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like speaking to my heart

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And then Serafina understood something for which witches had no word: it was the idea of pilgrimage. She understood why these beings would wait for thousands of years and travel vast distances in order to be close to something important, and how they would feel differently for the rest of time, having been briefly in its presence.
― Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife


 

When Wei Ying dies, Lan Wangji does not cry.

In fact, Lan Wangji does nothing at all. Because when Wei Ying dies, when the man who he loves so much that it aches is torn to shreds by demonic backlash, he is asleep. Feverish, tucked into a bed at the Cloud Recesses, deep in fitful dreams. Unknowing.

Ignorant.

He will never forgive himself for it.

 

 

It is the shape of a shadow over his bed that wakes him. Not screams, or sobs, or, as he will think later, the fitting sound of the entire world crashing to a halt.

Just a shadow, and the gentle touch of his brother’s hand.

“Didi.”

There is very little concept of time for him anymore. He knows that days have passed since the cave but he does not bother to count them and is not sure he could. They are marked only by the healers changing his bandages and the soup he is forced to eat each morning and evening.

There are no bandages in his brother’s hands. No soup. Not even candles. Just the otherworldly light of the moon filtering in through the Jingshi’s paper windows.

“Didi,” his brother repeats, and it is in a tone Lan Wangji has not heard in a long time.

He does not reply. He is not sure, still, if he is dreaming.

“I need to tell you something.”

Even the slight shift of the bed from Xiongzhang sitting next to him has the wounds on his back screaming. Bichen lets out a hiss that he will not, and Xiongzhang’s face twists.

“I’m sorry,” he murmurs, and moves sweat-slick hair from Lan Wangji’s face. “However, you have a right to know.”

The news, when his brother tells him, is incomprehensible.

Years later, he will remember the exact weight of each syllable, the specific tone in which his brother said it. Every pause, every breath, the way his voice tightened right before the last word. He will recall it with perfect clarity, have it repeated endlessly in his head when the rest of the world is silent. He will be tortured by it.

In the moment, it all becomes static in his ears.

Impossible, he thinks. He cannot have heard correctly.

He looks to Bichen. She is stricken, standing at the side of the bed with the moonlight dappling her fur. For a few precious moments, he is aware of nothing but the burning in his back.

Then a long, drawn-out yowl rips itself from her chest.

That, among all else, is what makes it real.

Wei Wuxian is dead.

No.

It is—unfathomable. What is the world, without Wei Ying? If he is dead, then how has time itself not halted? How can the seconds continue tick by, the breath continue to flow into his lungs? How can his brother be here, cradling his face? How—

“How?” he asks, and it comes out in a rasp. He has not spoken since the first whip tore across his back.

It is twenty questions in one. His brother does not answer.

There is no answer, after all, that could satisfy him.

“I will let you sleep,” Xiongzhang says, still stroking his hair. But he does not leave, even as Lan Wangji’s world tilts dangerously on its axis. He does not leave, even when, a minute later, Lan Wangji empties his stomach over the side of the bed with a jolt and a scream, the static so loud that he can’t hear his own pained gasps. He stays, holding Lan Wangji’s hair back from his face, silent.

Somewhere behind him, outside of Lan Wangji’s sight and capacity to care, Shuoyue says something.

Wei Ying, he thinks, and feels the soft fur of Bichen’s head under his palm. She is the only thing that cuts through the noise. Wei Ying. Wei Ying.

Promise me you’ll keep her safe.

Suddenly, the pain is distant. The ache of his back is nothing. His body, when he staggers up from the bed, is separate from him.

Xiongzhang’s cry of surprise is so muted in his ears that Lan Wangji does not remember it until later. There is nothing in him that demands he consider it. It does not matter, not with the memory of Wei Ying’s voice and Bichen’s steady weight under his hand.

Shuoyue jerks forward to halt them; it is useless. He grabs his sword and they fly.

__

He goes to the Burial Mounds with a singular purpose: to find a man and, if he cannot find a man, a fox.

He comes back with a fever-ridden child and blood running down his back.

“A-Zhan!”

His brother’s voice is followed by a snarl so fierce that it shakes the bed and makes A-Yuan and Lan Wangji groan in pain. The edges of his vision are dark, but Bichen’s speckled coat stands out in the dimness of the room.

It is an unfamiliar sight. On one end of the room, at a standstill: his brother, Shuoyue. On the other, soaking the bedsheets with blood and fever: himself, A-Yuan, and a tiny daemon hidden in his dirty robes.

And between them: Bichen, spine raised, growling.

“You will not take him from us.”

Lan Wangji does not know how she is standing. The pain is immense, each breath sending agony ripping from his hips to his skull. He knows that she can feel it just as deeply in her own body, the pull and bite of ruined muscle.

Yet she guards them, fierce.

“Lan Bichen, step aside—”

“You will not separate them.”

She has never raised her voice to them in her life, much less hissed. She does both now.

In his arms, A-Yuan whimpers. His eyes, fever-glazed, have not once left Lan Wangji’s face. Jerkily, Lan Wangji reaches out and pushes his hair back, letting his sleeve wipe away snot and tears as he goes. A-Yuan, obedient and weak, allows him to.

“Rich-gege?” he whispers, hitching little sobs making the words waver. If Lan Wangji did not already feel as if his heart had been ripped from his chest, the fat tears streaming down his cheeks would finish the task.

“I am here.”

A-Yuan’s lip trembles, small sobs turning into larger ones, unforgiving of how desperately Lan Wangji does not want them. He does not know how to comfort a child when so much has been taken from them. He does not feel, lying there with sweat and blood sticky on his skin, that there is even much of a point in doing so.

Wei Ying is dead.

Still, when A-Yuan leans into his touch, Lan Wangji holds him. Counts his heartbeats. Ignores how every wound flares with each ragged breath they share.

“We will keep them together,” he hears his brother say, sounding very far away indeed, and finally lets his eyes slide closed.


 “You cannot be serious.”

Lan Wangji does not respond from where he is lying on the bed.

“Shufu,” Xiongzhang says, muted and cautious, but shufu does not listen.

“You bring back a child and refuse to tell us his origins, and now you demand the right to stay with him while in seclusion?” Shufu's face is blotchy red, nearly purple with rage. “Wangji, you have crossed too many lines already. I will not allow it!”

Lan Wangji does not care what his shufu will or will not allow. He gazes, unfocused, at the open door of the Jingshi. Outside, A-Yuan is sitting in the grass below the wooden steps, watched over by Shuoyue. He makes very little noise, even when playing, and because of that they do not have him play alone. Early morning sunlight drapes itself over their bodies like a soft blanket, casting gentle shadows onto the ground below them.

“If you will not allow it,” says Bichen from the position she has taken in front of the bed, “then we will leave.”

Shufu sucks in a harsh breath. His brother, Lan Wangji notes with the same numbness to anything but the grief that has gripped him since that terrible night, does not look surprised at all.

“How dare you—” Shufu splutters, as Yizheng fluffs herself as large as she can on his shoulder. Bichen fluffs her tail right back. Something in Lan Wangji’s core goes sharp and protective. “I did not raise you to be like this!”

Lan Wangji thinks of closed-off rooms, of windows with bars, of shuttered doors that never opened again. Of crying into his pillow and running to his brother’s bed, certain he would be punished in the morning. Of control, and order, and silent dinners.

You did not raise us to be ourselves, he thinks. Perhaps it is an unfair thought. He does not care.

They killed Wei Ying. Fairness no longer holds ground.

“Shufu,” Xiongzhang tries again, when Bichen doesn’t deign to respond, “please. There is no harm in keeping him here, is there?”

“No harm? No harm?! Look at him, Xichen, have you also lost your mind—”

“You say you did not raise us to be this way,” Bichen interrupts, breaking several Lan precepts and turning shufu’s face a darker shade of red, “and perhaps not. But we raise A-Yuan this way, or you do not see us again.”

Shufu's mouth closes with a snap.

There are no words to describe the love Lan Wangji feels for her in that moment.

It is, he believes, the only thing outside of all-encompassing anguish that he still has the ability to feel. Ever since they were young, she has been the bolder of them, the more likely to act. She has been steady and unmoving since shufu and xiongzhang walked in the door.

The shared conviction thrums through their bond as she speaks the words he cannot: A-Yuan is all they have left.

He stays, or they go. 

Shufu has gone quiet, jaw clenched. Outside, A-Yuan picks up something from the ground and shows it to Shuoyue. There’s a hesitant look on his face; Lan Wangji has noticed his eyes trailing to the open Jingshi every few minutes. Even after the few weeks he has been safely looked after here, he is a skittish, uncertain child.

Lan Wangji is trying. It is, he knows, inadequate.

Shuoyue tucks his head, allowing A-Yuan’s tiny fingers to carefully place a plum blossom onto his antlers, a flash of pink and white among brown. Their skin does not brush; A-Yuan, despite being so young, was well-taught by the Wens. He is very careful about not touching other daemons.

Or, perhaps, he is too afraid to touch theirs.

Not that it would matter if he did. He is so young that even if he were to touch, it would be excusable, nothing more than a shiver down his spine.

Lan Wangji draws in a ragged breath. So young, and his entire family is dead.

“He will be taught the principles,” Shufu spits out, and Lan Wangji slides his gaze back to him. Shufu is not looking at him, eyes fixed somewhere on the wall above his head. “And when he is of the appropriate age to begin cultivation, he will join the other children.”

He feels Bichen’s surprise through their bond, a quick flash in the dark. That is better than expected. More than they would have dared ask for.

Bichen looks to Lan Wangji, then nods once. “We understand, shufu.”

Shufu’s eyes move back to them, tighten. It looks as if he wants to say more, but the longer he stands, mouth half-open, the more distant his gaze becomes.

“Good,” he seems to settle with, and walks out.

A-Yuan scrambles to move out of his path as he makes his way down the Jingshi steps, earning a scowl and a barked, “Stand proper!” that Lan Wangji can hear clearly even through the steadily increasing exhaustion that is turning the world muted.

Bichen growls, low and dangerous, and makes her way to the door.

“A-Yuan. Come inside.”

He perks up at her voice, darting up the steps and to Lan Wangji’s bedside with a speed that would infuriate shufu were he not already halfway down the path. Lan Wangji reaches out, trembling from the simple motion, and lays a hand on his head.

“Look,” A-Yuan tells him, a shy smile on his face, and holds out another plum blossom for him. In his sleeve rests his daemon, nearly blending into the white cloth. “It’s so pretty.”

“Mn,” he murmurs, and stays still when A-Yuan places the plum blossom in his hair, tucked behind his ear. He touches Lan Wangji as if he is a daemon, too.

