“You speak of destiny as if it was fixed.”
― Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass
This is not what Wei Wuxian had been expecting.
He’d been prepared for a lot, he thinks, as the tiger takes another step out of the crumbling structure, the last remnants of the chains that were clinging to her body falling to the ground. A bunch of panicked birds: sure! Nie Mingjue’s body, raging and screaming from resentment: seems about right! Somehow seeing Jiang Cheng out here in the middle of nowhere, the entire experience actually just a way to track him down and yell at him for ditching that night in the inn: why not!
That, at least, would be less surprising than this. Because while he’d thought he’d accounted for everything, he’d never thought it would be—
“Baxia?!” Bichen cries, and Baxia roars.
They all stare at her, so shocked that when Wei Wuxian looks back on the memory later, desperate for clues and understanding, he’ll remember nothing but the bold black and orange stripes on her side and the way Lan Wangji draws in a quiet, hitching breath.
Before they can do anything else, she lunges.
Song Lan is closest, and she goes for him first: nothing more than a blur as she soars through the air at him, teeth and claws ready to rip him apart. All of them scatter away, Lan Wangji grabbing Wei Wuxian by the arm and physically shoving him behind him. Bichen leaps to the side to avoid getting trampled, wide-eyed and stunned.
Song Lan blocks the first attack with Frostwork, staggering back from her weight as she throws herself at him with her full force. He grits his teeth, muscles straining as he tries to hold her back without touching her, nothing but metal protecting him from her fury. When she rears back to swipe her claws across his side, a clear wall of energy springs into life—a protective barrier born from Lan Wangji’s guqin ringing through the air.
She slams against it, her cracked, bloody claws scraping uselessly against it as she yowls.
“Baxia!” Bichen repeats, horrified and confused, but Baxia doesn’t appear to hear her. She pivots, tail going wild, and lunges at Wen Ning.
Wen Ning barely manages to avoid her by grabbing a nearby fallen log and shoving it in front of him. Her teeth crunch around the wood instead of his bones; Wei Wuxian watches, alarmed, as they cleave right through it, like snapping a toothpick in half.
It's with another snarl that she drops the log at her feet, muscles shifting and flexing.
“I thought she died!” Wei Wuxian shouts, already digging through the Qiankun pouch for spiritual nets and talismans. Baxia takes another step towards Wen Ning, the dry dirt under her feet physically cracking from the weight of her body.
“She did!” Bichen hisses, and growls when Baxia pounces.
Another strum of strings; another wall from Lan Wangji, blocking her attack. Baxia snarls, enraged, head twisting and turning to find the source of whatever keeps getting in her way. Her eyes are unfocused and fevered, mouth open in a hiss.
When she sees Lan Wangji holding the guqin, she roars. Her claws scrape like metal against a chalkboard as she pulls back from the barrier and turns to face them instead.
She leaps towards them, and this time the swell of spiritual energy is palpable as Lan Wangji throws up another shield, its expanse shimmering and flowing like a waterfall after spring rains, a pure concentration of his energy. He’s just in time—she slams into it, the shield reverberating like a poorly-played note, and just keeps slamming.
In his past life, he’d seen Baxia maybe a dozen or so times, mostly during the Sunshot Campaign. She was hard to miss even in the meetings: the largest tiger of any generation according to some, all rippling muscles and long lines. A single one of her teeth was nearly half the length of Wei Wuxian’s hand, and there was unmistakable power in each of her movements, every breath she took.
But for being an apex predator, strong enough to take out nearly any of the other Sect leaders’ daemons, she had rarely seemed interested in showing off her power.
He’d always admired that: how whenever she spoke, whenever she moved, there was a certainly in what she did, a confidence that stemmed from more than just her physical size. She’d been outspoken and direct, yes—but even when just observing, she’d quieted the rowdier sects and made the more powerful ones think twice when she looked their way. Like she was truly always ready for anything, unmovable and unshakable and not afraid to stand where she thought was right. On the battlefield, she’d been quick, efficient, intensely protective of all the Nie around her; but level-headed and calculating, too.
Looking at her now, Wei Wuxian sees none of that.
Just matted fur and wild, crazed eyes.
“Buy time!” Wei Wuxian shouts, as Wen Ning and Song Lan start to flank, Baxia’s roars getting increasingly more enraged and mixing with the discordant, accidental melody she’s creating with each attack. They need to contain her fast, but they can’t kill her in the process; she’s clearly out of her mind. “Lan Zhan, can you hold her off?!”
No response. He glances up and finds Lan Wangji’s entire body taught, eyes burning with focus.
With each slam against the barrier, his guqin jerks, all of his spiritual energy tied up in fighting back her strength. It’s almost as if he’s struggling to keep her back, but that couldn’t be, it’s Lan Wangji, he’s the strongest person Wei Wuxian has ever known—
Baxia swipes again, and the wall in front of them shimmers.
It’s a different shimmering than before, less the natural movement of water, but instead the disturbance of it: like a ripple, originating from the center and spreading out to the edges.
And there, tinting the clear spring purity of it, is a tiny thread of black.
For the first time, Wei Wuxian sees the resentment hidden beneath Baxia’s attacks.
The instant he notices it, it comes to life, as if it had been waiting for a brush of attention before raising its head. It starts small and grows fast, as resentment always does: one second, it’s just thin whisps swirling and twisting around her feet; the next, it surges up, growing into a thick cloud around her body, smoke clinging to her fur like a second skin. It seeps into the dirt around them and starts to inch up, up, up the barrier, an unwelcome black ivy creeping towards the sky.
Wei Wuxian drops the nets and reaches towards his sash, because of course, this is perfect, he can just—
The guqin makes a shattered, discontent sound. Lan Wangji’s eyes go wide.
“Wei Ying!” he shouts, panicked, and it’s right at that moment that Baxia breaks through the shield.
Wei Wuxian’s stomach drops down to his toes.
Despite Baxia’s claws being cracked and bloody, like she’s been scraping them against stone, they’re still impossibly sharp—the barrier becomes nothing but a flayed ribbon of energy, something he thought was impossible for anyone to achieve, not with Lan Zhan. In her heels comes the resentment, finishing up the job as it rushes forward and tears the shivering remnants of it to shreds.
And just like that, their one protection has vanished into nothing.
Without wasting as much as a second, Baxia leaps forward, teeth ready to close around Lan Wangji’s throat.
What Wei Wuxian does next is on nothing but pure reflex.
Original plan tossed to the side, he leaps forward, shoving out from behind Lan Wangji and lurching forward into the way of Baxia’s attack instead.
Everything gets very quiet, a sudden hush. Time seems to slow as he pushes Lan Wangji aside with every ounce of the strength in his body. Baxia’s orange and black blur rockets towards them, but Wei Wuxian can’t look at her. He can only look at Lan Wangji, a single, all-encompassing thought settling in his very heart.
He sees the complete, abject horror that crosses Lan Wangji’s face as he realizes what’s happening—as he stumbles backwards, prepared for an attack from the front but not the side, and sees what Wei Wuxian has done. His entire face contorts with it, golden eyes holding nothing but terror, each line and curve of his beautiful lips and brows aghast, like he’s looking at someone throw themselves over the edge of a cliff with nothing but bloody rocks below.
His mouth opens in a scream.
It is the only noise that cuts through the silence.
Not him, Wei Wuxian thinks distantly, as Lan Wangji’s hands reach helplessly towards him, Baxia’s claws nearly at his robes. Lan Wangji will be too late, but that’s ok. Not him. Hurt me instead, not him, not my zhiji—
He can’t—he’d rather—
Bichen collides with Baxia mid-air.
Twin snarls cut through the air as she slams into Baxia from the side, sending her just enough off course that she misses Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji and goes tumbling into the dirt instead. The force of it sends them both down, more dirt and dust scattering around them, a few roots yanked out of the soil as they scramble for purchase. Roars fill the air, wild paws a blur as they try to untangle from one another.
Lan Wangji grabs him and yanks him to his chest, sword already in hand.
Like everything today, they’re both too slow. Within seconds, Baxia finds her feet; she rears up, no humanity in her eyes, nothing but wild reflex and rage. Right as Bichen is about to stand, she brings her claws down.
Bright red spills across the grey dirt.
The world comes to a screeching, terrible halt.
This time, it’s both Bichen and Lan Wangji who scream. Baxia’s claws rake across Bichen’s side, tearing through her fur and down to the bone beneath. Blood splatters across the nearest tree, the sharp, metallic smell of iron filling his nose and blocking out everything else.
Lan Wangji’s entire body spasms, his hands releasing Wei Wuxian and grasping his own side instead.
Five shouts, all at once: “Bichen!”
Lan Wangji staggers as he tries to step forward, and Wei Wuxian catches him, Song Lan and Wen Ning rushing in to help Bichen. Before they can get there, Baxia grabs Bichen by her throat and, in a disturbingly smooth motion, tosses her across the clearing like a rag.
She hits one of the grey trees with a thud, a sickening crack echoing through the air as her body falls to the dirt.
She doesn’t get up.
“Bichen!” Lan Wangji screams, a real scream, raw and wretched in the same way he’d just said Wei Wuxian’s name.
He flies forward, accidentally dragging Wei Wuxian along with him, their bodies tangled together. Baxia is already halfway to where Bichen is laying, dusty and bloody in the dirt. Lan Wangji sends an attack at her, but the resentment swirling around her body rears up and blocks it, hissing like a bubbling pot.
