“I wish...” she said, and stopped. There was nothing that could be gained by wishing for it. A final deep, shaky breath, and she was ready to go on.
—Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
The letter sits on his makeshift desk, lit by moonlight.
Wei Wuxian can’t take his eyes off it.
Are you well? I have been asked to pass along an invitation to an event marking Jin Rulan’s one month celebration…
The words spin in his head no matter how many times he’s read them. A baby boy, his nephew! What does he look like? Shijie, probably, if he’s lucky. Wei Wuxian certainly he hopes he got her looks and her brains, or else poor Jin Rulan is in trouble.
The thought makes him laugh from where he’s curled up on the bed, Suibian tucked against his stomach.
“Can you believe it? Me, an uncle!”
It’s not the first time he’s said it. He strokes his fingers carefully along Suibian’s back, smiling when she rolls over to look at him. It’s very late, late enough that the only sounds are the calls of the wind and the whispering voices in his head, but neither of them can sleep.
“Do I get to be an aunt, then?”
He laughs again. “Sure, I don’t see why not. She’s your sister too! Aunty A-Sui, now that has a nice ring to it.”
“I wonder what his daemon’s first form was.”
“Well, only the best one of course! Maybe he got lucky and it was a fox.”
She chitters, leaning into his hand. “I bet he’s so small. I hope I get to see them.”
“I’ll hide you in my robes if I need to,” he promises. He’s already thought through how to sneak her in if they put up a fuss; they’ve had the news for a few days, so he’s had plenty of time to plan. Long enough for the invitation to be rescinded, for it be real.
Long enough to worry.
The smile fades from his lips. Suibian whines.
“It could be a trap,” she whispers. It’s clear she doesn’t want to say it out loud, but it’s what they’ve both been wondering. Even if Lan Wangji wrote the letter, there’s no guarantee that other people aren’t pulling some strings. It’s the first thing Wen Qing had warned them about.
“Yeah, it could.”
Suibian wriggles closer. “We’re going to go anyways, right?”
“Definitely.” Nothing could keep him away, not when he thinks about how this might be his only chance to see his nephew. He’s already started working on the present.
They sit in silence for some time, thinking. They used to be able to do this: just sit and be so confident that they were thinking the same thoughts that it wasn’t even necessary to speak out loud. Just a quick check of their link, the smallest second of connection, and they would know.
Now, feeling how Suibian hasn’t fully relaxed in his arms, he murmurs, “Tell me what’s wrong.”
She sucks in a little breath. “It’s ok.”
“A-Sui. I promise I won’t laugh.”
She’s silent for a moment, picking her words. She never used to do that. “What if… something really bad happens?”
He blinks, looks at her. The moonlight is only on half of her body, leaving her face hidden in shadow.
She fidgets in his lap, clearly uncomfortable with the conversation. “Like… if they hurt you. Or—capture you?”
He sits up so he can see her better, the frown on his face deepening. Suibian has always been a little anxious, definitely more so than him, but it was never needless worrying. It’s gotten harder since the transfer to soothe her when the feelings come up, half of the things she says now tight with nerves, but the question still takes him off-guard.
“I won’t let them do that,” he promises. “And even if they did, then we’d be together and could figure out some way to escape.”
Suibian is quiet for too long after his answer. She’s not settling down; he can feel it in the tiny twitches of her muscles. It’s the kind of quiet that means she’s not really asking what she wants to, that there’s something else lingering in her head.
“You don’t need to worry,” he murmurs, rubbing her back. Sometime during the last minute she’s started digging her claws into his clothes, trying to get closer. “We can be extra careful. I can make more talismans, and I’ll practice on Chenqing—”
“Don’t do that,” she whines immediately. “Not that. I hate how it feels in here after you play that.”
It takes most of his self-control not to wince. He knows, on some level, that she can see that his thoughts are turning darker, tinting red, etched with resentment at the edges. The brief contact she had with it scared her more than he’d expected, but he’s managing it fine, and there’s no way he’s going to let it spiral out of control. He knows what he’s doing, even if it’s not the most comfortable feeling.
“I won’t let anyone hurt you, A-Sui.”
She twitches, and he knows he’s getting closer to whatever it is she’s holding so tight.
