They’re staring out at the turnips—and the tiny plots of potato, cabbage, onions, and beans that Wei Wuxian snuck in while Wen Qing wasn’t looking—the first time she brings it up. They have just finished pulling the first harvest, and it’s not bad: enough turnip that everyone can have their own at dinner tonight, and plenty left over to pickle, too. Since that’s all they’ve got until the next crop come in, Wei Wuxian is pretty sure they’re all going to be sick of turnip before very long. The potatoes, still at least two weeks out, will be a very welcome change.
Wei Wuxian can see the moment Wen Qing realizes this. The knowledge that she’s going to have to admit he was right, that the potatoes are good and necessary and her turnips alone won’t suffice, ripples across her face like she’s just had a taste of dandelion milk. Then something else crosses her face and it closes off, a road tapering off into a dead-end. She presses her lips together, then turns to Wei Wuxian grimly.
“What is it?” he asks lazily. He watches her with one cautious eye, the other still indolently squeezed shut. Wei Wuxian is lounging on a stone, toying with the long green sprouts from the garlic patch. Actually, he is exhausted; he has been playing to pull in game every day, as well as healing Wen Ning and maintaining the protections that keep them all safe. And he has not been eating nearly enough. He still bent over with everyone else to pull the long, cylindrical turnips from the ground, though. He didn’t tell them how it made his head swim. Now he is lying on a rock, and he does not intend to move anytime soon, no matter how grim Wen Qing looks.
This is the expression she wears when there’s been bad news, and now she has to do something she’d rather not do. "...Is there a plague?" he guesses. A plague would mean a lot of work for her, wouldn’t it? "Or! Did Wen Ning get himself stuck in the chicken coop again?” Another, more disgusting possibility occurs to him, gross enough to have him perking up hopefully, propping himself on one elbow wedged against the stone. “Or maybe you have a really big, infected zit on your back and you need me to pop it?!"
She says, "I want babies."
Wei Wuxian blinks a lot. “Uh?” he says intelligently. “Uh! I mean—that’s good? Who were you thinking of, uh...” He hadn’t known there was even anybody she liked! Wait, is there anybody she likes? He’s pretty sure his brother likes her, but she’s never given any indication of returning Jiang Cheng’s admiration...
Wen Qing sighs and crosses her arms, scowling self-consciously. "You're the best available option," she mutters. Then she rakes a skeptical look over him, as if reassessing now that she has to say it out loud.
"Wen Qing...! You—you can't be asking me, can you?!"
She glares hard. "Obviously, you idiot! I am asking you! Who else could I ask?!"
...Maybe Wei Wuxian could turn himself in to the Jin sect? Peacock hates him enough, they can probably be convinced to stick him down in the darkest cellars and keep him safe there, right?
No, Shijie would probably object.
There are actually about three men in their little enclave of a proper age, but all of them are Wen Qing’s subordinates, and all of them are missing at least one limb--Wen Ping is missing two plus some toes--and anyway, none of the three are cultivators, so Wei Wuxian understands why she isn't going to them. "But... Jiang Cheng?" he asks, tentative.
He doesn't want to push too hard, but he can't help but bring it up. Jiang Cheng had obviously had some feelings for her, back in the day... Wei Wuxian can't believe those feelings are entirely gone. He has betrayed his brother enough; he doesn't plan to do it again.
However, Wen Qing gives him a scathing look that has him pressing himself back down against his rock. "Jiang Cheng isn't fit to kiss the hem of your robes," she says fiercely, "much less mine. He will never touch me."
"Aaah, Wen Qing, that seems seems a bit harsh! My brother is a good man--!"
"Your brother stabbed you." She reaches out and slaps his hand away from the garlic sprouts as if taking vengeance by proxy. "He betrayed you... after all you did for him!"
"I don't think he betrayed me." Wei Wuxian pouts up at the clouds that cover the Burial Mounds. The sunlight that comes through is thin, but still enough to grow turnips with. Once this land was beautiful, the loveliest gardens in the kingdom, its dark soil rich and full of potential. He wonders if the land ever regrets what it was turned into.
"Stab wound," Wen Qing repeats sourly, "still healing. Right there, remember?" She reaches over and pokes him hard enough he folds at the flash of pain. He doesn't have a golden core, so wounds take longer to heal on him than on most. But Jiang Cheng doesn't know that, so Wei Wuxian can't really hold it against him, can he?
"I broke his arm," he sulks to the garlic sprouts.
The garlic does not respond.
"I wouldn't marry your brother if he begged me," Wen Qing says, and now—for once—she doesn't sound quite so angry. She usually sounds too fierce, Wei Wuxian has noticed, too adamant. It’s because whenever she isn’t quite sure of something she uses force of will to cover it. That’s fine; it’s not like she’s short on force of will, so throwing it around like that isn’t a problem. But she’s not doing that now. She doesn’t sound matter-of-fact, either—she’s too fierce for that, still—but she sounds... plainly honest. For her, at least.