He sends another one, and another, but it ricochets off, useless. Wei Wuxian curses; this isn’t working, and they’re too slow, he just needs a second to—
Baxia’s paws sink into the earth as she stalks over with confident, purposeful steps, tail thrashing and twisting behind her.
They’re not going to get there in time, and Wei Wuxian can’t—if Lan Wangji would just give him a moment to grab—
A small tan and white shape darts out of a hole near the tree. It's a flash, nearly a blur, quicker than any of them are moving, and it only slows when it comes to stand firmly in front of Bichen’s body.
“Oh no you don’t!!” Suibian shrieks, all of her fur on end. She arches her spine and ack-ack-acks at Baxia, a warning, looking more like a puffed-up rice cake than any actual threat. “Stay back!”
Baxia pauses, blinking.
It would be comical if it wasn’t so terrible: a tiny fox trying to face down a tiger when she’s not even the size of her head, let alone any actual threat, while the tiger regards her in open confusion. There’s no sign of recognition in Baxia’s eyes, still that uncontained fury. What’s stopped her isn’t a sudden kindness of heart, Wei Wuxian thinks, but surprise that such a small creature would be stupid enough to stand in her way.
“You’re a bad kitty!” Suibian continues to scold Baxia, high-pitched, not moving from her place in front of Bichen as Lan Wangji gets closer and closer. Their link is trembling violently, and Wei Wuxian can see her shaking like a leaf, but she opens her mouth and acks louder, tail poofed to twice its size. “I’ll bite your claws off! Don’t touch her, she’s mine!”
Wei Wuxian yanks himself away from Lan Wangji, skidding to a halt. Lan Wangji doesn’t even seem to notice; he keeps rushing forward on pain-dulled, uncoordinated legs, single-minded and desperate.
Behind Suibian, still completely visible despite Suibian’s best efforts, Bichen’s eyes flutter open.
“Suibian?” she whispers, and tries to lift her head. Blood runs down her side in thick rivets, pooling in the dirt around them; her gaze is only half-there. “Suibian?! Run!”
Baxia seems to be over her momentary puzzlement. She yowls, raising another paw, ready to swipe down—
The order comes not in words, or in actions, or even in the forced obedience of a well-written talisman.
It comes instead in the firm, reedy whistle of a flute.
The effect is immediate. Baxia freezes, her paw hovering in the air above Suibian’s puffed-up body. Her head whips around at an unnatural angle, turning to Wei Wuxian.
Wei Wuxian adjusts his hold on the bamboo as he breathes out again, another authoritative STOP. His heart is thundering in his ears; from the moment Bichen and Baxia collided, he’s been trying to unloop the flute from his sash, but supporting Lan Wangji’s weight and frantic stumbling cost him a few precious seconds. The wood is slippery under his fingers, and one of his ties has come loose from his efforts to get out the instrument one-handed—but here it is, finally in his grasp.
And thanks to Suibian’s clever stalling, he’s not too late.
Now, her eyes are on him.
Lan Wangji falls to his knees in front of Bichen, shaking hands already glowing with spiritual energy, and Wei Wuxian lets out another low note, watching as the resentment pulses around Baxia, trying to fight his order.
Her head twitches toward Lan Wangji, bloody teeth bared.
Oh no you don’t, he tells her, a quick, commanding melody. This resentment might not know that he used to be the Yiling Patriarch, but he will teach it quickly. I am your master. Obey.
The resentment tries to edge away from his grasp, curling down Baxia’s sides and into her bloody claws, but he grabs it with an exhale, traps it in his hold. Wei Wuxian focuses on a new order: Away. Move away.
There is a long, shuddering pause.
Baxia takes a single step back.
Slowly, a jerky puppet on strings, she moves away. She’s more unruly than Wen Ning ever was, eerily similar to the Burial Mound’s level of power, like an entire mountain of resentment has been packed into her body.
She is, he realizes with a cold clarity, alive.
He thought she must be a fierce corpse, somehow, but no. As he moves her away, he can feel her heartbeat in his melody, the heat of her pushing against his subconscious.
She’s a living, breathing, tiger. One that has resentment soaked into to the core of her like a honey cake, dark and cloying and thick. When he forces her back another step, gaze going red at the edges from its vicious resistance, he can feel the true depths of its invasion in her still-beating heart.
He narrows his focus, puts everything he has into each note.
One step, two steps. Get away, get away.
Wen Ning and Song Lan have taken up defensive stances in front of Lan Wangji and Bichen, watching Baxia closely. Wei Wuxian motions to them with one hand, pointing to the spiritual nets on the ground as his lungs burn from the effort of playing.
They get the hint. They spring into action, grabbing the glowing nets and moving to flanking positions on either side of her.
Down, Wei Wuxian orders, the world spinning slightly as he keeps the resentment grasped tight in his melody. Baxia snarls, and he holds his flute tighter, fingers digging into the wood. Lay down!
It’s a screech of a command, uncompromising. The resentment’s resistance shatters, a stallion finally broken in, and Baxia collapses onto the ground, nearby chunks of stone shuddering from the weight of the impact.
She looks at Wei Wuxian, and for the first time, she is tamed.
Tamed, but still a threat. Song Lan and Wen Ning wrap her in net after net, cover her from head to toe in talismans from the Qiankun pouch, weigh down the edges with stones and logs for good measure. Wei Wuxian plays and plays and plays, soft when he can, harsh when she starts to twitch and growl.
Easy, he soothes; STOP, he snarls; and then, as the final stone is placed, sleep.
Baxia’s eyes droop slowly, tail flicking, whatever rage still burning in her not wanting to be so easily quelled. But Wei Wuxian wasn’t the most feared demonic cultivator of his age for nothing; when he plays his final note, it’s to a sleeping tiger, curled up on the dry ground with no hope of escape.
He lowers his flute, the world spinning under his feet, and draws in a ragged breath.
Then he staggers over to Lan Wangji and Bichen.
It looks bad.
There’s so much blood. Lan Wangji’s hands are covered in red, Bichen’s blood soaked under his nails and up the edges of his sleeves, and Wei Wuxian can see more oozing from the still-open wounds in Bichen’s side. Suibian’s fur is smeared with it as well from where she’s pressed against Bichen’s neck, licking the puncture wounds on her throat and scruff from where Baxia tossed her.
Wei Wuxian falls to his knees next to Lan Wangji, staring at Bichen. Her eyes are closed, her breathing strained; she looks to be in impossible amounts of pain, made a shade of herself by the violence of it.
“How is she?” he croaks, hands hovering uselessly in the air. Lan Wangji doesn’t reply, face furrowed in concentration and pain. He’s paler than Wei Wuxian has ever seen him, body shaking as he presses his glowing hands against her shredded side.
“It’s healing, but really slow,” Suibian whimpers, ears far back against her head. Their bond is shuddering with fear, concern so potent that he can taste it. “Why is it taking so long?”
“Broken bones.” Lan Wangji doesn’t look away from Bichen when he speaks, sounding distant, almost numb. “Internal wounds first.”
Suibian’s tail tucks, horror settling through both of them. Wei Wuxian thinks back to the crack when she hit the tree; no wonder she’s still bleeding. How much internal damage is Lan Wangji having to work through before he can get to the surface?
How much of it is he feeling, right this very moment?
Quickly, he reaches into the Qiankun bag, looking for bandages, herbs, anything. Years of training are taking over, all of Wen Qing’s rants about the importance of knowing how to heal without magic filling his head, and he’s never been more grateful for them.
“Suibian, here, press this against her neck. We need to stem the flow of blood, so put all your weight against it, alright?”
Suibian whines softly and scrambles over to him, grabbing the bandages with her teeth and doing as instructed. Wei Wuxian turns to Lan Wangji and touches his wrist, trying to draw his attention without getting in the way of the transfer.
Lan Wangji shudders at the touch, eyes flicking to him.
There’s a waver in his voice, a hoarse desperation hiding under his normal composure. Wei Wuxian’s entire chest aches; he’s never heard Lan Wangji like that, not before he screamed his name today.
“She’s going to make it,” he says, because he’s not going to let Lan Wangji be afraid, and grabs more bandages. “Just focus on the transfer, okay? Suibian and I will take care of the bleeding.”
Lan Wangji hesitates, then nods, jaw clenched.
They huddle around her, blood soaking through white cloth and sticking to Wei Wuxian’s hands as he presses bandages across her side, Lan Wangji’s energy tucking itself under his fingers and into her body. The thin cloth is the only thing stopping them from touching, but he doesn’t even think about it, can only focus on putting all his weight on the wounds. Bichen hisses and whimpers at the pressure, but neither he nor Suibian let up.
Her breathing is starting to get stronger. At the next twitch, her eyes flutter, and all of them draw in unsteady breaths.
“Bichen, can you hear us?” Suibian asks, anxious. Bichen lets out a low, pained noise.
“Yes,” she groans, and relief hits Wei Wuxian like a tidal wave.
He can feel the way Lan Wangji’s entire body shudders, his skin clammy when Wei Wuxian grabs his hand and gives it a squeeze. Lan Wangji presses more spiritual energy into her, and Wei Wuxian weaves some of his in too, a meager trickle into the tsunami he’s giving, but something nonetheless.
“Where does it hurt?” he asks. Bichen growls, which he assumes means everywhere.
“We’re right here!” Suibian says, licking her ears, her face. She’s more red than tan now, a twisted version of what she used to look like in their past life. “You’re going to be ok!”
Their bond trembles, watery and scared.