“Shuoyue let me put one on his antlers.”

“Lan Shuoyue,” Xiongzhang corrects, but it’s much gentler than shufu’s voice has ever been. A-Yuan nonetheless gets nervous, fingers curling into Lan Wangji’s sleeve as he casts a glance at his brother. Xiongzhang’s expression turns contrite. “Oh, it’s alright. You needn’t be frightened. You’re safe.”

When A-Yuan turns his gaze back to Lan Wangji, he’s biting his lip. “No?”

“Lan Shuoyue is proper,” Lan Wangji agrees, and watches helplessly as A-Yuan starts to tear up. This happens often and he cannot read the ebb and flow of it. Caregiving is a language that he was never taught.

“I…” A-Yuan starts, and at Lan Wangji’s silence, the cries begin in earnest. “I’m sorry. I…”

Back burning, Lan Wangji makes a careful, slow movement with his shoulder, opening up space for a child to lay. This, at least, he has learned how to do. It takes no time for A-Yuan to climb into the bed with him, pressing a now tear-streaked face against his neck.

Xiongzhang and Shuoyue hover by the bedside, frowning. “I’m sorry, didi. I didn’t mean to upset him.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t reply. A-Yuan is mumbling something that he cannot hear into his robes, fat tears soaking into the white cloth. Even if could make out the words, Lan Wangji does not think he would know what to say. As unnatural as it feels to comfort A-Yuan with his touch, it is nothing compared to the idea of doing so with words.

Bichen’s head joins the bed, a gentle rumble coming from her chest.

“It is ok to make mistakes,” she tells A-Yuan, better than Lan Wangji ever could be. “You are learning.”

A-Yuan’s fingers curl into Lan Wangji’s robes and tangle there. “You’re mad?”

“Not mad,” Lan Wangji murmurs. He has no capacity for anger. Each day is so consumed by the absence of Wei Ying that even breathing feels like too much of a duty, a superfluous act.

“You are safe,” he adds, echoing his brother’s words. They feel hollow in his mouth.

In his arms, A-Yuan continues to cry.

Lan Wangji allows himself a single moment to be viciously, achingly present in his pain. This is not what he wanted. Not what either of them wanted. He is not prepared to care for a child, and he is doing poorly at it. He thinks of A-Yuan’s terror at being alone, so much so that he sleeps in Lan Wangji’s bed every night. Of how he won’t ask for food when he’s hungry, or make too much noise while playing, or complain when he’s not feeling well. Of the constant, rabbit-like fear so deeply woven into his heart that his daemon will not leave his sleeve.

It is not what the Wens would have wanted.

It is not, he thinks, with such a hot pang of yearning and regret that the world spins, what Wei Ying would have wanted.

If only he were—

Shame follows. How weak he is, thinking such things. It does not matter how much they may have wanted A-Yuan to be happy: they are gone. Murdered. They cannot fix this. To wish for ghosts to solve the problem created by the living is foolish and selfish, out of place in a world that has already shown A-Yuan nothing but cruelty. 

It does not matter that he did not want this duty. It is his.

So Lan Wangji takes a deep, painful breath. He conjures, with great effort, the words that he wished to hear more than anything when he was three years old and sitting on his mother’s lap, begging for a few more minutes of her warmth.

Halting, he tells A-Yuan this: “Even if someone is mad, it is alright.” And then, firm: “You will stay.”

The sniffles pause. A-Yuan looks up at him with puffy eyes and a red nose.

He says, in the blindly trusting way only a child can, “Promise?”

In A-Yuan’s sleeve, his daemon flutters. Lan Wangji does not notice over the sudden swimming of his eyes. He is lost in a cave, his fingers holding dark robes stained with blood, eyes full of flashes of red and white.

Promise me you’ll keep her safe.

“I promise,” he whispers, and thinks: this is one I will not break.


Lan Wangji had believed, after his mother died, that he had some comprehension of mourning.

For years, merely passing by the empty house that she had been held in would cause the very depths of his heart to tremor. Gentians would turn his stomach, too reminiscent of the scent of her perfume and the flowers etched into her comb to feel anything but but forbidden. The call of a hawk would cause his heart to skip, even as he refused to turn his eyes to the sky and search for her daemon.

He did not have the words to describe what existed under the simple, ever-present ache of missing her. Even if he had, there was no one to speak them to.

It took him time to understand the depths of the pain.

When he did, it hurt. It hurt more than the slash of a blade across his knuckles, or the feeling of wood underneath his knees, of the blows from a discipline whip. So he separated himself from worldly feelings, desires, needs. Became numb. Thought: never again.

And then, unasked for: Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan!

All those years of self-protection: gone. All that time watching, preparing, guarding against the pain: wasted. Two words and his heart was ripped open and brought back down to earth.

Wei Ying woke him up.

Wei Ying died.

The grief is unimaginable and indescribable. It consumes his every moment, every footstep, every breath. Wei Ying made him feel, vivid-bright and potent, after so many years of muted blues and whites. The sudden absence of him, his light so violently snuffed out, is so deeply wrong that the world no longer makes sense.

It is an incomprehensible puzzle, the shattered pieces of his life without Wei Ying. Nothing seems to make the sharp, bloody edges of it fit back into place.

There is something new, though. Something not so terrible.

“She is beautiful, A-Yuan.”

A-Yuan beams up at him. Over the past year Lan Wangji has watched him blossom into a bright, curious child, even as his heart cannot understand how time is moving forward. His ribbon lays perfectly straight against his forehead, evening light highlighting the faint impression of clouds sewn delicately onto the cloth.

Sitting there in the Jingshi, crickets singing softly outside, he looks just as much a Lan as the Gusu-born children.

Resting on his palm is his daemon, who slowly raises and lowers her wings into the air.

They say that daemons hold onto parts of you that you forget; looking at her, he wonders. Gone is the black-and-red coloring that Lan Wangji and Bichen had found her with, chased away by nearly translucent green and whites. She looks so delicate that Lan Wangji fights the urge to cover her back up, place her back in the safety of A-Yuan’s sleeves.

She has been a Luna Moth ever since that feverish night. He does not think she will change again.

This is the first time she has ventured out from his sleeve in front of them. A-Yuan’s trust was slow and painful to build; hers seemed impossible to even glimpse, just like her otherworldly form.

They still have not heard her speak. He is unwilling to ask if she does.

“What will you name her?”

A-Yuan looks at Bichen, brows turning thoughtful. He turns to Lan Wangji, who shakes his head slightly.

“It is your choice.”

He has been firm on that. Rarely does he speak to his brother and shufu, a combination of expected isolation and betrayal so deep (you killed him, you killed him, how could you, you knew how I—) that he is not sure if he will ever be able to the same way again.

But on this point he has been abundantly clear: A-Yuan will name his own daemon when he is ready. Not a moment before. No outside opinions. 

“Hmm,” A-Yuan says, and looks back down at his daemon. “I think…”

He trails off. Lan Wangji thinks of a piece of paper tucked away under the Jingshi floorboards: two characters, messily inked onto parchment in a haze of misery and fever.

He knows the weight of a name. The one he has chosen for A-Yuan burns with each breath he takes.

“Take your time,” he advises, and A-Yuan nods. The smile reappears on his face, sunshine-bright.

“Can we take her to see the rabbits?” he asks, and it is Bichen’s turn to look at Lan Wangji.

He has been told, multiple times, that he should not move unnecessarily. He is, as the healers remind him, still terribly injured. The last time he tried to go with A-Yuan on a walk nearly all the wounds on his back had reopened. After, surrounded by bloody bandages, Xiongzhang had expressed that perhaps he should not do that again. It had not sounded like a suggestion.

Lan Wangji sits up on the bed. Stands. Takes A-Yuan’s hand.

They see the rabbits.

__      

That night, he dreams.

Losing Wei Ying has turned most of his dreams into muddy, broken things. Swirling colors, dark and red; shadows pressing in on him, a whirlwind of clogging resentment; the cold lines of a cave, with no grey eyes amid the darkness.

On the worst days, they show him his own memories, crystal clear and unforgiving.

He has woken up screaming on several occasions, broken his stitches and left his sheets soaked with blood on others. Sleep is not a reprieve, and he is grateful for that. He does, after all, not deserve one.

This dream is different.

He opens his eyes to a clear blue sky.

There is something soft pressing against his back; wildgrass, he realizes, as he slowly sits up and is faced with an endless stretch of vibrant green. It extends farther than his eyes can see, curving over gently sloping hills that fill the horizon with a picturesque beauty. Flowers bloom in every nook and cranny, chrysanthemums and gentians and peonies joining the grass like drops of ink and bringing sparks of bright color spinning in his eyes. Above him, gently shading him from the sunlight streaming down to soak the land in warmth and life, is a towering tree full of delicate apple blossoms.

It is so beautiful that for a moment, he can do nothing but stare.

Slowly, he gets up. There is no pain in his back; when he reaches behind himself to check, his shoulders do not protest, and there are not open wounds but merely faded scars that greet his fingertips. Bichen, when he turns to look for her, is nowhere to be found.

Something is calling him south.

He makes his way through the grass, the tips brushing his waist as he goes, longer than anything he could ever attempt to grow in Gusu. Birds and mice flush from his footsteps, only to clamber atop the grass and watch him pass. Soon there are no less than a dozen eyes on him; he has never seen animals look so curious, nor so bold, yet their attention feels like a gentle brush of fingers, not an unwelcome weight on his shoulders.

A flash of movement catches his eye. One of the birds has flitted close to land not even a mi from him. He pauses, watching as it preens and lifts up its wings to reveal a multicolor plumage, red and purple and gold layered together like the walls of a rocky canyon. 

When it notices him looking, it tilts its head. Chirps once and then, taking him by surprise, flutters over to land on his shoulder.

He stares at it, holding his breath. The bird chirps one more before butting its head against his cheek, an insistent motion, as if trying to turn his head.

Lan Wangi blinks, and lets his gaze be moved. When it falls back to the South, he sucks in a breath.

A path has appeared before him.

It stretches between two trees with dark green leaves, towering well above the others, so far that he has to strain his neck to see the tips of them. Rich, fertile soil has made itself home under his feet, the grasses cleared out of his way; he digs his toes into it, finds it sun-soaked, pleasantly warm.

When he turns to look at the bird on his shoulder, it is gone.

It feels, oddly, like an invitation.

He follows the path.

It takes him through a forest, as expansive and all-encompassing as the clearing before it. The path weaves and winds through all manner of trees, dark green and pale green and impossibly bright green woven among each other like a tapestry, silk converging in perfect harmony. When he breathes in, he can smell wet leaves, fresh sap, moss on bark—signs of land that is old and healthy, a forest that has rooted itself well.