It’s the lack of emphasis that convinces Wei Wuxian: she means what she says.
Ah, it’s probably for the best, anyway. Jiang Cheng is a sect leader, now; he has to marry for advantage. Who will his wife be? Wei Wuxian wonders. There are precious few female cultivators from the major sects available. Mianmian, maybe? She’s a good woman, and her power is humble enough that Jiang Cheng wouldn’t feel threatened—Wei Wuxian knows how competitive he is. Hmmm...
"Well, then... Someone else!" Wei Wuxian sits up and smiles brightly, desperately. The garlic sprouts wave encouragingly. "What about, uh..."
Wen Qing gives him a tired, unimpressed sort of look. "There is no one else. Anyone else... Either they would refuse in the first place—”
"Wait, I'm refusing! Why doesn't my refusal count?!"
Wen Qing ignores him with the ease of long practice. "—or they would insist on being married first."
Wei Wuxian doesn't say anything for a minute, thinking furiously about the implications of that while he watches Uncle Four stealthily harvest plums off the trees closest to the wards. "...You want babies, but... you don't want to get married?"
“I’ve just said you’re the best one to father them, haven’t I? Well, why would I want to marry you?”
Wei Wuxian doesn’t have an answer to that, and even if he did, he thinks it’d be better to keep it to himself. He shakes his head and lifts his elbow, lying back down on his rock. “I’m not giving you babies, Wen Qing.”
“Yes, you are.”
“Hmm...” She says it skeptically enough that he raises his head up again, cracking one eye open so that he can look at her suspiciously. She catches him doing it and shakes her head in disgust, but says nothing else. She flounces off towards the wards to rescue Uncle Four, who has fallen into the Giant Spider Pit, and the subject is dropped.
She doesn’t bring it up again, which both is and isn’t a relief. Is, because Wei Wuxian really doesn’t want to think about Wen Qing and the activity that leads to babies in the same thought. And isn’t, because she’s so smug that he feels like she’s just waiting for him to give in and weaken. Which isn’t going to happen, of course! No way!
The potatoes grow, and the cabbages and the onions. The black and red beans wind into a wild tangle against their supporting lattice, and the first generation of beans gets re-planted in rows so they can have sprouts. Wei Wuxian’s beautiful garlic babies go from whippy, delicate-headed sproutlets to full stalks, and he pulls them all up, hanging them from the walls around the Demon Subdue Palace in long, wound-together curtains. The ginger plants at the head of the path aren’t ready for harvest yet, but they grow larger bit by bit, and soon will be strong enough to bear a trim.
The turnips triumph, though. They have all eaten as much turnip as they can stand. Fried, roasted, stir fried, stewed, dried into chips, and pickled, they’re all sick of it. Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing have a long, screaming, curse-filled fight about it (that isn’t really about the turnips), and finally she sends him to trade them in the city to get more rice. Rice isn’t what Wei Wuxian wants to buy—he thinks they have plenty stored up, and he’d rather buy coriander, chili, oyster sauce, literally anything to give their food flavor, please Wen Qing!— but he recognizes the compromise inherent in the rice, and so he agrees.
He sells the turnips, but he hasn’t bought the rice yet when they run into Jiang Cheng.
His sister is getting married. His shijie is getting married, and to a peacock who has disrespected her at every turn, why?
She deserves so much better. She deserves everything.
He walks back that night in a doze—no rice—so distracted that he doesn’t even notice Wen Ning holding soup until two-thirds of the way up the trail. He tries to eat, and fails; tries to cheer everybody up by making grandiose promises, and fails at that, too. He stalks off to sulk, and although it makes him feel no better, he must have at least some success at this, because no one comes to disturb him that night. At one point he hears footsteps in the next hall, but whoever it must think better of it, because they turn and leave again rather than entering.
His shijie is getting married, and he can’t even go to the wedding. His shijie is going to have a son, and when it happens, he won’t be able to see the child. Jiang Cheng hates him, hates everything he has become. He has done nothing but follow the path he has seen ahead of him; it is a single trail with few turnings, and every turn-off is marked with the dark, foul-smelling smoke of dishonor, but Jiang Cheng hates him for following it, all the same. Jiang Cheng breathes that same smoke out like a dragon and is offended when Wei Wuxian coughs.
Lotus Pier is no longer his home. And if Lotus Pier is no longer his home, isn’t it true that he doesn’t have a home?
...Except, he does have a home.
What had he told Jiang Cheng? “You will never be able to see us, your close companions, again,” Jiang Cheng had threatened, and he had answered that, “The ones I am returning to are also my close companions.”
He has a home. He has a family.
It’s the one you have built, he thinks angrily at himself, turning in his too-hard bed beneath the shelter of a blanket that is rough, but warm, they’re not your real family.
...But then, even his “real” family is a family of choice, isn’t it?
There are only a handful of times in his life that Wei Wuxian has truly felt like the orphan he is, but to be sure, this is one of them.
And then he thinks, the memory rising up like a Water Ghost from the depths at midnight, Wen Qing wants babies.
