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On the art of folding paper

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ON THE ART OF FOLDING PAPER

In spring, the first letter comes folded into the shape of a little boat, bobbing along on the breeze. It wiggles its way up the mountain, dashes around the hands of several eager young disciples, and deposits itself in Lan Wangji's waiting palm, where it unfolds to reveal smeared handwriting that might, at the very best of times, be termed 'legible.' 

Lan Zhan, I have found an entire plum grove in this forest, and it is beautiful here. I cannot stay long because Apple will get sick if she eats so much. Lan Zhan, do you like plums?

He is standing in the garden at Cloud Recesses, in full view of at least three classes, but no one dares ask him what the message says. He refolds the paper carefully, tucks it into the front of his robe, and nods. "The second sword form. Continue."

*

When summer turns warm and the rabbits are gamboling in the field, a paper bird arrives. Its folded wings are long and graceful, streaked with ink. The bird, too, rides in on the breeze, but it flutters to a halt and falls to the ground in front of him, as if tired. He leans down and scoops it up, unfolding it himself.

Lan Zhan, there are too many water spirits this season. I have done away with five at least, and something in a tree. There is a map on the back of this. Good practice for the kids.

There is indeed a map, bleeding through the message with untidy lines. One squiggle is labelled 'trees--cursed' and another says 'river--more cursed' and it is somewhere just outside a town that Lan Wangji knows is very far to the southwest. 

He smoothes the paper between his fingers, and sends Lan Sizhui with a smattering of the best disciples. He does not go with them. They are old enough now on their own.

*

In autumn, the paper leaf looks very much like all of the other leaves fluttering, but its pallor catches Lan Wangji's eye; he plucks it from the air just as he enters the pavilion, and he takes off his boots, lining them up neatly before he examines the crinkling note.

We stopped at a farm for a few weeks because Apple had a sore foot. She is fine now. I helped with the harvest. I was a farmer too, once, you know. Also there was a very vengeful spirit in one of the pigs, so I am earning my keep.

The note goes on a low table, next to a stack of reports. Lan Wangji sits and makes dutiful notations. If he touches the leaf once or twice, just lightly, no one is there to see.

*

Soon after the snow first covers the ground, the message comes not by paper but in the form of a fluttering disciple, white robes rippling as he enters the meeting of sect leaders. He hesitates, then makes his way around the side, politely keeping to the fringes of the room before he reaches Lan Wangji's position at the front.

The boy's eyes are wide, his hands clasped tightly. Something in Lan Wangji's chest clenches.

The debate about trading rights rumbles to a halt for a moment, so the disciple might bow and whisper in Lan Wangji's ear. "Excellency, the Yiling Patriarch is at the gate."

The thing in Lan Wangji's chest releases, all at once. He waits to see if there is more.

There is not. The boy only stands, lip caught in his teeth.

"He has a pass," says Lan Wangji. "Does he not?"

"Yes, Excellency. Only, the guard--" The disciple catches himself, cuts off, bows. "Yes, Excellency."

"Tell Wei Wuxian I will see him for dinner tonight." They speak softly, but Lan Wangji is conscious of many eyes. He wonders if he can get the talks to move a little faster.

*

Wei Wuxian fills all the space between the walls. He is by the bed, admiring a new hanging. He is by the table, scooping the pot of wine into his hand. He is out the door, exclaiming over the fall of twilight snow; he is back. He has already broken eleven rules. Lan Wangji says nothing.

Lan Wangji thinks that Wei Wuxian looks thin. He deposits more soup into Wei Wuxian's neglected bowl, adding a few more of the best bits. He has brought out the spices he keeps in the corner shelf. "Sit," he beckons Wei Wuxian, again.

Wei Wuxian sits, but between bites, he has stories. He wants to tell Lan Wangji about the washed-out trail, the ocean, the sky after a storm, the children in the market, candied lotus seeds, a dead fox and the ghost of the dead fox, and a dog. He has many stories and he wants to tell them all at once. His eyes are shadowed but his smile is jewel-faceted; he cannot eat for waving his hands.

There is no talking during meals, but truthfully, Lan Wangji would like to know more about the dog.

"Aiya, it--ah, Lan Zhan! It's fine, the bite is not the point." Wei Wuxian stills, though--holds semi-patiently, indulgently, while Lan Wangji unwinds the guard bindings on his right forearm. "The point is how brave I was, and how you should be impressed, because did I mention I was very brave, and I hardly screamed at all, and I am very good at climbing trees. Look, it's healed, it's nothing."