A trickling stream joins the path, the shallow water twisting next to him as he makes his way along. It is strangely inviting: clear and cold, when he dips a finger into it, then refreshing as he cups his palms together and brings some to his mouth to drink.

This is a good place, he thinks, the thought bubbling up in his chest and grounding itself there. A nice place.

Wei Ying would have liked it.

It is at the very moment, crouched next to the trickling water and smooth stones, that he sees it.

A lotus flower.

Had he kept his eye on the path, he might have missed it; it is small thing, delicate, its white and pink petals touched with dew as it drifts lazily away from him, buoyed by the gentle water. Yet now that he has spotted it, it might as well be as vibrant and bright as the sun itself, for how quickly it blinds him to everything else.

It is without conscious thought that he makes his way towards it, his bare feet shocked with the cold from the water. Not unpleasantly so; the press of it against his skin feels like waking up, not freezing.

As he approaches, it moves faster, like it somehow knows he is chasing it. He picks up his pace, heart thundering in his chest, determined not to lose sight of it. It, in turn, rushes on ahead. Soon he is running, water soaking the hem of his robes, the sounds of birds and forest life drowned out by his frantic pursuit.

The stream curves, the flower following its path—and for a moment, he loses sight of it.

“No!” he shouts, louder than he has ever shouted in his life, lungs burning with the strength of it. And, with a burst of speed, he flings himself forward and rounds the corner.

There is a lake.

Gone is the forest, the stream, the dirt path that led him here. He is standing on a moss-covered shore in twilight, the world painted in dim blues and soft purples. Fireflies light up the air with tiny flicks of light, reflecting off the glassy water in a visual symphony of motion. It is quiet, peaceful, like how snow blankets the Cloud Recesses in winter and leaves everything comfortably muffled.

In that moment, Lan Wangji hardly notices any of it.

Because in the center of the lake, among the hundreds of lotus flowers that rest upon the still water, is a fox.

There is nothing, no entity on heaven or earth, that could stop him from wading into the lake towards her. Uncaring of his robes, he scrambles off the shore and into the water; it is warm on his skin, like it has been soaking all day in the sun.

Lotus flowers bob and drift as he pushes through them, feet easily touching the silty bottom, robes soaking through and clinging to his skin. The feeling is distant from him, mind only on small patch of land where the red and white fox is safely curled up out of the water.

Her eyes are closed, and fear shoots through him, heart leaping into his throat as he finally reaches her.

“Suibian?” he croaks, breathless with terror. She doesn’t reply.

The island is too small for him to climb onto, only big enough for her, so he leans forward instead, dizzy with dread, blinded by it. For a moment, he fears the worst.

Then he gets a better look at her.

The last time he had seen Suibian, it was with red-stained teeth and fear in her eyes, her fur matted with blood and dirt.

This time, she is sleeping.

It is a familiar sight, impossible to forget. How many times has she slept in front of them—curled up in Wei Ying’s lap, dozing in the library, trying to sneak in a nap during shufu’s lectures? Just like back then, her breathing is steady and soft, nose tucked under her tail as she lets out tiny, barely audible snores.

He stares at her, soaking in the details. Her fur is smooth and shiny, a vibrant summer coat, no trace of ribs to be seen. She looks healthy, at peace—nothing like the fox that would occasionally show her face when he and Bichen visited the Burial Mounds.  

The relief is staggering.

“Suibian,” he repeats, softer this time. Then, when she doesn’t stir, desperation rising up once again in his chest: “A-Sui?”

The mere act of saying it has him shaking, unfamiliar and forbidden on his tongue; but Suibian’s nose twitches and she lets out a tiny sigh, impossible to mistake for anything but contentment. Her eyelids flutter.

But she doesn’t wake up.

Promise me you’ll keep her safe.

The memory jolts through him, tilts his vision. It is like porcelain shattering on stone, a rock being thrown into still water, and he is struck by the sudden realization that he is dreaming. Asleep. That soon, he will wake up, and there will be nothing there but a world without Wei Ying and a promise he still has yet to fulfill.

This is his chance.

“Suibian,” he begs, as the edges of the lake starts to turn blurry, the unwelcome tug of reality pulling at him like a string around his wrist, “wake up. Tell me where you are. Help me find you.”

Suibian snuffles, paws twitching.

“A-Sui. A-Sui!”

Another flutter of the eyelids. This time, she lets out a little hnnng, twisting onto her back as her body lengthens into a long stretch, all of her limbs extending. Her paw nearly brushes his hand, and he jerks back, water splashing around him in his haste.

A drop of water lands on her nose, making it twitch.

She opens her eyes.

They look at each other. Him, frozen; her, sleepy, muscles relaxed. She blinks a few times, lets out a squeaky yawn, and tilts her head.

“Oh! Lan Zhan?” she asks, the words slurred, eyes already starting to droop back into sleep as her tail gives a little wag—and then he wakes up.

 

 

“I saw her,” he whispers to Bichen.

It is the first thing he has managed to say in two hours.

The Jingshi is quiet. It is deep into the night, the moon only a sliver in the sky; thinking back on his dream, on the fireflies that had lit up the world like a beacon in the dark, the room feels empty and aching.

He had woken to Bichen pressing her face against his neck and whining, anxiety pulsing through their link, both of them shaking up a storm. She has been patiently waiting for him to speak; now, as the words leave his mouth, she jolts.

“Where?” she asks. Their bond trembles so violently that he has to suck in a ragged breath to stop the world from spinning.

“A made-up place.” It could not have been real. Nothing that beautiful could exist in the world, now that Wei Ying is dead. “She was sleeping.”

They are silent for a moment.

Then, voice trembling, Bichen murmurs, “Was she frightened?”

“Hn.”

The opposite. Whenever he thinks back to it, to that otherworldly lake and her happy little snores, he can find nothing but peace in the twilight dimness of it. 

Bichen nuzzles against his hand, something quiet and confused in her eyes. He is much the same.

Suibian has occupied their thoughts every moment of every day. It had not mattered, that they did not understand Wei Ying’s dying wish; they had left no stone unturned, no corner neglected during that stretch of fevered searching, blood running down his back, Bichen staggering alongside him as they called out Suibian’s name.

There had been nothing, of course. No scent, no energy, not even a tuft of fur. Why would there be? Those first weeks, when Lan Wangji had been half-here and half-not, too deep in the pain to understand, Bichen had overheard the whispers. Anxious murmurs as servants and healers bustled in and out-- that Wei Ying’s body was never found, destroyed by his own demonic backlash. That, despite the work of some of the land’s most skilled cultivators, his soul will not respond to inquiry.

If he is gone, then Suibian surely is too. Surely, she…

(A little fox, sleeping among lotus flowers.

Promise me you’ll keep her safe.)

Lan Wangji’s back burns. He sinks into the pain of it, embraces it like his mother used to hold him, tight and all-encompassing.

“Do you think she’s really out there?” Bichen asks, now staring out the window at the moonless night, but he can already feel it in their bond: the answer does not matter.

Maybe what he saw was real—some glimpse into her fate, more than a simple dream of a desperate man. Maybe Suibian really is there, curled up in a lake that isn’t of this world. Sleeping away the rest of her days, blanketed in safety and comfort.

But Wei Ying had begged them.

When they venture out into the land, they will look, just in case.


Time passes. It should not, but it does.

He sleeps, eats. Not by choice. Xiongzhang watches him, always worried. The healers tell him that he is recovering; he silently disagrees. There are scars deeper and more painful than the whips on his back, but no one speaks of them.

In truth, there would be little point in doing so: words, already so inadequate to express the turmoil under his skin, become worthless in a world without Wei Ying.

Nestled into his bones is a constant sorrow, a constant itch to act, that he cannot escape. By the time his isolation has ended, he knows the feeling better than the once-familiar faces in the Cloud Recesses. It does not deepen or lessen, has not since the moment he awoke to a sentence that should never have been said.

It simply stays.

Perhaps it is that feeling, that drift, that causes him to act so rashly.

Despite his brother’s best efforts, Lan Wangji knows when Wei Ying and Suibian died. He has calculated it down to the hour, perhaps the minute. Every year, he has marked the passing of the day in the way he cannot bring himself to mark others. Every year, it has been an insurmountable obstacle that leaves him so full to the brim with grief that he can do nothing but feel.

This year, his first out of isolation, he arranges for A-Yuan to play with one of his classmates for the day.

Then he flies to Yiling.

It is evening by the time he and Bichen land. His flying pace is slower now, his spiritual energy weak and easily drained. He is aware that the trip back will likely reopen his wounds, that tender space of torn flesh, if they haven’t already begun to bleed.

Standing on the outskirts of city, watching the night turn the sky midnight blue, he is unaware of the pain of them.

His heart pounds in his chest. He can feel Bichen’s worry quivering through their link, a silent question that he cannot answer. Lan Wangji, after all, is not sure what they are looking for.

A reminder? A moment of repentance? A fox, perhaps, drawn to their familiar scents?

It does not matter that the answer eludes him. Bichen has stood steady by his side through it all; and tonight, she does not protest as he steps into the town.

It is unusually loud for this time of night, and it soon becomes apparent why: a night market, painting the streets with activity. He hears it before he sees it, the sound of laughter and merchants and sizzling firecrackers, and like a moth drawn to a flame, he follows the noise.

It is a mistake. 

To his right is a stall with vibrant red awnings, the sweet scent of hibiscus tea drifting through the air. On his left, a rainbow of lanterns flickering with candlelight. People bustle by him on the crowded walkway, bartering with sellers as they go. Spice floats through the air and burns the back of his throat as he breathes in, a chili-hot ache.

After years of muted colors, it is all so bright. Too bright. Alive.

That is another problem with grief, he has found: poems and texts told him that it would turn the world colorless, that it would halt, but the world is the same. Wei Ying is dead, murdered, yet the sights and sounds of the night market, of life, continue on unabated.

Nausea builds in his throat. 

“Wangji.” Bichen is at his side, shaking. He moves through the stalls in a daze, unthinking. She leans heavy on his legs as he goes, slow step by step. Around him people move, talk, laugh, ignorant of how each moment paints his grief as inconsequential.

His feet, unbidden, take him to that spot.

Even after three years, it is painfully familiar. He stands there, trembling, memories rising to the surface like a tide washing over shore. He loses himself in the flow of them until his eyes see only dark robes and a red ribbon, until he feels only the weight of a child’s grip on his legs, until his ears hear only Wei Ying, Wei Ying, Wei Ying.

The child?

Oh! He’s mine!

He is going to be sick.

“Wangji,” Bichen repeats in a whisper, as he stumbles into an alleyway and fights against the urge to scream. He holds onto her with violently quivering hands, unable to support his own weight. Louder: “Wangji, breathe.”

