Wangji has always been one for propriety. But as soon as the door opens, he steps in, pulling his brother along by the hand.
The young disciples on either side of the cottage’s entrance watch with slightly widened eyes. They’ve never seen Wangji this animated, but he doesn’t care what they think. All he can focus on is what awaits him on the other side, which begins with a greeting.
He gravitates to that warm voice, calling to him at the end of the dim room.
She’s seated on her high-backed chair as usual, a heavy robe thrown over her shoulders. Female disciples stand in the shadows, so cloaked that their faces aren’t visible.
“Here,” she says, patting her lap.
Wangji moves to clamber up. Then he remembers he should at least show some decorum as the younger sibling, and not lose any more face than he already has by throwing aside his manners entirely. He reluctantly stands aside to let Xichen go first.
This doesn’t go unnoticed. “What a big boy you’ve become,” she murmurs, placing her arm around his waist to help him up next. “How courteous of you!”
“Mother, have you been well?” Xichen asks, already settled on their mother’s right leg.
“Oh, the same, the same.” Their mother’s answer is airy, but her grip around Wangji tightens. Her voice is smooth and clear, each word ringing in the semi-dark.
Wangji’s eyes quickly grow used to the lack of light. His vision being assisted rather than illuminated by candlelight, he relies on his other senses, noting the faint smell of sandalwood from their mother’s clothes, the occasional knee-to-knee bump when he’s jostled with his brother, their mother’s long hair tickling his cheek.
Their mother changes the subject. “And what of my darlings? Have you been busy?”
The question is not just for Wangji and, content to tuck himself close, he lets Xichen answer. “We’ve begun preparations for the winter. Wangji says he saw a rabbit the other day, but Uncle says it’s the last one we’ll see for a while.”
“The last one? How silly. I’m sure there’s more where that came from!”
“Why?” asks Wangji.
“If you’re not careful, one will jump into your bed when you’re asleep and eat you! Like this—hop, hop, hop!” And their mother catches his nose with two deft fingers.
Alarmed, Wangji’s mind whirs as he considers what needs to be done to keep the rabbits out. Should he ask for more fasteners on his doors and windows? Are they high enough?
He cares not for his own wellbeing, instead thinking of the possessions most precious to him. Will the rabbits eat his blanket, too? Wangji thinks of the one he currently has, hand-sewn by their mother. This last thought makes him thrash all the more wildly in her arms, determined to run back to his room to rabbit-proof it.
“Wangji. Wangji!” Xichen has to repeat himself to make himself heard over their mother’s peals of laughter. “It’s fine! Mother was playing. The rabbits won’t harm you.”
“Oh, A-Zhan. You’re such a trusting boy.” Tone soft, their mother attempts to cup his cheek, but he turns away, resolutely staring at the opposite wall.
“Hm? Are you mad at me?”
He doesn’t dignify that with an answer.
“What a pity. And here I thought we were friends, A-Zhan!” He can hear the pout in her voice. “Best friends, in fact.”
Wangji can’t let this one go. “We are,” he says, turning back to her at once.
“I’m very glad to hear that,” she answers sweetly, though Wangji can’t imagine why she is struggling not to laugh again. “You and A-Huan are such sweethearts! A mother really couldn’t ask for more.”
Wangji shuts his eyes and shifts closer so he can rest his head on her chest, right where her heart pounds its steady rhythm. He could fall asleep here, in this windowless room. He could fall asleep anywhere, really, wherever he can sense her hand on his back and feel the curious, quick melodies she hums.
“Have you ever held a rabbit, A-Zhan?” Wangji knows their mother is serious this time because she gently pulls him back to look him full in the face, even with a sparkle still in her eyes.
He has, once—the speckled pet of a distant uncle’s, so large it filled the entirety of his small lap. But the rabbit was quickly taken away and the uncle admonished, because the sect leader's sons supposedly had more sanitary and important tasks to attend to.
Wangji likes rabbits more than he thought. They’re quiet, and sniff and hop around. Unlike a lot of other animals, they can keep themselves clean. If anyone had asked Wangji what he thought of the rabbit instead of assuming he had better things to do, he would have asked to see it again.
Xichen elaborates on Wangji’s succinct answer. “We have, Mother, but we’re not allowed to keep animals.”
“All these rules!” Their mother scowls, hoisting them higher on her lap. Wangji and his brother are now at ages where holding them at the same time is starting to become difficult, but she’s determined to keep them together as long as she can. “What happened to letting you two have fun once in a while? You’re children, for heaven’s sake!” Fuming, she glares at the wall Wangji himself had just scowled at.
She’s prone to outbursts, especially where raising them is concerned, and broods for a bit afterward. Wangji doesn’t really understand what she’s thinking, and he knows she doesn’t mean to worry them. But he hates her downturned mouth and the distant look in her eyes, as if she wants to be elsewhere, and so he burrows deeper into where he’s nestled on her chest, squeezing his eyes shut.
Xichen’s sensed the change in their mother’s mood, too. He quickly replies, “But we had fun, didn’t we? Mother, you won’t believe what Wangji did.”
She starts, as if being awakened from a dream. “Hm? What did A-Zhan do?” To Wangji’s relief, her hand resumes its soothing journey up and down his back, occasionally venturing up to stroke his hair.
Xichen’s eyes twinkle. “The rabbit we played with left a lot of fur in Wangji’s lap. Wangji looks up to Uncle very much, so he shaped the fur into a beard that resembled Uncle’s. Uncle didn’t know how to react!”
Wangji stares at Xichen, shocked by this betrayal. Their mother throws her head back, shaking from a fresh bout of laughter. Wangji’s about to turn back to the wall to sulk again when she hastily leans over to kiss the top of his head.
“A-Zhan, Mother is laughing because you’re just so cute,” she says.
Wangji’s never been called cute. He’s been called a serious little master, a focused one, a quiet one, a polite one, even a stubborn one by a particularly brave and frustrated senior disciple. Never cute.
But their mother smiles. “Cute!” she pronounces, and Wangji decides that if she says he’s cute, then it must be so.
The cottage door is closed when Wangji arrives for his monthly visit, with no disciples waiting on either side. Strangely enough, it is also locked.
Xichen is attending his first sect meeting—a high honor. This isn’t the first time Wangji’s come alone, but he knows their mother likes seeing them together. He will have to explain his brother’s absence, but he also looks forward to having her lap for himself, and to answer her questions as succinctly as he likes. To be teased, and to be told he is cute and silly, and to listen to anything else she wants to say.
He knocks, a firm sound.
He stops, confused. He’s on time. Today is the right day, because he always carefully counts down to them. Their mother’s never refused him like this before. In fact, she’s never refused him anything.
He knocks again, louder this time.
“Second Young Master Lan?”
A young disciple, carrying a pile of clothes to wash, halts at the sight of him. His face holds the usual careful traces of reverence when addressing Wangji, but there's a trepidation that shouldn’t be there. For what reason, Wangji can’t imagine.
“I am here to see Mother.”
“She—” And the disciple’s fearful expression grows. “She left, Second Young Master Lan.”
Wangji’s mind races. Their mother’s never vacated that windowless room. Where would she go, at a time like this? He can’t fly on a sword yet, but surely someone will take him where he wants to go, if he asks. If she’s only just left, she can’t have gone far.
The disciple looks at him, unsure how to answer. “Far away,” he says, at last, his voice heavy. “Qingheng-jun is making arrangements—”
“Ah,” and the disciple’s expression only becomes more disheartened. “For a very long trip,” he manages at last.
If it’s a trip, then she’ll come back. Wangji places his hands behind his back, careful to keep his posture straight lest she reappear at any moment. “Then I will wait until she returns.”
The disciple stares at him with an expression that is both parts budding realization and horror. “Second Young Master Lan—” he begins, but another disciple frantically gestures him over, cutting him off.
The sun rises high in the sky, and then plummets down again. Still, Wangji waits, ignoring the pleas of various disciples throughout the day to leave. He only sees his mother once a month; while he’s been told that in itself is already generous, it doesn’t satisfy him at all. Don’t they see he has a very important appointment to keep?
Deep down, he knows something is wrong—very wrong. And yet, he must wait.
He continues waiting, long enough that Xichen and their uncle have finished their meeting and come to find him—still in front of their mother’s cottage, kneeling in the proper position now, because even he couldn’t stand for that long.
Their uncle begins to admonish him. “Wangji! I sent a number of disciples to tell you to leave, but you refused all of them. What is the meaning of this?”
But Xichen steps forward, barely taller than their uncle’s thigh. “Uncle, let me. Wangji, were you not told to leave?”
If there’s anyone here who can understand Wangji’s frustration, it’s his brother. “Mother is on a long trip. I’m waiting for her to come back.” Wangji’s voice sounds his usual levels of even to the unknowing ear, but it has just a hint of annoyance that his brother will definitely catch.
Xichen, however, doesn’t echo Wangji’s sentiment and demand that the door be opened immediately, revealing their mother’s smiling face. Although his expression remains perfectly, carefully neutral, his eyes sadden in a way that Wangji has never seen before. He approaches Wangji, extending a hand for him to take.
“Wangji...Let us leave for today.”
Wangji ignores Xichen’s hand, looking at his brother’s face. Even in its graveness, its expression is as unwilling to bend as his own.
“There are arrangements to be made for Mother.”
There’s that word again, and suddenly Wangji’s temper flares. He’s been earnestly doing all of his meditations to keep his emotions even, just like he’s been taught. But he’s tired and hungry from sitting all day and refusing all his meals, and he just wants a certain someone to tease him and ask him how he is instead of everyone else telling him non-answers. “If these arrangements involve Mother, I want to know what they are! I want to see her!”
“Wangji!” Their uncle is shocked at his impertinence.
But again, Xichen fends him off, shaking his head, hand still offered. “I want to see her too, Wangji,” he says, gently. “But we can’t, today.”
“Tomorrow?” Wangji asks.
The word bursts out of him like instinct; if there isn’t one day, there must be another. His uncle’s brows furrow in disapproval. But Wangji has nothing certain he can hold onto now, except the words most immediate to him that he can pull together.
Something hidden ripples across Xichen’s expression. “I do not think so.”
He looks so dispirited and disconnected now, expectantly waiting with his hand out, unmoving. Wangji can do little else but reach for him and allow himself to be pulled up.
Further scolded by their uncle for disobeying orders and causing inconvenience, Wangji doesn’t have another moment of peace until it’s time to sleep. Being given his own room had made him stand a little straighter and feel like he was making his own way in the world. But today, he tosses and turns, unable to fall asleep no matter how he positions himself.
A knock at the door makes him sit up. Who could it be at this hour?
Then the visitor murmurs, “Wangji.” And Xichen enters, wrapped in his outer robe. “Wangji, I am sorry about today.”
Wangji shifts aside to make room for his brother on the bed. “Why?”
“I told a disciple to tell you that there’d be no visit to Mother, as Uncle instructed. But I should have known how much you wanted to see her.” He fiddles with one of his sleeves. “I think I should tell you—the meeting today was about her.”
Wangji inches forward at once. “Where is she?”
“I didn’t understand everything Uncle and the elders discussed. But…” And Xichen’s lip trembles infinitesimally, ”I don’t think we’ll see her again, Wangji.”
“What do you mean? Why not?” Uncharacteristically, questions pour out of Wangji, but he can’t help himself.
When Xichen shook his head earlier to dissuade their uncle, it seemed a strange, unfamiliarly adult thing to do. But when he shakes his head now, it hits Wangji: this isn’t a gesture meant to cut off his line of inquiry, but one that indicates his brother doesn’t have the answers.
Here, without other eyes to watch him, Xichen’s legs are too splayed to be considered proper, his sleeping clothes arranged with too little care for his appearance, his arms tightly encircling Wangji’s pillow. Wangji’s infallible big brother, always there for him with patience and kindness and a thoughtful response, suddenly looks so very, very young.
And at that moment, Wangji feels like he must do something. Anything, to make things right.
Over the course of the next few months, the door leading to their mother’s cottage has a number of items placed on or in front of it to deter loiterers—heavy vases, furniture, fruit resting on large pieces of cloth to dry, lanterns, wet calligraphy brushes, even talismans.
And yet, one lone little figure, dressed in white robes, still manages without fail to find a space, rain or shine or snow, primly sitting to wait from sun up to sundown.
Lan Qiren’s emotional state has steadily progressed from mild exasperation to outright fury. The junior disciples disperse as soon as they can at the sight of him, and the senior ones have to work at keeping their expressions unchanged. Even the elders do not dare raise too many questions during meetings, for fear of evoking his ire. It is clear when a certain time of month approaches, as Lan Qiren's intense irritation rings across the Cloud Recesses, voice raised in his annoyance to find Wangji is, again, where he has explicitly been told not to be.
Despite his anger, their uncle doesn’t penalize Wangji, claiming he hasn’t technically broken any sect rules. He isn’t making a disturbance, really, or doing anything else that warrants consequences.
But, when Lan Qiren’s finally scolded himself hoarse and stormed back to his room, the elders murmur among themselves that he simply doesn’t have the heart to punish his nephew for grieving.
As for Wangji, he cares little for his uncle’s scoldings. Because, after months of waiting, he finally has the answer he had to experience himself to understand, when he still doesn’t understand at all: his mother isn’t coming back.
Lan Qiren bursts into Wangji’s room on a rainy morning.
“Where are the rabbits?” he demands, without so much as a preemptive greeting.
Wangji has never been good at keeping secrets. Which is why, with a small sigh, he opens a large wooden box, revealing the pair he’s been looking after for a good few weeks. It’s already an accomplishment that the rabbits have managed to escape his uncle’s notice for this long.
It’s unfortunate, really. For the most part, Wangji and his uncle had been a united front ever since Wei Ying’s arrival at, and subsequent abrupt departure from, the Cloud Recesses. Lan Qiren talked daily of expelling Wei Ying for reasons that Wangji agreed with—his shameless nature, his restlessness, and his endless breaking of rules. Smuggling in Emperor’s Smile, for instance, and sharing those…books of Nie Huaisang’s that Wangji confiscated.
Wei Ying. Just a few months ago, the name would have meant nothing to Wangji. Back then, he would have firmly supported his uncle to oust Wei Ying from Gusu for speaking too loudly and for letting his expressions not only show, but magnify on his face. Classes have become considerably quieter, now that Wangji has returned as the resident disciplinarian and model student. With the resident mischief maker gone, Jiang Wanyin and Nie Huaisang focused on their work with as much diligence as they could muster in the remaining months of their stay.
But even then, Wei Ying’s influence remains. Rabbits came back into Wangji’s life the way most unexpected things did in his life—without warning, and having to do with that troublesome Wei Ying. He had presented the rabbits to Wangji with that smile he always seemed to wear, cheerful in a way Wangji didn’t understand. He’s the last thing Wangji sees before falling asleep, his laugh the noise that Wangji wants to hear, simultaneously warm and irritating, and which Wangji confuses with a particularly boisterous bird.
Wangji has made it a point to remember his mother as she was—a foundation beneath him, and a ready ear for whatever he wanted to talk about. But some nights, it’s Wei Ying who springs unbidden to Wangji’s thoughts as the corners of his mind darken into unconsciousness, and Wangji is infuriated that in his own head and even long gone, Wei Ying has taken up residence.
“Who gave them to you?” But Lan Qiren answers his own question. “That pest.” He mutters under his breath for a while, words indecipherable, before ending with, “Release them.”
Lan Qiren’s eyes widen.
Wei Ying-related mischief aside, Wangji cannot do what his uncle’s ordered in good conscience. Even on the first night, the rabbits have already learned to eat from Wangji’s hand. They lie around like sitting targets, and sending them back into the wild is surely a death sentence. It’s like Wei Ying knew, by instinct, which obedient, well-behaved rabbits were best fit for domestication, and would instantly take to Wangji’s lifestyle.
He tries not to think too much about this.
“Wangji.” His uncle rubs his temples, a clear indication of oncoming pain, and Wangji is sorry that he is part of the reason for this migraine. “That nuisance has left, and good riddance to him. Don’t let him distract you from your studies even more than he already has.”
“He is not.” Wangji will make sure of it. He wisely doesn’t mention that the Cloud Recesses seem too quiet nowadays without Wei Ying’s chatter and that the silences, once a regular occurrence, seem unusually lengthy.
“The Jingshi is for humans, not rabbits. You can’t keep them here.”
“Then I will keep them elsewhere.”
“We don’t have anywhere else for them, and we don’t keep or consume animals. You know this.”
Wangji does. “I will give them a comfortable home.”
“Where? I just said we can’t house them.” His uncle’s massaging hard enough that Wangji can see the groove marks as his fingers dig into his scalp. “Don’t be difficult, Wangji. I can’t imagine what’s causing this rebellious behavior. You were more obedient as a child.”
This is both true and untrue; Wangji has shaped his life after his uncle’s, but he’s had his obstinate moments, such as when their mother died. But Lan Qiren’s currently not in the clearest of headspaces, and Wangji isn’t about to make his uncle’s life harder and start another argument.
Instead, he refuses to hedge and, digging his heels in, says, very obstinately, “I will build them a house.”
Whatever response his uncle was expecting, it wasn’t that. Lan Qiren’s eyes nearly pop out of his head. “Wangji!” he splutters. “You have your duties—your teaching, your meditations, and your cultivation. You don’t have time for these...menial tasks concerning animals you weren’t supposed to have in the first place!”
“I will work around my duties, Uncle.”
“Will you not listen to reason?” His uncle turns puce with frustration. “Are you trying to drive me into an early grave?”
Wangji isn’t. So he says nothing more, calmly meeting his uncle’s gaze.