“You can tell me anything,” he adds, lost, wanting to help but not knowing how. “C’mon, what’s wrong? You think I’d let them hurt you? They’ll never—”
“But what if you did let them? What if you stopped caring?”
The words freeze the air.
He sucks in a harsh, surprised breath, his hands gripping her tighter without thinking.
Words, when he finds them, come out numb. “What on earth are you talking about?”
Suibian presses closer to him, like if she burrows against him hard enough she can settle back into his golden core, match their heartbeats once more, find the perfect link that has frayed ever since Wen Qing’s knife broke his skin.
Her voice is quiet, trembling. “We’ve already done so many bad things. They hate us. What if it’s a trap, and we have to fight, and that—thing I felt in you takes over? It’s so creepy, A-Xian. What if you play for too long and stop loving me and then you don’t care anymore?”
Pain blooms in him, sharp and cold.
It’s with shaking hands that he pulls her away from where she’s clinging. She yowls, starts to scratch, whimpers until she realizes he’s not pushing her away, only bringing her up to his face so they can look at each other eye-to-eye.
How could she ever even think—
“I love you,” he tells her fiercely, each word packed with as much as he can give. His heart is screaming in his ears. “I love you more than anything—and I will always feel that way, no matter what. Nothing in the entire world could ever make me lose my love for you.”
He’s never had to say it before. They’ve always just known.
She’s trembling, broken, hitching sobs starting to form in her throat. “But what if whatever thing you’re doing—”
“I named you Suibian for a reason,” he whispers, voice thick and throat feeling too tight, “and I will love you until the day I die, and as I’m dying, and every single moment after. That will never change, A-Sui. I know Chenqing isn’t what you’re used to, but it’s keeping us safe. And I’ll kill every single person who tries to take you from me, who even thinks about hurting you.”
She stares at him with watery eyes, curls her claws into his skin. It hurts but he welcomes it; better this pain than the other, better her here than wandering off, distant. He can feel her heartbeat pounding against his fingers, too fast.
“A-Xian,” she whispers, and her voice cracks, “you’re frightening me.”
Oh. Another part of his heart breaks.
“Shh, shh, it’s ok.” He pulls her to him, tucks her against his neck and squeezes her tight. She bites his fingers, licks his cheek, whines low and continuous in her throat as he strokes his fingers down the fur on her back. “I’m right here. I’ll keep you safe, I promise.”
Her next words are a whimper. “I’m so scared.”
Me too, Wei Wuxian wants to scream—but this, he knows, doesn’t need to be said out loud.
“Don’t worry,” he murmurs instead, and looks outside where the darkness lingers. “It’s going to be fine.”
He wishes he didn’t discover this with an army of Jin soldiers leveling arrows at them from the top of a cliff, but—
“I don’t you who you are,” he calls up to the Jin who fired the first shot, Suibian cowering behind his legs, “but if this is a welcoming party, I’ve had better! You don’t exactly fit the part—were you just rolling around in the dirt before you decided to greet us?”
The man on the cliff glares at him. “You!”
“What, am I wrong?” he asks, because he thinks his assessment is perfectly fine, thank you. This Jin looks a right mess, all his gold and white robes disheveled, the hems coated with dirt. He motions to the red splash of color on his cheekbone. “Who punched you? Not that I’m concerned, mind you; I’d just like to know who I should address the thank you package to.”
Next to him, Wen Ning lets out a shaky, terrified laugh.
“My name is Jin Zixun,” the man calls down to him, sneering now. When he draws in a breath, Wei Wuxian sees him wince. “And I’m here for justice!”
Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. He looks at the other Jins, and notices that unlike Jin Zixuan, all their robes and faces seem fine. Jin Zixun is the only one who had a rough time, it seems.
Interesting. Very interesting.
It’s quieter here than in the Burial Mounds, even with all the shuffling footsteps on stone, the occasional clatter of a rock from the Jin’s restless motion. It means he can hear the calls of the ravens circling overhead, Suyin whispering frantically in Wen Ning’s ear, Suibian’s tiny whimper as he steps forward.
He pays them no mind. He won’t risk one of those arrows missing and hitting Suibian instead.