At her voice, Bichen tries to raise her head and hisses, face morphing with pain. Her head thunks back to the ground and all of them twitch, Lan Wangji reaching out and working his palm under her head so it rests on his skin instead of the dirt.
“A-Zhan,” she pants.
“I am here.”
She cracks open an eye, muscles trembling. “Baxia, is she…?”
“She’s contained,” Wei Wuxian reassures her, and Bichen relaxes, head lolling to look at Suibian. Suibian licks her muzzle this time, ears still pressed back.
“Bichen, she hit you so hard, you shouldn’t try to talk!”
“I will be fine,” she rumbles, but there’s an exhausted edge to it, tiny flinches of pain under their attention. “I am just glad you are ok.”
The words sound slightly more present, less like someone half-asleep. Suibian whines and Lan Wangji draws in an unsteady breath.
“Aiyo, worry about yourself right now,” Wei Wuxian scolds lightly. He shifts so that his and Lan Wangji’s knees brush, a silent I’m here; Lan Wangji is too pale, and still shaking. “Are things starting to hurt less?”
Bichen nods. Her eyes are gradually clearing, the haze over them ebbing away as Lan Wangji heals her.
“You saved our tails,” Suibian praises, and Bichen huffs, face twisting with pain right after. Suibian whines, clearly unsure of what to do but very much wanting to help. She seems to settle with more compliments. “I mean, when you tackled her out of the air? So cool, you’re so strong!”
This time, Bichen’s rumble is closer to a laugh. The skin below her bandages is starting to glow softly, like early morning light; when Wei Wuxian leans forward to look, the raw edges of her cuts are stitching together, slow but undeniable.
She’s healing. Actually, truly healing.
She’s going to be ok.
It’s a group realization—all three of them coming to the conclusion at once, like they were in a pitch-black room and someone lit a single candle to illuminate the corners. Wei Wuxian’s throat gets tight, adrenaline buzzing in his body. Suibian continues to shower Bichen with praise as Lan Wangji shudders again, relief this time.
“Nice job,” Wei Wuxian murmurs to him, feeling like his very bones are quivering with relief. Lan Wangji swallows.
“Do not drain yourself,” Bichen warns, muscles rippling as the cuts keep shrinking, blood crusting and scabbing into thick, rusty lines that crisscross down her side. Suibian starts to lick the blood off her fur, carefully avoiding the still-raw wounds. “I will be fine, A-Zhan.”
Lan Wangji ignores her, a stubborn line to his mouth.
Wei Wuxian can’t help but laugh, semi-hysterical. If she’s aware enough to lecture him, and he’s still stubborn enough to pretend not to hear, then they really will be ok.
Without thinking, he leans against Lan Wangji’s shoulder, an anchor point. “Whew. That was a close one, huh?”
He means the talismans, and Shuanghua, and the absolute insanity that is now sleeping behind them covered in spiritual nets—but something in Lan Wangji’s eyes goes molten at the question.
Before Wei Wuxian can react, Lan Wangji’s hands are gripping his shoulders.
It takes him off guard, another rush of shock. He blinks, and Lan Wangji holds his gaze, fingers digging into his robes, such a fire burning so bright in the gold of his irises that he’s nearly knocked over by it.
“Lan Zhan?” he whispers, confused, heart pounding in his ears. Lan Wangji swallows.
“Do not do that again.”
“Wei Ying. Never again.”
His voice is low, unusually rough. Wei Wuxian stares up at him, wondering what he did to make him look like this, to hold so tight. That intensity, the frown on his face—he must be mad, mad at something Wei Wuxian did—
He realizes it a split second later, the words and their meaning sinking in. Micro-shivers are running through Lan Wangji, easy to feel even in just his fingertips, and Bichen’s eyes keep flicking to Suibian, who is pressed anxiously against her side and whining softly.
He’s not mad. He’s scared.
Oh. He scared him, earlier.
“Lan Zhan,” he whispers, and Lan Wangji stiffens, like he’s preparing for an argument. Slowly, Wei Wuxian reaches up and touches his hand, light but present. “Lan Zhan, we’re fine. There’s no danger anymore.”
Lan Wangji’s jaw is tense. “You should not have done such a thing.”
Each word seems carved from ice, sharp around the edges. In his old life, Wei Wuxian would have thought Lan Wangji thought he was stupid, but he knows better now.
He really scared him.
“I…” Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what to say. He can’t say he’s sorry, because he’s not; he would do the same thing again in a heartbeat, if it meant that he was hurt instead of Lan Wangji. He swallows. “Lan Zhan. You’re—I’m—”
“I can’t promise that,” Wei Wuxian whispers, and squeezes Lan Wangji’s hand tighter when Lan Wangji flinches. “Lan Zhan. I can’t. You know I can’t.”
“She was going for you, Lan Zhan, and your shield—”
“What? It’s not, of course it’s not, she was going to kill you!”
“I can take a hit. You cannot.”
Wei Wuxian half-laughs, exhausted and dizzy, feeling oddly like he’s standing on the edge of something. Lan Wangji is right, of course he is, but that doesn’t change his answer. “Lan Zhan.”
Lan Wangji is so present, the heat of his palms bleeding through his robes. They’ve never touched like this before, staring into each other’s eyes with Lan Wangji holding him like this, and it should feel so good but they’re arguing and Wei Wuxian just wants—
“Lan Zhan,” he repeats, and lets himself tip forward, pressing his forehead against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. Lan Wangji’s hands twitch, and he goes very still. “Please. I’m sorry for worrying you, alright? I’ll try not to, I really will.”
It’s the best he can do, the most he can give.
Lan Wangji is quiet for a few unsteady beats. Then, slowly, he lowers one of his hands and touches Wei Wuxian’s waist.
“Mn,” he murmurs, and Wei Wuxian shivers, relief mixing with the butterfly tangle in his chest.
They sit there for a moment, just breathing. Lan Wangji is warm and alive against him, the sharp iron smell of blood mixing with dirt and sandalwood. His breathing is getting steadier, buoyed by Bichen’s still-glowing wounds, and Wei Wuxian can feel the comforting ba-dump-ba-dump of his heart. He presses closer and lets himself count it, feels Lan Wangji’s thumb sneak to his wrist to do the same.
It’s only when he feels a semblance of steady again, when Lan Wangji’s hands begin to loosen, that Wei Wuxian pulls back from him.
His shaking hasn’t ebbed; Wei Wuxian can’t imagine how much pain he must be in, the exhaustion that is no doubt pushing in at every corner of his and Bichen’s bodies.
He glances back at Baxia. She’s still sleeping, the kind of uneasy rest that he’s all too familiar with from those years after he lost his core. Wen Ning is standing guard over her, looking like he’s ready to spring into action if he so much as twitches; Song Lan is doing the same, but he’s clutching his chest, a far-away look in his eyes.
He looks like he’s in physical pain.
“Shit,” he says, breaking the silence. Lan Wangji and Bichen both stiffen, Suibian perking her ears from where she’s cuddled against Bichen. “Sorry, sorry, nothing’s wrong, I just—Song-xiong?”
Song Lan’s head twitches toward him, and he taps his chest several times in succession.
“Fuxue,” Wei Wuxian realizes, mentally kicking himself for forgetting in the first place. Everything else had flown out of his head as soon as he saw Bichen get hurt, but they still have an entire building to explore.
Song Lan nods, pointing to the stone structure.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian places a hand on Lan Wangji’s back, brain kicking into gear once more, “you two stay here and try to catch your breath, ok? Song Lan and I will check out whatever’s left inside.”
He doesn’t want to leave them, not for a moment, but who knows what else is in there? There could be another wild daemon, or some awful trap. He can’t risk it, not when Lan Wangji and Bichen are still shaking and faded, not when they’re vulnerable like this. He has to watch their back, like they would for him.
He rises to his feet and is immediately stopped from going any further by an iron grip around his forearm.
“No,” Lan Wangji says, and it hurts, how tightly he’s holding onto him. His eyes are wide, a sun-glint gold. “Wei Ying.”
“What are you—”
“Do not go.”
Wei Wuxian blinks at him, confused. “It’s just across the clearing, I’m not going anywhere. Come on, it’ll be fine, and you need to rest and recover! You too, Bichen, really, look at you both—”
Lan Wangji stands up and promptly starts to fall over.
Wei Wuxian yelps and darts forward, shoving himself against his side and looping an arm around his waist. He is unsteady against him, shaking like his own miniature earthquake, but he grips Wei Wuxian tight, like he thinks the world will end if he doesn’t.
To his dismay, Bichen struggles to her feet as well, digging her claws into the earth with a hiss. Suibian jumps up and scurries to her side, whining.
“What are you doing?!”
“We will go.”
Wei Wuxian gapes at them, flabbergasted. “Bichen! This is not a time to be stubborn, ok?”
Bichen growls. Wei Wuxian can see the pain she’s trying to push back, her muscles tense and shaking. “We will not let you go alone. A-Zhan and I will look.”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees. “You stay.”
That is, objectively, the absolute worst plan. Wei Wuxian stares at them, disbelieving.
“No way! I’m not the one who just got sliced open!”
Lan Wangji flinches. If Wei Wuxian hadn’t been half supporting his weight, he would have missed the minute movement, like a tiny sprout just barely poking out from under the surface of Lan Wangji’s normally perfect stillness. But here he is, right up close in the dirt of it, bloody hands as proof.
Before he can do damage control, Lan Wangji tries to take a step towards the stone structure, brow furrowed in concentration.
