night too still to rustle leaves or heavy cloth. Too still to rustle your hair. It sticks to your face and the back of your neck. Your hands are sweaty and you rub them against your middle to dry them. You take the knife out of your belt and study it. Moonlight catches on the polished arc of it.

It was your father's knife. You've never used it. You avoid his things. But for this purpose, it is suitable.

Tonight you're ready, and you turn your gaze to the agitated swirl of ghosts. They watch you with many eyes and one keen gaze. They tell you that he wears white and you snap, "I know that. Everyone knows that."

They tell you that the Yiling Laozu has grown weak, that he doesn't care about revenge anymore, and you smile to yourself. He may not care about revenge, but he concerns himself with the business of Gusu Lan. He follows Hanguang-Jun like a shadow.

The dead dance with anticipation, shivering around you like a grove of saplings in a wild wind. You push to your feet, swept up in their excitement, in their bloodlust. You cannot help scanning the moon-blur of their faces, always wondering if your father will gather alongside them. If he'll have anything to say about leaving his body hanging where you'd find it, about stepping off the path of righteousness, about trying to bring your mother back, about leaving you alone because he couldn't bear his grief of shame.

You would like to tell him that he was weak. You would like the opportunity to deny him forgiveness. But he does not appear.

Even so, it feels as if he's standing beside you when you call the ghosts' attention as he taught you to feverishly in those hazy years of madness. "They're coming to send you away from here," you tell the dead. "To send you away from your home when you've done nothing wrong. Will you let them? Or will you stop them?"

The ghosts were not farmers or merchants. They were soldiers. You can see snatches of armor, like debris under brackish water. You can feel the anger like a stirred nest of hornets. It would frighten you if you thought they'd hurt you. Somehow, you know that they will not, that you could stop them with your voice if you needed to.

You will not stop them. Instead, you urge them on. You feel tall. You feel like a general. You tell them that others just like them have remained amongst the trees and the bugs, under the sun and the moon, and have done nothing wrong — only to be eradicated. You speak of injustice so passionately that you begin to wonder if it's true. You don't care if it is or not.

Only one truth matters.

The ghosts are fools. Your father was a fool. Sometimes you wonder if your mother was a fool for marrying him. If your aunt and uncle were fools for taking you in when you were too sick with sadness to work alongside them in their garden or tend their small flock of geese or their skinny goats.

The dead grow still, their energy like the flick-flick of a stalking cat's tail.

You are small. You tuck yourself into the underbrush. You make yourself quiet.

You hear, of all things, laughter. A bright peal. You're not accustomed to such an unburdened sound, and your anger makes the air around you hotter and thicker. How dare this man laugh when his careless behavior and corrupt practices caused corrosion long after his first death. You fight the urge to spring out of the thorny brush and shout at him that he took everything you had. The only thing you had left after she died.

He is younger than you expected. He has a gentle face, almost too pretty to be real. He is smiling, but you recognize something in his posture, in the tension in his shoulders. He, too, is listening to the dead.

The dead titter and spit, growing louder. This is good. It provides you cover as you huddle at the edge of the clearing.

"Spirit lures," Wei Wuxian says, frowning at the banners you hung with your own hands. "Strange behavior for hungry, children-eating demons."

Hanguang-Jun steps into your line of sight, and you shrink back despite yourself. The Chief Cultivator looks like moonlight shaped into a man. He will likely kill you tonight. He looks like someone who will make it quick. Your heart becomes a painful thing in your chest, asserting its desire to continue beating.

You told the dead to drive them away from each other. Separate them.

In a screaming rush like a flood, they do it. You cover your ears at the sound of their rage — sound like bone ripping through flesh, sound like flies on a bloated body, sound like teeth pulled from rotting sockets, sound like the senseless screaming that made your throat raw when you couldn't get him down.

You can hear Hanguang-Jun play, but you can't see him. Wei Wuxian lifts his gleaming black flute to his lips. You wonder if the black smoke that surrounds him is visible to others, if they know how corrupt he still is, or if it's something only you can see because your father let the ghosts in.

It is not beautiful. But it is wondrous. You find yourself wishing you had more time to watch. But there is no time, now. You must act. This is why you're here. This is why they're here. This is where it ends.

His eyes are closed, his attention clearly on the melody confusing and subduing the dead. They whine and shudder. Some of them look for you and tell you that you were wrong, that the cultivators are looking for a demon and won't hurt them, that you lied, that you're the demon.

You don't care what they have to say. You've slipped out of the brush, you move in the shadows.

Wei Wuxian's playing falters. He asks the dead, his voice soft and curious, "What now?"

Your father's knife sinks into his belly just above his leather sash. There's hardly any resistance. In and out. It's so easy that when he stares down at you, his eyes big and startled, you dare to do it again. This time, he makes a sound and catches your wrist when you wrench the knife out of his flesh.

"Stop that," he says.

The knife, suddenly heavy as a stone, slips out of your sweaty fingers and falls to the grass that comes knee-high on you. The handle lands with a hollow thud.

You try to jerk your hand away from him. He holds you fast, but staggers. You pull again, try to lever him off his feet. "Stop that," he says again, looking more like he's annoyed by a horsefly than a mortal wound. Your ears begin to ring. If you've failed, you will not have another chance.

Then, still holding your wrist, he stumbles to his knees and sinks back onto his heels. He holds his flute, presses that forearm against his bleeding belly, and calls out, "Lan Zhan!"

To you, privately, he asks, "What is your name?"

You stare at him. "It doesn't matter."

He's paler than he was before. You can smell his blood. You can tell there's a lot of it. "It matters to me," he says. You can tell that his grip on your wrist is all that's keeping him upright on his knees.

"Then I won't tell you."

"Oh." There's understanding in his voice. How dare he — how dare he think he could understand you.

You tell him that.

He laughs. This time, it is not a bright sound. It reminds you of the way one of the goats sounded when it got snakebit and died in the sun. "You're right, you're right. Listen, I don't think he will kill a child. I know he won't. He won't. But you should make an attempt to be agreeable. I'll handle the rest."

"I'm not a child!" you shout.

That is when Hanguang-Jun appears — and in that moment you do feel very much like a child. His face is terrible. "Wei Ying," he says. He seems too distracted to kill you right away, though this is a perfectly good opportunity. Your legs are shaking too much to run even though Wei Wuxian has let go of your wrist.

He pitches forward into Hanguang-Jun's arms. The grass is tall. It's quiet now.