“I really don’t care,” he replies, and twirls Chenqing in his fingers, grinning when all the Jins tense up. “It doesn’t matter who you are or why you’re here; I have a one month celebration I need to be at, so if you don’t mind…”
“You!!” Jin Zixun repeats, and grabs another arrow. “How dare you act like you don’t know why we’re here!”
Wei Wuxian crosses his arms. “Aiyo, I don’t know, ok? What, is your cousin’s farmland is running dry, and you think demonic cultivation is to blame? Or perhaps someone stole one of your most valued combs, and who else but the Yiling Patriarch?”
“A-Xian,” Suibian whimpers, but there’s anger burning in his belly, stretching across his muscles.
“Oh wait—I know!” he says, and grins. “Did your lover go missing? Have you thought that maybe she just ran away, so she wouldn’t have to look at you anymore?”
Jin Zixun’s face turns mutinous.
“Enough stalling! I’m warning you!” he shouts, and pulls back the bowstring. “This is your last chance! Show us where you’ve hidden Jin Zixuan, and maybe we’ll show you mercy!”
That gets Wei Wuxian to pay attention.
“Where I’ve—what?” he demands, right as the arrow flies loose and hits Wen Ning in the shoulder.
“Did you hear?” the Jin servant whispers to the other, hands covering red lips and gossiping tongues. Around them, the other servants bustle back and forth, trays sending wafts of aromatic jasmine and rich congee through the air as they tend to the guests in the next room.
“Oh, have you missed the news? Why, poor Young Master Jin Zixuan was kidnapped just last night!”
A gasp, the clatter of a tray. “What?! How??”
“Jin-zongzhu announced it when I was pouring tea for the Nie sect not even an hour ago! I thought the clans were going to revolt right there in the room. Taken from his very home… that Yiling Patriarch, does he have no shame?”
“No way! The Yiling Patriarch, here?!” the other servant asks, breathless, and glances over her shoulder with anxious eyes. “Did they see him take the young master away?!”
“With all those crafty tricks up his sleeve?” The first servant scoffs and crosses her arms. “No, he’s too clever for that! He broke in during the dead of night and whisked him away. But a few of Jin-zongzhu’s favorites swear they saw him do it, and who else would do something so horrendous?”
“Mmhmm.” Another careful look around, an even lower voice. “Young Madam Jin’s handmaiden told me that she’s so devastated even her daemon refuses to eat! And little Jin Rulan is crying, day and night, no matter how the nursemaid tries to soothe him.”
The second servant frowns. “What else would you expect? Who knows what that monster did with the Young Master Jin Zixuan once he took him… We may never see him again, and least not alive.”
A somber silence, before a third servant pokes their head into the conversation.
“Everyone already knows what you two are saying! Want some real news?”
“Oh please, please!”
The third servant lowers their tray to their side, glancing around. “Have you noticed Jin Zixun is missing as well?”
“I thought Jin-zongzhu said he was busy planning the next steps?”
“I know what he said, but listen to this! You didn’t hear this from me, but one of Jin Zixun’s friends told me that Jin Zixun isn’t even in the tower! He was sent after that evil patriarch when he escaped, to try and bring Jin Zixuan back. But he hasn’t returned yet! Do you think maybe…?”
“Aiyo, now that’s really too much,” says the first servant, shaking her head. “I’ll believe many things you say, A-Bo, but there’s a hole in your story: there’s no way Jin Zixun has friends!”
The three of them giggle behind their hands for a moment, before a harsh voice cuts into their bubble of space.
“You three!” They all start, wide-eyed, and clutch their trays to their chests as Jiang-zongzhu rounds the hallway corner and finds them standing there. The thunderous look on his face has their mouths snapping closed so quickly their teeth clack. “Stop chittering in the hallway like petty birds!”
The servants bow low and bustle away, fleeing to the safety of their tasks.
Their words, however, echo in the empty darkness behind them.
“He wouldn’t, A-Cheng, he wouldn’t!”
“A-jie, please, you need to stay resting… this isn’t good for your health—”
“Not you too Sandu! Don’t tell me you believe that A-Xian, that he—that he’d take—”
The sound of renewed sobs, a harsh breath in. Quietly, the servant places the food tray she was supposed to deliver outside the door and scuttles away.
