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halfway up the mountain path

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A keening wail of pain and fear slips like a splinter past twenty years into Lan Qiren's heart. His feet falter, jarring his old knees.

Hanguang-jun, collapsed on the mountain path, panted the disciple who'd roused him in the darkest hours before dawn.

No mention of a child.

But there he is, Qiren sees as he descends around a curve. His nephew kneels untidily on the ground, legs folded awkwardly as he props himself up against the rock wall, twisting to hide the wailing child between it and his body. One hand cradles the child's head so it doesn't bump.

Wangji is glaring at the pleading disciple on his knees beside him, the light talisman casting his face in angular shadows. Lan Qiren's breath halts in his chest — the shadows draping down Wangji's arms and across his shoulders and back are blood that has soaked through his white robes.

The child's screams crack the night as open as the wounds on Wangji's back.

His nephew's eyes snap to Qiren's as soon as he steps into the light. He freezes, arrested not by the challenge in Wangji's eyes, but because he is once more thrown back twenty years — a keening child, a mother's arms refusing to let go.

Wangji has been missing for three days. Xichen is out searching for him. Lan Qiren has had a maelstrom of anger swirling beneath his placid countenance since Nightless City. First Wangji's defense of the immoral Yiling Patriarch, then his attack on his own clan, his punishment, and now this. Unmoored, Lan Qiren has seen the upright boy he raised possessed by a demon.

Not a demon, he must finally admit. Caught in Wangji's gaze, Qiren's heart twists in grief for his brother, grief for his sister-in-law, grief for their son who grieves now, who left but came back with a child.

Qiren can read the signs before him. Wen or Wei it doesn't matter.

"Wangji," he says, displacing the disciple by his nephew. "The healers are on their way." He kneels and holds his arms out. "Come, hand me your son so they can tend to you. No one will harm him. No one will take him away."

After a frozen heartbeat, Wangji's face crumples — pain or relief or both, Qiren's heart squeezes. He lets go, and Qiren cradles the boy, this Lan boy, with care.