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the first will be last (and the last will be kings)

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 Even against the combined forces of Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen, Wen Ruohan stands strong.

 Mingjue grunts, repelling one of his attacks and lunging forwards as Lan Xichen thrusts his sword forwards as well.

 The Wen Sect Leader does not even carry a sword, and Mingjue scoffs at the blatant disrespect and disregard that Wen Ruohan radiates in waves.

 With a yell, he charges, only to be repelled by Wen Ruohan’s forcefield of energy.

 And yet, even though he and Lan Xichen are raining blows on him, Wen Ruohan shows no signs of faltering.

 Mingjue does not know how much time passes; each second is counted by a bated breath, sword clashes and the sizzling of energy in the air, and Mingjue grunts, countering and attacking as much as he can with Lan Xichen by his side.

 But—

 They can’t.

 They’re failing, Mingjue knows, but he’ll be damned if he surrenders now. They’d gone too far, too much to consider moving back, the Sunshot Campaign rests on their shoulders—

 Beside him, he can hear Lan Xichen’s ragged pant, and he grunts, not letting up with his attack.

 It was his fault, he’ll see in hindsight, that he left an opening, and it was his fault Lan Xichen noticed before he did and tried to cover him, but that only has Wen Ruohan lunging towards them with the grace of a dignified panther.

 And then blood splatters.

 Drops of blood land on the front of their robes, staining them further, and Mingjue watches with abject horror as the sword carving through Wen Ruohan’s body makes a clean cut before being pulled out.

 Wen Ruohan falls.

 He collapses to the ground gracelessly, and it is then that Mingjue sees the young man behind him. He can’t be much older than Mingjue’s own brother, he thinks, but this is someone Mingjue has never met before.

 Some part of his mind hopes that Meng Yao has gotten away safely—he’d never been one for fighting.

 And then the man drops to his knees, taking the Wen Sect Leader’s body and pulling him onto his lap.

 ‘How—‘

 ‘Shh, it’ll be alright,’ the man says softly, ‘It’ll be fine.’

 Wen Ruohan gurgles, groans out his next words, ‘No, A-Xian—!’

 Mingjue instinctively raises his sword, as the man flinches, and it is only then that he notices that he is crying, silent tears dripping onto Wen Ruohan’s face.

 Mingjue blinks. And suddenly, the man in front of him only appears to be a boy, mourning the loss of the very person he killed just moments prior.

 He growls. And feels Lan Xichen’s hand on his shoulder, and when he looks back, his friend is placating with him silently. Brother, do not do this, his eyes say, It is dishonorable to strike a man when he is down.

 Mingjue grunts and subsides.

 ‘I’m sorry, father,’ the boy says, ‘I’m sorry, and I will remember you.’

 ‘A-Xian…’

 ‘Rest, father.’

 And just as simple as that, everything stops.

 Mingjue does not know how long he stays there, with Lan Xichen’s hand on his shoulder, staring at the boy who just called the deceased Sect Leader his father.

 And eventually, the boy rises, a man again, his face set in passive resignation.

 A man who calls Wen Ruohan his father, a man who wears Wen Sect robes made for direct descendants of the family—the man can only be Wen Ruohan’s son, and yet. Yet Mingjue has killed Wen Xu, and Jiang Wanyin has hunted down Wen Chao to avenge his father, so this can only mean—

 ‘Wen Ruohan has fallen,’ Wen Wuxian says, voice devoid of any emotion, ‘Call off your men.’

 A spark of angers licks at his bones. ‘What, and let them be massacred by yours?’

 Wen Wuxian smiles, stepping around Wen Ruohan’s body and coming to face Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue together.

 And he bows.

 ‘I do not think we’ve been formally introduced, Sect Leader Nie,’ Wen Wuxian says, ‘I am Wen Ying, courtesy Wuxian. I offer all the condolences my heart can muster for the death of your father at my own father’s hands.’

 Mingjue sees red. ‘How dare you—!’

 However, Wei Wuxian continues, seemingly unfazed by Mingjue’s boiling anger, ‘I do believe everyone should live in peace from this time onwards. If your or any other Sect wants punishment, I will gladly undergo it. However, there are civilians under my care, and I will not tolerate any injustice towards them juts because of their surname being Wen.’

 Mingjue thinks that this is the first time he’s ever heard a Wen sounding so sincere.

 ‘We will arrange for an emergency meeting,’ Lan Xichen says, smiling genially. Mingjue wants to snarl at him. Why would he be even entertaining that—! ‘I will send word once we have decided. Please, call off your men.’

 Wen Wuxian nods, and then whistles, a sharp noise that pierces through the roar of the battle.