Lan Qiren is searching for an ounce of defiance, insubordination—anything with an emotion of which he can pin on “that bad influence, Wei Wuxian”. But clearly, he finds none, because after a moment more, his shoulders suddenly slope and then bow with an exhaustion, wiped of the indignant vitality that had possessed him just moments before.
“Brother, what am I to do with these sons of yours?” Wangji hears him murmur, more to himself than anyone in particular. And then he turns back to Wangji, composed but resigned.
“You will not use sect resources, understand? Any wood, any rope, any food—they come from your own pocket. And if you must take from the forests, you may only take exactly as much as you need.”
“You will not enlist the help of anyone else, including your brother. Especially your brother. I don’t want this—waste of time—interfering with sect business. He has plenty of things to do without another meaningless activity on top of what he already has. And he’d drop everything he’s doing to help you, so don’t breathe a word of this to him. I won’t hear of it!”
But Xichen comes to investigate the very next day, finding Wangji with a neat pile of lumber and kneeling by a wooden foundation. Chopping is harder while wearing white robes, but Wangji doesn’t want to upset their uncle any more than he already has, and stripping down would certainly contribute to that.
Xichen stoops, picking up a piece of wood to survey it. “Uncle says you have something that’s occupying you with which I shouldn’t concern myself. He wouldn’t tell me more, but I suspect it has something to do with our two new friends currently exploring the Orchid Room.”
Wangji doesn’t think he can confirm nor deny this statement, per his agreement with their uncle.
Xichen just smiles at his silence. “And how does this something work, Wangji? No, no need to answer—I don’t think you are permitted. Let me guess.”
Lan Xichen is generally very good at guessing. And when it comes to Wangji, his guesses are more statements than theories. Sometimes, it’s annoying to be seen straight through. Sometimes, like now, it’s a relief.
“This looks like a rabbit hutch, no? And a very spacious one at that. It will need its own roof to protect its inhabitants from the elements and from predators at night. How nice a home they will have, Wangji.”
Wangji supposes he can at least affirm his brother’s hypothesis, without telling him anything more. Surely, Xichen will surmise the rest. “Mm.”
“Might I suggest adding some straw for bedding? It will keep them warm when the evenings grow colder.”
“Will you be building a separate place to keep this hutch? A small rabbit hall.”
Xichen laughs. “How like you, Wangji.”
Wangji blinks at him, nonplussed.
Xichen’s smile remains beatific, but now there’s something incisive behind the way his eyes bore into Wangji, cutting to the heart of him. “You attend to your tasks so diligently. And it’s not often you accept presents from admirers. But when you do, you treasure them.”
Wangji shoots to his feet, fuelled by anger at the idea he’s doing this because he values whatever nonsense Wei Ying’s done. “The rabbits weren’t presents!” he seethes. “I’m not treasuring them! And he’s not an admirer!”
“Very well, as you say.” Unperturbed by Wangji’s outburst, his brother rises. “Since it seems you’ll have to stop soon for today, I won’t keep you further. Uncle has forbidden me from raising a finger to help, but I have faith you’ll see this through, Wangji. Best of luck looking after your, ah, gifts.” And with a final pat on Wangji’s shoulder, he departs.
Wangji stares after him in disbelief. As if Wei Ying meant those rabbits with any sort of good intention! This was another ploy to tease Wangji and make fun of him. It was irresponsible to involve harmless animals; Wangji is just doing his utmost to ensure no one is hurt.
“Ridiculous!” Wangji mutters at his brother’s retreating back.
As Wangji grows up, he ventures farther and farther from the Cloud Recesses.
It’s not easy, keeping track of all the journeys he makes as he approaches and then enters adulthood. But he’ll always remember his first times. When his steps took him past the forests he knew, to what lay beyond. His first time picking lotus seed pods in a small town on a rainy night, the woman in charge of the pond only letting him in because he’d traveled so far. When he spread his blanket next to a riverbank, with only the dragonflies and bullfrogs for company. When he rented a room at an inn, falling asleep to the noise of the guests below, all taking shelter from the snow.
Sometimes, he goes far enough that he leaves the cultivation world—far enough that his reputation as Hanguang-jun is lost on the town inhabitants, where he's only known as the elegant young master dressed in white. He has to build his reputation anew each time he visits a different place, but it doesn’t matter; he’s never concerned himself much with reputation, anyhow, whether it be of his own or of others. Trust is what matters more, and trust is what is given to him.
Because he solves their problems without asking for anything in return, the people he meets embrace him and accept him as he is. He only speaks when spoken to. But no one seems to mind that he doesn’t talk much; they’re happy to talk to him instead, filling the spaces in conversations. Wangji isn’t the sort to share people’s stories with others—not unless it’s necessary for another case, and even then, he doesn’t disclose names unless he has to. But he holds onto what he hears, and continues to go where he’s needed: evicting a vengeful ghost here, exorcising a fierce corpse there.
He’s a creature of habit—raised to rise and sleep and dine at the same times each day, learn the same scriptures, teach the same things. He misses the food he’s used to eating, the room to which he returns to rest and think, the bed on which he’s used to sleeping. But he makes do with what he’s given by way of shelter and food, accepting everything without complaint, knowing what he has is the best people can offer him.
The rabbits Wei Ying gifted him are a pair of males, destined not to breed. But somehow, there are always reasons to bring more back home.
A brown rabbit in the rain, trembling under a leaf. A baby red one, cowering next to a puddle, its mother taken by a snake. A white one, angrily ramming into Wangji’s ankles because it sensed the vegetables its master was picking were for him. People, grateful for Wangji’s help, refuse to take no as an answer. The one time he doesn’t immediately refuse a farm’s finest pair of rabbits, the town he’s in plies him with more.
And the number of rabbits Wangji has, grows. A huddled mass of mostly white balls, but with a generous smattering of other colors.
A busy crowd, who follow Wangji with every step he takes. Who, if they could, would literally smother him with trust and affection.
Wei Ying smiles. “Shall we go? Walk with me, Lan Zhan.”
Wangji falls into step alongside him.
Brisk as Wei Ying’s steps may be, his robes have become too big on him; thin and ragged, they blur around him, unfurling like smoke. Everything about the Burial Mound—the smudged sky above them, the dust beneath them—does nothing to dispel the jigsawed notion that nothing quite fits where it is.
“Ah, Lan Zhan. How’s life at Gusu? The same as usual—boring classes, beautiful meadows, and endless rules? The old man suffered a stroke yet?” Wei Ying chuckles; while still genuine, it no longer rings, is no longer benignly infectious. “I couldn’t stand the food. But now, sometimes I think about what I’d give for just one bowl of bland soup.”
The pallor in his face, the shadows under and in his eyes—it all unsettles Wangji. He is but a hand’s width from Wei Ying, but the abyss between them seems unbridgeable and ever-growing, even as Wei Ying speaks.
“You know, I’ve heard some interesting rumors while here. About you, and who you’re gallivanting with in your spare time.” With a ghost of playfulness in his eyes, he watches Wangji’s face, expecting a reaction. When he finds none (because, Wangji wonders, who on earth could he be gallivanting with, and when did he ever have spare time?), Wei Ying continues. “There’s talk of rabbits at Gusu, dozens of them, raised by none other than the esteemed Hanguang-jun. They play in the meadows in the day, and they sleep in the hutch he built for them.”
The simple truth is, there are as many rabbits as there are because Wangji simply hadn’t expected to have that many. They multiply rapidly, and good thing the hutch is spacious enough to house all of them.
But what Wei Ying doesn’t know is that this is the second hutch Wangji has built in his life.
Feeling unease as the Wens approached, Wangji could only save a few of the many rabbits for safekeeping. He chose the original pair Wei Ying had given him, older but still alive, along with several others. It pained Wangji that he could only take a few rabbits with him, understanding that if the Cloud Recesses fell—which it eventually did, and burned—the Wens would make short work of the remaining rabbits.
It had not been hard to build another hutch. What had been difficult was returning to the Cloud Recesses and seeing everything Wangji knew in ashes, and knowing that it would never be the same way it had once been. With the spirit of the original Cloud Recesses went his father, and all the places Wangji had once knew and called dear for various reasons.
But Wangji merely keeps walking, neither affirming nor dissenting.
Again, Wei Ying waits for a response, and goes on anyway. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan. So busy saving the world and assisting the everyday man, but having enough time to help the animals, too. An expression like the morning frost, and dressed like the cold dawn. Beautiful and cold beyond measure, untouchable in morals, prowess, and looks. What an amazing man.”
With color filling Wei Ying’s cheeks as he speaks, Wangji wonders if he’s coming back to his old self for a moment. But Wei Ying exhales; his eyes flare red, and the fantasy is lost to time once more.
And while Wangji knows the haggard figure in front of him and the merry youth of his younger years are the same person, it’s hard to believe, even for him.
That is, until Wei Ying says, “You’re always so good, Lan Zhan,” with an unfeigned curl on the corner of his lips.
All of his life, Wangji has been bowed to, politely addressed, politely held at arm’s length and revered by those he encounters. Infallible, incapable of wrongdoing, inexorably righteous, ethereal.
Wei Ying looked those expectations in the face, and then looked at Wangji with those bright eyes, under the moonlight. Dared him, Gusu’s pride and joy, to defy the very rules his sect was built upon and make his own choice. Made Wangji wonder what it was that lit such a smile, and a voice that cheerfully asked him to pretend not to notice the jar, swinging red and potent as it dangled between quick fingers.
Wangji’s outrage at the time seemed justified. An outsider, shamelessly breaking the rules that everyone else worked so hard to follow to maintain peace? Such a person had to be punished.
But Wei Ying saw him as a person. Wei Ying saw him as flawed, as prone to anger and irritation as anyone else, a friend to be made. And Wangji lashed out.
However, Wangji didn’t manage to maim him, and so Wei Ying lived, and laughed, and continued breaking more rules. Got under Wangji’s skin, and somewhere along the way, in classrooms and mountainsides and dark caves of mortal peril, settled squarely at his racing heart. Turned Wangji’s vexation at experiencing what he didn’t know, into something else altogether.
At the very moment their eyes met on that clear moonlit night, there was nothing else Wangji could do, really, but fall. Fall, and fall harder still, with nothing to catch him.
It’s hard to believe that the same person who smiled so openly at Wangji and ignited his inner fire into being stands before him now, gaunt with hollow, red-rimmed eyes. With Wei Ying’s very gaze distorted to this degree, what will become of him?
Only pain, and death. And this is what spurs Wangji to speak.
“Wei Ying,” he begs. “Come back to Gusu with me.”
“Come back?” Wei Ying’s smile falters. “What do you mean?”
“To keep you safe.”
“Keep me?” Wei Ying’s smile returns. Bitterly. “Be confined and contained, like the rabbits you think you’ve saved? I don’t think so, Lan Wangji.”
Wangji’s shocked into silence. Those rabbits are currently living a lazy and happy life, fat and content in their hutch without a care in the world.
But their original benefactor continues talking. “The Burial Mound may be scarce in food and everything else, but at least I can go where I please and live among people who don’t despise me. I’m not subjected to a regimented life, where my every whim is subject to rules and expectations. No need to go back into a cage at the end of the day.”
Wangji flinches. Wei Ying is always so quick on the uptake; even now, it is true, even if his interpretation of Wangji’s words isn’t what Wangji intended. “Wei Ying,” he says, driving back the tremble in his voice. “You are not yourself. If you could—”
Wei Ying abruptly looks away. “If I could what?” He snorts. “Be a good little boy, and go where I’m told? Poor, innocent Xianxian, in need of a little cleansing and some rest? What awaits me when I leave this place, other than further ridicule and the smearing of my name, and a prison? More importantly, what of the people here with me, like A-Yuan? Will you take them in, too? Tell me, Hanguang-jun, because I’d love to know. I’m all ears.”
“Wei Ying,” Wangji says again, and no, there is no mistaking the tremor that is there now, “I will keep you—and them— safe. If you will let me.”
“Let? How kind of you.” Wei Ying stares at him with those sunken eyes. “I have things to do. People to protect. Be locked away, or waste away—are those the only choices I have? They seem one and the same to me.”
“No. A song of cleansing, for golden cores. I can teach you.”
“Golden cores? How generous of the venerated Hanguang-jun!” And then, Wei Ying throws his head back and laughs, derisive and utterly devoid of mirth. Wangji feels like there’s some joke, some important fact, that’s gone over his head. “Am I betrothed to you, then? Should I get on my knees? Make our vows? Oh, how grateful I am. I could kiss you, Lan Wangji!”
All words that Wangji would have held close to his heart in another life. And yet, why is he struggling to keep his chin held high and his eyes from spilling over?
Beside him, Wei Ying stops. “Well, this is the mountain’s end. This is where I leave you.”
Wangji forces his arms to stay at his sides. If Wei Ying continues along this treacherous path, he’ll reach a juncture so thin that even Wangji cannot follow him—and Wangji’s suddenly seized with the urge to reach out and embrace him.
Not only to keep Wei Ying away from the dark. But because for all of Wei Ying’s bluster, he’s kept his arms around himself the entire time they’ve walked down the mountain together. Soothing himself, like there’s no one left to hold him.
But Wangji chokes it all back. “Until next time, Wei Ying.”
Wei Ying musters one last smile. “Goodbye, Lan Zhan. Thank you for telling me about Shijie’s wedding. It was good seeing you.”
As Wangji recalls later, It’s the final conversation they ever have, where they are both sound in mind enough to have a proper exchange.
Wangji awakened in a haze of delirious pain.
Everything was on fire. He twitched, and the agony increased tenfold. A broken noise comes, unbidden, from his lips.
“He’s awake!” That could only be Xichen. Had he been waiting all this time? “Quick! Fetch some herbs for his back—”
“No,” Wangji rasped out, throat parched.
He barely remembered hauling himself to the Burial Mound and back. Only that he collapsed onto his brother, who had sent out a search party in a panic when he’d realized Wangji had disappeared from his room.
Xichen stared him down. “Fetch the herbs,” he ordered, not looking away from Wangji. “And some water.”
When the disciple returned with the herbs, Xichen applied them without letting Wangji protest any further. “Your wounds have reopened. Allow us to help,” he said, his mouth a stern line. “What’s the point in suffering these pains for someone who’s already gone?”
And the realization hit Wangji anew: Wei Ying was dead, with no trace of him to be found.
To the outside world, Hanguang-jun has entered a period of contemplative meditation, away from all worldly matters.
In truth, Wangji is bedridden, and in such pain that the act of basic meditation is out of the question. He spends his first few months after returning to Gusu drifting in and out of consciousness, whiling away the hours on his stomach, mulishly grading night hunt diaries until he’s in too much discomfort to continue.
Xichen comes often between various sect business and his own duties, keeping Wangji updated with various goings-on. Wangji used to hope for something, anything regarding a certain person. But it is a topic that no longer needs broaching, for Wangji has seen for himself with his own eyes that there is nothing left. But it is for the best that he went, or else he would not have rested until he did.
He was on the mend. That is, until another incident where, in an alcohol-clouded state, he smashed open the sect’s treasury in search of a flute that would not be there and branding himself in search of a person who would not return, and reopening the wounds upon his back in the process.
Along with news, Xichen brings other things on occasion.
He delivers well wishes, often from distant parts of Gusu. Even if people don’t know Wangji by his title or name, they’ve always been perceptive enough to know by a glance that he is of a cultivation sect and, undoubtedly, the finest one. Since many are farmers and cannot leave their lands unattended, they send messages through merchants or passers-by. Many visitors come to the Cloud Recesses seeking the services of the benevolent Hanguang-jun. But many more come to ask after the tall, reticent figure who was given permission to use their lands as paths to travel, and, while not a frequent visitor, became one known by entire towns, whose inhabitants knew both to respect and not to disturb him.
On other occasions, Xichen brings rabbits—docile, gentle ones that he scoops out of the hutch. They’re content to hop around the room, tuck themselves against Wangji’s side in his bed, or sniff around, detecting various scents that he can’t. Wangji doesn’t ask who’s taking care of them. He suspects Xichen has enlisted several junior disciples, because the rabbits are starting to look a bit peaky instead of being their well-fed, glossy-coated selves. But Wangji is too tired to argue; between the pain on his back, the sting on his chest from the brand, and the pervasive sting that he can feel but can’t see, he’s too tired to do much, nowadays.
At other times, Xichen brings the boy A-Yuan. He still has some scarring on his arms from the night he was found, but is in good spirits. Small for his age, creative, and diligent, he whiles away the hours amusing himself with rabbits and the toys he can make of items in the room. He makes up stories aloud, occasionally trotting over to Xichen and Wangji to show them anything he deems noteworthy.
“He’s a quick study and has a good temperament,” says Xichen, while A-Yuan plays with Wangji’s peony bookmark, passing it to an imaginary admirer and then back to himself in a pretend conversation. “No one knows of his past. Will you raise him as one of our own?”
“Yes.” Wangji rests his cheek on his pillow, thinking. “Until he is ready for the truth.”
He has no plans to conceal A-Yuan’s true past—he’s learned no one ever does well with secrets—but now is not the time. Not now, when anyone’s name linked to the Yiling Patriarch is dirt by association and when Jiang Wanyin is razing anything and anyone related to the Wens and demonic cultivation to the ground. Not when it’s so dangerous.
“Rich gege!” A-Yuan toddles over, Wangji’s calligraphy brush in hand. “Look what I found!”
In a quiet Gusu village, Wangji once overheard a mother telling her husband that the duty of a parent begins when the child is young. Their small daughter had addressed her parents informally; they answered her with smiles, and loved her with home-made sweets and hugs.
Wangji’s had no such upbringing. What he remembers of his childhood are long hours of quiet, locked doors and shadows, and a fleeting warmth. But he supposes he should start his attempts at parenting now, while he still has A-Yuan’s undivided attention and the time to spare.