And, well... That’s one way to have a family, isn’t it?
His mind goes to a-Yuan, to the comfort and privilege of having small arms wrapped around his leg. And then—he laughs, eyes stinging—he thinks of Hanguang-Jun, of the look on his face as a-Yuan hugged his leg and screamed in misery. Poor Hanguang-Jun! But he won a-Yuan over quickly enough, didn’t he? Wei Wuxian’s breath rattles in his chest like he has the grippe, but he manages another laugh. A-Yuan, so vulnerable to bribes! A lesson for the future: never put the three-year-old in charge of public administration, or you’ll never see the end of the corruption.
...Wen Qing wants babies.
Wei Wuxian is not well tonight. His mood is dark, his despair like a living, breathing companion that sits at his head and pokes wet fingers in his ear whenever he comes near to sleep. Nothing should be decided in a mood like this—he’s ignored that principle once tonight, after all, and now he has to learn how to grow lotus root! But Wen Qing wants babies, and for the first time since she first raised the issue, Wei Wuxian thinks, Why not?
He wakes in the morning in a better mood, but still sulky, and just self-aware enough to be ashamed of his own negativity. Maybe he really is being corrupted by his demonic cultivation, maybe that’s why he can’t have nice things.
He spends the morning in a grumpy fugue, not eating much, not talking much, and lounging in thought when he's supposed to be gardening. In truth, he avoids gardening, although he likes it well enough when forced to the work. There's something primal and satisfying about working with your hands, a sort of cleanness in spite of the dark earth that wedges itself under his fingernails and doesn't come out no matter how long he scrubs. But there's also something cold and yucky and annoying about it, and no matter how much he enjoys the actual task, it's still a chore, and he still avoids it.
Not that he doesn't pull his share! He gathers in the forest outside their wards, hunts beasts and worse things alike. And he gathers fruit, even though it always makes him sad.
This place used to be glorious. This mountain of evil, these burial mounds where so many were slaughtered, their bodies tossed away and their spirits twisted up into wickedness... It used to be the most beautiful garden in the world, the people who lived her the most elegant of noblemen, an entire sect devoted to living the good life and practicing complex cultivation. Nothing remains of them any more but their fury and the occasional chunk of bone turned up in the Wens' gardens... and the fruit.
These woods were not always a wood. Once, they were an orchard.
You can see it still, if you look. Ignore the ground: so many mushrooms fed on the corpses that the only grasses that grow now are the angry ones, the ones with saw-toothed edges and no seeds to mill. And ignore the brambles; those came because, for a long time, the only fruit-spreading animals that ventured in were birds, and of course the only seeds they dropped were for small fruits. Bayberry everywhere, and other, less-useful-more-toxic berries, too.
But the trees...!
It starts with the plums, near their camp. Tall, handsome trees, smooth bark and dark fruits, dripping with juice, sweeter every day like the forest is happy to have them there and wants to reward them for coming. The plum trees give way to chestnuts, which Wei Wuxian gathers by the sackful. Auntie Seven makes chestnut sweets for them sometimes, if they have enough flour, and if not, chestnut paste can be stored in jars for a long time. They sell it in town, too, and they get a good price as long as no one knows where it came from.
The chestnuts form long line between the Wen camp and the rest of the mounds, almost like a barrier. Caltrops, Wei Wuxian thinks of them, and he's not sure if the ancient Xues thought the same way or not, but it's true that the angry spirits of the Mounds move more slowly over the spike-riddled ground beneath the chestnut trees. Beyond that there's a patch of apples, with peaches on the left, nectarines on the right. Apples are delicious, but that's not why Wei Wuxian gathers them so much. In truth, he likes to stand under the apple trees, because that's the place where it's the most obvious what this place used to be. Why else plant peaches on one side, nectarines on the other, and with a third fruit in the middle? To keep the stone fruits from crossbreeding, of course. Human hands did this. It feels like opening a door to a people who have gone before him, standing under the apple trees. Wei Wuxian has always loved to open such doors.
And then, of course, the apples are delicious. A-Yuan particularly loves them. He'll take a bite, then suck on the apple until all the juice is drunk before taking another bite.
But Wei Wuxian isn't gathering this morning, or hunting, either. He sits on a rock and watches everyone else work and fights the sense of nihilism that is always no more than a breath away these days.
And then a heavy cloth bag hits him in the chest, and when he opens it up, the familiar dark, hard seeds of home stare back at him like the twinkling eyes of a benevolent fairy.
Wen Qing makes that face at him, the one she uses when she feels like smiling but it's still beneath her dignity. She raises her chin and her voice. "Aren't you the capable Yiling Patriarch, who can accomplish any task? Let's see if you can grow lotus root."
I can't, he thinks. Here? It's impossible!
But don't the YunmengJiang perform the impossible?
...But he isn't of the YunmengJiang sect anymore, is he?
