When the tiger seal breaks, so does the earth; there is a noise like all the bones cracking in a fist at once, and then a louder one like thunder, but too close to be coming from the sky. And then the great nightless causeway drops in pieces, legless, like a split table.
He is close to the center, and drops instinctually to his belly at the first terrible heave of the ground. Before his feet can lose purchase he stabs Bichen into the packed earth, while the fingers of his right hand scrabble for a hold on stone. And then they're flying, turning. The world swims away sickeningly. Bodies around him tumble over each other like straw dummies, grabbing at anything, their swords flailing or swinging wild. More than one settles unexpectedly in meat. Men go over the edge of the tilted causeway like pebbles rolling down a cliffside. The columns sway and topple and their bricks roll apart, thudding into faces and backs with crushing force. Dust flies up, and screams: the air is thick with them for a moment, and then even heavier with silence, after the ground lurches to a stop. It takes a moment for his brain and body to stop spinning. When they do he lifts his head and spits sour blood into the dirt. He is pummeled, but alive.
When Wangji finally staggers upright to his knees—Bichen still biting the ground with its one long tooth, buying him steadiness—he sees there are a few dozen men left dazed around him, their swords stuck fast like his, or their hands bloody-tight around a jut of rock. Fewer still must have had the chance to leap to their swords; they hover haphazardly just above the ground, calling to the wounded. But the air is too hot down here, too acidic, too choked with resentful clouds to be truly safe for flight. If they linger they'll be knocked out of the sky. From the tenor of the screams and the zigzagging of the survivors, others must have already fallen.
He looks further up. A hundred-foot drop, maybe more, in seconds. He's surprised they weren't all pulverized to bits. The rest of the causeway still stands precipitously at the foot of Wen Ruohan's old fortress. He looks down. Ash below, and steam-vents glowing with radiant, murderous heat. Those who've tumbled in are beyond his help. Beyond anyone's. There is still one who may not be.
He leaps to the ragged rim of the causeway, climbs high enough to perch on the drunken wobbling side of the broken road. The gap above is far too great for him to jump, even with a push of spiritual energy behind it. He'll have to attempt flight.
"Hanguang-jun!" someone cries, from below his feet. "Hanguang-jun! Help us!"
There are two Jin cultivators clinging to the underside of the ridge, their robes soiled with blood and ash. He looks between them and the ground overhead and his heart sizes for a second in fear, in doubt. He doesn't have time. None that he can spare. But he shrugs out of his over-robe and swings it down for the closest man to catch; he grabs tight and Wangji helps him climb hurriedly, then clasps his wrist and simply drags him up the last few feet. The man tries to lower himself into a dazed, shaky bow but Wangji just pushes the fabric unceremoniously into his hands and launches upwards, Bichen soaring to take its place at his feet.
It's hard flying: the winds that sweep the deep canyon slap at his face like burning, angry hands. He forces Bichen upwards unhesitatingly, through the clouds of grit and sulphur. For a moment at the edge of the remaining causeway, within sight of safe ground, the upward force of hot venting air suddenly clashes with the clouds of resentment seething unchecked above; Wangji is nearly sucked into a vortex. He steers aside at speed, leaning his weight into a fall, and manages to land rolling onto flat ground. Bichen clatters beside him, then comes to his outstretched hand with a soft smack.
What greets Wangji is a mob. Frenzied and howling. But not at him.
Their backs are turned; he sees a hundred cultivators churning in a great circle, battering at each other mindlessly in their haste to get to the center. He has little doubt what that center is. Wangji pulls a Nie aside by the shoulder, a Jiang by the belt, and wades in. They pay him little attention as he elbows and yanks his way through the crowd. One man in Jin robes gives him a belligerent shove after Wangji knocks him aside; Wangji backhands him so hard he knocks down three more men, arms windmilling. Wangji doesn't hesitate to watch him fall, but presses on. Someone must see him and mistake his intention, because suddenly a cry rises: "Hanguang-jun! Let Hanguang-jun have a turn!"
Heads swivel and then bodies part, and Wangji glimpses the middle of the mob for the first time. Wangji's heart drops, like the causeway. It tries to flee his chest. The men in the center are holding something up by the wrist; a body kicked so many times it's beginning to lose shape.
"Can you play wicked tricks like this?" a cultivator in gold yells, and brings down his sword in a hard chop. With a curdling gush of blood and a terrible thick crack, the body's hand comes free. The truncated arm drops limply.
Wangji doesn't think. Bichen flies from his grip like an arrow, like a beam of the light they wish he carried. When it strikes it punches a hole in the gold cultivator's back, passes straight through his body to the other side. By the time it sails around Wangji is kicking his falling corpse aside and reaching out to catch the handle, slick with blood and viscera. For a second, the crowd goes still with shock. One Ouyang disciple is quicker than the others; he draws his sword and slashes forward. Wangji catches the blade on the flat side, slides his own upwards, flicks his wrist, and the sword flies away. Someone reaches to grab his shoulder; he ducks and shifts his weight, throws them over his back to land flailing in the crowd. And then he is fighting in earnest, cutting a defensive circle around Wei Ying. Disarming when he can. Striking when he cannot. A furious Jin disciple slashes at his arm, catching flesh so quickly it barely hurts; Wangji parries and drives Bichen into his shoulder, hard and deep. Cuts upward to sever the blade free. The man cries out and falls away.
"Traitor!" somebody screams.
He downs three more men; four, six. Ten. Bichen is warm and vibrating in his hand. White robes fly in, at the corner of his vision; Wangji whirls and blocks, and finds himself facing Shuoyue, the gleaming cold blade stark against his hot and bloodied one. The circle of the crowd finally draws back, gives them a cautious buffer of space. Lan swords are long and quick, and go easily through bone.
"Wangji," his brother says. His face is stricken. "What madness—"
On the ground between them Wei Ying makes a horrible choked sound, through the ruined shape of his mouth. His left arm is still pouring blood sluggishly into the dirt. Wangji's hand trembles, but Bichen remains where it is, raised between them. But Xichen isn't looking at him anymore. Xichen is looking at Wei Ying, as if seeing him fully for the first time. His face turns grey with shock. His mouth opens.
And then the crackling purple arc of Zidian flares up at the edge of the crowd, and a body goes flying; more go running to escape it, and crash into each other screaming. In the split-second of chaos Wangji ducks below his brother's blade and scoops Wei Ying's body up with his free arm. He doesn't hesitate, but vaults into the air, Bichen catching him before gravity can, and then they are soaring upwards, above the chaos below. "Wangji!" Xichen screams.
He flies faster.
He flies blindly at first, just aiming for distance, crossing over mountains on fast currents of wind, borrowing their speed for his own. He ducks through canyons and valleys, behind high hills, then soars high enough to be lost in thick clouds, hoping to throw off anyone who might have followed. He holds Wei Ying against him tight, his wounded arm kept above his head, hoping to keep the blood in his body; it runs down Wangji's shoulder in hot trickles anyway, soaking their robes. Wei Ying doesn't speak, doesn't move. Hopefully he's only gone unconscious. Wangji believes his heart is still beating. He can't do anything but hold him tight, can’t even wrap his wound; if he tries more they may both plummet to their deaths.
They'll be pursued, he knows. And with the slash in his own arm and the deep bruising in his body he doesn't have the strength now to fly them to Gusu. Maybe not even halfway. They'll find no help, no protection anywhere else. Maybe not there, either. There is only one place he can think of that might give them shelter, at least for a moment.
So he turns on the wind and aims them for the burial mounds. The so-called patriarch will return to Yiling.
For a moment when they land Wangji feels a hard roll of nausea in his gut. A sensation rises along his spine, like cold fingers pawing at him. The burial mounds are awake, more awake than they were the last time he was here. And they feel furious. Hateful. Stepping on the ground turns his stomach, but he does it anyway; he carries Wei Ying up the short slope and into the hollowed-out rooms within the mountain, deep within, to the caves behind the hall, where they once kept Wen Ning. There is a cot there, next to a broken table. Scattered papers blow around the floor. Wangji sets Wei Ying down and unfastens his belt; he wraps cloth around the stump of his arm and fixes it on with the straps of the belt, winding it around more than once, then looping the ends around a post to keep it raised. When he looks up he sees that Wei Ying's bloodied eyes are open. They stare at the ceiling of the cave in blank, unfocused horror. They’re almost pure red; the vessels have popped and drowned the white in scarlet. He may not be able to see at all.
"Wei Ying," Wangji says, and sits up on the cot to cradle his beaten face gingerly. If it hurts him, he makes no sound. His breathing is wet and rapid and shallow. "Wei Ying," he says. "I have you. You're safe."
Wei Ying makes a strange tight little exhale. Then another. It wheezes horribly. It takes Wangji a moment to realize he's laughing.
"Let me," Wei Ying gasps, thickly, through his swollen mouth. It's hard to understand. Wangji leans closer. "Die.”
"No," he says. Wei Ying must believe himself past recovery. But he's not past hope. "You will not die," Wangji reassures him. Or reassures himself. He might yet die; they both know it. But this is why cultivators are born as they are, to face what they are born to face, to sustain themselves past endurance. Where there is a golden core, there is the chance of survival. He wraps fingers gently around Wei Ying's remaining wrist, which is bloodied and has swelled up with purple contusions. Three fingers are broken, but the wrist seems somehow still intact. He touches the pulse point and calls his own spiritual energy up to connect with…
In rising panic Wangji hovers his hand above Wei Ying’s gut, searches for the warmth that should be at his dantian, and finds it absent. Not weakened but gone. As if it was never there at all.
Wei Ying is crying, soft and helpless and horribly.
"Please," he says.
For a moment Wangji feels a rush of fear so great it makes him nearly blind and deaf. He sits unseeing on the edge of the cot, staring into the wall without recognition, hearing not even the weak, broken weeping beside him. His body is numb. For a moment he is no longer aware of the world. But then Wangji blinks, and remembers himself, and forces his legs to bear him up.
"Water," he croaks. "I'll bring you water."
He staggers out, into the stone hall. There are barrels of rainwater, he remembers that: they gathered their drinking water that way, as the streams of the mountain weren't fit for human thirst. It was only for the fields and crops to drink. He finds a full cistern with a wooden lid. The water inside is cool and tastes clean. He looks for a jug to dip into the water and carry it back. He finds it. There are washed rags folded on a rough-hewn shelf nearby.
They were here only a few days ago, Wangji knows. They were here and alive, scrubbing their laundry. Watering the gardens. Planning for the future.