“Aiyo!” Wei Wuxian protests, and wedges himself closer so that Lan Wangji has no choice but to lean more on him. Bichen is fully on her feet now, trying to follow. “Please, you’re both more red than white right now, you really should just wait here—”
In unison, they snap, “No.”
An odd feeling of helplessness rises in Wei Wuxian, churning his stomach. Lan Wangji still so pale. Baxia cut through his energy like it was nothing, and he must have spent a good chunk of it healing Bichen just now. He’s never seen either of them this pained, this exhausted.
It terrifies him.
If Wei Wuxian stepped back, left Lan Wangji to try and walk on his own, what would happen? Would he even be able to?
Lan Wangji takes another step.
“Fine, fine!” Wei Wuxian yelps, and clings to him like an urchin. He knows the look on his face—nothing he can say is going to change his mind now. “If you’re so upset about being left behind, we’ll go together!”
Lan Wangji sends him a disapproving look, and Wei Wuxian shrugs.
“That’s our compromise, er-gege, take it or leave it. But if you leave it, I’m tying you up like Baxia and putting you under the tree.”
Bichen lets out an unhappy rumble. Lan Wangji’s lips purse at the corners.
Wei Wuxian dutifully ignores both of those things, smiling sweetly. The quicker he goes along with what they want, the quicker he can get them sitting back down—but they’re out of their minds if they think he’s going to do nothing.
As if testing the waters, Lan Wangji tries to step forward again. Wei Wuxian grips his waist and digs his heels into the dirt in retaliation, a clear message.
After a moment, where Lan Wangji silently sulks and Wei Wuxian keeps smiling, Lan Wangji sighs.
“Wei Ying,” he scolds, but it’s weak, lacking any of its normal heat. Wei Wuxian’s heart soars as he lets Wei Wuxian take more of his weight, heavy against his side. The whole thing is begrudging, his scowl making it very clear he is not a fan about having to do so, but Wei Wuxian pats him on the chest anyways, pleased.
“We’re just getting in our three-legged race practice early,” he says, forcing his tone to stay light. “They thought our archery was great, wait until they see this!”
Lan Wangji’s fingers curl deeper into the arm Wei Wuxian has looped around his waist.
They start walking, Wei Wuxian magnanimously ignoring the way Lan Wangji glares at each displaced stone they pass, like each one has personally broken all five thousand Gusu Lan rules and bopped Lan Qiren over the head for good measure. Passing Baxia and Wen Ning goes without incident, save for Lan Wangji throwing a fuss about angling their bodies so that he’s between her and Wei Wuxian.
Bichen sniffs at her as she limps along, ears pressed flat against her head.
“I do not understand. She is alive, but so full of resentment. I thought only undead could have such a thing.”
She’s not the only one. Wei Wuxian has never seen a living creature so packed to the brim with it. It reminds him of the Burial Mounds, how even the ground itself had seemed to be soaked in a decades-old fury.
“Deviation?” he guesses, thinking back to Wen Qing’s endless lectures with an unpleasant weight settling in his stomach.
Suibian whimpers and Bichen’s lips pull back, an instinctual reaction to the idea.
“It would truly be this extreme?”
Wei Wuxian shakes his head, looking to Lan Wangji for guidance. He’s only ever heard stories about daemons deviating. All he knows is that if the distance or time between a human and their daemon gets to be too much, the daemon goes feral, losing all sense of self. If they’re not reunited in time, the pair dies.
That’s about the extent of his knowledge; Wen Qing was always worried about it with him and Suibian, giving him signs to look out for and things to avoid, but she took charge of the details and theory behind it. All of her tonics and days where she poked and prodded at the both of them were focused on that process, on what was keeping Suibian going and what might make it stop, how to extend the amount of time they had before she died because of it.
She was clearly prioritizing correctly, too. If this is deviation, Wei Wuxian understands why it’s considered one of the most emotionally devastating topics to study.
Baxia is just—an animal right now.
At his look, Lan Wangji shakes his head. Guess he’s not the only one at a loss, then.
“But how is she even here to deviate in the first place?” Suibian asks, hovering close to Bichen’s side so she can match her limping speed. She nuzzles her face against Bichen’s front leg, fur raised. “I thought everyone said she turned to dust!”
Lan Wangji swallows. “Lianfang-Zun swore it.”
“Yeah, well, he either magically missed her not doing that, or he lied,” Wei Wuxian mutters, carefully navigating around a loose root so that Lan Wangji doesn’t trip. Song Lan is already ahead of them, waiting at the blasted-out wall, and when Lan Wangji tries to increase their speed to cross the next half a dozen mĭ, he sighs. “Lan Zhan, please.”
Lan Wangji does the Lan equivalent of a grumble, a silent huff of air, but goes back to matching his pace. He still hasn’t stopped gripping him close.
“Did anyone else see Baxia turn to dust?” Suibian asks, and Bichen and Lan Wangji shake their heads. “It was just him? No one else was there when Nie Mingjue died?”
They don’t elaborate further than that. He and Suibian exchange a glance, worry quivering in their link.
Enough questions, he decides, and tucks himself more firmly under Lan Wangji. The whys can come later. They just need to get the daemons and get out of here.
I can still feel him, Song Lan writes in the dirt as they reach him, his right sleeve ripped to shreds from Baxia’s initial lunge. His hand keeps fluttering up to his chest, but he looks otherwise unharmed.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Wei Wuxian says, contrite. He wouldn’t have had the patience to do the smart thing and go in as a group, if it was Suibian stuck inside. Song Lan shifts, fingers flexing, and Wei Wuxian does his best to smile. “Let’s go see what Xue Yang was hiding.”
Xue Yang, it seems, was hiding exactly three things.
Or, at least, that’s what Wei Wuxian guesses as they step inside, stones loose and unsteady under their feet, and are greeted with three iron-barred cells.
They vary in size: one large enough for maybe two people, one small and tucked into the very far corner with most of a wall blocking it, and another one that takes up the majority of the space. The last one is clearly the room that was holding Baxia—he can see claw marks dug deep into the floor like miniature valleys, and tufts of orange and black fur are drifting across the stone from the wind breezing in. How she escaped is obvious, too: the bars have been blasted open to create a hole.
“Oops,” Wei Wuxian mutters, looking at the wreckage. They’d gone for power, not precision, and that came back to bite them. Literally.
A pair of giant shackles on the now-destroyed wall have fallen to the ground, their bloody hinges splayed open like shark’s teeth. They match the ones Suyin found outside, and from the way Suibian’s nose wrinkles, they smell the same.
Bichen is examining the middle cell. It’s in much of the same state, bars blasted apart to create an impromptu exit. These bars are thinner, closer together, like whoever put them there was less worried about power and more about something slipping through. The inside is completely empty, no chains in sight.
She noses a black feather stuck to the iron and growls. “This is where he kept Xiao Shuanghua. I can smell crane.”
Nausea wedges itself at the back of Wei Wuxian’s throat. So Xue Yang really did have him here, trapped. And too weak to fight back, if the inside of the cell is any indication.
Suibian has crossed over to the alcove in the corner, a smear of grey and tan next to Song Lan’s black-clad form. Song Lan is shaking, hands outstretched, and Wei Wuxian can’t see what’s inside from this angle but from Suibian’s anxious tone and the way he’s gasping, he has a pretty good guess.
“Shit,” he says, and he and Lan Wangji make their way over. He peers around Song Lan, and his stomach drops.
In the third cell, square and dusty and barely large enough to hold a large cat, is a poof of white feathers.
He’s crammed into the small space, so tight that his feathers are sticking out between the bars, wings twisted and body contorted in a desperate attempt to have some semblance of breathing room. His chest is barely moving, inhales and exhales so small and unsteady that A-Yun flashes in Wei Wuxian’s eyes.
Song Lan grabs the bars, screams, and yanks them out of the wall with a single, frenzied tug.
He’s more fierce corpse than human, black veins scattering up his neck and face and into his eyes. The iron bars clang on the stone, echoing in the small space as Song Lan tosses them aside, uncaring. In a flash, he’s gathered Fuxue into his arms, cradling his limp weight tightly to his chest.
Fuxue’s head lolls, Song Lan’s hand the only thing stopping his neck from drooping towards the ground; together, they fall to the stone floor.
Misery and relief war on his face—the strongest emotions Wei Wuxian has seen since Song Lan found out Xiao Xingchen was alive. It contorts his entire expression, shoulders heaving.
“We can help!” Suibian rushes to say as Song Lan hunches over Fuxue, running his fingers through his messy feathers. Some fall out as he does, the quills brittle and cracked, but Suibian plows on, confident. “This is what Wen Ning was telling you about, it’s not permanent! A-Xian and I have fixed it twice before, we can do it again!”
She goes to stand closer to them, ready. Song Lan holds up a trembling hand.
He fumbles for Frostwork, eyes still on Fuxue, and in shaky, almost illegible characters, writes:
The tiger. You must control her.
Wei Wuxian blinks down at the words. “But she’s asleep! I have her!”
Song Lan shakes his head, and points to the words again, insistent.
“That is the point,” Bichen interjects, voice strained. She’s still standing, but she’s leaning heavily against the crumbling wall. “Your music is the only effective method. If Baxia somehow escapes those nets, you will be our only way to contain her. We cannot risk you being weak from waking Song Fuxue up.”
“But—” Suibian protests, Wei Wuxian opening his mouth to do the same.
Song Lan taps Frostwork firmly on the floor.
Time limit on healing?
