“Some say that the Black Rabbit hates us and wants our destruction. But the truth is—or so they taught me—that he, too, serves Lord Frith and does no more than his appointed task”
“We go by the will of the black rabbit. when he calls you, you have to go.”
Wangji made his way down the burrow navigating by the brush of his whiskers against the dirt on either side or the air when they didn’t touch. Even then he didn’t strictly need them to navigate. He had been born in these runs, spent his first few days moving blindly along them with his brother and mother. This was the way that his mother had always taken them to go out to silflay. He knew all of the runs and burrows, it was what came naturally to him after living in the Lan warren since birth.
He paused for a moment, his ears twitching as he caught part of a conversation further down another burrow. He turned his head, listening to the sounds of voices before pushing on. He only had a short time before he was expected to take his place on the patrol. He was only a junior member of the Owsla but he was expected to pull his weight like he had already been promoted up the ranks, probably because he was the nephew of the chief rabbit. It would not do for him to be late. Even still, he wanted to see his mother before he went up.
Mingqin had been feeling poorly over the last few days, the scent of sickness was heavy on her. Wangji had been kept away until the others had determined that it wasn’t the White Blindness or something equally as infectious. But it wasn’t that; it was something deep inside her, something large and rotting her from the inside.
Wangji shuddered at the thought and pushed himself forward. He and Xichen had been Mingqin’s last litter, and they were still close despite being a year old. She was the only one who didn’t seem to think him strange for being quiet, even for a rabbit.
He made his way around a curve, speeding up slightly when he felt the draft of air that meant that he was around the cluster of burrows. Does generations ago had dug them out so they had a large space to chew pellets and talk, even when others had litters to look after.
Wangji expected it to be empty of rabbits, considering the fine weather and the fact that everyone had taken to avoiding Mingqin out of respect or fear. Sometimes he couldn’t tell.
Instead, he could sense three rabbits ahead.
Wangji paused, sniffing cautiously. He recognized the smell of his mother, dirt and geraniums along with the sweet scent of sickness. It was strong enough to practically cover the scents of the other two rabbits, Wangji having to work to get the next one. For the span of a heartbeat, he didn’t smell anything, but then he finally smelled the delicate scent of lotus. Wangji wrinkled his nose, considering the scent for a moment.
It wasn’t familiar, and he knew all of the rabbits in the Lan warren. But he couldn’t imagine how a stranger would have gotten past the Owsla and the rest of the rabbits grazing outside.
He hesitated for a moment before taking a cautious hop forward. “Who’s there?”
The low conversation between the two rabbits stopped, Wangji glaring in their direction. When neither of them answered, he took a slow hop forward, focusing on the scent he knew the best. “Mingqin?”
Silence followed his question, Wangji flattening his ears. He shifted in place, ready to question them again when the rabbit that smelled of lotus spoke. “Lan Zhan.”
The rabbit’s voice echoed oddly, almost enough that he missed his mother’s gasp. But all of that was buried within his own irritation.
He didn’t know this rabbit, nor was this rabbit part of the warren or litter. They had no right to call him by his kitten name. That was for his mother and his brother alone.
Wangji shifted, wishing that he could turn to show how the other had offended him, but that would be counterproductive. This was an intruder deep in their warren and among their does.
“You’re very bold.” The other rabbit approached, Wangji feeling his hind legs tense, although he wasn’t sure if it was the right moment to spring towards the rabbit or risk turning away. In the burrow he couldn’t quite get the measure of him, only that he was as dark as the deeper runs and that he was a rabbit in his prime. Wangji couldn’t smell any disease or hardship on him. In fact, it was like he brought his own scent and nothing else.
Wangji startled back when their whiskers brushed, surprised by how close the other rabbit was. He jerked back with a warning grunt, relieved when the strange rabbit finally listened. They didn’t back away though, remaining standing in the mouth of the burrow. Wangji felt like he was being looked over and sized up, although it only lasted for a moment more before he heard the rabbit turn away. “Very bold. You must be proud of him."
His mother didn’t answer, which seemed to suit the stranger just fine.
Wangji heard him sit down before he heard the familiar sounds of grooming, although the soft rustle of fur didn’t quite sound right. It was easy enough to ignore in the wake of his irritation.
“What are you doing here?”
“Oh, this and that. But it’s really none of your business.”
The rabbit sounded smug, which was just as annoying as everything else. Wangji huffed, sitting up as much as the burrow would allow. “It is my business.”
“So scary, Lan Zhan.”
He tensed at his kitten name again. “Don’t call me that.”
“Why not? We’re so very close.”
Wangji thumped a hind foot before he could stop himself. “Not close.”
“But we are.” The rabbit whined, shifting forward. “We’re very close, believe me.”
“Who are you?”
“Call me Wei Ying.”
It was another kitten name, the shock of it making him lean back. It was improper, and baffling. For the life of him, he couldn’t remember another warren that called itself Wei. There were four other warrens within travelling distance of the Lan warren, if any rabbit was inclined to travel. There was every chance that it could be further out, but it didn’t make sense why one rabbit would come so far to visit their warren and talk with his mother.
Wangji leaned forward until they were practically nose-to-nose. “Who are you?”
“I told you. I’m Wei Ying.” The rabbit backed up. “You should listen better, Lan Zhan.”
“Stop calling me that.”
“We’re not close.” Wangji bumped into Wei Ying. For a moment, he felt the rabbit yield for a moment before Wei Ying was leaning into him, which was not the reaction that he expected. It brought Wei Ying into range of his teeth and claws, which was a stupid move on his part. But Wei Ying didn’t seem worried. In fact, he seemed amused.
Wei Ying leaned into him for a moment before Wangji felt him shift. Then, he felt a weight against him. It took him a moment to figure out that Wei Ying was pressing his chin against him, squeezing the scent glands there to spread his scent over him.
Wangji skittered back, forgetting himself and turning in his irritation. He turned his back to Wei Ying, holding the position for a moment before looking back slightly at him.
He could almost feel the amusement flowing off of Wei Ying as the rabbit sat in the run. It only lasted for a moment before Wei Ying was inching forward again. He grunted low in response, that seeming to just encourage Wei Ying all the more.
“Don’t be like that, Lan Zhan.” He started as Wei Ying nudged at his back, surprised as Wei Ying wiggled close, practically squishing himself to fit into the burrow with him. “I was hoping that we could be friends, not to insult you.”
“I apologized for that.” Wei Ying didn’t sound apologetic, and he certainly didn’t act like it. He kept squeezing in until he was in a position to nudge and nuzzle at Wangji’s shoulder. He couldn’t move away from the affection, but he did turn his head away, which only seemed to encourage Wei Ying all the more. “Let me make it up to you. Join my Owsla.”
Wangji swung his head around to glare at Wei Ying, but the rabbit didn’t seem to notice. Wei Ying seemed to preoccupied nuzzling into his fur. “It’s a great honor.”
“I’m needed here.”
Wei Ying made an unhappy noise, pressing up against him for a moment more before pulling away. Wangji was surprised by his retreat after he had seemed to ignore everything before.
He remained facing away for a moment more before cautiously turning, surprised to hear Wei Ying moving off. There was a moment of silence and then he heard his mother following after him.
Wangji turned around, surprise keeping him frozen. Not only had Wei Ying traveled all the way to their warren, but he was leaving with an old, sick doe. It didn’t make sense and it was nothing that he was prepared for.
Shock only held him for a moment longer before he was bursting into a run, racing through the burrows as he followed the familiar scent of his mother and the lotus scent of Wei Ying. The latter was easy enough to follow, Wangji weaving his way through the maze of burrows before he burst outside and into the light.
Wangji came out a stop just a stride outside the hole, panting as he looked around. He didn’t dare go further out without a thorough check of his surroundings. The warren might have been dug into a hill where humans and other elil didn’t normally venture, but that didn’t mean that he should just run into the open. A thriving warren was bound to draw some sort of attention.
He dropped into a partial crouch, scanning the open ground. There were other rabbits grazing on the grass, alternately nibbling and raising their heads to look around them. Further out were the familiar shapes of the Owsla on alert and partially standing guard as they grazed. But he couldn’t see his mother, nor could he see the other rabbit. He knew most of the Lan rabbits by sight, their lighter brown, grey and cream fur recognizable. Anyone else would have stood out.
Wangji took a few cautious steps out, rising up to sniff at the air to chase the scent of lotus, but it was hard when he could smell it on himself.
He dropped back to the ground and gave himself a shake, not that it would help get the scent off. Only a good grooming would do that, or a roll in the dirt, and he didn’t have the time.
Wangji came forward a little bit more, pausing when he saw rabbits coming his way. He stayed still, breathing out when he recognized his brother and the chief rabbit.
He averted his gaze, dipping himself down slightly. “Qiren-rah. Xichen.”
“Wangji.” Qiren came to a stop, his paws shifting in the grass before he went still. It was a hint of some kind of nervousness, just like the way that his ears wouldn’t quite focus on him. “We were looking for you.”
Wangji perked up a bit, glancing over at his brother. Xichen shook his head slightly, his ears drooping. It was unlike his brother, who was generally cheerful. Wangji scooted closer to his brother, nudging him. “Xichen?”
“It’s mother.” Xichen took a deep breath, his whole body shaking with it. “She’s stopped running.”
Wangji stared at him before looking over at Qiren. The older rabbit looked equally as gloomy, his head bowing slightly. If the two of them had found her, then they had already given her the rites that all rabbits gave their dead, a moment of remembrance before they were tucked away in memories.
Wangji shuffled back, looking between the two of them before turning and darting down the burrow. He heard his brother call to him, but he was too busy running back down to where he had met his mother and the strange rabbit.
It was easy enough to find, Wangji sliding to an awkward stop and sniffing. The scent of both his mother and Wei Ying were still there and still strong since it had hardly been any time since they had left. But something was wrong, his mother’s scent was too strong, like she was still there.
Wangji lowered his head, sniffing along as he carefully inched forward towards his mother’s burrow. It didn’t take long before his whiskers were brushing over something lying in the burrow.
He jerked back, licking his lips before leaning over again. It was his mother, he recognized her scent, but there was something different about it. The faint scent of sickness had faded slightly, leaving the scent of death. Still, he nudged her twice before sitting back, panting as he tried to make sense of what had happened.
Mingqin smelled like a rabbit that had been dead for a while, not fresh, but not enough to start to rot. Wangji wrinkled his nose, reaching up to rub at it. Instinct told him that she must be taken away from the warren, but that came after.
“Wangji.” His brother whispered for him before coming up beside him, Xichen nuzzling him before sitting beside him. “I was with her through the night, she wanted to talk. She asked me to find you, but you were already going out to patrol.”
Wangji nodded. “I was coming to visit her before I started.”
“You might have just missed her.”
He shook his head, because he hadn’t. She had been here, she and Wei Ying. And then they had been gone. He dug his claws into the soil, using the touch to ground him. It wasn’t something that made sense.
For a moment, he was tempted to tell his brother that he hadn’t, but he wasn’t sure that Xichen would believe him. Sitting here, he wasn’t sure he believed himself either. What he was seen was too farfetched.
The two of them sat in silence for a moment before Xichen nudged him. “Come. We should alert the Owsla to have them take care of this.”
Wangji nodded, letting his brother go ahead of him. He listened to the steady sound of Xichen moving up the burrow and back to the surface, and the sounds of life that followed him. Wangji looked around the confluence of burrows, breathing in the scent of his mother and the faint, lingering scent of lotus before turning around and following.
“Wisdom is found on the desolate hillside... where none comes to feed.”
The river had flooded higher than it ever had in living memory, and Wangji would know. It was all the warren had been able to talk about since the Jiang warren had come straggling in, soaked and shaken. When the river had rose, they had retreated to their usual burrows, but then it had kept rising until it had swept out one of their patrols.
Wangji rose to his hindlegs, staring at the rushing expanse. He could make out the other side, as well as some stones that were just above the floodwaters, but he didn’t like his chances of trying them. He huffed and sunk back down, pausing to groom.
The Lan warren had enough room to host the rabbits that had been driven out by the flood, but not forever. Everyone was waiting anxiously for the water to drop so the two warrens could go their separate ways. Wangji was looking forward to being able to move without bumping into another rabbit with every step or breaking up scuffles. The posturing of the Jiang Owsla he could do without as well.
He stretched up, his nose twitching as he tried to find something above the scent of flood water and all of the things caught in it. Wangji sneezed, reaching up to rub at his nose. What he smelled was a lot of rot and mud. It was not good for standing out in the open, but he had been asked to patrol.
Wangji dropped his paws, looking around before turning and hopping slowly along the river. The Jiang burrows were behind him and covered, but the young chief rabbit had sworn that there were others at various levels up towards the Lan warren. If he could find some of them, then there was a chance that they could spread themselves out a bit more. But he couldn’t imagine any of the rabbits wanting to stay so close to the fast-flowing water, or the scent of the flood. There would be no way to tell if elil were coming.
He sneezed to clear his nose before turning to look back. There were two other rabbits of his patrol, but they must have found something to fully occupy their attention. Maybe Minshan and Danxiao had found one of the half-remembered burrows. Then again, it seemed quite far from the warren, and probably not as extensive as Wanyin-rah wanted. Wanji eyed the river again. It was still rushing, and quite close to where he had left the other two, which meant that Wanyin-rah would probably refuse.
The title of chief rabbit sat heavily on him, and he was nervous about it. He wouldn’t lead his warren into anything that remotely smelled of danger.