He shakes it off and takes the water back to Wei Ying, who's shut his eyes again, gone loose with exhaustion or simply passed out. There is still a faint rattling pulse in his neck, but he doesn't stir again as Wangji wipes the blood from his face, his chest and arms; Wangji opens his robes and rinses the abrasions, then unwraps his severed arm and irrigates the hideous, ragged wound and knots it up again in cleaner linens. The man who did this did not keep his sword sharp enough. Wangji let him die too quickly.
Wei Ying's ribs are prominent, and turning bluish-black. At least two are broken. Wangji leans his ear against his chest and listens to his breathing; it's labored and weak. If the ribs pushed into a lung, he doesn't know what he can do. He tilts his head up and drips a little water down his throat, careful not to make him cough; Wei Ying swallows jerkily, but doesn’t wake. Wangji kneels beside the cot and feeds him spiritual energy anyway. It trickles inside him, looking for pathways to run; Wangji can feel some of it sliding away, out of the holes in his body, out of the catastrophic weaknesses of his meridians. But some lingers, sinking into his flesh, his cognition. Wangji can feel it spreading through him very slowly and faintly. So he feeds on, on and on through the lingering close of the day, until the faint grey light at the mouth of the cave turns to shadow, and Wangji is forced to hunt for candles in the near-dark. He feels his way through the stores with his hands, but trips against something heavy in the gloom. He finds the candles and lights them, and looks down at the bundle on the floor that caught his foot.
And then Wangji drops the candle and bends in half and vomits across the stone wall, hands on his shaking knees. He wipes his mouth with a sleeve and thinks, maybe we should die. Maybe we should both die here.
Wangji kneels beside him, placing the candle next to his small, dusty face, to illuminate his childish features. His eyes are closed as if he were only sleeping. His face is streaked with lines of dried dirt from days of crying. He must have been hidden here, left behind. Left in the hope that he might be found and saved. Wangji can feel hot tears sliding down his own cheeks; he brushes the knotted hair back from the boy’s forehead. It may be a cruel fantasy, but he still feels a little warm. Wei Ying’s baby, from his own body. It doesn’t matter that it was a joke.
The candle flickers.
Wangji stops. Watches. Holds his own mouth shut. After a second, the candle flickers again. Just barely. This child is breathing.
Wangji picks him up and carries him to near the cot where Wei Ying is, to the jug of water. He pulls over a straw mat and piles it with old blankets, sets him in it like a nest. Wangji mops at his face and tips his head up and feeds him tiny drips of water from the twisted end of the rag. After a few moments the child’s mouth moves, soundlessly, and his tiny throat swallows. He doesn’t wake up, but Wangji manages to help him drink a little more, and swabs his forehead with a cool cloth. His heartbeat is slow. Wangji sits cross-legged in the dark and picks A-Yuan up and holds him in his lap, against his body, rocking him as if he were an infant. He rocks him for hours, feeding him water and spiritual energy; then lays him down again so that he can do the same for Wei Ying. He fills the water jug a second time, a third, and makes cool compresses for their foreheads. And then Wangji drinks a cup of water himself and lies down on the dirt floor and falls deeply asleep almost immediately, drained beyond consciousness, his stomach cramping and empty and his body heavier than lead.
When he wakes up in the morning he gets up and checks both of their pulses; A-Yuan’s is stronger. Wei Ying’s is weak still. Unchanged. He gives them both water and then goes out to make wards.
The battle was horrific; they will have been busy all day and night finding survivors, carrying away bodies. They might assume Wangji would seek shelter in Gusu and search for him there first. And the burial mounds are still a place of fearful superstition. But eventually, someone will come.
He does not have Wei Ying’s hold on this place. He cannot tap into the same forces that once maintained their defenses. Rattled awake but freed of the yin seal’s tight grip, and angry at the absence of the now-familiar Wen settlers, the burial mounds seethe and roil. That energy is pulling at him, shoving at him, raking its nails down his back. It wants him gone. It wants the man and the child in the cave to itself; wants to take them down and make them part of the eternal fog of old embittered humanity that lives beneath and around these stones. It shows Wangji a picture, drifting behind his eyelids like a hallucination, an unwanted thought: A-Yuan with solid black eyes, his innocent smile curving wickedly. Wei Ying a faceless mass of writhing, coiled smoke.
Ours, the resentment hisses to Wangji. Go away. Ours. Wangji grits his teeth. Shut his eyes and thinks of them both in the teahouse, smiling and clear-eyed; thinks of the paper dragonfly, spinning in the light.
“Mine,” Wangji whispers, just as viciously, and feels something shudder around him.
He finds Wei Ying’s workshop mostly intact. Things have been kicked over, as if he fled in a hysterical mania. But Wangji finds talisman paper and notes and half-finished sketches strewn on the floor; he brings them into the main hall to study them in the cool light, laying them out across the tables. He was never a very creative student, but he knows how to be a diligent one. He can’t perfectly imitate Wei Ying’s wards, but he can build something new out of them, at least to seal the doors. To seal themselves inside. He doesn’t know what else he can do. He can’t think beyond securing them for now, bringing them water, finding food, waiting for them to wake up. He doesn’t have a plan. He doesn’t know how they will go on from this: where they will live, what they can do next. Where they could go. Who will offer them shelter, if anyone, if anyone ever again. He cannot stop to think about it. Wei Ying might have been right, when he begged Wangji to let him slip away; Wangji might have condemned them all to worse deaths, slower ones. He thinks and thinks and then shuts his eyes again. “Enough,” he hisses, and the sharp pain and foggy confusion ease off, just a little. He can feel an invisible tendril of resentment loosen itself, from where it was clutching at his ankle.
Fascinating, infuriating, terrible to understand it at last. He didn’t know; didn’t pay enough attention before. Resentful energy, they call it. Demonic. There are no demons here, only sad people, lost people. Too many to name. They burn him where they touch him, with the force of their feelings: their raw desperation for his attention. But that is, in the end, what it truly is. A demand to be seen and reckoned with. Wei Ying must have understood. Better than anyone ever has. No wonder they beg for him still, like a ghostly parent clinging to the arm of a departing son.
Wangji paces the perimeter of the forecourt with Bichen drawn, etching wards into the stones and setting activation talismans around them in his blood; he paces them off in even steps, in a ring around the grounds, the hall, the cave where Wei Ying lies. In between he replaces the compresses and feeds them water and powdered herbs for circulating the blood and replenishing energy, from a small stash that must have belonged to Wen Qing. If he still could, he would trade her for himself in a heartbeat. He should have. It’s no excuse that he heard of it too late.
As the sun is setting, Wei Ying opens his eyes again. They’re crusted over, despite Wangji’s attentive washing of his face. Wei Ying is sickening, growing feverish. His arm may rot. He looks at Wangji through his coral-colored eyes and begs again for death, not in so many words. “I cannot,” Wangji says, and strokes a hand over his hair, tenderly, barely grazing his battered head. “I cannot let you go.” He leans in and kisses Wei Ying’s brow once, with the same cautious softness. They will probably all be killed soon, or succumb, for all his wards and his herbs and his pleading with fate. Wangji is far beyond shame. He loves Wei Ying. Wei Ying might as well die knowing.
A-Yuan makes a small noise in his sleep, then, like the coo of a bird. He turns over a little. Nestles his cheek into the blankets. His fever has lessened, but not yet broken. But Wangji thinks he only sleeps now, instead of merely languishing in the stupor between life and death. Wangji turns to touch his forehead, to tuck the covers around him, and leans over Wei Ying again to find a startled look forming on his swollen face.
“What,” Wei Ying manages. He tries to lift his head to look. Wangji presses him back, gently, and instead he lifts A-Yuan, careful not to shake him awake too hard, just high enough for Wei Ying to see. A-Yuan smacks his lips in his sleep. Wei Ying’s red eyes fill with painful, ugly red tears. “A,” he croaks, and reaches his one hand out, tremblingly. “A—”
“Live,” Wangji says, with a mercenary directness. He is not above this. He is not above anything. “If you live you can help me protect him.”
Wei Ying closes his eyes and shivers, hard, all over his body. He makes a choking sound like a sob. And then he lies silently for a long time, while Wangji settles A-Yuan again, feeds him more drips of water. When Wangji sits up on the side of the cot Wei Ying is breathing hard and slow through his open mouth, as if gathering himself to say something. There is a new, strange look in his face.
“Blood,” he says. “Pool. Take me,” he says, and coughs weakly, but Wangji understands. He slides his arms gently under Wei Ying’s body and carries him across the cavern; Wei Ying grits his loosened teeth and makes wounded noises at the movement, but when Wangji hesitates he hisses his displeasure like a snake. So they go. The water, if it is water, is coppery-smelling and viscous and dark, staining the edges of the rocks. It steams just slightly. Wei Ying indicates that he should be set inside it. Wangji lowers him down, careful to find a ledge that’s not too rough to be propped against. Wei Ying leans his head back on the rocks and lifts his left arm with effort; it’s still wrapped and belted at the stub. “Off,” he says. Wangji unwraps it. The wound is scabbing, but still oozing and hideous. Wei Ying lowers his limb into the blood pool and hisses more at the touch of the warm water. He sits there for a long minute saying nothing, and then: “paper.” Wangji fetches him talisman paper and a brush, and Wei Ying huffs hard through his nose and then says, “lift, arm.” Wangji picks up his right arm and rests it on the edge of the pool, dips a brush for him, and Wei Ying pinches it between his thumb and unbroken forefinger. He makes a quick, clumsy sketch. “Two more,” he says, tapping the lines at the bottom. “Reverse three.” His hand spasms and he drops the brush. “A hundred.” He shuts his eyes and leans back, spent. Falls asleep.
So Wangji makes talismans.
In a bowl he mixes the blood from the pool—now mixed with Wei Ying’s own blood, for better or for worse—and his own, from a fresh cut on his forearm. He writes the first talisman with this, copying Wei Ying’s sloppy design in his own neat calligraphy, adding the modifying strokes to his instruction. When he draws the last line a sensation zips through him like a dart, leaving a tingling feeling in its wake. A bubble rises in the blood pool, just one. It pops. Wangji taps his shoulder and Wei Ying cracks an eye open to look at his handiwork, and makes a thin, tired approximation of a smile. Wangji’s done it correctly. He does it ninety-nine times more. He hangs the talismans on twine over the pool until they begin to resonate low in the back of his skull, and when he’s finished Wei Ying is sweating and glassy-eyed. “Leave,” he says.
Wangji can’t leave him; what if he loses consciousness and drowns? He says as much and Wei Ying makes a painful gesture that could almost be a shrug. Stubbornly, Wangji takes the belt and loops it under his armpits, buckles it around a jut of rock. It will at least keep his head above the fetid water. He kisses Wei Ying’s forehead again when he’s finished, tenderly, and Wei Ying looks at him with damp, haunted eyes. He shivers and pants for a second and then says, “don’t come. Even if,” he tries, and coughs again, feebly. “Screaming.”