You would note, if you could find your voice, that Wei Wuxian isn't handling whatever he thought he was going to handle. Instead, he's gritting his teeth, his nostrils flaring with panting breaths. "Lan Zhan," he says, like he's saying he's sorry.

Hanguang-Jun looks at you. "You did this?"

"No," Wei Wuxian mumbles.

You square your shoulders and look death straight on. "Yes," you say.

He is very tall. He grips a sword that looks heavy and decisive. You watch his knuckles whiten on the handle. You hear him sigh, very quietly, before his grip eases.

"I see." Hanguang-Jun says. "Do you know how to make a fire?"

"Of course I know how to make a fire," you spit.

You realize, as he looks at you, that he means for you to do so. He wears a hairpiece nearly as tall as one of your geese. His robes pool around him like clouds, smeared in ugly patches with Wei Wuxian's blood.

You scrub your hand across your eyes and stalk off to look for kindling

Bugs follow you, chirping the way the dead did. Absurdly, you miss the dead, who have scattered and left you alone. Even more absurdly, you don't feel as good as you thought you might in your last moments. You fill your arms with wood and try not to listen to the pain-sounds that break through night's stillness.

It takes you several minutes to realize you've been given this task to keep you out of the way. Hanguang-Jun has lit the clearing with talismans. The night is hot.

They're arguing, voices too low for you to make out what they're saying. When you trample your way back to them and dump the wood in a messy pile, you hear Hanguang-Jun murmur, "If that's what you think is right."

"You don't need a fire," you interrupt, angry.

A bird flutters out of the grass, trilling nervously.

You shrink back when Hanguang-Jun glances up at you. He has his hands on Wei Wuxian's bare middle, and Wei Wuxian is on his back. Wei Wuxian has torn some of the grass from the ground, and now his hands dig furrows in the dirt. Hanguang-Jun's hands are dark with blood and the air crackles with his spiritual power.

"Who are you?" Hanguang-Jun asks, as if you are someone.

You have spent years preparing for this night, but your voice is sticky and stuttering, and you only manage, "My father…"

You don't feel good. You don't feel better.

Your father is still gone. Burned in the house you set fire to around his decaying body when you couldn't get it down. Your mother is still in her grave. Your aunt and uncle are at home, praying for you. One of your goats is pregnant. You'd hoped to be there for its kidding before you came here to avenge your father's death, his madness. You dropped the knife in the tall grass and now it's lost.

"The girl isn't old enough to have been there," Wei Wuxian says. You're surprised he can speak. He isn't looking at you. "I don't know what I did."

Surprise momentarily crosses Hanguang-Jun's face. "The girl?"

You are dressed as a boy. You had to, for the village to take you seriously.

"My father practiced wicked tricks." You say it in a rush, between shaky breaths. "Your tricks! And my mother stayed dead, and he went mad. Because of you! Because of you."

"He wasn't the first," Hanguang-Jun says. He sounds weary. "He won't be the last."

You don't know if he means Wei Wuxian or your father. Either way, you think he's right. Maybe that makes you a fool, too. Your knees buckle and you sit down beside the wood you gathered. You look up at the talismans. They're pretty. You wish you'd learned how to do this, and not how to listen to the dead's idle gossip. "Aren't you going to kill me now?" you ask.

"Wei Ying does not want me to kill you."

"Lan Zhan wouldn't do it anyway," Wei Wuxian says. Then his body spasms and he cries out. It's loud. It startles you, makes your skin feel prickly and hot. He tosses his head back and forth.

"He needs to hold still," you say. If the snakebit goat had held still, it may have lived. But it used up all the life it had left thrashing with pain and panic, and its heart stopped. "He shouldn't wiggle around like that."

"I have to stay awake," Wei Wuxian whispers. His eyes flutter closed. "Don't let me sleep. It won't work." He claws the dirt, whispers a name you don't know. "It hurts."

Hanguang-Jun looks at his face, his expression gone quietly horrified. He moves quickly, suddenly, gathering Wei Wuxian up, ignoring his pained whimper. "Hang onto me tightly," he says to you, "Or you will fall. And I will not return for you."

You should run. You could run and he wouldn't follow, he'd have no time to follow. But if you run, you'll be alone, not knowing what happened, what you really did with your bloody hands.

So you follow him, numb, and hold tight around his waist when he steps on his sword and takes to the sky like the bird you frightened into flight. You believe him that he would leave you broken on the ground if you fell.

You do not open your eyes once. You do not let go.

It is still hot when the ground finds you again, but the heat is not the same here. It's wet and clinging. Your clothes stick to your skin and the tendrils of hair that swept free in the wind stick to your neck. You stagger off of Hanguang-Jun's sword and vomit next to a stone path.

He's already walking away, climbing the steep path with Wei Wuxian limp in his arms. It is dark here, the moon obscured by a thick canopy, and although you are not afraid of the night, you follow. Lan disciples with forehead ribbons and white robes approach like a flock of doves. Your stomach gives a sharp pang at the sound of shared distress — the little gasps and cries.

An older boy sees you. You tense when he approaches, your fingers tightening into fists. He has a kind, lovely face, but his shoulders are broad and he carries a sword. You'll fight him, but you don't think you'll win.

"Sizhui." Hanguang-Jun's voice carries as if he's called out, though he has not raised his voice. "Keep the girl close."

The boy frowns, looking at you differently now, confusion lining his face. Your cheeks grow hot as you realize that Hanguang-Jun was warning him. You're meant to be watched. Of course you're meant to be watched.

You are a fool for feeling embarrassed, for the shame that reddens your cheeks. You did what you set out to do. This pretty boy likely hasn't killed anyone. You'd wager his fine sword has never tasted blood.

You lift your chin. Your lower lip gives a traitorous wobble.

The boy's expression softens. He wears a silver crown, a miniature to Hanguang-Jun's. You prefer this one. "Are you hungry?" he asks.

The simple, kind question rips the pride from your very marrow.

"No. My stomach hurts," you say truthfully. The evidence steams beside you, a flat pile of sick you wish you'd taken a moment to kick dirt over.

"I got sick when I first flew. I get sick on boats, too."

"I've never been on a boat."

He smiles and offers his hand. "I would be pleased if I never went on a boat again. Ginger will settle your stomach."

When you take his hand, it's cold. And you remember that you slid your father's knife into Wei Wuxian's hot insides, that he stopped making hurt sounds not long after you began to fly. You remember that this boy knows him, that this boy paled when he saw what Hanguang-Jun held in his arms. He says nothing when he leads you up the steep path.