“This is bad,” Suibian whimpers, staring at Jin Zixun’s unmoving body splayed across the dirt. The air around him is slightly hazy from the leftover dust that burst into the air when his daemon dissolved, screaming and cursing, into nothingness. “A-Xian, this is bad—this is—”
Wei Wuxian turns to face her, heart beating in his throat. Just a few mi away, Wen Ning’s stands with black-orbed eyes, sword still drawn. He can see Suyin’s tiny body shivering in his pocket, her own little earthquake.
The Jins who managed to escape their wrath have long since fled. Now it’s just the four of them, a dead body, and Jin Rulan’s destroyed gift, the beads scatted across the red-stained ground.
Their path just got a lot more narrow.
“Let’s—” he starts, and has to swallow, force back the stinging at the corner of his eyes. He doesn’t have time to be sad, or confused, or heartbroken. Someone is trying to stir trouble. They need to get out of here, reinforce their wards, prepare for a retaliation.
And after, find a way to make the Jins pay.
“Alright,” he says, as rage builds in him, tinting the world dark. The voices start to whisper louder, snakes rattling their tails in a dizzying chorus. “Leave him here for the birds to eat. Let’s go home.”
(And then: a needle to the neck.
“Thank you,” Wen Qing tells them, as he and Suibian lay paralyzed in the Demon Subdue Palace, straining to do anything, to move, to speak, to stop them.
“And sorry,” Zhiruo adds, and that’s the last he hears before their already blurry forms fade into darkness.)
Standing at the gates of the Lanling Jin Sect, Wen Qing knows: the clock has run out.
Jin Zixuan is missing. Jin Zixun is dead. It does not matter that Wei Wuxian is only responsible for the latter, and not the former; what matters is that, finally, she can repay the favor.
She turns to her brother.
“Are you ready?”
He looks at her, wide-eyed. Shaking. “Yes.”
She is proud, so terribly proud of him. Over the pounding of the blood in her ears, she thinks that she has never been so sad and so grateful at all once to be his sister.
The terror coursing through both of them is not new; and it does not make her any less proud. Fear, after all, has been a constant presence by Wen Qing’s side for most of her life, perhaps her oldest companion outside of Zhiruo. There are times, too many to count, that it has crept up on her in the dark and tried to cage her.
She has never let it, in the end.
Because she has learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but action in spite of it. It is going on, step after step, even when everything seems hopeless. Of looking for a road when there’s nothing but empty earth for miles; of raising one’s head and daring to look up at what towers above you.
It takes courage to leave one’s home, to start over. To hope, when all seems lost, that those you love can be returned to you.
(Wen Qing is not alone in this knowledge. Years ago, miles away, a mother once wrapped her weapon around her children and sent them sailing away. She dared to hope for a future, even as the clouds of destruction closed in around her. A different place, a different time: a young woman stands and tells a room of golden-clad cultivators that their judgements can no longer hold her. She walks out, head held high, exchanges the comfort of her Sect for the freedom of an untainted conscience.
Soon, a sister will throw herself in the way of harm and dare to love someone who the world thinks is unlovable. She will choose compassion when the only thing around her is hate.
They will be scared.
They will do it regardless.)
Gently, Wen Qing smooths her brother’s bangs back from his face. Smiles. He has grown to be so kind, compassionate, gentle—everything that she had hoped, holding him in her arms as a baby. She will not let his last memory be of her cowering.
“I love you,” she tells Wen Ning, and kisses him on the forehead. Zhiruo and Suyin curl around each other, two bundles of warmth between their linked hands. “Thank you. And I’m sorry.”
Together, they step forward.
What am I to you? Lan Wangji had asked him, standing there on the slope of Phoenix Mountain, hair dappled with sunlight. Bichen’s whiskers twitching from her place at his side, both refusing to look away, gold and blue tucked among the green.
The forest, quiet. The hunt, forgotten.
My zhiji, Wei Wuxian had replied, the words ripped out of his heart, Suibian warm against his skin. Hoping, scared, trying not to show either. Missing them so badly, even when they were right in front of him, close enough to touch.
The one person who can truly understand us. The one who speaks to our hearts.