There are thin wisps of smoke starting to form on the surface of the blood pool; curling tendrils like streaks of black cloud. Wangji isn’t going to ask what he’s doing. What this might do to him; what it may cost. They have left such questions behind. So Wangji leaves him, and shuts the great wooden doors behind himself. Wangji lets him go to work.
Wei Ying does not get out of the pool in the morning, nor the next morning. Wangji does not go in after him, though his heart cries out for him to do so. He is not so attuned to the mountain as Wei Ying is, but even his cultivator’s senses can feel boiling resentment and something else locked in struggle inside the cave, writhing like a nest of rats and vipers. If he goes in too soon, disrupts whatever ritual Wei Ying has begun, he may destroy them all. He must trust Wei Ying. And this time, he must trust completely.
He busies himself elsewhere, mainly with food. A-Yuan is beginning to wake a little for short periods. He opens his eyes with a confused anxiety, as if he’s unsure of where he is, who Wangji is. He cries weakly out of terror. Wangji holds and rocks him until he settles, then feeds him a little broth and a thin mash of boiled tubers. A-Yuan eats sparingly, with the slim appetite of the deeply ill, but he does eat. Every bite gives Wangji hope, though a greater stone still lies unmoved against his heart; a fear of only prolonging the inevitable.
He has managed to get A-Yuan to down a few spoonfuls for the second time that day, when the lower warning talismans begin to ring, silvery and insistent. He puts the child back in his nest, sets the bowl by his head, and goes out of the cave. He seals the flimsy gates with a talisman as he passes. Then goes into the hall and seals the greater doors with another, and another. Finally he goes out into the fading light and seals the great heavy doors behind him, and slits his finger with Bichen, setting an unfinished mark in blood against the door.
And then Wangji waits on the steps, Bichen naked in his hand.
He doesn’t wait very long.
They have sent thirty men as an advance guard. He’s not sure if this is a compliment or an insult. They come silently up the hill, obviously nervous of the barren trees, the soft howling of the wind. Perhaps they feel it too, the resentful battle taking place in the deep cave. Good, Wangji thinks. Let them be nervous. Let them feel as if they are on unfriendly, unwelcoming ground.
His brother is at the end of the line, trailing the others with reluctance on his shoulders, like a weighted coat.
“Wangji,” he says, when the rest of them have ringed the forecourt in a half circle, their swords still sheathed at their waists. It is a mix of Jin and Nie and Lan and Yao. But mostly Lan. Perhaps they thought that best, to sway him with familiar faces. Or perhaps they merely believed Lans had the best chance at countering his form. And this cannot be all of them. There must be more cultivators waiting at the foot of the hill for a signal. At least there are none above; it remains unsafe to fly into the burial mounds, bordering on impossible. If you wish to attempt it, you must be willing to fall.
“Zewu-jun,” Wangji says. His brother flinches.
“Wangji,” Xichen says. “I’ve only come to talk.”
Wangji doesn’t doubt him; he might be the only other person left in the world that Wangji trusts wholeheartedly and implicitly. But he has not come alone. As if to evidence this, one of the Jin cultivators takes a few steps forward and then tosses a cloth bag across the forecourt. It tumbles to a stop at Wangji’s feet. “Who threw that?” Xichen says, startled, and shoots a look over his shoulder. “What is that?”
“A gift from Jin-zongzhu!” the cultivator jeers. Wangji drops his gaze to the bag. It’s soaked through with blood. “He thought the Yiling Laozu might be missing it!”
Wangji feels himself go perfectly cold, blanketed like a house in snow.
“How dare you,” Xichen says, uncharacteristically livid. “Get out of my sight.”
“I don’t answer to you,” the Jin disciple says, hotly. “I’m here on my sec—”
Xichen draws Shoyue, and rest of the Lan disciples draw behind him, reflexively, as one; the smaller Jin contingent shrinks back, leaving their mouthiest fellow out of step with the rest. He stammers for a moment, but doesn’t touch the handle of his sword.
“Go,” Xichen orders. “Away. Out of my sight.” And this time the cultivator obeys him without question, scurrying down the hill as if he’s being chased. Xichen sheathes his sword; the rest follow him. The Jin make an obvious sigh of relief. “I’m sorry,” Xichen says, to Wangji. “I did not know. I will… take that away, if you wish,” he says, and holds out his hand.
Wangji leans down. Picks the bag up. Stows it away in his sleeve. Xichen’s eyes do something strange.
“It’s not mine to give,” Wangji says.
“I understand,” Xichen says. It’s obvious he doesn’t. That all of this is incomprehensible to him still. “Can we not speak, you and I? Perhaps... inside, privately?”
“No one may go in,” Wangji says. Xichen studies his face.
“He lives, then?” Xichen says. Wangji’s mind cycles rapidly. There is no right answer here, but perhaps there is one to deflect them. To blunt their cutting wrath. Whatever he chooses he will be breaking a rule. Breaking worse than that, actually. Much worse. He will be breaking faith with his brother.
“No,” Wangji lies. He is not… practiced at it.
“No?” Xichen raises his eyebrows.
“He is dead,” Wangji says. He lets the grief seep into his voice; there is nothing false about that. “I will not have his body violated. Again.”
Xichen stares at him, his face softening.
“Then,” he says, slowly, “let us… take him to a better resting place than this. I promise I will see him given every proper rite. And made intact.” His face is solemn. “I vow this, Wangji.”
There is a muttering from the Jin contingent. Xichen glares at them; they glare back, growing bold again.
“Jin Guangshan has said he will feed the corpse to his dogs,” one of them says.
“I have just sworn otherwise.” Xichen says.
“I am only saying, I have heard him tell—”
“And did you hear me?” Xichen says. His voice is dangerously soft and cool. “Do you hope to make me a liar?”
There is an extremely loud silence.
“Thank you,” Wangji says, to Xichen, when the tension has stretched nearly to the breaking point. “But we will not go.” Xichen gives him a heavy, regretful look.
“You must,” he says. “You must return with me. You are summoned.”
Wangji says nothing.
“Hanguang-jun!” someone calls, from the back. “Are you so shameless!”
Xichen’s head swivels around.
“If you won’t yield we will make you yield!” calls a Nie, in grey.
“Keep order!” a Lan disciple snaps. “Let Zewu-jun speak!”
“You’re in league with them!” a Jin cries. “You Lans, you’re all in league!”
Wangji can feel it, the strings of tension pulling tighter and tighter. Part of it is the simple brittleness of exhaustion. The battle was only two days ago, and many died. And thousands more died in the war, which has lingered behind, on and on, in everything they do. Those left behind are warier, angrier at the center. Still picking out splinters of memories, of old pain. And the mountain can sense that, and knows well how to use it; how to dig its hands into their meat, shoving them as firmly towards rage as the power of resentment controls any empty puppet. In a second they’ll turn on each other. They already want to. Wangji’s not even sure he can stop it.
Xichen strides forward across the forecourt, caution swept away; he grabs Wangji by the arm and shakes him, hard.
“No more bloodshed,” he says. “Come back with me now. If you need me to beg, I will. Wangji!”
“I will not.”
“I cannot protect you any further,” Xichen says. “Do you understand? Please. You’re throwing your life away.”
“My life is behind this door,” Wangji says.
“Not only him,” Wangji says, quietly. The disciples are still arguing with raised voices. He doubts they can hear him. But Xichen should know. His brother is a deeply honorable person. If Wangji should fall… he is the last hope for A-Yuan. “His son,” Wangji says. “I will not yield him up.”
“What?” Xichen breathes. “There is… a child here?”
“There was always a child here,” Wangji says.
“Death to the Yiling Laozu!” someone cries; swords ring out, brightly, from their scabbards. “Death to those who shelter him!”
Xichen throws him a last, desperate look.
“I’m sorry,” Wangji says, and means it. And then he cuts his own hand with the fine edge of Bichen and slaps his palm against the door, to complete his mark.
Every talisman in the forecourt activates at once. The cultivators unlucky enough to be close to the marked stones are blown high into the air, so high they soar above the blunted trees and crash shrieking into their branches. The others are blown backwards at great force, with a percussive jolt that sends them flying away into the bushes. Xichen was closest to Wangji. He is thrown only to the edge of the forecourt; he slides and rolls and lands on his hands and knees. He shakes his head and staggers upright. But the barriers are up now, and vibrating furiously with their fresh strength. The stones and walls were eager for the impact; eager to taste blood. This is why Wangji waited to raise the wards. He suspected the resentful energy soaked into everything would… enjoy the trick he played. And it does, very much. He can’t use resentful energy himself, but he can please it. Feed it, indirectly. It will make the wards, and even the forest beyond, harder to cross. Hungrier, and more awake. More inhospitable.
Xichen touches a hand to the barrier and then yanks it back as if burned. Likely he was. He can do no more than look at Wangji across the subtly shimmering air. And he does so, for a long moment.
And then he walks away, down the hill.
No one returns for days. And Wei Ying still does not come out.
On the evening of the sixth day, just after the sun has set, Wangji is sitting on the floor with A-Yuan on his lap, asleep. He has been amused with a song from the guqin and eaten almost a full bowl of mash, and slid easily into rest again afterwards. His brow is warm but no longer sweaty. Wangji is humming to him. It’s a good distraction for the anxious pull he feels. Every moment is a fight not to go into the cave again, to go look at… whatever is left of Wei Ying inside it. The resentful storm he’s felt for days is passing. Whatever he’s done must be reaching its close.
Wangji shuts his eyes and rocks A-Yuan and thinks about Wei Ying, Wei Ying. The sound of his laugh; the rage in his eyes at any cruelty, no matter how small. Water running down his face, mixed with tears and mud in the rain. The smell of his sweat and his combing-oil when he stood too close in the cold spring. His face when he’d said, I’ll carry you, too many years ago. If there is anything left of him, Wangji will still love it. It’s not even a question.
When he opens his eyes all the candles in the room sputter at once, and go out.
And then they come back again, as easily as they were extinguished. Wangji looks up, to find a tall shadow in the doorway.
Wangji is not afraid.
“Wei Ying,” he says. “Come in.”
The shadow in the doorway says nothing at first.
“Wei Ying,” it repeats at last, carefully. Wangji cannot see its face, where it stands outside the yellow light of the candles. “I am... Wei Ying.” The voice grows more confident. Less grainy and raw. “Lan Zhan,” he says, then, more softly. Without confusion. He forgot his own name for a moment, but he hasn’t forgotten Wangji’s.
