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like speaking to my heart

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“Life is hard, Mr. Scoresby, but we cling to it all the same.”
“And this journey we’re on? Is that folly or wisdom?”
“The greatest wisdom I know.”
― Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials


The back hills are the perfect place to nap.

Wei Wuxian discovered this about two weeks ago, sometime between arriving at the imposing Lan gates and being chased around by Lan Wangji across the rooftops under moonlight, laughing as Emperor’s Smile spilled across his sleeves.

If this were Lotus Pier, Wei Wuxian could have sat down on that very roof –in broad daylight even, not just the shadow of night— covered his eyes, and let the heat of summer and sounds of water lapping on the wood docks lull him to sleep. He could have dozed into dreams pleasantly tipsy, muscles still burning from the way Lan Wangji’s sword slid against his own.

But this isn’t Lotus Pier, and Lan Wangji had quite unkindly ruined his plans for rooftop anything, so: the back hills.

It’s in those very hills, as Wei Wuxian is staring up at the sky and thinking idly about the taste of Emperor’s Smile on his tongue, that Suibian jumps full force onto his stomach and cries, “A-Xian, don’t be mad!”

The sheer force of her pounce knocks the breath out of him. He lets out an ooofhm sound, much different than what he wanted to ask: Why would I be mad?

The resulting pause is just long enough for Jiang Cheng, who up to this point has been laying rather peacefully next to him, to shoot up and demand, “Oh great, what did you do now?”

To be fair, the question isn’t exactly unwarranted. Suibian looks an absolute mess: twigs stuck in her fur, dirt smeared across the white fluff of her underbelly. She’s panting up a storm, little heh heh heh gasps that haven’t edged into her normal high-pitched laughter.

When her ears press back against her head, she could almost pass for pitiful.

“Bichen hates me.”

Wei Wuxian’s first thought is Why would Lan Zhan’s daemon hate you?, but it’s followed quickly by remembering exactly where he is, how little trouble he’s caused today, and the fact that he hasn’t seen Suibian for a few minutes.

A grin spreads across his face.

Jiang Cheng doesn't seem as amused; he groans so loudly that a group of birds flush from a nearby tree, and points an accusing finger at her. “Why are you always causing trouble?!”

“Hey!” Suibian presses her ears back against her head as she glares at Jiang Cheng. “It was an accident!”

That earns her a roll of the eyes. “Oh, just like when you accidentally dropped a dead bird onto my plate last night—”

“It’s called instinct, I’m not trying to cause problems—”

Ok, ok!” Breath back in his lungs, Wei Wuxian interrupts them before they can really get started. Despite Suibian’s apparent distress, he’s grinning when he looks down at her and asks, “What fun are we having now?”

“None!” she wails, and Wei Wuxian laughs. “A-Xian, you didn’t see, I’m dead!”

“Good,” Jiang Cheng mutters under his breath. Suibian whines again in response, burrowing into Wei Wuxian’s stomach so she doesn’t have to look at any of them anymore. From the way their bond is trembling, watery and distraught, someone might as well have died; but she's always been a bit on the dramatic side. He tries to jostle her off him without having to sit up, but the movement only has paws scrambling at his torso, Suibian’s little fox claws digging through the fabric of his shirt.

When he tugs pointedly at her ear, she retaliates by nipping at his fingers.

“Ow, ow! Suibian!”

“She’s going to eat me!”

Can a daemon even eat another daemon?” Nie Huaisang, who is a mǐ or so to his right with his daemon curled up in his palm, sounds suddenly nervous.

Suibian ignores the question, too deep in her fit of drama. “What if she never talks to me again?!”

“She doesn’t talk to you now,” Jiang Cheng points out, and Suibian pouts at him. Sandu, who has been resting her head against Jiang Cheng’s legs, lets out a small huff of amusement and thumps her tail against the grass.

“Only because they’re fuddy-duddies,” Wei Wuxian says, and pulls Suibian’s face to eye level. “Alright, c’mon, spill it! What did you do, hmm, A-Sui?”

Suibian stares up at him with watery eyes, twitching in his hands.

“I nibbled on her tail,” she whispers.

Wei Wuxian blinks at her.

Around them, mild panic erupts. Nie Huaisang starts to frantically fan himself, looking as if he might bolt or faint or perhaps both. His mouse squeaks in alarm and darts into the nearest bush, while Jiang Cheng sighs like the end of the world is imminent and that sacrificing Wei Wuxian and his daemon will somehow make it more bearable. Sandu, bless her, lets out a defeated growl and shoves her face under her paws.

Wei Wuxian, meanwhile, starts laughing.

“Undignified,” he teases, and laughs harder as Suibian wriggles to try and shove her cold nose against his neck. He manhandles her higher into the air, high enough to be safe from scrambling claws and wet noses. “Ridiculous! Shameless!”

Suibian doesn’t appear to be amused by the Lan impression. “Don’t make fun of me!”

“Why the hell would you mess with Lan Bichen?” Jiang Cheng demands. “Are you insane?”

“I was playing! Trying to play!”

“You really think any of those Lan daemons can play?” Wei Wuxian asks her, and Suibian does her best to look guilty even as she slips out of his hold and plops back onto the grass.

“I thought I could show her how! And it looked so fluffy and it was just swinging back and forth, and I didn’t think—”

“When do you?” Jiang Cheng sighs, but less meanly this time, and Sandu shifts so she can put a large paw on Suibian to hold her still. Suibian wriggles valiantly for a few moments but eventually admits defeat, panting a little.

“They… didn’t follow you, did they?” Nei Huaisang is still visibly nervous, looking around the clearing as if Lan Wangji and Bichen might miraculously appear from thin air to scold them.

Actually, that’s not so far out of the realm of possibility. Wei Wuxian sits up fully and looks around too, just in case. Nothing unusual greets his eyes. Just the grass swaying in the winds, the dappled shadows of leaves on the ground.

“No, they just… stared at me,” Suibian says, and pouts as Sandu starts to groom the top of her head. Still, Wei Wuxian can feel her relax from the other daemon’s attention. “And then Bichen’s ears did something weird and I ran away.”

Jiang Cheng’s eyebrows furrow. “Lan Bichen, idiot, what if they hear you?! And stop trying to be friends with them.”

“No,” Wei Wuxian and Suibian reply in unison, making Jiang Cheng throw up his arms.

“Fine! Not like I’m trying to help you or anything! If she eats you, it serves you right.”

“You really should be more careful,” Sandu advises, calmer than her human counterpart, and Suibian sighs deeply. A fond look crosses the wolf’s face, even as Jiang Cheng huffs and looks away.

“They’ll never want to be friends with you if you keep breaking their rules.”

Another deep sigh.

Wei Wuxian grins, pats Suibian on the head. She’s definitely edged back into pitiful territory, a defeated line of red and white fur. He almost feels sorry for her; it’s really not her fault that she causes trouble so much. Whereas Wei Wuxian purposefully tries to stir up chaos (for fun! harmless!), Suibian just has terrible impulse control.

“Wait,” he says, snapping his fingers to draw her attention back, “before you forget! Tell me: was her tail as fluffy as it looks?”

So fluffy,” Suibian confirms, staring up at him with huge brown eyes. “Like spun sugar.”

Wei Wuxian melts a little. Partly because he wants to pinch her little fox ears, and partly because the idea of Lan Wangji’s aloof, cold snow leopard being fluffy is just too cute.

Cute, and not fitting in the slightest; Bichen, after all, always looks about five seconds away from biting their heads off.

“Well,” he decides, “if it was for the valiant pursuit of scientific curiosity, there’s nothing we can do about it.” He plops back down on the grass, eliciting a squeak from Suibian and a noise of protest from Jiang Cheng.

“Shouldn’t you—do something?!”

“What, exactly? I make Lan Zhan mad all the time. You don’t see me whining about it.”

“You do whine about it.”

Wei Wuxian pretends not to hear that particular tidbit. Instead, he closes his eyes and rolls onto his side. Out of sight, out of mind.

“I think I’ll go back to napping, thank you very much.”

There’s a grumble of agreement from Suibian, another defeated sigh from Sandu. The breeze blows across his face, the chill of it staved off by the sun and his own good mood. It should be possible to squeeze in at least a few more hours of dozing before they’re called back for dinner—and with Suibian now by him, he can feel the pull of sleep like a physical tug.

For a few blessed seconds, it’s quiet.

Then:

“Um,” Nie Huaisang squeaks, breaking the soft sounds of their breathing, “Um, Wei-xiong, I don’t think napping is actually such a good idea—”

“C’mon, what do you think’s gonna happen?” Wei Wuxian asks, eyes still closed. Suibian is warm where she’s tucked herself into his collarbone, probably dirtying the white robes as she does. “It’s not as if Lan Zhan and Bichen would come all this way—”

Wei Wuxian!

Oh—

“Fuck,” says Jiang Cheng, finishing the thought for him, and the world jolts into motion again.

Wei Wuxian groans even as his stomach gives an excited, happy flip. Sitting up provides him a better view of the hill’s slope and ah, yes—that is unmistakably Lan Wangji walking toward them with what has to be an uncomfortably straight spine, his daemon close behind.

Both are staring at the small fox now trying to hide herself into nonexistence behind Sandu.

“Aw, darn,” he sighs, trying not to smile in delight at the sight of them. Today really had been a good one, but he’s never one to turn down a little bit of excitement.

Jiang Cheng scowls. “Great! You’ve done it now. Wait until A-Jie hears about this…”

“Noo, don’t tell Shijie—”

“She’ll find out anyways!”

Their squabble is interrupted by another “Wei Wuxian!”

Lan Wangji is close now. He looks as composed and cold and perfect as ever, not even a hair out of place. Bichen is the same: ears perked in their direction, the spotted fur on her back impossibly smooth, as if the wind itself it afraid to ruffle it. There’s no canines showing this time, which Wei Wuxian will consider an improvement in mood from that time she hissed at them in the Library doing lines—but he can’t help but notice that Lan Wangji is gripping his sword hard.

The sight sends a low thrill through him. Wei Wuxian wants to draw his own sword and dive right in, feel the wild pounding of his heart like that one night on the rooftops.

But maybe…

“What do you think, A-Sui?” Wei Wuxian asks, looking down at Suibian. She stops trying to hide for a moment, tail flicking back and forth and she picks up on his playful tone. “Do we stay, and face the fury of one of the Twin Jades? Or…”

“Or…” she draws out the word, and her tail starts wagging in full, “Or we play tag!”

“Tag!” he agrees, jumping to his feet.

Lan Wangji and his daemon are only a few mǐ away. With each step they take, the frustration in their eyes becomes more apparent. That’s doesn’t bother him, though, given that it’s one of Wei Wuxian’s favorite expressions on Lan Wangji: his golden eyes on fire.

A pleasant tingle works its way down his spine.

“Ah, Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian calls, waving enthusiastically at the two of them. Suibian weaves along his ankles, letting out her own chitter of greeting to Bichen.

Lan Wangji and Bichen seem to be caught off-guard by the greeting. They hesitate a few paces away, Bichen’s ears pressing back against her head.

“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Wangji starts, and ah, he’s mad, “you—”

“You can tell me later! You’re it!”

The smallest furrow appears between Lan Wangji’s brows. Wei Wuxian beams.

Then he and Suibian bolt.

“Run!” Suibian shrieks as they dash down the slope, her laughter intermixed with the sounds of Jiang Cheng’s protests, one last call of his name from Lan Wangji. He laughs as well, a white blur to Suibian’s red one as they dodge through the trees. It’s a full-on sprint that he knows he’ll get punished for later, but it’s worth it when he imagines the surprised look on Lan Wangji’s face.

Forget napping in the back hills. This is so much better.


They say Lan daemons are unlike any other.

It is one of the many rumors about those who live in the Cloud Recesses, but perhaps one of the most well-spread. Talk based on envy or pride spreads quicker, sinks its roots in deep, and the Lans inspire both.

Since the moment he joined the Jiang Sect, Wei Wuxian has heard little tidbits here and there, stories so repeated and well-worn that they now come to mind more easily than his childhood books.

According to the whispers, Lan daemons are elegant, and graceful, and always wise. More than that: they are so connected to the hearts of their humans that even several battlefields away, they could fight in perfect harmony. Their connection runs deep and pure, made purer by meditation, sullied by worldly things such as touch and desire. To be a Lan daemon is to embody perfection—a reflection of the humans they are paired with.

From what he’s seen so far, Wei Wuxian figures that’s ninety percent bullshit.

“This is Lan Yizheng,” Lan Qiren had told them on their first day, the look in his eyes matched near-perfectly by the sharp gaze of the owl perched on the wooden stand next to him.

At the sound of her name, Lan Yizheng had fluffed up a bit, then slowly swiveled her head back and forth as she took in the disciples sitting before her.

Wei Wuxian remembers the muted whispers: beautiful, majestic. Even thinking back on the memory now, it takes almost all his self-control not to burst out laughing. Lan Qiren’s daemon, a spot-bellied eagle owl, has one of the most ridiculous faces he’s ever seen. To think people were so starry-eyed that first day as to call her majestic

“An instruction from her is equivalent to my own: you will call her Lan Yizheng or Lan-laoshi,” Lan Qiren had continued. His gaze had been piercing when he added, “As do I.”

Everyone had nodded. The Lan’s choice of using rather outdated naming conventions for their daemons was a well-known fact, and certainly a harmless one. Wei Wuxian had always found it a bit silly, really, overly-formal—but compared to some of the other three thousand rules they’d had to jot down that day, it was one of the more boring ones.

(That was, of course, before he had seen the look on Lan Wangji’s face when Suibian slipped up and called his daemon A-Chen. Then that rule had become very, very interesting.)

“Furthermore,” Lan Qiren had continued, face somehow still harsh in the morning light, “while you are being instructed, we expect you all to display the proper control and discipline of the Cloud Recesses. All of you, sit properly.”

Everyone had straightened up, as much as their already protesting backs allowed.

Lan Qiren had not looked pleased.

“I said all of you!” he had snapped, and pointed at Wei Wuxian and Suibian. “You! Inappropriate posture.”

Wei Wuxian had looked around, just to make sure that Lan Qiren was, in fact, pointing at him. Then, for good measure, he had pointed at himself and asked, “Me?”

That would be the first time Lan Qiren’s face turned an outraged red at something he said, but not the last.

“Not you. Your daemon!”

Suibian had looked up from where she was curled on Wei Wuxian’s lap, ears perked. They’d looked at each other, then back at Lan Qiren, blinking in twin confusion.

Me?

“Yes, you! Get off his lap,” Lan Qiren had ordered, and Suibian had scrambled to comply, a tangle of red and white sliding off his legs and onto the hard floor. “Sit straight! Straighter! Do not lean, keep the space between you.”

Then, after Suibian had done as instructed, sitting uncomfortably proper at Wei Wuxian’s side with her ears pressed back against her head and discontent buzzing through their bond, Lan Qiren had turned to the others.

“Now, all of you do the same.”

There had been a hush over the class as the words sank in.

They had, of course, obeyed anyways.

Or, most of them. Among the flurry of daemons abandoning their spots –some curled into laps like Suibian, others perched on shoulders, a select few tucked carefully into pockets— a brave disciple in the front row had raised her hand. Her daemon, a butterfly, had clung quietly to her fingers.

After a nod from Lan Qiren, she had said, “Thank you, Grandmaster. Forgive this humble student, but I do not understand. Our daemons are not permitted to—touch us?”

“No.”

Simple, no further explanation. There had been another barely contained murmur among the group, many of whom now had their daemons in proper place.

Wei Wuxian had jumped in. “But why?”

Everyone had wanted to ask it, really—after all, what kind of place expected humans and daemons to do something like this? But Lan Qiren’s eyebrows had furrowed, matching those of his (absolutely ridiculous) daemon’s.

“Control.” A click of Lan Yizheng’s beak. “When trying to reach the peak of cultivation, one must build their own tolerance for discomfort. In setting aside such needless distractions, in overcoming our base desires, one grows their skill.”

“That doesn’t make sense, though,” Wei Wuxian had shot back, annoyed despite himself. “It’s our natural instinct to touch! Theory has shown that the stronger a link, the better we can cultivate—so why fight against that? Won’t we all be more distracted like this?”

Jiang Cheng had kicked him under the table, a clear signal to shut up. Wei Wuxian hadn’t really cared. It was common knowledge that the Lan Sect didn’t touch their daemons in public, but he hadn’t thought it would extend to them, too!

“And besides,” he had continued, ignoring the increasingly furious look on Lan Qiren’s face, “there is more to control than setting aside worldly things! Why are we alive, if not to treasure that which we hold dear?”

That had been the wrong thing to say, looking back. Had Wei Wuxian been asked at the time to bet on whether Lan Qiren would go into qi deviation on the spot, he would have given it a 70-30 chance.

“You must abandon such flawed and childish assumptions!” Lan Qiren had snapped, Lan Yizheng’s beak clicking with renewed fervor behind him. “Are your links so weak that a single mi will impact you? No! If I am to instruct, then I will instruct you all, and you shall all model restraint and control. If your daemon is not holding themselves to the standards set for you, then you have already failed.”

“But—”

“No!” Lan Qiren’s voice had echoed in the room, stopping any and all protest. “Set aside these foolish questions. While you are in this classroom, you shall uphold these expectations, or leave!”

And that, right there, had been the first sign of trouble for Wei Wuxian.

(Ok, maybe not the first. But a sign, definitely.)

“This is ridiculous!” he had exclaimed later to Jiang Cheng, watching Suibian and Sandu tussle in the rooms provided to them. “First their three thousand rules, and then their headbands, and now this? Why can’t we just let them relax while we learn?

“They think they’re better than us,” Suibian had sniffed, earning a smack on the nose from Sandu. “Hey! What, you know it’s true! Why else would they do that? I can pay attention better on A-Xian’s lap than I can on that stupid floor, with my tail all twisted up and stiff!”

Wei Wuxian had frowned, trying to think it through. “I can’t believe the Lans are expected to do this all the time.  What a boring, empty life they must lead, if they keep their own daemons so far from their hearts!”

“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli had scolded gently, “do not be so unkind. It is only while we are learning, and they must have their reasons for it.”

But even she had sounded unsure. Wei Wuxian had turned to Jiang Cheng, looking for support; his brother had simply scowled and offered a half-hearted shrug.

“Yeah, well,” he’d said, gazing out the window at Lan Wangji and Lan Bichen walking gracefully across the courtyard below, “you know what they say about Lan daemons.” 

It’s been weeks since that first lesson, long enough that all his classmates have gotten used to their daemons sitting by their sides during lectures, resisting the ever-present urge to reach out and touch.  They’re in the habit of using the formal names for all the Lan daemons, too, at least to their faces.

Lan Yizheng, the owl. Lan Shuoyue, the stag. Lan Bichen, the leopard. Paragons for daemons and cultivators alike.

Bullshit.

Wei Wuxian still can’t bring himself to call Lan Wangji’s snow leopard Lan Bichen. He knows what Lan Wangji would say, has said, will continue to snappily say every time Wei Wuxian slips and calls her Bichen only:

“Shameless.”

Which, true.

But it still feels wrong.

Now, sitting at the oppressively quiet Lan dinner, Wei Wuxian glances down at Suibian. She’s busy trying to chew on a pair of Gusu Lan’s expensive chopsticks without Bichen noticing her. It’s going well, if only because Lan Wangji and Bichen seem to be actively avoiding looking at either of them.

Suibian senses his gaze and looks up at him. A single tilt of her head: yes?

He reaches out to scratch behind her ears, give her a little boop on her nose as the vibrant energy of their bond pulses through his core. Fondness blooms in his chest when she promptly abandons the chopsticks in favor of wriggling onto her back so he can stroke the red and white fur on her stomach. It’s soft under his fingers when he runs them through it, fluff now clean of the dirt and twigs from earlier thanks to an impromptu dip into the cold springs.

“Want some more?” he asks her, nodding to their bowls, and her eyes brighten.

“Do they have the fried pork belly still?”

“Nope.”

She pouts up at him and he laughs, glances around the table. “Look, Sandu still has some on hers, you could—”

She’s already off, nosing her way up to Sandu’s side and putting on her best begging eyes. Sandu is, tragically, unmoved.

“Please, A-San, just a little bite?”

“You’ve had plenty, Suibian.”

“But I’m still growing!

“You most certainly aren’t.”

Wei Wuxian watches them, heart feeling like it could float up into the cloud-patterned ceiling. When he turns back to the table to take another serving of his (bland, terrible, boring) rice, he realizes Bichen is watching them.

Not with her eyes, which might be how it escaped his notice for so long. The interest is undeniably there, though: her ears are swiveled in their direction, spotted and small and absolutely fluffy.

His breath catches. This is new, having her attention pointed their way for seemingly no reason. He waits for the fallout—for her to signal that they’re somehow breaking a rule, or have done something worth copying lines for.

But she doesn’t turn to Lan Wangji so he can scold them. Doesn’t do anything, actually.

Just stays like that for a moment, gazing at the floor, before her ears swivel away.

“A-Xian,” Suibian says, coming back over to curl in his lap, tail wagging furiously behind her. There’s a piece of pork belly in her teeth, soy sauce and garlic and vinegar caught between her canines. “A-Xian, look! Do you think Xiaolian…”

He hums in response, only half paying attention as he stares at the carefully maintained bubble of space between Bichen and Lan Wangji. Needless distractions, Lan Yizheng had said, the words echoing in his head, the memory of her sharp gaze burning into his neck. Overcoming our base desires.

And a pair of patterned ears that had, for just a single moment, held something more than otherworldly disinterest.

He frowns.

“Ugh,” he says, loud enough that the table next to them look over. Jiang Cheng shoots a confused, warning glance in his direction; Sandu’s eyes immediately dart about the room. When she sees that Suibian is still within a mǐ of her and able to be grabbed before trouble starts, she relaxes. 

“A-Xian,” whispers Xiaolian, from where he’s tucked in Jiang Yanli’s lap, “please behave.”

“What, what, I wasn’t even doing anything!”

The daemon rolls his eyes and goes back to shucking oysters, his whiskers twitching in amusement.

Wei Wuxian chances another look at Lan Wangji and Bichen. It really is amazing, their control. Many of the other disciples around the table have their daemons in their laps, or shoulders, or perched on a knee; Nie Huaisang has his mouse curled up in his pocket, only her ears poking out.

But Wei Wuxian has never seen Lan Wangji and Bichen try to sneak even a wayward brush of contact. They barely even talk. For someone as quiet and uptight as Lan Wangji, it’s not exactly surprising that his daemon would be just as serious, but, well…

“Stop staring,” Jiang Cheng hisses under his breath, once he realizes what Wei Wuxian is looking at.

Wei Wuxian makes a face at him. “I’m not!”

He does, however, stop staring.

Jiang Cheng is right—all this thinking about Lans is making him very morose, really, even more than usual at these dull dinners. He’s going to get hives if this keeps up.

One last stolen glance. Looking at them, at their perfect posture and perfect silence and perfect everything, Wei Wuxian can’t help but agree: the Lans and their daemons really are unlike any other.

But he doesn’t envy them for it.

--

It’s only later that night, walking back from the Library Pavilion from doing lines, that his mind returns to Lan Wangji and Bichen.

“They really are strange,” he tells Suibian, who is batting at moths in the cool night air. They flit between her paws, delicate wings turned almost luminescent under the moonlight. “Do you think they like it, being that distant?”

“Maybe they’re just shy.”

He hums, twirls his brush in his fingers. That doesn’t feel like the reason behind all the rules around daemons here, but…

“Yeah, maybe.”

“Or maybe we just haven’t figured it out yet.”

He looks down at her right as she finally succeeds in her quest, chomping into a moth with an unfair amount of gusto. A spot of bright red smears across her teeth and her tail goes wild, a fwip fwip fwip that drags on the stone path and cuts through the ever-present quiet here.

“Eww, Suibian!” Despite the protest, he feels himself laughing, her own happiness bubbling through their link and into his chest. “I just ate!”

“And now I did too,” she says primly, but she spits out the moth and starts weaving between his legs as he walks. He snorts, dodging her multiple attempts to trip him.

“A menace, you! And what do you mean, figured it out?”

Suibian blinks up at him, pupils large in the ever-increasing dark. “How to make them pay attention without being mad. That’s what you want, right? For them to look at us? And like us?”

Huh.

Wei Wuxian pauses, thinks on that. Is that what he wants?

He pushes the idea aside. No way! He’s been making Lan Wangji mad just for fun, really, for the intense look he gets on his face whenever Wei Wuxian presses his buttons. Lan Wangji has made it clear that Wei Wuxian does little outside of annoy him, and Bichen seems indifferent to their existence, so it’s not like either of them will be looking anytime soon anyways.

He doesn’t need their approval or his attention; it’s just fun to bug him.  

“I don’t care if they like us or not. Lan Zhan’s face is just silly when he gets annoyed, you know me, I can’t stay out of trouble for long,” Wei Wuxian tells her, then narrows his eyes at the expression that crosses her face. “What?”

“I think,” she says, making each word slow the way she does when she thinks he’s being particularly daft, “that you have a cr—”

She stops.

“Oi, oi! Hey!” Wei Wuxian says, crouching down to wave his fingers in front of her face. She’s twists her head away to stare somewhere past his shoulder, ears perked. “A what? I have a what?”

She’s not paying attention to him at all. Her nose is in the air, sniffing.

The audacity! He’s about to start lamenting about how cruel and unfair it is, really Suibian, to leave him in suspense like this for no good reason, when the wind shifts, bringing the gentle breeze towards them instead of away.

The effect is instantaneous.

“Shit!” Suibian squeaks and, in a moment of impressive acrobatics, gets half her body down the collar of his shirt before he can blink.

“Wha—” he starts, staggering to his feet in alarm, but all that does is get a layer of fur on his tongue and more fox down his shirt. He coughs, which just makes him inhale more fur through his nose. It’s a chain reaction from there.

“What—”

sneeze

“the—”

sneeze

hell, A-Sui—”

She whines in his robes. “Shut up, shut up, they’re coming, I knew I smelled them!”

“What are you talking ab—”

A single, careful cough alerts him to company.

He spins around, Suibian’s fluffy tail still sticking out of the top of his outer robes, to see Lan Wangji and Bichen standing at the edge of path.

“Oh!” he says, surprise tucking itself into the word as he turns fully to face them. A grin breaks out across his face. “Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji and Bichen gaze at him, almost ethereal in the moonlight. Their stares make quite a pair, gold and blue, like rare jewels sparkling even in the dark. They don’t seem nearly as taken-aback as Wei Wuxian is, seeing them here so far from their normal place at the library or the training fields.

“What are—oomf—"

His question is cut off as Suibian wriggles and squirms against his skin, her tail smacking him in the face as she tries to hide further. Lan Wangji’s and Bichen’s eyes flick to her.

Wei Wuxian pretends very hard that did not just happen. He crosses his arms over his chest, trying to block all the movement going on under there, and puts on his best winning smile. He’s suddenly, viscously glad that Sandu isn’t here. She would never let them live this down. “I mean—unexpected, seeing you here at this hour! What a lovely night, huh? Good breeze.”

Another long, significant pause.

“Wei Wuxian,” Lan Wangji acknowledges eventually, slow and low.

“That’s me!” Wei Wuxian says with a laugh. Lan Wangji’s eyes flicker quickly away and then back to him, posture straightening. Wei Wuxian glances to Bichen: her ears are pressed back against her head again, body half behind Lan Wangji. She seems fixated on the small tip of red still visible from Wei Wuxian’s collar. He hastily shoves it the rest of the way down.

“Ha, well, I was just coming back from the library!” he tries, grin still firmly in place. Smoothing down his robes is made considerably difficult with the fox-sized lump now residing in them, but the Jiangs always say to attempt the impossible, and he’s not going to stop now. “You’d be so proud of me, Lan Zhan, I copied all the lines Grandmaster told me to. All on my own!”

He wriggles his ink-stained fingers at Lan Wangji, hoping for a reaction.

Nothing. Just silence, the clenching of a jaw.

This is—starting to get weird. Even Wei Wuxian can admit that there’s normally more yelling or scolding going on by now, when it comes to him and Lan Wangji. But they’re just standing there, the bright white of Lan Wangji’s robes like a beacon in the dark.

Like they’re waiting for something, but what?

“Seriously, Lan Zhan,” and Wei Wuxian can’t fully keep the confusion out of his voice, “what are you doing here?”

He knows it can’t be for them, after all. Lan Wangji never wants to be near them longer than he absolutely has to be.

Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow.

After a beat, he says, “Curfew is soon.”

“Ah, right, right,” Wei Wuxian agrees, trying not to wince as a fox foot jabs into his armpit. From the way Bichen’s ears twist, he’s largely unsuccessful. “I mean, that’s more a statement of fact than an actual answer to my question, but that’s ok! Also, if you’re here to punish me, I object! It’s not nine yet.”

Lan Wangji hesitates. “That is true.”

“Close! But I’m not breaking any rules yet.”

“Correct.”

They stare at each other, something hanging in the air. Bichen’s ears tilt back and forth between them.

“Is this about earlier?” Wei Wuxian blurts, unable to help himself, and yelps when Suibian bites his stomach. Lan Wangji’s left eyebrow lifts a millimeter, the expression quickly echoed by Bichen. Wei Wuxian laughs through the sting of teeth, a little breathless, “Sorry, sorry. Bugs! A single bug! A big one!”

They don’t look convinced.

“Anyways!” he says quickly, because he’s already committed to this path, judgmental Lan eyebrows or not, “Look, Lan Zhan, you know Suibian didn’t mean to make Bi—Lan Bichen upset, right?”

Lan Wangji and Bichen stay quiet, so Wei Wuxian plows on.

“And if A-Sui were here,” (Suibian wriggles under his robes), “I think she’d tell Lan Bichen that she really is sorry. It’s not her fault, Lan Zhan, don’t be mad! She’s just really curious and she’s not very good at controlling her impulses.”

Lan Wangji frowns. “Impulses must be controlled, or they control us. Rule—”

“Number four hundred and sixty-seven, I know, I know!” Wei Wuxian waves off what he’s sure is an oncoming lecture. Lan Wangji blinks. “It’s not in her nature, though! And she was just trying to play, but she did it wrong, and then she got scared.”

Somewhere during that last part, Lan Wangji’s mouth has twisted into something displeased.

His voice is quieter than before when he says, “Scared?”

“Oh, yeah, she definitely thought she might be eaten!” Wei Wuxian raises his voice a little to add, “And I’m sure she knows that is still a possibility, and that she’s very, very sorry, right?”

There’s a moment of silence, where Wei Wuxian looks down at his shirt and Lan Wangji and Bichen stare at him. Then the lump on his chest shifts and with a soft sigh, Suibian finally pokes her head out.

“Yes,” she says, ears pressed back against her head as she looks at Bichen. Wei Wuxian can feel the nerves trembling through their bond, a genuine worry. “A-Chen, I’m very sorry, please don’t be mad at me.”

“Lan Bichen,” Lan Wangji corrects almost instantly.

“Sorry,” Suibian mutters. “Lan Bichen. Right.”

Bichen, whose ears had perked up at seeing Suibian emerge from hiding, makes a faint chuffing noise in response.

“Like I said, she didn’t mean to be rude,” Wei Wuxian tells them. Suibian shakes her head, dragging herself out of the folds of his robes and onto his shoulders. Ah, ow, there she goes again, those little claws! And Jiang Cheng is always asking how he has so many cuts on him—he’s lucky that Sandu never uses him as an impromptu climbing post!

Sandu is too big for that, now that he thinks about it. Can a wolf even climb things?

“What did she mean?”

“Huh?” Wei Wuxian blinks, yanked back into the moment. Lan Wangji is still gazing at him, the lines of his shoulders tense.

“By the attack.” Lan Wangji makes a short, aborted motion to Bichen’s tail.

It takes them both a moment to understand what he’s even talking about. When they do, Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, closes it.

“You thought—hold on, you thought she was—”

“It was dishonorable,” Lan Wangji continues, and he’s all tense lines again. “Opponents should not be attacked from behind—”

“Wait, wait, hey!” On his shoulder, Suibian lets out a yip, overcoming her apparent shock to cut him off. Her ears flick across Wei Wuxian’s cheek as she swivels them towards Bichen, the closest she ever gets to actual indignation. “What are you talking about? I wasn’t attacking her!”

Lan Wangji and Bichen turn their full attention on her. The effect is immediate: she flattens down and winds herself around Wei Wuxian’s neck, all nervous wriggles and nuzzling of the cheeks, the way she used to do when they were kids and a punishment was incoming.

He tugs gently on the tip of her tail: don’t be scared.  

“Then what was the purpose?” Lan Wangji asks her, when she stays uncharacteristically silent on his shoulders.

Suibian presses her ears back against her head at his tone.

“I was trying to be friends.”

Lan Wangji pauses. His face goes through a truly comical number of microexpressions, most of which Wei Wuxian can’t read. It settles into something closed-off and rigid.

“Friends?” he asks, very careful.

“Of course!” Suibian says, and looks between them all. “I’ve been—I’ve been trying to play with you since we got here! Didn’t you notice?”

“I…” Lan Wangji looks almost uncertain now, if such a thing were possible. At his side, Bichen is openly staring at Suibian, eyes huge. Wei Wuxian has never seen this expression on either of them.

“Me too, me too,” he adds quickly, grinning. He doesn’t like whatever this weird feeling hanging in the air between them is, needs to brighten it somehow. “We both want to be friends with you! That would be fun, don’t you think?”

He tries to make it teasing and playful—but Lan Wangji’s eyebrows furrow when he’s done. The softness of his face is replaced with an expression Wei Wuxian knows well: annoyance.

Well, shit.

“Your version of fun does not interest me,” Lan Wangji tells him, cold as the springs they bathed in earlier. Wei Wuxian pouts at him.

“Lan Zhan! Come on, being my friend comes with lots of perks!”

Lan Wangji looks like he very much doubts that.

Still, Wei Wuxian rushes on, oddly excited by the prospect now that it’s laid out before him. “No, trust me, trust me! Here, I’ll introduce you to one of the perks now: I’m a great listener! As a demonstration, how about you tell me exactly what I need to do to be your friend! How does one go about wooing the famous Lan Wangji and Lan Bichen, hmm?”

He batts his eyelashes like the maidens in Nie Huaisang’s books. Suibian snorts quietly. Lan Wangji clenches his fists and looks away from him.

“Ridiculous,” he hisses.

“I mean it!” Wei Wuxian insists, a grin curving on his lips. “Come on, tell me what we’re doing wrong! You love doing that, right? If you help me out, I can bring you another one of those books for us to look at in the library tomorrow, is that a fair exchange?”

The comment hits exactly where he hoped it would. Lan Wangji looks back at him, a familiar fire burning in his eyes. The fur on Bichen’s back raises.

“Shameless!” Lan Wangji snaps at him, ears tinted with pink. “Why must you be so unpredictable?”

Wei Wuxian, who was ready to fire back something that would get Lan Wangji to finally take out his sword and just spar with them again, pauses at that last part.

Ooh. Interesting.

Unpredictable,” he muses, philosophical. He turns to look Suibian, the black of her nose taking up a decent amount of his vision as he does so. “I see, I see! Do you get it now A-Sui? Lan Zhan and Bichen want to be friends, too, but we picked the wrong tactic! We’ve got to be more predictable, and then they’re bound to be wooed!”

“That is not what I said,” Lan Wangji says, sounding distinctly horrified, even as Suibian nods and wags her tail.

“I need to try a different approach!”

“Yes, exactly,” Wei Wuxian agrees.

Lan Wangji’s face is making an interesting pinched shape. Bichen is just as hard to read as he is, but Wei Wuxian is pretty sure her ears are tilting in a way that isn’t normal.

“So it’s ok if she knows it’s coming?” Suibian asks them, now wriggling with excitement. “A-Chen, what if I warn you? Oooh! I could yell ‘boo!’ really loudly before I pounce on it—”

Lan Wangji’s face settles into anger again. “Lan Bichen. Yelling is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses—”

Suibian is undeterred. “I can whisper ‘boo!’ before I pounce on it! Wouldn’t that be fun?”

“No tail pouncing.”

Bichen’s tail twitches as Lan Wangji says it.

“Alright, alright,” Wei Wuxian says. His mouth hurts from how long he’s been grinning. He sways a little closer to them, winks even as Lan Wangji goes still as a statue. “But what about… ear nibbling? Daemons and humans could do that, right, Lan Zhan? What do you think? A little ear nibble, between you and me?”

“Shameless,” Lan Wangji spits again. His ears are tinging a deeper red; Wei Wuxian does his best to fight back his smile and scold his face into a serious expression, wagging a finger at him.

“Hey now! What’s some fun, between friends?”

“Not friends.” Lan Wangji’s voice is firm and final.

“Right,” Suibian says, eyes now locked on Bichen’s ears. “Not friends.”

Chapter Text

“So does this mean we’re friends now?” Wei Wuxian asks brightly one month later, as Lan Wangji wraps his ribbon around their wrists in Lan Yi’s ice cave.

He’s shivering, the coldest he’s ever been, including that long stretch of time he spent starving on the streets. Suibian’s paws are like frosted riverstones against his skin where he’s tucked her inside his shirt to try and keep her warm.

Lan Wangji doesn’t look cold at all, even though there’s actual frost clinging to his eyelashes. He just looks annoyed.

“No.”

Wei Wuxian pouts at him. “Not even a little?”

“Ridiculous.”

Wei Wuxian sighs, gives a good tug on the ribbon. Lan Wangji glares at him. “Not even friends, he says! You know, you’re colder than this cavern will ever be, Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji looks away, lips thin. Bichen, however, lets out a low, one-note growl.

It startles him, if he’s being honest—if he didn’t already have goosebumps, that growl definitely would have done it. Even with daemons, and even with Wei Wuxian’s admittedly low concern for anything that could potentially kill him, there’s still a primal fear mechanism when something that big and with teeth that sharp growls at you.

“Ah, what, what?” he asks, and inches closer to Lan Wangji for cover.

Despite the pranks that he and Suibian pull, Bichen has never growled at either of them before with that kind of intensity. In fact, she’s been strangely patient with Suibian’s antics lately, significantly less glaring and showing of the teeth whenever Suibian tries to sneak up on her or bat at her.

But she does not look patient now.

They’ve never actually looked at each other close up before, not like this. Proximity makes little details stand out like firecrackers, the way her blue irises sparkle from the light reflecting off the cave walls, the dappled pattern of her fur touched with ice. There is a steadiness in her that reminds him of Lan Zhan: like a mountain, unwilling to be moved by anything but the slow tick of time.

But there’s a fire too, held within that gaze. He doesn’t know her well enough to read it, but he thinks she’s glaring.

“Aiyo, what, don’t look at me like that! Did I step on your tail? What did I do?”

In truth, he doesn’t expect an answer. She’s never talked to him directly, and Suibian has only heard her when she’s being nosy and trying to listen in on Lan Zhan’s conversations. There’s not a rule around Lan daemons talking, but there might as well be, with how little she speaks near them.

So when she looks directly into his eyes and says, her voice a smooth rumble that reverberates through his chest, “Do not be cruel,” he’s momentarily shocked into stillness.

Cruel?

He gapes at her, for once not sure what to say. Her gaze is pinning his tongue in place, more effective than any of the silencing spells Lan Wangji is so fond of casting on him.

Against his chest, Suibian stirs.

“Enough.”

Before Wei Wuxian can figure out the tangled thoughts rushing through his head, Lan Wangji is moving. With only that single word and a pointed tug on their bound wrists, he starts walking towards the altar.

“Whoa! Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian nearly trips over himself as he’s forced to follow, splashing water as protests spill from his mouth. “Alright, alright, slow down—hey!”

Lan Wangji ignores him, yanking him onto the shore without even a single glance backwards. Bichen follows, serene and composed, looking regal even with her fur soaked. She leaps onto shore in a fluid motion that Wei Wuxian is frankly envious of, digging her claws into the ice to steady her landing.

A shiver inches down his spine when their eyes meet across the water.

“Focus.”

Lan Wangji’s voice forces his gaze away from Bichen. This time, Wei Wuxian doesn’t protest when he pulls them another few steps forward to examine the altar in the center of the room.

“Think this triggers something?” he asks, and Lan Wangji makes a noncommittal noise in his throat, busy looking at the instrument lying there. Wei Wuxian sighs, glances around the cave for something more interesting. So far, it’s just them, the guqin, and the little bunnies that seem perfectly content to nuzzle into the frost. “Maybe it’s—”

“Quiet.”

“So bossy,” he complains, but falls quiet as Lan Wangji examines the guqin. It doesn’t last long; at the next pull of the ribbon digging into the tender stretch of skin, he grins. “Hey, Lan Zhan! When I imagined my wrists like this, I was thinking of something a lot more fun—”

“Wei Ying.”

“Alright, alright.”

He joins in the investigation this time, Suibian popping her head after his robes after a few moments to look at the bunnies.

At least, he thinks with a note of satisfaction, it looks like Lan Zhan is finally feeling the cold: the tips of his ears have gone red. Serves him right, for being so mean. Wei Wuxian doesn’t know how he’s managed to fight off the chill for this long in the first place.

“I want out,” Suibian whispers to him eventually, eyes not leaving the rabbits. There’s a thrum pulsing through their bond, the kind that always rises up whenever she sees something both fluffy and smaller than her.

“Yeah? Gonna have some fun?”

Lan Wangji looks over at them at that, gaze sharp, and Suibian shrinks back a little.

“Just to look, I swear! Besides, Bichen is allowed to explore, can’t I? What if I find something really useful?”

“Down you go then!” Wei Wuxian says, before Lan Wangji can throw a fit or probably point out why Suibian is suspect while Bichen is not, and untangles her from his robes. She looks, frankly, ridiculous: hair matted and sticking up in random directions, skinny with her normally lush fur weighed down by water.

It’s hilarious and undignified. Wei Wuxian loves her so much.

She lets out a happy chitter as he starts to lower her onto the shore, Lan Wangji and Bichen watching closely; but as soon as he plops her down, the air in the cavern shifts.

Wei Wuxian can feel the energy gather, then release, like the beat of a drum.

Suibian’s next noise is a yowl—one of pain.

Suibian getting hurt has never been pleasant. He doesn’t feel the pain, exactly, not unless it’s a really serious injury. Most of the time it’s more of an echo, or an impression, like the ache after he trains too hard. He knows it varies a lot by person, how much they do or don’t feel, no real understanding why some pairs feel like it’s a mirror of hurt while others feel nothing at all.

But the link between them is strong enough that he can always feel the flicker of emotion behind the physical sensation. Given her propensity to get herself into trouble, it’s usually embarrassment, the faint tinges of anxiety or annoyance that she’s hurt. It’s been a long time since she was hurt enough to feel anything else.

The first thing he gets this time is sharp, acrid fear.

Dogs chasing them, dogs nipping at her tail, the sound of Madam Yu’s whip cracking through the air, the empty ache of hunger, pain, pain, pain—

His blood turns cold.

“A-Sui!”

He’s lunging for her the moment he feels it, his entire back screaming with sensation as she tries to scramble towards him from the ice. It takes a single second to cross the distance, but every instant of it is like fire is shooting up his spine. As soon as she’s in range he yanks her into the safety of his arms, staggering back from the shoreline and forcing Lan Wangji with him.

“A-Sui,” he repeats, a gasp, almost dizzy with the pain and emotion clogging their link.

Someone is saying his name, insistent, low. Wei Wuxian tries to focus, can’t as Suibian starts wailing—loud, high-pitched cries that echo off the walls and leaving his ears ringing.

“My feet, A-Xian, it burned, it—”

Fingers clumsy, he manhandles her so she’s tucked against him on her back, grabs one of her little paws to examine. The entire pad is burned, blistered to blackness. Blood slowly runs down the side of them, staining the clear water below them with drops of bright red.

“It hurts, it hurts!” she yowls as Wei Wuxian gently touches her feet, and he makes a soft shushing noise.

“Let me see, stop wriggling—”

Suibian obliges, but her cries pick up in volume and pitch.

Carefully, Wei Wuxian strokes his fingers along her feet, examining the damage. Now that she’s no longer on the shore, the wounds aren’t getting worse. It definitely looks painful, so burned that it’s blackened; but when he checks their bond, he finds it vibrant and sharp as always.

Relief hits him.

Whatever this is, it’s purely physical. They can heal that.

“Is she…?” Bichen breathes, and Wei Wuxian looks up to see that both she and Lan Wangji have stepped close, staring at the still-howling fox in his arms. For the first time, he realizes that Lan Wangji must have been the one talking to him. His hand is hovering near Wei Wuxian’s elbow, like he’s afraid he’ll crumple into the pool.

“She’s alright, she’s alright,” he says quickly, bouncing Suibian in his arms to try and quiet her down. Suibian has always been a bit on the dramatic side when it comes to things like this. With the momentary shock of pain fading, now it’s just reassurance she wants, really.

“She is injured?”

Wei Wuxian glances up at Lan Wangji, who is staring at them with a slight furrow in his brow.

He and Bichen seem thrown off by the obvious, firework-bright distress that Suibian is projecting. It’s a horrendous, disjointed noise, her crying—like someone being tortured. He can’t imagine what it sounds like to people who haven’t grown up with her and seen this very scenario before, but it can’t be pleasant.

Then, in a moment of realization, he remembers that Lans like things quiet.

He winces; Lan Wangji’s eyes flick up to his face and sharpen. Ah, this whole thing must be so annoying for them, so loud! No wonder they’re thrown off.

“It’s not that bad!” he reassures them, trying to pitch his own voice lower to compensate. “She’s just a crybaby when she gets hurt.”

“Says you,” Suibian says, still whining high in her throat, but it falters when she twists her head to see that all three of them are now standing around her.

Wei Wuxian sees the moment she switches to her best helpless look, which is markedly different than her actual helpless look and doesn’t fool him for a second. She gives a wriggle and another whine, keeping their already undivided attention on her, and raises one of her feet high in the air.

“My paws, A-Xian, my paws!

“Your paws,” he agrees, still saturated with relief, and kisses her on the nose.

Not satisfied with his reaction, Suibian turns to the others.

“Bichen! Bichen, look at my paws! Do you see?”

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes; now that she has all their attention, all the fear he felt from her before has faded. Bichen inches forward, looking at the paw that has flailed its way out of Wei Wuxian’s grasp. Her entire tail is fluffed up, eyes searching.

Slowly, she says, “I see it. Are you ok?”

“I don’t know! How bad does it look? Will I be able to walk again?” Suibian asks her, eyes big and wide and imploring, and Wei Wuxian snorts.

Bichen looks closer. Suibian sits still for a few moments of careful examination, which is frankly more than Wei Wuxian can make her do most of the time, before Bichen steps back again.

“Given medical attention, I believe you will be ok, Wei Suibian.”

Both Wei Wuxian and Suibian make a face.

“Oh gross,” he says. The most Bichen has ever spoken to either of them, the first time she’s ever actually called Suibian by name, and she has to say that. Wei Suibian. Ugh, I feel like I just aged three thousand years. If I have nightmares tonight, I blame you, Bichen.”

Bichen’s ears go flat.

“No, no, I like it!” Suibian says (lies) quickly, once its clear Bichen isn’t going to respond. “Um, it’s—unique? But you can just call me Suibian, if you want. I mean, I’d like that.”

Bichen’s tail, still a bit fluffed, curls in the air. She glances at Lan Wangji, who hasn’t moved an inch the entire time they’ve been talking. They must do whatever silent thing they do to communicate with each other, because after moment she looks back at Suibian.

“…I understand.”

Appeased, Suibian lets out a chittering noise and draws her paw back to her body. Wei Wuxian bounces her again, channels some spiritual energy into the burns.

“There,” he soothes, “that will hold you over until we get you to a healer, ok?”

She gives one last shivering whimper, more for the spirit of it than anything else, before quieting down. Her eyes settle on Lan Wangji and Bichen, almost accusatory. “How come Bichen can walk on it, but I get hurt?”

“Protection spell,” Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji say at the same time.

They blink at each other. It’s Wei Wuxian who laughs, delighted.

“Lan Zhan, you’re so smart!”

“Hn.” Lan Wangji looks away from him, toward the shoreline. His ears are pink again. “The magic here is strong.”

“Sure seems like it. And picky! I guess this place only likes Lan daemons, too, huh?”

“Mn. We should find a way out.”

“Wait, I thought you wanted to look more—”

“No. Out.” It’s oddly firm and insistent, given that Lan Wangji didn’t seem to be any hurry just a few moments ago.

“But who even knows how long this has been here, shouldn’t we at least look around to see if we find any more ancient relics or whatever—”

Lan Wangji shuts him up by starting to move back towards the shore, tugging Wei Wuxian with him. He must be getting worn out, given that these tugs at least don’t have him stumbling in the water like the last ones; he’s actually able to keep pace, at least until Suibian starts wriggling in protest as they get close to the ice.

“Hold up! I’m not going back there,” she says, curling deeper into Wei Wuxian’s arms. “It hurt. No!”

Lan Wangji pauses, looks at them.

“You don’t have to get on the shore,” Wei Wuxian tells her, even though it’s obvious that she’ll need to go somewhere. He can’t hold her and help look for a way out, and with her paws raw it’s not like he can just tuck her into his clothes again. Maybe he could rip up the robes and make a sash?

Suibian is clearly thinking along the same lines. “Maybe you can float me?”

“In the water? You’ll freeze to death! This isn’t like Lotus Pier, you know—”

“Well I’m not getting on the ground—”

“Give her to Lan Bichen.”

Wei Wuxian blinks.

The words, separated, make sense. The words combined, coming out of Lan Wangji’s mouth in that specific order, don’t make sense at all.

He turns to Lan Wangji. “I’m sorry, what?”

A muscle in Lan Wangji’s jaw twitches, like having to repeat himself is the worst possible thing about this situation.

“Lan Bichen can carry her. On her back.”

Wei Wuxian pinches himself, just to make sure he didn’t somehow start hallucinating. It still hurts. Figures. He didn’t think his brain would have let him be this cold in a hallucination anyways, but it was worth checking.

He looks to Bichen, who nods; then to Suibian, who twists her ears in a way that says, well, what else are we going to do? 

So, feeling like he’s in a semi-fugue state, or maybe about to get his arm ripped from his body, he approaches Bichen and plops Suibian onto her back.

There’s an awkward scramble, where Suibian tries to find purchase and hisses when it puts pressure on her paws. Eventually, after some deliberation and grumbling, Wei Wuxian arranges her so she’s draped over the snow leopard like a saddle, legs hanging uselessly in the air.

Bichen stays very still and very stiff throughout all of this. So does Lan Wangji.

For his part, Wei Wuxian is acutely aware of both Lan Zhan’s proximity and Bichen’s fur still so close to his fingers. He is exceedingly careful not to touch her as he tries to stabilize Suibian; his entire body feels cramped with how hyper-conscious he is of the distance between them.

Then Suibian sighs, dreamy, “Oh, Bichen, this is so much better, thank you,” and the tension seems to rush out of all of them at once. 

“Right, well,” Wei Wuxian says, unable to believe his eyes and wishing desperately that someone else were here to act as a witness to what must be a once-in-a-lifetime event. “There we go.”

Bichen, when she nods in agreement, is still a bit too close for comfort. The mere thought of accidentally brushing against her twists his stomach and he takes a step back, letting out a breath he didn’t even realize he was holding.

Suibian has no such reservations. She’s turned into a boneless line on Bichen’s back, openly relieved to be off her feet and out of the water. Bichen’s head is twisted around so she can watch her, whiskers twitching a little even as the rest of her stays unmoving and steady. Frost has started to paint both of their coats, a sharp contrast against Suibian’s red, but a compliment to Bichen’s lighter colors.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t realize he’s staring at them until Lan Wangji gives a pointed tug on their bound wrists.

“Let’s go.”

Together, they half-walk, half-trip over to the shore. Well—Lan Wangji walks, Wei Wuxian trips. His stomach is doing flips and he can’t figure out why. It’s not a distance thing; he’s cultivated his core enough that Suibian can be a few hundred mǐ from him without any issue. The space between where he’s tied to Lan Zhan and where their daemons are standing isn’t even a tenth of that.

For some reason, just thinking about their daemons makes his stomach flip again.

“Do you feel weird?” he asks Lan Wangji, as they finally make it to the shore. “Because I feel weird.”

The gold in Lan Wangji’s eyes turns sharp again. “You are injured?”

Exasperated, Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “That’s not—you know what, never mind! I bet you’ve never felt weird a day in your life, huh? Maybe I just ate something bad. You all serve rabbit food here, you know that? Oh, uh, no offense,” he adds, bowing to the rabbits on the shoreline. They don’t seem to care either way.

Lan Wangji gives him a long look.

“There is nothing wrong with rabbit food,” he says eventually, and touches the guqin before Wei Wuxian can comment.  


“Well that was fun,” Wei Wuxian says.

It was not, in fact, fun.

In the space of a single hour, he’d not only been sucked into an ice cave, had his daemon injured, and discovered an intricate plot to unite an ancient relic that could bring destruction to them all—but he’d also pissed off Wen Qing, who inspires fear in the hearts of men on her good days.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, from where he’s sitting next to him, and adds, “Your posture.”

Wei Wuxian groans and plants his face on the table. “I wish we had stayed trapped in the cave.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t respond right away—he’s probably too busy thinking insults at Wei Wuxian’s prone, helpless form. Or fantasizing about poetry, or tofu, or whatever appropriate, Lan-like thoughts go through his head.

Wei Wuxian glances at him, just to check, and finds him resolutely writing on the parchment Lan Xichen had laid out for them earlier.

To keep you occupied, he had said, looking more at Wei Wuxian than Lan Wangji when he spoke, while we deliberate.

Wei Wuxian groans again.

“It’s unfair that they’re making us stay up and wait, don’t you think? We’ve been through distress. I’m distressed. Are you distressed?”

“Wei Ying.”

“You’re no fun.”

He sits up and goes back to his doodling, throwing occasional pouting looks at Lan Wangji. The candlelight flickers on his face, casting his shadow onto Bichen as she sits properly at his side. It emphasizes the symmetry of his features, as if the gods themselves chiseled his cheeks, his eyes, the sharp cut of his jaw. 

He frowns and sets down his brush so he can rub Suibian’s ears. She’s curled up on his lap with all four of her paws covered in rough gauze, courtesy of Wen Qing. The salve underneath them is sharp and herbal, a hint of bitter florals, and her nose twitches every few moments like the scent has followed her into her dreams.

At his touch, Suibian makes a sleepy, faint trill. “A-Xian?”

“Go back to sleep,” he soothes, and she settles, a happy sigh breathed between them. He keeps petting her, not looking up, expecting Lan Wangji to swoop in at any moment and order him to pick up his brush again.

No order comes.

Instead, gentle quiet settles over them. For some time there’s just Bichen’s soft breathing, and the motion of Lan Zhan writing in his periphery, and Suibian’s steady heartbeat beneath his fingers. The longer he sits there, the more Wei Wuxian can’t help but think that it’s actually the most at peace he’s felt in a long time.

The sound of the door opening breaks it.

All of their heads jerk up; but it’s just Lan Xichen, who smiles at him and Lan Wangji when he meets their twin gazes.

“My apologies for the wait,” he says, holding the door open for Shuoyue to come through. His daemon, a large sambar deer, practically glides into the room despite his size. He certainly doesn’t seem inhibited by the narrow space; when he passes by Lan Xichen, there is not so much as a single brush of skin.

“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji says, setting down his brush, then hesitates.

Lan Xichen smiles at them again. “We have done a thorough examination of the Yin Iron shard. While we have been able to contain its power for now, only time will tell what it is truly capable of. The immediate danger, however, has passed.”

“For Suibian as well?”

Wei Wuxian looks over at Bichen, surprised. She beat him to the question.

“Wei Suibian should make a full recovery, yes.” Something in Lan Xichen’s eyes seems to sparkle. “Any spiritual damage sustained the ice cave was mitigated before too much harm could occur.” He looks at Lan Wangji and adds, “The same can be said for Wei-gongzi’s health.”

Lan Wangji goes still, shooting his brother a look that Wei Wuxian doesn’t understand. Lan Xichen just smiles a bit wider and turns to face him. He bows.

“Thank you for looking after my brother today, Wei-gongzi.

Flustered, Wei Wuxian bows deeply back, rubbing the back of his head to try and laugh it off. “Ah, no, no, Zewu-Jun, you give me too much credit! Lan Zhan definitely did the looking, today.”

Another smile tugs at the corner of Lan Xichen’s mouth. “I’m sure he did.”

Xiongzhang.

Lan Wangji’s ears are red when Wei Wuxian glances toward him. He’s staring resolutely down at his parchment.

“Um…” Wei Wuxian turns to Lan Xichen to try and understand, but he and Shuoyue just share a look before crossing the room and settling down in front of them.

“Let us discuss more serious matters, then,” Lan Xichen says, pulling out his xiao. “Given the exposure to the Yin Iron shard, Shufu is concerned that there may be residual resentment lingering in you. Normally the task would fall to you, didi, but given the energy you expended in the cave, we feel it is best that I play for the both of you.”

Wei Wuxian glances at Lan Wangji, impressed despite himself. He knew Lan Wangji was a prodigy with the guqin, but to be the go-to player to soothe resentment?

“You should play for me sometime,” Wei Wuxian tells him in an undertone, both teasing and not. Lan Wangji stares straight ahead, as if he didn’t even speak. “Lan Zhan—

Lan Xichen coughs lightly, cutting of his half-formed whine.

“Please,” he says, and there is another smile playing on his lips, “open your spiritual energy to me.”

They settle into comfortable positions—Wei Ying cross-legged and leaning against the table with Suibian still in his lap; Lan Wangji straight-backed, hands folded.

Bichen, Wei Wuxian notices distantly, has the tip of her tail curled near Lan Wangji’s left foot, only a few centimeters of space separating them. It takes him by surprise— he so rarely sees them come even close to touching. Wei Wuxian has no idea what it could mean, or why it would even be important, or why he even noticed in the first place.

There’s not enough time to comment before the first note of music rings through the air. The effect is almost instantaneous: like water trickling through a crack in the stone, tension starts to drain from him, a slow release of pressure.

Suibian is a warm, familiar weight against his body. He starts to pet her again without thinking, stroking his fingers through her now-dry fur. The motion itself is soothing; combined with the music, the flow of time becomes some fuzzy, muddled thing, easy to lose track of.

It’s nice, he realizes in some distant part of himself. To just sit here, to feel the melody wash over him and into his core. To be alive in this moment, with Lan Wangji and Bichen at their side.

His thoughts drift, boats on lotus ponds.

Today wasn’t a close call, not really—but he’d be lying if he said seeing her hurt didn’t affect him. For the longest time, Suibian was the only thing that he had. His parents: dead. His home: lost. The entire world turned upside-down in a single moment, transformed into one of hunger and cold and snapping teeth.

But she had been there, always. An ever-present, precious companion.

“Do you think she was lonely?”

Lan Xichen pauses the music, and it is almost like a spell breaking, the way physical sensations rush back into the quiet of the room. Truthfully, Wei Wuxian hadn’t really meant to speak the thought out loud; it had just bubbled up and out of him as he gazed at Suibian.

He doesn’t really plan to continue it, either, until Lan Wangji says, “Who?”

Wei Wuxian looks up at him, finds his face framed by candlelight. His eyes are intent, the same single-minded focus he seems to give them whenever they cause trouble but, strangely, lacking any annoyance.

“Lan Yi. I mean, she was trapped there, in that cave. I thought that without your daemon you went crazy, but that didn’t seem to be the case with her. But her daemon wasn’t there, or else we would have sensed it, right? Do you think she misses them?”

Lan Wangji frowns. “Do you not know?”

“Know what?”

“It…” Lan Wangji looks away, towards Bichen. She’s started to doze next to him, eyes half-lidded.

“Within our sect, it is a well-known story.” Lan Xichen has been watching their exchange; he puts down his xiao when it is clear his brother is not going to continue. “It is not… secret, exactly, but perhaps something that is more apparent within the Cloud Recesses. The soul and a daemon’s spirit will not part easily, not if the bond linking them is strong. If a bond cannot break, then it simply bends, rearranges.”

Wei Wuxian leans forward, confused. “But daemons dissolve into nothing when their counterpart is killed. And even if the spirit of the human lingers, or they become undead, they don’t have their daemons anymore. It’s supposed to be painful—it is painful! Lan Zhan and I saw it when we hunted the Water Ghosts in Caiyi. All those people, screaming for their daemons. All that resentful energy, magnified.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head, lays out a new sheet of parchment. “Not nothing. Not always.”

Wei Wuxian looks to Lan Xichen, who smiles.

“You are correct in the underlying theory, Wei-gongzi. However, the daemons of powerful cultivators do not wither as others do. When the cultivator linked to them dies, they disperse from their prior form, but their energy does not leave the earth.”

“They linger too?”

Another shake of the head from Lan Wangji. “It is not lingering. It is becoming. They flow into qi itself.”

Wei Wuxian ponders on that for a moment. “You’re saying her daemon was there.”

Finally, a nod. “In the air.”

“And the water,” Wei Wuxian realizes, thinking of how the whirlpool had sucked them under like it was nothing. “The ground, too!”

“That may be why the protection spell surrounding the altar was so strong.” Lan Xichen has a far-off look in his eyes. “Many powerful cultivators have seen the end of their days here—peacefully, of course. When they pass, very rarely do they linger. But in the few cases that such a thing has occurred, we find that the spaces they linger have intense energy. Not resentful, but shielding.”

“It was the energy of their daemons, transformed?”

Lan Xichen nods. “Lan Yi was considered one of the best of her time. You are both skilled for your age, but given the immensity of the energy that her daemon must have, it is no surprise that you were not able to distinguish it from that of the cave itself. It would have been too overwhelming. As a perhaps frivolous comparison, you were looking for a single trickle of water to drink, but you were already drowning in a lake.” 

“Huh,” Wei Wuxian says, stares at the corner of Lan Wangji’s parchment. “So that’s how she hung on without going crazy, for all those years. Wait! Now that she’s moved on, will her daemon be stuck guarding the cave?”

“No.” Lan Wangji glances at Lan Xichen, as if asking for permission; when Lan Xichen nods, he continues. “It happened before, a long time ago. The energy disappeared with the spirit.”

Wei Wuxian is turning it all over in his head. “Like they departed, together.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji dips his brush back in ink, begins writing once more.

Neither of them continue. Lan Xichen appears far away, like he’s remembering something; his xiao lays loose in his curled fingers, evidently forgotten.

Something settles in Wei Wuxian’s chest.

“You know,” he says into the quiet, making both Lans twitch, “if that’s what happens, then maybe it’s not all so bad after all.”

They look at him, confused. Eventually, Lan Xichen says, “I’m sorry, Wei-gongzi, please elaborate. What’s not so bad?”

“All of it,” he says, gesturing around them. Lan Wangji’s brow furrows, and Wei Wuxian continues, “I don’t mean here. Or anywhere, really. But all this time, I’d thought that if we don’t attain immortality, or died before reaching the apex of our skill, then it would mean our cultivation wasn’t truly successful. That we’d failed. But…”

He trails off, looks at Suibian still sleeping soundly in his lap.

“But if we just get strong enough to keep those we love close, then it’s not a failure after all. I don’t want to die—I’m willing to, if it means standing against injustice. But if I die and can still be with the one I hold most dear, then it’s really not that scary after all. Who wouldn’t want to spend an eternity with the one they love? That’s better than any immortality, if you ask me.”

Silence greets his words—a long one, even for the company of two Lans. Wondering if he said something wrong, he looks up.

Lan Wangji is staring at him, golden eyes wider than normal, his mouth slightly parted. His entire face has smoothed out—no annoyed furrow of the brows, no anger in his gaze, no downward turn to the corner of his lips. He’s looking at Wei Wuxian like he’s never seen him before, like he’s something brand new and interesting.

It’s the softest his face has ever been. The look does something to Wei Wuxian’s insides, makes him squirm.

“Ah—what?” he asks, glancing between Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen. Lan Xichen is sharing more furtive looks with Shuoyue. “What’s wrong? Do I have something on my face?”

Lan Wangji’s expression shatters into something else, rigid and closed-off; he turns away, shoulders tightening.

“No.”

“Hey, why are you mad? I didn’t do anything! You were the one looking at me weird!”

“Incorrect.”

“You so were! Your face got all—”

“I believe that’s it for today,” Lan Xichen interrupts, and he’s smiling again, the same smile that’s been appearing on his face all evening since they came back. He puts away his xiao, bowing to both of them. “Thank you again, Wei-gongzi. I am glad that my brother has a friend such as yourself.”

Wei Wuxian lights up, even as Lan Wangji goes stiff next to him. Lan Xichen sends one last look at his brother before sliding out the door.

“Lan Zhan, did you hear that? Your brother thinks we’re friends! Wait until I tell Jiang Cheng—”

“Unnecessary!”

Ah, there’s the Lan Zhan he knows! The intensity in his voice actually wakes up Suibian, who blinks open her eyes and gives a squeaky, drawn-out yawn. At the noise, Lan Wangji and Bichen freeze; silly, really, since they already woke her, and it’s not like moving makes them louder.

Wei Wuxian pats her on the head; in response, Suibian shoves her face into his knee and slurs, “Whuzhappning?”

It’s the cutest thing Wei Wuxian has seen all day. He coos over her, rubbing her ears in the way he knows she loves.

“A-Sui, you missed all the fun! We’re friends with Lan Zhan now! Zewu-Jun said it himself.”

That wakes her up quicker than a splash of cold water. Her ears perk and she swivels her head to look at them. “We are?! I knew it! Does that mean you’re finally going to play with us?”

“Of course they will! I have so many new things we can do now that we’re friends,” Wei Wuxian says to Lan Wangji, winking. That appears to restart whatever part of Lan Wangji’s brain that’s responsible for motion, because he scowls.

“Shameless!”

“I want to take them to the lotus ponds,” Suibian tells Wei Wuxian, her tail wagging, and he beams at her.

“Yes! Oh, and the market stalls! We could buy some peppers—ahh, do you think we could bribe the cooks to put some in Lan Qiren’s soup? Or maybe they would let us cook it together! I know you’d be worried about your robes, Lan Zhan, but that’s what aprons are for. Even better: no robes, just aprons! Wouldn’t that be fun?”

Lan Wangji’s voice is slightly strangled. “No.”

“Bichen could try sweet buns,” Suibian adds, ignoring Lan Wangji completely, and Wei Wuxian nods enthusiastically. “Or we can get the meat ones, if you don’t like sweets. But I love the red bean ones!”

As Lan Wangji opens his mouth, most likely to cite some rule that says Red bean buns are strictly forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, Wei Wuxian, pick up your brush to copy it down fifty times, he’s interrupted by a low noise to his side.

Bichen’s tail is a delicate, relaxed curl in the air, her eyes slightly dilated and blinking slow.

She’s also, unmistakably, purring.

“Bichen!” Wei Wuxian exclaims, buzzing with delight as Lan Wangji stares down at her with an expression that is normally reserved for Wei Wuxian’s most shameless antics.

Suibian is practically vibrating out of her skin at the noise. “A-Chen, you sound so cute—"

Lan Wangji’s face turns murderous.

Wei Wuxian holds up his hands, laughing. “She meant Lan Bichen! She’s just excited. Bichen, you can purr!”

Lan Wangji looks like he is genuinely debating whether to reach across the table and strangle him. Wei Wuxian scoots away from grabbing range just in case, beaming.

“Zewu-Jun is right. We’re definitely friends now,” Suibian declares, eyes pinched with happiness. That appears to be the last straw; Lan Wangji stands up, glaring.

Not friends.

“Ah, Lan Zhan! Don’t be mad!”

Lan Wangji, as it turns out, is quite mad. If Wei Wuxian goes to bed that night with his sword arm a little more sore than usual, well—that’s his secret to keep. He’ll blame it on the cave.

Chapter Text

It says a lot about the effort taken to look for Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji when classes are canceled the next day.

There’s a barely contained ripple of excitement when Lan Qiren announces it at dinner—after, of course, waiting the Lan-appropriate amount of time for everyone to have put down their chopsticks and finished eating.

“Given the enormity of the search,” he says, while shooting a particularly dirty glance at Wei Wuxian that he considers very unjustified and very funny, “we have decided that everyone needs time to rest and recover their spiritual reserves.”

Nie Huaisang elbows him in the side and raises his eyebrows, as if Wei Wuxian is now his personal hero for making such a novel event occur. His mouse daemon squeaks happily.

“Good going, Wei-xiong!”

“This is so embarrassing,” Jiang Cheng mutters, even as Sandu wags her tail. She’s been wrapped firmly around Suibian from the moment they sat down, licking her head and generally making a fuss every time Suibian so much as sneezes funny. Suibian, of course, has been taking full advantage of this, begging at least twice her normal share of meat directly from Sandu’s plate while Jiang Cheng is busy scowling at anyone who even glances in their direction.

For his part, Wei Wuxian is shamelessly looking forward to sleeping in as long as possible and doing nothing all day.

So when the next day comes, and the door to his room slams open so hard that it makes Suibian dig her teeth into his arm in surprise and yank him out of his dreams, he can’t help but be a little bit sour about the whole thing.

“Oops,” Wen Ning says, standing wide-eyed and awkward in the doorway. He stares at the now-damaged frame, the intricate paper sliding that was once perfectly inlaid and most certainly isn’t anymore. “I didn’t—oops.”

Wei Wuxian groans.

One day,” he laments, flopping face-first onto his pillow and lowering his arm from where it had darted out to shove Suibian behind him. She wriggles back to her spot near his stomach, grumbling. “Just one day to sleep in, is that so much to ask for?”

“Ah, A-Xian,” says Jiang Yanli, from where she’s appeared over Wen Ning’s shoulder, “you have visitors.”

He moans into the pillow again in response, opening his eyes just enough to squint at the angle of the sun shining through the window. Too early. Much too early.

“Later, Shijie, have mercy—”

“Wei Wuxian,” and this new voice is the snap of a whip, “if you wanted to sleep in, you shouldn’t have gotten yourself into so much trouble these past few days!”

Oh no.

Wei Wuxian throws one of his covers over his head for protection on instinct alone.

“Noo, Wen-guniang! Morning is cruel enough already without your scolding!”

“A-Xian.” That’s his sister’s lovely voice now, dipped low in reproach.

With a whine, he pulls the covers off his head and looks at the now three of them, hoping he appears both innocent and pitiful enough to have mercy on.

“Did I do something again?” he asks Wen Qing, who is standing next to her brother with her arms crossed. “I thought you had yelled at me for everything already yesterday!”

Wen Qing purses her lips, looking generally unimpressed at Wei Wuxian’s existence. Her daemon is sitting on her shoulder and mirroring the sentiment, feathers puffed up in apparent annoyance. Their sharp gazes are enough to make him sit up and scrub at his eyes, grimacing all the while.

“No,” she says shortly, and he’s not sure which part of his protests she’s answering. There’s a bag slung across her shoulder with bandages and herbs poking out, red-tipped in a way that almost matches the vibrancy of her robes and her daemon. “Now make yourself decent; we’re going somewhere.”

“What?” he asks, even as she turns and walks out of his room. “Hey— Wen-guniang! Where are we going? What the…”

She’s already gone.

Wei Wuxian looks down at Suibian, mouth slightly agape, and finds the same confusion reflected in her still-bleary eyes. She makes no move to get out from under the little pocket of heat she’s created in the blankets, just tilts her ears at him.

Surely they could squeeze in a few more minutes of sleep—

“Um, Wei-gongzi?

They both look up.

“Hm?”

Without Wen Qing in the room, Wen Ning is shifting back and forth on his feet, seemingly unwilling to meet his eyes. There’s a slight waver in his voice when he says, “We really are sorry to bother you, but w-we should probably leave soon. Um, A-jie is hoping to look at Suibian’s paws again.”

“Can’t she do that here?”

There’s a lump of fabric right above Wen Ning’s heart that keeps wriggling as they talk, tiny twitches under his robe. He lays his hand on it and takes a deep breath.

“I’m sure she would, but we need, um, we need to find somewhere with purified water for Suibian to bathe in.”

Of course they do. Wei Wuxian looks up at the ceiling, sending a brief complaint to whatever entity is supposed to be looking after him but clearly, clearly failing.

One day, he tells the rooftop. A single, glorious day.

“Alright, alright,” he sighs, swinging his feet out of bed as Jiang Yanli bustles away to make sure Wen Qing is being properly tended to. “Give me a minute, I’m coming.”

A minute turns into a dozen or so—Suibian is not exactly a morning daemon, either, and he has to physically pry open her jaw from where it’s clamped around a pillow in protest. By the time he arranges his robes into some semblance of order and stumbles out into the main area of the quarters provided to them by the Lans, his sister has somehow managed to brew a full pot of tea and persuaded both the Wens to sit with her.

“I’m sorry that it’s over-steeped,” she’s telling Wen Qing, who gives Wei Wuxian a disapproving once-over when he staggers down next to her. Notes of jasmine float through the air. “I’m still getting used to the kettles here.”

Wen Qing offers her a polite smile, inclines her head. It’s amazing, Wei Wuxian thinks, how everyone here seems to be so courteous until they interact with him.

“It is already much better than what is in our rooms. Your hospitality is appreciated.”

“You have different tea in your rooms?” Xiaolian asks. He has been sitting patiently at Jiang Yanli’s side, but now a frown works its way onto his whiskered face. Wen Qing and Wen Ning exchange a glance before Wen Qing looks to Wei Wuxian.

“Well, are you ready?”

“Yes, yes,” he says around a yawn, as Suibian wobbles up to Jiang Yanli and begs for a bite of her food. Watching her try to walk with the bandages is so endearing, the complete opposite of her normal fluid movement. She keeps almost tripping over herself and going to gnaw at them before she sees he’s looking. “We’re all ready to play in the magical purified water. Ooh, Shijie, A-Lian, you should come!”

Xiaolian shakes his head as Jiang Yanli stands with the kettle, bustling over to the stove for more hot water. They’re both frowning now.

“You’re exploring outside of the main area, right? It’ll be too much, and we have things to do here today.”

“What things?”

“A-Xian, really,” Xiaolian sighs, which he only ever does when Wei Wuxian is sticking his nose into something involving the Peacock, and picks a piece of dried plum off the table to give it to Suibian. She takes it from his paws with her teeth, a smear of purple against shiny white, and bonks her face once against his forehead before leaping back to Wei Wuxian.

There’s a fond look on the otter’s face when he turns back to Wen Qing. “Would Zhiruo or Suyin like anything?”

“We have intruded on your hospitality enough already,” Wen Qing says, before either daemon can answer. When she stands, Wen Ning scrambles up as well, nearly knocking over the table in the process. A bit of tea spills from the cloud-patterned cups and pools on the cloth there, staining it dark.

“Sorry! Sorry!”

Wei Wuxian waves him off; it’s not technically their table anyways. “The table will live—you should apologize to my poor doorframe! You’re stronger than you look, you know that?”

Wen Ning blushes, scooting behind his sister like she can hide him. Given that they both can easily see over her head, it’s not entirely effective, but Wen Qing makes up for it by giving him a single, piercing look that stops his teasing immediately.

He holds up his hands and steps back, laughing. “I don’t bite, I promise!”

“Stop wasting time.”

“Aiyo, ok, ok! Look, here I am, grabbing things and not wasting time.”

Since she hasn’t made it clear exactly how long they’ll be gone, or really where in the Cloud Recesses they’re going at all, Wei Wuxian gulps down his own cup of tea and grabs a few treats for Suibian before crossing over to join the Wens at the door.

They’re just about to step outside, Zhiruo fluttering over to Wen Qing from where she was perched by the window and watching the exchange, when Jiang Yanli finishes whatever she was doing at the stove and bustles over.

“Wait! Wen-guniang,” she says with a small smile, and presses two modest satchels into Wen Qing’s arms. “Here.”

Wen Qing looks down at the tightly-wrapped cloth, confusion written on her face as she. “Jiang-guniang, what—”

“It is a thank you,” Jiang Yanli says to her, and bows; a proper, sincere one at that, the dark strands of her hair falling across her shoulders from the motion. Wen Qing freezes. “You have looked after A-Xian with much care, and are helping A-Sui even though you do not need to. Please accept my thanks and appreciation on behalf of my family.”

Everyone pauses.

There are a few awkward moments where it becomes clear that neither of the Wens know what to do with both the statement and the gift. Wen Qing is doing the closest to a gape that Wei Wuxian has ever seen on her face: lips slightly parted, unblinking. Wen Ning is staring at Jiang Yanli with huge eyes, his pocket twitching every so often.

Jiang Yanli just waits, smiling.

It is Wen Qing who moves first; she looks away, her face tight. Her hands are gripping the satchels so hard that her knuckles have gone white.

“There is no need to thank us, Jiang-guniang. I am a doctor. It is my job to do things like that.”

His sister smiles again, the smile that never fails to make all of Wei Wuxian’s worries float away into nothingness. “Well,” she says, voice calm but not made any less firm because of it, “I believe that I am giving thanks regardless, then. There is dried tea and plums for you, and some fresh melon for Suyin.”

“That is not—”

“When you run out, please come join us for tea again. I enjoyed your company; you are most welcome here. And I am always interested in medicine.”

The invitation hovers in the air between them. Wen Qing appears speechless, a muscle working in her cheek as she stares at Jiang Yanli and Xiaolian. It makes Wei Wuxian wonder what exactly their experience has been at the Cloud Recesses so far, for such a simple thing to throw her off like this. Everyone else has already made plenty of friends; surely, this can’t be that unexpected.

After a moment, Wen Qing’s gaze drops back down to the gifts in her hands.

“Thank you,” she murmurs, so quiet that Wei Wuxian almost misses it. Then she gives a single, decisive nod and says, louder, “Wei Wuxian, you better not slow us down.”

Without another glance over her shoulder, she and Zhiruo whisk out of the room.

“I’m sensing a pattern,” Wei Wuxian mutters to Suibian, who rolls onto her back the moment their gazes meet. With a quirk of his lips he scoops her up, then looks to Wen Ning. “Well, shall we? I don’t want to be the one in last place again, that’s for sure.”

Wen Ning practically flees from the room.

He sends one last, doting look to his sister (who looks quite pleased at this turn of events) before chasing after them.

“Wait for me!” he calls, rushing forward with Suibian in a one-arm hold that leaves her legs dangling in the air and tail wagging furiously behind her, even as she yips at her own lack of purchase. Her little yips continue, a trail of rule-breaking breadcrumbs that have the other disciples they pass by whispering behind their hands, until he catches sight of the Wens around the bend.

“Aiyo, you walk so fast!”

Wen Qing barely gives him a glance as he falls into stride alongside her. Her eyes are a little red.

“Oh, do you get allergies too? Jiang Cheng gets real sniffly whenever the seasons change—”

“Shut up,” she snaps, and shoves a map into his hands. “Help me find this lake.”

 -----

It takes a few hours to find what Wen Qing is looking for.

There’s only so much ground they can cover with just them, and the map is clearly a hand-made work, lines slightly squiggly and a few ink stains at the corners. Wei Wuxian muses over it as they walk, Zhiruo scouting ahead while Suibian whines about not being do the same with her bandages on.

“Looks like you have a thing for caves and ponds,” he tells Wen Qing, who gives him a sharp look. He points down at the map. “You made this, right? There’s still so much blank, is this why you were out and about when Lan Zhan and I were found?”

She snatches the map back from him with a scowl. Ignoring his protests (and his question), she places it into her bag and calls, “Zhiruo?”

The crimson-feathered shrike darts back to them at her call, landing gracefully on Wen Qing’s outstretched hand without so much as a stumble. “Nothing yet.”

“How exactly do we tell if it has purified water?”

Wen Qing turns to Wei Wuxian. “It will be unusually clear, with spirit grasses growing near it. I’ve been unable to find one that is easily accessible to those outside the Gusu Lan sect.”

“Why have you been looking for—”

“Ooh! I feel like I remember a place,” Suibian interrupts, wriggling in Wei Wuxian’s arms and halting any further discussion of Wen Qing’s frankly suspicious side hobbies. “When A-Xian and Nie-xiong were at the Cold Springs, I wandered around and found this pond that might fit what you’re talking about.”

Wen Qing turns to her. “How far from the springs?”

“Maybe half a li or so?”

“Whoa, really?!” Wen Ning, who has so far been walking quietly behind them, draws all their gazes with his outburst.

“What, is there something wrong with that?” Wei Wuxian asks, and Wen Ning shakes his head, flushing deeply.

“N-No, not at all. I was just surprised. I didn’t know that Wei-gongzi’s cultivation was so strong, to be able to be so far from your daemon. Um, how long can you maintain that distance?”

“A few hours,” Wei Wuxian says, shrugging. At their shocked faces, he frowns. “What? It’s not a big deal. Suibian is curious, but sometimes I just don’t want to get up, you know? So we worked on it. And it gets easier the more you practice.”

Wen Ning still looks impressed. “Suyin and I can’t go more than a few mǐ.”

The words are dejected. Wei Wuxian waves them away.

“Ah, that’s alright, don’t worry! There’s no shame in that, not when you have other skills that help people. Like healing!”

“A-jie is the healer! I just mess up,” he protests immediately, and Wen Qing rolls her eyes in clear disagreement.

“Well, maybe that’s for the best,” Wei Wuxian muses. “You’re more archery, aren’t you?”

Wen Ning flushes deeply again.

Wei Wuxian grins and leans in closer to him. “So don’t worry if you can’t be far from Suyin! I bet you won’t ever have to be. But, you know, I’ve heard rumors that Lan Zhan and Bichen can be apart from each other for nearly a day! And she settled when he was five, you know that? Now that is impressive! Although, when you think about it, it’s not surprising. He’s so skilled, I guess it’s just another great thing about him—”

“Wax poetic somewhere else.” Wen Qing has moved past her sisterly approval to step in and interrupt. He frowns at her, but she just shakes her head and returns to business. “Suibian, could you direct us towards that pond? Zhiruo can scout ahead when you think we are close.”   

Suibian is openly pleased to be given a task. As they walk, following her very good and very normal instructions (“After the brown rock, you will see a grey rock! And now you need to turn to the next brown rock!”), Wei Wuxian notices that the little lump inside Wen Ning’s clothing is twitching again.

When they next pause for Suibian to sniff around and orient them, Wei Wuxian turns to him.

“Is that Suyin in there?”

Wen Ning starts, looking around as if there could be someone else that Wei Wuxian is taking to.

“Oh—um,” he glances at his sister, who is busy trying to interpret Suibian’s directions from where she is now seated on top of yet another brown rock, “yes, Wei-gongzi. She’s not used to so many other daemons being around, I think, so she’s restless.”

“She’s so small, to fit in your robes like that! Can I say hi?”

Wen Ning’s nerves ratchet up in front of Wei Wuxian’s eyes.

“Ah, I don’t think—she is very shy, and doesn’t like the sunlight much.”

“Hmm.” Wei Wuxian thinks through this, frowning. But then he brightens, realizing, “But it’s just the six of us here, and we’re on the shaded path! So it must be ok, right?”

Wen Ning still looks unconvinced, so Wei Wuxian adds, “If she’s that shy, I can be very quiet, I promise! Cultivator’s vow, just for you and Suyin.”

The lump in his clothes shifts more intentionally this time; Wen Ning lets out a panicky laugh, looking at Wen Qing for help once more. She’s still facing Suibian as she speaks, but her head is tilted in their direction, clearly listening to their conversation now.

“Um, Wei-gongzi,” he starts, then falters when Wei Wuxian beams at him. “O-ok. I can show you, but please don’t be scared. Suyin is very harmless.”

“Scared?” Wei Wuxian thinks of the type of person Wen Ning seems to be and the myriad of daemons that would fit it. The scariest thing he can think of is some fluffy, harmless squirrel, which is so far from scary that it has him laughing. “Now you have to show me!”

Slowly, like Wei Wuxian is going to smack his hand if he moves too quickly, Wen Ning reaches into the top part of his robes. His hand cups around the small, shifting mass above his heart and then withdraws it to reveal—

“A bat!” Wei Wuxian says, delighted, and leans in closer to look at Suyin.

She’s absolutely tiny, fitting in Wen Ning’s palm without any trouble. In the shade, her fur is such a dark brown that it’s almost black, a small beam of sunlight crossing her back the only indicator of the gold tones hidden there. She blinks blearily at him and yawns, revealing itty-bitty teeth and eyes that match the rest of her.

He stares at her, melting.   

“Oh, she’s adorable.”

Wen Ning makes a startled noise. Then, the smallest smile starts to form on his mouth. “Yes? You think so?”

“I know so!” Wei Wuxian says firmly, pleased when Suyin shifts her gaze attentively back to him, and turns to Suibian. “A-Sui! Look, we have a new friend!”

Suyin and Wen Ning shrink back when Suibian hobbles over. Wei Wuxian scoops her up so she doesn’t disturb her bandages trying to jump up his side, then holds her closer to Suyin so she can say hi.

“Oh, you’re so small,” Suibian gasps, tail wagging enthusiastically the moment she spots the other daemon. The force of the motion nearly sends Wei Wuxian off balance. “You look warm and fuzzy, like felt! What kind of bat are you?”

Suyin, who has been cowering in Wen Ning’s palm from the moment Wei Wuxian lifted Suibian up, starts at the question. She looks at Wen Ning, who appears frozen in place, and then back to Suibian.

Her voice, when she speaks, is so tiny that Wei Wuxian can barely catch the words.

“Fruit bat.”

“A fruit bat,” Suibian gushes, like that’s the best news in the entire world. “Oh, I love fruit. Do you have a favorite? My favorite is mangoes, they’re so sweet and yummy! Ah, but if you’re a bat, should you be asleep? Are you sleepy? I get sleepy during the day too!”

It’s a lot of words, all at once. Wei Wuxian watches, trying not to laugh, as Suyin visibly struggles to process all of it. She’s stopped her full-out cower, but she’s still far back on Wen Ning’s palm.

“Um…I…” Her words are slow and careful. “I…like mangoes, too.”

Suibian gazes adoringly at her. “A-Xian, did you hear that?! She likes mangoes too!” Then, without even a single moment of hesitance, “I love you so much! Suyin, can we be friends?”

That seems like the biggest shock of all; Wen Ning makes a quiet noise in his throat, eyes widening, and Suyin actually jolts in his palm.

Her eyes are very big when she asks, each word careful and hesitant, “You… want to be friends?”

“Yes!” Suibian says, vibrating, and Wei Wuxian does laugh this time. He shoots an amused look at Wen Ning, who is staring at Suibian like she’s some otherworldly being. Honestly, Wei Wuxian can relate to that feeling: Suibian is the best part of him, yet the depth of her love and the breadth which she shares it still leaves him reeling sometimes. 

All progress towards the pond has stopped at this point. Wen Qing is keeping her distance, watching, the line of her shoulders tense. Zhiruo, meanwhile, has fluttered to the branch above them and is openly staring with sharp, dangerous eyes.

“Suibian knows how to be gentle,” Wei Wuxian reassures them, as Suibian does the opposite and tries to acrobatics herself closer to Suyin so they can touch noses. “She’s very good with Nie-xiong’s mouse daemon. Plus, I think Sandu accidentally beat her up enough when we were kids that she knows it’s not fun when someone is a lot larger than you and plays too rough.”

Something in Wen Qing’s gaze softens. She gives a small nod to Wen Ning.

“Ok,” Wen Ning breathes, as Suyin inches forward. With a chitter of joy, Suibian begins grooming her as soon as she’s in range, a single swipe of the tongue nearly as big as her body. Wei Wuxian holds her steady, making sure she’s not going to lick Wen Ning on accident.

Weird, he thinks, watching them interact. His stomach isn’t doing any strange flips at all! So then why was it feeling like that when Lan Zhan and Bichen—

“You really think she’s cute?” Wen Ning asks, breaking him from his thoughts, and Wei Wuxian looks at him with a tilt of his head.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

Wen Ning looks down, watching as Suyin gently grabs onto Suibian’s noise with part of her wings. Both daemons are giggling; Suibian high-pitched and loud, Suyin quiet and sounding almost out of practice.

“A lot of people are scared of her.” His voice is quiet. “You know, bats, not everyone likes them.”

“Ah.”

Wei Wuxian does, in fact, know. Well, not really about bats specifically—but he knows the feeling. Of people taking one look at your daemon, or hearing their name, and thinking that they know everything about you.

Or, even worse, about them.

He’s aware a lot of the cultivators here think Suibian, like her name itself, is silly. He had seen the question on Lan Qiren’s face, even if he hadn’t said it: Who names their daemon Suibian?

Her being a fox doesn’t exactly help their case, either. With her name and her form, they might as well be pointing an arrow at themselves that screams trouble.

Not that it matters—Wei Wuxian will never be ashamed of Suibian, nor the fact that he named her such. People who think it’s foolish are missing the point. He’s not like the Lans, who insist on calling daemons their formal titles and having fancy names for everything. He’s never needed that.

No name he came up with was right, because no name captured everything that was important, all the things she meant to him. How could a single name even begin to represent her kindness, her mischief, her excitement? How could one name capture how she curls up against Wei Wuxian’s stomach when he sleeps, or the nibble of her teeth on his fingers, or the way she looks at him with eyes full of love and adventure and life?

Her name has never been the most important thing about her. Suibian can be whatever, can be anything and everything, because whatever it is that she decides to do or be, he’ll love her. No matter what.

“Don’t let the opinions of others get you down,” Wei Wuxian advises Wen Ning, who looks at him with wide eyes before nodding vigorously. He twists his head to look at Wen Qing, a grin back on his face. “Oh no, does this count as me slowing you down? Please, Wen-guniang, take pity on me! How about I offer our fearless leader back as a sacrifice?”

Wen Qing is staring at Suibian, a faraway look in her eyes. For a moment, Wei Wuxian wonders if she even heard him.

Eventually, she raises her gaze to his.

“I think we can wait a little longer,” she says, as Suibian starts telling an attentive Suyin about all of her favorite daytime hiding spots, and smiles.


Looking back years later, starving and in pain and scrambling to grow turnips, Wei Wuxian will envy the simplicity of those months spent in the Cloud Recesses. He’ll think back to the boring dinners, the daemons playing during their free breaks, the Wens smiling, and Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan—

But in the meantime, the months pass as they always have. Wei Wuxian’s affinity for trouble and the absolute gall of The Peacock to ever insult his Shijie have him packing for Lotus Pier early, only leaving behind soon-to-be local legends, some Emperor’s Smile for Nie Huaisang, and a pair of rabbits for Lan Wangji.