You've never seen anything like this place. It is a place of riches, but not ugly riches. Everything here is beautiful and quiet. You can smell rain and incense. When the boy leads you to a house set apart from the others, you smell blood again. You hear muffled screaming. You think about your goats. You begin to shake.

The boy allows you to sit on the steps outside. You feel dirty and small in this place. He murmurs something to a younger boy who gives you a wary look and quickly returns with a ceramic cup of spicy tea that's finer than anything you've ever held in your small hands.

"I am Lan Yuan, courtesy name Sizhui," the boy says as you sip the warm tea. He sinks to sit beside you, setting his sword against the rail.

You say nothing. Maybe he believes that you don't know better, that you don't understand that you're meant to tell him who you are.

It doesn't matter. You are no one.

"What happened to Senior Wei?" he asks carefully, watching you.

The tea sloshes in your trembling hands. He steadies the cup for you.

For a moment, you consider lying. But you cannot think of a reason to lie. It's unlikely you'll live much longer. "I tried to kill him. You don't have to give me tea. You don't have to talk to me. I dropped my father's knife, but if you went back there you'd see. I did it."

It takes him a while to speak. When he does, there's a sort of hoarseness to his voice. "Fortunately, Senior Wei is hard to kill."

"He wasn't! He didn't even move the second time."

Lan Sizhui flinches. But you press on. He ought to know. "He wasn't careful at all. The dead even tried to warn him. Why was he so stupid? Why didn't he move?" The tea spills over onto your fingers. Your eyes are hot. He takes the cup from your hands and sets it down beside his sword.

"You heard the dead speak," he says.

Your breath catches. You look over your shoulder at the door to the house where Wei Wuxian is inside with the Lan healers. You expect to see Hanguang-Jun emerging, stormy and knowing, knowing that you called the dead. But there is only the closed door. Only the misty hot night. Only the muffled sounds of hurt.

"He talked to the dead too," you mumble, crossing your arms tightly. "He did it first." Lan Sizhui allows silence to spread, and you hate it — you hate what you can hear from inside — so you continue, "My father showed me. He studied the ways of the Yiling Laozu."

"No amount of studying would open your eyes to the spirits if you didn't already have an affinity." Lan Sizhui offers you an encouraging little smile that makes you feel miserable. "You have potential to cultivate. Properly."

You shake your head. Wipe your nose. "I had one purpose. And I didn't do it right."

"I am glad for that," Lan Sizhui murmurs.

"What will I do now?" you ask, because now that something has fractured inside of you, the words keep pouring out.

"Are you far from home?" Lan Sizhui asks, as if what they do to punish you might depend on the answer.

"I left my home. They won't expect me to return." You will no longer be a hardship to your aunt and uncle. What you contributed didn't make up for the burden of another mouth to feed. Still, you don't understand why you were brought here. "Are you going to make me stay?"

"I don't know. Much depends, I imagine, on Senior Wei's recovery." It sounds as if it costs him something to say this. The moon is high above this open courtyard. When the clouds part briefly, it bathes him in watery light, and you can see that he's hiding grief from you.

The door slides open, startling you. It is Hanguang-Jun in his bloody robes. "Sizhui," he says, prompting the boy to scramble to stand. "You should come inside."

They both look at you, and you wish you were the size of an ant, so that you could crawl into the gravel, into the earth, and maybe die there. Instead you lower your gaze. After exhaling a sound like wind through pine needles, Hanguang-Jun says, "Bring the girl."

Inside, you understand this to be Wei Wuxian's home. The home he shares with Hanguang-Jun. It is mostly neat, but there are signs of being lived-in. Books askew on shelves. Talismans pressed against a table, against one wall. A red ribbon hangs from the shade at the far end of the room. You sit on a thin cushion, your back to the wall, your knees drawn up. It is a babyish way to sit, but you want to be invisible.

You also understand that Lan Sizhui is more than a disciple of Gusu Lan by the way he leans into Hanguang-Jun's side when his knees weaken. By the way Hanguang-Jun puts an arm around him to steady him, leans in as if he means to kiss his head as one would kiss a child, before recalling himself and straightening. Lan Sizhui cries silently, seeming unashamed of his tears, and never takes his eyes off of Wei Wuxian. You understand, then, that they must be like brothers. You understand what you've done to the boy who gave you tea.

They are watching a Lan healer and her assistant try to save Wei Wuxian's life. It is bloody, terrible work. You consider how much easier it was to hurt him, how simple it was to shove your blade into his soft places. They're cutting him, too. With thinner blades. It does not look simple at all.

You are glad you can't see too much of their work. You wish that you could make yourself look away, but you're compelled to watch. After all, this was your doing. And, though you do not want to admit it to yourself, you are fascinated by what the cultivators are capable of. Their workspace is lit not by flames but by talismans that glow with clear, snow-white light. You feel a stirring low in your belly, as if an unseen sunbeam pierces you.

Lan Sizhui glances at you, and your eyes meet. You wonder if he knows that you feel a glow within, or that you'd help if you could. When you pictured killing Wei Wuxian — and you pictured it often — he'd fall, heavy as a stone, and he'd die. He'd take one shuddering breath and he'd be gone, and you'd be free of his grip on your heart. Your father's spirit would be at peace.

This is not what you pictured.

Hanguang-Jun stands at Wei Wuxian's head at the table now. He bends over him, and speaks to him too softly for you to hear, though you register the low thrum of his voice, and it is a comforting sound.

Wei Wuxian's voice is weak. "Lan Zhan, don't make me laugh. I'm supposed to hold still — ah!"

Wei Wuxian arches, and Hanguang-Jun places a hand on his bare chest and keeps him from moving too much. He doesn't have to hold him for long. Wei Wuxian goes still, his eyes closing and his rigid limbs softening.

When Hanguang-Jun looks up, stricken, the healer says, "He's all right. His body is making him rest. His heart needs all his strength now."

"His heart," Hanguang-Jun echoes, leaving his hand there, a protective and claiming touch that makes your cheeks burn. "Wei Ying's heart is strong." He bends over him, continues to speak to Wei Wuxian in a private way.

They catch Wei Wuxian's blood with more talismans so that it does not pool around him. The healer's assistant, a woman who doesn't look too much older than you are, builds an array around the long table they've moved to the center of the room. It makes a blue, pretty light.

You smell something like seared meat. Wei Wuxian's too-pale hand twitches where it hangs off the table.

They work.