Wangji’s heart clenches.
“Come inside,” he says. “So I can see you.”
“I’m not sure I should.”
“You should,” Wangji says. “Come in.”
Wei Ying steps into the light.
He is… the same. And not the same. His hair is unbound and lustrous, hanging over his shoulders, his back. He stands upright seemingly without pain. His clothes are ragged, crusted and soaked to swelling with blood; it falls in little pattering droplets onto the ground. But it’s nothing to him, those rags. They are like peeling bark on a perfectly straight, smooth tree. His skin is slightly paler. Not like a corpse but like a precious stone, like the jade of Wangji’s fawning, loathed nickname. Wei Ying glows from within with a cold, harshly beautiful light. There are no more bruises on his face. His eyes are clear again, but their warm amber color is darkened, deepened, to a ring of blackish-red around his pupils. At a distance they are almost a flat shining black circle at the center. But Wangji can still see the feeling in them. The slight touch of fear. Wei Ying is afraid of him. Wangji beckons him closer, and his strange eyes soften. Wei Ying comes in, and folds himself down to kneel beside Wangji on the mat. He was always graceful, but the way he sinks down now is… inhuman. Boneless. His limbs move as easily as water. Wangji reaches out a hand to touch his whole right wrist. The fingers are no longer broken. His stump must be hidden in his sleeve. Wangji wonders if it’s healed well. The rest of him has healed miraculously. “How do you feel?” he says. “Is there any more pain?”
For a moment Wei Ying looks like he’s about to laugh. And then he swallows, and his face looks subdued.
“No more pain,” he says.
And then he holds out his left hand. Wangji can’t help the shocked noise he makes; Wei Ying wilts and pulls his hand back.
“No, I… I want to see it,” Wangji says. “I was only surprised.”
Wei Ying holds it out again.
It’s… red. Deep red. The same color as his eyes. So dark it’s nearly the color of charcoal. It’s a mirror-twin of his other hand, of the one he lost; long-boned and elegant, with prominent knuckles. It’s cool to the touch, but not cold. There is unmistakably life in it. And yet it’s not exactly the same. The nails are just slim indentations, half-moons at the tops of the fingers. His skin has a slight texture to it, and pads on the fingertips, like real human skin. But when pressed there’s no sensation of pressing into tendons and bones, no distinction between the hard muscles and the softer, flexible meat of his skin. It’s a construct. A mind-bogglingly beautiful simulacrum. Curious, Wangji pushes Wei Ying’s ruined sleeve up, and finds the join where his human arm once ended. The red fades into the flesh there, like a ring of sunset. “How did you make this?” Wangji says.
“I don’t know,” Wei Ying says. Wangji looks at him. “It’s not… it didn’t work the way I thought it would.”
“You mean the color?”
“No,” Wei Ying says. “I didn’t think… I didn’t think I’d feel…” he says, and trails off. He looks at the strip of floor between them. Their knees are almost touching. “The same,” he murmurs. “I didn’t think I’d feel the same.”
“The same?” Wangji doesn’t understand. He said there wasn’t any pain. “Did something go wrong?”
“No,” Wei Ying says, and shakes his head. He reaches out hesitantly, touches his red fingers to A-Yuan’s scalp. Strokes his hair. “No, nothing—”
And A-Yuan jolts awake and screams.
He screams at the top of his lungs, wide-eyed and terrified and inconsolable. When his eyes land on Wei Ying he screams harder and louder. Wei Ying yanks his hand back and Wangji hefts the child up and holds him tightly, rocking him from side to side and making shushing noises; A-Yuan screams and kicks and screams. Wei Ying stares at them and then gets up in one fluid motion and—vanishes, into a cloud of resentful smoke. Between one blink and the next he’s gone.
When A-Yuan has had a cup of water and been tucked into his cot again, Wangji goes and finds Wei Ying standing by the blood pool, ripping the talismans viciously into tiny pieces and scattering them all over the floor in fuming, tight-lipped misery.
“He’s been feverish,” Wangji says. Wei Ying doesn’t look at him. “Having nightmares.”
“He screamed when I touched him,” Wei Ying says, low and barbed. “I shouldn’t—it’s not a coincidence.”
“It might be,” Wangji says.
Wei Ying looks at him now.
“You don’t know what I’ve done.”
“I didn’t ask,” Wangji says. “I trusted you.”
Wei Ying’s eyes flash.
“Where’s your... concern about the demonic path? Hm?” he says, with bitter sharpness. “Huh? You want to play Cleansing for me now? For my weak, corrupted body? You want to wash the blood off my hands?” He holds up his left arm. “It won’t come off now. Look. You can scrub my insides with music all you want. You can try. Go ahead, make a fuss about how I’ve poisoned my spiritual cognition.”
“Oh, fuck you,” Wei Ying snaps. “All I ever wanted—” He breaks off and turns around, arms wrapped around his middle.
“How long,” Wangji says, “has it been gone?” He doesn’t need to clarify what. Wei Ying’s shoulders tighten.
“Why does that matter,” he says, without turning back or looking at Wangji. “You think it’s better if I did things out of necessity? You want to pity me instead? Take it elsewhere. Pity yourself. For getting trapped here with me.”
“I’m not trapped,” Wangji says. Wei Ying turns his head a fraction, meets his gaze. There is coldness creeping into his eyes.
“That’s right,” Wei Ying says. “You only befriended evil. You can go take your lashes anytime and be free of me forever.”
“I will never be free of you,” Wangji says, and Wei Ying’s eyes gutter, like the candles. He’s misunderstood. “Wei Ying,” he says, and reaches out a hand. Wei Ying jerks away from it fearfully, looking sick. “Wei Ying, listen.”
“Go away,” Wei Ying says. “Go away, then, run,” he says, and the room drops into darkness, total darkness, like an eclipse. When it goes back to normal Wangji is alone again, and feeling like a terrible fool.
Wei Ying stays away for days, out of sight, going somewhere only he knows about and coming back only to watch A-Yuan sleep. Wangji finds him kneeling in the dark over A-Yuan’s little bed with his hands hidden in his sleeves, shoulders round and wretched. He vanishes when Wangji tries to talk to him. One night there is a great howling on the mountain, from beneath the ring of Wangji’s wards. He goes out with Bichen and stands in the forecourt and waits, but all that comes up the hill is Wei Ying, wiping his mouth.
“Yaoguai?” Wangji says. Wei Ying nods.
“Big nest,” he says. “Haven’t seen one like that in a while.” Not since Qishan, he means. All kinds of things came out in the last months of the war.
“I’ll set nets in the morning.”
“No need,” Wei Ying says. But for once he doesn’t disappear right away. He makes as if to brush past, to go inside, and Wangji takes his chance. He crowds in and takes Wei Ying by his red wrist. It was cool the last time but it’s warmer now, almost hot. As if he’s been running. Or hunting. Or feeding. On something warmer-blooded than he is. “Let go of me,” Wei Ying says.
“I misspoke,” Wangji says. “Before. I meant that I don’t wish to be free of you. I wish only to stay at your side.”
“What are you talking about,” Wei Ying says.
“I love you,” Wangji says, plainly.
Wei Ying’s face contorts with shock.
“You… can’t,” he says, uncertainly.
“I have no expectations,” Wangji says. “Only, do not ask me to go.”
Wei Ying stares at him.
“What sense does that make,” he says. “Why would you… you’re not making any sense. Why would you say that.”
“You said you felt the same,” Wangji says. “I feel the same, too. As I have always felt, about you.”
Wei Ying’s eyes widen and then narrow.
And then he stretches the shadows over the wall, over the courtyard, like a sudden black forest going halfway to the sky. He lengthens himself somehow over the whole of the ground and the mountain, without growing an inch. The shadows take on shape, human shape, and begin to shiver and dance, horribly. Wangji has the sudden feeling that they might touch him, that if the shadows laid hands on him they would be solid and real and strong. They swallow the purple night and crowd in around him, insubstantial and yet so threatening and alien and all-consuming that the display might have shrunk even Wangji’s spirit, cowed him in fear, if he did not know Wei Ying so well. His strength looms around them both, chilled and inorexible as stone, as night in deep winter; the two faint lanterns hanging by the door waver and then spring back, burning twice as high and as bright, catching the paper with their flames, fed with that trembling dark power. Wangji can feel him again, can touch the seat of him with his own spiritual power, the way he couldn’t feel the golden core. There is something in him now, a new core of ice. An abyss, a black star. The air on the mountain tastes as if lightning is about to strike.
“This feels the same to you?” Wei Ying hisses.
Wei Ying is trying to catch him in a logical trap, trying to reason the feeling out of him—to scare it out, too—but for once Wangji is not talking about logic at all. So he doesn’t argue. He merely twines their fingers tighter. Wei Ying drops his eyes to stare at their joined hands.
“Don’t ask me to fear you,” Wangji says. “And don’t ask me to go. I won’t do either.”
The shadows flick off, away, as if they were never there at all.
“I could hurt you,” Wei Ying says. He slides his hand away from Wangji’s, now. “I could kill you so easily. I’ve killed so many others.”
“You could always hurt me.”
“You’re mad,” Wei Ying says. “It’s like you don’t want to listen.”
But he doesn’t huff away in his smoke this time. He goes inside and watches Wangji make tea, without drinking himself. He sits unblinking at a table in the great hall until Wangji takes the candles off to bed, to check on A-Yuan; what he does alone in the dark afterwards, Wangji doesn’t know.
In the morning, after they go out into the sunlight to check the wards together, Wangji gives him back his hand. Wei Ying doesn’t take it out of the carrying bag. He holds it cautiously, listening to Wangji tell how he came by it. What he told the others.
“I can’t believe you tried to lie,” Wei Ying says, almost lightly, as if he is trying a joke. It falls flat between them. He turns the bag around and around in his hands. “Your uncle was right about me after all.”
Yes and no, Wangji thinks. Has Wei Ying been a corrupting influence? He has certainly diverted Wangji from his former path. But if a bridge is built on rotten wood, another way should be found to cross the river.
“We should bury it,” Wangji says. “Somewhere safe.”
Wei Ying gives him a strange look.
“Oh?” He frowns. “You can’t possibly be worrying about that.” Wangji says nothing. “You are, aren’t you.”
“It was part of you,” Wangji says, stubbornly.