“Do you think he’ll like them?” Wei Wuxian asks, watching the black rabbit nuzzle the face of the white one.

“He liked the ones in the cave.” Suibian has shown impressive restraint in not eating either rabbit in the thirty seconds he has left her alone with them. She makes a thoughtful noise and says, “Although, maybe we should have asked him if he wanted rabbits in the first place.”

Wei Wuxian considers that.

“Oh well,” he decides, and drops them off on Lan Wangji’s doorstep the next morning with a grin and an absolute refusal of his heart to let him say the word goodbye.

“See you later!” he calls instead, as he makes his way away from where Lan Wangji is standing, two unruly rabbits shoved into his arms. Suibian looks back over her shoulder as they leave, even as Wei Wuxian refuses to do the same.  

The trip back to Lotus Pier is uneventful. Suibian keeps letting out long, wistful sighs as Wei Wuxian gazes out the window, not speaking much.

“What’s up with you?” he asks her eventually, after the sighs pick up in frequency to at least once a minute. She raises her head a bit to look at him, frowning. Whatever she sees on his face makes the frown deepen.

“Well you won’t do it,” she huffs, laying her head back down on her paws, “so I’m doing it for you.”


Wei Wuxian spends a significant portion of the summer annoying Jiang Cheng, avoiding Madam Yu’s increasing ire at his existence, and doting on his (heartbroken, damn you Peacock) sister. It’s pretty much same old, same old, minus the strange feeling he gets in his chest whenever he drinks a bottle of Emperor’s Smile, or sees a particularly nice cloud painted on parchment, or hears the rare sound of a guqin from the street outside.

“You’re really hopeless, you know that?” Suibian tells him one night as he’s staring at the ceiling of his room and absent-mindedly rubbing his chest. They arrived back from Qishan Wen’s archery competition a few days ago, and he should be happy about winning, but he just can’t shake the tightness lingering there.

“What are you talking about?”

She stares at him from her place on the floor, unimpressed. She’s chewing on a meat bun, which she normally never eats if there something better around, and Wei Wuxian sees at least two different kinds of sweets within her reach.

“If you miss him, why don’t we just write them a letter?”

“Miss who?”

Her stare this time is longer, with lots of blinking. He frowns at her.

“Never mind,” she sighs, abandoning the bun in favor of crawling onto the bed to cuddle. He wraps an arm around her and she snuggles deeper against his chest, mumbles something into his robes.

“Hmm? Sorry, I didn’t hear that.” She shakes her head and doesn’t repeat it. “Hey, no, what’s wrong?”

One more shake of the head.

Gently, he expands his qi, and their bond rises to his awareness so effortlessly that he can’t help but sigh in satisfaction. As he lets himself sink into their link, searching for a clue to what’s going on in her head, he finds a strange sense of sadness. There’s disappointment there too, a little ache. It feels… homesick, almost, although that’s not quite right.

It’s not a good feeling, that’s for sure.

“I’m sorry you’re sad,” he tells her, and she gives a little wriggle in his arms that he knows means I love you. “We could go for a swim in the Lotus Ponds, if you want. Or we could get a red bean bun, to cheer you up?”

To his surprise, whatever feeling in her surges and sharpens at his words.

She just whispers, “No,” and is unusually quiet for the rest of the night.

So there’s that, whatever that is.

But all in all, it’s still nice to be home.

Then Cloud Recesses burn, and nothing is simple at all anymore.

--

Lan Wangji is hurt, and Wei Wuxian is losing his mind a little.

“Let me carry you,” he hisses to him as they walk across Dusk Creek Mountain, Wen Chao riding lazily along behind the group of cultivators. “Lan Zhan, listen! A-Sui can’t carry Bichen, but I can carry you.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t even look at him; he stares straight ahead, jaw clenched. He’s doing a good job of hiding his limp, even with the rocky, uneven ground beneath their feet. The closed-off look on his face reminds Wei Wuxian so strongly of their early interactions in the Cloud Recesses that his stomach sinks.

“Lan Zhan—”

“Enough.” Bichen has kept pace firmly at Lan Wangji’s side, the hair on her back raising when anyone gets too close. Wei Wuxian and Suibian are the only ones she’s let within a mǐ of them, probably because he just never gave up trying. “Don’t draw attention. Just—leave us alone.”

Wei Wuxian frowns, but slows his pace so he falls a few steps behind them. Suibian slows as well, and they watch helplessly as the party continues their hunt.

“They’re not going to make it,” Suibian frets. “We have to find the cave, fast.”

Both of them twitch when Lan Wangji stumbles slightly on a rock. His hand shoots like he’s going to grab Bichen for support, but he doesn’t (because of course not, he’s a Lan), somehow steadies himself on his own. It is with a visibly slow breath that he straightens back up; Bichen does not move from where she was waiting, the space between them smaller now.

“Having problems over there?” Wen Chao calls, and a hot bolt of anger surges through Wei Wuxian when he and Wang Lingjiao start laughing.

“Don’t,” Suibian whispers as Wei Wuxian clenches his fists and opens his mouth. “They’ll just hurt him more. Or—” (he feels a jolt of panic through the bond) “—A-Xian, they wouldn’t hurt Bichen, right?”

Wei Wuxian feels sick just thinking about it.

“There’s no way,” he whispers, even as goosebumps crawl up his arms. To hurt someone else’s daemon… even in war, no one does that. It’s the ultimate dishonor; better to just torture or kill the cultivator than to do something so revolting.

But…

He looks back at Wen Chao, who is watching Lan Wangji with a satisfied smirk on his face. His centipede daemon scuttles across his hand, and the dark look in his eyes seems to deepen.

Suibian is right; they can’t risk it.

Still, Wei Wuxian’s blood boils as Lan Wangji and Bichen keep walking, one painful step after another.

“Don’t worry, Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, and he sees Bichen’s ears tilt toward him. “We’ll get him back for this. I promise.”

--

As it turns out, they really don’t have to wait that long. While the look of terror on Wen Chao’s face when Wei Wuxian presses a blade against his throat in Xuanwu Cave is immensely satisfying, to say that his plan goes without a hitch might be a bit of an exaggeration.

A lot of an exaggeration.

“Shit,” he whispers a few days later, half-delirious with fever. He knows that, at some point, they had a fire, but the blackness in his vision makes him think they don’t anymore. Water has soaked into his robes, but he’s not cold. It feels like little pinpricks are working their way across his skin, too hot, his body protesting every time he tries to shift.

His memory of the past few hours is getting foggy, and his qi feels all muddled and twisted. There’s something pressing on it from the outside: a disconcerting, intense energy that he’s too exhausted to try and trace the source of.   

It’s strange, to be floating in the darkness like this. But he can still feel Suibian’s warm weight by his side, so it can’t all be bad.

A pair of cool hands cup his face.

“Lan Zhan,” he sighs, not bothering to think how he knows the touch belongs to him. It feels impossibly good against the heat of his skin, and he chases the contact, leans into it without shame. “Lan Zhan, that feels nice.”

There’s no response except for Lan Wangji pressing a flask to his lips, the callouses of his fingertips rough against Wei Wuxian’s chin. He gulps it down like a dying man, only aware of how thirsty he is when there’s nothing left to drink.

Then he realizes that Lan Wangji must actually be here if he’s helping him, not just some nice near-death illusion, and he groans.

“Noo, Lan Zhan, what are you doing here? You should try to escape!”

“Foolish,” Lan Wangji murmurs to him. The words lack their usual heat. When Wei Wuxian tries to open his eyes to look at him, his vision swims, nausea building in his gut. His eyes must be playing tricks on him; Lan Wangji looks pale in the darkness, more so than usual, almost ghost-like.

“Lan Zhan, I mean it, you’ve got to—”

“Save your breath,” Bichen rumbles to him, as Lan Wangji’s fingers leave his face and work their way down to the line of his robes. She’s a smear of spotted fur on Lan Wangji’s left, eyes glowing in the dark of the cave. Her tail is curled around the bare skin of Lan Wangji’s ankle, like a vine twisting around a signpost.

He stares at the single point of contact, something bubbling in his chest at the sight. For some reason, he can’t look away from it. He doesn’t know why.

“I…” Wei Wuxian tries, but his tongue feels too heavy to continue.

He’s so tired.

“Is he going to be ok?” he hears Suibian whisper, her voice shaking, and Wei Wuxian lolls his head to the right so he can look at her. She’s curled against his leg and staring up at him with huge eyes, ears pressed so far back against her head that he can barely make them out.

Clumsily, he reaches out to her—feels something sticky and wet. Her fur is matted under his fingers, and it takes him a moment to realize that the red now coating his fingers is blood, smeared across the entire front of her body and nose.

For a moment, he can’t breathe.

Then he realizes it’s his blood, not hers, and all his muscles relax.

“Of course I’m going to be fine,” he thinks he says, but he isn’t sure.

There’s a rustle of fabric as Lan Wangji finishes pulling back the cloth on his torso, caked with dirt and muck from the rotting water. The brush of it across his skin stings and he winces, hears Suibian let out a little whimper.

There’s another shift of cloth—and then a surprised, sharp inhale.

The long pause that follows does not reassure him in the slightest.

“It’s—that’s—not good, right?”

Suibian’s voice has gone high and shivery. He can feel adrenaline pumping through their link, acrid and jolting, a sharp contrast to the comforting warmth of her paws on his knees. It’s been a long time since he’s heard this particular brand of fear in her voice.

“What’s not good?” he asks, words garbled. It feels like he’s talking through water. “I’m good, I’m fine.”

“Suibian,” and that’s Lan Wangji’s voice now, deep and reassuring, “move off him. I need to transfer spiritual energy.”

Don’t do that, Wei Wuxian thinks, and automatically reaches for Suibian’s warmth as he feels her shift away.

Instead, his hand falls on something else. Lan Wangji’s hand, he realizes, when he lets out a panicked “A-Sui!” and feels a gentle squeeze on his fingers in response.

“Wei Ying. She is safe.”

“A-Sui, where’s A-Sui—”

A hand touches his face and tilts it carefully, giving him a view of the space behind Lan Wangji. He has to blink a few times to process the sight.

Bichen has curled herself around Suibian near the wall, far enough away so they don’t get in the way, but close enough that he could probably reach out and touch them if needed. Suibian is trembling, staring at him with tear-tinted eyes as Bichen allows her to burrow into her side. She’s whining low in her throat, steadily increasing in volume each second she’s away from him.

“Oh,” he breathes, and Suibian twitches, whimpers his name.

“It’s alright,” Bichen murmurs to her, curling somehow tighter. “It’s alright, Suibian.” She says something else that Wei Wuxian can’t hear, lost in the haze of trickling blood and pain.

What happens next feels like a small miracle. Somehow, the whining softens. Falters. And, after uncountable seconds, with Lan Wangji’s grounding touch on his face and Bichen a crescent moon of comfort around her, Suibian… stops whimpering.

Staring at them, the sudden feeling of security sinking deep into his bones, Wei Wuxian is hit with such overwhelming gratitude that his eyes water.

She is safe.     

“Lan Zhan,” he mumbles, as the world spins and he leans his head back against the rocky wall of the cave. He’s struggling to make his mouth form words, but he tries as the stream of spiritual energy starts to flow into his core. “You’re great, you know that?”

“Do not speak.”

Wei Wuxian has just enough strength to ignore the request. “Ah, Lan Zhan, I keep thinking…of all the people who could have been here, and I’m—glad it’s you.”

The hand holding his flinches back.

“Thank you,” he adds, and lets his eyes flutter closed again.

Lan Wangji doesn’t respond. That’s ok though, he thinks a few moments later, when Lan Wangji’s hand finds his again. He’s here, and that’s what matters.

He floats, buoyed through the dark by Lan Wangji’s touch and the slow spread of fever. A song reaches his ears, one he’s never heard before but feels familiar nonetheless.

“What’s that called?” he slurs. There’s an answering voice, the sharp flash of surprise through their bond from Suibian—and he slips promptly into unconsciousness.

--

He wakes with his face bathed in sunlight, Jiang Cheng hovering above him, and Suibian asleep on the pillow next to him.

Lan Wangji and Bichen are nowhere to be found.

He bolts up, twin shouts of alarm ring in his ears as his chest burns at the simple motion.

“What happened?” he demands, as Jiang Cheng tries force him back down into the blankets, cursing every time Wei Wuxian puts up resistance. Sandu hovers close at his side, tail tucked so low it brushes against the wood floor.

“You’re in Lotus Pier, you idiot, now lay the fuck down!” Jiang Cheng’s tone is all heat, the way he sounds only when he is truly, deeply worried. When Wei Wuxian blinks at him, disoriented, he adds, “You’ve been asleep for days, just listen to me for once, would you?”

Days?!

Wei Wuxian lets himself be pushed back down onto the bed this time, brain scrambling to catch up. His memories are disorganized and only half-there, strings burned by fever and the rush of adrenaline.

Oh, he realizes, as the familiar sounds of Lotus Pier finally reach him through the fog in his head. Oh. He is home. Water laps quietly against the docks nearby, children’s happy laughter reaching him through the open window.

“Wait,” he says, and tries to sit up again, “how did I get here?”

Jiang Cheng looks downright pissed.

“Can you please stay still?” His next shove sends Wei Wuxian sprawling back onto the pillow with a thud, leaving him momentarily breathless. “After all we did to rescue you, you don’t even remember?  You know what, next time, I’m not coming to save your ass because you were busy playing the hero!”

“What do you—” he starts, then pauses.

Things are starting to come back, slower than he would like. He remembers the burn of the fever and burn of the iron—the latter of which, when he opens his robe to examine it, is still tender and itchy. He remembers the fight too, the sticky, rotten insides of the Xuanwu.

And then he remembers the hands on his face. Suibian’s red shape contrasting against Bichen’s light one.

His next surge of adrenaline is so strong that the room spins. It’s only Jiang Cheng’s murderous expression that keeps him rooted in place. 

“Lan Zhan and Bichen?” he whispers, an uncomfortable tightness coiling in his stomach. They wouldn’t—there’s no way—

“They went back to Gusu,” Sandu says, voice hushed. She and Jiang Cheng are staring at him, eyes full of worry. Suibian shifts on the pillow with a snuffle, her ears pressing back against her head as she dreams. “We offered for them to come along with us, but…”

There’s no need to finish the rest of the sentence. Wei Wuxian can imagine the stubborn set to Lan Wangji’s shoulders, the way he would have bristled at the offer of help. There’s only one way that conversation could have gone.

A seed of worry plants itself in his chest. He might not remember everything that happened after the fight, but he knows that Lan Wangji had been injured, drained of spiritual energy. That was no state to travel in, especially without someone who could watch his back.

Was spending another moment with Wei Wuxian really so revolting that he decided to drag himself back to the burned-out husk of the Cloud Recesses instead?

“Are you ok?” Sandu asks, still staring at his face.

The churning in his stomach gets worse the longer he thinks about Lan Wangji’s face in the darkness, Bichen’s quiet reassurances. Something important happened in the cave.

No, a part of him whispers: that he said something important.

That someone said something important to him?

He can’t remember.

“Ah, I’m fine, I’m fine!” he says, when he realizes he’s been quiet for too long and Jiang Cheng’s hands are trembling. The fur on Sandu’s back is bristling. “Really, I am! Sorry that I worried you, I seriously owe you one, alright?”

Jiang Cheng scoffs and looks away, even as Sandu presses her nose close to Suibian’s pillow and whines.

“Yeah, well, whatever. Just don’t do it the next time, or I’ll have to kick your ass all over again.”

He laughs, settling back fully into the bed and stretching his arms over his head. The room smells like freshly roasted lotus seeds, comforting and reassuring, some pillar of normalcy among the chaos.

“I didn’t realize you had kicked it in the first place—”

Jiang Cheng’s fists clench, the worry between his brows replaced with annoyance. His grabs the pillow not holding Suibian and smacks Wei Wuxian in the face with it, nearly making him tumble off the mattress as he tries to dodge the second hit.

“Ah, Jiang Cheng! Lan Zhan didn’t keep me alive just so you could kill me now! I’m an injured man!”

“You’re an idiot, is what you are,” Jiang Cheng snaps, but he’s smiling now, too.

The wrestling match that follows is equal parts undignified and hilarious. They wake Suibian up as they squabble, Wei Wuxian jutting his elbow into Jiang Cheng’s stomach and knocking the blankets off the bed as they go. The act of it makes the brand on his chest burn, but it’s worth it for the way Sandu’s tail starts to wag, how the furrow between Jiang Cheng’s eyebrows switches to something softer, something normal.

That’s how Jiang Yanli finds them later, a smile curving like lotus flowers on her lips, the rich scent of soup accompanying her through the door. Laughing, Sandu and Xialoien and Suibian a tangled mess on the floor, worries swept away like a boat on the lake.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t know it, but it’s one of the last happy memories of Lotus Pier that he will have for a long, long time.

 

 

Because Lotus Pier falls, and they fall with it.

 

 

Standing over his brother’s sickbed, watching the unsteady rise and fall of his chest, Wei Wuxian turns to Wen Qing.

“We have to try,” he tells her, grief and pain and guilt swirling in him with such ferocity that he’s afraid he might fall to his knees with the weight of it. Suibian is grooming a sleeping Sandu; gentle, careful sweeps of her tongue that leave behind small patches of raised fur.

Wen Qing looks at him with open sorrow. “I don’t even know if I can do it. Just because I wrote the theory doesn’t mean—”

We have to try.

“There are risks! Not just for you and Jiang Cheng!”

Wei Wuxian looks at Suibian, their eyes meeting from opposite sides of the bed. There are risks—not only to the transfer, and they know it. It’s impossible to miss how the lack of a core is impacting Jiang Cheng, impacting Sandu.

Even now, she’s whimpering in her sleep, just as lost as she was when Wei Wuxian was dragging Jiang Cheng’s limp body to safety.

Like—like they’re not even—

He shudders. The thought of that happening to them –of doing that to her— has fear seizing his throat.

“A-Xian,” Suibian whispers, and he blinks back tears he hadn’t realized were forming. She untangles herself from Sandu and comes over to him. Little paws scramble at his ripped robes and he raises her to his chest, struck by how weak his arms feel. In the dimness, the flush of white fur on her neck stands out like a beacon.

She gives him a single lick on the tip of his nose.  

He feels it then, through their bond—the same unwavering dedication, the same tender, wild affection burning in their veins.

The unspoken decision, final, echoes through them both.

Suibian tears her gaze away, looks at Wen Qing. “Wen Qing. Please. They’re our family.”

Wen Qing closes her eyes. Her lashes flutter gently against the dirty, pale skin on her cheeks. The hushed sounds of Wen Ning and Suyin drift in from their place outside the open window, keeping watch for anyone who might have followed them here.

“I understand,” she whispers, and that’s that.

Chapter Text


The intentions of a tool are what it does. A hammer intends to strike, a vise intends to hold fast, a lever intends to lift. They are what it is made for. But sometimes a tool may have other uses that you don't know. Sometimes in doing what you intend, you also do what the knife intends, without knowing.
― Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials


 

Jiang Cheng wakes up to a world where Wei Wuxian is just—gone.

Not messing around in the distance, or busy sticking his nose where he shouldn’t, but gone. Missing.

Disappeared.

“He said he would meet us here, right?” he asks Sandu, sitting at a teahouse in the small village near Baoshan Sanren’s mountain. His hand is resting on her back, as it has been from the moment they woke up and found his core restored. Even the idea of moving it is unthinkable.

“He did.”

Sandu’s voice is patient, even though Jiang Cheng has asked the question at least three times in the past hour. She’s leaning heavily into his touch, openly raising her hackles at anyone who gets too close. The fur between her ears is still a bit untidy from where Jiang Cheng had buried his face into it and cried.

(The sheer joy of waking to a world with her again, of feeling their link flare bright, somehow even brighter than before, had been overwhelming.

It had also been short-lived.)

He smooths down the patch of black-and-brown as embarrassment heats his cheeks. What would his mother say if she—

She’s dead, he reminds himself forcefully, even as his throat closes. If he’s going to be Sect Leader, then he needs to stop acting like it’s any different. And unless you get Lotus Pier back, it won’t even matter what she would have said.

But how can he get Lotus Pier back without Wei Wuxian?

“What did you get yourself into now, idiot,” he mumbles, mentally sending Wei Wuxian a scolding for doing… whatever it is he’s doing right now. Just like him, to up and disappear!

Not like him at all, the worried part of Jiang Cheng whispers. Not when he promised to meet you.

He scowls, setting down his cup a bit harder than he means to.

“Where would he even have gone?” he asks, and Sandu lets out a huff. A thought hits him right after, sending his stomach shooting to his toes. “You don’t think we would have gone back to—”

No,” Sandu says, loud enough that a few people look over at them. Jiang Cheng lowers his head, and they stay quiet until the other patrons’ gazes slide away and back to their own conversations. “No, they wouldn’t have. Not without us.”

Wei Wuxian had promised, after all. Together.

“If they’re not here, maybe it’s because we took too long. They could have gotten worried, and so they’re off trying to find help.”

“Right,” Jiang Cheng says, even as his mind screams from who?! The entire cultivation world has been thrown into chaos, and there’s only so many Sects that could help, let alone ones that Wei Wuxian would go to.

Maybe the Nie sect? No, that’s not it. They’re still recovering from their own slaughter. Wei Wuxian is ballsy, but he’s not always stupid. Definitely not stupid enough to go to Chifeng-Zun after they saw the destruction first-hand.

No, if Wei Wuxian were going to get help, it would have to be someone he trusted, someone who they already—

“Ah, fuck,” he says out loud, when he comes to the inevitable conclusion. 

Sandu perks her ears up at him. “You think so, too?”

The scowl settles back on his face. Of course, why did he think Wei Wuxian would be anywhere else? That family is the only thing he talked about for the entire summer after he was kicked out. Wei Wuxian practically put that guy on his own hand-carved pedestal, with how obsessed he was. Who cares if the whole place had almost been burned down—if Wei Wuxian was going to get help, they’d be the ones he’d go to.

“Wei Wuxian,” he mutters angrily under his breath as he stands up, “when I get to the Cloud Recesses, I’m going to strangle you.”

--

“What do you mean, he isn’t here?” he demands, when he finally makes it to the Cloud Recesses and doesn’t find the brother he is looking for.

Lan Xichen and Lan Wangji gaze at him from the front of the room, twin surprise reflected in their eyes. He must have interrupted something, given that they seem thrown off by his presence, but he’s having a hard time caring about anything outside of the bombshell they just threw at him.

The words just don’t make sense. He keeps wanting to turn his head to look around, like Wei Wuxian might just be hiding behind one of the nearby tables.

Ta-da! Look, here all along! Funny prank, right?

“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Xichen says, eyes cautious. For one wild, exhilarating moment, Jiang Cheng is convinced that his father must be standing behind him.

His breath catches in his throat. He half-turns, his heart racing—before he remembers.

That’s him, now.

The loss and pain hit him all over again, memories flashing bright and haunting before his eyes. When he turns back to face them, gritting his teeth, Lan Xichen’s already soft expression has gone sympathetic. Jiang Cheng hates it, hates being looked at like that, but he focuses on it anyways because it’s at least better than the completely blank, stoic look that Lan Wangji is wearing.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Xichen repeats, less surprised and more kind this time, “we… heard that Wei Wuxian was terribly injured during the attack on Lotus Pier. Rumor was that you were injured as well. We assumed that, were you alive, you would be together.”

Panic starts to worm its way into Jiang Cheng’s chest.

“What?! No! We…” His hands clench, and the smallest jolt of energy moves across his knuckles from Zidian. Sandu presses into his side, steadying him. “We escaped. And then someone hid us, for a while, until I… got better. He and I parted ways, but he said he would meet me in the village nearby, and I never found him. I thought that maybe…”

From the knowing twist to Lan Xichen’s mouth, he doesn’t need to elaborate further. His eyes stray to Lan Wangji, and Jiang Cheng lets his own gaze follow.

Lan Wangji is still staring straight ahead, unmoving.

He’s the picture of Lan perfection: calm face, perfect posture, daemon sitting by his side with her tail curled properly around her feet. The only way Jiang Cheng can even tell they’re alive is the small wrinkle between Lan Wangji’s brows and the tension in his shoulders, which feels like it’s always there anyways.

And he’s not even looking at Jiang Cheng. He’s just staring straight ahead at the door, like Jiang Cheng might as well not be here at all.

Like Wei Wuxian being gone doesn’t matter.

What was I thinking? he wonders with mounting dread. Lan Wangji hated his brother, thought he was the most annoying person on the planet! And he’s never been subtle about it, either. After everything, Wei Wuxian must have realized that. So why would Wei Wuxian have gone to him at all? 

Besides, Wei Wuxian has no self-preservation instincts. If he was worried about them taking too long, he would have come to find them himself, right? He wouldn’t have—there’s no way he would have traveled this far away and risked missing their meeting in town.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

“He has not been in Gusu,” Lan Xichen says, his voice barely reaching Jiang Cheng through his own swirling thoughts. There’s a cut-off noise, almost like a hiss; when Jiang Cheng looks up to find the source, none of the Lans look any different. “Have you considered other areas he may be?”

“No, I…”

I was so sure.

If Wei Wuxian is not here, then he was in town, and something must have happened. Jiang Cheng needs to go back there now.

It takes every ounce of self-control not to bolt from the room.

The hair on Sandu’s back is slowly rising, her ears pressing back against her head. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what his own face is doing, but when Lan Xichen steps forward and lays a hand on his shoulder, he knows it must not be good.

“Sect Leader Jiang.” Lan Xichen’s voice is almost painfully gentle. “He may be with another Sect. Perhaps you should rest here, while a plan is—”

“No!”

The word comes out shaky and too loud, a knee-jerk reaction to the thought of waiting. It’s strange, he thinks, how young a single syllable can make him sound, make him feel. He can feel a blush rising to his face, everything else he wants to say clogging in his throat.

He doesn’t know what he’s doing. How can he get his brother back if he can’t even do something as simple as talk?

At the thought, Sandu lets out a near-silent growl; he can feel the vibration travel through her and up his fingertips. Determination pushes through their link, so strong and intense that he has to suck in a breath under the force of it. When he glances down at her, she is ready to meet his gaze, steady.

She’s right: they’re Jiangs. Attempting the impossible is what they do.

And A-Jie is waiting.

It takes him a few more seconds to compose himself, clear his throat enough for words to form. Lan Xichen thankfully does not appear insulted at being interrupted or having to wait. Instead he stands quietly in front of him while Jiang Cheng squares his shoulders, takes a deep breath, and starts over.

“This humble Sect Leader apologizes for my earlier interruption,” he says, and bows. “Thank you for the information, Zewu-Jun. And the offer. Please, I mean no offense, but I must take my leave.”

He turns to go.

“For what purpose?”

Jiang Cheng pauses from where he’s already halfway to the door.

When he turns back to face them, Lan Xichen is looking at his brother, eyebrows slightly raised. And Lan Wangji is still picture-perfect, standing straight-backed and staring—but this time, his eyes are firmly fixed on Jiang Cheng.

“What?”

“Leaving,” Lan Wangji says, slower, as if Jiang Cheng is the idiot for not making sense of this out of nowhere conversation, “for what purpose?”

Hot anger flares in him at the absurdity of the question. “Well, I have to look for him, obviously—”

“I will go with you.”

The rest of Jiang Cheng’s sentence, which he hadn’t fully thought through yet but was definitely going to have at least one remark about how someone in this room needs to give a shit about his brother, dies in his throat.

“You—what?”

Lan Wangji steps forward, Bichen on his heels.

“I will go with you,” he repeats, when Jiang Cheng doesn’t reply right away. His voice is not slow this time, but firm.

Jiang Cheng gapes at him, trying to wrap his head around the completely unexpected offer. He glances to Lan Xichen, half-expecting him to go fetch Lan Qiren and check for signs of a possession. 

But he doesn’t. He doesn’t even protest, or tell him to take back the offer, or kick Jiang Cheng and Sandu out of the Cloud Recesses before they can bring more trouble to their Sect.

He just closes his eyes, lets out a soft sigh, and steps to the side.

There’s a long, drawn-out silence.

“…I can’t give you anything in return,” Jiang Cheng says eventually, because Lan Wangji and Bichen haven’t moved, and he can’t think of any other reason for what’s happening. Neither of them has given a shit this entire conversation, and now they’re offering to help? There has to be some kind of catch. “Lotus Pier is—ravaged. It’s going to take time to rebuild, and we won’t have any resources until then.”

Something in Lan Wangji’s face tightens. Jiang Cheng didn’t know he could look even more stiff.

When he speaks, his words are tilted and terse. “I do not want anything in return.”

“Right.” It’s Jiang Cheng’s turn to talk slowly this time, but it’s because he doesn’t believe it.

Then again, he thinks, as he looks at the tight clench of Lan Wangji’s hand: the Lans hate lying. Maybe, somehow, it’s true.

They stare at each other from across the room.

It’s Sandu who steps forward.

“If you’re going to help,” she tells them, as Lan Xichen quietly summons in a servant and asks for tea to be prepared, “then we have some ideas on where to start. But we need to act fast.”

Lan Wangji nods. He walks over to a nearby table, and, without sparing Jiang Cheng another glance, starts arranging paper and ink for them to work. Bichen looks expectantly at them as she follows and sits down, ears attentive and whiskers twitching. She doesn’t say anything, but the message is clear.

After a moment’s hesitation, Jiang Cheng and Sandu join them.

“Tell me,” Lan Wangji says, looking to them both. For the first time, Jiang Cheng can hear the conviction burning in his voice.

Hope flares in his chest.   

“First,” Jiang Cheng says, and Sandu lays her head on his knee, “our swords…”


For three months, he has a single-minded focus.

And then, out of the corner of his eye: a flash of red.

Finally.

The brother he finds is not exactly as he remembers; but when he lays his eyes upon this dark-clad Wei Wuxian, the tears come to his eyes anyways.

--

If Wei Wuxian’s three-month disappearance from the world is a shock, then his eventual return is a full-on bolt of lightning.

For a while, Jiang Cheng is too tired and drop-dead grateful that Wei Wuxian is alive to care about anything else. He’s angry, too –although, as Sandu will point out to him one evening, probably not as angry as he is relieved—but why shouldn’t he be? Here he was, working himself to the bone searching for him (and with Lan Wangji, for that matter!), and it turns out Wei Wuxian was just fucking around on his own.

On his own.

Alone.

When he should have been with Jiang Cheng and A-jie, rebuilding Lotus Pier side-by-side like he promised.

Water under the bridge, Jiang Cheng tries to tell himself, sitting at a strategy meeting with the other sects and using every ounce of his self-control not to scowl at the whispers floating towards their table. He’s already yelled at Wei Wuxian, anyways, and it’s not going to do him any good to dwell on this kind of a thing.

At least Wei Wuxian was being useful, unlike usual. Hunting down the Wen bastards was a worthwhile thing, even if it just took some time for Jiang Cheng to catch up with him to help.

They’re together now. It’s fine.

He ignores the worried look that Sandu is giving him and stares straight ahead, trying not to fidget.

She’s been antsy all day, sitting on the opposite side of him from Wei Wuxian, eyes looking for Suibian’s familiar shape. There’s no point: Suibian has been absent since dawn. It’s not… unheard of, for Wei Wuxian to go places without her, but Jiang Cheng feels like it’s been happening a lot more recently.

He can’t wrap his head around it.

It’s weird because—well. When they first found Wei Wuxian hunting Wen Chao, Suibian hadn’t left his robes for more than few moments. She’d been tucked inside them the whole time they talked, even when Lan Wangji had started to get angry and Bichen had raised her fur. Even when Sandu had tried to coax her out, hours later; she’d just burrowed deeper.

“Ah, sorry, sorry, she’s tired,” Wei Wuxian had said, a smile on his face and his hands twirling a flute when they should have been holding a sword. “Try tomorrow, when we’ve all had our beauty sleep!”

And she had been better in the morning. Enough to give Sandu a lick on the nose, and grumble when she got groomed, and steal some meat off his plate when Jiang Cheng pretended not to be looking. Sure, she’d stayed close to Wei Wuxian, but then A-Jie had come in, and they’d maybe all cried, and Jiang Cheng had thought, with finality: ok, then—back to normal.   

But now they’re hot-and-cold; like some days all Suibian wants to do is be close, and then other days, the most they see of her is a glimpse of red fur.

It rubs Jiang Cheng the wrong way, is all. It's the same nagging feeling that he gets whenever he hears Wei Wuxian wandering around in the dark, well past when he should be asleep. How he sometimes twitches and turns in his bed, Suibian's whimpers betraying what Jiang Cheng has learned to recognize as nightmares. How, despite the still-thin lines of their bodies, they don't show up for breakfast anymore. 

He can’t figure it out.

“It looks like that Wei Wuxian didn’t bring his sword again,” whispers a voice, carried just a little too well to be an accident, and Jiang Cheng scowls.

He sees a matching displeased gaze across the hall: Lan Wangji, who is currently staring at Wei Wuxian. Even the sight of him pisses Jiang Cheng off—after all the shit he’s given Wei Wuxian since he got back, he has the audacity to look at him like that? Like he disapproves, when it’s not his business at all?

Jiang Cheng can’t believe he thought Lan Wangji cared. It’s clear he was just using it as an excuse to act better than all of them, just like he always has. Now that Jiang Cheng knows, he won’t make the same mistake again.

Sandu’s head comes to rest on his knee, heavy and comforting.

What do they matter? he thinks sourly, as Wei Wuxian laughs and takes a drink of the alcohol in front of him. At his side, there’s a perfect space for a fox to sit, if only she were around.

He understands his brother better than anyone. The rest of them can shove it.


The war deepens.

Lan Xichen watches it play out, fretting.

“You’ve been busy, these past few weeks.”

He pauses, half bent over one of the slowly recovering herbal gardens. The plants in it are doing well, small buds already sprouting in the now-fertile soil. Lan Xichen enjoys coming out to check on them whenever he and Shuoyue are done with their daily meditation; it’s a comforting reminder that while the fire took many things, it did not take their future.

“Mingjue-xiong,” he says, a smile growing on his face at the mere act of saying the name, and looks up.

Nie Mingjue and Baxia are watching him from the stone path, expressions torn between laughter and disbelief.

“I didn’t know you gardened.”

Baxia’s voice is tinted with amusement, as it often is. Unlike Nie Mingjue, she isn’t trying to hide it; when Nie Mingjue shoots her a look that would scare a significant number of the Lan disciples, had they done their job and properly escorted him to the guest chambers, she simply rolls her eyes, not intimidated in the slightest.

“And I didn’t know you were coming,” Lan Xichen replies, happiness bubbling in his chest, and stands to greet them.

They both look well, despite the past few months; as he crosses over the dark soil to come closer, the dirt soft and rich under his feet, Nie Mingjue relaxes his shoulders, and with it, the tense lines of his title. Baxia just rolls her eyes and huffs, a rough exhale of air that has one of the bushes nearby rustling in protest.

“Well,” she says, “your disciples tried to take us somewhere to wait, but we told them we could get around fine ourselves.”

Lan Xichen pauses halfway to them. He thinks of the two disciples he left today at the gates, with their small white robes and careful grips on their swords. How seriously they had nodded when he explained, just the week prior, the essentials of their duties there. How, no doubt, they would have done everything in their power to try and dissuade an unexpected guest, regardless of status, into wandering in on him gardening.

Then he looks at Baxia again. Something is alight in her brown eyes, regal and beautiful as ever, the shadows from the nearby trees dappling the bold strikes across her fur. The expression on her face makes it clear that whatever conversation occurred at the gates, it certainly wasn’t a very long one, and that the Lans most assuredly lost.

Lan Xichen cannot help it: he laughs.

It is a long-lost noise, one that startles him even as it leaves his mouth, fills him with a warmth that has nothing to do with the burn of fire and scarred ground. Ridiculous and too loud, but unable to be helped.

He would pick writing lines over facing off against a tiger her size, too.

“Then I am glad you managed to find me, despite their best efforts,” he tells her, and Nie Mingjue lets out an amused snort. “What do I owe the pleasure?”

“It looks like we are less of a pleasure, and more of an interruption.” Nie Mingjue motions to his dirty hands, half teasing, half gruff acknowledgement. “I had sensitive information I didn’t want to relay by message, but if you are busy, we can wait.”

Lan Xichen holds up said hands to stop any further diplomacy. “Please, there is no need. You are always welcome here.”

Baxia’s tail curls in the air.

“Well, then,” Nie Mingjue says, and there’s a smile playing across his lips now, too, one that sends that same warmth trickling down to Lan Xichen’s toes and reminds him of too many summers spent side-by-side as kids, “we will be taking full advantage of your hospitality.”

“Consider it taken.”

They grin at each other.

Baxia and Shuoyue are exchanging looks.

“We should not speak out here,” Baxia says eventually, and walks over to Shuoyue, leaving the faint outline of her pawprints in the dirt as she goes. He bows his antlered head to her, and she responds by rubbing her face against his leg. “It’s good to see you, Lan Shuoyue.”

“And you, Nie Baxia. I have missed you.”

Baxia’s tail curls in the air, a deep rumble in her chest as she laughs. “Then Zewu-Jun is not keeping you busy enough.”

Shuoyue smiles, turning his eyes to Lan Xichen. They write often to Nie Mingjue and Baxia, as both allies and close friends; surely, those two know that Lan Xichen and Shuoyue are busier than they have ever been, scrambling to make order out of chaos.

And yet somehow, they have still managed to miss them.

And perhaps, if the visit is any indication, been missed in return.

Stepping forward to close the last mi of space between them, Lan Xichen lays a hand on Nie Mingjue’s arm. When Nie Mingjue returns it, griping his shoulder with the same steadiness that Lan Xichen has always been able to expect from him, it feels like a physical weight has been lifted from his chest.

“Well, then,” he says. “Tea?”

They take their tea in the front room of the hanshi, the bamboo whistling as the wind blows through it. The blend is a gentle, herbal variety, one that Lan Xichen was first introduced to by Nie Huaisang. Nie Mingjue raises his eyebrows when it is poured in front of him, a knowing smile on his face.

“I see that my little brother is a shameless as always.”

Lan Xichen just hums softly, smiling. He hardly thinks that Nie Huaisang telling him about his brother’s favorite tea counts as shameless, but if it is, then perhaps it’s worth it for the sigh of satisfaction that follows after Nie Mingjue’s first sip.

“Have you been well?”

Nie Mingjue grunts. “You know how it is. I won’t be happy until all those Wen bastards pay for what they did.”

Lan Xichen tries not to wince at the wording. Since becoming Sect Leader, the politics of the various Sects have become increasingly more prominent in his day-to-day life. It is not a pleasant change, but a necessary one, and one that he embraces the best he can.

Still, during moments like these, he can’t help but wonder if his heart was not made for the ruthlessness of it all.

“Many share that sentiment,” he says quietly, and looks down at his teacup, lets the warmth of it soak into his fingers. “I heard the campaign on the Hejian front is going well?”

“Yes, and about time! That’s what I came to speak about. Thanks to the intelligence you’re getting on the Wens, we’ve taken a few of their supervisory offices. Soon, we may see the real fruits of our efforts play out.”

A tendril of guilt works its way into Lan Xichen’s throat. He is glad to hear that the intelligence has been useful. He also knows that Nie Mingjue would not be so appreciative of said intelligence if he understood where –or, more correctly, who— it was coming from.

He takes another sip of tea. The most he can do is pray his friend will be forgiving when it is all over.

“I am glad,” he says, and leaves it at that.

Strategy overtakes their conversation for some time. Each step, Lan Xichen thinks, is an intricate game of Xiangqi, one that he is dismayed to be getting better at playing. It drains him of energy, leaves him feeling weary and travel-worn.

Yet he keeps pouring tea.

By the time they finish, Baxia and Shuoyue have decided to occupy themselves with a game unbefitting for the daemons of two sect leaders: tag.

He watches as Baxia stalks carefully across the grass outside, Shuoyue standing still with his muscles twitching, ready to bolt. When she leaps, he takes off, bouncing across the clearing before she closes the gap. Her claws are retracted, and the impact is only enough to stagger, sending them both tilting into the nearby chrysanthemums before righting themselves with breathless laughter.

Soon they’re switching to Shuoyue in pursuit, hooves clacking against the stone path below them as he chases her across the courtyard. 

Lan Xichen watches them go, a smile tucked in each beat of his heart. It is impossible to find it anything but endearing—after all, what kind of tiger would be truly caught by a stag? Baxia has always indulged them.

Then again, that indulgence is not new. From the moment he considered Nie Mingjue a close enough friend to invite to the Hanshi like this, they have been nothing but generous in return. He is grateful for it every moment. 

“What about you?”

He looks back to Nie Mingjue, who is watching him with eyes that know too much. After all their talk of war, it takes him a moment to understand the picked-up thread of a conversation.

When he does, he sighs. “I am doing as well as can be expected.”

“Your brother doing ok?”

“He is… not pleased, that Wei Wuxian returned under such strange circumstances. However, I believe his physical health is acceptable”

“I heard they’re fighting.”

Lan Xichen tries not to frown and fails.

Nie Mingjue holds up a hand to slow his displeasure. “It is a well-contained rumor, Xichen-xiong. You know how the Sects can be. I only know from my brother’s idle gossiping.”

Lan Xichen does know how the Sects can be. That is exactly why he finds the idea of gossip about his brother so concerning.

 “I…” he starts, and closes his eyes, takes a deep breath through his nose to steady his thoughts. “I have visited the Jiangling front several times to try and maintain the peace. It is not my brother who instigates such tensions, at least not intentionally. And try as I might, I fail to understand Wei Wuxian’s thinking.”

Nie Mingjue grunts again, more thoughtful this time.

“Something has changed in him,” Lan Xichen continues. “That flute he carries, the way his daemon hides away. Their behavior has always been unusual, but not like this.”

“War changes people,” Nie Mingjue says, matter of fact. “A-Sang seemed to trust him, back when they were disciples. And he has been invaluable on the Jiangling front, even if his methods are new. I for one, am glad to see others rising to the challenge!”

There is nothing he can say to that without lying.

He sips his tea again, trying to let the floral taste soothe the apprehension that has rattled in his chest since the first smell of smoke all those months ago. He wants, desperately and with every part of his heart, to agree. Wants to chalk the whole thing up to the fall of Lotus Pier, the horrors that Sect Leader Jiang and his family no doubt suffered. To excuse it as yet another necessity of war. 

But he can’t.

Because every time he hears about Wei Wuxian’s efforts, his newfound place at the Wen Sect’s throat, his little brother’s haunted face the night he returned to the Cloud Recesses flashes across his eyes.

The memory sits suspended in his mind like a sharp thorn digging into flesh: Lan Wangji, pale as a ghost, standing in the doorway with trembling fingers curled around his sword.

“What happened?” Lan Xichen had asked, Shuoyue already half-risen from his place at the table. He had, for a terrible moment, feared that Lan Wangji would turn around and reveal to him a body.

“He’s back,” Lan Wangji had replied, controlled. No—numb. And then: “Wen Chao is dead.”

He’d refused to elaborate on how. Instead, he’d just bid him goodnight, Bichen silent and subdued at his side; and, despite Lan Xichen’s considerable efforts, they have not spoken of it again.

Now, after seeing the tension that boils between his brother and Wei Wuxian whenever they are in the same room, Lan Xichen knows that whatever Wei Wuxian did to Wen Chao extends far beyond some questionable talismans.

He doesn’t understand what happened, exactly, but to cause such a rift between them…

“I worry about him,” Lan Xichen confesses, a moment of weakness. Still, there is no one better to have it in front of: Nie Mingjue has long been the person who he trusts with them. He believes, or hopes, that he will understand. “He is so young.”

To his relief, Nie Mingjue nods. 

“The curse of the older brother,” he grunts. They share a knowing look. “But with our eyes on them, how much trouble can they truly get into? Let him fight, Zewu-Jun, and win glory for our sects. If I could just get didi to do the same, then this would already be over.”

Lan Xichen smiles. They both know the chances of such a thing are low. Nie Huaisang is a youth of many talents, but a blademaster is not one of them.

“There is no shame in taking time for the small joys in life, as your brother does,” he says, looking out into the gardens. With fewer servants to tend to them, some of the bushes have overgrown; perhaps he should spend time tonight trimming back their wandering roots. “My family seems the opposite, doesn’t it? Ever since he was a child, A-Zhan has been so serious. I fear he carries too much. Even now, he acts as if Wei Wuxian’s new techniques must be solved by him alone.”

There is the soft clink of china on hardwood as Nie Mingjue sets down his teacup.

“Xichen-xiong.”

“Hm?”

Lan Xichen tears his gaze away from the yellow and pink chrysanthemum blooms to find that Nie Mingjue is frowning at him. When their eyes meet, he reaches across the table and, taking Lan Xichen by surprise, lays a hand on his wrist.

It is a shock of warm skin.

“It is what I would expect from someone who shares your blood,” he murmurs, voice low, like a secret. Lan Xichen’s tries to swallow around the sudden tightness in his throat, the swoop of his stomach.  “You should be proud of him—his dedication to his friend is admirable.”

Friend.

The weight of Nie Mingjue’s hand is solid and grounding, gentle in his own way. Outside, Shuoyue has finally caught up to Baxia; they’re lying on the grass, panting, the tip of her tail brushing against his antlers.

Friend.

The word is almost right, but not. He thinks of the way Bichen’s tail twitches toward Lan Wangji whenever Wei Wuxian is around; the relief on their faces when they got back from Lan Yi’s cave unharmed; how Lan Wangji’s ears had flushed bright red the first time he showed Lan Xichen the black and white rabbits hidden under his bed.

Lan Xichen knows what Nie Mingjue means. He also knows he is deeply missing the true crux of the matter.

“He certainly does have the passion of a Lan,” Lan Xichen agrees, and pours them another round of tea.

--

The true crux of the matter, as it were, is this: Lan Wangji’s crush has always been a well-known thing to Lan Xichen.

Even if Wangji does not wish to speak it out loud, Lan Xichen can read his brother in a way that others have never been able to. Not his uncle, or his elders, or his classmates. No matter how well Wangji may hide it from others, Lan Xichen knows.

When Wei Wuxian came bulldozing into the Cloud Recesses and caught Lan Wangji in the wreckage, he’d been… pleasantly surprised. Amused, even, to see his brother so flustered and infuriated all because of one person’s antics. And they’d been harmless antics, in the end: pieces of paper stuck to backs; pottery, rearranged but not stolen; alcohol down the throats of curious teenagers.

It had been nice, to see Wangji notice someone; and even nicer, to see someone notice him in return.

So he’d watched quietly as Wei Wuxian entered his little brother’s space and his life; and then watched with greater interest when Lan Wangji did not move away, like expected—but swayed ever closer, like a moth drawn to a flame.

Then Bichen had come back from Lan Yi’s ice cave with a tuft of red fur on her back, and Lan Xichen had known, right then and there.

Still, if he had somehow managed to miss the glaring signs of Wangji’s feelings, then they would have certainly revealed themselves to him by now.

“Didi, do not be unreasonable.”

Twilight is spreading itself across the sky of the Cloud Recesses like paper dipped in ink. Outside, a few of the younger Lans are wrangling rabbits into the hutch Lan Wangji made months prior, located just far enough from the main buildings that Uncle could not put up too large of a protest. It’s a much better location than the last one, Lan Xichen thinks, then winces when he is reminded of how the last one was destroyed.

Smoke and fire fill his dreams more often than he would like, even now. Even with the progress they have made, he sometimes looks across the Cloud Recesses and feels he has walked into another person’s home.

He has more pressing issues in front of him right now though—namely, the person he is still trying to convince to lay down and close his eyes.

“You need rest, didi,” Lan Xichen tells Lan Wangji, half-scolding, as his brother tries yet again to hoist himself out of bed. He eases Lan Wangji back to a resting pose; across the room, Shuoyue is trying to do the same with the cantankerous snow leopard sitting in quiet protest by the door.

They have been home for several weeks now that the war efforts are coalescing around the central cities, but Lan Xichen can see the signs of exhaustion still plaguing them both. He had thought, back when Wei Wuxian was missing, that there could be no greater toll on Lan Wangji’s health than that desperate, single-minded searching. Lan Xichen had prayed, more than he would like to admit and for largely selfish reasons centering around his brother’s sanity, for him to be found safe and healthy.

Yet now that Wei Wuxian is back, the strain on his brother has only deepened.

And worse: it seems that Wei Wuxian no longer cares.

“We don’t want to miss something, if there’s a composition we haven’t read yet,” Bichen tells them, even as her eyes droop. In response, Shuoyue bumps her gently on the head with his antlers.

“If you cannot keep your eyes open, you will miss it even if it’s right in front of you.”

That earns a small huff, the gentle bat of a paw. Lan Xichen smiles, relieved to see that they are not too exhausted for this familiar routine, at least.

He turns back to his brother, finds him staring at the guqin that Lan Xichen had (forcibly) taken and (ignoring many protests) placed against the far wall.

“You will find a song to soothe his spirit,” he tells him, because he cannot imagine what will happen otherwise, “but Lan Shuoyue is right. As of now, you could hardly play even if you had the score. Recover. Then search tomorrow, if you must.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t reply.

Lan Xichen sighs, feels the true weight of the past months as his lungs empty. There has always been a stubbornness to his brother. Until he believes he has done his duty, words will not move him. 

Unwilling to leave, he goes to tuck the corners of the sheets around Lan Wangji. It’s a poor habit, one that is unbefitting of either of their ages, but it brings him a sense of comfort to do it nonetheless. Their mother used to do the same when they would visit her—let them clamber onto her lap and then wrap them both up, tuck them together in the blankets so they could curl up against her breast.

A-Zhan, A-Huan, she would say, holding them tight, look at how much you’ve grown!

He wonders if Lan Wangji remembers that. He isn’t sure whether he wants him to.

Lan Wangji is still staring up at the ceiling, almost unblinking. As offhand as he can, Lan Xichen says, “You know, I seem to recall that there are some scrolls within the Nie Sect. Perhaps I could send a letter to Chifeng-Zun, requesting them.”

The gaze on the ceiling turns sharp, then moves to him.

Lan Xichen smiles, relieved to have received a reaction. He does one final tuck of the blankets. “But letters take time to write. And until then, I expect you to sleep.”

The words settle between them as he rises, satisfied when Wangji doesn’t immediately try to get up again, and makes his way slowly over to the door. Either Lan Xichen’s olive branch of information or Shuoyue’s determination has managed to convince Bichen to give up her spot, too; she slinks past him over to the bed as he blows out the candles.

As he is about to leave, he hears the gentle shifting of blankets.

“Xiongzhang,” Lan Wangji says into the dark. Spoken quietly, strained.

When Lan Xichen looks back at him, Lan Wangji’s hand is curled in Bichen’s fur.

Even in front of family, he so rarely touches her. There are no rules against it, of course—they are free to do so in front of family and loved ones, in the privacy of their own shared spaces. But for his brother, the fact that he is doing so now, and holding so tightly, is unusually revealing.

Lan Xichen’s heart aches with the love he feels for him.

“I know,” Lan Xichen tells him, because he thinks he does. In that moment, he really, truly, thinks he understands the depth of his brother’s devotion.

He is wrong.

Years later, standing over his brother’s unconscious form while a healer lays bandages over a freshly-seared brand on his chest, Lan Xichen will think back on that night.

He will wonder how on earth he didn’t see it, the true intensity of it, laid out before him with every one of Wangji’s sleepless moments during those months. He will think: You were a fool, not to know.

How could he have missed it? He will make himself sleepless with that question, fretting with each beat of his heart. Bichen’s silent protest, Wangji’s quiet desperation, both of their hearts shown to him in the dimness of twilight. How could he miss the enormity of his brother’s devotion, ever-growing, leading them right to this very moment?

It will not be the first time he asks himself this, nor the last.

But it will be the first time he wonders, with a mounting sense of dread, if it will ever, ever stop.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng doesn’t mean to be eavesdropping.

He really, really doesn’t.

If it were up to him, he’d be fast asleep in the Nie Sect guest quarters, dreaming up ways to make Wen Ruohan pay. With the end of the war so close at hand and the unofficial conference bringing everyone together, revenge is getting closer and closer to his fingertips. Surrounded by the other Sect Leaders and bolstered on by Chifeng-Zun, it’s the only thing he’s been able to think of.

Well. Not the only thing.

Which leads Jiang Cheng back to his current predicament.

Hiding in the bushes with the moon overhead is absolutely beneath the dignity of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect leader. He knows this, just as he knows that if anyone sees him, he’ll be the laughingstock of all his peers in a heartbeat.

Their sect is already fragile enough. He’s seen the way people look at them (at Wei Wuxian): always from the sidelines, hidden behind their hands, furtive glances stolen when they think no one else is watching. Like they’re impressed, but also scared.

So this is not the way to behave, not here.

But when Sandu had nudged him awake a few minutes earlier and murmured, moonlight spilling onto her fur through the window’s olive curtains, “A-Xian and A-Sui just snuck out of their room,” a little bud of—something, had formed in Jiang Cheng’s chest.

Not worry, he’d told himself, as he’d shoved on his shoes and nearly tripped over his own robes in his haste to get them on.

No, that tight feeling in his ribs was because he was annoyed. Annoyed at Wei Wuxian, for causing so much trouble and mischief that Jiang Cheng has to get up in the middle of the night to make sure he doesn’t do anything stupid.

Or dangerous. Or—have something dangerous happen to him.

Not that there’s any reason to worry about that.

Which is why Jiang Cheng is strictly in the no-worry category as he peers through the dark, autumn-touched leaves, wincing when Sandu shifts her weight and makes a branch crack under her weight.

It’s a tiny noise, but with the tension working its way up his spine, it might as well be a firecracker. He glances over at her, frowning; she shoots him an apologetic look and tucks her tail.

Thankfully, it seems like Wei Wuxian hasn’t noticed at all. He’s sitting quietly on the stairs with his back to them, drinking and looking up at the moon. The shadow of the building stretches past his feet; in his black-and-red robes, the shape of him nearly blends into the darkness.

Jiang Cheng hates those robes.

You should wear Yunmeng Jiang colors, he thinks, not for the first time. He’s been trying to find the right time to ask, but whenever he starts to get up the courage to do it, to demand why Wei Wuxian hasn’t taken their sect’s colors yet, something stops him.

His eyes drift to the flute by Wei Wuxian’s side.

No sword again. The realization is bitter in his mouth, worse than any medicine he’s ever forced down. He worked hard getting that sword back, and Wei Wuxian hasn’t used it once. 

When he goes to look for Suibian, he can’t find the familiar outline of her in the dark.

None of it makes sense, he thinks dizzily: the robes, that goddamn instrument, Suibian’s newfound obsession with hiding. Wei Wuxian said he wanted to be by his side—so why is he out here, wearing those, and not inside, with Jiang Cheng?

He’s not even doing anything. Just sitting there, like he can’t feel the chill of the air, like there’s not a huge, important meeting they need to be at tomorrow.

Like Jiang Cheng doesn’t need him by his side, a united front as the world burns around them.

Somewhere nearby, there’s an owl calling into the night. He can hear a mouse squeaking and chittering to their left, the skitter-scatter of its paws across the foliage. Wei Wuxian is still and silent through it all, a ghost tucked against grey stone.

What happened to him?

A thrum of alarm reaches him through the bond and jerks him out of his thoughts, Sandu picking up something he can’t; it’s just enough warning for him to retreat further into the bush before footsteps reach his ears.

“Wei Ying?”

Oh, come on.

Of course, he thinks drily, as Lan Wangji and Bichen appear at the opposite end of the courtyard from where Jiang Cheng is currently crouched. It is well past midnight, and they look the picture of Lan perfection anyways, the straight lines of their bodies breaking the otherwise sparse horizon.

Of course, of all the people in this place, they’re the ones who show up.

Wei Wuxian has noticed them too, at least if the way he quickly downs the rest of his drink is any indication. The alcohol spills onto his sleeve in his haste, and he tosses the jar to the side afterwards, hand coming to rest on Chenqing instead.

Lan Wangji and Bichen move across the courtyard towards him.

Even just seeing them has anger thrumming in Jiang Cheng. Those two haven’t been shy about how much they hate Wei Wuxian’s methods; if anything, they’ve been harassing him about them ever since he got back, going outside of their own sect business while they’re at it.

Sure, Wei Wuxian did some weird shit to Wen Chao. But he’d deserved it. Jiang Cheng would let him do it over and over again if it meant justice for what happened to their home, their family.

And now those Lans treat him like shit for it.

Something new flares in Jiang Cheng’s chest at the thought, the fur on Sandu’s back raising in tandem. She lets out a single, low growl.

Yeah, ok.

He sinks down more in the bush, fist clenching around Zidian. Screw this—they’re going to stay. Just to make sure they don’t pull something on his brother.

When they’re a mǐ away from Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji and Bichen stop.

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian is already standing up, gathering his items like he’s getting ready to leave. With his current position Jiang Cheng can’t see his expression at all, but even from this distance it’s impossible to miss the way Wei Wuxian’s hand curls tighter around his flute.

“Lan Wangji,” Wei Wuxian says, and in the bright light of the moon Jiang Cheng sees something shift in Lan Wangji’s face. “What a surprise. A little past curfew for you, don’t you think?”

They look at each other from their respective places in the courtyard, opposing shadows on the olive and grey stone.

Lan Wangji’s reply, when it finally comes, is so quiet that Jiang Cheng nearly misses it.

“Lan Bichen heard something.”

“Sure, of course.” Despite the words, Wei Wuxian sounds far from convinced. “Why else would you be out here, middle of the night, right where I happen to be? That makes sense. Well, guess you found the source of the noise. Is it back to bed for you?”

“Wei Ying.”

The hand on Chenqing is now white-knuckled. “What? What do you want? For me to apologize for making noise? I didn’t even realize I had, ok, Lan Zhan?”

The tense line of Lan Wangji’s shoulders, which Jiang Cheng had been keeping an eye on in case he needed to intervene, relaxes a fraction.

“No.”

“What?”

“No,” Lan Wangji says. Bichen’s tail has curled in the air, the black tip twitching as she looks between them. “I do not want an apology for the noise.”

Wei Wuxian sighs, loud enough for Jiang Cheng to hear the slight quiver in it. He passes a hand over his face, a motion that Jiang Cheng recognizes from every early morning throughout their childhood when he’s had to practically pull him out of bed. It’s exhaustion and frustration combined into a single, efficient tell.

“Well then, what do you want?”

Jiang Cheng has spent a long time getting to know the subtleties of Wei Wuxian’s tone. Since he came back from—from wherever he went, it’s been harder, but he still gets flashes of understanding. The anger from before is gone.

Now, he just sounds tired. The kind of tired that lurks behind all the things Wei Wuxian does nowadays, the kind that has A-jie frowning into her soup when Wei Wuxian isn’t looking.

Lan Wangji says nothing.

Wei Wuxian stands there for significantly longer than Jiang Cheng would have before letting out a laugh that does not sound how it should.

“Yeah, ok. See you around, Lan Zhan.”

He goes to move past Lan Wangji, their shoulders bumping together when Lan Wangji doesn’t step aside—but at the last moment, a hand darts out and stops him.

Jiang Cheng and Sandu both jerk up, alarm roaring through their link. He places a hand on her back to cut off the snarl that he can feel forming on her lips, his own jaw clenching at the pure audacity of what’s playing out in front of him.

Lan Wangji’s hand tightens on Wei Wuxian’s wrist.

“Wait.”

The word is clear even from their distance, the loudest thing Lan Wangji has said tonight.

And, against all odds, his brother obeys.

The quiet that follows is not an easy one. Wei Wuxian holds himself tense as he and Lan Wangji have some type of stare-off, tension coiled in the lines of their bodies, in Lan Wangji’s still-present touch. Jiang Cheng’s eyes go to Bichen, who appears preoccupied with something about Wei Wuxian’s robes.

It is Lan Wangji who breaks the silence.

“Let me help you,” he says, which is not at all what Jiang Cheng was expecting him to say. Zidian, which had started to glow a fierce purple on his finger, settles.

The opposite seems to happen with Wei Wuxian.

“I don’t know how many times I have to tell you, Lan Zhan,” he spits, and his voice is edged, almost—almost dangerous. “We don’t need any help. Just because you don’t like my talismans doesn’t mean you have the right to boss me around. And it’s not your business, you know that?”

Lan Wangji opens his mouth to reply.

“But you said we were friends.”

Everyone in the courtyard goes still, including him and Sandu. The words are bold, but that isn’t what shocks him. In fact, it actually takes him a few seconds to figure out where the voice even came from. It’s definitely not Lan Wangji’s.

Then his eyes go to Sandu, who is staring at Bichen—and his mouth opens in a silent what.

She—talked. Jiang Cheng has never heard her talk before, in all the years he’s known the Lans. He actually has a running bet with Nie Huaisang that she can’t.

Even Lan Wangji looks surprised. Jiang Cheng doesn’t know if that makes him feel better or worse.

“I…” Wei Wuxian’s voice is the quiet one now.

“Suibian?” Bichen says, her eyes still on the folds of Wei Wuxian’s robe, and understanding hits Jiang Cheng. He didn’t think a Lan could plead, but this sounds pretty close to it. “Suibian, please come out. I know you’re there. We just want to help.”

That seems to jolt Wei Wuxian back into reality.

“She doesn’t want to see you,” he spits, and jerks his arm out of Lan Wangji’s grasp. “Leave her alone. You can’t just—”

“Please,” Bichen says, and Wei Wuxian cuts himself off.

There’s a long, tense pause, where Wei Wuxian avoids looking at Lan Wangji.

This is another thing that Jiang Cheng doesn’t get.

Wei Wuxian used to be obsessed with Lan Wangji, following him around and annoying him and doing whatever he could to get his attention. Old Wei Wuxian would have been delighted at hearing Bichen so much as huff in their direction. Suibian would have been over the moon, already yipping and wriggling to soak in the attention.

But now they won’t even look at them. They avoid Lan Wangji and Bichen like the plague—no more showing-off of swordsmanship, or dramatic pranks, or talking so much that the silencing spell is second nature for all of them.

Where were you, those three months? Jiang Cheng wants to scream. But he’s tried that, and if A-Jie couldn’t get a straight answer out of Wei Wuxian, he won’t be able to either. At least not yet.

He will find out, though. Even if he has to yell himself hoarse to do it.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, and it’s the same thing he’s said so many times tonight, but for some reason it feels markedly different.

“I,” Wei Wuxian starts, and draws in a deep breath. There’s a desperate edge to his voice when he says, “Lan Zhan, please. I honestly just wanted some fresh air, I wasn’t trying to cause trouble. You have to believe me, ok?”

“I do.”

The response is so immediate and firm that Jiang Cheng blinks, taken-aback. Wei Wuxian seems to be in the same state; he twitches slightly, and finally raises his head to look at Lan Wangji.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t know what he sees on Lan Wangji’s face, but his next words leave him in a rush.

“Well then I don’t want to fight, alright? I’m—tired of arguing with you, Lan Zhan. And if we start to squabble, then Suibian isn’t going to come out at all.”

Lan Wangji nods slowly, like if he moves too fast Wei Wuxian is going to bolt. Some quiet, shoved-aside part of Jiang Cheng wonders that too.

“No arguing. Just talking.”

Wei Wuxian draws in another breath. Releases it.

“Ok,” he says, and clears his throat. “Not that I’m saying she’ll come out, anyways, because she’s tired and not feeling very good, and it’s really very unfair of you, Bichen, to try and make her feel bad when she hasn’t even done anything.”

A jolt of concern from their bond. Jiang Cheng frowns;  Suibian had seemed ok this morning.

“Say whatever you want to me,” Wei Wuxian continues, “but leave her out of it.”

Bichen flattens her ears and steps behind Lan Wangji.

“I didn’t…” she starts, but whatever else she says doesn’t reach Jiang Cheng’s ears. When her mouth finishes moving, the hand on Chenqing relaxes a fraction.

“Oh.” Wei Wuxian’s voice is subdued, almost sheepish. “I… didn’t know that.”

Bichen blinks silently up at him, her head inching out from behind Lan Wangji’s legs at the quieter tone of voice. Lan Wangji gives a small nod, and she moves out further, coming to stand beside him once again.

“A misunderstanding,” she says, almost soft.

Wei Wuxian adams apple bobs. Under the moonlight, the three of them look like opposing shadows, brightest white against darkest black.

He is, uncharacteristically, silent.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, as the silence stretches on, “let me play for you.”

The words seem to flip a switch; Wei Wuxian laughs, another one that doesn’t sound right, and whirls away from their hopeful faces. Jiang Cheng can finally see the purple bruises that have made themselves at home under his eyes, how his smirk is tilted just a few degrees off.

“Ah, but we’re not in the mood for music, not tonight!” he says, and even from here, it’s overly-casual, a paper-thin façade. “Be careful, Lan Zhan, didn’t you just promise we would only talk?”

“Wei Ying—”

“You know, this reminds me of something!” Wei Wuxian interrupts, looking up at the roof. Despite the tense way he’s holding himself, the faintest hint of—of something, something genuine, is curling on his lips. “Lan Zhan, just like when we met!”

Lan Wangji follows his gaze, hand tucked behind his back once more.

“Mn.”

Wei Wuxian glances at him, so quick that Jiang Cheng almost misses the motion.

“Aiyo, Lan Zhan, don’t sound so disapproving!” A lilt of teasing has worked its way into his tone. “Not all roofs are stuffy as the Cloud Reccesses, you know! We can—do you want to go up there? I’ll even race you, if you want.”

There’s another long silence. Jiang Cheng pinches the bridge of his nose; Wei Wuxian can be such a fool! There’s no way Lan Wangji will agree to that. That’s breaking a rule, multiple, actually, and he wouldn’t—

“Mn.”

Jiang Cheng’s brain stutters to a halt, mouth falling open.  

He’s almost certain he misheard. But then Wei Wuxian blinks, turning to face Lan Wangji; and slowly, like the moon rising in the sky, a smile breaks out across his face.

“Yeah?”

Lan Wangji nods and moves to stand next to him.

Oh.

Jiang Cheng watches, heart pounding in his ears, as Wei Wuxian leads them forward, as he wheedles Lan Wangji into not using his spiritual energy to get up, as they make their slow ascent onto the roof. There’s a gap of space between them as they go, no more of the handsy dragging that Wei Wuxian used to flit to with ease; but he laughs when he makes it up to the topmost tiles and accidentally sends one tumbling to the ground, all flailing limbs alongside Lan Wangji’s careful grace.

There’s the sound of shattering ceramic on stone, another laugh.

“Oh shit, think we can blame that on Jin Zixuan?” Wei Wuxian asks, and he sounds happy. Then, from Lan Wangji: “Wei Ying.

It’s too much.

Jiang Cheng needs to get the fuck out of here.

The walk back to their chambers passes in a daze. It is Sandu who leads him down the corridors, who noses open their door with no more than a small creak; his mind is too busy looping the conversation over and over, trying to make sense of the nausea churning in his gut.

Whatever just happened was—was good, right? Lan Wangji doesn’t want to hurt his brother after all, or at least not right now. And if Wei Wuxian is speaking to Lan Wangji again, then maybe things actually are returning to normal.

Maybe Wei Wuxian— maybe he’ll—

Maybe he’ll sound like that with me again, too.

He tosses his shoes to the side without thinking, clambers under the blankets. They’re rough against his skin, but he doesn’t mind the scratch of it. Can’t.

“A-Cheng,” Sandu says, laying her head on the bed and letting the word ghost over him. He places his hand on the back of her neck, digs his fingers into the thick fur there.

They stare at each other in the dimness.

Let me play for you, Lan Wangji had said. Play what, exactly? Cleansing? Does Wei Wuxian—is he—

“There’s nothing wrong with him, right?” Jiang Cheng whispers. It’s the first time he’s ever considered the question out loud, and Sandu lets out a hot puff of air against his face.

“If there is,” she says, “then we can get him through it.”

The words settle something in Jiang Cheng. Right. He’s not alone. Sandu, A-jie, Xiaolian: they can help. They’re a family—whatever Wei Wuxian and Suibian are up to, they’ll help nag them into shape again. This is just one of Wei Wuxian’s phases, like that time he went a whole month thinking that he didn’t need to wear shoes.

Lan Wangji doesn’t understand Wei Wuxian nearly as well as he does, so he’s just raising red flags for nothing.

If there was something seriously wrong with Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng would be the first to know.

He nods, firm, and shifts on the bed. Sandu takes him up on the silent offer, squeezing herself into the narrow space behind his back and settling into the curve of him. She’s like a furnace, and he throws off one of his blankets so she can say close before closing his eyes. 

Right. Well.

Good thing he wasn’t worried.  


A week later, back in the Cloud Recesses, Lan Xichen looks at his brother’s face and lets out a breath he has been holding for months.

“You talked?” he asks, as neutrally as he can, and Lan Wangji gives a single nod.

“Mn.”

The relief is staggering.

It is, like too many things in war, short-lived.


It happens unexpectedly.

One moment, Sandu and Suibian are playing in the corner, Suibian letting out happy giggles—and the next, her laughter has turned to a scream of pain.

It’s so loud and unexpected that Jiang Cheng’s hand jerks, smearing a line of ink across the letter he was composing to Sect Leader Jin, congratulations for concluding the Sunshot Campaign. With Wen Ruohan dead and Qishan Wen scattered to the winds, he’s finally had the time to try and strategize on what’s best for their people, to forge alliances that will give them some sense of security moving forward.

Unfortunately, this particular attempt is now ruined. He splutters, yanking back his brush before it can drip more ink across the parchment, and looks over at their daemons.

“What the hell, A-Sui—”

His voice is drowned out by footsteps. Wei Wuxian, who has decided to grace Jiang Cheng with his presence today, unlike all the other days this week, is already halfway across the room. 

“Move!” he snaps at Sandu, with so much anger and panic that Jiang Cheng and Sandu both freeze up. “Sandu, get off her!

Jiang Cheng doesn’t think Wei Wuxian has ever spoken to her like that before, much less given an actual order—and he’s jolted back to reality when he realizes that he shouldn’t.

“Don’t boss her around,” Jiang Cheng snaps back, thrown off, as Sandu shrinks back from where she had been tussling. Her ears are pressed flat back against her head, tail tucked; she slinks over to Jiang Cheng like she’s in trouble. “What happened?”

“It’s ok, shh,” Wei Wuxian is murmuring to Suibian, who is trembling like a leaf. Lotus Pier has never had large, ostentatious rooms like the Jins, but she looks impossibly small tucked into the corner like that.

She isn’t crying anymore. Jiang Cheng was expecting hysterics like normal, but she’s gone absolutely silent.

“I said, what happ—”

“Nothing.” Wei Wuxian’s voice is low as he gathers Suibian in his arms. When he turns towards the door, Jiang Cheng catches the first glimpse of Suibian’s face.

Her eyes are filled with tears. Jiang Cheng’s stomach jolts.

Sandu hasn’t actually played rough with Suibian since they were twelve, after she accidentally tore off a chunk of Suibian’s fur in a play fight gone wrong. Sandu had just settled into her form, and Jiang Cheng remembers the feeling of pride almost bursting out of his chest each time he saw her.

Pride, and the smallest touch of insecurity. It wasn’t a new form, not really. She’d shifted into a wolf a few times when he was a kid; infrequent, but enough that they’d had to convince Wei Wuxian and Suibian that no, wolves were nothing like dogs, the ears are completely different, would your shijie lie to you? Look, she’s scaring away the dogs, isn’t that so nice?

That logic hadn’t fully worked. Wei Wuxian and Suibian had stopped running away by the third shift, sure, but there was a resigned acceptance to it, and unease and fear that were hidden under the surface and left to fester. It makes something crawl into his throat whenever he thinks about it—the way they tiptoed around those early years, like their life was dependent on an eggshell fragility that would shatter at any wrong move.

The fifth shift, though. He remembers that one, Suibian’s trembling body and Sandu, teeth bared and growling, teeth still stained red from a fight with the stray dog that had chased Suibian across the marketplace. How the dog had tucked tail and run, yipping. How Suibian had stared up at Sandu, mouth agape—and started to wag her tail.

It was easier, after that. Much easier.

He’d just never expected her to stay that way.

The Yunmeng Jiang Sect had water daemons, everyone knew that. His father’s Kingfisher and his mother’s Sea Snake, and he got a wolf, of all things?

But then Suibian and Wei Wuxian had staggered into the common area for breakfast the morning after she’d settled, and Suibian’s eyes had gone all big and excited, and she’d squealed, “Oh, Sandu, you look so awesome! Are you bigger now? Your paw is the size of my face!”

And Jiang Cheng had decided a wolf was pretty much the coolest daemon to have, actually.

Still—she was all big paws and big teeth, and not used to them at all, and it had happened so quickly. Suibian had run off with saltwater running down her face, cries that were quieter than normal but somehow meant more, and Wei Wuxian had chased after her without so much as a glance over his shoulder.

Jiang Cheng remembers it clearly: Sandu, eyes wide and shocked, staring at that single tuft of white-and-red left behind on the wood.

She’d been upset; not the most he’s ever seen her, but close.

(The memory, unwanted, rushes to the surface: Jiang Cheng, so frustrated at his father letting Wei Wuxian sit on his knees that he’s crying in his room, late into the night. A thought, also unwanted: Why can’t he love me like that? And Sandu, looking at him without blinking, molten earth ready to erupt.

It’s so vivid that it has his stomach looping. He forces it away.)

The point is they’d taken it seriously, even when Suibian had tried to wave it off as nothing later. He and Sandu had practice wrestled for hours afterwards, Jiang Cheng enduring endless scratches and bruises until there was no doubt on how much strength she could use before hurting someone smaller than her.

She’s good now, when it comes to Suibian. She’s gentle, and careful, Jiang Cheng knows she would never—

“Was I too rough?” Sandu has her body low to the ground, like if she makes herself smaller, Suibian will stop having that look in her eyes. “It was just my paw, A-Sui. I didn’t mean for it to hurt.”

Suibian doesn’t reply; she’s busy pressing her face to Wei Wuxian’s neck as he smooths his hand down the fur on her back. Neither of them are looking towards Jiang Cheng and Sandu.

The longer they ignore them, the more the uncomfortable feeling in Jiang Cheng’s chest grows.

He sets down his brush with a clink.

“What the hell’s gotten into you?” he demands, and it comes out louder than he wanted, but he’s so tired. “Last night, you were too drunk to control your own spiritual energy and I hardly even needed to breathe on you to send you sprawling. Now A-Sui’s gotten all weak, too? Are you giving her alcohol?”

Something flashes across Wei Wuxian’s face, but it’s gone so fast that Jiang Cheng is left with nothing but an ache of wishing he had seen it better.

“It’s nothing,” he repeats, still quiet.

And walks out of the room.

“What the hell,” Jiang Cheng whispers, as the door closes behind them and they’re left with nothing but silence. His eyes drift to the wood where they were playing, searching for that same spot of white and red.

There’s nothing, of course. Just an empty space where a pair of playing daemons should be.

Chapter Text


“Seems to me-" Lee said, feeling for the words, "seems to me the place you fight cruelty is where you find it, and the place you give help is where you see it needed.”
― Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials


 

 

They are dead, and everything is loud.

The wind screams around them, knocking them off their feet, dragging them through the parched earth like it is trying to bury them beneath it. There is nothing in him but the empty throb of things given, things lost, things whispered in his ears.

Suibian is sobbing—rough, shuddering gasps, wetness soaking into his skin from where he’s pressed her against his neck.

Everything is dark, and muddled, and loud, loud loud.

They’ll take her from you, the voices whisper, a harsh caress on his cheek. He lays there in the dirt and listens, the resentment pressing against his lungs as he struggles to suck in air.  If they find out you were here, they’ll kill her.

He holds her closer, feels the press of her fur against his bloodstained fingers. No, he tries to say, but his tongue is swollen and bloody.

Don’t you want to protect her? they ask, and they’re so loud, so loud, please—

Don’t you want to live?

Don’t you want revenge?

Wei Wuxian, don’t you want—

He does. He does. The resentment shrieks in his ears as he struggles up, a dead animal on its last legs, staggering forward. Suibian has gone limp and quiet in his arms, head lolling onto his shoulder.  

And he—

He reaches out and—

He reaches out, and grabs the seal.


The thing is: Wei Wuxian had known it wasn’t going to be easy.

He’d known from the moment they stood over Jiang Cheng’s and Sandu’s limp forms on the mountain, silvergrass swaying around them in the wind, Zhiruo a red splash of color among the nearby sparrows. When Wen Qing’s knife had entered his chest minutes later, it had hit him with such clarity that the first scream had caught in his throat, trapped like a fluttering bird in a barbed cage.

But it wasn’t supposed to be easy. It was just supposed to be right.

And then: Wen Chao, holding them suspended over the Burial Mounds. Helpless, Wei Wuxian’s blood dripping into the endless expanse below.

(Wei Wuxian’s blood, but never A-Sui’s. Never, ever A-Sui’s.)

He hadn’t known just hard how it would be.

But he doesn’t regret it, not at all. He’s alive, and Suibian is alive. Even if they’ve changed, they’re still them, and that’s enough for him, at least for right now.

He just wishes it could be enough for everybody else, too.

“I’m ok,” Suibian mumbles, abandoning her spot on the sun-warmed wood of the pier to clamber into his lap. A group of children run by, shrieking as they avoid the water-slick planks, laughing when one of the aunties tries to scold them into going slower.

It feels too loud, too alive. Slowly, he breathes in the smell of lotuses, roasted lamb coated in chili oil, sticky-sweet candied haws.

For the first time in his life, it doesn’t settle him.

He smooths back Suibian’s fur with shaking hands, checking for—he doesn’t know what. An actual injury? The idea of Sandu hurting her permanently, of Jiang Cheng hurting him even by proxy, is ludicrous. It’s been years since they actually hurt each other.

But Suibian’s cry of pain from minutes before is still ringing in his ears.

“It’s ok, right?” she whispers, looking up at him with pleading eyes. “I don’t think—she didn’t mean… maybe I overreacted.”

Wei Wuxian shivers, tightens his grip. “You didn’t.” Even if he can’t feel it through their link anymore, even if there’s now a raw, bloody string inside him that doesn’t connect to anything, he knows the signs of her pain. “Suibian—”

“No,” she whines immediately, already knowing where he’s going. “A-Xian, please, no.”

The empty space inside his chest throbs.

For nearly eighteen years, he had a sacred part of her inside him. Little sparkles of her tucked into the sinew of his muscle, the red of his blood, the gaps in his bones. Whenever he breathed, he could feel the golden trace of her there, like a shimmering dust that helped fill all the empty spaces inside him and made every breath a little lighter.

He thought it would follow him to the grave, that feeling.

(In a way, some twisted part of him thinks, it did.)

And now there’s nothing. 

They hadn’t really known what it would be like when he lost his core. Wen Qing had theories, of course, largely based on Sandu’s reaction: the lost haze over her eyes, the confusion, how she had kept looking at Jiang Cheng as if she couldn’t sense he was there any other way.

How, after a single day, she had howled more, snapped her teeth, gone wild in the eyes.

“Your bond could break,” Wen Qing had told him, tucked into the corner of the room as Jiang Cheng slept listlessly on the bed. He’d expected that part. And then—“Without you, she could deviate,” which he hadn’t.

He’d heard of daemons deviating, of course. If someone is separated from their daemon for too long or across a distance they can’t maintain, the effects on the pair are substantial. The end result is always the same: pain, unbearable and unimaginable for both the human and the daemon.

But there’s another stage: the actual deviating. Because if the pair isn’t reunited in time, if the bond connecting them wears so thin and fragile that it breaks, the daemon reverts to animal instincts.

No talking. No emotions. Not even a hint of who they used to be.

Just pure, wild instinct.

Going feral is the harsher term, but probably the more accurate one.

The longest a pair has ever lasted apart from each other is two months. And after deviation, after the daemon has gone feral, well…

No one has ever survived that kind of pain.

It had never been something he worried about before; why would he and Suibian ever be in that kind of a position? But the thought had made him pause, sitting there on the floor, scraps of paper and wrinkled journals surrounding him like a talisman array.

Pause, but not stop; he and Suibian had gone ahead with it anyways.

Now, he runs his fingers through Suibian’s fur. It’s raised slightly under his fingers, rougher than it used to be when she wasn’t spending so much time hidden out of the sun. She shivers under his touch, pushing into it with more desperation than either of them care to think about.

“If what we were experimenting with weakens you that much,” he says, trying to breathe around the weight of each word, “then it’s not worth it.”

“But—”

“We can’t risk it, A-Sui. Not when it comes to you.”

Because even with all their research, with the frantic hours he and Wen Qing spent planning and theorizing and hoping against hope, they hadn’t thought it would be like this: Suibian still has a core of her own.

Or, something like a core. There’s no way to know what exactly is sustaining her; all they know is that she hasn’t turned to dust, hasn’t gone feral, and is somehow, against all odds, managing to cling onto that things that make her, well, her.  

They hadn’t expected it, but after what Lan Xichen told them about Lan Yi and her daemon, maybe they should have. After all, if a daemon somehow managed to use their energy to protect an entire cave after they died, just because their human’s spirit was still lingering there, then who’s to say Suibian couldn’t somehow slow her own deviation down?

Daemons, it turns out, are full of surprises.

She’s clearly not getting her stability from him— it’s more like she’s self-sustaining, somehow, or maybe connected to something they don’t understand yet.

(He wonders, on the nights that Suibian is restless, where her little feet want to take her. Who is trying to call her away; or, when his thoughts edge dark and bloody, what is.

If maybe, he didn’t manage to tame the Burial Mounds quite as well as he thought he did.)

They have some vague theories on what it might be. His core is still around, after all, even if it’s not in him anymore. From the way Jiang Cheng and Sandu are acting, they haven’t noticed anything different about their link; maybe Wei Wuxian had a high enough cultivation that it’s sustaining all of them, including Suibian.

Not like there’s any way to find out.

(“Well what exactly do you want me to do?” he’d snapped the first week they came back, trying to coax Suibian out of his robes so she could eat. “Go up to Sandu and ask, ‘Hey, by the way, feel anything different about your link? Like you’re, oh, I don’t know, sharing it with your sister now somehow?’ Come on, A-Sui.”

She’d stared up at him between the folds of black and red, little trembles against his skin, ones that had followed her out of the Burial Mounds and never stopped, no matter how hard he tried to soothe them.

“I’m sorry,” she’d whispered back, voice quaking. The noise had crawled down into his throat and lodged itself there, made it hard to breathe.

Guilt, guilt, guilt.

“No, no, A-Sui, shh, don’t be sorry, that was me, I shouldn’t have said that. We’ll figure it out, ok? Please don’t cry, I’m right here…”)

In the end, it doesn’t matter much, the whys or the hows. She can still talk, still think, still curl up against him on the good days. She can go wherever she wants now, as far away from him as the winds take her, and feel no ill effects.

What does matter is that while his core is gone, safe inside his brother’s now-breathing body, she still seems to have one.

The issue is that without his own core, with a link no longer vibrating between them, Wei Wuxian can’t reach out to it.

He can’t do anything at all.

It’s like losing a tooth, he thinks, running your tongue over where it used to be only to find the aching, hollowed-out socket in its place. Bloody, impossible to ignore. A constant reminder of the thing that used to be there, that you took for granted.

One that you’ll never be able to put back.

“Let’s try,” Suibian had said, voice nearly drowned out by the whistling winds, Wei Wuxian’s lungs burning from exertion. The flute had not left his lips for twelve hours, but he had gathered the strength to turn his head and look at her, fur so matted with dust and soil that she was just a smear of brown and grey curled against his leg.

And they had.

Tried everything, it felt like, anything that would give them a chance. Blood. Bones. New talismans that took advantage of every scrap around them, that had them digging through graves and bringing rotten-flesh nightmares to the precious moments of sleep that so rarely came.

It wasn’t the worst thing they’d done, those few months. Not the hardest, either.

Certainly the least effective. None of it had worked; no matter how hard he tried, he hadn’t been able to do anything without his core.

When they got back from the Burial Mounds, though –when they’d had more time and less voices whispering in their heads—they’d figured out that with enough focus and the right talismans, she could reach out to him.

“Oh,” she’d breathed one day, a restless one, where she’d run and run and he’d had to endure the long wait, playing Chenqing with a new edge of desperation, wondering if this would be the time he lost her, forever, if she’d just not come back and—

A shiver down his spine, like something brushing against the bones there.

“What was that?”

“You felt that?” she’d asked, her warm weight pressed against his shoulder (she’d come back, she’d come back) and he’d nodded, set down the flute. “A-Xian, I think—let me try again, but focus this time, alright?”

That had worked. Even now, if he opens his qi, he can sense it: the strange brush of her as she reaches out to him. It feels like a transfer of spiritual energy, faint and otherworldly, like Lan Wangji’s touch in Xuanwu Cave. Foreign to his body, but not unpleasant.

Like… extending a branch, for him to hold onto.

It doesn’t feel the same, not even close, but there’s the ghost of a feeling. Until now, Wei Wuxian had thought it was worth it, that the benefit of feeling even a fraction of what they had before outweighed the drain on them to maintain it.

But there’s no avoiding the harsh truth.

If they hadn’t been experimenting with sharing her energy to try and re-create some type of link for Wei Wuxian to grab onto, Suibian would have been able to take that paw just fine.

Whatever is sustaining her isn’t limitless. She isn’t limitless.

“I don’t want to stop,” Suibian tells him, pressing so close against that it’s almost painful. “If it means I can’t play with A-San anymore, then maybe—maybe I just don’t play.”

The thought has Wei Wuxian’s stomach dropping. Jiang Cheng, even when monumentally pissed off, is still one of the most important people in his life. He knows what Sandu means to Suibian.

No. A-Sui, we aren’t going to do that.”

Suibian whines high in her throat. “I don’t— When I can’t feel you, it feels all wrong.”

The Burial Mounds flashes through his eyes, unbidden and unwanted. She’d said something similar, back then, as they’d crouched over the graves and debated, hunger clawing up in their throats.

It feels all wrong.  

For a moment, he doesn’t know what to say in response. The gentle lap of water against wood drifts toward them, the sounds of home that are so close but feel impossibly far away, and he closes his eyes, tries not to see just dirt and bone.

“We’ll figure it out,” he murmurs, rubbing at her ears. Then just in case, because she can’t just feel it anymore, can’t just know it in her heart, he adds, “I know that it feels bad. I don’t like it either. But if it makes you more likely to get hurt, then we aren’t doing it.”

It was the one thing he had told Wen Qing before she put the knife to his skin, an unconscious Suibian to his left and a knocked-out Jiang Cheng and Sandu to his right.

Hurt me as much as you need to—I don’t care how much pain I’m in. But don’t let A-Sui feel a thing. Promise me, Wen Qing.

“We’ll figure it out,” he repeats, and doesn’t protest when she climbs into his robes and refuses to leave for the rest of the night.


Figuring it out isn’t as easy as it sounds.

 

 

“Some soup, Xianxian?”

“No thanks, Shijie, I’m not hungry.”

“Are you sure? You’re so thin still—”

“Ah, ah, don’t be like that! You’ll insult my masculine nature, how could Shijie be so cruel to her Xianxian?”

“You’re sure?”

“…Yeah. Don’t worry about it, alright?”

 

 

“This song is called cleansing,” Bichen tells him, even as her eyes search the room for a fox that isn’t there. Next to her, Lan Wangji is watching him, mouth curved down at the corners.

“Great,” he says, so exhausted that his voice is something distant, something outside himself. He isn’t sure what day it is, how long it’s been since they last visited Lotus Pier to play. Weeks, maybe?

Why does it have to be a visit for this? Why can’t it be for—for—

“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji’s voice reaches him through the haze; and Wei Wuxian looks, because of course he does.

How couldn’t he, when it’s Lan Zhan?

Lan Wangji’s eyes are golden in the light filtering in through the windows, impossibly beautiful, endlessly out of reach. His hands twitch on the strings of the guqin, but his attention never wavers from Wei Wuxian’s face.

“It is most effective if both the human and daemon are present.”

Rage bubbles up in him, unwanted, a tide out of sync with the rest of him. As if he doesn’t know it’s better that way, as if he hadn’t spent hours trying to find her, as if he isn’t worried that she’s all alone out there. As if she doesn’t want to see them just as badly.

I can’t see her, I can’t, A-Xian, I’ll just want to tell her everything. Please, please, let me go, I need to, I need to run, please—

“If you don’t like it, leave,” he spits, and tries to ignore the hurt that flashes across Bichen’s face.

Lan Wangji starts to play.

 

 

“You know you can tell me anything, right?”

Xiaolian’s voice is soft and careful, something tender amid the dimness of the room. He steps towards them; it’s so quiet that the brush of his tail against the floor makes Suibian flinch from where she’s curled up in Wei Wuxian’s arms, interrupting the apologetic sweeps of her tongue against his skin.

Her answering swallow is just as loud.

“Of course, A-Lian,” she says, pinprick pain as her claws curl into his wrists. “Of course.”

 

 

“My brother,” Lan Xichen says, holding a cup of tea delicately between his palms, “does not have many friends, Wei-gongzi.”

Wei Wuxian’s stomach churns. The floral smell of jasmine drifts towards him, nauseating; Suibian appears unaffected, busy trying to avoid Shuoyue’s equally neutral expression.

“With all due respect, Zewu-Jun,” he replies, Chenqing comforting and cool in his palm, “I’m not sure why you’re telling me this.”

Lan Xichen has never looked at him like this: disappointed and disgusted all at once, with a poor attempt at hiding both. He feels, abruptly, all of six years old, passersby wrinkling their noses at the dirty child and fox begging for food on the street.

When Lan Xichen rises to his feet, Wei Wuxian doesn’t stop him.

 

 

“What happens if they find out?!”