You know how to mend your clothes, though not as well as your aunt would like. When they finish the work that makes him bleed and shake, you recognize the healer's motions — fine stitches along the places she cut Wei Wuxian open, putting him back together as if she's embroidering silk. And you are glad that he is no longer awake to feel it. You pinch your skin with your fingernails and wonder how it feels to have thread dragged through flesh. You imagine it must hurt terribly. You imagine it must hurt terribly to be punctured with a knife twice.

And then you begin to cry.

After a while, Lan Sizhui comes and sits beside you. You can tell that he has been crying, but his face is dry. He uses his white robes to clean your cheeks, and you hope you are not too filthy. "The healers say that Senior Wei will most likely recover," he says very softly.

You look up, bleary-eyed, wondering how much time passed while you bent over your knees and shook. Hanguang-Jun sits at a bench at the end of the table and strokes Wei Wuxian's hair with smooth, even movements like he's playing an instrument. The healers have gone, but the array around the bed still glows like moonlight. You can only hear snatches of what Hanguang-Jun is saying. Sleep. And, I'm here.

"I'm sorry," you whisper.

Lan Sizhui sighs. "I know."

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

You are brought to a house where several girls your age are sleeping. A silent older woman bathes you in cold water, scrubbing your skin until you're as pink as the inside of a seashell. She dresses you in white like the other girls, and pulls your hair back in a braid so firm it feels like it's pulling your face tighter over your skull. You don't complain, because the sleeping girls have ribbons bound over their foreheads, and that looks uncomfortable, too.

In bed, you do not mean to sleep. It does not seem fair for you to do so when others are awake worrying over what you did. You don't mean to sleep — because you want to untangle why you feel so desperately ashamed now, after being so sure of yourself, so sure of what you were meant to do.

But you cannot keep your eyes open.

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

You're given a basket for foraging, and you follow the other girls along a narrow path feeling like one of the geese you raised for slaughter. Do the girls know your fate already? Do they know if you'll be killed or beaten or sent down the mountain in the night to fend for yourself?

You hate them for belonging here.

The other girls keep their robes white. When you do not, they hide giggles behind their hands. You think, for a moment, that you want to pick up dirt and throw it at them. But when you look too closely, too hard, a girl younger than you flinches and hides behind one of her sisters. It makes you feel ugly.

You let your legs fold beneath you. The ground is soft and damp. You watch the girls pick mushrooms at the edge of the wet trees with dark branches and dark leaves too heavy to tremble. You observe a gesture and understand. Some of the girls are already cultivating. That's how they stay so clean.

You want to know how it works.

But you know that no one here will show you.

As you sit in the cold grass and sulk, a snow-white rabbit approaches. You hold very still, still as a cat.

"They're not food," the smallest girl tells you. She looks at you like she's scared you're going to break the rabbit's neck.

You were going to. It would have been something to offer these people who aren't killing you or beating you when you deserve it. Shame makes your skin sting. "I know that," you say crossly. And before you can stop yourself, you ask, more softly, "Why aren't they food?"

"We do not eat meat. And the rabbits belong to Hanguang-Jun," she adds pointedly, as if you should know this.

The rabbit, foolish, skitters into your lap and finds a place in the folds of your grass-stained, muddy robes. Very carefully, you touch its head. You can feel the rabbit's skull under its soft fur. "I have goats," you say.

The little girl smiles.

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

When the girls have left for their studies, you creep away. This place has a prickly feeling. It is watching you. So you don't feel entirely like you're sneaking. If someone wanted to stop you from exploring, they would have done so.

First, you try to climb a tree. The bark is slippery with dew. You make it a ways before your weight pulls you down and you slide too fast and land hard in the damp soil around the knotty roots. Swearing, you kick the tree. Then your toe hurts.

You stomp away from the tree, trying to recall why you thought you should try climbing in the first place. You think maybe it's because you're not entirely sure where you are, or how big this place is, or how high it is, or if it's close to the sea or only smells faintly of it.

Maybe you were thinking about finding a way out and slipping off into the dark.

Angry with yourself and the tall trees and the salt on your lips, you trudge along a path that leads downhill, down the mountain. With every step, you know the way back up will strain your legs. You come from a place where there are few hills and only distant mountains.

Nearly running, you let the pull of the land nudge you along. It's like falling. Your sleeves and the bottom of your robes are stained black and brown and green. You don't know how to fix that. You wonder if the stains will finally be enough for them to punish you. They ought to. They really ought to.

Turning a sharp switchback on the path, you barrel into a tall man in a shock of purple robes, finer than any clothes you've ever seen. He doesn't even move when you strike him. You nearly bounce off of him. When you draw back, you trip and land on your bottom, and you must look like a fool, because he stares and stares.

"I didn't think Lans got dirty," the man finally says. He sweeps past you, his clothes smelling like spicy incense. You watch his back, awed but unafraid. You wish you knew how to address him.

You should have said you were sorry.

Because the man in purple looks more interesting than anyone else here, you follow him at a distance. One of the Lan disciples catches you. You shake your arm out of her grip. She doesn't seem to be afraid of you like the little girls were. "Why are you following Sect Leader Jiang? He's worried about Senior Wei. Leave him alone," she says, accusing.

You don't think she knows exactly what you did. If she knew, she'd be wary around you. So that means the girls are telling stories about you. Calling you a fool, a nuisance.

It makes you feel achy, even though the truth would be worse. Of course it would be worse. "I'm just walking," you snap. "Can't I walk? It's a path."

She rolls her eyes at you.

"Isn't there a rule against that?" you ask.

Her eyes widen just a little. You smirk and trot after Sect Leader Jiang, feeling smug until you think about what she said, and it sinks in why he's worried.

It's your fault. That is worse than bumping into him with your dirty robes.

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

You have scars on your forearms from picking at mosquito bite scabs. It feels like catching your nail on the loose edge of a healing wound when you hide in a cabinet in Wei Wuxian's room so you can see exactly what he means to Sect Leader Jiang.

Sect Leader Jiang stands beside the bed silently, his gaze trained on Wei Wuxian's still form. Little by little, Wei Wuxian's sleep becomes more restless, the sound of his breathing more pained. He opens his eyes. The rhythm of his breathing doesn't change, and you wonder if he knows he's awake.

"What did you do?" Sect Leader Jiang asks, propping himself on his hands to lean over Wei Wuxian. He sounds like he's speaking to a child, and you bristle. He should be speaking to you that way, not to Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian's mouth opens, but no sound comes out. You think, maybe he meant to laugh or smile. A few moments pass before he reaches clumsily and takes Sect Leader Jiang's hand.