Wangji let his gaze linger on the river before shaking his head. He couldn’t stay out in the open for too much longer. There was bound to be something dead along the flooded river, which would attract elil. He was tempted to turn back and call for the others, and turn around. They could search again on the way back.
He went to turn when he caught the scent of something that wasn’t the water or the rotting things in it. It took him a moment to place it, his nose twitching at the scent of lotus before he heard someone shout for him.
Wangji turned despite himself, surprised to see a black rabbit sitting a short distance away from him on the shore. Wangji dropped down to all four paws, stretching out to sniff in the rabbit’s direction. He had never seen the rabbit, or one with a coat so black. It looked like a shadow that had been shaped into a rabbit. The rabbit’s fur should have looked strange and flat, but instead it looked sleek and well kept.
The rabbit popped up onto its hindlegs, holding himself there before dropping down and breaking into a wild series of hops that had him twisting in the air.
The rabbit bounded over him like that, looking like a mad thing with the twisting and head shaking that he was doing. Wangji quickly stepped back, watching in shock as the other rabbit carried on until they were practically nose to nose. “Lan Zhan.”
The familiar voice and scent were what jolted him out of his shock, Wangji staring at the rabbit before turning around. He heard the rabbit make a disappointed sound, but only allowed himself to look over his shoulder. It was giving more than he wanted to, but he didn’t want to leave the rabbit completely at his back.
Wei Ying had pressed himself to the ground, his head down and stretched forward slightly, asking for something. Unfortunately, he didn’t remain that way. As soon as he looked, Wei Ying bounced back to his feet and stepped forward. “Lan Zhan, I thought you would be happy to see me.”
Wangji stared at him for a long moment so shifting so his back was to Wei Ying again. It didn’t seem to discourage him because Wei Ying circled around him so they were nose to nose.
Wangji recoiled, his nose twitching quickly as he found himself face to face with Wei Ying. He meant to take a step back, but Wei Ying was leaning in until their noses were touching and whispers brushing. The touch was enough to still him, Wangji holding his ground as Wei Ying sniffed at him.
He expected the other rabbit to back off as soon as he was satisfied, but Wei Ying shifted to lick him.
Wangji hopped back in surprise, holding himself tense as he stared at Wei Ying.
On his part, Wei Ying just looked confused. “Where are you going?” He stepped forward, cutting the distance between them again. “I thought we were close.”
“Not close.” It was true, considering that he had only seen Wei Ying twice, but the words didn’t have the right bite. They didn’t sound convincing to his ears, and certainly not to Wei Ying because he came closer.
There was something about the lack of distance between them that made his heart pound. He was used to other rabbits in close quarters, but in those situations he could still leave. Wangji didn’t think that he would be able to do that with Wei Ying. Even if Wei Ying put physical distance between the two of them, he would still be there, close enough that all Wangji could smell was lotus.
He didn’t realize that he was shaking until he felt the first lick.
Wangji looked up at Wei Ying in shock, watching as the rabbit sat back at bit, studying him closely. The terrifying realization was gentled by the grey eyes that watched him.
Wei Ying kept still for a moment before starting to groom him again. It was out of the line, because Wangji had not asked for it, but he found himself settling under it all the same. It wasn’t enough to completely lay on his side, but enough for him to tuck his feet under him and lay down. Wei Ying followed him down, not stopping his gentle grooming.
Wangji didn’t dare take his eyes off of Wei Ying, even as the rabbit settled with him. He could see Wei Ying’s fur close to him, searching for any kind of patterning. He was used to rabbits in dark browns and greys, something that would make them appear black. But instead the hair was black all the way down and soft like the hutch rabbits that he had seen every once and a while. This was not a rabbit who spent his life in the elements.
Nor did he seem to have a care for proper etiquette, or any fear, because Wei Ying was shifting to lay beside him. He stretched out, hindlegs stuck carelessly out and too far away to run.
Wangji look at him, watching for any sign of fear or insanity in his eye, but it remained calm and gentle. It was enough to get him to start to relax despite of himself. His head nodded down a little bit, going from alert to almost asking for more. He heard Wei Ying make a pleased sound before moving up to the base of his ears.
He relaxed into the grooming, not realizing that he had slipped out of his careful position into something more relaxed until Wei Ying had to move. He moved away as Wangji flopped to his side.
Wangji had a brief moment of panic when he realized that he was flat on his side, practically on his back. It was the worst position to be in out in the open. Anything could come and he wouldn’t be able to get to his feet fast enough to run. But he wasn’t worried about it. Even as his heart pounded in panic, he felt calm. He had no way to escape or run, but it was fine.
He was lulled into something like sleep, Wangji very aware of the sound of their breathing and heartbeats. Or was it his? He couldn’t tell either way.
His ear flicked when he felt Wei Ying sigh in it. “I’ve come on too strong, haven’t I Lan Zhan?”
Wangji found that he couldn’t answer, the most he could do was flick his ear. Wei Ying licked the edge of it before settling partially on him. It was a closeness that he wasn’t sure if he liked, but moving seemed to be the worse option. It was better to drift and settle with Wei Ying’s weight partially on top of him, listening as the rabbit talked.
“You surprised me then, I didn’t expect you. And then you didn’t back down. Not many rabbits have done that.”
“What have they done?”
“Run mostly.” Even with that admission, Wei Ying sounded more amused than anything. “Or start asking questions. More of them are more ready to follow when I ask.”
“I’ve made that offer many times.” Wei Ying continued like he hadn’t heard the question, and Wangji was relieved for some reason. Wei Ying leaned down for a few more licks before settling himself again. “You’re the only one that’s told me no.”
“No. Apparently I’m hard to refuse.”
Wangji twisted his head slightly to look at Wei Ying. There was nothing in his face that looked like a lie, but he didn’t know him well enough. And, as it was, it was hard to tell anything from the usual signs. Things were strange.
He let his head drop, Wangji staring at the river. It seemed to be moving slower, or at a further distance. His foot twitched, Wangji not sure if it was something telling him to run or if it was just him trying to get comfortable. He stretched his toes, freezing in the middle of the motion when Wei Ying rolled off of him.
He turned to look at Wei Ying as the rabbit resettled himself by his head. Without Wei Ying leaning against him, some of the peace went away, but not all of it.
Wangji went to prop himself up, only getting to his front legs when Wei Ying looked at him. The intensity of his gaze held Wangji still. Wei Ying stared at him for a long time, longer than any other rabbit would. Then, he tipped his head to the side. “Do you not like me?”
Wangji blinked slowly, trying to haul his mind from the mire that it was stuck in. “I don’t know you.”
“But you do. And I know you.” Wei Ying studied him again before stretching his head out, like he was inviting Wangji to groom him. Wangji was moving before he thought about it, only the sound of Wei Ying’s voice stopping him.
“Come with me. Join my Owsla.”
Wangji carefully pulled his leg back in, watching Wei Ying. The offer was tempting for reasons he couldn’t quite identify, but he had his own duties to consider. He still had to gather up the rest of his patrol and go back to tell his brother about the burrows and try to sort out all of the trouble that would come with the Jiang rabbits staying with them.
He blinked slowly, the lassitude clawing him back. Like this, it was even more tempting to say yes. Except that he couldn’t get the word out. He was relaxed and feeling sleepy, but his heart was still pounding hard He took a deep breath, just managing to get gasp the word out. “No.”
“No? Again?” Wei Ying sighed, resting his head on his legs. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, you’re very brave to keep refusing.”
“I cannot come. I have duties at home.”
“Very responsible.” Wei Ying’s ears flicked, Wangji sure that it was amusement, although it didn’t last long. Wei Ying turned his head, looking in the opposite direction of the river.
Wangji stared at him for a moment before turning to look in the same direction, his hind legs kicking uselessly when he saw the fox standing there.
The fox was looking at the two of them, one eye bright at the other one in shadow and missing. It must have come down to the river to find carrion, but it had found them instead.
Wangji shivered when the fox crouched. He kicked out again, finally fighting off the calm enough to start moving. He started to tuck his legs underneath him only to stop as Wei Ying reached out a forepaw to rest over one of his. Wangji looked at Wei Ying, the other rabbit holding his gaze for a moment before turning his head.
“He is mine, homba. Not yours.” The fox growled, Wangji surprised when Wei Ying mimicked the sound. The fox seemed just as startled, turning its head to look at them with its one good eye. The hesitation seemed to be what Wei Ying wanted, because he moved forward, his gait a predator’s prowl “I see you, San Lang. Go back to your den and your prince. There’s no reason for us to argue.”
To Wangji’s surprise the fox stopped short. Its lips twitched for a moment in something like amusement before it turned and rushed away.
Wei Ying watched it go for a moment before turning back to him, Wangji hopping to his feet when he saw that Wei Ying’s eyes were blood red.
It was only there for a moment before they were back to grey. Wei Ying stared at him with a cocked head before resettling himself.
Wangji watched as he stretched and shook himself, trying to work out what he had just seen, but it was difficult.
Everything was a bit strange, although the calm that he had felt was fading now. The shock of how close the fox was made him dig his claws into the ground. Wangji feeling himself start to pant before he pulled himself back together. The fox was gone, leaving him with Wei Ying.
He looked up at the rabbit, watching as Wei Ying hopped casually to the edge of the swollen river and peered in. Wangji heard a splash as Wei Ying pawed at the water before the rabbit sat back, shaking out his paw. “It doesn’t look like its done yet.”
“Mm.” Wangji levered himself upright, wobbling at bit. He was surprised at the weakness in his legs, staring down at them for a moment.
He took a cautious hop forward, expecting them to give out, but the held him. In that moment, he felt strong and the frantic beat of his heart was just a sign that he was alive. He scuffed his paws across the grass, feeling the blades brush against his fur in a kind of awe. He was alive and, for a moment, had forgotten how that had felt.
Wangji turned to look over at Wei Ying, unsure how to take the look of distress on his face. Wei Ying’s ears flopped back, the rabbit looking downcast. “I…I shouldn’t bother you anymore.”
The best answer would be to nod and send Wei Ying on his way. Everything had been improper, and he should be insulted, but the idea of not seeing him again was strangely unpalatable.
He tapped a hindfoot against the ground, not enough for a proper thump but enough to get Wei Ying’s attention. Under that attention, he floundered for words for a moment before taking a step forward. “You do not bother me.”
Wei Ying perked up, immediately capering over to him. Wangji braced himself slightly, ready to be lulled into that calm only for Wei Ying to bounce over to his side. Wangji turned his head in time to see Wei Ying rubbing his chin along his back.
It was another presumption, one that Wangji treated with a huff and a flick of one foot.
Wei Ying bounced away, Wangji watching him twist happily in the air before coming down. Even then he seemed to be vibrating in place, ready to go rushing away. It made the stillness from before like something out of a half-remembered dream.
Wei Ying capered for a moment longer before he remembered something. He came to a stop, the stillness settling over him for a moment before he shook it off and he was back to his usual self.
He looked back over at Wangji, his ears perked forward. “I have to go now, unless…you want to take me up on my offer?”
Wangji shook his head, turning slightly back towards where he had left the other two. “I have to go. My duties…”
Wei Ying sighed, sounding more frustrated than anything. “You are one of the most stubborn rabbits I have ever met. But suit yourself, I’ll get what you want. I’m persuasive.” Wei Ying puffed out his chest slightly. “Until next time, Lan Zhan. Jiang Que, come.”
Wangji started at the kitten name, only then realizing that there was another rabbit.
The rabbit was crouched by the river, staring at it in shock, or maybe it was awe. Jiang Que patted at the water before jerking his paw away and scurrying back to Wei Ying. He almost cowered behind the black rabbit, which was practically amusing considering that he was twice Wei Ying’s size. He was large, either built that way or made larger by the volume of his fur.
Jiang Que bobbed his head before Wei Ying was shoving him to the side. Some part of Wangji was glad that the contact was brief, just until Jiang Que started to move. The two of them hopped away, Wangji watching them until they reached the cover of shadow. Once there, Wei Ying seemed to blend into the shadows because of his coat, but Wangji could still see the other rabbit for a while longer. Then they must have hopped into a ridge or a ditch because he lost sight of them.
Wangji sat down, turning his gaze back to the river. It still rushed on, putting all of their plans to ruin. He turned his head to nudge at his shoulder, smelling the lotus that clung to his fur. Wangji found himself closing his eyes, sinking into that lassitude.
A sharp, short scream had him lurching to his feet, Wangji turning back towards where he had left Minshan and Danxiao. He broke into a run, bounding across the distance until he was scrambling up the short rise that the burrows had been dug into.
Wangji peered down before making the short hop from the top to where the burrows opened up. He got a glimpse of the darkness in there before he had to step to the side to allow Danxiao to back out of the burrow.
The rabbit came out flicking his paws, Wangji lifting his head at the water that was being shook off of them. Danxiao sat back, licking at his paws before looking over at Wangji. It was only then that the rabbit looked apologetic.
He ducked his head. “We were trying to see if it would work.”
Wangji eyed the burrows before looking back at the river. There were only two burrows and it was only a few steps to where the river raged. “Won’t work.”
Danxiao nodded, nibbling at the underside of his paw before he spoke. “The burrows don’t go deep. They’re not much more than scrapes really. And they’re flooded.”
Wangji sighed, looking back at the burrows. “The scream?”
“Minshan fell. The ground gave out from under him.” Danxiao shifted, moving out of the way as Minshan dragged himself out of the burrow.