He cannot. What is the point of it? Everything should be drained of vibrancy in the same way it is drained of Wei Ying. That Wei Ying is dead while the world is so very alive is a grievance that is too great to bear and too monumental to ever atone for.

He has re-entered the world to find that it has left Wei Ying behind. Yet he will never be able to.

His breath comes in gasps, ragged rattling of his lungs that leave his throat burning. Each inhale brings another flash of memory, another regret. It sends his vision tilting, the ground beneath him spinning off axis, and he wonders what would happen if he just stayed here, let himself fall over the edge.

A sharp, wild sting fizzes through their bond.

“No,” Bichen rumbles, the sound reverberating through his palms. The warmth of her soaks into his skin and twists into their link; when she rubs her face against his knee, he feels, through the haze of nausea and anguish, a love so strong that it hurts.

She brings him back. She always does.

He chokes in the next breath, a frantic inhale as his lungs greedily drink in air. The rumble turns to a purr, her tongue coming to sweep gently against his fingers.

“Good. Good, again.”

Her voice trembles, quivers working themselves between the vowels. They are the same soul, him and her. He is aware, painfully, that it is not just him who suffers. In his fall, he has tugged her down too, pulled her into the shadowed parts of his heart.

Another desperate inhale.

“I…”

She butts her head against his hand, a silent understanding. They do not need words between them, haven’t since his mother died. There are never the right ones anyways, not for his love or his grief. He cannot find them; in losing Wei Ying, he feels as if he has lost himself.

“Hanguang-Jun?”

The voice startles them both. Bichen turns with a snarl, the hair on her back raising. He staggers to his feet, reaching for his sword.

It is Bichen who recognizes them first.

“…Mianmian?”

Mianmian stares at them, her body framed by the light cast into the alleyway from the market. It’s been so long since he last saw her that he hardly recognizes her without the Jin robes. She is armed but has made no move to reach for her weapon, hand resting on her daemon’s head instead. Behind her stands another woman, shorter and stockier, whose fingers are hovering over a sword at her side.

For a moment, they simply stare at each other.

She, shamefully, remembers her manners first. She bows. “Hanguang-Jun. Lan Bichen.”

It is ingrained habit alone that has him bowing back. His shaking body feels so separate from him that he could not command it if he tried.

The woman behind Mianmian steps forward, giving them a better view of her face and the civet clinging to her shoulders. He does not recognize her and does not bother to wonder if he should. That Bichen has not started hissing is enough of an answer.

“Everything alright here?” she asks, and Mianmian stops her before she can step forward more.

“It’s fine, A-Mei. We know them. Give us a second.”

“He looks—”

“I know. Just a second.”

They talk in hushed voices as Mianmian’s daemon steps forward, their ears tilted curiously at them. Deming has always been friendly to them, not even half of Bichen’s size, yet Lan Wangji tenses anyways when they step into their space.

Bichen lets out a rumble as they approach. Deming curls their tail and pauses, halting the slow taps of their paws against the ground.

The golden cat takes one look at Lan Wangji and turns to speak to Bichen instead.

“Lan Bichen. We saw you from the street—are you both alright?”

The rest of the conversation is lost to him. He catches indecipherable syllables and nothing more, like drops of water attempting to trickle through tightly cupped palms. Wei Ying’s laugh is still ringing in his head, and he is back in a cave, staring at newly branded flesh and listening to bravado about scars. Pressing a cool cloth against flushed cheeks and hyperaware of Bichen soothing Suibian, of the long expanse of skin beneath his fingers. A song plays, so loud that he can’t hear his own breathing.

Bichen’s fur on his fingertips jerks him back to reality.

“Come on,” she murmurs, using her weight to gently guide him forward. Mianmian and Deming are waiting at the entrance of the alleyway.

He obeys, a ghost adrift, legs unsteady as a newborn foal. It does not matter where they take him; if it is not to Wei Ying, then it is all the same.

“Here,” says a voice, and a cup is in his hand.

He blinks.

They are sitting in a teashop.

It is nothing like the one he and Wei Ying visited, so different in décor that it must have been intentional on Bichen’s part, yet he sees Wei Ying in the shadows nonetheless. The smell of tea, grassy jingshan and mellow jasmine, should hover in the air between them, but he smells nothing. At some indeterminable point between the alley and now, it has started to rain. He listens to the patter of it against the windows and thinks: how?

It is the same question as three years ago. He still cannot fathom an answer.

“It’s chamomile. Drink,” Mianmian tells him, and he does. It tastes like nothing on his tongue, but he does not know what else to do.

A soft noise comes from his knee. He looks down and sees Bichen’s head resting there, eyes focused with unwavering intensity on his face. Instinct makes his chest tighten—they are touching, touching where they should not be, in front of strangers and old classmates and those who do not deserve to see it.

Only one person ever did. And he is dead, dead—

Suddenly he does not care who sees.

Shaking, he reaches out to her, digs his fingers into the fur on her neck. It is almost freeing, to do this: to toss aside the principles, an act of defiance that sends his heart pounding into his throat. Throwing himself over a cliff.

If this is a worldly desire, then so be it. He has greater sins for the gods to rule on. 

Bichen stares up at him, whiskers twitching, the blue of her eyes sparkling from the lights hanging from the window. When he tests their bond, he feels it: uncertainty, deep and endless. So overwhelming that he almost misses the other emotion hiding there.

Fear.

It occurs to him, for the first time since Wei Ying died, that perhaps he is scaring her.

Mianmian is watching them, a thoughtful expression on her face. Looking at her is strange, almost out of place. He has not heard anything of her since that day she walked out of the Jin halls; there had been no incentive to inquire about it, not when his gaze was so fixed on Wei Ying. There is a new curve to her shoulders, more relaxed, more confident. Her robes are worn but not ratty, her weapon polished at her side.

When she sees him staring, she smiles, nods to his half-full cup.

“Finish that. It will help, Hanguang-Jun.”

It will not. He thinks of Bichen, and drinks more.

“We didn’t expect to see you,” Bichen volunteers. He curls his hand deeper into the scruff of her neck, uncertain if he is trying to reassure or receive reassurance himself. She is still trembling. “Are you… well?”

Mianmian nods, refilling the teacup in front of him. “A few of us were on a hunt in the area, but we wanted to visit the night market first. If you didn’t expect to see us, imagine our surprise at seeing you two. I had heard you were in seclusion.”

Lan Wangji forces the cup back to his lips. Only after he’s swallowed does he realize his tongue is burned.

“Over,” he manages, feeling as if he is talking through a haze, and Mianmian hums.

“I see. Well. It’s good to see you again.”

The sentiment takes him by surprise. They were never friends, at most uneasy acquaintances; all he can remember of Mianmian from before is the simmering, wild jealousy that she brought out in him for so many years. He had been overwhelmed by it every time he looked at her, thought about Wei Ying looking at her.

Puerile. Pointless. He feels nothing for her now but a sharp pang of envy. She was strong enough to act on her principles. He was not.

And Wei Ying died because of it.

Something must show on his face, because her smile fades.

“Sorry,” she says, and refills his tea. Deming leans lightly against her side when she settles back down, and Lan Wangji marvels at the apparent ease of it. How do they touch like this, and not feel like their very cores have been shaken by it every time? “I know that’s probably not what you want to hear right now, but I mean it. I was just thinking—I didn’t realize how much pain there was in the world until I set out on my own. We need more people like you to fight it.”

“We?”

Mianmian looks at Bichen. “A few years ago, some of the other cultivators without Sects decided to band together. I joined up, figured I could learn some new things. That’s how I met Liu Meiling. We’re traveling together with some other women to try and help people who the Sects don’t.”

Bichen inclines her head. “That is noble.”

Mianmian shrugs. “Maybe. That’s not why I’m doing it.”

“Why?”

They all look at him. He is clutching his teacup so hard that he fears it may crack, but he cannot help himself. The question has escaped his lips without consent and is not the one he wants to ask, not really. The question, always, is: how? How did you walk out? How did you set aside everything, conjure the bravery, stand against so many? If not for nobility, then why?

He watches her pick her words.

“I think you know that just as well as I do, Hanguang-Jun.”

No.

No, she is wrong. He does not know because he failed, and no matter where he searches he cannot find an answer.

He tries to speak but all that comes out is a shaky exhale. The world does not need more people like him. It needs more like her. Because if he had just stood up, walked out, then maybe—

“Hanguang-Jun,” Deming says, and their tone is gentle. Lan Wangji tries to look at them, but their shape is a blur. “What were you looking for in Yiling?”

His chest constricts.

Nothing. Everything.

There’s a long pause that none of them fill. At the table next to them, two merchants are talking about a new line of herbs the Jin are growing. The blurred-out shapes of passers-by flash past the window, parasols clutched in their hands. The bell near the door chimes as two women dressed in floral red hanfu slip inside, trying to get the attention of the proprietor.  

Sitting there in the middle of it all, Bichen’s unease curling in his stomach, Lan Wangji feels trapped. His heart hiccups in his ribcage, a plea—whether to stop, or to keep going, he doesn’t know.

There’s the scrape of china on wood as Mianmian sets down her cup.

Her voice is quiet when she says, “I’m sorry for your loss, Hanguang-Jun.”

The world tilts again.

When he jerks to his feet, the table jostles from his haste. There is the shattering of porcelain on wood, warm water soaking into the bottom hem of his robes.

“Wangji,” Bichen whispers, but she is on her feet as well. Neither Mianmian nor Deming show any sign of surprise as he fumbles to pick up his sword.

He cannot be here, cannot have this conversation, can’t, can’t—

Other patrons are staring, whispers filling his ears. His mind tries to pick out a well-known tone, the chitter of a fox, but it finds only the dissonant echo of strangers.

There is no air in his lungs, and he cannot think, and he cannot live in a world that has been without Wei Ying for three years, three years, three—

If he does not leave now, he is not sure he will ever be able to get up again.

“Hanguang-Jun,” Mianmian says to his retreating back, and he pauses without looking back. He owes her this much. “When we next meet, I hope you’ve found what you need.”

The world shatters.

Impossible, Lan Wangji thinks as he stumbles out of the teahouse and onto the muddy streets. Bichen paws at his clothes, frantic, but it does not stop him. What he needs is Wei Ying, and he never had him in the first place.

__

Deep in the night, he returns to the Cloud Recesses and drinks an entire bottle of Emperor’s Smile. It makes Bichen sleepy, useless; it makes him desperate, seeking. The Forbidden Chamber, when he staggers into it alone, has never looked so welcoming.

What were you looking for in Yiling?

The pain of the metal searing into his flesh is a relief.