 And instead of what Mingjue expects, which is that the cultivators back away, tendrils of resentful energy coil around the Wen soldiers and lift them up into the sky.

 ‘What—‘

 Wen Wuxian is already drawing a talisman, and when he speaks, his voice is amplified so that no one could possibly miss it.

‘We will be retreating,’ Wen Wuxian says, eyes glowing red, and with a flick of his hand, draws all the Wen cultivators back and slams the door of the hall shut.

 Everything is silent.

 ‘Wen Wuxian,’ Mingjue starts, and the fury that has boiled up in him is finally seeming to overflow.

 Lan Xichen gestures for a cultivator near them to come closer. ‘Tell everyone to retreat, but do not go too far. We will join you in a short while.’

 ‘Ah, Sect Leader Nie, Elder Brother Lan,’ Wen Wuxian grins, and Mingjue wants so much to slap that look off his face. ‘Please, follow me.’

 Lan Xichen nods at Mingjue as he passes, and he has no choice but to follow, to grumble in his brain and thunder along the hallway Wen Wuxian leads them through.

 Insolent child, taking away my kill? I should have had revenge for my father’s death, but in the end it was that bastard who had to kill his own father? What the—

 Up ahead, Lan Xichen chatters away merrily with Wen Wuxian, talking with him as if they had not just been on a battlefield just seconds ago.

 Now that he thinks of it, is this not the person Lan Xichen’s talked about because of his brother? The one who was sent to the Cloud Recesses and attempted to smuggle a jar of liquor in on his first night?

 Huh.

 Nie Mingjue frowns as they stop in front of a door, and Wen Wuxian knocks intermittently until it opens from the inside.

 And—Mingjue almost chokes on his own tongue when he sees the person—people—inside.

 Because—because there is Meng Yao, sitting on the large bed situated in the room, surrounded by pretty girls of Wen Wuxian’s age, who do not even stand up as the three of them enter.

 Beside the door stands Wen Zhuliu, who has the look of a parent that has endured weeks of relentless screaming toddlers.

 Mingjue’s blood rushes cold.

 Why—why would that Wen Wuxian bring him back here, to see Meng Yao, with Wen Zhuliu there, if not to ambush him?

 And just as quick as he comes to that realization, Mingjue’s saber is out in a flash, pointed at the person who’d seemed so amiable, even after his face has been streaked with tears.

 Mingjue growls at the softness that attempts to overtake his heart.

 Wen Wuxian waits until the door is closed to bow, showing his submission towards Mingjue, and he says, ‘I understand Sect Leader Nie’s hostility towards my Sect.’

 Mingjue stops. He’s never been the best at reading people—that was more of Meng Yao and Lan Xichen’s jobs—but even he can feel the way Wen Wuxian says the words with hesitance, especially when he says ‘my Sect’, as if—as if he had not wanted to rule at all, but instead—

 —instead had been forced to take it.

 But why?

 That thought alone puzzles Mingjue—people, especially in cultivation, wanted to rise up and become a great famous Sect. Wen Wuxian, in accordance, should have been elated to inherit the Sect, even with its reputation tarnished as it was.

 So then why does Wen Wuxian have a shadow over him?

 Is it because he had to kill his father?

 Mingjue needs a drink after all this—and Lan Xichen isn’t getting out of it.

 ‘However,’ Wen Wuxian continues, gaze steeling, ‘Please do not take advantage of our old and young just because they are simply a Wen. I am willing to hand over those fighting in the war for appropriate punishment, but I sincerely request that innocent bystanders be pardoned.’

 Sighing, he looks at Lan Xichen, who smiles at him gently, and says, I will stand with you, brother.

 ‘I cannot make any promises,’ Mingjue says, as much as it pains him to say the words, ‘but as long as you are complacent with the elders, nothing bad will happen to your—‘ he takes a look at everyone in the room—‘consorts.’

 Wen Wuxian blinks.

 And then he bursts out laughing.

 The atmosphere is shattered by his loud, exuberant laughter, and Mingjue watches with growing consternation as Wen Wuxian laughs so hard he falls to his knees. Everyone in the room seems amused as well, Meng Yao is smiling, Wen Zhuliu shows amusement even through his permanently flat face, the girls are hiding soft snickers behind their hands, and even Lan Xichen himself is wearing a truly amused smile.

 Mingjue is mystified, but before he can ask Lan Xichen tells him, ‘I’ll tell you later’ and he lets it go.