“I… no, I don’t think so,” Wei Wuxian admits, restlessness and frustration building in his chest. “Suyin was out for at least a decade, we think. I don’t know about A-Yun, but we can just—”
Song Lan shakes his head again and looks up. His eyes are haunted (and Wei Wuxian can’t imagine, feels sick at just the thought of it, Suibian locked up in a tiny cage with all her fur falling out—), but there’s a level-headedness there too.
Largest danger first, he writes, and swallows. His thumb sweeps across the top of Fuxue’s head. No point waking him up, just to have him killed because of it.
Wei Wuxian shivers, pushing back the mental image of white feathers stained with blood, of Suibian stained with blood.
They’re right, is the thing.
Until they’re sure that Baxia can’t break out of those nets and talismans, Wei Wuxian really is their only hope. Bichen and Lan Wangji won’t admit it, but they can’t take another fight like the one they just had; if she wakes up and that resentment resurfaces, it’ll be up to Wei Wuxian to make sure that she’s kept calm while the others figure out another way to trap her.
It's unfair and awful, in the way this entire city has been. Song Lan shouldn’t have to be thinking about anything except getting his daemon back.
But here they are.
“We’ll get him awake as soon as we can,” he promises, feeling useless, and Song Lan nods.
Slowly, he rises to his feet, Fuxue still held safely in his grip, and makes his way towards the exit. Wei Wuxian has heard so many stories about Song Lan, his composure, his elegance—but the way his shoulders stay straight and determined speaks more strongly than any ballad one could write about him.
Bichen draws in a breath and straightens up, no longer leaning against the wall. Suibian is quick to rush over to her, pressing under her neck. Wei Wuxian nudges Lan Wangji’s shoulder with his chin.
“Ready to walk again?”
“Mn.” Lan Wangji’s fingers are still tight on his arm. “Wei Ying. You do not need to—”
“Lan Zhan, if you try to convince me to let you walk on your own again, I’m going to replace all of our rations with nothing but spicy congee for the next month.”
Lan Wangji closes his mouth.
They make their way back to Baxia and Wen Ning, who are thankfully still in the middle of the clearing, the latter shifting nervously on his feet. Baxia still hasn’t moved, deep in her forced slumber.
It tilts his stomach to see her, another flood of nausea in his throat. He’s seen so many terrible things over the years—endless dead bodies, people screaming for mercy, Wen survivors cobbled together with nothing but skin and bones. Nightmares that weave the people he loves and the things he cares about into a tapestry of red and black, shadows and slimy voices taking his imagination and twisting it into horrors that burn behind his eyes whenever he tries to fall asleep at night.
He’d thought nothing could surprise him anymore, when it came to the things people could do.
But seeing Baxia laying there with dull, matted fur, and noticing for the first time the bloody holes punctured into her neck from the spiked collar they found in her cell, he realizes he was very wrong, indeed.
The seven of them stare down at her neglected, tortured form, barely visible through all the layers of spiritual nets and fluttering talisman paper, and listen to the wind howling through the trees like a warning.
“Right,” Wei Wuxian says, when no one else speaks. “So. Let’s just pretend that there aren’t a thousand questions about why she’s here, or how, or what’s true or not. How do we want to handle this?”
Lan Wangji shifts. “It would be best to keep her contained, until we can understand what happened.”
Despite his and Bichen’s caution when they passed by her the first time, he doesn’t sound happy about the idea. Looking around, none of them are. Baxia is still a daemon, a creature deserving of respect and care (and, from the look of her, one who hasn’t gotten some in a very long time). Having to force her to obey them feels wrong in so many ways.
But there’s no other option.
“We should take her somewhere, right?” Suibian asks, tail flicking. “I don’t like it out here, but we can’t bring her to town either. And if she’s alone, she might escape!”
Wei Wuxian almost laughs at the thought. A rampaging tiger is the last thing they need to add to today’s excitement.
“I would certainly give the town something to talk about.”
Suibian chitters at him, nibbling his fingers, and Wei Wuxian smiles down at her. The grey sky is starting to darken; evening is approaching, and just like Suibian, he’s not keen on being here when the sun fully sets. He rubs his nose, thinking.
“What about Yi City?”
Wen Ning’s voice is hesitant, shy. Wei Wuxian turns to him.
He fidgets, glancing nervously between them. “I was just—it’s pretty far from town, right? And um, with the fog, I don’t think people would see us easily.”
It’s a good point. No random bystander is going to stick their nose into a place like that, but it’s still close enough for them to be able to go into town with the juniors and come back quickly if needed.
And Wei Wuxian really, really needs to get Lan Wangji and Bichen to an inn.
“We’ll take her to Yi City, then,” he agrees, because he cares less about the details right now and more about Lan Wangji leaning heavily against him. “We can hole her up in one of the buildings, test if she can get out, and have someone keep watch. Then Lan Zhan and I can meet up with the disciples and make sure they’re not getting into too much trouble. Good idea, Wen Ning.”
If he was alive, Wei Wuxian is sure Wen Ning would be blushing.
I will stay, Song Lan writes, a smooth flick of Frostwork. Xingchen is still there. Until he wakes, I will be by his side.
“I’ll stay too,” Wen Ning says, something aching deep in Wei Wuxian’s chest at Song Lan’s declaration. “We’ll just draw more attention if we go with you two. And, um, I think Shuanghua flew towards the city? Maybe we can find him, Song-daozhang?”
Song Lan nods.
Wei Wuxian squares his shoulders, his back popping in protest and sending a sharp pain shooting down to his tailbone. Ignoring the burn, refusing to let this body be worn down already from mere minutes of helping support Lan Wangji’s weight, he pulls out his flute.
“Let’s get her moving, then,” he says, and raises the instrument to his lips.
Lan Wangji and Bichen are not going to like this.
“See? That wasn’t so bad!” Suibian tells Bichen as they weave into the depths of Yi City, the grey wood and dilapidated buildings welcoming them back with tendrils of acidic air.
Bichen huffs, eyes on where Baxia is sluggishly moving ahead of them, her orange and black fur streaked with dust and dried blood.
She says, dry, “We will need to discuss your definition of bad over dinner tonight.”
In a way, Wei Wuxian agrees with her. If Lan Wangji was at his full strength, then he, Song Lan, and Wen Ning probably would have been able to carry Baxia using some makeshift platform; but given that Wei Wuxian knows that isn’t the case, no matter how stubbornly Lan Wangji insists and pretends otherwise, after a heated round of squabbling they’d gone with, well… this.
This being Wei Wuxian, flute pressed against his lips, coaxing Baxia step after step down the mountain and back into town like a particularly unruly, sharp-toothed donkey.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji prompts, not for the first time since they started. “Are you alright?”
Wei Wuxian waves him off, throat tight and swollen from the continual melody. If his mouth wasn’t full of bamboo, he would be asking that question right back.
Despite Wei Wuxian’s best efforts, Lan Wangji had refused to share his weight while he was playing, walking stiffly next to him and glaring every time Wei Wuxian tried to help with his free hand. He and Bichen have gotten quieter and quieter the longer they’ve walked, faces unnaturally still.
A bad sign, he knows. Hiding has never boded well when it comes to them.
Rarely has he felt so helpless. Faced with their pain, and a list of things they have to do before they can get the care they need, he feels bruised with it.
In you go, he trills to Baxia, leading her up the steps of the house they’ve chosen to hold her. It’s in the center of town where the wind hasn’t had as much of a chance to eat away at the edges of it, semi-secure in that there’s a roof over their heads and a functioning door. Wei Wuxian is pretty sure it’ll be enough—back at the clearing, it had taken Baxia several tries before she could even stand up to follow his orders, let alone walk under the weight of the nets and talismans, so they’re doing their job.
Not that any of them are going to assume that’s enough.
He steps back out, leaving Baxia alone in the dust-covered room, only the sounds of creaking wood and her own unhappy panting to keep her company.
Then they fortify the door.
Fifty planks of wood, two dozen Jin daemon talismans written out in Lan Wangji’s careful hand, and one unhappy tiger later, Wei Wuxian finally lowers his flute.
Baxia is silent. No movement. No struggle.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, at his elbow in a flash. Wei Wuxian pulls them both down onto the wooden steps, curling his fingers into Lan Wangji’s robes and pressing his forehead against his shoulder with an unsteady laugh.
“Fuck, we did it, she’s contained. If she gets out after all that, I don’t even know what else we could have done.”
“Mn. You did well.”
Wei Wuxian laughs again, throat tight. “Gods, I hope so. Lan Zhan, are you ok?”
“Wei Ying. We are fine.” One of Lan Wangji’s trembling hands comes up to press against Wei Wuxian’s back. “You are the one who needs to rest.”
“How about we just all need to rest?” Suibian grumbles, drawing their attention to where she and Bichen are laying in the dirt, panting. Bichen’s wounds haven’t reopened, but Wei Wuxian can see the fleshy pink of each scratch and bite, a thin layer of fresh skin the only thing protecting her from bleeding out again.
Wen Ning hovers nervously behind them with Song Lan, Suyin swinging in uncertain loops above their heads.
“Let me catch my breath, and I’ll show you where Xiao-xiong is,” Wei Wuxian promises Song Lan, trying to grin. His fingers don’t seem to want to work—they’re still curled tight into Lan Wangji’s robes, and he can’t let go.
Thankfully, Lan Wangji doesn’t seem very interested in moving either. He offers Wei Wuxian his waterskin, which he gratefully accepts.
