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Friendly Fields, Open Roads

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“Master Wei!” 

 

Wei Wuxian wipes his brow before looking down, his other hand doubling its grip on the roof beam. One of the men from the village waves up at him below the framework of his house. Wei Wuxian's heart jumps at the sight of letters in his hand, thick white paper bundled with care.

 

He floats down gently, hurrying over to the man. “Thank you, Uncle.” Wei Wuxian takes the letters, resisting the urge to tear into them. “Give those grandbabies a kiss from me.”

 

“Always.” He winks, waving as he turns back down the road into the village. “Good day, Master Wei.”

 

Wei Wuxian lies on the grassy floor of his half-made house, holding the letters over his head against direct sunlight. The first is long, characters squeezed tight into several rolls of paper. His stomach squirms excitedly at the thought alone, like he's still some lovestruck schoolboy. He laughs at himself, then considers the second letter. It’s much shorter, more recent. It’ll be safer to open first.

 

Wei Ying,

 

Perhaps not entirely safe. It’d been a few months since they'd seen each other and still Wei Wuxian hears his voice in ink, sees the careful movements of his wrist as he writes, every stroke perfect. He lowers the letter enough to get an eyeful of the sky, to take a breath and send it back to the wisps of cloud crawling above his head. Then he reads on.

 

Wei Ying,

 

I apologize. I will have to meet you later than I expected. There’s something I must take care of first. Hopefully it will not detain me long. If your plans change and you need to write back, I will be in Runan.

 

Lan Zhan

 

Wei Wuxian sits up. Runan was less than two days by foot. Lan Wangji must have already been on his way when he wrote.

 

He reads the letter again. Something was wrong.

 

There was a rushed quality to the calligraphy Wei Wuxian never saw from Lan Wangji’s hand. And his letters had never been so short, not since they began their correspondence. Lan Wangji expressed himself more fully on the page than he ever did out loud. The same sentiments Wei Wuxian read in Lan Wangji’s eyes, his soft smiles, found a home in written word. It wasn’t like him to write without sharing a piece of the world around him, anything to stitch the seams of their distance a little closer.

 

Wei Wuxian tucks both letters inside his robe and hurries to stand. He packs a quick bag and rushes to the stable, the one he built long before he started work on the house. Xiao Pingguo wouldn’t have it otherwise.

 

“Come on, old girl,” he says, saddling up the donkey. “Lan Zhan needs us.”

 

*

 

The village lay in a perfect central location. From any direction he didn't have to go far to pester his favorite sect leader nephew, or check on Wen Ning’s rebuilding efforts, or see Jiang Cheng--if he ever wished to be seen. To surprise Lan Wangji when he wasn’t busy.

 

The villagers themselves love having their own local celebrity. The elders tease him with rumpled old posters of the Yiling Patriarch, sketches still prevailing in the outskirts of the sects, before pinching his cheeks and declaring him a disappointment to his reputation.

 

His new home delights him, filling him with every bit of community he's missed. All that’s left is to share it. 

 

He rereads the short letter again, its folds already worn smooth in his hands. Wei Wuxian imagines Lan Wangji occupied with some case that came up along the way. If someone in need asked for his help Lan Wangji would never refuse. Wei Wuxian loves it about him.

 

But with few distractions along the empty road, his mind strays easily to other possibilities. If Lan Wangji was hurt, or cursed, he would try to solve it himself. Wei Wuxian shakes his head, clicks his tongue, urging Xiao Pingguo on a little faster.

 

“You see what happens to him without me?” he says. “I should just…”

 

Just what? Tie Lan Wangji to him by the wrist, like he once did? Bind them together so Lan Wangji could never be hurt without Wei Wuxian being there to know about it, to take care of him?

 

"He's a grown boy," he reminds Xiao Pingguo. "He can look after himself."

 

He shouldn't have to .

 

Wei Wuxian shakes his head, trying to clear himself of the thought. Trying not to think of the house behind him, small and snug, with just enough room to spare. Just in case.

 

When he reaches a long, flat stretch of meadow, without roots and rocks to tumble over, he unfolds the first letter tucked in his robe.

 

Wei Ying,

 

Thank you for writing again so soon. I appreciated you including a sketch of your house. If anyone can bring a vision to life, I believe you can.

 

I can only hope you’ve provided yourself some cover while the house remains under construction, some shelter I cannot see in the drawing. Please keep yourself warm and dry. I can hear you laughing off my suggestion, insisting upon the reliability of summer nights, but humor me. Please. 

 

Your depiction of the scenery helped me picture your new home perfectly. You made the creek look like glass in the sunlight, clear and shining. It is beautiful, though I wonder if the real thing will measure up to your artist’s eye. I look forward to finding out. Sometimes the thought alone gets me through these long days.

 

Much changes here in Cloud Recesses. My brother resumed his duties last week. Sizhui and Wen Ning have gone west to lead night hunting groups, and our turn has come again to host inter-sect lectures. The summer’s been busy, and unusually loud. It makes me nostalgic.

 

My brother insisted he could handle the transition on his own, but Lan Jingyi made a case for assisting him, and we relented. I can picture your reaction, but I believe you would come to the same conclusion I did. You’ve seen his strong sense of justice, and his unwillingness to cower in the face of pressure. He can certainly hold his own in an argument longer than I care to, and he handles being the center of attention far better than I do. This will be a fine chance for him to prove himself.

 

Everyone here misses you. My brother sends his best wishes, as do the juniors, who grow into seniors before my eyes.

 

I set out for you tomorrow. The warm weather here makes me reminiscent of our first encounters. You may be surprised to hear how fondly I remember them. Even then I knew no one would ever leave a mark on me quite like you.

 

Be safe and well. I will be with you soon.

 

Lan Zhan

 

It’s always good to sign letters like this after a day filled with my title. I’m thankful for you.

 

Wei Wuxian carefully folds the letter back into his pocket, left with the searing need to hug something. He throws his arms around Xiao Pingguo's neck, giving her a careful squeeze. She bears it for five generous heartbeats before shaking him off.

 

*

 

The moment he reaches Runan he scans the crowds, half-expecting to find a flash of white right at the gates. When he doesn’t immediately find him Wei Wuxian starts asking around for Hanguang-jun.

 

A merchant at her stall finally points him in the direction of the town physician, and the tips of his fingers numb with worry before he talks himself down.

 

“This is Lan Zhan,” he tells Xiao Pingguo. “He’ll be fine.”

 

Xiao Pingguo snorts, presumably in agreement, then ambles off for a trough of water.

 

Wei Wuxian eyes the physician’s office and tries not to imagine Lan Wangji lying ill on a cot, or wounded and pale, a sight he hasn’t seen in decades. A sight he never wanted to see again.

 

As he marches up to the door he runs right into someone leaving.

 

“Ah, sorry--”

 

“Wei Ying?”

 

The voice stops him, turns him around. He steadies himself on a white-clad arm.

 

The sight of Lan Wangji feels like settling into bed after a long day of travel, his feet at rest, his body warm, his heart at peace.

 

At first Lan Wangji only looks surprised. Then his mouth goes soft in a smile, and the feeling is more like flight.

 

"You got my letter," Lan Wangji says.

 

"Oh." It takes a moment to remember which letter he meant. "Yes. I did. Lan Zhan. Hello."

 

"Hello."

 

Wei Wuxian stares too long, forgetting he's blocking the entryway, dazed by Lan Wangji’s smile in the sun. It would feel right to embrace him after months apart. He thinks Lan Wangji might even like it. But then his eyes fall to Lan Wangji's full arms.

 

There's his sword tucked in the crook of one elbow, a bag of herbs in his hand, and resting in his other arm--

 

"Well," Wei Wuxian says. "Hello there."

 

"She's not mine," Lan Wangji says immediately.

 

Wei Wuxian laughs. “You don’t say, Lan Zhan. I didn’t think we were apart that long.”