The rabbit looked miserable. Minshan shook himself, giving Wangji a baleful look before starting to groom himself. It between licks, Minshan spoke. “It’s no use. There’s nothing here.”
“Then we go back.”
Both Danxiao and Minshan looked disappointed, Wangji sure that neither of them was looking forward to going back to the crowded warren. Minshan would probably have the worst of it, soaked as he was.
Minshan gave himself only last delusory shake before turning to head back to the warren. Danxiao rushed after him, leaving Wangji to trail behind them as they headed away from the river and back to the hills.
“Oh, Frith help me!” said Fiver, trembling. “I can smell him from here. He terrifies me.”
“Oh, Fiver, don’t be absurd! He just smells the same as the rest of them.”
“He smells like barley rained down and left to rot in the fields. He smells like a wounded mole that can’t get underground.”
“He smells like a big, fat rabbit to me, with a lot of carrots inside.”
Wangji sat beside his brother as he watched the rabbits straggle up the hill. There were more than he had anticipated from what his brother had told him, and in far worse condition than he expected. He wrinkled his nose, just stopping himself from swiping a paw over his nose. That would be going too far and obviously rude, even when all of them smelled of blood.
The buck that was painfully limping past him couldn’t seem to put any weight on his left forepaw. The doe behind him was straggling along with two kittens, the sight of them amazing to Wangji. After everything he had heard, he hadn’t expecting any kittens to survive, especially since they were coming all the way from the Qinghe warren.
Wangji went to step forward when one of the kittens collapsed, but another buck with the look of Owsla about him stepped in to pick it up. The doe paused long enough to stare, probably making sure of her kitten before turning and nudging the other one in the slow trek to the burrows that had been hastily dug with the news.
Wangji turned to look at the warren, noticing the other rabbits that came out to watch. He could see that most of them felt pity, but most of them looked worried. There were more rabbits than anticipated, and no plan. At least with the Jiang warren, it was known that they would return to their own home. Wangji couldn’t imagine how these rabbits could return to their warren, and that would put the others on edge.
He met the gazes of some of the Owsla, frowning when he saw Minshan talking with some of the younger members of the Owlsa and with the outskirters. Wangji tensed at the sight, tempted to go over and break it up, but the sound of his brother’s voice stopped him short.
“Leave them be, Wangji.”
Wangji shifted in place before looking at his brother, keeping his voice low. “Xichen-rah…”
“They will talk anyway.” The only thing that betrayed Xichen’s unease was the way that he kept one ear turned back in Minshan’s direction.
“They will leave.”
“Then they will leave.” Xichen sighed. “It might be for the better, because I don’t think I can tell these rabbits to leave.”
Wangji tipped his head in a quiet agreement. These rabbits would have nothing to go back to with what Xichen had told him. Their warren was gone, destroyed by men. Xichen had not told him the details, but he had looked haunted by it. Considering the looks on the rabbits’ faces, it was something horrible.
“Mingjue.” Xichen sounded relieved as he hopped away towards the line of rabbits.
Wangji rose up slightly to see where his brother was going, spotting him heading for a large rabbit that was making his way painstakingly up the hill. Only his size made him stand out from the rest of the rabbits, all of them in the dark browns and greys that all the Nie rabbits seemed to come in. It made them stand out among the light browns, creams, and light greys of the Lan rabbits.
Mingjue perked up at the sight of Xichen, starting to move faster up the hill.
Wangji hesitated for a moment more before going to join his brother He took the moment to look over the rabbits, his assessment of them not changing. They were all exhausted, struggling and half tharn. It was amazing that any of them had made it, but Wangji could see hints of how.
They were well organized for their state, and the Owsla was keeping pace with them, sometimes slowing to talk to a rabbit and encourage them. It was something that would have kept them going. That and their chief. Mingjue looked tired, but confident, and that would go a long away.
He made it to his brother in time to see Xichen greet Mingjue. The two of them came close to each other, Wangji surprised at the way that they immediately nuzzled each other. He expected a more polite sniffling or something more friendly.
Wangji cleared his throat and looked away, trying to ignore the soft conversation that he could hear beside him. Thankfully, it did not last long before Xichen settled back. “It’s good to see you, Mingjue-rah.”
Wangji was sure that good was an understatement, especially with the way that their paws were still resting on top of each other. But it was not his place to talk about it.
Mingjue didn’t seem to be bothered by the careful wording. He seemed to settle a bit more, although his gaze kept straying back to the rabbits that were climbing. “Its good to finally get here. We’ve been driving ourselves hard the last few days.”
“We’ve swung wider than we could have, but I didn’t want to risk running into humans. I don’t think they would have survived that.” Mingjue huffed, his ears flicking. “I already had enough trouble keeping them together. I lost a few halfway, they split off to join a warren that we ran across.”
He shuddered, but didn’t say anything more, which was strange. Wangji didn’t want to push, although he could tell that Xichen wanted to know. Instead, his brother just waiting patiently for Mingjue to continue.
“The rest have stuck close, no thanks to those damn Wens.”
Wangji perked up. “Wens?”
He caught the guilty look that Xichen gave him, which meant that he had held something back. Wangji shifted so he was slightly turned away from Xichen, just to let him know that he didn’t appreciate the omission.
Mingjue ignored the slight shuffling, but he seemed too occupied clawing at the ground with the paw that wasn’t still over Xichen’s. “Yes, Wens. They were pushing into our territory even before the humans, demanding our does and bucks.”
Wangji blinked. “Why?”
“For their bucks and Owsla.” Mingjue stomped. “They said we had to because they were the ones keeping the humans away. Our chief rabbit seemed happy enough with it, up until the moment Huaisang went off about one of his feelings. Then he got angry, at us. Said it was our fault that our next patrol came in shredded by those embleer Wens. Said we should keep our heads down and the Wens would do the rest.
“Well,” Mingjue huffed, “whatever black magic Ruohan was doing must not have worked. Huaisang was right.”
Mingjue seemed to remember something because he looked around, his paw finally coming away from Xichen’s. “Where is he?”
Wangji sat up searching along the line of rabbits, but that was thinning out. Just two tired, old bucks were bringing up the rear, the two of them sometimes nudging the last of the rabbits to make it to the top. He dropped back down, his ears twitching as a squeak from somewhere behind Mingjue.
Mingjue must have heard it to because he turned, giving Wangji a glimpse of the rabbit practically hiding behind him. He had the same coloration as Mingjue, but he was smaller and he didn’t have the same confidence. In fact, the rabbit seemed to be more focused on trying to disappear into the ground. The rabbit kept looking up at Mingjue and Xichen, but he wouldn’t look at Wangji.
It was an odd reaction, but nothing strange. None of the other rabbits had had the energy to do more than give him a glance before heading towards food and sleep.
Mingjue thought seemed to take offense to it. He huffed, stamping a foot in warning. “Huaisang, get up here.”
Huaisang turned his head, looking desperately anywhere but Wangji. “I…I don’t think I can. I…I’ll just rest a bit and then join you.”
“Hauisang,” Mingjue’s voice carried the same warning as the next stamp of his foot, “you are being rude.”
Huaisang gave him a sad look before inching forward, but only as far as his brother’s back. From there, he peered around at the two of them, finally giving a nervous little bob at Xichen. “Xichen-rah. T-thank you for your help. W-we are grateful.”
“It’s no trouble.”
Wangji gave his brother a sharp look, one that Xichen purposely didn’t return. Technically it wasn’t a lie, because it was no trouble to help them. The trouble would come later.
Xichen stood up, turning to hop up the hill. Mingjue didn’t need more than that to join him, although he did stop when Huaisang wasn’t following.
Mingjue heaved a sigh that shook his body, turning to look at Huaisang. “Is it a feeling?”
Huaisang blinked at him, silent for a moment look long before he shook his head. “Not entirely. I’m not sure. It could be because I’m tired.” His gaze darted over to Wangji before fixing on his brother again. “It is because I’m tired. Just let me rest and I’ll be back up.”
Mingjue huffed, although there was some fondness in the sound. “Before Ni-Frith, or I’ll come and get you.”
Huaisang nodded, seeming all the more enthusiastic for it. “I will. I promise.”
That seemed to settle Mingjue because he turned back with Xichen. The two of them started up towards the top of the hill. Wangji heard Mingjue snort.
“Xichen, I swear we could see your warren a mile off.”
“It’s on a hill.”
“Yes but, all of you have such light fur. I could probably be seen by every elil for miles.”
“Well, we can’t help that. The founder of our warren was from a hutch.”
“A hutch rabbit.”
“Yes. An-rah escaped and went to a warren, and then split off when it got crowded. He was the one that-”
Their voices faded as they got to the top of the hill. Wangji sighed, giving them time to have space. Whatever was happening was new, at least to him. Then again, Xichen had gone out to meet Mingjue when some exhausted members of his Owsla had come to beg for their help. Anything could have happened there. If things had, it did explain a few things.
Wangji tipped his head to the side, freezing when he felt someone touch his back. He jumped a bit, twisting to look behind him.
Huaisang was there, startling back and looking at him with wide, wild eyes. The expression didn’t gentle when Wangji went still, it stayed there, Huaisang looking terrified.
“H-how do you stand it?”
“The smell.” Huaisang wrinkled his nose. “You smell like death.”
Wangji took a deep breath, but he couldn’t smell anything out of the ordinary. The only thing new was the scent of blood and unfamiliar rabbits. At a loss, he turned back towards Huaisang, meeting his incredulous gaze.
Huaisang shifted before inching closer, although his noise wrinkled like Wangji smelled of something awful. “Do you get told the traditional stories? Of El-ahrairah?”
Wangji nodded, surprised when Huaisang sighed in relief. “That’s good. There were rabbits that we met that…didn’t approve.”
“Rabbits always need tricks.”
“That’s what my brother said.” Huaisang almost seemed relieved by that, although it only lasted for a moment. Then he froze in fear, his gaze locked on something up the slope.
Wangji turned, racing forward a few steps before he could figure out the situation. When he did, he jerked to a stop.
There was nothing wrong. Rabbits were out on silflay, the Owsla were positioned at their posts and looking out. There was nothing out of the ordinary.
And then Wei Ying was there.
Wangji perked up when he saw the rabbit, seeing Wei Ying jump and caper at the top of the hill, obviously an invitation to join him.
He was moving before he realized it, heading up the hill. Then Huaisang was tackling him to the ground.
Wangji grunted as he hit the ground, already twisting around to kick at the rabbit on top of him. His foot barely made contact before Huaisang was rolling away. Wangji scrambled to his feet, watching as Huaisang pressed himself to the ground, all while staring at the top of the hill. He only tore his gaze away for a moment, glancing at Wangji before he fixed his gaze on the hill again.
“Do you see it?” The question was a terrified whisper.
Wangji stared at him for a long moment before turning and looking.
Wei Ying was still at the top of his hill, although now he was sitting up on his hindlegs, peering down at him. Wangji looked at him for a long moment, trying to pick out anything different, but there was nothing. It was just Wei Ying.
He was about to move when Huaisang gave a helpless noise of terror. Wangji looked over at him, tempted to nudge him. He inched towards the smaller rabbit, stopping just before he could touch him. Wangji watched him for a long moment, waiting for the terror to leak out of him, but Huaisang stayed in place, talking in a low voice.
“That’s him. The one that’s been dogging us all this time. He follows us all.” Huaisang was shaking, his eyes wide. Wangji was sure that he was halfway tharn. And he was still speaking in that same, hoarse voice. “He followed us here, I knew he would. There are a few that are…I expected them to before…but that was until I smelled you.”
Huaisang turned to look at him, the fear in his eyes turning to something like sorrow. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I…This is a bad away to introduce ourselves into the warren. I wish I had seen this before. I could have…but I’m sorry. I don’t have control over these things. I just know that when he calls you, you have to go.”
Wangji stared at Huaisang for a long moment before looking back up the slope. Wei Ying was still there, still the same as ever. He just looked confused. Wangji was sure that he looked the same.
Every warren at one time or another had a rabbit like Huaisang. Every warren had a different word for them. They flitted in and out of generations, becoming stories themselves. Wangji couldn’t remember the last time the Lan warren had had one.
At a loss of what to do, he inched closer, their sides brushing together. He intended to nudge Huaisang around, maybe to one of the burrows that started just below the top of the hill. Then he would be underground and away from whatever was terrifying him about the top. Then he would be by his brother who would know how to deal with him.
He knocked against Huaisang, looking up at the top of the hill, only to freeze.
He couldn’t see Wei Ying.
He couldn’t see the rabbits on the hill.
All he could see was a huge darkness, an endless shadow that hovered over the hill.
Wangji leaned his head back, looking up until he saw the red eyes that were looking down with them, and the monstrous shape of a rabbit head. For a moment, he thought he could see the shape of a skull beneath the shadow, but then it was back to being a shadow, and Wangji couldn’t figure out how he could tell that it was a head at all because it was all black, so black.
The red gaze settled on him, the weight of it making him shudder and press himself down to the ground.
This was something ancient and powerful, something that was not part of the world, something that was not close to elil.
This was something that knew him entire and that frightened him enough to set his heart pounding furiously.
Wangji wanted to close his eyes, but he couldn’t manage it. It was easier to just drop his gaze along the blackness towards the darker part of the shadow. He expected more of the horrible darkness, but there was something there too, something that he could pick out just as easily.
There was a rabbit in the darkness, as black as the shadow around it. Wangji watched as its eyes flickered from grey to red and back again, and wondered how he could tell. Then the rabbit tipped its head and spoke, and the fear washed away.