“Suibian, it’s ok, they won’t find out—”

“They will, they will, and then they’ll take me from you, they’ll be mad that you—that you invented this stuff, and then they’ll ask how, and, and—”

“Shh, A-Sui, sweetheart, shh, you don’t need to worry about that, ok? Here, just come out from the under the bed, I have some sweets for you, isn’t that nice? I won’t grab, I promise, just—”

 

 

Wei-xiong,

Long time no see! Your archery certainly was impressive at Phoenix Mountain, da-ge hasn’t been able to keep quiet about it! I’ve been asked to do so many sword drills that I’ve contemplated running into the woods and becoming a rogue cultivator, just so my arm doesn’t fall off…

Maybe you could help me! Lotus Pier is a nice place to vacation, isn’t it? Maybe da-ge won’t be so mad if he thinks I’m just visiting an old friend. Can’t I come and stay? Please?

Let me know! Qiaolian and found a book that you and Suibian might like, if you need a gift to convince you! For some reason we were never able to track you down at the hunting grounds…

At the very least, we’ll see you at the Flower Banquet at Lanling, right?

Leave some fame for the rest of us in the meantime,

Nie Huaisang

The candle flickers, casting their shadows onto the wall. Wei Wuxian watches as flames work their way across the paper, Suibian quiet and subdued at his side, and brushes the ash off his hands afterwards.

 

 

“Wei Ying—”

“I said enough, Lan Zhan!”

The table rattles as he stands, anger burning hot behind his eyelids. It takes no time for Lan Wangji to stand as well, although he does it smoothly, of course, because he's Lan Wangji, one of the Twin Jades, a model Lan, and Wei Wuxian doesn't know how long he can keep this secret from him. 

He wants to run, or throw something, find anything that will make the restless jittering in his body stop, just for a single moment. He's confined and untethered all at once, and Lan Zhan is just standing there, holed up in his bedroom like some unfortunate stowaway.

When he swallows, he tastes blood. 

"Get out."

"Wei Ying—"

"No! Just go! I can't do your stupid meditation, just get out of here!" 

“Stop,” Bichen hisses, as Lan Wangji opens his mouth, frustration making the corner of his eyes tight. Her own tail has gone slightly puffed. “Why are you saying these things? You told us you would let us help.”

“I don’t want—I don’t need your help, alright? You’re just wasting your time coming here all the time and playing, you should be back at Gusu doing—I don’t know what, saving babies or innocent people or whatever! But not here, ok?”

“We have no issue waiting for Suibian—”

“She doesn’t want to see you! No matter how often you visit, that’s not going to change, and I'm never going to go back there with you either! I don’t understand why you won’t listen!

Gold and blue eyes. It’s always gold and blue eyes, looking at him, seeing him.

“Wei Ying,” and Lan Wangji’s voice is so much softer now. He’s looking, and Wei Wuxian hates him for it, sometimes, hates himself for ruining the best friendship he thinks he’s ever had. Knows that he can’t be selfish and try to keep him, regardless. “Wei Ying, we do not need to play. Or talk. Or go to Gusu. Do not walk out.”

“I," he starts, and it's like all the anger has blown out of him, leaving him hollow and wind-worn. "Lan Zhan, stop wasting your time.”

“No.”

A laugh bubbles out of him without his consent, some twisted, dark thing that tastes like ash. “You don’t get to do this, ok? It’s not worth it. Gusu Lan should tend to their own affairs, and the Jiang will do the same.”

This time, Bichen and Lan Wangji speak in unison.

“No.”

He looks at them, helpless and frustrated and angry, not knowing how to get them to give up. He’s tried, from the moment they came back, and it’s done nothing, nothing, they just keep pushing their way through the cracks and—

I didn’t mean to make her feel bad. We’re worried about you, Bichen had told him, standing there in the moonlit courtyard. And then, We—we still have your rabbits.

His throat clogs up.

“I can’t,” he whispers, and he doesn’t know which wish he’s trying to bury this time.

 

 

“Why can’t you just talk to me!” Jiang Cheng screams, Shijie and Xiaolian wide-eyed and pale at the other side of the table.

Wei Wuxian breathes through his nose. In, out. In, out. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

Bullshit, look at her, something’s wrong!

His raised voice pounds through his head, bruises on the inside of his skull. Suibian is digging her claws into the rug; when Sandu shifts to stand, she bolts from the room, knocking over the vase of white lilies as she goes.

It crashes to the floor and shatters, water soaking into the fine fabric.

“See? This is exactly what—”

Wei Wuxian downs the rest of his drink, ignores the cry of disbelief, and follows her.


“Wei Ying.”

It’s the one voice he doesn’t want to hear right now. He cringes internally, torn between the yearning skip of his heart and the rapid sinking of his stomach.

“Ah. Lan Zhan.”

Lan Wangji watches him from across the Jin Sect gardens. Behind him the sun is setting, tinting the landscape with red and orange like a brightly colored sherbet. Standing there, his shadow casting a long line onto the intricate pavestones, Wei Wuxian wonders how he manages to look so majestic with so little effort.

It’s been so long since he’s last seen him alone, absent of the harsh stare of Lan Qiren to his right and Lan Xichen’s searching eyes on his left. Phoenix Mountain feels like a lifetime ago. The flower he tossed to Lan Wangji to make his ears turn a pretty pink is no doubt shriveled and rotting with age by now.

Maybe he should have followed up on that, found out if Lan Wangji kept it or not. 

But his heart just hasn’t been in it to try, lately.

He stays seated as Lan Wangji walks over, absent-mindedly running his fingers over some of the stones he’s been tossing into the Jin’s frankly overly elaborate and wasteful pond system. It’s no doubt the prized work of someone’s great-great-something-or-other, but that just makes it all the more satisfying. Fuck the Jins.

There’s a long pause when Lan Wangji reaches him. Wei Wuxian is too exhausted from today to try and fill it; he focuses on the shore instead, at the finches pecking away at the nearby flowerbed.

“May I sit?”

“Sure,” he replies, and tosses another rock. It skips across the surface a few times before hitting the edge and sinking.

He’s expecting Lan Wangji to ask questions, or demand to play music like he has every time he’s managed to get Wei Wuxian alone since the war ended; but all Lan Wangji does is carefully place his sword on the ground and settle down next to him.

They’re not close, at no risk of touching even at all, but something in Wei Wuxian tightens all the same.

What if they can tell? Suibian’s voice replays in his head, one of those blade-sharp memories at the edge of the Burial Mounds and all the weeks after. He draws in a breath and puts just a little more space between himself and Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji’s eyes flick to him, then back to the water. 

“Are you well?” he asks, and Wei Wuxian isn’t sure if he means in general or about today specifically. Even if he wanted to answer the question, which he’s frankly tired of doing anyways, he wouldn’t know what to say.  

Lan Wangji is waiting for him to speak, but Wei Wuxian just goes back to throwing pebbles. If the way Lan Wangji’s eyebrows draw together is any indication, maybe that was answer enough for him anyways.

For a while, they just sit next to each other. The sound of the water isn’t anything like Lotus Pier: there’s no gentle back-and-forth, no touch of tides against wood. The flowers are different too: carefully contained blooms of gold and white, no wayward stalks spilling playfully onto the pathways and setting them ablaze with life.

But still. It’s not the worst.

It’s actually… kind of nice. To just sit, and not be lectured at. The longer they go without talking, the more Wei Wuxian muscles unclench, the line of his spine uncoiling into something smoother.

Then Lan Wangji says, “Is Suibian here?” and all the niceness evaporates.

“Why do you always ask?” he shoots back, and his voice comes out sharper than he intended. “Does she need to be here?”

Next to him, Lan Wangji has quickly fallen quiet again.

It’s not his normal quiet.

Reflecting back on what he just said, Wei Wuxian can’t even blame him. He sighs, rubs a hand over his face. Re-centers himself the best he can.

“Ah, don’t be mad, Lan Zhan, I didn’t mean to snap.” Before Lan Wangji can respond he adds, tone as light as he can make it, “A-Sui isn’t here right now. She’s out exploring. Fun, right? This whole place is filled with little hidey-holes! Perfect for a fox.”

“Mn.”

Lan Wangji is looking at him, a slight furrow between his brows, hands tucked neatly into his lap. It’s only then that Wei Wuxian realizes someone else is missing.

“Wait, where’s Bichen?”

Lan Wangji inclines his head to the path behind him. “Looking for Suibian.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, exasperated and slipping into a whine without even meaning to, “are you serious? If you already knew she wasn’t here, then why’d you make me explain?”

“Lan Bichen cannot find her.”

“Oh!” Wei Wuxian leans back on his elbows just to add some chaos to all the order that Lan Wangji is bringing to the scene. “Well, there’s nothing you can do about that. If she doesn’t want to be found, she’s not going to be.”

He knows that better than anyone, now. If Bichen wants to find Suibian, then asking Wei Wuxian for help is pointless. He has absolutely no idea where she is; without their link, the most he could give is an educated guess.

They’ve been practicing not having to guess, though. Wei Wuxian thinks they’re already much better at getting her to come to him when she gets scared, instead of bolting away.

But they slip up, sometimes.

“I have been practicing a new score,” Lan Wangji says abruptly, bringing Wei Wuxian away from thoughts he doesn’t want to think about to more thoughts he still doesn’t want to think about. There is a determination burning in his eyes, one that can’t be brushed away.

“Lan Zhan…”

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian sighs in defeat, turning fully to face him. Up close, he notices for the first time that Lan Wangji has shadows under his eyes. And his skin! He’s pale, so pale, like maybe he’s a little sick.

“Lan Zhan! What’s wrong? You look terrible!”

Lan Wangji blinks at him, which Wei Wuxian is learning is the equivalent of a full-on gape. Was that rude of him? It’s just the truth. Maybe Lan Wangji is just surprised; he’s probably never had anyone call him terrible or less-than-perfect in his entire life, especially not about his looks, but there’s a first time for everything.

“No, seriously,” Wei Wuxian continues, as concern flares in him. This can’t be because of him, can it? Lan Xichen had mentioned during his visit to Lotus Pier that Lan Wangji was working hard, but this hard? It’s only been a few weeks since they’ve seen each other, and Wei Wuxian had been distracted at that last one, but—this has to be new.

He wouldn’t have missed them looking unwell, would he?

Dismayed, he reaches out without thinking to trace one of the shadows. They look so out of place on his face, a sign of pain that doesn’t belong.

It’s only when Lan Wangji completely freezes under the contact that Wei Wuxian even realizes what he’s doing.

“Oh shit!” he says, unthinking, and jerks his hand back.

Lan Wangji stares at him, eyes huge.

“Ah, fuck, Lan Zhan, sorry,” he scrambles to add, once his mouth catches up to the sudden buzzing of his brain. Some primal part of him is screaming run, run, run, like Bichen is going to leap out of the bushes and hunt him. How could he forget how much Lan Wangji hates people getting into his space? “Sorry, sorry! I just—you normally look so good, you know, and I was just taken aback. Aiyo, all the stuffy Jin air here must be getting to my head!”

He forces out a laugh, shoving his hands into his lap so they’ll behave. Lan Wangji is still staring; some of the color has returned to his face, and his ears are red. Maybe his paleness was just a trick of the lighting?

He doesn’t reply.

“Anyways,” Wei Wuxian says, trying to power through and divert their discussion to something less embarrassing, “um, I don’t—you don’t need to play for me, Lan Zhan. I feel all healed up and rested! I’m in tip-top shape.”

Lan Wangji’s fingers twitch. He opens his mouth.

“You do not smell well.”

The new voice makes Wei Wuxian jump. He turns, protest already on his lips, as Bichen appears from behind them.

“Ah, Bichen, don’t just pop up out of the blue like that! Give a man a warning!”

Bichen just blinks at him before settling down next to Lan Wangji. His eyes are drawn to a small smear of dirt on her left foreleg that contrasts with the rest of her silky-smooth fur; when he looks back up at her face, she does not seem particularly apologetic. Just—strangely tired-looking, like Lan Wangji.

“I was not trying to be stealthy.”

“Aiyo, shots at my hearing now too?” Wei Wuxian mutters, and can’t help but think back to the Bichen who didn’t speak to them for the first two months they were in the Cloud Recesses. “Who knew you’d be so mean once you got comfortable enough to start talking!”

He means it as a joke, but it comes out harsher than he wanted. Bichen’s ears press back against her head; Lan Wangji shoots him A Look.

Wei Wuxian pivots quickly.

“Ah, ok, ok, I take it back! Don’t look at me like that, I was joking, you are truly the paragon of kindness and snow leopards! What’s with the dirt?”

Bichen looks to Lan Wangji, who nods, before putting her head on her paws with a quiet huff. “I thought I had caught scent of Suibian. But the path was too narrow for me to follow.”

“Ah.” Wei Wuxian clears his throat and looks away from her. “I see. Well, she’ll come out to play eventually, I’m sure.”

It’s a flat-out lie, but not the worst one he’s told. It’s been ages since Suibian played with anyone outside of Sandu or Xiaolian, and even that has tapered off. She was too scared, then too tired, and now… now, Sandu treats her like she’s made of glass.

It’s not playing, anymore.

But she doesn’t complain. She never does; not with things that neither of them can change.

(What if they can tell?)

“What do I even smell like?” he wonders aloud, Suibian’s question whirling in his head again. He didn’t think that daemons would be able to smell something was off. Sandu never gave any indication that his scent was a problem, but if she somehow knows, then how on earth will they—

“Tired,” Lan Wangji says, thankfully before Wei Wuxian enters into a full-blown state of panic. Wei Wuxian turns to him, frowning. “Stressed.”

“We’re all tired and stressed, Lan Zhan. We just finished a war!”

Bichen shakes her head. “No. It’s hard to notice, but it’s different. It’s just… more, with you. Like…”

She trails off, eyes going wide. Lan Wangji has gone completely still, both of them staring at something over Wei Wuxian’s shoulder.

He twists around to follow their gazes, and sees two little pricks of light watching him from one of the nearby flower bushes.

His heart leaps into his throat.

Suibian.

She hasn’t shown her face to them since they came back. But here she is, and—

“Don’t move,” he breathes. Lan Wangji and Bichen already look frozen to the spot; still, he’s not going to risk not saying it and having one of them scare her off all over again. This is probably his only chance of the night to get Suibian back before sunrise, and he is not going to fuck it up.

Carefully, slowly, so that Suibian knows he’s moving towards her but isn’t going to grab, he scoots his way over to the bush.

“Hey there,” he murmurs. She doesn’t bolt at his voice, which is the first good sign; just as slowly as he came over, he lies down on his side so they’re eye-to-eye.

She blinks back at him between the green-tipped leaves, eyes flicking over to Lan Wangji and Bichen.

“A-Xian?”

Her voice is slightly hoarse, hesitant but not trembling. His chest aches, every part of him wanting to reach out and pull her against him, where she’ll be cared for, and safe, and loved. Where these horrible people and their cruelty won’t reach her.  

Instead, he says, “It’s alright, don’t worry. We’re just talking.”

“Yeah?” she asks, the bushes rustling as her tail twitches, and he nods.

“I promise. We can leave, though, if you want.”

She whines low in her throat. “I…”

“Easy, easy, take your time. It’s ok.”

Slowly, her muzzle appears, then her head. There’s a low, cut-off mew from behind them that makes her freeze, eyes going to where Bichen must be watching. Wei Wuxian holds his breath, terrified.

Then: the cold press of a nose against his hand.

Wei Wuxian holds his arms open, heart thundering in his chest. She slides into them with a sigh, smooth and fluid, no amount of core transfers or severed links ever able to compete with over a decade of this exact motion.

He sits in the feeling of it, her warm body against his chilled one, and wishes it would never end.

“I miss them,” Suibian whispers into his ear, too quiet to be overheard. “Can we stay?”

There’s an ache in his heart at the words. He nods against her head, kisses her on her nose; when every muscle in her body relaxes, it feels like he just won the biggest prize at a Yunmeng street fair.

“Of course.”

When he hikes her up against his chest and scoots back over to them, Lan Wangji and Bichen have not moved an inch. They’re still as statues, and it’s only after settling back down next to them that he realizes they’re even blinking slowly.

Something tender settles in his stomach at the sight and he chuckles, making them twitch.

He doesn’t know what it means, that Suibian has decided to show her face to them tonight. If it’s because she feels safe or scared, happy or sad. Or if it’s as simple as what she said: the constant, ever-present pain of missing them, no matter how close or far away they are.

But tonight feels—different. Quieter. 

And Lan Wangji and Bichen are looking at her like she’s the first spring bloom after a long, unforgiving winter.

“Hello,” Suibian says quietly, an olive branch even as she refuses to fully meet their eyes, and Bichen’ ears flick as she breathes out.

“Hello, Suibian.”

Her voice is the softest Wei Wuxian has ever heard it. He watches as her tail curls in the dirt behind her as she says Suibian’s name, gaze not leaving her face.

“Did you have a nice dinner?”

“We did. I wanted to save something for you, but Lan Shuoyue thought that the Jin daemons would notice.”

“Oh.” Suibian wriggles a little in his arms, openly torn between happy and embarrassed. Her claws dig into his robes when she raises herself up more, making actual eye contact with Bichen. “Um—it’s ok. A-Xian has food in his pocket, I can smell it. Hey, you have dirt on your leg?”

There’s a long pause.

“Yes.”

All of them stare at each other.

“Alright, alright,” Wei Wuxian says loudly, because the air feels strange and he can’t get hives on top of everything else. “Settle down, you party animals. If we keep talking about such indecent things, your Shufu is going to chase us down!”

It gets Suibian to giggle, which is a success; and Lan Wangji’s face softens incrementally, which is another. Bichen, so slow that a sloth would be envious, positions herself closer to Suibian by moving her head near Lan Wangji’s knee.

Suibian doesn’t jerk away.

“Let me play for you,” Lan Wangji says, and this time Wei Wuxian smiles weakly at him even as his heart clenches.

Don’t bother, he wants to tell him. Let’s just be here, instead.

He doesn’t say that. He doesn’t say anything at all as Lan Wangji pulls out his guqin and turns to face him.

The first notes of Cleansing ring in the air; even in the opening, Lan Wangji plays with such a single-minded focus. Each movement of his fingers over the string feels like a declaration—of what, Wei Wuxian doesn’t know.

Still, the effects are immediate. Bichen lets out a low rumble that morphs into a barely audible purr. With a matching sigh, Suibian settles onto his lap and closes her eyes.

Wei Wuxian tries, he really does, to do the same. To settle into the music even though he knows it’s pointless.

But his mind is somewhere else entirely.

He knows that the voices have started to shift. The novelty of him coming back has faded now that the Sunshot Campaign is over; his already unstable position is being tilted off balance with every move he makes. It’s like this constant pressure, all the time, and part of him longs to go back to the days when things were simple, when his biggest worry was how to sneak alcohol into the Cloud Recesses without getting caught.

But he can’t.

Things aren’t simple anymore. And he’s so angry. Angry about the Wens being shot down at Phoenix Mountain. Angry that he doesn’t know what to do about it.

And wondering: how can others not feel the same way?

“Lan Zhan,” he murmurs, soft, and Lan Wangji’s hands pause on the strings of his guqin. Wei Wuxian looks away from him, out towards the pond. In his lap, Suibian has started to doze; the music doesn’t work on him, but now he knows it does on her.

“Wei Ying?”

Wei Wuxian’s heart aches at the way he says it.

Tell me it bothers you. Tell me that you can’t get it out of your head, either. Tell me that you can see something is going on, something wrong, something terrible.

“Ah,” he says, and laughs a little, a broken thing. It’s not a happy laugh but it’s better than the alternative. “Never mind. I was just thinking that one day, there’s going to be a path that you just can’t follow me on, too.”

Lan Wangji stares at him.

He’s so beautiful, a detached part of Wei Wuxian thinks. In any lighting, really, but especially now. His hair is ink against the setting sun, his eyes a liquid gold that not even the Jins could hope to match. The curve of his mouth is like a lotus flower in bloom.

Something about it, the way they’re sitting and the air between them, feels final. Wei Wuxian commits all it to memory, just in case. He doesn’t want to rush past it unseeing.

“Keep playing,” he adds, when Lan Wangji’s fingers don’t drift back to the strings. “A-Sui really likes it, you know?”

Lan Wangji swallows. There is a look on his face that Wei Wuxian has seen a few times before but that he’s never been able to understand: a melting of the ice, even as his brows furrow, as his shoulders tighten.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t get it.

He wants to. He really, really wants to.

After twenty beats of Suibian’s heart under his fingers, Lan Wangji lets out a low, controlled breath. His fingers return to the guqin, and the melody resumes.

“Thanks,” Wei Wuxian whispers, so quiet, and wonders if he’ll get the chance to say it again. 

Chapter Text


“Doesn't it scare you, having your death close by all the time?" said Lyra.
"Why ever would it? If he's there, you can keep an eye on him. I'd be a lot more nervous not knowing where he was.”
― Philip Pullman, The Subtle Knife


Wen Qing is exhausted.

Her brother’s body is a cold weight in front of her, tucked against her as his head lolls onto his chest. Curled in her pocket, wrapped in a layer of dirty bandages, is Suyin’s tiny form, completely unmoving Water slides down her back, sticks her hair to her skin and turns the bloody ground beneath them into mud. It is the kind of rainstorm that’s vicious and unforgiving in its torrent, that floods rivers and seeps into the bones.

There’s a sick, poetic feeling to it all. Here lies her heart, ravaged and ravaging. The outside world mirrors it perfectly.

“Wei Ying!”

The voice barely reaches them over the screaming wind, but Wei Wuxian freezes like a bolt of thunder just struck the ground under their feet.

Lan Wangji and Bichen move in front of their path.

Wen Qing hasn’t seen them since the Sect disciples were being held at Qishan Wen all those years ago; hasn’t seen anyone, really. Lan Wangji has gotten taller, somehow; his face is narrower, the baby fat from their teenage years gone.

And there’s something in his daemon’s eyes that is new—something apart from rigidness and anger.

She doesn’t care. If they gets in her way, she’ll treat them with the same kindness that their sect has treated her.

They won’t find it particularly pleasant.

“Lan Zhan?!”

Wei Wuxian sounds flabbergasted, the surprise coming through despite the exhaustion hanging on each syllable. In a moment of true madness, he halts their horses; Wen Qing turns to him, blood pumping in her ears, the dead bodies of her family still burned into her eyelids, and snaps, “Are you insane?!”

Wei Wuxian turns to her and lays a hand on her arm, keeping his gaze on Lan Wangji. In his robes, Suibian sticks out her head and whines low in her throat.

“Stay here,” he tells her, “I’ll talk to him.”

“We have to go—”

“I know, I promise, just let me get him to move.”

She watches, half-numb and half-feeling too much, as he nudges his horse forward. She wants to scream, wants to send them all flying forward and away from this place that has taken everything from her, wants to run.

She doesn’t. Where would she go?

Instead, she pulls Wen Ning’s dead weight closer to her.

“It’s going to be alright,” she tells him nonsensically, and smooths back the tangled mess of bloody hair sticking to his face. As a doctor, she’s seen plenty of blood in her life—but nothing has ever been so disturbing as the way his mixes with the water and runs down his neck in a line of washed-out red.

On her shoulder, tucked under her matted curtain of hair to try and block out some of the rain, Zhiruo shudders.

Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are speaking, their conversation drowned out by the pounding of rain against the ground. There’s lots of gesturing going on, at least from Wei Wuxian; Lan Wangji is still, silent.

Listening.

His eyes are focused on Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian only. Wen Qing would be insulted, but there’s no worse insult that could be given to her than the body in her arms.

It’s what she expects anyways; he’s never looked at anyone for more than two seconds when he could be looking at Wei Wuxian instead.

“A-Qing,” Zhiruo whispers. Wen Qing raises a shaking hand and runs it across her beak, leaving iron red in its wake.

“Thirty seconds,” she says, because she doesn’t give a shit about Wei Wuxian’s crush, but she has to trust him too, has to believe he has a plan.

He can get that long, but not a second more.

To her relief, Wei Wuxian seems to have finished speaking. He’s waiting, Wen Qing hopes, for Lan Wangji to step aside. Neither have gone for their weapons, but Wen Qing watches carefully anyways.

So when Bichen steps forward, venturing from her place at Lan Wangji’s side, her heart stops.

Please don’t attack him, she thinks dizzily, watching the snow leopard cross the carefully controlled gap separating Wei Wuxian from Lan Wangji. The Wen Sect has never had predators in their bloodlines, outside of Wen Ruohan; even without the pain and exhaustion from weeks of mistreatment, none of their daemons are strong enough to fight something of her size and strength.

Bichen stops right at the halfway point. Her tail is going wild, swinging back and forth, ears pressed back so far that it almost looks like she doesn’t have them. Her fur is soaked through, clinging to her body, but she doesn’t seem to care.

When she speaks, it’s so loud that even Wen Qing can hear the words.

“We’ll come with you!”

Wei Wuxian jolts on his horse and nearly falls off. Lan Wangji’s eyes go wide, his fists clenching at his side; but he does not scold her.

“Please,” Bichen continues, blue eyes burning, “please, let us come with you.”

There’s a terrible moment of nothing, where the only sound is the rain falling and the wind howling out a scream that Wen Qing cannot let loose.

Then a small red and white shape drops onto the ground.

There’s no fear in Suibian as she trudges through the mud towards Bichen. She’s so small, comparatively, so small that Bichen could rip her in half—but it’s without hesitation that, upon arriving, she places a single muddy paw on Bichen’s nose.

Her mouth moves.

Bichen yowls so loud that Wen Qing winces. It is a dreadful noise in an already dreadful place, something mournful and tortured and heartbroken. Goosebumps crawl up her arms and Zhiruo makes a reassuring, soft chirp in her ear, even as she trembles, too.

In front of them, Wei Wuxian dismounts his horse.

His pace is quicker than Suibian’s as he makes his way over to Lan Wangji, who has not moved from his position since the moment he called Wei Wuxian’s name. Just like Suibian, his pace does not falter as he gets closer, nor as he crosses into his space, nor as he reaches out—

And, without slowing down, Wei Wuxian throws his arms around Lan Wangji and hugs him.

Oh, Wen Qing realizes, watching Lan Wangji stumble back from the force of it. Wei Wuxian’s arms tighten around the white-clad shoulders; Lan Wangji’s hand makes an aborted movement to steady them, freezing halfway to Wei Wuxian’s waist before it can make contact.

Oh.

They stand there, rain soaking through their clothes, Wei Wuxian’s face buried in Lan Wangji’s shoulder. He holds onto Lan Wangji like the world will fall apart if he doesn’t. 

She had known, of course. Anyone with eyes had known.

She just hadn’t thought it would ever come to something like this.   

Wei Wuxian pulls back from Lan Wangji with a smile on his face that is not happy at all. His mouth moves, a familiar shape: Ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.

She can’t read the rest of whatever he says as he tries to brush off the large smear of red and brown that he’s gotten all over Lan Wangji’s robes. It’s useless anyways; all he does is spread it farther, a dark mix of blood and mud, now permanently stained into the fine white fabric.

Lan Wangji stares at him, unblinking. He does not flinch away.

Slowly, Wei Wuxian’s hands fall from the fabric. He turns back to look at them, and when their eyes meet, she sees his rough exhale, the press of determination in his mouth.

He nods to her and turns back to Lan Wangji.

“Goodbye,” he tells him, loud enough to carry. Bichen yowls again, yowls louder when Wei Wuxian turns and starts slipping through the mud back to them. She halts just long enough for Suibian to lick her muzzle, just once, a shocked cut-off of sound—before picking up again, worse, deeper, as the fox scrambles away to join Wei Wuxian.

Lan Wangji watches them go, his hand still hovering in the air.

When he’s back on his horse and returned to their sides, Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath.

“Let’s go,” he tells them, gaze trained on the road ahead. His eyes are red-rimmed and shadowed; Wen Qing thinks she can hear the smallest hint of whimpers from his robes.

“Where are we going?” asks Granny, holding a dozing A-Yuan in her arms. He is thin, sick, terrifyingly mortal, and she is not going to let him die.

“I have a place. It won’t be easy, but I promise you: I’ll make it safe, for all of us.”

Up the path, Lan Wangji has stepped aside, umbrella long forgotten from where it fell during Wei Wuxian’s embrace. Bichen is back at his side and deathly silent now, mud coating her fur, for once looking less than the pinnacle of perfection.

They look, Wen Qing thinks, like spectators at a funeral.

There’s no time for her to dwell on the thought and what it might mean for their chances. The path is clear. There’s no turning back now.

As they tear away, galloping through the unsteady terrain and sending muck and mud flying through the air, Wei Wuxian keeps his gaze forward. His jaw is clenched, twin trails of water down his face that could be the rain or tears, she isn’t sure. But he is steady. Determined. He leaves Lan Wangji and Bichen without another glance.

So Wen Qing glances back, just once, at the lone pair standing in the storm. 

We haven’t seen the last of you, she thinks, Lan Wangji’s and Bichen specks of white in the distance. Not even close.


She is, as with most things, right.

It just takes time.

For a while, they’re so busy just making the Burial Mounds livable and getting Wen Ning to come back that she doesn’t even think about Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian. During that terrible space of time –where all she can see is A-Ning’s cold and unmoving body on the table, where the sound of Wei Wuxian’s frantic experiments and desperate guesses become commonplace—there’s no room in her heart for anything else.

And then…

“He’s lovesick.”

Zhiruo says it with the appropriate amount of disgust, which Wen Qing appreciates. They’re fighting for their lives in a barren landscape that probably wants to eat them alive; there’s no time for lovesickness, not really.

And yet.

They watch as Wei Wuxian wanders around the gardens, looking as if someone just kicked a puppy in front of him. Perhaps not a puppy, Wen Qing corrects herself, when she recalls what Wen Ning told her about Wei Wuxian’s time in the Wen jailcell.

Still. He is lovesick; sighing, pouting, brooding in his cave for hours on end. It’s only gotten worse over the past few months they’ve been here. At this point, it’s practically a public hazard.

“But he’s too stupid to realize it,” Zhiruo adds, fluffing her feathers.

“I think it’s very endearing.” Granny, who so far has been busy trying to keep A-Yuan occupied and out of immediate trouble, joins in the conversation with her usual positive attitude. Wen Qing turns to her, eyebrows raised.

“How is that,” she points to Wei Wuxian, who now has slumped in the dirt like he’s waiting for someone to bury him like a turnip, “endearing?”

“Young love! Ah, to feel that kind of passion again…”

Wen Qing rolls her eyes, and goes back to crushing herbs.

Still, she can’t help but wonder—when will Hanguang-Jun show?

Not physically, of course. That would be terribly foolish of him, to do such a thing. Not only because it would risk his reputation, but because she's doesn't think Wei Wuxian's new wards would let them through anyways. Wei Wuxian has been experimenting with protective barriers fueled with resentful energy, ones that will reject any cultivator whose spiritual energy he hasn't taught it to recognize. Lan Wangji would have to search for hours to even find them in the first place, and then he'd have to wait at the edge of the barrier for Wei Wuxian to let him in or risk resentful backlash.

She’s expecting a letter, maybe, or some greeting passed along by others on his behalf, or for Wei Wuxian to overhear a rumor about him in town and come back with stars in his eyes.

Anything more, after all, would be too dangerous.

So one week later, when Wei Wuxian stops halfway through picking turnips and says, with the falsely casual tone that means something is most assuredly wrong, “Oh, looks like something just pinged the outer wards!” her first thought is absolutely not, Oh, it must be the illustrious and respectable Hanguang-Jun.

Instead, she brushes the dirt off her robes, stands, and thinks: if I have to help him kill someone today, then so be it.

And that’s when the visits start.

“Look who I found!” Wei Wuxian calls to her, when he and Suibian finally come back from their investigation with grins on their faces and Lan Wangji and Bichen at their sides, bright white among the washed-out landscape.

Wen Qing stares at them.

Lan Wangji and Bichen are carrying at least four different bags of various shapes and sizes, slung across their backs and practically overflowing at the edges. She sees the soft tips of chamomile, stalks of wheat, a heavy bag that looks like it’s full of rice. When they make their way towards her, she hears the clink of some type of glass coming from their qiankun bag.

“Holy shit,” Zhiruo breathes, and Wen Qing could not agree more.

“Wen-guniang,” Lan Wangji says, and bows, lower than she would have expected.

Slowly, she bows back. “Hanguang-Jun, Lan Bichen.”

It is an acknowledgement and nothing more. She still remembers who stood by when her family was being slaughtered.

Zhiruo seems to be in the same mindset. “What are you doing here?”

“A total coincidence!” Wei Wuxian gushes, before Lan Wangji can even open his mouth to reply. He’s still beaming, cheeks slightly flushed, more color on his skin than she’s seen for a month. “They were in the area and noticed our wards, and accidentally set one off! Wild, right?”

He sounds, stupidly, like he actually believes it. Wen Qing glances to Lan Wangji and sees that his ears have tinted pink.

“Right,” she says, drawing out the word, because Wei Wuxian might be absolutely clueless, but she isn’t. “What a coincidence. I didn’t know that Gusu Lan had to travel all this way to buy rice.”

Lan Wangji’s ears turn bright, burning red.

The next few minutes are—hectic. Everyone knows who Hanguang-Jun is, after all; partly from general sect rumors and mostly from Wei Wuxian’s endless pining between now and that night in the rain. Wen Qing was aware that her family could be gossipers, but watching them pretend to work while openly staring at Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian brings it to a whole new level.

“Look at his daemon.

There’s a murmur of agreement at Wen Haiyun’s words. Her cousin has always liked pretty things, and with her spotted fur standing out against the dull greys of the Burial Mounds, Bichen certainly falls into that category.

“She’s beautiful!”

“And so kind! Look at how gentle she is with Suibian!”

“Amazing! Why do you think she chose that form?”

Wen Qing sighs. Again: gossipers. When Jiang Wanyin and Sandu had visited, her family hadn’t been nearly as talkative.

Then again, she realizes: Jiang Wanyin doesn’t exactly inspire the same kind of whispers, does he?

“Like I said, young love,” Granny says to her as they watch Wei Wuxian bring Hanguang-Jun to the Demon Subdue Palace, a huge smile on her wrinkled face. Wei Wuxian is pointing to various parts of the village, probably rattling off facts about the makeshift houses and avoiding any and all discussion of his use of resentful energy. Lan Wangji nods along, but it’s clear he’s not looking at anything except the man in front of him.

Zhiruo fluffs her feathers and makes a vague noise of disgust.

“Ugh. I never want to hear it said like that again.”

Wen Qing agrees. Watching Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji alternate gazing wistfully at each other when the other isn’t looking is nauseating. 

Granny’s daemon, ever the optimist, pipes in. “I think it’s cute! And look, Lan Bichen and A-Sui are talking. Maybe they can all be friends?”

Wen Qing sighs. She doesn’t think that they will be able to be friends, not with their current situation. The fact that Hanguang-Jun even visited is a minor miracle; she can’t imagine it happening often, if ever again.

Even if he did, the secret Wei Wuxian and Suibian are so desperate to hide doesn’t exactly bode well for a blossoming relationship.

She wonders what her gossiping cousins would say if they knew just how wrong the scene before them actually was. Her family never had the chance to see the way those four acted back in the Cloud Recesses; if they had been there and seen that, they would know that the mǐ of space Wei Wuxian and Suibian keep between themselves and the Lans is very telling, indeed.

Talking is not the problem. Wei Wuxian and Suibian can talk themselves hoarse; it doesn’t change the yowling fox that can be heard in the depths of the night or the steadily growing pool of blood in the cave they call home.

They are just very, very good at pretending.

And pretending, Wen Qing knows from experience, can only last so long.

“Well,” she says, and looks at the supplies that Lan Wangji just happened to need to get rid of before he returned to the Cloud Recesses, ones that coincidentally they would never be able to afford or grow or find, “friends or not, at least he’s being useful.”

____

Sometime between Wei Wuxian complaining about potatoes and being distracted by Suibian’s happy giggles, Lan Wangji and Bichen pull her aside.

“How can we help?” Bichen asks, and Wen Qing blinks at her.

She looks almost impossibly earnest, her ears perked attentively in Wen Qing’s direction, blue eyes sincere and steady. When Wen Qing glances to Lan Wangji, he shifts slightly, seems to somehow straighten his spine even further, like he’s getting ready for a fight.

Huh, she thinks, sharing a sidelong look with Zhiruo. They mean it, don’t they?

“What can you offer?”

There’s a flash of surprise across Bichen’s face; but Wen Qing isn’t going to let her family starve, isn’t going to choose her pride over another month of survival or something that could help A-Yuan’s frequent fevers. It hasn’t been easy on him here—even now, he’s tucked away inside one of the houses, fitfully sleeping while the rest of her family oos and aahs at the visit.

A shame, really. She thinks he would like Hanguang-Jun; he’s mildly obsessed with Wei Wuxian, after all, so she already knows he has terrible taste.

Bichen glances to Lan Wangji, who nods.

“Anything.”

She barely holds back a sigh; she really should have expected something like that.

“We know,” Lan Wangji says slowly, when she doesn’t respond right away, “that you are in a precarious situation.”

Her eye moves to him, sharp. He meets her gaze and holds it.

The thing is: he’s right. They’re running on borrowed time. Wen Qing knows it, even if Wei Wuxian doesn’t seem to. So far they’ve managed to scrape by undetected; relatively unbothered, low profile enough that the other Sects seem content to let them slowly starve to death instead of trying to kill them outright. 

But at some point, the other shoe is going to drop.

She’s not sure when, or how, or why, but she’s seen what the Sects can do to people who they don’t think of as human. Wei Wuxian’s talisman techniques aren’t perfect and can’t protect them forever, even if he insists he has it all under control.

From the look on Hanguang-Jun’s face, he knows it too.

“I have some ideas,” she says, because she has too many enemies already and she’d much prefer an ally instead, especially a rich one, and motions to his now-empty qiankun bag. “Do you have parchment? I’ll write you a list.”


“I need to ask you something.

Suibian looks up from where she’s curled up on Wei Wuxian’s chest. Her shadow moves on the wall behind her, cast from the flickering candle on the makeshift workbench that Wei Wuxian only just vacated.

The man himself is unconscious, some combination of exhaustion and the herbal tonic Wen Qing practically had to force down his throat so he would stop coughing up blood all over the clothes they’d just washed.

But Suibian is awake, little fox eyes bright in the dimness, attention now on her.

“Hmm? What is it?”

Wen Qing goes to join her on the stone slab that Wei Wuxian calls his bed, reaching out to double-check his breathing. His face is pale and drawn; even with all of Lan Wangji’s visits and supplies, Wen Qing still hasn’t figured out a way to reduce the strain that demonic cultivation takes on his body.

Somewhere outside the Demon Subdue Cave, Wen Ning and Suyin are going around, offering anxious, trembling apologies to everyone they accidentally hurt today. She can hear their voices, faint but reassuring, a reminder of just how much they might have lost today if Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian hadn’t gotten back in time.

And time is, as always, their most precious resource.

“After the transfer,” she says, and keeps her voice purposefully calm, a detached curiosity, because she’s learned that any hint of concern will send Wei Wuxian and Suibian scrambling to reassure and pretend, “did you ever want to touch Jiang Wanyin?”

Stay neutral, stay objective, even with the most forbidden topics. Her mother had taught her well.

It works: Suibian is so surprised that she gapes at her, wide-eyed and shocked.

“What?” she says, and her ears twist, genuine horror splashed across her face. She glances at Wei Wuxian and lowers her voice, like she’s afraid he’ll somehow hear them talking about it.  “Qing-guniang, no! How could you ask that?! Why would I ever want to touch anyone but A-Xian?”

Wen Qing hums, noncommittal. “Well, his core is in there, isn’t it?”

“That’s—” Suibian starts, and she looks nauseated now. “I know, but—no. A-Cheng belongs to Sandu, not to me. I’ve never… Even though I can’t feel A-Xian anymore, I don’t…”

She trails off, cuddling closer to Wei Wuxian.

Wen Qing turns that over in her head. Interesting. It invalidates one of the theories she has, and raises about fifty more, ones that she doesn’t even begin to have the answers to.

But Suibian might hold a clue, even if she doesn’t know it.

“I know that sometimes you don’t always tell me the whole truth,” she says, because she’s not going to waste the precious time that Wei Wuxian is unconscious by beating around the bush. Suibian opens her mouth to protest, but Wen Qing holds up a hand to stop her. “Don’t try to deny it. I get it, I do; but he’s conked out right now, and he can’t hear whatever it is you’re so afraid of him hearing. If I promise that whatever you say stays between us, will you be honest with me?”

Suibian shifts, her claws curling into Wei Wuxian’s robes.

“I…” she whispers, and, like a nervous tick, licks Wei Wuxian’s cheek. “You could—he would find out. Whatever I said to you, he’d know.”

“He wouldn’t.”

“He would! The Burial Mounds, the voices—”

She cuts herself off, eyes widening like she hadn’t meant to say even that tiny, half-formed glimpse of a sentence. Seeming unable to hold Wen Qing’s gaze, she turns her head away, tail tucked closely around her feet.

Great. Voices. Wen Qing closes her eyes and takes a deep breath.

This is exactly why she needs someone who will talk to her. Wei Wuxian is a lost cause; but Suibian has always been more honest, or at least more willing to slip up in saying something.

“I’ll either find out hearing it from you, or I’ll find out when something like this happens again,” she reasons, motioning to Wei Wuxian’s unconscious form. Suibian whines low in her throat and turns to face her again, all worried ears and whiskers.

“But—”

Zhiruo hops down from where she was poking around Wei Wuxian’s bench, affixing Suibian with piercing gaze.

“Look,” she says, because Suibian doesn’t look convinced, and Wen Qing crosses her arms to add to the atmosphere. “We both know he’s getting worse.” Suibian flinches. “And we don’t know what the fuck is going on with you, but A-Qing think it’s interconnected. If you shoot straight with her, she has a better chance of helping you both before it’s too late.”

Suibian shivers; Wen Qing knows she understands exactly what Zhiruo is talking about.

There’s no research on what deviation is supposed to look like when the pair is no longer linked. Deviations are so rare, hard enough to study in normal circumstances and so terrible that few even want to try. So a deviation like this, where the pair probably should have died in the first place?

They’re flying blind.

Will it be a slow, gradual change, Suibian’s own energy somehow staving off the inevitable? Or will they wake up one morning, the sun struggling to peek through the dark clouds of resentment above them, and find that Suibian isn’t Suibian at all anymore?

She wants to find out the answer to that before it happens. And to do that, she needs information.

There’s a long, drawn-out silence.

“Ok,” Suibian blurts, and Wen Qing can feel the weight of the word as it’s ripped out from her, too big for such tiny, fragile lungs. “Ok. Sometimes I don’t know why things are happening, they just happen, but I’ll—I’ll tell you whatever I can.”

Hope, heady and dizzying, fills Wen Qing’s chest.

“Right,” she says, and turns fully to face her, mind abuzz. Time, time, time. “Let’s start easy: when you run, are you running towards something? Or just away?”

And, with a deep breath in, Suibian starts to talk.


“Not again.

Suyin covers her eyes with her wings at Wen Qing’s tone. “I’m sorry, A-jie. I just couldn’t get him to do anything.”

Wen Qing feels a muscle in her jaw twitch. “It was bad before. How is he somehow worse?”

They’re all staring at Wei Wuxian, who is busy gazing at the grass butterfly Hanguang-Jun bought for A-Yuan a month ago with an expression so morose it’s a miracle the crops around him haven’t wilted. He’s been standing and holding it for at least ten minutes, occasionally throwing in a pained sigh for good measure.

It’s been a while since Huanguang-Jun and Bichen visited.

Wei Wuxian is not taking it well.

“It’s revolting. And kind of fascinating,” Zhiruo admits, absent-mindedly plucking a feather from her left wing. She tucks it into Wen Qing’s hair. “But in a morbid way. At least he sold the turnips.”

Wen Qing pinches the bridge of her nose to stave off a growing headache. The turnips.

A few days ago, Wei Wuxian had gone into town with a full cart of them, as usual. She’d expected him to be gone all day—but he’d returned a few hours later with absolutely no turnips and a sack of money that was in no way, shape, or form equivalent to what he should have gotten for them.

“What…?” she had asked, as A-Yuan had run excitedly around her legs with another new toy that she had very much hoped was not a result of Wei Wuxian losing his mind and buying for him. “Wei Wuxian, this is ten times what they were worth—”

“Huh?!” He’d come over to look, a furrow in his eyebrows. “No way. I told Lan Zhan specifically how much we needed. Count again.”

She hadn’t counted again. She’d looked at him, said, “You ran into Hanguang-Jun again?” and then listened to A-Yuan wax poetic about Rich-gege, he bought me this toy, for at least five straight minutes, just like the last time. The melancholy longing in Wei Wuxian’s eyes during the entire conversation had made it perfectly clear what happened.

“He came back to Yiling and bought… all of our turnips?”

“Yep!” Wei Wuxian had chirped, a true, sunshine-bright smile on his face. “He said there was another night hunt in the area already, can you believe it?”

Wen Qing had not, in fact, believed it.

“I tried to give him a discount but he wouldn’t listen, he just gave me the bag of money and said he would arrange for them to be transported! Apparently they really need turnips in Gusu this time of year, he and Bichen were very insistent.”

Wen Qing, who had spent several months extensively spying on all aspects of Gusu Lan topography, including the gardens, had known for a fact that they were in absolutely no need of turnips.

“Who knew turnips could be so popular in the Cloud Recesses, huh?” he’d added, when Wen Qing hadn’t replied right away.

“Who knew?” A-Yuan had echoed helpfully.

Idiot.

Now, watching Wei Wuxian pine, a small twist settles in her chest. There’s a helplessness about the entire situation that she hates, one that she foolishly thought she was used to when working with Wen Chao. If they hadn’t been forced to flee here, if their family name hadn’t been slandered, then Wei Wuxian wouldn’t even be in this situation.

She shakes herself from that line of thinking. There’s no point dwelling on what-ifs.

“I bet he wanted him to come back and stay for the day,” Zhiruo says, and presses her head against Wen Qing’s cheek. “Do you think he’s going to be like this every time he runs into Hanguang-Jun, and Huanguang-Jun doesn’t immediately follow him around like a lovestruck fool?”

Wen Qing sighs. “Probably.”

“What should we do?”

Wen Qing looks to the small bat hanging upside-down from the branch next to them. “Us? It’s him who needs to do something. Not that he will.

“You think so?” Suyin is frowning, a thoughtful look on her face. “I asked A-Sui the other day if Wei Wuxian missed him, and she just rolled her eyes.”

Zhiruo snorts, ruffling her feathers on Wen Qing’s shoulder. “Um, yeah? Because it’s obvious. As if she isn’t missing Bichen just as much! At least they’re open about it, compared to whatever weirdness is going on between Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian.”

Ugh. Wen Qing runs a hand over her face. Those four…

“Bless his heart,” Granny sighs dreamily, still watching Wei Wuxian. “Not the smartest boy when it comes to this, is he?”

She says it like it’s a good thing instead of what it really is: annoying. They watch as Wei Wuxian abandons the toy in favor of wandering over to the Lotus Roots to let out another huge sigh.

Ridiculous.

“Suyin is right,” she decides, clapping her hands together once so the rest of them turn to look at her. “This needs an intervention. Let’s give him a project.”

“We finished the houses already. What’s next?”

“Nothing he’d be useful for. Hmm. Someone fetch A-Ning.”

Her brother’s presence is usually enough to get Wei Wuxian to rally, since they’re still trying to figure out how to help Suyin’s fur grow back. It’s been patchy ever since Wei Wuxian was able to wake them both up (bring them back to life, her mind prompts her), and he’s been trying out some things to help.

It’s not the most pressing issue, but Wei Wuxian has been treating it very seriously. It should do the trick.

Suyin perks up. “Ooh! I’ll find him, A-jie!”

In a flash, she’s off. Wen Qing shakes her head, exasperated. Her brother and his daemon still can’t go that far from each other, so he has to be close, but whenever Suyin goes to find Wen Ning they inevitably get distracted by something before actually coming back.

This will take a while.

Still. She should be thankful that they can find each other. Even months later, that stretch of tear-stained weeks is burned into her nightmares like the brand on Wei Wuxian’s chest. Nothing, she thinks, could be worse than that. Not hunger, or discomfort, or uncertainty.

She’ll take anything over that.

Her brother is back, and still linked to his daemon, and that’s all she cares about. They’re grateful just to be together again, even if it’s not under the best of circumstances.

But watching Wei Wuxian’s face when he thinks they’re not looking, she understands what it means to him to keep trying to solve all these things. The need to fix—it’s one she knows well. She’s not going to take that away from him.

He’s a stubborn one. Stubborn, and self-sacrificing.

“I want to play with A-Sui,” A-Yuan says, tugging on Granny’s sleeve.

He’s still dirty from where Wei Wuxian buried him in the dirt earlier, smile on his face so bright that Wen Qing’s heart aches. His daemon spins joyfully in the air; A-Yuan is much too young for her to have settled or be named yet, but lately she’s been taking the form of a red-and-black moth.

Given the way A-Yuan openly idolizes and clings to Wei Wuxian, the color choice is not surprising.

“You’ll have to find her first,” Zhiruo tells him, fluttering down so that they’re eye level. Suibian had come back with Wei Wuxian and A-Yuan, but she’s disappeared somewhere in the bushes since then. “And you know what that means, right A-Yuan?”

“Hide and seek!” A-Yuan giggles, delighted, and tries to stand up. It takes a few attempts; Zhiruo watches and snickers while Granny tries to straighten his clothes before he goes tearing off.

“Be good, A-Yuan!”

“And ask Wei Wuxian for permission first,” Zhiruo reminds him, when A-Yuan makes it clear that he’s about to just start searching blindly.

Asking is part of the rules, because hide and seek with Suibian is a one-sided game that only Wei Wuxian and A-Yuan ever succeed at. Wei Wuxian, because he is stubborn and gentle; and A-Yuan, because Suibian can’t stand to see him anything other than deliriously happy. All it takes is him crying, or Wei Wuxian calling her name and encouraging A-Yuan to join along, and she’s back in a flash.

(As long as she hasn’t gone too far. That’s only happened once, and after seeing the stress that it put them both through, Wen Qing gave them a stern talking-to that she hopes showed up in their nightmares for at least a week.)

Sometimes, though, Suibian needs to just hide.

Hide, and not be sought out, and not be forced to slink back just because she feels bad for A-Yuan. Wen Qing doesn’t know how Wei Wuxian can tell the difference between when they can and can’t play, but he’s never guessed wrong.

The man in question has noticed their antics and wandered over, twirling Chenqing in his fingers. When A-Yuan looks at him with watery eyes and asks, “Hide and seek?”, he laughs.

“Sure, sure,” he says, and hoists A-Yuan onto his shoulders. A-Yuan giggles and tugs on his ponytail in a way that must be painful, but Wei Wuxian doesn’t so much as flinch. “But only if you use your big boy voice! Can you do that?”

“Yes!”

“Good, good. A-Sui loves us very much, you know, but you have to be nice and loud so she knows we’re playing! Who’s going to count?”

“A-Yuan will,” Wen Qing says, unable to keep the smile off her face as she watches Wei Wuxian spin in circles a few times to make him giggle more. “He needs to practice his numbers.”

“Ah, very important, very important,” Wei Wuxian says seriously, and tugs on A-Yuan’s foot. “Listen to Wen Qing, alright? Knowing your numbers is how you’ll grow big and strong, like me!”

Zhiruo snorts, and Wei Wuxian sends her a dirty look.

“Hey! I heard that. I’m plenty strong, who do you think would win in an arm wrestle between you and me, hmm?”

“What? I’m a bird—"

Wei Wuxian laughs, waving her off. “Alright, point taken. A-Yuan, are you ready?”

A-Yuan looks over the moon. “Ready!”

“Ok,” Zhiruo tells them, still glaring at Wei Wuxian. A-Yuan’s daemon lands on his shoulder. “Close your eyes, and count to ten…”

Wen Qing watches them dash off, the sound of A-Yuan’s laughter floating through the barren trees. Seeing them play is a small comfort in a world full of uncertainty. There’s an ever-present tightness in her chest now: the side-effect of years of tension and hypervigilance that she doesn’t think will ever fade.

There’s no reason for it to. Jiang Wanyin’s words from when he visited ring in her ears: How can people live in such a terrible place?

He wasn’t entirely wrong. They’re not safe here, no matter how much they try to make it feel that way for A-Yuan. They’re living on borrowed time. But it’s time that she never thought she would get, dirty and starving on the streets of Yunmeng, hoping against hope that Wei Wuxian would come through.

He did. They all did. 

Now, the most she can do is try to keep the clock going for as long as she can.

And she’s not going to just wait around.

“A-Ning!” she calls, and he scuttles out from one of the nearby houses with a sheepish expression on his face, Suyin’s nose peeking out of pocket as they get close. She sighs; really, did Suyin even remember to tell him that they were supposed to come back?

“A-jie?”

She grabs three planks of wood and places them in his arms, then grabs five for herself.

“Come on, I’ve got some ideas. Let’s give those talismans an extra kick.”


“So it’s easier to share energy with him when he’s asleep?”

Suibian nods from her hiding spot in the nearby bush, eyes glancing around nervously for Wei Wuxian. He’s in his cave, probably tinkering away at another talisman design. Wen Qing can see the ravens circling outside it; they always come by whenever he’s inventing.

“There’s just—less things, going on,” she says. “I don’t have to focus as much, and I—that thing inside me that I told you about? It replenishes quicker, compared to when we tried it when he was awake.”

“Hmm.” Wen Qing files away this information for later. “Well. Stop doing that, alright? You look like a gentle breeze could blow you over. We don’t know your limits yet, and I don’t want you testing it without me there.”

A moment of hesitation. Then: “If you say so, Qing-guniang.”

Not a yes. Wen Qing sighs, and lets Zhiruo hop down to try and groom her tangled fur.


Two months and a few neatly-sealed packages from Lan Wangji later, Wei Wuxian and Suibian return from town with red-rimmed eyes and huge smiles on their faces.

“She’s beautiful,” he tells Wen Qing, sniffling a bit. “Her dress is every bit what she deserves! Actually, no—nothing that the Jin Sect could give her is ever what she deserves, but she makes it look perfect. God, that Jin Zixuan and his stupid peacock better treat her right—”

“His daemon isn’t a peacock. You know that, you’ve seen her,” Wen Qing interrupts, trying not to roll her eyes or worse, smile. Wei Wuxian needs absolutely no encouragement with this particular matter. “Also, where are the turnips?”

“Ah!” Wei Wuxian perks up a bit and his grin gets wider. “You won’t believe it! I was telling Jiang Cheng about how Lan Zhan bought so many for the Cloud Recesses, and it turns out Lotus Pier is in shortage of turnips too!”

In the branches above them, Zhiruo lets out a long-suffering sigh. “Oh no.

Wen Qing closes her eyes. Prays to the gods for patience.

“He said that, did he?”

“Mmhmm! He bought all of them.”

"You should have seen it,” Suibian adds from where she’s balanced on his shoulder. She looks ok today, fur brushed and eyes alight. “He was so mad! He said that next time Lan Zhan asks for them, we have to tell him they’re all reserved for Yunmeng Jiang Sect!”

Wen Qing might deviate. Or murder someone. She isn’t sure. She checks the coin pouch; it’s much heavier than it should be.

“I had no idea he liked turnips that much,” Wei Wuxian continues cheerfully, and then his eyes get all watery. “Ah, but Shijie loves turnips. Did I tell you about how beautiful her veil was yet?”

What an idiot.


Despite the supplies, the talismans, the moments of levity from the outside world, the Burial Mounds is not an easy place to live. But it’s not the first time Wen Qing has had to make the best out of a bad situation. It’s certainly not the first time she’s been faced with something that seems impossible, either.

No—long before the Burial Mounds, Wen Qing knew exactly what to do when presented with an overwhelming problem.

Face it.

Sometimes the answers were obvious; often, they were not. When she was young and learning this, prone to frustration over a failed batch of tonic or a particularly tricky task, her mother would crouch down, lips pursed, and remind her: maybe she was facing it the wrong way.

“A-Qing,” she would chide, “step back. Look differently, and approach from a new angle. What do you see now?”

Wen Qing thinks of that lesson long after her mother has passed away; not just in her medicine, but when navigating the complexities of Wen Ruohan’s temper, her time at the Cloud Recesses, the building of the Burial Mounds. She has repeated it to herself many times over the years, in the good and the bad.

Step back. Look differently. Find a new angle.

For the particular problem in front of her now, she is not sure how many more angles she has left to try. 

“Stay still,” Wen Qing snaps at Wei Wuxian, focused on running a hand over the scar from his core transplant to see if there’s an underlying issue. It’s more jagged than she wanted, but it had been impossible to keep him from writhing after the first incision. Still, it’s healed up well, considering.

“Sorry,” he mutters, Suibian curling a little tighter against his neck.

There’s no levity to the word: his good mood from seeing his sister has evaporated over the past few weeks, resulting in a general state of sleep deprivation and mounting agitation. It has made him absolutely miserable to be around, but if he thinks he can be worse than Wen Chao, he’s fooling himself.

“Let me see your eyes.”

A scowl crosses his face but he obeys, letting her tilt his head left and right while she checks his pupils.

She knows he hates being examined like this: he can’t hide the truth from her when she can read it in every line of his body. That is, of course, exactly why she keeps doing it.

Around her, talismans litter the floor of the cave. She recognizes a few experiments: sketches of lines for safety, alarms, random ideas he’s been testing on Wen Ning to return him to some semblance of his past normalcy. To the side, carefully placed under other projects and likely worked on in the depth of night, are the ones trying to rebuild some of the connection between him and Suibian.

Wei Wuxian’s ideas have a strange tendency to work. Those last ones haven’t.

If anything, it’s getting worse.

The longest a daemon and a human have ever managed to stay apart without going into a full deviation is two months. When she was a little girl, Wen Qing had read the accounts: the cultivator Liu Daiyu and her daemon, Jiaying, forced apart by an unnatural flash flood during a night-hunt.

Liu Daiyu had been overrun by water ghouls in the chaos of it all, expending all of her spiritual energy just to survive. It had taken her three weeks to drag herself, legs and arms broken, to a village for help. The flood had swept her daemon far away; by the time they managed to find it, it could no longer speak.

And before they could capture it, begin the long journey back to where Liu Daiyu was screaming and sobbing in her restbed, it was too late.

Two months, and few hundred li of distance, and then they were dead.

What scares her is this: Suibian and Wei Wuxian are at seven.

Seven months, and no link, and Wen Qing doesn’t know how much longer they can last.

So far, the changes have been small; warning signs, maybe, if they’re lucky enough to get those. Suibian is clingy and nervous on her best days now, easily spooked. There’s a restlessness in her movements when she sits down to play with A-Yuan, to eat dinner with Granny, to watch Wei Wuxian do his blood-soaked work. She can still talk, and she hasn’t started nipping at anyone or picking fights, but each day feels like a new opportunity for something to happen.

Wei Wuxian isn’t exactly much better. The pool in his cave smells stronger by the day, growing with each new ward he puts in place. And there’s a look in his eyes, sometimes, when he gazes across the parched landscape—something not fully there.

He is a volcano waiting to erupt; given the right fuel, he would burn the world down to nothing but charred rock and smoke. Suibian deviating, it would…

Well. She doesn’t need science to guess what the fallout of that would be.

Hence the checkups.

 “Are you in pain?”

“No,” Wei Wuxian says, right as Suibian says, “Yes, his side,” and the two of them throw each other dirty looks.

Wen Qing scowls, drawing her fingers back from his eyes.

“Thank you, Suibian. Wei Wuxian, when are you going to learn to stop lying to me?”

All he offers is a meek, “It barely hurts,” which turns into a gasp when Wen Qing presses her fingers into his side. “Ah, mercy, mercy!”

“This was from some time ago. It hasn’t healed yet?”

“Without a core, my body barely heals,” he admits, which is not news to Wen Qing. It was her, after all, who wrote the theory on golden core transference. She has entire pages of hypotheses concerning what would happen to the donor.

Still. It’s disconcerting to see them play out before her.

“What about you?” she asks Suibian, who lifts her head from Wei Wuxian’s neck and flattens her ears.

“No.” When Wei Wuxian doesn’t offer up a protest or counterargument, Wen Qing knows she is telling the truth. “It never hurts, not physically. I’m just—um, I just get restless sometimes.”

Like I could just run forever, Suibian had told her that night. Like if I run fast enough, I’ll be able to find… something. But I don’t know what.

And then, right after: Please don’t tell A-Xian that it’s like that. He worries a lot already.

Idiots.

“Hold up your paws,” she says, and Suibian obeys. She checks her pupils and her ears, which both look fine, and instructs Zhiruo to land on her and ascertain her level of spiritual energy.  

Wei Wuxian watches the process with dark, unblinking eyes.

“Have you been draining your energy more than normal?” Zhiruo asks her, a dangerous lilt to her tone, and Wen Qing purses her lips when Wei Wuxian and Suibian shoot each other a look.

“You told me you had stopped trying to share with him!”

“We did!” Wei Wuxian protests, starting to sit up, and yelps when Wen Qing pushes on his side in retaliation. He slides back down, pouting. “Ow! You’re so cruel to me—”

“Don’t try to distract me.” Wen Qing knows this tactic. It’s never worked on her. “Spill.”

Both of them are silent for a few seconds, avoiding her gaze. She waits with steadily decreasing patience.

“I wanted to test something,” Suibian eventually mumbles, and looks uneasy when Wei Wuxian tenses. “A-Xian… maybe Wen Qing can help—”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” Wei Wuxian mutters. Wen Qing smacks him on the head, earning a few more ah, ah, aiyo! noises of protest.  

“Shut up and let her tell me whatever you’ve been hiding! It’s insulting, you know, to have so little faith placed in me.”

“That’s not it, Qing-guniang,” Suibian says immediately, and Wei Wuxian’s shoots them both a betrayed look. “And it’s not A-Xian’s fault! We both decided not to bring it up, we didn’t think it was really a problem.”

They’re the worst patients she’s ever had. They could have a knife in their side and not consider it a problem, just laugh it off and wave it away as they bled out on the floor.

She tries to keep that thought off her face, though, so that Suibian will continue.

“A-Xian wasn’t sleeping well,” Suibian says, sounding like she’s picking her words very carefully, “so I got curious and tried to reach out. Not for long at all!” she adds quickly, as a muscle in Wen Qing’s cheek twitches. “Just to see if I could help. And it felt a—a little weird when he grabbed onto the link I was offering, so we decided to investigate. That’s all. That’s why my energy is low.”

“Weird?” Wen Qing echoes, and turns her gaze to Wei Wuxian. His hands are clenched. “By weird, do you mean ‘dark’? What about, say, ‘demonic’?”

“Wen Qing,” Wei Wuxian says, low, and Suibian lets out a whine. “Don’t.”

It’s a tone she knows. It’s the same one he had used when he looked at her on the mountain all those years ago and said, Promise me, Wen Qing. 

She doesn’t give a shit. He’s never intimidated her, and that’s not miraculously going to change right now.

“How long were you sharing energy, Suibian?”  

“I…” Suibian’s eyes are anxious, flicking between her and Wei Wuxian. “Qing-guniang, I swear he stopped as soon as we realized.”

Something in Suibian’s tone of voice makes it clear that it was Wei Wuxian who stopped her and not a unanimous decision. The confirmation of what she already suspected is satisfying. It means Wei Wuxian understands, even if it’s just subconsciously, that the energy he’s using is dangerous. Even if he’s in denial about causing himself harm, he knows enough to stop Suibian from being exposed to it.

This is exactly why she told him not to keep secrets.

When Wen Qing doesn’t respond right away, Suibian adds, quieter, “Please don’t be mad.”

Wen Qing is furious. Furious and so worried that it tightens her chest.

There’s guilt, too. Everything that Wei Wuxian is doing he’s doing for her family. He’s sacrificed so much for them when has no obligation to do so; they’re not his blood, and there’s nothing he’s gained from it. The opposite: he’s worse off here caring for them, risking his life and friendships to stand at their sides.

And they’ve all seen the toll.

She takes a deep breath, steadies herself. It was his choice; he’s made that clear. She told him to leave and he wouldn’t, so now she just has to make sure it doesn’t destroy him.

That, at least, she can do. She wasn’t considered the best doctor of her age for nothing.

“We’re increasing our group check-ins to twice a week,” she tells them, glaring when Wei Wuxian whines dramatically. Suibian, she notices, doesn’t protest at all. “And Zhiruo is going to check your energy every time now, Suibian, so don’t try to pull anything.”

“We won’t,” Suibian promises, digging her claws into Wei Wuxian’s clothes so she can still stay on him as he sits up. He shifts her to a one-armed hold as he ties his robe back in place, scowling.

“Good. If not, you’ll find Zhiruo has less of a bedside manner than I do.”

Suibian flattens her ears, looks at the shrike now sitting on Wen Qing’s shoulder. “I promise. But, Wen Qing? Do you—think you have anything, to help him sleep?”

The shift in Wei Wuxian’s tone is immediate.

“Hey, hey, I’m sleeping just fine,” he murmurs, gentle and reassuring, abandoning any semblance of complaining in favor of stroking her fur. “Don’t you worry about me. Focus on getting your energy back, ok?”

Suibian gazes up at him, unblinking; he makes a face and kisses her on the nose. She licks his cheek in response, wriggling so she can lay her head against the crook of his neck.

“Of course I’m worried,” Wen Qing hears her mumble into his skin.

It’s too much. She turns her back to them and busies herself with putting away the bandages she laid out earlier. Thanks in part to Lan Wangji’s continual care packages (so-named by Zhiruo, mainly because it makes Wei Wuxian blush whenever he sees a new one sitting quietly at the edge of their wards), the cloth joins an assortment of salves, herbs, and vials that clink together as she rummages around, looking for the most recent tonic she put together.

(She’s already thinking of her next recipe, one of the more… experimental ideas she’s been playing with. There’s an herb Zhiruo has spotted growing off the main paths, so black it almost absorbs the light, tucked into the places that Wei Wuxian doesn’t like them to wander into and Suibian tries to burrow in anyways. Tomorrow, they are going to go out and get some.

Desperate times. Desperate measures.)

By the time she’s done, Wei Wuxian is preoccupied with nuzzling his face against the top of Suibian’s head to make her giggle.

“If you’re not sleeping,” Wen Qing tells him, “I have some herbal drinks for you to start taking before bed. And this new one, to try and stabilize your energy. I know the other ones haven’t worked, but I think I’m getting closer.”

He glances up at her, eyes dark. 

For a moment, she thinks that he’s going to argue. She’s ready for it, meets his gaze with a challenge in her own.

But she doesn’t need to be.

Because the moment she sees the vial, Suibian lets out a huge gust of a sigh, openly relieved. And Wen Qing watches as, without Suibian even seeming to know it, that tiny sound shatters Wei Wuxian’s resolve quicker than any argument from her ever could.

“Alright, alright,” he says, the lines of his face softening. With some effort, he finally straightens his clothes; when the black cloth once again obscures the jagged, white line of scar tissue, he looks significantly more at ease. “But nothing that makes me too tired. I don’t want to sleep through A-Sui’s bad dreams.”

Suibian gives him an affronted look. “I’m not a baby.”

“Nah,” he says lightly, and rubs the fur on her head so it sticks up the wrong way, “but you’re mine, so you have to deal with it.”

It’s her turn to make a face at him and he grins, dour mood from earlier evaporated.

Fondness swells in Wen Qing’s heart as she watches them bicker. Every laugh is a reminder of why she handed her bloody heart to them on the street corner, why she got down on her knees and begged when she had never once lowered herself to such things before. She had nothing to give—nothing but hope and the desperate, far-off wish that someone would still care.

That if she loved her brother fiercely enough, she could save him.

And here they are.

“Ah, why do you have that look on your face?” Wei Wuxian asks, jolting her back to reality. She scowls and smacks him on the head again, earning a yelp. “Hey! What did I do?”

“My face is fine.”

“I never said it wasn’t!”

“Don’t worry about us, Qing-guniang.” Suibian is watching her with bright eyes, tucked safely into Wei Wuxian’s arms. She’s always been more perceptive. “We’re fine, really.”

“Oh, yeah! Promise!” Wei Wuxian adds, and Suibian nods vigorously. “Never been finer!”

She looks at them: clinging to each other without even realizing it, so desperate to stay close. Taking on battles that aren’t their own because it’s the right thing to do.

In all her years of healing, she’s never seen a pair so determined to protect the other from themselves.

And she knows, heart heavy as she orders them to stop lounging around and clean up for dinner, that they’re not fine at all.

Chapter Text


“I wish...” she said, and stopped. There was nothing that could be gained by wishing for it. A final deep, shaky breath, and she was ready to go on.
—Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass


The letter sits on his makeshift desk, lit by moonlight.

Wei Wuxian can’t take his eyes off it.

Wei Ying,

Are you well? I have been asked to pass along an invitation to an event marking Jin Rulan’s one month celebration…

The words spin in his head no matter how many times he’s read them. A baby boy, his nephew! What does he look like? Shijie, probably, if he’s lucky. Wei Wuxian certainly he hopes he got her looks and her brains, or else poor Jin Rulan is in trouble.

The thought makes him laugh from where he’s curled up on the bed, Suibian tucked against his stomach.

“Can you believe it? Me, an uncle!”

It’s not the first time he’s said it. He strokes his fingers carefully along Suibian’s back, smiling when she rolls over to look at him. It’s very late, late enough that the only sounds are the calls of the wind and the whispering voices in his head, but neither of them can sleep.

“Do I get to be an aunt, then?”

He laughs again. “Sure, I don’t see why not. She’s your sister too! Aunty A-Sui, now that has a nice ring to it.”

“I wonder what his daemon’s first form was.”

“Well, only the best one of course! Maybe he got lucky and it was a fox.”

She chitters, leaning into his hand. “I bet he’s so small. I hope I get to see them.”

“I’ll hide you in my robes if I need to,” he promises. He’s already thought through how to sneak her in if they put up a fuss; they’ve had the news for a few days, so he’s had plenty of time to plan. Long enough for the invitation to be rescinded, for it be real.

Long enough to worry.

The smile fades from his lips. Suibian whines.

“It could be a trap,” she whispers. It’s clear she doesn’t want to say it out loud, but it’s what they’ve both been wondering. Even if Lan Wangji wrote the letter, there’s no guarantee that other people aren’t pulling some strings. It’s the first thing Wen Qing had warned them about.

“Yeah, it could.”

Suibian wriggles closer. “We’re going to go anyways, right?”

“Definitely.” Nothing could keep him away, not when he thinks about how this might be his only chance to see his nephew. He’s already started working on the present. 

They sit in silence for some time, thinking. They used to be able to do this: just sit and be so confident that they were thinking the same thoughts that it wasn’t even necessary to speak out loud. Just a quick check of their link, the smallest second of connection, and they would know.

Now, feeling how Suibian hasn’t fully relaxed in his arms, he murmurs, “Tell me what’s wrong.”

She sucks in a little breath. “It’s ok.”

“A-Sui. I promise I won’t laugh.”

She’s silent for a moment, picking her words. She never used to do that. “What if… something really bad happens?”

He blinks, looks at her. The moonlight is only on half of her body, leaving her face hidden in shadow.

“Like what?”

She fidgets in his lap, clearly uncomfortable with the conversation. “Like… if they hurt you. Or—capture you?”

He sits up so he can see her better, the frown on his face deepening. Suibian has always been a little anxious, definitely more so than him, but it was never needless worrying. It’s gotten harder since the transfer to soothe her when the feelings come up, half of the things she says now tight with nerves, but the question still takes him off-guard.

“I won’t let them do that,” he promises. “And even if they did, then we’d be together and could figure out some way to escape.”

Suibian is quiet for too long after his answer. She’s not settling down; he can feel it in the tiny twitches of her muscles. It’s the kind of quiet that means she’s not really asking what she wants to, that there’s something else lingering in her head.

“You don’t need to worry,” he murmurs, rubbing her back. Sometime during the last minute she’s started digging her claws into his clothes, trying to get closer. “We can be extra careful. I can make more talismans, and I’ll practice on Chenqing—”

“Don’t do that,” she whines immediately. “Not that. I hate how it feels in here after you play that.”

It takes most of his self-control not to wince. He knows, on some level, that she can see that his thoughts are turning darker, tinting red, etched with resentment at the edges. The brief contact she had with it scared her more than he’d expected, but he’s managing it fine, and there’s no way he’s going to let it spiral out of control. He knows what he’s doing, even if it’s not the most comfortable feeling.

“I won’t let anyone hurt you, A-Sui.”

She twitches, and he knows he’s getting closer to whatever it is she’s holding so tight.

“You can tell me anything,” he adds, lost, wanting to help but not knowing how. “C’mon, what’s wrong? You think I’d let them hurt you? They’ll never—”

“But what if you did let them? What if you stopped caring?”

What?

The words freeze the air.

He sucks in a harsh, surprised breath, his hands gripping her tighter without thinking.

Words, when he finds them, come out numb. “What on earth are you talking about?”

Suibian presses closer to him, like if she burrows against him hard enough she can settle back into his golden core, match their heartbeats once more, find the perfect link that has frayed ever since Wen Qing’s knife broke his skin.

Her voice is quiet, trembling. “We’ve already done so many bad things. They hate us. What if it’s a trap, and we have to fight, and that—thing I felt in you takes over? It’s so creepy, A-Xian. What if you play for too long and stop loving me and then you don’t care anymore?”

Pain blooms in him, sharp and cold.

It’s with shaking hands that he pulls her away from where she’s clinging. She yowls, starts to scratch, whimpers until she realizes he’s not pushing her away, only bringing her up to his face so they can look at each other eye-to-eye. 

How could she ever even think—

“I love you,” he tells her fiercely, each word packed with as much as he can give. His heart is screaming in his ears. “I love you more than anything—and I will always feel that way, no matter what. Nothing in the entire world could ever make me lose my love for you.”

He’s never had to say it before. They’ve always just known.

She’s trembling, broken, hitching sobs starting to form in her throat. “But what if whatever thing you’re doing—”

“I named you Suibian for a reason,” he whispers, voice thick and throat feeling too tight, “and I will love you until the day I die, and as I’m dying, and every single moment after. That will never change, A-Sui. I know Chenqing isn’t what you’re used to, but it’s keeping us safe. And I’ll kill every single person who tries to take you from me, who even thinks about hurting you.”

She stares at him with watery eyes, curls her claws into his skin. It hurts but he welcomes it; better this pain than the other, better her here than wandering off, distant. He can feel her heartbeat pounding against his fingers, too fast.

“A-Xian,” she whispers, and her voice cracks, “you’re frightening me.”

Oh. Another part of his heart breaks.

“Shh, shh, it’s ok.” He pulls her to him, tucks her against his neck and squeezes her tight. She bites his fingers, licks his cheek, whines low and continuous in her throat as he strokes his fingers down the fur on her back. “I’m right here. I’ll keep you safe, I promise.”

Her next words are a whimper. “I’m so scared.”

Me too, Wei Wuxian wants to scream—but this, he knows, doesn’t need to be said out loud.

“Don’t worry,” he murmurs instead, and looks outside where the darkness lingers. “It’s going to be fine.”

___

He’s wrong.

He wishes he didn’t discover this with an army of Jin soldiers leveling arrows at them from the top of a cliff, but—

“I don’t you who you are,” he calls up to the Jin who fired the first shot, Suibian cowering behind his legs, “but if this is a welcoming party, I’ve had better! You don’t exactly fit the part—were you just rolling around in the dirt before you decided to greet us?”

The man on the cliff glares at him. “You!”

“What, am I wrong?” he asks, because he thinks his assessment is perfectly fine, thank you. This Jin looks a right mess, all his gold and white robes disheveled, the hems coated with dirt. He motions to the red splash of color on his cheekbone. “Who punched you? Not that I’m concerned, mind you; I’d just like to know who I should address the thank you package to.”

Next to him, Wen Ning lets out a shaky, terrified laugh.  

“My name is Jin Zixun,” the man calls down to him, sneering now. When he draws in a breath, Wei Wuxian sees him wince. “And I’m here for justice!”

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. He looks at the other Jins, and notices that unlike Jin Zixuan, all their robes and faces seem fine. Jin Zixun is the only one who had a rough time, it seems.

Interesting. Very interesting.

It’s quieter here than in the Burial Mounds, even with all the shuffling footsteps on stone, the occasional clatter of a rock from the Jin’s restless motion. It means he can hear the calls of the ravens circling overhead, Suyin whispering frantically in Wen Ning’s ear, Suibian’s tiny whimper as he steps forward.

He pays them no mind. He won’t risk one of those arrows missing and hitting Suibian instead.

“I really don’t care,” he replies, and twirls Chenqing in his fingers, grinning when all the Jins tense up. “It doesn’t matter who you are or why you’re here; I have a one month celebration I need to be at, so if you don’t mind…”

“You!!” Jin Zixun repeats, and grabs another arrow. “How dare you act like you don’t know why we’re here!”

Wei Wuxian crosses his arms. “Aiyo, I don’t know, ok? What, is your cousin’s farmland is running dry, and you think demonic cultivation is to blame? Or perhaps someone stole one of your most valued combs, and who else but the Yiling Patriarch?”

“A-Xian,” Suibian whimpers, but there’s anger burning in his belly, stretching across his muscles.

“Oh wait—I know!” he says, and grins. “Did your lover go missing? Have you thought that maybe she just ran away, so she wouldn’t have to look at you anymore?”

Jin Zixun’s face turns mutinous.

“Enough stalling! I’m warning you!” he shouts, and pulls back the bowstring. “This is your last chance! Show us where you’ve hidden Jin Zixuan, and maybe we’ll show you mercy!”

And that?

That gets Wei Wuxian to pay attention.

“Where I’ve—what?” he demands, right as the arrow flies loose and hits Wen Ning in the shoulder.


“Did you hear?” the Jin servant whispers to the other, hands covering red lips and gossiping tongues. Around them, the other servants bustle back and forth, trays sending wafts of aromatic jasmine and rich congee through the air as they tend to the guests in the next room.

“Hear what?”

“Oh, have you missed the news? Why, poor Young Master Jin Zixuan was kidnapped just last night!”

A gasp, the clatter of a tray. “What?! How??”

“Jin-zongzhu announced it when I was pouring tea for the Nie sect not even an hour ago! I thought the clans were going to revolt right there in the room. Taken from his very home… that Yiling Patriarch, does he have no shame?”

“No way! The Yiling Patriarch, here?!” the other servant asks, breathless, and glances over her shoulder with anxious eyes. “Did they see him take the young master away?!”

“With all those crafty tricks up his sleeve?” The first servant scoffs and crosses her arms. “No, he’s too clever for that! He broke in during the dead of night and whisked him away. But a few of Jin-zongzhu’s favorites swear they saw him do it, and who else would do something so horrendous?”

“How tragic!”

“Mmhmm.” Another careful look around, an even lower voice. “Young Madam Jin’s handmaiden told me that she’s so devastated even her daemon refuses to eat! And little Jin Rulan is crying, day and night, no matter how the nursemaid tries to soothe him.”

The second servant frowns. “What else would you expect? Who knows what that monster did with the Young Master Jin Zixuan once he took him… We may never see him again, and least not alive.”

A somber silence, before a third servant pokes their head into the conversation.

“Everyone already knows what you two are saying! Want some real news?”

“Oh please, please!”

The third servant lowers their tray to their side, glancing around. “Have you noticed Jin Zixun is missing as well?”

“I thought Jin-zongzhu said he was busy planning the next steps?”

“I know what he said, but listen to this! You didn’t hear this from me, but one of Jin Zixun’s friends told me that Jin Zixun isn’t even in the tower! He was sent after that evil patriarch when he escaped, to try and bring Jin Zixuan back. But he hasn’t returned yet! Do you think maybe…?”

“Aiyo, now that’s really too much,” says the first servant, shaking her head. “I’ll believe many things you say, A-Bo, but there’s a hole in your story: there’s no way Jin Zixun has friends!”

The three of them giggle behind their hands for a moment, before a harsh voice cuts into their bubble of space.

“You three!” They all start, wide-eyed, and clutch their trays to their chests as Jiang-zongzhu rounds the hallway corner and finds them standing there. The thunderous look on his face has their mouths snapping closed so quickly their teeth clack. “Stop chittering in the hallway like petty birds!”

The servants bow low and bustle away, fleeing to the safety of their tasks.

Their words, however, echo in the empty darkness behind them.

----

“He wouldn’t, A-Cheng, he wouldn’t!”

“A-jie, please, you need to stay resting… this isn’t good for your health—”

“Not you too Sandu! Don’t tell me you believe that A-Xian, that he—that he’d take—”

The sound of renewed sobs, a harsh breath in. Quietly, the servant places the food tray she was supposed to deliver outside the door and scuttles away.

----

“This is bad,” Suibian whimpers, staring at Jin Zixun’s unmoving body splayed across the dirt. The air around him is slightly hazy from the leftover dust that burst into the air when his daemon dissolved, screaming and cursing, into nothingness. “A-Xian, this is bad—this is—”

Wei Wuxian turns to face her, heart beating in his throat. Just a few mi away, Wen Ning’s stands with black-orbed eyes, sword still drawn. He can see Suyin’s tiny body shivering in his pocket, her own little earthquake.

The Jins who managed to escape their wrath have long since fled. Now it’s just the four of them, a dead body, and Jin Rulan’s destroyed gift, the beads scatted across the red-stained ground.

Their path just got a lot more narrow.

“Let’s—” he starts, and has to swallow, force back the stinging at the corner of his eyes. He doesn’t have time to be sad, or confused, or heartbroken. Someone is trying to stir trouble. They need to get out of here, reinforce their wards, prepare for a retaliation.

And after, find a way to make the Jins pay.

“Alright,” he says, as rage builds in him, tinting the world dark. The voices start to whisper louder, snakes rattling their tails in a dizzying chorus. “Leave him here for the birds to eat. Let’s go home.”

 

 

(And then: a needle to the neck.

“Thank you,” Wen Qing tells them, as he and Suibian lay paralyzed in the Demon Subdue Palace, straining to do anything, to move, to speak, to stop them.

“And sorry,” Zhiruo adds, and that’s the last he hears before their already blurry forms fade into darkness.)


Standing at the gates of the Lanling Jin Sect, Wen Qing knows: the clock has run out.

Jin Zixuan is missing. Jin Zixun is dead. It does not matter that Wei Wuxian is only responsible for the latter, and not the former; what matters is that, finally, she can repay the favor.

She turns to her brother.

“Are you ready?”

He looks at her, wide-eyed. Shaking. “Yes.”

She is proud, so terribly proud of him. Over the pounding of the blood in her ears, she thinks that she has never been so sad and so grateful at all once to be his sister.

The terror coursing through both of them is not new; and it does not make her any less proud. Fear, after all, has been a constant presence by Wen Qing’s side for most of her life, perhaps her oldest companion outside of Zhiruo. There are times, too many to count, that it has crept up on her in the dark and tried to cage her.

She has never let it, in the end.

Because she has learned that courage is not the absence of fear, but action in spite of it. It is going on, step after step, even when everything seems hopeless. Of looking for a road when there’s nothing but empty earth for miles; of raising one’s head and daring to look up at what towers above you.

It takes courage to leave one’s home, to start over. To hope, when all seems lost, that those you love can be returned to you.

(Wen Qing is not alone in this knowledge. Years ago, miles away, a mother once wrapped her weapon around her children and sent them sailing away. She dared to hope for a future, even as the clouds of destruction closed in around her. A different place, a different time: a young woman stands and tells a room of golden-clad cultivators that their judgements can no longer hold her. She walks out, head held high, exchanges the comfort of her Sect for the freedom of an untainted conscience.

Soon, a sister will throw herself in the way of harm and dare to love someone who the world thinks is unlovable. She will choose compassion when the only thing around her is hate.

They will be scared.

They will do it regardless.)

Gently, Wen Qing smooths her brother’s bangs back from his face. Smiles. He has grown to be so kind, compassionate, gentle—everything that she had hoped, holding him in her arms as a baby. She will not let his last memory be of her cowering.

“I love you,” she tells Wen Ning, and kisses him on the forehead. Zhiruo and Suyin curl around each other, two bundles of warmth between their linked hands. “Thank you. And I’m sorry.”

Together, they step forward.


What am I to you? Lan Wangji had asked him, standing there on the slope of Phoenix Mountain, hair dappled with sunlight. Bichen’s whiskers twitching from her place at his side, both refusing to look away, gold and blue tucked among the green.

The forest, quiet. The hunt, forgotten.

My zhiji, Wei Wuxian had replied, the words ripped out of his heart, Suibian warm against his skin. Hoping, scared, trying not to show either. Missing them so badly, even when they were right in front of him, close enough to touch.

The one person who can truly understand us. The one who speaks to our hearts.

He’d meant it, felt it so strongly that it cut through the dark haze in his mind, bright and pure and overwhelming. The thrill in his throat at Lan Zhan’s reply had kept him dizzy for days.

Wei Ying. I still am.

And now it doesn’t even matter.

None of it.

“Wei Ying,” a voice is saying, over and over, but Wei Wuxian just holds tighter to Suibian where she’s digging her claws into his clothes. “Wei Ying, please.”

His body feels cold down to his bones, clothes sticky with patches of congealing blood. There is something hot and wet beneath him, a sharp pain poking into his back. It’s so dark, no matter how much he turns his head or strains his eyes—so dark, and loud, even though some part of him knows that there’s nothing around them but an empty cave and his own mistakes.

Wen Qing, he thinks, and a sob collects in his throat, building. Wen Ning.

Shijie.

The sob breaks out of him and he thrashes against the hands trying to keep him still.

“Wei Ying! Be still. You are…”

The rest of the words fade, even as the firm touch on his cheeks doesn’t. Something is pressed against his lips, and he swallows down a gulp of liquid before coughing it back onto the ground. A soft cloth wipes against his mouth and something in him thinks oh, I know that, even if he doesn’t fully understand how.  

“Lan Zhan,” he breathes, the moment feeling too familiar, like a memory reaching him through the haze of endless years. A spot of white through all the darkness.

“I am here.”

No, he realizes, as it all comes back, as more tears form. No. You shouldn’t be.

He was wrong. He was so wrong, and Lan Zhan tried to warn him. Suibian tried. And now everyone is—

“Lan Zhan,” he repeats, and tries to touch his face. His bloody fingers scramble against white cloth, then a wrist. Lan Wangji’s eyes, when they swim into focus, are wider and more panicked than he’s ever seen them.

“Wei Ying?”

“It’s my—it’s my fault—she’s, she’s—”

It’s burned into his brain, behind his eyelids, in every shadowed crevice: Shijie’s and Xiaolian’s shocked faces as the sword went through her, resentment swirling around them all, Jiang Cheng and Sandu rushing to their sides.

He killed her, he killed them, he—

He doesn’t realize he’s talking until Lan Wangji makes a shushing noise, pressing two fingers to his lips. “Wei Ying, stay still. I will transfer spiritual energy—”

“No!” he cries immediately, jolting back so hard that his head hits the cave wall and leaves his ears ringing. In his arms, Suibian lets out a shriek that’s sounds like a wild animal being tortured. “Don’t, don’t!”

They can’t find out, they can’t.

“A-Xian,” Suibian breathes, trembling, and he tries to soothe her through the haze of pain and fear clogging his mind. The voices are getting so loud. They scream and rattle against his ribs when he breathes in. “A-Xian, don’t leave me alone, please, please—”

He holds her closer, flinching when Lan Wangji moves toward them once more.

“Don’t!”

“Wei Ying, I will not hurt you.”

It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, if Lan Wangji hurts him. Everyone that Wei Wuxian has ever loved is either dead or hates him. After all that, after all his mistakes, what’s the point?

It’s wrong, everything is wrong.

“Is he going to be alright?” he hears Suibian ask—and like a flame coming to life in a bright room he’s a teenager all over again, in another cave, another time, with Lan Wangji’s hands cupping his cheeks. Feverish and young, Suibian’s warmth ten feet away, so strange but for once not unwelcome, because he’d known—

Known she would be alright.

They had kept Suibian safe, back then. And now…

“Lan Zhan,” he sobs, when the back of a hand presses against his forehead, skin meeting trembling skin, “you have to promise me. You have to.”

“Wei Ying?”

“Listen, listen to me.” Wei Wuxian needs Lan Wangji to understand, more than he’s ever needed anything. Him understanding is the salve to a bloody thought that has been rattling around in his brain since the moment he realized the inevitable end.

It’s unceasing, unrelenting.

I don’t know what will happen to A-Sui if I die.

It cuts through everything—the pain, the confusion, the fever. Their link is long gone; there’s no reason for him to believe that if he dies, she goes with him. So if he dies here, what happens to her? With her own energy, but no him, can she even pass on?

If they kill him will she linger, alone? Left on her own, forever? For eternity?

Will they—hurt her? Retaliation, an easy target for all the things he’s done?

“Promise me you’ll keep her safe. You have to, I—she’s going to need you,” he tells Lan Wangji, frantic. Lan Wangji, who stepped aside in the rain. Lan Wangji, who bought his turnips. Lan Wangji, who sent them what they needed. “Lan Zhan, please, promise me! If I die, you have to—you have to— take her, and make sure that she’s linked, and protected, please—”

“I do not understand,” Lan Wangji murmurs, even as Wei Wuxian watches him try. He grabs to onto the front of Lan Wangji’s robes, curls his fingers into the fabric. He wants to shake him, to force him to get it. “Wei Ying, I—”

“She needs you!”

A hand covers his own, gently untangles it from the fabric. In some distant part of his brain, he notices it’s shaking, a leaf buffeted by unsteady wind.

“Save your strength. Let me—”

“You have to take her,” he chokes out, and tries to hand over Suibian to him.

The effect is instantaneous. Lan Wangji recoils back like Wei Wuxian threw a physical blow, nearly falling onto the stone in his haste to jerk away. Mouth hanging open, he stares, pale and confused, although Wei Wuxian can’t understand why.

Suibian lets out a scream that’s so loud that all of them flinch in pain.

“No!” she shrieks, flailing, high-pitched kek-kek-keks as she fights him tooth and nail to stay put. She digs her teeth into his arm at his next attempt to dislodge her, sinks them in deep. He doesn’t even feel it. “No! A-Xian!”

“Please,” he begs her, tearing his eyes away from Lan Wangji’s outline in the dark. “It’s ok. A-Sui, it’s ok. They’ll keep you safe, like before.”