“Look at me,” Wei Ying says. And then he has done something to himself, let his normal human flatness shade itself differently. His oxblood eyes and the red of his hand radiate somehow, become more forcefully visible. Wangji didn’t know he was hiding them a little, here out in the daylight; trying to wear them more lightly. He sees now that he was. For A-Yuan’s sake, perhaps. To win him back. If he thinks he needs to cloak himself for Wangji he’s mistaken. “Really look,” Wei Ying says, cruelly. “If I tried to re-enter the wheel it would crush me like a rat under a cart.”
“You could burn it,” he says, abruptly, in a less cold voice. “I think… that would be one way.”
“To do what?”
“To undo this,” Wei Ying says. “To undo some of what I did.”
“To make you… only a man, again?”
“No,” Wei Ying says. “I can’t be that anymore.” And now Wangji understands. His face must speak for him, because Wei Ying’s shoulders tighten. “You would, though,” he says. “You would if you had to, right?”
“No,” Wangji says.
“Yes, you would,” Wei Ying insists. “If I was really out of control. You would. I know you would.”
“No,” Wangji says.
“But if I hurt A-Yuan,” Wei Ying says, going for the kill now, “or your brother,” and Wangji comes forward and grabs his wrist. Flips it backwards, to bend his arm over his shoulder. “What the fuck,” Wei Ying says, and twists out of his grip, and Wangji ducks in and lands a solid punch to the middle of his chest. It knocks him backwards a few staggering feet. Wei Ying looks up, dark-eyed and furious. He swings hard and quick; Wangji blocks the moves with difficulty, knocking his arms aside. He’s so fast now that it’s hard to see his hands moving. Finally Wangji slips under a blow and catches Wei Ying’s forearm again and flips him onto his back in the courtyard. Wei Ying sputters with rage and Wangji kneels over his chest. “You going to try and beat me to death right now?” Wei Ying hisses. “What do you want? What do you want me to say? You don’t want to kill me? You won’t take responsibility? Why couldn’t you let me just die!” he spits, and struggles angrily against Wangji’s grip, but doesn’t break it.
“Push me off,” Wangji says. “You said it would be easy.”
“Fuck you!” Wei Ying shouts. “Fuck you! What right did you have! What right did you have! I wanted to die! I wish you’d let them kill me! You fucking uptight prick!” he cries, and punches Wangji’s thigh hard, harder. “Why couldn’t you let me die!” Wangji tightens his grip on Wei Ying’s other arm.
“Show me,” Wangji says. “Hurt me. I know you can.” Wei Ying screams and the mountain creaks below them like a grinding-stone, like the earth is about to split apart and swallow them. And then he’s crying, sobbing on his back in pure mindless hysteria, just a man again, a man with a broken heart. He screams rendingly, and Wangji holds him there, holds him down into it.
“I wish I was dead!” he screams, eyes screwed shut and legs kicking futilely, wildly. “I wish I was dead!”
He cries for a long time, shaking hard and breaking apart under Wangji like a fall of stones. He cries so hard he chokes and then he goes on crying. Wangji eases up after a while, but keeps one firm hand on his chest. Strokes the other in his hair.
“Wei Ying,” he says. “Wei Ying.”
“I could have saved them,” Wei Ying weeps. “That’s the worst thing. That’s the worst thing.” He reaches up to cover his face with one splayed hand. “Now I know. I could’ve saved everyone, I could’ve saved,” he says, emptily, and convulses. “I was just a fucking coward. I was too afraid. I could have done this and saved everybody.”
“Done… the ritual?” Wangji asks.
“I knew how. It took me a year but I figured it out.” Wei Ying’s hand slides away from his face, limply. “I was just too afraid to try. I thought it would… take more. Of me.”
“How much more?”
“Everything,” Wei Ying says. “I thought it would take everything. That’s why I didn’t, before. I thought I’d be too… changed. That I’d hurt someone.”
But then you didn’t care anymore, Wangji thinks. He sees that clearly. Wei Ying had felt the wall against his back, the cliff at his feet. Death at their heels. This was his last resort. His final trick. Wangji had begged him to live and protect A-Yuan, and so Wei Ying had made himself into this. For their sake. He’d crossed his own last line. And he’d believed it would unmake him more completely than it has. There must have been a comfort in that thought, Wangji realizes. He must have looked forward to finding oblivion in the change. But he hasn’t found it. And he doesn’t know why. “I don’t understand,” Wei Ying says, still crying, miserably. “I shouldn’t even be able to cry like this. I didn’t even do this right.”
Wangji helps him sit up and then tucks his arms around Wei Ying, holds him there a long time, as tightly as he can. He feels so light and thin these days. Almost as unsubstantial as a real cloud, a real shadow. It would be easy to forget how many lives he’s held in his slim fine hands, how many he’s snuffed out. His new power thrums inside him like a string, a drum, an unvoiced thunderclap. It ought to be frightening, touching such a power. But Wangji can only think that it is terrible to see him weeping. “You should have let them,” Wei Ying says, muffled into Wangji’s shoulder. “I don’t think anything can hurt me now. You should have let them stop me before.”
“I would not have,” Wangji says.
After a while he seems to tire himself out, or maybe just tire of crying. In that way he is not so different from A-Yuan, Wangji thinks. So Wangji rocks him a little, side to side. Wei Ying doesn’t complain anymore. Doesn’t protest that he is dangerous, or fight Wangji’s gentle hold. He stays still and limp in Wangji’s arms like a dead thing, barely breathing. “You will never hurt your son,” Wangji says, rocking him. “You will use this power to protect him, just as you meant to. You are good, and you will do good with it.”
“How can you know that?” Wei Ying says, softly. There is a tone in his voice that Wangji is beginning to recognize; it surfaces whenever he thinks of Jiang Yanli, dying at his feet. Of her cold husband in the pass. The family he ripped apart. Wangji knows why he’s afraid. He isn’t treading a single-log bridge in the dark: he’s walking on air over a chasm, on a slim branch no one else can see. If he falls there will be no one capable of catching him. Or of stopping him. When it comes to the latter, Wangji would rather fall with him than try. “How can you trust me at all?”
“I choose to,” Wangji says, and kisses the top of his head, boldly. “I will never kill you, Wei Ying. You cannot ask me that again.”
Wangji helps him up, and Wei Ying’s legs wobble a little as he stands. As if he were not invulnerable after all. But maybe he can seem weak and tired, if he chooses. There is so much now that Wangji will have to learn about him. “Are you hungry?” Wangji says. Wei Ying’s gaze flicks up, as if startled by the absurdity of the question, and then away again. His mouth trembles.
“I don’t know,” he says. “A little. No. Maybe.”
“Come,” Wangji says. “I’ll make you something to eat.”
“I don’t… I don’t think you have to,” Wei Ying says. “I don’t think I need that anymore.”
“You don’t need food?”
Wei Ying stares at the ground.
“I don’t think I do,” he says.
He’s gone and cultivated himself to immortality, then. Of a kind. Wangji brushes his knuckles against Wei Ying’s cheek, to watch his eyes go huge and hurt and searching. The qi deviations this news will inspire, if they ever join civilization again. Wangji wonders at it, but less than he might. He always believed that of any of them, Wei Ying would find a way. He was always the cleverest, the most determined. And he is still alive, there is no question of that. He’s not a corpse, fierce or hopping or otherwise.
“I will still feed you,” Wangji says.
Wei Ying’s black-pearl eyes dilate, just a little. As if he can’t contain it.
“I’ll… I’ll feed myself,” he says, at last, “don’t worry about me,” and then he vanishes again, right out of Wangji’s hands.
Wangji wakes that night with a start, to the feeling of gentle fingers stroking down the back of his neck. He rolls and Wei Ying looms over him in the dark, his hair brushing Wangji’s cheek. He feels warmer, almost flushed. Like he’s been hunting again. The whites of his eyes shine in the dark, like faint mirrors.
“Am I… am I wrong, about this?” he says, nervously, and his red hand traces two fingers down Wangji’s chest, along his sternum, touching bare skin through the parted gap of his under-robe. Wangji’s body clenches; his cock starts to fill, just from this. Just that faint touch. “You said you… do you really?”
Wangji pulls him down.
His mouth is hot and tastes like blood, like metal; Wangji tangles fingers in his hair and parts Wei Ying’s lips against his, and Wei Ying growls in his throat and grinds his hips against Wangji’s, his tentative shyness forgotten. Wei Ying presses down and licks his bottom lip and then slides his tongue in Wangji’s mouth, lapping at him, then sucking at him, licking in and in and in, consumingly.
There is a soft noise nearby and both of them look up, guilty and startled; on his cot A-Yuan is turning over in his sleep, kicking a little leg out of the blankets.
Wangji tucks him in again and then they go out into the cave, Wei Ying’s hand tight on his wrist. Wei Ying strips his outer robe off and throws it on the floor and they sink down onto it, kissing and groping at each other mindlessly, urgently: alive and hot and wanting, and everything else forgotten. Wei Ying shoves the robe off Wangji’s shoulders and sucks at his neck and then rears his head back, hand clapped over his mouth. He stares at Wangji in horror.
“What?” Wangji says. “What’s wrong?”
When Wei Ying lowers his hand there are… new teeth, in his mouth. Canine teeth. Four smooth glittering fangs like a tiger’s, a wolf’s. They fit in neatly, nestled between the others. They almost look natural, as if he'd been born bearing them.
They’re horribly beautiful.
Wei Ying closes his lips and parts them again, and then the fangs are gone. His straight blunt human teeth are all that’s left behind, normal and familiar. Wangji reaches out. Runs a thumb along his bottom lip. “Do they hurt?”
“No,” Wei Ying says. His voice is thick.
“Then don’t hide them,” Wangji says, and rises to straddle Wei Ying’s lap. He sits over his thighs and strokes his face and kisses him deeply until he can feel his teeth change again in his mouth, and then Wei Ying shudders and shoves him to the floor. But he follows Wangji down, covering him with his lithe, impossibly strong body; he holds Wangji’s wrist down with his one red hand and rocks their hips together as if they were already fucking, as if he was already splitting Wangji open. Wangji has imagined wanting that, and wanting to do the same to him. He has imagined it both ways, every way, in every possible permutation and position and orifice, no matter how degrading it’s supposed to be; what he really wants is for Wei Ying to climb inside him, to let Wangji climb inside in turn, for them never to be parted. For them to be a knot which can never be untied; past loneliness and fear, past their histories, past other people's self-interested judgements. Past loss, past death. Forever. “Inside me,” Wangji begs. “Please.”