Another scar joins his body, above his heart. It’s not enough.


The day before Lan Wangji gives A-Yuan his courtesy name, he and Bichen pay a visit to his family.

The path to the Burial Mounds is dilapidated and unnervingly familiar. It has been five years since they last tread it, yet the shape of each tree is held in his mind like a poem read one too many times.

He had spent hours searching, that terrible night. Every nook. Every cranny. The foolish hope that had shot through him when Lan Bichen had murmured, “Wangji, look.” Curled by the tree, peering in, and he had thought—

A child.

Not a man, not a fox. The disappointment was immense, followed by such hot shame that his eyes had watered.

It will be yet another thing he will never forgive himself for: how his own selfishness turned him so cold and cruel in that moment. To think that he could have ever looked at A-Yuan and felt, even for the smallest of seconds, anything close to disappointment.

He keeps his pace slow. There is not a physical need to: the wounds in his back have not been torn open since the incident two years ago. His brother and shufu have watched him too closely for such a thing to happen.

(He knows that even now, back at the Cloud Recesses, a close circle of trusted servants is looking for him. It will be pointless. This stolen trip is one he has been planning since the first feverish year of isolation, and he has had time to think through the steps.)

Still, it feels appropriate to walk without haste. This is not his home. All those who could have invited him are dead, so the least they are due is a lengthy warning of his arrival.

There are many stories about the siege of the Burial Mounds. Raising A-Yuan, he has heard some recounted when discussing his teachings for that day, has made an effort to correct a good number of them. Others he has sought out over the years, digging his fingers into an open wound. Even more have been told like ballads through the halls of the Sects, too loud for his brother’s careful words to drown out.

Regardless of their path to his ears, all of them are predictable. Hollow. Painting it as an act of glory, of righteousness; the defeat of an evil patriarch and an equally evil Sect.

Looking across the carnage of the simple place the Wens had called home, he feels sick with the one-sided injustice of such a retelling.

Makeshift houses torn down. Blood soaked so deep into the earth that it has left visible stains. Shattered pieces of bone scattered across the dirt. The land has been ravaged like the people, cut down and made into nothing but memory.

For some time, he looks. There is a story that the Sects will never tell in each dilapidated garden plot, the makeshift pond near the center, an abandoned toy poking out of the dirt. If Lan Wangji does not try to read it, then this story, too, disappears in the folds of history.

He cannot look at the cave. Not yet.

“Where should we start?”

Bichen has been sitting patiently at his side, a warm pressure against his left leg.

“A grave.”

They start to dig. It is slow, laborious—he did not bring tools, and using his powers feels unbearably cheap. Dirt and dust work their way under his nails, tiny cuts crossing his fingertips from the hard earth. Bichen goes about collecting bones, the few remnants of Wen bodies that were not thrown into the blood pool or taken as sick trophies.

When they are done, they place the bones in the dirt. Cover it.

Standing back and looking at the unremarkable mound of parched soil that constitutes what is now the entirety of the Wen family grave, nausea clogs his throat. No one bothered to perform proper funeral rights after the siege, not in a place already so full of resentment. None of the cultivators who have been keeping an eye on this place have tried to do anything but look out for Wei Ying’s return.

This, a patch of dirt, is what the Wens get.

The injustice of it is dizzying. They deserve more than this, than his and Bichen’s inconsequential efforts. A makeshift grave, done by someone who they did not know and would likely hate, is not fitting for a family that suffered so much.

Still, he has little left to offer them. 

In his pocket is a scrap of paper. He curls his fingers around it, takes a slow breath.

There are things that need to be said. It does not matter if he now finds it difficult.

He gets onto his knees on the ground, bows as low as he can to the mound of dirt. Bichen follows, smearing dirt and dried leaves across her fur, tail passing over the cracked earth with a ssssss when she moves it to curl around his wrist.

Inhale. Exhale.

“You have suffered greatly,” Lan Wangji tells the bones, and swallows. The Burial Mounds is such a quiet place that even the simple sound feels too loud. “I am sorry for the injustice that was done against you.”

Nothing greets his words but his and Bichen’s breathing. They are inadequate anyways, undeserving of response.

“I am sorry,” he continues, “that I stood by and allowed it to happen. I cannot atone for it. To ignore it is to defile your history. I will not. As long as I live, I will not forget it.”

His throat closes up before he can speak the rest. The grief he feels has turned his body into a well. Every time he believes it to be full to the brim, too deep in sweeping torment to feel anything else, it somehow holds more. It is unceasing and unforgiving, greedy in its consumption.

Yet it is still nothing compared to the emptiness of the surrounding world that no longer holds Wei Ying.

With shaking hands, he pulls out the scrap of paper.

“I know I am not his father,” he tells them, voice cracking. The name inked into the parchment swims under his eyes. “But I have—tried. During his time with me, I have tried to keep him safe and happy. I have not always succeeded. I know you would not want him to be with me, and I am sorry. To be a steward of your legacy is the only consolation I can offer. I know it is not enough.”

He places the paper on the grave. It crinkles as he draws his hand away, a splash of white against sickly brown.

“I do not know what you would have named him. This is what I have chosen. I hope it is satisfactory.”

Tears are pooling in his eyes, but he pushes them back. He does not deserve to cry. Not with this.

“He has been kept from you for so long, and I will not deny you his name. Nor him, not forever. One day, when he is old enough to know without danger, I will bring him here. I will tell him of a family that I do not know, but that he belongs in. That was taken from him.”

One more breath. One last thing to say.

“No matter the path his future takes, I will support him,” he says. “I vow this with my life.”

The only sound that follows is the wind, blowing through the trees like a drawn-out sigh.  

He stays prostrate in the dirt for some time, head so low that dust enters his mouth with each inhale. The mere act of speaking is exhausting, draining. When he finally rises, each limb feels almost unbearably heavy.

“We can leave,” Bichen murmurs, as Lan Wangji looks toward the cave. “There are other days. If today is not the right one…”

She trails off. They both know there is not a right day. Not for this. 

Together, they make their way towards it.

When he steps in, he is too overcome by the sight to register the scent of blood. He had seen it all before, of course, years ago—but at the time his gaze had been blinded by Wei Ying presence, every starved, sharp line of him.

He had not properly observed, then.

Now, he walks forward in a haze, disbelieving. Any possessions have long since been looted or defaced, leaving only black stone covered with smears of red. It is such a barren cave, so cold, so telling of the pain that Wei Ying must have suffered through each and every night.

Demon Subdue Palace, he had called it. He had said it so flippantly, like it was a joke. Looking at it now, Lan Wangji does not find it funny at all.

It is as if he has walked into a prison. The only thing missing are bars.

The thought has him stumbling. How long has it been since he’s thought of those barred-over windows, just narrow enough that a hawk could not slide through? Of his mother gazing wistfully outside during their visits, the only sight that could ever draw her eyes away from his and his brother’s faces?

It hits him, then, why he hates this place so much. There is nothing here of the Cloud Recesses, yet there is no doubt this room is the same as his mother’s: a prison disguised as a home. A mimicry of living—not for the benefit of the resident, but for the comfort of those looking in.

As if on cue, he finally registers the congealing heaviness of blood in the air. Eyes free of the haze that has narrowed his field of view since he first stepped in, he looks to the pool of blood and decomposed bodies in the corner for the first time.

He had heard of what happened to the blood pool. He was not prepared for it.

Wei Ying lived here.

No, this was not living. Wei Ying was trapped here.

This time, the nausea is soul deep. He empties his stomach with a cry, so overcome that the room spins. Bichen growls as he staggers back and trips, legs unable to support him any longer. The feeling of the hard stone against his back makes him choke out a gasp.

“Wangji!” Bichen is helping him up, forcing her body under his so he is propped up against the cave wall. He grabs onto her, drowning, needing, and it is with a single smooth motion that she steps between his knees and presses herself to his chest.

Unknowing, ignorant. Why must he always be those things? How could he have been blind to it twice? The two most precious people to him, caged and hidden.

Always, always out of reach.

“How?” he asks her, tears forming in his eyes. She rumbles and he digs his fingers into the scruff of her neck. “How, he—I—”

It is too much. Too many emotions inside him.

“A-Zhan,” she soothes, as he starts to cry. She has not called him that name since he named her, since Lan Bichen fell from his lips with more pride than anything he would ever say again.

To hear it from her now starts the sobs in earnest.

The next word is a scream. “How?!

Her rough tongue sweeps across his hair, his cheek. Neither of them have the answers; that is the problem. He could search forever, and unless it is in Wei Ying’s playful tone in, no response will do.

“I am here,” Bichen murmurs, so big in his arms that he can barely wrap them around her. He does anyways, screams endlessly into her neck so loud that his throat hurts; the force of his tears make him shudder, chest heaving with each sob. He is five again, holding a bunny for comfort. Seeking a hug that will not be returned by others. “I am here.”

It is the same thing she had said the night she settled, sitting out in the snow.

He remembers it clearly in a way that he cannot for most other memories in childhood, no matter how desperately he does not want to. It had been a surprise to his teachers: a five-year-old child with a fully settled daemon. A prodigy, according to some.

What a strong core he must have, to have his daemon settle so early, he recalls them saying. Very impressive. You must be proud, to have achieved something so great so early.

Now, the thought makes him choke out a wild, unhappy laugh. Fools.

Liars.

The truth of the matter is this: Bichen did not settle because of the strength of his core. It is ludicrous to think so. He has never believed it.

Bichen settled because when his mother died, Lan Wangji was filled with so much fear and sadness and loneliness that he broke. He disobeyed shufu and snuck out, sat outside his mother’s door all night, waiting. Waiting for her to take him inside. To open up, to call his name, the familiar shape of A-Zhan on her tongue. For her hawk to call out into the night air.

For anything.

And when she did not come to the door, when the sun dipped below the horizon and he started to shiver, Bichen had shifted from her rabbit-fast heart to a steadier one, a larger one. As the snow blanketed the earth, she had curled herself around him to keep him warm.

And she had not turned back.

So when he was five and mourning without even knowing what that was, with a daemon that could no longer bring herself to change, what the elders should have said was this:

I am sorry that your mother is dead, A-Zhan.

I am sorry that she is never coming back.

And I am sorry that we are pretending you never had her in the first place.

But they did not. They complimented his core, his intellect, the way he could sit straight-backed and still at dinner. They turned away from his tear-filled eyes, from his silent pain, from the night terrors that would send him fleeing to his brother’s bed wracked with sobs.

His mother’s story was buried like her body; the life she had led shoved into the shadows. Nervously ignored, the overwhelming pain of it all treated like something dirty and best forgotten. As if never speaking of her would make it so she never existed at all.