Lan Wangji traces his fingers over a scar that has congealed, pink and raised, over other scars; the bite mark is different, distinct from the thin pale slashes beneath. "Mn," he says, and he does not push up Wei Wuxian's sleeve, does not look for other marks, whatever scars are left to silence and letters unwritten, months lost, nearly a year. He winds the binding back into place, precise and careful.

"Tomorrow, Lan Zhan, let's go hiking. We can play some music up by that waterfall, then back to the Cold Springs. We can see your brother if he likes."

"The sect leaders are here." Lan Wangji is not bitter. His words are perfectly mild.

"Ah. I am forgetting, Lan Zhan is an important man." There is nothing in Wei Wuxian's face but teasing; his voice is half a laugh.

Lan Wangji does not smile, but he offers, "Lan Sizhui is released from his studies tomorrow, that he might learn from Wei Ying. And... in two days, there is a night hunt. We could go."  

"Ah!" Real pleasure, there; a grin that cuts the night.

Later, Lan Wangji wakes to chill emptiness and the softest rustle in the darkness, and he knows that Wei Wuxian is not sleeping. He thinks there are things that do not change.

*

It has been too long since he has held Bichen -- not for training, but for life and death, each stroke swift and merciless. The sword is an extension of Lan Wangji's will, and Lan Wangji protects. It is possible that what he has cultivated--what he has prepared for, all his life--is only the ability to keep Wei Wuxian from harm. It is enough. Lan Wangji is filled with a fierce and unbecoming joy.

The clearing is filled with darting, glittering butterflies, tiny golden illusions that twinkle in the night air. Wicked smoke serpents wind through, thick and vicious, snapping at gleaming lights and white robes alike. Wei Wuxian's haunting flute calls them in, discordant, vibrating in teeth and bone.

Everything is in motion. Everything is sharp. Lan Wangji knows the arc of each disciple's sword and the sliding scream of each writhing ghost. He has centred himself on the rise and fall of the flute and the slim tall figure at the battle's core. He slashes upward through a smoky throat; he is already whirling to the left, slicing, sliding under. 

He is grateful that Wei Wuxian has at least not painted himself with lures this time.

He comes up a half-second late, twisting to compensate, and is abruptly surrounded by butterflies, their glittering flare bursting around him. A serpent's maw veers wide, and then Bichen bisects its core and Lan Wangji can hear the music laughing.

After, when the night is empty and they can pant around a leaping fire, the disciples flock to Wei Wuxian, eager as hungry chicks.

"Senior Wei, will you teach us that talisman??"

"Senior Wei, what was that song?"

It occurs to Lan Wangji, not for the first time, that Wei Wuxian is not much older than the boys who cluster around him--that Lan Wangji knew grief for long ragged years, while Wei Wuxian took his losses all at once, a great hole, a mortal wound. His face is so young sometimes. His gaze is so old.

"The butterflies, yes, tomorrow I'll show you. Leave the music to me, though, ah?" Wei Wuxian's smile is loose and crooked. Lan Wangji watches him tamp down black flames from his hands, ruby fading from the depths of his eyes, until he is only a man again in the night. When Wei Wuxian stumbles half a step, he reaches for Lan Wangji without looking. Lan Wangji is already there.

"It's good, Lan Zhan, isn't it? This is fun."

*

When Lan Wangji takes the meeting with Nie Huaisang, Wei Wuxian has not yet stirred and there is a small but determined group of disciples heading toward the pavilion, all snowy laughter and feet moving a little too fast for proper restraint.

Lan Wangji does not like dealing with Nie Huaisang--does not appreciate false smiles, fake modesty, promises he can't trust. He thinks it is best if Nie Huaisang leaves swiftly. 

Nie Huaisang, apparently, feels differently, and they must go back and forth, around and about, before any issue can be resolved.

"Ah," says Nie Huaisang, finally, brandishing his fan with a satisfied flourish. "Then I shall send them to you by the start of the next moon, and we will begin preparations. It will be so pleasant to have a conference in the Unclean Realm--during peace time, I mean. A wonderful change."

By the time Lan Wangji can return to the gardens, he is greeted with silence. He should find it restful, but there is something in the subdued tones of the lingering disciples that he finds disquieting.

"It was our fault, Excellency," Lan Jingyi is very quick to assert, flushing as he bows low. He moves stiffly; there is a hint of crimson streak staining his white robe, just at the back of his shoulder. "We were--it was foolish, we were building snow rabbits in the field. Too silly and too loud. Grand Master was ... gracious to correct us." That is very polite, for Jingyi. He is learning to remember to whom he is speaking.