He’d meant it, felt it so strongly that it cut through the dark haze in his mind, bright and pure and overwhelming. The thrill in his throat at Lan Zhan’s reply had kept him dizzy for days.
Wei Ying. I still am.
And now it doesn’t even matter.
None of it.
“Wei Ying,” a voice is saying, over and over, but Wei Wuxian just holds tighter to Suibian where she’s digging her claws into his clothes. “Wei Ying, please.”
His body feels cold down to his bones, clothes sticky with patches of congealing blood. There is something hot and wet beneath him, a sharp pain poking into his back. It’s so dark, no matter how much he turns his head or strains his eyes—so dark, and loud, even though some part of him knows that there’s nothing around them but an empty cave and his own mistakes.
Wen Qing, he thinks, and a sob collects in his throat, building. Wen Ning.
The sob breaks out of him and he thrashes against the hands trying to keep him still.
“Wei Ying! Be still. You are…”
The rest of the words fade, even as the firm touch on his cheeks doesn’t. Something is pressed against his lips, and he swallows down a gulp of liquid before coughing it back onto the ground. A soft cloth wipes against his mouth and something in him thinks oh, I know that, even if he doesn’t fully understand how.
“Lan Zhan,” he breathes, the moment feeling too familiar, like a memory reaching him through the haze of endless years. A spot of white through all the darkness.
“I am here.”
No, he realizes, as it all comes back, as more tears form. No. You shouldn’t be.
He was wrong. He was so wrong, and Lan Zhan tried to warn him. Suibian tried. And now everyone is—
“Lan Zhan,” he repeats, and tries to touch his face. His bloody fingers scramble against white cloth, then a wrist. Lan Wangji’s eyes, when they swim into focus, are wider and more panicked than he’s ever seen them.
“It’s my—it’s my fault—she’s, she’s—”
It’s burned into his brain, behind his eyelids, in every shadowed crevice: Shijie’s and Xiaolian’s shocked faces as the sword went through her, resentment swirling around them all, Jiang Cheng and Sandu rushing to their sides.
He killed her, he killed them, he—
He doesn’t realize he’s talking until Lan Wangji makes a shushing noise, pressing two fingers to his lips. “Wei Ying, stay still. I will transfer spiritual energy—”
“No!” he cries immediately, jolting back so hard that his head hits the cave wall and leaves his ears ringing. In his arms, Suibian lets out a shriek that’s sounds like a wild animal being tortured. “Don’t, don’t!”
They can’t find out, they can’t.
“A-Xian,” Suibian breathes, trembling, and he tries to soothe her through the haze of pain and fear clogging his mind. The voices are getting so loud. They scream and rattle against his ribs when he breathes in. “A-Xian, don’t leave me alone, please, please—”
He holds her closer, flinching when Lan Wangji moves toward them once more.
“Wei Ying, I will not hurt you.”
It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, if Lan Wangji hurts him. Everyone that Wei Wuxian has ever loved is either dead or hates him. After all that, after all his mistakes, what’s the point?
It’s wrong, everything is wrong.
“Is he going to be alright?” he hears Suibian ask—and like a flame coming to life in a bright room he’s a teenager all over again, in another cave, another time, with Lan Wangji’s hands cupping his cheeks. Feverish and young, Suibian’s warmth ten feet away, so strange but for once not unwelcome, because he’d known—
Known she would be alright.
They had kept Suibian safe, back then. And now…
“Lan Zhan,” he sobs, when the back of a hand presses against his forehead, skin meeting trembling skin, “you have to promise me. You have to.”
“Listen, listen to me.” Wei Wuxian needs Lan Wangji to understand, more than he’s ever needed anything. Him understanding is the salve to a bloody thought that has been rattling around in his brain since the moment he realized the inevitable end.
It’s unceasing, unrelenting.
I don’t know what will happen to A-Sui if I die.
It cuts through everything—the pain, the confusion, the fever. Their link is long gone; there’s no reason for him to believe that if he dies, she goes with him. So if he dies here, what happens to her? With her own energy, but no him, can she even pass on?
If they kill him will she linger, alone? Left on her own, forever? For eternity?
Will they—hurt her? Retaliation, an easy target for all the things he’s done?