Ah, but it will be good to share the taste of his homeland with all of these people he loves. He may not have his old family--not the way he wants--and it may hurt, but he has a new family, now. He can take care of his new family.
And, he reminds himself, he has made this change before.
Wen Qing wants babies.
The thought is like a revenant, it won't leave him alone! Last night he wasn't fighting it— why not?— but in the pallid light of what passes for the day here, there are good answers to that question. So when Wei Wuxian lifts the bag of lotus seeds and smiles into Wen Qing's eyes and says "Yes," he’s only talking about the lotus root.
At least, for now.
From what I can tell, the Burial Mounds itself is really big, with a few different hills/mountains in it? And then the Wen camp is in a cave AND the area around the cave; the cave itself is set into the side of the mountain. At least that's what it looks like to me. Burial Mounds is supposed to be where Xue Chonghai used to live, but I figure the Wen camp can't be in his old palace because there's literally no architecture anywhere in it; OTOH, a place like the Blood Pool wouldn't have been ignored, so I'm hypothesizing that it used to be a holy site located some distance from the main palace. None of this comes up in the fic, but it's sort of background, and I think it's interesting!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lotus root sells in Yiling for more than twice what it does in Lotus Pier; Wei Wuxian feels positively rich as they sell off the last of their excess from the second crop. He smirks as he wanders around the marketplace. He and Wen Qing have agreed on what to buy with the money, but only so far as species: they both want pig, but Wei Wuxian wants a nice big haunch for a feast, while Wen Qing wants at least two live piglets.
Wei Wuxian strolls the market, trying to stall so the men selling meat will lower their prices. He wanders close to the teahouse, eavesdropping in his regular way, when his ear is caught by the name Jin.
“...five days ago successfully gave birth to a baby.”
“...Paternal grandson of the LanlingJin clan leader,” the stranger is saying. “So precious!”
Wei Wuxian is exultant for all of about a minute —
“I have a nephew!”
“Congratulations, Master Wei!”
—and then he remembers.
He’s not going to be able to visit his sister. He’s not going to visit his newborn nephew. In all likelihood, he will never even get to see his nephew. Jin Ling is no relation of his, anymore. And who would introduce the LanlingJin heir to the Yiling Patriarch?
This is his lonely path. There are no lights of familial houses off this road.
He turns away, the gossipers still talking in loud, cheery voices behind him.
When he gets back to the Burial Mounds, Wen Qing forces her way through the usual friendly crowd and glares. She often has storms in her eyes, but there’s more lightning than usual, these days. The whole situation reminds him of Jiang Cheng after Wen Zhulio melted his core: Jiang Cheng had always been irritable, but there was a different rage to it after, a frustration and desperation that mixed together into a swirling vortex...
Wei Wuxian wonders what Wen Qing is so desperate about now. Their clan is doing well, so it can’t be that.
“Where were you?” she demands. “You didn’t come back with my piglets! Hey! You didn’t come back with anything!”
Wei Wuxian turns away and walks off without answering—less rude than what he’ll do if he tries to respond—then remembers the money and fishes it out of his robe. “Here,” he says. He knows his voice is as full of frustration and loss as he feels, and her eyes show the impact of that in a flash of worry before the fires inside catch again. She sniffs, but says nothing
He stomps his way to the back of the mountain. Wen Ning can explain for him about Yanli’s baby.
It’s a good day to move rocks.
He has found a technique for this over the course of the past year. Well, that is to say, he found the technique—and then, overwhelmingly, didn’t use it. He can play the resentful energy into the stones, sure, but it’s a lot harder to get it back out again. And the effort of it is exhausting! Once the energy is back out of the stones, he has to banish it, burn it up to keep it from settling into the lands and putting them right back where they started. It so much work!
But he can build really quickly this way, and sometimes that’s what he needs. Also, other times he needs to be physically exhausted, worn out right down to his bones. Today it’s that second urge that has him out the backside of the mountain, glaring down at the winding, rocky path and playing—ha—furiously.
There’s a creek back here, a cold, leaping thing, making its way down the back of the mountain like a young hart off on its first adventure. It darts back and forth across the rocky trail five times before swirling around the base of the mountain, collecting other streams and runoff and rainwater before making its way down towards Yiling, where it hides its humble origins and poses as the dignified Yiling River.
He raises the flute and plays. A minute later, the first stone crashes into the water. It’s followed by another, then another. They march themselves into the shape of a wall, low enough not to wash away under the onslaught. As Wei Wuxian continues to play, the wall grows to knee high, the lower stones fusing together. It’s diverting the stream, now; the water runs along the uphill side of the wall, travelling sideways until it dives around the end and rejoins its previous trace. He has cut off a loop of the creek.
He summons more stones, creates a second wall, and raises them both at the same time until they’re level with each other—although the second wall is down the mountain, so it has to be a foot higher to stand level with the first. He plays longer, a particularly demanding trill, and a gate connects the two at the end next to the stream.
He stops, panting, and takes a swig from the flask of water at his belt. Then he raises the flute and plays again.