Lan Wangji hears what he is not saying, regardless. "You were with Wei Ying."

"We... Excellency, it wasn't his--"

Lan Wangji is already moving. It is rude of him. He doesn't expect that Lan Jingyi will mind.

He knows, even approaching the pavilion, what he will find. He can taste the ashes. He thinks he could drop to his knees, just there in the snow, and wait alone for the door to open, until darkness fell and a white storm buried him.

Instead he slides the door open himself, enters the empty room, and picks the letter off the table.

He can't punish me, but he can punish the kids to punish me--sorry, Lan Zhan. I won't cause trouble. I'll see you again soon.

He crumples the note in his hand.

*

In spring, a small paper hat comes fluttering.

I found a town with the best wine. I might stay here a little while, see how it feels. Towns are nice until someone learns my name. Ah, Lan Zhan, I'm not complaining. You would love seeing me so humble.

*

In summer, a gently folded frog--but Lan Wangji is at Lotus Pier, and the frog comes leaping crookedly into the meeting hall and plops itself wetly on the low table at which Lan Wangji is sitting. The frog has been caught in the storm outside, and it half-disintegrates against Lan Wangji's tea. When he attempts to nudge it open, he sees only wet ink and lost, spreading smears.

He looks up and Jiang Wanyin is watching him, eyes hard, jaw tensed. All of Jiang Wanyin's expressions look like a pot about to boil.

Later, though, when the departing Lan contingent is half loaded into boats, Jiang Wanyin plants himself on the dock in front of Lan Wangji and holds out a small wrapped packet. Off Lan Wangji's questioning look, he mutters, "If you would give that to him, I'd be... grateful."

Lan Wangji inclines his head. "Should the opportunity arise." 

*

In autumn, Lan Wangji is sitting with brush in hand, tallying the harvest reports by candlelight, when many feet come pounding and a voice cries, "Excellency!" outside. Yelling is forbidden, and running is forbidden, but the voice is Lan Sizhui's, so Lan Wangji is already on his feet.

Outside, a crowd of pale faces and frightened eyes. "Excellency," says Sizhui, at the front, "Senior Wei..." He is too out of breath to finish. "Senior Wen."

"They have passes," is Lan Wangji's first response, blankly puzzled (but he thinks, it's past the entrance hour, and then he thinks, Sizhui, and really it doesn't matter what he's thinking at all, because he is already moving, far too quickly to be perceived as responsible. He cannot run fast enough).

At the entrance, just outside the wards, the Ghost General stands with Wei Wuxian a crumpled doll in his long arms, Wei Wuxian's face tucked into his chest. Black flames lick at them both, smudging their outlines in the night. Darkness flickers all around and through them, and death is in Wen Ning's empty eyes. A red-tasseled donkey stands complacently, just behind.

The crowd of guards--so many guards, suddenly--parts before Lan Wangji as he strides down the steps and gestures sharply, dropping the wards. 

"Excellency--"

"Wei Wuxian and Wen Qionglin are welcome. Always." Lan Wangji stops in front of Wen Ning--close, very close, a demonstration for watching eyes--and reaches for Wei Wuxian's arm. Black flames curl around his hand, filthy and horribly raw. He has felt them before and he does not flinch; this power is carved into Wei Wuxian's bones. "Where is the danger?" he asks. 

Wen Ning's stare is the void. 

Lan Wangji clarifies: "What attacked you? Where do I send the night hunt?"

"Ah," says Wen Ning, after a significant pause--his voice echoing, but a little of Ning coming back to his face, childlike and sad. "I don't know. I only went to him. It was a long way. I heard him screaming."

Wei Wuxian reeks of smoke--not the depthless flicker of resentment, but wildfire smoke, an acrid forest burning. Underneath that, there is blood. He stirs in Wen Ning's arms, beneath Lan Wangji's hand. He is most certainly too thin. There's a sharp line between his brows, his eyes squinched tight against whatever Lan Wangji might see in them. He is holding Chenqing against his chest, and his knuckles are pale. "S'done," he mutters. "Over. Fine. Lan Zhan, there were so many dead."

Lan Wangji looks to Wen Ning, who cradles Wei Wuxian so carefully--Wen Ning, who knew to run--and, irrationally, he feels something roil within him. It feels very much like rage. 

He should perhaps take his hand from the blackness that licks at Wei Wuxian's arm, the wired tension there. He does not.

"S'fine," says Wei Wuxian again, too distantly. "Just need some time. Don't... don't let the kids see."