Wangji pulled away from Huaisang and the shadow disappeared. Or it became somehow lighter, Wangji didn’t know. All he knew was that the fear was gone, or at least as much as it was ever gone.
Every rabbit knew that the Black Rabbit of Inlé walked the world. They were in every breath, every morning, every elil. There were stories of the horrors, of their warren of stone and bones, the diseases that lived in their burrows and the eternal darkness that was the shadowlands of Yiling.
But Wei Ying was none of that. He was the sunshine on the hills, the dew on the grass, the welcoming press of other rabbits in a cold burrow.
Wangji took a step forward, hearing Huaisang whimper. He paused, looking back at him before tipping his head. “There’s a burrow below the tree at this level. You won’t have to cross the top of the hill.”
Huaisang stared at him for a moment before nodding. “Thank you.”
He took off at a sprint, Wangji waiting until he saw Huaisang reach the hole and rush into the burrow. He sighed when he saw the rabbit disappear, turning to look back at Wei Ying.
He hopped up the hill, watching as Wei Ying gave a short hop and twist before rushing to meet him. Wangji looked out over the rabbits, but his attention was solely on the rabbit beside him.
“Why are you here?”
“Oh, Lan Zhan, that’s not the question I want to answer.” Wei Ying grumbled as he settled down. His ears flicked a few times before he sighed. Wangji looked over at him, watching Wei Ying watch the Nie rabbits. Wei Ying went still again, the stillness that seemed to strange and like he wasn’t even breathing.
Wangji couldn’t remember him ever breathing.
Wei Ying remained still for a moment before his ears flattened back slightly. “They’re tired, Lan Zhan, all of them.”
Wangji shivered. “Will you take all of them?”
“Take?” Wei Ying looked back at him, the shock clear on his face. “Who told you?”
“Ah.” The word was drawn out, Wangji feeling a bit of the cold from when he had seen the huge shadow settle over him. Then, just as quickly as it was there, it was gone and Wei Ying was shifting closer to them until they were touching. “I should have known. He’s been staring rather pointedly.”
Wangji huffed, looking down as Wei Ying rolled into him. Wei Ying blinked up at him from his side. “Jealous?”
“That’s one word for it.” Wei Ying nuzzled his face into Wangji’s leg before sighing. “I’ll have to call some of them, Lan Zhan. It’s not an insult to you or your chief rabbit. It’s just…the order of things.”
“I am not insulted.”
“Are you going to call me?”
That surprised Wei Ying, the rabbit jerking against his side. Wangji turned to look down at him, watching a series of emotions cross Wei Ying’s face.
Finally, Wei Ying sighed and pushed himself up so he was sitting too. Even then, he was leaning into Wangji, but Wangji didn’t mind.
Wei Ying was silent for a long moment before he turned his head to rest it on Wangji’s shoulder. “You keep saying no. Makes a rabbit feel kind of unwanted.”
Wangji breathed in the scent of lotus, twisting to lick at Wei Ying’s ears. He continued the motion for a moment, using the moment to carefully think over his words. “You are not unwanted.”
“Then will you join my Owsla?”
“I know. Duty. The warren.” Wei Ying pulled his head away, but he didn’t move away from Wangji’s side. “I’m going to keep asking.”
“I know.” He shifted, finding himself leaning closer to Wei Ying, but he didn’t mind. It was comfortable like this, despite his new knowledge.
He could still feel the shadow, the thing that was greater than Wei Ying and hovered around him. There was something in that, something to contemplate or maybe even fear like Huaisang did. That would probably be smarter, but Wangji could barely wrap his mind around it.
It was only with Huaisang that he saw the fearful rabbit. In every other instance, it had been Wei Ying. Even in the horrible shadow it had been Wei Ying and that was the important thing. At least to Wangji.
He leaned into Wei Ying, wondering if the warmth he felt was from the sun on Wei Ying’s black fur or from his own body before deciding that it didn’t matter. What mattered was the steady presence of Wei Ying by his side and the sight of the warren at peace.
“Rabbits live close to death and when death comes closer than usual, thinking about survival leaves little room for anything else.”
Wangji perked up at the sound of a rabbit running his way. He held still for a moment before daring to look out, his gaze fixed down the ditch.
It didn’t take long for the rabbit to drop down, Wangji tensing in case he had to jump into motion. He was a long way from the Lan warren and on his own. They had agreed that it was safer to do it this way, to run the rabbits in relays with only one rabbit from a warren so they wouldn’t get spotted by the Wen patrols that were starting to range further and with more violence. It meant that it was easier to hide the guide, but it also meant that they were in trouble if they were found on their own.
Zixuan had been caught out by the Wens. He’d been lucky that Zixun had been close enough to get to him, but only in that he had thinned out the Wen Owsla. They had both died anyway, torn to pieces by the Wens.
Wangji shuddered. He hadn’t seen the bodies, but he had seen Wei Ying afterward. The rabbit had appeared less like a rabbit then and more like a shadow. Wangji hadn’t had the heart to ask what was wrong, because he could feel it to his bones.
It was the Wens. No rabbit acted like them. Mingjue-rah was right when he numbered them among their thousand enemies.
The rabbit in the ditch limped along, his head turning from right to left nervously before he came to a stop. Wangji let him wait for a heartbeat before slipping out of the undergrowth. He watched as the rabbit sighed before limping forward. Wangji stepped forward himself, halving the distance as he sniffed. “Guangyao.”
“Wangji.” Guangyao seemed relieved and breathless. “I thought you wouldn’t be here.”
“The patrols.” Guangyao tipped slightly, bracing himself against the wall of the ditch.
Wangji could smell the blood on him, which was dangerous. It was bad enough with the Wen patrols grabbing rabbits to take back to their warren and commanding warrens to unite under them, but to have the scent of blood meant that others could be following.
He eyed the wound on Guangyao’s right shoulder, the wound looking half healed except where the scabs had broken and it was leaking sluggishly. Guangyao lifted his paw under the scrutiny, turning to look at it. He muttered a curse and turned to start licking at it, Wangji watching him.
“Will you make it back?”
Guangyao paused in his licking to nod. “I have my tricks.”
Wangji knew what Mingjue-rah and his brother thought of those tricks, and they were two different opinions. Wangji didn’t quite have an opinion. If a rabbit went into the Wen warren and lived like that for months at a time, just for the sake of helping other rabbits escape, then he was brave. If he was here, it meant that he could no longer go back, which meant that he would be returning to the Jin warren. Wangji wished him luck in that, because he heard that the warren was in chaos.
He looked up the ditch. “Where are they?”
Guangyao turned to look behind him before standing up on his hindlegs. He popped his head above the ditch, Wangji watching his body twist before he went still. There must have been some kind of signal because he heard muttering and rabbits started to hop into the ditch.
Wangji watched as they dropped down, most of their movements exhausted. A large number of them practically fell into a ditch. He skimmed over them, mentally separating them into those that were strong enough to continue moving and those that would slow them down. Leaving any of them behind was not an option, at least for now.
He eyed the mark made on the closest rabbit, a dangerous looking scar dropping from her neck far too close to her throat. The doe must have felt him stare because she glared at him before leaning over to lick at the ruined ears of the rabbit beside her.
Wangji left them to it, scooting closer to Guangyao. “Is this all of them?”
Guangyao winced as he lowered himself back down, Wangji thinking that it was because of his leg. It wasn’t until Guangyao wouldn’t meet his gaze that Wangji realized that it wasn’t.
“There’s another bunch that I’ve hidden a bit further down. I’ll be taking them back to my warren.”
Wangji frowned, because that wasn’t the plan. He shifted to look at the huddled bunch of rabbits, tensing when Guangyao inched closer to him. “The others refuse to travel with them any further. They’re Wens, from the main warren.”
Wangji let his gaze move over the rabbits again, picking out the scars and marks that he had come to associate with any rabbit that had escaped from a Wen sect burrow. They looked like all the others. “It does not matter.”
“It does to them. They’re not keen to travel with any Wens. They’ve been asking me to leave them behind.” Guangyao shrugged in the face of Wangji’s furious glare. “I didn’t, but I don’t think they will be welcome in my warren, not after what happened to Zixuan and Zixun. The Jiang and Nie warren won’t take them because of what the Wens have done. That leaves the Lans.”
Wangji sighed. His own warren might not be too happy with them either. So far, the Lans had managed to avoid the brunt of the Wen attacks, but there had still been enough rumors. Patrols coming back clawed and missing members, Wen representatives that were welcomed with hospitality and abused it. Outskirters that went missing, taken as a fee for their safety.
The worst of it had been Minshan’s warren, completely and utterly destroyed by the Wens without a chance to cooperate. It didn’t matter that most of the Lan warren had thought Minshan and his rabbits had been foolish to leave, they had been part of the Lan warren once and the action was unrabbit-like. It was too much like the humans.
He flicked his ears, considering the Wens before turning away. He had no other choice.
Wangji nodded at Guangyao. “Be careful, a patrol passed by not too long ago heading in the direction of Lanling.”
“They’ll find nothing but trouble there.” Guangyao almost seemed amused by the news. He gave his shoulder one last lick before standing up. “Pass the word along to Xichen-rah and Mingjue-rah. They’re preparing for war.”
“War?” The word was a foreign concept, only used in the stories of El-ahrairah. It was something that humans did, never rabbits.
Guangyao nodded, standing up to brace himself against the wall of the ditch. “Ruohan was talking about marching out within a few days. He’s sending his sons in front of him, or dividing his forces. I couldn’t stay to find out. Warn your brother and tell him to be ready.”
Guangyao grunted and jumped out of the ditch, leaving Wangji behind in the dark with the close huddle of Wen rabbits. Wangji looked back at them before inching forward, not surprised that the doe from before turned to glare at him.
Wangji considered her for a moment before sitting up. “Get the strongest to circle around the weakest. We move as fast as possible.”
She bristled like she was going to snap at him, but the rabbit crouched at her paws gave a broken whisper. “Sister…”
She huffed and relaxed a fraction. “As you say. Is it far?”
“Yes.” There was no reason to lie to them, it would not keep them going once they realized the truth.
The doe looked him up and down before lowering her head. “Wen Ning, stay close.”
The battered rabbit made some sound of agreement before getting to his feet. The rest of the rabbits followed, Wangji surprised by how they pulled themselves together. He would have to reassess them, but that would have to wait until later. The Wens would be out in force to get back what was stolen from them, and Wangji had no intention of getting himself dragged back to their warren.
He turned, throwing the rabbits one last look over his shoulder. “Come.”
Wangji set a steady pace, something far slower than he would have liked, but it meant that they would last longer. What was no problem for one rabbit on his own would probably render the rest of them too exhausted to go on and he had no intention to leave any behind if he could help it.
He led them along the ditch, feeling that it would be better to be hidden than to be out in the open. That’s where Guangyao and the others would be, and they would be the focus of the patrol. It was an underhanded method, but Wangji was sure that most of the rabbits that he had with him wouldn’t be able to scramble back up the sides of the ditch.
Wangji gave them a quick look before focusing ahead. He didn’t have any other members of the Owsla with him, which meant no scouts. He could send some of the Wens ahead, but he needed them to help the others keep going. Besides, they didn’t know way. They would just have to be cautious and go blind.
He tried not to shake at the thought, because he needed to appear that he was confident. It was the one thing that would keep the others going. Wangji sighed and perked his ears, straining for any sound and trying to keep himself from startling.
He didn’t know how long they traveled along the ditch, all he knew was it was long enough for the moon to start to rise, which made him all the more wary.
They should stop, because the elil would come out and hunt for them. With Guangyao gone the scent of blood wasn’t as strong, but it still wasn’t gone.
It was better to keep moving then, and to ignore their exhaustion until they got to safety either beyond where most of the elil hunted or where the Wens patrolled. Wangji just wished that he knew where that was.
Time passed slowly, Wangji holding himself tense not to jump at every sound that he heard, all the while listening to the rabbits following him. He could hear them whispering, little words of encouragement that he wouldn’t stop because they were important. They were as important as the stories that he could hear being told, anything that kept them moving.
Some part of Wangji desperately wanted to listen to the stories himself, to get himself lost in the familiarity of them. It had already been days on his own and without a burrow. It was the kind of thing that had sunk under his fur, a continual reminder that something was off and wrong, which made him fearful. No matter how hard he tried to think around it, he was fearful. There were rabbits following him that were tired and smelled of blood, Wen rabbits who would draw the patrols on him, and there was another night without a burrow.
His legs tensed, Wangji holding himself back from just running for home. He wouldn’t get there in one night, and the only thing to do was to keep moving along.
Wangji tracked the motion of the moonlight as it moved along the ditch, his steady pace faltering when he realized that it ended abruptly.
He hopped up to the obstruction, pressing a paw against it and sighing when he felt stone. Wangji turned to look at the gentle slope up and out of the ditch. They couldn’t travel by this way, which meant going up.
Wangji rocked back onto his haunches, staring at the blockage before looking at the ditch. They were well covered in the ditch, which meant that he had no idea what was above them. To look would mean leaving the rest behind for a moment.
He turned to look back at them, trying to judge if they were ready to bolt or go tharn. To his surprise, all of them stared back with interest in their eyes. The worse he could call them was tired. Wangji sighed, twisting to put his forepaws on the side of the ditch, only to stop as the doe hopped up to him.
She glared at the rocks before directing the glare to him. “What are you doing?”
“I’m going to look.” He paused for a moment, aware of the sudden frightened gazes on him. “I will be back.”