One terrace. Two. A walkway between them, two feet wide. A third terrace further down the hill, where he has to struggle more to control the stones because they’re farther away. All of them stretch their way around the side of the mountain like saddlebags on a proud stallion, their territories in total easily five times the size of his current lotus paddy.
He banishes the resentful energy when he’s done, which is exhausting. Resentful energy isn’t easy to get rid of; if it were, the Burial Mounds would long since have been reclaimed. This is good land for farming! The best methods are all very slow; Wei Wuxian uses a faster technique he modified from a form of Wen cultivation. The true technique is a lot more complicated than this, but... Essentially, he lights the resentful energy on fire. This is very fast, but he has to use his own energy to provide the “spark,” and more to keep the resentful energy “flowing” into his “fireplace” in an even stream, like air from a bellows. He has no golden core, so this is exhausting.
When he is done, he is so tired he can barely stand, so exhausted that stars dance in front of his eyes. This is good; it is what he wanted, the reason he came out back here to work on the lotus paddies. But the path back to the front of the mountain is long and narrow, and he has to struggle to keep himself on it. Fumbling in the darkness, he goes back home.
As he was so painfully reminded today, it’s the only home he has left.
He wakes in the night smelling blood. Fresh blood, lots of blood, thick and cloying and metallic—
He stands up, swearing, and runs for the dense, rich, Yin-energy healing center he calls the Blood Pool.
The wards are broken, the hundreds of talismans on their neat ropes thrown aside. Wen Qing is kneeling in the Blood Pool, soaked to her waist, her normally dusky-rose-colored robes soaked through until they’re closer to the shade of mulberry juice. Her sleeves are soaked, too, but that doesn’t stop her: she gestures again and again, trying to cast against the thick, tar-like wash of the Yin water.
Yin water doesn’t move like regular water, Wei Wuxian knows; it moves like the blood it resembles, like the tacky, half-dried blood of a wound you’ve ignored for too long.
He reaches in, ignoring the way the Blood Pool clings to his sleeves. He grabs her under the armpits and hauls. She doesn’t weigh nearly enough; he should have gotten that haunch of pork earlier, after all. Her hands don’t stop moving as he pulls, and though her skin is so pale it’s like moonlight even in the yellow glow of the candles, she’s still strong enough to fight him as he carries her away.
He doesn’t stop pulling her clear until they’re all the way out into the hall, and then he throws her away from him. She hits the opposite wall, but she’s too soaked through for a thud; it’s more of a disgusting squelch.
“Was it worth it?!” he demands. He’ll be all day clearing the room from the chaos her working brought! The talismans alone will take hours to rewrite. “What were you doing? How dare you?!”
She spits at him like an angry cat, “I don’t have time! Oh, forget it. You wouldn’t understand—obviously, because you don’t! But it was the only thing I could think— ah!”
She doubles over, clutching her stomach. Wei Wuxian moves back in case she’s going to throw up; he doesn’t want it on his robes. He’s too angry to comfort her. “What were you thinking? The Blood Pool is not a toy!”
When she doesn’t answer, he turns away. “I was going to move soil for the lotus paddies tomorrow—”
“You’d have to build the lotus paddies, first,” she snaps, but she’s always been clever and she realizes immediately what he means. Her voice sharpens accusingly. “Is that what you were doing all day? Sulking, instead of being happy for your sister? You idiot—just go see her!”
“They won’t let me go—I wasn’t sulking!” Well, he was, actually. “Anyway, I guess I’ll have to fix the Blood Pool now, instead of planting our future.”
“If you’d planted our future months ago, I wouldn’t have disturbed it in the first place,” she mutters, which really isn’t fair because Wei Wuxian definitely did his share of the hard work on their crops.
He whirls to shout at her and stops in his tracks.
She’s crying. It’s not showy—she isn’t making a sound—but that just makes it worse.
He watches the tears roll down her cheeks, one on each side, the left slightly faster than the one on the right. He has been friends with her for years now, but—thankfully—he hasn’t had many opportunities to see her cry. Certainly not enough for him to know what to do now.
He looks her over critically, up and down. Her hands are still clamped around her stomach, but she’s pale rather than green. Her shoulders are shaking, either with silent tears or the aftermath of failed cultivation—or both. It’s probably both. Her skirts are leaving wet, gorey-looking trails along the floor, and she doesn’t seem to have noticed.
It’s that last bit that has him leaning in and picking her up again.
He carries her down to the baths, a set of springs located in almost the exact center of the caverns, and puts her down on the stone floor there. He chafes her hands to warm them; he’s so much bigger than she is that her hands disappear completely between his. “I’ll get you some clean clothes from your rooms,” he says, then runs away before she can start getting naked.
He grabs the robes, and then thinks better of it and heads upstairs to take some fruit, too; there’s a stash of plums in the kitchen that’s now down by two. Then he thinks better of that and puts the plums back, getting out a tray and starting some tea. They have tea, now, although it’s mostly lianzi cha. It’s still better than nothing. There’s leftover rice from dinner, too, so he takes some of that, then the plums and a jar of chestnut paste.