"Don't," Sect Leader Jiang says, though he does not shake him off. He looks different now, sad — and maybe scared. "Don't do that. You're fine."

"I'm fine," Wei Wuxian echoes. He drifts off again, making soft, unhappy sounds in his sleep.

Sect Leader Jiang fusses with him without letting go of his hand. He skims the edge of the bandage at his middle. Adjusts the white under-robe at his shoulders. Moves the long braid that falls over one shoulder, muttering something about it you can't quite catch.

Hanguang-Jun approaches as quiet as the mist that lingers in the trees here. He turns his face to where you're hiding in the cabinet, but says nothing. Your skin goes prickly like you've got flies all over you. You hold still and listen.

"He is feverish," Sect Leader Jiang says, accusing, as he straightens — not quickly enough to hide that he had been holding Wei Wuxian's hand.

"He is," Hanguang-Jun acknowledges, in the mild kind of way that your aunt does when you're banging things around for no reason and her kindness makes you feel ashamed. He brushes his long fingers across Wei Wuxian's brow, frowns. "He has been."

"Why was I sent for?" Sect Leader Jiang asks. He doesn't look like he wants to know the answer.

Hanguang-Jun's brow lifts. "I did not send for you."

They both look at Wei Wuxian. Hanguang-Jun's lips tighten very faintly. Sect Leader Jiang is scowling.

"He always gets what he wants," Sect Leader Jiang mutters. "Even when he was a boy. All he had to do was whine."

Hanguang-Jun makes a noncommittal sound.

"He'll survive this, then?" There's an achiness to the way Sect Leader Jiang asks, like it pained him to form the words. He is standing very straight and very still.

You realize that Sect Leader Jiang must have thought he'd been sent for to bear witness to a death. It makes your stomach start hurting again. It sounds like Wei Wuxian and Sect Leader Jiang were raised together. You don't have any siblings. You always wanted one. You named each of the baby goats, even when your aunt cautioned you not to — that they'd be in a clay pot before long. You fail to hold back a sniffle.

When you focus through the slit in the cabinet again, Sect Leader Jiang and Hanguang-Jun are staring at your hiding place.

"Come out," Hanguang-Jun says gently, but in a way that leaves no room for argument. You tumble out creaky and clumsy, and wobble to stand. Your ears feel hot.

Sect Leader Jiang's eyes narrow. "You're the girl I saw outside. In the dirt."

Your Lan-white robes are still smudged and unseemly. You lift your chin and meet his gaze as you did before. Maybe he is the one who will punish you for trying to kill Wei Wuxian. After all, maybe he is Wei Wuxian's brother. Or was. If you had a brother, you'd protect him.

Your hands are shaking. Your arms shake, too, when you bow. "This humble one accepts your punishment, Sect Leader Jiang."

"Wei Wuxian allowed a child to do this?" Sect Leader Jiang asks. "Idiot," he grits out.

Your gaze snaps up. "He didn't know what I was doing!" Except. You feel yourself frown.

Were you really fast enough to kill a cultivator?

Did he let you do it?

Sect Leader Jiang rolls his eyes in a way that looks like it should give him a headache. “Why is she here?”

“Wei Ying wished for her to be.”

It grows silent, and you wonder why Wei Wuxian wished for both of you to be here. When Sect Leader Jiang motions to leave and beckons for you to follow, you shudder. Is he ready to punish you, now? Will he kill you?

Sparing Wei Wuxian and all that you've done one last glance, you follow Sect Leader Jiang outside, your steps awkward and rigid. You don't want to cry, but your eyes grow hot anyway. Your heart beats very fast. He has a sword with a strange little frog on it. You imagine he could cut your whole head off with it. Maybe that wouldn't hurt too bad. Not for too long, anyway.

Your knees begin to shake terribly, so you kneel. That way, you'll have more dignity. It will look like you're not trembling with fear.

Sect Leader Jiang stares at you. "What are you doing?"

You try to sound very grown up when you say, "Accepting my death."

He laughs. He laughs at you!

You scramble back onto your feet, wishing you had a sword, too. That way you could fight him for a while before he killed you. It would feel good to swing at him once or twice. "What is so funny?" you demand.

"There are procedures around executions, you know. Especially here. I'd probably have to file paperwork, petition Hanguang-Jun, kill you in front of a small audience. I have enough work to do. You're pardoned."

"Wouldn't a pardon require paperwork as well?" you ask, emboldened by your anger. He isn't laughing anymore, but his lips move with an ill-concealed smile, and you hate it. Why isn't he taking this seriously?

He studies you. Slowly, the smile fades. When it does, he looks tired. Setting his sword aside, he sits at a small table in the courtyard. "Living with regret is a far greater punishment than being cut down swiftly," he eventually says.

You believe that. You deserve that.

Mimicking the way you've seen the disciples here move, you raise your hands before you and sink into a deep bow. "Thank you for your wisdom, Sect Leader Jiang."

When you straighten, there's amusement in his eyes again. "You're not the only one who's punctured Wei Wuxian," he says. His gaze flickers to the closed door of the house where Wei Wuxian sleeps restlessly, and the amusement fades. "Though you did a surprisingly good job of it. Are you cultivating a golden core?"

You blink. "No?"

His eyes narrow. "Come here."

Trying not to appear as skittish as you feel, you approach him. Sitting, he's still tall. He's still much bigger than you are. You flinch when he reaches for you, and he says, quick and cross, "I'm not going to hurt you. Give me your hand."

He touches your wrist and frowns as if looking at something very far away. "It's not much, not yet. Who has been teaching you?"

"No one. What did I do?"

Surprise widens his eyes. He releases you. "You ought to be in the care of a sect. Maybe these Lans will keep you."

"But I like eating meat," you say.

He stares, and then laughs and laughs once more. It's a strange laugh, as if he doesn't quite know how to make the proper sound. "Go and find something to do. Stop lingering around like a little ghost. You're frightening Hanguang-Jun."

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

There are many things to do. Chores. Endless hours in a quiet library copying intricate rules. Quiet, graceful forms in the courtyard. Changing out the bedding in the rabbit hutches. Eating soup that tastes green and needs more spice. Sometimes, when you are working hard alongside the other young disciples, you forget about why you are here.

But every time you cross in front of Hanguang-Jun's house, you remember. Every time you see that Sect Leader Jiang hasn't left this place, you feel heavier.

It doesn't matter what they do to you. No matter what it is, you deserve it.

You just want Wei Wuxian to survive what you did.