Song Lan just nods, focused on Fuxue’s limp form in his arms. His condition hasn’t gotten worse, which is a good sign; feathers are still falling out, and he’s skeletal, but the walk hasn’t seemed to cause him any pain. He’s just as unconscious as A-Yun was.
Wei Wuxian wipes the water from his chin, trying to clear his head. Step one is down.
“We need a plan,” Bichen rumbles, her tail curled around Suibian’s back paw. She’s clearly thinking the same thing as him—their next steps are too unclear. They can’t just keep plowing along blind. “What is our goal?”
Wei Wuxian breathes slow, trying to mull it over. “Well, long-term and short term, right? We need to figure out how she got here, and why she’s not dust, but I don’t think we’ll be solving that in the next few hours.”
Unless something completely wild happens, which—actually, he’s not even going to put that thought out into the universe. Enough excitement for one day.
From the look on all their faces, he’s not the only one keeping his fingers crossed.
“A-Qing and A-Yun,” Suibian prompts, face pressed against the ground and muffling her voice. Bichen huffs and noses her over so she’s face-up.
“You said the disciples have them?”
“Yeah! Oh, Bichen, you should have seen Lan Yingyue, I think she liked them a lot, I saw the tip of her wing poking out of Sizhui’s sleeve when they were making friends with them!”
A fond, albeit exhausted, expression crosses Bichen’s face.
“I am sure she did. Where are they?”
“Outside of town,” Wei Wuxian says, or—hopes. “Supposed to be, anyways. That should be our next step, right? Get Song-xiong to Xiao-xiong, then find the juniors and get them back to town?”
And make you two lie down, he adds privately, but keeps his mouth shut about that.
“We should write Xiongzhang.” Lan Wangji’s palm is warm against the small of his back, tiny tremors in his fingertips. When Wei Wuxian looks up at him, the gold in his eyes seems to deepen. “For long term. He will help.”
It’s a good idea, one Wei Wuxian had been considering. One small issue, though.
“Your shufu is going to be pissed.”
Lan Qiren hadn’t been particularly happy about Lan Wangji just waltzing off with him, sword spirit or not; he’s going to be even less happy if he finds out Wei Wuxian is tangling up his other nephew in the mess too.
Lan Wangji gives him another waterskin. “Hn.”
Wei Wuxian laughs and drinks more, grinning. “Ah, you’re right, why worry about that when it’s my favorite pastime anyways? Can’t be helped, I guess.”
He doesn’t know how much longer they can keep the secret between just the four of them anyways. The odds of figuring out the mystery behind the daemon of someone who is supposed to be dead, an unidentified tonic, and at least four different arrows pointing straight at the Jin without talking to someone first are not exactly high.
Besides, from what Lan Wangji has said, Lan Xichen is close to Jin Guangyao. They need him to see Baxia, and fast, in case he’s in danger too.
“He and Chifeng-Zun were close, weren’t they?” Suibian asks, and Lan Wangji nods.
Oof. This isn’t going to be a fun reveal, then.
“Lan Shuoyue and Nie Baxia were as well,” Bichen murmurs, and Wei Wuxian lets out a low whistle. Alright, double oof. “They would wish to know.”
“That settles it, I guess. Should we send a letter once we get back in town?”
Lan Wangji reaches into the qiankun pouch, not moving even a breath from where he and Wei Wuxian are pressed together (which is good, because Wei Wuxian doesn’t think he could let him), and pulls out a small piece of parchment, folded into the shape of a hawk.
A spiritual messenger! Wei Wuxian beams; he forgets, even now, how many luxuries this new life has that his old one didn’t.
“You sects are so fancy,” he says, looking it over. It’s not even the size of Lan Wangji’s palm, but Wei Wuxian can see how carefully it’s been put together, all crisp edges. “I mean, very good idea, I’m a fan, but still! What are you going to tell him?”
“That he is needed, and it is urgent.”
Perfect. Straight to the point, without giving any details. Wei Wuxian hums, squeezing his arm. The spiritual messenger begins to glow, the faint blue of early morning skies.
Suibian perks her ears up. “It’s so pretty.”
It really is. Neither Lan Wangji nor Bichen reply.
With Baxia asleep, it’s oddly quiet; and Wei Wuxian doesn’t want to think about what’s going to happen if he lets silence settle over them. He can feel his own fatigue pressing against the corners of his attention, trying to find a space to squeeze into, and he forces it back, lets his tongue do what it does best instead.
“I would have killed for that back in the Burial Mounds,” he says, watching Lan Wangji sketch a simple message into the folds and planes of the hawk’s wings, tiny lines written with spiritual energy. “Do you know how long it would take us to get the letters Jiang Cheng sent? The ravens would harass whoever he hired to come by and deliver them, and then they’d inevitably freak out and drop it, and the ravens just loved that. I’d have to chase them around going, Oi, oi, I’ll cook you in stew, hand that over!, and then Jiang Cheng’s next letter would be all, Wei Wuxian, stop causing trouble for my mail carriers and Wei Wuxian, I’m spending a fortune, half the city has blacklisted my requests, but he kept sending them anyways, the weirdo.”
Lan Wangji pauses. “Did they listen?”
“Oh!” Wei Wuxian scowls. “No, no, of course not. Sneaky little bastards.”
“We ended up trading them shiny rocks,” Suibian tells Bichen, putting her head on her paws with a sigh. “I liked those rocks.”
“They did not harass us when we would come by,” she points out, still that tired tint to her tone as the paper hawk stretches its wings to take off, now a brighter blue under Lan Wangji’s attention.
“Well of course they didn’t,” Wei Wuxian says. “It’s you. They liked you, who wouldn’t like Huanguang-Jun and Lan Bichen?”
Bichen’s eyes soften. She chuffs.
They watch the messenger soar away, disappearing into the fog without fanfare. Lan Wangji is so warm, and Wei Wuxian presses close, goosebumps crawling up his arms from the cool air. He just needs another minute, maybe, and then he can get up—help Lan Wangji get up, too, convince him to let Wei Wuxian help him walk again.
A sudden scrape on the ground makes Wei Wuxian look to his left. Song Lan is standing on one of the wooden steps, close to the closed door that Baxia now rests behind. He’s gone very still.
“Song-daozhang?” Suibian asks, and Song Lan narrows his eyes.
He writes, very carefully so that Fuxue doesn’t so much as twitch in his hold, Do you hear that?
Lan Wangji goes stiff, a heady spike of adrenaline sharpening the hazy corners of Wei Wuxian’s vision as his mind immediately starts screaming Baxia, Baxia, you missed something, she’s fighting. When they turn to face the door, already halfway to their feet, Song Lan shakes his head and gurgles, motioning with his hand to somewhere behind them, far out of vision.
He taps his ear, then adds, Faint.
“Wait, I hear it!” Suibian cries, jumping up and sending dust scattering under her paws. Bichen rolls over and lays a paw on her before she can dart away, moving her face out of the way of Suibian’s twitching tail. “I thought it was the wind! A-Xian, something’s crying!”
He blinks. “Crying?”
Bichen has her ears perked now, all of them falling quiet as they try to hear whatever Song Lan and Suibian are talking about. The swirling wind dies down, just for a moment, and her eyes go wide. She turns to Song Lan.
“A crane,” she breathes. “A crane is calling.”
Before she even finishes speaking, Song Lan takes off with Fuxue still in his arms.
“Song-xiong!” Wei Wuxian calls at his retreating back, scrambling the rest of the way to his feet. Lan Wangji rises with him, and Wei Wuxian doesn’t miss how he lilts slightly, still so pale. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you should stay—”
Lan Wangji grabs him, eyes burning. “No. Together.”
There’s no time to argue. Lan Wangji pulls him forward, and Wei Wuxian lets him, all thoughts of Lan Xichen and spiritual messengers flying under their feet as they run. They chase after Song Lan, Wen Ning and the daemons not far behind; Song Lan is running fast, and the most they can do is track the dark flashes of his robes as he cuts his way through the streets.
Song Lan continues on, unheeding of Wei Wuxian’s attempts to grab his attention. This path is definitely taking them closer to the noise; Wei Wuxian is pretty sure he can hear something high-pitched and rattling cutting through the wind.
“A-Xian!” Suibian calls from behind him, darting forward in a burst of speed. He grabs her by the scruff and hoists her into his robes, her little claws scrambling at his skin as she tries to adjust to the new position. “A-Xian, isn’t this where we left—”
They round a corner, Wei Wuxian’s lungs burning from exertion, and run right into Song Lan’s back.
“—Xiao Xingchen,” Suibian finishes, staring at the sight in front of them.
A red-crowned crane is throwing itself at Xiao Xingchen’s wooden coffin, shrieking up a storm.
“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, blinking. “Well.”
Guess they found Shuanghua after all.
He’s a sorry sight, beating up against the unassuming wood with blood running down the delicate webbing on his feet. He’s flapping and hissing, trying to break open the lid to get inside; from the crazed movements and the general state of his body, he’s been at it for some time.
Song Lan is staring at him, frozen.
“Stay back,” Bichen warns Suibian as her ears perk up. “If he is deviating, he will not know friend from foe.”
Suibian frowns. “We won’t hurt him!”
“He does not know that. You will be just as much a predator to him as I am.”
She’s right. So far, Shuanghua has been busy with his single-minded mission to get to Xiao Xingchen, but at the sound of Bichen’s voice, he looks up and lets out a rattling shriek, raising his wings high into the air.
His eyes are a dull, glassy white.