On the top shelf of the kitchen stores are four stoneware jars of liquor that Uncle Four allowed to Madam Wen to take for cooking; Wei Wuxian got “creative” one night, and now three of them are liquor, while the fourth is empty inside except for a small vial and a rock to make up the weight. Wei Wuxian bought a vial of chili oil three months ago and hid it in the empty jar; he’s lucky it’s still there. He liberally doses the rice, then hides the oil again.
By the time he gets back to the baths, Wen Qing is cleaned up and in control of herself again. Without discussing it, she leads the way to her rooms—far neater and more organized than his own, almost sparse—and motions for him to set the tray down on her table. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she says before he can even open his mouth—well, almost before, at least. “I was trying something, and it didn’t work. You work on your lotus paddies tomorrow; I’ll reseal the Blood Pool.”
This is obviously as close as she’s going to come to a sorry or a thank you.
Wei Wuxian thinks about arguing with her, but really, he hates sealing the Blood Pool—he did it often enough while Wen Ning was still healing there—and she looks much more reasonable right now than she did half an hour ago. “What were you working on, anyway?” he asks her as she chokes on the bizarre combination of spicy rice with sweet chestnut paste.
She coughs and picks up the tea, then sets it down again without drinking. She stares at it for a moment and then says crisply, “I was trying to form a seed—an artificial one. The pool can draw on Yin energy; I was trying to remove the Yin energy sufficiently from my own seeds that I could—fertilize myself. It didn’t work.”
“What seeds?” Wei Wuxian asks blankly, thinking that he hadn’t seen anything like seeds anywhere in the Blood Pool Cavern, and then belated realizes what she actually meant. “Oh! Those seeds! Uh, uh—I, uh— Wen Qing!!!”
She bristles and glares. “Are you going to tell me it’s impossible, Yiling Patriarch?!” She stabs her chopsticks into the rice and shoves it into her mouth. Her eyes tear up again, but that’s probably from the chili oil.
“No no, I wouldn’t—I mean, obviously, it didn’t work, but that doesn’t mean it can’t—that is... You’re the doctor, Wen Qing!” Here, at last, is an argument he’s pretty sure won’t get him murdered with an acupuncture needle. “I would never try to tell you what medical techniques to use. Do you try to tell me how to practice demonic cultivation?”
He feels awkward, standing while she sits, so he folds himself down and sits comfortably against her table. In fact, Wen Qing does tell him how to practice; she tells him how to do most things, whether he needs instruction or not. But that’s not the same as what she’s talking about—it’s just how she is, it’s not about him— so he ignores it. “But why now?” he wonders, stealing the second plum from the tray. He tosses it in the air and catches it, toying with the smooth round form of it as he thinks. “You asked, uh...”
His brain catches up with his mouth a few seconds too late. He looks at her warily and says nothing more.
“I asked you,” she fills in. “You said no.”
“...but that was over a year ago,” he continues, more slowly now and far more cautious. “And it isn’t that the Blood Pool has moved or changed.”
She picks up the chestnut paste and scoops some onto her rice with sharp jabs of her chopsticks. “I was waiting for you to change your mind. You didn’t.”
“...You thought I would?!”
“You almost did!” She stirs the paste into her rice vigorously. “You were thinking about it that day.”
“I—! You don’t know that!” Okay, actually he had been. “I was—I was thinking it wasn’t that bad, okay? That’s not a yes!”
“I know that!” The rice is stirred into submission, now, but her chopsticks are still moving. “I didn’t ask you again, did I?!”
“Ahh—mn!” Wei Wuxian muffles himself with another bite of plum.
Wen Qing does not stop stirring the rice for a long, silent minute, then sighs and sets down her chopsticks. “Your sister,” she says.
She doesn’t say anything else.
The rage that rises is both unexpected and swift, as red as the too-thick waters of the Blood Pool. He pushes himself to his feet, spits out an excuse, and stalks away.
He's not going to get back to sleep tonight.
He leaves the camp, passing the wards in a fit of headstrong pique, and marches out into the forest. He may as well make himself useful; he'll harvest some chestnuts.
Jiang Yanli is his sister. His to love, his to protect, his to tease into a good mood again by pouting up at her like a child despite being a grown man. His to stand protectively in front of when her fiancé is an ass. His—and Wei Wuxian’s face feels like breaking at the memory—to tell she's beautiful as she stands before him in her red and gold wedding dress.
She is his to cry over when he is unable to celebrate with her at the birth of her son.
The rich scent of plum rises to his nose, too fresh and crisp to be from the fruits buried under the dead leaves. He looks down.
The plum he stole from Wen Qing's tray has been crushed unknowingly in his fist. The juices drip, sticky and sweet, down his fingers.
It's not fair, Wen Qing being hurt by the same event. Shijie is Wei Wuxian's to grieve, not Wen Qing's. How dare she?!