“You will call me Hanguang-jun,” he corrects A-Yuan, voice quiet. “And you must be quiet and listen when other people talk. Do you understand?”
A-Yuan seems to sense the seriousness of the occasion. He straightens up and solemnly answers, “Yes, H—Han—Hangua—”
“Hanguang-jun,” Wangji repeats. Seeing A-Yuan’s eyebrows draw together in frustration, he adds, “I will repeat it.”
A-Yuan’s expression clears. “Yes! Hangua-ju!”
A-Yuan turns to Xichen, waving about the same brush. “Rabbit gege! Look what I found!”
“He is Zewu-jun,” says Wangji.
“Z—Z—Ze—” A-Yuan tries a few times, but gives up.
He waits expectantly for Wangji to repeat the word, but Xichen just pats A-Yuan’s head. ”He will learn in time, Wangji. And yes, I see it, A-Yuan, very nice. But what of the rabbit you wanted to show Hanguang-jun?”
A-Yuan pouts. “It didn’t want to come. But I thought of a name for it!”
“Did you? What is it?”
Quick as a blinking firefly, A-Yuan’s grin returns. “Rich gege! Because he’s white and fluffy and sits nice like old Rich gege, and old Rich gege wants to be called something else!”
“Ah,” says Xichen.
He smiles over at Wangji; it’s something fond and sad. Wangji catches the implications of it, in the way Xichen’s eyes travel over Wangji’s bandaged back, red from the blood that’s soaked through, to the brand on Wangji’s chest that glints in the light, to A-Yuan, playing in the semi-dark room.
As for Wangji’s uncle, Lan Qiren appears relieved that Wangji has not brought up Wei Ying in conversation. But he’s never been as capable as his nephews at keeping his expressions unreadable, visibly flinching and averting his eyes when Wangji’s wounds are dressed and rebandaged.
“Wangji,” he says.
Wangji waits for the inevitable lecture. Their uncle did always try to discipline them by using the rules as much as possible.
But Lan Qiren only sighs. “Where did I go wrong?”
Wangji’s eyes widen imperceptibly. In the dimness, no one notices.
“I’ve only tried to do right by you and Xichen. And your father.” He pauses. “Before he passed, he asked me to help you two lead righteous lives. To become good, worthy men of the sect. To not become him.
“Because what kind of a life did he end up having? I watched as he married the woman—the murderer—who ruined his life. His honor. His future. Any respect he had earned.”
Wangji balks. That woman had made his early years the happiest he could remember, until Wei Ying’s arrival at the Cloud Recesses.
“I know you and Xichen were fond of your mother. But because of her, you didn’t have the chance to know your father. I grew up with him, the way you grew up with Xichen. Our mother doted on him, and I looked up to him. He was kind, wise, and had the potential to become the most upstanding sect leader in our history. I saw great things in store for him. Everyone did. But that wasn’t what happened.”
Shortly before Su Minshan left Gusu, he had stated his reasons for departing to the elders. “This place is called the Cloud Recesses in name. But it’s a sect of literal dreamers, with their lofty ideals and highbrow ways.” His mouth was smeared in a sneer, his tone mocking. But this was also how outside critics saw the sect’s ethos: laughably idealistic, impractical, arrogant, and restrictive.
Romantic, in the worst kind of way.
“When you follow your feelings, they lead you astray. Love, hatred, anger, all of it.” Lan Qiren’s voice is so quiet, Wangji only just catches it. “Perhaps I’ve been too lenient. Or too severe. Unless they were the same, in the end.”
Wangji strains to glance at Lan Qiren; he’s wringing his hands, staring at the vase with gentians next to Wangji’s bed, the blooms picked by A-Yuan and arranged by Xichen. “I’ve asked myself, over and over, what I should have done differently.”
It starts with one rule, their uncle likes to say. They break one rule, and then they think they can break them all.
Yes, Wangji had said. If Xichen was the welcoming hand to the Cloud Recesses, then he was the whip. Being the upholder of justice meant impartiality, with no exceptions to the rule, including himself—with the result being the enforcement of the punishment that resulted in the lashes upon his own back.
Wangji mourned his father’s passing. But in truth, he knew his father as well as he knew their mother—which is to say, he knew them based on what was shown to him, around closed doors and brief conversations.
He, Xichen, and their uncle are the ones who remain, now. Left to fend for themselves alongside each other and for each other, supporting an entire sect beneath them.
Lan Qiren is unbending. His temper is quick, his words pointed, his ire easily roused—all uncustomary of a Lan. He does not recognize goodness outside of the strict boundaries he has drawn. And yet, he is a Lan, in the strictest sense of the word. He has a stout sense of right and wrong, all embedded within the stone slabs that haven’t changed since the sect’s inception. He does not permit his nephews their own pleasures or possession over what they wish to call their own, wishing they look elsewhere for fulfillment.
But who else has shunned his own desires and the opportunity for power when their father passed, instead choosing to give them an upbringing befitting of sect leaders? Who else has stayed by their sides until now, and made such efforts to raise them in the ways with which he knew? Who else is stirred to despair, to worry, to anger, on their behalf? Who else has gone to lengths to keep them close, keep them safe, and attempted to shoulder the blame for the ramifications?
He is their uncle. But who else has he been but a parent, except in name?
“I did what I could.” Lan Qiren has moved to the window, hands behind his back. “And yet, I have failed your father, and both of you.”
“Uncle,” Wangji starts. But when their uncle turns to look at him, he finds he doesn’t know what to say. They have so few conversations of this nature that Wangji is hardly prepared for such frankness. He knows they are only having this exchange now, because their uncle sees no other way to express such sentiments.
But Lan Qiren is also aware how unusual his nephews are finding the situation. “Wangji. I watched your father fall prey to that...that curse. I don’t want to watch you succumb to it, too. When you are better in body and mind, put such frivolities behind you. There’s more to life than just one person. They alone do not make life worth experiencing.”
Their uncle's eyes are not pale like Wangji’s or dark like Xichen’s, but something in between, and his wan face is further paled by the moon. “Work for the betterment of others, as you did before. If you follow the teachings—doing your daily meditations, reflecting on the scriptures, remaining devoted to our ways—you will not falter, and your heart will be still.”
Wangji can see the inflexibility in Lan Qiren’s severe features—the same discipline which Wangji admired and tried to emulate as a child. In the same way it has helped preserve the Lan sect’s traditions, even through trial and fire, that same severity is the reason Lan Qiren simply cannot understand the why behind Wangji’s actions.
Wangji remains quiet. For once their uncle doesn’t want a response from him, uttered or otherwise. “Reflect on my words, Wangji. Xichen, it is past curfew. Bring the boy back to his sleeping quarters.”
“Aren’t his sleeping quarters here?” asks Xichen.
“When Wangji recovers. But as of now, he’s in no condition to look after anyone else. Let us leave.”
“Uncle, can’t I stay—” Xichen starts to say. But their uncle gives him an expectant glance, and he sighs. “Very well. Wangji, I’ve given the disciples instructions to apply salves and to change your bandages through the night. Your sleep will be affected, but we cannot risk infection. I will return in the morning.“
Sometime during the conversation, A-Yuan had fallen asleep, slumped against the foot of Wangji’s bed. Soundlessly, Xichen kneels to gather him up, lifting him easily into his arms.
And with one last whisper of robes, Wangji is left alone with his thoughts.
They’re supposed to be in a sect meeting. But Wangji has been herded outside, by no other person than his own brother.
Wangji continues to stride away, deeper into the white flurries he stirs up.
He finally turns around, bringing them to a distance far enough away from the meeting hall to prevent any prying eyes or ears.
They stand face to face, as if in conversation. But Wangji plants his feet firmly in the snow, ignoring the cold that raises goosebumps on his arms. Neither he nor his brother had put on their outermost robes, and the chill bites at their skin.
Xichen’s expression is a smile, as always. But like Wangji’s seemingly ever blank expression, Xichen’s smiles have many meanings; this one is barely managing to be polite and on its last vestiges of patience.
“No.” Wangji cannot risk exposing what’s beneath and vulnerable to the elements.
Xichen’s face doesn’t change, but his eyes take on a darker steeliness. “Show me.”
Wangji reluctantly lets his sleeve fall back. Tucked into the crook of his arm is a black baby rabbit, peacefully asleep.
“It is sick,” he says at once, anticipating his brother’s admonitions. “If I do not watch it, it will—”
He turns away, lips drawn together in a thin line. But his brother knows what he meant to say, and what he didn’t mean to say.
“Is it related to one of the rabbits you were gifted?”
It is. They both know it.
His brother almost frowns. “Wangji, you can’t save everything. Or everyone.”
“It has done nothing wrong.” Wangji lays a hand on top of the rabbit to keep it warm. His palm is large enough to cover its entire, trembling body. “Maybe I can save this life. Just this one.”
Snow begins to fall in silent, heavy sheets. The temperature drops, steadily and relentlessly. Neither of them move.
He can feel the rabbit’s little heart pounding, its fur warm to the touch as it huddles against him. It may not survive the night, but for now it stays here with him, alive despite the harsh winter, and he won’t let it go until its last breath.
Xichen’s sigh is barely audible.
“Wangji,” and he’s rubbing his temples, looking much older all of a sudden, in a striking resemblance to their uncle. “We must return to the meeting. I’ll permit you to enter as you are, but this must not happen again. Do we understand each other?”
“Yes,” answers Wangji, keeping his eyes on the rabbit.
Their uncle has left the hall in search of them. He spots them, folding his arms, one of his fingers tapping his elbow in impatience, but doesn’t approach.
“We are only what we are,” his brother says, so softly he might have said nothing at all.
Xichen had always looked upon Wangji with affection. Had always extended a hand to him, each and every time, unfailingly and without complaint. Even when Wangji himself was tiny and pouting because he couldn’t seem to stay on his sword or on his horse, or when his knees gave out after hours of handstands.
Ever since what transpired in the Burial Mound, Xichen regards him with something else. Sorrow is there, certainly—the same despair Wangji had seen in him the day their mother’s door was closed forever. But there is more.
I wish you never had to bear this burden at all. I wish that I, as your brother, could have protected you.
He can feel Xichen’s gaze, not only charged with disappointment, but bewilderment. Wondering where the Wangji he knows has gone, and what he had done. Where he had, despite his diligence, steered his little brother wrong.
It is not your or Uncle’s fault, Wangji wants to say. Whatever fault exists, it is mine, and mine alone.
He has shown this through the scars on his body and mind, in trying to protect what was important to him. No matter what the rest of the world thinks, Wangji has only followed what he believed was the right thing to do.
The little rabbit shifts—an impossible reminder of what Wangji stands for.
Let me take responsibility for myself, Brother.
Wangji turns and heads back first, his sleeve back in its proper place to obscure and warm the rabbit. As he makes his way through the fallen snow, he can feel Xichen’s eyes on his back, watching him.
Spring becomes winter, and then back again. And as the years go through their cycles, so do the rabbits.
After too many mornings of unfastening the hutch’s latch to find yet another new litter of rabbits, Wangji visited the library for texts on rabbit breeding. But being a sect that doesn’t keep livestock, the Cloud Recesses provided little information on how to manage a warren and, hence, a population explosion of rabbits.
Which was how Wangji had ended up taking advice from the best source, the wranglers of rabbits: farmers.
“Why are you managing this farm yourself?” he had asked an old man, on whose land he was contending with a moon spirit who haunted the grounds and punished any passers-by she saw. “Where is your family?”
Wangji usually didn’t ask questions. But the man had insisted for Wangji to take shelter from the impending thunderstorm, and then ushered him in to sit. When the man shuffled back to his rocking chair, Wangji took stock of the farmhouse. The farming tools were placed in a corner of the farmhouse at the farmer’s stooped height, with a bamboo hat that had been patched multiple times placed on the table. The man clearly lived alone, here on the cusp of where Lanling and Gusu met, and had done so for quite a while.
“Ah, Hanguang-jun.” The old farmer smiled, showing missing teeth. “My daughters married and moved far away, and my wife passed a few years ago. These are her family’s lands, and I couldn’t leave them unattended, but there was no one else willing to come back to this quiet place and look after them.”
“This is extensive farmland,” Wangji said. “Looking after it yourself is a significant task.”
“It is, Hanguang-jun.” The old man passed Wangji a cup of steaming tea, which he couldn’t refuse. “But doesn’t anything that seems insurmountable seem doable when you decide it’s worth it? There's always a way. Like what you’re doing now.”
“What I’m doing?”
Wangji paused, running his current state through his mind’s eye. He was sipping tea in a farmhouse, speaking to someone above the booms of thunder that continuously interrupted their conversation. Seeing how the old man craned forward each time Wangji spoke, he raised his voice to make himself more easily heard.
The old man nodded. “Being out here, away from all your material comforts to walk through all this dirt and muck, helping us common folk!”
“It is where I should be,” Wangji said, and meant it.
“Of course you’d say that. I can’t possibly repay you for all your help, but I can try. I don’t have much else on you, except more years and experience. Ask me about anything. Go on!” he added, when Wangji pursed his lips.
Wangji paused, then relented. “I have...rabbits,” he admitted. “Many rabbits. Too many.”
The farmer roared with laughter, slapping his knee. “Well, who knew even a mighty man like Hanguang-jun has problems that an old man like me can solve!”
It was a new experience, being laughed at by someone who wasn’t Wei Ying. Those in the Cloud Recesses definitely wouldn’t dare, but neither would most people Wangji met at the sight of his austere appearance and expression. Wangji merely stared at first, but the old man merrily clapped his shoulder, and he was too taken by surprise to frown anymore.
“It gives me joy to know I can pass some of my knowledge onto someone else. And to the honorable Hanguang-jun, at that!” The old man was smiling again—a large, crooked, authentic thing, unlike the carefully controlled smiles Wangji was used to seeing. “Knowing that not everything I know about my work will die with me is the best help you could give me, I can tell you that much!”
It is from this most recent trip that Wangji has returned, entering the Cloud Recesses in the dead of night. His uncle is away, meaning Wangji can come and go as he pleases; even so, Wangji tries to make a habit of adhering to sect curfews, as an example to the younger disciples.
Today is an exception. Upon stepping foot back home, he detours—not to the Jingshi, but to the rabbit hutch. Most of the rabbits are sleeping, but the more sensitive ones startle awake at his presence and sit up to investigate.
Wangji considers the hutch.
He will do as the old farmer says—divide the hutch between males and females, and prevent their numbers from growing beyond his means. Perhaps he’ll have to add a small extension for nursing mothers and kits, if there isn’t enough room for them on one side. Wangji has never shirked toil, but the thought of constructing something for his rabbits fills him with a certain fondness.
Without his even noticing, he starts humming a certain melody—the one he has let no one else hear, save the person it is for. The one he can hum in his sleep, pretending for a moment he is back in the cave where he first sang it. It was cold, and dark, and they were both injured with one of them delirious with fever, but they were together. Music is forbidden at night in the Cloud Recesses, but rules are for humans and there are no others around.
Hearing their master’s voice, the rabbits crowd closer in the hutch to listen. The original pair of rabbits gifted to him are stiffer and even more aged now, but still alive, and simply content to be near one another.
The black rabbit Wangji nursed back to health, miniature but sprightly, is near enough to the latch to fish out. When he gently lifts it up, it sprawls in his hand, eyes half-closed. Wangji notes the small pulsing core of warmth it exudes as he raises it to eye level, humming all the while, letting the notes of simultaneous nostalgia and sadness wash over him.
It’s more comforting this way, with the rabbits for quiet company rather than the obligation to accommodate a person with conversation. Wangji would be lying if he didn’t admit that, at times, he prefers the companionship of animals to humans. He never did particularly enjoy bustling crowds or events where he was the center of attention, anyway.
He keeps humming, remembering. This is the first time he’s tasted a grief without the naïveté of childhood memories to muffle the sound. But like losing his mother, he heard the rumors without being able to see for himself, and so the pain of not knowing for certain hits him in full. He remembers the bitter taste in his mouth when he returned to the Burial Mound, crawling more than he walked but accepting no help, and finding nothing at all.
He no longer feels the urgency he did in the first few years after Wei Ying’s passing, when he’d pluck his zither dry—play until his blisters had blisters, his joints ached, and the zither was streaked with blood, asking and asking the other ghosts on Wei Ying’s whereabouts to no avail.
When the wounds on Wangji’s hands and back healed, he went through a period where he could pass an entire day feeling numb. Slowly, slowly, sensations have returned, but the spikes of despair still occasionally rise and take time to subside. As time has passed, and Wei Ying has not responded, with no hide nor hair of him to be spoken of, Wangji realizes the truth: Wei Ying does not answer, because he has no wish to return to the land of the living.
Wei Ying doesn’t desire misplaced ideals, like vengeance or justice, for himself and his soiled legacy. He wants to exist in peace, unhated and unfettered, like he isn’t a burden to anyone. He would have come back, if he thought there was anyone left in the world who would welcome him or want him.
It hurts, that Wangji is included with the masses. That he, too, made Wei Ying feel like he was all alone in the world. That he couldn’t properly convey to Wei Ying the extent to which he valued him.
But, as Wangji has always done, he could only respect Wei Ying’s desires, even if he didn’t agree. Wei Ying didn’t want to go to Gusu, and so Wangji didn’t force him; a forced spiritual cleansing would have meant the death of his soul. To bring Wei Ying back, only to contain him against his will—Wangji would be no better than how his father treated his mother, no matter what good intentions he had.
And he will respect Wei Ying’s wishes, if he truly loves him.
Wangji can’t return to the past now. Sometimes, in between his duties, as he walks from hall to hall, watching the sun rise or the rain pour, he has the sense he has misplaced something grievously important to him, but doesn’t know where or what it is.