The doe huffed like she didn’t believe him, but she didn’t do anything to stop him. Wangji watched her carefully, tensing in preparation to jump. When she didn’t no anything, he leapt onto the edge of the ditch, having to claw his way up the rest of the way.
For a moment, his nose was full of dirt and the wet scent of plants. He snorted, shaking his head to clear it. The familiar scents of dirt and plants were immediately replaced with the smoky scent of fire.
Wangji startled back, preparing to run before he really took in what was waiting for him. Only the slip of his hindfeet stopped him, Wangji going still on the edge of the ditch, his heart pounding.
There wasn’t a flicker of flame that he could see. Whatever fire had been there was long gone, but what it had consumed remained in patches. It was a human village, or what was left of it, Wangji staring at the drifts of ash and burnt pieces of wood. He wasn’t sure what held him still, the burnt landscape in front of him or habit to look for humans. But there was too much burnt for anything to survive, even man.
Wangji took another breath, resisting the urge to swipe at his nose. It would just smear the ash and render his nose useless. The smell of the burning was thick enough to cover most scents, and thick enough to keep most other things away.
His ears twitched at the thought, Wangji shuffling in place.
He had avoided the human village on the way around out of habit, it was better to stay away from their dogs, cats and children. He had expected to go around it again on the way back. It would add time, but it was better to be safe. No sane rabbit would cross the middle of a human village. No sane rabbit would cross a human village that was burned. They wouldn’t be able to smell anything but the fire, but neither would anything else.
Wangji rose onto his hindlegs, staring around the village. It looked to be large, which meant that they would be moving without cover, which would further strain them, but the chance was too good to pass up. The scent of blood would be hidden and at least a day would be cut off of their journey. Besides, anyone hunting them would be sniffing for rabbits, not things covered in ash.
The problem was the crossing.
He sank back down to his haunches, Wangji staring at the wasteland in front of him.
Something in the ashes moved, Wangji leaning back. One shift would send him tumbling back and ready to defend him and the other rabbits if it turned out that he was wrong. After all, the Wen patrols were no rabbits.
The sky darkened above him, Wangji not bothering to look up even as the darkness deepened, coalesced, and twisted. It seemed to be draining down and condensing into a small shadow that was hopping his way. A lone island of lotus instead of ash, trailing a shadow darker than the night itself behind him.
Wangji took a deep breath, the first one it felt like he had taken in a long time. “Wei Ying.”
The shadow in the shape of a rabbit turned towards him. Wangji shivered at the red eyes focused on him, waiting for them to go grey. The didn’t, the shadow cocking its head to the side before speaking. “Lan Zhan?”
Wangji moved a step forward before he could stop himself, his whole body going cold. His next breath rattled out, his eyes going wide before he staggered, his legs going weak. Then he was on the ground, the world flickering in and out. Then Wei Ying was there, licking at his nose and nipping at his face.
“No, no. That was not an order. Get up. Get up!”
His heart thundered back to life, Wangji kicking weakly as he tried to figure out what was happening. Every instinct said run, but he knew he couldn’t manage it, his next step would send him pitching forward. He clawed at the ground, kicking up ash as he tried to roll himself back to his feet. Wei Ying leapt over him to press against his other side, shoving against him until Wangji gained his paws.
Wangji splayed his legs out, panting for breath as he waited for everything to settle. He felt Wei Ying nosing along his side, rubbing the underside of his chin against him before pressing his head against Wangji’s shoulder. Wei Ying was quiet and still for a moment before he spoke, and even then it was almost lost to the night. “I’m sorry.”
“Wei…Ying?” It wasn’t the words that he meant to say, but they seemed to suitable enough.
Wei Ying shivered by his side before twisting so he was pressed up against Wangji’s side. “Embleer Wens.”
In that moment, he sounded so much like Mingjue-rah that Wangji had to nod. Wei Ying turned his head to nuzzle into Wangji’s fur, seeming to need to breathe him in, even thought he didn’t seem to breathe. From that position he talked, his voice low enough that only Wangji could hear him. “They’ve been out tonight, hunting like elil. I’ve had to call a few of them. And here…Lan Zhan, you’ve found me in a dangerous place.”
“Are you going to call one of them?” He didn’t have to clarify, not with Wei Ying.
Wei Ying didn’t move from where he was. “I will…eventually. When I call, they will come. Everyone except you.”
“You called me tonight.”
“This is…not the best place to meet me. You’ve smelled it. There’s nothing but death here.” Wei Ying made a sound like a crow, a harsh croaking that made Wangji shiver, but he didn’t move away. “It’s halfway in the shadowlands.”
“Is this what Yiling looks like?”
“Not all of it.” Wei Ying paused before lifting his head, meeting Wangji’s gaze with eyes that were still more red than grey. Wei Ying studied him for a moment before huffing. “Lan Zhan, do you really believe that I shove every rabbit into a warren of stones and bones, with burrows full of disease?”
“We are not told anything else.”
“Of course not.” Wei Ying flung his nose in the air. “I’m not cruel, Lan Zhan.”
Wangji remembered the dark shadow, the huge blackness that seemed to consume all. It was frightening and awe-inspiring, but never cruel. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask what the truth was, but that was not important at the moment.
He stared out over the burnt human village. “We’ll cross it.”
He thought he heard Wei Ying sigh his name, but the same impetuous was not behind it. “I’ll walk with you.”
“Don’t you always?”
Wei Ying gave him a look he couldn’t quite interpret, the rabbit’s ears twitching back slightly. “I could ask you again, but I know your answer by now.”
“I have to get them back.”
“I expected nothing less of you.” Wei Ying hopped a little way from him, staring out into the burned village. He paused there, so still that Wangji lost track of him in the shadows, only finding him again when Wei Ying looked back at him. “They’re waiting for you.”
Wangji gave him one last look before turning and peering down into the ditch. The Wen rabbits looked up at him, Wangji taking a moment to check them over before nodding. “Come up. It’s clear.”
He stepped back, watching their reactions as they reached the top of the ditch. Nearly all of them flinched back, reaching up to rub at their noses. The doe did the same, although she glared at Wangji the entire time. “What is this?”
“Safety. Will the patrol follow us?”
“No.” The doe didn’t seem happy with her answer, and Wangji couldn’t blame her. This wouldn’t be easy, so close to humans and something that blocked their every sense. The sooner they crossed it, the better.
He turned away from her, hopping along the shivering cluster of rabbits before he found his way back to Wei Ying. Wei Ying watched him with his strange red-grey gaze before turning and hopping through the village.
Wangji followed at a slower pace, pausing frequently to look over his shoulder at the Wens. They were holding their formation, but they were moving cautiously. Wangji watched as one started, hitting the outer guards before seeming to remember herself. He felt sure that it would be happening more and more. As it was, he wanted to run until he got away, but he held himself in place. The alternative was to run into the jaws of the elil or the claws of a Wen patrol.
He kept one ear back, listening for the whispers and the stories to start up again, but his other ear was focused ahead and on where Wei Ying was.
Sometimes, Wei Ying was nothing more than a shadow, sliding around the whole group as silent as the rest of the night and his eyes as red as blood. Sometimes, he was something a bit more solid, just out of reach and bounding ahead. Sometimes, he was like any other rabbit and right by Wangji’s shoulder and leaning into him. Wangji sometimes missed the shifts from one to the other, but he always found Wei Ying again. And Wei Ying never wandered far.
Wangji lost track of how long they nervously hopped their way through the burned ruins of the village. He became numb to the smell of ash and death, because there was no getting away from it, especially as they went further. Wangji found himself spooking at some of the things they found. Here some human thing, broken and charred. Here one of their sharp, shining sticks, something used for killing. Here a human themselves, skin burned and bone shining white in the night.
“Why?” The question slipped out as he had to hop over a tangle of humans, Wangji shuddering each time he had to land somewhere burnt and felt it crumble under his feet.
“It is what they are, or the worst parts of it.” Wei Ying appeared, slinking through the shadows. He was more bone than rabbit now, a sight that sent Wangji skittering away. He watched as Wei Ying walked through the burnt bodies, not disturbing anything as he passed. “I’m not the one who calls them. They sometimes call themselves.”
Wangji looked at the skull that turned his way, red burning deep in the eye sockets. Somehow, they looked sad, a deep and ancient sadness that Wangji couldn’t even begin to understand, but he understood a fraction.
It was like his mother, realizing that she was dead. Realizing that there would never be another silflay or conversation. Where there had been kind words and her scent, there was silence. It was an empty burrow, aching in its stillness. It was like that, but deeper, and far longer than Wangji could comprehend.
He picked his way through the bones, standing next to the skeleton-creature of a rabbit before running his tongue just over the eye socket. He should have felt the smoothness of bone, but instead there was fur and the ever-present scent of lotus. Wangji stepped back, looking at the black rabbit crouched among the ash and bones, remembering the stories and the way Wei Ying had tossed his head when he had asked the question of him.
“Of course not.”
Wangji licked him again, before rubbing his chin against the top of Wei Ying’s head. He heard Wei Ying make a surprised sound but he didn’t pull away. Wangji couldn’t smell his own scent on Wei Ying, it was lotus as it had always been, but he felt a bit better for the action.
“You are not this. You are not cruel.”
Wei Ying stared at him like it was his first time seeing him, with awe and a little bit of fear. “No, but I am an idiot.”
Wangji tipped his head to the side, but he didn’t get an answer. The doe stumbled next to him, knocking against him. “Don’t stop. We can’t have you stop, you know where we’re going.”
Wangji gave her a long look before turning and continuing, very aware of Wei Ying’s presence by his side.
Now he stayed there, keeping pace with him as they threaded their way through the rest of the ruined village.
Wangji didn’t believe they were out until he felt grass under his paws, and even then he had to practically press his nose into it to realize that it wasn’t just his imagination. Wangji shuffled his paws in the grass before looking back at the rest of the rabbits.
All of them were inching nervously to the grass, a few of them nibbling at it with looks of awe on their faces. Even more looked ready to collapse, which was the danger.
Wangji sighed and looked around. No matter how much he wanted to push on, to put this place behind them, he had to wait. They wouldn’t be going any further this night.
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying’s voice was soft in his ear, Wangji turning towards him. For a moment, he couldn’t see him, then Wei Ying was there, just like he promised he would be. “There are scrapes. Follow me.”
Wangji followed without a protest, only belatedly remembering to look back for the others. It looked like they were all following him, although slowly. He checked his pace, continually glancing back over his shoulder at the rabbits straggling after him.
The scrapes that Wei Ying had found weren’t far. Wangji stared at the shallow burrows for a long moment before checking in each of them. No one was using them, nor did they smell of disease. Wangji had a feeling that the Wen patrols had used them, but they were still too close to the burned village for any rabbit’s comfort, even a Wen rabbit.
Wangji backed out just in time to avoid being pushed into the back. He watched in amazement as they piled in, all but two of them underground in the space of a few heartbeats. He turned to the ones that remained, nodding at the doe and her brother.
The doe gave him a long look before nodding her head. “That was the craziest idea I have ever heard, but thank you.”
Wangji dipped his head, some part of him relieved when the doe turned to nudge her brother back towards the nearest scrape. “Wen Ning, I need to get a closer look at that paw of yours.”
Wen Ning gave a put-upon sigh, but he didn’t argue as his sister bullied him back into the burrow. Wangji waited until they had disappeared into the scrape before seeking out his own.
He was not surprised when there was another rabbit inside, partially blended into the shadows. Wangji hopped into the burrow, turning around so he faced the entrance before settling down, sliding against Wei Ying on the way down. On his part, Wei Ying just leaned into him, turning to nuzzle into Wangji’s ear. “Rest.”
It was not a suggestion, nor something that Wangji needed. Some part of him knew that they should have someone watching, but there wasn’t a rabbit among them that would be able to listen and watch.
He stretched out slightly and, between one breath and the next, he fell asleep.
Wangji didn’t know how long he slept it was a pleasant stillness that he briefly woke up to a few times, not enough to be really awake, but enough to feel the body of another rabbit and smell lotus before he was drifting to sleep again. On one of them, he was aware of Wei Ying grooming him. On another, Wei Ying was sprawled over him.
When he woke up for good, it was to the sound of Wei Ying talking.
“You’re really great. I like you.” Wei Ying paused for a moment, Wangji watching as his ears twitched, but Wei Ying didn’t look at him. But he was aware that Wangji was awake, he could tell that in the way that Wei Ying shifted to lean more against him. “Or in other words, I fancy you, I love you, I want you, I can’t leave you, I whatever you.”
Wangji blinked at the words sunk in. He lifted his head enough to meet Wei Ying’s gaze, not liking the way that Wei Ying looked away.
He rolled onto his stomach, not bothering to tuck his paws up. There was nothing to run away from in here.
Wangji studied Wei Ying closely, but Wei Ying wouldn’t look at him properly. He was always ducking his head or looking away. He wasn’t the shadow of a rabbit or something a little less solid physically, but he felt like it. It felt like Wei Ying was slipping away under his attention and Wangji didn’t know what to do to call him back.
He leaned more of his weight into Wei Ying, thwarted in that too. Wei Ying still didn’t look at him, still didn’t lean into him. Instead, he got that stillness, the unnatural kind that no other creature could do. It was a part of Wei Ying, but also didn’t suit him. He was meant to be lively, despite everything that he was.