 

An infant girl, not quite a year old, turns in Lan Wangji’s arms. Something in the roundness of her cheeks reminds him of Sizhui when he was a little older. Wei Wuxian smiles, patting her head. Immediately he draws back.

 

“Lan Zhan, she’s burning.” Her skin was hot to the touch, like a pot newly moved from a flame. “That can’t be a fever, it would have killed her.”

 

“It’s not fever.”

 

Wei Wuxian crouches a little, getting a better look. The girl doesn’t seem bothered, teething away at her own fingers, lacking any trace of fever flush.

 

“So where did you come from?” Wei Wuxian asks.

 

She smiles. She scrunches up her nose. She sneezes a monstrous cloud of dark smoke in Wei Wuxian's face.

 

"Lan Zhan," he says lightly. "I think something's wrong with your baby."

 

*

 

They leave Xiao Pingguo at a stable and make their way to the teahouse across the street, their lunch cooling as the baby plays with a tassel on Lan Wangji’s robe.

 

Lan Wangji hadn’t found her, he explains. She found him.

 

He’d been on his way to Wei Wuxian, camping in the shadow of a hillside between Lan and Jin territories, when he woke to her crawling into his shelter. His immediate thought had been to check with the nearest village, to see if anyone had lost a child.

 

Then he’d picked her up and noticed something was wrong.

 

She was a spirit, holding more than enough resentful energy to keep herself solid. Lan Wangji tried every song he knew, trying to commune with her spirit, or put her to rest, but nothing worked. He’d never dealt with one so young.

 

Neither of them had. Wei Wuxian’s heart twists to look at her, to imagine.

 

"I considered performing Empathy," Lan Wangji admits. "Once we were together, so you could supervise."

 

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “If Inquiry yielded nothing, neither will Empathy. The energy isn't only hers, and there's no clarity to her thoughts. Even one of us would be lost.”

 

He drums his fingers on the table, staring down at the baby. In return she clings tighter to Lan Wangji, as if afraid Wei Wuxian will take her. It gives him an idea.

 

“Lan Zhan, she’s pure resentment, right? What if I just...took some of it for her? Just enough to learn her story? If we find out what happened to her, we might know what her spirit needs to rest.”

 

He nods. “That could work.”

 

It’s nothing new, Lan Wangji trusting him like this. Wei Wuxian still hasn’t been able to put what it means into words. For Lan Wangji not to recoil from the truth of him. 

 

The baby eyes him suspiciously over the cradle of Lan Wangji’s sleeve. Wei Wuxian reaches for her tiny hand.

 

“What do you think about that, little girl?”

 

She screams, and the room goes black. Others join her screaming. Tables scrape, ceramic shatters. A hand finds his in the dark.

 

Wei Wuxian reaches for Chenqing, ready to harness the energy, to rein it back in. He barely has time to pull the flute from his belt before the girl quiets, before the resentment curls back into her, gone as fast as it came. Afternoon light eases back into the room.

 

The girl has the audacity to glare at him, reproachful. Like he’s the one who plunged a peaceful teahouse into chaos.

 

Their fellow patrons look around, picking themselves up from the floor.

 

“Sorry!” Wei Wuxian raises his voice over the commotion, holding up one of his bags, waving it over his head. “Sorry, kid got hold of our smoke powder. Lesson learned!”

 

The customers settle back at their seats. He hears some grumbling, a few nervous laughs, catches a whisper that sounds like new parents .

 

He meets Lan Wangji’s eyes. Wei Wuxian likes to think he’s the only one who could read the amusement there.

 

They keep themselves busy well into the long summer evening, talking to townspeople, separating for an hour to cover more ground. No one had lost a child. No one found her description familiar.

 

They reunite near sunset, the baby holding several toys she didn’t have before. She gnaws on the soft wooden head of a carved bear, waving a whistle in her other hand. Wei Wuxian folds his arms, giving Lan Wangji a look.

 

“What is it?” Lan Wangji asks.

 

So much changed between one life and the next. At times it felt like all the earth had moved on without Wei Wuxian there to match its pace. Then there was Lan Wangji, who after all these years still softens in the face of all things small and adorable.

 

Lan Wangji, who makes the earth feel still beneath his feet. Like he's right where he belongs. 

 

“Only you would buy toys for a haunted baby,” Wei Wuxian says.

 

“Only me?”

 

Lan Wangji’s eyes fall on the brightly painted rattle tucked into Wei Wuxian’s belt. Wei Wuxian scoffs, turning away to lead them onward.

 

“Well, we need to keep her happy! Don’t want her wreaking havoc again, do we?”

 

They walk through town exchanging theories until lanterns glow in the streets and candles burn in the windows. The baby, the mystery, the goodness of being together again, it all keeps Wei Wuxian from feeling the grit of exhaustion behind his eyes until well after dark. He’s only halfway through a yawn when Lan Wangji mentions the room he’s already rented for the night.

 

He doesn’t tell Wei Wuxian to stop following, so he doesn’t stop.

 

They set down their things by the door, neither bothering to unpack. Lan Wangji lies down fully clothed on the couch, leaving the bed for Wei Wuxian, the baby already drifting off in his arms.

 

Before he loses Lan Wangji for the night, Wei Wuxian asks, “Do you have a plan for tomorrow?”

 

“There’s a home for children down the road outside the village. If no families have claimed her yet, maybe they will be the ones to recognize her.” Lan Wangji closes his eyes. “We'll leave in the morning.”

 

The plural curls warm into his chest.

 

*

 

The nearest home for orphans, children the temples couldn’t take, lies on a peaceful stretch of farmland downriver from Runan. Several young children chase chickens around a yard. They wave at Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji as they pass, their clothes dirty from play but well-made, well cared for. Wei Wuxian waves back.

 

Something in him softens and aches at their gap-toothed smiles. He leans closer to Lan Wangji, lowering his face to the baby’s head, closing his eyes. He could almost imagine the scent of something real beneath her coiled energy, something less like smoke and more like a real baby. Something they could feed and care for. Something alive.

 

“Are you alright?” Lan Wangji asks softly.

 

Wei Wuxian straightens quickly. “Of course. Just tired. It’s been a long few days for us, hm?”

 

He never could fool Lan Wangji with a hasty smile. But Wei Wuxian lays a reassuring hand on his back, and Lan Wangji doesn’t press the issue. 

 

The matron makes time for them, and speaks gently to the teenagers she sends out to watch the younger children. They follow her to a small, tidy office overlooking the farmland.

 

Wei Wuxian knows it’s a lost cause the moment he begins speaking, the moment the matron’s eyes fall on the baby seated on Lan Wangji’s lap, banging her rattle on the desk. He doesn’t even have to finish their story. The matron doesn’t recognize her. 

 

“She isn’t from here, is she?” Wei Wuxian asks.

 

“No, young masters. I’m afraid I can’t help. You’ve been looking around, haven’t you?”

 

“We have. Hanguang-jun's been leaving notices in every village and town he’s passed through.”

 

She nods slowly, her eyes soft and sad on the girl. “I can take her, if you’d like, until you find her family. Things have been easier here since the war ended. We have room now.”

 

The energy in the girl flares, boils at the suggestion. It brushes against Wei Wuxian's own skin. The resentment isn't all hers but it's focused, sharp with purpose.

 

She would've grown up to be a powerful cultivator. She would've grown up. The life stolen from her stings at his throat.

 

He looks at Lan Wangji, who gives a single, subtle shake of his head.

 

“It’s no trouble for us,” Wei Wuxian says, turning back to the matron. “You have enough to worry about.”

 

Lan Wangji pulls a pouch from his sleeve, insisting on a donation for her time. The baby goes calm once more.

 

*

 

They ask around in another town down the river from the children's home, gathering the same results. Wei Wuxian wonders how long ago the baby became a spirit, if no one was around to remember her.

 

The thought of her untold years, lost and alone, hastens his need for answers. He doesn’t miss the way Lan Wangji holds her a little closer with every failed search.