Wangji does not hesitate, but when he is caught between the Wei Ying he knew and the one who may not even be there, he is at a crossroads with no answer. There’s nothing wrong, Wangji thinks, with catching his breath, even if it is a ceremony he can only hold with himself, within himself. For there are still rules to be followed, and classes to conduct, and life goes on without Wei Ying.
Even so, Wangji can’t help but think about the what ifs, on dark, quiet nights.
That, if he’s ever given a second chance, he won’t squander it.
Wangji blanches at the memory, years on. He takes a steadying breath, hands steadying where they’re cupped over the black rabbit, reminding himself he is here, now.
He is alone, and it is for the better.
His fingers skim soft fur. He closes his eyes.
Tomorrow, for the first time since his punishment left him bedridden, he will enter the Orchid Room. The disciples in his care will regard him with wide-eyed awe, sitting quietly in their places to wait for further instructions. Regardless of the state of his heart, he will teach them with his full, undivided attention. They come to him, eager to learn; he should provide them with at least that much.
The aching may not ever stop, but he cannot do nothing but ache. He knew the simple truth of those words, before. But now, he feels it—in his bones, in his soul, in the core that burns within him.
Wangji will make something of what is left to him. To continue as he has been doing, and as he has done. To act in the eyes of what he considers honorable. To protect and provide, and to walk a righteous path as best he can. To value honesty and goodness, as Wei Ying did.
Wangji has heard whispers that he looks like a bitter husband who has lost his wife—rumors about which he can do nothing. Let the supposed bitterness stay for now, if it must. Let it stay for as long as it needs, as long as his heart of hearts remains as it always has been.
Rest well, Wei Ying.
When the song ends, so does something else in Wangji.
He exhales, long and slow.
The room now silent, Wangji moves to return the small black rabbit to the hutch. But it can’t bear to part with him, resolutely squeezing its eyes shut and pushing its head into Wangji’s palm, as if pretending to be asleep. Wangji runs a gentle finger over the length of its body. The corners of his mouth are just this side of curving upward, but for some reason, his chest feels heavy, too.
If anyone had asked Wangji (and no one does, for no one dares ask the mighty, icy, lonely Hanguang-jun), he would’ve answered in his heart that he couldn’t bear to part with the rabbit, either.
Xichen finds him there—in front of the hutch, holding the black rabbit, his back to the swathe of stars.
“I sensed your return. It’s very late, Wangji,” he murmurs.
“And yet, you are awake as well.”
“You had assured us that you would be leading lessons tomorrow. Or rather, it’s so late that tomorrow has become today.” He approaches the hutch, the rabbits congregating together to greet him. “I trust your travels went well?”
“Good.” And Xichen reaches out sure, steady hands to take the small black rabbit from him. It struggles at first, but Xichen is firm. As he kneels to carefully place it back in the hutch, he says, “It’s good to see you’ve resumed your activities, Wangji. I would hate to see you forever alone and mourning.”
When Wangji doesn’t respond, he glances back. “Wangji?”
“Love hurts,” Wangji murmurs. “But it was never a curse.”
Their uncle talks about love like an enemy. Like it is to be feared, mistrusted, and avoided at all costs. He watched his brother become a shadow of his former self from a strange, unsightly force that seemed to have transformed him into something recognizable and couldn’t be driven out through any means, cultivational or otherwise. In that vein, Wangji can see why Lan Qiren is so wary of anything amorphous and unseen.
But Wangji has also come to know this:
His reputation in the cultivation world is staked on his name: Hanguang-jun. Stately. Otherworldly. A beacon of light and purity. Unsullied and true.
When Wangji was younger, he believed he could reach a level to which he was entirely blameless, and this was part of the motivation that fuelled his prodigious cultivation. But the more esteemed a cultivator Wangji becomes in the eyes of others, the more he understands how little he can do to change the opinions of him.
Being seen as a paragon of virtue only means the harder he falls when he fails to meet expectations, and he will never fully meet them. As immaculate and transcendental as he may appear, Wangji knows himself best—and he is only human.
Love is flawed, but isn’t that what they are? Tinted by their experiences and interactions with others, they live in the ways they know. And love can be grief, but it can be expressed by those who still remain, honoring those who have already left, and Wangji’s love is placed alongside his honor.
No matter what Wangji’s uncle or the elders say, love in itself does not save nor harm. It just is, like everything else—anger, sorrow, joy.
Love is something to be careful with, something that can lead one astray, but it’s never something to hide or with which to restrict someone. And while love deserves respect and time, it cannot save anyone. And nothing is gained from averting one’s gaze and looking away from its power, when that power is not inherently evil.
Of this, Wangji has no doubt. He has learned it, he knows it, and he feels it. But it takes words he doesn’t have the capacity to express, and so he can only say what he means with as much conviction as he can.
Xichen opens his mouth, but nothing comes out. It’s one of the rare times Wangji’s caught him off guard.
Then Xichen collects himself. His smile is like Wangji’s expressionless face; observe it long enough, and it isn’t as unchanging as it first seems. This smile is surprised and, therefore, genuine.
“I cannot say I understand your feelings, exactly. But you are a stronger man than I could ever be, Wangji.”
Wangji blinks. He has looked up to his brother for so long. For Xichen to say such things...
“Ridiculous,” says Wangji, at last.
Xichen’s laughter colors the night.
Wangji has left the past in the past, more or less. But when he is tired, whether from physical or emotional exhaustion, the mask slips. Sometimes, his mind wanders.
Tonight he dreams of his first kiss. Desperate, needy, and stolen, it was never his to give.
Wangji doesn’t know when he started thinking of Wei Ying as his. But covetousness is forbidden, Wangji knows this, along with the idea that Wei Ying was never his to have, either. As if Wei Ying could be anyone’s, only being given away of his own free will.
But Wangji forced it from him, hand grasped tightly around Wei Ying’s wrists, Wei Ying’s mouth hot and yielding under his own—not out of need, but surprise and a stilted consideration.
The awful guilt and shame returns, dropping Wangji’s heart into his stomach like a stone, as nauseating as the very moment of realization when Wangji came to his senses, his eyes as red as his lips as his fists made contact with the nearest tree.
Luckily Wangji is lying on his back, because the fist he swings now, as he jerks awake, only meets air.
He shouldn’t have kissed Wei Ying. He shouldn’t have done it at all, whether Wei Ying had lived to a ripe old age, dropped dead as a stone shortly afterwards, or perished eight years ago. Forcing himself upon Wei Ying went against Wangji’s principles. Not just those of his sect, but of his own. To protect and cherish those important to him. To not harm them. To leave the world in a better state than when he entered it.
Wei Ying is gone now, and should have only known the touch of those he loved in return.
“Wei Ying, forgive me,” he whispers, to no one. “Wei Ying, I—”
But he doesn’t get to finish. He never does.
A firm knock on the Jingshi’s door rouses Wangji from his drowsy state.
“Good morning, Hanguang-jun. May I come in?”
Wangji sits up with a start. He should be up and dressed by now, like the rest of his sect. But the exhaustion from too little sleep and fitful dreams settles upon him, like a physical reminder of his transgressions. His head aches.
“Yes,” he says, the word almost a sigh.
A moment later, the doors slide open, and Lan Sizhui quietly steps inside.
Small Wen Yuan, a fearful, crying, doting creature who clung to anyone who showed him affection, wasn’t the most charismatic of the boys he grew up with. But he has become Sizhui—beautiful not merely in face, but also in spirit, and as such his presence is all the more mesmerizing.
Sizhui is still not tall for a twelve year old. Not as tall as he should be after being repeatedly buried in dirt and rabbits for the purpose of helping him shoot up, anyway. But his looks match the other sect members; he has an ear for music, and plays the zither almost as well as Wangji did at his age.
And, most importantly, he is hard working, just, gracious, and kind.
Wangji would be proud of him. But pride is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, and so what he is about to say will have to do, as a symbol of the trust he has in Sizhui.
Sizhui can’t hide his surprise at the sight of his adoptive father, usually impeccably groomed and dressed at this hour, still in bed with his long hair pooled around him. But Sizhui quickly smooths his expression over, with concern only visible in the slight furrow of his brows. Wangji can practically see the wheels turning in his mind as he figures out what next to say, and the already extant discomfort in Wangji’s stomach grows; given a choice, he would not want to place such a responsibility on Sizhui.
“Ah, we have class soon.” Sizhui hesitates, but then his jaw sets. “Not to imply Hanguang-jun needs the assistance, but if you’d like some company while you get ready, then…”
He seems almost shy, and at that moment, Wangji is afraid. Not of Sizhui, but of himself.
Sizhui’s eyes are large and clear, his heart untarnished. He has so much to see, so much to be, and Wangji is seized with an urge to keep Sizhui how he is. This is how Wangji felt, back when the desire flared in him to steal Wei Ying away—to hide him from prying eyes and safeguard him from any further pain and suffering in his life by keeping him secret and safe.
Now, Wangji’s left with whispers in the cultivation world from those in the know, that he is no longer his brother’s equal in beauty. Because, what of those scars on Wangji’s back, earned from going against his own sect to defend a madman? What of such actions, reminiscent of his father’s? What of the brand on his chest, from a drunken episode of breaking and entering? What of the bitter expression he always wears—all his good intent in his actions, but with nary a genuine smile or a laugh to offer others? What of his good standing, his stature, his birthright, his reputation, his title? What of anything and everything?
Blemishes are so easy to obtain, never to properly fade, forever worn across one’s heart as battle scars, of lessons both learned and forgotten, of stories of newfound and rediscovered strengths and weaknesses. But remaining entirely free of stains on the soul and weariness of the world is only temporary.
He was afraid—of his own feelings, which arrived in a torrent. He was afraid of what Wei Ying was, back then; he seemed like recklessness personified. Which he was—who goes into rule-following, quiet Gusu with jars of Emperor’s Smile? Only an idiot, asking for trouble. But still, Wangji was forced to take a long, hard look at his own fear, because fear does not occur on its own; it is always accompanied by something else.
Wangji doesn’t like to admit to such base emotions. But he cannot deny them. And he doesn’t want Sizhui to learn the same things and to feel obligated to let go of who he is.
He considers telling Sizhui this, somehow.
But the words don’t come. He doesn’t know how to say them, let alone establish any context for them. They stay in his chest, struggling to be heard, boiling over and collapsing upon themselves under their own weight.
Instead, Wangji reaches for his bedside table and wordlessly hands Sizhui a wooden comb, moving to make room for him on the bed.
Sizhui’s mouth falls open in surprise at the gesture. But just as he did earlier, he hurriedly adapts, collecting Wangji’s hair in long-fingered hands. Wangji has seen Sizhui with his friends; he knows Sizhui can talk with as much vivacity and speed as other junior disciples, if he’s excited enough. But with him, Sizhui is respectful and quiet, and Wangji wonders if this is how Sizhui prefers to be, or how he believes he should be in Wangji’s presence.
As much as Wangji values order and quiet, an image rises, unsolicited, to the forefront of his mind: a Cloud Recesses where the disciples are free to speak as they wish. Speak, and laugh, and cry.
Would Sizhui like that?
If Wei Ying was here, would he know the answer?
Sizhui’s fingers skim over Wangji’s skin to gather the strands at his ears, and Wangji returns to the present again. How distracting impossible dreams can be. He doesn’t quite feel like himself today, like something else has inhabited his body and is making him go through the motions.
The boy is running long, smooth strokes through Wangji’s hair, conscientious to stop and gently work through every knot. “Yes, Hanguang-jun?”
“I am leaving to assist with a ghoul in the outer villages. From now on, you will look after the rabbits when I am not here.”
“Oh! It’s my honor, Hanguang-jun!” says Sizhui. “Um, may I bring anyone along to help? There are quite a lot of rabbits…”
It is true that the rabbits are large enough in number that cleaning their hutch takes a whole afternoon. Wangji considers Sizhui’s request. Then he considers Sizhui’s closest friend, and stops considering. “Just one person. But it cannot be Lan Jingyi.”
As it so happens, Lan Jingyi finds out about the rabbits anyway.
To be fair, it’s not Lan Jingyi’s fault he naturally projects very well, and runs more than he walks, and his brushwork is abysmal, and he acts before he thinks, and the elders have regular meetings where they quadruple check his impeccably Lan lineage, and then proceed to argue about whose genes are responsible for his noisiness.
He makes such a racket wherever he goes, that it seems easy enough to avoid him. However, he has a way of careening to places that makes it difficult to steer clear of him completely. One moment, he seems to be running somewhere a fair distance away, and then the next, he has nearly walked into someone and backs off, apologizing profusely before disappearing again.
Which is why, when one of Wangji’s rabbits makes a bid for freedom, it’s only a matter of time before the little scamp catches the eye of the loudest person in Gusu.
“What was that?” Jingyi shrieks. “A rat?”
“Did you see a long tail, Jingyi?” Coming from anyone else, the question would sound impatient, but Sizhui’s words remain even. “And keep your voice down. Making a ruckus is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”
“Well, yeah, but so is whatever that was!” Jingyi’s eyes are wide as he raises his hands in claw-like shapes. “B-Big. Black. Furry!”
“That,” says Sizhui serenely, “was Hanguang-jun’s rabbit.”
“That was a rabbit? A monster like that? Hanguang-jun keeps rabbits?” Jingyi’s voice rises. “Why haven’t you told me? So much is happening!”
“Lan Jingyi.” And Wangji’s looking down at the both of them.
Jingyi gulps, realizing he’s been caught red-handed by knowing a secret he shouldn’t have uncovered. “H-Hanguang-jun! We were just talking about, ah, monsters. Yes. The, ah, gigantic wriggly ones. With claws and jaws. Long, aren’t they? Can just eat you right up. Wow!”
As much as Sizhui hated being buried in rabbits as a child, he looks like he wants to dig himself into a furry hole and never emerge again.
“Lan Jingyi,” says Wangji again, careful to keep his voice completely neutral so even Sizhui can’t discern its tone.
“Y-Yes?” Jingyi squeaks.
“Lying is forbidden here.”
Somehow it’s possible for Jingyi’s voice to rise even higher. “I-I did not mean to offend, Hanguang-jun! And Sizhui didn’t mean to tell me, either, it’s just. Well. It’s hard to ignore a monster-y thing brushing past you as it runs—” He chews on his bottom lip, looking up at Wangji with big eyes.
“Yes,” Wangji responds, repeating Jingyi’s answer in confirmation. At this, Jingyi’s shoulders actually slump in relief, and Wangji has to fight back a sudden and unexpected urge to smile. “You can help Sizhui take care of the rabbits, in exchange for your…” He stops in one of his rare mid-sentence pauses, though this one is born not of hesitation, but of the sheer inappropriateness of the word when it comes to Lan Jingyi, “...silence.”
Jingyi looks like he could cry. “Oh, of course, Hanguang-jun! I’ll take good care of your monste—I mean, rabbits! You won’t hear a peep out of me!”
Wangji manages to keep a straight face at that last sentence. Sizhui’s not quite so successful; he makes an uncharacteristic snort, which he has to quickly cover with a cough. “Let’s do our best, Jingyi,” he says when he recovers.
By now, Hanguang-jun’s rabbits are an open secret in Gusu, and beyond.
This is by no fault of Lan Jingyi’s. The boy’s done a remarkable job keeping mum, considering just how far his voice carries and how forthright he is. But there are only so many rabbits Wangji can keep before their populating the hillside becomes a conspicuous sight that draws the attention of curious disciples.
To Wangji’s uncle’s relief, no one is upset about this development. In fact, the younger disciples are delighted to have a source of entertainment and happily spend their free time in the meadows. Sizhui’s still in charge of the rabbits. But now he has an abundance of helpers, and Wangji regularly hears the bustle of voices outside on class-free afternoons, giggling and chatting.
The rabbits invite not just the rambunctious disciples, but also the quiet ones.
Wangji has seen a secretive female junior disciple, one whose night hunt diaries are brief but thoughtful, often volunteer to take care of the rabbits herself. Her voice, so rarely heard by her sect members, floats lightly and freely as she offers vegetables to the rabbits. Though Wangji would never volunteer this information to others, her singing alone has relaxative properties; the rabbits are always docile in her arms and even appear to voluntarily run back to the hutch at sundown.
The rabbits seem to coax all sorts of characters. And with so many in the know, now, it’s only a matter of time before someone outside the sect comes solely to visit them.
What Wangji knows of Jin Rulan’s status as an orphaned future sect leader is common knowledge, but what he knows of Jin Rulan as a person is through what Sizhui’s told by other junior guest disciples. And Wangji learns of a lonely, suspicious boy who gives away too much and hurts himself on his own brambles of painful honesty. His prickliness is like a poorly bound bandage, where it only fully obscures any inner tenderness and vulnerability to those who don’t bother looking closer.
Wangji has never actually interacted much with Jin Rulan, having spent the previous visits either in meetings with Jiang Wanyin or away helping the outer towns. That is, until Jiang Wanyin visits the Cloud Recesses on a balmy evening—specifically to discuss some business with Wangji’s brother, but brings along his nephew to let him experience other sects.
The constantly exasperated but agreeable Jiang Wanyin who Wangji knew from their school days is gone. Sect Leader Jiang’s sneer was once used sparingly and for self-protection. But it’s become a permanent fixture on his face, sardonic and embittered alongside his bad-tempered reputation, making many keep him at a distance. His scowl only becomes more pronounced when he catches sight of Wangji, his blue-grey eyes darkening with scorn.
Wangji stands his ground. He knows Jiang Wanyin’s opinion of him has only deteriorated, after Wangji’s attempts to protect Wei Ying. But Wei Ying is gone now and has become the stalemate between them, the chasm that divides them. Not that Wangji particularly cares what Jiang Wanyin thinks of him, but he understands that his own presence will make inter-sect discussions difficult. It’s best, in the end, that it’s the rest of Wangji’s family who Jiang Wanyin needs to see.