As if by simply not saying¸ they could make him forget her.

He feels the same way now, sitting on the blood-stained floor of the demon subdue cave, sobbing his heart into Bichen’s fur. They took Wei Ying from him with violence. Now they try to take his memory, his legacy, the truth of him.

Sitting in this cave, he sees it so clearly: Wei Ying suffered. He suffered so deeply and for so many years, and he never said a thing. 

And they call him evil in return.

“We should have gone to them,” he sobs to Bichen, finally speaking the words that have haunted him for half a decade. “I should have been there.”

It does not matter that Wei Ying and Suibian told them not to. They should not have accepted Suibian’s answer to Bichen’s plea, the softly spoken, This path is a bit too narrow for you to follow, kindly given yet no less painful in its tenderness.

They should not have listened. Lan Wangji should have hugged Wei Ying back and forced the path wider. Never let go. 

Bichen lets out a shaky puff of hot air against his face.

“It would not have changed the outcome. They would have killed all of us.”

So be it, he thinks, wrecked with pain. He had so many chances to stand by Wei Ying’s side—years and years of them, wasted, shied away from like a coward. The regret of it has twisted into his blood, unending in its invasion.

Bichen is right, but it would be better to be dead than this. Better to be with Wei Ying in spirit than to be trapped here without him.

He is so tired of carrying the weight of his grief. No matter what he does, it will not lessen. How on earth can he keep going?

“A-Yuan,” Bichen murmurs to him, as if she knows what he is thinking. She does, of course. She is his, and he is hers. They will always know.

His mind goes to that little slip of parchment. Two characters in ink.

They promised.

By the time he can walk, the sun has begun to set. Crying has made his eyes puffy and red, his voice too hoarse to speak. Bichen’s fur is matted with tears and dirt and blood, turning her grimy and disheveled. In the red light cast from the sky, they are a sorry sight.

They will stop somewhere and clean up before returning. He does not care what shufu and xiongzhang think, but he does not want to scare A-Yuan.  

Before they go, he pauses one last time in front of that too-small mound of dirt. Reaching out his hand, he focuses all his energy into the earth. When he steps back, a small grave marker has been inlaid into the ground. The protection magic woven into it is subtle enough not to draw attention, but strong enough to deter any potential threats.

It is, he thinks, as Bichen lets out low purr, not enough. Never enough.

“Thank you,” he tells the bones, and bows.

---

Lan Yingyue, Lan Sizhui whispers to him, one name exchanged for another. His daemon sits in his hand, resting her wings on the smooth skin of his palm. Even after five years, she has never changed.

He repeats the name on his lips.

It is fitting.


In year seven, shufu looks at him from across the table and says, “Marriage.”

It has been an otherwise quiet evening in his shufu’s private quarters. Lan Wangji has been occupying himself with reading a scroll on inquiry techniques, Bichen silent and attentive at his side. The sudden noise is startling and technically against the rules (Do not infringe upon other’s moments of learning; There is no conversation more valuable than the pursuit of education); at the other end of the table, his brother sets down his book with a look that, for Xiongzhang at least, constitutes as wide-eyed and shocked. Shouyue’s nose twitches.

Lan Wangji does not put his scroll down, nor does Bichen change her pose.

They simply look up at shufu, steady.

Shufu’s throat bobs a few times, the weight of their collective gazes all on him. His fingers curl tighter around the brush he was writing with, perfect calligraphy spread across the parchment in front of him. There is a bead of ink threatening to drop from the tip of the brush, right over one of the characters; it is Yizheng who notices the incoming disaster and quickly flutters down to the table from her place on shufu’s shoulder, grabbing the brush with her beak.

“Ah,” Shufu says, as she takes it from his fingers and carefully places it the side. He clears his throat. “Thank you, Lan Yizheng.”

The owl nods, before turning her head to Lan Wangji and Bichen.

There is a long moment of silence, where they do nothing but look back.

“Right,” Shufu sighs, and Yizheng hops onto his arm and back to his shoulder. It is not the first time he has said the word with that specific inflection over the years. “At least do them the favor of quick rejections, Wangji.”

Bichen’s heartbeat is steady through their link, matching his own. Lan Wangji inclines his head, and goes back to reading.


Lan Wangji was waiting for something like this to happen.

It was bound to, eventually, no matter how much he has tried to avoid it. He and Bichen have been absent at most large sect discussions and conferences in the decade since Wei Ying’s death; shufu is not pleased with his choice to still wear mourning robes in public, and his brother seems convinced that he is a better fit as a teacher, anyways.

A pleasant lie. Those outside of Gusu, he knows, do not enjoy his company.

Still. The world is small, and he has been traveling it with greater frequency now that Sizhui has begun his own hunts and does not need to be looked after. It is not uncommon for Lan Wangji to travel on other sect’s lands. They could not avoid running into him alone at some point, not with their current goals.

That had not stopped him from hoping they would not.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

The day has been long and unfruitful. Lan Wangji came here on rumors of demonic cultivation to find that they were just so: rumors. Still, there are a few areas nearby that he has not yet checked, and this is the right habitat for foxes.

(They have never given up. It is an endless search; a raw hope for a lead, a hint, a trace of energy.

A chance.)

Yet here stands Jiang Wanyin, blocking their way to it.

Lan Wangji has heard some of him over the years, mostly from Gusu. It was Jiang Wanyin, after all, who reached out to his brother with the hopes of addressing Jiang Yanli’s unexpected condition. There has been no progress on that front, even after countless musical scores and ten long years; perhaps that is why Jiang Wanyin looks, frankly, terrible. 

There are dark circles under his eyes, and the scowl on his face makes his eyes shine strangely in the light of the sun. Even the way Zidian sparks dangerously on his finger looks uncontrolled, off-kilter.

When Lan Wangji allows his eyes to drift to the daemon at Jiang Wanyin’s side, he finds her looking rather the same. Sandu never used to hold the same burning anger of her pair, but her eyes are fire as she looks at them now.

It is what he expects.

Lan Wangji has directly spoken to them only a few times over the last decade. It has always been in the safety of numbers, under circumstances that Lan Wangji finds unfavorable: sect conferences, formal visits, the yearly hunt.

Then again, any circumstance that forces him to so much as look at Jiang Wanyin is unfavorable by default.

Xiongzhang and shufu are well-aware of this, as Lan Wangji does not hide it. After a certain incident a few years ago, he and Jiang Wanyin have never been allowed within a dozen mǐ of each other unsupervised.

(The incident in question is, Lan Wangji maintains, firmly the fault of Jiang Wanyin. Yes, Lan Wangji might have made some pointed comments to Jiang Wanyin during a hunt when it came to his stances on the Burial Mounds. Said comments might have contained an insinuation of his general lack of ability to be responsible for his own actions. And it might have ended with Jiang Wanyin storming out and the entire Yunmeng Jiang sect leaving early.

Lan Wangji has little to say about it. If Jiang Wanyin cannot stand to listen to the truth, then that is not his concern.)

Neither shufu nor xiongzhang seem keen to speak of it again. It is not forgotten, however. The last time the four of them were in the same room, Xiongzhang had taken extreme care to keep them separated from Jiang Wanyin and Sandu via several long, disciple-packed tables.

Now, with no one to mediate, he knows: this conversation will not go well.

“I’m talking to you!” Jiang Wanyin snaps, when Lan Wangji does nothing but gaze at the space just right of his shoulder. “Explain!”

What is there to say? The reason for his presence is clear if Jiang Wanyin would simply look at the sword in his hand and the bodies around him, slowly dissipating their resentful energy. If he cannot see that Lan Wangji was on a hunt, then that is his error.

Ridiculous, for Jiang Wanyin to think he would dignify such an unobservant question with an answer.

Ridiculous to think he would answer anything at all, after what he did.

Behind Jiang Wanyin are several other cultivators in Yunmeng Jiang robes, clearly disciples in training. It’s a sea of curious eyes; when Jiang Wanyin turns and snaps, “Stop staring,” they avert their gazes downward with mumbled apologies. One, Lan Wangji notices, is wearing Lanling Jin Sect robes. His gaze does not lower.

Lan Wangji recognizes the sword. So this is Jin Rulan. He has heard whispers about him over the years, usually snide: father missing, mother locked in limbo. Try as he might not to listen to them, he is powerless against a subject that was so close to Wei Ying’s heart.

He looks healthy, despite the rumors. Young. For a brief moment, their eyes meet.

Jiang Wanyin steps directly in front of Jin Rulan, blocking him from view.

“You shouldn’t be here,” he says, voice cold, and Lan Wangji blinks at him. A heavy pause hangs over them as Lan Wangji weighs his options.

The scars on his back throb, a quiet reminder.

“You were notified of our presence,” Bichen says abruptly, taking Lan Wangji off-guard. He is not the only one: Jiang Wanyin visibly pauses, eyes widening. She has never spoken to him before, Lan Wangji realizes, and had not expected her to do so now, each word saturated with an undercurrent of disrespect.

Jiang Wanyin’s face flickers with confusion. “What? No, we—”

“You did,” she interrupts, and glances up to Lan Wangji. Anger, simmering low and dangerous, coils through their bond. When he returns the look, assessing, he sees her own choice shining in her eyes. They both remember what happened the last time they stepped aside; she, it seems, has already picked her path.

Carefully, slowly, Lan Wangji gives her a small nod.

Satisfied, Bichen turns her gaze back to Jiang Wanyin. “Zewu-jun sent a letter.” She does not bother to hide the disdain in her voice when she adds, “Perhaps you misplaced it.”

At the words, a muscle in the Jiang Wanyin’s jaw twitches. Slowly, he grits out, “A letter was sent informing me that someone from Gusu would be undertaking a hunt in the area. He failed to mention it would be you.

“It should not matter who.”

“Of course it matters!” Jiang Wanyin’s gaze is turning molten. Sandu shifts, eyes flicking between him and Bichen.What—what are you even hunting?”

Silence.

Lan Wangji keeps his gaze straight ahead. Everyone in the cultivation world knows what Lan Wangji has been looking for; he is aware of the rumors. To believe that Jiang Wanyin would somehow be unaware, when he has been systematically tracking down and torturing anyone who he thinks is Wei Ying since his death, is foolish.

They both know.

“Well?” Jiang Wanyin prompts, and sneers when Lan Wangji keeps his silence. “Really? Not going to even answer? I am a Sect leader, in case you forgot.”

Bichen’s tail flicks back and forth, restless. “Our sect is not beholden to you, nor are we. We will go where we please.”

Lan Wangji does not fully understand why it is those words, among all the rest, that cause Jiang Wanyin’s eyes to darken. But when his mouth opens in a harsh laugh, it reminds Lan Wangji of porcelain shattering across wood floors: sharp, unexpected.