 

They’re both subdued when they stop for the night. The innkeeper beams when they enter and ask for a room, reaching across her desk to pinch the baby’s cheek.

 

“Let me see what I’ve got here,” she says, consulting a sheet. “Traveling, are you?”

 

“Something like that,” Wei Wuxian says.

 

“Such a sweet young family you have there.” She makes a mark on her paper. “There, this one should have a bed to fit all three of you, but we have a spare crib if you need one. Although my nephew's wife might have made away with it, I'll have to check, who can keep track of all the little ones they've got now...”

 

Wei Wuxian laughs nervously as the innkeeper goes on, at a momentary loss for words. He can't deny a certain guilty joy, knowing he's not the only one thinking about how the three of them must look, how rightly they fit together.

 

He waits for Lan Wangji to say something, to correct her, but he only bows and thanks her.

 

“Let’s go, my dears,” Wei Wuxian says, because he just can’t help himself. He doesn’t look back for Lan Wangji’s reaction.

 

*

 

The bed is, indeed, big enough for the three of them.

 

He’s shared with Lan Wangji before, in smaller inns and starlit shelters on the road. It's nothing new, but every time it only worsens the little longing in his chest, fantasizing this into something more.

 

Lan Wangji settles into the far side of the bed, molding a separate blanket in the middle for the baby to sleep on, so she won’t roll away. When Wei Wuxian draws near she actually hisses, her eyes darkening.

 

“Oh stop that,” Wei Wuxian sighs.

 

Lan Wangji follows the path of her eyes. “It might be Chenqing.”

 

“Ah.” He sets his flute on top of his folded outer robes, away from the bed. “There. See? I’m not going to try anything.”

 

The inky black recedes from her eyes, softens back to brown. She still stares as he climbs into bed.

 

“She’s not ready to show us,” Lan Wangji says.

 

Wei Wuxian reaches out for her hand. She grabs one of his fingers and chomps down on it. “Maybe she can sense it.”

 

“Sense what?”

 

“That I’m a little like her.”

 

Lan Wangji rolls onto his side, taking her free hand. “She'll come to know you soon, Wei Ying. Then she’ll trust you.”

 

“How long will that take? What will we do, wander the country all summer with a baby?” He laughs quietly, like something in him doesn’t give at the idea, a bough bending to a sunward wind.

 

He feels Lan Wangji’s gaze on him and can’t meet it. Not now.

 

“How can I win her trust faster?” He wiggles her hand, as much as he can in her strong grip. “I could tell her a story? Nothing too scary. Ha, like she’ll understand anyway.”

 

“She will. We’re born ready to learn.”

 

“If you say so, Lan Zhan.” He settles back against his pillow. “Alright, then. There once were two jugglers, one an old man, the other his son. One day they journeyed to a crowded fair and promised to perform any trick asked of them. When a woman in the crowd asked for a peach--”

 

He cuts off at a soft, soft laugh. He turns, raising an eyebrow at Lan Wangji.

 

“What’s so funny?” Wei Wuxian asks.

 

“I told her that story.”

 

“Did you now? Very good, starting our girl off right.” He turns the words over in his mind, rubs them smooth. Our girl. Our girl . “Well, she should hear something new. How about this? Once there lived an old farmer, who made an honest living in the country by raising ducks. One day a thief came along--”

 

Wei Wuxian stops when Lan Wangji’s smile catches at the corner of his eye.

 

“That one, too?" Wei Wuxian asks. “Oh Lan Zhan, I should have known you’d have already taught her the classics.”

 

He indulges in the image of Lan Wangji walking along a sunny path with the baby in his arms, telling her stories in his low, calm voice. He closes his eyes. “Very well. I’ll just have to make up my own.”

 

“She would like that.”

 

“Hm. Hmm. Okay. I’ve got one. There once was a boy made of paper, who wanted nothing more than to be a hero.”

 

He cracks an eye open to glance at Lan Wangji, looking for a reaction. He finds it in the thoughtful curve of his mouth. He also finds Lan Wangji’s unbound hair falling over the pillow, his eyelids drooping low, his attention fixed on Wei Wuxian. The girl squeezes their fingers, shrieking to fill the silence.

 

Wei Wuxian inhales deep, closes his eyes again. Right. Concentrate .

 

“His only problem--besides being made of paper--was the silly boy believed he could become a hero without any help. And for a while it seemed he could! The paper boy fashioned himself a paper sword and practiced his forms every day. He read the works of all the old masters. Of course, every scroll weighed as much as he did. It’s hard being made of paper. Everyone wants to write on you, or throw you in a fire. And don’t get me started on the wind. Anyway, one day he met another boy, one made of willow. This willow boy was strong and brave, and could fight countless battles without breaking. He seemed to have everything. However, the willow boy had a wish, too. He wished he could fly, to help the creatures tangled in the trees, or to be something softer, so he could squeeze in tight places to free the trapped. So it was lucky that the two met each other! Each could do what the other could not. Every day they made each other stronger.”

 

Wei Wuxian swallows. “The paper boy learned that everyone needs a friend.”

 

In the silence he hears two sets of even breath beside him. The baby’s mouth slacks in sleep, drool gathering at her lower lip. Lan Wangji sleeps peacefully as ever, though it’s new to see him lying on his side, his cheek squished against the pillow, his hands unfurled on the sheets.

 

Some protective instinct leans on his heart, primal, irrational. He tries reasoning it away, reminding himself Lan Wangji could dispel any threat in a dead sleep. That the baby herself carried more violent spiritual energy than the two of them together.

 

Still the feeling lingers. It lingers until Wei Wuxian pulls the blankets over the three of them, and finds it’s enough to satisfy the instinct.

 

*

 

Wei Wuxian wakes to an empty bed and the scent of fried dough. He rolls over, opens his eyes, and wonders if he’s still dreaming.

 

Lan Wangji stirs something in a pot over the brazier, sleeves folded delicately away from the flame. He swept his hair up in an elegant knot at the back of his head, revealing the long slope of his neck. The baby sleeps in a sling wrapped around his front, like he’s seen young parents wear in his village. Steam from the pot curls a few loose strands escaping the tie in Lan Wangji’s hair.

 

“Good morning, Wei Ying,” he says when he catches him staring. "The innkeeper made breakfast."

 

“It looks like you’re making breakfast.”

 

“She made most of it.” He nods toward the table. “Then she sold me rice, and a few other things.”

 

“Lan Zhan.” He rubs hands over his face.

 

“What is it?”

 

It’s nothing. It’s everything. “Good morning.”

 

He rises and dresses and tries not to stare at Lan Wangji’s neck. He really, really tries.

 

It does, however, beg to be addressed. He finishes belting his outer robe and comes to stand at Lan Wangji’s side.

 

“What’s this about?” he asks, giving the tie in Lan Wangji’s hair a small tug.

 

Lan Wangji touches his neck, almost shyly. “She kept pulling my hair.”

 

“Is that so?” Wei Wuxian crouches to the baby’s level, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Naughty girl, you be gentle with our Lan Zhan. We’ll have a talk when you wake up.”

 

Lan Wangji ladles congee into a bowl, handing it to Wei Wuxian. “Go eat.”

 

Wei Wuxian takes his bowl to the table, where he finds a small plate of youtiao and cut pears. He takes a spoonful and touches his lips after, the spark of seasoning along his tongue a pleasant surprise.

 

Everything about the last few days has been a pleasant surprise. He feels warm and light, dust drifting in a sunbeam.

 

Lan Wangji glances over his shoulder. “How is it?”

 

“I love you.” His stomach freezes as his face heats. He prattles on, the better not to draw attention to the moment. “It’s perfect, Lan Zhan. You’re--thank you.”

 

The continued snick of a knife on a cutting board is his only response. Wei Wuxian looks up and receives a full view of a deep flush across the nape of Lan Wangji’s neck. He grins into his next bite.

 

“It’s a simple breakfast,” Lan Wangji says with conspicuous effort.