But, although his jealous rage is strong, Wei Wuxian knows that it is also irrational.
(Is this nonsensical anger another effect of the corruption from his Demonic Cultivation? Is he always going to be asking that about everything, now? Can he ever truly trust himself again, now that he has no golden core, and practices the darkest of the dark arts?)
Wen Qing is her own person, of course. Wei Wuxian remembers that Wen Qing knew his Shijie at Cloud Recesses. Wen Qing helped Jiang Yanli when she was feeling unwell, and—for the first time Wei Wuxian is realizing this—in order to do so, she must have been someone Shijie once considered a friend. Otherwise, there's no chance Shijie would have been so bold as to ask for help.
He reaches the first of the chestnut trees and drops down to his knees. The night is dark, and resentful energy swirls around him; what did he think he was going to do, harvest chestnuts blind by touch?
Abruptly the rage fades, and a dull sort of shame sets in. He has been unkind, he realizes—no, not even that. Too selfish to be kind or unkind, because either would require him to think about someone else.
He sighs and shifts into a more comfortable sitting pose, there amidst the dark energy and the trees and the ground full of delicious caltrops. The night is cool, but not cold; just chill enough for him to realize that, in the too-fast spike of fear when he awoke smelling blood, he hadn't put on anything but an overrobe grabbed as he dashed out. It hangs loose over his inner garments. He is still wearing only his stockings, too. He came charging all the way out here and he wasn't even wearing shoes.
He lets his head drop back on his neck with a complaining whine. There is no way he'll make it back inside without stepping right on a chestnut hull; those things know when you're vulnerable.
He has been ridiculous, and he owes Wen Qing an apology.
And, in truth—in friendship!—he owes Wen Qing more than that.
Less cowardly than practical, he spends the next morning on the back of the mountain, working with Wen Ning to bring dirt up the river from the clean ground at the base of their home.
The backside of the mountain, for reasons Wei Wuxian prefers not to think about, has fewer restless spirits than the more-accessible front. The creekbed also does, because it’s harder for Yin energy to sink in when there’s clean water always flowing over the surface to carry it away. The soil around the stream at the base of the hill, then, is much better to plant in, the only problem being that it’s down there and they need it up here.
Wei Wuxian hooks a rope around a good smooth rock and has Wen Ning load buckets onto it, then pulls the rope until he can unload the buckets of soil at the top. It’s hard work, and slow, but faster than carrying one bucket at a time up and down the mountain. And a lot more pleasant than it will be when they have to do this with manure, too.
A-Yuan helps—“helps”—by climbing up and down all the rock walls Wei Wuxian made yesterday. He declares them “good” and “handsome,” which is gratifying, but not gratifying enough to justify the moment he gets right in front of Wei Wuxian just as Wei Wuxian is dumping a bucket of dark, wet mud everywhere. Childish screams fill the air, piercing and at that particular pitch unique to young children where you can’t tell for a second whether they’re screaming in pain or delight. Then a-Yuan jumps for Wei Wuxian’s legs, hugging him hard and smearing the mud all down the only three square inches of clothing not already covered in the stuff, before jumping off and running away.
Wei Wuxian huffs out an indignant breath and resists the urge to run his mucky hand through his hair. “Great,” he snorts.
He thinks about it as he fills in the lotus paddy, emptying buckets and then smoothing the muddy soil over the terrace floor with a rake. How long does it take for a child to become sensible enough he doesn’t have to worry? Does he really want to have another several years of this? If he gives Wen Qing the child she’s asked for, then it’s not just her; he’ll be a parent, too.
Is he ready for that? He does okay with a-Yuan, but that doesn’t really count. A-Yuan got through his infancy before Wei Wuxian met him; Madam Wen, bless her, took care of the boy for those years. To be truthful, she still does a lot of his care. If Wei Wuxian had been his father, would a-Yuan even have made it this far?
Wei Wuxian hasn’t spoken to Wen Qing about this, yet. If he’s going to back out, now is when he must decide.
He almost does change his mind; it’s the lotus paddy that stops him: not the ones he’s building out back, but the one right by the entrance to their home, the one he built this time last year.
He would have said these lotus blooms were impossible; that would have been the sensible idea. He’s always considered lotus to be a delicacy of his home, and so sure it could never grow in the corpse-riddled dirt of the Burial Mounds. But when he finally finishes raking out the last of the mud and comes back over the one-man path to the front, the first thing he sees is the graceful pink blossoms of last year’s crop. The lotus seeds came in well in the spring, and Wei Wuxian had planted them just early enough that when they bloomed, he could harvest and re-plant. The winters here are mild, and the second crop is now big enough that he can use the seeds from that out on the back terrace. And because lotus is rare in this clime, they’re a high-value crop; Wei Wuxian and the Wens can do a lot with the sales from this harvest if the paddies out back grow well. They can have a good life, here. They can be safe, and happy. Well-off, even—for farmers anyway.
All because Wei Wuxian has done the impossible when he raised those first plants with love.