Wangji moved, a half-remembered memory pushing him to rest his paw over Wei Ying’s. He felt the rabbit start, but he didn’t let Wei Ying move further away from him. Wangji twisted to nuzzle into Wei Ying’s fur, murmuring his name. “Wei Ying.”
It seemed like the force that worked on all rabbits worked on Wei Ying. The sound of his name made him more solid, all the more present and he shuddered back into it. It was the time that Wangji would have expected heavy breathing, but there was only his own, Wangji watching as Wei Ying went through the motions of surprise and panting.
Wangji let him parody life for a moment before rubbing his chin against Wei Ying. “You fancy me?”
Wei Ying nodded before he shook his head, Wangji feeling the shake travel through his body. Wei Ying made the strange, crow-like sound before he started to talk again, his words rushing out of him. “A-anyways, it’s not because of anything else. I don’t want anyone but you—it can’t be anyone but you. You can do anything you want to me, however you like it. I’ll accept everything, as long as you’re willing to…”
“I am willing.”
Wei Ying squeaked, watching him with wide eyes. “You…”
Wangji sighed, quickly correcting himself. “I must get them back.”
“And then you’ll have something else to distract you.”
Wangji didn’t bother to refute that, because it was true. There would always be something else, because he was alive and there were many things that needed to be done. He just pressed his head harder against Wei Ying. “I am alive.”
“I know.” Wei Ying closed his eyes. “Believe me, I know.”
“Then why do you keep asking?”
“I may be jealous.” Wei Ying paused, tipping his head to the side. The move jarred Wangji from where he was, which was disagreeable. Wangji looked up at Wei Ying, watching as he thought over what he had said. “Lan Zhan, I think I’m jealous.”
“Everything. All of it.” Wei Ying stamped his foot in frustration. “You keep saying no.”
“You keep letting me.”
“What else can I do?”
Wangji kept silent, because he didn’t want to say what Wei Ying really was. If the sound of his name was enough to bring him back, then Wangji didn’t want to know what his full title would do. It was nice to have Wei Ying like this. Like this, he was his.
He sighed and shifted to lean more fully against Wei Ying. “Stay close.”
Wei Ying stared at him with another one of his unknowable looks, the ones that looked ancient and far beyond the few years of Wangji’s life. “I’m always close, especially to you.”
It shouldn’t have been so satisfying to hear, but Wangji was satisfied all the same. He allowed himself to flop sideways in his happiness, although he ended up mostly on Wei Ying, but neither of them minded. It was better like this, just the two of them in the shallow burrow. Wangji was sure that they would have to move out soon, to stay ahead of the Wens and elil, and they had a lot of ground to cover, but the rabbits needed rest, and he would give them that to spend another few moments with Wei Ying.
“There is not a day or night but a doe offers her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of Owsla his life for his Chief Rabbit's. Sometimes it is taken, sometimes it is not. But there is no bargain, for here, what is, is what must be.”
Wangji squealed as Zhuliu clawed into his side, the rabbit’s claws digging deep. He threw up his head, bumping it against the top of the burrow, but it kept his throat free of Zhuliu’s snapping teeth. They were not thwarted for long, Zhuliu biting down on his shoulder.
Wangji twisted, shoving off one side of the burrow with a hind foot to slam Zhuliu’s head against the other side. The burrow wasn’t solid enough to cause damage, but it was a shock and the dirt going into Zhuliu’s nose was enough to get him to snort and let go.
He took advantage of the release, Wangji clawing at Zhuliu’s chest until the rabbit wiggled away into the open space.
Wangji panted for a moment, shaking his head to try and clear the blood from his eyes. In the burrows it wasn’t quite necessary to see, but he wanted every advantage he could get.
Zhuliu was fresher than he was, he had just been standing by Chao and Ruohan. Wangji had been down in the burrows, fighting off every Wen Owsla that was sent his way.
He flicked an ear back, listening hard for the sound of the other rabbits behind him.
He had told them to be as quiet as possible and get as far back as they could. The last he heard, some of the does were frantically tunneling in the hopes to get them further away or to one of the other burrows that the Wens didn’t know about. Maybe they would be able to escape that way, but Wangji didn’t know. Ruohan didn’t seem to be the kind of rabbit that would leave that up to chance, but trying was better than dying in the burrows, like the Jiangs. It was Wangji’s job to stop them from doing that, or at least hold him until his brother, Wanyin-rah, Mingjue-rah and Guangyao got back from whatever crazy idea they had come up with. Xichen hadn’t told him what it was, but Huaisang had looked like that he had known.
Wangji strained his senses, trying to listen past the Wen Owsla trying to dig into other parts of the Lan warren and Chao laughing from somewhere up the run. Distantly, he could hear the rabbits who couldn’t fight talking to each other, but he couldn’t hear Huaisang from where he should be behind him. The last he had heard was Huaisang screaming for his brother, a horrible fur-raising wail before silence.
There was silence from where Qionglin was supposed to be holding that part of the burrow.
There had been silence there for a long while.
Wangji closed his eyes for a moment before focusing on the space in front of him. He could hear panting from where Zhuliu was, Wangji listening for the moment it stopped. He shifted when it happened, turning around as quickly as his injuries would let him.
He was too slow, his many bleeding wounds and the churned dirt fouling up his movement. He had just managed to twist when he heard the grunt that meant Zhuliu was rushing him again. Wangji rocked forward trying to get into position, but then he felt Zhuliu’s teeth and claws dig deep into his right hindleg.
He shouted in pain, trying to twist his body away, but that only caused Zhuliu to rip deeper.
Wangji reeled into the opposite wall, digging his forepaws into the dirt and finally shifting forward to bring his hindlegs to bear.
He kicked out, ignoring the pain from Zhuliu’s claws and teeth. What mattered more was the solid thud of his paws knocking into Zhuliu with enough force that it jarred his own teeth.
Zhuliu withstood the assault for a few kicks before he turned away, planting his forelegs. Wangji aimed his next kick, rewarded with a loud snap as something broke in Zhuliu’s foreleg.
He heard Zhuliu squeal in pain, kicking out again. He meant to get the other foreleg, but Zhuliu must have ducked his head to balance himself against his broken leg. He felt the side of Zhuliu’s face against his feet for a moment, and then there was another crack and Zhuliu’s squeal was cut short.
Wangji turned his head over the shoulder, hearing a thud. He tried to keep his breathing quiet to hear anything. It took him a while, but he could hear faint, pained moans coming from Zhuliu, getting fainter with every breath.
Wangji slumped against the side of the burrow, tempted to stay there until he caught his breath. Zhuliu wouldn’t be getting back up, and he was the only rabbit that he had heard in this part of the burrow for a while. But that didn’t mean that there wasn’t another bunch of rabbits about to be sent down. After all, Ruohan was as ruthless as a weasel, and he had the rabbits to wear them down.
He pushed himself away from the wall, hissing as the dribble of dirt into his wounds before starting to turn. Every movement was agony. His shoulders ached from the bites and scratches on them, and three of his legs shook with the effort of movement. His right hindleg wouldn’t take his weight, Wangji letting it drag behind him until he had to pick it up, then the whole limb was afire with pain.
Wangji stumbled back to the entrance of the burrow, poking his head out into the run beyond it. He could still hear Zhuliu whimpering, although it was getting softer. Wangji didn’t think he had killed the rabbit, but at least he wasn’t moving.
Wangji wobbled in place before sliding to the ground, weakly kicking his legs to try and keep them under him before giving up. Everything hurt too much to move, and he desperately wanted a break.
He let his head drop to the ground, breathing in the scent of dirt, blood and death. Wangji shivered and closed his eyes, letting himself drift in the darkness.
Behind him he could hear the shuffling of the rabbits, a few of them calling for him, probably to check on the situation, but he was too tired to answer. All he wanted to do was sleep, because it wouldn’t hurt there. In sleep there was a kind of release, something that was almost out of his reach but getting closer with every heartbeat. He wanted to accept it, but he could still hear the rabbits behind him. They were calling desperately now, some of them closer than before. Wangji was sure that one of them touched his foot, but he didn’t have the energy to move it.
The rabbit nudged at his foot for a moment before backing away to a quiet conversation that kept slipping away from him. He flicked his ears, trying to clear out anything that had gotten into them, only managing to hear the end of what the rabbits behind him were saying.
“-for my friend stopped running today.”
There was a long silence where Wangji was sure that he should make some kind of noise, but breathing was the only thing he could really focus on.
Then came a high wail from the back of the burrow, Wangji only recognizing it as Huaisang’s voice when he started speaking.
“Run. Run. Oh, the teeth, please, watch out for the teeth. Faster. Faster. RUN.”
“Zhuliu! Have you killed him yet?”
Huaisang went quiet at the sound of Chao’s voice, as did the other rabbits. Wanji shifted as best as he could, dragging his forelegs beneath him before he had to stop and pant for breath.
He could hear Chao coming down the burrow, listening to the disgusted sound that the rabbit made as he ran across the bodies of his Owsla. His footsteps paused one point, only for Chao to huff and kick out at something. It was a good hit because Wangji heard the thud of it.
“Embleer traitor. This was too good of a death for you.” That seemed to vent his anger, because Chao started back down the burrow, calling out to Zhuliu. “Zhuliu, I asked if you had killed Wangji yet. Zhu-”
Wangji could smell the rabbit in front of him, Chao right where he guessed that Zhuliu had fallen. Chao must have run across him too, because he paused for a moment. Wangji could hear Zhuliu still whimpering what must have been words, but he couldn’t make them out.
Chao seemed to quick grow bored before he stamped with one hindleg. “Useless!”
Wangji managed to roll to his belly, in the process of pulling his left hindleg under him. He was working on the right one when there was a snap and a gurgle. Wangji lifted his head, staring in the direction of Chao and Zhuliu. He heard Chao give a fussy sniff before repeating himself. “Useless.”
Wangji gritted his teeth, glaring at the rabbit in the darkness even as he hauled himself back to his feet. He could hear muttering from the rabbits behind him, but his focus was on the rabbit in front of him.
Chao squealed and skittered away for a moment before he must have caught scent of blood and stopped. Then he bounded back, practically capering in front of Wangji. “Oh, so you’re still alive. But barely. You’re a walking corpse now.”
Wangji grunted and shifted to rebalance to take weight off of his right hindleg. The move didn’t go unnoticed because Chao capered more, Wangji wincing at the sound of his paws on the bodies of the fallen rabbits. “You’re going to die here, and for what? So the others die?”
Wangji took a couple of deep breaths, the words coming with more of a struggle than normal. “My chief rabbit told me to defend this warren.”
“Your chief rabbit left you to die. I saw him running away like a coward with three others. He left you all to die.”
Wangji shook his head, his world spinning enough that he stumbled to the side. The refusal was enough to get Chao to stomp again. “He left you all to die.”
The last word echoed in the runs, Wangji shivering with it. It’s what it looked like, and it was what he had seen in Xichen’s eyes when his brother had asked this of him. He had only been buying time.
Wangji’s silence seemed to infuriate Chao more, because the rabbit hopped forward until they were nose to nose. “I can get as many rabbits as I need. How long will you last, I wonder? I doubt you would last one. And I’ll get to watch that. It will be fun.”
Chao jumped at Huaisang’s scream, flinging himself backwards and looking around in a panic. Above them, the sound of digging stopped to be replaced by screams and barking.
Wangji shivered, his eyes widening. They were far below ground and safe, but now his brother’s request to hold made sense. Wangji knew that he had by buying time, but not for what.
He jerked his gaze away from the ceiling, looking over at Chao. The rabbit was shaking and not paying him any attention, but he could scream, and there were bound to be others that would answer him. Chao was wrong about many things, but he was right that Wangji wouldn’t be able to stand for much longer, and then the rabbits behind him would be defenseless.
His decision was made in a heartbeat, Wangji leaping forward. It was awkward with one leg, and he pushed too far to one side. His leap skewed him sideways, Wangji trying to twist to correct himself as he slammed into Chao.
Chao went over with a squeal, rolling onto his back and kicking badly. Wangji ducked around the flailing feet to bite at Chao.
His teeth slid over fur, Wangji grunting as Chao’s paws buffeted at him. He tried to pin one down with one leg, but lifting a foreleg up sent him wobbling, and it was more important to get a hold.
Wangji stepped to the side, finally getting his teeth to sink down and grab onto something.
Chao bucked under him, Wangji grunting as claws dug into his head, ripping at fur and scabs to get blood flowing into his face. One of Chao’s hindlegs twitched, striking out against Wangji’s right hindleg, once, twice before Wangji’s leg crumpled.
He fell to the ground, loosing his hold on Chao. Wangji scrambled at the dirt beneath him, trying to roll so that he could try again, but he couldn’t manage it. His hind leg kicked wildly before he slumped, panting for breath. It sounded loud in his ears, but at the same time distant. Certainly further away than the weak gurgling coming from Chao. Wangji saw vague moment, but most of it was obstructed by the blood that was still flowing into his eyes.
The movement slowed before shifting, Wangji groaning as he watched Chao starting to roll back to his feet. The rabbit kept stopping to gasp, each breath coming with a strange rattle.
Wangji could only watch as Chao started to move towards him. “Wangji…”
He could only stare, his paws twitching but unable to move. That had been everything he had, but he had held. He had held until Xichen came back.
He sighed, going limp
“I’ve been looking for you.”
The voice echoed through the burrows sounding like the snarl of elil, the collapse of a burrow, the scent of the white blindness, of old age freezing limbs and blinding senses, like claws, teeth, the rattle of stones and bones.