“I’m never leaving you, you promised, you promised,” she wails, and lets out a threating yowl when Bichen slinks forward. Her fur puffs under his fingers. “Don’t you dare! I’m his, you can’t take me from him!”

“Suibian,” Lan Wangji says, as Wei Wuxian’s head lolls backwards to hit the stone again. There’s a quiver there that is nothing like Lan Wangji, immovable as a mountain. “We are not taking you.”

“Don’t touch me.

“Unthinkable. I will not. I just need to see his injuries.”

“No! Get away! Leave us alone!”

“Suibian,” Bichen’s voice, shaking in a way Wei Wuxian has never heard, “move off his chest. Just a few seconds. Just—come here, and then you can go back. I promise, I swear.”

There’s a shuffle of movement, then a pained snarl. Wei Wuxian’s eyes jerk open to see a steadily growing line of red dripping down Bichen’s muzzle. Horrified, he looks at Suibian, whose teeth are bared and covered in blood.

Lan Wangji and Bichen are staring, frozen.

“A-Sui,” he gasps, and she flattens herself against him with a whine. “No, don’t hurt them.”

Her eyes, when she looks at him, are fierce. Instead of apologizing, she presses her face into his neck and clings.

“Never,” she sobs, voice muffled. “Never.”

She’s clearly done talking to any of them. Wei Wuxian would go back to begging, but there’s no more energy left in him. His limbs feel heavy, his tongue swollen and useless. With every drop of blood sliding down his skin, the world is getting darker.

Distantly he thinks he hears footsteps, sees the shadow of Lan Wangji tense and shift in front of him. Someone is talking, maybe, someone new. He doesn’t know—the world is spinning. Voices are whispering in his ears, so loud that Suibian’s cries seem like nothing in comparison. 

“Wei Ying,” he hears through it all, “please. Come back to Gusu with me.”

Anger turns his vision red, bringing reality back blade-sharp for a few precious seconds.

How dare you? he thinks. The same question, every time. Here he is, begging for his daemon’s life—and Lan Wangji is still thinking about black and white, right and wrong, punishment.

He holds Suibian tighter.

“Get lost.”

“Please.”

“Get lost.

“Please,” he thinks he hears in reply. “Wei Ying. I—love you. Please.”

But that last part can’t be right at all.

His anger intensifies, coalesces with the confusion and the pain and the sorrow, and he suddenly hates, hates more than anything, those terrible voices in his head that make him hear things that aren’t real no matter how badly he wants them to be.

“Get lost!” he screams, the sound echoing in his head and off the cave walls.

And as the footsteps draw closer, the blur of white in front of him standing with the scrape of a sword from its scabbard as shouts echo off the walls, he finally sinks into familiar, flute-touched darkness.

He stays there for thirteen years.

Chapter Text


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.

Chapter Text


"I will love you forever, whatever happens. Till I die and after I die, and when I find my way out of the land of the dead, I'll drift about forever, all my atoms, till I find you again. And when they use our atoms to make new lives, they won't just be able to take one, they'll have to take two: one of you and one of me."
— Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials


Wei Wuxian wakes up in a body that is not his, holding a daemon that he does not recognize.

He shifts, a tiny thing—the leaden, sleep-mussed movement of someone who is trying to resist the gentle pull of morning, unwilling to leave the sweet cocoon of dreams. It is a well-known feeling, one he succumbs to with ease; he lets his drooping, blurry eyes flutter closed, feels the way his ribs expand and contract, steady and soft. Under his fingers, the little form tucked against his chest does the same: slow breaths, in and out, broken only by the occasional twitch as reality tugs at its periphery.

When he opens his eyes again, everything is pleasantly muted, out-of-focus. There’s a fog over his mind that lingers in the gap between each breath, making everything feel slow and sleep-heavy. Curled up there on the floor with an unfamiliar warmth in his arms and rough hair against his face, it takes some time before he thinks, like a distant breath of wind caressing his cheeks: huh.

This is strange. Something about this, about the sun streaming onto the dark wooden floors through the closed windows, seems… off.

So when his brain starts to catch up, when he finally realizes that yes, he’s lying on the floor and yes, he’s awake—his first reaction is, of course: wait, what? 

He has a few seconds of confused disorientation, of getting through the rest of who when where why—before the warm weight in his arms, which had been limp moments before, stiffens.

Whatever other thoughts he might have had are cut off by an abrupt, high-pitched yowl.

“Let me go!

Wei Wuxian yelps as sharp teeth sink into his arm, the bite is so fierce that his entire body jerks back on instinct. The weight in his arms disappears; there’s a flash of tan and grey, and seconds later an unknown fox is pressed against the other side of the room, snarling.

“What the—” Wei Wuxian starts, and his voice is not his. It makes him cut himself off, confused all over again. Head spinning, he grabs his arm as a steady stream of blood starts to drip from the wound.

“Stay away!” the fox shrieks at him, ears pressed back against its head. He stares at it, heart hammering in his chest. “Where am I? Who are you?!”

Oh, shit.

Tough luck for this fox, but he doesn’t have the answers to those questions either. He has literally no idea where he is or why this desert-colored daemon is with him, and based on the sudden change of voice and how pale his hand looks when he holds it in front of his face, he has a sinking feeling that his name might not be the right one anymore either.

He remembers, vaguely, a voice through the darkness, of whispers that felt like a dream, of a pulling sensation in his head—

Mo Xuanyu, his mind supplies, but from where he has no idea.

And then, stomach dropping: You died, remember?

He draws in a harsh breath, taking in the rest of his surroundings for the first time. Is this his room? There’s barely anything in here, just some tables and a broken-down dresser coated with dust. Makeup is haphazardly strewn across the floor, half-covering a variety of talismans done with red ink.

Not red ink, he realizes. Blood. He knows those patterns.

It all comes together. Sacrificial Ritual.

It’s… a bit of a shock. A lot of a shock, actually. He’s back. He’s alive, somehow, even though he knows he is absolutely supposed to be dead. And—

Dread clogs his throat. Oh no.

No, no. He looks around the room, frantic. He’s alone. Where is she, where’s—

The fox lets out another yowl, baring its teeth.

“Let me out!” it –she, he realizes—screeches. When he doesn’t make a move towards her (too frozen with steadily building grief to think of anything but red and white fur, of how the last time he saw Suibian she was so scared, of the fact that now she’s missing) the fox takes the opportunity to try and vault up the wall and out a nearby window.

It’s useless: she’s either too uncoordinated or too weak. All she does is hit the wall with a thunk, causing a mouse that was sitting by the window frame to squeak in alarm and scurry under a nearby dresser.

The shrieks and sobs resulting from her failed attempt are so hitched and broken that pity shoots through Wei Wuxian, even through the haze of heartache.

This can’t be happening.

The pieces of the puzzle are coming together, and they’re unthinkable. If this Mo Xuanyu person was desperate enough to give up his body for some reason, then this is Mo Xuanyu’s daemon. It’s either unlinked and going to lose its mind, or now he’s linked to it.

And either one means Suibian is— is—

He stares unseeing at the floor as the grey and tan daemon howls itself hoarse in the corner, despair settling in his bones. No, no. no.

Then, with a wail so loud that it seems to echo in the small space, the fox sobs, “A-Xian, help!”

His head jerks up so fast that his neck cracks.

The fox is now scrambling at the walls like an animal trapped in a cage, leaving little claw marks across the wood. She’s crying, over and over again, “Help, A-Xian, help, where are you?! I’m here, can you hear me?! I’m trapped, there’s a lunatic, he touched me, A-Xian, where—”

And Wei Wuxian’s heart, which had stopped from the first call of his name, stutters back to life.

It takes him a few seconds before he manages to rasp, shaking and unbelieving, “A-Sui?”

The fox’s crying stops mid-howl.

She swings her head back to look at him, eyes wide. There are tears tracks running down the fur on her cheeks, a smear of blood on her mouth from where she bit him.

The face itself is unknown to him, but he could recognize that expression anywhere.

There’s a moment where everything is still—where he stares at her, and she stares at him. Between them he feels what he had not thought to check for at first: a steady, unbroken link. And on the other end of it: someone he recognizes.

Tears fill his eyes.

Suibian asks, voice trembling, “…A-Xian?”

“I’m here,” he breathes, and tries to blink away the wetness that is making the shape of her into a blur. He wants to reach for her, entire body trembling with how much he wants to, but habit has him stuck in place, terrified to scare her off. “A-Sui, I’m here, it’s me—”

“A-Xian!” she cries, and launches herself across the room so hard that it knocks the remaining breath out of him.

He gasps, crushing her to his chest as she scrambles at his neck and shoulders, a wriggling mass of tears and yips. She is so different from her old form –smaller, rougher fur, all the wrong colors—and yet holding her feels so deeply right that his entire chest swells with it.

Her nose presses against his cheek, his eyelids, his ear, and he lets out a sob.

“I’m here, it’s ok, it’s ok.” He’s dizzy with relief, crying so hard that he can barely get the words out. “You’re safe, you’re alive.

“You died,” she wails right back, the sorrow palpable through their link.

After so many years of not feeling it, of empty, the sensation makes him shudder. It’s magnetic, painful and wonderful all at once. For the first time in who knows how long, he feels himself pulled into their bond.

It’s a sensation that he never thought he would have again. Suibian is bright and alive, the tether between them tingling with the same energy. The feeling warms him more than a freshly made bath, a fire, and he’s hit with such an intense, unadulterated love that he trembles all over again. It’s all-encompassing, the kind of love that he used to feel every single day until that fateful one on the mountain.

It doesn’t feel entirely the same as their old link— Mo Xuanyu, he realizes distantly, must not have a very strong core. The bond is there, but he can’t feel anything from her outside the obvious, firework-bright feelings. Only one reaches him at a time, a never-ending loop of love-sorrow-relief, love-sorrow-relief, over and over again.

There’s no room for all of them at once, no subtlety or underlying sentiment, the complexity from their prior link gone. But he can feel something. Which means Mo Xuanyu has a core, and that their bond can be strengthened—and just that thought has him crying harder.

He clutches her tighter, unable to speak.

Suibian whines in his arms, high-pitched and frantic. He focuses on channeling his energy, reflecting the feeling back at her: this unspoken I love you that is bigger than he could ever make it if it was simply said out loud.

He thought it would be hard to do, after being without it for so long; but it’s easy, like breathing.

Easier, even.

“A-Xian,” she hiccups, a broken noise, and they hold onto each other and cry.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t bother to keep track of how long they sit there on the floor, trembling, clinging. It is long enough that the shadows move a few inches across the room, that the hitching of their sobs ebbs into hoarseness. Long enough for the rapid beating of their now-synced hearts to rush forward, then calm.

Long enough for him to know: this is real.

And he has no idea why Mo Xuanyu did it.

“A-Xian,” Suibian says, and he makes a soft noise of acknowledgement in his throat. Neither of them have made any effort to move; she’s still tucked against him, and the idea of letting her go is unthinkable. Through their bond (their bond, she’s here, he can feel her), he senses the same lost feeling that is clouding his own mind. “What’s going on?”

Good question. He wishes he knew the answer.

There’s so little that he actually understands, let alone remembers. All the details feel fuzzy, just out of reach. He can remember flashes of his death (which he is not poking with a stick no matter how long it is, no thank you) but everything before and after is spotty.

He just knows is that it’s been dark, so very dark for so very long, like he was stuck in an ongoing, ever-present drift. Alone, he realizes—no brightness of her presence by his side.

Wherever he was, he doesn’t think she was with him.

“I have no idea.” His voice shakes; he hopes she doesn’t read too much into it. “Do you remember anything?”

He doesn’t want to ask it, not at all, but he needs to. If she was somewhere else, somewhere worse…

Suibian looks up at him, eyes big and confused.

“No,” she says, and the relief hits him so strong that his breath stutters. “No, not after all those sect members came to hurt us. I was at the Mounds and now I’m here. It’s all so fuzzy, like I just—went to sleep. A-Xian, where did we go?

He shakes his head. If she can’t remember that strange stretch of time, the echo of a nightmare of being apart, then good. He shoves the rest of that thought away before it can spiral out of control. They’re both here and together now, and he’s not going to let anything change that.

He manhandles her so she’s tucked on her back, looking up at him with watery eyes. “You’re ok? You’re not hurt?”

She nods, still shivery. Her eyes go to the bite on his arm, and her ears press back against her head.

“I—I bit you—”

He shushes her, smoothing down her coat. “You didn’t know. You did exactly what you should, I’m fine, I’m fine.”

She wriggles, whining low in her throat in a tone he recognizes, and he brings her up to his neck so she can lick his cheek. As she does, he belatedly realizes that there’s lines of ink and powder smeared all over her fur; when he looks at his hands, he finds them stained with color as well.

Slowly, he touches a hand to his face. Makeup?

“A-Xian,” Suibian says, as the adrenaline fades and they let the rest of their situation sink in, “who are we?”

__

That, it turns out, is the easy question.

The better one, and one that is much more difficult to figure out, is: what’s happening? And by the time Wei Wuxian starts to get some clues to that, he has a bigger problem on his hands.

“Oh shit,” Suibian whispers from where they’re hiding behind a pillar, staring at the shapes of Lan Wangji and Bichen on the rooftop.

Wei Wuxian’s heart is in his throat, stomach occupied with the unpleasant skip-sink that it’s been doing ever since he’d stumbled out of Mo Xuanyu’s room and realized he’d been absent from the world for thirteen years.

They look—Wei Wuxian doesn’t even know. Not different, because he recognized them the second they descended from the clouds in classic dramatic Gusu Lan style, looking like some ethereal beings sent from the heavens themselves. Lan Wangji is still unfairly beautiful, breathtaking in the light of the moon; Bichen is still elegant and regal, speckled coat standing out in the darkness. They have the same posture, the same line of their shoulders, the same intense gaze.

Even after all these years, it’s so clearly them that Wei Wuxian’s chest aches at the sight.

But something has changed, too. There’s a newness in the way their eyes flick over the courtyard like they’re searching it, in the twitch of Bichen’s nose. In the way Lan Wangji looks at the disciples, and they look back with awe-struck eyes.

Gods, he missed them. He missed them so much.

“Should we go?”

Suibian’s voice breaks him from his thoughts. She’s right: they really shouldn’t be staring at them. Not because it’s impolite, or whatever, but because there’s a literal sword swinging around through the air and trying to hack everyone in the courtyard to pieces. This is not the time for him to be distracted by an old friend, no matter how much he wants to go and throw his arms around Lan Wangji.

(Plus, Lan Wangji might hate him now. Hugging him probably isn’t anywhere in his near future, not anymore.)

With more effort than it should take, Wei Wuxian forces his eyes to the sword in question. It’s clear that it’s resentful energy, but from this distance, he can’t get a better read than that.

So when Lan Wangji tells the disciples, “The Stygian Tiger Amulet,” Wei Wuxian nearly has a heart attack.

His memory may be shit, but he knows he destroyed that. 

“Let’s go now,” Suibian urges, a low whine in her throat as anxiety buzzes through their bond. He nods—if he’s caught near whatever this is, then everyone is going to assume it’s him who set the whole thing up. He needs about fifty more talismans in his back pocket before he can fight a group of cultivators this large; they need to get out of here.

He casts one last look at Lan Wangji and Bichen before stepping back into the shadows.

“Hey, where did that Mo-qianbei go?” he hears a disciple ask; but by the time Lan Wangji and Bichen step out into the street chasing the faint scent of a fox, they’re long gone. 


“It would be faster to walk, at this point.”

Wei Wuxian groans, tugging on the reins of the donkey for the sixth time this minute. It’s currently munching on grass without giving him so much as a glance for him efforts, chewing in lazy, unhurried circles. Suibian watches from where she’s perched on a nearby rock, the tan of her fur standing out against the dark stone.

“I will not be out-stubborned by a mule,” he hisses in response, even as said mule proves otherwise. Another tug on the reins; another fruitless attempt.

Suibian sighs, glancing at the road a few mǐ away from where they chose to take a break for lunch.

“Maybe we could try finding a sword and flying?”

Wei Wuxian pauses just long enough to look at her, eyebrows raised.

Her ears flatten.

“Alright,” she sighs, and puts her head on her paws. “Definitely not.”

Yeah, there’s no way they’re flying. They’ve only had a few precious minutes test out these new bodies between when they woke up and now, and while Wei Wuxian is grateful to have one, to have her, he’s got to admit: it seems they’re both much, much weaker than they used to be.

Mo Xuanyu either didn’t have the chance or the inclination to push himself, and it shows: the most they can be apart is a dozen or so mǐ, and their spiritual energy drains quickly. Even the simplest exercises leave them shivery and tired, and the bite Suibian gave him the day before hasn’t healed yet.

They’re going to have to get creative, if this is the norm.

Then again, they’ve done more with less. Much less. 

“We’ll figure something out,” he reassures her, and she gives a half-hearted wag of her tail in response. Wei Wuxian resumes his attempts with the donkey, shifting his angle so all his weight is pulling on the lead.

The donkey is, tragically, unfazed.

They don’t really have a plan, as of yet. Wei Wuxian’s first instinct is just to get as far away from Mo Manor as possible, so they’ve been doing that, but that’s not going to be much use if they want to figure out the last slash on his arm. The problem is that every place he’s thought of to look for information has at least a dozen people who want to kill him, or did kill him, so they’re directionless until one of them thinks of something clever.

Which they’re admittedly very good at doing, but it would be nice to at least have an inkling of an idea.

Not that a direction matters, if this donkey won’t move.

Suibian’s ears perk up as the sound of other travelers reaches them from the road, footfalls brushing through the foliage and a few muffled laughs. In a flash, she’s darted off the rock, flattening herself to the ground behind his legs and peeking her head out to watch.

He looks down at her with a frown. There’s been a residual, continual tension in her since that night in Mo Manor; her tail flicks back and forth, back and forth, the way it does when she’s truly anxious.

“Hey, it’s ok, we’re alright.”

She shushes him, eyes fixed on the road. When the group rounds the corner and comes into sight, a hodgepodge of strangers in unrecognizable robes, her ears finally go back to a resting position, the tense lines of her body uncoiling.

“See?” Wei Wuxian says, and goes back to the donkey. “Why are you so nervous? We’re in the middle of nowhere.”

Her tail fwip fwips against the dried grass, another anxious twitch.

“You don’t think they followed us or anything, do you?”

Wei Wuxian glances at her, managing a breathless, “Who?”

She shoots him an unimpressed look. Quieter, so they’re not overheard by the steadily approaching group, she whispers, “Lan Zhan and Bichen! Who else? It wouldn’t be hard to find us, Bichen has a really good nose, you know!”

“I mean they could,” he reasons, straining on the lead, “but why would they?”

“Are you serious?” She claws up his legs, making him wince, before leaping onto the donkey’s back and ignoring the indignant bray that follows. He only realizes that it was so she could get a better view of his face when she narrows her eyes at him over the donkey’s head. “Tell me you’re joking.”

“No? I mean, I get that we were friends, I just don’t know why they’d bother now?”

Suibian blinks at him.

“Um,” she says, and her tone has edged into pure disbelief, “because they care about us?”

“Huh?”

“A-Xian,” she huffs at him, her tail fluffing up in frustration, “don’t play dumb right now. If they think whatever happened with the sword is because of us, then they’ll figure out we’re back and look for us! After all the things they did to protect us in the cave, they wouldn’t suddenly just stop! They seemed really worried—and it’s not like anything has changed about us since then.”

Puzzled, Wei Wuxian stops trying to drag the donkey forward.

“What are you talking about? We fought that Xuanwu creature in the cave way before everything went down. We still had our cores and everything. Maybe Lan Zhan and Bichen cared back then, but things definitely changed between then and now.”

She stares at him. He stares back, confused.

Slowly, she says, “No, the cave. Like, near the end. Don’t you remember?”

He frowns, trying to bring the memory into focus. All he remembers from a cave is Lan Wangji’s face in the darkness, the burn of fever, Bichen trying to soothe Suibian. And the last time they were like that, it was because they were fighting Xuanwu. 

With the sinking feeling he’s missing something important, he asks, “Um, what cave again?”

The disbelieving look that crosses Suibian’s face is one he knows well, tinged with some other emotion that he doesn’t. He feels a quick flash of something complex through their bond, but before he can grab onto it to figure out what it is, she’s opening her mouth to say something.

The cave! You told them to—”

And then an apple hits her smack on the head.

__

“I’m sorry again about my daughter,” says the old woman, bowing to Wei Wuxian and Suibian as they part near the path to Dafan Mountain. Her daemon, a sundra pangolin, bows as well.

“Aiyo, really,” Wei Wuxian waves off their apologies, trying not to feel awkward about the whole thing. After all, if he just sets aside the way she and the rest of her group met them, they’ve been pleasant company. “We should be thanking you! How often do we find travelers on the road with so many good stories?”

The old woman smiles, but it doesn’t fully reach her eyes.

Behind them, her daughter and her songbird daemon are staring unseeingly at the outline of the mountain in the distance, thankfully no longer in possession of any apples. Unfortunately, she seems to still be possessed herself.

Her eyes are empty—as if there is no longer a soul within her that calls her body home.

(“She’s been like that since her husband went up the mountain,” the old woman had told them, walking alongside them on the road as the rest of her group had laughed and chatted away in front. She’d held her daughter by the arm, carefully guiding her over the bumps of the road and pulling her forward every time she tried to stop and dance. “He went up to get firewood, and never returned.”

“Then why is she like this?” Suibian had asked, ears twisted at the daughter.

The old woman’s mouth had started to wobble. “She insisted on finding him, would not take no for an answer. One night she snuck out, and when she came back, she was like this.”

“It’s those damn soul-stealers,” one of the men in front had called back, and Wei Wuxian had looked away from the woman’s grief-stricken face to find him watching them. At Wei Wuxian’s tilted head, he’d scoffed. “This place used to be blessed land, you know. Sometime over the past few years, it’s started to decline—and now there’s monsters, ones that snatch up people and eat their very souls!”

He’d lowered his voice at the last part, like he’d expected Wei Wuxian to cower in fear; but Wei Wuxian had looked at Suibian, eyebrows raised, and she’s wagged her tail in response.

“It’s all thanks to that damn Yiling Patriarch,” spat another, much older than the first, the wrinkled lines of his face drawing together in distaste. Wei Wuxian’s heart had skipped in his chest. “All that evil he sewed into the land before he died!”

At that, the rest of the group had perked up, murmuring to each other.

“Hey!” A younger man had turned to the older one, indignant, his sparrow daemon chirping in protest as well. “Don’t say that! Look at all the useful things he made. My compass has kept us safe this whole trip, and we have the Yiling Patriarch to thank for it!”

That had made Wei Wuxian bite back a smile, looking down at the road.

“Pah! You young folks, too eager and foolish to remember the lessons of history,” the older man had griped, while Wei Wuxian tried not to laugh. Really, how did all old men sound the same? “Safe, eh? Have you completely forgotten what happened?!”

“Lots of things happen in history, Shufu,” the younger man had sighed, and the older man had shaken a fist at him, scowling.

“Selfish boy, thinking only of yourself! Those evil tricks have hurt so many, and yet you claim they’re fine! Why, I’d like you to ask Young Madam Jin if she felt safe on that battlefield all those years ago!”

The words had whipped across Wei Wuxian like a physical blow.

“Oh,” Suibian had whimpered, an involuntary, shocked noise, the amusement in Wei Wuxian chest turning to ice. The rest of the group had gone hushed, glancing at each other with anxious expressions. Even the young man, so eager about the compass, had lowered his head, shame etched across his face.

Wei Wuxian’s heart had thudded against his throat, the regret threatening to choke him.

Shijie. Shijie, Shijie, I’m sorry, I—

The older man had looked at all of them, their contrite faces and Wei Wuxian’s hunched shoulders, and crossed his arms.

“That’s what I thought,” he’d said, his mantis daemon nodding sagely on his shoulder, and turned back to the road.

Wei Wuxian and Suibian had stopped listening to their conversations, after that.)

Now, he smiles at the older woman and her daughter, pushing back the hurt of the memory. “Thank you for your company on the way here. We’re sorry we can’t do more to help her, but if we find out anything, I’ll have someone send you a letter.”

“That’s very kind,” the older woman says, half-hearted smile still on her face. Wei Wuxian can tell that she doesn’t believe him.

“Do be careful,” her pangolin adds, and bows to them again. “And we are truly sorry about our daughter.”

Wei Wuxian raises his hands in the air, laughing. “Enough of that, it’s fine, it’s fine! An apple to the head is good for your health, or… something like that, right?”

They both blink him, confusion inked across their faces—and only then does Wei Wuxian realize they were probably apologizing for the young lady’s strange behavior throughout the trip and not what will, he is sure, go down in Suibian’s personal history as The Terrible Flying Apple Incident.

Ah, well. Different priorities.

“Thanks for the information!” he adds cheerfully before they can correct him, and waves.

Suibian grumbles quietly into his ear from her place on his shoulder, keeping a pretty smile in place while the group walks away. Like the very good fox she is, it’s only when they’re gone from sight that she starts to whine.

“She threw it so hard, A-Xian, what if I have a concussion?”

“You don’t have a concussion,” he soothes, because it was the first thing he had checked for when she’d been practically catapulted off now-named Little Apple’s back from the force of the throw. The panic that had jumped into his throat when she’d hit the ground is embarrassing in hindsight (it’s just an apple, a stupid apple, why was he afraid of that?), but given their past few days, he’s going to give himself a break on that one.

He doesn’t know how hard of a hit she can take yet. He’d rather not risk any hits at all.

Still, he rubs his hands over her ears, gentling the touch when he moves to the spot on her head that got hit.

“That never would have taken me out before,” she sighs, turning her face into his palm so he can scratch her neck. The sunlight streaming through the canopy dapples her fur with shadows, and he traces one, savoring the feel of her. “I’m so small.

He hums in acknowledgement: she is. Not tiny or anything, but definitely smaller than she used to be. He knows it bothers her, just like her new colors, but he doesn’t mind it. Suibian could have been reborn as a goldfish and he would still love her; the fact she’s a fox, albeit a kind that he doesn’t recognize or know the species of, is yet another stroke of good luck.

He’ll admit it’s strange, though, looking at her in this form. Different and not.

But not bad.

He must be quiet for too long because Suibian whines, turning self-conscious. “Do you not like that I’m small?”

“What?” He scoffs, turning his head and kissing her on the nose. “Of course I like it! You’re adorable. And portable!”

She makes a face at him. “But I can’t run as fast now.”

“At least you can run faster than Little Apple?”

Little Apple brays right after he says it, making Suibian giggle. Wei Wuxian grins at her: mission complete.

“And hey, we finally got a lead!” he adds, keeping his tone cheery, and starts nudging Little Apple up the path. A soul-stealing entity definitely fits the realm of weird that they’re looking for. All he needs now is a few ghosts popping up, and they’ll be right in his normal wheelhouse. 

“That guy said there was a hunt in the area, right?” Suibian asks, tail flicking against his collarbone as she swivels her head back and forth. “Think we’ll see other cultivators?”

“I hope not,” he says, even though he’s not actually sure what he hopes. There’s not enough time to examine the feeling in his chest whenever he imagines white robes under moonlight, of turning his back on them in the night. He looks down at Suibian. “Smell any snow leopard?”

Suibian raises her nose in the air. It twitches a few times before she sighs, “Not yet.”

There’s an undertone of disappointment in her voice. He resolutely ignores it.

"I bet they're all busy playing politics," he says, and gives her a kiss on the top of her head. "Just you wait: we'll be in and out in no time."

That seems to cheer her up a bit. She raises her head to lick his cheek, tail wagging. "Probably. I wonder if—oh."

She stops halfway, staring at something ahead of them. Her head tilts, curiosity zipping through their bond—and that’s the exact moment that Wei Wuxian realizes maybe they’re not out of trouble just yet.

He looks back at the path ahead of them, prepared for the worst.

Instead, he sees two spiritual nets hanging from the nearby trees, full of the tangled outline of what has to be human beings.

“Well what’s this?” he says, as he and Suibian approach one of the swaying nets, Little Apple stomping and braying in protest at having to do her job and actually move. A few legs are kicking and wriggling against the gold beaded thread –Jin nets, he realizes, no other sect has ever been so ostentatious— and he watches as the branch above them bends from the weight. “Oi! Anyone in there?”

The legs stop for a moment, a surprised pause.

“Hello?!” says a muffled voice, and thankfully, Wei Wuxian doesn’t recognize it. Suibian’s tail starts to wag. “Hello?! Is someone there?”

“Just a passersby,” Wei Wuxian calls up to them, grinning. The legs start to frantically kick, voices clamoring all over each other and making it impossible to make out what they’re saying. “Hey now, calm down! What happened?”

“We got stuck in these nets!” the person calls back, and Suibian snorts.  

“We can see that. How did you all even get up there?”

There’s a long, embarrassed silence.

“Can you just get out of here?” one of the voices calls back eventually, naively hopeful, and Wei Wuxian tuts. Suibian is starting to giggle on his shoulder, eyes bright.

“I don’t know,” he says, drawing out the last word and leaning against the tree. Now that he’s closer, he can see their faces—three young men and a young lady, all wearing Jin robes, with their daemons carefully pressed against their chests, out of the way of any accidental touches. They must be disciples; he grins. “How do I know you’re not monsters, waiting to gobble me up when I let you down? Maybe we should just leave.”

Immediately, they start to protest.

“No, don’t go away—”

“We’re not monsters, we won’t eat you, please help us down before Jin-gongzi finds us—”

“Have mercy, please—”

Wei Wuxian chuckles and straightens back up, wiping his hands on his robes. “Alright, alright. Give me a second, I don’t carry a fancy sword like you do, so I’ll have to get creative. Hang tight right here.”

Suibian nibbles on his ear, delighted at the pun, as he goes poking around to try and find something to get them down. Mo Xuanyu isn’t strong enough to break through a spiritual net, he already knows that; maybe something to break the tree branch itself…

“Oh no,” he hears one of the disciples say, and at that same moment, an arrow flies past his head.

Suibian yips in alarm and scrambles off his shoulders, landing on the ground with an unhappy ack-ack-ack before darting behind Little Apple. Wei Wuxian turns, dropping one of the rocks he thought might increase the weight of the net, if he could somehow pass it to the disciples, and spots a teenager working his way down the path towards them.

He’s a Jin, that much is clear—vermillion mark on his head, luxurious white and gold robes with a white peony fastened to his chest. He has the walk of a Jin, too: self-important, chin raised high as he approaches.

“What’s going on?” the kid snaps, eyes on the nets. Wei Wuxian finally locates the arrow that had flown past them, now embedded in the tree’s grey bark.

(Either a bad aim, or he wasn’t trying to kill them. Wei Wuxian has his fingers crossed for the latter).

“We got stuck, we’ve been hanging here for hours—”

“Jin-gongzi, help us—”

“This stranger showed up and said he had an idea—”

At the mention of a stranger, the young Jin whirls around to face him. Wei Wuxian has just enough time to make out delicate features and a scowling face before the kid’s eyes widen.

“You!” he shouts.

Wei Wuxian blinks. He looks to his left and right, wondering if he’s somehow missed another person joining them. Suibian pokes her head out from her hiding spot and does the same, ears pressed back against her head.

The Jin just keeps staring at them, surprise all over his face.

“Uh.” Wei Wuxian looks down at Suibian, then back to the Jin. He points a finger at himself. “Me?”

“Yes, you! What are—” the Jin glances between him and Suibian, hand curling around his sword. Wei Wuxian frowns when he sees look he sends her way: disgusted, and almost hesitant, like he isn’t sure if he should even be looking in the first place. His next words are directed at Wei Wuxian. “What are you two doing here?”

“Do we know you?" Suibian asks, scrambling up Little Apple’s side so she can insert herself into the conversation.

At her voice, the Jin does a double-take. His head turns her direction so fast that Wei Wuxian hears his next crack. He blinks at her; she blinks back, head tilted.

“You talked?” he demands eventually, and Suibian tilts her head almost ninety degrees. The Jin turns to Wei Wuxian. “So you’ve both finally lost it enough to have her open her mouth, have you? I thought exile would get you to shut up.”

Exile? What the—

“My uncle made the right choice sending you away,” the kid continues, oblivious to their shared bewilderment. He sniffs, haughty. “I’m not surprised that the Mo Clan asked you to lock yourselves away after that. I mean, look at you.”

Wow. Wei Wuxian stares him down, annoyance prickling at the back of his neck. Even for a Jin, this kid is a brat.

“Hey!” Suibian protests, and all her fur puffs up, indignation on his behalf—or maybe Mo Xuanyu’s, wherever his spirit now lies. Hell, it might just be because of the tone. “That’s not a very nice thing to say! Why are you being so rude?”

“You should learn some manners,” Wei Wuxian agrees, and the Jin’s face tints red. The disciples in the spirit nets above them have gone deathly silent. “Who are you, even, to speak to us like this?”

That earns an accusatory finger pointed his way.

“You did go crazy! As if you don’t remember who I am!”

“You’re the one who’s acting weird,” Suibian mutters, a scowl on her little fox face. Wei Wuxian reaches out and runs a hand down her back, trying to flatten some of the fur there. “Where’s your daemon? Can we talk to them instead?”

Somehow, the kid’s face goes even redder, spreading down to his neck. He raises his chin and turns away from them with a scoff.

“Humph! None of your business, you weirdos! You both make me sick, get out of here—I liked it better when I couldn’t hear your annoying voice.”

The hurt that lances through Suibian at the comment is the last straw.

“I see,” Wei Wuxian says, as Suibian goes quiet from the ache of poking an open wound, one he’s had to soothe countless times over the past few days, “that you lack some maternal education.”

He means to say more, too—he really does. About the importance of proper introductions, and showing respect to your elders, and not insulting someone else’s daemon for no good reason; but the Jin turns at the comment, face pinched with sudden fury, and draws his sword.

“What did you say?!” he demands, and lunges without further warning.

Suibian launches herself off Little Apple’s back as she brays in alarm, which is good, considering that the traitorous donkey bolts away not even a second later. Wei Wuxian jumps backwards to avoid the blade, the edge of it nearly slicing off his hand; at the next swing, he ducks under the Jin’s arm and whirls around, slamming his hand into the Jin’s back and activating the talisman.

The Jin falls face-first to the ground, body bound by the spell.

“Aiyo.” Wei Wuxian stares down at him as he struggles to get up. He’s genuinely confused when he asks, “Why did you attack so suddenly?”

“You lewd thieves!” the Jin shrieks, and Wei Wuxian winces at the pitch.

“More names? Don’t waste your energy on that, kid, you’ll need it if you want to get up before sunset.”

Suibian inches forward and, once she sees the threat has been fully contained, makes her way up his leg. He wraps an arm around her so she’s tucked against his chest, warm and safe.

“This is cheating!” the Jin spits at them, eyes gleaming with fury. He wriggles again trying to get lose; Wei Wuxian is reminded of a particularly large caterpillar. “Not enough skill to cultivate, and so now you’re using these dirty methods?!”

Suibian frowns, the wind rippling across her fur as a breeze drifts towards them. “They’re not dirty, just different. No one gave us the chance to—”

She cuts herself off as another rush of wind crosses the trail.

“Oh,” she says, lifting her nose into the air as it starts to twitch. Her claws start to dig into Wei Wuxian’s robes, sharp pinpricks of pain on his skin when they punch through the fabric. Their bond jolts with panic. “Oh, shit! A-Xian, I smell a wolf, I smell—”

Sandu.

Sandu, which means Jiang Cheng, which—oh no.

She doesn’t even finish the sentence before Wei Wuxian is looking around, frantic, trying to find any nearby cover. Suibian’s nose isn’t that good, which means they’re close, which means they have to get out now.

There’s a grove of trees a dozen mĭ off the path, the opposite direction of where Little Apple ran, and he bolts towards them, ignoring the indignant, “Hey!! Where are you lunatics going? My uncle is going to kill you!” at his retreating back.

Of course, he thinks, as his lungs scream in protest. Of course they’d be here, of course—

They have just enough time to throw themselves behind the trees, a twisted web of gigantic roots making an alcove for them to huddle in, before the footsteps reach their ears.

“A-Ling!” calls a voice, and Wei Wuxian’s blood goes cold.

He recognizes this one.

“A-Ling!” Jiang Cheng repeats, and Wei Wuxian digs his hands into the rough bark underneath his fingers, closing his eyes against the flood of memories. Suibian nudges his hand. “What the hell are you doing?”

His little brother sounds pissed, but also confused—which was never a good combination when it came to Jiang Cheng. Suibian inches her head out from behind the tree, tail wrapped tightly around her feet. Whatever she sees has her ears going flat.

“Oh,” she says, one of the branches cracking under her weight and making them both flinch, but she doesn’t stop looking. “A-Xian. They look so grown up.”

Wei Wuxian can’t stand it any longer; he pokes his head out from behind the tree, desperate for even a glance. When he locates Jiang Cheng and Sandu, standing on the path and staring down at the kid’s still struggling form, all the air leaves his lungs.

Suibian is right: they do look grown up.

Jiang Cheng is swathed in purple, shoulders rigid and tall as he surveys the scene in front of them. Zidian is snaked around his wrist, inert but no the less impressive because of it. At his side stands Sandu, her head turning slowly back and forth, taking in the nets and the clamoring disciples. Disciples flank their left and right, heads held high.

It’s hard to make out much from so far away –he can’t see any of the subtleties of their expressions, what emotions his eyes are holding, whether Sandu’s nose is twitching—but there’s no doubt: their spiritual power has grown leaps and bounds from when he last saw them.

And so, it seems, has their sect.

Something tender and aching settles in his chest. Good.

“Are you waiting for me to help you up?” Jiang Cheng asks the kid, his voice just a tad too muted; Wei Wuxian rummages in his robes for a listening talisman, activating it as the Jin struggles through another valiant attempt to wriggle himself up.

It, like the last few, fail miserably.

“Jiujiu,” he whines, and it’s not the new loudness of it that makes Wei Wuxian blink. He looks at the talisman, wondering if he somehow messed it up, put down the character for nonsense instead of volume.

It’s only when Suibian turns to stare at him with huge eyes that his breath catches.

“Jiujiu,” the kid repeats, “I can’t get up!”

Wei Wuxian thinks that no one can blame him for being physically incapable of hearing Jiang Cheng’s response in that moment.

His head spins, the word (jiujiu, jiujiu, jiujiu) echoing around in his brain and bumping into all the scrambled memories held there. Of his sister, beautiful in her wedding gown, the red on her lips matching the rich fabric as she’d told him the news; of a letter, written in Lan Wangji’s elegant script; of sleepless nights in the blood cave, huddled over beads.

Jiujiu.

Jiang Cheng is this kid’s Uncle. Which means…

“Jin Ling,” Sandu says, the words rumbling out of her chest, and if Wei Wuxian wasn’t already sitting down his legs would have given out at the name. Suibian draws in a shaky breath, trembling under his hands. “Who did this to you?”

Wei Wuxian chances another glance and sees that Jin Ling (Jin Rulan, his nephew, his shijie’s kid, he’s going to cry) is now on his feet, hurriedly wiping the dust and dirt off his robes. He looks embarrassed at the question, moving his gaze to his feet and crossing his arms.

“It was that crazy Mo Xuanyu guy! Him and his daemon just appeared out of nowhere and started spouting nonsense!”

“And using demonic cultivation tricks,” Jiang Cheng spits. His fist is glowing; even from here, Wei Wuxian can feel the surge of spiritual power he put into removing the binding enchantment.

It’s—a lot. Wei Wuxian is pretty sure that level of power wasn’t necessary, not for such a simple talisman.

So. Maybe Jiang Cheng is still pretty angry about the whole demonic cultivation thing, after all.

“He ran away before I could deal with him properly,” Jin Ling tells Sandu. The fur on her back has started to rise; she turns her head to look off the path, and Suibian and Wei Wuxian jerk back, flattening themselves behind the tree again.

Wei Wuxian holds his breath, hoping against hope that there’s too many smells to pick them out.

There’s a whooshing noise, and a few thuds; the Jin disciples and their daemons, apparently now free of their self-inflicted trap, begin to profusely thank Jiang Cheng, relieved voices tripping over each other in their haste.

“Jiang-zongzhu, this humble disciple thanks you—”

“My father will reward you handsomely—”

“No wonder your daemon is so powerful, Jiang-zongzhu—”

“Enough!” Jiang Cheng snaps, a crackle of thunder that breaks the air, leaving ozone in its wake. Everyone goes quiet. Wei Wuxian peeks out from behind the tree to see a few of the Jiang disciples smirking slightly, watching the Jins as they stare on in wide-eyed fear. “What direction did they go?”

“South,” Jin Ling reports dutifully, and fuck, he’s right, they did go South. Little snitch. “It wasn’t that long ago, I’m sure we can catch them!”

Sandu lets out a low rumble, turning to Jiang Cheng. “I will go. There is no need to slow all of us down.”

Shit. Wei Wuxian moves so his hand is under Suibian’s stomach as Jiang Cheng turns back to Jin Ling and starts to scold him, ready to lift her up and bolt at the next opportunity. Sandu is fast—but if they can get a head start, maybe Suibian will be able to find a hole to hide in.

At the very least, Sandu might be willing to listen to an excuse if he talks well enough. She’s never been as much a spitfire as Jiang Cheng, surely he has a chance…  

“Right,” he breathes, as Sandu starts to step off the path and into the woods, leaves crunching under her gigantic paws. She looks like she belongs there, the grey and browns of her fur blending in perfectly to the trees, tail held high. “She gets to that rock, and we run.”

Suibian nods, shaky against him.

Nerves are singing through their bond, but thankfully not fear. It’s hard, after all, to be afraid of someone you used to know like the back of your hand, even if they’re mad.

Even harder, when you know that their anger is justified.

Lacking maternal education.

Wei Wuxian winces, a twig cracking under his feet. Nearly at the rock separating the grove of trees from the path, Sandu stops, her ears twisting—and for a single second, Wei Wuxian is convinced that they’ve been found.

But then all the fur on her back rises, doubling her size. She turns her gaze not to them, but back to the path.

And she growls.

The sound sends a shiver down Wei Wuxian’s spine, and Suibian twitches, her back arching in an involuntary response to the noise. They watch, breath held, as Sandu backtracks, quickly making her way to where Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling are still standing on the path.

“Later. It’s them,” she says when Jiang Cheng shoots her a questioning look, inclining her head to the east.

All the muscles in Jiang Cheng’s body tense. Wei Wuxian sees the way his jaw clenches as he turns east, Zidian glowing a barely muted purple on his wrist.

“Who?” Suibian whispers to him, placing her front paws on his arm and trying to lift herself up so she can see better through the leaves. With her new size, it’s almost comical how little it helps. “Who? A-Xian, I can’t see, there’s so many branches in my face—”

He shushes her gently, curling a hand into the scruff of her neck so she doesn’t bolt forward.

The Jiang disciples have started to nudge each other, looking at a part of the path Wei Wuxian can’t make out from his current position.  The two in the front, right behind Jiang Cheng, exchange a wide-eyed look and stand up straighter, hands behind their backs.

Then the white robes come into view, and Wei Wuxian can’t breathe.

He turns away, facing Suibian before he has the chance to do something absolutely stupid.

“Let’s go,” he whispers, as Jiang Cheng’s sarcastic, “Well if it isn’t Hanguang-Jun and Lan Bichen themselves! For what do we owe the pleasure?” drifts towards them. She nods, eyes wide, a drawn-out ache trembling through their link.

They take advantage of the momentary distraction, and creep away before anyone is the wiser.


“That was close,” Suibian sighs, hanging limply across his shoulders.

They’re making their way down a stream, Wei Wuxian ankle-deep in freezing water so they don’t leave any obvious trail for Jiang Cheng and Sandu to follow. The mountain stretches above them as they steadily curve around its base, towards the cave where the weird statue supposedly resides. So far, they’ve managed to avoid any more run-ins, but Wei Wuxian keeps his eyes on the trees anyways, wary of spiritual nets.

“No kidding.”

He doesn’t know what would have happened if the Lans didn’t show up. He’s not eager to find out.

“We’re going to have to be extra careful, if this place has that many cultivators,” Suibian continues, pressing her cold nose against his cheek so he’ll pay attention. “The Jins are bad enough, but if the Jiangs and Lans are here too…”

“I know,” he reassures her, nearly slipping on one of the algae-covered rocks. She yips when they tilt and he laughs, shaking his head. “If I don’t accidentally drown us first.”

She huffs, nibbling at his ear. “A-Xian, I’m serious.

“So am I!” he protests, and reaches up to scratch behind her ear, earning a grumble as she reluctantly leans into the touch. “We’ll be super extra careful, alright? No more stopping for weird children caught in nets. All business from here on out, just you wait.”

Suibian frowns up at him. “If you say so.”

She doesn’t sound convinced.

“You never know,” he says, forcing cheer into his voice as they round the corner and the river starts to curve upwards, “maybe we'll luck out after all.”


“Or maybe not,” he pants a few hours, as they watch the junior disciples narrowly avoiding hits from the dancing statue.

Suibian stares at him from where he’s safely tucked her into his robes, her coarse fur tickling his skin.

“You owe me at least fifty red bean buns. Also, this is a terrible idea.”

“Yep,” he agrees, to both the buns and sentiment, and raises the makeshift bamboo flute to his lips. She hisses, an ak-ak-ak of displeasure, but what other options do they have? Behind them, disciples are engaged in all-out chaos. “Suibian, come on, we have to! I’m out of talismans, and those kids are getting their asses kicked.”

“We died because of this, A-Xian—”

He can feel her trembling, matching the waver in her voice. She’d been fine with the Dancing Statue, fine with all the disciples crowding around them and asking questions; but now, the only emotion he’s getting is gut-churning fear.

He’d sworn to himself he’d never let her feel scared like that again.

Not because of him.

“I know,” he murmurs, and it hurts, hurts to see the way she’s trying to wrestle back her doubt enough to listen to him. “But we’ve got to summon something powerful to come help. That’s all I’ll do, I swear. I promise, A-Sui. You can use this as a chewtoy once I’m done, I’ll never choose it over you, do you understand?”

“I…” Her apprehension jolts through their bond, making his skin crawl. “Be careful.

“It’s not Chenqing,” he reassures her, and then lifts the makeshift flute to his mouth.

The motion is familiar, the stretch of an overlooked muscle. There’s something to be said for memory, habit; in the dark years leading up to his demise, Wei Wuxian was so used to playing Chenqing that its reedy pitch would follow him into his dreams. Terrible, awful dreams—ones that would chill him down to the empty space of his non-existent core, leave him staring at the blood pool in their cave and wondering if it would be simpler to just let go.

But it was never hard to get the notes to flow from his fingers, after.

To his relief, that last part has not changed. He wasn’t sure it would be, with new lips and new lungs and no more voices screaming in his head, but it’s easy. It’s not his prettiest performance, but as he feels the energy gather in the air around them, he doesn’t think he needs to be.

He focuses on something powerful, something useful.

And then he almost stops playing entirely, the shock is so great.

“Wen Ning?!”

Because, against all odds, there Wen Ning stands.

He’s covered in chains and tattered robes, flying fresh out of the trees like a—well, like a fierce corpse, landing in the middle of the clearing with an impact that sends dirt scattering under his feet. His head tilts at an unnatural angle, lolling to face them.

Responding to the call. To Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian’s first instinct is to drop the flute and rush forward. From the way Suibian nearly falls out of his robes in her haste to see Wen Ning better, he’s not the only one.

How is he even here?! Wen Ning is supposed to be dead dead, not just living dead. Wei Wuxian looks around for a daemon, the tiny lump of Suyin in a pocket or the shape of her in a nearby tree, but there’s nothing.

Nothing but Wen Ning turning to face the statue, and Jin Ling’s pale face.

There’s no time for him to soak in details, to try to help—all he can do is play, and play, and play. It’s a blur from there: the disciples, blades swinging through the air; Wen Ning, smashing the statue’s core to pieces; and then the sudden rush of quiet as Wen Ning turns back to face him, confused disciples glancing between them with fear in their eyes.  

“Wen Ning,” Wei Wuxian says, and starts to step forward.

Some of the Jins straighten up at the name, gripping their swords tighter, and Wei Wuxian releases his mistake as new shouts start up.

“It’s him---Jun Zixun’s murderer!”

“The Ghost General!”

“Right hand to the Yiling Patriarch! Kill him!”      

And soon a bunch of teenagers are rushing towards Wen Ning, with no idea what a gargantuan mistake they’re about to make.

“Get him out of here!” Suibian whimpers, her cold nose pressing into his collarbone. Their hearts beat in tandem, a gallop of survive, survive, survive that fills his chest and brings him back to those three months of darkness, of scrambling across dried dirt, of the unthinkable between his teeth and into their churning stomachs.

He shudders, and lifts the flute to his lips one last time.

His first song is too intense, sending several disciples flying through the air and into the dirt with a scraping thud. He winces, tries to recalibrate. It’s a delicate balance, this control on Wen Ning. Easy to mess up, especially with the songs he used to play. There’s too much in them, too many emotions that he’s still learning how to channel.

He needs something new. Something gentle. Something… safe.

The song comes to him like a warm breeze across lotus ponds. 

He doesn’t know where he heard it, why the moment the first note leaves his lungs he’s filled with a security that is staggering in its strength.  The notes lead themselves, beckon him along, pushing back the memories of bloody whispers like a candle chasing back shadows.

Playing it feels, oddly, like coming home.

When Wen Ning turns toward them, one of his hands loosening from where it had been clutching a Lan disciple’s throat, Wei Wuxian knows it was the right choice.

He steps back with unsteady legs. Wen Ning steps forward.

Back, forward. It’s like a dance, he thinks, as all the disciples quiet down and stare. A very deadly one, tempered with a crudely made instrument. He pours everything he has into the melody, this unknown song that somehow has twisted itself into his heart.

“A-Xian,” Suibian says suddenly, paws scrambling frantically at his robes.

He glances down at her, raising an eyebrow as the song winds ever-on. Wen Ning is still making his slow trek towards them, one step at a time; they are almost to the trees, now. So close, just a few steps more and they can—

“A-Xian,” she repeats, high-pitched, “stop playing, I smell—”

A hand grabs his wrist. He turns, startled, the song cutting off with a discordant jolt.

The air leaves his lungs as their eyes meet. 

Chapter Text


Up until now, Wei Wuxian has seen Lan Wangji just two times in this new life.

Both have been from a safe distance away and for the most fleeting of moments. Nothing more than chance; stolen glances of white cloth across heartbeats, like two streams crossing in a forest and weaving apart before they can converge into a shared lake. Each moment has nonetheless left his chest aching and heavy, his body breathless.

Those were nothing compared to seeing him up close.

“Ah,” he manages, heart swelling in his chest as he stares at Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji stares right back, his golden eyes unwavering.

He is beautiful. So breathtakingly, unfairly beautiful. They’re so close that Wei Wuxian can see every detail of the clouds on his forehead ribbon, the specks of darker brown in his irises, the tiny wrinkle on his forehead. His brows are furrowed the smallest amount, eyes searching his face like he’s trying to figure something out.

Since they were disciples, Wei Wuxian has been consumed by the wild, burning desire to be the subject of Lan Wangji’s gaze. To be noticed, even with a single glance, a twitch of the lips. It was a desire that had flamed hot in his chest until the moment he died, no matter how much he tried to push it away, and it is at this exact moment that he realizes being Mo Xuanyu has not tempered that feeling in the slightest.

Because Lan Wangji is looking at him. Seeing him.

The thrill of it hits Wei Wuxian so strong that his eyes water. Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan.

Around them the disciples are murmuring, casting nervous glances to Wen Ning as he stands in the middle of the clearing, black veins creeping up his neck. Wei Wuxian can’t tear his eyes away from Lan Wangji’s face.

“A-Zhan.”

The new voice makes him jump; he’d been so focused on Lan Wangji that he had completely missed Bichen, who is standing at his side and staring up at them. Instinctively, he tries to step back, but Lan Wangji’s grip tightens, making it impossible to move even an inch away.

Lan Wangji does not look away from Wei Wuxian when he replies, “Mn.”

Wei Wuxian opens his mouth to say something, can’t figure out what, and promptly closes it. In his robes, Suibian lets out a chitter, torn between the same happiness and nervousness that’s singing in his veins.

Lan Wangji’s eyes flick towards her, and she shrinks further into the fabric.

The movement doesn’t escape Bichen’s notice. She comes a few steps closer, scenting the air, her blue eyes settling on the small lump in his robes. It’s silly, but looking at her now after so long trying not to, Wei Wuxian finds her beautiful too.

Her tail is a gentle curl behind her when she murmurs, strangely soft, “That is your daemon?”

Suibian twitches again, a jolt of yearning zipping through their bond, but stays silent.

“I—” Wei Wuxian starts, scrambling for an excuse for why they’re here and why Wen Ning is also coincidentally here. But without the melody, the rest of the clearing has started to move again. The junior disciples, no doubt bolstered by Lan Wangji’s miraculous appearance, start to move forward towards Wen Ning. With a jolt of adrenaline, Wei Wuxian raises the flute to his lips and echoes out a single, all-encompassing command: run.

He as reliable now as he was back then; with that simple note, Wen Ning wastes no time leaping through the air and into the treeline, a blur of shadow and clinking chains. Lan Wangji twitches as if to follow and Wei Wuxian grabs onto his arm, unthinking in his panic.

“No, no, wait, don’t chase him!”

Lan Wangji’s gaze moves back to him immediately. There’s no anger there, like Wei Wuxian expected from every other time Lan Wangji has gotten touched by a stranger. Instead, he is greeted with something that turns the gold darker, more intense. He doesn’t know what it means.

“Hanguang-Jun!”

The disciples have started to gather around them, all the Lan juniors bowing with perfect posture to Lan Wangji. The other sect disciples hastily follow with their swords still drawn, glancing at each other and to the trees with poorly hidden confusion.

In perhaps the most surprising event of the day so far, Lan Wangji doesn’t bow back. He doesn’t even spare them a glance.

He and Bichen are fixated on Wei Wuxian and the lump in his robes.

 “Um,” Wei Wuxian tries, but that just makes Lan Wangji look directly into his eyes, instead. His heart stutters in his chest, and he promptly forgets whatever he was going to say. “Um—I—er—”

It’s at this exact moment that Suibian digs her claws into his skin, making him yelp.

“Wolf,” she hisses, and Wei Wuxian’s stomach goes to his toes.

At the word, Lan Wangji and Bichen both stiffen; Bichen’s head pivots to the trail and she growls, low and dangerous. Wei Wuxian follows her gaze to see—

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me!”

Jiang Cheng and Sandu are making their way up the path towards them, scowls on their faces. Just like the last time Wei Wuxian and Suibian ran into them, they’re flanked by several other Yungmeng Jiang disciples; and also just like last time, Wei Wuxian has to fight back tears at the sight.

It’s impossible to look at Jiang Cheng without the dizzying, heart-clenching pride crashing over him like a tidal wave.

Pride, and in this case, a good punch of panic. Because when faced with a sea of confused disciples and Lan Wangji and Bichen, Jiang Cheng and Sandu look just like they did when Jin Ling was struggling in the dirt, Wei Wuxian’s talisman keeping him prone.

So—bitter. So angry.

And not in the way they used to be.                                                                                        

“What’s going on here?”

Wei Wuxian winces at the whip-like snap in Jiang Cheng’s voice, inching behind Lan Wangji the best he can with his wrist still held. He recognizes the tone: this is Jiang Cheng pissed off, ready to fight. And as much as Wei Wuxian loves being a trendsetter, he has absolutely no interest in being the first person to die twice.

Not that Jiang Cheng could think up anything worse than his first death.

Then again—maybe thirteen years gave him plenty of time. He doesn’t remember if Jiang Cheng was even there for the first one to use as a baseline, but he doubles down on his effort to hide anyways.

“Jiujiu,” Jin Ling calls as Jiang Cheng stomps over to them like an angry, unfortunately purple bear, the other juniors all bowing and offering nervous greetings when he gets close. “Look, we got rid of the soul stealing entity!”

Jiang Cheng surveys the battlefield, jaw clenched. Zidian is flickering on his wrist; when he looks to Lan Wangji and Bichen, standing there with a gaggle of Lans, it sparks.

Then he catches sight of Wei Wuxian, trying desperately to blend into the folds of white fabric behind Lan Wangji’s back, and his expression somehow turns even more dangerous.

“Interesting,” he says, staring at Wei Wuxian, and turns to Jin Ling. “Come here. What happened?”

Scowling, Jin Ling lets himself be dragged a few mi away by the arm, Jiang Cheng shooting distrustful looks over his shoulder as they go. Wei Wuxian only manages to hear, “I found the lunatic too, wait, why are you so—” before Sandu draws his attention.

Instead of going to the side with Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling, she has stepped forward.

The disciples part for her like freshly-tilled soil, stepping back as her heavy footfalls break the hush that’s fallen over the area. Bichen’s tail sweeps across the dirt with a quiet sssss, the black tip twitching when Sandu stops but doesn’t sit down.

“What is the meaning of this?” she asks, a growl underlying the words.

It’s interesting: unlike Jiang Cheng, Wei Wuxian doesn’t feel like it’s actually that aggressive. Firm and no-nonsense, yeah; but if she was wearing Zidian, he doesn’t think it would be quite as purple as what Jiang Cheng has going for him right now.

Bichen doesn’t seem to agree. She lets out a low rumble in response, tail still flicking.

“Nothing to concern yourself over.”

The hair on Sandu’s back raises a fraction. Behind her, Jiang Cheng asks something unintelligible that makes Jin Ling’s face start to pinch, the universal sign of a teenager who is being lectured at and is only listening to half the words.

“It is a shared hunt,” Sandu snaps back. “Our disciples have their swords drawn, and you are hiding a stranger behind your back. It is well within my right to be concerned.”

She tilts her head, shifting so that her gaze can narrow in on Wei Wuxian. Their eyes meet for a single second, and he feels a rush of adrenaline, of regret, of homesickness, all cobbled together with Suibian’s quiet anxiety—

And then Lan Wangji steps fully in front of him, hiding him from view.

“No.”

It is clear, steady, and absolutely unmoving. Wei Wuxian looks up at Lan Wangji, taken aback by the tone.

“Hey,” he starts over Sandu’s disbelieving noise, confused why that sounded so much like some Lan version of fuck you. He starts to inch forward to try and get a better view of Sandu so he can read her expression better; the grip on his wrist, which has been burning into his skin like a brand, stops him with a sudden squeeze.

He looks back up at Lan Wangji to find that he has broken his stare-down with Sandu to gaze at him again. The corner of his mouth is tilted down, and he shakes his head, once, barely more than a twitch.

“No,” he repeats, but this time just to him, softer, like it’s a secret being nestled between them in silk, and what the hell is Wei Wuxian supposed to do with that?

“Er, ok,” he breathes, suddenly not wanting to move at all. Not that wanting or not wanting seems like it would matter much; Lan Wangji looks ready to physically yank him back if he so much as tilts another millimeter away. “Sure, yeah I’ll just—stay here?”

The frown disappears. Apparently satisfied with that, Lan Wangji turns back to Sandu without another word.

Well, ok then.

“We have it under control,” Bichen tells Sandu, her tail flicking behind her as she speaks. Wei Wuxian can’t see exactly what’s on Sandu’s face, but from what he glimpses, the words do little to soothe her growing ire.

“Interesting, given what Jin Ling just told me.”

They all turn to look at Jiang Cheng. Apparently no longer caught up in yelling at Jin Ling, he’s now  staring at Wei Wuxian, too. Wei Wuxian chances a tiny shift away from Lan Wangji (earning him an almost bruising grip) to see Jin Ling standing behind him with his arms crossed, looking generally unimpressed at the world like a good pubescent teen.

“The Ghost General, huh?” Jiang Cheng asks, but it doesn’t sound like a question.

Dread settles in Wei Wuxian’s stomach.

He can’t do anything but stand there as Jiang Cheng’s gaze moves from Wei Wuxian’s face to the flute in his hand, then to the lines in the ground left by Wen Ning’s quick departure. Zidian sparks on his fingers like cracks of lightning across the sky.

His brother was never an idiot.

“Tell me, Mo Xuanyu,” Jiang Cheng grits out, mirth dripping from the name, “what’s an amateur like you doing with such advanced techniques?”

Wei Wuxian barely stops himself from saying something dumb, like, haha, well funny story, I’m still figuring that out myself! Instead, he bites on the inside of his cheek, ducks back behind Lan Wangji, and starts looking for escape routes.

“You,” Jiang Cheng continues, and points at Lan Wangji and Bichen, “get out of the way.

All the lines in Lan Wangji’s body go tense. Suibian whimpers in his robes, and Wei Wuxian watches the fur on Bichen’s back rise in response.

“I suggest you step back, Jiang-zongzhu.”

Jiang Cheng doesn’t look at Bichen—he’s still watching Wei Wuxian, so angry that there’s no doubt exactly what he’s just figured out.

He steps forward, Sandu now growling low and dangerous in their direction—and for a moment, Wei Wuxian feels frozen. He hovers there, at the edge of some liminal space; an indeterminable reality where if he just knew the right thing to do, he could find the path out of this. Make the impossible possible. Like when he and Suibian were on the streets with hunger clawing at their bones, and picking out the right person to beg from could either leave their stomachs full or their heads aching from an unkind hand. Or those years of weathering Madam Yu’s fury, with one word the only difference between earning a single strike or half a dozen.  Every moment of the Burial Mounds, wondering when Lan Wangji and Bichen would give up on them and stop visiting, desperate for them not to.

Wei Wuxian draws in a breath, Suibian shaking in his robes, and meets Jiang Cheng’s eyes.

There’s a pause—where he blinks at Jiang Cheng, and Jiang Cheng stares at him.

Then Jiang Cheng’s eyes go hard, wrong choice wrong choice settling in Wei Wuxian’s bones, and time comes rushing towards him again.

“Great,” Jiang Cheng says, with a tone that tells Wei Wuxian things are definitely not great, “you really are back.”

That’s all the warning he gets.

Before Wei Wuxian can even start trying to make an excuse, Jiang Cheng lets Zidian fly forward with a snarl. The whip cracks through the air with a burst of purple light, so bright that the disciples closest to him stumble back.

There’s a reverberating surge of power as Lan Wangji pulls out his guqin to block the attack, their spiritual energies colliding with such ferocity that the smell of ozone and spring water burn Wei Wuxian’s sinuses. The ground trembles, earthquake-vicious, drowning out the collective gasp of the juniors.

Jiang Cheng swears, the air fizzing with dissipated qi.

“You have no right!” he shouts at Lan Wangji, face twisted with fury, and raises Zidian again. “This isn’t Gusu Lan’s affair! Hand him over!”

He moves to strike again; and this time, among the chaos of Lan Wangji moving to counter, of Bichen’s quiet hiss, Wei Wuxian sees Sandu move left, going for a flanking position.

“Run!” Suibian wails, panic jolting through their bond as Sandu digs her claws into the earth like she’s about to jump, and Wei Wuxian has never agreed with a plan more.

When he bolts, it’s in a random direction. Lan Wangji spins around as Wei Wuxian tears away from his grasp with every ounce of strength in his body, eyes on a gap in the trees. Mo Xuanyu is weak, but if he can just take advantage of the chaos and get a head start— 

“Wait!” Bichen screams, and then the pain hits.

Wei Wuxian has been hit by Zidian before, more times than he can count, but it’s been a long time since the last one.

He hasn’t missed the feeling.

It is an impossible pain along his spine, like a blade dipped in molten lava and stinging nettles. The viciousness of it sends white flashing from his eyes to the back of his skull and he careens into the dirt with a cry, muscles seizing. People are shouting, the noise getting mixed up with the gravel and blood that churn together in his mouth when he hits the ground; it is incomprehensible, the world tilting too far on its axis for him to understand anything but the spasms across his skin.

He hears Bichen snarl, an answering one from Sandu in response. And then a sudden, abrupt hush.

He lays there for a moment, back burning, so dizzy that he can’t so much as raise his head.

Then he realizes that there was another cry that had accompanied his own.

A-Sui.

Adrenaline surges through him, iron in his mouth, forcing his head up as his hands scramble uselessly in the dirt. His muscles aren’t working, twitching and spasming as the pain pulses through him; but when he manages to blink back the haze over his eyes, everything comes into a cold, haunting clarity.

A few mǐ away, Suibian’s body is lying prone in the dirt.

She must have fallen out of his robes when they hit the ground: her coat is covered in dust and dried leaves, and he can see the line her body made when she tumbled between where he’s lying and where she’s ended up. She looks slightly dazed, so maybe she hit her head, and she’s definitely holding her paw funny.

That’s not what scares him, though.

What scares him is the giant wolf standing over her.

Sandu looks just as surprised as Suibian at their new proximity; it’s clear she was practically tossed at Sandu’s feet from the force of Wei Wuxian’s fall. Suibian is staring up at her, wide-eyed and trembling. Her ears are pressed flat back against her head and she’s frozen, looking like prey caught in the eyes of a predator.

Because, he realizes, she is.

The resulting rush of panic makes any semblance of pain disappear. Their bond becomes one singular, shared emotion: fear.

Suibian has never been afraid of Sandu before, in the same way that Wei Wuxian has never truly been afraid of Jiang Cheng. Awkward or guilty or skittish, sure, but not fear. There’s always been an implicit trust between them, even when Sandu would accidentally play too rough when they were kids, or when Jiang Cheng would snap at them, or when Sandu would chase Suibian to try and scare her off from pulling pranks.

Even after they got back from the Burial Mounds and Suibian was so weak that playing was painful, that trust was there. Any fear came from their secret being discovered, not the idea that Sandu would hurt her on purpose.

But as the seconds stretch on, heart pounding in his ears with an endless badumpbadumpbadump, he knows that for the first time, they are both very, very afraid.

Sandu takes a step forward.

Suibian whimpers.

It’s the tiniest sound—not one of her normal whimpers for when she’s playing things up, or being dramatic, or trying to express an emotion. This kind of whimper is an instinctual, kneejerk noise, intensely quiet but so much more telling than her loud hysterics.

It’s the noise of someone trying to scream, but their throat won’t let them.

Before Wei Wuxian can do something incredibly stupid like physically throw himself between them, which is absolutely what he is planning to do, two things happen.

First, Sandu freezes.

Her ears, which had been perked moments before, go flat against her head at the noise Suibian makes. She does a double take, staring down at Suibian with wide eyes. Whatever she sees makes her tail tuck; after a split-second hesitation, she moves another inch forward and, slowly and carefully, lowers her head to sniff her.

Second, something behind Wei Wuxian moves.

A blur of spotted fur darts across the space, accompanied by a fierce snarl that cuts through the air like a firecracker. It’s so loud and aggressive that everyone in the area instinctually flinches back, including Jiang Cheng and Sandu. Sandu, actually, almost appears to stagger as she jerks back a few steps, like she was broken from a daze.

Bichen stands directly over Suibian, hackles raised.

“Don’t you dare,” she hisses, tail so puffed that it’s easily twice its normal size. Suibian cowers underneath her, head just brushing the fur on Bichen’s belly. “Move back, Jiang Sandu.”

It is unmistakable for anything but wild, single-minded guarding.

Wei Wuxian gapes at them.

Sandu’s eyes, which had been staring at Suibian’s shaking body, jerk to Bichen’s face. In response to Bichen’s words she bares her teeth; Wei Wuxian can see each long canine, the sharp glint of an incisor, the obvious strength of her jaw.

“No,” Sandu says, and her eyes are molten. “You stand down, Lan Bichen.”

It is a clear order; Bichen is unmoved. She snarls again in response, crouching slightly like she’s going to pounce.

Sandu straightens up to her full height, towering over all the other daemons in the clearing in that single, simple motion. It reminds Wei Wuxian of the stance she used to take when he and Suibian were at Lotus Pier, cowering behind her body as she kept stray dogs away. No-nonsense, ready to fight.

Holy shit, he thinks, too shocked to even really comprehend it. They’re going to kill each other.

“Don’t!”

Compared to the snarling and growling that’s filling the air, the cry is comparatively small, but it draws everyone’s attention.

All eyes go to Suibian.

In the time it’s taken for the two daemons to square off, she has recovered slightly from the shock of the toss, at least enough to move. The moment the word leaves her mouth, she scrambles out from under Bichen and launches herself at Wei Wuxian.

Sandu and Bichen jerk in surprise as she goes, a few of the disciple’s daemons making noises of concern as the little fox stumbles and trips in her haste to get away. Sandu makes an aborted motion as if to chase her, and Bichen yowls.

“Stay back.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what it means that Sandu actually does stay back, and he doesn’t have the time to care. He lunges forward to catch Suibian the moment she’s in grabbing range.

“A-Xi—” Suibian starts, seems to remember that everyone can hear them, and cuts herself off by crying instead.

He gathers her into his arms, shaking so badly that he fumbles with his robes a few times before placing her safely back in them. She whimpers as he does, a sharp one, and tucks her paw to her chest at an unnatural angle.

Before Wei Wuxian can examine it, a hand is gripping his arm and hauling him to his feet.

“What the,” he starts, but Lan Wangji gives him a single, searching look that makes the question die in his mouth. His hand curls under Wei Wuxian’s elbow, firm and steady when Wei Wuxian tries to step back to put more space between them.

Secretly, he’s grateful for it, even if he’s hyper-aware of how close they are again; his legs are feeling wobblier than he’d like them to. 

“Why didn’t it work?” Jiang Cheng whispers, as Sandu and Bichen stare each other down. Neither of them have stopped snarling. “It’s impossible.”

Everyone else has gone absolutely silent, staring with a kind of horrified fascination at the scene before them. Daemon fights are rare among non-commoners, considered both bad form and a sign of poor self-control.

Daemon fights between two prominent cultivators, and over another daemon? That’s just unheard of.

Even Wei Wuxian can barely believe it. What’s happening?

Shockingly, it’s Lan Wangji who speaks first.

“Lan Bichen.”

Bichen’s tail is swinging wildly through the air, claws leaving visible indentations in the ground. A small tuft of Suibian’s fur is trapped under her right paw, leftover from the initial tumble. When she glances back at Lan Wangji, fire flashes in her eyes.

There’s an impossibly long, tense moment when she does not move.

Then, with one last warning look at Sandu, she turns around and walks back to them.

“What the hell is going on?” Jiang Cheng demands, finally having recovered from—from whatever that whole display was. Sandu is still rooted to the spot, eyes trained on where Suibian’s ears are poking out of Wei Wuxian’s robes.

“Normally you ask that before beating someone up!” Wei Wuxian shoots back, and Jiang Cheng raises his fist as if to strike with Zidian again. Lan Wangji’s grip on Wei Wuxian tightens infinitesimally, and he shifts, ready.

“Sect Leader,” says one of the Lan disciples, who Wei Wuxian honestly cannot remember the name of for the life of him, “why are you attacking again? If Zidian didn’t expel Mo-gongzi’s soul, then he can’t be the Yilling Patriarch, right?”

There’s a rush of whispers from the other clan disciples at the name.

“Yiling Patriarch?!”

“The inventor of demonic cultivation?!”

“The one who kidnapped Jin Zixuan?!”

Wei Wuxian considers himself pretty good at ignoring gossip, but he turns and gapes at the last one. Why does everyone keep thinking he did that? Thirteen years, and they still haven’t found a single clue on what actually happened to The Peacock?

He doesn’t have time to ask, because now the kid’s langur daemon is stepping forward too.

“I thought Wei Wuxian’s soul and body disappeared when he was killed,” they say, and point at Wei Wuxian. “If he’s not being possessed, then you don’t have a reason to keep attacking.”

These two are either incredibly brave or incredibly stupid. Wei Wuxian can’t decide.

Jiang Cheng looks like he’s erring more on the stupid part of that question; from the way he’s grinding his teeth together, he’s definitely considering beating up some kids who are at most half his age.

“And how,” he grits out, “do you brats know he died for sure?”

The Lan disciple raises his eyebrows. “People say you killed him yourself.”

Oh.

Jiang Cheng’s glare falters. A shadow passes over his face.

Oh, no.

“Jingyi,” another one of the Lans hisses, grabbing the boy’s arm and jerking him back into the safety of the group, but Wei Wuxian barely hears him.

Jiang Cheng’s fists are clenched, face cast in shadow from the sun. From the reactions around him, disciples shifting and Lan Wangji’s hand hovering by his sword, everyone seems to think that he’s ready to unleash another round of attacks.

But Wei Wuxian knows his brother.

Every ounce of fight just went out of Jiang Cheng.

When he chances a glance at Sandu, he finds her looking down at the ground, at the small tuft of white and tan fur that’s now inching its way across the clearing like a dandelion in the breeze.

They look… sad.

But that doesn’t make sense. Wei Wuxian knows what he was like, near the end. It…wasn’t good. His death was his own fault, he can see that now. Maybe not everything leading up to it, but that wasn’t Jiang Cheng’s responsibility. He could never blame him, not when it was Wei Wuxian who started the fire that burned all the bridges between them.

It’s his fault, after all, that Shijie is—

That she’s—

(Dead. She’s dead, and you killed her, you coward, you monster—)

In a rush of clarity, he understands. Of course Jiang Cheng is sad. It’s not Wei Wuxian he’s grieving over—it’s Shijie. Wonderful Shijie, and Wei Wuxian was such an idiot (an idiot, and selfish, and terrible, what an awful person he is) to think otherwise, for even a moment.

All the questions he’s been ignoring spin in his head and threaten to drown him, an ache deeper than Zidian.

How soon did Xiaolian turn to dust? Where are they buried? What was the funeral like?

Did they suffer, before they…?

Something is wrong with his throat. He tries to clear it, push back the sudden sting of his eyes.

“Jiang—” Cheng, he wants to say, sorrow tricking into all the still-broken cracks of him, Jiang Cheng, I’m so sorry. Jiang Cheng: your disciples look so proud, standing behind you. You must have gone through so much. Jiang Cheng, I know I broke my promise, but if you would just listen—

But he doesn’t get to say any of it, because as soon as he gets the first word out, Lan Wangji is yanking him close.

“Enough,” he says, and it is meant to carry. His voice is firm, unwavering; just like before, Wei Wuxian finds himself obeying it on instinct, mouth snapping closed with a click.  

Suibian shivers against him.

 “Enough?” Jiang Cheng spits, and it’s like watching an entire new person swallow up the brother he knows. Zidian flares back to life on his wrist as he squares his shoulders, gaze hard. “I’m not done! He’s still a demonic cultivator! Hand him over.”

Lan Wangji makes absolutely no move to obey.

“We are under no obligation to do so,” Bichen reminds Jiang Cheng, who scowls at her.

“You’re harboring a criminal! He attacked Jin Ling!”

He attacked me first!” Wei Wuxian protests, unable to help himself.

Jiang Cheng scowls “Do you really think I’m going to believe that?”

“Aiyo, why would I lie about that—”

Lan Wangji’s grip on his wrist flexes. Wei Wuxian quiets down.

“The hunt is over,” Bichen says, inserting herself back into he conversation before Jiang Cheng can say more. Her tail is puffed, but she speaks the same way Lan Wangji did earlier: leaving no room for argument. “There is nothing more for us to discuss.”

There’s a long, tense moment of silence, where Jiang Cheng looks between them, a muscle in his jaw twitching. When Zidian slowly snakes its way down to his fingers, Lan Wangji’s shoulders tense. His hand drifts towards his guqin.

For the second time that day, Wei Wuxian is absolutely convinced he is about to see two opposing forces beat the absolute shit out of each other.

He panics. 

“Oh my hair!” he blurts out, and hurls himself into Lan Wangji’s side.

It’s like hitting concrete. Everyone turns to stare at him.

“You fiends ruined my hair,” he continues in a shriek, adding in a fake sob for good measure. He tugs on Lan Wangji’s robes, trying to get him to move back; Lan Wangji does not so much as twitch. “And my makeup! How cruel, even my most cruel of cousins knew to aim for the ribs instead!”

Jiang Cheng gapes at him. Lan Wangji blinks, which Wei Wuxian thinks is the equivalent. Around them, the disciples are staring with huge, uncertain eyes.

He rushes on, louder, “Woe is me, I may as well just give up here! Trapped in my house for so long and now this! What a terrible world, how will I find a suitable husband now, being a cutsleeve is so hard, and not in the fun way at all—”

That seems to be the breaking point.

“Never mind,” Jiang Cheng spits, stepping back with a look of disgust. “This is enough. You Lans have wasted too much of my time already. Jin Ling, we’re leaving.”

“What, but Jiujiu—”

Jiang Cheng ignores his protests, grabbing him by the arm and practically hauling him away.

“Maybe he is a lunatic,” the Jin disciples mutter, sending furtive glances back at him as they scurry away. A few cover their ears; Wei Wuxian just wails even louder in retaliation, acutely aware that Sandu has not stopped staring at them.

It’s only when Jiang Cheng calls, “Sandu! Let’s go!” that she looks away, slinking after them with at least two more glances over her shoulder. The Jiang disciples trail after her, huddled together and whispering like gossiping grannies.

Wei Wuxian keeps up his tirade, back throbbing with each word that leaves his mouth.  Lan Wangji holds his wrist through all of them, silent and steady.

“Pitiless, unfair, why don’t you just ravage me now you brutes—”

Only when everyone but the Lans have left does Wei Wuxian peter off. He lets out a single, long sigh of relief before digging into his robes for Suibian.

It’s difficult, considering that Lan Wangji has not made any move to let go of his other arm, even with all the fussing, but after a few seconds he manages to cradle her against his chest with his free one. She stares up at him with watery eyes; he knows only part of it is from the pain of her injury.

“You ok?”

When she just nods in response, silent, he immediately knows it’s worse than he thought.

“What’s wrong with your foot?”

She glances around them, trembling. “I’m ok, A-Xi—um, A-Yu?”

It takes significant self-control not to make a face at that. Instead, he tugs on the arm Lan Wangji is still holding, a pointed message. The sooner he can look at Suibian’s injury, the better.

No response. He looks up to find Lan Wangji gazing at him.

“She’s hurt,” he snaps, tugging again. Lan Wangi may be an old friend, but he’s not going to get in the way when it comes to Suibian.

The movement is surprisingly ineffective, just like everything else Wei Wuxian has tried. Lan Wangji merely blinks slowly, turning his gaze to Suibian.

There’s a short pause.

“You cannot heal her.”

Lan Wangji says it with absolute conviction, the way you would say that the sky is blue or the sun is hot. Wei Wuxian stares at him, confused.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Your energy is weak.” Bichen inserts herself into the conversation, forcing Wei Wuxian to glance away from whatever intense emotion is going on between Lan Wangji’s eyebrows. “Her injury is more than you can do on your own. We have healers who could help.”

“Oh,” he says, and automatically curls Suibian closer to his chest. It’s partly habit; for so long, it was dangerous to have anyone looking at them outside of Wen Qing. “Ah, no, that’s alright, we’re ok. We’ll just be on our merry way!”

Neither Bichen nor Lan Wangji look particularly pleased with that.

Bichen glances up at Lan Wangji before saying, very carefully, “You need to come with us.”

Oh gods. No way, he can’t—if they go with Lan Wangji and Bichen, then who even knows what could happen?

“We’re really fine,” Wei Wuxian tells them, heart beating loud in his ears. He tries to inch away, wincing when Lan Wangji’s grip turns bruising. Immediately, the pressure lessens, but doesn’t withdraw fully. Suibian is looking between all of them with a helpless, anxious expression; Bichen’s eyes track her movements, intent.

Fuck. They’re stuck.

 “You are also injured,” Bichen points out, gaze flicking to Wei Wuxian, and he lets out what he hopes is a dismissive laugh.

“What? C’mon, no, why would you think that?”

Lan Wangji and Bichen just blink at him. He winces again; maybe that wasn’t too convincing after all. Still, he means it! The place where Zidian hit him feels raw and bruised, but he’s so full of adrenaline he doesn’t fully register it. This’ll last him at least a few hours. He’s fine.

“Really, don’t worry about it, I feel great, no injuries here! Just my, uh, delicate sensibilities?”

Lan Wangji turns to the disciples.

“Prepare to leave,” he tells them, as if Wei Wuxian didn’t speak at all. They all nod; what follows is the closest that Lan principles probably allow to a scramble to obey his order. They all look, of course, flawless and regal doing so.

Two of the Lans stay behind stay behind as the others bustle away—Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui, Wei Wuxian recalls, thinking back to the night at Mo Manor. Wei Wuxian yelps as he’s handed over to them, one on each side of him and gripping his arms with a strength that he hadn’t expected just from looking at their stature.

“Oi! Hey! What are you doing?”

“He was hit with Zidian,” Lan Wangji says, watching as Wei Wuxian struggles and loudly objects to the disciples trying to drag him away. Suibian is chittering in her throat, concern twisting through their link. “Be gentle with him.”

“You got it, Hanguang-Jun!” Lan Jingyi says, much too cheerfully for someone who is aiding in a kidnapping. Wei Wuxian stares at him, dumbfounded by the sheer audacity.

“Don’t you worry, Mo-gongzi,” adds Lan Sizhui, much more respectfully, thank you. “We will take good care of you and your daemon.”

“I’d prefer you don’t take care of me at all!” Wei Wuxian protests. He is once again ignored.

They start to drag him away, his feet scraping through the dirt as physical evidence of his indignation. They don’t let go, even as the other disciples busy themselves with placing warding talismans throughout the clearing and filling Lan Wangji in on what happened before they arrived.

Suibian has started to doze, openly exhausted from the earlier ordeal. Trying not to obsessively fret over that, he looks over to Lan Wangji and Bichen. They’re now surrounded by disciples, nodding with a serenity that doesn’t fit the past hour of activity.

But they all look relatively preoccupied. An idea pops into his head.

“Oh, oh, I feel so weak,” he whines, letting himself go limp and heavy. Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi stumble a little from the unexpected shift in weight, although not as much as he’d hoped—are all Lans just unnaturally strong? Or is Mo Xuanyu just light?

Still, he seizes the moment. Before they can fully recover, he uses one last burst of his remaining energy to shove them off.

“Ah-ha!” he cries, victorious. Immediately, they’re trying to grab him again.

“Oh come on, you can hardly walk—”

“Mo-gongzi, please—”

Wei Wuxian means to run, he really does, but there’s an odd sensation in his legs that he hadn’t noticed before when they were holding onto him. When he sways back and looks down at Suibian, she’s jolted awake, gazing up at him with a worried expression.

He looks back up to see that all the Lan disciples are all staring now, a mixture of concern and apprehension on their faces. Lan Wangji and Bichen are watching too, but their faces have become blurry shapes and— huh, that’s weird.

Their distorted voices reach his ears but he can’t make sense of the words, like he’s underwater and someone is calling his name from the docks.

“Well,” Wei Wuxian says, voice a bit weaker than he expected. He powers through anyways. He can talk, he’s good at talking, even if the world is starting to spin a little. “Oldest trick in the book, really! And you all thought I couldn’t—”

The next thing he knows, the world has gone dark.


The Jingshi is a quiet place.

It has been for as long as Lan Wangji can remember. The quiet here is one that none but Sizhui and Lan Xichen dare to break, carefully cultivated throughout the years. It’s partly preference and partly respect for the principles that drives such a thing. He is lucky to find it amenable: there is a long-ingrained sense of security that settles over him when in a place so still.

Everything within this space is intentional. Muted, but on his own terms; minimalist and simple, but by his design. Living up to its name. 

Yet even deep in slumber, Wei Ying’s mere presence makes it all seem impossibly loud.

It is far from an unwelcome feeling.  

Bichen is sitting by the edge of the bed, unashamedly watching Wei Ying and Suibian sleep. After waking up from his fainting incident, Wei Ying had declared himself perfectly refreshed; that bravado had lasted only long enough for him to be dragged to the Jingshi by Sizhui and Jingyi, throwing the worst fake hysterics that Lan Wangji has ever seen and protesting all the way, before passing out immediately as soon as he hit the bed. Suibian had been quick to follow him into sleep.

Lan Wangji is still struggling to come to terms with the fact that he is not dreaming himself. The longer he stands in the doorway, staring at the curled-up shapes of them under the blankets, the more surreal it feels.

The one thing that keeps the image before him rooted in reality is the small bandage around Suibian’s paw, given to her by their head healer. Were this a fantasy, Lan Wangji’s mind would never have allowed her to be hurt.

He crosses the room to join Bichen, slowed by his unwillingness to wake them but unable to stay away a moment longer. Her ears tilt in his direction when he sits down on the edge of the bed, the mattress dipping slightly under his weight, but she does not look away from the occupants.

He cannot blame her. To see the man he loves so close and so safe is a captivating sight.

Lan Wangji soaks in every precious detail.

Wei Ying is here, tucked into his bed with mouth slightly open against the pillow, a soft vulnerability on his face that is reserved only for those deep in slumber. The inky black strands of his hair fan out against the sheets, lashes fluttering as he dreams. Every so often his fingers twitch from their place curled in Suibian’s fur, breaths slow and even.

Here. Alive.

The thought bounces in Lan Wangji’s skull, over and over: here, alive, here, alive.

The truth is that Lan Wangji has dreamt of a moment like this for longer than he can remember. Not just this moment: there have been thousands of different Wei Yings in his head since they met, too many to count or catalogue.

A Wei Ying flushed with happiness after a cup of Emperor’s Smile. A Wei Ying twisting and turning though the air as his sword flashes in the moonlight. A Wei Ying held tightly against his chest, on his knees, under him and moaning.

(Shameful, he thinks, those last imaginings—but the desire has always burned in his belly and he cannot resist it. He has stopped trying).

Wei Ying has never been a difficult image to conjure, not for Lan Wangji. In his worst moments, those thirteen long years of soft questions on string, he had been haunted by how easy it was to think of him, how much he could imagine.

Wei Ying, bloody and bruised.

Wei Ying, chunks of his flesh torn off by angry ghouls.

Wei Ying’s spirit wandering the land in pain.

Wei Ying gone, gone, gone

He closes his eyes. Takes a breath.

In his bed, Wei Ying stirs. A little noise escapes his throat; Lan Wangji’s blood burns as if the morning sun has set it on fire. It hits him that each passing second is one wasted not looking at the face so preciously close to his own, a moment to gaze at the man he loves with no need to hide it.

That thought is what pushes back the darkness, the pain, that has his eyes opening again.

Opening so he can see real flesh and blood, the flush under his cheekbones, the gentle rise and fall of a steady heartbeat. There is a hyper-reality to it, as if all the tones and shades of him have been condensed, pigmented with the richest ink.

He is more colorful than any night market. More alive.

More.  

Lan Wangji looks at the man curled into his white sheets, sees Wei Ying lit by early morning light after so many years of only darkness, and he aches so deeply that it is hard to breathe.

Carefully, he reaches out and moves a strand of hair from Wei Ying’s face. Their skin brushes as he does, a single finger against a cheekbone. Something in his chest constricts; he inhales slowly to steady himself, calm the sudden tremble of his hands.

“They did not wake when you were gone.”

Bichen’s voice is an undertone, keen not to disturb them. Lan Wangji nods, unwilling to move his fingers from where they are now resting on Wei Ying’s hair.

They have been taking turns watching over them. While he would tell others that it is to monitor their health, there is no need for such half-truths between him and Bichen. To leave them alone is a daunting thought; there is a deep fear in him that should they do so, they will come back to an empty bed.

“His scent?”

“Still untainted,” Bichen reassures him. “Not like before.”

It is a relief to hear. They had never been able to figure out what it meant when Wei Ying’s scent changed to Bichen’s nose. No number of books ever gleaned an answer, and Lan Wangji knows they are unlikely to find out from the man himself. That Wei Ying is now free of it is yet another thing to be thankful for.

“Has anyone figured it out?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “No. Xiongzhang only suspects.”

Even after all these years, his brother can read him too well. Try as he might, Lan Xichen had looked at Wei Ying too closely when Lan Wangji had brought him back to the Cloud Recesses.

It is largely his fault, Lan Wangji knows—it was him, after all, who allowed Wei Ying to drape himself over him and whine. To be too far from him was unbearable in that moment, just as it is unbearable now; and he has always been weak in indulging Wei Ying’s propensity to touch so freely.

It does not matter that the body is different. Lan Wangji did not yearn for a body, did not grieve for a body, did not call into the spirit realm to ask a body if it had found peace. He is content with Wei Ying and his touch, regardless of form.

But he showed his hand, and Lan Xichen is smart. And Wei Ying and Suibian, they…

“They are… not subtle,” he says eventually, and Bichen huffs out a laugh.

“No, they are not. All the same mannerisms.”

“Mn.”

Even without the song, they would have known.  

In Wei Ying’s arms, Suibian lets out a quiet whimper, tail twisting under the sheets. So far they have slept near silently, no doubt spurred on by exhaustion and Jiang Wanyin’s crude attack. This new body, all delicate limbs and long lines, was not meant for such things; and from what he has seen tending to the seared strip of flesh on across his back, Lan Wangji does not think Mo Xuanyu was offered much in nutrition or care before Wei Ying’s soul found its home here.

He does not know how long it has been since they have been able to rest without worry, but he plans to let them take as long as needed.

Still, it is likely that they will wake soon, if Suibian’s restless dreams are any indication. Food and tea should be brought, perhaps a bath as well. At the very least, one of them must go fetch more medicinal herbs.

Yet Lan Wangji cannot bring himself to move a single inch away.  

“It is my turn,” Bichen says, even as he feels a deep, pained yearning through their bond at the offer. He understands that feeling, even if he does not want to.

There is a part of him that wishes more than anything to remain at this bedside, watching. A part that longs to stay until Wei Ying wakes, to tuck him in, to make sure with absolute certainty that he does not and cannot leave. To ignore any protests and keep him here, keep him safe, forever.

That part of him is dangerous. He cannot feed it.

His duty is to protect, not to trap. Never. Not with Wei Ying.

A gentle knock on the door draws both their attention. Bichen moves to open it; he lays his palm on her back, halting her.

“I will get it.”

If she sits back down too quickly and with a quiver of relief through their link, neither of them acknowledges it.

Lan Wangji allows himself one more precious moment of his fingers in dark, silky strands before he stands up. He draws in a slow breath and, the heat from Wei Ying’s body still tingling against his skin, makes his way towards the door.