 

“Are you kidding? After eating my own cooking for weeks this is exquisite. Really, Lan Zhan.”

 

“Thank you,” he says, no louder than a flustered mumble.

 

Wei Wuxian eats in happy silence until the baby wakes. She wails into Lan Wangji’s shoulder, smoke coiling around them. Lan Wangji looks nervously at the wall shared with their neighbors.

 

“Here.” Wei Wuxian stands, reaching out. “I’ll take her to play with Xiao Pingguo. Take a break and eat something.”

 

Lan Wangji hands her over, relieved. “I love you.”

 

Wei Wuxian can’t quite tell if he’s being made fun of or not, can’t think much at all as the baby fusses more at separation from Lan Wangji, but his heart burns wild as he takes her outside. 

 

*

 

It isn’t that he didn’t know. Wei Wuxian can admit he’s known for a long time. It’s only that he never could face such a thing all at once. That he could only welcome the weight and wonder of it all in small, manageable pieces.

 

So Lan Wangji loves him. It doesn’t mean he wants someone in his kitchen every morning, or in his bed every night. It doesn’t mean he wants to raise children together. It doesn't mean he wants that lovely mouth of his kissed.

 

Wei Wuxian sets aside his greed as they set out for the day. The full plum sweetness of the morning clears his head of worry, even with the baby lashing out whenever she grows bored. It’s enough to dwell in the old comfort between them, cherished and chosen, worn softer with every step. It’s enough to dwell in any shade of love. 

 

*

 

They meet a small family on the road into the next town, a pregnant woman and her husband, with a toddler son flitting between them. As Wei Wuxian talks to the parents, the boy alternates between climbing onto a reluctant Xiao Pingguo and clinging to Lan Wangji’s robes, delighting over Bichen and the baby. They talk all the way into town, where they stop for lunch.

 

The baby pulls herself to stand on their table and quickly cruises toward another, using the benches as supports. The couple’s young son hurries to follow her, cheering encouragement.

 

“Oops,” Wei Wuxian says, watching them stray. He slides out of his seat to follow them, the boy’s father close behind. “Sorry, don’t mean to make your kid babysit.”

 

“It’s alright,” the man laughs. “It’s good practice for him. He’ll be a big brother soon.”

 

The baby takes them out of earshot of Lan Wangji and the woman, eating in silence.

 

“Maybe I shouldn’t leave them alone,” the man says, looking back. “My wife’s not much for conversation.”

 

“Then she’ll get along fine with my--” Wei Wuxian pauses, letting his mind catch up with his mouth. “Lan Zhan. He’s quiet, too.”

 

The man smiles. “The two of you are cultivators, right? What brings you this far away from the sects?”

 

“We’re looking into some rumors. We heard that spirits of children had been spotted in the mountains. Have you heard anything about this?”

 

“Ah, yes.”

 

Wei Wuxian turns, giving the man his full attention. “You have?”

 

“My wife’s sister said she saw one once...a few years ago now, I believe it was. Just a babe, too, no bigger than your little one here. She wrote to the Jin clan and got Lianfang-zun to send a few cultivators out to investigate, but they never found the spirit again.”

 

“Where does your sister-in-law live, exactly?”

 

“A village just north of Hedong.”

 

“Interesting.” He reaches out to stop the girl from pulling the little boy’s hair, gently untangling them and moving her away. “Interesting.”

 

They part after their meal. Wei Wuxian watches the family disappear down the road, the couple’s arms brushing as they walk, the boy swinging his father’s hand.

 

When he turns away he finds Lan Wangji still watching them, holding the baby close to his chest. The maple canopy overhead casts a distant, wistful shadow over his face. It’s a long, long moment before Lan Wangji lifts his eyes to Wei Wuxian’s.

 

“Are you ready?” Lan Wangji asks.

 

“Yes.” Then Wei Wuxian remembers that he’d been bursting with news. “Yes.” He hurries forward to take Lan Wangji’s arm. “Let’s go.”

 

*

 

They check Lan Wangji’s map as they walk, shaded by sprawling summer oaks. Their path, already leading them north, would bring them near Hedong in half a week. Wei Wuxian follows the road with a new energy, a mystery’s pieces falling into place.

 

Lan Wangji’s sword could have them there by nightfall. Somehow, with the girl allowing Wei Wuxian to hold her for longer periods, with merry cicada song in the earthbound grass, neither of them mention it.

 

“That family today was nice, huh?” Wei Wuxian says. “Do you remember when Sizhui was that little?”

 

Lan Wangji nods. Wei Wuxian nearly continues with old thoughts of Sizhui’s childhood, the distant memory of a small hand in his own. His throat closes unexpectedly.

 

“Wei Ying?” A hand rests on his shoulder. “What is it?”

 

“Sometimes I think about it, that’s all. How much I missed. All the growing I never got to see.”

 

Lan Wangji’s hand tightens in a gentle, grounding pressure. Wei Wuxian speaks again, quickly.

 

“You tell me all the stories, and I’m so glad you do. Sometimes I just wish I was in them.”

 

“You are.”

 

“Ah, Lan Zhan.” He’ll never regret being honest with Lan Wangji. He’ll never put walls between them again. Still he can’t bear the blunted grief in his eyes, and reaches out with words to smooth it away. “It’s alright. You don’t have to say anything.”

 

“You are, Wei Ying. Sizhui’s creativity, his open mind and heart...he has so much of you. He always has.”

 

Wei Wuxian looks away, flashes of sunlight between the trees stinging at his eyes. He’s thankful when Lan Wangji speaks again.

 

“I missed something, too. Those first years. I came back and he’d grown so tall. So serious.”

 

Wei Wuxian smiles. “Not the A-Yuan I left you with, hm?”

 

“No. I missed how he was that day.”

 

Wei Wuxian can’t help it. He takes Lan Wangji’s free wrist, like he used to, like he’s about to whisk him away on another adventure. “That day.”

 

Do you ever wish we could have that again, Lan Zhan? Can you imagine every day together like this, talking for hours about nothing and everything, maybe even a little one between us? Wouldn’t it be so sweet? Do you want that, Lan Zhan? Could you want that with me?

 

He thinks it so hard he wonders if Lan Wangji feels it through the quick pulse in his fingertips. He wonders until Lan Wangji gently loosens Wei Wuxian’s grip enough to join their hands properly. Then his thoughts slow entirely, reduced to the stream-cool shadows around them and the warm callouses against his palm.

 

Once he’d been in such a hurry to drag Lan Wangji behind him, headlong into some new experience whether he wanted it or not, time slipping through his fingers. Now they take the road slow, and they take it side by side. Now time is kind enough to match his pace.

 

*

 

They camp in the wilds each night on the way to Jin territory. 

 

The baby tires faster from travel. She’s too small to sit alone in Xiao Pingguo’s saddle, so they continue to carry her. She no longer protests when Wei Wuxian holds her.

 

Lan Wangji narrates the world for her, giving her the names of trees they pass in the daytime, the stars they sleep beneath on rainless nights. He says it's an old habit from Sizhui's childhood, one he thought long broken. Wei Wuxian tries not to demand too much from him, but Lan Wangji happily provides more memories. The road passes easily under their feet.

 

Wei Wuxian discovers another old habit when he wakes one morning to find Lan Wangji weaving animals from bamboo grass, rough shapes of butterflies and other little creatures. He explains that he didn’t want Sizhui to lose every piece of his early childhood. That if he couldn’t save Sizhui’s memory he could at least save some physical reminders of his time with his family, with Wei Wuxian.

 

He remembers the first sunrises he would stumble sleeplessly from his cave before any Wens could wake. He remembers morning-damp soil in his hands. He remembers feeling for crops in the earth, desperate, as if the roots would climb into his skin and fill his empty meridians and shape him back into something whole.

 

More often than not he came away emptier than ever, holding nothing but dirt, once more mastered by mortality. Still he tried again, planted again. All those lonely, angry years ago he thought it a waste.