Chao stopped moving, the wheeze in his breath changing tone. Wangji twisted his head slightly, but not far enough to see what was approaching. He couldn’t see much except a shadow that crept over them, bringing the smell of lotus.
Wangji relaxed as he felt something move over him, a rabbit hovering over him. He twitched slightly, trying to get a name out, but only managing a croak.
That seemed to make things worse, because he saw the paw that was set down by his head flicker into bone, shadow and then back to normal.
“I’ve found you.” Wei Ying spoke the words, low and dangerous. It wasn’t like any of the calls that Wangji had heard before, and it certainly wasn’t one that he would follow, but the demand in it was undeniable.
Chao whimpered, Wangji hearing him scrambling back. He didn’t get far before he tumbled over one of the bodies. Chao’s gurgling turned into something hoarse, like a scream that wouldn’t come out right. It was a horrible sound that kept going on, Wangji hearing a series of thumps as Chao flailed around before it the sound stopped.
Wangji strained to hear anything, but the silence was pressing down on him like a weight, making it hard to breathe. All he could hear was the dull thud of his heart, but that was less something he heard and more something that he felt thrumming through him.
He blinked slowly, as the shadow over him moved. Wangji lifted his head, trying to follow the shadow, but the blood in his eyes rendered everything to vague shapes. He could still feel the shadow moving, the shift in the great power that was Wei Ying as the rabbit moved to where Chao had fallen.
The scream that had been choked off before echoed loud in the burrow, Wangji jerking as it seemed to come from where Chao actually was and just at his side. He clawed at the ground, not sure if he was trying to get away or just trying to get to his feet.
Wei Ying didn’t respond, although the scream was abruptly cut off. Wangji lifted his head, trying to see what had happened, but he could only see shadows moving. They paused over a few of the rabbits that had died in the runs, Wangji hearing Wei Ying whisper names. There weren’t any more screams, not like Chao. Wangji was sure that he heard voices speaking back, but they were faint and quick to fade away.
Wangji sighed and let his head fall back to the ground, giving up on moving. It felt better to just rest and breathe, although everything hurt. Above him, he could hear barking and screams, each sound making him twitch and try to run.
The thing above the warren occupied so much of his attention that he didn’t realize that Wei Ying had returned to his side until Wei Ying licked him.
Wangji tried to startle, stopping when moving his forelegs pained him.
Wei Ying was quick to inch closer, his grooming becoming faster and desperate as he worked on the scratches on Wangji’s face. Wangji closed his eyes as let Wei Ying work, feeling the bone chilling cold leak from the burrow as Wei Ying continued.
Distantly, he could hear the sounds of whatever was working around the warren above and the sounds of the other rabbits crouched far back in the burrow. There were no more Wens, which meant that he had done his duty.
Wangji sighed, surprised when Wei Ying stopped. He opened his eye, looking up at the vague shape in the darkness that was Wei Ying.
The rabbit remained close beside him, but not touching as he normally did. Instead, Wei Ying seemed to be caught where he was, leaning in before leaning back. It was not the Wei Ying that he was used to, not even the sullen and half there one that had walked with him through the burned human village. This was a different side to him.
Wangji took a deep breath, trying to get his voice to come out louder than a breath or ragged wheeze. “I’m here.”
“Yes.” The word sounded less like the Wei Ying he knew and more like the one that Huaisang had showed him, the ones that was spoken about in the stories. It was the voice of the Black Rabbit of Inlé, Wuxian-rah, the rabbit as black as the moonless night and as cold as the stone that he lived in. But none of that was true.
Wangji shifted, managing to drop one paw so it brushed against Wei Ying’s foreleg. “I am here.”
“You are.” The age of his voice slipped, moving from ancient to something more normal, more like any other rabbit that Wangji had heard. “You are.”
Wei Ying lowered his head, somehow finding one of the few spots that Wangji wasn’t covered in scratches or blood. He nuzzled in there, Wangji listening to the pleased, tooth-grinding purr that came from him. He would have responded, but there was a line of scratches along his jaw that throbbed and bled every time he moved it. Wangji just laid under the affection, choosing his words carefully. He was surprised had how quickly they flitted away, faster than they ever have before.
“Were you here?”
Wei Ying made that fragile crow sound, the deep cackle that wasn’t natural for a rabbit to make. “I am everywhere.”
“But were you-”
“I was here.” Wei Ying shifted to lick as his jaw, the touch of his tongue soothing the scratches. “I’m always beside you.”
Wangji sighed, letting his eyes close again.
Wei Ying seemed to take that as his answer, seemingly content to work his way over Wangji’s wounds, and Wangji was more than willing to let him. He didn’t have the strength to do much else, and there was something calming in the familiar scent of lotus.
The familiar lassitude snuck up on him, Wangji losing himself in the drift of it. It felt like the moment before he really drifted off to sleep or a warm summer day. It didn’t hurt there, and Wangji was more than willing to let himself drift in it. He felt his heart speed up in a warning, but he ignored it, waiting until the frantic beating had slowed. This was no danger, this was familiar and safe. This was…
“Lan Zhan.” Wei Ying’s voice was impossibly soft. He hummed to show that he was listening, tipping his head as slightly as he could to lean into the next pass of Wei Ying’s tongue. He thought he heard Wei Ying chuckle, but the sound was gone in the next moment. “Join my Owsla.”
Wangji opened his eyes, staring at Wei Ying. He could see a flash of red in the other rabbit’s eye before it went back to grey and stayed there. Even without that he had known that it wasn’t a command, it was a request like it had always been.
Wei Ying met his gaze for a moment before settling down to the ground, exuding an air of casualness that had no place among so many bodies. “I’ve been asking for months and years, Lan Zhan.”
Wangji weakly pressed his paw against Wei Ying’s foreleg. It wasn’t much of a reprimand, but it was the only one that he could do.
Wei Ying paused to press his nose against Wangji’s fur. “I know. But you can’t blame me? It should be a short time, but it feels like forever. It makes me a bit jealous.”
Wangji huffed, pawing at Wei Ying’s leg. “Mine.”
He felt Wei Ying jerk, the rabbit looking at him in shock. Wei Ying stared at him for a moment before leaning in, nuzzling him gently. “Lan Zhan, only you. I’m not a thing to be claimed.”
Wangji pressed is paw more urgently at Wei Ying’s leg. “Mine.”
Wei Ying sighed into his fur, Wangji hearing the sound but feeling nothing. If he tried, he could imagine a breath. Still the touch was real, and it was something to focus on beyond the pain.
He let his paw slide free of Wei Ying’s foreleg, letting it settle where it would. There was no place to be comfortable, and he didn’t have the energy to move.
He whimpered as Wei Ying nosed closer to a long scratch that trailed from his back down his shoulder. He heard Wei Ying mutter something that might have been an apology, but the words were too faint for him to make out. But the action spoke loudly enough, Wei Ying gently licking the wound. Wangji felt his tongue catch on where the fur was matted and blood clotted, wincing slightly at the pull, but he didn’t roll away. The wounds needed to be cleaned, and he was selfish enough to want an excuse for Wei Ying to stay.
Wangji drifted in and out of something like sleep, aware that Wei Ying had moved each time he came back to himself, but that didn’t matter, he was always close enough to feel. It was either the brush of his fur or the shadow that seemed to loom through the burrow.
The thought of it made him stir slightly, Wangji kicking out with a hindleg. He felt fur brush against it as he moved, Wei Ying pausing. “It’s going to hurt. It’s deep.”
Wei Ying paused, the quiet enough to get Wangji to start to push himself up. He only got as far as pushing himself up on his forelegs, although they were shaking badly.
“You’ll live.” Wei Ying paused, looking at it before shaking his head. “That’s the best I can do.”
Wangji twisted to look at him. “Where are you going?”
Wei Ying tipped his head up, becoming bone for a moment before becoming pure shadow. “The dog has done its duty. Now I have to call them away.”
“Your brother is a trickster.” Wei Ying faded for a moment before snapping back to normal. He reached up to play with an ear. “He had El-ahrairah laughing today.”
“Wei Ying, how many?”
“Far less than if Ruohan had gotten his way.”
He jerked at the sound of his brother’s voice. His forepaws slipped a bit in the dirt, Wangji bracing himself. He gasped at the pain, his forelegs shaking. Wangji startled against at a lick to his shoulder, swinging his head to see Wei Ying leaning close.
Wei Ying licked at the wound on his shoulder for a moment more before backing away. “Rest, Lan Zhan. Recover.”
“When will you be back?”
Wei Ying huffed, the red sparking back in his eyes. “Oh Lan Zhan, I’m never gone.”
He hopped away, Wangji turning his head to watch as he headed to the other side of the run. Wei Ying paused halfway up, tipping his head to the side before crouching down to whisper in the rabbit’s ear.
There was a pause before the rabbit sat up, swaying in place before perking up their ears. “Wuxian-rah?”
Wei Ying greeted the question with a nod before turning to look back at him. “Until next time, Lan Zhan.”
He turned and started away, although Qionglin remained for a moment, his paw raised. Then he ducked his head and scurried off, and Wangji had never envied a rabbit more.
Wangji scrambled at the loose dirt, trying to turn. He knew that he had refused the offer, although that was more of a habit than anything else. Now, watching Wei Ying leave with Qionglin by his side was the one thing he never wanted. There was something in him that revolted because it was his place.
He kicked out, trying to get his hindlegs under him. He managed with one, but the right one immediately gave, sending him tumbling to the ground. He gasped in pain, closing his eyes as the world spun around him. Everything when silent for a moment, and then Xichen was practically shouting in his ears.
He twitched, looking up at his brother. “Xichen?”
Xichen stared at him for a moment before laying down beside him, sniffing at him. Wangji allowed the examination, only twitching when Xichen sat up abruptly to rub at his nose. “Frith and Inlé, Wangji.”
“You told me to hold.”
Wangji couldn’t quite see the expression on Xichen’s face, but the way that he twitched and turned slightly was enough. His brother had known what he asked of him, just like Wangji had known, but Xichen obviously didn’t like it. Wangji rolled slightly to be able to shove his paws under him, only managing it slightly before Xichen was nudging him back down.
“No, Wangji, rest.”
Wangji strained for a moment longer before letting himself drop back down with a long sigh. Xichen followed him down, sniffing at him before giving his leg a tentative lick. Wangji startled slightly, Xichen muttering an apology before sitting up. “I’ll be back, and we’ll get you somewhere we can take care of that.”
Wangji nodded, surprised when Xichen leaned in to lick his face, the action turning into a nuzzle. “Hold on until then.”
There was nothing to do but nod, Wangji slumping back to the ground. He heard Xichen move off and the scattered shouts from the rabbits that he had protected. Xichen called out for them, but his voice was lost quickly as the others responded. Wangji cocked an ear back their way, listening to the joyous voices.
He flattened his ear quickly when he realized that he was looking for a certain voice that wouldn’t be there. Or, if he was, he wouldn’t be speaking. If anything, he was listening for the voice that would echo through a rabbit’s body and say only a few words. Wangji found himself missing it already.
He swallowed, kicking awkwardly until he managed to roll onto his stomach. It was hardly better than any other position, the aches and pains were still there. But it meant that he could rest his head on his forepaws and just breathe. Like that, he didn’t have to smell the scent of death and fear. Instead, there was only the calming scent of lotus.
“Well, there’s another place—another country, isn’t there? We go there when we sleep; at other times, too; and when we die.”
“With a mighty bark, the dog tore free of his rope and charged, but Mingjue-rah held his ground. He would not leave Wanyin-rah in the claws of the cat. But Wanyin-rah demanded that he run, because he knew that Minjue-rah had a long way to go. The rabbits from the Nie warren were there, fighting and holding their ground beside the Jin and Lan rabbits. They were all counting on them.
“In the face of this, Mingjue-rah turned with a heavy heart and ran with the dog on his heels.
“The dog was a mighty beast, a prince of his kind. His fur was as dark as the Black Rabbit of Inlé, and his breath smelled like the burrows of Yiling, all death and rotting meat. His barks shattered the calm with enough power to send a rabbit tharn. And, it was never more than the length of a hop away from Mingjue-rah, for he knew that he could not lose the dog or the trick would be lost, and then the warren would be lost to the Wens.
“Most rabbits would have lost their mind and ran for the nearest cover, but Mingjue-rah was strong. He kept his course straight and true with the dog at his paws. He put all of his power and strength into the running, for he knew that Guangyao-rah waited for him for the next leg of the run back to the Lan warren in the hills.
“Yes, Mingjue-rah was strong, but the dog was nearly as strong as him and kept him running at full tilt. Even with his strength, every step was an effort, the solid dirt feeling like mud and his heart pounding wildly. And yet he kept running.
“He kept running down the lane, through the undergrowth and to the back paths. He ran with the dog on his heels. He ran with his nose pointed towards the hills and the two who waited for him.
“He ran until he could not run any longer and then pushed himself further.
“He ran until his heart gave out and brave Mingjue-rah collapsed on the ground mid-stride.
“The dog would have been on him in a moment, but Mingjue-rah had not failed in his task. He had led the dog to where Guangyao-rah had lain hidden in the grass. And, when Guangyao-rah saw that his friend and brother had fallen and burst from the undergrowth. The dog took one look at him, a rabbit sitting boldly and without fear in front of him and felt rage, for Frith had promised the elil that the rabbits would tremble before them, and here was a rabbit that defied all of that.
“The rage drove him on, the dog snarling and barking as he charged Guangyao-rah. But Guangyao-rah held his ground, waiting until the last possible moment before turning and running. He kicked up his heels, kicking up dirt into the dog’s face before taking off with the dog howling after him.