“Right,” Jiang Wanyin spits, so irate that a few of the disciples behind him flinch. At his side, Sandu glances up at him with a swivel of her ears. Jiang Wanyin is not looking at any of them, though—his gaze is on Lan Wangji, burning. “So you’re just—doing whatever you want, is that it? That’s a new outlook for you two. Your Uncle and brother must be proud.”

It is a low blow. Lan Wangji tries to control the simmer under his skin, and largely fails.

“Do not,” he warns, breaking his silence, but Jiang Wanyin does not heed him.

“What, like I’m wrong?” Jiang Wanyin scoffs. “I’d heard rumors that you’d changed, but I guess they have some teeth. After all, it used to be all I could hear about: Hanguang-Jun and Lan Bichen, paragons of obedience. How’d you’d manage to lose that, too?”

The tension, already heavy in the air, escalates so quickly that his next breath feels charged with it. The words are a needle intended to pierce; that knowledge does not ease the painful tear of them across Lan Wangji’s heart.

Wei Ying.

It takes effort not to physically stagger. Bichen snarls, the hair on her back rising; Sandu turns to her with glinting eyes.

“Don’t,” the wolf warns. She moves in front of Jiang Cheng, hair on her back raised as well. When Bichen doesn’t back down, Sandu bares her teeth.

The disciples are shifting now, back and forth, a nervous tide.

There is a haze distorting Lan Wangji’s vision, the scene in front of him swimming as if he is looking at them all from across a blistering desert. Through the pounding in his ears and the searing memory of whiplines, he can barely feel his own link.

Lan Wangji takes a deep breath in. Releases it.

“I am hunting,” he says, each word slow and deliberate as he looks directly into Jiang Wanyin’s face, “something that you threw away years ago.”

For a moment, Jiang Wanyin and Sandu stare at him, openly taken aback. It is immensely satisfying, that momentary look of shock, the impact of his words across their faces. An eye for an eye, a mere fraction of his pain reflected back at them. Were Wei Ying here, he would be able to read it further: the flash of something dark that crosses Jiang Wanyin’s face, a slight droop in Sandu’s tail.

But Wei Ying is not here. He is dead, and Lan Wangji will not mince his words.

“You!” Jiang Cheng has gone from pale to flushed in the time it has taken for the words to settle into the clearing, his face cracking with rage. Zidian twists on his finger with a bright flash of purple. “You have some nerve.”

When he steps forward towards Lan Wangji, fist clenched, the disciples clustered behind him murmur restlessly. Sandu silences them with a growl. 

“Threw away, huh?” Jiang Wanyin’s stares at Lan Wangji, his neck now flushed with anger, too. When he laughs, cold and harsh, Sandu glances up at him again. Whatever she sees makes her ears twitch back: she presses her head against his hand, and he curls it into her fur. Lan Wangji’s grip on his sword tightens.

“A-Cheng.”

She says something else, so quiet that Lan Wangji cannot hear, and leans heavily against his legs. Jiang Wanyin, staring at him like he wishes for nothing more than to wrap Zidian around his throat, does not appear to hear her.

His next words are rushed, like a waterfall tumbling over a cliff, each one louder than the one before.  “You must have been comfortable, huh? Tucked away in your mountains, judging the rest of us when we didn’t measure up to your standards! I remember, you know, the way you would look at us—like we were trash, ready to toss us aside as soon as we got our robes dirty! It wasn’t me who turned my back! After all the times you judged us, judged him and left him scrambling, and you really still think you have a right to Wei Wux—”

At the start of the name, something in Lan Wangji’s chest goes cold and sharp.

Jin Rulan gasps.

The noise, small, stands out more than Jiang Wanyin’s shouting ever could. Sandu turns to look at Jin Rulan so quickly that a few rocks scatter under her paws. Jiang Wanyin cuts himself off, seeming only to realize what he was saying after it was halfway out his mouth. He physically flinches, eyes wide, and glances back at his disciples.

Lan Wangji follows the gaze. Jin Rulan has gone red; the rest of the disciples are gaping.

“I mean—” Jiang Wanyin starts, and clenches his fists. He looks to Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji barely notices over the blood pumping in his ears.

There are twenty things that he wishes to say in that moment, but none of them are fierce enough to cause the suffering Jiang Wanyin deserves. They clog his throat, and leave him wordless.

Jiang Wanyin is staring at them, openly trying to gauge if they will attack. Such a thought is not unfounded: their daemons are eyeing each other, clearly poised to fight. When Bichen makes an aborted motion, Sandu mirrors her, claws digging into the dark earth beneath her feet.

“Bichen.”

Bichen looks up a him, a gentle upward slope of her head that is at odds with the tension in her body. There are years of pain held in her gaze, uncountable in their expanse— an ocean’s worth of grief, added to by daily rains. Through their bond, he feels a deep, staggering throb.

He pushes the feeling back at her: I know. That ocean has drowned him too.

But it does not matter how many waves Jiang Wanyin sends their way. Suibian loved Sandu. It was apparent, unspoken but no less said in actions. If Bichen fights Sandu, she will win.

And they will come to regret it.

Slowly, the fur on Bichen’s back lowers.

As the seconds tick on, and no one moves, Jiang Wanyin seems to reorient himself. When he draws himself up tall, Lan Wangji sees no hint of shame in his eyes.

Just an angry man, who killed his own brother without remorse.

“Whatever,” he scoffs, as if it is Lan Wangji who yelled, who made a fool of himself. Next to him, Sandu keeps her claws buried in the dirt. Her tail, Lan Wangji notes in the steadily growing exhaustion clouding his mind, has drooped again. “Get out of here. I don’t want to see your face anywhere in Yunmeng again.”

It is shamefully difficult to keep his voice even. “We are mid-hunt.”

“Then make this the end of it.”

Lan Wangji’s hands tighten. It is clear that Jiang Wanyin does not care about honor or integrity. Lan Wangji is on Yunmeng Jiang land; there is nothing he can do. If he continues to fight this now, the ripple effects will be immense.

He has made his point. He cannot be sloppy.

Lan Wangji sheathes his sword. Without bowing, he and Bichen turn and walk away, ignoring the noise of disbelief from Jiang Wanyin’s mouth.

“Jiujiu, who…” he hears, but he is already lost in the static.

 

 

That night, sitting at an inn on the outskirts of Yunmeng Jiang territory, he cannot get the words out of his head.

Hanguang-Jun and Lan Bichen, paragons of obedience.

“He was wrong,” Bichen says into the dark, laid out on the floor beside the bed. Her food, like his, sits untouched by the door.

“Mn.”

He was.

Jiang Wanyin speaks like a hurricane: harsh, uncontrolled. The only thing Lan Wangji could hear at first among the storm was this: You lost him. 

That part is true. He will not deny it, even if he refuses to be lectured by a hypocrite such as Jiang Wanyin. He may have lost Wei Ying by failing to stand with him, but he did not draw his blood. Should it come up again, Lan Wangji will have to remind Jiang Wanyin of that.

Still. It had taken him a moment to sort through the rest of it. What he missed was this, that second edge, the one that Jiang Wanyin had likely meant to hurt more all along: You’ve lost your honor. Your principles.  

Foolish.

There are over three thousand rules in Gusu that Jiang Wanyin could have cited. Each is well-known under Lan Wangji’s hand, brought to mind and to parchment without effort. For the majority of his life, they provided structure. They taught him what should be valued: patience, order, control. They were reliable and predictable. When he was confused, scared, angry, in love, he turned to them as a lifeline on how to behave—and how, yes, to obey.

What Jiang Wanyin cannot grasp is this: when your heart is ripped from your chest, none of those things matter anymore.

What use is patience, when all it brings him is more long nights of sorrow, of more years in a world missing Wei Ying? What use is order, when the man he loves is gone and life has tilted on its axis, so far that Lan Wangji is left reeling with conversations he never had and wishes he can never fulfill? What use is control, when Lan Wangji had his broken by something as simple as a smile in the moonlight?

What use is any of it, when a flash of red or the sound of a flute in the air makes him drop everything and give chase? To then fall to his knees, feel the ache of his scars like they were made yesterday and not over ten years ago?

The principles are useless in a world that he now views with his eyes open. To blindly follow is no longer an option; it was his adherence to his Sect, not his defiance of them, that has tortured him for so many years. 

He has broken more principles than Jiang Wanyin could fathom and been punished in more ways than he can count, yet no punishment could compare to Wei Ying’s death.

Slowly, he exhales.

Bichen raises her head so that his hand rests on it; it trembles against her fur, anger still pumping in his blood. He has not been able to stop shaking from it.

“I cannot do this again,” he admits. “Not with him.”

She rumbles, knowing. There is so little room in Lan Wangji’s body for anything outside of the constant, never-ending weight. If they speak to Jiang Wanyin like this once more, he will overflow with his hatred. It will, he knows, not end well.

“Then we will not.”

The finality of it is soothing.

“He is a fool,” she adds, and he runs his fingers through her fur. Another principle, broken: do not speak ill of others. He does not care.

“Mn. We will try again tomorrow.”

She nods. When she climbs onto the bed and lays against him, he buries his face into her neck and breathes in deep. The smell of her is so familiar that he could construct it from memory alone; it brings him home in a way Gusu no longer can.

It will not be difficult to sneak past Jiang Wanyin’s gaze. Their cultivation has grown by leaps and bounds these recent years, spurred on by their hunt for chaos. Now that they know he is watching, they will act accordingly.

Next time, Jiang Wanyin will not interrupt them.

Next time, if he does, Lan Wangji will not be so kind.


“Father?”

Lan Wangji wakes.

It is deep into the night. Outside, crickets are weaving a song through the chill air, mixing with the soft sounds of the forest. Moonlight streams in through the Jingshi windows and, for a single moment, Lan Wangji is back twelve years prior. A shadow standing over him, his brother’s hand on his.

The world spins. He blinks.

Sizhui is holding his sleeve, wide-eyed and trembling. Next to him stands Bichen, her eyes slowly blinking orbs.

No shadow. No hand.

No Wei Ying.

His heart breaks, there in the dark. It never fails to: every moment he wakes and remembers is as painful as the last. It is not twelve years ago. It is now. And nothing has changed in him.

“What is wrong?” he murmurs, sitting up and ignoring the pull of muscle. The healers have told him that the discomfort from his scars may linger for decades. He welcomes it. It is a burden that he deserves, a reminder that he hungers after. On the loneliest nights, he imagines the ghost of Wei Ying’s lips brushing over the wreckage of it.