“I don’t think he’d be able to recognize us anyways,” Wei Wuxian says, thinking back to A-Qing’s memory. “He and Xiao Xingchen are blind. A-Qing made it sound like Xue Yang had been fooling them for years. They definitely can’t see a thing, or else they would have sniffed him out.”
Lan Wangji stiffens, Bichen’s face darkening.
Song Lan lets out an unsteady noise, hand curling tight around Frostwork. Wei Wuxian doesn’t blame him—it makes getting to Shuanghua all the more complicated. Wild animals can be unpredictable, blind ones even more so. If he’s deviating like Baxia was, he’ll be going on nothing but instinct, vague flashes of memories. Without seeing Song Lan, there won’t be anything familiar tethering him to reality.
Shuanghua is trying to pry open the coffin with his beak, crying out in pain even as he keeps up the attempt.
“What should we do?” Wen Ning asks, hands fluttering. “He’s going to hurt himself!”
Wei Wuxian’s fingers drifts towards his flute. He might be able to calm Shuanghua down long enough for them to grab him, if he plays the right tune. The idea is no less disconcerting this time; it feels dirty and wrong, in the same way it did with Baxia, a subversion of free will from a creature that already had so much of it taken away.
(He thinks about Xue Yang and his greedy hands, the way he had laughed and called Shuanghua his. If he was Shuanghua, he wouldn’t want anyone near him either. Maybe never again.)
Before he can raise the flute to his lips, Song Lan writes frantically on the ground.
No. No music.
“Are you sure?” Wei Wuxian asks, and Song Lan nods. He keeps writing without looking down, eyes on Shuanghua.
Stay back. I will approach him.
Wei Wuxian glances at Lan Wangji, who subtly inclines his head.
“Let us know if you need backup, then,” he says, because Lan Wangji’s right: it’s not his cultivation partner’s daemon that is currently bruising itself with desperation out there.
Even the thought has him shivering. In their past life, this could have been Suibian, losing her mind as resentment swirled around her, no signs of the happy fox he used to know. He only realizes that he’s reached out and grabbed Lan Wangji’s wrist when he feels the sudden pressure of Lan Wangji’s thumb sweeping over his pulse point.
“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji murmurs, concerned, and Wei Wuxian tries not to shudder. He can’t seem to let go—like Lan Wangji is an anchor, and Wei Wuxian is floating in stormy waters.
Instead of answering, he scoots closer, letting their shoulders press together.
“I still remember someone used all their energy up,” he manages, and hooks his arm under Lan Wangji’s, taking some of his weight again. “Lean on me, what will the juniors say if I let Hanguang-Jun collapse and get his robes even dirtier, hmm?”
Lan Wangji’s gaze hovers on his face, searching.
Shuanghua lets out an incensed shriek, bringing Wei Wuxian’s focus back to the scene in front of them. Song Lan is slowly stepping forward, Frostwork in one hand and Fuxue cradled against his chest in the other, a careful approach.
Shuanghua honks and hisses, louder with each step that Song Lan takes, spreading out his wings to their full length. His next scream is terrible, a disconcerting mix of a baby’s rattle and a dog’s squeaker toy blending together in one high-pitched call. His beak clacks, and Wei Wuxian doesn’t need to understand bird to know it means keep away.
Song Lan doesn’t falter.
He goes right up to the edge of the coffin, Shuanghua hissing and screeching, and reaches out. Instead of trying to grab Shuanghua, he does something Wei Wuxian wasn’t expecting.
He places Fuxue and Frostwork on the lid next to him.
Shuanghua lunges forward and tries to bite him as his hands get close, but Song Lan is too quick. He steps back just far enough for his beak to scrape uselessly against the wood, leaving him with the sword and the daemon.
Shuanghua’s wild cries pause.
In trying to get at Song Lan, he’s accidentally pressed his beak to Frostwork’s hilt. He twitches, head turning back and forth like he’s unsure what exactly he’s touching. He lowers his beak, nosing along the hilt of the sword until he reaches the small sliver of metal peeking out from the aged leather.
His wings ripple.
His next movement is frantic, a hard push of his beak against the sword as he starts to flap, white and black feathers flying everywhere and mixing with Fuxue’s loose plumage. One of his bloody feet comes to rest on the delicate silver tassels attached to the pommel. The other, from mere chance of proximity, curls against the very tip of Fuxue’s wing.
The next honk is a broken, confused sound.
“Ohh,” Wei Wuxian says, as Shuanghua lowers his wings, still outspread, and covers Frostwork and Fuxue with them like a protective blanket.
This time, when Song Lan reaches out to touch the coffin, all Shuanghua does is hiss, pressing close to Fuxue. He doesn’t try to attack him again.
“That worked?” Wen Ning breathes, amazed, and Suibian chitters happily, tail starting to wag.
Wei Wuxian grins. Clever! The two things that Shuanghua might be able to recognize even through the haze of anger and lack of sight: his human’s sword, and the daemon of his cultivation partner.
Looks like there’s something still in him, after all.
“You’re so smart, Song-xiong!” he calls, squeezing Lan Wangji’s arm in excitement. Song Lan is trying to counteract the talisman keeping the lid sealed tight but having trouble. “Oh! That’s one of my designs, here, here.”
They approach, Shuanghua curling tighter over Fuxue and Frostwork at their new proximity. He hisses, but it seems more confused than aggressive now, like he isn’t sure if they’re helping or hurting and doesn’t know what to do about it.
“We will not take them from you,” Lan Wangji tells Shuanghua gravely, as Wei Wuxian does the quick work of deactivating the talisman.
Shuanghua fluffs up, doubling down on his stance. As if to be contrary, he darts out to nip at Wei Wuxian.
“Oi!” Wei Wuxian jerks back before they can touch, not wanting to know what it feels like when he’s the one touching someone else’s daemon. He’s had his fill of new daemon experiences today, thank you very much. “What did I ever do to you?!”
Shuanghua hisses at him, and Lan Wangji shifts, blocking them from each other’s view.
They manage to get the lid most of the way off despite the unhappy crane honking in protest at it shifting under his feet. As it slides off, the worn wood scraping with an unpleasant creak, everyone except Wei Wuxian and Suibian go still.
Nothing has changed since when Wei Wuxian last saw Xiao Xingchen, of course. Xiao Xingchen’s face pale face seems to glow, milky white among the steadily darkening sky. Just like before, the thin slice of red stands out on his pale throat, his blue lips chapped and cracked like drought-ridden earth.
It somehow just as horrible as the first time.
Lan Wangji tenses, shoulders going stiff. Behind them, Wei Wuxian hears Bichen draw in a harsh breath.
Black veins explode like multi-layered branches across Song Lan’s face.
“I know he looks dead, but he’s not, we checked!” Wei Wuxian tells him quickly, as Song Lan reaches out to grip Xiao Xingchen’s face in his hands, mouth open in a pained gasp.
He isn’t sure if Song Lan hears him; his eyes are distant, and he doesn’t react when Shuanghua lets out rattling croak and abandons Frostwork and Fuxue in favor of throwing himself on Xiao Xingchen’s chest. They nearly brush, but Song Lan doesn’t flinch away; just keeps staring, horrified.
Suibian, ever ready to back him up, adds, “All of A-Xian’s tests didn’t show anything, but we felt it when I fell in, he’s definitely alive. I swear on my lucky foot!”
After a few seconds, Song Lan gives them a jerky nod of acknowledgement, running his fingers up and down Xiao Xingchen’s neck, his wrists. Wei Wuxian can tell he’s trying to trace the path where his qi should be; from the troubled look on his face, he’s not getting anything either.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian starts, and turns to Lan Wangji, “what do you think? Do you want to check and see if—oh, what’s wrong?”
Lan Wangji isn’t looking at him, or Song Lan, or Xiao Xingchen.
He’s staring, confusion evident in his eyes, at Bichen. When Wei Wuxian follows his gaze, his stomach drops.
Bichen is standing at the far end of the coffin, eyes wide and shocked like someone just struck her. She’s staring at Xiao Xingchen, absolutely frozen, ears pressed so far back against her head they look almost nonexistent.
Something is, very clearly, wrong.
“Bichen?!” Suibian demands, and immediately scrambles out of Wei Wuxian’s robes. claws tearing through a part of the cloth in her haste. She hits the ground and rushes over to her, ears perked. “Bichen?! Are you ok?!”
“That…” Bichen’s voice is barely a whisper.
Lan Wangji untangles himself from Wei Wuxian and goes to her, crouching down in the dust with a frown. He presses a hand to her side, eyebrows furrowed. “Bichen?”
Something in their link must have spiked to draw his attention to her. Maybe pain, he thinks with a rush of concern, as Lan Wangji’s hands begin to softly glow with spiritual energy. There’s a focused intention to his movements as he checks her over, but he can’t seem to locate any particular area to focus on.
“Bichen, what’s wrong?” Suibian asks, nosing under her neck, her belly, her legs. “Did something open up? Are you tired?”
Bichen keeps staring at the coffin, like she doesn’t even notice Suibian’s fretting.
She says, in a voice Wei Wuxian has never heard before, “Why does he smell like that?”
“Huh?” Wei Wuxian glances back at Xiao Xingchen. Song Lan is still pressed against the side of the coffin, checking him over; he doesn’t seem to be paying attention to them, single-minded in his focus. Wen Ning hovers next to him, looking uncertain. “Him?”
Bichen nods, nose twitching.