Wangji’s uncle has canceled all classes for the inter-sect meeting. The younger disciples are gone, having organized their own day-long hunt in the forest. They departed before the procession from Yunmeng arrived, and have left the Cloud Recesses the most quiet it’s been in recent memory.
Wangji’s opened the door to the large hutch, the rabbits still deposited outside, and is cleaning it when he hears footsteps.
His first instinct is to call, “Walk properly”; disciples have not been taught to carry themselves with such a heavy, unseemly gait. But then the visitor rounds the corner, wearing a heavy scowl and a smear of dirt across one cheek, and Wangji realizes he was walking—no, stomping—in such a way to convey his displeasure.
Wangji notes the visitor’s bright yellow robes, an enormous dog that would have sent Wei Ying crying for the hills, and the agitated guards behind him. A cultivator from Lanling—and not just any cultivator, but the future sect leader himself.
“Don’t follow me! Don’t tell anyone where I am!” Jin Rulan is yelling at his guards, who look torn whether to follow a direct order, or to disobey and stay close to him on unfamiliar terrain. “I have Fairy to protect me. I don’t need you!”
Then Jin Rulan looks up, realizing he isn’t alone, and his expression freezes. Whatever he’s doing is clearly not the sort of behavior he wants Wangji to see.
“Young Master Jin,” says Wangji.
Jin Rulan quickly rights his posture, standing straight and placing his hands in front of him in a bow. “Hanguang-jun,” he mutters, cheeks red, embarrassed to have been caught like this, but polite enough to remember his manners.
Still a child, Wangji thinks. Turning to the guards, he says, “I will see him back to his room this evening.”
Their expressions become even more conflicted, having now received an order from the brother of Gusu’s sect leader. But Jin Rulan’s expression grows murderous at their indecision, and they end up bowing to Wangji and leaving in a hurry.
Once they’re gone, Wangji waits for Jin Rulan to speak. Unlike his brother, Wangji isn’t the kind to initiate small talk or pose questions. He’s about to return to cleaning the hutch when Jin Rulan asks, “Where are they?”
In a move he thinks surreptitious, Jin Rulan cranes his neck, rising onto the balls of his feet, as if hoping to see balls of fur materialize in the empty hutch. And Wangji pieces the situation together: Jin Rulan wants to see the rabbits, but doesn’t want to outright make demands of Wangji, as is appropriate of his station as the younger person and the guest.
Not such a child, after all. But still someone that needs some reprimanding.
“Jin Rulan, keep your voice—”
“My name’s Jin Ling!” snaps Jin Rulan. He had every intent to be respectful, but Wangji seems to have triggered something within him with those words alone. His eyes blaze with a fire beyond his years, challenging Wangji, daring him to defy him.
Wangji is quiet.
Jiang Wanyin becomes furious and throws the closest item when it’s mentioned, but the fact remains that Jin Rulan’s name was entrusted by Jiang Yanli to Wei Ying to choose. Wangji wants to honor Wei Ying’s memory and his wishes by using the name which he has chosen for his beloved nephew. But the person given the name Jin Rulan is here before Wangji’s very eyes, disavowing the very name bestowed by Wei Ying.
There’s something about Jin Rulan that makes a person who meets him tear in two. Divide themselves, the way Jin Rulan is divided in himself, so obviously hurting from the splinters but not looking away from what keeps him in pain. It’s an unflinching, isolated bravery, and Wangji sees it in the way the boy before him squares his shoulders—ready to defend his own honor because he’s had to do it time and time again, meeting the challenge with everything he has, no matter the cost.
Better not to call him anything at all, for now.
“They are there.” And Wangji looks at the meadow beyond, indicating where the rabbits are happily chewing grass, thinking their rabbit thoughts and dreaming their rabbit dreams. Jin Rulan scowls, but has enough respect to briefly incline his head, only sweeping past Wangji when he realizes Wangji won’t be going first.
When Wangji has finished cleaning the hutch, he departs for the Jingshi and returns with the junior disciples’ calligraphy work and a small table in hand. A smudge of bright yellow is still a considerable distance away in the fields, a grey spot next to it, both surrounded by balls of fur. Jin Rulan is speaking to the rabbits, and Wangji catches phrases like “How dare they treat me like that!” and, “If my father was here, he’d—”, along with brief interruptions to sniffle.
Wangji settles next to the hutch, and resumes his work before he can hear the rest.
Some sorts of peace—or rather, any semblances of peace—are best left undisturbed for as long as possible.
Usually, the rabbits are returned to their hutch before nightfall, but Wangji makes an exception for today.
He straightens his graded papers in a neat stack, placing them on the table, glancing out. Jin Rulan stands up at that moment, telling his dog to come along and say goodbye to the rabbits.
Wangji waits inside the room, giving the boy time to collect himself. He waves a hand, dimming the candles slightly so that Jin Rulan won’t be blinded by the light when he comes in.
Eventually, Jin Rulan comes, pausing at the doorway. Fairy stops when he does, nosing at his hand.
Wangji simply nods in greeting.
“Hanguang-jun,” Jin Rulan mutters. His gaze is directed at the ground, his face carefully wiped of tears and his eyes no longer swollen. His voice is muted, but his eyes are quiet, calm, almost ashamed. “I’m leaving. There’s no need to accompany me back. I know the way, and Fairy will keep a lookout.”
Wangji considers Jin Rulan’s words. The dog hasn’t snapped or nipped at the rabbits even once, tilts its head in deference when its master speaks, and watches Wangji now with clear, alert eyes. He notes its enormous size and its golden collar. A spiritual dog, then—undoubtedly the one Xichen’s told Wangji about, gifted to Jin Rulan by his other uncle and Xichen’s sworn brother.
Now, Jin Rulan is the one who waits. He stands tall, but every so often his foot shifts, as if he wants nothing more than to melt away into the evening. Wangji’s struck by how simultaneously loved and lonely he is, the burden of an enormous future hefted by that small frame, enriched and starved by those who are here and those who have left.
Wangji nods once more, both as permission for Jin Rulan to leave and to indicate no further interaction is needed. Clearly relieved, the boy goes without another word, loyal Fairy at his heels. However, he doesn’t go far before Wangji hears other voices.
“Oh, there you are!” comes Sizhui’s relieved voice. “Jingyi, he’s over here! Sect Leader Jiang’s nephew!”
“Took you long enough to show up.” Jingyi sounds disgruntled. “We just got back from our hunt, only to have to look all over for you!”
“Huh?” Jin Rulan snaps. “Who are you? I don’t even know you! Wait, wh-what are you doing?” Some scuffling, and then Jin Rulan yells, “How dare you! Let go!”
“It’s your fault for disappearing,” Jingyi pants. “Let’s go back and—ow, quit struggling! Now—march!”
“This is grievous mistreatment of a future sect leader! I’m telling my uncle!”
“Good luck with that,” Jingyi retorts. “Your uncle was the one who told us to find you.”
“My uncle did?” Jin Rulan’s momentarily distracted. “He said that?”
“Well, he didn’t say that so much as yell about breaking your legs once he found you,” Sizhui pipes up. “Which we took to mean he was worried about where you went.”
A husky’s growl permeates the conversation.
Jingyi’s tone is suddenly much too polite. “Oh, good evening, Mister (or is it Miss?) Spiritual Dog! Doesn’t your coat look spiffy today? Excuse us for manhandling your master a bit—”
“A bit?” Jin Rulan screeches.
“Be quiet, please,” Sizhui reminds him. “According to the sect rules, you’re a guest and should be treated with dignity.”
As he’s dragged away, Jin Rulan’s indignant voice carries across the field. “You call this dignified?”
When Wangji wakes up that morning, all is as he left it the night before—scrolls neatly rolled up and placed on one side of his table, robes folded and ready, the warm body on top of him quiet and still.
There remains much to attend to; today’s tasks include feeding and releasing the rabbits, and then heading to the Mengshi to summon the hand that has been plaguing Dafan Mountain. He moves as silently as possible so as not to disturb the still-sleeping figure and dressing in near-darkness, not daring even to light one candle.
This is not the body he knew. The frame is smaller, the face sharper, the skin pale to the point of near-translucence, the bones so delicate-looking they seem like they’ll shatter if gripped too tightly.
Not like Wangji ever really knew Wei Ying’s first body. Contrary to popular opinion, Wangji knows Wei Ying would never steal a body for himself, and so he wouldn’t have a body at all unless it was willingly offered to him.
The original master of this body is not entirely unfamiliar to Wangji. Mo Xuanyu was one of the many illegitimate sons of Jin Guangshan, but unlike most of the others, he had a future as a cultivator. That is, until he was sent back to his village in disgrace, as a shameful cutsleeve and good-for-nothing. Rumors of his lunacy spread far and wide, used as threats to control children in the same way as Wei Ying’s legacy.
Wangji has long grown accustomed to going where the chaos is.
The chaos is easy enough to resolve when the problem is a single fierce corpse or ghoul or spirit; the non-human entities are eliminated often at the expense of their own existence, heavily weighted in favor of human life. But Wangji can do much less when the chaos is human on human; such violence is always happening, and will continue to happen. For every person Wangji helps, there are many others like Mo Xuanyu who suffer in silence.
Wangji was not foolish enough to think he would see Wei Ying again. He was prepared to mourn to the end of his days, with his back straight and chin up. This is not the route he would have wanted anyone to take, not even if it meant seeing Wei Ying's face one more time.
But this is how things have unfolded. When he first opened his eyes, Wangji was overly aware of the singularity of the chain of events that have led to the precious warmth he held in his arms. Mo Xuanyu is gone, and here is Wei Ying in his stead.
Thank you is a thoroughly inappropriate response. Wei Ying himself would not have chosen this, did not intend to come back like this, and Mo Xuanyu must have suffered greatly at the hands of his aunt, her family, and his village to resort to such measures.
Wangji will come back to the Jingshi later, and yet he can’t bear to leave. His breath catches for a moment, and he realizes that what he’s experiencing isn’t anticipation, but fear.
Will he come back to an empty bed, an empty room? Will Wei Ying reject Wangji’s help like before and vanish, like his presence here was just a dream?
Wei Ying had originally refused Wangji’s offer to come to Gusu, but now Wei Ying is here, in Gusu. Popular opinion of the Yiling Patriarch has not bettered over the course of thirteen years; in fact, it has only soured further. And Jiang Wanyin still searches, fervently, brutally, desperately—believing a trace of Wei Ying remains, somewhere.
Thirteen years on, the world is still not safe for Wei Ying. And once more, as Wangji did during Wei Ying’s first life, he considers keeping Wei Ying here, somehow.
Then Wangji is reminded of his mother.
When she was still alive, he didn’t think much of entering that windowless room every month, merely happy to see her. But he had learned much more about her in death, enough to make him wish, on lonely nights, that he could have done more than was within his power as a child. She was from a family of apothecaries, deadly with medicines and poisons, described as an avid horse rider who relished the rush and the freedom, her appearance always rather rumpled and windswept.
But the mother Wangji knew was immaculately dressed and styled, the limbs he sat on slim and still. And he clung onto her, her existence being his source of comfort in that silent place from which she would never leave.
He kneels beside the bed. He runs his hand lightly down the slumbering face, brushing fingers along one fine-boned cheek. “Wait,” he tells this Wei Ying, pleads with him, but does nothing else to detain him.
He can only trust that Wei Ying will not flee at a moment’s notice. Wei Ying won’t get far even if he does, but the thought of Wei Ying running away from him makes Wangji’s heart ache.
Fingers tingling, he reluctantly makes his way down to the rabbit hutch.
Most of the rabbits don’t immediately scamper when they’re first released, instead slowly hopping around to sprawl wherever they please. But the small black rabbit, more careful and selectively loving than its brethren, always comes over to Wangji to sniff his hand before departing for the fields. Dependably, it comes again today, waiting at Wangji’s ankles for him to kneel and offer his hand.
Years of silence have created gaps of conversation that are wider than Wangji has ever known, and isn’t sure how to fill. But while he’s quiet, the rabbits are even quieter, and he’s found it helps to talk to them.
He doesn’t always initiate conversations with them every day. But today is a special day, when his bed is occupied by someone both familiar and unfamiliar, and his mind is swirling with thoughts. And the rabbit already knows something is amiss; startled at the new scent on Wangji’s fingers, it looks him in the eye with a rather accusatory expression.
“We have a—” and Wangji doesn’t know how to finish. “We have a guest,” he decides. “You do not know him, but your grandparents did.”
The black rabbit wrinkles its nose.
Wangji reaches out to stroke its back. “I also do not like strangers. But you will like him.”
Is it proper for him to say such things?
After all, he had a hand in what unfolded. He kept silent for too long, didn’t tell Wei Ying what he truly felt until it was too late, when Wei Ying no longer cared whether he lived or died—
Corpses rising in waves so high they piled up over each other, flattening whole mountainsides previously full of cultivators into silence. And at the thick of it all, a solitary figure, red eyes aglow, the raw menace emanating from him as powerful as his grief.
Wangji’s hand in the rabbit’s soft fur grounds him. Not this time, he promises.
Even now, he can barely believe Wei Ying is back. Spent the night here, in his bed. Will wake up sore and complaining, undoubtedly. But to hear his voice, listen to his breaths, secretly place a hand on his back in the middle of the night to feel his warmth—Wangji fears if he blinks, this illusion will end, and he’ll be by himself again.
This time, he will keep Wei Ying close. Keep Wei Ying safe, keep Wei Ying warm, keep Wei Ying happy. Even if Wei Ying goes to any length to drive him mad—and Wei Ying is the most resourceful person he knows—Wangji will not break. Even if Wei Ying made it clear in his past life that he does not love Wangji the way Wangji loves him. Even then.
This time, he will ensure Wei Ying never feels all alone in the world, ever again.
They will depart for the Burial Mound later today. Wangji would have preferred to head out a few days later, after Wei Ying has had more time to recover from his injuries. But there are many underhanded plans afoot, and they cannot wait.
Wangji ensures he has packed extra bandages and salves, should Wei Ying need them. Having learned what it’s like to live without conversations without Wei Ying, Wangji encourages him to talk as much as he likes. But this is one topic Wangji doesn’t want to bring up, purely out of his own selfishness. He wouldn’t be able to bear Wei Ying’s forced smile, and his sincerity and false cheer as he says, “Don’t be angry with Jin Ling, Lan Zhan. It’s not his fault I got hurt. I deserved it, after all.”
Wangji still must attend to his duties while he is in the Cloud Recesses, no matter how brief their stay is this time. By the time Wei Ying is awake and meets him in the field, Wangji has already moved all of the rabbits outside.
Wei Ying’s eyes are shining and wide, his mouth open in excitement. “Wow, Lan Zhan! There are so many!”
Under the gentle sunlight, the rabbits lie about in varying groups across the sprawling meadow.
Wei Ying runs from one end to the other, ooh-ing and aah-ing at the sheer number of furry tufts that litter the grass. “Seeing them in person is so awe-inspiring! So fluffy! Don’t you just want to bury your face into a pile of them?”
Wangji does, and often. He has been sorely tempted, on several occasions, but he can’t admit it. Only Sizhui’s gotten to experience it, and not by choice.
Laughter bubbles out of Wei Ying. “Of course you do! See, I always wanted to come see your collection. I’ve only seen it in bits and pieces, but not in its entirety. I’ve been hearing about it since the first time I was at the B—” His smile wavers.
Since the first time I was at the Burial Mound.
But before Wangji can think of how to divert the conversation, Wei Ying quickly changes tack. “Ever since I left Gusu! And now I’m here, it’s even more impressive than I imagined. The hutch, too—it’s enormous, a work of art in itself. Why not let them just live in burrows, though?”
“They live longer in a hutch.”
“You let them run around during the day and bring them in at night?” Wei Ying chuckles to himself. “I can see why whoever’s taking care of them has to put so much time aside in the evenings, now. Carrying these fat balls of fur in is no joke.”
Most of the rabbits are too content where they are to move, but some hop over to see what the commotion is all about. One of them is the small black rabbit, who sniffs the air suspiciously when it reaches where Wangji and Wei Ying are standing.
“This one’s so small!” Wei Ying croons at it. “How cute! What’s its name, Lan Zhan?”
Wangji turns his head away to look across the meadow.
“What, you won’t tell me? Then I’ll guess.” Wei Ying grins at Wangji with something both mischievous and wicked. “Sorry to say this, Hanguang-jun, but I’m imaginative enough for the both of us.”
Wangji frowns. “You named your sword ‘Suibian’.”
“And you named your zither ‘Wangji’, so who’s the loser here?” Wei Ying laughs. And, without a hint of embarrassment, he kneels to see the small black rabbit up close. “Come here, sweetheart.”
Wangji stops breathing. The air is still, thick with something else that isn’t the fragrance of blooms.
After another beat of quiet, Wei Ying looks up. “Come on, Lan Zhan! Maybe it’ll like me more if you introduce us! Please?”
Wangji shakily lets out a breath. “Fine,” he manages, approaching Wei Ying, and kneeling as well. “This is Wei Ying,” he informs the black rabbit. “And Wei Ying, this is—”
He realizes just in time what Wei Ying was trying to make him do, and his mouth clamps shut.
Wei Ying howls. “You almost said its name! I was so close!”
“I did not.” Wangji presses his lips together.
Wei Ying’s laughter starts anew at the sight of his annoyance. “You did! You did!”
Wangji doesn’t enjoy being laughed at, but he would be lying if he said he hadn’t missed this—Wei Ying, chortling without a care in the world. He lets Wei Ying laugh himself to exhaustion, and then points at the black rabbit, now a distant speck. “You scared it away.”