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

Another sect leader appears. He is hardly more than a boy. Lan Sizhui embraces him like they're friends, and the sight of such open affection makes you flush and turn away while the other girls murmur their disappointment that Sect Leader Jin hasn't brought his fluffy dog along with him.

One of them tells you, solemnly, that Senior Wei is afraid of dogs, but that Fairy is a good dog and stays just outside the gate, allowing many disciples to pet her. You've never had a dog of your own, and have only known angry, hungry dogs. It would have been nice to meet this friendly dog — but you're glad there's no chance it might frighten Wei Wuxian.

His heart is working hard to keep him alive.

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

At dusk, when it is nearly time to prepare to sleep, the Ghost General walks up the path. You freeze at the sight of the black veins on his face, at his terrible height. When he looks at you, you expect to die on the spot. But your eyes meet, and you see that he has a child's eyes. Worried. Kind, too.

His gaze lights on your bare forehead and you raise your hand as if to cover it before you catch yourself doing so. You step aside to allow him to pass. Feeling flustered, you start to bow, and he bustles at you and catches your sleeve to stop you.

You stare at each other. He looks as embarrassed as you feel.

You wrench your sleeve out of his light grip and run off into the woods. You can't do anything right.

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

The sun sets through the trees like a distant fire. You need to return to the house you sleep in soon, but you linger at the edge of night. Everyone goes to sleep too early here. You miss the moon and the stars.

Feeling stubborn and homesick for a home you don't miss at all, you munch on a handful of tender greens that taste like dew. The footsteps that approach from behind you don't startle you because they're quiet and gentle, and you've come to recognize the sounds of the quiet and gentle boy.

"I used to stay up late," you say, hearing a pout in your voice. You're sitting on a damp, rotting log that has licks of scorch marks on it.

"I wasn't born here," Lan Sizhui tells you. He doesn't sit, but crouches beside you, his white robes puddling like fresh snow. "My body remembers staying up late. I never get sleepy on night hunts or when I'm traveling."

You don't ask him where he's from or who he belonged to. You decide, when your

eyes meet, that you would like to earn hearing those things about him some day.

So you ask, "Can we practice for a little while?"

He smiles, warm as the fiery sun flickering through the dense trees. From his sleeve he pulls a paper talisman and places it on your palm. "Try to wake it up," he says.

You hear a low rustle in the woods. When you tense and your gaze darts toward it, Lan Sizhui's brow knits in a curious frown. He didn't respond to the sound at all.

"What did you hear?" he asks in a careful sort of way.

For a passing moment, you think you smell smoke, and then the night is quiet once more. "Nothing," you say, turning your attention back to the talisman. It's getting dark. The talisman will light the way back to the safety of the lamplit courtyards and the gravel paths and the warm place where you'll sleep.

"Ah!" you shout, when it flares in your hand, bright but not burning. Warmth echoes low in your belly. "I did it!"

Lan Sizhui's smile widens. "You did it," he says.

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

You are permitted to join the disciples who are beginning their first sword forms. They are all significantly younger than you, and you feel like a clumsy bear next to their skinny, small frames. When you think too much about how you look, your arm grows stiff and your grip becomes too tight and you drop your wooden practice sword over and over.

The children don't laugh, but you know they would if they were allowed to.

You don't cry, but you want to.

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

No one tells you that Wei Wuxian is dying, but you are not a fool. You can see it in the thundercloud-gray cast to his skin. His bloodless mouth. He doesn't sleep as much as he did before. You think he does not want to waste time in slumber.

You're not sure that the time he spends awake is any less a waste than sleep. He stares at the ceiling. One hand, surprisingly slender, rests at the hollow of his throat, fingers curled.

His visitors come and go, and you are permitted to stay by his side as you wish, because he has not asked for you to be taken away the way he has asked for the group of older boys to stop visiting. Sometimes you hear them just outside, shuffling and whispering.

Hanguang-Jun looks tired when he sees you. You think about Sect Leader Jiang saying that Wei Wuxian always gets what he wants, and wonder if he wants you to be here. If that's why your presence is tolerated.

For many hours, you are alone with Wei Wuxian. You wish you were left with a guard. Shouldn't someone be watching over him to make sure you don't smother him in his sleep?

"Can you read and write?" Wei Wuxian asks, sudden and so quiet you can hardly make out the words.

"Yes," you say, surprised. "I can."

After a while, he says, "Good."

And then he becomes a distant, wilting thing again. So you ask, "Are you afraid to die?"

You have wondered, because you wonder if death is something to fear. He should know. He has known, hasn't he? And you wonder if your mother was afraid. If she had a reason to be. You know your father was. He pissed himself. You can't stand the smell of piss now.

It takes a long time for Wei Wuxian to focus on your face. Then he studies you, his breathing gone coarse like it tires him to use his eyes. "Yes." He hesitates. "I am afraid I will not find Lan Zhan again. I would like to stay with him."

A tear escapes the corner of his eye. You track its silvery path, and you take the hand that isn't curled up on his chest. His fingers are cold. You are cold. "I am sorry," you say. The words are so small and stupid. You are so stupid and small.

"It's true that I have killed many people. I did."

"In the war?" you ask, hoping that you can remind him that soldiers must kill, it is their purpose.

"It was a war," he whispers. "Wasn't it?"

He's staring, restless focus settling on nothing — or on something you can't see. "I'm sorry," he mumbles. "I'm sorry."

His eyes close, lids thin, bruise-colored.

A flutter of fear runs up your back. "Senior Wei," you say sharply. "Wei Wuxian!"

He doesn't flinch. Not when you rattle his hand or pat his cheek.

You grab his wrist helplessly, mimicking what you saw the healer do. But you don't know what to feel for. And you know if you did, you'd only find confirmation of what your heart knows. You've succeeded.

There's no one else here. There's no one to stop you from holding his heavy hand and watching him die.

"No," you sob out, shaking your head. He thinks he's sorry but he's wrong, he's wrong. You're the one who made a mistake. You'd give your life to make it right. "Wait," you say. "Just wait. Don't."

In your wild panic, you trip over a stool and overturn a low table. Ceramic crashes to the floor in pale blue shards. Tea, bitter with medicinal herbs, splashes across a reed mat. You don't feel it when you step through the mess and slice your heel. All you feel is desperation and fear.

Running barefoot out into the courtyard, you scream for help. You scream for Hanguang-Jun.