When he opens the Jingshi to the outside world, he is greeted with a familiar face.

“Hanguang-Jun.”

Sizhui bows, spine perfectly straight, the pinnacle of a proper greeting. He is already dressed in his robes for the day, despite the early hour, and Lan Wangji sees Yingyue’s silhouette nestled in his sleeve. Behind them, the rest of the Cloud Recesses is still and silent, waiting for the gentle chime of five to greet the day.

He has never been a late riser, not even when he was a fever-sick child, but to see him here at this time is nonetheless unusual.

Unusual, but no less pleasant for it.

Lan Wangji inclines his head, stepping outside to join him. In a moment of whimsy, he allows the door to stay open, early morning light joining the soft breeze that glides into the room and rustles the parchment on his desk.

“Is everything alright?”

“What? Oh, yes!” Sizhui looks taken-aback by the question, red spreading across his cheeks. Lan Wangji is not sure why. “Why do you ask?”

He is nervous, although of what Lan Wangji does not know. Perhaps nervous is not entirely correct; there is a restlessness in his motions, in the hesitant brightness of his gaze. Lan Wangji tilts his head, watching Yingyue flutter against his wrist. As if she can sense his attention, she pokes her head out and airs her wings.

Neutral, Lan Wangji offers, “You are here early.”

Sizhui smiles at him, self-depreciating this time. “I’m sorry, Hanguang-Jun. After everything yesterday, I couldn’t sleep very well. Lan Yingyue’s been restless too. Are we bothering you?”

“You are never a bother, A-Yuan.”

The name makes Sizhui flush deeper, but his smile turns happy. Some of the disquiet in his body eases, boosted by the signal away from formality. His eyes flick over to where Bichen is sitting near the bed, still watching over the two sleeping occupants.

Lan Wangji turns to follow his gaze.

Even from afar, his heart swells at the sight of them, curled around each other in the safety of his home. For thirteen years he has had only memories, and now here they are, a flash of color among the white and muted blues.

Fondness blooms in his ribs like a flower at the first touch of Spring. He stares for a few moments, committing the sight to memory.

Here, alive.

When he turns back, Sizhui is watching him.

For many years, Sizhui has not been a shy boy. Intuitive and sensitive, yes, but not skittish like his first few years at Gusu. He has grown into someone for which words come easy, who will speak on the behalf of others and himself if necessary.

Yet Sizhui is struggling with those same words now. Lan Wangji can see it in the way he wavers, the soft shifting of his weight back and forth. His eyes are on Lan Wangji’s face, curious, openly trying to gauge something.

Yingyue drifts up to float in the air between them, the delicate green lines of her wings outlined by the slowly rising sun. He watches as she comes to land on Sizhui’s forehead ribbon, little legs clinging to the clouds as if she could grasp real ones just as easily.

She asks, preciously quiet, “Mo-gongzi and his daemon will be ok?”

“Mn.”

Lan Wangji will see to that. Anyone who says otherwise should be prepared to face his blade.

For a moment, they simply stand there, looking at each other. It is clear they wish to say more. Lan Wangji waits, patient.

“Good,” Sizhui seems to settle with. There’s a split second of hesitation before he blurts, “And you’re ok, too?”

Lan Wangji blinks, taken aback. There is an urgency in the question that is unfamiliar to him.

After some consideration, Lan Wangji offers back, “I am well.”

The reply feels like one of the greatest understatements he could have made. Yet to tell the truth would be to tell Sizhui that he is ecstatic, disbelieving, terrified. Deeply, hopelessly in love in a way that is not, for the first time in thirteen years, cocooned only in pain and regret.

Still, if the wide-eyed way Sizhui looks at him means anything, perhaps he somehow knows regardless. 

“Um, Father?”

Lan Wangji makes a soft noise of acknowledgement.

“You’re… smiling?”

Startled, Lan Wangji touches his own face, feels the small upturn of his lips. Sizhui stares at him with a slightly open mouth as he does, Yingyue darting closer to look.

“Yes,” he agrees, because Sizhui is right and lying is forbidden. He is smiling.

He looks back to Wei Ying and Suibian, tucked securely into his bed. Alive, protected. Bichen has turned her head to the door, and Lan Wangji breathes in the love held in her gaze, in their bond.

“I am happy,” he realizes, and Sizhui’s answering smile is blinding.

Chapter Text


It’s been a while since he woke up in a bed.

The sensation is alien and unfamiliar, a long-lost memory of his life before the Burial Mounds. Those harrowing stretch of years after, on the nights he could sleep, the only thing below him had been the hard stone and the aching chill of the Demon Subdue Palace.

At the time, it had been just another reason not to rest, to push through the lonely nights with experimental talismans and his own twisting thoughts. When sleep overtook him, it was of necessity, not choice.

But now: a mattress below him. Silk against his skin.

Suibian, curled up on his stomach.

For the first time since he woke up on the floor of Mo Manor, Wei Wuxian is warm.

He blinks at the ceiling above him, memories stitching themselves back together with a languid, messy tempo. Sunlight is streaming in through the open window, cracked just enough to let in a comfortable breeze, and he rolls his head so the heat of it can soak into his face.

The cloud patterns on literally everything make it pretty obvious where he is. He would panic, except he vaguely remembers Lan Wangji and Bichen being the ones to take him here, so they’re not in any immediate danger. All of his limbs feel heavy and slow, and with no adrenaline to chase them away, he feels like he could float in this moment forever.

“You’re awake.”

Wei Wuxian slowly rolls his head the other direction, taking in the rest of the room and the daemon currently sitting near the middle of it.

Bichen is watching him with bright eyes and perked ears, her shadow stretching out on the wooden floor as if to emphasize her presence. Even laying down, she is impossible to miss.

No one else is with them, and with the table in front of her empty, it certainly doesn’t look like she was in the middle of some other task. She’s clearly been keeping an eye on them; for how long, he has no idea.

“What time is it?” he asks, and his voice comes out as a rasp. Belatedly, it occurs to him that he doesn’t know what day it is either. They’ve slept for some time, if the cottony taste on his tongue is any indication. Like, not a thirteen years amount, but longer than is probably wise.  

“Eight in the morning.”

Wei Wuxian groans, shutting his eyes again and turning his face into the pillow in protest. Never mind. Who cares how long they’ve been asleep? There’s no way he’s getting up at this hour.

Suibian stirs at Bichen’s voice, cracking an eye open and mumbling something incoherent under her breath. She stretches, arching her back with a squeaky yawn that is frankly too adorable for this early in the morning.

“Oh,” she says, and Wei Wuxian blinks his eyes open again to see her staring at Bichen across the room.

Uncertainty trickles through their bond, followed by a hint of pleased surprise. Her claws dig into the sheets before relaxing at the hand he places on her back, leaving pinprick tears in their wake.

“Good morning,” Bichen says, and Suibian wriggles out from under the blanket so she can sit up fully, twisting her head to look at their new surroundings. Her ears swivel towards the window before lying flat against her head.

“How did we get here?”

“We brought you here,” Bichen reminds her, not unkindly. Eyes moving to Suibian’s twitching tail, she adds, “This is A-Zhan’s and my room. You are safe.”

Their room?!

Wei Wuxian and Suibian look at each other in alarm before he sits up as well, trying not to wince as his back reminds him it was hit with Zidian in the not-so-distant past. The sharp pain from before is gone, replaced by a dull ache; when he checks his qi, he finds it surprisingly stable.

“Where’s Lan Zh—Hanguang-Jun?” he asks, as Suibian busies herself with not looking at Bichen. There’s an uncharacteristic timidness in her movements, like every ounce of her is wrapped up in the conflicting desire to jump over and show affection or keep up the act that they don’t know Bichen or Lan Wangji at all.

Bichen stands, coming a few paces closer to the bed. Wei Wuxian blinks back his own surprise as she settles down next to it, the light from the window painting her brown spots golden.

“He is dealing with some other matters at the moment. He will be back. Please make yourself comfortable in the meantime.”

Huh. Ok. 

Wei Wuxian had expected to wake up to Lan Qiren screaming in his face, or maybe someone planning an exorcism. Making himself comfortable feels oddly daunting in comparison.

There’s a kettle of tea and some hard-boiled eggs sitting on the bedside table; after a glance at Bichen to make sure it’s ok, he grabs one of the eggs and gives it to Suibian. She chitters, grabbing it from him with her teeth and nestling herself against his ribs to eat.

It’s unexpectedly messy: with her smaller jaw, she can’t bite it cleanly. At the first crunch of her teeth, little pieces of eggshell scatter across the blanket like china dropped on stone.

“Oh shit,” Suibian whispers, eyes going wide. Fabric this soft doesn’t come cheap; she looks up at Bichen with her ears flat against her head. 

Bichen doesn’t seem upset. If anything, she looks rather relieved.

“Ignore the mess. Do you not like them?”

“I…” Suibian is quiet, shy under Bichen’s undivided attention. “I love eggs.”

That earns a soft curl of the tail. Her next words are almost a purr. “I thought so. Please, keep eating.”

Suibian glances to Wei Wuxian, who nods, before cracking into the egg more carefully this time. Soon, happy fox noises are filling the room, broken only by equally happy munching sounds. Wei Wuxian frowns to himself as she eats, trying to remember when in the past few days either one of them said Suibian likes eggs.

Only half paying attention, he grabs another one and holds it out to her. “More?”

“Yes please!” she yips, and rolls onto her back to eat it this time.

She’s practically liquid in the sheets after the second one –always easily bribed by food, Wei Wuxian thinks fondly— the stilted movement from before lost to each passing minute.

The longer they go without someone else bursting through the door to declare vengeance for their prior deeds, the more Wei Wuxian relaxes too. After all, if Lan Wangji and Bichen wanted to hurt them, they would have done it already, right?

Briefly, he considers throwing some more hysterics, just in case they’ve somehow figured out who they are—but he can’t bring himself to. Suibian is so happy, and safe for the first time since they woke up, and Bichen is watching her eat with a soft, pleased look on her face. When is he going to get another moment like this?

Plus, they’ve been careful. There’s no way they know.

“Thank you,” Suibian sighs, once the eggs have been absolutely obliterated. Wei Wuxian rubs her belly, laughing when she nibbles on his hand and breaks out into giggles of her own. Fondness swells so strong in him at the noise that his throat tightens.

Bichen inclines her head. “What else?”

“Huh?” Suibian wriggles so that she’s looking a Bichen, although it’s upside-down. There are a few eggshells stuck to her coat and Wei Wuxian shakes his head, picking them out. 

Calmly, Bichen repeats, “What else do you want? Tell me, I will get it.”

They both stare at her. She waits, head tilted.

“I think we’re good,” Wei Wuxian says after a beat, looking to Suibian to confirm he’s not missing something. She tilts her ears at him: your guess is as good as mine. When Bichen just keeps waiting, he laughs, mainly because he doesn’t know what else to do. “Geeze, all this for people you don’t know! All those rumors about Lan hospitality must be true, huh?”

Bichen blinks at him.

“Oh,” she says, and frowns. It looks out of place on her usually composed face. “You are still doing this. I see.”

Wei Wuxian and Suibian exchange glances. Even for a Lan, that was ambiguous.

“Um, doing what?”

The next look Bichen sends his way is unnecessarily judgmental, if you ask Wei Wuxian. It reminds him of Wen Qing, in a way—exasperated and unimpressed all at once, and expecting him to figure out why.

It also doesn’t answer the actual question. Before he has the chance to tell her so, they’re interrupted by the door sliding open from outside.

When he sees who’s standing there, his heart skips.

Lan Wangji is dressed in simpler robes today than he was at Dafan Mountain: three layers of plain white cloth that drape elegantly over the lines of his body, a cloud-lined hem the only adornment to the otherwise simple fabric. He’s forgone the towering silver hairpiece in favor of a jade hairstick, a flash of green holding the dark curtain of hair from his face.

Wei Wuxian soaks in the details of it, surprised by how much those small changes soften him.

He also looks like someone who has already been up for some time; probably, Wei Wuxian realizes, because he has. His golden gaze moves carefully around the room before landing on Wei Wuxian sitting up in the bed.

He freezes.

They stare at each other from across the polished wood floors, a slight part to Lan Wangji’s lips that he knows means surprise. Wei Wuxian’s heart is beating so hard that he can feel it in his stomach.

For one long, heart-wrenching moment, no one says anything.

Then:

“Please don’t throw more hysterics,” Bichen says, puncturing the silence. Wei Wuxian shuts his mouth, which he had opened to do just that, and glares at her.

“As if I can control them!”

Another disbelieving look. With a precise, smooth movement, Lan Wangji shuts the door behind him, somehow not making a single noise as he does so. He makes no move to cross over to them; he simply stands there, mouth still parted, eyes wide.

For the first time, Wei Wuxian notices that he’s carrying something under his arm.

“What’s that?” he asks, curiosity getting the better of him as Suibian comes to the side of the bed to try and get a better view.

There’s a moment of hesitation. Very slowly, as if he’s afraid to scare them, Lan Wangji leaves his place by the doorway and comes over. He hovers at the edge of the bed for a split second, gaze trained on Wei Wuxian’s face.

Then, with a deep breath, he places a package in front of them.

“For you,” he says, and takes a step back.

They look at it, inquisitive. It’s very unassuming, really—just brown wrapping, maybe twice Suibian’s size. Wei Wuxian glances up at Lan Wangji, then back down, trying to figure out what on earth it could be.

“For us?”

“Mn.”

Suibian sniffs it, head tilting. Her tail starts to wag. “Oh, it smells good!”

Wei Wuxian pats her on the head. Ok, so at least they know it’s food. “Well then open it, silly.”

She glances at Lan Wangji and Bichen, who both nod, before carefully trying to unwrap the package with her teeth. It’s endearing, to say the least: her teeth aren’t meant for something this shape, and she just ends up shredding pieces of the outer wrapping off instead of actually making any meaningful progress.

Lan Wangji and Bichen wait, patient.

“Alright, alright,” Wei Wuxian sighs, when he feels her start to turn embarrassed instead of excited under the weight of their gazes, and gives her a hand. She scoots away, letting him untuck the corners, the twitches in her tail picking up speed.

Inside are two unassuming parcels, only one of which is wrapped.

As soon as Suibian sees the unwrapped one, she goes starry-eyed.

“Red bean buns!” she gushes, so loud that one of the birds sitting peacefully outside the window takes off with a squawk. Wei Wuxian blinks down at the perfect set of four buns as Suibian openly loses her shit from excitement next to him. “Oh, these are my favorite!”

“Yes, we—” Bichen starts, then abruptly breaks off.

Wei Wuxian looks up from the food to see her and Lan Wangji doing their silent communication thing. They’re clearly at odds over something (Lan Wangji’s hand is clenched, Bichen’s tail flicking restlessly behind her), but Wei Wuxian has no idea what.

“Ahh, I want one,” Suibian says, drawing all their attention back to her without meaning to, and nibbles pointedly on Wei Wuxian’s fingers. “I mean, please, can I have one?”

“You already had three eggs,” he scolds, but removes one of the buns from the box anyways. Her eyes turn into saucers when he holds it out to her in his palm. “Go slow, ok? You’re going to explode if you keep eating every treat they bring you.”

She makes a face at him before taking the bun and dragging it to the end of the bed, far away from where he could grab it back. Her tail wags wildly as she goes, a blur of uncontained joy.

“Thank you,” Wei Wuxian tells Lan Wangji over the delighted munching, something warm and tender in his chest. Lan Wangji inclines his head.

“Mn.”

“Do you want to sit down?” he asks, emboldened by the turn of events, and grins when Lan Wangji hesitates once more. “Don’t worry, I won’t bite! Well, not in a bad way, at least.”

Pink spreads across Lan Wangji’s ears.

“Shameless,” he murmurs, so soft that Wei Wuxian almost misses it—and steps forward.

Wei Wuxian scrambles to make room for him; he hadn’t thought Lan Wangji would actually do it! But there he goes, settling down at the very edge of the mattress, the blankets rustling from the slight shift in weight. He holds himself there, back straight, barely even sitting at all.

But he’s still there, close enough that Wei Wuxian could reach out and touch him if he wanted to.

He wants to.

He picks up another bun instead, holding it out for Lan Wangji to take. Lan Wangji shakes his head, and Wei Wuxian pouts.

“Come on, there are four buns and four of us, live a little!”

Slowly, and with an expression that makes it clear he does not plan to eat it, Lan Wangji takes the bun. Wei Wuxian sets another in front of Bichen, who is busy staring at Suibian.

“There!” he declares, satisfied, and goes to unwrap the other thing Lan Wangji brought them.

It has the opposite effect than what he expected; instead of relaxing at the new subject of his attention, Lan Wangji’s shoulders get tighter with each layer of cloth that he pulls away.

He unwraps it faster.

“You know,” he says, because he can’t stand the quiet, not when it gives his mind free reign to think about how nice Lan Wangji and Bichen are being to them, how it would be different if they knew who they really were, “I’d heard about you Lans being gracious people, but you’re going to spoil us at this rate! Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve had a bed, let alone bed and breakfast? Tell me, do you treat all your guests this way, or just the crazy cutsleeves?”

He looks up, trying to gauge a reaction, but finds Lan Wangji’s face blank.

Well, not blank: trying to be blank.

It makes him smile, that carefully controlled expression. In his past life, he’d always thought that Lan Wangji was just like a rabbit: convinced that if he didn’t move, Wei Wuxian would forget he was there and stop trying to embarrass him.

That never worked, though, did it?

“Ah, don’t look like that, Hanguang-Jun!” Wei Wuxian pauses in unwrapping to wave a finger at him, wink. “If this is your way of winning over my heart, then consider it won! Want me to pay you back with a kiss?”

The flush on Lan Wangji’s ears deepens. 

“Shameless,” he repeats, voice deeper than before, and Wei Wuxian laughs.

“Am I? You’re the one who kidnapped me and brought me into your bed! What else am I supposed to think, hmm?”

The flush is spreading to the very tips of Lan Wangji’s ears now. “Ridiculous.”

“You think so?” Wei Wuxian asks, and grins. “Maybe I am, then! But you’re so handsome, you can’t blame me for trying!”

Lan Wangji doesn’t respond. He stares at an unidentified point over Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, refusing to meet his eyes. It’s so familiar and wonderful that Wei Wuxian laughs again, shaking his head. Fondness swells in him, leaving him breathless.

Lan Wangji is just like he remembered.

Maybe that’s why it hurts so much, sitting here, chatting away, close enough to touch. A part of him just wants to drop the act and fling himself forward, hug him like that night in the rain. If things were like they used to be, when he could call Lan Wangji his zhiji and hear it in return, then maybe he would.

Fat chance of that now, though. There’s no way Lan Wangji and Bichen feel the same way they did that day in the forest, even if Wei Wuxian still does.

Not after all the things he did. 

“Right, well,” he declares, refusing to dwell on that thought as the last of the wrapping falls off, “I hope that this is something fun because—”

The rest of his words die in his throat.

A bottle of Emperor’s Smile glints softly at him from the bed.

It is dark against the sheets, out of place in more than just its contents. Unthinking, he reaches out to trace the red cloth on the top, so familiar and un-Lan-like that even if he wasn’t aware of all three thousand rules, he would recognize it as an oddity.

It is only the coolness of it against his fingertips, the way it shines and glints like amber, that stops him from thinking the whole thing is simply a fever-induced dream. 

His next inhale, when he remembers how to breathe, rattles in his lungs.

He glances up at Lan Wangji, trying to gauge what this means, and finds him staring determinedly at a space somewhere over Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. Lan Wangji doesn’t drink, hasn’t since that one incident when they were disciples as far as Wei Wuxian knows, so why…?

“I have been told,” Lan Wangji says stiffly, when Wei Wuxian doesn’t try to hide his confusion, “that it is quite good.”

“O-oh.” Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what to feel about that, let alone say in response. At the end of the bed, Suibian has stopped eating; in fact, she’s stopped making any noise at all. “Yeah?”

Bichen looks up at Lan Wangji when he doesn’t reply, ears pressing back. Her gaze flits to Wei Wuxian, then back to Lan Wangji, before she huffs and puts her paw on the bed to draw Wei Wuxian’s attention to her.

“That, and he bought it for you,” Bichen tells him.

His stomach drops.

“Lan Bichen.

Lan Wangji’s voice is carefully controlled, but Wei Wuxian hears the warning in it. His heart, which was already fluttering in his chest from the moment he saw the bottle, starts beating at a rapid-fire speed.

Oh, no.

“You specifically,” Bichen adds, as if what she meant earlier wasn’t obvious, completely ignoring Lan Wangji. “There’s also a stash under the—”

“Bichen!”

Wei Wuxian blinks. He’s never heard Lan Wangji drop the formality on her name, let alone raise his voice like that. He’s glaring at Bichen with a furrow between his brows, hands twisted together on his lap. It’s a gaze Wei Wuxian recognizes well; he was the subject of it, after all, for so many years. How much had he loved it back then, at fifteen, hoping for any chance it would be directed his way?

Now, he feels cold at the thought of it.

They know.

For a single second, he considers lying. He could do it—play it up, or act confused.

Then he sees Suibian’s expression, torn between hope and fear in the way his own heart is, and knows that it would just do more harm than good.

He draws in a slow breath. Releases it.

“How did you figure it out?”

It comes out quieter than he wanted, almost meek. Lan Wangji’s fingers clench and unclench in his lap before he looks at Wei Wuxian again, the corner of his lips tinged with an emotion that Wei Wuxian can’t fully comprehend.

He says, barely even a whisper, “Wei Ying.”

Oh.

Wei Wuxian’s breath leaves him in an unsteady exhale, pressure twisting in his chest like his heart just grew to three times its size.

He missed hearing that.

He really, really missed it.

“Lan Zhan,” he sighs back, unthinking, unable to resist the all-too-familiar call and response pulling him in, so ingrained and natural that it might as well be gravity pulling the name from his lips.

The furrow between Lan Wangji’s brow disappears.

“Wei Ying,” he repeats, but it sounds so different this time. He shifts on the bed, a barely-there movement. Wei Wuxian’s throat tightens, a helpless smile spreading across his face. He never thought he’d hear Lan Wangji say his name again, and certainly not like that. All of the scenarios he’s imagined so far have been with anger and hatred in Lan Wangji’s tone, not this gentle quiet.

“Lan Zhan, I…”

Something is bubbling in his chest, the strange urge to tear up or laugh or—he doesn’t know. Even though there are a thousand words on his tongue, he doesn’t know what else to say.

“You’re not mad?” Suibian asks, abandoning her safe spot out of their reach to inch back over. Lan Wangji and Bichen look taken-aback; she stares at them with huge eyes, their bond quivering with nerves. “That we’re—back?”

“Not mad,” Lan Wangji says immediately. Without looking away from Wei Wuxian, he places his red bean bun in front of Suibian.

“Very much not mad,” Bichen adds, shoving her own red bean bun forward with her nose. A small trail of crumbs sticks to the sheets in its wake, another disconcerting splash of mess in the otherwise immaculate room.

“Hey, hey, oi!” Wei Wuxian protests, even though Suibian doesn’t make a move to try and take the food. Disbelief puts the urge to cry momentarily on hold. “Hold on, hold on, this is—”

“Take them,” Bichen says, shoving hers forward even more. “Stay, eat. Let us explain.”

Wei Wuxian gapes at them. “Let you explain? What are you talking about? If anyone needs to explain, it’s us! Don’t you want to know why we’re in these bodies?”

“Unnecessary.”

“Oh come on, you know that’s bullshit! What if we possessed this person and are coming back for some nefarious revenge, or—”

“You would not,” Lan Wangji interrupts, voice still firm. Wei Wuxian watches the bob of his throat as he swallows. “You were in danger.”

Wei Wuxian isn’t sure what time period he’s referring to for that, and he doesn’t really want to know. Regardless, his answer is the same.

“That’s not on you, though!”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says again, and Wei Wuxian’s heart skips. His eyes are tracing Wei Wuxian’s face. “You are safe here.”

“I—I know that,” he says, because that’s all obvious now. He’s not scared, how could he be when they’re both acting like this? But he doesn’t know what he is feeling either. There was a lot he was expecting, and they’re not adhering to any of it. He takes a deep, steadying breath. “Who else knows?”

Lan Wangji inclines his head towards Bichen. “Only us.”

It takes a second for the weight of that to sink in. The world’s most disliked cultivator, the enemy of all the sects, and Lan Wangji just let them sleep here and eat their food and use up their medicine? Knowing it was them?

Wei Wuxian draws in another unsteady breath, trying to keep his emotions in check.

Suibian is not as inclined to hide her feelings.

“We’re so stupid!” she wails, and launches herself at Bichen.

There’s a minor collision, made harmless by the size difference. Bichen’s ears flatten in surprise when Suibian’s paws make contact with her face; when she starts to whine and rub her face against Bichen’s muzzle, they quickly perk up again.

“Suibian?”

“Bichen, I missed you so much!” she whines, loud enough to break at least five noise rules. The blankets shift and slip, half falling to the floor, but Suibian doesn’t seem to notice. Her good paw scrambles at Bichen’s muzzle as her voice pitches higher. “I thought, I thought, it was, we—”

Bichen nudges Suibian onto her back with a soft chuffing noise.

It stops the words mid-sentence; Suibian plops over with a squeak, limbs flailing from the sudden shift in altitude. When Bichen lays her head next to her on the bed, she freezes.

“Suibian,” Bichen murmurs, tender, a rumble so gentle that it is nearly a purr. Her tail curls behind her. “It is alright.”

Suibian’s eyes go watery.

“I…” she warbles, and it’s like opening the floodgate.

Bichen, I’m so sorry that we didn’t tell you but everything was so new, we didn’t know if you liked us anymore, and—and—I know we should have trusted you, how long have you known? We saw you at Mo Manor but I didn’t think that you saw us, I was so worried, you didn’t find out then did you? I kept telling A-Xian that you must have followed us but I couldn’t smell you, this nose is so bad Bichen, you’re sure you’re not mad—” 

Wei Wuxian groans and puts his face in his hands.

Lan Wangji and Bichen listen attentively as Suibian tells them all about their trip so far, including a tearful rendition of the Terrible Flying Apple Incident. Her honesty is frankly embarrassing, but at least it gives Wei Wuxian some time to compose himself.

He can’t believe it. The whole thing feels like a dream.

“Alright, alright,” he says, when Suibian starts to tell them all over again how much she missed Bichen, and he tugs on her tail to get her attention. “Come on, that’s enough waterworks, you crybaby.”

She sniffles, proving his point.

“It is alright,” Bichen says, head still resting on the covers. Suibian’s has accidentally poked her in the face several times during the past few minutes, but she hasn’t said anything about it. “It is important information.”

“It is! See, A-Xian?”

“Don’t encourage her, you’ll just spoil her even more than I do already,” Wei Wuxian warns, but he scoops Suibian up to wipe the tear tracks off her face anyways. Touching her is reassuring, a comfort that he deeply needs. She licks his cheek before looking back to the end of the bed.

Her eyes widen.

“The red bean buns!” she cries, like she forgot hers was over there or that they existed at all, and Wei Wuxian lets her back down with a sigh when she wriggles. Honestly…

“Yeah, fine, go get your food. Aiyo, slower, you’re still hurt!”

She hobbles over to her bun; in a flash, Bichen grabs her own and moves to join her near the end of the bed. Suibian chitters at her when she gets close, a happy eh-eh-eh-eh; in response, Bichen puts her head back on the sheets and unabashedly stares.

Wei Wuxian looks back at Lan Wangji. Whatever intense emotion from before is gone, replaced by the familiar, ever-steady composure that he knows so well.

“Thanks,” Wei Wuxian tells him, quiet.

Lan Wangji inclines his head. “Mn.”

“I know it’s not ideal, but… can we stay until I’ve recovered?”

Lan Wangji pauses, then nods. Relief flows through Wei Wuxian.

“Listen,” he starts, wanting to try and clear things up, now that everything is out in the open, “back at the clearing, those disciples said that before I di.. uh, that all those years ago, I did some terrible things. And I know everyone was saying that I kidnapped Jin Zixuan but I didn’t, I really didn’t!”

Lan Wangji’s gaze sharpens.

“Mn.”

“I know it sounds made-up,” Wei Wuxian continues in a rush, hardly even processing the noise, “but Lan Zhan, I promise I was just making my way to the one month celebration and one of those dumb Jin Cousins just appeared out of nowhere like some oversized gopher—”

“Wei Ying.”

“And Wen Ning did end up killing him, that’s true, but he just kind of lost control and also he deserved it, the bastard. But Lan Zhan, I swear on everything, I swear on Suibian, I had nothing to do with the Peacock, I don’t even know what happened in the first place—”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji interrupts, “I believe you.”

Wei Wuxian pauses halfway through the next argument he had planned. Lan Wangji looks as calm and composed as ever, his attentive gaze still on Wei Wuxian’s face. He certainly doesn’t look like he’s playing some type of elaborate prank on him.

“You—do?” he asks, wondering if he misheard.

Lan Wangji nods. “His disappearance was sudden. Unusual. It did not make sense for you to do such a thing. No motive.”

Relief trickles down Wei Wuxian’s spine like wool water on a hot day. Lan Wangji believes him. The thought is so huge, so out of any realm of possibility that he imagined, that he’s almost dizzy with it.

“Oh,” he says. Something is wrong with his throat; he coughs to clear it. “I—then why does everyone else think I did it?”

Something in Lan Wangji’s gaze hardens.

“Jin Guangshan.”

“What?!”

Suibian pauses in her munching to tilt her ears in their direction, a frown on her face. “Wait, he’s the one who framed us? Why?

“He was the one who announced the news, and linked your name to it,” Bichen says, inserting herself smoothly into the conversation now that Suibian’s attention has been drawn away from the buns. “We do not know why. But he claimed that Jin Zixuan disappeared in the dead of night from his room and said you were responsible.”

“How the hell would I do that?” Wei Wuxian demands. “And what was his evidence? Did anyone actually see anything, or hear anything? There must have been signs of a struggle or something, right?”

Bichen shakes her head. “That is what was so strange: there was no indications of violence or conflict, at least not in the room itself. The night before the ceremony, he and Jin Suihua were there. In the morning, they weren’t. According to Jiang-furen—”

Wei Wuxian flinches.

It’s instinctual and immediate, like drawing back from an open flame. Hearing her name feels like a thousand needles pressed into his lungs, the hurt so raw and tender that it steals the air from his body. He draws in a shaky breath.

Bichen has gone silent. She and Lan Wangji are staring at him, twin concerned gazes.

“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji murmurs, and Wei Wuxian forces himself to laugh.

“Ah, nothing, nothing, just zoned out for a second,” he says, trying to force cheer into his voice. His fingers itch, restless, desperate for anything to do. He reaches for the teapot on the bedside table, not meeting Lan Wangji’s eyes. “Go on, go on, ignore me.”

To his surprise, Lan Wangji reaches out and takes the teapot from him before he can do anything. Their hands brush, and Wei Wuxian draws back, waiting quietly while Lan Wangji pours a cup for him.

“Thanks,” he murmurs when Lan Wangji hands it over. His hands shake slightly around the cup.

“No need for thanks.”

That makes him smile, just a little; another well-rehearsed dance between them, a comforting echo. When he looks back up, Lan Wangji is watching him, a slight furrow between his brows.

“Aiyo, really, keep talking,” he says, squirming under the scrutiny of his golden eyes. He can’t keep thinking about her, not if he wants to get through this. “So the Peacock just up and disappeared, but how did they link it to me?”

Lan Wangji regards him for another moment before answering.

“There was no evidence,” he says eventually, hands settling back in his lap. “Only hearsay.”

“Jin Guangshan had a number of servants and sect members come forward, claiming they heard a flute echoing in the halls,” Bichen explains, and Wei Wuxian closes his eyes. Of course. “His disappearance was so unusual and sudden that most believed it. They claimed you must have bewitched Jin Zixuan somehow, given that Jia—that… no one was else was disturbed in the room that night.”  

“What the…”

“A lie,” Lan Wangji says, firm, and Wei Wuxian nods.

“Um, yes, on so many levels! Demonic cultivation doesn’t even work like that! And what would I have done with him? Asked him to work on the turnip fields? Honestly…”

“So it’s really just Jin Guangshan lying about things again,” Suibian concludes with a sigh, putting her head on her paws. “Great.”

Lan Wangji inclines his head. “Not all believed it. But enough did.”

“Jin Zixun’s death was viewed by many as confirmation,” Bichen adds gently, and Suibian makes a frustrated noise. “Jin Guangshan claimed he had sent him to retrieve Jin Zixuan from you. The surviving Jins who attacked you came back with news of his demise, and that is when they called for war.”

“Those who did not agree were ignored,” Lan Wangji adds.

Suibian frowns, unhappiness zipping through their link. “It was a trap, though! Jin Zixun said he was there to bring back Jin Zixuan, but then attacked us before we could even explain that we didn’t have him.”

Bichen nods. “Clearly, it was a ruse from Jin Guangshan. Whether Jin Zixun truly believed you had taken Jin Zixuan or not, we do not know. The others believed it, and that was enough.”

Wei Wuxian turns this all over in his head. The sects were looking for an excuse for war; even knee deep in turnips and Wen Qing’s tonics, he’d been aware of the ticking clock counting down to an attempted attack. A kidnapping was a good excuse to act, sure, but an elaborate one.

And it still doesn’t answer a key question.

“it doesn’t make sense,” he mutters, trying to put the pieces together. “Where the hell is Jin Zixuan, then?”

“Yeah! If we didn’t take him, someone else had to, right?” Suibian asks, and Bichen huffs.

“That’s what we thought. But there are very few truths we have been able to uncover. Everyone was busy getting ready for the celebration, so his activities before his disappearance are largely uncharted. There were so many meetings that the details become murky.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees. “His sword was missing. That is our only clue.”

Interesting. “His sword?”

Lan Wangji inclines his head.

“But why would he have needed his sword…?”

“Jin Guangshan claimed self-defense,” Bichen tells him, tail flicking back and forth behind her, a restless motion. “That he somehow heard you coming and grabbed it before you enchanted him. It was hard to disprove, given that they later found it when they raided the Burial Mounds. The fact it was found there was used as further evidence against you.”

Well, shit.

“Well I didn’t take him, so he must have needed it for something else,” he muses, and Bichen nods. “If they found the sword, then I’m assuming the people who believed the story searched the Burial Mounds, right? To see if I had locked him away somewhere, or something?”

“According to accounts, yes. When he was not found, the sword was set aside for Jin Rulan.”

“Hmm.” Wei Wuxian fiddles with the cup in his hands, thinking. Things still aren’t adding up. Jin Guangshan might have been lying to everyone, and it would have been easy for him to plant the sword in the Burial Mounds, but at the end of the day, he would have known the whole story was fake. Jin Zixuan was his heir, someone important; and as convenient as it must have been to blame Wei Wuxian for it, that wouldn’t change the reality that someone else was to blame.

So did he just not care about Jin Zixuan’s fate?

Or did he know something they don’t?

“After they searched the Burial Mounds,” Wei Wuxian says slowly, “did their search efforts stop? Or did they keep going?”

“They searched many places.” Lan Wangji’s gaze goes to the window, then back to him. “Every year, they try again. He has yet to be found.”

That is, Wei Wuxian thinks, very polite wording.

If it was money the kidnappers wanted, whoever took Jin Zixuan would have demanded their ransom long before now. And if the Jin actually did look everywhere, then there’s no way another sect or rogue group could have him. No matter how crafty, you can’t hide someone that important from a sect that rich and powerful.

If they haven’t found him after thirteen years, then he’s got to be dead.

“Well this sucks,” Suibian announces, breaking the somber silence, and Wei Wuxian chuckles.

“Nothing we can do about it now,” he says, nudging her with his foot. She grumbles at him but perks up when Bichen lays her head down on the bed next to her again. Her tail starts wagging; with an exasperated sigh, Wei Wuxian turns back Lan Wangji. “And now she’s not going to listen to a thing I’m saying. This is your fault, you know!”

Lan Wangji’s eyes are like warm honey. “Mn.”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. “Yeah, ok. Well, a mystery for us to solve later, I suppose!”

His curse comes first, of course. But he can’t just ignore what happened. Regardless of how Jin Zixuan disappeared and died, it’s still his fault that Shijie wasn’t around to raise their son in his absence.

If he had just listened—

He shoves that thought away, quick and brutal.

“Anyways,” he says, and finally takes a gulp of tea. It’s gone cool in the time they’re talking; when Lan Wangji makes a motion to refill it, he stops him. “Ah, no need, no need!”

With a small furrow in his forehead, Lan Wangji refills it anyways.

“So stubborn,” Wei Wuxian tuts, earning a deadpan look.

“Hn. Courteous.”

“Right,” he says, impossibly fond. “Well, don’t you worry, you won’t have to be courteous forever! I’ll be out of your hair and leaving you and your tea in peace in no time! We just need to rest and then A-Sui and I will hit the road again to figure things out, I won’t drag you along, don’t worry, I know you have important—”

“We are coming.”

Wei Wuxian blinks, turning to look at Bichen. She’s currently watching Suibian nibble on one of the red bean buns; when she senses his gaze, she swivels her ears towards him but doesn’t look away.

“What?” he asks, and she chuffs.

“We are coming with you.”

Wei Wuxian pauses. He turns to Lan Wangji, expecting him to be shaking his head or glaring or looking otherwise annoyed.

He doesn’t find any of those things there. The sun has shifted a few degrees in the sky as they’ve been talking; a sliver of light now crosses Lan Wangji’s face, right on his mouth, highlighting the plush lotus pink of his lips. Wei Wuxian watches as the tip of his tongue passes across them, quick and almost imperceptible.

He meets Wei Wuxian’s gaze like he’s been waiting for it all along.

“You… will?” Wei Wuxian asks him, asks both of them, and can’t help but stare at the gentle bob of Lan Wangji’s adam’s apple at the question.

“Mn,” he says, and he sounds so certain, like it’s that simple. Wei Wuxian feels bowled over it.

“Oh,” he breathes. “Wait, but—You’re sure?”

“Yes. We will go together. For all of it.”

For all of it.

(He’s standing on another precipice, another liminal stretch of space. But this time, there’s no dogs nipping at his heels. No whip cracking through the air. No ache in his chest, where there used to be warmth.

Just a flash of white, and the sound of a guqin.)

“Ah, Lan Zhan!” he says, and he feels hot, uncertain. Lan Wangji is too good a person; he can’t be selfish and let him get all tangled up in this. “You should be careful what you promise, what if I annoy you too much and you head back home early?”

Lan Wangji’s brows furrow. “You will not.”

“You can’t say that now, I’ve only been here for half a day!” he protests, but the shivery feeling from earlier is now a flutter, a bird stretching its wings in a gilded cage. “This new body doesn’t have a very strong core, you know! I’ll have to use all sorts of talismans and tricks.”

“That doesn’t change anything,” Bichen says, almost impatient. “It never has.”

Wei Wuxian falters, surprise catching his next argument in his throat. He stares at her, then Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji is looking resolutely ahead, ears tinted pink.

He doesn’t contradict what she said.

Holy shit.

“You really mean it,” he realizes out loud, the thought spilling out of him like another pull of gravity. “You really want to come along.”

At the end of the bed, Bichen’s whiskers do something funny that he doesn’t understand. Lan Wangji’s face softens.

“Mn,” he says, and gently takes the now-full cup of tea from Wei Wuxian’s loose hands, setting it on the table. “We will come.”

He says it the same way he says everything: earnest, unruffled, guided by a steadiness that seems to come from his very core. This time, the relief it is all-encompassing—not a trickle of water, but a press of warm tides, inviting and reassuring, well-known against his skin. It washes away a weight he didn’t even know he had.

It’s too good to be true. He doesn’t deserve it.

He can feel himself smiling anyways.

At the end of the bed, Suibian’s tail is wagging, a steady thwack thwack against the sheets. She’s chittering at Bichen, words a mile a minute: “Oh I can’t wait, I can show you all the pretty trees near here! I can climb them now, did you know that? Can you climb trees? You probably can, you’re so strong—”

The shivery feeling has returned in full force, all the way in his fingertips now, working into the crevices. A quiet reassurance: together, together. He grins, giddy with it, and leans forward with a laugh so he’s a bit more in Lan Wangji’s space.

“What would your Shufu say, hearing you plan to tolerate my nasty tricks?” he teases, and Lan Wangji narrows his eyes at him. “Aiyo, don’t look like that! Really, though, I’m hoping I won’t need to do any of the major stuff.”

“Mn.”

“And surely if I have the upstanding Hanguang-Jun with me, he will protect this humble cultivator from straying too far?” He flutters his eyelashes; the tips of Lan Wangji’s ears darken further.

“Shameless.”

“I am,” Wei Wuxian agrees happily, and this smile feels better, fitting comfortably on his face. He leans forward further, excited. “There’s probably so many things to catch me up on! What have you been up to?”

Lan Wangji looks at him, considering.

Without saying anything, he reaches out and plucks the bottle of Emperor’s smile from the bed. When he uncorks it and reaches for a cup, Wei Wuxian is convinced that he’s about to see Lan Wangji lose his mind and actually take a sip.

Instead, he hands the cup to Wei Wuxian.

Which, to be fair, is about just as strange.

“Drink,” he says, and sets the bottle down on the table. It adds to yet another completely incomprehensible twist to the day. “We can discuss later.”

Wei Wuxian eyes the clear liquid, wonders if he’s being pranked. Lan Wangji, setting aside business for pleasure?

“I thought alcohol wasn’t allowed in the Cloud Recesses,” he muses, faux innocent. He lowers his voice. “Is Hanguang-Jun breaking a rule?”

Lan Wangji looks pointedly away.

Chuckling, Wei Wuxian does the shot. There’s probably some technicality that lets Lan Wangji give this to him; might as well enjoy it while it lasts. The alcohol slides down his throat, smooth and just as delicious as he remembered, and he can’t help but sigh as he sets the cup down.

Before he can really process the motion, Lan Wangji has refilled it.

“Lan Zhan!” he cries, delighted. “So early, and you’re serving me another? You better be careful, or I’ll expect this instead of my morning tea.”

That gets Lan Wangji to look sharply at him. “No.”

“Kidding, kidding,” Wei Wuxian reassures him, but downs the glass anyways. Lan Wangji’s red bean bun is still sitting on the bed, uneaten; Wei Wuxian frowns, nodding his head towards it. “You should have something too! Come on, try it, they’re good.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t move. Wei Wuxian turns to see if Bichen ate hers, but she’s just busy watching Suibian. Who, he notes, somehow has two red bean buns in her possession now. 

He can’t help it: he laughs.

“Oh man,” he says, and shakes his head. Lan Wangji is staring at him, mouth slightly parted, but Wei Wuxian can’t resist another chuckle, even if it’s probably breaking noise rules. Happiness is bubbling in him, making him feel light. It’s been so long since he last felt this good. “Like I said, spoiled. Be careful, she’s going to throw up and ruin your sheets.”

“I understand,” Lan Wangji replies, tone solemn, and Wei Wuxian does a double take.

“What?! Lan Zhan, I was joking, these sheets must cost more than everything I own!”

“It is nothing.”

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “A-Sui, don’t throw up, at least not on the bed, ok?”

“Ok!” she replies, clearly only half paying attention between whatever she’s talking to Bichen about, and Wei Wuxian sighs.

“See what you did?” he demands, pointing a finger at Lan Wangji.

He’s absolutely going to say more, but then he glimpses it: the slightest upward curve at the corner of Lan Wangji’s lips.

It comes and goes so fast that he almost misses it, just the slightest hint of motion, like a flash of a bird between the trees. His entire train of thought stops, words dying in his throat, and he leans forward to try and catch the traces of it.

“Whoa, did you just smile?”

Lan Wangji’s eyebrows twitch up before he looks away, directing his gaze to Bichen and Suibian. He doesn’t respond, which is plenty incriminating. He did smile! And he hasn’t gone for his sword like he did when they released the lanterns as disciples, either.

Something tender and aching settles in Wei Wuxian’s chest.

“I missed you too, you know,” he sighs, unthinking, the words bursting out of him without his consent.

Then he realizes that he just said it out loud, and claps a hand over his own mouth.

Lan Wangji has frozen.

“I…I mean…” Wei Wuxian hesitates, wavering on how to fix what he just said. He sets down the cup; maybe Mo Xuanyu just has a really bad alcohol tolerance, and he’s already getting loose-lipped? It’s a silly and selfish thing to admit, after all; Lan Wangji probably had much-deserved peace and quiet without Wei Wuxian around to pull him into trouble.

But taking it back feels wrong. He did miss him. So much.

When Wei Wuxian doesn’t continue, that same flicker of movement appears at the corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth. It’s just as fleeting as before, but this time Wei Wuxian knows where to look. He soaks in the sight of it, heart beating fast.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji says, and refills his cup. “Wei Ying. Welcome back.”

Chapter Text


Behind them lay pain and death and fear; ahead of them lay doubt, and danger, and fathomless mysteries.
— Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials 


It’s unnervingly easy to fall back into a rhythm.

“I will draw you a bath,” Lan Wangji says three days later, the subtle scent of jasmine drifting through the air from the pot of tea on the table in front of him. He has been quiet in the few minutes since they finished their meal, watching Wei Wuxian drink from the shining jar of Emperor’s Smile that he somehow seems to procure for him each night, and the softness of his voice makes something pleasant settle in Wei Wuxian’s stomach. Tomorrow, they’re going to track down whatever the sword spirit is pointing to; but tonight, they’re in the Jingshi, sunset bathing the room in apricot hues.

When Wei Wuxian responds with a raised eyebrow from where he’s lounging on the floor, Lan Wangji looks pointedly away from him.

“Is the illustrious Hanguang-Jun trying to get me out of my clothes?” he says anyways, because Lan Wangji should know that he can’t stave off the inevitable just by ignoring it.

Lan Wangji’s ears flush.

“Wei Ying.”

“Alright, alright,” he laughs, and sits up. The bottle of Emperor’s Smile clinks when he sets it down, half-empty, in favor of reaching out and playfully tapping on the table, close to Lan Wangji’s fingers. Not touching, but almost. “That would be great, actually! Who knows when we’ll next have one, right?”

“Roughing it in the wilderness,” Suibian agrees, batting at Bichen’s tail as it sweeps lazily across the floor. Normally she’s not a fan of camping, but Bichen’s constant attention has put her in such a good mood that she doesn’t even seem bothered by the idea.

Honestly, he’s feeling much the same. The fact that Lan Wangji and Bichen want to travel with them is so wonderful that it’s hard to wrap his head around. He’d thought for sure they’d want to be rid of him right away, but it seems like they’re sticking with them.

Lan Wangji’s lips do that thing where he’s frowning, but, like, spiritually, without actually moving any of his muscles.

“There will be inns.”

Oh. Wei Wuxian and Suibian pause, processing that. Right. Lan Zhan has money.

“So… no bath?” Suibian asks. Her tail droops.

Lan Wangji and Bichen exchange a single, unreadable look.

The bath is drawn in record time.

“This is great,” Suibian sighs a little while later, submerged in warm, sudsy water. She’s sitting with her front two legs hanging over the edge of the tub, eyes closed, contentment pitching her voice slow and soft; the candlelight on their side of the privacy screen tints her a warmer shade, like an echo of her past colors superimposed onto the tan and grey.

Wei Wuxian hums his agreement, all of his muscles loose and pliant from the heat. Summer in Gusu is pleasant but mild, nothing like the humid heat of Lotus Pier; but sitting here, steam wafting onto his face, feeling the occasional slide of sweat down the back of his neck, it feels close enough to lull him into something thick-headed and pleasant. Besides the occasional splash, the rest of the room is quiet; Lan Wangji and Bichen have long since left on the claim that they were going to check in on Lan Qiren to make sure he’s recovering alright from the resentful sword’s attack.

Wei Wuxian is pretty sure that’s only part of the reason, but he doesn’t want to push it. After seeing Lan Wangji’s scarred-over back in the Cold Springs earlier today, he’s not going stick his nose into anything that has to do with bathing or showing skin.

Even the memory makes him shiver. All those whip lines. What on earth could have warranted such a thing?

“What’s wrong?” Suibian asks him, doggy-paddling over so she can put her paws on his shoulders. Her wet fur sticks to her body, making her appear even smaller than normal; he runs his fingers through it, feels the warmth trapped against her skin from how long they've been soaking. “What are you thinking about?”

“Nothing bad,” he reassures her, moving his wet hair to one side so it doesn’t tangle around her. “It’s just… been a long time.”

For once, he can’t elaborate more than that.

It wasn’t like he expected things to be easy after coming back, but there’s a disorientation to the whole experience that leaves him feeling unmoored sometimes. Everywhere he looks, there are little reminders of what he’s missed tucked into corners and floorboards and things not said. Things he doesn’t know, and can’t, because he has no idea what he needs to ask in the first place.

They died, but the world kept going. How do they even begin to catch up?

Suibian looks up at him, thoughtful. He knows that she gets what he means, even if the words didn’t encompass the feeling.

“Yeah,” she agrees eventually. “It has. And they’re the same, but different in ways I haven’t figured out yet.”

She’s right. Sometimes Lan Wangi gets this look in his eyes when Wei Wuxian is talking to him, like he’s here, but also very far away. They’ve barely talked about what went down the thirteen years they’ve been gone—in part because there’s been no time to do so, not between him recovering and all the drama with the sword spirit— but there are certain subjects that Lan Wangji keeps skirting around, things he clearly doesn’t want Wei Wuxian to know.

Like the scars. 

“Ugh,” he says, and shakes his head. There’s no point dwelling on any of this, not when there’s still a slash on his arm reminding him of how much they have left to do.

The water ripples as he reaches out and grabs some of the soap from the side of the tub, intent on putting his hands to work. The scent of sandalwood fills his nose and his stomach twists, because this is the same smell as Lan Wangji’s bedsheets, his hair, his clothes—

Cheeks suddenly hot, he starts to lather down Suibian’s fur.

She’s unusually quiet as he does it, which is never a good sign; she normally loves being groomed. Lan Wangji and Bichen have been spoiling them with baths like these every night, and she’s chittered happily through all of them, sometimes even trying to talk to Bichen through the privacy screen as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.

He doesn’t like the sudden silence, only crickets’ repetitive, muted melodies keeping them company. When he goes to playfully flick one of her ears to try and get a reaction, she bats at it with her paw.

“Stop.”

Surprised, he tuts at her, shifting so he can see her face better. “What’s wrong?”

“You’re distracting me, I’m trying to think.”

“Then think out loud with me,” he offers, and Suibian nudges herself underneath his chin with a hum. He holds her carefully, making sure water doesn’t get on her face as he washes some of the soap away.

“Wen Ning.”

His nods, understanding. Another person who is the same but different. Something was definitely wrong with him back on Dafan Mountain. According to Lan Wangji, the sword spirit reacted to him as well; both of them think it’s the same type of energy, but different levels of power.

Which points to the Stygian Tiger Amulet.

The only issue is that Wei Wuxian definitely destroyed the amulet before he died. It was one of the last things he did, a blood-smeared moment in the otherwise inky blackness of his memory. He doesn’t know how its power could still be around, let alone controlled by someone well enough to make Wen Ning follow orders like that.

“I was looking, but I didn’t see Suyin at all. Could you smell her?”

Suibian sighs. Worry trembles through their bond; they’ve both been thinking about it. “No.”

Wei Wuxian frowns slightly, running his thumb over a particularly stubborn chunk of soap that’s gathered behind her ear. With each new piece of the puzzle they uncover, the more complex the web becomes. Every tidbit of information raises twenty new questions, and Wei Wuxian feels like it’s going to continue like that for a while.

“Not that it means much, in this body,” Suibian adds, ear twitching under his attention. “I can barely smell anything anymore.”

It’s unexpectedly self-deprecating. Frustration zips through their link, making his frown deepen.

“Well, look at it this way,” Wei Wuxian tells her, trying to lighten the uncharacteristically sour mood, “if you can’t smell as well now, then that just means Little Apple hasn’t been clogging up your nose this whole time! Honestly, I can’t believe they let her stay here with us. She’s so loud, there has to be a rule against donkeys at this point.”

Suibian snorts, cuddling closer against him. It’s like being clung to by a giant wet rag, but he loves it anyways.

“If they could make rules against certain animals, they would have done one for foxes already.”

A grin spreads across Wei Wuxian’s face. “True, true. Hey, how many new rules do you think they’ve added?”

“Ugh.” Her ears press flat against her head. “Too many. Bichen told me that there was a whole new book, so I bet we’ve already broken a ton without knowing.”

Oooh, perfect. He has an idea now.

“Well, it is our last night here,” he reasons, and he feels her shift at the mischievous tone in his voice. The water shifts as her tail slowly starts to twitch, her own little current. “How many do you think we can break on purpose before we leave tomorrow?”

“A-Xian!” She chitters against his neck, smiling even though he knows she’s trying not to. “We’re supposed to be in hiding! We should behave.

Behave?” he gasps, theatric, and is rewarded with a giggle. “When have we ever done that? I’m not sure if I should be insulted that you think so little of our undercover skills, or worried that you actually want us to follow all these fuddy-duddy’s rules!”

She squirms against him, back leg digging into his ribs. “Hey, I didn’t say all of them!”

“Well that’s a relief! Don’t scare me like that, A-Sui, I almost died again from the shock.”

Unimpressed and unamused, she turns to gnaw on his hand in retaliation. At the face she makes, he guesses the soap must not taste as good as it smells.

“I bet Lan Qiren has new ways to catch people now,” she warns, although from the way her nose is twitching, it seems like she wants to try and test that out. Wei Wuxian beams: she’s always been easy to convince. “Like some supernatural sense, or whatever.” 

“Well good thing your itty-bitty feet have been all patched up,” he says, grabbing a paw and shaking it in the air. The pads are smooth under his fingers; Mo Xuanyu’s daemon, they’ve decided, didn’t get out much either. “These paws are our secret weapon, you know! As long as you have those, we can keep up our reputation as the resident troublemakers no matter how many tricks Lan Qiren has up his sleeve.”

It makes her giggle again, just a little, tail giving a half-hearted wag and swishing the water once more.  He tries to tickle her, turn the giggle into a full-out laugh—but when purses his lips and makes an exaggerated show of kissing the paw in his grasp, she frowns.

The water goes still.

“Suibian?”

Suibian is staring at her paw, a complicated mess of emotion tingling between them. “They’re not as good as my old ones.”

He looks at the foot he’s holding, then back at her face. “These?”

“Yes.” She’s still frowning, voice quiet. “They’re too small, and the claws are weird.”

“Aw, what are you talking about? I love these ones.”

She makes a face at him. “You have to say that.”

“Hmm.” 

Teasing. Also noncommittal. Truthfully, when they had first passed by that bucket of water at Mo Manor, had the chance to see themselves for the first time in this new life, it had been…disconcerting, for him. Every time he passes by the mirror innocently hanging on the wall of the Jingshi, he’s reminded of exactly why. This face and this body, the slender limbs and pale skin, are all wrong. Sure, his hair is pretty much the same color, and he’s not that much shorter, but that doesn’t help the heavy feeling in his chest.

It’s not that Mo Xuanyu is ugly. Far from it.

He’s just not Wei Wuxian.

He gets where Suibian is coming from. It’s just another adjustment they have to make, something they didn’t ask for but got anyways. If he thinks about it too much, he isn’t sure he’ll be able to hold it together for as long as they need to.

So he doesn’t.

“These paws are just as kissable,” he promises, and she rolls her eyes when he demonstrates.

On a whim, he shifts her onto her back, cradled against his chest with only her back and tail submerged. She lets him, malleable, and lays patiently still while he rubs down the fur on her stomach with some unscented oil Lan Wangji left them. It makes her coat softer, which in turn makes her happy, and he’s already planning to sneak a few vials into their bags for when they take off. 

Her words echo in his head. Not as good.

“Oooh,” he says, because he can’t stand the thought of it, and she blinks up at him. “I know how to mark our last night here, if you don’t want to do some rule-breaking! I’ll tell you all the things I love about you, how’s that?”

Her expression turns long-suffering. “Please don’t.”

“What, you don’t like that idea?”

At his innocent tone, she immediately tries to acrobat out of his arms. He tightens his grip, grinning when she turns into a wriggling mass of wet fur.

“Alright, alright,” he says wisely, as a clawed foot hits him in the stomach and water splashes absolutely everywhere, “I understand. You’re just so excited for all these compliments that you can’t help but flail, right? Well don’t worry, I have a whole list. I love your little brain, and your little feet, and your little ears—”

“Nooo,” she wails, trying to catapult herself away through sheer force of will. The outside of the tub is becoming a puddle. “You’re so embarrassing, leave me alone—”

“Aw, don’t be a spoilsport, don’t you want compliments?”

Giving up on her attempted escape, she pouts up at him instead, tail twitching. “No.” Her eyes flick back and forth, nervous. Wait, that’s wrong: insecure.

His face softens.

Not as good.

“You really are very pretty,” he reassures her, tone gentler this time, and she boops him on the mouth with her paws to try and shut him up. He laughs, catching the offending limbs before she can jerk them away, fingers gentle. When he closes his eyes and steadies his qi, their bond is already thrumming, reaching out for comfort.

I love you.

And I love you.

He brings her closer so that every part of her is curled up against his skin, the warm weight of her pressing against him like a second heart, beating in tandem to his own. The feeling digs itself deep and roots there, a new spring growth.

Suibian sighs, one of the full-body ones that leaves her relaxed and happy. She murmurs, openly content at just being held, “Oh, I missed you so much.”

The words make his chest tighten. He doesn’t know what period of time she’s referring to, and he doesn’t want to ask.

Instead, he presses his face against the top of her head, breathing in.

“I missed you too,” he says, voice thick. It’s too much to have her back, to practically be gifted a miracle. No matter how bad things get, they’re together. He lets himself indulge in the truth of it for a moment, in the steady pulse of life under his fingers.

“I do wonder, though.”

Wei Wuxian pulls back to look at her. Her ears are perked, alert, eyes sparkling with an all too familiar mischief. She has an expression on her face that some would call looking for trouble and that he calls, much more accurately of course, simple curiosity.

He grins down at her, ignoring the wetness in his eyes. “Alright! Now that’s what I was looking for.”

__

(A few hours later, Lan Wangji and Bichen breeze in through the doorway.

“Welcome back!” Wei Wuxian tells them, laying on his back in the middle of the room with a book held in the air in front of his face, Suibian curled up on his stomach as he reads. He must look a mess, limbs spread out and hair still damp from the bath; but whatever they see makes the line of Lan Wangji’s shoulders relax.

“Mn,” he says, sliding the door closed behind them.

“Everything go ok?”

“Yes.” Lan Wangji crosses the room to sit at the now-cleared table, infinitely more regal than Wei Wuxian could ever be. Bichen is close behind; she blinks at Suibian’s half-lidded eyes and chuffs, soft. “Was the bath acceptable?”

“Of course, of course,” Wei Wuxian says, half-distracted by the page in front of him. Lan Wangji has a frankly impressive collection of advanced techniques, only some of which are actually interesting. He keeps rummaging through them hoping to find porn, but so far, no luck.

This one, however, is at least interesting. The book itself isn’t anything special, some collection of Jin talisman designs from the past decade; but the page he’s on has a new design he’s never seen before etched into the margins, like someone needed to make a hasty note and didn’t have any other paper on hand.

Thinking back to all his scraps of paper in the Demon Subdue Cave, Wei Wuxian understands.

And is, of course, intrigued.

Unsurprisingly, Lan Wangji doesn’t seem bothered by his distraction, content to leave him to his devices. There’s a crinkle of paper as he fetches parchment, the smooth brush of ink on parchment that lets him know Lan Wangji is writing. Bichen’s breathing is slow and steady, Suibian much the same, lulling his own heart into a calm, easy rhythm, but it’s otherwise quiet.

Wei Wuxian gets lost in it, the subtle sounds of their company.

“Hmm,” he says some indeterminable time later, still looking at the array. It’s hard to make out, barely large enough to be legible, but he keeps getting stuck on one of the lines centered in the middle of the array. A warding talisman, definitely—silence and repress are together, the first line of fortify, but something about it seems off. “Hey, Lan Zhan, do you remember which character this is?”

The sounds of writing pause. Ready to show the markings in question, Wei Wuxian tilts his head back to look at him.

Lan Wangji has paused in his writing, one hand still holding his inkbrush. The other is resting on Bichen’s head, which is in turn resting on his knee, spotted fur against the pure white of his robes.

Wei Wuxian drops the book.

“Oh fuck!” he says, as the full weight of it slams down onto his face, temporarily blinding him. Suibian, who had been dozing off peacefully, jerks up with a yelp, her claws digging into his underrobe. In a flash, she scrambles off him and darts underneath the bed with a surge of shared adrenaline. 

“Wei Ying?!”

Wei Wuxian rights himself, twisting around so that Lan Wangji’s concerned face (and his hand, his hand on Bichen, his bare skin on Bichen’s fur, he thought they were supposed to touch in front of anyone!!) is hidden from view. The book slides onto his lap with a thunk, spilling open to a new, significantly less interesting page.

“Sorry, sorry, I—” He’s breathless, each word squeezed out through his throat. They’re touching, holy shit. “Do you—should I leave?”

There’s a pause.

“What?” Bichen says eventually, and Wei Wuxian laughs, more high-pitched than he wanted it to be. He keeps his gaze on the opposite wall, heart pounding so hard he can feel it in his throat.

Three days. Three days, and he’s already fucked up.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know how the rules work,” he admits, trying very hard to resist the urge to look at them so he can at least see what Lan Wangji’s face is doing. They probably forgot he was here, somehow, and now it’s Wei Wuxian’s fault that they’ve broken Lan Rule #1. “I should have said something, or, or warned you, maybe. I was just so caught up in the talisman, so I didn’t think—”

“Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji again. He can hear the confusion there, even if he can’t see it. “Please explain.”

“You were,” he says, and has to swallow. This is it. This is where Lan Wangji’s kindness runs out; how could Wei Wuxian have let this happen? “I saw you and Bichen, just now. But don’t worry, I won’t look again, and I won’t tell anyone! I’m seriously sorry, Lan Zhan, I didn’t mean to make you break a rule! Here, I can just cover my eyes and feel my way outside, maybe? The back hills are probably great this time of year, I can hang out there for the night.”

The pause this time is significantly longer.

“Oh,” Bichen says, and Wei Wuxian flinches. Suibian’s eyes are giant orbs of light underneath the bed, her head swiveling between all of them.

“I’ll just—” he manages, and starts to scramble to his feet, because of course Lan Wangji and Bichen are too polite to actually tell him to leave. His hands are shaking.

Lan Wangji’s voice stops him. “Wei Ying. Look at me.”

“Ah, Lan Zhan, I can’t, your rules—”

“We are not breaking any rules.”

Bichen’s voice is calm and steady; but it’s such a complete bombshell of a sentence that Wei Wuxian’s head snaps to face them before he can stop himself, mouth agape. Lan Wangji is still seated at the table, although he’s put the inkbrush down, whatever sentence he was writing only half-finished. Bichen’s hasn’t moved an inch.

“What do you…” he says, unsure of what to do. Bichen is blinking at him, slow and unconcerned, Lan Wangji’s fingers now curled into the fur of her neck. They're touching. They're touching, and he isn’t supposed to look, but he is. “Is—I thought…?”

“It is fine,” Bichen says, and her blue eyes are impossibly bright, captivating in their intensity. “You are allowed to look.”

Wei Wuxian glances between them, heart still fluttering in his chest. “I—really?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji confirms, and turns back to the letter he was writing. His fingers twitch, just once, on Bichen’s coat. “If it is Wei Ying, it is fine.”

“Oh,” Wei Ying says.

He stands there for a few seconds, thoughts whirling, Suibian slowly inching out from under the bed to join him in his open-mouthed gape. Lan Wangji and Bichen still touching, no more than a few mĭ away, candlelight casting their twin shadows on the wall.

“Do you still want help with the array?” Bichen asks after a few moments, and noses a fresh sheet of parchment towards him.)


Thanks to his and Suibian’s careful planning, and a good surge of sleeplessness from the sight of skin against fur, the full extent of their nighttime activities aren’t revealed until the next morning.

“Whoa, everything’s here already?!” Wei Wuxian asks Lan Wangji, double-checking the bags placed neatly outside the Jingshi. They’re all methodically packed, a mix of essentials and a few packages that Wei Wuxian can’t identify, all bundled together with the precision only a Lan or incredibly finicky merchant could hope to achieve.

Lan Wangji inclines his head.

“Ah, Lan Zhan, you did so much! I told you that we could just pack this morning, but you did it all without me, didn’t you?” he demands, and laughs when Lan Wangji looks away to the nearby line of trees, early morning light falling onto his hair. “Aiyo, you’re so good, what am I supposed to do now?” 

Lan Wangji’s ears tint red.

“Preparation is a virtue.”

Wei Wuxian scans his memory for that rule, finding it disappointingly quickly. He sighs. “Alright, alright, it’s too early in the morning for your precepts. A-Sui, you ready too?”

In his robes, Suibian hums an affirmation. She’s busy chewing on some dried mango that miraculously appeared in their room this morning, set on the table between Lan Wangji’s bed and the temporary sleeping space that Lan Wangji has been using for himself. Wei Wuxian tried several times to get him to take the bed –Wei Wuxian could sleep on the floor, really, they both know he’s slept in worse places, and it’s Lan Wangji’s bed!—but Lan Wangji had been adamant.

Guests are to be provided with proper accommodations.

At the time, it had made him roll his eyes. Now, Wei Wuxian wishes he had enjoyed the luxury of it more. Inn beds are never as nice.

“Oh!” Suibian exclaims suddenly, and Wei Wuxian follows her gaze to where Bichen is sitting just off the path to the house. He frowns, squinting, before he sees—

“Bunnies!”

Suibian is right: all along the path are small white and black puffs of fur, standing out against the dark stone and bright summer foliage. Immediately, she tries to scramble out of his robes to go look. He catches her before she can, already knowing where this is going.

Sure enough, her eyes have turned into black orbs, a mix of genuine enthusiasm and whatever hunting instinct takes over when she sees something both fluffy and edible.

“Let’s not kill the rabbits,” he tells her firmly, and Suibian whines low in her throat.

At the noise Bichen glances over at them. When she notices Suibian’s excited face and twitching tail, her ears perk up.

“Do you want to see?”

Yes!

Wei Wuxian should have guessed that would happen. Ah, well.

“Careful,” he reminds Suibian, because he really does not want to be complicit in a murder this early in the morning, and lets her scramble down this time. She’s at Bichen’s side in a heartbeat, tail going wild.

Wei Wuxian glances over at Lan Wangji, who is watching their daemons with a content look on his face. 

“I didn’t know you still had bunnies here,” Wei Wuxian says to him, and Lan Wangji inclines his head. “Thought you weren’t allowed to keep pets.”

“Not pets.”

“Right, right.”

Suspect. That line sounds way too practiced to be true. Those rabbits are definitely too tame and fat to be wild ones, so someone here has been taking care of them, and Wei Wuxian knows for a fact it’s not Lan Qiren.

“They are not normally out at this time,” Lan Wangji offers, like that somehow helps his argument.

“Oh?” Wei Wuxian asks, grinning. Slowly, he nudges Lan Wangji’s foot with his own, pleased when Lan Wangji doesn’t shift away. “So what, they’re only supposed to be out at certain times, and home otherwise? Do you feed them too?”

“Mn.”

Wei Wuxians looks at him, disbelieving. “Lan Zhan, please. That’s like, the definition of a pet!”

Lan Wangji doesn’t reply to that. Wei Wuxian shakes his head, fond.

The bunnies are visibly more nervous around Suibian than they are with Bichen, shying away and hopping back when she gets too close. Wei Wuxian thinks that is a very smart choice on their part, especially when Suibian breathes, “Oh I love them,” in a tone that doesn’t specify whether that love is because they’re adorable or because they look delicious.

Bichen clearly has the same thought. When Suibian starts to inch off the path, wriggling like she might pounce, Bichen places a single paw on her back, carefully pinning her.

Immediately, Suibian giggles and flops onto her belly, wriggling madly. “Yes! Are we playing? Let’s play!”

From the confused and flustered look that comes over Bichen’s face, that was not what she was expecting. Quickly, she removes her paw.

The giggles stop.

“Hey!” Suibian peers up at her, frowning, and tries to wriggle back under the paw again. The bunnies are starting to hop further away, but she isn’t paying attention to them anymore. “No fair, don’t go easy on me! I’m tough, you know!”

Bichen doesn’t look particularly convinced by that; it takes a few moments of Suibian scrambling at her paws before she places one back down on her belly. She stares, puzzled and intensely still, while Suibian happily tries to escape from under the weight of her hold, laughing the whole time.

As soon as Suibian slips away, she’s shoving herself back under the paw again, leaves and dirt catching in her fur as she does.

“Yay! I win! Do it again!”

Bichen, blinking, does it again.

“Look at that!” Wei Wuxian watches for a moment, amused, before turning back to Lan Wangji. “So, tell me Hanguang-Jun, how many rules are we—oh.”

Wei Wuxian’s teasing words die in his throat.

Lan Wangji is watching their daemons with a look at his face that’s—not a smile, but something quieter, harder to glimpse, like the easy-to-miss way morning light softens the edges of shadows. There’s the smallest crinkle at the corner of his eyes, one that Wei Wuxian wouldn’t have believed was possible if he hadn’t seen it in the Jingshi the morning after Dafan Mountain.

Lan Wangji’s eyes flick to him; Wei Wuxian draws in an unsteady breath.

He opens his mouth to say something, doesn’t know what—

“Hanguang-Jun!”

Both of them jolt. Heart beating unsteadily in his chest, feeling oddly flushed, Wei Wuxian looks up the trail to see Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi walking toward them. For Lans, it’s a pretty quick walk; actually, after noting the slightly disheveled hair that Lan Sizhui is sporting, Wei Wuxian realizes this might be the Lan equivalent of a run.

Worry nudges itself into his chest; when Lan Wangji descends the steps towards them as they come closer, Wei Wuxian is quick to follow.

“I’m sorry, Hanguang-Jun,” pants Lan Sizhui, bowing as soon as they’re in proper range. Lan Jingyi and his langur daemon do the same, looking similarly breathless. “I know the bunnies were supposed to be put back in the hutch by now! We were doing it, I promise. There was just an—an incident before we could finish.”

Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji glance at each other, mind going to the same place.

“Incident?” Lan Wangji prompts, straightening further somehow, and Lan Jingyi nods.

“Yeah, well,” he says, and rolls his eyes, “we got called over mid-task because someone switched the locations of all the statues in the main halls. They put all the girl statues together and all the guy statues together like, super close.”

Oh.

“And in, um—different positions.” Lan Sizhui’s cheeks are flaming. “It had to be fixed immediately, you see.”

Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow.

“Grandmaster nearly had a fit,” Lan Jingyi continues, unaware of how every additional word is fucking Wei Wuxian over. “I thought he might deviate again.”

“Jingyi!” Lan Sizhui’s voice turns from embarrassed to scolding. “Don’t joke about that!”

Wei Wuxian spins away from them, fully intent on fleeing towards Suibian and Bichen and avoiding this conversation entirely. Now would be a perfect time to hit the road, or maybe master that invisibility talisman he thought of all those years ago.

A touch on his arm halts him. When he glances back, Lan Wangji is giving him a look.

“I’m innocent,” he says immediately. Lan Wangji’s face doesn’t change; his hand flexes just slightly on Wei Wuxian’s forearm, a solid, warm weight even with the intended lightness of the touch. When Wei Wuxian glances down at the point of contact, Lan Wangji twitches back, his fingers falling to his side.

“Any other incidents?” he asks the juniors, while Wei Wuxian absolutely do not look at the delicate curve of his hand.

Their faces turn thoughtful.

“Well,” Lan Jingyi begins, “I overheard one of the younger disciples saying that some of the books in the library had been arranged by color, instead of by subject. I guess that was strange?”

Lan Wangji’s eyes narrow even further. Wei Wuxian bites the inside of his cheek, trying not to smile.

“And there were those decorative pots.”

“Plus the thing with the flowers.”

“Right, the flowers!”

Wei Wuxian does grin this time; he’s proud of that one. Lan Wangji looks more disapproving with each passing second.

“Oh!” Lan Sizhui says, “And I suppose the morning meal was a bit off. Somehow the chef accidentally added some chili oil to one of the dishes. We didn’t understand why the color was different until we tried it. I didn’t even know we had chili oil here, actually.”

Lan Jingyi’s daemon looks sick at the memory. “How’d I forgot about that?!”

“We must have repressed it,” Jingyi decides. “I thought I was going to die!”

“Really? I thought it was kind of good,” Lan Sizhui admits, and Wei Wuxian beams at him.

“Hey, now this is a kid I can get behind! I like you already!” he says, and Lan Sizhui turns pink. Something in Lan Wangji’s face shutters off; he must not like Wei Wuxian trying to pull a disciple into trouble. Whoops. “Aww, come on Lan Zhan, a little chili oil never hurt anyone! I always told you that you Lans have too delicate of sensibilities.”

Lan Wangji does not appear to agree with that statement.

Suibian abandons her game with Bichen to dart over and join in on the conversation. She scrambles up to Wei Wuxian’s shoulder and looks at Lan Wangji with a shy, pleading expression. “We weren’t trying to be bad! We were just playing.”

At the sound of her voice, something in Lan Sizhui’s sleeve moves.

“Wait, that was you?” Lan Jingyi demands, and shakes his head. “Oh come on, you made such a mess…”

“We never said it was us!”

Whatever’s in Lan Sizhui’s sleeve moves again.

Lan Jingyi rolls his eyes. “You literally just said you did!”

“Are you mad?” Wei Wuxian asks Lan Wangji, trying to figure out what that expression on his face is supposed to be communicating. This is the kind of thing that would have pissed him off to no end when they were disciples, and he’s definitely frowning at the corners of his mouth, but he doesn’t actually look angry. Just—tense?

Before Lan Wangji can reply, something small flutters out of Lan Sizhui’s sleeve and into the air.

“Oh!” Suibian squeaks, blinking as a beautiful, pale green moth practically floats up to her face—and lands right on her nose.

Lan Sizhui gasps, eyes going wide.

“Whoa!” Lan Jingyi yelps, openly gaping alongside his daemon. “No way, she came out?!”

Even Lan Wangji and Bichen seem taken aback by the appearance.

Confused by their reactions, Wei Wuxian looks at the moth out of the corner of his eye, afraid to move his head and startle her. She’s stunning, if a bit fragile-looking: her paper-like wings are shimmering slightly in the light of the sun, and he can see each thin outline of her veins curving across their expanse.

Suibian is trying to look at her too, cross-eyed. “Well hi there! Who are you?”

“Ah, this is my daemon, Lan Yingyue,” Lan Sizhui tells them, when Yingyue does nothing but flutter her wings a few times. He looks just as surprised as Suibian at the unexpected landing. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s gotten into her. She’s normally quite shy.”

“That’s ok,” Wei Wuxian reassures him, captivated by the soft twitches of Yingyue’s wings as she clings to Suibian’s nose. Suibian wags her tail when she spreads her wings into a resting position; for the first time Wei Wuxian notices there are two perfect, golden dots in the center of each one.

“Oh, you’re so beautiful,” she gushes, tail picking up speed when Yingyue stares back at her. “I’ve never seen a moth as big as you before!”

Yingyue continues to cling onto her nose, silent. After a moment’s hesitation, Sizhui holds out his hand. “Lan Yingyue?”

Slowly, Yingyue dislodges herself from Suibian and flies back over to him, settling on the lower edge of his sleeve. She clings there, antennae swaying, before laying her wings flat.

“She really is so pretty!” Suibian is watching them, eyes bright. She sneezes, probably from the moth dust on her nose, and a thoughtful look comes over her face when she next breathes in. “Oh, weird. Hey, have we met you two before?”

Wei Wuxian blinks. “Huh?”

Lan Sizhui, who has been looking at his daemon with a confused, considering expression, looks similarly perplexed by the question. Kindly, he tells her, “We met at Mo Manor and Dafan Mountain, do you remember?”

“No, I mean—” Suibian frowns, nose twitching. “Sorry, I know we’ve seen you. But you and your daemon just smell kind of familiar, I guess…”

She trails off, still frowning.

“Um,” Lan Sizhui says, and looks at Wei Wuxian like somehow he’ll have the answer. “I’m sorry, I don’t think…”

But then he trails off too.

There’s a very long, contemplative, and strangely tense silence. Wei Wuxian is not a fan of it whatsoever.

“Right, right, very good!” he says loudly, and claps his hands once to draw everyone’s attention back to him. Lan Sizhui kind of looks like he wants to cry all of a sudden, and there’s probably some dumb rule about not doing that here either, so Wei Wuxian better step in. “So, kids, what did we learn today?”

Lan Jingyi scoffs. “Um, don’t let the crazy guy run around unsupervised?”

Wei Wuxian grins and wags a finger at him. “I’m offended! Wrong! The lesson is: listen to Lan Sizhui and your elders! Next time, eat the red food!”

“Gross!”

“Really, you Lans… Look, spice builds character! You kids will thank me later for the experience, just you wait.”

“You,” Lan Jingyi’s daemon pipes in from where it’s been clinging to a nearby tree trunk, “are so weird, you know that? Why does Hanguang-Jun put up with you?”

Lan Wangji, who has been very still this entire conversation, seems to rediscover the concept of movement at that. The sharp look he shoots at Lan Jingyi and his daemon makes them close their mouths so fast that Wei Wuxian practically hears the snap of their teeth.

Wei Wuxian just laughs, impressed by the boldness. “You know, kid, I really wish I knew.”

Lan Wangji frowns at him, the tiniest twitch of his lips downward.

“Do not say that,” he reprimands, one of the first real scoldings he’s given Wei Wuxian since they arrived here. Then he adds, quieter, “It is not ‘put up with’.”

“Ooh!” Wei Wuxian turns to bat his eyes at Lan Wangji, pleased by this turn of events. “Really? Why, Lan Zhan, how forward of you! Tell me more, or else I’ll have to accuse you of being a tease. Are my good looks included in the reasons you keep me around, or is that just a bonus?”

Lan Wangji’s ears go red again.

“You know what, forget we asked,” Lan Jingyi says quickly, and starts scooping up rabbits. After a slight delay, Lan Sizhui follows suit, Yingyue fluttering back into his sleeve. “Next time you visit, can you at least contain yourself to only pulling one prank a day?”

Jingyi.

“What?! Come on, we wasted so much time this morning cleaning up that stuff—”

Wei Wuxian grins as they bicker, grabbing rabbits as they go. He likes them.

“Wei Ying.”

It’s said in an undertone so the Juniors don’t overhear; but after being denied it for so long, Wei Wuxian thinks Lan Wangji could whisper his name from across a forest and he’d manage to hear it. He glances back to the path to find Lan Wangji and Bichen are waiting expectantly for them, all of their bags now safely in the Qiankun pouch.

Well. No point in delaying it further.

“Have a safe trip!” Lan Sizhui calls after them, arms full of rabbits and his voice pitched just below what could be considered any form of loud, like a good Lan.

“Yeah, don’t get killed!” Lan Jingyi adds, not trying to control the loudness of his voice at all, and his daemon offers a thumbs up for good measure.

“Yeah, yeah!” Wei Wuxian waves lazily over his shoulder. “Get into trouble for me!”

Lan Wangji glances at him, stern. Wei Wuxian blinks innocently until he looks away again.

He grins. Lan Wangji is so easy.  

“Ah, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” he sighs, which earns him a curious tilt of the head. Wei Wuxian just shakes his head in response, humming a now-familiar tune to himself, one that he doesn’t remember ever learning but has settled itself comfortably in his chest since that fateful day on Dafan Mountain. It drifts through the air between them, joining the birds chirping in the trees and the sounds of their footsteps on the stone path.

Lan Wangji watches him for a few moments before facing the road ahead. There is, he realizes, a tiny smile curving across his lips.

Wei Wuxian soaks in the sight, a pleasant warmth deep in his core.

It’s so good to be together again.

__

“I really do think I’ve smelled that scent before,” Suibian whispers to him an hour or so later, as the Cloud Recesses fade from view behind them. She’s been curled up in his robes, clearly lost in thought, ignoring all the dried mango that Wei Wuxian keeps trying to give her.

Bichen’s ears flick back towards them from where she and Lan Wangji are leading, but they both stay quiet.

“Huh.” Wei Wuxian rubs his nose, trying to think. “Maybe it’s because we saw him right after we were brought back? Or maybe Mo Xuanyu and his daemon ran into them somewhere, before everything went down?”

Suibian frowns deeply, poking her head out of his robes so she can look at Lan Wangji and Bichen. Wei Wuxian can feel her tail flicking against his skin; she stares at them for some time before replying.

“Maybe.”

She doesn’t sound particularly convinced.


“What’s gotten into you?” Lan Sizhui whispers to Yingyue, tucked together in the darkness.

It is nearly pitch-black outside, soft hoots of owls the only sound in the air outside of their whispers. The rest of the Cloud Recesses is silent, deep in sleep. He really shouldn’t be up right now, either, but there’s been a restlessness in his bones ever since they saw Father smiling outside the Jingshi.

“I don’t know,” she whispers back, wings folded tightly together on his palm. She’s been the same: fluttering in his sleeve all day, poking her head out like she was looking for something. She looks so small and lost like this, nestled into the dim space beneath their sheets.

“Why did you land on her like that?”

“I don’t know.

“But you never do that!”

“I know.

Lan Jingyi sleeps on, oblivious to the shared distress steadily rising in the bed next to him.

“It just happened,” Yingyue admits, just as confused as he is. “I just—like them.”

Lan Sizhui can’t help but nod. He likes them too: how they talk, how they tease Father, how freely they seem to speak their minds. The way Mo-gongzi had been so careful not to scare Yingyue, and how Mo Suisui had done the same.

There’s a comfort in it. A familiarity.

He just wishes he knew why.

Sleep does not come easy, and the tiredness lingers well after he’s finished getting ready the next morning, which is unusual for him. There’s an aching feeling in his chest, like he’s homesick, but that’s ridiculous. He is home.

Lan Jingyi and Qingsong keep shooting them concerned looks over breakfast, eyebrows raised like they wants to ask something. As soon as they’re done and on their way to their first class, Lan Jingyi corners him and asks, “Hey, are you ok?”

Lan Sizhui blinks at him, head feeling foggy. His feet were moving him along on habit alone. “Oh, sorry Jingyi. I, um—didn’t sleep well.”

“Nightmares again?” Lan Jingyi gives him an appraising look before looping an arm around his shoulders. “You should have woken me up! You know I don’t mind, right?”

He can’t help but smile at that. Lan Jingyi may annoy Grandmaster by being so loud and upfront, but he’s always been a good friend.

“It wasn’t nightmares. I’m fine, Jingyi, I promise.”

Lan Jingyi side-eyes him, disbelieving. “Yeah, ok. If you’re sure, Sizhui.”

He nods, Yingyue twitching in his sleeve. He’s sure.

After all: why wouldn’t he be?

Chapter Text


Both of them sat silent on the moss-covered rock in the slant of sunlight through the old pines and thought how many tiny chances had conspired to bring them to this place.
Each of those chances might have gone a different way.


― Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass


Wei Ying’s new wrists are delicate and thin.

Lan Wangji finds that he loves them.

It is impossible to not love, when it is Wei Ying. He has carried this love in him for decades; had thought it unfeasible, during those thirteen years of sorrow, to feel it even more deeply. Yet sitting here, Wei Ying’s warm skin against his fingers, his grey eyes on Lan Wangji’s face, he finds that he was very, very wrong.

“This again?” Wei Ying asks, as Lan Wangji transfers spiritual energy to him under the shade of a lush, blossoming apple tree. There is a lilt to his voice that Lan Wangji is enamored with: a playful curiosity, mixed with a beautiful flush to his cheeks. His pulse is steady under Lan Wangji’s touch.

“Mn,” he says, and marvels at the simplicity of it.

It has been an otherwise uneventful day of travel. The Cloud Recesses are long gone; now, it is the four of them and the open road, with the sword spirit to guide them. They have traveled slowly and carefully, much to Wei Ying’s chagrin; regardless of how insistent Wei Ying is to pretend otherwise, he and Suibian are weaker than Lan Wangji would like. Years of malnutrition and neglect are not easily fixed, no matter how vehemently Lan Wangji wishes they were.

He will not let them come to harm. Never again.

The thought has rooted itself in his chest, a desire stronger than anything he has ever felt. That day in the Jingshi, Wei Ying’s chest rising steadily up and down with Lan Wangji’s fingers in his hair, he had made a promise to himself. To Wei Ying.

It had emboldened him to do what he once thought impossible.

To touch him.

“Lan Zhan?” Wei Ying had mumbled the first morning after they left, as Lan Wangji sat down on the edge of the bed, fingers shaking. He had been sleep-mussed and heavy-eyed, the sunrise painting their inn room in sherbet oranges and pinks and making everything seem softer. Lan Wangji had spared no expense in their lodging, and it had shown in how deeply Wei Ying had slept, in the gentle shift of the mattress under his weight. “What are you—oh.”

Lan Wangji had reached out, touched the curve of his wrist, and let his energy flow through his meridians in a dual shiver of a feeling.

“To keep you strong,” he had murmured, Wei Ying’s eyes going wide. It was not a lie. It was also not the whole truth.

(How long has he wanted to touch him freely? How long has he waited for an excuse to do so?)

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying had repeated, as their energy mixed together, intoxicating and everything that Lan Wangji had ever wanted. Outside, a few merchants were calling out to passerby. Someone in the room next door laughed, and from downstairs floated the sound of clinking dishes. The rest of the world was starting to wake up; yet it might as well have been just the two of them in that moment, Lan Wangji’s heart in his throat, Wei Ying’s soft skin under his fingers. “You don’t have to.”

What a foolish notion. As if there is anything in this world Lan Wangji would not do for him.

To prove his point, Lan Wangji had let the energy settle deep into the fragile flutter of Wei Ying’s core. He had watched him shiver, and wanted.

Needless to say, the slower travel has not bothered him.

It has been peaceful, listening to Wei Ying talk. Watching Suibian and Bichen play. The pace of it has lulled Lan Wangji into a false sense of security these past few days, buoyed by Bichen’s happiness every time Suibian looks her way. He has been able to touch Wei Ying’s wrist every day; it is exhilarating and, now that he knows what it feels like, unbearable to fathom being without.  

He has no intention of stopping.

Thankfully, Wei Ying’s protests don’t seem to hold teeth.

“Aiyo, really,” he says now, warm wind curling through the air and tangling his strands of inky hair. It is a truly beautiful day; summer rain has made the grass under them bright green and soft, and even in the shade, it is pleasantly warm. His fingers twitch against Lan Wangji’s as the energy flows through him. “Hanguang-Jun, you spoil me.”

Impossible.

“Hn.”

“No, really, how is your energy so pure? Mine was never like this.”

It is true. Wei Ying’s energy had felt like a firecracker when they were in Xuanwu Cave, impossibly bright and alive. Like breathing in the spices he was so fond of: bright red and distinctive. It had fit him perfectly. Lan Wangji had been fascinated by it, every moment of every day; when Wei Wuxian had no longer allowed him close enough to feel it, it had been so deeply unsettling that it was as if the world itself had shifted under his feet.

His new energy is different: less a fire and more of a glow instead, an almost floral softness at the edges. No less bright, however—the flowers of a summer bloom, vivid colors that reach towards the sun and paint all others pale in comparison.

Still Wei Ying, even if different than before. Lan Wangji finds it impossibly beautiful.

“Meditation,” he replies, instead of any of those things.

Wei Ying lets out a huff.

“It’s always meditation, isn’t it?” he sighs, and waves a finger at him. “Lan Zhan, you know I don’t have the patience for that, how am I supposed to—oi, A-Sui, be careful!”

There’s the sound of claws scraping against wood from above them. Lan Wangji looks up, searching through the pink and white blossoms, and finds Suibian clambering through the leaves.

“I’m alright!” she calls down, her little claws leaving indents in the bark as she skids to a halt on one of the thinner branches, laughing as it bends under her weight. “Look, I’m so fast! Bichen, are you looking?”

Bichen is watching from the foot of the tree with her tail curled in the air.

“I am.”

Suibian chitters, delighted, and tries to inch further on the branch.

“You’re going to fall,” Wei Ying warns her, and Suibian huffs at him.

“I’m not!” she says, and immediately trips, nearly falling off. Wei Ying and Bichen tense, his pulse spiking and sending a small rebound of energy at Lan Wangji; but Suibian simply laughs again, digging her front claws deeper into the wood and hoisting herself back up. “Whoops!”

Wei Ying relaxes, and their energy flows smoothly again.

“You are very high up,” Bichen says, neutral, and Suibian’s tail wags even faster, fwip fwip fwips that rustle the branches and send a wave of apple blossoms floating down towards them, a few landing in Wei Ying’s hair.

“I know, right?! It's so cool!”

“She’s telling you to be careful, too, silly!” Wei Ying says, rolling his eyes, and she rolls her eyes right back at him.

She says, so confident that it steals all the air from Lan Wangji’s lungs, “Bichen won’t let me hit the ground! Right, Bichen?”

Bichen goes absolutely still.

She stares, eyes wide, up at Suibian. Suibian is grinning down at her, all of the lines of her body relaxed, even as the branch continues to sway precariously under her paws. There’s no fear in her; not even a trace of hesitation. She seems utterly, completely confident that what she said is true.

He feels it, then: the way Bichen’s love blooms for her, all-encompassing and somewhat stunned, as if shocked by the strength of it.

It is an intense, overwhelming fondness, one that pulses through their bond with a warmth that leaves his ears burning from even the residual echo of it. He has felt it before, but never so unbridled; a love deeper than any spring, all from a tiny fox, staring down at her with bright eyes and believing that if worse comes to worse, she will be caught.

It matches the love in him, every time he looks at Wei Ying.

Soft and quiet, practically a purr, Bichen says, “I will not.”

When Lan Wangi looks to Wei Ying, he is smiling.

It is a sight more wonderful than anything the gods themselves could have spun into existence; one that Lan Wangji was convinced he would never see again, regardless of the face that held it. His grey eyes are not a thundering storm, like they used to be for so many years, but the clouds that promise gentle spring rain after too long a drought.