“That’s all right! We can still be friends someday,” Wei Ying answers, because he is incorrigible. His smile is even brighter on his face. “Say, Lan Zhan, will you ever tell me its name?”
“Stay here, and you will know,” Wangji answers.
Wei Ying’s smile is unexpectedly tinged with a hint of pink in his cheeks. “S-Stay here? I—What sorts of words are these, Lan Zhan?”
Wangji only meant to keep Wei Ying near him. Is that not acceptable? Before he can observe Wei Ying further to deduce if he needs medicine for the curious flush on his face, they are interrupted by a timid voice.
“Excuse me, Hanguang-jun, Senior Wei.”
A young female disciple approaches them—the shy one whom Wangji began instructing during Wei Ying’s absence. Her hands are neatly clasped in front of her, not a hair out of place, but her eyes flicker only briefly to meet their eyes before returning to the grass. “I was instructed to brush and feed the rabbits. Zewu-jun is inviting you both to join him for the morning meal.”
“More bland food,” Wei Ying mutters under his breath, but lacking the real contempt he had for the cuisine as a youth.
“We accept,” Wangji tells the disciple, ignoring her bewilderment at Wei Ying’s reaction. It is then that Wangji notices the disciple’s sword, carefully polished and newly strapped to her side.
“Well done,” he tells her.
She ducks her head as she hurries past to pick up the first rabbit, but she is smiling.
They are still on the road.
This is turning out to be one of the longest, if not the longest, times Wangji has been away from the Cloud Recesses. But it’s the first time he’s been travelling for so lengthy a time with a constant companion, and there’s no one else he’d rather be with.
“Lan Zhan, I’m tired. Can we stop for a while?”
Wei Ying is atop Little Apple, eliminating his need to walk. But his eyes are bright, trained on the scenery around them; his comment sounds more out of the desire to admire what’s there, rather than for the real need to rest.
Once Wangji has placed Wei Ying down and carefully checked the area for snakes, they settle down on a patch on the very edge of the field. Wei Ying immediately perches himself at a position where he can see a considerable distance away, and takes a deep, appreciative breath of clean air.
“My shijie once saved me in long grass like this,” he says.
Wangji pauses to tie Little Apple’s reins around a tree trunk. “Why?”
“I was too small and couldn’t see where I was going. I yelled for help, and Shijie and Jiang Cheng came to find me.” A rueful smile tugs at the edge of Wei Ying’s mouth. “Jiang Cheng was shorter than me, but he still wanted to help. So he tied himself to Shijie’s waist to make sure he didn’t get lost, either.”
“Did they find you?”
“Sort of.” As soon as Wangji’s seated, Wei Ying pulls him down onto his back, resting his head on Wangji’s chest. “See, after they found me, Jiang Cheng’s rope attached to Shijie loosened from so much tugging. Shijie had to go find him and then find me again, when I forgot I wasn’t tied to anyone and went charging after him. It was so late when we finally came home, Madam Yu was furious!”
Wangji likes hearing about anything Wei Ying has to tell him, but especially of the memories that Wei Ying holds so dear. Wei Ying recounting and speaking openly of his past comes more easily with each passing day, and Wangji is glad for it.
Wei Ying props his chin on Wangji’s chest, his gaze searching. “Lan Zhan, if I get lost, will you come find me? Again?”
The last question adds a dimension to the first that Wangji realizes isn’t just about losing oneself in long, swaying grass. “Always,” he answers, absent-mindedly running his fingers along Wei Ying’s cheek.
Wei Ying leans into his palm. “Even in a place as huge as this?”
“I know these fields,” says Wangji. Here, he has been given express permission by the old farmer to go where he pleases. Ever since, Wangji has frequently wandered through, often to look at the ponds, or just to clear his mind as a waystation to other places.
“Oh? Is this the place with the old farmer and the moon spirit?” Wei Ying props himself up on one elbow. “Tell me again how the story ends, Lan Zhan.”
“I have told you before.”
“I like it when you tell it.” Wei Ying nods at him. “Go on? Please?”
When Wei Ying asks so nicely, Wangji can’t refuse. “The farmer can’t guard so much land on his own,” he recites. “The moon spirit seemed hostile, but she watches over his land at night when her abilities are strongest. As long as the farmer works under the sun, she will not harm him.”
“Are you sure that was a good idea, leaving that defenseless old man alone with a moon spirit, Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying hums, grinning. He’s only being facetious by questioning Wangji, but the thought that Wei Ying feels comfortable enough with Wangji to speak for the sake of speaking, warms Wangji through and through.
“You would have done the same.” Wangji gently takes his wrist, bringing Wei Ying back to his chest. “Spirits are not all malicious. This one knows of the farmer’s hardship. She is trying to help.”
“A wonderful, protective spirit, huh?”
“Yes, but she does not like sharing.” Wangji pauses. “She will cut off our ears if she finds us here.”
“I’d like to see her try,” chortles Wei Ying. “Besides, why should I fear anything, with the formidable Hanguang-jun at my side?”
Wangji should say the same, for Wei Ying. He still can’t believe it, sometimes. It’s at these moments that he reaches for Wei Ying—to feel him, revel in the very existence of him.
Wei Ying seems to have the same need from time to time. Particularly when he sleeps, when dreams mix the has-beens with the never-will-bes, and he jerks awake, hands scrabbling for purchase in Wangji’s robes. Wei Ying didn’t have thirteen years to process everything, after all.
Even awake, even now, his hands close on the fabric over Wangji’s heart.
“Lan Zhan.” And Wei Ying lifts his head to make sure he has Wangji’s attention. “Lan Zhan, listen.”
“Mm,” Wangji responds, studying Wei Ying’s expressive eyes and mouth.
“I’m sorry for refusing you so callously when you wanted to bring me back to Gusu, before.” Wei Ying’s hands unfurl, and he flattens his palms against Wangji’s chest, all the better to feel his heartbeats. “I had a lot going on that I had to attend to. I didn’t know how you felt. And I didn’t know how to tell you that you couldn’t possibly cleanse my core, because, well…”
Wangji places one of his hands over both of Wei Ying’s. Their hands used to be roughly the same size, with Wangji’s slightly larger and Wei Ying’s running slightly warmer. But now, Wangji’s hands envelop Wei Ying’s, which are small and cool—the fingers still long and slender, the nails like raindrops.
It’s not like Wangji knew how such sensations were compared to Wei Ying’s previous body, though he had imagined them as a youth, many a time. But that Wangji can experience Wei Ying at all—not just returned in the flesh, but close and tucked into the crook of Wangji’s arm—is something Wangji will accept, in any form Wei Ying takes. His other hand moves to make slow, soothing strokes down Wei Ying’s back. “No need to say sorry.”
“I know. But still…” Wei Ying bites his lip. “I think about it, you know. I put you through a lot, Lan Zhan.”
Lan Zhan gently places his fingers over Wei Ying’s mouth to stop Wei Ying from fretting further. “Enough,” he says, as tenderly as he can. “We’re here, now.”
“Mm,” Wei Ying whispers in agreement. Wangji applies just a bit more force on where his hand’s still making unhurried journeys up and down Wei Ying’s back, and Wei Ying’s eyes droop halfway shut. And then, Wei Ying lazily asks, his words slightly slurred, “We’ll go back to Gusu together after our travels are done?”
“Yes,” says Wangji. This time, they will. As equals. As husbands.
“Gusu.” Ordinarily, Wangji wouldn’t repeat himself, especially right after the question was just asked, and Wei Ying’s not so sleepy that he’ll forget an answer as soon as it was said. But Wangji finds that he’ll do a lot of things he wouldn’t ordinarily do, when it comes to Wei Ying.
“And? What will we find in Gusu?” Wei Ying asks.
He’s clearly playing now. But his eyes are shining with an earnestness that means he’s here for something more than mischief, and so Wangji is content to follow along. “Our Sizhui. The rabbits.”
Wei Ying makes a noise of assent. “What else, Lan er-gege?”
Wangji thinks, spurred on by Wei Ying’s encouragement. “The Jingshi. Our bed.”
Wei Ying smiles his enchanting smile. “Yes, all of those. But you didn’t answer my first question, Lan Zhan.”
Wangji reaches up, running his hand through Wei Ying’s unruly hair. “Which one?”
Wei Ying hums in response. “I asked, where are we going?”
There’s that question again. Wei Ying’s in the mood for repetition today, when he’s usually looking ahead. Maybe it says something about the stillness of the moment. Maybe it’s the ability to pause and stop in the midst of a frantic search for something yet in his grasp, that lets him return to where he is.
And that’s where Wangji finds the answer.
“We are going home.”
Wei Ying’s smile is dazzling amidst the golden fields. Wei Ying has a home; now that he has one, it is all the more better to travel away from, and to return to.
Wangji continues carding his fingers through Wei Ying’s hair. He feels the need to clarify, “My home is where you are.”
But Wei Ying frowns. “But that’s purely in figurative terms, Lan Zhan. What about Gusu, then? That’s where you grew up. Your family is there, too. Our Sizhui. Your parents. Zewu-jun—he was in a right state when we left him.” He reluctantly adds, “The old man, too.”
“If home is made of who, but also what, shapes us,” says Wangji, “then let us return to Yunmeng again.”
Wei Ying’s grip on Wangji’s robes falters. “I… I don’t know. That’s different. What if we meet Jiang Cheng again?” His fingers clench and unclench. “I can greet him. I can make small talk and make him roll his eyes at me. But what if we talk? Like, really talk? I don’t really…know what to say, anymore.”
It’s because Wei Ying doesn’t know what to say, that makes it all the more important to slowly unspool what Lotus Pier means to him. Yunmeng is not the same for Wei Ying anymore, without the bustle and endless promises of his childhood. But he still considers it dear, regardless of what form in which it exists.
“Yunmeng is important to you.” Wangji tenderly places his hand over Wei Ying’s heart, feeling each slow beat. “One day, you will find the words. And I am here with you.”
When Wei Ying presses his face into Wangji’s chest and exhales, Wangji can feel the heat through his robes. “Lan Zhan, have I told you how much I love your eyes?” Wei Ying breathes, barely above the swishing of the grass. “So clear. Like I can see straight through them into your soul.” He laughs to himself. “It sounds silly when I say it aloud, but it’s really how I feel when I look at you. Is that too much?”
“Never too much,” Wangji tells him, encircling Wei Ying with his arms.
“Ah, Hanguang-jun. Always indulging me, letting me be myself. And you’re always yourself. I love that about you.” Wei Ying smiles up at him, unabashed, and Wangji’s heart skips a beat. “I love so many things about you.”
Wangji allows Wei Ying to stretch in his embrace, nearly overwhelmed with contentedness. He takes the opportunity to murmur into Wei Ying’s ear, “Ink.”
Wei Ying stills, and looks up. His usually sharp eyes are narrowed with confusion. “Ink?”
He’s so perplexed that Wangji can’t help but lean down to leave a kiss on his temple. “The rabbit’s name.”
Wei Ying’s face lights up in comprehension. He doesn’t want to burst into laughter because that means unpeeling himself away from Wangji. But his lips curl in amusement, and Wangji can feel Wei Ying shaking against him. “Ink! How creative, Lan Zhan!”
“You are teasing.”
“No, no! Not teasing. Really!” Wei Ying clings to him to stop him turning away. “But why Ink?”
“Color.” Before Wei Ying can tease him more, Wangji continues. “And ink tells stories.”
Stories written in the ink of the earth, of crops that are guarded and protected, of hard years that have yielded little harvest in soils filled with corpses. Stories running across skin, of brands and scars and blood, and ghosts of touches that linger. Stories that are neither good nor bad in their overlying chronicle, but have transpired nonetheless—not to define those who experience them, but to become them.
Wei Ying considers Wangji’s answer. “Well, I guess I can accept that. it’s definitely a better name than what Jiang Cheng or Jin Ling could come up with. Like Jasmine, or Fairy.” He scoffs, then shivers at the mention of dogs.
“Mm.” Wangji hastily shifts his arm to remind Wei Ying he’s nowhere near them.
Wei Ying leaves a kiss on the corner of Wangji’s mouth. ”Ink is a cute name, like my cute husband. Lan Zhan. Lan Wangji. Second Master Lan. Hanguang-jun. Lan er-gege. The most handsome of men. The most strong. The most good. And the most cute.”
The last remark stirs a sudden memory in Wangji. “My mother said so, too.”
“Hm? That you were cute?” Wei Ying grins. “Of course she did. How could anyone think otherwise—especially your mother, who loved you? She’d say, ‘My Zhanzhan is so adorable, he moves children and adults, mortals and immortals, and the living and the dead alike, to tears!’ With me crying the loudest of the lot, of course.”
“She would have loved you, too.” Wangji says this with certainty, even as his heart clenches with something both fond and painful.
“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying takes his face in his hands. “Let’s not be sad. We’re here together, aren’t we? And right now, I want to be with my precious Zhanzhan. Or was it A-Zhan?”
Wangji feels his ears flush. “Don’t call me that.”
Wei Ying’s unfazed. “Then pay attention to me! I’ll go back with you to Gusu, so come back to me!”
Surrounded by nature, there’s no other sound accompanying their voices, other than the great rustle of the grass and the occasional splash of fish at the water’s surface. It is quiet, and peaceful.
Wei Ying stretches again. Yawning, he reluctantly lifts his head from his husband’s chest to murmur into his ear, “I’m so relaxed, I could fall asleep. We should find a place to stay for the night.”
This is all Wangji has wanted for Wei Ying—to go, content and cared for, wherever he pleases.
Wangji’s arms only tighten around him. “Rest. A bit longer.”
Rest, here. Rest, as long as you’d like.
Rest, with me.
In seclusion, Xichen admits no visitors, save for his uncle and brother.
“I must admit, doing everything myself is proving a bit difficult without some help.” Xichen’s sleeve falls back when he pours the tea, revealing his arm; he’s grown thinner since Wangji’s last visit. “My cooking is almost edible now. But how dusting makes me sneeze. And washing clothes! I never could do it without ripping something, but at least back then I had—”
He halts, his calm expression frozen. “My apologies. I didn’t mean to—”
He doesn’t finish that sentence either, eyes flicking to his feet and back.
Wangji wavers. His brother’s always been the eloquent one, and with Xichen at a loss for words, Wangji’s at even more of a standstill. Fortunately, though the winds are quiet today. Wangji’s sleeve suddenly billows out, saving him the trouble of cobbling together a response and distracting them both.
“What have you got there, Wangji?” But Xichen already knows the answer, and for a moment, his smile reaches his eyes.
“Stay still,” Wangji tells his sleeve.
“You know I can’t have company,” Xichen says, gently.
“Not a person,” Wangji answers.
Xichen is different from Wangji. He’s more like Wei Ying in some ways—adept with conversation and filling silences, warm and approachable, building himself up with the bridges he makes to others with his words.
But Xichen will never admit to loneliness. Not to Wangji, anyway. Perhaps Xichen would have confided in his sworn brothers, long ago. But those days are gone, and so are those sworn brothers.
Xichen drops the subject, for now. “And how is Young Master Wei?”
Sometimes Wangji can’t help wondering if he really has confined Wei Ying. Doomed him to a life of bland food and a world too cold, solemn and quiet for lotuses, prickling heat, and the sound of bare feet running on wooden planks.
But Wei Ying is never anywhere he doesn’t want to be, and he shines brilliantly here, even amidst the snow and ice. During day-long meetings where Wangji discusses sect logistics and rules, a part of him is always tuned to the outdoors, watching for telltale noise. Waiting.
And Wangji is no longer left wanting. This morning, he was rewarded with Wei Ying’s uninhibited laugh—full and wild, the one Wangji’s uncle has forbidden and the one Wangji loves most.
Wei Ying’s smile was bright, visible in flashes as he darted from path to path. He blew a last kiss to Wangji before vanishing over the hill that led to the forests, trailed by a slew of junior disciples.
Wangji cannot help the near-indistinguishable curl of his lips. Of course, this does not escape his brother’s notice.
“Good,” is all Xichen says. Somewhere within the coal that has since extinguished the spark in his eyes, something faint stirs.
Wangji wants to chase that something, see if it will catch flame. He adds, “Each day Wei Ying is here, Uncle’s craftsmanship improves. Every breath is another rule carved into the stones.”
This wins him a chuckle. “No doubt Uncle’s worn his meditation mat to shreds from kneeling on it so angrily. It’s about time he replaced it, anyway.”
Wangji’s sleeve twitches again. There is no longer any point in hiding what is there, so Wangji places the grey rabbit on the table, running his hands over its long, soft ears.
“She loves lettuce,” he says. “And pats on the nose.”
Xichen shakes his head, though his lips are turned upward. “And it just so happens you gave me fresh lettuce during your last visit. A most fortunate coincidence.”
Though Xichen’s clearly exasperated, he’s not saying no. Wangji presses on. “The fruit basket I gave you,” he continues. “It’s her favorite to sleep in.”
“Wangji.” Now his brother is actually laughing. “How long ago did you give me that basket? Just how far back does this plot go? Did Young Master Wei have a hand in this?”
Such questions are not important to answer. So Wangji ignores them, instead offering the rabbit to his brother. “She’s a good listener.”
Despite Xichen’s earlier rebuke, he reaches to cradle the rabbit in his arms. “Oh, I’m sure she is.”
“I will bring you more vegetables tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow, then,” his brother agrees.
Over time, the grey rabbit has grown plump. A rather solitary animal, it is more content with Xichen’s companionship than with its own species.
Wangji watches the rabbit explore the garden. It sniffs at the snow, digging through to reach the soil and its ears droop, disappointed at the lack of food. The stalks have yet to show themselves, and the winter is especially unforgiving this time around.
Xichen approaches them. Still thin, with shadows in his face and his words, he is still spending his days in the cottage. But there is some color in his face now, and his smiles have stopped being less obligatory and come more easily as of late.