Figures in white flock around you, rush past you. But all you can see is Sect Leader Jiang storming at you, expression like lightning, stark — scared the way you're scared. Forgetting everything you've learned about what's proper and what's not, you take his wrist, grabbing his heavy leather bracers, and you drag him into Hanguang-Jun's house, sobbing out, "Help him, help him, help him!"

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

Outside, cracking booms sound in the sky. Flares to call Hanguang-Jun.

Inside, Sect Leader Jiang has dragged Wei Wuxian up into his arms. "Don't do this," he says, choked and angry. "Not now. Not when he's not here."

Wei Wuxian hangs in his arms, limp, head lolling terribly. You don't think he's breathing anymore. You think — you think maybe he's already gone. And you wish his vengeful spirit would strike you down where you stand in a circle of your own bloody footprints.

The healer and her assistant stand behind you, but no one approaches. No one dares to.

You think about the fragile paper Lan Sizhui placed in your hand, and how you brought it to life and made it glow.

"Wake him up," you whisper. A low, moaning sob catches in your throat and you fall to your knees. You've bloodied your white robes. "Wake him up!" And then you're screaming, wishing you could hold something and break it, wishing someone would break you, wishing the hands dragging you back would snap your neck.

Sect Leader Jiang stares at you. Something dawns in his bloodshot gaze. You wouldn't call it hope. It's more stubborn than that. More terrible.

His hold on Wei Wuxian begins to glow as if someone has tucked embers between them. "Wake up, idiot," he mutters, pressing his face into Wei Wuxian's hair. He curls over him like the canopy of a tree, bleeding his spiritual energy out and over Wei Wuxian in steady, strong waves. "Take it back."

You're still sobbing senselessly, trying to drag yourself over to join Sect Leader Jiang in telling Wei Wuxian that he is not permitted to die like this, when someone touches the side of your neck and all the light snaps away.

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

Soft music is playing when you surface from sleep that feels like having your head stepped on.

Your knees and feet throb.

You recall where you are and what happened and you sit up too fast, making the candlelit room spin. The first thing your gaze settles on is Sect Leader Jiang, who sits on the floor and glares at you. He's very pale. A bowl of hot water steams in his hands. "Thank you," he bites out quietly. "For going for help."

"Did it work?" you ask, hoarse. You're already crying again.

He nods once, looking as if he might topple over where he sits. There are deep, dark circles under his eyes.

"Jiang Wanyin is lucky he did not kill himself," Hanguang-Jun says from beside his beautiful guqin. He's the source of the music, a steady flow that whispers around you like a sun-warm blanket. He stares at his own fingers and the long strings when he says, "I am grateful to you both."

You realize that the dark mass alongside him is Wei Wuxian, wrapped in a heavy quilt with his head resting in Hanguang-Jun's lap. He doesn't look dead. You don't think anyone would be sitting around listening to music if he was.

So you let the music make you feel heavy, and you sink back onto your side and you go back to sleep.

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

Like the turning of the seasons, you don't feel the shift happening until you can see it. One morning, there's color in Wei Wuxian's cheeks. The next, he's sitting on a carefully constructed nest of cushions just outside the door, where the fresh air stirs his hair and the sun can touch his face.

He looks less like one the dead, and more like someone who is very ill. When you approach, he opens his eyes and greets you with an unhappy smile.

"Do you wish I'd died in that clearing?" he asks.

You feel as if he's struck you with the words. These days, you keep so busy that you sometimes forget what you did, that you caused all of this. "No," you say. "I wish I had died."

Wei Wuxian closes his eyes. He sighs slowly. "I'm glad that you did not. Some day, you will be glad that you did not, too. Maybe not for a while."

"Why should I be glad?" You locate a cup of water inside and help him sip from it. It's good to watch him cradle it in his weak, trembling fingers. All of these days, he hasn't had the strength to try. "I am a burden," you say. "It would be easier for everyone if I wasn't here."

"Who is a greater burden? You do chores, I'm sure. You are strong. I've done nothing but take naps day and night. And use up precious medicine. I've even used up Sect Leader Jiang's spiritual energy. He'll have to walk home to recover. And I've wasted the Chief Cultivator's precious time! He has better things to do than watch me sleep." It's a great many words compared to his usual silence, and they appear to exhaust him. He allows you to take the cup out of his hands as he sinks back, heavy and panting. "See? I'm as helpless as a babe. It would be easier for everyone if they didn't have to care for me."

You sit on the step in front of him, holding the cup. It's blue and pretty. You feel bad about the one you broke. "You're trying to trick me. You're important."

Surely he knows that. Surely he knows how many people came to see him, how many stood outside making quiet conversation, worrying, hoping. How many looked at you as if you were a venomous snake. How many still do.

"Everyone is important." Wei Wuxian exhales the words at the sky as if he's apologizing. "But it's hard to see that, sometimes. And it's hard to know that, sometimes."

You run your fingertip along the delicate rim of the cup and watch the remaining drop of water slide around.

You've come to understand something. It slowly formed in your heart these busy days, these weeks. You dug the knowledge from the soft ground, pulled it out of the gray sky. You slept with it cradled in your small hands.

You can't keep it inside of you any longer.

"You let me do it," you whisper.

When he doesn't answer, you look up. The sadness you see is too much. Too private. You quickly look away.

"I did," he finally murmurs.

"Does Hanguang-Jun know?" you ask, suddenly so very, very angry. Your voice trembles with it.

"Yes."

You hold the cup. You can't move. Your ears are buzzing like your skull is full of insects.

"I can't make it up to you," he says. You don't have to look to know that he is crying, that he is cloaked in shame. "It was unfair. I thought I deserved it, but you didn't deserve that."

Unwilling to break another precious thing, you set the cup aside and crawl along the polished wood deck and into his lap. He places his hands on your back and bends over you and weeps, and you shake in his arms, face hot and wet, for a long, long time.

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

Your head feels as if it's been stuffed full of fur when you sneak away to touch the rabbits. Dazed and tired, you don't see Hanguang-Jun until you've nearly stumbled onto him.

He has four rabbits in his lap.

His eyebrows lift in a silent question. But before you can try to explain yourself, he lifts one of the small, white rabbits and offers it to you.

Sniffling, you take it and sit in front of him, making a small nest with your folded legs and robes. The rabbit is asleep. You tuck it in the crook of your knee and begin to stroke between its fuzzy ears, and that helps you stop trembling the way you do around Hanguang-Jun.

"I talked to Senior Wei," you start to say, your voice already betrayed by tears. You really thought every last one of them had been wrung out of you.

"I don't blame you for what you did," Hanguang-Jun says.