“Guangyao-rah was not as big or strong as Mingjue-rah, but he was a true son of El-ahrairah. His mind was full of tricks, and with that he stayed ahead of the dog, ducking in and out of the undergrowth and moving the dog ever closer and closer to the hills and where Xichen-rah was hidden at the base of the hill.
“As before, the dog was right on Guangyao-rah’s heels, snarling his dark promises of death and devouring, but Guangyao-rah just pinned his ears and kept running, for there was nothing else that he could do.
“On and on he ran, the dirt flying from his feet and his heart pounding. He thought that he would end his running like Mingjue-rah did and cried out for Frith to help him, not to live but to only get to the next rabbit.
“And then he was there.
“Like a flash, Xichen-rah appeared practically out of nowhere, cuffing the dog on the nose before darting away. The dog reeled under this new assault and stumbled. It gave Guangyao-rah the time to get under cover and the dog time to gain some new rage.
“In two bounds he had covered the distance between himself and Xichen-rah, snapping at Xichen-rah’s heels, but he remained just ahead, even as they climbed the hill to the warren. The dog, not put off by this, shouted curses and promises until Xichen-rah was nearly shaking with every step, but he did not give up, for Ruohan of the Wens was waiting and trying to kill the rabbits who lived freely in their warrens, and he had told his brother to hold. If Captain Wangji was standing, then Xichen-rah could do no less.
“Onward and upwards he climbed, the dog slavering at his heels and the sound of the Wens trying to break into the warren and kill those who had defied them for so long. This spurred Xichen-rah on, and he gained one stride on the dog, the only stride that any of them would achieve.
“Xichen-rah charged up the hill, coming to the flat. Now, he could have ducked into the burrow and set the dog off on any one of the Wens that were waiting. They were certainly running away and could have attracted the dog’s attention. But the dog’s rage held him in place, and he would not tear away from the rabbit who had so insulted him. And Xichen-rah would not turn away, because he had found Ruohan.
“Ruohan stood by a burrow, staring at the two of them. Now, Ruohan was a strong warrior and he knew no fear, which was his undoing, for a rabbit must always know fear.
“Now that twisted rabbit stood and watched as Xichen-rah rushed him, not even wavering when Xichen-rah ducked away. Instead, he stared down the dog, insulting the beast further. And then, he attacked.”
The kittens screamed, Wangji lifting his head at the sound. He watched as Jingyi leapt forward. The kittens tumbled into a pile, staring at the storyteller in awe as he sat back. Jingyi smirked and reached up to clean an ear.
The kittens remained held in terror before their curiosity got the better of them, coming out of their pile to peer at Jingyi. One was braver than the others, inching forward to peer up at him. “W-what happened to Ruohan?”
“Well, no one knows.” Jingyi dropped down to all fours, obviously eager to get back to the topic. “There are some that say that the dog got him and tore him to pieces away down the hill where we never found him. But no one ever saw a body, so some believe that he escaped and wanders as a hlessi, horribly scarred and always looking for his warren or the rabbits who had so thwarted him, but he’ll never find them. What I believe is that the dog got him, but Black Rabbit of Inlé wouldn’t take him. Instead, Ruohan wanders ahead of Black Rabbit of Inlé, stealing souls and warning others that it is their time to go.”
The kittens murmured to themselves, another quick to inch forward. “But, what about Wanyin-rah?”
Jingyi laughed, leaning forward to lick the kitten. “He boxed the cat into submission and ran all the way back, although he missed the end of the battle. But he didn’t escape unscathed. He carried scars until the end of his life.”
The kittens muttered to themselves, the sound quickly turning into thanks to the storyteller, although that turned to clamoring for another one.
Wangji lifted his head from where he had been grazing, watching the group as the kittens practically bowled Jingyi over.
“Tell another one!”
“Tell us about the King’s Lettuce.”
“No, tell us about the travels of the Nie warren.”
“Tell us about Captain Wangji!”
Wangji sighed, letting his head drop to his paws. He was not used to being a legend, although it was bound to have happened. The bucks and does who had survived the Wens had turned what they had done into stories that were passed down into more fantastic stories. It was easy when nearly all of the legends were gone.
Guangyao-rah had run out of tricks and gotten caught by the same dog that had saved them all. Xichen had heard the news and stopped running the next day. Huaisang had come to give his condolences before disappearing, but Wangji had a feeling that he was dead as well. Huaisang hadn’t really been fully himself when he had visited. He had seemed lost in his visions.
He stretched his hindlegs out, settling into a comfortable position. It was not something that he liked to think about. He preferred to listen to the warren, to reassure himself that all was in order. Wangji might not be in the Owsla anymore, he hadn’t been since the Wens had attacked, but it was a habit that was hard to break.
Wangji sighed, settling comfortably. The sun was warm on his fur and he could smell the flowers and grass that was beginning to grow at the start of spring. It was nice after so many days in the warren, pressed up against other rabbits and the smells in there. He took a deep breath, letting it out in a rush when he felt a rabbit moving towards him.
He had purposely set himself a little bit away from the warren, but well within the protection of the Owsla. It was just better to keep away from the more enthusiastic kittens. They meant well, but Wangji was too old to be clambered over.
Wangji opened one eye, lifting his head when he saw Sizhui standing there. “Sizhui-rah.”
“Captain Wangji.” The young rabbit shifting in place, giving the whole hilltop a nervous look.
Wangji followed his gaze, shifting slightly when he saw the two rabbits being escorted to the top. For a moment, he thought he was looking at Wanyin-rah and Wei Ying, but he quickly corrected himself. Wanyin-rah had stopped running in his sleep months ago, and the only similarity between Wei Ying and the other rabbit was their darker fur. Besides, the Owsla could see the second rabbit.
“Oh,” Wangji looked back at Sizhui, but the young rabbit didn’t look at him. Sizhui took a step forward. “He brought Xuanyu. His seer.”
The last was an aside, like he remembered that Wangji was there. It wasn’t quite needed, Wangji could see the look of terror that crossed Xuanyu’s face when the rabbit looked his way. Xuanyu darted behind the other rabbit, which made the other turn and start to lecture him.
Sizhui made a concerned noise and started forward. “Rulan-rah.”
If there was a continued conversation, Wangji was too far away to hear it. He watched the cluster of rabbits before turning away. That was chief rabbit business, and he was no longer involved. He had all the time in the world to graze and nap, and the sun felt good on his fur.
Wangji was in the midst of working on dozing off when he caught the scent of lotus. He heard a rabbit moving around him, but it took him a while to work up the effort to open his eyes. By then, Wei Ying was settled close to him, practically nose to nose.
Wangji sighed and stretched his head forward, anticipating the usual grooming that would follow, but Wei Ying didn’t move. Wangji studied him closely, catching the way that his shape frayed into shadow on the edges. It was an indication of his state of mind, but what it meant Wangji didn’t know.
He studied Wei Ying before stretching out to nuzzle him. The contact seemed to shock Wei Ying back into solidity, his stillness ending as he became something more like a real rabbit again. It wasn’t enough, because Wei Ying wouldn’t look at him.
Wangji nudged him again, freezing when Wei Ying just flopped practically on him. Wangji didn’t move, looking down at him from his new angle. “Wei Ying?”
“You are not.”
Wei Ying twitched at bit at that, his shape firming up a little bit more. Even then it was a while before he looked up at Wangji. “I thought I would miss you again.”
Wangji blinked at him, watching as Wei Ying reached up to groom his ears, although the motion looked more like something to distract himself than anything else. When Wangji didn’t say anything, Wei Ying paused, looking up at him. “The last time I came, you were so tired that I didn’t dare wake you up. I could feel it…”
Wangji twisted so he could get at Wei Ying’s ears. He didn’t know what he could do about the sadness in Wei Ying’s voice, it sounded like something far beyond he was used to. But this he could do. This was the only thing he felt that he could do.
Wei Ying allowed the grooming, although he went silent and still, more of him frayed away into shadow. Wangji eyed the pieces of shadow, watching as they settled into something larger, Wei Ying at the center of it.
It felt like Wei Ying was going away, getting more distant and Wangji didn’t like it. He leaned back, letting Wei Ying fall more fully on him so he could get a paw over Wei Ying’s shoulders. It was as close as he could get to Wei Ying, and as close as he could get to holding Wei Ying down. Even then, it didn’t feel secure. The scent of lotus was fading and it felt like Wei Ying would just disappear. “Stay.”
“I always meant to…just to do this one last time.”
Wangji stopped his grooming, going still as he waited for an explanation. For once, Wei Ying didn’t seem to be in the mood for talking. The rabbit just curled slightly, resting his head against Wangji. Wangji held still, watching Wei Ying closely.
He was practically nothing but a knot of shadow now, curled up tight against him and unnaturally still. It was strange to see, even after years of knowing him. It was even stranger with the sounds of life from the warren behind him. Wangji ducked his head, licking at where there was a suggestion of an ear. When that didn’t do anything, he pulled his head back, watching Wei Ying for hints of bone against the shadow, but there was nothing.
“What is it?”
Wei Ying turned his head, Wangji expected to see red eyes looking up at him, but they were the same calming grey. “I’ll miss this sound. Your heartbeat.”
“This is the first time I’ve found you awake in a while.” The words were practically whispered.
Wangji huffed, dragging his paw back over Wei Ying’s back so he could rest his head on it. “You can wake me.”
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying snapped back into a rabbit, Wangji jerking his head at that and the tone of voice. Wei Ying stared at him for a moment before nuzzling close. “I’m sorry.”
“There’s no need.”
“I just wanted to have things the way they were before things change.”
Wei Ying gave him a miserable look, and then understanding crashed down. “Oh.”
“I’ve tried to put it off. Every time I came you were asleep, and I wanted to talk so I put it off. I didn’t want to do it today either. I was hoping that you would just sleep and I could sit and keep watch, and then there would be another time. Maybe I could have done this for another year, but that would be too cruel and I can’t do that. I have to do my duty, Lan Zhan, I have to but it’s never hurt before, not like this. I’m not ready, I’m not. So, if you could just…I don’t know Lan Zhan. I don’t know anymore.”
Wei Ying shook against him, Wangji watching him for a moment before turning to look at where the rest of the warren was.
The Owsla were on duty, talking with each other and watching out for elil. The rabbits were grazing contentedly, working their way through the new spring grass. The kittens were rushing around in play or gathering around Jingyi as he was bothered into another story. Sizhui and Rulan-rah were talking close to each other, fine despite all of Sizhui’s worries.
It was a warren at peace.
They would be fine without him.
He turned back to Wei Ying, nuzzling into him and taking a deep breath. “Ask me.”
Wei Ying went tense, his shaking getting worse before he stopped. He was still for a moment before he untucked his head from where he was hiding it behind his paws. Wei Ying shook his head slowly. “Lan Zhan-”
“Ask me, please.”
Wei Ying closed his eyes, making a hurt sound and fraying into shadow. For a moment, Wangji was sure that he would disappear or run off. But he stayed, shaking against him before he finally raised his head. “Lan Zhan, will you come with me and join my Owsla?”
His answer didn’t get the response he expected. Wei Ying dropped his head again, Wangji holding still as he listened to his heartbeat. Wangji felt the sigh that rattled through Wei Ying, but he didn’t quite know what to do to help it. When he shifted to try and nuzzle or groom him, Wei Ying stood up, taking a step away from him.
Wangji looked up at him, watching as the shadows gathered, solidifying into the familiar shape of the sleek, black-furred rabbit. Wei Ying held himself back at that distance before taking a careful hop forward, practically hovering over him.
Wangji took the chance to push himself up slightly, nuzzling into the fur closest to him. “It’s alright, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying didn’t respond beyond reaching out to rest a paw over Wangji’s, keeping that contact as he leaned close to Wangji’s ear.
Wangji shuddered at the sound of his kitten name, feeling the same pull from the burnt-out human village.
He couldn’t resist.
He didn’t want to.
He gathered his paws under him, standing up. Wangji took a moment to wonder at how easy it was without the old pains and aches. Even his bad hindleg moved without a problem instead of shaking and dragging. Wangji went to twist and look to see if the scar was there, but Wei Ying stopped him by pushing into his space. Wangji braced himself for the nuzzling, taking his chance to rub his chin along Wei Ying’s back. He could smell the lotus that always came with Wei Ying, but something else was covering it, Wangji taking a moment to realize that it was his own scent. It had never happened before, Wangji pausing to press his nose against Wei Ying’s fur to smell them.
Wangji wanted to continue, but Wei Ying capered away. It wasn’t with the same familiar energy, because there was something sad still lurking in Wei Ying’s eyes, but even that was starting to leak away. “Lan Zhan!”
Wangji took a cautious step, pausing to stretch out his hind leg. It didn’t hurt, nor did it catch. It felt good and solid, like it had when he was younger, before the Wens. Wangji took a few more steps before breaking into the same twisting, wild hops. It felt good to be able to move and run.
He caught up to Wei Ying, pausing beside him. Wei Ying immediately turned to him nudging against him before taking off at a run. Wangji didn’t hesitate to follow. He lagged at Wei Ying’s heels until Wei Ying slowed down so that they were side by side. It was a permission of sorts, and Wangji was more than happy to take it. It was where he wanted to be.
Wangji swung just wide enough to avoid the more acrobatic of Wei Ying’s bucks, indulging in a few himself as he left his warren, and his body behind.