“Wangji, you once said that love isn’t a curse. Do you remember?”
Of course Wangji does, but his brother knows that, too. Clearly, Xichen’s point lies elsewhere, and Wangji waits. A result of all of his experiences is that he’s become very good at waiting.
“If you had told me that now, in your current circumstances,” Xichen continues, “I wouldn’t have believed you.”
“Why not?” asks Wangji, momentarily perplexed. It’s not often that his brother says something which befuddles him. And this statement is particularly confusing, given Wangji’s sentiments have never wavered, and would have stayed the same regardless of whether Wei Ying lived or died.
“Ah, I suppose I should correct myself.” Xichen stoops, and the rabbit immediately scampers to him, demanding affection. “Rather, the difficulty, for me, is accepting your belief so readily, when my experiences seem to indicate otherwise.”
Wangji’s current circumstances. In the place he calls home. With his beloved. Married. Happy.
Wangji can’t believe it himself sometimes, when he wakes up to Wei Ying asleep on his chest, when he returns to the Jingshi to find Wei Ying waiting in bed, when Wei Ying slips in during a lesson and doesn’t care who sees him kiss Wangji in greeting.
Wangji can see why it seems much easier for him to say that love is a blessing, now. He lives it, breathes it. He’s had a few close shaves, like when he daydreams about running his hands down Wei Ying’s body during particularly heated meetings, nearly smiles at the wrong moment, and narrowly avoids starting an inter-sect war.
But Wangji’s not entirely happy. After all, his brother is sequestered here, alone most of the day, by choice. Xichen can meditate as patiently as the other disciples, but he’s always gravitated to speaking to the junior disciples rather than merely reading their diaries, conversed more easily with the outside world than Wangji’s own reserved self. He isn’t meant for this isolated place.
“But Wangji, you only say what you mean. And, now, well...” Xichen’s glance is hesitant, but this time, he doesn’t look away. “I dare to…I dare to think I can make it through this.”
It’s difficult to know what his brother means by this. Perhaps Xichen means the forever-severed bond established between Nie Mingjue, Jin Guangyao, and him. Perhaps there was something more than brotherliness. Regardless, much has been taken from the world; whether the result is one that will be for the better, remains to be seen.
The events that have taken place leaves those left in its wake to grieve, never to mend back together in the same way. That Xichen’s kindness and fairness, qualities which Gusu cherishes, were exploited is a grievance which Wangji can’t forgive.
But this is not Wangji’s anger to express, and a well-experienced life doesn’t result in an unblemished page.
So he can only answer, “You will.” And he meets his brother’s gaze—clear gold to brown.
Wangji’s brother has never abandoned him. Been confused by, disappointed in, frustrated with, furious at him, yes. But he’s stood by Wangji, even through decisions that didn’t make sense, after Wei Ying entered their lives and upended Wangji’s.
They’ve looked after each other, protected and watched over each other, through thick and thin.
Wangji thinks of their mother, balancing one son on each knee, and Xichen silently taking his hand every time their visits end, expressing the same ache Wangji feels when they must leave her for another month. He thinks of their father, Xichen holding his hand until the end, while Wangji wept in a cave with a feverish Wei Ying. He thinks of being confined to a bed and lying on his stomach, often with only Xichen to talk him through long, painful nights.
That was then. Wangji has lived loneliness, and seen it too many times not to recognize when it comes and threatens to fester in Xichen’s wounds.
One day, Xichen will re-emerge in the world. Step by step, like the careful ones he takes on the white stones, he will regain his footing. His goodness will shine from within again—of this, Wangji is certain. But for now, Xichen must gather himself and his strength; after all, kindness is not easily learned and, when scattered to the winds, must be slowly recollected.
Until then, Wangji will not leave him.
With the sun barely breaking, another night hunt ends, with the juniors all safely delivered back to the Cloud Recesses by Wen Qionglin. Since Jin Rulan is honest, Sizhui is patient, and Jingyi is friendly, the three of them have moved past the first stages of acquaintance to form a solid, if occasionally rocky, friendship.
As expected after their night hunts, Sizhui and Jingyi are punished with lines while doing handstands, and as usual, Jin Rulan cheerfully flies back to Lanling to be berated for sneaking out by Jiang Wanyin.
Wangji looks around, noticing Wen Qionglin is missing. Thinking he’s already returned to the forest, Wangji heads back to the Cloud Recesses to start Sizhui and Jingyi off on their lines, and then goes to the hutch to let out the rabbits.
Wen Qionglin tries to get to his feet immediately. But he’s not as nimble as he used to be, and it’s especially difficult to be graceful while he’s trying to avoid banging into the hutch with his chains and scaring the rabbits. He teeters dangerously, and Wangji takes his arm to catch him. The flesh is cold and rigid, unlike any texture Wangji’s touched before, but he swallows his surprise to pull Wen Qionglin up.
“My apologies for intruding. I just—” Wen Qionglin does the fierce corpse equivalent of twisting his hands together and then bowing in apology, which is training his eyes on the floor and jerking his head in a stiff nod. “I’ve heard such wonderful things about your rabbits, and I wanted to see them for myself,” he says, the words strongly reminiscent of Wei Ying’s.
Even as Wen Qionglin stands as a sign of deference, Wangji can see his gaze flitting back to the hutch, longing to see what’s inside. Wangji didn’t know Wen Qionglin well before his death, but even as a fierce corpse, Wen Qionglin isn’t a particularly aggressive one.
Abruptly, Wangji brushes past, striding to the hutch to release the latch. He reaches in to take two large rabbits, tilting his head toward the others once he’s reached the grass.
Wen Qionglin catches onto his meaning. “Oh…May I?”
The Ghost General looks at him with surprise, his eyes asking for permission. Wangji doesn’t answer, because he has already given it. Together, they make short work of turning all of the rabbits out onto the hillside.
They don’t speak, passing by each other and taking turns at the hutch in silence. They were never properly acquainted and never spoke to each other of their own volition—not without Wei Ying around, anyway. The one proper conversation they ever had was when Wei Ying was unconscious, and even then, they spoke about Wei Ying around their awkwardness with each other.
The stilted pause makes Wangji wish, for once, that rabbits were noisier animals. Instead, he observes Wen Qionglin out of the corner of his eye.
Due to his immense strength, Wen Qionglin could easily pick up ten rabbits by the ears at a time, if he so chose. But he cradles them in his arms, appreciating the warmth which he no longer has, transferring them one by one. Many of the rabbits squirm, uncomfortable at the coolness of his skin. But there are some who stay still in his arms, letting him stroke their backs or their heads, and he does, his expression one of awe.
A speckled rabbit is particularly persistent about staying with him, hopping back up the hill to sit by his feet and stoutly following him as he moves between the hutch and the grass. Instead of shooing it away or telling it to wait, he slows his steps so it can keep up with him.
Perhaps for others, such behavior would read as the infatuation of one who is unfamiliar with animals and is simply indulging them. But for Wen Qionglin, Wangji would not expect anything else. He spent his previous life happiest in the service of others, and was successful at it because of his consideration for their needs. Now, alienated as one of the last of his sect and no longer considered alive, he will wander the earth before he finds a place of his own, if at all.
Wangji glances at the speckled rabbit. “That one runs warm.”
“No.” Just as Wen Qionglin’s face is about to shutter closed, thinking the conversation over, Wangji adds, “Just warm.”
“Oh, that’s a relief.” Wen Qionglin ferries the last rabbit, a grey one with full lop ears, onto the grass. “There was a one-eyed stray cat I befriended. When she ran a fever, I stayed up with her all night. She recovered, but she followed me everywhere after that. I didn’t mind, but I had to watch my step a lot more.”
“Hm,” says Wangji. Wen Qionglin has always been kind, to humans and animals alike. But while Wangji has received recognition for what he has perceived as what he should do and what others perceive as goodness, Wen Qionglin has received nothing but hatred for what he didn’t mean to do, and has continued to be kind.
“Is Young Master Wei well? Where is he?” Wen Qionglin inquires after his former master.
Wangji thinks of Wei Ying, peacefully sleeping like a rock, no doubt having stirred the blankets into something far from the tidy state Wangji had left them in. “Resting,” he says, then reconsiders. “Drooling.”
Wen Qionglin cracks a stiff smile. “Then he’s happy. I’m glad.”
There’s a finality to the words, a last goodbye, the closing of some chapter. Wangji watches Wen Qionglin slowly kneel down to the speckled rabbit for one last stroke. He hesitates for a moment, then presses his lips to kiss the top of its speckled head. “I can’t stay long. I should leave.” He raises his head to look at Wangji. “Thank you, Hanguang-jun.”
Wangji won’t ask after just what Wen Qionglin wants to do, once he parts with the juniors to attend to his own affairs. That’s for him to know, and for the cultivation world to learn in time. Perhaps he will first honor his deceased sect members, then set about tidying the Burial Mound in hopes of revival. He will need Wen Yuan again, in time. And Wen Yuan will need him, too—to learn about his birth identity, and a family he will only ever know through stories.
There is no need for thank yous, when it comes to Wangji. He only gives to those he thinks are capable of looking after what they’re given. Wen Qionglin has spent enough of his life giving it to others, and having his own life taken from him.
Instead, Wangji picks up the speckled rabbit. He says, “Take it.”
“I-I can?” Despite the uncertainty in his voice, Wen Qionglin continues petting the rabbit with sure, gentle strokes.
Wangji doesn’t reply. Repeating an answer he’s already given is unnecessary. He places the rabbit in Wen Qionglin’s arms and, with nothing else to add, turns on his heel.
“I’m—” Wen Qionglin can no longer shed tears, but his voice is thick with emotion. “I’m very grateful, Hanguang-jun.”
Wangji nods, once. And then, he’s striding to the kitchens to make breakfast for his husband.
Jiang Wanyin scowls. “Dogs are serviceable animals,” he says. “Rabbits sit around, eat grass, and shit it out. They jump sometimes, or flop over. They don’t bark. They don’t hunt. They don't fetch. Why keep them at all?”
Wangji has to meditate for a minute, recite ten sect rules in succession, and remind himself it’s poor form to silence a sect leader (who also happens to be Wei Ying’s brother and his own brother-in-law, of all people) before he pulls himself together.
Jiang Wanyin continues to watch Wangji put the rabbits away in their hutches. He stands with his back ramrod-straight, arms crossed, silent, his observant eyes missing nothing.
Wangji pauses. He checks the hutch, then double checks to make sure. “One is missing.”
Wei Ying is feverish and resting in bed, and Wangji wouldn’t dream of disturbing him. The search might extend past curfew, which would mean setting a bad example if Wangji enlists the help of Sizhui or the other junior disciples. Wangji keeps this room simple and clean, with tidy long lines of sight, meaning the rabbit is no longer inside. The meadows are clear of balls of fur, indicating the rabbit is most likely somewhere it should not be, and that can be anywhere.
There’s only one option.
“Jiang Wanyin. Come with me.”
“I—” Jiang Wanyin starts. But Wangji’s already swept outside, and so he can only repeat to empty air: “What?”
“We can’t use an explosive talisman and scare it into appearing?”
“It is past curfew. Excessive noise is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.”
“We can’t lure it out? Pluck a tune on your zither?”
“Music is forbidden at night. And it is not a spirit,” Wangji says, keeping the indignance out of his voice.
“I don’t see why you can’t break just one of your precious rules for a moment. We’re out here for just one damn rabbit. ”
“You would search all night for a missing dog.”
“Yeah, because I know not to keep more dogs than I can keep track of.” Jiang Wanyin pauses a moment to let that settle in, and then demands, “Do you need this many furballs? Why do you even have this many?”
If this was anyone else, Wangji would have ignored them and only answered the questions he wanted to answer. However, this, again, is Wei Ying’s brother, and a sect leader at that, who is electing to ignore Wangji’s well-known reputation as a taciturn person to continue their conversation.
As much as Wangji would prefer to look for the rabbit in silence, it’s in his best interest not to ignore Jiang Wanyin. He answers, “They breed quickly.”
“So? You can’t give some away? Roast some?”
“Killing livestock is forbidden within the grounds.”
“That’s not an answer.” Jiang Wanyin definitely knows he’s overstepped his boundaries, but he keeps pushing. Wangji’s dislike for him grows. “You could give some to the villages. Yunmeng has a really good rabbit stew recipe—”
The thought of stewing his precious rabbits turns Wangji’s mouth down. “No.”
“What, then?” Jiang Wanyin answers himself. “Oh, no. Don’t tell me this has something to do with Wei Wuxian.”
“The first pair were a gift from him.”
Jiang Wanyin snorts. “Of course. I should’ve known.”
Jiang Wanyin’s always been indifferent, but at least polite to Wangji. Now, he speaks with something more familiar but bitter, and Wangji knows why. With Wei Wing being the person who bridges the reason they interact at all, Jiang Wanyin can speak frankly with his usual biting candor that he reserves for his family and those who know him. Wangji doesn’t know if it’s a blessing or a curse that he’s experiencing Jiang Wanyin’s true, unbuffered personality because of Wei Ying.
“You spoil that brat,” says Jiang Wanyin. It’s not a question; he saw more than enough at Guanyin Temple to know the extent to which Wangji would go for his husband.
“Wei Ying is not a brat,” Wangji responds.
Jiang Wanyin scoffs. “You give him what he wants, he’ll just ask for more. Or, he’ll give you so much in return, you’ll owe him more than you could ever give.”
“We owe each other nothing,” says Wangji.
This Wei Ying, one who makes endless demands and, in turn, is demanded to deliver, is the Wei Ying who Jiang Wanyin’s created in his mind. But if Wangji has his own idea of Wei Ying, of a Wei Ying who is everything others describe Wangji as—just, kind, beautiful, pure, and filled with good intent—then who is he to say that Jiang Wanyin is wrong?
“He can’t stop making noise, even in his sleep. He’s shameless.” Jiang Wanyin rolls his eyes. “He can’t shut up. He pokes his nose into things that aren’t his business. He breaks more rules than he doesn’t. All that hasn’t changed.”
“Yes,” affirms Wangji, without a hint of surprise.
“Wow. You do love him,” Jiang Wanyin says, with a mix of incredulity, spite, and something Wangji can’t name.
“You did,” says Wangji.
Jiang Wanyin smarts, as if branded, then sneers. “And what of it? You couldn’t stand him back when we were at the Cloud Recesses. You almost killed him the first time you two met. What changed?”
“What does that mean?”
“I did not know my feelings, then.”
Jiang Wanyin chuckles—one brief, humorless sound. “Yeah, yeah.”
How strange it is—to know a person in the same ways and to be familiar with their habits, and yet to see that person with utterly different eyes. Outside of the first few months of their acquaintance, Wangji has seen Wei Ying as someone who holds fast to his principles, and through that choice, is free. But Jiang Wanyin thinks otherwise; he makes Wangji see outside of his own upbringing and his morals, realizing that though they may seem firm and true to him, others operate differently.
They could stand at this impasse forever.
Jiang Wanyin must think so, too, because he abruptly changes the subject. “Where’s Zewu-jun? He was absent at the last few sect meetings. Is it true he’s in seclusion?”
For a moment, Wangji considers how specific his response should be. Then he remembers Jiang Wanyin knows far more than he used to, and even though telling the truth may result in dealing with more of his acerbic tongue, he deserves to know that much. Besides, Wangji doesn’t lie (and neither should any of his sect’s members), and even semantics can aggravate Jiang Wanyin’s ire.
Wangji goes with a succinct, “Yes.”
“Is that so?” Jiang Wanyin’s surprise is evident in his voice before it settles back into its dismissive tone. “If only the rest of us could take a break from our sect leader duties.”
A spark of anger flares in Wangji, but he calms at the rustling noises when Jiang Wanyin leans down to search a bale of hay. All Wangji says is, “He needs time to reflect.”
Their uncle had been shocked at the condition in which Xichen had returned, but grudgingly allowed Xichen his solitude, mostly because he had been too flabbergasted to argue further.
Unfortunately, Jiang Wanyin seems to hone in on Wangji’s choice of words. “Reflect? Is that all? What a most grievous and dire reason to abandon his sect.”
Wangji forgets himself, whirling around to face Jiang Wanyin. “He didn’t—!”
Jiang Wanyin doesn’t miss a beat. Those blue-grey eyes are ruthless, bearing down on Wangji. “And where were you, the moment your sect leader and brother went into seclusion, Second Master Lan?”
Perhaps this is what makes the Sandu Shengshou so dangerous—his abrasiveness becoming so raw that it sets everything around it alight, even in the heaviest of downpours.
But Jiang Wanyin no longer has family to lean on, and has instead many others to protect. If he were to indeed withdraw from his obligations for even a week, his sect, and his nephew’s, would face grave consequences. His brother, who swore loyalty to him, has chosen to be here instead, far away from the heat and vibrance of Lotus Pier.
Wangji’s brother’s situation is by no means fortunate, but that Xichen can step away at all is a luxury of which Jiang Wanyin is deprived.
This is why Wangji draws his mouth shut, and falls silent. Lets Jiang Wanyin snort with derision and turn away, as if it’s the answer he expected.
There is more he can say that can stir Jiang Wanyin into one of his infamous tempers, but doing so would benefit neither of them. The point is not to sully their relationship permanently—not just because of Jiang Wanyin’s influence as a sect leader and the firm relationship established between Yunmeng and Gusu, but because Wangji does not want to tar whatever remains between him and Wei Ying, who were once inseparable.
Throughout his travels, Wangji has seen too much destruction of relationships that seemed like ones for the ages. Humans, comprised of their unique fabrics, can carve their own legacies, but in their distinct singularities, are so prone to discord because they don’t attempt to comprehend each other from others’ perspectives. He does not wish to create even more strife in the world.