 

He knows better now, watching the delicate, practiced ease of Lan Wangji’s hands, the loving weave of memory. It mattered. No matter the outcome, it mattered that they tried.

 

*

 

On their fourth night of camping Lan Wangji writes a letter by the fire. Wei Wuxian lies on his bedroll beside him, the baby fussing on his chest, fighting sleep. He watches over Lan Wangji’s arm as he writes to his uncle, filling him in on their investigation, asking after his brother’s health. Lan Wangji pauses now and then only to shake back a slipping sleeve, to tuck back a falling strand of hair, glimmering blue-black in the firelight.

 

He’s so engrossed in watching Lan Wangji, the careful composure of his characters, Wei Wuxian hadn’t noticed the baby fall asleep. He tilts his chin down to her, smiles at the sight of her mouth wide open in the softest snores.

 

Wei Wuxian waves with his free hand to get Lan Wangji’s attention, then points to the baby. Lan Wangji’s eyes warm in the fireglow. A soft smile lingers on his face long after returning to his letter.

 

Wei Wuxian’s breathing slows with each soft wisp of brush, each crackle of fire, each sleepy sigh from the weight over his heart. He nods off sometime before something shifts in the grass beside him. He blinks awake to find Lan Wangji dressed for bed, lying down on his own bedroll.

 

“I'm sorry,” Lan Wangji whispers. “Go back to sleep.”

 

“Didn’t know I was asleep.” Wei Wuxian stretches his legs, wincing. “This kid’s got me going to bed at a reasonable hour.”

 

“How terrible.”

 

Wei Wuxian rubs a hand over the girl’s burning back, keeping her soothed. “Lan Zhan,” he whispers. “I think she might be ready to tell us her story.”

 

“We’re already close to the village. We might be able to find out on our own.”

 

“We might. Or we might have just as much luck as those Jin cultivators. But I can do things they can’t.”

 

Lan Wangji turns on his side, his eyes on the baby’s face. He rests a hand on her back.

 

“Tomorrow, then,” Lan Wangji says.

 

Wei Wuxian continues to rub the baby’s back in gentle circles. He rests his hand when one of his fingertips brushes Lan Wangji’s. Neither of them bother to move.

 

“Tomorrow.”

 

*

 

The girl sits at attention in the soft space between their bedrolls, blinking up at them where they stand in the morning shine.

 

“Do you trust me?” Wei Wuxian asks.

 

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says. “Do you trust me?”

 

“Yes. With--”

 

My life? Lan Wangji already knew that. He’d trusted Lan Wangji with his life countless times, a faith always rewarded. 

 

My heart? Lan Wangji had only treated it kindly since a curse dragged him back into the world, only letting him know safety and belonging.

 

He would trust Lan Wangji to find him lost at the end of the earth, to find his soul in the cycle, to bring him back from any brink. Words weren't adequate.

 

At least Lan Wangji hadn't asked for specifics.

 

Wei Wuxian takes Lan Wangji’s hand, bringing them both down to sit before her. “I trust you.”

 

Her resentment simmers expectantly off her skin, curling black in the muggy green air. She’s ready. Wei Wuxian supposes he should be, too.

 

Lan Wangji looks over his shoulder. “Should I have the guqin?”

 

“After, maybe. You should be here now, in case anything happens.”

 

Lan Wangji nods, sitting straight, attentive and trusting. Just like that Wei Wuxian finds his courage.

 

“Okay, sweet girl.” He reaches toward her. “Want to show me where you came from?”

 

There’s an understanding between them now, something more than her hand reaching for Wei Wuxian. He takes it, letting her fingers wrap around one of his own.

 

Black tendrils creep up his arm, seeping into his chest, his ears, his eyes. Lan Wangji doesn’t leave, doesn’t say a word, but Wei Wuxian feels a steadying hand between his shoulders. The energy shudders through him, whisper and shadow blinking through his consciousness. It’s all surprisingly gentle.

 

When it’s over the baby yawns, blinking blearily. She’s less substantial now, less vibrant, but when Wei Wuxian touches her head she’s as solid as ever. Her skin, however, is considerably cooler.

 

“Are you alright?” Lan Wangji asks.

 

“Of course I am. I think--”

 

Sound explodes in his head, and the world around him disappears.

 

*

 

For several minutes everything is black and wind, wind and black.

 

It hurts. The rage of dishonored soldiers scrapes raw at his ribs. The agony of their grieving widows tears at his throat, his eyes. The terror of lost children, stumbling into a darkness they couldn’t escape, curdles cold in his husk of a stomach.

 

It feels right to take their pain. To give it a settling place, to keep it from spreading to the living world. Resentment demanded an audience.

 

New-tilled earth beneath his fingertips grounds him. He makes a fist in the dirt and stirs rot scent into the grey air.

 

Something rustles in dry grass behind him and he grabs for it, shadow-quick. A tendril of smoke wraps around an ankle, dragging the intruder to the ground. Wei Wuxian throws himself on top of the intruder to hold them down.

 

“Wei Ying, it’s me.”

 

He shakes his head. The voice is nothing new. He hears him in every shadow. He hears him in every dream. He hears him in the crowds of Yiling, imagining every glimpse of soft sky blue was him again.

 

“It's me. I’m here.”

 

Wei Wuxian blinks away the red in his eyes. Lan Wangji lies unmoving and unafraid beneath him. Persistent. A lie.

 

Still, he might as well indulge this illusion, if it’s sticking around.

 

Wei Wuxian leans back onto his knees, letting Lan Wangji sit up.

 

“Look at your pretty lace.” He pulls down the skirts of Lan Wangji’s robes, hiked up and dirtied after being dragged across the ground. “I ruined you.”

 

“Wei Ying, where are you?"

 

"I'm sorry. I’m so sorry."

 

"Listen, Wei Ying. Do you remember what happened?”

 

He closes his eyes, shakes his head. Something small and scared in the corner of his mind knows this isn’t right. It seems important to remember.

 

Resentment festers where he used to hold a core, filling him with their hate, their hunger.

 

“You need to go, Lan Zhan.”

 

Hands close around his own, bringing him closer, until Wei Wuxian has a shoulder where he can drop his heavy head. His nose brushes Lan Wangji’s neck. This close he can smell him, too clean and floral and good for a place like this. Their hunger flares.

 

“Get out of here,” Wei Wuxian mutters against him. “I can’t--”

 

You can , their voices urge. You promised us, Wei Wuxian. You promised to feed us.

 

“Run. You need to run, Lan Zhan, I mean it.”

 

Yes, make him run. Let us chase him down like prey. Let us hurt something like we’ve been hurt. Aren’t you hurt, Wei Wuxian?

 

“No,” he snarls. “I won’t let you.”

 

“Wei Ying? Is someone there with you?”

 

You’ve already fallen so far, what’s a little more--

 

Blindly, mindlessly, he nuzzles closer to Lan Wangji’s throat.

 

He’s known hunger throughout his life, but only once has he known a hunger to send him tearing through the ground with his bare hands for anything to fill a squalling stomach. The flesh in his teeth then was cold and earth-dry, but this, this would be warm, a hot rush in his mouth, he'd taste like sunlight--

 

Bile rises in his throat. “No. Not him.”

 

Eat his heart, it’s already yours--

 

“I said no .”

 

“Wei Ying? What’s wrong? Please--”

 

“Go now , Lan Zhan.”

 

Lan Wangji draws back enough to Wei Wuxian’s face in his hands. “I’m not leaving.”

 

“No, you have to, I--”

 

Something isn’t right. He reaches for the chasm of his starvation and finds it gone.

 

“Whatever it is, you’re in control. I trust you.”

 

Wei Wuxian grips the sleeve of Lan Wangji’s robe. A warning. A tether. “Can’t you hear them?”

 

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “I only hear you.”

 

Angry voices scream inside him in protest, but Wei Wuxian breathes until they begin to recede. His eyes cling to Lan Wangji’s, desperate as a touch, the only thing he sees.