He doesn’t manage anything else for a long time. Only gasps and groans in his throat, clenching sighs. Wei Ying opens him with his mouth and his fingers, laps at Wangji’s furled hole as if it were not filthy but sweet and appetizing. Wangji’s shame and hesitation died on the causeway, so he lifts his head to watch. Wei Ying cants Wangji’s hips up, balls up his robe beneath them to prop them at an angle, and kneels naked to spread his thighs and lick between them. Wangji throws his head back and moans helplessly at the bizarre hot intrusion, at the pleasure mixed with strangeness, the wet slide of tongue inside him, passing between Wei Ying’s covered fangs. After a while Wei Ying spits and wipes his mouth out and probes him with one licked finger and then two, his lightless stone eyes fixed on Wangji reverently.
“I can’t believe,” Wei Ying murmurs. “I can’t believe you let me… you want me… look at you,” he says, and presses in past the knuckles, to make Wangji arch and huff through his clenched teeth. The sensation is too much. Wangji wraps a hand around his cock to stem the tide he can feel rising in his knees, up to his hips; down his neck, along the backs of his arms. His cock throbs at every stroke of Wei Ying’s fingers. “You’re so beautiful,” Wei Ying says. “You’re so perfect. I can’t believe you let me inside you. I love you, too. I want to live inside you, I do love you, I never want to be anywhere else again,” he says, and crooks his fingers and Wangji touches stars for a second, hearing those words from his mouth; Wangji comes over his hand and his stomach silently, back arched and eyes shut and neck tight. When he slumps back and lets go of his cock and opens his eyes again Wei Ying is staring at him still. He leans forward and licks Wangji’s belly, hungrily. Swipes up wet white come on his fingers. There’s a smear on his cheek.
Wangji rolls over on his knees, a little dizzily, and tilts his hips up. “So impatient,” Wei Ying huffs, and for the first time in days his voice has a hint of playfulness in it. Wangji savors it. “You think you’re ready for me?” Wangji honestly doesn’t care if he’s ready or not. He wants to be locked together, now. Wei Ying rests a hand on the back of his hip. Strokes Wangji, as if he were an animal to be gentled. “Tell me if… I don’t want to hurt you.”
He already has. He will again. They will probably hurt each other many more times. If they live it won’t matter.
He looks over his shoulder to see Wei Ying settling between his legs, his human hand on his cock and his red one on the paler flesh of Wangji’s thigh. He looks blood-soaked and monstrous like that, monstrously strange; his sharp teeth are wet and gleaming between his parted, pink-kissed lips. Wangji reaches backwards for him. Clasps a hand around his leg. Pulls him forward. Receives him, in the split of his thighs. The head of Wei Ying’s cock feels velvety and wet, smeared with Wangji’s own come; it pushes inside with a popping sensation, the fat tip sucked inside the rim. They both gasp. Wangji shivers with excitement, with discomfort. He feels Wei Ying lean down and spit on the place where they’re joined and Wangji’s mind whites out briefly, like a flurry of snow passing his eyes. He feels Wei Ying’s fingers on his rim again, smearing it around. Wei Ying spits on his cock, too, until he is easing himself in deeper. It’s rough and tight and strange. Wangji feels an urge to push out, and to clench in. Wei Ying kneads a hand into his back, stroking down to his hips. “Relax,” he says, through his own choked throat. “Relax. It’s okay. I’ve got you,” he says. He bends to kiss Wangji’s back. “I’ve got you. I’ll make it good. I’ll make it feel good. I promise.”
Wei Ying goes slowly, torturously, inch by inch. Until his lap is flush with Wangji’s ass. Wangji shivers again when he feels Wei Ying’s balls press up behind his own, drawn-up and heavy. Wei Ying shifts his hips a little, adjusting, and Wangji lowers his face to the robe on the floor and muffles a tight, helpless, broken noise. Wei Ying’s inside him. He’s huge and hard as a rod, just holding there, a foreign pressure in Wangji’s groin and ass and guts. Wangji wants to move, but he’s afraid if he does he’ll die. His half-soft cock hangs dripping down towards the floor. Behind him Wei Ying is very still, his hands clutched around Wangji’s waist, fingers dug into his hipbones.
“Is it—is it good,” Wangji tries, and Wei Ying lets out a thin laugh.
“I’m… no, don’t,” he says, when Wangji tries to rock on him, pressing back slightly. Wei Ying’s hips make an abortive little spasm and then his fingers clamp down, to hold Wangji still. “Fuck,” he hisses. “Stop. I’m trying not to come already.”
With a little more spit, and a little more patience, Wei Ying begins to move. Just small tugs of his hips, not in or out all the way. His cock goes up into Wangji with an inorexible pressure, slow and steady, and it… begins to feel good. He’s touching something inside Wangji that sends sparks and warmth up his back, deep into his belly. The slide and the clench begin to feel good. More than good. Wangji puts his face down again. Hides his reddening cheeks. Wei Ying is really fucking him. He woke Wangji up to do this, because he was desperate for it. For him. They’re lovers. Lovers! Wei Ying wanted him and is taking him, will hopefully come inside him, joined with him, as if they were—
Wangji went to sleep with his ribbon still tied on. He was too tired to do otherwise. It’s rubbing at his sweaty forehead. He reaches behind himself and fumbles to grab Wei Ying’s hand; he puts Wei Ying’s fingers against the ribbon.
“Take it off,” he manages. “Take it off me.”
“What?” Wei Ying says. His voice sounds almost drunk. “Huh?” But Wangji just holds his hand there until Wei Ying gets it and peels the ribbon off his forehead, rolls it back carefully out of his hair and pulls it off his head. When Wangji glances back over his shoulder Wei Ying is giving him a confused look, but at Wangji’s expression his eyes clear. He wraps the ribbon around his red, inhuman wrist. Three loops. He ties off the end and tightens it with his teeth.
“Yours,” Wangji gasps. Mine, he thinks, and the shadows dance around them.
Wei Ying lowers himself to the back of Wangji’s spine and rubs his face there, mouths at him desperately; clutches his hands around Wangji’s chest and pushes him into the floor and fucks him harder, almost painfully hard, and then comes in him with a shout and a hot searing feeling, like someone has reached inside Wangji and touched him to a flame. And Wangji comes too, only barely hard again but seizing up and shooting anyway and feeling something sear through his back, out from between his ribs. Something happens after that, but Wangji doesn’t have the words to describe it: there is only a feeling like being dipped in the ocean, head under the waves, brought down to the lowest blue-black caverns of the sea. He floats there for a moment, sightless and soundless and safer than he has ever been in his life, held in the endless welcoming darkness as if it were a womb. And then he surfaces in his mind and gasps and finds himself still under Wei Ying, Wei Ying’s hands locked around his waist and his body shaking and then limp and pliant. He shuffles forward onto his knees and feels Wei Ying slip out of him, and rolls with a wince to look at his face. Wei Ying’s eyes are wide and shocked and glossy. Wangji gathers him up and he touches Wangji’s chest with his fingertips, as if feeling unsure of what is real.
“Did you feel that?” he says. “I… went into the sun. It was so warm. And bright. I couldn’t see. I’ve never felt anything like that.”
“I went into the dark,” Wangji says, and Wei Ying’s soft expression freezes. “No. No, it was good,” Wangji says, and strokes his hair. “It was safe. It was like being born. Like being held in my sleep.”
Wangji hasn’t been held in his sleep since he was A-Yuan’s age, but he remembers it. He thinks he does.
“We... went into... each other,” Wei Ying says, with awe in his voice. “How could—”
“Because we belong to each other,” Wangji says.
For once, Wei Ying doesn’t argue. And then Wangji learns again, at last, what it is like to be held through the night. Wei Ying wraps them together and they stay that way into the morning, pressed in tight, listening to each other’s different kinds of hearts.
A-Yuan remains skeptical of the red hand, but after a few more days pass he allows Wei Ying to sit by him and hold out the spoon of mash with his human fingers.
“This is bribery,” Wei Ying says. “You’re like a corrupt official holding his palm out for gold.”
A-Yuan smiles and reaches out and Wei Ying scrambles to feed him, his eyes delighted and grateful. After lunch A-Yuan even deigns to be held on his lap and sung a goofy song about dancing kid goats cavorting in the woods together. He falls asleep, and doesn’t stir or fuss when Wei Ying puts him to bed and strokes his hair and cries over him. “It isn’t fair,” Wei Ying weeps later, tucked into Wangji’s arms, the monstrous lord of the burial mounds bent-kneed and trembling like a foal. Wangji would be worried about him making himself feverish, if he was still entirely human. But he’s alright. Something in him is just breaking, releasing. All the pain he bottles up is flooding out. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t fair.”
He must be thinking of the Wens, or of Yanli’s orphaned baby, or of himself, waiting in the woods for his dead parents. Or all of them at once. He doesn’t explain what he means, and he doesn’t have to. Nothing in their lives has been fair for years and years.
In daylight they study defensive talismans and inventory the food stores and amuse A-Yuan with stories and harvest what meagre fruits they can from the remains of the gardens. At sunset Wangji plays music for them, to make A-Yuan’s head droop into sleep and Wei Ying’s eyes shine with pleasure. At night they lie alone by a fire in the cave and trace each other’s bodies with fingers and mouths and eyes, learning every curve and angle. They bury themselves in each other as if they were the last ones alive on earth. For now they are. There was salve in the infirmary stores; after the first night they figure out how to use it. Wangji opens up Wei Ying’s smooth, cooler body and sinks inside and Wei Ying cries out at the heat of him, and begs to be used until he can feel nothing else. Wangji obliges. Another night he holds Wei Ying’s head and fucks his perfect red mouth, trusting Wei Ying to hold back his fangs and keep himself soft and safe and good. He is, and he does. Wei Ying keeps the ribbon around his red wrist always now, tied neatly. Wangji binds his hands with it once, knowing he could break it easily, fray it into string. He doesn’t. He lets Wangji loop it back in place afterwards and kiss him until he’s dizzy-eyed and murmuring sweet nonsense. On his back in the firelight he is like a dream, a myth, like Wangji’s most improbable fantasies; his hair like night and his skin marked with love-bites and his hands demanding. He can still hear ghosts, he says, louder and clearer than ever. But he controls the resentment now, and never the other way around. He is no longer a man trying to live with one fist dipped in darkness; he is made out of darkness, and has nothing to fear from it, nothing to lose. He can live like a man if he wants to.
He isn’t truly content, except in moments. Neither is Wangji. How could they be? But they love each other anyway, which is more than he hoped for after the war. If they can love each other here and now they can do it anywhere.
Xichen comes back in three months’ time. He comes with Nie Mingjue and Jin Guangyao and Ouyang Zhao, and no retinues. Four men walk alone up the mountain, swords on their backs. This time Wangji doesn’t bother setting the wards. There is nothing in the burial mounds that escapes Wei Ying’s attention or could hope to counter him on this ground. In the morning he sits up beside Wangji in their bed and says, “your brother’s coming,” and they wash and dress and go out to the forecourt together.