 It takes a moment for Wen Wuxian to recollect himself, but when he does, all his former reservation is gone, and there is a twinkle in his eyes as he says, ‘Well, if Sect Leader Nie would be so kind to do so, I would be greatly honored.’

 Mingjue, for reasons he cannot figure, feels affronted.

 ‘Master Wuxian, may we…?’ A quiet voice pops up.

 ‘Ah!’ Wen Wuxian turns around to the voice, and says, ‘Of course, of course! I only kept you in here to be safe, so you can go! Be careful, though, okay?’

 With a chorus of assents, they take their leave, and Mingjue is almost stunned silent by how friendly they seem to be with Wen Wuxian for people of their…rank.

 And when the last one leaves, Wen Wuxian walks over to where Meng Yao is sitting.

 And suddenly, years’ worth of emotions pile up onto Mingjue’s head—the anger he’d felt after knowing that Meng Yao had run away, the fear that clutched his throat when he’d found out through Xichen that Meng Yao had gone to the Nightless City, the endless worry on nights where he had wondered of Meng Yao had been discovered—

 And he can’t take it anymore, and all he can do once Meng Yao arrives at his side is to pull him into a hug.

 His body swallows up Meng Yao’s surprised little squeak, and he holds on tight, feeling Meng Yao hug him back—it’s been too long, Mingjue thinks—and they stand there, with an audience, just hugging.

 Mingjue might have felt more embarrassed if he didn’t know that hugging was probably the only way to stop him from premature qi deviation.

 A warm, heavy weight lands on his side, and Mingjue turns his head to see Lan Xichen, while Wen Wuxian is smoothing down his hands in the background and giggling to Wen Zhuliu.

 Without hesitation, Mingjue draws into their hug circle as well.

 It hasn’t been long, but a knock comes, and unlike last time, it opens by itself, revealing another man with short hair and Wen robes.

 Mingjue mournfully lets go of the hug and pretends his heart doesn’t flutter when Meng Yao smiles up at him. Gods, he’d missed that smile.

 ‘—died during childbirth. Wei-ge…’

 ‘I’ll come, A-Ning,’ Wen Wuxian says, smiling gently. ‘Let me escort these gentlemen out first, okay?’

 The man nods, and then bows towards them, and flees like a rat being chased by a raging cat.

 ‘I will take you back to the entrance,’ Wen Wuxian tells them, ‘I apologize for not being able to provide you further.’

 Mingjue snorts, ‘As if you could. This is the best treatment we’ve had so far.’

 Wen Wuxian, not even taking offense to that, laughs right along with him, ‘True, true. I should focus on raising hospitality standards!’

 At that, everyone laughs.

 ‘Shall we?’

 Along the walk back, Wen Wuxian tells them, ‘That was Wen Ning, my brother.’

 They are walking with Mingjue and Lan Xichen on either side of Wen Wuxian. Behind them, Meng Yao and Wen Zhuliu seem to be staring holes into each other’s heads.

 ‘Wen Ning?’ Lan Xichen enquires, and Mingjue catches what he means. ‘Ah, Young Master Wen, he called you Wei-ge as well?’

 Wen Wuxian hums, ‘Yes. I was adopted.’

 Mingjue almost stops.

 Adopted.

 ‘Adopted?’ he echoes out loud.

 ‘Yes. Wen Ruohan took me in when I was ten, and he decided after two years that I was good enough to be his son.’

 Mingjue and Lan Xichen exchange a glance.

 ‘Honestly, either him or his sister should have been appointed Sect Leader, but Wen Ning is…Wen Ning, and his sister noped out of it.’

 Huh. That was interesting. Taking responsibility just because no one else did…

 ‘Ah, we’re here,’ Wen Wuxian sighs, ‘Thank you, Sect Leader Nie, Elder Brother Lan, for complying with us.’

 ‘It is your own bravery that helped us win as well,’ Lan Xichen says.

 Wen Wuxian laughs. ‘Thank A-Yao too, you know. He was very…discreet in his investigations.’

 Judging from the way Meng Yao’s cheeks turn slightly pink, this is definitely an inside joke between the two of them.

 ‘We’ll see each other in time,’ Mingjue tells him, and then bows. ‘Farewell, Wen Wuxian. Come, A-Yao.’

 ‘Goodbye,’ Wen Wuxian smiles, turning to Lan Xichen, ‘Say hi to Lan Zhan for me!’

 And with a smile and a flourish, Wen Wuxian disappears in a flurry of black smoke.

 

 Gods, Mingjue really needs a drink.

 Preferably with both Meng Yao and Lan Xichen with him, but no one needs to know that.

 (And despite that, the look Wen Wuxian had given him before he left clearly said otherwise.)