 

It hurts so much, but he isn't afraid. He knows this isn’t death.

 

When death comes for him again he'll know its voice, its footfalls, its gentle dark. When death comes again it will follow a long life, fuller than he once dreamed possible. 

 

Lan Wangji presses something into his hand. He looks down. Chenqing .

 

You’re in control . The voice is his alone. He trusts you .

 

And so he plays a note. And then another. The resentment focuses, then recedes, making way for quieter spirits. He plays until there’s calm.

 

Tell me your story .

 

Smoke clears beyond them as their surroundings take shape. Guard towers rise through cool mist. Men trench through mud, carrying whips, peonies sewn on their sleeves. Old men in crimson robes cower at their approach. Through the whisper of spirits he hears children crying, parents begging.

 

A young woman hides her baby in the fold of her cloak. The baby meets Wei Wuxian’s eyes.

 

Find us here , voices whisper, softer voices, truer. Find us here, and set us free .

 

I will , Wei Wuxian promises through his notes.

 

The scene disappears, towers and bodies melting away. Even Lan Wangji fades from his side. The spirits brush past him once more, their voices more felt than heard.

 

We’re so tired. Let us rest.

 

*

 

He comes to in the cool shade of a clearing, moss pillowing his head. His body burns, like he’s sat far too long beside a fire. Lan Wangji presses a shaking hand to his feverish forehead, his eyes wide. Wei Wuxian forces himself to sit up and speak, if only to chase Lan Wangji’s fear away.

 

“Well.” He attempts a laugh. It comes out a pained, breathless wheeze. “I know what happened to her.”

 

And he folds forward into Lan Wangji’s arms.

 

*

 

He wakes again to guqin strings, a warm balm reverberating in his chest. Only stars light their clearing now. Wei Wuxian shifts, finds himself lying on his bedroll, wondering how long he’d been out this time.

 

The baby sleeps beside him. He lays a hand on her cheek. She left herself with just enough energy to stay corporeal.

 

Lan Wangji sets his hands on the strings, stopping the sound. He hurries to Wei Wuxian’s side.

 

“I’m alright,” Wei Wuxian says, even as Lan Wangji touches his forehead again. “I’m better.”

 

“You are. Your fever is gone.” He sighs, heavy, as if he hadn’t breathed all night.

 

Wei Wuxian takes the hand at his brow. “Lan Zhan, what did you see?”

 

Lan Wangji doesn’t pretend to misunderstand. “I only saw you. You seemed...confused, for a time. You didn't recognize me. Then your eyes cleared, and you began to play.”

 

Wei Wuxian looks away. He’d hoped his mindless nuzzling, the reliving of desperate hunger, had been all in his head.

 

“What did you see?” Lan Wangji asks, unfailingly gentle, not upset or frightened or angry.

 

“She died in a prison." Wei Wuxian lowers their hands to rest on the bedroll. "She must have belonged to one of the Wen sects. I could see the prison, the Jin guards...I saw the emblems on their robes. I didn’t recognize any of the prisoners, it was a different camp than the one Wen Qing and I..one it was too late to save. They were all elders and children, and their families.”

 

The injustice of it rises again in a hot prickle behind his eyes. Lan Wangji gives his hand a squeeze. Wei Wuxian turns his hand over, lets their palms meet, accepting his comfort.

 

“We’ll be there in a few more days,” Lan Wangji says. “Tonight you need to rest.”

 

“Fine by me. I feel like I could sleep for a year.”

 

Lan Wangji keeps looking at him like he’ll fade away before his eyes, so Wei Wuxian adds, “I haven’t taken in that much resentful energy since I first landed in the Burial Mounds. That’s all. It brought up things I thought died with me long ago.”

 

“You spoke to someone I couldn't hear. Was that part of it?”

 

Wei Wuxian nods.

 

“Do you want to talk about it?”

 

He gives a thin smile. “Do you want to hear it?”

 

“Always.”

 

Wei Wuxian once would have clung to a sliver of distance, something to shelter Lan Wangji from his jagged edges. Now he doesn’t know how he’d live without the whole of him bared to Lan Wangji’s light.

 

He tells all of it, his starveling months, his savage survival. Lan Wangji doesn’t look at him any differently as he speaks. No measure of love leaves his eyes. Wei Wuxian’s chest lightens with every word, a tightly-held secret finally unmoored.

 

He shivers after he falls silent. Without the baby’s unnatural heat he feels every chill touch of night.

 

Lan Wangji drops his hand and moves away. At the moment Wei Wuxian doesn't have the self restraint to bite back a sound of protest.

 

“I’ll be right back,” Lan Wangji says. He goes to Xiao Pingguo’s packs, grabs the spare blankets folded away there. He returns and lays the covers over Wei Wuxian, who squeezes his eyes shut tight to keep from doing something ridiculous. Something like crying. Something like telling Lan Wangji he loves him again.

 

A hand strokes the crown of his head, soothing and safe, until his eyes relax. A soft lullaby hum of their song guides him into sleep.

 

*

 

He wakes to rain drizzle on his blankets and Lan Wangji sitting cross-legged beside him, preparing a messenger.

 

“If she’s from the Wen clan,” he explains, “Sizhui should know. Wen Ning, too.”

 

Wei Wuxian nods. “They were taking some of the new juniors on a trip last you wrote, weren’t they? They should be together still.”

 

“Do you think they will be alright?”

 

“I don’t know. What if Wen Ning knows her?” Wei Wuxian sits straight, curling his legs up. “But it could be good for Sizhui to be here. He needs to feel connected to his family. To who he is.”

 

Lan Wangji gives him a soft look. “You understand.”

 

Wei Wuxian hugs his knees. “You know, I called my Uncle Jiang ‘father’ one time. Just the once. Shijie and Jiang Cheng did, after all, and I wanted to feel like I really belonged to them.” He sets his chin on his knee. “I used to try to get A-Yuan to call me something like that, but Wen Qing scolded me. She said it would confuse him.”

 

Lan Wangji smiles. “He called me a-die, once.”

 

Wei Wuxian lifts his head. A grin spreads across his face. “He did?”

 

“It was an accident. He was very embarrassed. But I never forgot it.”

 

“When?”

 

“He was six or seven, not long after my seclusion ended. We were still getting to know each other. I lifted him so he could reach a toy on my shelf and he said, ‘Thank you, a-die.’”

 

Wei Wuxian laughs. “That sweet little boy! You loved it, didn’t you?”

 

“I did. I wished...”

 

“What?”

 

“Nothing. It’s foolish.”

 

“No it’s not. I think if I had some kid to call me a-die now I wouldn’t ever get used to it. I would be a mess about it every single day.”

 

Lan Wangji’s smile grows, mysterious and fond. Then he pushes himself to his feet, moving to the edge of the clearing to send off his messenger.

 

*

 

Sizhui and Wen Ning meet them north of Jinlintai. Wei Wuxian waves when he spots them in the air, Wen Ning holding onto Sizhui on the back of his sword. They both look happy to reach solid ground.

 

“Master Wei,” Wen Ning greets, gripping Wei Wuxian’s shoulder to steady himself. “Hanguang-jun. It’s good to see you.”

 

“Yes, we--” Sizhui stops, putting a hand over his stomach.

 

“Here.” Lan Wangji goes to Xiao Pingguo, rummages until he finds their medicine bag. He pulls out a few pieces of candied ginger, handing them to Sizhui and Wen Ning.

 

“Thank you, Hanguang-jun.” Sizhui says, half embarrassed and half pleased. He turns to Wen Ning. “He’s kept these on hand for me since I was little.”

 

“So did my sister,” Wen Ning says, his voice fond with memory. “When she wasn’t making me drink her bitter medicines, anyway.”

 

Their reminiscing spreads a happy ache through his ribs. Wei Wuxian turns to fetch the baby from their tent, keeping away a warm spell of rain. The girl sits on his pillow, teething a toy, content.

 

“Is this her?”