“That’s the smell I was telling you about before,” Suibian informs her, and whines when Bichen’s ears twist back. She starts licking her muzzle, worry sharp in their link. “Is it making you feel sick? I know it’s so bad, all weird and gross, and your nose is so good, it must smell extra bad to you! Do you want a ginger candy, or maybe we can find some cloth—”
Bichen shakes her head, a gust of wind sending dead leaves swirling around her feet as she takes a deep breath in. Whatever she smells sends her tail flicking, a quiet, dawning horror building in her blue eyes.
She looks to Lan Wangji.
“What’s wrong?” Wei Wuxian asks, an unpleasant churning in his gut, like he’s been out on the lakes too long. The other daemons hadn’t liked the smell, but they didn’t seem this disturbed. “Is it causing your wounds to do something? Do they sting?”
Bichen doesn’t reply right away, eyes flicking between him and Lan Wangji, then back to the coffin. Lan Wangji’s hands are still glowing, giving her (as far as Wei Wuxian can tell, useless) transfers of his qi.
“I,” she starts, and swallows, the elegant line of her tail twisting behind her as she seems to struggle with what to say. She looks down at Suibian, the tuck of her tail and her huge eyes, and something in her face closes off. “I am—sorry. I do not know what came over me. I am fine.”
That doesn’t sound convincing.
They all look at her, the wind whistling in their ears. When no one else speaks, Wei Wuxian clears his throat.
“Are you…. sure?” he asks.
Another jerky nod. “Yes. I must be—more tired than I thought. That is all.”
“Of course you’re tired, we shouldn’t have made you run with us, we’re so dumb!” Suibian frets, licking Bichen’s muzzle. She sends a frantic look at Wei Wuxian; they’ve never heard Bichen actually admit to feeling anything less than perfect. “The smell is probably making everything so much worse! Here, I’ll cover your nose with my tail, it’s small but it’s really fluffy, we’ll stop it from making you feel sick, ok?”
Bichen sits down on the ground, her claws digging into the dirt.
“I—yes. Good idea, Suibian. That must be it. A-Zhan, no more energy, I am ok.”
Wei Wuxian frowns, watching as Suibian starts to wrap her tail around Bichen’s nose to block out the smell. Despite her words, and resulting silence, the haunted look to her eyes hasn’t ebbed; Lan Wangji stops the attempted transfer but keeps checking her over, lips turned down.
When their eyes meet, Wei Wuxian sees the uncertainty in the rich gold of his irises, a confusion that matches his own. Whatever’s going on in their link is throwing him for a loop.
Is the adrenaline just wearing off, and the day is finally catching up to her?
A tap on the ground yanks part of Wei Wuxian’s attention back to Song Lan; he glances over and sees him writing in the dirt with his fingers, one of Shuanghua’s wings still hovering possessively over Frostwork.
Why is he so empty?
“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, trying to focus through his unease. Bichen said she was tired, and Lans don’t lie; if that’s the case, then he needs to help Song Lan weave through the new tangle of strings they’ve uncovered so they can get going. “So it’s not just us, then? He feels empty to you, too?”
Song Lan nods, writes more.
What took away all of his energy?
Lan Wangji pauses, regarding the words. Bichen goes very, very still.
Wei Wuxian’s stomach swoops. The wording is precise: took away. Song Lan’s lips are a thin line, his eyes shining with anger; it seems, just like Wei Wuxian, that he’s noticed this is no normal emptiness.
Now is their chance.
He says, as casually as he can, “Well, like I said, the tonic definitely seemed to be doing something to him, at least internally. It could be that, right? Maybe it drained him somehow, and that’s why we can’t detect anything?”
He glances to Lan Wangji, looking for backup so he doesn’t seem like he already knows the actual answer. Lan Wangji nods once, still distracted by Bichen.
“It is possible.”
Next to Song Lan, Wen Ning is starting to fidget, a dawning understanding crossing his face. Wei Wuxian tries to communicate with his eyes that they are absolutely not giving any details, and Wen Ning jumps, rubs the back of his head, and starts to thoroughly examine a nearby rock.
Song Lan hesitates. In the coffin, Shuanghua is burying his face in Xiao Xingchen’s stomach, still letting out mournful honks.
He writes, slower than he’s written anything today: If dead, nothing unusual about emptiness. If alive: his core should have replenished it by now.
A small trickle of relief works its way down Wei Wuxian’s spine
Someone else has finally said it, floated the word out there. It’s just the hint of what they need to truly get at, but that initial crux, the cornerstone, is no longer his and Suibian’s idea. They’ve seen so much that goes against conventional knowledge today; it won’t be hard to slowly lead them to the rest of it, spitball ideas about how daemons might stick around. They might not have to dance around their theories anymore.
He wants to beam, to jump, to thank Song Lan for giving them the one idea they never could have presented on their own.
Bichen, however, lets out a long, unsteady breath.
“Oh no, is your head getting fuzzy again?!” Suibian cries, as Bichen’s whiskers start to tremble, just the tips poking out from behind Suibian’s tail. She’s staring at Suibian, blue eyes huge. “A-Xian, Lan Zhan, I think she’s really sick!”
“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, face paler than before, and twitches when Wei Wuxian crouches down next to them and places a hand on his back. There’s a waver to his voice, noticeable only because Wei Wuxian has spent so many precious moments finding home in its normal steadiness. Their link must be doing something intense, if he sounds like this. “Bichen. The qi did not help?”
It takes Bichen a few beats to reply. It’s only when Suibian whines softly that she blinks, drawing in another breath.
“I am sorry. I—my head does not feel right. We should—we should head back.”
“Then that’s exactly what we’ll do,” Wei Wuxian says, because Suibian is right, she’s not looking good. He’s never heard her stutter like this. “We’ll get back to town, and you can rest. Lan Zhan, if you’re feeling it too, I’ll carry you!”
Lan Wangji frowns. Wei Wuxian can see the same exhaustion as before clinging to him, the kind that had him leaning heavy on Wei Wuxian in the clearing. Somehow, he still seems indignant at the idea, a stubborn set to his brows.
“I am fine. You played for Baxia. I will carry you.”
“You absolutely will not,” Wei Wuxian replies, exasperated. Of course Lan Wangji would try to turn it back on him. When Lan Wangji looks ready to protest, he pivots. “We can both help each other walk, how does that sound? The juniors are waiting for us, I can’t bring them a passed-out Hanguang-Jun just because he wanted to carry me, that would be rude!”
Lan Wangji’s lips purse. “We will not pass out.”
He doesn’t offer any other protest, however. Wei Wuxian doesn’t know if it’s the fatigue, or if he’s distracted by Bichen, but either way, it’s a good enough answer for him.
He turns to Wen Ning and Song Lan. “You two can handle things here, right? I’m pretty sure you can bring Xiao-xiong to the house next to Baxia, his coffin isn’t heavy, Sizhui and Jingyi managed just fine. There’s nothing special keeping him in this section of the city, and if you move him, I think Shuanghua will come along for the ride.”
Without missing a beat, they both nod.
We will watch over the houses, Song Lan writes, one of his hands curled around Xiao Xingchen’s. Shuanghua is still letting out small honks, occasionally twisting his neck to run his beak through Fuxue’s feathers, a surprisingly tender motion. Go. Take care of them.
There’s an intensity to the way he writes it, the knowing look he sends between him and Lan Wangji, that has Wei Wuxian’s stomach flipping.
“Don’t worry, Wei-gongzi, we’ll make sure everything is in control!” Wen Ning adds, standing up straight. “We’ll stick to the plan! And if anything happens, I’ll find you.”
It’s hard to hold back his relief.
“Thanks,” he says, feeling raw. Wen Ning smiles.
Bichen has gone quiet, mouth closed tight. With every passing second, her face is getting more and more closed off, a careful blankness that speaks to something lying underneath.
Suibian is talking to her, words flying fast. “Bichen, are you sure you can walk? You still don’t look good, and you smell so upset, do we need to find something to plug your nose? I bet it will feel so much better once we’re away from the smell, it makes me feel sick too, no wonder your head is fuzzy! Don’t try to be brave, if it hurts we’ll walk slow—”
Lan Wangji watches them, muscles tense and tight under Wei Wuxian’s hand.
“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian prompts softly. When their eyes meet, he smiles, refusing to look afraid. “She’ll be fine, we just need to get you two horizontal and sipping some tea! Help this humble cultivator out, won’t you?”
Slowly, Lan Wangji lets Wei Wuxian help him to his feet, gaze still on Bichen’s back.
“Bichen,” he says, so quiet that Wei Wuxian almost misses it. Bichen’s ears flick back to them; she doesn’t turn her head.
“Let’s go, A-Zhan.”
Lan Wangji keeps staring at her, the same lost, pained look in his eyes.
“Don’t worry, Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian says, forcing cheer into his voice as he loops his arm under Lan Wangji’s shoulders. “I remember what you told me! Together, right? Suibian and I are sticking close, we’ve got you.”
“Together,” Lan Wangji repeats, sounding oddly distant, almost dazed. His hand curls tight around Wei Wuxian’s forearm. Wei Wuxian leans into him, determined.
“Yep! The most together. Tell me if we need to go slower, alright?”
They start to walk. As they round the corner, Song Lan and Wen Ning fading from view, Bichen glances back.
It’s so quick that Wei Wuxian almost misses it; a tiny tilt of the head, nothing more, the subtlest sign of her attention. There’s a single second where blue meets grey, the edge of a storm pressing up against shimmering water.
His breath catches. Her ears press flat.
She doesn’t look back for the rest of the walk.