Wen Ning looks back at Lan Wangji with the slightest, gentlest corpse smile. "Don't worry," says Wen Ning to Wei Wuxian. 

Lan Wangji leads them up the steps and through the silent crowd, Lans clustering like pale phantoms, or the early arrival of mountain snow. Wen Ning burns like a midnight pyre.

*

"Ah! Lan Zhan!"

"Stay still." Lan Wangji wants nothing more than to pour his qi into Wei Wuxian's tattered meridians, but there is darkness still smoldering in Wei Wuxian's fingertips and Wei Wuxian's red eyes. He does not dare. He pulls the bandage tighter instead, and reaches for a wet cloth.

"It isn't bad," notes Wei Wuxian, whose face is too gauntly shadowed, whose hands might shatter in strong light. He is not wrong, insofar as he won't die of the gashes that mark him. He bleeds, from arms and ribs and left thigh. Blood has dried on his mouth and under his nose, and the scent of a dying forest clings in his hair. He is too warm. He sits on the floor, slouched against the side of the bed in which he has refused, multiple times, to lie down. "It wasn't the Burial Mounds."

"Mn." Lan Wangji does not say shut up. Shut up is implied. 

"I'm sorr--"

"No."

"Ah!" That, for the wet cloth that cleans the sticky crimson beneath his collarbone. The blood that leaks now is slow and clotting. Wei Wuxian does not appear particularly appreciative of the difference. He is working, though; he sucks in a breath between his teeth, and a little more of the grave retreats from his fingertips. "It isn't bad," he says again. "Honestly. I have it. See, I'm not even angry."

Lan Wangji determinedly does not think about whatever has crawled into Wei Wuxian--whatever whispers there. "Mn. Wei Ying should have sent for help."

"I did! I sent a frog, and a... a star, I think. Lan Zhan, I couldn't wait. There was... it was a whole lake, and it was too..." Wei Wuxian waves a hand and winces. 

Lan Wangji swallows that, then he sets the cloth back in the bucket and reaches for a handful of crushed herbs from the tray next to his knee. He presses the poultice to the next gash, ignoring Wei Wuxian's rising whine, and begins winding another bandage. When it is apparent that Wei Wuxian is not, in fact, about to hemorrhage, he says, "Wei Ying."

"What?"

Lan Wangji's hands are careful. His words, however, are flat. "Wei Ying will not leave again without saying."

There is a startled pause. "How long have--ah, I know how long." Wei Wuxian's laugh is breathless. "I'm sorry," he says, with real regret, and this time Lan Wangji does not interrupt him. "It was just easier that way."

Lan Wangji pulls the new bandage snugly, and ties it off. "Easier for Wei Ying."

This pause lasts longer--long enough that Lang Wangji looks up, to make sure Wei Wuxian's eyes are still open. Wei Wuxian is watching him, and his whole gaze is a bruise but the red has bled, finally, from his irises, and his stare is steady and human again. "Yes," he says, at last. "I am sorry."

"It won't happen again."

"It won't happen again."

Lan Wangji nods then, satisfied. "Whatever Wei Ying does with the disciples...he has permission. They have permission. Wen Ning, too, has permission."

"Ah," says Wei Wuxian, who does close his eyes then. Lan Wangji takes the opportunity to clean his face, and Wei Wuxian squirms a token amount but his tone drifts. "We will absolutely begin breaking all the rules, then. Tomorrow." 

"Wei Ying has shattered at least eighteen already tonight." Lan Wangji slides an arm around Wei Wuxian's abused ribs, lifting. There is crimson staining Lan Wangji's white robes.

"There's one--ah!--against bleeding on the mats, isn't there."

There is. Lan Wangji does not justify this with an answer.

*

"Tomorrow, you will be asked specifically about the precepts for diplomacy, and the fifth form for staff. That is sufficient for today. Meet with Wen Qionglin in the back hills, and he will demonstrate this afternoon's lesson." Lan Wangji dismisses the disciples, and is not surprised to see Wei Wuxian lurking at the back of the room, one shoulder leaned against the wall. It sets a bad example. So does Wei Wuxian's wet hair. Lan Wangji does not point this out, only watches as many of the students file past Wei Wuxian with a quick grin or a forbidden, whispered word. 

"Lan Zhan," says Wei Wuxian, "the Cold Springs are still too cold! I saw your brother, though, and I made him smile twice, so I will go again tomorrow." He tilts his head. "Also I saw Grand Master, and he did not smile at all." He hesitates.

Lan Wangji knows it's coming.