 

Wei Wuxian turns at Sizhui’s voice over his shoulder. He holds the tent flap open so they can both climb in. Lan Wangji helps Wen Ning unpack their things outside.

 

Wei Wuxian scoops the baby up, sitting cross-legged on his bedroll. “Would you believe she didn’t like me at first? Now I can’t get her to leave me alone. Reminds me of another little one I once knew, hm?”

 

Sizhui laughs. “Not me. I always liked you, Master Wei.”

 

He settles across from Wei Wuxian, and his eyes land on the baby’s face. His brow furrows, like he’s trying to recall the answer to a difficult question in class. The girl reaches for him.

 

“You want to go to Sizhui?” Wei Wuxian asks, giving her a little bounce. “I should have known that sweet face would be irresistible to babies.”

 

The baby actually fusses, squirming away from Wei Wuxian, arms stretched toward Sizhui. His eyes haven’t left hers.

 

“Go on, then,” Wei Wuxian says, holding her out. “I’ve been replaced.”

 

Sizhui takes her, his grip stiff and unfamiliar under her arms. The baby coos in delight. Sizhui puts an arm under her, bringing her closer.

 

“Hello there,” he says politely.

 

The baby takes his face in her hands, swaying forward until she bites down on his nose.

 

Wei Wuxian laughs, but something strange passes over Sizhui’s face. Something haunted.

 

“Ge,” the girl babbles happily. “Ge, ge, ge, ge, ge.”

 

Sizhui puts a hand to the baby’s face, looks at her long and carefully.

 

“I think she likes you,” Wei Wuxian says. Sizhui doesn’t respond. “Sizhui?”

 

“A-Ju?” Sizhui whispers.

 

Wei Wuxian sits up. “A-Yuan? What is it?”

 

“Her name is Wen Ju.” Sizhui turns to him with soft, shining eyes. “This is my sister.”

 

*

 

Sizhui and Wen Ning sit with Wen Ju by the river, their voices hidden by rushing water. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji wait back beside the road, seated under the shade of a willow.

 

“Wen Qing told me once that A-Yuan had a sister,” Wei Wuxian says. “She never knew what happened to her--or their parents.”

 

Lan Wangji’s eyes fall to his lap. “After my seclusion, my brother accompanied me to a few of the prisons he learned about from Jin Guangyao. We played Rest at each of them. I thought we got them all, but...there must have been more than we knew.”

 

“It isn’t your fault.”

 

Lan Wangji nods. “Those responsible are long dead.”

 

Wei Wuxian watches Lan Wangji’s hands twist in his lap. “It doesn’t make it any easier, does it?”

 

“No. It doesn’t.”

 

At the riverside Wen Ning looks over his shoulder for a moment, giving the two of them a warm smile. Then his attention returns to Sizhui and Wen Ju, beaming in her brother’s arms. They exchange words meant only for them.

 

It never takes much for him to think of Jiang Yanli, her memory a sharp, steadfast companion. He thinks of her now, watching the Wens. Among other things, far too many things, Sizhui was robbed of a sister.

 

“Lan Zhan, I think I want to be a father.” It spills out of him under Lan Wangji’s patient attention, under the fullness of everything happening today. “Not now, not yet, I...I need to settle some things first. I need to talk to Jiang Cheng and know where we stand. I can’t be like I was when A-Yuan was young.”

 

Wei Wuxian looks up at Lan Wangji, who doesn’t interrupt, who gives him space to sort his thoughts.

 

“I would’ve really messed him up. It’s lucky he had you.”

 

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “I could have too, Wei Ying, just as easily. I believe…”

 

Wei Wuxian leans closer. “What is it?”

 

“I never spoke of my grief with him, but I believe he could sense it. He always tried to make things easier for me. It wasn’t his responsibility. I should have been better for him.“

 

Wei Wuxian knows it won’t do any good to assuage him of guilt. He knows all too well. “We were too young.”

 

“We were.”

 

“Well, I’d like to get it right, if I got another chance. Besides, I need someone to tend my grave one day and keep me rich and happy in the next life.” He breathes deep in the rain-rich air, settling his shoulders back against the willow bark. He tries to make his next words casual. “But what about you? Would you want to go through that again? Bringing up a kid?"

 

"Yes."

 

Wei Wuxian turns, taken aback by the quick response. "Really?"

 

"His questions challenged my own thinking. It was very rewarding "

 

“Didn’t hurt that he was so damn cute, hm?”

 

Lan Wangji smiles. “It didn’t hurt.”

 

The Wens stand. Sizhui hands Wen Ju to Wen Ning, who sets her feet on the ground, holding her hands for support. They walk among the reeds with her, enjoying her careful steps, their remaining time with her.

 

"The house I’m building...there would be room for a kid one day.” Wei Wuxian gathers his courage, building under the sweet, slow blink of Lan Wangji’s eyes. “And...you, if--”

 

They both look up at the sound of approaching footsteps. Sizhui laughs as they make their way back up the bank.

 

“She keeps trying to bite my nose,” Sizhui says. “I don’t remember much from the days before...but I remember that.”

 

“It would be hard to forget,” Wen Ning says.

 

He looks happy with Wen Ju in his arms, his skin less pallid in the gold-green glow of afternoon. They both look so happy. Wei Wuxian can hardly bear to look, and he can't look away.

 

Lan Wangji stands with some reluctance, some worry. “You’re ready, then?”

 

Sizhui takes a long look at his sister, comfortable in Wen Ning’s arms. “We’re ready.”

 

*

 

They reach the prison the next morning, nothing but abandoned ruins now. Wei Wuxian feels it long before they see it, an old suffering that scratches at his skin. Shapes rise from the black mist circling the ruins, but there’s no screaming, no lashing out. Any resentment cools at Wen Ju’s return.

 

Wei Wuxian touches her head one last time. There’s hardly anything left to touch, her skin translucent and cool. She’s calm now, like she knows her rest is coming. She’s waited so long.

 

Lan Wangji goes to Sizhui’s side. “You don’t have to be here for this.”

 

“Thank you, Hanguang-jun. But I do.”

 

Sizhui sinks to the ground first. Wen Ju lies in his lap as he summons his guqin, fingers poised on the strings. Then Lan Wangji sits beside him with his own. With a shared look, they begin to play.

 

Wei Wuxian pulls out his flute, joining them in the soft notes. The energy before them relaxes and stills, already quieted by Wen Ju’s presence. Wen Ning stands firm at Wei Wuxian’s side, his eyes following the gentle weave of black mist.

 

Wen Ju falls asleep in Sizhui’s lap, tiny fingers curled in his robes. Then she begins to fade, more air than body. Something tightens in Sizhui’s face but his hands never falter. Wen Ning inhales sharply at his side.

 

They play until the last sight of Wen Ju is her thin hair brushing against Sizhui’s robes in the breeze. Then it too is gone.

 

The lingering energy rises, dissipates, drifting west toward Qishan before disappearing into the morning. Wei Wuxian feels it when they’re gone entirely, far beyond any reach. Finally at rest.

 

Lan Wangji and Sizhui store their guqins away. Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning extend hands, helping them to their feet. The four of them stand together in the sorrow and the peace, the only sound the hushed whisper of ferns overtaking the ruins. Then they turn back to the road.

 

*

 

They stop in a field before separating, wide open to the sky. Lan Wangji sits with Sizhui as he prepares and releases a red phoenix messenger. Wei Wuxian turns to Wen Ning.

 

“Did you teach him that?”

 

“I did.” Wen Ning smiles, proud. “My sister taught me after we left Dafan, so we could communicate in case we were separated.”

 

“A smart woman.” Wei Wuxian lays a hand on his shoulder. “Wen Ning. Are you okay?”

 

Wen Ning nods. “Without this I never would’ve known what happened to her, or my cousin and his wife. They...do you think…?”

 

“When Wen Ju showed me the prison, I saw a woman holding her. Her parents must have been there with her.”