When their visitors arrive at the top of the hill Wei Ying is swaying in the sunshine with A-Yuan in his arms, trying to teach him to count on the scraggly lotus leaves. Wangji stands at the edge of the forecourt with Bichen hung at his waist and watches them come up. All four have to school their faces at the sight of Wei Ying. But Wangji thinks that might have more to do with the fact that he currently looks more like a blithe country bride than the demon lord of a mountain of the dead. It seems to have set them off their guard, disrupted their planned script. Which is, he knows, precisely what Wei Ying intended.
In the vacuum of silence Wei Ying steps in and greets them all formally and very correctly, with Wangji at his side. He keeps his red hand behind his back at first, A-Yuan bouncing on his opposite hip. They all return the same courteous exchanges. Except for Xichen, who cannot stop looking at Wangji with badly hidden concern. For him to look so obviously worried it must be intentional. Or perhaps, Wangji thinks, he really believes I am in some danger here, and cannot conceal his feelings, owing to their strength.
The thought is touching.
“Well, I hope the journey wasn’t difficult,” Wei Ying says, pleasantly. "Good weather for it at least. We have a slight yaoguai infestation these days. But then they wouldn’t trouble accomplished cultivators like yourselves.”
He hunts the yaoguai himself, at night. Sometimes they take turns. But Wei Ying hunts with no sword and no dizi now, nothing but his teeth and his surpassing strength and his keen eyes that can see in the dark. The yaoguai thought to move in when the old wards came down. Few animals but them can live wild on the mountain, catching travelers on the lower valley paths. But Wei Ying likes the forest kept clear and safe, and he also likes the satisfaction of a job done well and personally. He usually fucks Wangji when he comes back, like the first time; he may not need to eat but the blood makes his skin hot and his passions sharper.
Wangji tries not to think about that right now.
“No, not difficult at all,” Xichen says. “The walk was welcome.” He looks at Wangji again and says, “brother, you… look well. If a little different."
Wangji’s sure he does. He’s dressed in clean spare homespun, and his ribbon is still on Wei Ying's wrist. Wangji looks at Wei Ying evenly and Wei Ying lifts an eyebrow in confirmation and then raises his red hand with a practiced casualness, to push the hair behind his ears. The ends of the ribbon dangle as he does it. Everyone else inhales audibly at the sight of his new hand. The story of his mutilation must have spread widely. But Wangji watches his brother; Xichen's eyes follow only the motion of the ribbon, his brow furrowing.
"Forgive us our curiosity, Wei-gongzi," Jin Guangyao says in his purposefully mild voice. "But we had heard you were… very unwell. And yet you are the picture of health."
"You heard I was dead," Wei Ying says, bluntly, and laughs. "Oh, nearly."
"Recovered your strength, then," Nie Mingjue says, in what passes for a very neutral tone from Nie Mingjue.
“Ah,” Wei Ying says. “Nie-zongzhu, I missed your sense of candor! All these polite, roundabout fellows. And only two of us.”
“As you say,” Nie Mingjue says, a little uncomfortably. He glances at Xichen, as if he’s concerned about crossing over some sort of diplomatic line. But Xichen’s face stays contained.
"This is… your son, Wei-gongzi?" Ouyang Zhao says, in a gruff voice. "I have a boy myself that age."
"Ah, do you?" Wei Ying says, perking up with genuine interest. "Healthy, I hope?"
"Very healthy," Ouyang Zhao says. He glances at Xichen too, as if he’s afraid of being… cursed into mild conversation. "A little ox."
"Oh, I'm glad. This one's got a good constitution too. He gave us a fright a few months ago, but all better now, yes? No, dumpling," he says, to A-Yuan, who is demanding food. "Lunch in a minute. We just have a little more talking to do. Yes, of course with plums." He hefts A-Yuan higher on his hip and grins at the staring sect leaders. "It's plums or nothing right now, I'm afraid. Oh, I should have introduced you. Say hello to these nice gentlemen, Lan Yuan."
Xichen draws in a hard breath.
"Wangji," he says. "This—"
"My husband's son," Wangji says, "is mine also."
Safer to be a Lan than a Wen or a Wei, as they’ve discussed. Four faces stare blankly at him anyway. Wei Ying turns his head for a moment, so that only Wangji can see his expression; his eyes sparkle with held-in laughter.
"A whole new silencing spell," he murmurs, just soft enough to be heard. “How adept you are.”
"A marriage?" Nie Mingjue says. "Lan Wangji, have you lost your mind?"
"That's a sufficient amount of pleasantries, don’t you think?" Wei Ying interrupts, less politely, laying a gentle hand on Wangji's tightening sword arm. "This wild living wears my manners down to the nub. We can get right to business, if nobody objects.”
"I certainly don't," Nie Mingjue mutters.
"As you wish, Wei-gongzi," Jin Guangyao says, lowering his eyes with disappointment, as if mourning a fine conversation. Wei Ying turns his back for just a second again, pretending to fuss with A-Yuan's robes, and rolls his eyes. He really is the most shameless creature who ever lived.
"There's been… an agreement," Xichen says. "Between the sects."
"Rare and precious, agreement," Wei Ying says. "You must be so eager to maintain it."
"Eager is a little cruel, don't you think?" Xichen says, softly, and Wei Ying looks at him and then at Wangji and them at Xichen again.
"I apologize," Wei Ying says, seriously. "Please, go on."
"Many lives were lost," Xichen says. "There is a feeling that an inquiry is due. We four are tasked with performing that inquiry. So we must respectfully request that you return with us. To help us… restore confidence. In the process of justice," Xichen says. He does not say, and quell rivalries and blunt chaos and settle grudges, but Wangji understands his meaning plainly enough. He remembers how the Jin accused the Lan on this very ground, how eager they all were to spill each other’s blood after only a few hours walking on the mountain. "And now that I have… become aware of him, I will ensure the safety of the child myself,” Xichen says. “As my brother’s son.”
"Come now or you'll be forced to come later," Nie Mingjue adds, not unkindly; the way he says it sounds like a warning, and not a threat. "This won’t be brushed away or forgotten. And there is nowhere to hide."
"I'm not hiding," Wei Ying says, cheerfully. "This is just what our house looks like."
"What about Lan Zhan's safety?" Wei Ying interrupts. "I know it’s me you want, but these things have a way of expanding outward, don’t they? Would you vouch for him?"
"After the proceedings Wangji will return with me to Gusu," Xichen says. He can't quite meet Wangji's gaze. What did he have to promise, for that allowance? It wasn't Lan cultivators Wangji killed at the nightless city. Xichen must have bargained hard, sunk all his leverage into this. Into sparing Wangji's life and bringing him home. “The child as well, of course,” he adds. Xichen’s eyes lift to Wangji’s. “He’ll be given his right place, as a member of our family. You should have no fear about that. No one will gainsay your claim to him.”
Wangji’s eyes feel warm. He glances at Wei Ying. He looks as glad as Wangji, to hear that promise.
“It’s a very reasonable proposition, brother-in-law,” Wei Ying says. “I thank you for it. But we can’t accept.”
“I must hear it from you,” Xichen says, with ill-hidden frustration, to Wangji. Does he think Wangji is under some kind of enchantment? That he’s been told lies? “Is this also your feeling? Will you not come?” Xichen asks.
“My answer is the same as before,” Wangji says. “I will not.”
“I knelt once,” Wangji says, and Xichen’s eyes flicker curiously. “I waited without hope. I will not do it again.”
After a long moment, Xichen nods.
“I understand,” he says. He sounds, at last, as if he might.
“I don’t,” mutters Nie Mingjue.
“Wei-gongzi,” Jin Guangyao says, “I want to… reassure you, there has been no sentence passed. We only seek to… quell fear by hearing out the truth of the matter. It would be useful to offer your side of the events. And I also want to assure you, regarding the… past indignities, which were visited upon—”
“Save it,” Wei Ying says, flatly. “No offense to you. I’ve heard what your father has planned for me. But I can’t give anyone my death. I can’t even give it to myself. I'm not trying to be difficult,” he says, and laughs a little, catches Wangji’s eyes on purpose. He is almost always trying to be difficult. “I just can’t die. They could try to execute me all day long, but they’d only wear their arms out. It would be a very embarrassing situation for everyone. Really, I’m doing them all a favor.”
“You cannot… die,” Xichen repeats. He and Nie Mingjue look at each other and some silent communication passes between them. Jin Guangyao frowns neatly. Ouyang Zhao just looks utterly lost. Xichen turns back to Wei Ying and makes a concerned smile. “Your… mastery has always been very high,” he says. “But are you implying—”
“I’m informing you I am not a patriarch anymore,” Wei Ying says. A slight chill has crept into his voice. “If I ever was. I am something else. Something different. I would rather never have to... fully demonstrate how different. So I can’t give anyone my death, not for justice or for anything else. Part of me is truly sorry for that. But since none of us can entirely have what we want, I will make you a counter-offer.” His eyes glitter, just a little. “Leave us alone.”
Nie Mingjue snorts.
“Wei-gongzi must see how impossible that is,” Jin Guangyao says, faintly.
“I was trained for the impossible,” Wei Ying says. “This is merely unlikely. It’s not much to ask. Just to be left alone. Not to be chased or exiled or hounded, and not praised or invited or competed with or made much of, either. Just left alone.”
“To do what?” Ouyang Zhao blurts out. “Grow turnips?”
“Yes,” Wei Ying says. “Exactly that. Look around. Look carefully. I’m sure Jin Guangshan told you he was killing rebels. Does this look like a rebel army encampment to you? What he really burned was turnip farmers. And I know what I took from him!” Wei Ying says, loudly, over the muttering that’s started to rise. “I know better than anyone. But he and I are done taking from each other. It has to end somewhere.” His eyes skim their faces, and land on Jin Guangyao’s. “If he ever reaches for what’s mine again, though, I’ll kill him. And I won’t do it quickly,” Wei Ying says. “You can tell him that nicely, if you want, but make sure you tell him.”
“I certainly will,” Jin Guangyao says, in an unfeigned voice, and inclines his head.
“Good.” Wei Ying yelps. “Ouch! That’s baba’s hair, A-Yuan. I don’t need it all pulled out right now. Thank you.”
“Well,” Xichen says. “I’m not sure there is anything more to say.”
“Has anything yet been said that makes sense?” Nie Mingjue says, throwing up his hands. “Hanguang-jun, you at least must see reason. You’ll really abandon your place, all the honor you’ve earned, for…”
His voice trails off.