"How can you keep him safe when he's so stupid," you say, only managing to keep from shouting because the rabbits are so small and so sleepy.

When you look up, a tiny smile unfurls at the edge of Hanguang-Jun's mouth. You thought he might look severe, but when you really allow yourself to look he does not. He looks sad and happy at the same time.

"I cannot keep him safe," he says. "I can only love him, even when he forgets to love himself."

"Oh," you whisper, watching your tears fall in silent plops, one after another.

Hanguang-Jun places two more rabbits in your lap.

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

You make it through an entire form without forgetting a move. Sore and still holding the practice sword in your hand, you dash across Cloud Recesses to tell Wei Wuxian. You laugh as someone calls after you, "Running is forbidden!"

He's sitting at his work desk surrounded by talismans when you barge in.

"I need you to pack your things," he says without looking up.

You blink. The sword clatters to the ground. This is a fair sentence. You ought to have been banished from here long before now. Even if Wei Wuxian is going to live, you ought to have been killed for trying to murder him.

It's fair.

But for all the strength you've built in your body here, and all the kindling of your small golden core you've accomplished in your time learning from Lan Sizhui, you've also become weak. Because you want to cry. You want to beg to stay.

"You're sending me away," you say, voice trembling.

Wei Wuxian shakes with a small, silent laugh. He looks up at you, a wicked glint in his eyes. It confuses you. He doesn't look angry at all.

"Jiang Cheng is going back to Lotus Pier now that he's certain he won't have to make another trip back here to bury me. You're going with him."

"She's what?" Sect Leader Jiang asks from the doorway behind you.

"She's going home with you. You're adopting her."

Sect Leader Jiang sweeps into the room like a landslide. "You don't get to decide that."

"Should I step outside?" you ask, already starting to make a creeping retreat.

"No," Wei Wuxian says, just as Sect Leader Jiang growls, "Yes."

"She's already begun cultivating. She had promise with an untrained golden core. She has a steady hand. She'll catch up quickly." Wei Wuxian stops a moment, looking at Sect Leader Jiang as if he's still speaking, as if some silent current flows between them. You imagine they're both remembering something sad and terrible. They must be, the way they sigh and look away from each other.

"There are still so few children," Sect Leader Jiang says, as if acknowledging something Wei Wuxian said in that empty space.

"I am not a child," you mumble.

"She's not a child," Wei Wuxian says in a chiding tone.

"Shut up," Sect Leader Jiang says. He glances at you dubiously. "Is she afraid of dogs?"

You jut out your chin. "There's nothing to fear if a dog is well-mannered."

"Are you well-mannered?" he asks. "I just watched you run. Quickly, I might add. They don't allow that here."

You want to be well-mannered.

Suddenly, you very much want to be good.

You want a chance.

Trembling, you sink into a low bow on the floor. You can tell it's clumsy, but you know you'll do it right as soon as someone shows you exactly how. For now, all you can try to do is use words that are worthy of the longing you've never allowed your heart to feel.

"Sect Leader Jiang," you say, "I would be honored to become a Jiang disciple. I would be well-mannered. I would work hard. I will temper myself. I won't eat meat if you don't eat meat. I won't fight. I know how to raise fine goats and I'm not afraid of geese. I get sick when I fly, but I won't make a mess of it. I will run fast if you need me to. Or not at all if that's what you require."

"You tried to kill Wei Wuxian," Sect Leader Jiang says, low and testing.

You lift your face. "I believed it was the right thing to do. I was wrong."

Admitting it so plainly makes you feel as if someone has plucked stones from within the cage of your ribs and made you lighter. You'd like to say it again. You'd like to say it as many times as it takes to stop feeling like someone should beat you, like they'd deserve to.

He stares at you for a long moment and softens, seemingly satisfied with your answer. "Get up. Words mean very little to me. You'll have to demonstrate your ability to adhere to these promises."

You gasp, sitting back on your heels. "So I can go to Yunmeng? Really?"

Sect Leader Jiang rolls his eyes. "Only because Wei Wuxian's health is too delicate to tolerate me denying his rude, inconsiderate request."

"Rude, inconsiderate demand," Wei Wuxian corrects. "Just because I appear to be recovering doesn't mean I don't get my dying wish."

"Shut up," Sect Leader Jiang says with a great deal of feeling.

━━━━━━━━━━━━━━

Hanguang-Jun, who appears to have known Wei Wuxian's plans for you, gifts you with robes the color of a rainy sky. They fit perfectly. They're nicer than anything you've ever owned. The girls you've studied with help you dress, cooing over the dark blue belt embroidered with storm clouds.

Lan Sizhui helps you pack the travel cloak handed down to you from one of the girls who grew long-legged and limber over the past winter. He gives you a qiankun pouch, but you haven't mastered opening it. All you've been able to do is get it to shiver in your palms like a moth struggling to fly.

"Thank you," you tell him, hoping he understands that it's for far more than the sweets he's wrapped in a cloth and pressed into your hands.

The disciples who practiced with you and shared baths and meals and a house with you line up to take your hand and embrace you and offer you well-wishes. You etch their names in your heart, hoping you will be able to come back one day and return their generosity.

Wei Wuxian, propped up by Hanguang-Jun, offers you a fine hair ribbon the color of lilacs. He smiles, eyes bright, when you weave it around the simple braid that falls over your shoulder. "Don't let Jiang Cheng bully you. And learn to swim first thing."

"I know how to swim," you say, embarrassed. You're not an infant.

"Not well enough," Sect Leader Jiang insists. He looks you up and down, his gaze catching on the lilac ribbon and darting to Wei Wuxian.

Feeling light on your feet, you decide to look at Hanguang-Jun instead of observing their silent conversation. He offers you a tiny, sympathetic smile. You wish you'd spent less time being frightened of him.

Before you can bow a farewell, Wei Wuxian stumbles forward and wraps you in a startling embrace. You stiffen, caught off guard, and then melt into it, pressing your face against his chest. He starts to sway, but you're strong, and you keep him on his feet.

"What is your name?" he asks you in a whisper.

"Zheng Lin," you whisper back, because it matters to him.

You feel him nod, and for a moment you're alone with him in the clearing again, and he's seeing you. He saw you all along.

The moment passes when he crows, "She told me first!"

Sect Leader Jiang swats at him over your head. "Idiot. Let her go. We're wasting time."

Held close, you can feel Wei Wuxian's stubborn heart beating. You hang on for a little while longer, wondering if he can feel yours, too.