 

Something relaxes in the set of Wen Ning’s brow. “Then they’re at rest now.”

 

Sizhui rejoins them, Lan Wangji at his side. Wei Wuxian slings his free arm around Sizhui’s shoulder, drawing both Wens close.

 

“And how are you?” he asks.

 

“I’m alright, Master Wei,” Sizhui says, with the careful patience of someone already asked this a dozen times by Lan Wangji. He carries his sword in hand, ready to fly. “I never got to say goodbye to the rest of them. I’m glad I...”

 

Wei Wuxian squeezes his shoulder when his voice stalls. Sizhui leans into his side. He meets Lan Wangji’s eyes over Sizhui’s head and wonders how much older he’ll get before either of them stop fretting over him.

 

“Come by and see me soon, alright?” He turns to Wen Ning. “Both of you?”

 

“Of course, Master Wei.”

 

“And I’ll cook for you! Well, Hanguang-jun will cook for you, I know my--”

 

He stops, realizing his slip, how swiftly he fell into his fantasy. Lan Wangji nods before he can smooth over his words.

 

“I’ll cook,” he says.

 

Lan Wangji offers a firefly flash of a smile only Wei Wuxian sees. Belief blooms fast and warm, spreading through him, taking root.

 

Sizhui tugs at Lan Wangji’s sleeve, drawing them all into an embrace. Wei Wuxian tightens his arms around the three of them, his chest swelling with summer air and love and the soft sound of grass waving at their legs.

 

Lan Wangji sends them off with candied ginger before they take to the sky. And then they’re alone again, the two of them.

 

This time Lan Wangji is the one to turn to him, eyes full of a quiet hope. This time Lan Wangji is the one to ask where the road will take them. If it will take them together.

 

This time Wei Wuxian smiles, taking his arm. “You promised to see the house. Let’s go.”

 

*

 

The road back is quiet without Wen Ju, and full with all she left them.

 

They agree to take her toys to the children's home on their way back. Lan Wangji turns the wooden bear over in his hands as they lie close one night, running a thumb along the marks from her tiny teeth, a print of her presence left on the world.

 

They write letters to Sizhui and Wen Ning every day. Wei Wuxian comforts himself with knowing they have each other. Still he worries, just a little. He always will, to let pieces of his heart wander the earth so freely.

 

Lan Wangji makes no mention of his plans beyond seeing the house, and Wei Wuxian doesn’t ask. The thought of goodbye feels far out of reach, hidden by sunlit canopies, silenced by easy conversation. Wei Wuxian won’t be the one to disturb their peace with questions. Not yet.

 

*

 

Most of the village swarms the road when they crest the hill. His nearest neighbor is the one to greet them, an elderly woman who winks at Wei Wuxian when she spots his company.

 

“Hanguang-jun,” she says, bowing low. “Master Wei has told us so many stories about you.”

 

The villagers behind her make thoroughly unhelpful sounds of agreement. Lan Wangji returns her bow, a flustered sort of smile passing over his lowered face.

 

“Ah ha,” Wei Wuxian says quickly, taking Lan Wangji’s arm and pulling him along. “Well, thank you, Auntie, but our poor Hanguang-jun has had a long journey, we must get him some rest.”

 

Lan Wangji allows himself to be dragged along the path. “So many stories?”

 

“All good ones,” Wei Wuxian says, waving a dismissive hand. “What are you worried about?”

 

They reach the house around the bend. For the first time Wei Wuxian is hit with a small twist of nerves. The house suits him fine, would suit any village child fine. He finds the small layout cozy and comfortable. But Lan Wangji was accustomed to roomy, airy elegance. Everything Wei Wuxian’s house wouldn’t be.

 

He goes to stable Xiao Pingguo, to give himself a moment of cover. Then he returns to Lan Wangji's side.

 

“Well, what do you think?” Wei Wuxian gives his arm a squeeze, feigning relaxation. “Not quite as grand as my old palace, but at least it’ll be cleaner, right?”

 

“You are a true artist.”

 

Wei Wuxian blinks. “What?”

 

Lan Wangji turns to him. “The drawing you sent me. You captured this beautifully. Not only the framework, but the spirit...this is a home.”

 

“Oh. Well.” He clears his throat. “Thank you.”

 

“It’s perfect, Wei Ying.”

 

“Alright, alright. It doesn’t even have a full roof yet.”

 

“May I help?”

 

“Help?”

 

“Help finish the roof.”

 

He becomes aware he hasn’t released Lan Wangji’s arm. He isn’t sure his legs could hold him if he did. “Lan Zhan.”

 

“Yes?”

 

“You want to help me finish the roof.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“And you want to cook when Sizhui and Wen Ning come to visit.”

 

“Yes.”

 

There’s quiet encouragement in Lan Wangji’s eyes. Wei Wuxian lets it carry him upward. “What else?”

 

“Anything you want, Wei Ying.”

 

“Anything I want?” He hums thoughtfully, matching the hum of his heart, loud in his ribs. “You have no idea how much I want.”

 

“Then tell me.”

 

Lan Wangji was not a man to bend to another’s will. Wei Wuxian reminds himself of this, lets it settle and sink deep into his heart.

 

“Lan Zhan, you don’t have to stay. But if you could, I’d like that. I’d like that so much.”

 

Lan Wangji turns his eyes toward the open land. “There’s space for a loquat tree.”

 

“What?”

 

Lan Wangji shifts closer, pointing at a space beyond the stable. “There. Do you see it?”

 

Wei Wuxian nods, his hair brushing Lan Wangji’s cheek. “I see it.”

 

“We never could get them to grow right in Cloud Recesses. I’ve always wanted one.”

 

“Lan Zhan.” He can’t take this. “What are you saying?”

 

Lan Wangji takes Wei Wuxian’s face in his hands. He stretches up, kisses away the worry between Wei Wuxian’s brows. Wei Wuxian grips his wrists, desperate for an anchor, something to steady him as the sky sways around them.

 

“I’d like that, too,” Lan Wangji says.

 

“Ah, good. Good, good.”

 

There’s more he could say, more he should say, but something dangerous wells behind his eyes. He pulls Lan Wangji close, holding him, hiding against his shoulder. Lan Wangji holds him back.

 

He never learned how to take Lan Wangji’s sweetness, the wide bounty of his heart, all at once. He supposes he’ll have to figure it out now.

 

And Lan Wangji, as it turns out, does want that lovely mouth of his kissed.

 

They sleep beneath the stars that night. In the morning they build a roof together. It exceeds his dreams, how easily Lan Wangji fits into this life he created, one stream joining another on a paired path to the sea.

 

A light lavender dusk drapes over the land as they finish, stepping away from the house to bask in their efforts. Wei Wuxian loves the ache of a day’s work in his limbs, the cooling air against his skin, flushed with exertion. On the surface Lan Wangji looks little changed, his hair and clothes somehow barely rumpled, but there’s a contentment in him Wei Wuxian feels down to his own marrow.

 

He wraps an arm around Lan Wangji’s waist, tugging him close. “What do you see?”

 

Lan Wangji looks out at the land, the yard and fields and framework, a sketch waiting for paint. His mouth softens in the sunset glow. “What do you see, Wei Ying?”

  

Wei Wuxian looks out at the earth beyond the house, ripe for tilling. The sight brings back echoes of Sizhui when he was young, hanging onto Wei Wuxian’s shoulders as he pulled weeds from dustier soil, his giggles ringing in Wei Wuxian’s ear. When he let himself believe he could cling to those moments forever.

 

He sees children like Wen Ju, the brief months of her life spent in fear. Children like himself, fighting for scraps in the streets.

 

In time he could provide an upbringing they never had, a home where they would be kept safe and fed, where they never would have cause to question their belonging.

 

All they had to do was build it.

 

Lan Wangji lowers his head onto his shoulder, a blithe and buoyant weight, and Wei Wuxian doesn’t have to answer. The land fills both their eyes with its colors. He knows Lan Wangji can see it too.