“Nightmare,” Sizhui breathes. There are the traces of already-shed tears lingering in his eyes, and Lan Wangji slides his legs over the edge of the bed so he can wipe them away.

 Sizhui has not come to him with nightmares for years, ever since he joined the children in cultivation practice and became fast friends with Lan Jingyi. He is almost sixteen and to see him trembling awakens such a deep feeling in Lan Wangji that he wishes to tremble, too.

He does not.

Instead, he takes Sizhui’s hand, watches how violently it shakes. No guqin tonight, then.

They go to see the rabbits.

The path is well-known to all of them. Bichen moves carefully on his left, watching for rough patches. On his right, Sizhui holds his hand with a grip too tight and clinging for someone his age. Lan Wangji does not mind. The junior is bundled up in several robes to stave off the night air, and he hums lightly to himself as they make their way toward the hutch. Ahead of him floats Yingyue, so ethereal in the dimness that she looks like she belongs in a dream.  

When they open the hutch, they’re greeted by dozens of little eyes blinking open. A chorus of tiny rabbit yawns fill the air as they step inside.

“Remember to keep your voice down,” Bichen reminds Sizhui, whose tears had stopped the moment Lan Wangji took his hand.

He nods, obedient and well-behaved as always, and sits down with an expectant expression on his face. There is very little room for him to do so comfortably; he is much larger than he used to be when this was commonplace. Somehow, he still looks like he belongs there, tucked into the corner of the hutch. 

Some of the rabbits have already gone back to sleep, too used to these nightly visits for it to be novel anymore. Others, the more affectionate and braver of the bunch, huddle close to the latches. Lan Wangji picks up a black rabbit and places it on Sizhui’s lap; unprompted, it starts nibbling on his sleeve.

Sizhui looks up at Lan Wangji, beaming. “Can we take a few outside?”

It is very late. Shufu would be furious if a member of the watch should spot them.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, and hands him two more.

For a while, there is just this: the sounds of Sizhui’s quiet laughter, the night air cool on his skin, little dots of white and black in the grass. They sit side-by-side, Yingyue occasionally fluttering down to land on whatever rabbit is the subject of Sizhui’s attention.

“I like them,” she says. Her voice is minute, so much so that Xiongzhang often jokes she could speak at dinner all she wants and no one but Sizhui would notice. Lan Wangji has taken care to remind Sizhui that there is nothing wrong with such a thing; secretly, the fact that she can speak at all has never failed to relieve him.

Sizhui smiles, bright as sunshine. “Me too. Hanguang-Jun, which one is this?”

The return to a formal title is a good sign. It means, he hopes, that Sizhui has found himself on steady ground once more.

 If so, then he is satisfied. Lan Wangji does not plan to ask what the nightmare was about if it is not needed. There is little point in prying; if Sizhui wishes to speak it, he will.

Instead, Lan Wangji focuses on the rabbit in his hands.

She is small, one of the newer litters that was birthed this Spring. The original rabbits gifted to him by Wei Ying have long since died, generations of rabbits ago. Still, he recognizes the shade of black that was passed down to this one. He has given up naming all of them by now, given how their population control has been a headache these past years, but he cannot help having a fondness for ones such as her.

“Heituzi,” he says, and Sizhui giggles. He covers his mouth quickly, flushing.

“Sorry, Hanguang-Jun. The name is fitting.”

“Mn.”

It is alright for him to laugh. Lan Wangji knows he is not particularly good with names. In his entire life, he has only gotten three right.

Carefully, he strokes the rabbit’s head. She wriggles, restless, and Sizhui’s grip loosens. They let her leave, Yingyue fluttering in the air from the movement. The rabbit does not linger nearby, as many tend to when it is just him and Sizhui visiting; instead, she hops a few mǐ away, joining another rabbit that is busy eating grass.

Sizhui watches her go, a faraway look on his face.

“Father,” he says, and Lan Wangji’s heart lurches like it has every time since Sizhui began to call him that, back when he was still A-Yuan, “do you ever feel like you’re… missing something?”

Lan Wangji blinks at him. The past twelve years he has missed Wei Ying with more intensity that he had ever thought possible. Being without Wei Ying is being without direction, gravity, reason. He has been consumed by how much he misses, turned to a shell of what he used to be by the violence of it.

He does not think that is what Sizhui means. Still, he gives a quiet, “Mn.”

It is enough encouragement. Sizhui turns to him, wrapping his arms around his knees. He looks, Lan Wangji thinks, so grown and yet so very young.

“Sometimes, I just…” he starts, and pauses. Yingyue floats over to him, settling noiselessly on his shoulder. The effect is nearly instantaneous: Sizhui draws in a breath, muscles relaxing. He laughs, a little shaky. “I’m sorry. The nightmare I had, it was so strange. I don’t even know why I’m still thinking about it.”

Bichen lays her head on the grass, head close to Sizhui’s knee. “Perhaps telling us will help.”

Sizhui glances at Lan Wangji. It is a deeply searching look despite its brevity, unusually hesitant for eyes that often hold nothing but affection and curiosity. Lan Wangji keeps his face as neutral and steady as he can, unsure of what Sizhui is looking for there.

“Ok,” Sizhui whispers, finding whatever it was. He lets out a shaky exhale. “It wasn’t—I don’t know why it scared me so much. I was… somewhere dark, I think. But it didn’t feel bad. Yingyue was ahead of me, but at some point she drifted a little far, and I lost sight of her.”

On his shoulder, Yingyue quivers. Her wingtips brush across Sizhui’s cheek and he closes his eyes, lashes fluttering.

“So I started walking until I could see her ahead. She was still far away, just a little speck. When I caught sight of her, there was something else there. They were—it was—red, maybe, I don’t remember. But it was… important. I knew it was important. I knew that I missed it.”

Lan Wangji carefully controls his breathing. The red in his own dreams flashes before his eyes, closing his throat.

Sizhui continues on, oblivious, that same lost expression on his face again. “By the time I got to where it had been, I didn’t even remember what I was searching for in the first place. Yingyue was there, but nothing—no one else. And no matter how hard I looked, I couldn’t find it. I looked everywhere, and I—”

His breath hitches, forcing him to break off.

Sizhui has always been an emotional child: painfully empathetic, moved easily to tears. They are not always sad; at times, especially in the early years, Lan Wangji could see confusion written with each saltwater line down his cheeks. Like if he cried hard enough, he could figure out answers to questions he didn’t even know he had.

Tonight, the soft shine in his eyes is all too similar.

“You may cry,” Lan Wangji says as he watches Sizhui struggle to keep composure. It is what he has learned to say. It was what was never said to him. 

It earns him a small sniffle and a watery smile.

“Don’t encourage me, I’m such a crybaby! Don’t tell Lan Jingyi, ok?”

Lan Wangji would have no reason to tell anyone. Still, he nods. At his side, Bichen has gone unusually quiet, matching the constriction currently twisting his chest into knots. Hearing Sizhui speak, it takes great effort to not get lost in memories of the other crybaby they used to know.

“Anyways,” Sizhui continues, once he has wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “It felt so familiar, but I can’t remember ever having it before. And when I woke up, I just—missed them, so bad.”

The slip in words goes unnoticed by Sizhui, but Lan Wangji feels it pierce him like a sword. His mind goes to a grave cut into dirt, the depths of a bloody pool, a promise. He does not know what to say in response. Knowing the true depth of who and what Sizhui is missing, whatever he could say would be hollow.  

He pulls out his guqin.

At the first note, Sizhui perks up. Since he was very young, he has been hearing the guqin. At first it was in the Jingshi, soothed to sleep by a song that was not meant for a child’s lullaby; then in classrooms, cultivating his own skill. He has heard Lan Wangji play many things over the years, but he has never heard this.

It has been a long time since Lan Wangi played it at all.

The start, the choice to begin it, is always the hardest. As soon as the first string of melodies slips from his fingers, he is powerless to stop.

With a faint sigh, Sizhui leans against his side. His eyelids flutter closed, the true hour of the night clearly catching up to him now that he has spoken. The casual display of trust and affection never fails to stir something deep in Lan Wangji’s chest. He uses that feeling, presses it into each note.

Between them, the song drifts, a homage and eulogy in one.

“A-Zhan,” Bichen prompts, when the weight on his shoulder turns heavy and lax. He finishes the last note before resting his fingers on the strings.

“Mn.”

He looks out over the silent expanse of grass, at the bunnies dozing safely under their watch. He feels the rise and fall of Sizhui’s breathing, watches the tiny twitch in Yingyue’s wings as she dreams.

It will be time, soon. Sizhui is a good boy: he is kind, intelligent, well-loved and loving in return. It is not easy to imagine him being moved to hate, but Lan Wangji will take his hate if necessary, rather than keep his family from his memories forever. Sizhui is not his, not anyone’s. The path before him must be one of his own choosing.

“Father,” Suzhui mumbles minutes later, as Lan Wangji carefully hoists him up into his arms. Bichen nudges the bunnies back into the hutch before trailing behind them, back up the path.

He replies with a gentle hum, unwilling to speak and wake him further.

Nonsensical, still mostly asleep, Sizhui breathes, “I hope we find them.”

The words halt his steps. He looks down at Sizhui, so overcome with love and sorrow that he can do nothing else. Sleep paints him soft as the moonlight shines down on his face, turning his forehead ribbon luminescent.

Lan Wangji never would have guessed, standing at the base of a tree in the Burial Mounds, that a single child could come to be so infinitely special to him. That he would watch him grow in a young man, rise to become the brightest sun in a sea of clouds.

“One day,” he murmurs, and gently moves Sizhui’s hair from his face, “maybe you will.”


It is less than a year later that Bichen’s ears perk up.

They are waiting near Dafan Mountain for the junior disciples to come back, tension rising higher with each passing moment. Jiang Wanyin sits across from him, each of them ignoring the other. Even if Lan Wangji was not in his head trying to puzzle out the strange events at Mo Manor, he would not bother to spare a glance.

Bichen, up until now, has been very still. The rise of her head, the slight tilt, catches his attention.

“Oh,” she breathes. Only he hears it; the language they speak is a quiet one.

She stands, staring up at the mountain. There is the slightest curl to her tail. When she turns to him, her eyes are huge.

“It’s the same,” she tells him, ears twitching. There is no context to her words, only the sudden quivering of their link. It is a feeling in her that he does not fully recognize. “A-Zhan, it’s the same.”

He does not understand. When she takes off into the trees, he follows her anyway.

__

What were you looking for in Yiling?

Lan Wangji has obsessed over that question since he heard it a decade ago. He has many answers: another chance, another moment, another reminder to cling to. They have all been incorrect. He has been searching for the right one for thirteen years.

When he hears the first note of the flute on the wind, he finally finds it.