“Think what you will,” says Wangji, eventually. “But my brother is not alone.”
Jiang Wanyin’s face only blackens further. “ And must we require some sort of company to do anything at all? The Wens tried to take everything from me, and they nearly did. But I had my vengeance. I protected what was mine. I rebuilt Lotus Pier with my own two hands. I made my own path.” He pauses. “And I did it alone.”
His shoulders straighten, his fingers twisting around the ring on his finger. He is proud of this accomplishment. As of now, he is too used to surviving on his own, too proud of his status as a grim survivor, forging his anger and strength from the dregs of the company he once believed he would forever have at his side. As of now, Jiang Wanyin does not have enough space in his life and his heart to accommodate Wei Ying.
It does not have to be forever. But Jiang Wanyin’s heart has had thirteen years to harden and is not easily turned. Whatever he has left with Wei Ying may or may not be able to be salvaged. But the simple fact is that while they are both alive, that in itself presents more chances to change the nature of their rift, whether to deepen or to bridge it.
“Do you believe in fate?” asks Jiang Wanyin.
The world isn’t as simple as having written divine mandates for each person. Wei Ying has shown this, through defying any sort of categorization by his existence alone. And for Wangji’s part, he goes where turmoil is, because he will do his utmost to make that mayhem coherent for the betterment of others.
He doesn’t do what he does for some hope at heavenly reward; the world has too many immediate concerns for that. But he knows this answer will only make Jiang Wanyin further scorn him for what’s perceived as a misconceived, nonexistent sense of justice.
Instead, Wangji settles for a concise, “No.”
“Well.” Jiang Wanyin throws him a sharp glance. “That might be the first time we’ve agreed on anything.”
Jiang Wanyin finds the missing white rabbit in a bush, bite marks on its bloodied throat.
Wary of human activity and various safety measures set around the perimeters, animal predators usually don’t dare venture this close to the Cloud Recesses. But such measures are mostly to keep out the dead with resentful energy, rather than the guilelessly living. When just one fox managed to infiltrate undetected, it didn’t stay long; while clearly unsuccessful in leaving with its prey, the damage is done.
In building the hutch, Wangji wished to better protect his rabbits. More of them would be lost to predators, if he had left them to freely make their burrows outdoors. Now they’re content and have somewhere safe to sleep at night, but in return have lost their ability to detect danger and to protect themselves from impending threats.
He knows he can’t possibly safeguard all of them. However, the sight of the rabbit—young, lifeless, limp—is still difficult to behold.
Jiang Wanyin, meanwhile, snorts at the sight. No doubt he has seen observed such a scene numerous times, given the hunts he goes on with his subordinate’s dogs. “Helpless creature,” he says. “I’m heading back. I don’t know why I bothered coming.”
Wangji lets him go. They have talked enough for tonight, and they will keep meeting each other for many more times to come.
Jiang Wanyin will not waste such emotions like sadness on a rabbit. But while he won't mourn, he’s not unfeeling; he’s left the woven basket he carried at Wangji’s feet.
Wangji is not as close with Jiang Wanyin as Wei Ying once was, and will never be. But that he can experience Jiang Wanyin in this capacity, at all, is a start.
Jiang Wanyin’s light steps and deeply colored robes allow him to meld with the darkness.
Meanwhile, Wangji kneels. He gently places the rabbit’s body in the basket. And then, he bows his head for a few minutes.
Wangji wakes that chilly morning, entangled in blankets and his husband. Only the birds who will stay for the coming cold chirp now, the others having already left for warmer pastures. A pale strip of sunlight layers itself across the Jingshi’s floor, a telltale sign of the approaching winter.
Wei Ying is still asleep, safely nestled in Wangji’s arms and head pillowed on his chest. Wei Ying isn’t a still sleeper; he twitches and frowns in his dreams, murmurs Wangji’s name constantly, and instinctively moves closer or tightens his fingers where they’re curled in Wangji’s robes.
Even when unconscious, Wei Ying is as expressive as ever. Wangji is happy to respond with how he sees fit, all the while helplessly growing fonder of him.
“Wei Ying,” Wangji murmurs, taking his husband’s face in his hands. Even now, he marvels at being able to hold Wei Ying like this, and his heart fills with affection. “It is time to wake up.”
“Later,” Wei Ying mumbles. His hands have a vice grip on the front of Wangji’s robes, making it impossible for Wangji to move. “Stay.”
“Wei Ying.” Wangji tries again.
Wei Ying mumbles something indecipherable, and Wangji’s unable to hold back a smile at the sight of Wei Ying’s mussed hair, Wei Ying huddling close to him for warmth, Wei Ying leaning up to nuzzle into his neck. Wangji’s drowning in him, and doesn’t mind at all. Wei Ying, Wei Ying, Wei Ying.
“Stay,” Wei Ying repeats, and actually unfurls his leg to hook it around the back of Wangji’s thigh. “My Lan Zhan.”
Selfishness is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, but Wangji feels a thrill ripple through him at the words. “Yours,” he affirms, and Wei Ying’s leg tightens. “Still yours, when we wake up.”
“Lan Zhaaaan,” Wei Ying whines.
In the end, as it always is, Wangji untangles himself and gets dressed. Then, when the pale strip of sunlight on the Jingshi’s floor has turned golden, Wangji carries his husband to the bath and gently washes him from head to toe, while Wei Ying continues dozing and occasionally turns to kiss whatever part of Wangji he meets while Wangji cleans him—a hand, a finger, an arm. Wangji indulges him, letting his touches linger so Wei Ying can shift as slowly as he pleases.
They don’t talk much; the room is filled with sloshes of water as Wei Ying is moved about through Wangji’s various stages of cleaning him, and Wei Ying’s occasional approving murmur as he presses his lips to any part of Wangji he can reach.
Once Wei Ying is dried off, dressed, and set upright for breakfast at the table, he’s fully awake. He gives Wangji an enthusiastic good morning kiss and tucks in, not yet ready for conversation but always happy in Wangji’s company. If Wei Ying’s feeling especially clingy, as he is today, he’ll move his food so he sits next to Wangji as he eats.
They sit so close they brush with every movement, Wangji frequently shifting his hand so he touches Wei Ying at his waist, his shoulder, his back.
This is their routine, and Wangji is content.
“Great lesson today, everyone!” Wei Ying calls after the junior disciples, who scatter to attend to their various duties. “Remember to practice writing your talismans!”
Unfortunately, in the midst of his shout, he runs into Wangji’s uncle.
“Don’t yell in the Cloud Recesses!” Lan Qiren yells.
“Sure, sure! Got it,” says Wei Ying, unconcerned, and Lan Qiren’s face reddens at his nonchalance.
Wangji’s watching the scene from a distance; Lan Qiren catches his eye, and shakes his head angrily. Wangji knows his uncle is barely tolerating Wei Ying for Wangji’s sake. But Wei Ying has made the Cloud Recesses livelier, and cannot help breaking every rule by just being himself. Even so, Wangji decides it’s best that he and Wei Ying set out on another journey soon. Perhaps this time, they will travel to Qinghe, allowing Wei Ying to catch up with the sect leader and their old classmate.
Wangji wants to continue observing Wei Ying—so cheerful and comfortable, with the waterfalls of the Cloud Recesses on either side of him. But then Wei Ying turns, and spots Wangji waiting up ahead; his relaxed gait instantly becomes a dash as he leaves everyone else behind to meet Wangji. Another broken rule, another protruding vein on Lan Qiren’s forehead.
“Lan Zhan, I’m coming!” calls Wei Ying. “Wait for me, Lan Zhan!”
At that moment, Wangji becomes an immovable stone. Wei Ying’s voice precedes him, and there’s a period at the uphill turn where Wangji loses sight of him. But finally Wei Ying rematerializes, all smiles and affection, and Wangji watches him approach.
How good and beautiful he is, thinks Wangji. But especially today, with his hair and clothing askew, framed in the late afternoon light.
“Sorry, sorry. The lesson took a bit longer than I thought. Lan Jingyi panicked while dealing with a quick-footed spirit and accidentally set our Sizhui’s robes on fire—” Wei Ying laughs at Wangji’s nearly imperceptible frown. “Don’t worry. They’re both fine, if a bit soggy! I missed you so much, Lan Zhan. Did you miss me?” He rests a hand on Wangji’s shoulder and leans up to press their lips together.
Such a small, easy gesture has Wangji’s heart racing, and warmth blooms in his chest. “Yes,” he simply says. That’s all the response Wei Ying needs; he beams, and Wangji wraps an arm around his waist.
They begin walking again. Neither of them needs to ask the other where they’re headed; their feet know the way.
No one turns to watch them anymore. For one, anyone who so much as looks at Wei Ying receives a tongue-lashing from Wangji’s uncle for acknowledging his existence. Besides, after the initial shock, everyone’s grown accustomed to a revered Hanguang-jun without the frosty and bitter expression he once wore, who smiles and even laughs with the Yiling Patriarch at his side.
They reach the meadow to find Sizhui and Jingyi sprawled out, blankets beneath them to protect them from the cold moisture of the grass.
“Ah, Hanguang-jun, Senior Wei!” Sizhui starts, he and Jingyi scrambling to their feet. “Forgive us for our impropriety! We didn’t want to make more trouble for Senior Wei than we already did, so we started putting the rabbits back in their hutch. But I suggested we take a break to watch the sunset before we finished, so we sat down and—and don’t punish Jingyi, please! The fault was mine, and—”
“No need,” says Wangji, briefly placing one hand on each of their shoulders. “Wei Ying and I will finish here. You may leave.”
Jingyi places his own hand on his shoulder, on the very spot where Wangji just touched. He stares at his palm, awestruck, like he won’t wash his robes until the next turning of the seasons. “Th-Thank you, Hanguang-jun!”
Returning the rabbits to their hutches isn’t difficult, but it takes time; while the rabbits are tame, plump, and easily picked up, there are many of them. Wangji and Wei Ying are finishing up with the last of them when Wei Ying snorts, and Wangji waits to inevitably hear what’s so funny.
“I talked to Jiang Cheng briefly, during a break between meetings,” Wei Ying says. “He says you lost a rabbit and made him look for it with you. He had a really crabby look on his face when he said it.”
“Mm,” agrees Wangji. “I remember.”
Wei Ying grins. “How was it?”
“Because of the rabbits? Or Jiang Cheng?”
Wei Ying chortles appreciatively. “You really love your rabbits, huh, Lan Zhan?”
The last of the rabbits safely in the hutch for the night, Wangji double checks the latch. “Ours, now.”
“Yes, yes, they’re ours. All of them?”
Wei Ying hums. “They’re so heavy, I can’t carry more than one at a time. They’re so plump and happy and well taken care of. Maybe they’re even better fed than our own son.” He laughs. “Don’t tell Sizhui I said that.”
“Mm,” Wangji promises.
“But Lan Zhan, that’s quite a lot of children we have to look after, don’t you think? And children shouldn’t sleep in a hutch. They should sleep in beds, after being able to run around all day.” Wei Ying stops to gently catch Wangji by the chin. Their gazes meet, and Wei Ying has a sparkle in his eyes. “So should we let them all out now? Let them stay in the Jingshi with us?”
That’s hardly sensible, particularly when Wangji wants Wei Ying to himself. He frowns and is about to answer, when Wei Ying fondly raises his hand to push between Wangji’s eyebrows with a finger.
“I’m just saying nonsense,” Wei Ying sing songs. It’s a merry sound, and Wangji wants to hear it again and again. “But you don’t have to worry. I won’t go away and leave you to care for our human son and all of our rabbit children.”
“Not worried,” says Wangji, and it’s technically true; he’s not worried about anything with Wei Ying at his side. Even so, his arm tightens around Wei Ying’s waist.
“You won’t even allow just ten rabbits inside? How about just this one?” Wei Ying holds up the small black rabbit named Ink. Upon being called with its name, it had become thick as thieves with Wei Ying.
As fond of it as Wangji is, he wants to keep their nightly activities between himself and Wei Ying. “No.”
“It can just turn its back when we—”
“Ah, Hanguang-jun.” Wei Ying gently puts Ink back down, then smirks and leans into him. “Such a stubborn man. But you wouldn’t have fallen in love with someone like me if you weren’t so strong-willed!”
“I still am.”
Wei Ying tilts his head and widens his eyes in the very picture of innocence. “You’re still what?”
Wangji is silent for a moment before he reluctantly answers. “You know.”
“I don’t! You’re still what, Lan Zhan? Stubborn? Strong-willed?” Wei Ying blinks up at him, lips pushed out in an exaggerated pout. Now he has the audacity to bat his eyelashes. “I can’t possibly know what you mean if you don’t tell me!”
Wei Ying’s pressed himself into Wangji’s arm. But he isn’t as wholly reliant on Wangji to support his body weight as he usually is, and Wangji knows Wei Ying aims to tease, expects to be denied and for Wangji to say, “Shameless!”. Will catch himself once Wangji huffs and strides ahead, and laugh and quicken his pace to avoid further questions.
Well, two can play at that game. What more is the epitome of the actions of the revered Hanguang-jun, than speaking the unconcealed truth? Wangji has to work at keeping the corners of his mouth from twitching as he replies, “I am still in love with you. Each day, my love grows.”
Having received an answer he didn’t think he’d get, Wei Ying stares. Then, he flushes prettily, burying his face in Wangji’s shoulder. His slump is heavy, real, now. “Lan Zhan! I told you, warn me before saying stuff like that!”
Wangji is still trying not to smile. “Your fault.”
“My fault?” Wei Ying squawks. “Who said they were still in love with me? Who was that just now?”
Wangji chooses not to answer. Instead, he grips Wei Ying’s waist, stopping him and bringing him even closer to leave another kiss, this one soft and lingering.
Wei Ying’s lips are chapped and his robes cold to the touch, from a day’s worth of being buffeted by strong winds and exuberant juniors. He tastes of crisp air, of coming winters, of the promise of spending many more days ahead together. Wangji can’t get enough of him.
Wei Ying responds at once, his hands tracing Wangji’s face, his mouth pliant and willing. When their lips part once more, Wei Ying sighs, content. His breath is warm on Wangji’s mouth, and Wangji has to restrain himself from leaning in again. “You’re really too much, Hanguang-jun. All right, all right—I admit defeat at your capable hands!”
“Mm.” And Wangji levels Wei Ying with a glowing smile, ensuring his husband’s antics are well and truly over for now.
“You—” Wei Ying splutters, which is all he can get out before burying his face back into Wangji’s shoulder. Wangji practically has to tow him back to the meadow that is now devoid of rabbits, enjoying his red face all the while.
Once Wei Ying’s recovered, he takes Wangji’s hand, tugging him down to sit. Wei Ying then stretches out, laying his head in Wangji’s lap. “How considerate, the juniors left their blanket for us!”
“Lan Zhan, what are your plans tomorrow? Any meetings or classes or anything?”
“Sweeping the Jingshi. And flower picking.”
“Gentians? For your mother?”
“Yes. And lilies, for Brother.” Those flowers are safe for Xichen’s rabbit to eat.
Wei Ying reaches up to play with strands of Wangji’s hair. “Do you tell your mother about us?” He seems to understand that, this time, Wangji wishes to visit his mother alone.
But Wangji always, always, wants to do more than tell. In his dreams, he brings Wei Ying into the clearing of rabbits, where his mother—smiling, her hair and robes flying free in the wind—awaits, and they speak to each other with their hands clasped.
Wei Ying, this is my mother. And Mother, this is my Wei Ying.
But that is the nature of grief—wanting something that was and seems so tangible, before it slips between fingers and spirals away like a silk cloth. And Wangji can only answer, “Of course.”
Satisfied, Wei Ying grins, and Wangji can’t help but lean down again. After one last kiss, they take out their instruments.
The precise trills of Wangji’s zither hover in the silence, so sharp they seem to bend the surrounding air into ripples of sound. Wei Ying used to get restless as he played his flute, his feet carrying him to the very perimeters of where he was. But with Wangji remaining stationary to maintain the quality of his zither’s strums, Wei Ying’s learned to stay in one place, expressing his feelings instead by rising up onto the balls of his feet and down again, or merely swaying from side to side with his eyes closed.
His notes’ tones are pure, the vibrato carefully timed to fall in line with Wangji’s melodies. There’s a musicality in the notes that Wei Ying had never been truly carefree enough to consider before. As Wangji both watches and listens to him, he’s filled once more with the immeasurable, insatiable fondness that settles in him whenever he thinks of Wei Ying.
Still playing, Wei Ying slowly drops to his knees to settle beside Wangji. He sacrifices some of the quality of his playing by sitting down and leaning against his husband. But Wangji doesn’t mind; Wei Ying is a reassuring weight, and rocks slightly as he moves to the phrase he’s playing.
He leans into Wangji, and Wangji can hear his husband’s smile in the way the flute’s tone brightens. Wangji himself, with no embouchure to shape as he runs his fingers over his zither, allows his lips to curve and his eyes to close. When their song finally tapers off with the waning and then disappearance of the sun, Wangji carefully covers his zither with a cloth, and Wei Ying tucks his flute back into his sash.
Upon touching his husband’s hand, Wangji finds the skin slightly cold to the touch. He tucks the extra outer robe he brought—a heavy, cloud-seamed white one of his—around Wei Ying, who settles against him with a sigh.
They watch the stars. Wei Ying only knows a few constellations here, being most familiar with the night skies of Yunmeng, and Wangji has spent too many of his nights indoors after curfew to be anywhere near familiar with stargazing. But they will head out on more journeys together; they have the time to learn.
Wangji stays close, rubbing Wei Ying’s hands to keep him warm. Though they lapse into silence, Wei Ying is here with him. The moon is full and bright. The crickets swell in a symphony.
The night, as are the nights ahead of them, is still young.