"We'll leave, maybe the day after."

"Mn." 

"Lan Zhan knows it isn't just Grand Master." 

Lan Wangji does know. There are so many stares that follow the Yiling Patriarch in Gusu. The Yiling Patriarch, even exonerated, leaves so many shattered rules in his wake. The Yiling Patriarch laughs too much, too loudly. There is nothing that Lan Wangji can say. "Where?"

Wei Wuxian knows what he is asking. "I'll walk back with Wen Ning. After that..." He waves a hand, smiles a smile that doesn't reach his eyes. "Maybe Apple can pick."

Lan Wangji pictures Wei Wuxian in an ever-widening spiral, curving away from Cloud Recesses--Wei Wuxian, who wanders alone. He says only, "I am free this afternoon. Come."

*

"Wei Ying."

Lan Wangji runs his fingers very slowly over the guqin. He is only composing now, idle chords, nearly randomly plucked. He has been playing for some time, but he does not stop, because what began as Wei Wuxian's insouciant lean against his shoulder has incrementally graduated to a boneless slump, and Wei Wuxian's breath is warm at the crook of Lan Wangji's neck. It is difficult to play without moving one arm, but not impossible.

Lan Wangji has spoken softly, still playing, because he is not certain whether Wei Wuxian is awake. After a moment, though, Wei Wuxian murmurs, "Mm."

"What is it you are looking for, out there?" The qin hums gently under Lan Wangji's hands.

"Hm? Ahhhh, Lan Zhan.... I don't know." Wei Wuxian breathes in suddenly, deeply, and it seems like he might straighten, but then he only settles more comfortably where he is. "You." It's a wry response, if blurred. There's a smile curving in it.

Lan Wangji pauses, only plucking at a string, angling his shoulder just so. "I," he says, deliberately, "am right here."

"Mm." Wei Wuxian makes a sound in the back of his throat, considering; he draws another breath, but then says nothing more. He lets out a slow sigh that turns to a slower inhale, and the last slide of his weight into Lan Wangji's side.

Lan Wangji composes flowers on a lotus pond. He keeps the melody gently rippling, like water. 

*

"From Sect Leader Jiang."

"Ah?" Wei Wuxian blinks, eying the packet in Lan Wangji's hands with something approaching wariness before he takes it, turning it between his fingers. Behind him, Apple brays, saddlebags thick and red tassels dangling. Wen Ning is further down the path, with Lan Sizhui; Wen Ning is talking with his hands.

Truthfully, Lan Wangji had almost forgotten. He watches now as Wei Wuxian unfolds the paper, then watches Wei Wuxian's face change as he draws forth a small jade lotus charm, silver bells dangling. Wei Wuxian hands the paper over, and Lan Wangji reads, The Jiang clan acknowledges Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian says nothing for a time. He only turns the charm between long fingers.

"Wei Ying," says Lan Wangji, and Wei Wuxian shakes his head.

"Well," he says. "That's something." He looks at Lan Wangji. The morning sunlight is golden on his face; his teeth flash. "Lan Zhan."

He does not say goodbye. 

Lan Wangji and Lan Sizhui watch them walk away, the man and the corpse general and the donkey, and Wei Wuxian waves a hand in the air but he doesn't look back, all the way around the curve of the mountain.

*

A paper butterfly in winter. Lan Wangji is lecturing the newest disciples. He stops to pluck the message from the air. Lan Zhan, I know butterflies are for Jin messages but I only know how to fold so many things. I have been to Lotus Pier, and Jiang Cheng waited three whole days to throw me out again. I think we're progressing.

*

Nothing comes in the spring. Lan Wangji negotiates three trade agreements and two small peace accords. No one asks why he keeps lifting his head at every shift in the wind.

*

In the summer, a tiny lantern balloon; it barely reaches him. Lan Sizhui finds it at the bottom of the road from Caiyi and brings it, flattened but still folded, up the mountain. "I thought it might be important," he says, with a bow, and Lan Wangji rests his palm, just for a moment, in the boy's hair.

Lan Zhan, I think I will go north. I hear it's very cold there all the time, and I know I don't like the cold, but maybe I haven't been cold enough? It's worth a try. Anyway, I think I'll be too far for these little papers to fly. Don't worry. I promise I'll come back soon.

Lan Wangji reads the note, and then he reads it again. He stands in the road for a long time.

*

At the very edge of autumn, on the cusp of a storm, Lan Wangji follows the sound of a flute and finds Wei Wuxian on a cliff overlooking the sea. 

When Wei Wuxian turns, his smile is blinding.