“Promise me you’ll keep her safe. You have to, I—she’s going to need you,” he tells Lan Wangji, frantic. Lan Wangji, who stepped aside in the rain. Lan Wangji, who bought his turnips. Lan Wangji, who sent them what they needed. “Lan Zhan, please, promise me! If I die, you have to—you have to— take her, and make sure that she’s linked, and protected, please—”
“I do not understand,” Lan Wangji murmurs, even as Wei Wuxian watches him try. He grabs to onto the front of Lan Wangji’s robes, curls his fingers into the fabric. He wants to shake him, to force him to get it. “Wei Ying, I—”
“She needs you!”
A hand covers his own, gently untangles it from the fabric. In some distant part of his brain, he notices it’s shaking, a leaf buffeted by unsteady wind.
“Save your strength. Let me—”
“You have to take her,” he chokes out, and tries to hand over Suibian to him.
The effect is instantaneous. Lan Wangji recoils back like Wei Wuxian threw a physical blow, nearly falling onto the stone in his haste to jerk away. Mouth hanging open, he stares, pale and confused, although Wei Wuxian can’t understand why.
Suibian lets out a scream that’s so loud that all of them flinch in pain.
“No!” she shrieks, flailing, high-pitched kek-kek-keks as she fights him tooth and nail to stay put. She digs her teeth into his arm at his next attempt to dislodge her, sinks them in deep. He doesn’t even feel it. “No! A-Xian!”
“Please,” he begs her, tearing his eyes away from Lan Wangji’s outline in the dark. “It’s ok. A-Sui, it’s ok. They’ll keep you safe, like before.”
“I’m never leaving you, you promised, you promised,” she wails, and lets out a threating yowl when Bichen slinks forward. Her fur puffs under his fingers. “Don’t you dare! I’m his, you can’t take me from him!”
“Suibian,” Lan Wangji says, as Wei Wuxian’s head lolls backwards to hit the stone again. There’s a quiver there that is nothing like Lan Wangji, immovable as a mountain. “We are not taking you.”
“Don’t touch me.”
“Unthinkable. I will not. I just need to see his injuries.”
“No! Get away! Leave us alone!”
“Suibian,” Bichen’s voice, shaking in a way Wei Wuxian has never heard, “move off his chest. Just a few seconds. Just—come here, and then you can go back. I promise, I swear.”
There’s a shuffle of movement, then a pained snarl. Wei Wuxian’s eyes jerk open to see a steadily growing line of red dripping down Bichen’s muzzle. Horrified, he looks at Suibian, whose teeth are bared and covered in blood.
Lan Wangji and Bichen are staring, frozen.
“A-Sui,” he gasps, and she flattens herself against him with a whine. “No, don’t hurt them.”
Her eyes, when she looks at him, are fierce. Instead of apologizing, she presses her face into his neck and clings.
“Never,” she sobs, voice muffled. “Never.”
She’s clearly done talking to any of them. Wei Wuxian would go back to begging, but there’s no more energy left in him. His limbs feel heavy, his tongue swollen and useless. With every drop of blood sliding down his skin, the world is getting darker.
Distantly he thinks he hears footsteps, sees the shadow of Lan Wangji tense and shift in front of him. Someone is talking, maybe, someone new. He doesn’t know—the world is spinning. Voices are whispering in his ears, so loud that Suibian’s cries seem like nothing in comparison.
“Wei Ying,” he hears through it all, “please. Come back to Gusu with me.”
Anger turns his vision red, bringing reality back blade-sharp for a few precious seconds.
How dare you? he thinks. The same question, every time. Here he is, begging for his daemon’s life—and Lan Wangji is still thinking about black and white, right and wrong, punishment.
He holds Suibian tighter.
“Please,” he thinks he hears in reply. “Wei Ying. I—love you. Please.”
But that last part can’t be right at all.
His anger intensifies, coalesces with the confusion and the pain and the sorrow, and he suddenly hates, hates more than anything, those terrible voices in his head that make him hear things that aren’t real no matter how badly he wants them to be.
“Get lost!” he screams, the sound echoing in his head and off the cave walls.
And as the footsteps draw closer, the blur of white in front of him standing with the scrape of a sword from its scabbard as shouts echo off the walls, he finally sinks into familiar, flute-touched darkness.
He stays there for thirteen years.