His heart clenches. 

Slowly, he reaches out and brushes one of the apple blossoms from Wei Ying’s hair. Wei Ying twitches and turns to face him; and his smile does not fade, but merely grows.

“I’m glad you came with us, Lan Zhan,” he says, and Lan Wangji feels as if he will drown in the joy of it.

“Mn,” he replies, and as they pack up their things and continue on, he thinks, so intense that it burns with every step they take: I love you.

It does not matter that the road ahead is unpredictable. Lan Wangji will shield Wei Ying from its twists and turns, no matter what form they take.


WOOF.

Wei Wuxian is, for the record, so over dogs.

“Ahh!” he cries, flinching behind Lan Wangji as another woof reaches them from the general direction of the man-eating shrine. Suibian whimpers from where she’s trying to hide in his robes, only the points of her ears sticking out of the black fabric, and a shared shiver twists down their spines, unpleasant and unwanted.

Just like this fucking dog.

The forest around them is oddly quiet, something dark and uneasy hovering at the edges. They’ve been walking for some time, faded green grass and tree ferns brushing against them as they make their way along the trail, but at the rate this is going, Wei Wuxian isn’t sure if he wants to continue at all.

“No dogs,” Lan Wangji tries to reassure them, and Suibian whines.

“There’s definitely a dog, I smell it, I hate them,” she whimpers, and Lan Wangji and Bichen pause on the path to shoot them both considering looks. Wei Wuxian would be embarrassed by how he and Suibian are acting, but he’s conveniently too busy being terrified.

Plus, Lan Wangji already weaseled the story out of them about why, so it’s not like they can judge too harshly, right?

“Shit shit shit,” he says, digging his hands into Lan Wangji’s arms at the next bark. Lan Wangji allows him to, even shifts so Wei Wuxian can press against his back a little. It’s very good, and also warm, and Wei Wuxian will have to compliment him on that later if he remembers.

Suibian isn’t soothed so easily. “Maybe we should just turn around! The sword spirit is still being weird, right?”

They all look at the pouch in Lan Wangji’s hand. When they took off this morning, Wei Wuxian could have sworn it was pointing east. That had given them some hope; based on what the merchant told them and the path they’re currently walking on, that’s exactly where the strange shrine is.

Now, though, it’s swinging back and forth, alternating between the south and west. It’s been doing that ever since they left Gusu—changing directions at the drop of a hat, like it’s being pulled between two separate points.

Either from interference or design, they don’t know, but it’s left them scrambling for other clues to help guide their search. So far, this man-eating shrine rumor was the only thing that seemed to fit.

But the closer they get to it, the more erratic the spirit becomes.

“It has not changed its nature,” Lan Wangji confirms, watching the spirit sway like a cattail buffeted by wind. He’s frowning slightly, which Wei Wuxian understands the sentiment behind.

None of this makes sense.

Another bark, another flinch.

“Oh, shit,” he realizes, as the sound triggers something in his memory. “That’s not Jin Ling’s dog, is it?”

There’s a pause as Bichen sniffs the air. Her ears press back.

“It smells the same.”

Wei Wuxian groans. Why are they so unlucky?  Of course Jin Ling had to have a dog daemon. And an aggressive, terrible, awful one, if their run-in with it earlier is an indication. It didn’t even act like a normal daemon either, terrible manners! No attempt to talk to them before it chased them, just barked and barked and—

Ugh. He shudders.

This is what happens when a kid is raised by the Jins.

(Guilt follows the thought quickly after, the shiver of a nightmare’s echo. He dreamed about Shijie last night, dressed in all red, lotus flowers tucked into her air. The blood from the sword had bloomed out of her and dripped into the water below, spreading across it like ink, and he had put his hand to the wound and thought if I can just—)

“If his daemon is nearby, then he is as well,” Bichen adds, jerking him back to reality.

It feels like a slap to face; he draws in a breath to steady himself. Suibian shoots him a concerned look; he shakes his head slightly, trying to force his focus back on task.

Bichen is right. That isn’t good.

“Wait, but this is Nie land, right?” he asks, shoving aside the churning in his stomach. “That’s what the merchant was telling us.”

Bichen and Lan Wangji nod. Wei Wuxian frowns, thinking. Why on earth would Jin Ling be here? Even if what the merchant told them about Nie Huaisang’s lack of initiative on the matter is true, Jin Ling is just a disciple. What can he even do?

The answer is obvious. Overestimate his own skill, that’s what.

“Stupid boy,” he sighs, and shakes his head. If Jin Ling is here, then it doesn’t matter if the sword spirit is pointing South. They have to get him. Who knows what kind of trouble he could get up to on his own, with an ego that big?

Really, being an uncle is so stressful.

“I was wondering something, though,” Suibian says, voice still anxious as Lan Wangji inches them forward once more. Bichen’s tail keeps flicking across Lan Wangji’s wrist, and Wei Wuxian is trying not to stare, stomach looping at each brush of fur on exposed skin. “When we knew Nie Huaisang, he seemed to really care about people. He wasn’t good at fighting, but if he’s in charge now, then couldn’t he just send disciples instead? Why would he ignore the village needing help?”

“After Chifeng-Zun passed, the Nie sect lost much of its power.” Lan Wangji pauses before adding, “According to Xiongzhang, Nie Huaisang also did not take his passing well.”

“Oh. I see.”

Wei Wuxian has heard the basics of the story thanks to Lan Wangji, but it still feels impossible to wrap his mind around. How could Nie Mingjue, someone so powerful, have such a dramatic descent into qi deviation?

“I don’t think I would take it well either,” Suibian admits, and Bichen hums her agreement.

She’s right. The thought brings back an old fear, one that had carved itself into his bones when they were back at the Burial Mounds; that somehow, Suibian would deviate, and he would be forced to watch it happen. Helpless.

Because it wasn’t just Nie Mingjue who deviated.

Baxia did, too.

If it wasn’t Lan Wangji who told him, Wei Wuxian would have dismissed the entire story as overzealous gossip. After all, Nie Mingjue attacking both his brother and Jin Guangyao? Possible, if there was enough resentment to trigger it. But Baxia joining the fight and going after their daemons? That’s a whole other story entirely.

Lan Wangji only heard it secondhand from Lan Xichen, but rumor is by the time they were able to restrain both the Nie Mingjue and his daemon, everyone involved was heavily injured. Even Nie Mingjue’s famously strong core had been almost entirely drained of spiritual energy after the viciousness of the fight. Jin Guangyao did everything he could to keep the pair alive through the night –tending to their wounds and playing music constantly in his private chambers—while Nie Huaisang rushed to get Lan Xichen for help.

But by the time morning came and the two arrived back at Koi Tower, it was to the news that Nie Mingjue was dead and his daemon turned to dust.

Wei Wuxian shivers. No wonder Nie Huaisang doesn’t want to be involved in this stuff anymore.

“Guess it’s all up to us, then,” he says, trying to focus on something else as Lan Wangji starts leading them forward, step by step. Wei Wuxian absolutely does not stop clinging to the steady warmth of his body; to his relief, Lan Wangji allows it.

He’s been… doing that a lot, lately. Letting Wei Wuxian just—do things.

The most ridiculous things, too, like listening to him chatter away about nothing, tug him along by the arm, tease him until his ears turn bright pink and he has to look away. It’s so different than when they were disciples; when Wei Wuxian would poke and prod, and inevitably earn a heated glare for his efforts. He never used to be able to touch him, to get into his space, to see the subtle flashes of emotion across his face. 

Now he can do all of that and just get flushed ears. A quiet, admonishing Wei Ying.

“Don’t worry,” Bichen tells Suibian, who is looking around with her ears perked and her nose up, openly searching for any signs of a dog. “We won’t let it get you.”

That placates her a bit, but they’re both still on edge as they approach the stone structure. The entire place is oddly still, like even animals are afraid to approach; the only things showing signs of life are some climbing ivy and a mouse that squeaks and scurries away from the entrance as they come forward.

“Disorientation trap?”

“Mn.”

Woof.

More barking! Wei Wuxian jumps behind Lan Wangji before he realizes how distant it sounds.

“Wait, hold on,” he says, a low churning in his gut, “why is that coming from the forest? I mean it’s obvious Jin Ling opened this –look at the crack, it was cultivation magic— but he couldn’t actually have gone in, right, not if his daemon is so far away? There’s no way he has this range, not when he’s so young.”

“We did,” Suibian reminds him, and Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes at her.

“Come on, that was because we had to when you settled. You think that brat has the range we used to? No way.”

Lan Wangji and Bichen are both looking at the entrance to the structure, thoughtful; but at Wei Wuxian’s words, Lan Wangji glances to him.

“She settled young?”

“Yeah,” Wei Wuxian says, and shrugs to hide the shiver that goes through him. “When we were—um, on the streets. We needed to be fast, and split up sometimes, haa. Foxes are good at hiding, too, you know.”

All that does is earn him a long, intense stare.

“Perhaps someone took him here, or they got caught in the disorientation trap, and it’s keeping his daemon at bay,” Bichen ventures, bringing them back on task. They glance at each other, the gravity of the situation sinking in. If she’s right, that’s not good at all; Jin Ling and his daemon are probably both in massive amounts of pain if they’re this far apart.

Concern nudges itself up alongside his fear.

“Let’s hurry,” he urges, and they descend into the darkness. 

------

“But he has to be here, right?” Wei Wuxian demands a short time later, standing in the middle of a room full of coffins. Eerie silence mixes with the chill around them, scattering goosebumps up his skin. This entire place is weird, from start to finish—why all the blades?

“Maybe he really did leave with his daemon?”

Despite the words, Suibian doesn’t sound convinced. She keeps sniffing the air, a frown on her face; it’s clear that Jin Ling’s scent is in this room.

Wei Wuxian glances to Lan Wangji, who is smoothing down the strings on his guqin.

“Inquiry?”

“Mn.”

They gather around him, Suibian clambering onto one of the coffin lids so she can see. She leaves a trail of fox-shaped footprints in her wake, revealing the dark onyx hidden beneath the layer of dust. 

They all hold their breath as Lan Wangji coaxes the first note from the guqin, a low reverberation that nonetheless tingles with spiritual power. For a moment, it’s so quiet that the only sound in Wei Wuxian’s ears is the rapid beating of his heart.

“Wait, do you hear that?” Suibian asks, entire body twisting to look a nearby wall. Wei Wuxian follows her gaze.

“What, hear what?”

Suibian turns back to Lan Wangji, ears twitching. “Play that again, I thought I heard something.”

He obliges. The same single note, the same brief pause.

“She’s right,” Bichen says, and this time her words are punctured by two notes playing in response to the Inquiry. They echo across the room as she stands, walking over to the nearby wall with Suibian right on her heels. “A scratching, from here.”

Wei Wuxian looks at Lan Wangji. “And there’s a spirit here too?”

He nods, watching Suibian and Bichen as they sniff at the wall. “Faint, but present.”

“What the…”

“Something’s in here!” Suibian tells them, already scrambling at the dirt to try and dig. Bichen joins her, paws carefully cracking through hard-packed earth as Lan Wangji plays a few more notes on his guqin.  Wei Wuxian makes his way over, dodging chunks of soil as he goes.

“In the wall?”

“Yeah, I can hear it, like a—a scratching?”

Wei Wuxian leans forward to look, carefully avoiding the bubble of space around Bichen. It only takes a few more moments of work before they’ve broken through the outer layer. Instead of more dirt, there’s a small hole already partially tunneled out, like something else has been digging from the other side.

Bichen looks at Suibian, who looks at Wei Wuxian, who shrugs.

They peer into the narrow space.

“I don’t see anyth—”

There’s a flash of dark brown.

Dirt and half-chewed roots explode out from the wall, narrowly missing Wei Wuxian’s eyes, and Suibian shrieks as something bursts out of the hole, snarling like a rabid animal. They all jerk back –Lan Wangji’s playing stops abruptly at the commotion—and look down at the ground.

A… zokor?

“Whoa, how’d you get here, buddy?” Wei Wuxian asks it, staring at the lump of grey fur. The zokor is shaking clumps of soil and rock off its back, blinking rapidly from the light of the torches. At the sound of his voice, it pauses and looks up at all of them hovering around it.

Its eyes widen.

“Stay back!”

They all start in surprise.

“You’re a daemon?” Suibian asks, shocked, and takes a few steps back as the zokor bares its teeth before flashing forms into a porcupine. She makes a squeaky noise at the unexpected change and darts behind Bichen, who growls, although it sounds more from confusion than actual aggression.

Wei Wuxian’s already significant surprise deepens. An unsettled daemon?

The daemon hisses at them, lifting its quills and easily doubling its size. “Back!”

Wei Wuxian raises his hands in front of him. “Whoa, whoa, hey, no need! Be good, put the quills down, would you? Talk to us, what the hell were you doing in the wall?”

The porcupine blinks at them, then turns back to the hole in the wall it just came through.

“Oh no,” it breathes, and launches itself at the wall. With a cry of frustration, it switches from a porcupine and into a marmot. “Don’t worry A-Ling, I’m coming!”

Hold on.

You’re Jin Ling’s daemon?” Wei Wuxian asks the marmot, baffled. Lan Wangji puts away his guqin in a flash of spiritual energy, coming over and standing next to Wei Wuxian. “Wait, what about that dog?”

The daemon stops digging only long enough to shoot him a judgmental look.

“Are you an idiot?” it snaps at him and yep, ok, this is definitely Jin Ling’s daemon. “That’s Fairy, she’s a Wonder Dog! And what are you all doing standing around?! Are you going to help me or not? He’s in the wall, he could die!”

“Jin Ling?!”

That spurs all of them into immediate action. Soon the room is full of the sounds of various paws and hands scraping through dirt. By the time Jin Ling’s pale face comes into view and they manage to lay him flat on the ground, his daemon is practically in hysterics.

“He’s dead, he’s gone, you all were so slow and he died—

“It’ll be fine,” Wei Wuxian tells her firmly, even as worry makes his chest tight. “You’re not dust, so he’s alive, ok?”

That does not seem to reassure the daemon in the slightest. If anything, it makes her mad, so Wei Wuxian shuts his mouth and focuses on listening to the story of how they got trapped and her attempt at digging herself out to get help.

Soon everyone is in fervent agreement: they need to get the fuck out of here.

It’s not exactly hard to move Jin Ling—he might be unconscious, but he’s still only a teenager so it’s not like he weighs much— but things get so complicated so fast that soon strength becomes the least of his worries.

“Be careful!” Wei Wuxian calls after Lan Wangji, watching a pair of white robes and spotted fur take off into the forest in pursuit of whoever was lurking outside the shrine. Then he looks to Suibian and Jin Ling’s daemon.

They look back, clearly waiting.

Right. He’s the adult now.

Well, shit.

__

“So what’s your name?” he asks the daemon an hour or so later, holed up at an inn while they wait for Jin Ling to return to the waking world.

It’s partly an attempt to get a single piece of useful information from her, because to say that she has been friendly towards them would be a significant exaggeration, and partly to try and distract her from obvious nerves.

She’s shifted at least ten times since they got here: an eclectic mix of marmot, porcupine, hedgehog, crab, all spiraling one after the other. It’s the most shifts Wei Wuxian has ever seen a daemon go between in such a short time, and it has unease mixing with worry in his chest.

When he asks the question, it triggers another change. She shifts to a red panda, then an otter, back to a red panda, and Wei Wuxian’s heart stops.

“Suihua,” she tells him, albeit a bit snobbishly, and he draws in a carefully controlled breath.

He really should have expected that.

Like father, like son. Of course he Jin Ling would name her that—he got his father’s sword, after all. It’s no surprise why she went to those forms so quickly, either.

This Suihua’s red panda form doesn’t look exactly the same as Jin Zixuan’s daemon, and the brief glance he just got of her otter wasn’t a perfect copy of Xiaolian, but both were close enough to open every single aching wound he’s been trying to bury for later.

“Oh,” he manages, and turns away toward the window so she won’t see the way his eyes are suddenly watering.

She must pick up on the hitch in his tone anyways. “Something wrong with that?!”

“No, no,” Suibian reassures her, weaving between Wei Wuxian’s legs, a comforting brush of familiar fur. It’s not very effective at settling either of them; he can feel her own misery through their bond, amplifying their despair. “Just—um, surprised.”

Suihua huffs. “Why? Everyone knows.”

That takes Wei Wuxian aback enough to turn around and face her again, quickly wiping his face on his sleeve beforehand.

“Everyone knows what?”

The unimpressed look she sends his way is so similar to Jin Ling’s snooty one that he has to blink a few times to make sure he’s not seeing things. “Please. Even if you’re crazy, you know what happened. You said it yourself on Dafan Mountain.”

Wei Wuxian winces. Lacking maternal education.

Yikes. Not one of his best moments.

“I shouldn’t have said that,” he says, coming over to the bed and sitting on the edge of it, near Jin Ling’s feet. Suihua bristles, not bothering to hide her distrust. “And I’m sorry for reacting that way just now. You reminded me of some people I used to know, when you went to those forms.”

Suihua hesitates and looks away, clearly uncertain what to do with the apology.

“Well,” she sniffs eventually, haughty, “I like them. And you better not say something rude about it, or I’m going to find Jiujiu and—”

“Ah, no, don’t do that!” The last thing Wei Wuxian needs right now is Jiang Cheng to walk in on him with his unconscious nephew. “They’re very nice, very very nice.”

Suihua side-eyes him for a moment before saying, “Good. They’re what our parents had.”

I know, Wei Wuxian wants to scream. Those forms have shown up in his nightmares more times than he can count. Every time darkness takes him, they come to visit, turn his dreams blood red and bruised. I know. I’m sorry.

Instead, he swallows. “Yeah?”

“They are the best daemons out of all the other ones,” Suihua continues, a note of pride in her voice. “The smartest and the bravest, and also the best looking. Jiujiu told us so.”

There’s an ache in his chest that won’t ebb, tinged with sweetness this time. He can only imagine the stories that Jiang Cheng told. He’s not stupid enough to think he was in them, and he knows it’s for the best. 

“Do you want to be one of those when you settle?” Suibian asks her, genuinely curious.

Wei Wuxian was wondering that too, but it would have been uncouth for him to ask. Daemon to daemon though, that’s fine: it’s pretty common for ones that haven’t settled yet to talk about what their preferred form would be. Granted, Suihua is unusually old to still be unsettled, but there must be something she’s at least leaning toward by now.

Suihua reacts like Suibian just asked her how often she bathes; she glares, puffing up like an enraged gibbon.

“As if that’s any of your business! Why would you even care?”

Defensive. So that’s a sore spot, then.

“Ah, ah, calm down,” Wei Wuxian tells her. Really, if she reacts like this to everything, it’s no wonder she’s unsettled. How can all of Jin Ling’s pride and temper fit in a body that tiny? It’s a miracle they’ve managed to survive this long.

Suihua lets out a high-pitched humph and raises her nose in the air. “Whatever. Like I’d listen to what a crazy person and a fox think anyways.”

“Hey!” Suibian’s ears press back against her head. “You don’t need to be rude. I didn’t say anything mean about the forms you’ve been picking today!”

“Foxes are the worst,” Suihua shoots back immediately, and Wei Wuxian scoops Suibian up when he feels their bond give a hurt, watery tremble.

Alright. So maybe Jiang Cheng did talk about them.

“Alright, alright, that’s enough,” he scolds, when Suibian's hurt doesn’t drop off. Suihua can insult him all she wants, but he’s not going to let his daemon be bullied over something like this again. It’s not Suibian that’s the problem, even if she’s a convenient outlet for the anger and pain that Suihua is so poorly hiding. “No form is bad, ok? Who the hell taught you that?”

“Some forms get your human farther in life than others. That’s what Xiao Shushu said, and he’s smarter than you, so he’s right.”

Wei Wuxian thinks back to Jin Gunagyao and his golden monkey daemon, frowning. He’d never heard either of them express that kind of a view when he was alive. The opposite, in fact: Suibian had played with Hensheng just fine when they were disciples.

But the comment does make him realize something.

“Listen…” he starts, finally putting together why Suihua has been hidden every time they run across Jin Ling, why she seems so frustrated with the forms she’s shifting between now, why she hasn’t tried to scare them off with something like a dog or tiger. “There’s nothing wrong with only doing small—”

But then Jin Ling groans softly from the bed, shifting his leg to expose a patch of skin that is absolutely not the color it should be, and oh.

That’s not good.

Wei Wuxian promptly has more important issues to deal with than a daemon’s choice of form. 

“Hey!” Suihua shrieks, when Wei Wuxian reaches down to push up Jin Ling’s pant leg so he can get a better look. Her spine and tail arch, and she clacks her jaw at him, incensed. “What are you doing?!”

“Aiyo, calm down, I’m just looking—”

“Well stop looking, you lunatic!”

Wei Wuxian ignores her, bunching up the dirtied white cloth and leaning forward to assess. The entirety of Jin Ling’s lower leg, from ankle to knee, is smoking and grey, swirling with resentful energy. Suibian hops up on the bed so she can look as well, both of them ignoring Suihua absolutely losing her mind next to them.

“Oh, that doesn’t look too good,” she says, barely audible over Suihua’s I’m going to kill you! You’re going to pay for this! Her eyes are huge. “Has it spread?”

Fortunately, it hasn’t.

Unfortunately, it takes him a good chunk of time, a layer of robes, and fifteen different threats from Suihua to determine that and, well—to say Jin Ling is pleased when he wakes up would be a bit of an exaggeration, even for him.  

“Oh come on!” Wei Wuxian calls after him not even three minutes later, as the brat shoves on his shoes and bolts out the door with Suihua like Wei Wuxian is a group of ghouls trying to eat their flesh. “I wasn’t even undressing you that much! You—oh, he’s gone. Wow, what an overreaction.”

“Seriously,” Suibian agrees, ears pressed back against her head. “He could have waited for us to explain he was cursed, at least.”

“The hubris of youth,” Wei Wuxian sighs, and picks her up. “Thinking he knows everything. After him, I guess. We can’t let him walk around with that mark on him.”

Day has turned to night in the hours Jin Ling was resting, and darkness presses in around them, broken only by the shaded lanterns hanging from nearby buildings. It’s relatively quiet as they search the street for any trace of them, thank goodness; just the occasional sound of laughter from a window, the water splashing under their feet when they step into the puddles left by the rain earlier.

“Where could they even have gone?” Suibian mutters, her nose in the air. Wei Wuxian is just as lost as she is. They’ve been searching for ten minutes, and he hasn’t seen even a glimpse of them yet. “What forms has she done again?”

“Zokor, red panda, otter, porcupine, uh… I forget the rest.”

Suibian scrunches up her nose. “I know, there were so many. I think she needs—oh, shit.”

She jolts, nose twitching. Without warning, she starts to scramble at his robes, trying to climb inside them.

“Oi!” he says, avoiding a foot that nearly kicks him in the mouth, “what—”

“A wolf, A-Xian, it’s a wolf all over again,” she whimpers, and the adrenaline hits Wei Wuxian like a galloping horse.

“How close?!”

“I don’t know, my nose—”

Wei Wuxian helps her climb into his robes, looking around for anywhere to hide. Their luck is just terrible, absolutely terrible; what are Jiang Cheng and Sandu doing here, of all places? Desperate, he darts behind a nearby sign, thinking it’ll do; but Suibian whines louder, shaking her head.

“Too close, Sandu knows what we smell like now, she’ll know right away—”

He curses, searching around for a better spot. There’s a decent-sized crate nearby, tucked into the shadows; in a flash of inspiration, he takes off the cover, hoping it’ll be empty.

Instead, he’s greeted with piles and piles of onions.

Wei Wuxian pauses, staring down at them. They’re all jumbled together in a collage of white and green stalks, some shedding their skins, others still covered with dirt from the field. He picks one up, turning it over in his hand—and gets an idea.

Quickly, he scoops up some onions, throwing them blindly behind him into the street. He grabs another, and another, tossing them out, the bulbs rolling and bouncing across the stone as he steadily makes his way through a dozen or so.

“What are you doing?” Suibian demands as the onions fly past, high-pitched and panicked. “A-Xian?! This isn’t the time for browsing stir fry ingredients!”

“Nope!” he agrees cheerfully and, taking advantage of her confusion, hoists her out of his robes before she can cling to the fabric. “In you go!”

He plops her into the crate.

She yips in alarm at the sudden drop, a few onions raining down on her as she slips and slides across their skins. The indent he made is big enough for at least three of her; Wei Wuxian wastes no time in grabbing some of the onions from the edge of the box and packing them around her, like she’s one of the bottles of liquor that Nie Huaisang used to send him after the Sunshot Campaign.

“A-Xian!” she complains, and ack-ack-acks in displeasure when he puts an onion on top of her head, obscuring her from view. She sneezes. “Fine, I’ll admit this is a good idea, but it smells!”

“I know, I know,” he soothes, and grabs a few onions for himself, rubbing them across his neck and face. He almost laughs at the absurdity of it—if people had a problem with Mo Xuanyu putting makeup on his face, he can’t imagine what they would say about this. “But hey, that’s the point, right?”

She blinks up at him, wide-eyed. “Where are you going to hide?”

“No idea,” he admits, and a few of the onions rustle as her tail tries to flick under their weight, anxiety buzzing through their bond.

“Well think fast, because—”

There’s the sound of a puddle splashing from the street. Suibian’s ears perk up in alarm, two tan-and-grey rectangles among the otherwise nondescript box; Wei Wuxian has just enough time to drag the cover mostly over her and vault behind the crate before voices reaches them.

“There was no one else there? You’re sure?”

Oof. Wei Wuxian presses himself against the wet wood, trying to quiet his breathing. Yep, that’s Jiang Cheng.

“I told you, we went by ourselves!”

The answering voice is just as unmistakable, and impossibly snooty: Jin Ling! Wei Wuxian inches closer to the edge of the crate so he can peer into the street, where he sees Jiang Cheng, Sandu, and several purple-clad disciples coming in their direction.

And there, being dragged by the elbow and scowling up a storm, is Jin Ling.

“Why do you have to get into so much trouble?” Jiang Cheng demands, each word bringing him another step closer to their hiding spot. His scowl rivals Jin Ling’s, which is frankly impressive; Wei Wuxian hears a few onions rustle in the box as Suibian withdraws further, neither of them eager to have that annoyance directed their way.

“Can you stop your lecture already?” Jin Ling shoots back, and wrinkles his nose when they make it to the signpost. “Ugh, Jiujiu, why did you bring us down here? What’s with all the stupid onions?”

Oops.

With a disbelieving noise, Jiang Cheng stops. The rest of the group stops as well, Sandu looking around them with her nose twitching, ears perked.

“Don’t distract me! You think this is a lecture?” Jiang Cheng snaps, and an innocent onion crunches under his foot when he shakes Jin Ling by the elbow.  “Keep talking back, and I’ll show you a lecture with Zidian!”

Jin Ling rolls his eyes. “As if!”

“Sandu wouldn’t let you do that!” adds an equally snooty voice: Suihua. It takes Wei Wuxian a second to locate her; she’s switched forms again into a golden-tan pika, so small that she nearly blends into Jin Ling’s robes in the darkness.

Jiang Cheng glares at her. “Sandu doesn’t control Zidian.” Then, after a pause, “Wait, or me!”

One of the disciples’ daemons, a decently-sized alligator, snorts. When Jiang Cheng turns his glare to her, she widens her eyes, inclining her head to the onions.

“Sorry, Jiang-zongzhu. They’re strong.”

With a huff, Jiang Cheng turns back to Suihua. Behind him, Sandu’s tail wags slightly, and her and the alligator share a knowing look.

“Why are you even threatening us in the first place?” Suihua sniffs, and it’s uncanny how similar she and Jin Ling sound when they take that tone. She sneezes the next moment and squeaks, annoyed. “Ugh! This is so dumb! We came back safe, so you can’t be mad, alright?”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head. These two…

Before Jiang Cheng can respond, Sandu huffs.

“Is that how it works?” she asks them, voice a low rumble. Unlike Jiang Cheng, she sounds amused, perhaps a bit exasperated.

“Yes!” Suihua’s cheeks puff up, self-important and overly-confident. “You two always say that’s what matters, and we did it, so there.”

“You might not have,” Sandu points out, and Jiang Cheng crosses his arms with a nod. When Suihua and Jin Ling just huff and grumble, she sighs. “At least tell us where you’re going next time.”

“Why? We can handle it by ourselves! We don’t need babysitters.”

Sandu inclines her head, eyes crinkled with mischief. “Perhaps not. But who knows: one of these days I might be in a bad mood, and I’ll have no choice but to gobble you up before A-Cheng has the chance to whip you.”

Suihua gapes at her. Jin Ling turns bright, burning pink.

“Sandu!” he hisses, flushing deep at the teasing as the Jiang disciples try to stifle their laughter behind their hands. Suihua is frantically running her tiny paws over her face, equally as mortified. “I’m not three anymore!”

Sandu hums, noncommittal.

It’s a familiar, well-worn sound—like the press of water against wooden docks, or an otter’s quiet snores. A pang shoots through his and Suibian’s bond, the deep ache of missing, and Wei Wuxian winces.

“I don’t care how old you are or aren’t! I’ll whip you when you’re thirty if I have to,” Jiang Cheng warns Jin Ling, and Jin Ling huffs, looking away.

“Whatever. Can we go now?”

“You!”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head as Jiang Cheng’s lecture starts up all over again, the disciples exchanging amused glances while he’s not looking. None of them seem particularly bothered by any of it, including Jin Ling and Suihua. Sandu is all relaxed shoulders and tail as she watches them squabble, occasionally twisting her head around to survey the street.

“We should go,” she says eventually, when it’s clear neither side has any intention of stopping. She butts her head against Jiang Cheng’s hand to grab his attention. “It really does smell.”

“Fine, fine.”

Wei Wuxian holds his breath as they finally start walking again, making their way past the crate as Jiang Cheng continues his scolding.

“And where is your wonder dog?!” he demands, his shadow crossing over the tiny gap Wei Wuxian left to let Suibian breathe. The tension coils through their bond, and he breathes through it, trying to steady her. “I thought you brought Fairy with you, did you leave her behind?”

Wei Wuxian shudders at the mention of the dog, feels the resounding shiver from Suibian as well. Now that he thinks about it, he hasn’t seen any signs of Fairy since they heard it barking in the woods.

Ugh. Good news as far as he’s concerned. Even the memory has goosebumps clawing up his arms.

“Fairy doesn’t need me to show her where to go!” Jin Ling says, much too proud for any human being talking about any dog, ever. “Look, I’ll show you. Fairy, where are you? Come here girl!”

His voice is enthusiastic and loud, meant to carry, and also the most terrible thing Wei Wuxian has ever heard in his entire life.

Fear tightens his stomach and brings it crashing down to his toes. He claps a hand over his mouth, because what if it comes and hears him, what will they do then—and not even a few seconds after the thought has crossed his mind, Wei Wuxian hears the familiar tingle of a dog collar much too close for comfort.

All the air leaves his lungs. Slowly, he turns his head.

Standing just to his right, head tilted, is Fairy.

The horror is immediate and all-encompassing.

Please no, he thinks desperately, as his hands start to shake violently. It’s right there, looking at him, panting, blocking off the exit he was planning to take. He stares at its white teeth, the disturbing loll of its tongue. It shifts slightly and he chokes out a breath, cowering back against the wood.

When it steps forward, his vision blurs. He tries to blink back the panic, but his breaths are coming too quickly. Unbidden, his left arm aches, like blunt nails being shoved into his skin, and he remembers the white dog that he and Suibian once fought with for watermelon rinds, the one who had been too quick and bit, and bit, and bit—

“Woof,” Fairy barks, and Wei Wuxian screams.

He bolts away from it, the crate of onions rustling and banging as Suibian starts to yowl in panic. He launches himself over the crate, ready to reach in and yank her out before they flee for good—and runs smack into something solid.

His shaky legs collapse beneath him at the impact, sending him sprawling onto his back. He hits the cold stone with an oof, muddy water immediately soaking into his robes and splashing onto his face.

Confused, he looks up, head spinning from the impact and his and Suibian’s shared terror.

Jiang Cheng is standing directly over him, eyes wide with surprise.

“Oh,” Jin Ling says, appearing by his shoulder to stare as well, and it takes approximately zero seconds for Wei Wuxian to realize he’s thoroughly, completely screwed.

“Whoops!” he squeaks, high-pitched and shaky, as Suibian continues to howl and whine from where she’s packed in with the onions. He can see one of her paws clawing at the tiny gap he left, leaving indents in the wood as she tries to force the space open. Panicking, he starts scrambling to his feet. “Haha, ignore me, just a crazy man with onions, was looking for innocent men to seduce, I’ll just be on my way—”

He gets halfway up, intent on blabbering his way out of it, before Jiang Cheng seems to snap back to reality.

“Oh no you don’t!” he snarls, entire face twisting with anger, and Wei Wuxian yelps as Zidian shoots out from his wrist.

He expects a strike; what he gets instead is Zidian wrapping tight around his legs in a painful, tingling hold. It tilts him off balance, and like a tree cut for timber, he crashes back to the ground with a shout.

“Hey!” he protests, struggling against his bonds. His hands sting as he tries to find purchase, the hard gravel leaving dozens of thin scrapes along his skin like rough, sandy papercuts. His head spins. This is bad, he needs to get to Suibian, he needs—

A cold press of metal against his throat brings the world back into sharp, unforgiving clarity. He freezes.

Jiang Cheng is looking down at him with unmistakable disgust. When he speaks, his voice is low and dangerous. “Don’t. Move.”  

Wei Wuxian swallows, feelings the sharp edge of the sword bob against his Adam’s apple as he does. There’s a commotion to his right; unthinking, he twists his head, hoping the next second that Jiang Cheng won’t risk causing a mess on the street by killing him right here.

Two of the disciples are pushing the lid off the crate.

“No!” he cries, right as Suibian bursts out of it in a shower of onions.

The disciples jerk back with a yelp as she tumbles past them, her feet catching on the edge of the crate. The momentum has her tripping onto the ground; when she rights herself and sees the two right in front of her, she stiffens, opening her mouth wide to ack-ack-ack at them.

“Where’s the dog?!” she shrieks, wild-eyed and puffed up like dragon’s beard candy. “Get back, get away from me, where’s—”

She spots Wei Wuxian, sees Jiang Cheng and Sandu standing above him, and freezes.

“Get her!” Jiang Cheng orders, right as Wei Wuxian screams, “Run!”

Complete chaos reigns as both Suibian and the disciples scramble to obey the conflicting orders. Suibian tries to dart back, but Fairy is still by the edge of the crate, and she shrieks in fear, changing course halfway to scratch her way up the sign instead. At the same time, the two disciple’s daemons, the alligator from before and a large merganser, rush forward to stop her.

There’s a snarl, some yips, and an indignant squawk—before all three of them tumble onto the stone in a scramble of limbs.

“Don’t crush her!”

“Watch out, she’s fast!”

“Let me go!” Suibian shrieks, as they try to wrestle her into staying still. They’re having a hard time of it, given how viciously she’s wriggling as she fights back; a stray paw flies out and smacks the merganser currently trying to trap her in place with the weight of his body, making him hiss. “Stop it! We didn’t do anything wrong!”

The merganser grumbles, “Clearly you did,” but she ignores him, trying to snap at one of his legs. She misses, scraping uselessly across the outer hide of the alligator instead.

“We might hurt you on accident if you keep flailing,” the alligator snaps, her teeth glinting in the light of the nearby lantern. “Stop fighting us.

It’s not a threat, exactly; daemons, after all, try not to hurt each other unless they need to. But from where Wei Wuxian is currently lying prone on the ground, Zidian wrapped around his ankles and freezing cold water soaking into his robes from the night-chilled puddle, it sure feels like one.

“Don’t hurt her!” he says immediately, and grits his teeth when Jiang Cheng presses his blade closer, a clear warning. “She’s just scared of the—of that thing, it’s not her fault—”

Suibian takes the opportunity to kick the alligator in the face, making her snarl. Fairy barks again, alarmed by the sound, and she and Wei Wuxian shudder.

Above him, Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. “Afraid of the dog. It is you!”

“Help!” Suibian wails before Wei Wuxian can reply, struggling as she tries to put distance between herself and Fairy. She twists her head to look at him, eyes watery. It feels like someone is ripping out his heart; he tries to sit up, to do something, but Jiang Cheng reaches out and shoves him onto his back. “Help, I hate it, get it a-away from me—”

“Stay still and we will,” the merganser urges, almost kind, but Suibian doesn’t listen.

Instead, she starts to scream at the top of her lungs.

“Help! Help! Bichen, where are you, help me—”

It’s so loud and awful that the disciples twitch back, grimacing; someone in the nearby inn pokes their head out the door in alarm, before ducking back inside when they catch sight of Jiang Cheng’s scowl. The daemons shift, uneasy, glancing to Jiang Cheng for guidance, and Wei Wuxian struggles against his bonds, because Suibian is so small, they could break her little bones on accident, they could—

“Stop.”

The command breaks through the air like a crack of lightning. Everyone, except for Suibian, freezes.

Sandu has been watching the scene play out for the last thirty seconds with her ears pressed against her head. Now, she steps forward.

The disciples step back for her immediately, looking relieved as she pads across the stone towards where Suibian is still struggling to get free. The lantern light ripples across her fur as she passes by Wei Wuxian, casting her coat in a warm, golden glow. When she sees him looking at her, she draws back her lips, showing a single canine.

“Sandu,” Jiang Cheng mutters, so quiet that Wei Wuxian barely hears it, but she ignores him, continuing on her path towards the daemons.

Suibian is still yowling, now pinned down by the gator’s tail, which she is valiantly attempting to gnaw at. She’s given up on calling for Bichen; instead, she’s spitting desperate threats, tail thrashing back and forth with each muffled word.

“She’s a snow leopard, she’ll eat you when she finds out, I’ll help her eat you—”

When Sandu gets close, her shadow falling over the three of them, Suibian twitches and finally notices her new proximity.

Abruptly, her screams falter.

She blinks up at Sandu, a long whine escaping her throat like it bubbled out of her on instinct alone. Sandu’s ears press farther back against her head, and Wei Wuxian feels the pulse of fear through his and Suibian’s bond; potent, heightened by Fairy still standing so close.

She and Sandu stare at each other for a long, drawn-out moment.

“Crying will not work,” Sandu rumbles eventually, and there’s an undercurrent of exasperation there, one that Wei Wuxian doesn’t understand. As if to prove her wrong, Suibian gathers her remaining courage and yowls up at her, baring her teeth even as her entire body quakes with fear. Sandu huffs. “Nice try. A-Cheng and I are too used to it. You are coming with us, whether you want to or not, so stop causing a scene.”

It’s the same way she used to talk Suibian down from a particularly foolish fit of drama when they were teenagers: firm, indisputably logical. Confusion flickers across Suibian’s face; her tail flicks, once, twice.

When she doesn’t immediately start crying again, Sandu continues, steady and calm. “I am going to pick you up and bring you away from the dog.” Above him, Jiang Cheng twitches, the blade against Wei Wuxian’s throat jerking slightly. “If you try to run when Cuifen removes her tail, or you struggle at any point, I will bite you, and you will go into a bag until you behave. Do you understand?”

Suibian's eyes are huge. She looks to Wei Wuxian, chest rising and falling like she’s just run a marathon.

Slowly, Wei Wuxian nods.

He doesn’t think they’re wriggling out of this, and least not yet. Sandu knows how to handle small things; better for it to be her than an alligator or dog right now, or whatever else Jiang Cheng could think up. They can figure out how to escape once Suibian isn’t in danger of being crushed or bitten.  

“I…” Suibian whispers, and flinches when Sandu huffs at her, impatient. Sandu’s ears flick again. “I understand.”

“You’ll be good?”

Silently, eyes darting anxiously to Fairy, Suibian nods.  

Sandu turns to the other daemons. “Get off her.”

“Sandu, are you sure—”

“I have her. Move.”

Slowly, Cuifen pulls her tail away. Suibian stays belly-up and still as the merganser moves back too, drawing in a deep breath as the weight of both their bodies disappears. A few onion peels are still sticking to the fluffy fur of her belly; with another rumble, Sandu lowers her head and noses them off her, making her flinch.

There’s one last tiny, quivering whimper when Sandu nudges Suibian onto her belly.

Then she’s being lifted into the air in a smooth, practiced motion, Sandu’s holding her carefully by the scruff of the neck with her teeth. No amount of fear or confusion could fight over two decades of instinct and muscle memory: Suibian immediately goes limp and boneless in her hold.

Relief floods through Wei Wuxian.

Sandu pads back to them, Suibian dangling from her teeth with giant eyes. Jiang Cheng is watching her with an unreadable expression. She ignores Wei Wuxian entirely, inclining her head to Jiang Cheng instead, and he nods.

“Get up,” he spits at Wei Wuxian, the muscle in his jaw twitching. Zidian slowly unwinds from his legs; before it can loosen fully, he adds, “If you run, I’ll snap her neck.”

Wei Wuxian’s entire body goes cold.

“I won’t,” he croaks, and struggles up, limbs numb and unwieldly. Sandu is looking at Jiang Cheng, eyes wide and shocked. Suibian has started shaking again, another pulse of acrid fear in his mouth. “Please don’t hurt her, she’s being good.”

Jiang Cheng’s face twists; with Fairy still a few mi away, Wei Wuxian can’t think clearly enough to try and read it.

With his sword still drawn, he grabs Wei Wuxian by the elbow and starts dragging him down the street.

His grip is firm and stiff, unyielding even as Wei Wuxian trips and stumbles over loose stones. It brings Wei Wuxian back to when they were teenagers, how Jiang Cheng would try to drag him away from trouble, and Wei Wuxian would drag him right back, grin on his face. If this was the old them, he could throw his arm around Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, tell him to relax, spin up a story that would make him roll his eyes and playfully shove him away.

There’s none of that, now. Just Jiang Cheng’s clenched jaw, and a building looming over them.

“Up,” Jiang Cheng orders, and shoves Wei Wuxian in front of him as he marches them up the steps to what looks like a local inn. Wei Wuxian winces as his toe slams into the wood but keeps his mouth shut, trying to catch a glimpse of their surroundings, a signpost, anything. If they can figure out where they are—

Part of him expects Jiang Cheng to peel off before they reach the door. Instead, he’s practically shoved forward towards it, like he isn’t soaking wet and shivering and very clearly in the kind of distress that would normally raise at least a few eyebrows for anyone who might be inside.

The door swings open. They step inside.

It’s… a rather nice inn, actually. Polished wood floors, bright lanterns, the subtle scent of aloeswood drifting towards them when they step over the landing. There’s a counter to their right, tastefully decorated with paper cuttings and a few clay bowls, one of which is practically overflowing with kumquats.

It immediately becomes clear why Jiang Cheng didn’t feel the need to hide their entrance from others. In front of them is an open dining area, but unlike the other inns they passed by, there aren’t any regular customers waiting for them. Instead, Wei Wuxian is greeted with the sight of a gaggle of Jiang disciples of various ages, all talking and chatting over red-tinted food and cups of liquor. Daemons are hopping back and forth across the tables, a few wrestling on the floor and laughing.

There’s a level of comfort in their movements, and most don’t bother looking towards the door when it opens. Clearly, they’ve all stayed here more than once.

“Wait outside,” he hears Sandu rumble to someone behind them, and the door swings closed, cutting off the flow of cool air from the street.

“Ah, Jiang-zongzhu,” says the innkeeper, not bothering to look up from where she’s wiping down the counter. Behind her is a beautiful tapestry of a lotus pond in bloom; unbidden, Wei Wuxian’s heart clenches. She turns around to greet them after a moment, a smile on her wrinkled face. “How was your hunt? Another eventful night I ho—”

She cuts herself off, eyes widening when she sees Wei Wuxian, covered in muddy water, and Subian, still handing limply in Sandu’s mouth.

Slowly, her smile fades, and Wei Wuxian sees the way her eyes flick between them and Jiang Cheng, suddenly nervous.

“Everything’s fine,” Jiang Cheng tells her before she can ask, voice too loud. A couple of the disciples eating glance over with raised brows, then do a double-take, food halfway to their mouths. “This man is a criminal who we’ve been hunting for some time. You don’t need to worry.”

The innkeeper visibly hesitates. It’s evident that Jiang Cheng booked this entire place for the night, at least, since she knew it was them when they came in, and they must be familiar with each other somehow; but from the look on her face, she wasn’t expecting to be confronted with something like this.

The disciples are now nudging each other and pointing, a few whispering behind their hands as they unabashedly stare.

“We are not going to cause trouble,” Sandu says, voice slightly garbled around Suibian’s fur. She nudges Jiang Cheng’s pocket with her head, and Wei Wuxian hears the unmistakable clink of silver. “We’ll pay you double our original cost, in thanks for your courtesy for the extra guest.”

The innkeeper’s eyes widen. She looks to Jiang Cheng, who nods and places a small pouch on the counter.

In a move more magical than any cultivation Wei Wuxian could ever invent, she slides a perfect smile back on her face.

“Ah, of course, of course. Our only request is that you don’t make a mess and abide by the noise rules, surely you understand.”

Jiang Cheng grunts. “I’ll pay for any damages.”

Oh. Oh, that sounds very not good.

The innkeeper’s smile falters. She glances at Suibian, who is still hanging uselessly from Sandu’s teeth. “O-Of course, Jiang-zongzhu. Will you all need any accommodations? An extra room set up?”

“Nope,” Jiang Cheng says, as Wei Wuxian wonders what it must be like to have enough money to bribe people, and starts dragging Wei Wuxian forward again. Then, as if he just got struck with a thought, he stops and turns back. “Actually, yes.”

“Ah, what does Jiang-zongzhu require?”

Jiang Cheng looks at Wei Wuxian. “Can you bring up a bowl of water for the dog? She’ll be staying in my room, tonight.”

Wei Wuxian’s throat closes up all over again; glancing back, Fairy is still there, sitting on the woven carpet and panting. Suibian whimpers, a fragile thing, Sandu giving a low rumble in response, but the innkeeper is already nodding again, bustling out from behind the counter and into a back room.

Apparently satisfied, Jiang Cheng starts them forward again.

“Stop staring!” he snaps at the disciples, all of whom stiffen and turn back to their meals. As they climb the stairs, Wei Wuxian catches a few of them sneaking glances at their retreating backs.

Jiang Cheng’s room is at the very end of the hall, past a dozen doors that have had lotus paper cuttings tastefully hung across the tops of their doorframes. He can hear his breathing quickening, lungs going tight as as Jiang Cheng unlocks the door; when he opens it, he hauls Wei Wuxian inside, Sandu and Suibian right on their heels.

Then he shoves him to the floor.

“Get against the wall,” he hisses, and Wei Wuxian swallows, scooting back to obey, hyperaware of Suibian’s perilous proximity to wolf teeth.

The room is plain—just a small table and bed with dark purple covers that compliment the wood floors. There’s a single window, but it looks locked, and no other obvious exits. Still, if he manages to get some talisman paper—

Fairy enters the room, and all logical thought slides away.

Suibian squeaks as Jiang Cheng directs Fairy to sit by the table, flinching even with Sandu’s hold on her scuff. Sandu glances down at her; when she steps forward, Suibian whimpers and tries to wriggle out of her grip, clearly thinking they’re going towards where Fairy is now patiently waiting for Jiang Cheng’s commands.

Instead, Sandu brings Suibian towards Wei Wuxian and, with a low growl that can’t be mistaken for anything but a warning, places her at his feet.

She steps back. Suibian crouches there, absolutely frozen, legs splayed out like she’s bracing for impact.

“Hurry up,” Sandu snaps when Suibian doesn’t move, something frustrated and upset coloring her tone. Suibian whimpers again, confused this time, ears pressing against her head as her gaze flicks between everyone. “You heard A-Cheng. Go to the wall.”

Suibian stares up at her, trembling up a storm. Hesitantly, in jerky little movements, she starts to inch towards Wei Wuxian’s knee; when Sandu doesn’t immediately growl, she draws in a ragged breath and flings herself at his chest.

“A-Xian!”

“I’m here,” he gasps, clutching her to him the moment she makes impact. She whines, pressing her nose against his cheek, licking away the traces of muddy water left on his face. He holds her close and tries to breathe, feel the warmth of their link in his chest. This is not good, so not good.  

Jiang Cheng is watching them with dark, angry eyes, Sandu back at his side.

“Fairy,” he starts, and Wei Wuxian and Suibian jolt, fear zipping up their spines, “forward.”

With an inquisitive woof, Fairy obeys.

Suibian wails like she did back in the street, terror clawing up their link and making static fuzz at the edges of Wei Wuxian’s vision. He tries to move them back, but can’t, the wall pressing against his spine and sending water from his soaked robes dripping onto the floor.

Oh gods. Oh gods, the dog—

“Tell me what you did,” Jiang Cheng snarls, and Wei Wuxian’s head snaps towards him, fear making his outline a hazy blur.

“What!?”

“You heard me.” Jiang Cheng’s entire face is pinched with hatred; Wei Wuxian can’t keep his eyes on him for long, too afraid of Fairy to look away for more than fleeting glances, but the emotion there is unmistakable. “Tell me what you did, or I’ll torture it out of you.”

Wei Wuxian gapes at him.

“That is—” he starts, so high-pitched that he doesn’t recognize his own voice, and bites his tongue when Fairy barks again. Suibian shudders, and Sandu growls. “That is so broad, I—what are you talking about?”

“Don’t try to play dumb!” Jiang Cheng shouts, and his rage crackles through the air as Zidian sparks on his wrist. The ferocity of it tints the room purple, like a thunderstorm foolishly beckoned indoors, barely contained. “Tell me what you did to her!

“Who?!” he stutters, keeping his eyes on Fairy as Suibian whines and whimpers against his throat.

Jiang Cheng’s hands twitch, a rage unlike anything Wei Wuxian has ever seen coming over his face at the question.

“You’ve got some nerve! Thirteen years, and you’re playing pretend now?!”

If he wasn’t so terrified that he could barely breathe, Wei Wuxian would laugh. As if he could form any intelligible thoughts right now, let alone try to lie about whatever on earth Jiang Cheng is talking about. With Fairy so close, every single emotion between him and Suibian is heightened tenfold; and right now, they aren’t exactly having any positive ones.

Case in point: in his arms, Suibian is shaking so hard that her teeth are chattering.

“A-Xian,” she whimpers again, and he places a trembling hand against the back of her head. He wants to tell her it’s ok, but he can’t make his tongue work. 

Jiang Cheng watches them cower, face cold and unforgiving. At his side, Sandu has her ears pressed so far back against her head that it almost looks like she doesn’t have any.

“I’m not afraid to force it out of you,” he warns them, and Wei Wuxian grits his teeth.

“We don’t know!” Suibian shrieks at him, the sound echoing in the space, and Jiang Cheng blinks. “We don’t know, what’s wrong with you, we—”

Her energy is starting to go haywire from stress; when Fairy next barks at their raised voices, their bond itself seems to quiver, a string plucked too harshly. She makes a choked-off, panicked noise, ak-ak-aaa—, and Wei Wuxian squeezes her tight, tries to contort his body so that when Fairy attacks, he’ll take it instead.

Sandu shifts, restless.

“A-Cheng—”

Jiang Cheng ignores Sandu’s whisper in favor of glaring at Wei Wuxian. “Well?! No Hanguang-Jun and Lan Bichen to protect you now. You can’t take advantage of their good reputation if you’re dog food, so spill—or do you think crying for him this time is going to help you?”

That is enough to get Wei Wuxian to snap back.

“I don’t have anything to say to you!” he manages, which isn’t technically true. There are a million things he wants to say to Jiang Cheng, a hearty mix of apologies and admonishments, but none are coming to mind right now.

Jiang Cheng slams his fist down on the table.

“I’m warning you, Wei Wuxian!”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head, burying his face in Suibian’s fur. He doesn’t know what the hell Jiang Cheng is talking about. The last time he saw Jiang Cheng like this was at the clearing with Wen Ning, and if it’s him that Jiang Cheng wants, then he’s out of luck. Even if he knew, Wei Wuxian wouldn’t tell him.  

He’s hurt the Wens enough. Hurt everyone enough.

Shijie, he thinks, and tears form in his eyes. Shijie, I’m so sorry.

There’s a tense, heavy pause.

“Fine.” Jiang Cheng’s voice is low. “Maybe you’re just lacking the proper incentive. Fairy!”

Fairy steps forward, closing the gap between them even further, mouth open as it pants. Wei Wuxian can see its teeth, pointy and sharp, and Suibian lets out a high-pitched whimper, the same noise she made when Sandu was standing over her in the clearing all those weeks ago. Wei Wuxian squeezes his eyes shut, curling around her to protect her.

He braces himself for a bite.

But—nothing comes.

Nothing except the creak of wood floors, and then a low, familiar growl.

Wei Wuxian raises his head. What he sees makes the world tilt on its axis.

Sandu has moved between them and Fairy like a blockade, fur bristled and tail raised high in the air. She’s so big that only Fairy’s paws are visible, holding herself tall and broad as tension ripples across her muscles.

“Back,” she tells Fairy, firm.

Everyone in the room, save for Fairy himself, gapes at her. When Fairy doesn’t move right away, Sandu shifts, the hair on her back slowly and deliberately raising. She growls, just once.

Wei Wuxian could recognize that stance anywhere.

(There’s a dog, at the end of the line of stalls, some black monster of a thing that’s twice their size, yellowed teeth and mangy fur. The market bustles around them, forgotten, narrowing down to that single outline, the one he knows spells trouble. It sees him, it sees them, and they need to run—

Suddenly: dark fur. A body blocking them from view. A low, threatening growl. 

Then a soft voice, just for them: “It’s gone.”

Safe, safe.

They can breathe again.)

Fairy’s paws retreat to the other side of the room.

“What the hell are you doing?” Jiang Cheng demands, apparently rediscovering the concept of speech. His mouth is working furiously, but no other sounds are coming out. Wei Wuxian didn’t think he could somehow look angrier than he already did, but he was wrong. Pissed off Jiang Cheng is bad, but pissed off and confused? The building exploding would be less of a hazard.

“Too far,” Sandu tells him, and doesn’t flinch when Jiang Cheng sweeps a teacup off the table and smashes it to the ground. Suibian lets out a single sob as the porcelain shatters across the floor, and Sandu’s stance becomes steadier.

“Too far?! Have you lost your mind? He—”

“This isn’t about him,” Sandu interrupts, voice no longer quiet. “What happened to A-jie isn’t Suibian’s fault. She settled on the streets, remember? Too far.”

Jiang Cheng pauses, face red, eyes darting wildly between his daemon and the two of them huddled against the wall. For the first time since they were caught, there’s a flicker of uncertainty on his face. Wei Wuxian thinks back to the last time he saw it (People say you killed him yourself!) and feels like he’s been stabbed through the chest.

Suibian is gazing up at Sandu’s back with huge, hesitant eyes.

“A-San—” she begins, teary and thick, and flinches deeper against Wei Wuxian when Sandu turns her head and snarls at them.

“Stay quiet. I’m not talking to you.”

That starts some hiccupping sobs, which Suibian attempts to muffle by shoving her face against Wei Wuxian’s neck. He strokes his fingers down her back, hoping against hope that this means there’s still a chance that she can get out of this.

Sandu is right: regardless of what Jiang Cheng wants, nothing that happened is Suibian’s fault. If they’re going to punish anyone, then let it be him.

“Let Suibian go,” he blurts out, and ignores the indignant, desperate whine from the fox in his arms. Jiang Cheng and Sandu turn to look at him, both of their eyes widening. He swallows, barely able to around the tightness in his throat. “Please. Hurt me however you want, just don’t—don’t make her stay here and watch it, please.”

 “A-Xian!”

Wei Wuxian shushes her, fingers shaking uncontrollably. “We can’t go very far apart but—just—not near the, the dog. She could go outside the door, or, or— please. Jiang Cheng.”

Jiang Cheng is staring at him, face pale among the rich browns and purples of the room. For the first time since they were caught, Wei Wuxian feels like he’s actually looking at him.

“Please,” he repeats, because he’ll beg as much as he needs to if it means Suibian might have a chance to hide, or escape, or somehow get help. Suibian digs her claws into his robes in protest, but he ignores it. Lan Wangji and Bichen might be looking for them by now; even if they’re not, getting her out of this room is non-negotiable.

There’s a long, intense pause.

“Why,” Jiang Cheng says suddenly.

Suibian flinches at the noise, despite its strangely subdued tone. Wei Wuxian draws in a breath, confused; something has morphed in Jiang Cheng’s face. He was all simmering anger, shock—but, as their eyes meet in the dimness and that single word sinks in, Wei Wuxian suddenly sees it.

Jiang Cheng is exhausted.

Not I-trained-too-hard-and-need-a-break exhausted. Not you’re-being-so-annoying-and-giving-me-an-ulcer exhausted. Not even just-need-a-good-night’s-sleep exhausted.

No. This is something bone deep, like a stone house that has been abandoned, overgrown with ivy.

It seeps through the pores of him, and Wei Wuxian wonders how on earth he didn’t notice before—the forced line of Jiang Cheng’s shoulders, the way Sandu’s paws had clicked heavy on the wood. Jiang Cheng’s anger is like wildfire, always has been; but in his terror, Wei Wuxian forgot the one thing that’s important to understand for people like his brother: when faced with nothing but heat and choking smoke, its easy to forget what might lie underneath.

Sometimes, the flames burn so bright that you miss what sparked them in the first place.

And whatever sparked this anger? It’s neither simple, nor easy.

“Why what?” he asks, tongue feeling too big for his mouth, and Jiang Cheng shakes his head, hands clenched at his sides. Sandu is looking between them all, gaze flicking back and forth, back and forth.

“Fine, you don’t want to tell me the trick you pulled,” he spits, and there’s a flare of Zidian, but nothing else. “Whatever. After what you did to A-jie, I shouldn’t have expected anything different.”

Wei Wuxian flinches.

Jiang Cheng continues, ruthless. “I’ll get it out of you at some point. But if you won’t tell me why you’re still choosing other people over us, over our family, then at least do me the basic decency of answering this: why did you have kill Jin Zixun instead of giving Jin Zixuan back peacefully?”

Wei Wuxian gapes at him.

There are about twenty different issues to address in that: The Wens helped us, don’t you remember, how was I supposed to just stand by? and It wasn’t about choosing them over you, never, not once, and perhaps adding in a It would be a lot easier to explain all this if there wasn’t dog in the room for good measure.

What comes out of his mouth is, “I didn’t kidnap the fucking Peacock!”

Sandu turns her head to him so fast that her neck cracks.

For a moment, there’s nothing but shocked silence.

Then: “What?”

Wei Wuxian wants to rip out his hair. “I didn’t do anything to him!” he says, heated. “You really think I would be able to put up with him for long enough to kidnap him?"

"But—" Jiang Cheng is gaping. "But that was why they sent Jin Zixun after you! If you were innocent, why did you kill him?!"

"Jiang Cheng!" Wei Wuxian complains, because really, his little brother can be such an idiot sometimes. "Do you seriously think I would have done something like that before Jin Ling's birthday? I didn't even know about any of it until I was on my way to the one month celebration! Jin Zixun showed up out of the blue and started blathering nonsense about how I kidnapped Jin Zixuan, and then he shot Wen Ning and made him lose control! I didn’t want to kill him, it just happened!”

He’s never seen Jiang Cheng and Sandu look so confused.

“It’s true,” Suibian pipes in immediately, eyes still watery. When Sandu and Jiang Cheng turn to her she cowers back, their bond giving a jerk. “We had a gift and everything, A-Xian made these pretty beads, and then Jin Zixun smashed them—”

“He was one hell of an asshole,” Wei Wuxian agrees, then remembers something, a vivid-bright image through the normal darkness of his memory. “Oh! And he was hurt, too, when they came to attack us! All of the other Jins were in tip-top shape, but his robes were all messed up, and he was injured.”

He pauses. Wait.

Why was Jin Zixun injured?

“You’re lying,” Jiang Cheng snaps, but Wei Wuxian can hear the uncertainty beneath the heat.

“I’m not,” he insists, and swallows, forces the rest of the words out. “Blame me all you want for Shijie’s death, but don’t waste your time trying to ask me what happened to Jin Zixuan, because I have absolutely no idea!”

Jiang Cheng and Sandu tense at the mention of Jiang Yanli, but a moment after, they somehow look even more baffled.

“What are you talking about?” Sandu asks him, ears pressed back. Jiang Cheng appears genuinely speechless for once in his life, mouth opening and closing like a dying fish.

Wei Wuxian blinks at them, confused. “What do you mean, what am I talking about?”

Sandu looks to him, then to Jiang Cheng, then back at him. “I mean exactly what I said. ‘Blame you for her death’? Wei Wuxian: A-jie isn’t dead.

Chapter Text


Time stops.

More than that: for a span of seconds, everything ceases to exist.

The room and its darkwood floors, with Fairy in the corner; the distant sounds of the Jiang disciples, laughing and gossiping downstairs; the city itself, where Lan Wangji and Bichen are no doubt waiting for them. Even the sound of his own breathing. All gone.

Only Sandu’s perplexed tone remains, ringing in his ears.

A-jie isn’t dead.

“She’s not?” he chokes out, when his mouth can form words again. Sandu and Jiang Cheng are still staring at him, both in various stages of disbelief; in his arms, Suibian has gone completely still, their bond trembling like a freshly pulled string. It’s Sandu who recovers quickest; when he and Suibian look at her, eyes wide with hope, she nods, very slowly.

“No.”

“But—but the sword—”

“We were in a field surrounded by powerful cultivators, many of whom specialize in medicine,” Sandu snaps, fur bristling. “A-Cheng was right there. You thought we would let her die?”

“Of course not!” he stutters out, and oh, he might have a heart attack. Blood is pounding in his ears, thousands of questions now screaming for his attention. “I just—if she’s not dead, then why—why are people talking about her like she is? Why isn’t she here? What happened?”

That seems to snap Jiang Cheng back to the present.

“What happened?!” he snarls, and shit, he’s back at full blast, both in volume and temper. When he steps closer to them, the polished wood floors creaking under his feet and candlelight casting his shadow overly-large on the wall, his eyes are fire once more. “You happened!”

Wei Wuxian stares at him.

“Me?!”

“Yes, you!” Jiang Cheng snaps, as if it should be completely obvious. It is not. When Wei Wuxian just blinks, too lost to even know what to ask, he continues, spitfire, “Whatever your spirits did, they put her in limbo, and we can’t get her out of it!”

Wei Wuxian and Suibian start.

“Limbo?!” Suibian demands, right as Wei Wuxian cries, “Wait, what?! My spirits?!”

Jiang Cheng pauses with his mouth already halfway open, like he was going to say more. He stares at them, eyes narrowed, then glances to Sandu.

Sandu blinks back, looking equally as stunned.

“You…” Jiang Cheng’s grip on Zidian twitches slightly; from this angle, Wei Wuxian can see the deep shadows under his eyes. He hesitates, then says, the first words that have been a normal volume all evening, “You seriously don’t know?”

Gods, Wei Wuxian wants to shake him.

“How is that not obvious at this point?” he demands, as Suibian rolls her eyes and mutters something rude under her breath. “Aiyo, Jiang Cheng, really!”

Jiang Cheng looks between the two of them, his mouth twisted down, eyebrows much the same.

“You—I thought—” he says, and abruptly cuts himself off, jaw clenching.

For a moment, he seems to struggle with what to say. There’s a clatter of dishes from downstairs, startled laughter right after; people living and breathing and going on with their lives, unknowing of how Suibian is still shaking slightly in his arms. Compared to the four of them here, held together in the confines of the room, the subtle sounds feel painfully out of place.

Behind Jiang Cheng, Fairy shifts, as if she can feel the tension in the air.

The reaction is immediate. With that tiny motion, Suibian draws in a ragged breath, anxiety spiking to the forefront of their link as both of their attention is yanked away from the topic at hand.

“Get it a—get it aw—” she whimpers, words tripping over themselves as Fairy’s quiet panting fills their ears, too close even with Sandu standing between them. Wei Wuxian is about to tuck her face into his robes and bite back the panic rising in his limbs, when Jiang Cheng clenches his fist.

“Don’t move!” he hisses at them, and then lets out a quick, sharp whistle.

At the noise, Fairy perks her ears; Suibian wails as the dog stands and crosses over to Jiang Cheng, the edge of her face visible from her new position. Jiang Cheng’s eyes flick to her, trying to claw into Wei Wuxian’s robes, then back to Fairy.

In three long, quick strides, he walks away from them.

Opens the door.

Says, gruff and low, “Out, girl. Stay”

Then he scoots her out the door, Fairy’s awful tail wagging behind her the whole time, and closes it.

When he turns back to them, his expression is unreadable, closed-off.

Wei Wuxian is so completely, totally stunned that he can’t do anything but gawk.

“She’s outside,” Jiang Cheng snaps, when neither he nor Suibian move or say anything, as if they had somehow missed that. He raps a few times on the wood; they hear Fairy give a quiet woof from the other side of the thick door, the thump of a tail. “If you run, I’m sending her after you, understand?!”

“We understand!” Suibian squeaks immediately, staring at Jiang Cheng like he just single-handedly fought off an entire mountain of ghouls: stunned, pathetically grateful. Wei Wuxian nods as vigorously as he can. “No running! We’ll stay right here!”

“And you better not be lying, either!”

“We aren’t! We won’t!” Wei Wuxian swears, and holds his breath as Jiang Cheng crosses back over to them. With Fairy no longer hovering at the corner of his vision, Wei Wuxian can see the anger still burning bright in Jiang Cheng’s eyes, the way his teeth are grinding together. His hands are digging into his skin, going white at the tips from the force of it.

“Then you two,” Jiang Cheng says once he’s standing above them again, and points between them, “are going to tell me everything you remember about the fight, right now, and don’t you dare lie!”

“But what about Shijie—”

Jiang Cheng’s voice rises back to a shout. “Tell me!!”

“The sword!” Suibian blurts, tail flicking against Wei Wuxian’s neck. Her claws are still out from the scare with Fairy; they pinpick across his skin as she slides down onto his lap, no longer clinging for dear life. “There was—that man, with the sword?”

Jiang Cheng nods, slowly. “What else?!”

“I—”

Suibian looks to Wei Wuxian.

“He stabbed her,” he croaks, because no other words can encompass the horror he felt in that moment; the way Shijie’s eyes had widened, the battlefield stilling all around them. She’d made such a tiny noise—a suck of a gasp in, a sound worse than any choke he’d ever heard before. Even now, he sees it in his dreams: how she had stumbled slightly to the side, the iron piercing through her, blood soaking through her robes and dripping onto Xiaolian’s head. His little paws had scrambled at her as he called her name, but he’d been stumbling too, slowly falling to the side.

He tries to clear his throat, finds that his voice comes out clogged anyways when he adds, “He stabbed her, and you two caught them as they fell, and then I…”

Blackness, like parchment with ink spilled over it. He doesn’t remember.

Sandu shifts, just slightly. “You don’t know, after that?”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head.

“It was a fatal wound, I saw—I saw—” I saw the life leaving her eyes. I saw Xiaolian gasping for breath. He sits up straighter, curling his hands into Suibian’s fur. “Jiang Cheng, please! How is she alive? How—what happened?! Is she—”

Ok, he wants to ask, but that’s a ridiculous question. If she was ok, none of them would be here.

Jiang Cheng’s hands are bawled into fists.

“A-Cheng got A-jie to a healer after the sword went through her,” Sandu tells them, when Jiang Cheng just glares at the floor. Her fur is still raised, and there’s a waver in her voice; nonetheless, she continues. “By the time we got there, the wound had already healed.”

Suibian jerks in surprise. “What? How?!”

Sandu shakes her head; he recognizes it, even after all of these years, as I do not know. “It simply did. Multiple healers examined her, looking for other injuries. At first, it seemed she had been miraculously saved. But then…”

“But then,” Jiang Cheng grits out, and he looks up from where he was staring at the spilled tea to meet Wei Wuxian’s gaze, “it turns out, she’s worse than dead! Thirteen years. Thirteen years, you asshole, that she’s been stuck. Frozen in some weird coma, not able to eat, or drink, or open her eyes—all because you attacked her!”

I attacked her?!” Wei Wuxian echoes, baffled, and feels the echoed confusion from Suibian too. So not something only he forgot, then.

“Yes, with your spirits!” Jiang Cheng looks like he’s about five seconds away from stabbing him through the throat. “Or energy, or—whatever they were! The ones that surrounded all of us before Lan Wangji yanked you away, and then—”

Wei Wuxian gapes at him. “Hold on, I did what? They did what?! When?!”

Suibian twitches in his arms, a barely-there motion. Their bond zips with an emotion too fleeting to catch; muffled, almost, like she’s trying to shove it down out of his reach. He glances down, concerned, and finds her ears are pressed back against her head, huge eyes on Sandu’s face.

Before he can figure out what’s going on, Sandu growls, bringing his attention back to her. For the first time all night, she looks truly angry.

“This is not the time for your foolish crush,” she snarls, and Wei Wuxian flinches back, shocked. He hadn’t—that wasn’t— "If you do not remember, then be quiet and listen. When the sword hit-A-jie, you started screaming. It—it was like you couldn’t hear us, or wouldn’t, I don’t know. You just…”

“Exploded,” Jiang Cheng spits, shoulders tight. “All this smoke came out of you, and into the ground, like these black tendrils. And then you sent it at her! How do you not remember this?!”

Wei Wuxian throws his hands up in the air. “I don’t know! How am I supposed to answer that?!”

Jiang Cheng crosses his arms and huffs.

“It wrapped around her and wouldn’t go away,” Sandu continues, ignoring their squabbling. Wei Wuxian has never been so grateful for her ability to stay steady. She’s not looking at him, though; her eyes are on Suibian. “Then it sank into her, and she stopped moving, and Hanguang-Jun and Lan Bichen grabbed you and took you away.”

Wei Wuxian recalls exactly none of this. He looks to Suibian for guidance, and she shakes her head. Tears are starting to spring into her eyes.

“We thought we had killed her!” she whimpers, and their bond is trembling, Wei Wuxian’s eyes threatening to spill over now too. Sandu and Jiang Cheng both visibly jolt as the first tear slips down her face. “I remember the smoke, but the sword went through her, and everything was so dark, and Xiaolian—”

She breaks off and starts to cry in earnest; giant, fat tears that work their way down the fur and leave saltwater tracks in their wake.

Sandu visibly falters.

“Xiaolian is not dust,” she says, softer than earlier, and Suibian hitches out a huge sob.

“So what?” Jiang Cheng demands, harsh, his own face twisted up with emotion now, too. Unsurprisingly, compared to Sandu, his is much angrier. “They’re not anything! It’s like whatever you made is—stuck inside her, or something. You poisoned her soul with that fucking smoke, and it won’t get out!”

Wei Wuxian’s head is spinning.

“What have they tried?” he croaks, and Jiang Cheng twitches, something in his expression shutting off. Sandu shifts, glancing at him.

“What haven’t they?” he says eventually, fists clenched. “Every expert from the entire fucking continent, and a handful of useless demonic cultivators I’ve tracked down, and no one can cure her! No matter what they try to do, it’s like there’s something there, stopping her from waking up or dying or doing anything!

Sandu shudders, claws scraping across the wood. “We cannot get her to wake, but her spirit has not been able to leave, either. It’s like it is stuck inside her with the resentment, trapped. Somewhere in-between.”

Wei Wuxian draws in a trembling breath, letting the words sink in.

Jiang Cheng had called it limbo, earlier. If Shijie’s spirit really is stuck, wrapped in resentful energy somehow, then maybe he’s right. He doesn’t understand what would cause something like that to happen, or why he would have done it in the first place. It’s Shijie. He would never hurt her, never.

Right?

The thought is chilling. He knows what he was like back then, what he was capable of. There were so many voices in his head, and he’d been so angry, and—

Stop, he tells himself, before he can spiral down that path. There are too many unknowns, gaps in his memory, gaps in who saw what. It might have been him and it might not have; right now, that doesn’t matter. He can’t begin to untangle the web of questions he has without actually seeing her, but—

“But she’s alive?” he asks, and Jiang Cheng’s face goes sour.

“Are you even listening?” he snaps, and it’s so like when they were teenagers that Wei Wuxian almost laughs, feeling trembly and a little manic. “Sure, she’s not dead, but what kind of life is she living?! You cursed her to eternal nothingness for as long as she’s still breathing, and if she does die, who says that she’ll be able to find peace? Her spirit has been sitting in that resentment for thirteen years—you might as well have destroyed any chance for her to move on!”

Suibian is wailing now, overcome.

“We’re sorry!” she cries, voice clogged with snot and sorrow. “We’re sorry, but she’s—we thought—all this time, no one told us, we didn’t know! But we know now, and we can—we’ll—”

We’ll fix it.

At the shared thought, Suibian completely breaks. She sobs, high-pitched and shuddering, entire body wracking itself with the strength of her tears; but it’s a different kind of crying than before. Relief is blooming through their link, more potent than anything Wei Wuxian has ever felt in both his lives. It’s sunshine on his bare back as they swim in the lakes; an otter’s laugher as a fox tries to steal an oyster from its paws; the smell of soup drifting in from a table lined with purple silk.  

Tears flow down his cheeks, messy and wonderful, pooling at the corners of his lips. Saltwater on his tongue.

Not dead. Not dead!!!

They can work with a coma, with limbo. They can work with anything, if it’s Shijie. He doesn’t understand it now, but he will. He will.

For the first time since they came back from the dead –no, for the first time since Wen Ning and Wen Qing left him and Suibian paralyzed on the table, ready to face their own deaths—Wei Wuxian feels hope plant its seeds in his chest.

For a moment, he and Suibian just sob, Jiang Cheng and Sandu watching with huge eyes.

Then, as the tears refuse to ebb, Jiang Cheng grabs a second teacup off the table and throws it to the ground.

It scatters across the wood, a few pieces ricocheting under the bed and off Wei Wuxian’s shoes. This time, neither he nor Suibian flinch, but they do look up, startled.

Listen, you jerk!” Jiang Cheng shouts, Zidian sputtering to life and then promptly out again, over and over. “I haven’t been hunting down demonic cultivators for thirteen years to try and find an answer just so your ass can finally show up and cry on the floor! Jin Ling grew up with people making fun of him for having a mom who would rather be unconscious than have to look at him, and whose fault is it that he’s lacking in maternal education?! You think you have the right to cry?”

“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian chokes out, sorrow mixing with the happiness again, because it’s still his fault, he knows it. It’s just a different kind of fault than he thought, one that has possibilities.

Jiang Cheng looks around like he’s hoping he can find another teacup to take out his fury on. When Sandu huffs at him, he clenches his fists instead. “As if your apology changes anything!”

“We’ll fix it,” Suibian promises, voice still stuffy, and Wei Wuxian nods into her fur. “A-Cheng, we’ll—”

“Don’t call me that!” Jiang Cheng hisses, and Sandu twitches, fur bristling. “You lost that right when you took my sister’s future away. Don’t lie and say you can fix it!”

“We can.

Jiang Cheng’s face is contorted with so many emotions that it’s hard to tell which one he’s going to act on, confusion and hurt and anger all bundled together. Wei Wuxian has a terrible, heart-wrenching moment where he remembers every single time that expression was directed his way in the years leading up to his death, and his tears stutter to a stop.

“Jiang Cheng,” he croaks, and Jiang Cheng glares at him above Sandu’s head. He holds up his fingers, trying to smile, fighting the way it wobbles on his lips. “You have every right to hate me. I know I created this problem—but whatever happened to Shijie, I’ll fix it. If she’s alive, there’s still hope, I promise.”

Jiang Cheng’s mouth twists. “As if your promises mean anything! You can’t fool me twice, Wei Wuxian.”

Wei Wuxian winces, Suibian going quiet in his arms. Alright, he deserved that one.

“I’m not making the same mistake again,” Jiang Cheng continues, low and dangerous this time. “We’re going to figure out exactly what you did to her. I don’t care if I have to torture you, or trap you in a room full of dogs, or find the Ghost General and use him as some extra incentive! You’re going to tell me everything you know about demonic cultivation, and then I’m going to stab you through the stomach for what you did to A-jie. See how much you fucking like it!”

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. He knows this tone. “Jiang Cheng, can you just listen to us? You wouldn’t have to do any of that!”

“We want to help,” Suibian insists, looking equally unmoved by the baseless threats, and turns expectantly to Sandu.

This whole time, Sandu has been watching their reactions, gaze flicking over their faces as the spilled tea seeps deep into the wood under her feet. After a moment, when Jiang Cheng just crosses his arms and glares, she turns back to him.

“A-Cheng,” she murmurs, and steps forward so she can press her face against his leg. He blinks and looks down at her, frowning. “Maybe we should…”

She trails off, and Jiang Cheng makes an impatient noise. “Maybe we should what?”

“Maybe we should… I mean, after all, they’re our—”

There’s a loud knock, rap rap, on the door.

The noise interrupts whatever Sandu was going to say, and breaks the last string that was holding Jiang Cheng back from exploding. He’s always been more comfortable with anger, has been ever since they were kids, and Wei Wuxian watches him use it in full force as he spins to face the unexpected interruption.

“What?!” he practically snarls at the door, Zidian roaring back to life across his knuckles.

“Jiujiu!” they hear through the wood, and Jiang Cheng does a physical double-take that would be comical in any other situation but this. He sends a scathing glance to Wei Wuxian, which is frankly unnecessary (what is he going to do, run when Fairy is right there?), before crossing over to open it, Zidian already quiet and contained on his wrist once more.

Jin Ling is standing at the other side of the doorframe.

He’s casually leaning against the polished wood, chin slightly raised, Suihua’s little otter face peering out from behind his legs. In comparison to everything else in the room, he looks almost painfully ornate. And, of course, painfully self-assured.

Jiang Cheng’s face goes red.

“Jin Ling, A-Hua! Sandu told you to stay outside!”

“Jiujiu,” Jin Ling repeats, and his eyes carefully flick around to survey the room, the broken cups of tea on the floor, before settling back on Jiang Cheng, “I have something very important to tell you! I remembered something…”

__

This kid can lie.

“Holy shit,” Wei Wuxian gasps, legs screaming in protest as the lantern lights from the city fade away behind him. He staggers to a stop, nearly falling over when Jin Ling collides into him, ignoring the yelp that follows. Here, deep in the forest, everything is pleasantly cool; he bends over so he can savor the feeling of the damp air on his overheated skin, get more air into his lungs.

“I thought we were dog food,” Suibian groans, splayed out on the trail with her face in the dirt. The thin trees around them stretch high into the sky, faint slivers of light piercing through their leaves and casting diamond shadows onto her coat.

“You’re welcome!” Suihua snaps at them, panting. “What were you idiots even doing following us?”

Wei Wuxian gives a vague wave of his hand in response, too out of breath and knowing they’ll just throw a fit anyways. If they’re lucky and Jin Ling’s lie stays convincing, Jiang Cheng and Sandu will be following the fake lead on Wen Ning long enough to at least recover enough to talk.

Then again, he thinks, heaving in air as his muscles burn, maybe not. They’re smart, and these bodies were not made for prolonged running. Mo Xuanyu really didn’t get in a lot of cardio, did he?

“How the hell are you so weak?” Jin Ling mutters, face pinched with distain. A fire talisman flares to life under his fingers, washing the space with an amber tint.

Wei Wuxian waves him off again, shaking his head. Really, this kid… 

This kid, his nephew. His sister’s son, his sister who isn’t dead, who he didn’t kill. Who he still has a chance to save, if he can just find someone who would be willing to take him to her and let him put the pieces together.

This kid.

It’s too much, in the best way possible. Wei Wuxian starts to laugh.

“What the—” Jin Ling and Suihua jump, backing up a few mĭ as he laughs and laughs and laughs, semi-hysterical, tears streaming down his face as it all sinks in. A mouse flushes from a nearby bush, no doubt started by the noise, darting away to join the other animals cooing and hooting in the dark. “What is wrong with you?”

“We’re just relieved, you helped us out big time,” Suibian says, voice still muffled from her place on the ground. He can see the unsteady rise and fall of her lungs, matching his own erratic heartbeat. Their joy bounces between them, bubbles in his chest; her tail can’t seem to decide which way it wants to wag, but it’s going wild nonetheless.  

“So you’re laughing?!”

“Adrenaline,” Wei Wuxian chokes out, and wipes his face on his sleeve, trying to get himself back in control. When he manages to straighten up enough to look at them, Jin Ling and Suihua are both staring, noses wrinkled. “Whew. Ahahaha, that was—something. Thank you, both of you.”

The light from the fire talisman does nothing to hide the awkward flush that spreads across Jin Ling’s face, or the way Suihua’s puckers up like she just ate a sour candy. Jin Ling looks out into the forest, raising his chin high in the air like he’s trying to make himself taller.

“Whatever! Now we’re even.”

“Sure,” he says, unable to help the upward twitch of his lips. 

“But don’t think it’ll be like that next time! You’ll be wolf food,” Jin Ling adds, and seems disappointed when they don’t immediately start cowering or break into hysterical screams. He turns to face them, eying them both carefully. “Wait, you’re not afraid?”

“Of what?” Wei Wuxian asks, as Suibian crawls over to him on her belly and puts her forehead against his shoe.

Jin Ling scowls, the fabric of his still-dirty robes rustling when he crosses his arms. “Wolves, obviously.”

Wei Wuxian and Suibian stare at him.

“Um, no?”

Jin Ling blinks at them, arms dropping to his side. Suihua, meanwhile, changes to a red panda –she’d been an otter when Jiang Cheng was there, then a bird to keep up—and balances on his shoulder so she can peer suspiciously at them.

“Wait, you’re serious?”

Suibian tilts her head. “Why wouldn’t we be?”

“Wolves,” Suihua says, very slowly, like she’s afraid they’re too stupid to understand what she’s about to say, “are just big dogs.”

Wei Wuxian and Suibian look at each other, then back to Suihua.

“What? No, that’s silly.” Wei Wuxian waves his hand in the air, dismissing the very thought. Ridiculous. “They’re totally different, everyone knows that! Who the hell told you that? Not your Xiao Shushu again, I hope? You really have to stop listening to some of that advice—”

“How,” Jin Ling says, in a dumbfounded tone that makes it clear he’s not actually listening to a single word Wei Wuxian is saying, “are you scared of Fairy and not wolves?”

He and Suibian shudder at the name.

“Ugh, Jin Ling!” Wei Wuxian scolds, and picks Suibian up when she scrambles at the hem of his robes, tucking her against his collarbone as they glance around at the shadowed gaps between the trees. “Don’t just say its name like that, you’re going to make it come here! Do you want us to have a heart attack?”

Jin Ling’s face pinches.

“You’re so weird,” Suihua tells them, but there’s some wonder mixed into all the snobbishness this time, so Wei Wuxian will take it. “You’re even crazier than you used to be, you know that?”

Suibian puffs up a little. “Hey!”

Her protest falls on deaf ears; Jin Ling nods in agreement, crossing his arms. “Yeah. I thought you peaked when you started blabbering nonsense about Xiao Shushu keeping a random bird in his room, but this is so much weirder.”   

Wei Wuxian blinks.

“A… bird?”

“You already forgot about that fit you had over it?” Jin Ling demands, and when Wei Wuxian and Suibian share a confused look, shakes his head. “Ugh, you’re so annoying! Whatever! You already wasted so much of our time, I’m not going to wait here all night with you and explain. We have things to do, unlike you!”

“Yeah!” Suihua sniffs haughtily on his shoulder, looking equally disgusted with their general existence. “So! We’re even now, right?”

That feels like the understatement of the century.

“Yep,” Wei Wuxian says anyways, and pushes back his confusion over whatever they’re talking about so he can put on his best smile. If there’s anything he’s learned, it’s to never give a bratty teenager any indication that you owe them a favor. “Absolutely even. What are you going to tell Jiang Cheng?”

Jin Ling scoffs. “I’ll just tell him you escaped on your own. Jiujiu catches people like you all the time, he’ll shout and then get over it. Don’t think you’re special, you lunatic.”

Wei Wuxian and Suibian exchange a glance. He highly doubts Jiang Cheng is going to get over this particular escape anytime soon; silently, he sends out a prayer to Jin Ling’s eardrums for whenever he gets back to the inn.

“You don’t suspect us?” Suibian asks, genuinely surprised, and both of them scoff in unison.

You? Look at you, you can’t even run properly. The Yilling Patriarch? As if.”

Insulting as it is, their twin disbelief works out just fine in the end. Wei Wuxian has just enough time for Jin Ling to drop some hints about Mo Xuanyu, pass on some useful Uncle wisdom about sorry and thank you in return, and knock him out cold, before he remembers that he agreed to meet up with Lan Wangji tonight.

He tries to work a bit faster.

“What did you do, you creepy idiots—”

Wei Wuxian ignores Suihua’s high-pitched shrieking, carefully rolling down Jin Ling’s pant leg as the throbbing, stinging energy from the curse settles on his skin. That’s one item on their list checked off, at least.

“We’re going to have Jiujiu kill you—"

“We didn’t hurt him,” Suibian tells Suihua for at least the twelfth time. She’s been throwing hysterics from the moment Jin Ling fell, although she’s clearly been too scared (either of them or the actual curse itself) to try and stop them. Suibian has been sitting close to her while Wei Wuxian worked, trying to provide some semblance of steady energy as she rapidly shifts between forms.

Honestly, Wei Wuxian is impressed that she’s awake to shift forms. Even unsettled daemons have a strong physical connection to their pair, and Jin Ling was injured more than he thought; she must be fighting unconsciousness tooth and nail.

“You’re a hardy one, you know that?” he tells her, as she sits on Jin Ling’s chest and bears her now sharp weasel teeth at them and Suibian.

That makes her hissing falter, blinking. “What?”

“Your level of power is impressive, Jin Ling is lucky to have you.”

He stands up, ignoring how big Suihua’s eyes wide go at the words, and motions to Suibian to join him. With a long, sad look, she comes over and hops onto his shoulder, a flash of white and tan among the darkness pressing in on them as the fire talisman starts to flicker out. Hmm. Wei Wuxian will need to teach Jin Ling a better version.  

“It was nice meeting you,” Suibian tells Suihua, which is true even if she’s a total brat like their nephew, and Suihua just blinks more.

“Wait, where are you going?”

Her voice pitches high on the last few words. As much as she didn’t seem to want them there, she now looks markedly intimidated to be left on her own. Given that Wei Wuxian is pretty sure at this point that she can’t shift into anything larger than a porcupine, he doesn’t blame her.

“Don’t worry,” Wei Wuxian reassures her, leaning against a nearby tree. His smile this time feels real, bolstered by the idea that one day, if Wei Wuxian and Suibian can be clever enough, they might give her a reason to smile back. “We’ll wait. I just want to be standing when he wakes up and decides to pull his sword on us.”

This kid was definitely raised by Jiang Cheng: Wei Wuxian’s foresight pays off.


They find Lan Wangji and Bichen standing on the bridge at the edge of town, lit by shimmering moonlight.

The soft glow of the nearby lanterns reflects off the rippling water and onto the stone beneath them, two white beacons among the faded browns and blacks of the buildings that form a quiet backdrop behind them. They’re staring up at the sky—perhaps at the moon, or the stars poking out from the clouds.

With nothing but the sound of the river and hush of night, the news of his sister singing in his veins, it’s almost too beautiful; an intricate tapestry of the universe put on display just for the two of them, with Wei Wuxian and Suibian apart from it all, merely passersby lucky enough to get a glimpse of their elegance.

Wei Wuxian soaks in the sight, unable to stop the smile that spreads across his face.

“Lan Zhan,” he breathes, more instinct than thought.

On the bridge, Bichen’s ears twitch.

She and Lan Wangji turn, and it’s—it’s stunning, how the moonlight paints their faces in perfect clarity. Wei Wuxian is immediately struck breathless with it: the hopeful curve of Lan Wangji’s brow, how his golden eyes seem to soften, the tense lines of his body smoothing out when they meet eyes.

Wei Wuxian grins, the weight on his shoulders evaporating. It’s like a hot balm has soaked into the tattered, exhausted parts of him, pushing back the fatigue in his muscles and making each step that much lighter. All thoughts of Jin Ling and Jiang Cheng disappear; in its place settles something soft and fluttering, nestling itself alongside the news that has filled Wei Wuxian’s body with a warmth even the finest liquor could never hope to achieve.

“Suibian?” Bichen calls, blue eyes wide, and takes a step toward them.

“Bichen!” Suibian cries, and jumps off his shoulder so she can run to greet them, tail wagging furiously behind her.

He bounds up as well, albeit slower, feeling like his entire body is vibrating with excitement. Suibian reaches them when Wei Wuxian is only halfway there, but Lan Wangji waits patiently for him to approach, one hand behind his back, the other relaxed at his side.

“Lan Zhan!” he calls, “Lan Zhan, we have the best news, you won’t believe it!”

Suibian is yipping and squirming against Bichen’s front legs, licking the bottom of her muzzle and making Bichen’s whiskers twitch. Bichen is staring down at her, head tilted, clearly overwhelmed by the enthusiastic greeting.

“Suibian? Where have you been?”

“Oh Bichen, I missed you so much, A-Xian and I had the best night ever!”

Bichen blinks, brows furrowing. Her nose twitches, a pinched look coming across her face. “We thought something had happened to you. Why do you smell like… onions?”

“Oh!” Suibian says, and pauses, sharing a quick glance with Wei Wuxian. He finally reaches them (and really, he needs to start an exercise regimen or something, Mo Xuanyu’s body just isn’t going to cut it the next time they need to run) and skids to a halt in front of Lan Wangji, beaming.

“It’s a long story!” he says cheerfully, as Bichen starts to sniff Suibian more intently. “But it doesn’t matter, because we—oh, what’s wrong?”

Lan Wangji is looking at him with wide, shocked eyes.

He doesn’t respond to the question; just keeps looking, frozen. Confused, Wei Wuxian glances behind him, a swoop of adrenaline at the thought that maybe Jiang Cheng and Sandu have managed to find them again.

There’s nothing. He turns back to Lan Wangji.

“Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji is still staring at him. Concerned, Wei Wuxian steps closer, reaching out and grabbing the edge of his sleeve. He gives it a little tug. “Lan Zhan? What’s with the face, you’re freaking me out.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says, and he sounds—upset, his golden eyes flicking across his face. The ethereal beauty from before is gone; now, he’s still beautiful (he always will be, how could he not?), but it’s with worry tinting the edges of it, his lips turned down at the corners. “Your robes. Your eyes. What happened?”

For a moment, Wei Wuxian doesn’t understand.

Then Bichen demands, “Suibian? Have you been crying?” and oh.

Wei Wuxian freezes, Suibian going stiff and nervous by Bichen’s front paws. Shit.

They were so eager to get back and share the news, so lost in the thrill of their own theories about Shijie, that they didn’t think to clean up. He glances down at his ragged robes, mud-stained and ripped at the knees; when he pulls away, sticking his head over the bridge to look at his reflection in the water, he sees a pair of puffy, red-rimmed eyes looking back at him.

“Oh,” he says, right as Bichen hisses.

He spins back around just in time to see her sniffing Suibian’s neck, the patch of fur where Sandu had grabbed her after the struggle with the other daemons. Her tail swings back and forth like a whip, wild and uncontrolled.

When she pulls back, her eyes are alert, something molten within their depths.

“You smell like wolf.”

Lan Wangji’s tension ratchets up approximately fifty thousand degrees.

Ah, fuck.

“What happened?” Lan Wangji repeats, low and intent, as Bichen growls and starts to check Suibian over for injuries. There’s a cold fury in his brows that Wei Wuxian hasn’t seen in a long time, a lake that has been frozen over with no hope to thaw.

“It’s…” Wei Wuxian starts, and swallows, not even sure where to start. “Lan Zhan.”

“What did he do to you?”

“Nothing!” Wei Wuxian says quickly, then winces. “Or, well—ok, so we did run into them, and they weren’t very happy, he and Sandu definitely know it’s us now. But! Suibian and I got away, no harm no foul, right?”

Lan Wangji’s eyes are dark and dangerous. He steps forward and touches Wei Wuxian’s wrist; Wei Wuxian shivers as he feels the spring water trickle of his spiritual energy flow into his meridians, impossibly pure.

It’s a full-body sweep, checking him over.

“Aiyo, Lan Zhan! I’m fine, you don’t need to—”

Lan Wangji ignores him, eyes narrowing as the energy works its way down Wei Wuxian’s spine, curling into his hips, his legs. Before Wei Wuxian can react, he leans down and pulls up the hem of his robes.

He draws in a quick, shocked breath.

Bichen snarls.

“What is that?” she demands, fur puffing up and nearly doubling her size as she and Lan Wangji stare at the blackened, gnarled skin. Lan Wangji’s eyes have gone wide once more; when he straightens up, Wei Wuxian won’t meet them, unable to stand the emotions there.

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian laughs, running a hand through his hair. “Lan Zhan, please. It’s just a common trace of evil spell, I’ll take care of it later.”

“They cursed you?” Bichen hisses, incensed. Lan Wangji’s hand curls tight around his sword, like he’s ready to fly away this very moment and hunt Jiang Cheng and Sandu down at just the thought of it; Wei Wuxian grabs his arm, alarmed.

“No, no, this was from something else!” he says, and squeezes Lan Wangji’s wrist. The warmth from his skin soaks through the fabric, comforting under his fingers. “Jiang Cheng is all bark, no bite, he wouldn’t do something like that.”

Lan Wangji clenches his jaw and stays quiet, shoulders tense.

“We know what Jiang Wanyin does to demonic cultivators,” Bichen says, a hint of a growl in her voice. When Wei Wuxian keeps his mouth shut, she looks back to Suibian and noses her side, insistent. “You cannot expect us to believe that nothing happened. Where did you get the curse?”

Suibian stares up at her with watery eyes.

Bichen, in return, lets out a quiet, controlled whine.

“Jin Ling had it,” Suibian blurts immediately, and Wei Wuxian lets out a defeated sigh. Yeah, ok, he should have expected that. When Bichen doesn’t say anything, expression morphing to match Lan Wangji’s, it’s her turn to whine. “Bichen, don’t be mad, please! We had to take it, we couldn’t just let him walk around with it, he’s our…”

She trails off, emotion flooding their bond.

Wei Wuxian swallows as it rushes through him like a tsunami, throat tightening. Their nephew. Their wonderful nephew, whose mother they are going to save, even if it takes every moment of every day for the rest of their lives.

And just like that, he’s back to an hour earlier, when the words fell first from Sandu’s lips.

A-jie’s not dead.

Lan Wangji and Bichen turn blurry.

“Wei Ying?!”

All the anger in Lan Wangji’s face evaporates immediately as tears pool in Wei Wuxian’s eyes. When Wei Wuxian draws in an unsteady breath, his hand loosens on his sword, and he reaches out to grab Wei Wuxian’s wrist again, alarm carved into his brows.

At Bichen’s feet, Suibian starts to sob.

“Suibian, what’s wrong?” Bichen says instantly, dropping onto her belly so she can be eye level with Suibian. “Suibian?! Are you in pain? What hurts?”

Suibian shakes her head, tears dripping down her face. “We—she—”

Bichen looks to Wei Wuxian, ears pressed back against her head. A question.  

All Wei Wuxian manages in response is another shuddering inhale, because she’s alive, she’s alive. He laughs at the pulse of spiritual energy Lan Wangji sends through him, laughs again when Lan Wangji presses the back of his hand against his forehead, like he’s afraid Wei Wuxian is suddenly feverish.

“Wei Ying?”

“Lan Zhan,” he croaks, as the tears spill over and down his cheeks. He smiles, more genuine and wonderful than any smile he’s ever had, happiness filling every crack of him. Suibian is blubbering, Bichen anxiously checking her over once more. “Lan Zhan. My sister!”

Lan Wangji pauses.

“What about her?” he says, soft, like one would speak to a frightened animal, and Wei Wuxian laughs again.

“She’s alive! Lan Zhan: Shijie is alive!”

There’s a drawn-out moment of silence.

Then, with a level of care and caution that immediately lets Wei Wuxian know he’s missing something, Lan Wangji says, “Yes, she is.”

The inflection is different than Wei Wuxian is used to, at least for Lan Wangji, like there’s an unspoken question hovering between the syllables. Wei Wuxian blinks back some of his tears, caught off guard by it, and sees that Lan Wangji’s brows are furrowed.

He seems, strangely, confused by the statement.

Not the statement, Wei Wuxian realizes, as he looks over at Bichen and finds her staring at him, head tilted.

At their reaction to it.

Oh.

Of course. Lan Wangji and Bichen already knew. Not just them— the other sects, the disciples, even the old man on the road to Dafan Mountain. Like Jin Zixuan, Shijie has been spoken of in passing plenty of times, usually fleeting moments where her name is linked to his like a curse. He’d always thought it was because of the battle itself; but now he knows it’s not about what happened to her back then.

It’s because of what’s happening to her now.

“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji murmurs, but Wei Wuxian barely hears him.

Out of all the people in the world, it was just him and Suibian who were in the dark.

But he’d thought—he’d thought—

“I thought she was dead,” his mouth blurts out entirely against his will, precious seconds before he realizes how that sounds.

Lan Wangji goes still.  

“I thought—the sword,” he continues helplessly, throat clogging. He shouldn’t be saying this; who cares what he thought, when the reality is so much different? But there the words go, spilling from him no matter how hard he tries to stop them, as Lan Wangji’s expression goes more and more still. “The last thing we saw was the sword, and—it looked bad, Lan Zhan. You were—Jiang Cheng said you were there. You know how it looked.”

His voice cracks, and he shuts his mouth. Suibian whimpers.

Bichen lets out a breathless, barely audible, “Oh.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji repeats, and he looks like someone just struck him. His next words are horrified. “You did not know?”

And that’s when everything starts to make sense.

“You thought we did,” Suibian gasps, and Lan Wangji nods, his throat bobbing when he swallows.

“Is that why you were crying? Because you found out tonight?” Bichen asks Suibian, just as shocked. When Suibian nods, she growls. “I thought Jiang Sandu had hurt you.”

Suibian quickly shakes her head. “No! No, she was the one who told us! I can’t believe—A-Xian, we’re so dumb!

Wei Wuxian’s mind is spinning, looking at their past few weeks in an entirely new light. He remembers that first morning in the Jingshi, how Bichen had mentioned Shijie when talking about Jin Zixuan. Every moment since, they’ve all danced around her name like it was eggshells under their feet. The thought of hearing it again had been too much, so overwhelming and terrible that he’d been relieved at how little they seemed to care.

Now, something different builds in his throat at the thought of it.

“You didn’t say anything because of how I reacted,” he realizes out loud, remembering how he’d flinched, how Lan Wangji and Bichen had stared at him. Lan Wangji’s hand twitches. “You avoided mentioning her because of me.”

Lan Wangji hesitates. “I thought—you did not seem to wish to speak of her, so we did not.”

Oh gods. All this time, they could have known, if they’d just asked. Not even that; if they’d just let Bichen finish her sentence, they could have known.

Suibian is right: they’re absolute idiots.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji prompts, and Wei Wuxian blinks back his tears, trying to get the details of his face back into focus. He’s watching him closely; worried, Wei Wuxian realizes, probably at how long Wei Wuxian has been quiet. “Wei Ying, I’m sorry.”

Wei Wuxian startles, taken-aback. “Wait, why? What do you have to be sorry for?”

“For allowing you to think something so terrible,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian gapes at him. If it were anyone but Lan Wangji, he’d think it was a joke, but Lan Wangji looks dead serious, his mouth a determined line. “I should have realized.”

“You should have—what?! Lan Zhan, don’t be ridiculous! How could either of you have known it was like that?”

“Your memory is awful,” Lan Wangji murmurs. Wei Wuxian squawks in protest, and Lan Wangji squeezes his wrist; not painful, but present, like an anchor. Steadying. “We should not have assumed you remembered.”

“That’s not…” Wei Wuxian says, hoarse, and then can’t find anything else to say, because how can Lan Wangji be so good? He swallows. “No apologies, Lan Zhan, alright?”

Lan Wangji frowns at him.

Very gently, he turns their hands over so that Wei Wuxian’s are cupped in his. It’s a light, careful motion, like they’re something precious, not the hands of someone who once killed hundreds on a battlefield with resentful energy. Wei Wuxian’s heart skips; he stays very still as Lan Wangji looks him in the eyes.

He says, low and soft, “Wei Ying. Your sister is not dead.”

Wei Wuxian’s breath catches in his throat.

He doesn’t know what makes it feel so new, hearing it now. After all, it’s the same thing that Wei Wuxian has told himself countless times tonight, has laughed and cried and made himself dizzy over.

Yet to hear Lan Wangji say it makes it feel…

Real, his heart supplies.

It makes it feel real.

Wei Wuxian laughs, a wet, messy thing, a few tears spilling down his cheeks at the motion. He feels, abruptly, like he’s standing on the edge of a cliff again, another liminal space. It’s not at all like that moment in the clearing, when he met Jiang Cheng’s eyes. This one is—quieter at the edges. It’s between what he thought and what’s true; and instead of standing there alone, shivering in the darkness, there’s someone beside him, showing him the way out.

“She’s not,” he agrees, voice thick. The smile spreads wider across his lips, impossible to resist at the pure joy of hearing it out loud. “Lan Zhan. She’s not dead.

Lan Wangi’s eyes go impossibly soft.

Slowly, he untangles one of their hands. Wei Wuxian sees him draw in a breath as his fingers move away; and after a long moment of hesitation, he reaches up to wipe one of the tears from Wei Wuxian’s face.

Wei Wuxian draws in a surprised breath.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji murmurs, and doesn’t move his hand away.

His touch is familiar, in a way; weeks of Wei Wuxian feeling it against his wrist, with the shiver of Lan Wangji’s energy traveling deep into his core, have made it impossible to forget. But that has always been for utility, with a clear purpose, because Lan Wangji is good, too good.

There is something new about this. A deep, almost unbearable tenderness.

The pad of his thumb brushes against Wei Wuxian’s cheekbone as he wipes away another stray tear, warm and reassuring. Wei Wuxian can’t remember the last time someone touched him like this: for comfort, with no reason but their own kindness.

It feels… right.

He doesn’t know what it means, just like he doesn’t know why Lan Wangji keeps buying him alcohol, indulging in his whims, looking at him with a honey tint to his eyes that makes him feel shivery and good all over. Turning every time Wei Wuxian says his name, without fail, like he’s… important.

He likes it. He likes it so much.

Something inside him cracks open.

“I want—” Wei Wuxian whispers, and flounders, catching it before it can escape. It feels strange to let the words fall from his tongue, after he’s spent so many weeks shoving them back behind his teeth, but  Lan Wangji hums, encouraging. He’s back to a blur again, and that somehow makes it easier to get the words out, the desperate wish fluttering in his chest. “I—Lan Zhan. You’ll tell me about her, won’t you?”

Lan Wangji nods.

“Anything you want,” he says, and Wei Wuxian swallows, overwhelmed by the conviction in his voice. “Wei Ying. What do you wish to know?”

“Everything,” he croaks, and laughs at how useless that is, watery. “I— I want to know all about her, all the things that happened, where she is and what she’s like. Jiang Cheng said I did something to her, but I don’t remember anything.”

“He told you about the smoke?”

“Yeah.” Wei Wuxian draws in another shaky breath, trying to fight back the fresh wave of tears. “Resentment, right? He said it’s stuck in her.”

Lan Wangji’s voice is soft and steady when he says, “Mn. Many healers have tried to remove it, and failed.” He pauses, then adds, even more gently, “They believe it is cutting off the ability for her qi to move freely in her body. A suspension of state. Too strong for her body to expel.”

Wei Wuxian’s stomach tightens. So Jiang Cheng was right.

“Is she in pain?” he whispers, wretched, and Lan Wangji squeezes his hands tight, eyes darkening.

“Wei Ying. No. She does not appear to feel anything.”

Limbo. He thinks he understands, now.  

“What about Xiaolian?” Suibian asks, a waver in her voice, and Wei Wuxian feels her press against his uninjured leg with a bloom of warmth. “We don’t know what happened to him after you—uh, after A-Xian and I… left.” There’s a strange inflection to the word; another rush of that almost-there emotion that hid itself during Jiang Cheng and Sandu’s story. “Is he…?”

“He is in the same state,” Bichen tells her, coming to stand next to Lan Wangji. Her ears brush his elbow, and Wei Wuxian takes in another steadying breath, throat still too tight. “As if locked in rest. They are being kept together at Koi Tower.”

That catches Wei Wuxian off guard.

“Koi Tower?!” he says, and they both nod. “What is she doing there?”

“The Jin claimed responsibility for her health,” Lan Wangji tells him, and oh, Wei Wuxian understands at least fifty percent of Jiang Cheng’s anger, now.

“That’s ridiculous!” he says, and Suibian nods, her fur puffing up. “She belongs in Lotus Pier! What are they doing with her?!”

Bichen huffs and says, blunt, “Politics. Given her status and the level of care she requires, the Jins argued from the start that it would be best for her to be tended to there. Lotus Pier was deemed lacking.”

Ok, seventy-five percent of the anger, now.

Suibian’s ears have pressed far, far back against her head. “What do you mean, level of care?”

“The resentment is unusual,” Bichen says after a moment, and sits down. This is a long story, then. Slowly, her tail winds around Lan Wangji’s ankle; Wei Wuxian’s stomach swoops for reasons entirely unrelated to the topic at hand. “Regardless of the method attempted to dispel it, it does not decrease its hold on Jiang-furen’s qi. However, it also does not increase its invasion—it simply exists within her, reacting only when poked at.”

Hold on.

“But resentful energy is greedy!” Wei Wuxian objects. Suibian’s ears have pressed far, far back against her head; they’re both well-acquainted with that particular fact. “You saw the Burial Mounds, what they did to the land when it went unchecked. It would want to expand, especially if the person couldn’t fight back against it.”

“This one does not.”

Wei Wuxian’s head is spinning. That doesn’t track. If what Jiang Cheng says is true, resentful energy flowed from him into her, impossible to fight against. If it’s been sitting there for thirteen years, left to fester, then how hasn’t it…

Burned through her, his mind supplies, a terrible, unwanted thought. He thinks about how his blood used to run so cold it would sting under his skin, the way the Burial Mounds clawed at every piece of him, sucked on the marrow of his bones until he was hollow. That was only a few years’ worth of its focus, with the Stygian Tiger Amulet and Wen Qing’s tonics to help him.

What kind of havoc could it wreak on her, without help?

He tries to speak. The words won’t leave his mouth.

Thankfully, Lan Wangji seems to understand.

“Wei Ying. It does not grow on its own, but they do not provide it the chance,” he says, watching Wei Wuxian’s expression carefully. “Out of caution, she is tended to.”

Relief floods him. “How?”

For the first time since they started speaking, Lan Wangji and Bichen hesitate. It stands out, after such steady answers, and just as quickly as it came, Wei Wuxian’s relief evaporates.

“Given that she cannot eat or drink, but is still alive,” Bichen begins, slow and careful, eyes on where Suibian is leaning hard against Wei Wuxian’s leg, “Jiang-furen’s body is very frail. Since her own spiritual energy is locked within the resentment’s hold and unable to help sustain her, new, healthy energy is essential to keep her body going in lieu of actual sustenance. Many have tried to transfer some to her. But the process has been… difficult.”

Suibian lets out a tiny, anxious whine.

“Difficult how?” she whimpers, eyes wide. “Is it bad?”

“Hn,” Lan Wangji says quietly; his fingers twitch, thumb sweeping across Wei Wuxian’s knuckles from the motion. “Complex.”

Bichen nods, tail flicking. “Almost all attempts have gone poorly. As I said, the resentment is strange. Instead of dissipating when confronted with spiritual energy transfers, it lashes out, invading the core of the giver. The Jin healers cannot transfer any without extreme risk to themselves. The most they can do is maintain any energy her body has, trying to extend how long it lasts.”

Wei Wuxian releases a slow breath. Level of care indeed.

Suibian shivers against his leg, and not from the steadily cooling night air. She looks up at Lan Wangji with a hint of betrayal, eyes still slightly swollen from crying. “Well, that sounds bad, not complex. I thought you said all of Shijie’s energy was wrapped up by the resentment. If nothing can get through, then she’s—dying, right?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head.

“Almost all,” he tells her, like a reminder. She twists her ears at him. “The energy. There is an exception.”

Wei Wuxian’s heart leaps.

“The resentment is letting something through?” he demands, and Lan Wangji inclines his head. “Is it the energy from a demonic cultivator?”

That could make sense, after all, or at least as much sense as anything else in this situation. Resentment likes to feed; given the right incentive, perhaps it would be willing to let some energy through for more fuel in exchange. If so, then that’s not necessarily good news. It could just be biding its time to snuff out Shijie’s qi completely, slowly gathering all the things it needs.

That’s the tricky thing about resentment: sometimes, you think you’re doing one thing, and then years down the line, it reveals to you its true plans.

“No,” Lan Wangji says, and Wei Wuxian watches as he takes a small, purposeful breath. “Wei Ying. It is Jiang Wanyin’s.”

Of all the names in the world that Wei Wuxian was ready to hear, that was not it.

He blinks, mouth falling open. “It lets Jiang Cheng’s energy in?”

Lan Wangji inclines his head. “Mn.”

“He—but—” Suibian splutters, just as shocked and confused as he is. “A-Cheng’s? Really? But he hates resentful energy!”

“There is no logical explanation,” Bichen agrees, and she sounds stiff. Lan Wangji’s shoulders have tightened, lips a thin line; they don’t look happy to be talking about Jiang Cheng, even in this capacity.

“Why his?” Wei Wuxian wonders aloud, ignoring the sour looks on their faces. Jiang Cheng said the energy came from him, like he exploded; it makes sense that maybe it wouldn’t react poorly to Wei Wuxian, but why would it tolerate Jiang Cheng, someone completely different, someone who wasn’t tainted in the way he was back then?

It would be impossible for the resentment to mistake Jiang Cheng’s energy for his; there’s nothing Wei Wuxian could have given it to recognize in the first place. Yeah, Jiang Cheng has his core, but Wei Wuxian gave it to him long before he started letting the voices into his head. When Wen Chao tossed them down, he was already empty.

The Burial Mounds liked him because he was a bird with clipped wings; something it could nestle in and gnaw on, a host. Whatever resentment that poured out of him wouldn’t find the starving, bloody husk of what he used to be in what is now Jiang Cheng’s warm, steady core.

This is something else.

“Did it seem to have an extra strong reaction to anyone?” he asks, voice still clogged. He sniffs, warmth flooding him as Lan Wangji wipes away another stray tear. He should be embarrassed, but for some reason, he’s not. “A—A rebound that was out of proportion to the others?”

“Jin Guangshan,” Bichen supplies immediately, and Suibian makes a rude noise at the sound of his name. Wei Wuxian smiles, unable to help it. “Xiongzhang said he was bedridden for a week, after attempting.”

“Good. Fuck him, let him get a taste of his own medicine for once.” Neither Lan Wangji nor Bichen object to the sentiment, which says a lot. “Anyone else?”

“Many Jins,” Lan Wangji says. He still sounds tense, even as his fingers continue their gentle, careful sweeps across his skin. “No others, of note.”

Interesting.

“Given how strong it seems to be, you’d think it would reject any attempts to dispel or stabilize it, not pick and choose,” he murmurs, trying to make sense of it.

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees. “Complicated.”

No shit. Now he can see why no one can figure out what to do. This moves beyond what any of the sects could even begin to understand, skipping right into Wei Wuxian’s wheelhouse instead. No wonder Jiang Cheng was hunting down demonic cultivators.

Suibian is frowning, tail curled tight around her legs. “If it’s only Jiang Cheng that can get through to her, that’s… it must be a lot of work, right? And—the resentment, what if it…”

What if it has hurt him, too?

Wei Wuxian remembers the voices that used to whisper in his head. They never had particularly comforting things to say; and yet they were always there, filling every pore of him even as he dreamed.

If Jiang Cheng has been opening himself up to that for thirteen years…

He looks at Lan Wangji, who hesitates.

“Xiongzhang warned him. He deemed the risk acceptable,” he says, and Wei Wuxian’s stomach drops.

Any exposure to resentful energy, for someone who can’t control it, is bad news.

“How long can Shijie go without his energy to help?” Suibian asks, her whiskers twisted up with worry as the urgency of the matter sinks in. “Can he—if he was worn out, or needed to stop, what would happen?”

Some of the sharpness in Bichen’s blue eyes seems to soften; her tail uncurls from Lan Wangji’s ankle and sweeps across the still-wet stone towards her with a muted sssssk. Her voice is gentle when she murmurs, “Her body is very fragile. She becomes thin and ill easily. Two weeks would be the longest she could go, if he were to transfer until exhaustion.”

It is the kindest tone he has ever heard her take towards his brother. Suibian draws in a quiet, shivery breath.

“Oh,” she whispers, and Wei Wuxian feels like he’s just been punched in the chest.

That’s—a lot.

“My understanding,” Bichen continues, and there is no bite to the words, as if she’s aware of the sudden fragility in the air, “is that he does.”

Wei Wuxian’s throat gets tight as he imagines it: Jiang Cheng hunched over a bed, a splash of purple among the ostentatious gold canopies, far from the familiar call of water pressing against docks. Sandu sitting beside him as he fights through the thick clog of resentment, pours every ounce of his spiritual energy into the woman lying there. Surrounded by healers who are too afraid to help, hosted by people whose judgements made them travel for over a day by sword to even get there in the first place.

Of going until he collapses, Sandu weak and shaky at his side, pushing himself to the point of exhaustion just so she can draw another breath, live another day. Because it’s their sister, it’s Shijie, and he’s the only person in the entire world who can keep her body alive.

Doing that not once, or twice—but constantly, unceasingly, for every month of every year for the last thirteen years.

Of leading a sect and being an Uncle to a parentless child at the same time, and still not stopping, not once. Trudging on with no reason to think that any of it will make a difference, in the end, unsure if she’ll ever open her eyes to see all the things he’d done for her. For them, for their family, their sect.

With no one but Sandu at his side. 

Unable to move on, because moving on would mean giving up.

Suibian’s eyes start to water.

“Oh,” she repeats, voice thick. Wei Wuxian isn’t feeling very steady himself. “Oh, that’s terrible.”

Attempt the impossible, Wei Wuxian thinks, as a deep, aching sorrow settles over him. No wonder Jiang Cheng looked so exhausted tonight. So angry, so desperate to get answers. Who but a Jiang would try to live up to that mantra so tenaciously, so stubbornly? Who else would wear themselves thin with it, and not be willing to show it?

“We’re going to fix it,” he vows, fighting back tears himself. “Don’t you worry, A-Sui.”

She nods, hard, nose quivering as she tries to hold back a sniff.

A hand squeezes his, impossibly gently. All the coldness on Lan Wangji’s face has thawed; when their eyes meet again, his gaze has returned to being steady and reassuring, the comforting gold that Wei Wuxian is used to.

“Wei Ying.”

“Lan Zhan,” he manages, and it’s the same relief it always is, to say his name. It makes him want to be selfish, to keep saying it. “Lan Zhan. You’ll help, won’t you?”

Lan Wangji’s nods, eyes not leaving his face. “Mn.”

“We’ll need to go to Koi Tower so I can look at her,” he continues, feeling jittery, and is proud that his voice doesn’t waver. “Not tonight, but soon. There has to be something we’ve missed, I just know it, I can’t sit around and do nothing. I know it’ll be hard, and might delay the trip more, but—”

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangi repeats, and his voice is as soft as Bichen’s was, earlier. “Yes. Anything you want.”

Wei Wuxian sucks in a breath. Another promise given so easily. As always, it takes him by surprise; how can Lan Wangji be so good? He’s made so many already: we will go together, that first day in the Jingshi; if it is Wei Ying, it is fine, a few nights later, Bichen’s head on his knee; and now, here he is, making another one, anything you want.

It’s the second time he’s said it tonight, and it feels just as big as now as it did then. He’s still holding Wei Wuxian’s hands, too, touching his face, and Wei Wuxian swallows, trying to let the feeling ground him.

“Ah, Lan Zhan,” he says, and laughs, because what is he supposed to do when Lan Wangji is looking at him like this, saying that kind of a thing so easily? “Don’t make promises you can’t keep. I don’t even know how we’ll sneak in.”

“A cultivation conference will be held soon,” Lan Wangji informs him, without missing a beat. His eyes are determined. “Koi Tower, a month from now. We will go.”

Wei Wuxian could kiss him.

For the first time tonight, he doesn’t know what to say. There are no words to describe how thankful he is for him; in this moment, but all the others, too. Faced with his silence, Lan Wangji’s hands shift slightly, fingers smooth and warm against Wei Wuxian’s skin, tracing the tiny cuts from when he fell onto the gravel road. He shivers.

“Aiyo,” he manages. This time, his voice does shake. “Look at you, already having a plan. You’re too good, er-gege, how am I supposed to keep up?”

Lan Wangji simply looks at him, steady.

Wei Wuxian swallows.

“I’m going to fix it,” he vows, and he doesn’t know why he feels the need to say it again, but he does. It feels important, that someone else believes him, knows that he means it. “Jiang Cheng said no one could, that I’ve cursed her forever, but there’s got to be a way, I’ll find it, if it’s the last thing do, I swear.

Lan Wangji holds his gaze. Nods. He says, very seriously, “If anyone could, it is Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian’s throat closes up.

“Oh,” he whispers, heat rushing into his cheeks. The feeling spreads down his neck, and he has the strange, wild urge to cover his face with his hands; his heart starts pounding in his ears. “Hanguang-Jun, you’re not allowed to say things like that!”

Lan Wangji’s brows furrow. “Why not?”

“I—my heart can’t take it! You’ll give me a heart attack!”

That earns him a long-suffering look. “Ridiculous.”

“No, really,” Wei Wuxian insists, still feeling like his face is on fire. There has to be a puddle he can dunk his head in somewhere nearby. Maybe he could go back to Jiang Cheng, and ask him to stick him in that bag they were saving for Suibian. “This lowly cultivator will get an ego, and what will you do then?”

A tiny smile forms on Lan Wangji’s lips.

“I will manage.”

“You say that now!” Wei Wuxian protests, but now he’s staring at the plush curve of Lan Wangji’s mouth, where it’s started to tilt half a degree upward. He can’t look away. He feels so hot. “Just imagine fifty years from now, I’ll be surrounded by old grannies, all of them asking me about my time with Hanguang-Jun, and I’ll tell them, oh, he believed everything I said, isn’t it amazing? And you know how grannies talk, soon the whole continent will be calling you gullible, bewitched by the Yilling Patriarch, and I’ll have to send you a fruit basket as an apology with my non-existent-money—”

“No apologies, between us,” Lan Wangji reminds him, and Wei Wuxian sucks in a surprised laugh.

“Not even for that?”

Lan Wangji’s eyes are warm. “Mn.”

It’s simple, no less soft because of it. Bichen says something quiet to Suibian, and he hears her chitter in response; around them, the rest of the town is still, holding them in the hush of night.

“Right,” Wei Wuxian says, emotional all over again. The urge to cover his face is almost overwhelming. He puts on his best grin. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you’re such a sweet talker! All the ladies must love you, huh?”

Lan Wangji’s eyebrows furrow.

Wei Wuxian laughs again, “Kidding, kidding!” and raises a hand to wipe the remaining tears from his face. He regrets it almost immediately; Lan Wangji’s fingers twitch, and he draws his hands away. They settle back to their proper place: one behind his back, the other on his sword, and Wuxian barely resists the urge to do something stupid like physically yank them back.

Instead, he draws in a slow, steadying breath.

There’s no time to cry. He has a sister to save.

“Right,” he repeats, and straightens his shoulders. “Whew. Back to business, sorry about all that! Bet you didn’t think I was such a crybaby, huh?”

Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow. He looks pointedly down at Suibian.

Wei Wuxian quickly moves on.

“Anyways! Look at us, telling you all about our night without asking about yours! Your Shufu would be ashamed at our manners!” He leans back against the metal railing of the bridge, putting a bit more space between them, and winks. “You’ll forgive us for being so naughty, won’t you, er-gege?”

The words have the intended effect. Lan Wangji’s ears flush pink.

“Shameless.”

Wei Wuxian puts on the best innocent look he can. “I’m just trying to help, Hanguang-Jun! But you’re skipping pleasure for business tonight, I see. What a shame. Maybe next time I can be more convincing; I’ve been told my tongue is very persuasive.”

Suibian covers her face with her paws.  

“You are the one who said you wished to go back to business,” Bichen points out, as Lan Wangji’s ears tint a deeper pink.

Wei Wuxian pretends not to hear her.

Now that some of the adrenaline is fading, a headache is creeping up behind his eyes from all the crying. Glancing at Suibian, she isn’t much better; over the course of the conversation, she’s transitioned from sitting up to lying down. Guilt floods through him when he sees her paw twitch at the next throb of pain through his leg.

Mo Xuanyu and his daemon are definitely more sensitive to each other’s pain than he and Suibian ever were. Clearly, she’s feeling it just as much as he is.

Something must show on his face; Lan Wangji’s brows furrow once more.

“Let’s go to the inn,” Bichen suggests, when Suibian shivers at the next throb of pain. Lan Wangji nods in agreement, his hand tightening on his sword as he surveys the street around them. “Nie Huaisang and Nie Qiaolian are waiting for us there. And you will feel better, once you have food.”

Suibian immediately perks up, eyes hopeful.

“So it was Nie Huaisang?” Wei Wuxian asks Lan Wangji, right as Suibian yips, “Dinner?!”

Lan Wangji inclines his head to both; Suibian springs to her feet, eyes bright.

“Aiyo, here we go,” Wei Wuxian sighs as she starts to vibrate, unable to keep the fondness from it. She clearly doesn’t care about Nie Huaisang, which, given their night, is fair—of all the things that have happened in the past twelve hours, it’s somehow the least surprising. His leg throbs again, like it knows he’s thinking about it, and he barely holds back a wince. “Who’s going to let us in when you smell like that, hmm?”

Suibian narrows her eyes at him. “I’m not the one who stuck me in a box of onions!”

Wei Wuxian tuts at her, ignoring Lan Wangji’s and Bichen’s raised eyebrows. “That was a good idea, though!”

“If your good idea stops me from getting dinner—”

Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes, which earns him an indignant grumble. Suibian plops down onto her side with a huff, twisting her head to gnaw at one of Bichen’s paws like she’s trying to show just how hungry she truly is.

In response, Bichen noses Suibian onto her back, laying a paw gently on top of her. She squeaks in surprise; seconds later, her tail starts to wag, an intrigued, if a bit tired, thwip thwip.

“We will order whatever you want, if we leave now,” Bichen promises, and Suibian gasps, immediately going starry-eyed.

“Really?! Wait, Bichen, we can order everything without onions, right? It’s all I can smell, it’s terrible, I never want to eat another onion for as long as I live...”

She starts listing all the dishes she wants to eat tonight (baozi, and crispy duck, too, and oh, I want roujiamo, can we have that?), sans onions, Bichen nodding attentively with her paw still resting on her belly. After everything tonight, it feels almost surreal, that they can be here talking about something so normal, when Wei Wuxian’s entire foundation has shifted underneath his feet.

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian blinks, bringing his focus back, and finds Lan Wangji has stepped closer, joining him at the railing. His stomach swoops.

“Hmm?” he says, and it comes out higher than he wanted. He coughs. “What’s up?”

“We should go.”

“Right, right!” Wei Wuxian says, remembering what they were doing. Inn. Suibian is now trying to escape from Bichen’s hold, tail picking up speed every time she’s pushed back down. Wei Wuxian tuts at her again, trying to get her attention. “Alright drama queen, you heard Lan Zhan, let’s—oop!”

He gasps as a pair of arms slide under him; one across his back, the other right below his knees.

Before he knows it, his feet have left the ground.

“Lan Zhan?!” he yelps, as Lan Wangji manhandles him into a princess hold, muscles flexing as Wei Wuxian flails around in alarm. Disoriented, he grabs onto Lan Wangji’s bicep, and it’s like holding onto a statue; even with all the robes between them, he can feel the strength there. “What are you doing?!”

Lan Wangji’s face is impassive. To Wei Wuxian’s utter shock, he starts to step down the bridge. “Carrying you.”

Wei Wuxian gapes up at him. “Why?

That earns him a single raised eyebrow. He looks, pointedly, at Wei Wuxian’s leg.

“Lan Zhan!” he protests, flustered. Lan Lan Wangji’s fingers are curling into his side, brands against his skin, and all of Wei Wuxian’s exhaustion evaporates. When he tries to twist back onto his feet, the arms tighten. “That’s nothing, put me down!”

“Hn. Not nothing.”

“It really is,” Wei Wuxian insists, and frowns when Lan Wangji doesn’t slow down. “Really, Lan Zhan, you’re overreacting! I just got wrapped in Zidian, not hit by it, and this curse is tiny. My legs feel a little numb, but they’re not broken, I can walk just fine!”

A flash of emotion crosses Lan Wangji’s face. He stops.

Wei Wuxian has a precious second to be relieved before Lan Wangji says, eyes dark, “Jiang Wanyin wrapped you in Zidian?”

Wei Wuxian thinks back to what he just said.

He winces.

“Ah, Lan Zhan, just for part of it, it really wasn’t that bad!” At Lan Wangji’s dubious look, he adds, “Trust me, if he was really pissed, he would have just sliced me up there in the streets, but he took most of it out on the teacups instead.”

Lan Wangji’s mouth parts.

His arms tighten and, without another word, he starts to walk again.

“Lan Zhan! No!” Annoyed, Wei Wuxian tries to wriggle around, finding his efforts quickly thwarted by another squeeze. It somehow brings him closer, his head right against Lan Wangji’s shoulder. From here Wei Wuxian can see every one of his eyelashes, smell the heady sandalwood scent of his skin. He’s warm, too, the same warmth from minutes earlier when he was touching Wei Wuxian’s face.

His stomach flips again.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, heart beating wildly, “I’m serious, I—Suibian, what are you doing?!”

In the time they’ve been arguing, Suibian has, apparently, been clambering onto Bichen’s back, paws scrambling across her spotted fur as she tries to find leverage. Wei Wuxian watches, flabbergasted, as Bichen crouches down so that her belly presses against the wet stone, giving her better access.

At the sound of his voice, Suibian swivels her head towards him.

“If Lan Zhan is carrying you, then I want a ride too!” she pouts, ears twitching, and yips in excitement when she finally manages to leap up onto her back and perch there, their link practically humming with contentment. Bichen rumbles, too close to a purr for his liking. “Besides, Bichen is so strong! So it’s not a problem to carry me, right?”

“Not a problem,” Bichen confirms, and Lan Wangji nods.

Wei Wuxian looks between all of them, betrayed. His cheeks are on fire again; feeling too hot all over, he buries his face in his hands, wondering what on earth has gotten into them tonight.

“Just drop me in the river,” he laments, sending a silent curse to whatever entity supposed to be looking out for him. Suibian giggles, and Wei Wuxian unburies his face to glare at her. “Don’t encourage them! This is so embarrassing!”

“Why?”

Wei Wuxian looks up, confused. A furrow has appeared between Lan Wangji’s brows; he’s stopped again, a frown tilting the corner of his lips down. Suibian and Bichen hover nearby, watching the exchange.

“Why what?” he asks.

“Why is it embarrassing?”

For the second time in less than a minute, Wei Wuxian gapes at him. “Why is it—Lan Zhan! I’m a grown man!”

The furrow in Lan Wangji’s forehead deepens.

“You wanted to carry me, once,” he says, with a tone like he’s reminding him of some long-lost story, and Wei Wuxian pauses.

“What? No way, when would I—”

“Yes you did! Back at that awful cave, don’t you remember?” Suibian asks, and Wei Wuxian feels Lan Wangji’s muscles tighten. Bichen purrs stop abruptly, and she twists her head around to look at Suibian, ears perked. Suibian’s eyes flick in their direction, lightning-fast, and Wei Wuxian gets another zip along his spine, that strange not-there feeling that she had earlier, gone too quickly to understand.

“When?” he asks, lost, and Suibian chitters at him. 

“When we were all disciples, with Wen Chao! They made us all walk even though they had horses, and we kept trying to get them to stop, because Lan Zhan had—”

“—broken his leg,” Wei Wuxian finishes, the memory rushing back in vivid focus. Lan Wangji, his leg twisted and unsteady, limping along the trail with Bichen growling at anyone who got too close. Refusing help, no matter how much Wei Wuxian tried.

How could he have forgotten that?

“Lan Zhan,” he protests, and tries to sit up in his hold. All of Lan Wangji’s muscles have relaxed; this time, when Wei Wuxian twists so they can look eye to eye, he lets him, although he still holds him close. “That was different!”

“How?” Lan Wangji asks, patient, and Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, closes it.

Because you were hurt, he wants to say, but that’s not right, not enough. The feeling is bigger than that. Because your pain mattered; maybe that. Because I was worried, and Wen Chao would have killed you, and what would I have done then? What would I have done without my—

My—

“It just was!” he says, and somewhere over Lan Wangji’s shoulder, he hears Bichen sigh. “It just was, alright?”

There’s a moment of silence.

“It is not different to me,” Lan Wangji says, and starts to walk again.

And, well—Wei Wuxian really doesn’t know what to say to that.

They walk in silence for half a block; or, Lan Wangji carries Wei Wuxian in silence, while Suibian talks quietly to Bichen about Suihua and how she kept changing forms. Their voices blend into the background of Wei Wuxian’s thoughts, a pleasant distraction from the complicated knot of emotions in his chest. The question keeps coming back to him: how? How was it different?

Zhiji, he thinks. His mind keeps going back to it. Zhiji, zhiji.

It’s the only answer that’s felt right.

He looks up at Lan Wangji. Moonlight is spilling across the inky strands of his hair, passing over the pink curve of his lips. His grip is gentle but sure; Wei Wuxian doesn’t think he would have been able to carry him like this when they were disciples, as if floating, smoothing out the uneven street beneath their feet.

“Lan Zhan?” he says, and Lan Wangji’s arms tighten briefly in surprise as his voice breaks the quiet. He looks down, expectant; and Wei Wuxian doesn’t know how to say that he didn’t have anything to add after that.

That he just wanted to say it, because he could.

“Thanks,” he settles with.

Lan Wangji’s lips twitch, just barely, up. “No need.”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head, hiding a smile in Lan Wangji’s shoulder. They walk a few more steps; he can feel Lan Wangji’s even breathing, and when he leans his head to rest against his chest, his heart beats strong and steady through the silky fabric.

Shijie, he thinks, as they round the corner and are greeted with warm, inviting light spilling onto the darkened street through the inn’s paper windows. Just wait a little longer. We’ll be there soon.

 

Chapter Text


Everything has a meaning, if only we could read it.
— Philip Pullman, His Dark Materials 


The instant Nie Huaisang and Qiaolian scuttle out of the room, Lan Wangji shuts the door behind them with an audible click.

When he turns back, his eyes are determined.

“Let me see,” he says, coming over to kneel next to Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian bats him away. At Lan Wangji’s disbelieving look, he motions to the half-empty bottle of alcohol in his hand.

“Lan Zhan, at least let me finish my drink!”

Lan Wangji does not look amused at that. To be fair, he hasn’t been amused since Nie Huaisang started saying, I don’t know, I don’t know, over and over again, with varying degrees of helplessness. Even Wei Wuxian has to admit that it’s not the best quality.

“We really are fine,” Suibian reassures them, not for the first time. Bichen huffs. “No, I mean it! We’ve had way worse, right A-Xian?”

“Right!” he says cheerfully, smiling as wide as he can.

Strangely, that does not seem to make Lan Wangji or Bichen happier. If anything, the corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth twitches down, and Bichen flattens her ears.

Shoot. That backfired.

Then again, nothing about tonight has gone according to plan, including the room that they’re now sharing. When Lan Wangji had told him, calm and firm, one room, Wei Wuxian had entered a stage of disbelief that he didn’t think was possible for mere mortals. He had told Lan Wangji, multiple times, that he was joking about needing to be looked after. That Lan Wangji didn’t actually need to keep an eye on him; that Wei Wuxian would probably keep Lan Wangji awake and it was unnecessary to sacrifice his personal space.

Lan Wangji hadn’t listened. He’d said, simply, “Hn.”

That had put an end to the whole argument. I was only gone for a few hours, and you got cursed, so clearly you do need to be supervised were encapsulated just fine in that single syllable, and Wei Wuxian really was not about to try and counter something like that.

“I would like to hear more about Suibian’s favorite foods,” Bichen had added, Suibian’s ears perking up with excitement, and well, that had been that. 

So he’d let himself get steered him toward the stairs, into a single inn room, and then deposited in front of a table that had held a kettle of tea, a bottle of alcohol, and a very anxious Nie Huaisang.

Now, with Nie Huaisang and most of the alcohol gone, Lan Wangji is back on his single-minded mission. When he reaches out and starts pushing away Wei Wuxian’s lower robes, Wei Wuxian jerks his foot back.

“Hey, hey! At least buy a guy dinner first, Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji, bless him, does not point out that he did buy Wei Wuxian dinner. He just gazes at Wei Wuxian with a carefully controlled expression.

Wei Wuxian blinks back as innocently as he can.

“Wow, this room is big,” Suibian breathes, as if she hasn’t been in here with them the whole time, and scrambles away to start sniffing the furniture. She’s a traitor like that. Bichen quickly follows, shadowing her as she examines the space underneath the bed. “Whoaa, it’s huge! Bichen, I bet you could fit under here too!”

Bichen looks dubiously at the narrow space.

“You go ahead,” she says, and sits down next to the bed. “I will stay here.”

Suibian giggles as she wriggles under the bed, only the tip of her tail sticking out, and starts detailing the apparently enthralling amount of dust there. As always, she’s delighted to have an audience; ever since they left on this trip, Suibian has been soaking up Bichen’s attention, quiet as it may be, like a sponge. Even now, there’s a fond look on Bichen’s face as she watches Suibian’s tail twitch while she talks.

It makes something in Wei Wuxian’s chest tighten.

“Wei Ying.”

Wei Wuxian’s heart does a little skip, like it always does when Lan Wangji unexpectedly says his name. He tears his gaze away from their daemons to see Lan Wangji still looking at him, waiting. Every single line in his body is tense.

With a sigh, Wei Wuxian acquiesces. “Alright, alright. You don’t need to worry so much, though.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t reply, which is just as much of an answer.

He kneels down in front of him and reaches out, his sleeves falling back to his forearms and exposing his wrists, his strong fingers. Wei Wuxian braces for pain when the robes over his ankle are moved aside, but it’s unnecessary: Lan Wangji’s touch is delicate and careful as he starts to examine the grey, leathery skin.

It’s so light, so intentional, that it doesn’t even hurt at all.

Wei Wuxian is oddly struck by that. A pleasant warmth settles in his stomach; even with all his sternness earlier, Lan Wangji is still being so kind to him.

He’s too good.

As always, the first rush of spiritual energy makes him shiver. There’s a pureness to it, something rooted deep in sensation; like he’s placing a cube of ice in his mouth on a hot day and slowly letting it melt, running his tongue around the grooves and curves of it. Lan Wangji’s brows are furrowed as he concentrates, and Wei Wuxian soaks in the sight of him, remembers how it had felt when he touched his face.

He always feels so full and flustered, whenever Lan Wangji puts all his attention on him like this.

He doesn’t want it to stop. Ever.

Time trickles by in a slow, easy flow. For a while, there’s just the sound of Suibian’s muffled voice from under the bed, the tender brush of Lan Wangji’s fingers, and an occasional rattle from the sword spirit. It’s been acting up ever since he got cursed, and Wei Wuxian has about a dozen theories on why that could be.

It’s hard to focus on any of them, now that he knows Shijie is waiting for him.

The discussion conference is a month from now; it’s pointless to go earlier and risk drawing too much attention to themselves. When the time comes, he’ll go as a guest of the Lan, standing side-by-side with Lan Wangji. The thought is comforting—for so long, it was just him and Suibian against the world. He’d always thought that it would stay like that. But now he has Lan Wangji and Bichen, and maybe, if he’s lucky, Jiang Cheng and Sandu won’t be too mad about the escape tonight and will be willing to help out.

After all, Jiang Cheng had said it: We’re going to figure out exactly what you did to her.

We. The four of them.  

He thinks it’ll work out. It has to.

“You know,” he starts, because his thoughts are turning macabre and they have a more immediate matter at hand now thanks to Nie Huaisang, “I feel like Nie-xiong wasn’t telling us the full story about that blade shrine.”

“Mn?” Lan Wangji does not look up from his examination.

“Like, I believe all the stuff about the blades needing sacrifices,” he continues, and looks away from Lan Wangji’s face, trying not wince when he spots the steadily growing pile of dust being kicked up from under the bed. “And I’ll even give him the benefit of the doubt that he was just in the area because Jin Ling triggered the trap. But if they already have a shrine that is built to contain resentful energy, then why didn’t they bury Nie Mingjue there when he passed?”

That gets Lan Wangji to look up at him again. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” he says, and motions to where Nie Huaisang and Qiaolian bolted out of the room, “didn’t Nie-xiong mention that he personally saw to Chifeng-Zun’s funerary rights?”

It’s one of the things that had taken him by surprise to hear, especially as some offhand comment from Nie Huaisang as he was busy whining, I don’t know, I really don’t know, I hardly knew how to bury da-ge, dealing with these things is way above me, Hanguang-Jun.

“Mn.” Lan Wangji seems to remember it as well. “A private ceremony, in Qinghe.”

“How private?”

Lan Wangji pauses. “Sect only. Jin Guangyao and Xiongzhang were not invited.”

It is clear from his tone that the decision caused some tension. Given that the three were sworn brothers, even Wei Wuxian will admit it’s a strange choice.

“No one thought that was weird?” he asks.

“It…” Lan Wangji hesitates. “He was grieving. It was forgiven, later.”

“Huh.” Wei Wuxian ponders over that, frowning.

In a way, it makes sense. Nie Mingjue’s death must have been traumatic on so many fronts; the years leading up to it, the death itself, and the scene afterwards. By the time Nie Huaisang and Lan Xichen arrived to try and help, Jin Guangyao was already sobbing over his lifeless body, and Baxia was so long gone that there wasn’t even a trace of her dust left over to gather. You’re supposed to bury a person with some of their daemon’s dust, to help guide them into the next life together; Wei Wuxian can’t imagine how deeply it would sting to not be able to, especially for your brother.

The body is the only thing Nie Huaisang has left of him.

“Well then,” he decides, because if anything, that just gives more credence to his theory, “if it was that private, then Nie-xiong could have picked wherever he wanted to bury him, right? He may be a know-nothing now, but he’s not stupid—even he would see that the shrine would be the perfect place to house a spirit that suffered from such intense deviation.”

Lan Wangji makes another noise of agreement, thoughtful this time. Wei Wuxian can see his brain turning over the information.

“And it’s not like the secret would have been revealed either: if no one else was at the funeral, he could have just lied to the Sects about where it was. Did he tell anyone the location?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head.

“Well,” Wei Wuxian continues, on a roll now, “you and I both saw that there weren’t any bodies in the coffins—just those blades! And the wall was all skeletons, so he wasn’t there either. Which means the body isn’t where it should be, at least when thinking about how best to contain its resentment. So, then, where is it?”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, thoughtful, then adds, “And why?”

“Yes!” Wei Wuxian looks down at him, grinning. “Something is going on with that, it’s too odd of a choice. He’s involved, somehow. Ah, I knew we’d be thinking the same thing! Lan Zhan, why are you so smart?”

Lan Wangji lowers his head, but Wei Wuxian sees the small twitch of his mouth upward.

Satisfied, he slouches back against the table. He starts to reach for the bottle of liquor, intent on pouring himself another glass; but then Lan Wangji’s fingers move to the top edge of the curse, where his healthy skin blends into the mottled grey, the pad of his thumb tracing along his thigh as he examines it.

Wei Wuxian’s entire body goes hot.

Started, he looks back down, a pleasant flutter building in his stomach when he sees Lan Wangji still so close, so focused.

Huh, he realizes, staring at Lan Wangji’s fingers as they trace his skin. Lan Wangji’s hands are so big.

As soon as he thinks it, his stomach flips wildly.

“A-anyways!” he says, voice a tone too high even for this new body, and forces his mind back on topic. Wow, where did that thought even come from? “It’s definitely connected somehow. Hey, Lan Zhan, what if something happened to the body after Nie Huaisang buried it, and now that’s where the sword spirit is leading us?”

“A possibility.”

Wei Wuxian nods, still flushed. Lan Wangji is right: they can’t jump to any conclusions yet.

He takes a deep, steadying breath, resisting the urge to glance down. The thought of seeing Lan Wangji’s hand on his leg again is suddenly just—aah. He needs to focus.

He can’t focus.

Maybe the curse is impacting him more than he thought.

He’s saved from himself by Lan Wangji moving his hand back down to his ankle. The blue, almost-white energy seeping into him swells, so strong he can taste it, the clear spring tint that’s so characteristically Lan Wangji. The pain from his leg lessens almost immediately; when he dares to look, the smoking, grey skin has transitioned to a taupe-like shade.

It’s easy to pretend that his sigh of relief is only about that, and not the new location of Lan Wangji’s hand.

“We will do that tomorrow night, also,” Lan Wangji informs him, tone making it clear this is not up for discussion. Wei Wuxian’s stomach loops again at the thought.

“Right. Sure.” His mouth feels oddly dry. Lan Wangji’s fingers are so warm. Belatedly, he adds, “Thanks, Lan Zhan. You really didn’t have to, I could have done that myself."

Lan Wangji looks closely at him before settling back onto his heels.

“It was not a problem.”

“Right,” Wei Wuxian repeats, and jumps when Lan Wangji reaches out and takes his hands. “Lan Zhan?!”

“You are still injured from Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji murmurs, sounding more than a little angry about having to say Jiang Cheng’s name. To Wei Wuxian’s complete shock, he starts to press more energy into the small cuts and scrapes from when he tried to find purchase in the gravel, the soft silk of his sleeves draping onto Wei Wuxian’s knees.

Wei Wuxian tries to jerk his hands back, pouting when Lan Wangji doesn’t so much as twitch. “Lan Zhan! Come on, I’ll heal in a few days, these are fine—”

“Not fine.”

“Lan Zhan—”

Not fine.”

Wei Wuxian pauses halfway through what he was already planning to say, startled at the vehemence in his voice. Lan Wangji’s eyebrows are drawn together tight, his shoulders tense; when Wei Wuxian ducks forward so he can see his face, his golden eyes seem to glint and shine like freshly cut amber. There’s a heat held there; a heat, and something else he doesn’t know how to read yet. He’s been trying to, every time it appears, but— 

“Aiyo, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian whispers, because he looks so—so—. “They’re just ripped robes and some scrapes.”

Lan Wangji shoulders somehow tighten further. He doesn’t reply.

Wei Wuxian frowns at him.

“Are you mad?” he asks, trying to figure out what’s going on, and Lan Wangji’s eyes finally flick up to his. Wei Wuxian shifts slightly, stomach fluttering all over again. “We didn’t run into them on purpose, I promise. I know you don’t, uh, like them very much, but seriously, it could have been way worse, this was nothing! And we can pay for the robes and the bath tonight! Or, well, ok, once we get money, we can pay for the robes and the bath, but! If you’re worried about money, we’ll make it up to you, alright?”

Lan Wangji blinks, just once, an expression of utter disbelief crossing over his face.

Wei Wuxian blinks back, confused.

“Ridiculous,” Lan Wangji mutters after a few beats of silence, and the next wave of spiritual energy is so strong, so all-encompassing, that Wei Wuxian is almost dizzy with it. Together they watch, Wei Wuxian increasingly more incredulous, as the scrapes stitch themselves back together, thin crisscrossed lines of red fading back into smooth, unblemished skin.

“You’re so stubborn,” Wei Wuxian sighs, trying not to smile.

Lan Wangji hums, unmistakably pleased, and before Wei Wuxian can protest, starts checking the rest of him over too.

“Really?!” he yelps, the heat from before turning into a fire as Lan Wangji studiously examines his palms, his wrists, pushes up his sleeves to expose his forearms. To his relief, Lan Wangji doesn’t touch his legs again, but his hands are everywhere still. “Lan Zhan, you’re worse than the Aunties at Lotus Pier, you know that? I’m fine, stop, stop!”

Apparently satisfied that Wei Wuxian isn’t in mortal peril from any remaining hidden papercuts, Lan Wangji draws his hands back.

His mouth is a stubborn line when he says, “You will not pay for the bath. Or the robes.”

Wei Wuxian laughs and shakes his head, exasperated. “Fine, fine, I won’t pay!” He slouches back against the table again and wags a finger at him, trying to ignore his own flaming cheeks and the way his body feels like it’s tingling all over. “Er-gege, you need to be careful! If you keep this up I’m going to become a spoiled brat, expecting you to pay for everything!”

Lan Wangji’s fingers twitch.

“Hn,” he says, and reaches across the table, grabbing the bottle of liquor and refilling Wei Wuxian’s cup. With his hair still arranged in its ornate headpiece, the silver glinting in the warm light surrounding them, Wei Wuxian can just make out a hint of pink through the inky strands: a blush, dusting the tips of his ears.

Wei Wuxian watches him, feeling too hot.

This room must not have proper ventilation.

He turns towards their daemons as Lan Wangji starts to pour himself tea, tugging at the collar of his robes and determinedly not thinking about anything at all. Suibian is currently entertaining herself by tapping Bichen’s paws from her space under the bed, retreating before Bichen can do the same to her and giggling wildly. From the look of it, Bichen isn’t even trying to reciprocate the action; she’s just sitting patiently as Suibian’s feet pop in and out of sight, tail occasionally twitching.

Honestly, he thinks, watching the entire thing play out over and over with the same predictable rhythm, Bichen probably doesn’t know she’s supposed to be doing anything. He gets the feeling she and Lan Wangji didn’t have a lot of time to play growing up.

“Aww,” he says, because that thought is just too depressing to dwell on, and turns to Lan Wangji with a grin. “Look at them, next thing you know they’ll be full-on wrestling.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t respond; he’s busy watching their daemons with a soft, pleased expression, the steaming tea cupped between his palms. Wei Wuxian has so often heard Lan Wangji described as cold–had loudly declared that himself, in his past life—but now, he wonders how people don’t see it, the way all the icy parts of him are melting along the edges when he looks at Bichen and Suibian.

He seems so…so happy. It’s a beautiful look on him, too: all smooth skin and relaxed lips, golden eyes slightly narrowed with contentment.

Wow.

He’s just—something else. Wei Wuxian has thought it many times before, but the sentiment seems to settle into his bones tonight.

“I’m calling it,” he says, overly-loud, and shoots the rest of the wine. He’s felt so weird all evening, and it’s been a wild day, anyways. Maybe sleeping it off will help.

Suibian whines in disappointment. “Another hour, A-Xian, please?”

He tuts at her, rising to his feet. “We’re sharing a room tonight, so we’ll go to bed at the normal-person time. Lan Zhan, do you think they’ll give us extra blankets? The floor is nice, but I got a bit spoiled after all the beds, it wouldn’t hurt to add some padding here.”

Lan Wangji’s soft look shifts into a sharp one.

“Wei Ying,” he says, in the tone he takes when Wei Wuxian has just said something completely unbecoming. “I will take the floor.”

Wei Wuxian looks incredulously at him, scooping up Suibian and brushing some of the dust off her fur. She chitters at Bichen, a pleading ak-ak as her tail droops. “What? No way, you paid for the room. I’ll sleep on the floor, it’s fine.”

“You are injured.”

“Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes, already nudging aside the table so he can make a space for him to sleep. “Please, as if I haven’t slept on worse things. I’ll deal.”

The words make Lan Wangji’s eyes widen, then narrow. “You will take the bed.”

“Nope!” Wei Wuxian says, cheerful.

“Wei Ying.

“Buyer gets the bed. It’s the rules, Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji’s expression quickly turns dismayed. Wei Wuxian is feeling very good about his chances, here.

“If you both want the other person to have it, why can’t we just share?” Suibian asks, sounding confused. They all turn to look at her; she tilts her head over to the piece of furniture in question, apparently oblivious to why they’ve all collectively gone silent. “It’s huge! I bet we could all fit, right?”

Crickets.

“Er, yeah, I mean,” Wei Wuxian says after a moment, because she’s right, “I guess we could?”

Bichen and Lan Wangji are doing their best impersonation of statues.

“It is… an idea,” Lan Wangji offers eventually, eyes on Wei Wuxian’s face. Wei Wuxian is too busy trying to figure out why he’s so nervous about the possibility of sharing a bed to really think about what that specific look means.

Suibian swivels her head between all of them, head tilted.

“Do you not want to share with us?”

“That’s not—” Bichen starts, some heat in her tone, and abruptly stops. She looks at Lan Wangji.

Suibian frowns, ears pressing back against her head. She scrambles onto Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, her claws digging into his robes and making him wince, and whispering in his ear without actually whispering, says, “But A-Xian, I really don’t want to sleep on the floor.”

It’s said in her best impression of being miserable and helpless, which, when he goes to check, does not match the feeling in their bond at all.

It’s at that exact moment that Wei Wuxian realizes they’re being played.

“You—” he exclaims, but Lan Wangji and Bichen have already sprung to action.

“We will share the bed,” Bichen’s says, firm, and rises from where she was sitting. Suibian’s tail starts to wag; before Wei Wuxian can try to stop them, Lan Wangji rises as well, shoulders stiff.

“You may bathe first.”

Caught off guard, Wei Wuxian can only protest as he’s steered towards the washroom, Suibian letting out a happy yip and rushing ahead of them, her paws scrambling against the wooden floor.

“Hey, hold up!” he cries, as Lan Wangji’s hand presses firmly against his back, urging him forward. “Listen, she’s just messing with us—”

The words have no effect; he gets nudged into the room with no effort whatsoever, a rush of steam hitting his face. Before he can so much as let out another squeak of protest, Lan Wangji shuts the door behind them with a click.

For a moment, Wei Wuxian just gapes at the now-closed door, mind whirling so fast that he’s almost dizzy with it.

Then he turns to Suibian.

“What are you doing?” he hisses to her, as she clambers to the edge of the already-drawn bath and waits expectantly for him to clean her, nearly knocking over a few vials of oil and soap in her haste. The steam condenses in the air around them, a sandalwood-scented haze over his vision; when he glances at the tub, he sees a heating talisman stuck to the side, Lan Wangji’s perfect handwriting etched across the paper. He must have ordered this before he even found them.

Suibian perks up her ears at him. “Helping. Isn’t it obvious?”

“What?!”

“You’re welcome,” she adds, clearly pleased with herself. “Come on, I want a bath!”

“A-Sui—”

“Please, I’m so dirty, I feel gross.

He huffs at her, crossing his arms. “And whose fault is that, hmm?”

“Yours!! You’re the one who shoved me in the onions!”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head, looking pointedly at the dust coating the soft fluff of her underbelly. She blinks up at him, the picture of innocence.

Please?”

He sighs. Still trying to figure out what on earth she’s thinking but knowing when a fight is lost, he begrudgingly gets to work. 

By the time they’ve washed up, Lan Wangji and Bichen have straightened up the room, all their clothes properly laid out and dust conspicuously gone from underneath the bed. They both look up from where they are settled around the table, and Lan Wangji freezes when he sets eyes upon Wei Wuxian.

And he doesn’t look away.

Wei Wuxian pauses in the doorway, uncertain. Lan Wangji’s mouth is slightly parted, his eyes wider than normal. He glances down at himself, wondering if he somehow forgot to tie a sash or something; his red underrobes are sticking to him slightly from the leftover condensation, but nope, all ties are tied. There’s an awkward moment where he just stands with one foot in the main room and the other in the washroom, robes spread slightly at the collar to cool off from the steam, hair dripping water onto the floor in a steadily growing puddle, wondering why he’s staring.

Then, so quick that it startles him, Lan Wangji rises up from the table and sweeps past them, shutting the washroom door behind him an audible click.

Bichen sighs.

Ignoring Wei Wuxian’s confused look, she stands and goes over to the door. When she paws at it, the door opens a sliver; Wei Wuxian just catches a glimpse of Lan Wangji’s profile, ears bright red from all the steam, before she slips inside and it shuts once more.

Alright, then.

“Should have expected that,” Suibian mutters, staring at where they just disappeared, and Wei Wuxian looks down at her.

“Huh?”

“Never mind,” she sighs, shaking out her coat and sending droplets of water scattering across the wood floor. She pads over to the bed, leaving Wei Wuxian in his confusion; after a moment, still oddly flustered, he looks around for something to finish drying themselves off.

There’s a towel sitting on the nearby dresser; when he walks over to it, Suibian darting to the bed and proceeding to get the entire pillow soaking wet, he notices a comb is nestled on top of the cloth.

It’s made of silver, an intricate design of gentians etched in pale blue coloring along the edge. Curious, he picks it up, running his fingers along the cool metal. This must be Lan Wangji’s; the style is distinctly Lan-like, all subtle lines and subdued beauty, absolutely flawless in terms of craftsmanship. Even in its simplicity, there’s an elegance to it that outshines anything he’s ever owned, like each curve was carefully thought out.

He goes to set it down, ready to find something else to wrangle his hair into submission—before he sees Lan Wangji’s outer robes folded on the other side of the table, with a different comb already laid primly out on top.

Oh, he thinks, a flutter in his stomach.  

He looks back down at the silver comb. The placing of it was markedly intentional; something this nice doesn’t just show up on threadbare cloth, not like this.

Lan Wangji put this out for him.

A warm, wonderful feeling bubbles up in his chest. He stands there, holding undeniable proof that even when he was out of sight, Lan Wangji was thinking of him; and it’s shivery and grounding and too much all at once, like if he moves too fast, it will all shimmer away into nothing. A meal on an empty stomach, with no one trying to snatch away the bowl.

Lan Zhan, he thinks, and it is an actual ache, the fondness that follows. He lets the feeling sink in deep, spread across his lips like spun-sugar, syrupy and sweet and unexpected.

Lan Zhan, my zhiji. You’re too much. 

Then, with a deep breath, he tackles the hair situation.

Suibian is humming happily on the bed by the time he gets his hair mostly dry, patting the sheets with her paws to try and make a nest. When he walks over to her, she wags her tail and flips onto her back with a wriggle, spreading the wet spot even farther as she goes.

“You’re a menace,” he tells her, and throws the towel over her body before sitting down on the edge of the bed.

“Hey!” She noses out from under the cloth so just her head is poking out, watching as he starts to run the comb through his hair. He’s learned to hate doing this; Mo Xuanyu’s hair tangles and knots under his fingers, no matter how gentle he tries to be, like a bird nest stuck to his scalp.

“This is your punishment,” he says, wincing as the comb catches on a particularly stubborn knot.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”  

He makes a face at her. With a huff, she noses the towel to the side and clambers into his lap, rough fur still damp against his robes.

“Why are you so nervous?” she asks, nuzzling up against his stomach. It’s in the same tone as before—like she somehow knows something he doesn’t, or that she’s waiting for him to figure something out.

He frowns down at her.

“I’m not nervous.” It’s her turn to make a face at him, and he scoffs. “It’s just been a long day, and I feel weird. I think the curse threw me off, or something.”

“Hmm. Sure.”

Done with her tone, and this line of questioning, he places the comb to the side and tickles her as punishment instead.

When Lan Wangji and Bichen emerge from their bath –taking a lot longer than Wei Wuxian would have expected for the ever-efficient, no-worldly-desires Lans— he and Suibian are breathless and giggling on the bed, thoroughly worn out from roughhousing. Wei Wuxian can’t even bring himself to be embarrassed when Lan Wangji blinks at the sight a few times in the doorway before going over to the dresser.

“What side do you want?” Wei Wuxian calls to him, as Lan Wangji methodically places his hair pieces on the polished wood. Lan Wangji makes a noncommittal noise in his throat. “Come on, that’s an easy one to answer!”

Lan Wangji pauses only briefly before saying, “Closest to the door.”

“Alright!”

He goes over to the side closest to the wall and leans back, watching Lan Wangji get ready. The candlelight mellows the lines of his body, his face, painting away any of the tension from earlier. He’s only in his underrobes too –all five outer layers have now been folded neatly and placed in the dresser—and it’s a comforting sight, almost familiar even though he’s never seen it before. Wei Wuxian doesn’t know why he likes it so much, but something about Lan Wangji looking so soft always calms him down.

Lan Wangji must sense his gaze. He glances over to Wei Wuxian lounging on the bed and quickly looks away.

“It is rude to stare,” he says, ears still red from the heat of the bath, and Wei Wuxian laughs.

“Sorry, sorry. Am I not allowed to appreciate the rare specimen that is Hanguang-Jun?”

That has Lan Wangji actually turning partly away from him, like Wei Wuxian’s shamelessness is too much to bear. Wei Wuxian grins, pleased to have gotten a reaction.

Still, even he has his limits. When Lan Wangji starts to remove his forehead ribbon, the cloth draping delicately over the back of his hand, his heart skips. The sight seems much too intimate to look at, sacred and private in the same way that Wei Wuxian has always felt about seeing him and Bichen touch; he quickly averts his gaze, the quivery feeling back in his stomach. Lan Wangji has never taken it off in front of him before.

“Was the bath nice?” he asks, mainly just to distract himself. “No residual fox hair?”

“Mn.”

Right, well.

Bichen pads over to them as Lan Wangji (now sans forehead ribbon) starts extinguishing candles, her fur damp and looking extra fluffy right out of the bath. Suibian chitters happily at her as soon as she’s close, and Bichen chuffs in response.

“Ooh, you smell good,” Suibian tells her, and there’s a loud clatter as Lan Wangji almost knocks over a candle. They all start.

“Ah, Lan Zhan, are you ok?”

“Fine,” he says, voice low, and blows it out. “I—tripped.”

“What a way to go,” Wei Wuxian teases as Bichen settles down on the floor. Seems like she won’t be cuddling up with them after all. “The great Hanguang-Jun, taken out by a loose floorboard. What would all the Sect gossipers say?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t reply, extinguishing the last candle and plunging the room into darkness.

Wei Wuxian blinks, eyes trying to adjust to the lack of light. Lan Wangji crosses the room like a ghost, so quiet that even the inn’s loose floorboards don’t creak under his weight. Wei Wuxian just sees the white shape of his robes breaking through the black as he comes to the edge of the bed and stands there, a bright spot that even the shadows won’t touch.

The sight feels so familiar, for some reason.

“Come on,” Wei Wuxian says, when Lan Wangji just hovers nearby without getting in. He’s pleased that he sounds much more confident than he actually feels. “Look, I left you plenty of room.”

There’s another moment of hesitation.

Then Lan Wangji climbs in with him.

Arranging themselves quickly proves to be a challenge. Even without Bichen, there’s a lot of limbs; Lan Wangji is a back sleeper, like a proper Lan, but Wei Wuxian likes to sleep on his side, and Suibian is used to curling up against his stomach. Making room for her without risking her and Lan Wangji touching means he needs to shift around, but every time he manages to find a position that’s both comfortable and practical, he brushes against Lan Wangji, making him tense.

The bed might not be as roomy as it looked.

“What about,” Wei Wuxian starts, twisting, and no, that doesn’t work. Wow, he really should have remembered how broad and tall Lan Wangji is. He tries to curl up but just knees Lan Wangji in the side on accident, eliciting a hiss. “Sorry, sorry!”

The wall is cold and unforgiving against his back, but he presses into it anyway, trying to create space. Lan Wangji shifts to the absolute farthest edge of the bed he can, practically hanging off it, stiff as a board.

Ok, so they’re not touching now. If that was the goal, then it has been accomplished.

They lay there for some time. Silent. Tense. Markedly uncomfortable.

“You know, I think the floor actually sounds great,” Suibian announces, and clambers off the bed like it’s suddenly become cursed. 

Wei Wuxian groans in response, Lan Wangji twitching at the noise. Suibian is right: they’re being idiots. Neither of them can sleep like this. Unable to take it any longer, he sits up.

“Here, Lan Zhan, let’s just—”

In a flurry, he scoots closer to Lan Wangji, tugging on his arm so he’s no longer hanging off the side. Surprisingly, Lan Wangji complies; or, Wei Wuxian realizes, as Lan Wangji makes a surprised noise in his throat, maybe he was just in a very precarious position of balance that Wei Wuxian disturbed.

Regardless, now they’re at least nearer to the actual center of the bed, which solves one issue.

Ok. Next step.

He scoots fully into Lan Wangji’s space, figuring it’s now or never. At the first intentional brush of their bodies, Lan Wangji somehow tenses further (and really, that should be a skill he brags about at this point), but Wei Wuxian is undeterred. Slow, trying not to spook him or be accused of being shameless, he lightly settles so he’s curled against Lan Wangji’s side, touching just enough so that they each have some room to stretch out if needed. Then he lays his cheek on Lan Wangji’s shoulder like a makeshift pillow, and waits.

It’s significantly more comfortable, if a bit close. Wei Wuxian finds himself not minding it at all.

“This ok?”

Lan Wangji hasn’t pushed him off yet, which is a good sign, but he seems quite far away from any form of relaxed. There’s a long pause.

“Mn.”

It’s clearly not: Lan Wangji is like a rock under him. Wei Wuxian frowns, shifting.

“Too close? I can move.”

He goes to do so, but the arm that Wei Wuxian accidentally trapped under him when he repositioned their bodies shifts. The firm press of a hand against his back stops him from moving away.

“It is fine,” Lan Wangji insists, still sounding stiff, and presses harder when Wei Wuxian makes a disbelieving noise.

“Lan Zhan, you’re like one of the rocks in Nightless City. If you get any tenser, you’re going to give your Shufu a run for his money.”

There’s a few beats of silence before Lan Wangji draws in a long, intentional breath. Incrementally, slower than ice melting in winter, each part of his body relaxes. First his arms, then his legs, then, finally, the shoulder that Wei Wuxian is resting on.

It’s—surprisingly good, once that happens. Lan Wangji is so warm, and when Wei Wuxian closes his eyes and breathes in, he smells sandalwood.

“Mmm, now this is perfect, very good, Lan Zhan,” he praises, and curls slightly closer, bringing a hand to rest against Lan Wangji’s chest. The muscles under his palm stiffen, then relax. Lan Wangji’s heartbeat is steady and strong through the cloth.

Slow, Lan Wangji says, “Mn.”

It doesn’t sound as stressed as before. Wei Wuxian thinks that’s about as good as it can get for tonight.

For a moment, he just soaks it all in, the dark blanketing their bodies like a second skin. It’s the same feeling that enveloped him that night in the rainstorm, during the hug that Wei Wuxian is afraid to bring up even though he kind of wants to. Secure and familiar. Steady, too, like dry ground in a flood.  

It would be nice, to hug Lan Wangji again. He’s wanted to since the moment they got back.

This is great for now, though.

“Lan Zhan?” he murmurs, and Lan Wangji makes a quiet noise, indicating he’s listening. “What you said earlier, about Shijie. Did you mean it?”

The response is immediate. “Mn. Wei Ying is smart.”

Wei Wuxian feels himself flush. Too good. Lan Wangji is too good.

“Aiyo,” he whispers, glad that it’s dark so he doesn’t have to hide his face in his hands. “Plenty of people are smart. Your brother, and Chifeng-Zun, and all the people who tried to help Shijie but couldn’t. They’re all smart.”

“Not as smart as you.”

Stubborn man. Wei Wuxian feels so good all over, a bone-deep kind of happiness. “Ah, now you’re just flattering me. When did you learn to sweet talk, er-gege?”

Lan Wangji’s fingers twitch on his back. “Hn. I am telling the truth.”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head, feels the brush of Lan Wangji’s hair against his cheek as he does, like silk on his skin. A yawn escapes him; now that they’ve figured out some semblance of a sharing system, he’s abruptly exhausted. Too much has happened today, with the blade shrine and his brother and Jin Ling. With the adrenaline from the action and the dog finally fading, and Lan Wangji’s presence so close, he finally, truly relaxes.

He feels… safe. It’s been a while.

“You’re so warm,” he sighs, only barely resisting the urge to tangle their feet so he can warm those up, too. Any of the weird nervousness he had before has ebbed, replaced by a deep sense of calm. “It feels so nice.”

There’s a lengthy pause.

Then, quiet, Lan Wangji asks, “Have you been cold?”

“Not the coldest I’ve ever been.” The promise of quickly-approaching sleep is making Wei Wuxian’s tongue feel loose and easy. “That was after. But Mo Xuanyu runs colder than I did when we were disciples. Skinny. Weak core.”

The hand on his back curls into his robes, just barely.

There’s another long pause.

“After what?” Lan Wangji murmurs to him, gentler than he’s ever heard it. Coaxing.

Wei Wuxian just hums slightly, confused. He’s having trouble keeping track of anything, tucked against him like this. After what? He doesn’t understand. When Lan Wangji shifts, Wei Wuxian is unexpectedly brought just a little closer, another degree warmer. He sighs, contentment working its way into his muscles, deeper than any bath could ever achieve. 

“Wow,” he breathes, half-asleep, “why didn’t we do this earlier?”

No answer. Lan Wangji’s hand starts to move down his back, then up. Down, then up. It’s a very soothing motion, and unexpectedly nice. Wei Wuxian wants to tell him so.

“Keep doing that,” he mumbles instead, making himself more comfortable by touching their feet finally, and Lan Wangji makes a soft noise in his throat in response. The feet under his twitch, but don’t pull away. “Ah, Lan Zhan, you spoil me…”

Still no response.

It’s ok, though. Wei Wuxian falls asleep in seconds; he wouldn’t have heard it anyways.


Too short a time later, Lan Wangji wakes with Wei Ying in his arms.

It is, he quickly decides, the most wonderful feeling in the world.

Hours have passed, but he’s unsure how many. The sun has not yet risen over the horizon, and a comfortable dimness blankets the room, making everything feel softer, tender. Sometime during the night they must have shifted: Wei Ying is almost fully draped over him, deep in slumber and breathing slow. Both his hands are curled into Lan Wangji’s robes. He’s twitching slightly every few seconds, like his body cannot bear to be still even in sleep. His mouth is open; there is a small spot of drool gathering on Lan Wangji’s shoulder because of it.

Lan Wangji loves it. He never wants the warm, reassuring weight of Wei Ying’s body to go away.

He lays there for some time, soaking it in, almost illicit in the pleasure of it. His palm traces the shape of Wei Ying’s back, each curve and bump in his spine. Wei Ying mumbles, unintelligible, his breath fanning hot against Lan Wangji’s neck, and he shivers in response.

Wanting. Aching with it.

The most precious person, so close. If Lan Wangji could wake up like this every day, he would die happy.

There’s a low rumble from right near the edge of the bed, familiar in tone. Lan Wangji turns his head, slowly so that he does not disturb Wei Ying, and sees Bichen is awake as well. Her eyes reflect back at him in the darkness, blinking slowly.

She is curled up tight around Suibian, although it takes him a moment to spot the fox at all. With her new fur and smaller size, she blends in quite well to Bichen’s side. Like her pair, Suibian is fast asleep, twitching occasionally.

“She was cold,” Bichen murmurs.

It is a poor excuse. He understands anyways.

Before Wei Ying, Lan Wangji had never thought of himself as protective. And yet that is all that fills him now, Wei Ying finally safe against his skin: a burning, wild protectiveness, an urge so deep that he wishes he were a daemon himself, just so he could bare his teeth at the world that tried to hurt him.

Not just tried. Succeeded. 

When they saw them on the bridge tonight, muddy and wet, eyes red-rimmed, Lan Wangji had thought—

(Too many things to name. Fear had obliterated any sense of rationale, of logic. He does not understand how Wei Ying can be so terribly hurt, in so many ways, and seem to think it so inconsequential. He wants to kill whoever taught him such a thing. Wants to scream and rage at whatever cruel hands and voices taught him to doubt that every single part of him is precious, deserving of love and care.

How dare Jiang Wanyin hurt him. How dare he steal him and Suibian away, where Lan Wangji and Bichen could not find him, make them go pale and shaking. He wants to break every single one of Jiang Wanyin’s bones. Wants to hide Wei Ying far out of his reach, forever, so he can never hurt him again. Wants to—

His mother, staring out the window. A hawk in a gilded cage.)

Lan Wangji takes a slow, steadying breath. Bichen shifts, her growl reverberating through the air. When he holds out a hand to her, she lifts her head from the floor, rubbing it against the offered fingers.

“We will fix that,” he murmurs.

Bichen rumbles her approval.

They lay there, Wei Ying’s deep breathing the only sound breaking the silence. Lost in the same thoughts.

There are thousands of things that Lan Wangji wants to know about the man in his arms. Wrapped together in the darkness now, with Bichen and Suibian curled so close, one question screams louder than the rest.

Tell me. Should I have taken her?

It is impossible to push away the memory of the last time the four of them were like this, in a very different kind of dark. Cold, scared. Dying. Shivering from energy loss and desperation, Suibian’s teeth stained red with Bichen’s blood.

They have never blamed her for that.

They have also never understood.

Wei Ying tried to give her to them in the cave. It is undeniable, and it does not make sense. For thirteen years he has tortured himself with the question of why; the regret of not knowing has wound itself around his bones. Yet now that they are together again, he cannot bring himself to find out.

Should I have said yes? Would you have hated me for it? Would it have saved you?

The questions are always there, yet he would rather take another thirty-three lashes than lets them fall from his lips. He does not think that Wei Ying remembers that night in the cave, and if this new life has rid him of that burden, Lan Wangji will not be the one to place it back on his shoulders by asking.

Even if Wei Ying does remember, false smiles and shifting sentences and clever distractions always block his way to the truth, even with the simplest inquiries. For such loud people, Wei Ying and Suibian have always been so very good at hiding

That was after, Wei Ying had said.

After what?

Lan Wangji can think of many afters, none of which bring him any comfort. 

Bichen shifts, their bond trembling slightly.

“A-Zhan?”

Lan Wangji swallows. There are so many things he wants. To know what happened. To make Jiang Wanyin suffer for what he did to them tonight. To bring Wei Ying to his sister, now that he knows her fate. To stay by Wei Ying’s side throughout of it, forever, so that whatever plagued him in his past life cannot do so again.

All the feelings jumble up inside him, too much.

He never has the right words.

Bichen looks at him, tail flicking slightly as they lay in silence. He can feel the contentment in her warring with his own emotions; the joy of having Suibian close, fighting his own longing. Something clenches in his chest when Suibian twitches and, without any hesitance, Bichen leans down and nuzzles her head to soothe her. 

The envy inside him catches him by surprise. His love for Wei Ying has lasted two wars and thirteen years without him; it should not matter that he is not able to show it in the same way they do.

And yet the desire fills him anyways.

What would he give to hold Wei Ying—not just in sleep, but always? To reach out and cup his face, hold his hands, for reasons other than tears streaming down his cheeks? To show affection as freely as Bichen and Suibian? To press his lips to Wei Ying’s neck and bite down, feel the way he would gasp and hold tight.

There are times he thinks he is not alone in the feeling. Moments where Wei Ying will meet his gaze, and smile, and he wonders—

Please, Wei Ying. Come back to Gusu with me. Please. I love you.

Get lost!

He draws in a slow, unsteady breath.

In his arms, Wei Ying sleeps on, oblivious to the turmoil in his heart. He is so warm, so alive. He smells, Lan Wangji thinks with a pleasant twist in his stomach, like sandalwood. No nightmares plague him tonight; Lan Wangji knows that he gets them, has listened in the dead of night to errant whimpers, cut-off gasps when they wake him from his slumber, seen the dark circles beneath his eyes the mornings after.

But not tonight.

Suibian shifts slightly, turning in her sleep. At the motion, Bichen curls tighter around her and growls, low. The sound is possessive and protective, too telling of the feeling in Lan Wangji’s own heart as he holds Wei Ying. It comes as no surprise, and there is no point in scolding her for it—were Wei Ying to try and get up now, Lan Wangji would growl too.  

It is selfish, that Lan Wangji feels that way. There are so many ways in which he has failed Wei Ying; some of which he knows, some of which he doesn’t. In truth, Lan Wangji expected one to be revealed tonight.

Yet the question he was dreading never came.

Lan Zhan, what about you? Did you ever try to help Shijie?

The answer is built upon thirteen years of pain. How is he to explain to Wei Ying that when Jiang Yanli was first being cared for, so was he, his stomach pressed against the soft sheets of his bed as thirty-three whip lines burned and bled and fought infection? How is he to tell him that for many years after, those same wounds made such a trip impossible? That by the time he and Bichen were finally fit to ask for a visit, there were so many rules and regulations to her care, so much fear around worsening her condition by introducing a new energy, that they set only one foot inside Koi Tower before they were sent right back by an apologetic Jin Guangyao?

How is he to look at Wei Ying, the man he loves, and tell him that for thirteen years, he has failed to find an answer to save the woman he holds most dear in his heart?

There is no way to. Not one that is both honest and painless. If Wei Ying finds out about his scars, he will blame himself for Lan Wangji’s pain. He will not understand that Lan Wangji chose it gladly. That he would take thousands more, have the whips cut down to the marrow of his bones until he is nothing but a husk, were it to mean Wei Ying lived.

Too much. Wei Ying should not be burdened with such thoughts. He should not be burdened with anything, when Lan Wangji is there to carry the weight instead.     

Wei Ying twitches again, their legs tangling together under the blankets.

“Lan Zhan,” he sighs, soft, and all of the dark thoughts in Lan Wangji’s head are broken into nothing.

He pulls Wei Ying closer to him, aching. Lan Wangji has read countless poems on love, and yet none could ever hope to describe the feeling he has in that moment, Wei Ying pressed against him, calling his name.

Bichen lets out a long, low purr. She is watching them, and there is something deeply satisfied in her gaze; a kind of knowing.

He cannot dare to hope she is right.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying repeats, a beautiful mumble, and Lan Wangji’s heart skips. When Wei Ying presses his face against his neck, he has to close his eyes so that he does not do something so incredibly foolish as shake him awake and kiss him. On the floor, Bichen nuzzles Suibian with a happy sigh.

“I am here,” Lan Wangji murmurs, a promise. “Wei Ying. I am here.”


The next morning, Wei Wuxian wakes to the smell of congee, Suibian’s weight leaning heavily against his feet, and a pair of brand-new, wool-lined robes sitting on the table, waiting for him.

“Come on,” Bichen says, when he opens his mouth to ask. Lan Wangji seems quite preoccupied with pouring tea, expression tucked out of Wei Wuxian’s sight. “Get dressed and eat, in that order. We have work to do.”

Chapter Text

It is three days later, sitting at the wine house in Yueyang as the nearby table gossips about Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan, that Lan Wangji realizes he is tired of pretending.

The revelation settles over him like overnight snow in the Cloud Recesses: unexpected only because he was not paying attention to the signs, blanketing everything he can see and turning the world into something new. It has been at the forefront of his thoughts since Wei Ying slept so peacefully in his arms, but it has been building quietly in his blood much longer.

The love he has for Wei Ying is endless and all-encompassing; with each passing day, it somehow grows, and he does not know how long he can hide it.

He does not know, watching Wei Wuxian’s eyes darken at the news of Xiao Xingchen’s and Song Lan’s fate, if he wants to.

(And is it truly a surprise, several minutes later when he downs the alcohol?

Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan had given him hope. Fed his fervent wish that one day, he and Bichen could travel the world alongside Wei Ying and Suibian with no sects to keep them apart. Not just as friends, but as cultivation partners. No secrets between them; nothing but trust, and devotion, the promise to uphold the vows they made under a lantern-filled sky.

Together.

“A-Zhan,” Bichen says, staring at him with absolute horror as the alcohol slides down his throat, a harsh sting. He looks between the three of them, aching, feeling like the entire world has tilted terribly off balance.

It is wrong that they had such a fate. It is—

The room turns black.)


“You don’t remember…anything?”

Wen Ning’s head lolls as he looks up at him from the wooden crate he’s sitting on, tucked in an alleyway behind the inn. Around them are various barrels and boxes, all packed together and stacked on top of each other in some semblance of organization. It smells like overripe fruit and dirty linens, which would be a nauseating combination if Wei Wuxian wasn’t already sick to his stomach.

“N-No, Wei-gongzi.”

Wen Ning’s eyes are glazed, his voice distant and sluggish. They took out the last nail less than a minute ago; he’s still out of it, but at least he’s responding.

Honestly, Wei Wuxian didn’t think there would be a bigger shock today than Lan Wangji deciding to live life a little and get drunk—but he should have realized thinking something like that would just make the universe eager to prove him wrong. Things have been going too smoothly since they left Nie Huaisang and the man-eating shrine behind them, since Wei Wuxian had turned to Lan Wangji and said, “I think we should go South,” and Lan Wangji had looked at him and said, “Mn,” like it was that easy, like he trusted his judgement, like he would follow him anywhere.

It's the same way he gets when Wei Wuxian throws out theories on Shijie: just nods, and listens, and lets Wei Wuxian chatter about how nice it will be to hug her, to talk to her, to have Xiaolian and Suibian play again, when they wake up.

Mn. It will be very nice.

It feels good, the kind of good that only Lan Wangji seems to bring out in him, all-encompassing and hot and leaving his tongue tripping over itself with the strength of it. He wants to sit in it forever.

(And he’s terrified of it, too. Some curled up, shivering part of him wonders. Wonders how he got so lucky. Wonders how on earth he’ll keep being good enough, useful enough, interesting enough to keep such kindness flowing. Wondering, dread trickling into his toes, what will happen when he doesn’t.)

Now, in stark contrast to that pleasant flutter of a feeling: Wen Ning, standing in front of him like a puppet cut from his strings. Unmoving, unseeing.

When he and Lan Wangji had talked about putting together leads, his mind hadn’t gone to this.

“Ah, Wei-gongzi, my head…”

“It’s alright,” he hears himself say, and swallows. “It’s alright, Wen Ning. Take a second.”

Next to them, Suibian is sniffing the nails, flinching whenever a sound floats to them from the street, like she thinks someone else will want to take a late-night stroll through a linen-filled alley. Based on how today has gone, one bombshell after another, he doesn’t blame her.

“Oh, A-Xian, they smell terrible! Like—the blood pool, but worse.”

He turns away from Wen Ning, who is blinking slowly and wincing every few seconds, to crouch down next to her.

“Do you smell Suyin?” he asks, trying to keep his voice low.

Suibian sniffs the air, inching closer to Wen Ning. Her ears press back against her head, and his stomach sinks.

Not good. Not good at all.

He turns back to Wen Ning. Wei Wuxian would love to be gentle right now, let him get his bearings a bit before jumping in, but things are looking increasingly urgent. “Wen Ning, what happened?”

The explanation is stilted and slow. By the time Wen Ning gets through most of what happened to him and Wen Qing after they left the Demon Subdue Cave, Wei Wuxian has some semblance of a theory on what controlled him, but none of the actual answers he needs to figure out who.

“So you don’t know who did any of it?”

Wen Ning shakes his head.

“My memory is all blurred,” he admits, face twisted. His shaking has eased slightly, but he hasn’t made any move to get up. Wei Wuxian hovers close just in case. “I mean, I remember some things. I remember what happened—before. With A-jie, when she and I…”

He trails off.

Wei Wuxian wasn’t going to ask about Wen Qing, not yet; but the haunted look in Wen Ning’s eyes tells him everything he needs to know. It’s the same one reflected back at him from the window after Lotus Pier’s fall, when Jiang Cheng was listless in his grief, hopelessly turning his bed to a deathbed.

“She didn’t make it,” he murmurs, even though it hurts, and Wen Ning gives a jerky nod.

“Jin-zonzghu he—he separated us, at the end. It didn’t—he wanted us to suffer, before it was over.”

Wei Wuxian draws in an unsteady breath. He’d known it, known she was probably dead; but he’d still held onto the possibility, curled his fingers around the thought like a drowning man clinging to driftwood. Rumor said that Wen Ning had been burned to ashes, after all; and yet here he is, as alive as someone like him could be.

He’d thought that maybe she…

(A fierce gaze on his back as they picked turnips in the fields. A pair of hands shoving medicine at him, tonics that tasted as terrible as they looked but pushed back the taste of dead flesh. A laugh, surprisingly soft, as Zhiruo and Suyin wrestled in the trees.)