“Can you not name it?” Wei Ying says, softly, at Wangji’s shoulder. He twines their hands together, smiles when Wangji squeezes his fingers. “Do you all not see? He hasn’t turned from the righteous path. He’s the reason I still want to tread it. He’s the only one of you who’s strong enough for that.” All four of them stand speechless for a moment, and then Wei Ying laughs and says, “well, anyway, I’d better show you something, otherwise we’ll be doing this every week until I’m grey,” and he hands A-Yuan to Wangji’s waiting arms. He says, “cover your eyes, baba’s going to be scary,” and then when A-Yuan has done so, he blots out the sun.
The shadow he brings in front of the mountain is pitch-black and absolute, thicker than a slab of wood, tangibly heavy. It turns the forecourt into midnight at the bottom of a well. The air turns sour and damp and choked with resentful energy that trails their limbs like cold hands, like weeds beneath a pond. Nothing is visible in that darkness except Wei Ying, who is glowing faintly from his blood-black eyes, his luminous jade skin. Wangji cuddles A-Yuan on his hip and watches his husband smile and show his teeth. “Old friends,” Wei Ying says. “Please remember that like you, I am very tired of war.”
And the sun comes out again, and Wei Ying takes the baby back and kisses him on both cheeks for listening so well and then he kisses one of Wangji’s cheeks for good measure, probably to pink his ears in public. “Have I made my point?” Wei Ying says. “This one is getting hungry and trust me, bad as I am, you really won’t want to deal with him.”
“What the fuck,” says Nie Mingjue, almost admiringly. Jin Guangyao doesn’t say anything at all; he’s blanched to the color of a gutted fish. Ouyang Zhao just turns on his heel and walks back down the path without another word. Xichen looks at him and looks back, his mouth parted as if to speak, but no words come out.
“I…” Xichen says, and gathers himself. “We’ve infringed on your hospitality too long,” he says, tiredly. “We’ll be going.”
“Just one more thing,” Wei Ying says.
“What’s he going to do now,” Nie Mingjue mutters, “turn into Xuanwu?”
“I notice Jiang… Wanyin is not with you,” Wei Ying says.
“He’s still in mourning,” Xichen says, and Wei Ying flinches.
“Ah,” he says. “Of course. He would be. Well, if you would be so kind. To tell him something.” Xichen nods. “Tell him… if he sends for me, I’ll know, and… if he wants me for anything, I will give it to him. I will bow to him or… he can beat me, or flay me, or whatever he wants. Will you tell him?”
This will happen over Wangji’s dead body, of course, but Wangji does not interrupt him. If Jiang Wanyin ever chooses to send that message they can fight about it then.
“I will tell him.”
“Thank you,” Wei Ying says, gravely. “Have a safe trip home.”
Xichen comes to Wangji when the others have started away down the hill. He clasps their hands together, briefly. Xichen’s face is drawn with longing, with grief. With all the things they might now never say. Wangji knows how he feels. Maybe they will write to each other, one day. Wangji will try.
“Be well,” Wangji says, heart in his throat.
“You too,” Xichen says. “Take care of yourselves.” He looks between them. “Of each other.”
And then he turns to go. He looks back only once, at the low turn of the path. Raises his hand to wave, and waits for Wangji’s answering nod. And then he goes on, as he must, on back to the world. Out of sight.
“You could go with him,” Wei Ying says, finally, as Wangji knew he would. His voice is at the edge of tears, but none are falling. He holds them back and smiles instead, bravely. “You could go right now. I’m sure he’s waiting for you, just in case. If you go now you’ll catch him.”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says.
“We would be fine,” Wei Ying says. “You know nothing can touch us. We could come visit you, even. Travel by night. Believe me, nobody will see us. You can have… you can have everything, if you want it.”
“You think I’d keep you in a shadow?” Wangji says. “Hidden in the corner, out of sight?”
“I can live in a shadow for you,” Wei Ying says. “Ask me. I would.”
“But I can’t,” Wangji says, and kisses him over A-Yuan’s head. “You’re both too beautiful in the light.”
In the blue dawn before true morning they lie in their cot and twine their hands together, holding them up to compare the fingers and spans the way that lovers and children do, idly; the way that people do when their bodies are new, or new again from being loved.
"I can wear gloves," Wei Ying says. "Around people."
"You’ll have to stop wearing so much white," Wei Ying smiles, and rolls against him. "Grey, maybe. Pale grey. No, never mind, it won’t do any good. You’ll be just as handsome in grey, everybody will know you at once. Deep blue, maybe?" Wangji's robes are already pale grey now, from being scrubbed on a rock in the laundry trough without much soap. It's a far cry from what he's used to, but not worth complaining about. There’s so little that is anymore. “We could wander the world like the cold frost and the gentle breeze. Hunting ghouls. Sleeping out under the stars. Going anywhere we wanted.”
“Mm,” Wangji says. It’s a beautiful fantasy. But a hard life, maybe. Or maybe any kind of good life is hard.
“Or we could find another mountain,” Wei Ying says. “So far away nobody would trouble themselves at all about us. Someplace with better soil,” he says, and chews his lip. “Just the three of us, on our little farm. With pigs.”
“Would you be lonely?” Wangji says. Wei Ying rests his head against Wangji’s chest.
“I would’ve been,” he says. “Before. I always thought… a big sect, with a lot of yelling. That’d be best. Huh. But now I think, that’s enough, isn’t it? That’s quite a lot. You and me and A-Yuan, on some good little plot of land.”
“And the pigs.”
“Oh, we can’t forget the pigs,” Wei Ying says, warming to it merrily, even though it was already his idea. “The pigs, and some goats, and oh, all the ghosts, who never shut up,” he laughs, and lets Wangji roll over him to make a safe cage out of his arms, and kiss him until the sun is high.
They spend a few days packing. They’re in no hurry. There is no more danger, exactly; or rather, the danger is yet to come, if it is to come. It will find them as easily here as it would anywhere. There is a kind of freedom in that. The freedom that wild birds have, to fly where they will, to face whatever fox or storm they run across. Owing nothing, and not being owed. To know no border. It will be very different from everything they’ve known.
Wangji is packing up Wen Qing’s old medicine cases when he looks up to find Wei Ying in the doorway, holding a scrap of talisman paper in his hand. One of the talismans he tore apart, when A-Yuan wouldn’t touch him.
“Should we burn those?” Wangji says.
“What?” Wei Ying looks thoughtful, distracted. “Oh. No. They don’t… they’re fine. We can leave them. Hey, what did you use for these? They smell odd to me. Did you use the blood from the pool? Like I showed you?”
“Yes,” Wangji says. “Mostly.”
“Mostly?” Wei Ying echoes. His eyes widen. “Husband. Please tell me. Did you… did you mix this with… your blood?”
Wei Ying slides over to lean against the doorway, with a hand clapped dramatically to his face. And then he brays a laugh so loud Wangji actually tips a box over. Wei Ying laughs until he’s crying, swiping at his eyes.
“Oh. Oh, this is truly humbling,” he says. “The great rogue inventor, invented out of his own curse. Oh, I wish I could… oh, I can’t believe you,” he says, “come here,” and he yanks Wangji into a bemused kiss. “You know what you did? Do you have any idea what you’ve done to me? Oh, no, it’s a good thing. Don’t make that face. My love, your blood. Your blood for the ritual. Do you not see it? Look at me,” he says, tenderly. “And here I thought I’d done something wrong. But it was you. It was you doing something right. Now I know why I can cry. Why I still… feel. This is a gift. You gave me this. Whatever is human in here,” he says, and puts Wangji’s hand over his heart. It beats strangely, but it still beats. “That’s yours. Whatever is human is yours. I got it from you.”
Wangji stares at him, struck, feeling his heart.
“Did it… will it weaken you?”
“Oh, no,” Wei Ying says, purring, and tugs him in by the front of his robes. Wangji’s hands slide down to his hips. “No. I could stand to the end of the world, now. I thought it was just power. Resentment or something. More fool I.” He leans in for a kiss, sipping at Wangji’s lips like a cup of wine. “It was something much stronger than that.”
Before they leave they dig a hole in the furthest depths of the caves, deep and deep. There they bury Wei Ying’s old human arm. Wangji helps Wei Ying melt down his hair ornaments to make a spelled silver net, a trap and ward against anything that might come looking. They ward the spot in blood afterwards, and shoulder their packs, and take A-Yuan by the hand. They’ll buy a pony in town for him, so he can ride with the bags. Maybe two ponies. He is already making up possible names. When they’re at the bottom of the path they turn around and look up the hill, high up, at the place they’re leaving behind. Wei Ying looks for a long time, with some unnameable emotion, and then he smiles and says, “I’m ready.”
“Watch,” Wangji says, kneeling beside A-Yuan. “Baba’s doing a trick.”
And Wei Ying stretches out his red hand and yanks at the ancient darkness of the mountain so hard that Wangji can feel it pass by through his bones; the earth creaks and then the top of the mountain comes down all at once, collapsing on itself like a house of straw. It falls with a great rumbling roar, filling the old halls, the rooms where they used to sleep; burying the blood pool and the rest of it. Smothering the stagnant lotus pond and closing the pass. Sealing his arm under a thousand impassible feet of rock and dirt. Mopping away the old paths, the old cellar with its one fouled jug of fruit wine. Dust rises in a cloud as high as the sky, but doesn’t touch them. A soft breeze rises, to carry it away.
“Wow!” says A-Yuan, and claps.
“Whew,” says Wei Ying. “I got a little carried away, huh?”
The ghosts of the mountain shudder, but they don't scream. At least not that Wangji can hear. He feels a slight pressure at the back of his spine. A gentle one. As if ten thousand furious ghosts were only a body turning over in bed. Wei Ying is smiling vaguely when he looks up. Either he feels it too, or… he’s causing it. Helping them ease back, rest. Push off and away from the world at last. Wangji wonders if he even knows his own deepest reaches yet. What their mingling has made of him. What they might become, together. Wonders if it’s possible for love alone to settle the dead.
Wangji picks up A-Yuan and hefts him onto his shoulders on top of the rucksack, keeping a hand around his ankle. His other hand holds Wei Ying’s. The red one, that bears his ribbon. It’s strong and cool and presses his fingers back, tight.
“Can we have a song?” A-Yuan says. “A traveling song?”
“Oh, yes,” says Wei Ying. “Let’s.”
“Don’t worry. The night won’t frighten me and the cold won’t drive me away.
There is no winter as cold as my winter, no night as deep as my night.
I myself freeze the wind. I myself darken the sky.”
—Dulce María Loynaz, Absolute Solitude, “Poema LIX” (tr. James O’Connor)