Like cinders in the wind, the possibility slips away, bitter and burning on his tongue.

Stupid of him, really, to even hope for it. No less painful now, Wen Ning’s words rooting themselves in his chest like a physical injury. He wants to reach out and pull him into a hug, wants to say he’s sorry, but he doesn’t think he has the right.

Not anymore.

“So someone put those nails in you,” Suibian prompts quietly, the loss hovering heavily in the air between them. “And from there on out, it’s all fuzzy?”

Wen Ning nods, clearing his throat. The haze in front of his eyes has finally ebbed, but Wei Wuxian can’t bring himself to meet them.

“It was just like… I was locked in a dark place. Until I heard your Chenqing. And I—oh!”

He cuts himself off with a gasp, so loud that Wei Wuxian and Suibian jump.

“Wen Ning?!”

Wei Wuxian can’t remember him making more than a peep in all the time they’ve known him, nothing even close to the next shattered noise that falls from his lips. Wen Ning jolts up and starts to pat himself down, chains rattling and clinking together at his frantic motion.

“Suyin! They did something to Suyin—”

Wei Wuxian has been fighting back her name since the moment Wen Ning blinked himself back into reality. He and Suibian exchange a glance, their bond tightening with dread.

“Show us.”

They wait with bated breath as Wen Ning pushes aside layers of cloth to eventually reveal a small, hidden pocket sewn into the interior of his robes. It’s fraying and tattered at the seams, like the cloth has been scrambled at, worn down by something other than time.

Wen Ning reaches inside and, hands shaking so badly that he almost drops it, pulls out a tiny, unmoving form.

A bat.

For a moment they all stare, dumbstruck.

Then: “Holy shit.”

The words spill out of Wei Wuxian’s mouth before he can stop them, but based on Suibian’s and Wen Ning’s expressions, they’re thinking the same thing.

Suyin looks… awful. The fluffy, friendly bat that he remembers has been replaced with a mess of skin and bones. Almost all of her fur has fallen off, and she’s so thin that he can see each one of her ribs in disturbing detail. It’s like everything about her has been drained away, leaving an empty shell in its place.

He doesn’t think she’s breathing.

Wen Ning looks down at her with complete, abject horror. “She’s—I can’t—Wei-gongzi, I—”

No, no.

“She’s not dust,” Suibian says quickly, taking control of the situation as Wei Wuxian and Wen Ning gaze helplessly at each other. Wei Wuxian has no idea what to do, not about this. “She’s alive, she has to be, or she wouldn’t have a form anymore!”

“Then why can’t I, why,” Wen Ning says, and his voice has gone so thick that it’s hard to understand him, “I can’t feel her, I can’t—”

“Maybe whatever they did to you just—I don’t know, dampened it!” Suibian scrambles onto a nearby barrel and sniffs again, deeply this time. “I didn’t recognize her scent until right now, but that’s because it’s so faint, not gone, Wen Ning! Something has to be wrong with her energy, does she have nails too?”

Of course. That should have been the first thing they looked for. Wen Ning runs his trembling fingers over her body, checking.

Then he shakes his head, and Wei Wuxian’s stomach drops.

“Nothing, there’s nothing.” His voice cracks, and he brings Suyin to his chest, cradling her against his robes. The ground is tilting under Wei Wuxian’s feet, blood cold as ice.

Not her too.  

Suibian frowns, inching closer so that she’s balanced at the edge of the barrel, claws digging into the wood and leaving grooves across the surface. She scents the air again, and her eyes sharpen.

“Give her to me.”

Wen Ning doesn’t appear to hear her. He’s holding Suyin with a faraway look on his face, still as a statue. Wei Wuxian lays a hand on his arm, trying to steady him. He opens his mouth to say something, but the horror and guilt clog his throat, and nothing comes out. What could he even say anyways? If Wen Ning’s daemon is gone, it’s Wei Wuxian’s fault.

Suibian is keeping a much steadier head than either of them. Louder, she repeats, “Wen Ning! Give her to me. I have an idea, I think I can help her.”

That gets Wen Ning’s attention. He jerks, head twisting to look at her; when she sees he’s finally listening to her, she chitters at him, impatient.

After a long moment of hesitation, clearly torn about letting go, Wen Ning carefully sets Suyin down on the barrel.

Without missing a beat, Suibian picks her up, Suyin’s body hanging limply in her mouth as she brings them both back to the center of the barrel. Careful not to jostle her tiny form too badly, she sets Suyin down and curls around her tight, a speck of black among the thick, tan fur.

“What are you doing?” Wen Ning asks, voice shaking.

“I think I can share my energy with her.” Suibian's nose is wrinkled in concentration. “Kind of like I used to with A-Xian, before—just, before. Anyways, I haven’t done it in this new body, but it should be the same, right?”

Wen Ning glances at Wei Wuxian.

“We did,” he says, heart thundering in his ears. It’s genius. Why didn’t he think of that sooner? He starts searching his robes for talisman paper, thoughts going a mile a minute. “She could reach out to me, it just drained her, made her weaker. It was a transfer of energy or something like it, we never figured it out. But Suyin is so small, maybe she just needs, what, a boost?”

Suibian nods, tail twitching. “A-Ning, can we try?”

“Anything,” Wen Ning says immediately, voice wavering along the syllables. “Please.”

Wei Wuxian finally finds a single scrap of talisman paper in his innermost pocket, crumbled and slightly stained around the edges, but still usable. Really, he thinks wryly, as he bites his thumb and starts tracing the characters for link, restore, and transfer, this is what he gets for being lazy and relying on Lan Wangji to carry all their supplies.

Once it’s bright red and shining with his blood, he sticks the talisman on Suibian and steps back.

She closes her eyes, takes a deep breath in—and then they wait.

It’s torturous.

Each moment weighs heavier than the next as they stand and stare at the two daemons cuddled up close, looking for any sign of movement. It’s different, actually being linked to her while she does this: Wei Wuxian can physically feel the energy draining from Suibian as she concentrates, like a trickle of water from a well, leaving his own legs weak and wobbly the longer it goes on.

As the seconds tick by and nothing happens, Wen Ning shakes worse and worse. When they get to the five minute mark, his eyes glaze over with tears, even as his undead body refuses to shed them. Wei Wuxian wraps an arm around his shoulders, heart singing in sympathy.

“It’ll be alright,” he murmurs, a bit nonsensically. “Don’t give up, Wen Ning, any moment now.”

Wen Ning makes a choked sound in response.

Wei Wuxian can’t even imagine what he’s going through—what he would be like right now, if that was Suibian’s lifeless body in front of him. Even the thought clogs his throat, takes him back to that awful moment of waking up and thinking he had lost her forever. It’s unbearable.

“Come on, A-Yin,” Suibian breathes, her eyes closed tight. She’s shaking now too, energy weak and desperate from mere minutes of work; Wei Wuxian tries to send some of his at her, another boost for her to draw from. “Come on, come on, I’m right here, I’m—oh!!”

A twitch.

They all gasp.

“Suibian?” Wei Wuxian asks, hope blooming in his chest. Wen Ning stumbles forward and hovers over their daemons, eyes huge. Suibian doesn’t look up from the bat tucked into her side, but he feels the wild, vibrant excitement surge between them anyways, shooting all the way to the tips of his fingers, firework-hot.

“Yes, yes, oh my gosh,” she whispers, and Suyin twitches again, an entire wing this time. “Wen Ning, look, do you see, look—”

“I see,” he says, voice thick, and Wei Wuxian feels more energy drain from Suibian as she gives another burst of it away. “She’s—she’s…”

There’s a tiny, soft, stuttering inhale.

“She’s breathing!” Suibian yips, and Wen Ning collapses to the ground in relief. Wei Wuxian rushes to kneel down next to him as Suyin’s ragged, barely audible breaths fill the space.

Wei-gongzi,” Wen Ning chokes out, hands covering his face, and Wei Wuxian pats him on the back, beaming.

“Look at that! Alive! Smartest fox in the whole world, A-Sui, you absolute genius!”

Suibian chitters in response, licking Suyin with gentle, careful sweeps of her tongue. She’s spasming more rapidly now, like her body is trying to remember what it’s like to have oxygen again and doesn’t know what to do with it. It looks horrific, painful, but it’s better than that too-dead stillness.

Wen Ning still has his face buried in his hands. He’s repeating, voice cracked and raw, “Thank you. Thank you, thank you…”

Wei Wuxian rubs his back, unable to contain his own breathless laugh.

Slowly, Suyin’s spasms subside. Her breathing, although still unsteady, becomes less desperate.

“I smell her just fine now,” Suibian announces, tail wagging. Wen Ning swallows loudly and nods, fingers pressing against his eyelids like he’s afraid he’s hallucinating. “She’ll need just a bit longer, I think, I can feel her core but it’s very small and—oh look, look!”

They look. Before their very eyes, Suyin’s face twitches again, much less violently this time; and then a pair of itty-bitty, sleepy eyes blink open to look at them.

“Oh,” Suyin breathes, voice reedy and trembling from what Wei Wuxian is starting to think must be years of disuse. Her glossy eyes move slowly to Suibian, then Wei Wuxian, then Wen Ning. Her gaze stays on him, muddled. “A-Ning…?”

“A-Yin!”

Wei Wuxian has never seen Wen Ning look so relieved. He reaches out a trembling hand to her, careful not to brush Suibian, mouth twisted up in a mix of overwhelmed joy and gratitude. With a jerky, unsteady movement, Suyin grabs onto his thumb with her wingtips. She misses twice, muscles struggling to keep hold; it’s clearly been some time since she last had control over her body.

“A-Ning, what happened…? I’m… so tired. N’cold?”

“It’s alright,” Wen Ning whispers, and Suibian gives Suyin another fond lick on her head. Wei Wuxian’s heart is so full it could burst. “You’re ok now. A-Sui helped you, do you remember A-Sui?”

Suyin nods, still a bit dazed, and yawns.

“Mangoes.”

That startles a laugh out of all of them. Suyin smiles feebly as they all look down on her before her eyes slowly flutter closed again. Immediately, Wen Ning glances to Suibian, but she perks her ears in reassurance.

“It’s ok. Normal sleepy, I used to get like that when I transferred too much. You should be able to take her now, I think. Just keep her close. She feels steady to me, you can feel her now too, right?”

Wen Ning nods. After some clinking and moving of chains, she’s back in Wen Ning’s palms. He stares at her for some time, thumb running delicately over the patches of her fur, each line and curve of her frail muscles, before he places her into the safety of his pocket once more. She settles there with a happy sigh, finally the same familiar lump beneath his clothes.

“You’re the best daemon in the whole world,” Wei Wuxian praises, stroking his fingers over Suibian’s ears and face. He’s still trembling from the flood of adrenaline, but since the literal miracle of life just played out in front of his eyes, he’ll give himself a pass on being composed right now.

Suibian nuzzles his hand with her nose and promptly goes limp, openly exhausted.

“A-Sui, Wei-gongzi, I…” Wen Ning steps closer to them, chains dragging on the ground. His face is still twisted with emotion, hand pressing gently against his pocket. “I—”

To his horror, Wen Ning moves as if he’s going to kneel on the ground again.

Wei Wuxian darts forward, his hand slipping from Suibian’s ears, and grabs Wen Ning by the arm.

He pulls him into a bone-crushing, desperate hug.

“Don’t you fucking dare, Wen Ning.”

Wen Ning freezes, uncertain; a dark, terrible part of Wei Wuxian wonders when he was last touched out of kindness. This new body can barely wrap his arms around him, but Wei Wuxian is going to make it work. This was too close of a call. One of the few people he can still call a friend, and he almost lost him again.

Wen Ning’s voice is choked up again when he says, stricken, “Wei-gongzi.

“Don’t you dare,” he repeats. His voice is more unsteady than he would like, and Wen Ning is unpleasantly cold, but this is long overdue. He can’t control the rough, relieved breath that escapes him when Wen Ning finally grips him back just as hard. “No kneeling, alright? I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. We won’t let that happen again. No one else is going to get hurt like that.”

Wen Ning nods once, and clings tighter. Around them, night whispers in their ears, the distant sounds of city life far from either of their minds. 

It takes some time for them to break the hug.

“Alright, alright,” Wei Wuxian says eventually, and draws back with a watery laugh. He wipes his face on his sleeve. “Enough of that, I’m going to get hives. Now that we’re all awake, it’s business time. I won’t let you slack off now that I’m back, understand?”

Wen Ning’s smile is still shy and hesitant, just like it was when he was alive, but it’s nonetheless sunshine on a rainy day.

“Yes, Wei-gongzi.

“Right, well!” Wei Wuxian draws in a long, steadying breath. He pats Wen Ning’s robes, a cacophony of clinking echoing through the alley immediately after. “Chains off first, I think. It’s weird to still have them when you’re not being controlled anymore. Anyone have any ideas?”

“Lan Wangji’s sword?” Suibian murmurs, eyes closed, and Wei Wuxian hums thoughtfully.

“Another good idea.”

At the mention of Lan Wangji, Wen Ning starts to fidget. “Um, does he…?”

“Know?” Wei Wuxian prompts, when Wen Ning looks hesitant to continue, and Wen Ning nods. “Oh yeah! He figured it out way early, won’t tell me how though! But it’s ok, I don’t think he’ll hurt you or anything. Once we explain, he’s sure to take your side.”

Wen Ning looks doubtful, but he nods again.

“And I’m sure he won’t mind us grabbing the sword, either,” Wei Wuxian continues, grinning now. Some semblance of a plan is piecing together in his mind. “He’s always sleepy when he’s drunk, I bet he and Bichen are passed out in the inn room right now! We’ll just sneak you in there, get those chains off, and then in the morning we can—”

“Wei Ying?”

They all start, swinging around to face the entrance to the alleyway.

“Lan Zhan?!”

It is Lan Zhan, standing at the edge of the alley and looking at them with a dazed expression. He’s a bit disheveled, for him at least: there are wrinkles in his robes and his forehead ribbon is a just a touch off center. Perhaps more tellingly, he’s lilting to the side by about five degrees, no customary hand behind his back.

Wei Wuxian glances at Suibian, who seems just as surprised to see him.  

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji repeats, and takes an unsteady step towards them.

“Whoa, whoa!” Wei Wuxian says and rushes forward to steady him, afraid he’ll somehow trip and fall. Not that it would do much, probably, but his gut is twisting unpleasantly at the mere thought of Lan Wangji getting hurt. “Careful!”

Lan Wangji stops when Wei Wuxian lays a hand on his arm, swaying slightly from side to side. Instead of jerking back from it like he expected, Lan Wangji leans into the touch, and he has to adjust quickly before they both fall off balance.

“Aiyo, Lan Zhan! What are you doing?”

“Wei Ying.”

“Yes, yes, that’s me.” Wei Wuxian glances around. “Lan Zhan, what are you doing h—wait, where’s Bichen?”

Lan Wangji blinks slowly at him. He seems quite preoccupied with something about Wei Wuxian’s face.

“Lan Zhan?” he prompts, when Lan Wangji just keeps staring at him, like he didn’t hear.

“Mn?”

“Bichen?”

“Oh.” Lan Wangji frowns slightly, looking around as well. Then he pauses, thinking. “Inn room.”

He looks immensely satisfied that he remembered that particular detail. Unable to stop himself, Wei Wuxian grins. Lan Wangji is truly such a useless drunk!

“Ah, I see, I see,” he says, fond, and pats Lan Wangji on the chest.

As he does, he glances at Wen Ning, tilting his head to try and indicate that they can meet up in a few minutes somewhere nearby. Right now, he needs to focus on getting Lan Wangji back to bed before they cause a ruckus and people notice them. Bichen might be back at the inn room, sleeping off the alcohol like she did that one time they got drunk as disciples, but he knows from that same experience that a drunk Lan Wangji isn’t nearly as easy to predict. 

Wen Ning thankfully gets the hint. He disappears fully into the darkness, leaving Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji, and Suibian alone to sort things out.

“Look at you,” Wei Wuxian scolds, mainly to keep Lan Wangji’s focus on him, in case his drunk brain decides Wen Ning is bad now. He smooths down some of the wrinkles on Lan Wangji’s sleeves before doing the same to the cloth on his chest, tutting. “How many dumb rules are you breaking, hmm? Only one wrinkle in your clothes allowed per day, I bet!”

Lan Wangji hums at the brush of Wei Wuxian’s fingers on his robes. When he sways forward into their shared space, almost like he’s chasing the contact, Wei Wuxian flinches back in surprise.

Wondering if Lan Wangji was trying to move away but was just a bit unsteady, he draws his hand back. “O-oh?”

Lan Wangji frowns, eyes tracking his retreating hand.

“Wei Ying,” he says, distressed in a way that makes Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen, and reaches out to grab it before Wei Wuxian can fully scoot away.

His heart, which had just calmed down from all the drama with Suyin, starts thundering in his ears once more. He stays very still as Lan Wangji brings the hand back to his chest, a look of deep concentration on his face as he does so.

When Wei Wuxian’s hand is back in place, he sighs, soft.

Stomach fluttering, Wei Wuxian murmurs, “Ah, Lan Zhan?”

Lan Wangji doesn’t reply. He just keeps a gentle hold on Wei Wuxian’s wrist, even though Wei Wuxian isn’t trying to move away anymore. The frown from seconds before has been smoothed out, but he doesn’t look relaxed, either.

His eyes are glazed over with more than just alcohol. The curve of his brows, of his lips, are almost… pained.  

This isn’t the first time Wei Wuxian has seen him looking like this. Since he and Suibian came back from the dead, Lan Wangji has tucked this expression away, the subtle traces of it emerging only when he thinks they’re not looking. It’s similar to the look that was on his face earlier today, too, when he was talking about what happened to Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what it is, and he’s afraid to ask—like doing so would be intruding on some unspoken thing they’re tip-toeing around, a part of those empty years he was dead that no one seems interested in filling in for him.

Whatever it is, it has him aching, down to the very core of him. He doesn’t want Lan Wangji to look like this ever again, like some part of him has gone belly-up and vulnerable, ready to be kicked.

He wants it gone. Now.  

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan,” he tries to soothe, smoothing down more wrinkles in his robes, and Lan Wangji presses more firmly into that shared point of contact. His golden gaze flicks up to Wei Wuxian’s face and stays there, intent.

Wei Wuxian opens his mouth. Closes it.

This Lan Zhan –the one who will touch Bichen in front of him, who wipes away his tears, who keeps him close without flinching away—is the same in all the ways that matter, but so very new, too. He doesn’t understand those new parts, sometimes.

He doesn’t know what to do about them either.

“Nap time for you!” he declares, too exhausted from tonight to even try. Keeping his tone bright, he turns to Suibian. “You feel like you can walk? I might have to drag him a bit, but I could stick you in my robes, maybe?”

Suibian has been watching him and Lan Wangji with a contemplative twist to her ears. At the question, she perks them back up.

“I can walk, but I don’t think we’re going to drag him anywhere he doesn’t want to go.”

“Sure we can!” Wei Wuxian says, and tugs on Lan Wangji’s arm. Lan Wangji blinks at him, not moving an inch. “Lan Zhan, come on, we’re going to go to bed! Aren’t you sleepy? A nice big bed, just for you and Bichen, and when you wake up tomorrow maybe you won’t be hungover! That sounds nice, right?”

Lan Wangji seems to think about this.

“No,” he decides.

“Oh come on!”

Lan Wangji doesn’t even acknowledge the protest. Instead, he grabs Wei Wuxian’s hand and, with an efficient jerk, starts pulling Wei Wuxian out of the alleyway. Wei Wuxian yelps at the abrupt change, Suibian scrambling unsteadily off her barrel to follow.

“Lan Zhan?! What—hey! No, our inn is the other way, Lan Zhan—!”

Lan Wangji does not appear to care.

“This is going to be interesting,” Suibian pants, barely keeping up. Wei Wuxian has just enough time to scoop her up from the cobblestone street before Lan Wangji tugs them away, destination unknown.


“You should not have done that.”

Lan Wangji winces.

Bichen’s voice, despite being the same volume as always, sends an unpleasant ache pounding through his head. He’s known from the moment he woke up a few seconds ago that something is terribly wrong: morning light is streaming in through the inn windows, much too bright for it to be the proper time to rise, and his thoughts feel heavy, fuzzy.

Her tone simply confirms his suspicions. When he turns his head to face her, her eyes are fire.

She is, unmistakably, angry.

Very rarely is he ever the subject of her anger. He has seen it directed now countless times towards their uncle, their brother, the other sects—but ten years have passed since the last time she regarded him like this, when he downed a bottle of Emperor’s Smile and stumbled off on his own to sear a brand into a chest, leaving her dizzy and sleepy in the Jingshi, unable to follow. 

He recalls the morning after, a molten mess of emotions that had poured out of each of them and left them not speaking for an entire day.

How can I be your heart if you won’t let me into it?!

Outside of losing Wei Ying, nothing has ever been so painful.

After that fight, he had sworn he would not do such a thing again. Yet here he is: undeniably hungover, the prior evening nothing but watery flashes of broken memory in his head. Dread settles in his stomach, heavy. Not as heavy as when he thought Wei Ying to be gone to this world forever, but heavy enough.

Wei Ying. Lan Wangji startles up, blood pumping. How could he not have noticed? The room is empty and Wei Ying is—

“Up and about,” Bichen says, ears pressed flat back against her head at whatever emotion he’s projecting into their bond. The rest of the room lays behind her, silent, as if even it is waiting for her judgement. “He and Suibian left an hour ago to get food. They said they would be back.”

He relaxes slightly as the words sink in, although it is impossible to do so fully when their bond still burns with emotion. There is some reassurance in Wei Ying’s bag still by the bedside, a bottle of half-finished Emperor’s Smile at the table, but the rest of the inn room provides little comfort for the sting of it—rougher sheets than home, all dark wood and dark curtains, as unfamiliar to him as whatever transpired the night before.

And Bichen, still full of fire.

There is not an apology that would satisfy her, nor one that he feels worthy of giving. Her anger is appropriate.

He swallows, and holds out a hand to her.

She stares at it for a moment, thinking. The seconds tick by, too slow.

Then, with a very gentle purr, she butts her face into his hand.

Relief flashes through him so strongly that the pain in his head recedes for a moment, her forgiveness more potent than any salve a healer could give him. It’s with a shaky breath that he curls his fingers into her fur and rubs one of her spotted ears.

“How much do you remember?” she asks, and Lan Wangji shakes his head.

“Before. And the intruder.”

“Nothing in-between?”

He shakes his head again. There’s a pause.

“Well,” Bichen says, and lets out a little huff, “you smell like rooster.”

--

By the time they make it out of the room and into the open air, the sun has inched another few degrees across the sky, signaling mid-day. He had forgotten what the day after was like, and it is no less unpleasant than before: everything is too bright, head-pounding, pressing against the last traces of nausea that he has not been able to burn off with his core.

A group of children bolt past them, laughing high-pitched and loud and making him wince. Bichen side-eyes him, but doesn’t comment. It is, he thinks, quite magnanimous of her.

“Where do you think they—” Bichen starts, but a voice cuts her off.

“Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji turns, breath catching.                                 

Wei Ying is standing at the steps leading up to the inn, a wide grin on his face.

He is beautiful. He always is, yet Lan Wangji is struck with it each time. His face is the only part of the world bathed in sunlight that doesn’t hurt to look at, limbs loose and relaxed. Suibian is balanced on his shoulder, tail wagging furiously at the sight of them, eyes bright. The entire crowd fades out, narrows down to just the two of them, alive and happy in the afternoon air.

“Wei Ying,” he breathes. It is an instinctual response, the way his heart swells; the same as when he sat in the Jingshi that first day and realized he could speak the name again and have it mean something. Every day since, he has felt the way it seems to want to burst out of him.  

Precious. Wanted. Wei Ying.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei Ying repeats, and laughs, windchimes that don’t hurt his head at all. There are two scallion pancakes clutched in his left hand, one of which Suibian is currently trying to sneak a bite of. When he bounds up the steps to them, a blur of black and red, the smell of fried oil and herbs comes with him, warm and enticing. “Good morning! You won’t believe it, some kids were playing the silliest game just now! Troublemakers, the lot of them.”

Lan Wangji wishes he had something to say to that, but there is no room in his throat for anything but his own fluttering heart. A wool-lined under robe is peeking out from the space near Wei Ying’s collarbone, and Lan Wangji cannot tear his gaze away from it.

It is an illicit pleasure to see him wearing something Lan Wangji chose. He has not mentioned being cold since.

He wants more.

“You must have fit right in, then,” Bichen says, when Lan Wangji does nothing but stare.

Wei Ying laughs, quick and surprised, like a bird taking flight. But his smile grows. “Oi! That’s slander, rumor, hearsay! I’ll let you know that there isn’t a bone of trouble in my body.”

Lan Wangji finally forces his eyes away from Wei Ying’s robes to raise an eyebrow at him. Wei Ying beams back.

“Alright, alright, maybe that’s not true. Still! You missed a very skillful rendition of the famous Hanguang-Jun.”

“Their daemon was a baby snow leopard and everything!” Suibian adds, and gives up on the scallion pancakes in favor of scrambling down to weave between Bichen’s legs. “It was so cute! Bichen, I bet you were even cuter, I wish I could have seen you as a baby!”

Bichen’s tail curls in the air, warmth flooding their bond. “Perhaps. Although before I settled, I would not have been in this form.”

“Oh?” Suibian looks up from where she’s now flopped over on top of Bichen’s paw, head tilted.

“Yes. I was usually a rabbit.”

Wei Ying and Suibian stare at her. Lan Wangji wants to bury his face in his hands.  

It is, of course, Wei Ying who laughs first.

“Ah, Lan Zhan, I knew it!” he says, swaying closer so he can wink, and Lan Wangji can feel his ears heating up. The embarrassment is worth it, though, if it means Wei Ying keeps smiling at him so freely. “Always had a soft spot for bunnies, didn’t you?”

“What happened last night?” Lan Wangji asks instead of answering, because he would like to go to the grave with that information, if Bichen can hold her tongue.

Wei Ying’s smile falters for a fraction of a second before coming back in full force.

“It was nothing, really. You just got kind of sleepy and we wandered around a bit, then I took you back up to the room!  You weigh a lot, you know that? Hanguang-Jun, made of pure muscle!”

“Bichen said I smelled like rooster.”

“Oh.” Wei Ying’s glances to Bichen, who is currently listening to Suibian’s extensive list of forms she’s seen baby daemons take, and whether Bichen would have looked cute as them. From the look on Bichen’s face, the answer so far has been yes. “Um, yeah, we gave a local farmer some unexpected business! Ah, ah, don’t make that face, it’s fine, really, Lan Zhan, you worry too much. Do you remember anything?”

Reluctantly, Lan Wangji allows himself to be diverted to the new topic. “The intruder.”

Wei Ying nods, using his free hand to rub his nose. “Yeah, I don’t know what was up with that. But we must be on the right track, if we’re starting to get folks breaking and entering! Maybe the sword spirit is finally pointing us towards something big, yeah?”

“Mn.”

“Still, though,” and Wei Ying’s voice has pitched higher, his gaze somewhere by Lan Wangji’s ear, “nothing else? That’s all you remember right?”

Lan Wangji glances behind him, in case Wei Ying is actually looking at something, and finds only the inn’s worn-down wooden sign. He turns back with a frown.

“Wei Ying. What happened?”

“It’s,” Wei Ying begins, and hesitates. The paper wrapping around the pancakes crinkles when he starts to fidget, a motion so telling that Lan Wangji’s tension ratchets up to three times its normal level. It’s enough that Bichen pauses and looks up at them, ears twisting. “We—ok, don’t freak out, alright?”

Lan Wangji blinks at him. Wei Ying looks back, expectant.

“I will not freak out,” he says, even as anxiety makes his shoulders tense. His mind flips through the hundreds of things that could have happened last night; what he might have done or, even worse, said.

Wei Ying nods, short and jerky. “Alright! Ok, so, we, uh—we saw Wen Ning, last night.”

There’s a pause.

“And I know that sounds absolutely wild,” Wei Ying blurts, right as Lan Wangji opens his mouth, like he’s afraid of whatever he was going to say. “And probably dangerous, but I swear that whatever was wrong with him is fixed now! The whole thing is going to seem really, truly, unbelievable—”

“Wei Ying.”

“—I mean really, Lan Zhan, I wouldn’t believe me, so I don’t blame you if you have your suspicions! But he literally just appeared when I started playing, I wasn’t even trying to call him, I swear, it just happened. He really is—”

Wei Ying.”

“—good now—huh, yeah?”

Wei Ying stops, blinking at the tone. Lan Wangji barely manages to hold in a sigh; Wei Ying is gripping the scallion pancakes so tightly that they’re threatening to break apart.

All of the tension in him has evaporated. This is what Wei Ying was worried about?

Slowly, in case Wei Ying would rather not be touched, he reaches out and takes the pancakes from him. His hands are warm and smooth when Lan Wangji’s fingers brush against them, twitching when their skin meets, oil on the tips of his fingers from the meal. It is the smallest and most potent point of contact, yet his heart flutters anyways.

“You are ruining your pancakes,” he says, instead of all the other things he wishes to, and draws his hands back before he can do something rash.

“Oh!” Wei Ying looks at the crumpled wrapping now safely in Lan Wangji’s grasp. There is a beautiful flush on his cheeks when he looks back. His next laugh sounds almost breathless. “Oh, right!”

“And,” Lan Wangji continues, putting his free hand behind his back, because now that he knows what it feels like to touch him (and they are always touching now, in so many small ways), the itch to reach back out is nearly addicting in its pull, “I believe you.”

That makes the fidgeting stop entirely.

“Oh,” Wei Ying repeats, his lips slightly parted. “I—really?”

Lan Wangji frowns at the surprise woven into his tone. Of course, he wants to say. I trust you with my life. With everything.

He had said it before: zhiji. The word is tucked close to Lan Wangji’s heart, the memory of when Wei Ying had said it well-worn and no less precious after thirteen years. Over a decade of wishing, of remorse, and he has come to know every syllable and how it feels on his lips, punishment and salve in equal measure. A truth rooted deep in his very foundation, grounding and growing and brought back to vibrant life just like the man himself. The trust that has bloomed from it now is unwavering, endless. Flourishing under Wei Ying’s sunshine smile.

Surely, he thinks, Wei Ying already knows, must know this. He and Bichen have not been subtle.

But Wei Ying is still staring up at him, disbelief shining in his eyes.

“Yes,” he says, because maybe, somehow, he doesn’t. The thought is dizzying. “When it comes to Wei Ying, always. You do not need to…” Belittle yourself. Think I will stand anywhere but alongside you. Underestimate the depth of my devotion. “…have doubts.”

Bichen and Suibian have gone quiet, watching their exchange. Their eyes flick between his and Wei Ying’s faces.

“You’re…” Wei Ying says, and he’s flushed still. Perhaps the robes are too warm after all? Lan Wangji will have to figure out a way to ask. “Ah, Lan Zhan! You can’t just say things like that!”

Lan Wangji frowns, confused. “But it is true.”

“Noo!” Wei Ying holds up his hands and waves them frantically between them, as if he can batt the words away. “Lan Zhan, that’s exactly what I’m talking about! You can’t—I—you shouldn’t just believe everything I say!”

“Why not?”

Wei Ying rolls his eyes. “I don’t know! What if I was hiding something, or lying?”

“Would you?”

“Would I what?”

“Lie to me.”

Wei Ying drops his hands, eyes wide and startled. Lan Wangji waits patiently as the silence stretches between them, as Wei Ying’s gaze flicks down to the stone, then back up to him.

“No,” he says, low and soft, all traces of hesitation from earlier gone. He’s biting his lip, top teeth working at the pink there. Lan Wangji wants to learn forward and bite it, too. “No. Never about the important things.”

Fondness blooms in Lan Wangji.

It is a very Wei Ying answer. True and sincere, heartfelt, and somehow entirely removing himself from the equation anyways.  

They will have time, later, after all of this is over, to figure out what is on Wei Ying’s list of important things. To scratch notes into the margins; to add bullet points for his health, his happiness, his own dreams and desires. For Lan Wangji to rephrase and reword until Wei Ying understands that on Lan Wangji’s list, Wei Ying is at the very top.  

For now, he offers the pancakes back to Wei Ying.

“Then I believe you.”

Slowly, like the rising sun, a smile breaks out across Wei Ying’s face.

It is smaller than normal, shy and soft in a way Lan Wangji did not think was possible. Unmistakably pleased despite that, the light of it spreading across his cheeks and into his eyes and the laugh he lets out soon after.

When he steps closer to take one of the pancakes back, neither of them move away.

“Right,” he says, and nods to the remaining pancake in Lan Wangji’s grasp. He is so close, close enough that Lan Wangji can count his eyelashes. “Here, here, you keep that one, stories are better told over food, anyways! You should try it, it’s really good!”

Lan Wangji looks at the pancake, at the bright red flakes of chili dotting the otherwise innocent oil. It will be spicy, unbearably so, given that Wei Ying seems so taken with it. It will burn his tongue and make his eyes water and leave Bichen panting as the heat rushes through them. It will be absolutely miserable to eat, and if he starts, he will have to keep going until Wei Ying finishes his story.

He takes a bite, and lets himself burn.

Chapter Text


If you wanted to divert a mighty river into a different course, and all you had was a single pebble, you could do it, as long as you put the pebble in the right place to send the first trickle of water that way instead of this.
― Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass


“This is really unnecessary.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t look up from where he’s counting out silver.

“Lan Zhan, please, really!” Wei Wuxian inches closer to him, tempted to lay a hand on his arm to see if that will make him stop being so—so— “We literally just ate those pancakes!”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji agrees, and hands over the silver to the merchant. They’re young, and pretty, with dark black hair twisted up in an intricate bun, a red hairpiece that matches the color of their lips when they smile up at Lan Wangji. They hadn’t smiled at him like that, when he and Suibian were wandering around on their own earlier.

“Shh,” Suibian whispers in his ear, staring at the merchant with bright eyes. Or, more specifically, at what the merchant is now handing to Lan Wangji.

“You’re being greedy,” he scolds, but she’s not paying him any attention. Around them, the streets are bustling, afternoon sunshine mixing with the shouts of vendors all vying for passerby’s attention. The fact that this one caught hers is no coincidence.

The silver clinks as it transfers owners, followed by the rustle of wrapping. When Lan Wangji turns back to them, very-interested-and-pretty-merchant evidently forgotten now that the transaction is over, Suibian squeaks and starts to wriggle.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!”

Wei Wuxian sighs, shaking his head as Suibian’s tail whacks him in the nose from her excitement. Lan Wangji inclines his head and hands over the package of six perfectly shaped red bean buns, practically shoving them at Wei Wuxian before he can try to wave them off.

“Aiyo, really,” he says, staring down at the size of them, “are you trying to feed a small army?!”

“No.” Lan Wangji places his hand behind his back and starts to move away from the stall, the merchant calling out a coy hope to see you again soon! as they retreat. He does not look back at them. “Just you.”

A flush inches across the back of Wei Wuxian’s neck.

“I don’t eat that much!”

“Then they will last a few days.”

“Not if I have any say in it!” Suibian chitters, already trying to tightrope walk on his arm so she can snag one of them. Her claws dig into the fabric, for once thick enough that Wei Wuxian doesn’t feel the pinprick pain of them, but he shoos her off anyways.

“A-Sui, you’re going to explode! These are strictly rationed, you understand?”

She pouts up at him. In his periphery, he sees a faint smile appear at the corner of Lan Wangji’s lips.

“If we run out,” he says, not breaking his steady pace as they navigate through the crowd, “then we will buy more.”

He says it like he has said so many things since Wei Wuxian and Suibian came back: straightforward, simple, as if he is just stating a fact instead of the most ridiculous and overindulgent thing Wei Wuxian has ever heard. From her place ahead of them, Bichen rumbles in approval, strangers’ shadows flitting over her coat and contrasting against the white patches.

Suddenly, Wei Wuxian’s chest is impossibly full.

He looks back down at the buns so he doesn’t keep staring at Lan Wangji’s smile, Bichen’s curled tail, warmth flooding him in a way that has nothing to do with the blazing sun overhead. The buns, of course, do nothing but sit there, little pillows tucked together with bamboo; but he keeps his head down anyways, focuses on the weight of them, the lightly spiced, sweet aroma from the filling inside.

Lan Wangji and Bichen are too good to them.

Not that he minds, not really! Of the unexpected surprises since he came back from the dead, this one is certainly one of the most pleasant. Every day that he can be by their side is a good one, as far as he’s concerned.

It’s just—a lot, sometimes.

Suibian nibbles on his ear, a scrape of pointed teeth, drawing him from his thoughts with a yelp. When he turns his head to look at her, she blinks at him, the picture of innocence.

Knowing where this is going, he sighs and gives her a bun. Better for her to chew on that than his ear again, that’s for sure.

With a yip of delight, she climbs into the fold of his robes and starts to dig in.

“So now that we have snacks,” he says, and skips forward so he can walk in front of Lan Wangji, face-to-face, see the comforting gold of his eyes, “where are we off to next? Wait, actually, how long until the discussion conference?”

(Truthfully, he already knows—he’s been counting down the days until he can see Shijie again. Now, with Wen Ning, they just have another excuse to go to Koi Tower; but he wants to hear them say it, like they have every day. Wants them to remind him that it’s not all in his head.)

“We will see your sister in three weeks,” Bichen rumbles, and Wei Wuxian’s heart soars into the bright blue sky. It makes him feel restless, in a good way; not just the words, but the way she’s watching Suibian eat, too, eyes softening when Suibian takes too big of a bite and smears sticky red bean bun paste across her chin with an oops! “Travel will take a week, at most. There is time.”

There’s time.

He’s still getting used to that.

“Then we keep heading south, yeah?” he asks, and beams when Lan Wangji nods. “Ah, I have a good feeling about this one! Lan Zhan, you’ll lead this wayward cultivator to the proper path, won’t you?”

A small smile plays across Lan Wangji’s lips. “Mn. Towards Shudong province.”

“Shudong?!”

Wei Wuxian pauses, looking to his right. Two or so mĭ away, he sees the source of the new voice: an elderly gentleman, wrinkles etched on his face, staring at them from what appears to be the middle of a (now interrupted) game of xiangqi. When he sees that he caught their attention, he beckons them over, eyes wide.

Wei Wuxian looks to Lan Wangji, whose brow is furrowed. Then he looks to Bichen, who nods.

They go over.

“Hello there!” Wei Wuxian says, bowing to him and the younger woman he was playing with. The elderly gentleman squints up at him, one of his wizened hands resting on the shi piece. “May this humble youth ask why you called us over?”

“Did I hear you were heading towards Shudong?”

“That’s right!” Wei Wuxian smiles at him, confused when the confirmation makes the older man’s frown deepen. Next to him, Lan Wangji shifts slightly, the edge of his sleeve brushing against Wei Wuxian’s robes.

“I wouldn’t go there if I were you,” the old man advises, glancing between the four of them. His daemon, a beautiful, shiny grass snake, nods from where it’s draped across his neck. “Shudong is nothing but bad news! You must not be from around here, if you haven’t heard.”

Suibian pokes her head out of his robes, looking at them with interest. “Heard what?”

The gentleman glances around them, then beckons them even closer, leaning forward as he does. When he speaks, it’s barely above a whisper.

“You didn’t hear it from me, but there’s been reports of all kinds of strange goings-on. Rumors about curses, possessions, ghosts that take advantage of honest men and steal their money. Sounds so loud that they shake the trees and earth!”

Wei Wuxian tilts his head. “What kind of sounds?”

“Oh, all kinds! Horrible shrieking, roaring, like some wild animals are roaming the land. A letter carrier came through the other day, pale as a ghost, blabbering about hearing a tiger roaring in the dead of night!”

“A tiger?”

The old man waves his hand, like even he knows the claim is ridiculous. “Of course, there’s not those kinds of animals there, it’s all rough terrain, not hospitable at all! But doesn’t such a strange thing point to the other rumors being true? Why, my granddaughter’s farm won’t grow a single turnip!”

“Her farm hasn’t grown turnips for years,” says the other player, which earns a glare. She inclines her head, bangs falling across her cheekbones and onto the water dragon clinging to her collar. “I apologize, young masters. The town is full of gossip, but no proof. None of us have actually been in the area since the reports started.”

“When did you first hear about it?” Suibian asks, and the woman pauses, seeming to think.

“A few weeks ago, maybe? It was very quiet before then. But you know how these things go. One merchant loses his coin purse, or a letter carrier gets drunk and starts imagining sounds, and suddenly a whole area is haunted.”

Wei Wuxian turns the information over in his head. She’s right—a lot of what the older man is saying sounds like typical rumors, non-cultivators turning small coincidences into bigger theories. It’s not the first time he’s heard claim of ghosts when it’s just a dry year.

But the sword spirit is pointing them south.

“It’s true!” the old man insists, now waving the shi piece in the air as he motions at his companion. “That cultivator who came by earlier, he seemed interested, why can’t you open your mind a little, A-Lin…”

“Shufu, really, you shouldn’t believe everything you hear…”

They start to squabble, good-natured but no longer of any help. Wei Wuxian turns back to Lan Wangji, who is already waiting to meet his gaze.

“Think this is related somehow?” he asks in an undertone, and Lan Wangji nods.

“It is suspect.”

That feels like the understatement of the century. Ghosts and ghouls and possession, fine, that’s part of his normal wheelhouse at this point; but he’s never heard of people hearing random animal sounds, at least not ones loud enough to shake things.

“Thank you for your help,” Wei Wuxian tells the old man, who pauses in his passionate argument to nod. “We will be careful not to interfere with your granddaughter’s crops.”

“Wait! You’re still going to go?!”

Before Wei Wuxian can respond, A-Lin laughs. “Of course they are, Shufu. Look at them! I’ve not yet had the pleasure of being introduced to you, gongzi, but if you are with Hanguang-Jun and Lan Bichen, there is no doubt you are going where the chaos is.”

The older man does a double take at the title, eyes moving from Wei Wuxian to Lan Wangji at an almost comical speed. Suibian, who had been trying to get Bichen’s attention to tell her something, swivels her head so fast that her neck cracks.

“You know them?”

Lan Wangji and Bichen look just as surprised as Suibian to be addressed by title. A-Lin smiles, taking the shi token from her gaping uncle and placing it back on the board.

“Of course! Well, not personally, but everyone knows the stories,” she says, motioning to the two of them. “A helpful man dressed in all white, snow leopard at his side. Pretty hard to mistake for anyone else!”

“We don’t get many cultivators here, let alone ones willing to help,” her daemon agrees, its banded tail twitching to keep its balance as it shifts on her robes. The sun reflects off its scales like freshly polished turquoise. “We are still very grateful to you, Hanguang-Jun, for dealing with that possession case last year. It is an honor to meet you both; we were not there to see you in action, but our sister told us it was quite the sight.”

Recognition dawns in Lan Wangji’s eyes. He inclines his head.

“It was no trouble.” A pause. “Is she well?”

“Oh, yes!” A-Lin beams at him. It is a very different kind of smile than the merchant earlier; Wei Wuxian likes it. “No other issues since you gave us those talismans. It was very kind of you to answer our plea. Everyone said you would come –you actually helped one of my old classmates over in Caiyi, too— but it was hard to believe, you know?”

Wei Wuxian is finding it hard to believe, himself. He stares at Lan Wangji, trying to piece together this whole other side of him.

Jiang Cheng had said Lan Wangji had been busy these past thirteen years, but Wei Wuxian figured he was just trying and get a reaction out of him. Now, he thinks back to the children playing on the street, how proud one of them had been to be the one playing Hanguang-Jun. The way the juniors looked at him on Dafan Mountain, like some kind of otherworldly force. How, even now, strangers they pass will sometimes smile at Lan Wangji, or blush, or offer careful bows.

He had thought it was just because Lan Wangji inspired that kind of thing. How could anyone look at him and not feel a bit flustered?

But…

“What did he do in Caiyi?” he asks A-Lin, because he absolutely has to know right now.  She straightens up with a grin, clearly happy that he asked.

“Well, there was this ghost that looked like a fo—”

“Thank you for your time,” Lan Wangji says, as Wei Wuxian is leaning in to hear more. Then, in a flash of white and without another word, he and Bichen turn on their heels and start walking away.

Wei Wuxian gapes at their retreating backs.

“Hey! Lan Zhan, wait! I – so sorry, so sorry, thank you again for the information, it was very helpful, good luck with your game—wait for me! Lan Zhan!

He races after them, giving one last thanks as he goes. A-Lin waves, and, seeing her uncle’s still awe-struck face, takes the opportunity to pin his shi with her pao piece.

“Why’d you run off?” Wei Wuxian demands when he catches up to them, promptly slowing down so he’s walking next to Lan Wangji. Lan Wangji looks straight ahead, not meeting his eyes. Despite the fast exit, his expression is as composed as ever.

“Not a run.”

Wei Wuxian hums, noncommittal. “It was a bit of a run.”

“We should hurry,” Bichen interjects, not looking at the curious pair of fox eyes poking out of his robes. “It might be a long walk.”

Wei Wuxian frowns at them. They certainly hadn’t seemed in a hurry, earlier, when they’d let Wei Wuxian blab their ears off about Wen Ning and then wandered around the market looking for a place that sold red bean buns because Suibian just happened to mention she was craving something sweet, but ok.

“Ah, well,” he says, and lightly nudges Lan Wangji’s side, because even he knows when to let something be, at least for right now, “if the famous Hanguang-Jun and Lan Bichen are leading the way, then what I am to do but follow!”

At the touch, Lan Wangji finally looks at him. His ears, Wei Wuxian notes with a burst of satisfaction, have tinted pink.

“Wei Ying.”

“Lan Zhan!” he laughs, and some of the tension in Lan Wangji’s shoulders loosens. He looks back at the road ahead of them, but it feels better this time. More like him.

“To Shudong,” Suibian says, anticipation thrumming through their bond, and Lan Wangji nods.

“To Shudong.”


Shudong leads them to a farmer, who points them to a path marked Yi City, which is where they find the daemon.

It’s more on the outskirts than in the town itself, somewhere along the indeterminable space between the start of the winding path and the end of it. Wei Wuxian is chatting away in the fog, trying to wheedle stories about helping people out of Lan Wangji and largely failing, when Bichen comes to an abrupt stop in front of them.

“Wait.”

Wei Wuxian is so busy talking that he barely avoids running into her; it’s only the uncharacteristic volume of the word and Lan Wangji’s sudden, careful grip on his elbow that stops what would not doubt be a complete disaster.

They all look down at Bichen.

She’s carefully surveying the landscape around them, ears pressed back against her head. All around them are grey trees, withered and twisted and tangled together like long-forgotten skeletons of what the land used to be. It’s eerily quiet, only broken by an occasional whisper of wind, low and whistling. If Wei Wuxian hadn’t spent years living in the burial mounds, he would call it haunting, but this is more of a low-grade melancholy in comparison.

It’s been like this since they stepped off the main road, though. When Wei Wuxian looks around, he doesn’t see anything different than before.

“What is it?” he asks, trying to ignore Suibian’s tail flicking against his neck as she starts to sniff the air. Bichen’s tail is flicking as well, the hair on her neck slightly raised.

“I smell something. It’s…”

“Oh,” Suibian says, and wrinkles her nose. One of the nearby branches is caught behind her ear, a splash of grey and brown among the tan of her fur. “Oh, A-Xian, it smells so weird!”

“Weird how?” he asks, reaching up to brush the branch away, and she chitters, burying her nose in the thick fur of her tail.

“Unnatural,” Bichen murmurs, her eyes moving carefully across the landscape in front of them. Lan Wangji’s grip on him elbow tightens, just a tad. When Wei Wuxian glances up at him, there’s a furrow between his brows. “I… do not know how to explain it.”

“It’s what the blood nails smelled like, but way stronger.” Suibian’s voice is muffled, still trying to block out the scent. All eyes turn to her, and her ears press back against her head. “What?”

“This is what they smelled like?” Bichen asks, something rough and surprised tucked into the question, and Suibian nods, confusion tinting their link. She looks to Lan Wangji, then back at Suibian. “You are sure?”

“Of course I’m sure! I’m not like A-Xian, I can remember things that happened less than a day ago.”

Wei Wuxian tuts at her, tugging on her tail in retaliation. It earns him an unhappy ak-ak-ak, a cold fox nose shoved into his robes instead.

Bichen has her own nose back to the ground, ears perked as the trees whistle and shift around them. With a huff, Suibian slides off his shoulders and goes to join her search, poking her head into a nearby bush so that only her body is visible.

“I don’t see anything in here!”

Bichen chuffs at her, fond, before turning back to Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian. “We should proceed carefully. I cannot tell which direction it is coming in. It is rather overwhelming.”

“Mn.” Lan Wangji’s grip has become less of a stabilizing force and more of a tether, like he thinks Wei Wuxian is going to bolt down the road to start looking for clues. Which, to be fair, he had considered, but something about this place makes him want to stick as close to Lan Wangji as he can.

Suibian apparently has no such concerns. There’s a rustle of leaves, and when they look back at where she was, she’s gone.

“Suibian?” he calls, as Bichen beelines straight for the bush.

No response. There’s just a tuft of tan and white fur on one of the branches, pulled off when she—what, went in? Was grabbed?

When he checks their link, it’s steady and curious, an undercurrent of nausea from whatever smell is throwing her and Bichen for a loop. But no pain, no panic. He can feel the tug of it as she dashes further away, not aching yet, but certainly uncomfortable.

“She’s close,” he says, because they still haven’t been able to go far from each other in these new bodies. And then, when the ache doesn’t grow, just hovers at the same level: “Oh, she’s stopped!”

Something else, fleeting and quick, reaches him through the link: surprise.

Then: concern.

“I think she’s found something,” he adds, grabbing hold of Lan Wangji’s wrist and tugging him off the path, his skin smooth and warm to the touch. Bichen darts ahead, her entire tail fluffed. They push through the dying foliage, trying not to make noise; but with the dry branches cracking underfoot, they’re far from quiet. A few birds flush in the trees above them, and a nearby mouse scurries out of their impromptu path as they make their way deeper.

And then, past a half-fallen tree: Suibian.

She’s standing in front of a hollow log covered with bright red lichen, the moss stretching across the grey bark like a splatter of blood. Wei Wuxian can’t see her face, given that she’s currently halfway into the tunnel made by the wood, tail twitching in what he immediately recognizes as curiosity. Dead leaves and grasses are coating her fur, but she’s otherwise unharmed, just like he’d thought.

Bichen’s entire body relaxes

“Suibian?” she calls, and Suibian perks up. She turns her head, ears brushing against the top of the wood, and yips.

“Hey! You finally caught up!”

Wei Wuxian shakes his head, fond. “Aiyo, you’re the one who ran off!”

Suibian ignores him, scrambling backwards out of the log and nearly tripping over her own feet in her haste. She shakes out her coat, leaves and dirt falling to the ground, and turns fully to face them.

“Look!” she says, tail twitching at top speed, and steps to the side. “It’s a daemon!”

“What?!”

She’s right: there, tucked into the hollowed-out wood, is a small lump of grey and black fur. Some kind of monkey, maybe, although smaller than anything he’s seen before, half of Suibian’s size at the most. Whatever it is, it looks a mess: there’s a smear of red on its front, and its fur is matted, uncared for. Its breathing is shallow, and as they come closer, Wei Wuxian realizes that its eyes are closed.

“I think it’s hurt,” Suibian tells them as they join her, Bichen standing right next to her with her nose wrinkled. It’s eerily quiet, no other signs of life outside the five of them. “I’ve been trying to talk to it, but it won’t answer.”

Frowning, Wei Wuxian kneels down to examine it, careful not to touch. He’s seen daemons faint before –how many times did Nie Huaisang and Qiaolian faint when they were disciples?— but this looks… different.

Unnatural.

“Something is going on with this one,” he says, and Lan Wangji makes a noise of agreement. He turns to Suibian and Bichen. “Is this where the smell is coming from?”

“It is certainly stronger here,” Bichen says, and glances back to the path. “But it is not only from this. There is a depth to it, all around us. Like fruit that has fermented for too long and has turned rotten.”

Wei Wuxian makes a face. Not the most pleasant smell, then. 

“What’s it doing here, then?” Wei Wuxian rubs at his nose, trying to piece the information together. Lan Wangji is frowning as well, the slightest furrow between his brows. “The old man had said people were hearing animal sounds, ones that didn’t fit the area. There’s no way this little thing could make that much noise, right?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “Unlikely.”

“Hmm.”

“What if it’s like Suyin?” Suibian asks, making all heads turn to her. She perks her ears, happy to be listened to, and continues on, “I mean, the blood nails smell, plus an unconscious daemon? It’s not nearly as bad a state as she was, but maybe it hasn’t been separated from its human as long?”

“Could be,” Wei Wuxian says, reaching out to tap her on the noise, and she chitters. “You want to give it a try?”

“Ooh, yes, just let me—”

“Try what?”

Wei Wuxian and Suibian pause, already halfway through the process of getting her into the log, and look back.  

Bichen and Lan Wangji are watching them, confused.

“Yes, try what?” Bichen says, her voice a low rumble as she echoes Lan Wangji’s question. Her blue eyes flick between the two of them with apparent concern, matching Lan Wangji’s expression, and—and oh, shit.

When they told them about Wen Ning, they kind of… skipped over this part.

Not on purpose! Or, well—only slightly on purpose. Lan Wangji would have been worried, and tried to transfer him more spiritual energy, and Wei Wuxian has been greedy enough already with his kindness. He didn’t want Lan Wangji to look at him like he did the night they ran into Jiang Cheng and Sandu: brows furrowed, lips turned down at the corners, something aching and raw in his golden eyes.

Lan Wangji shouldn’t have to feel that way. Not about him. Not when it’s all worked out in the end.

Besides, it wasn’t that important!

At least, at the time he thought it wasn’t. Now, well…

Whoops.

“Oh!” Suibian says, as alarms blare in Wei Wuxian’s head. Anxiety floods their bond and makes him bite the inside of his cheek, residual nerves. “Oh, um… Well, when we found Wen Ning and Suyin, she wasn’t doing too great. And, well it’s kind of a long story, but A-Xian and I found a talisman that lets me transfer some of my energy to others, so we just—gave her a boost. With me.”

Bichen and Lan Wangji’s eyebrows have shot up.

“I,” Lan Wangji says slowly, and he’s looking at Wei Wuxian, perceiving him, oh no, “did not know that was possible.”

Wei Wuxian shrugs. “Well, I don’t think it technically was, until we figured it out. We, uh, invented it.”

“You did?

He turns to Bichen, who is staring up at him with open shock.

“Yeah! I mean, it’s not like it’s that complex—”

Why?” Bichen asks, ignoring him in favor of looking at Suibian instead. Her voice is edged with something, and Suibian squirms, sending a clear look for help his way.

“Oh, you know us, we love to experiment!” he jumps back in, and shoves a smile on his face. Lan Wangji’s eyebrows raise even further. Shit, shit, shit. “Here, do you want to see? Give me some talisman paper, and watch the magic happen!”

He wriggles his fingers, winks for good measure; Lan Wangji doesn’t move. Wei Wuxian can see the gears turning in his head and he doesn’t like it.

“When did you come up with the talisman?”

“Aiyo, Lan Zhan, really!” Wei Wuxian shakes his head, trying to cover the tightness in his throat with exasperation. This is the second reason he and Suibian agreed not to share this particular part of the story with either of them: because they’d know. They always seem to know. “That’s not a fair question, you know my memory! It could have been today, it could have been when we were disciples, it could have been when I was dead!”

Lan Wangji flinches.  

“You don’t remember when?” Bichen demands, drawing his attention away from the strange reaction, the unbidden urge to go over and touch his arm, make sure he’s ok. Her gaze on him as well now, piercing. “Are you sure?”

“I—” he starts, and his stomach flips. Lan Wangji’s quiet Would you lie to me? is still so fresh and tender in his chest, dotted with crisp pancakes and chili oil.

But he can’t just tell them the truth. He can’t.

“Can we talk about this later?” Suibian says, and Lan Wangji and Bichen switch their attention back to her. She presses her ears back against her head, so far back that she looks like the most pitiful, helpless creature on the planet, and that’s with an unconscious daemon right there to compare her to. “This smell, Bichen, it hurts my nose so much, I think I’m getting a headache…”

That does the trick.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji murmurs, as Bichen starts to fuss over Suibian (Where is the headache? How much does it hurt? Do you need water?). He reaches into his sleeves and, with nothing more than a slight rustle of fabric, draws out an entire stack of pristine, very expensive talisman paper.

Slowly, he holds it out to Wei Wuxian.

“Oh, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says, beaming as relief rushes through him, and flutters his lashes when he steps forward to take it. “Lan Wangji, Hanguang-Jun, the most illustrious Second Jade! My hero!”

The talisman paper is practically shoved into his hands.

Once they convince Bichen to step back –really, don’t be silly, Suibian is ok, we need space for this, no she doesn’t need more water— they get to work. Suibian settles down in the dirt and dried leaves, curled tight around the mystery daemon, and looks expectantly up at him.

Before, Wei Wuxian was so flooded with panic that he wasn’t paying attention to the actual sensation behind what she was doing. Now, he sits down next to them, and tries to trace the flow of it.

At first, he just feels a tugging at the tips of his fingers, the way the babies in Lotus Pier used to reach out and grab at his hands when he passed the Aunties at the market—as if his body is telling him that something’s happening in the periphery, giving him nonsense signals as it tries to make meaning of Suibian’s sensations. The feeling stretches up his arm, then to his shoulder, little tap tap taps until they finally reach his core.

It’s only after a few seconds have passed, Lan Wangji’s gaze heavy on his face, that he feels an actual pull.

It’s steady and small; almost like the feeling he gets when he and Suibian are too far apart, but without the pain. Just discomfort—a stretch as she reaches for his energy, and he gives it in return.

There’s not much time for him to delve any deeper, figure out the subtleties of how it’s flowing from him to her. Wei Wuxian is just barely starting to get woozy around the edges when the daemon twitches, shudders violently, and draws in a gasping breath.

All of the fur on Bichen’s back raises.

“Oh!” Suibian says, and opens her eyes to look at it, tail starting to wag. “Look! It worked!”

Joy blooms through their link at the next frantic inhale, so strong that all thoughts of energy and theory evaporate from Wei Wuxian’s mind. Her tail starts to wag, and she looks up at him, beaming. When he grins at her, she yips, and turns to look at Bichen and Lan Wangji, who are now hovering over the both of them, surprise curved into their brows.

“Look! A-Xian, do you see? Bichen, Lan Zhan, see, I did it!”

“You did!” he agrees, and laughs as she wriggles impatiently in Bichen’s direction, like the twitching mass of fur is a mouse she caught her for dinner and now she’s waiting for praise.

“Very impressive,” Bichen says slowly, fur still raised.

Lan Wangji doesn’t reply; he’s looking at Wei Wuxian, intent. There’s still a small frown at the corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth, a darkness to his gold eyes that Wei Wuxian knows means he’s assessing him, searching for signs of injury. When Wei Wuxian just laughs, a little loopy from the transfer and yet another success, the tense lines of his shoulders soften, just slightly.

“You are alright?” he checks, and Wei Wuxian nods. He reaches out to tug on the elegant line of his sleeve, just to tease; to his pleased surprise, Lan Wangji’s fingers twitch and he steps closer. “You have gone pale.”

Wei Wuxian waves away the concern, even as the world spins slightly. “I’m fine, I’m fine!” Lan Wangji looks dubious, so Wei Wuxian switches topics. “Look, she did it! Cool, right?”

Lan Wangji takes another step closer. “Mn.”

Then, to Wei Wuxian’s alarm, he starts to lower himself to the ground next to him.

“Lan Zhan?” he demands, and Lan Wangji sits down, right there in the leaves and the dirt, a beacon of white among the muted, dying colors. “Hey, what are you—”

“You are pale,” Lan Wangji repeats, as if that’s somehow enough of an explanation. Leaves crinkle under him as he shifts, a few catching in the fine cloud embroidery on the hem of his robes. He’s close enough that Wei Wuxian can feel the warmth of his body, hear his steady breathing. “I will sit with you.”

“But—your robes—”

Lan Wangji’s looks at him, almost unbearably gentle. “It is fine.”

“But—”

“Wei Ying.” Firmer this time; it seems like Lan Wangji is willing to dig his heels in on this one. Wei Wuxian shakes his head. What a ridiculous man.

“Suit yourself,” he says, because he is a little cold, and Lan Wangji is always a furnace. If he doesn’t cling too tightly to the niceness of it, he’s only being a little bit greedy, keeping him here like this, right? “Ah, but I’m fine, Lan Zhan, really. So get up if you want to, ok?”

Lan Wangji says, one-note, “Hmm.”

“Can you hear us?” Suibian asks the daemon, drawing Wei Wuxian’s attention back to where it should have been in the first place. The daemon is twitching more frequently now, some little whimpers escaping it; Wei Wuxian leans forward slightly, wondering if there’s an injury he missed.

Suddenly, as if flinching back to life, opens its eyes.

Wei Wuxian draws in a surprised breath.

“Oh!” Suibian says, as Bichen tilts her head. “Oh! That’s—new.”

Wei Wuxian can’t argue with that. It’s not the size of the eyes that’s taken them aback, although they’re huge, almost comically large, nearly half of its face. It’s not even how they swivel between the four of them, molasses movements, openly struggling to stay open and focused. No; it’s the color of them that makes him pause. A glassy, cloudy white.

It’s gaze lands on him, sitting in front of it, and stays there.

“Hey there,” he murmurs, keeping his voice low and soothing. The daemon blinks, twitching even with the gentle tone. Now that its eyes are open, he realizes it’s a galago. “It’s alright, it’s alright. We’re not going to hurt you. What’s your name?”

No response.

Suibian frowns down at it. “Why are its eyes like that?”

“Blind, maybe?”

“But it’s looking at us!”

It’s true—the daemon is tracking their movements, eyes flicking to Bichen every time she shifts. Given her paw is the size of its entire body, he can’t really blame it for being cautious. Maybe it’s good that Lan Wangji decided to sit down, after all; if it thinks she’s tall, it’s going to lose its mind at his height.

Unfortunately, it seems to be thinking much the same—it’s staring at Lan Wangji now, breaths coming too fast.

“We will not hurt you,” Lan Wangji reassures it, soft. It’s the kind of tone you take with a crying kid, one who just woke up from a nightmare, and Wei Wuxian pauses, wondering when he learned to talk like that.

(Honestly, it doesn’t surprise him that much. Lan Wangji would be good with kids. Is good with kids, based on Wei Wuxian’s experience. The last time he thought about it was in the Burial Mounds, watching chubby hands and little bare feet drag Lan Wangji back and forth between the houses; but he’s reminded of it now, hearing that soothing, perfect tone.

He’d used to imagine what it would be like if things were different, if there were even more little hands and little feet. Lan Wangji with just—just a bucket full of children, all clinging to his robes and legs and begging for his attention, receiving it so steadily and reliably in return. They’d all love him, of course, even if he was the stricter of the two of them, and at the end of the day Wei Wuxian would call them all over and he and Lan Wangji could plant them like turnips, like they did for—

His throat tightens. He pushes the memories away.)

The daemon still hasn’t responded to Lan Wangji.

“Can you help us out, bud?” he prompts, unwilling to let his mind wander any farther down those single-plank paths, but it just continues to blink at them, trembling.

“I have an idea!” Suibian says, still enthusiastic despite their lack of success. Her tail wags a few times and she loosens how tightly she’s curled around it, less threatening. “I’m always grumpy when I’m dirty. Maybe you’ll feel better if you’re clean!”

Without any fanfare, she starts to groom the top of its head.  

The galago flinches at the first brush of contact, an unsteady, raspy squeak escaping its throat. That’s a good sign, as far as Wei Wuxian is concerned; if it can make noise, then maybe they can convince it to talk. Suibian seems to think so as well, letting out a chitter and picking up her grooming with renewed vigor, her tongue leaving raised tracks of fur from her gusto.

“Careful,” Bichen warns, the muscles on her back tensing with each additional lick. When Suibian glances over at her, ears twisted in confusion, she stiffens more. “If it is sick, you could catch it.”

The daemon in question is still quivering, frozen under Suibian’s attention. Suibian looks between it and Bichen, shrugs, and goes back to licking.

Bichen huffs quietly.

“Aww!” Wei Wuxian says, and leans into Lan Wangji’s side. Bichen’s eyes flick to him, a frown still on her face, and he grins. “Bichen, don’t be jealous! Suibian will groom you anytime, if you just ask!”

The look he receives in response could wither even the hardiest turnip plant.

Suibian keeps up her efforts, humming happily under her breath as she goes. At first, the galago doesn’t seem to know what to do with the special treatment; then, as they all stay quiet and Suibian continues to hum, its eyes start to droop.

Slowly, the tightness in its body uncoils.  

A few more licks later, and it’s gone limp.

Success.  

It takes some time for Suibian to clean off all of the dirt, grimacing when she gets to the dried blood across its front. They offer it water and food as she goes, one of the red bean buns; initially, all they get are more cautious looks, but either the grooming or hunger wins out in the end, because by the time Suibian is done, there seems to be some semblance of trust.

“There we are,” Wei Wuxian says, smiling as it laps some water from one of their waterskins. With its fur no longer coated in filth, he can see it’s thin, almost skeletal. It starts to chew through the red bean bun, the paste smearing across its nose in its haste, and he feels like he’s won something. “See? We’re nice, we can help. How about we start with your name?”

There’s a long stretch of silence.

Slowly, the daemon sits up. Its white eyes seem to assess him for a moment, then go to Suibian, who is lying down next to it with her head on her paws, tail still wagging, sending leaves scraping together with each slow movement.

With stuttering, shaky hands, the galago reaches out and writes something on her fur.

“A-Yun,” Suibian says, eyes closed as she tracks the lines. She perks her ears. “Hi, A-Yun! Oh, you’re just a baby, aren’t you?”

A-Yun lowers his hand and, still shaking, curls up against her side. He looks exhausted from the simple movement, eyes already half-closed, like the mere act of writing his name was too much. Suibian chitters sympathetically and starts to lick his head again.

“See, Bichen? He’s not sick, he’s just tired!”

Bichen rumbles in response. There’s a look in her eyes that Wei Wuxian has never seen before—something curious, soft around the edges. She takes a step closer and sniffs.

“Do you want to tell us what happened?” Wei Wuxian asks A-Yun, who looks about ready to fall asleep, tucked into Suibian’s coarse fur. He’s started to suck on his tail, which is so adorable that Wei Wuxian wants to melt into a puddle. From the way their link is blooming with affection, he’s not the only one. “Where’d you come from?”

The saucer eyes open. When he raises his hand this time and points south, it’s less hesitant, but still shaky.  

“Is that where you person is?” Suibian asks A-Yun, and he shrugs.

“Wait, you don’t know where they are?”

A-Yun looks at Wei Wuxian and shakes his head, then points south once more. This time the motion is more insistent, slightly desperate.

“Why not?”

A-Yun’s eyes narrow, frustration evident in the way his bat-like ears twitch. He opens his mouth, then closes it. A few squeaks come out, but nothing intelligible—and for the first time, Wei Wuxian understands.

He can’t talk.

Holy shit.

“Oh!” he says, as Suibian’s ears press back against her head. Next to him, Lan Wangji shifts, a tiny motion but no less telling. Bichen’s eyes have gone wide. “Oh, ok! It’s alright, take it easy. So you’ve, uh, lost your voice? Here, yes or no questions, how does that sound?”

That earns him a nod, a tiny exhale.

“Something bad happened to you, clearly. You say it was south. Were you running away from whatever happened?”

A nod. He motions to the four of them.

“Getting help,” Lan Wangji translates, understanding dawning in his eyes, and A-Yun nods at him.

”Ah, nice job, Lan Zhan! But something happened, and you couldn’t go any farther. Ok, so that blood you had on you. Was it yours?” The daemon shakes its head. “Is it your human’s?”

A moment of hesitation. Then, a nod, and a shake of the head.

“Multiple people involved, then?” Wei Wuxian muses, and Lan Wangji makes a noise of agreement. Interesting. “Is that why you can’t talk? Whatever happened south took your voice away?”

At the question, tears start to form in A-Yun’s eyes. Wei Wuxian looks on, horrified, as they drip down the black fur on his face and into Suibian’s coat. Bichen and Lan Wangji are frozen, watching the trail of saltwater work its way across his cheeks.

He nods.

“That must have been so scary,” Suibian prompts, and A-Yun sniffs, burying his face in her fur. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep you safe, ok? We’ll find whoever hurt you and your person. Did a human do it? A daemon?”

Two nods, frantic this time. A-Yun makes a gurgling noise, like blowing bubbles underwater, and holds out his palm. Then, using his other hand, he mimes something crawling across it.

“A… spider?” Bichen says, sounding just as confused as the rest of them, and A-Yun turns to her and nods so enthusiastically that Wei Wuxian is afraid he’s going to injure his neck. For the first time, there’s something outside of just exhaustion and fear in his eyes.

Hmm.

“A daemon who can’t feel their pair,” Wei Wuxian says, trying to puzzle it out. “And someone who weakened them, made it so they can’t talk. Combined with the smell…”

Lan Wangji nods. This is past the point of coincidence.

He looks down at the sword spirit, glowing blue in Lan Wangji’s hand. It’s still urging them south, ebbing and flowing in brightness like the lap of waves against shore. Unlike when they were in the Nie Sect’s land, there’s no swinging about, no sudden shifts in direction.

Just the steady pulse of it, a slow heartbeat.

“Well, then!” Wei Wuxian says, and stands, making A-Yun twitch. Suibian shifts and the bushbaby clings to her, fear back in his eyes. “Hey, we’re not leaving you! But if all this stuff is south, then we have to go there, you understand? I don’t know what happened to you, but if you want to stay behind, we can try to hide you, come back for you once it’s safe.”

A-Yun looks between the four of them, tail twisted around his middle. He shakes his head.

“You want to come with us?”

Another nod. A-Yun tries to stand up, but his little legs won’t hold his weight; he topples over onto Suibian, a pained noise escaping his throat as he goes.

“Do not push yourself,” Bichen scolds, finally stepping forward, close enough to touch. A-Yun looks up at her, trembling.

Suibian giggles and flops over, resting her head against Bichen’s leg. From the looks on both Bichen’s and A-Yun’s faces, neither of them were expecting that. Suibian is undeterred. “Bichen is right, A-Yun! She’s very smart, too, you should listen to what she says.”

As Suibian starts telling A-Yun about all of Bichen’s very good and very interesting qualities, his tail slowly starts to unwind. Wei Wuxian turns to Lan Wangji.

Keeping his voice low, he mutters, “How are we going to carry this thing?”

Lan Wangji shakes his head, frown still in place.

“Yeah, I’m kind of stuck on that too. Hey, I have an idea! Lan Zhan, don’t make that face, I’m not going to ask Bichen to carry him, he’s terrified of her anyways. What if we made a little sling to carry him! The aunties at Lotus Pier always walked around with their kids like that, it couldn’t be too hard to make one that prevented us from touching him, right?”

Lan Wangji visibly relaxes. “Mn.”

“Do we still have that spare robe?”

At the mention of his old robes, Lan Wangji’s nose wrinkles. Wei Wuxian feels his lips curve up into a smile, unbidden; Lan Wangji had made it perfectly clear that he thought they were better left in the trash, but Wei Wuxian had insisted on not wasting perfectly good (Lan Wangji had disagreed) material, so he knows they must be somewhere.

When Wei Wuxian lets his smile fade into a pout, Lan Wangji sighs.

“I will get it,” he says, and stands, reaching into his qiankun bag in a way that broadcasts he is not happy about doing so. Wei Wuxian beams at him.

“You’re the best, Lan Zhan!”

Lan Wangji looks away from him, focused on finding the robes.

“Alright,” Wei Wuxian decides, and swings back around to A-Yun. Suibian stops mid-sentence, something about how Bichen can always point out the best climbing trees to her no matter where they are, and all three daemons turn his way. “Ready to show us the way?”


Yi City has the juniors, the strange girl with no tongue, and Xiao Xingchen.

Or—he thinks it’s Xiao Xingchen?

“Where’s his daemon?!”

Jin Ling’s voice is loud, as it always is, but even more so in this hollowed-out husk of a room. Paper dolls hang from the ceiling, off-kilter, staring down at the disciples as they huddle around where Wei Ying is currently kneeling. In the distance, there’s the occasional sound of splintering wood, surges of guqin-touched power as Lan Wangji fights the man in the mask.

Unfortunately, Wei Wuxian has bigger problems to worry about right now.

“Maybe he has a small one and we just can’t see it,” Lan Jingyi offers, hesitant, as Wei Wuxian presses his fingers to Xiao Xingchen’s neck, looking for a pulse of spiritual energy. His daemon is holding A-Yun, who is nothing more but two trembling ears poking out of a pile of bundled black cloth.

From the moment Wei Wuxian drug Xiao Xingchen in, he hasn’t made a single sound.

“No,” Wei Wuxian murmurs, relieved at the flicker of qi he finds just beneath the skin. “No, he has a crane, a large one, it would be hard to miss.”

The juniors stare at him, openly surprised.

“How do you know that?” Jin Ling demands, and Wei Wuxian waves him off, trying to locate the source of the injury.

“Aiyo, really, why does it matter how I know?”

“Have you seen them before?” Lan Sizhui asks, wide-eyed and curious and so incredibly genuine, and Wei Wuxian really wishes he didn’t have to lie to him.

He remembers Shuanghua well, the bold black and white pattern of his feathers, somehow blending in perfectly to the pure white of Xiao Xingchen’s robes. How he had patiently answered all of Suibian’s eager questions, laughed when she had asked if Baoshan Sanren’s daemon really was a dragon. How Song Lan and Fuxue had stood nearby, watching them interact, amusement glinting in their eyes.

The memory hurts more than he expected.

“Ah, no, no, just stories!” he says, forcing cheer into his voice, and resumes his pat-down. “What matters is that he’s a crane, alright?”   

“Well then where—” Jin Ling starts, voice inching into a whine, and Wei Wuxian absolutely does not have the time or the inclination to explain to a bunch of teenagers the batshit cobweb of events leading them here, so he talks over him.

“Alright, enough, someone get me some congee, quick, quick!”

There’s a general scramble to obey, some bickering between Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui over who is going to bring it over. Suibian takes advantage of the temporary chaos to put her paws on his knees, shifting her weight and leaning closer to Xiao Xingchen’s barely breathing form.

“A-Xian,” she whispers, and her fur is fluffed, all her hair on end, “A-Xian, this isn’t right.”

“Is it the nails smell?”

She shakes her head, inching away from Xiao Xingchen to scramble up his robes. Quiet, barely more than a breath, she presses her mouth against his ear and says, “It doesn’t smell like him at all.

Wei Wuxian’s hands freeze.

Lan Sizhui has won the argument over who is going to deliver the congee; before Wei Wuxian can ask Suibian more, he’s appeared at their side, the hot sting of chili oil and paprika accompanying him.

“Here you go, Mo-qianbei!”

Wei Wuxian takes the bowl with a murmured thanks, a sudden sinking feeling in his stomach.

Behind him, Jin Ling has his head held high, clearly displeased with this turn of events. Suihua has a similar expression from where she’s hanging onto his shoulder, once again in her red panda form. He hasn’t seen her switch yet, probably because of all the other juniors around, but her tail keeps twitching, the same on-edge anxiety that not all of the disciples have been able to fully hide.  

It doesn’t smell like him at all.

“I think,” Wei Wuxian says slowly, holding the congee with a slow trickle of realization, Suibian’s nerves sending their bond trembling wildly, “that you should all step back.”

And then Song Lan bursts in through the ceiling.

Five minutes later, with Lan Sizhui’s clever questions and Song Lan’s even cleverer answers, he stands there with a sword to his throat and thinks: I should have known.

“Mo-qianbei!”

Wei Wuxian slowly raises a hand, stopping the juniors as they all go for their swords. Xue Yang is grinning at him, a curve to his lips that doesn’t belong on Xiao Xingchen’s delicate face, mere illusion or not. All the air feels like it has been sucked out of the room, leaving only dust waiting to be scattered by a single, misplaced exhale.

Song Lan’s eyes are black, his tongue missing, the nails from his head bloody and rusting on the floor. He doesn’t know where his daemon is, but he knows exactly where Xue Yang’s currently rests.  

Because Suibian is frozen a mĭ away, a spider on her back.

“Now, now,” Xue Yang says, and the cadence is all wrong, slimy and singsong. “Why don’t the kids behave, and let adults talk to adults?”

His daemon crawls up Suibian’s neck as he speaks, beady eyes fixed on the curve of her ear. It’s a horrible, twisted thing: long legs and thick body, impossibly fast when it wants to be, given that neither of them had time to react when it darted out from Xue Yang’s robes. It scuttles up to the top of her head and sits there, fangs out.

Wei Wuxian knows exactly one thing about Chinese bird spiders, and it’s this: if Suibian gets bitten, they’re both dead.

He should have known. From the moment A-Yun hid, he should have guessed it.

“Alright,” he says, and his voice is surprisingly steady. “Jin Ling, Lan Sizhui: take everyone outside. Don’t run around and make the poison powder flare up again, yeah?”  

There’s an immediate flurry of protests.  

“But we can’t just—”

“We could help—”

“Mo-qianbei—”

“Go,” he tells them, still watching the spider. The juniors are wide-eyed and hesitant in his periphery, and he tries to smile. “It’ll be fine, alright? Out you go, or I’ll have to feed you more of my congee!”

Slowly, the collective scrape of metal fills the air, swords disappearing into their sheaths. One by one, the juniors start to filter out, their daemons sending a mix of fearful looks and glares at Xue Yang as they pass.

Xue Yang watches them go, smirking.

“Mo-qianbei,” Lan Sizhui starts, and Wei Wuxian glances over at him to see that he and Jin Ling are still standing close, swords only half-lowered. Jing Ling is pale, Lan Sizhui the same but with a determined line to his brows that reminds Wei Wuxian so much of Lan Wangji that he has to blink a few times.

Silly, silly boys.   

“Aiyo, do you have no faith in this senior?” he asks them, impossibly fond. “Or did you really like my congee that much?”

“Don’t be an idiot!” Jin Ling snaps, eyes flicking between the sword at his throat and Xue Yang. “We don’t want your stupid congee!”

“Hey now, no need to be rude! I’ll make some for you after, I promise!”

“I said we don’t—”

“Jin Ling,” he interrupts as gently as he can, “be good. Put down your sword.”

There’s a long, drawn-out pause, where Jin Ling looks like he’s about to disobey. Wei Wuxian meets his eyes, steady.

Don’t, he thinks a little desperately. Walk away. Live to see another day. Your mom is waiting for you, even if you don’t know it yet.

The thought nestles in his chest and fills it to the brim, and he’s hit with such a wild surge of protective instinct that he has to blink back tears, stop the way his mouth wants to wobble with the mere thought of it. If this kid can just set aside his pride for five seconds, Wei Wuxian still has a chance to make it up to him, to Jiang Cheng, to Shijie herself.

Jin Ling wavers. Xue Yang’s lips quirk up, right at the corners; on Suibian’s head, his daemon lets out an off-kilter laugh.

Whether it’s that sound, or a sudden burst of common sense, he doesn’t know—but, finally, Jing Ling and Lan Sizhui lower their swords.

“Don’t—don’t do anything stupid,” Suihua says, and she’s staring at Suibian. Her tail flicks behind her, all the fur on end. “If you get hurt, Hanguang-Jun is going to be so annoying.

The brattiness of it startles him so much that Wei Wuxian laughs without meaning to, turning his head to look at the four of them. They’re watching him, uncertain and somehow full of bravado anyways, every bit of the teenager that he used to be.

He’s hit with a sudden, vicious relief that both of their daemons are out of scuttling range.

“I’d hate to inconvenience you by dying, then,” he teases, and his smile this time is real. He nods towards the door. “Go on now.”

Jin Ling’s hands are clenched into fists; Lan Sizhui, when he draws in a slow breath, looks the closest to angry that Wei Wuxian has ever seen him. Slowly, with at least five more backwards glances over their shoulders, they make their way towards the door.

Lan Sizhui pauses right at the threshold.

“Mo-qianbei?” he says, as Jin Ling stomps outside muttering something under his breath. Wei Wuxian hums, keeping his gaze firmly on Xue Yang and his spider. Lan Sizhui smiles slightly; in his sleeve, Yingyue’s outline flutters. “You’re a lot like Hanguang-Jun, you know?”

Wei Wuxian blinks. Warmth floods through their bond; Suibian, quietly satisfied, even with the spider resting on her head.

Before he can reply, with one last smile, Lan Sizhui follows Jin Ling.

Then it’s just him, Xue Yang, and the black tree-branch veins creeping up Song Lan’s neck.

Wei Wuxian centers himself. Waits.

“Wei-qianbei,” Xue Yang says, conversational, when he seems to realize Wei Wuxian isn’t going to say anything. The wind whistles outside, a rush of dusty air seeping through the holes in the window’s paper coverings, like the city itself is eager to hear what’s next. “Long time no see.”

“Xue Yang.”

Xue Yang chuckles, crossing his arms and leaning back against the wall. A twisted smile spreads across his face, Xiao Xingchen’s features morphing and shifting until, with a poisonous delight, Xue Yang’s face becomes his own.

He looks just like he did all those years ago.

“You already figured it out!” he says, and claps his hands. “Very impressive! You’ll have to teach me your tricks!”

Wei Wuxian copies his stance, leaning against one of the room’s pillars. Song Lan’s sword follows him as he does, unnaturally steady, and he makes sure his motions are slow, hyperaware of the spider still clinging to Suibian.

“Maybe you should teach me performance, instead. If Suibian and Lan Sizhui hadn’t sniffed out your lies, I would have thought you were Xiao Xingchen himself. Truly exceptional acting.”

Xue Yang laughs. “Now you’re just flattering me! You should see my friend—his acting is what I would call excellent. I have a long ways to go!”

“I never would have guessed,” Wei Wuxian says, still eyeing the spider. “You really went all out for us, didn’t you?”

“Oh no,” Xue Yang says, and waves his hand, like he’s batting the thought away. “No, not for all of them. Just for you.

Suibian shivers.

“Anyways, doesn’t this work out better for all of us?” Xue Yang asks, and grins impossibly wider. “You haven’t revealed who you are, and now I haven’t either! Aren’t I thoughtful? You owe me a favor now, Wei- qianbei!”

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow at him. “If I already owe you a favor, then I might as well ask my questions. What did you do to Song Lan?”

Xue Yang’s eyes spark with delight.

“Same thing that was done to your Ghost General,” he says, and steps forward, placing his hand on Song Lan’s shoulder. It twitches under his touch, but the sword stays at Wei Wuxian’s throat. “Isn’t it nice? All my little puppets!”

Something twists in Wei Wuxian’s stomach. “And his daemon?”

“Do you really have to ask?” Xue Yang says, and steps back from Song Lan. He motions to the window. “Maybe your Ghost General could carry his in his pocket, but I don’t make the same mistakes as my employer!”

Relief trickles down Wei Wuxian’s spine. Song Lan’s daemon is somewhere out there, then; Xue Yang seems unhinged enough that he’d admit if he killed it.

It confirms his theory, too, the one that’s been bouncing about in his brain ever since they found A-Yun.  Song Lan, and whoever A-Yun belongs to, must have been transformed into a fierce corpse right before his daemon turned entirely to dust. That’s what happened with Wen Ning all those years ago; when Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing had found him, Suyin was still twitching, even as the life drained out of Wen Ning’s eyes.

So where has Xue Yang hidden Fuxue?

“Who cares about him?” Xue Yang continues, still grinning. “Really, after all this time of not seeing each other, and you ask about him? I put in a lot of effort to sound you out! My stygian tiger seal might be useful, but I was the one who thought of how to distract Hanguang-Jun and get you alone. Aren’t you impressed?”

“That’s one word for it.”

Xue Yang laughs; on Suibian’s head, his spider is starting to twitch, restless. It scuttles down to her nose and looks her in the eyes, hairy legs spread out across her muzzle.

“You’re interesting,” it tells her, and its voice is high-pitched and reedy, nails scraping against porcelain.

“All right, enough,” Wei Wuxian says as their bond gives a harsh jolt of fear, Suibian’s tail tucking all the way underneath her belly. He doesn’t like the way it’s looking at her, greedy and fascinated, too dangerous. “You’ve tracked us down for a reason. What do you want?”

Xue Yang beams at him.

“Just a little favor!” he says, and leans forward. “One that I’ve heard you’re the expert on. Wei-qianbei: help me bond with Xiao Xingchen’s daemon!”

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian gapes at Xue Yang.

“What?” he says, because he must have heard wrong. “Help you—what?”

Xue Yang’s dark eyes glint, grin spreading wider across his face. In the dull light filtering in through the tattered window, it looks almost unnatural.

“Isn’t it exciting?” he says, and flexes his hands, the leather glove on his left shifting across his skin at the motion. “I want to link myself to Xiao Xingchen’s daemon! None of my ideas have worked, so it’s time to bring in the expert!”

For a moment, Wei Wuxian is speechless.

There are a lot of rules in the world, many of which Wei Wuxian finds ridiculous and unnecessary and pretentious—ones that he enjoys poking and prodding at to see how far they can bend. But everyone, every single person he’s ever met, no matter how horrible, follows this one: daemons are sacred.

From the moment he could talk, could hold a sword, he knew what that rule meant. From it comes lessons and principles significantly more important than anything Gusu Lan could dream up.

Don’t touch others’ daemons.

Don’t hurt them unnecessarily.

Don’t, unless you or your daemon are about to die yourselves, kill someone else’s daemon.

He’s never crossed that line, never even dreamed of it. Even when he was torturing Wen Chao, making him beg for his life and eat his own flesh, he hadn’t, for a single moment, considered doing the same to his daemon. He’d let it stay hidden and shuddering in Wen Chao’s robes, Sandu growling whenever it poked it’s head out, until the very end.

The thought of just touching someone else’s daemon feels like a swarm of insects crawling all over his skin, wriggling down to the marrow of his bones. To go so much farther beyond that line, to hurt one and drag them away from their human, to try and brute force a bond…

Nausea builds in his throat, almost overwhelming.

This is wrong. Wrong on so many levels that it doesn’t even feel real.

He’s never taken Xue Yang seriously. He is now.

“How,” he asks, Suibian’s unbridled revulsion buzzing through their link as the puppets sway in the rafters around them like a silent, ghostly jury, “would I do that? And why?”

Xue Yang crosses his arms. “Surely the Yiling Patriarch hasn’t lost his touch, even after all these years! And you owe me a favor, don’t you remember?”

“Lost my touch?” Wei Wuxian glances to Suibian, sees a mirror of his own confusion. The hairy spider on her nose tracks his gaze, beady black eyes intent; Wei Wuxian can see why they are known for being hunters. “What are you talking about?”

“Don’t be humble!” Xue Yang waves a finger at him, like Wei Wuxian is a disobedient child. “I heard what you did to the Ghost General’s daemon! Bringing them both back from the dead and restoring their bond is exactly what I’d expect from someone of your caliber!”

This is, somehow, even more baffling.

“Who the hell told you that?” Wei Wuxian demands. He shakes his head; thirteen years and he’s come back to about thirteen thousand rumors. “Wen Ning wasn’t fully dead, he was in-between when we found him! You already did that with Song Lan—he’s a fierce corpse, and his daemon is around somewhere. Wen Ning and Suyin were the same!”

Xue Yang’s grin freezes in place.

Wei Wuxian continues, annoyed, “All we did was stabilize both their energies, and we don’t understand fully why that works, so you have the story all wrong.”

“And even if we had managed to bring them both fully back from the dead,” Suibian adds, the pure insanity of the situation apparently giving her courage to open her mouth, “their bond was the one they were born with! Scholars don’t even know how they form or break—how are we supposed to? We wouldn’t steal that from them anyways!”

There’s dried blood on Xue Yang’s chin from a barely-healed cut snaking across his lower lip, bright red under the rust-colored scabbing. He licks it, smile back in play, the tip of his tongue tracing all the way across the tender flesh before flicking back into his mouth.

“Scholars or not,” he says, and it’s almost self-satisfied, the new glint in his eyes, “there’s no need to steal what I’ve already taken for my own. Aren’t I nice, Wei-qianbei, for doing all the dirty work for you?”

Wei Wuxian pauses.

“Xue Yang,” he says, Suibian’s expression turning horrified as the words sink in, “what did you do?”

He couldn’t have—he didn’t—

Xue Yang chuckles to himself, idly picking out some dirt from underneath his nails. When he bites his bottom lip, this time the delight is unmistakable.

“What do you think I did? I wanted Shuanghua, and so I took him!”

He says it so simply—like the act of taking someone else’s daemon away from them is nothing, means nothing. Rage rises up in Wei Wuxian’s chest, his throat, a spread of heat that burns deeper than any poison hanging in the air. He thinks of Xiao Xingchen and Shuanghua, the hope they had planted in his chest as a disciple. Xue Yang’s grubby hands don’t deserve to be within a thousand mi of them.

It is hard to breathe around his fury.

He clenches his fist, and grinds out, “Where is he? And where’s Xiao Xingchen?”

They have to be here, have to be somewhere, just hidden and kept away. Xiao Xingchen wouldn’t have let Shuanghua go without a fight, and certainly not if it was Xue Yang.

For the first time, Xue Yang’s smile flickers. His uninjured hand clenches around Frostwork, the pad of his thumb rubbing across the edge of the blade.

He doesn’t reply. Wei Wuxian’s stomach drops to his toes.

“No way,” Suibian says, barely more than a gasp as something dark and twisted comes over Xue Yang’s face, the silence closing in around them. Wei Wuxian has no interest in understanding the expression; doesn’t need to, outside the sudden, horrid beating in his ears. No. No. “He wouldn’t give Shuanghua to you, and so you—you—”

“Killed him,” Wei Wuxian breathes.

It is like flipping a switch.

As soon as the words leave his mouth, Xue Yang’s entire face contorts in a sudden, twisted wrath.

“It’s not my fault!” he snarls, like a child who has just been accused of breaking their favorite toy. On Suibian’s head, his spider starts to scurry around, legs flying everywhere.