Wei Wuxian blinks himself out of his reverie and looks down. A-Yuan has wrapped his arms around Wei Wuxian's legs. Wei Wuxian takes a moment to be glad he rinsed his robes in the stream before coming back around this side of the mountain; someone has clearly washed a-Yuan since he last saw him, and it would be a shame to just get him muddy again.
Wei Wuxian pretends to scowl. "What?"
A-Yuan sniffles at him and does a little dance, mischievous smile tugging at his lips, but doesn't answer.
Wei Wuxian looks around. The rest of the Wens are inside, done with gardening for the day and enjoying the companionable tasks that occupy their evenings as Madam Wen makes dinner. Wei Wuxian catches a hint of scent: roasted turnips, but there's the spicy-savory smell of rabbit in bean sauce, so that'll be alright. Roasted turnips are almost bearable if there's rabbit in bean sauce. The only Wen not inside now is Wen Yuan, at his thigh, and Wen Qing, watching with a soft smirk from the entryway to the hall.
"Hey, is this how you call me to come in?!" Wei Wuxian makes a show of shaking his fist at her. "I'm not a child!"
Wen Qing smiles and calls back, "A-Yuan! When you're done playing with your less-mature brother, come inside and have dinner!"
"Hey hey hey!!!!"
But in spite of his protests he does play with a-Yuan, picking him up and tossing him in the air. Then he pretends the waist-high rock walls in the courtyard are the walls of a castle, helping a-Yuan "scale" them. He even talks Wen Qing into playing a fair maiden to be rescued, which she does with eyes that promise death if Wei Wuxian ever tells anybody about it. Wei Wuxian isn't worried; it would be worth it, anyway.
But when they send a-Yuan away inside to wash up, he stops Wen Qing with a hand on her elbow. There's nobody else around, now, and if he waits, he's going to lose his nerve.
She glares at the hand on her arm, so he pulls back before he loses his fingers. He wipes his hands on his robes. His palms are weirdly sweaty, but his robes are still soaked from the stream, so it doesn’t help much.
Wei Wuxian swallows, and then just says it: "Wen Qing... You asked for my help."
She frowns. “We’re not talking about last night,” she says. “It was foolish of me, but I already apologized. And I’ve already repaired the protection talismans, so you don’t have to worry about it!”
...Oh, no. She misunderstood?! This is agonizing. Wei Wuxian wishes he'd gotten further on his lotus project; if he'd managed to fill in the pools with water, he could just drown himself instead of having this conversation.
"That’s not what I mean,” he manages. “That is... You asked... for my help." He knows this is not the clearest way to say it. The problem is, he's pretty sure if he tries to say it the way Wen Qing said it, his head is going to pop right off and going flying into the sky from the all the pressure. He gives up and retreats into formality: he folds his hand in front of him, taking Chenqing from his waist to hold like a sword, and bends his head. “A year ago, I churlishly refused you aid due to my own cowardice.” He bows. “Please permit this one to rectify that mistake.”
“OH!" Wen Qing covers her mouth with both hands, her eyes wide above delicate fingers. She does a little dance, shifting from one foot to the other, for a moment just as awkward as he is. “You mean—not with cultivation, but with—!” She twirls away, the skirts of her robe flaring, as if preparing to race inside right now and get started. Then she spins back, facing him once more. “You mean it?” she asks. She looks simultaneously delighted and horrified by the idea.
Come to think of it, he feels the same way. He nods, eyes wide over his salute.
She bites her lip, looking from him to the entrance of their home and back. Her hands clench into fists and beat at her sides as if she were playing a great invisible drum, and then she raises her chin. "Tonight!" she declares.
He shakes his head madly. "No no no, no way! I'm covered in mud!"
"You'll be covered in mud tomorrow night, too!" she argues back. "And I'm running out of time if it's going to work, you know!"
"Running out of time?! Don't we have years ahead of us? What time are you—"
Her eyes widen threateningly and she grabs his wrist. She drags his arm forward and flattens his hand against her belly, low down, just beneath the cinch of her sash.
Wei Wuxian jerks his hand back as if burned. "Oh!" he says. He still has no idea what she means, but he now realizes that he does not want to know! Is this something to do with fertility? It must be, but he is not asking!
"Oh, I see! Right! Got it!” He has not got it. Also, they've both said “oh!” so much during this conversation that the animals in the trees probably think the two of them are large, awkward birds. “Tonight! Right, right, that’s—that’s a bit sooner than I expected, I’m not sure..."
Wen Qing rolls her eyes at him and whirls away again. “Go bathe,” she instructs him. “Now! I’ll bring you dinner.”
Wei Wuxian is one of the most brilliant cultivators of his generation, and so he does the smart thing: he gives up and runs inside like there’s a hungry dog growling behind him.
This fic was supposed to be about 12-15k in total. It's 12k right now and I haven't finished writing Act 1. *headdesk*
I know nothing about the conventions of how magic works in cultivation stories beyond what I've picked up from watching/reading MDZS. Please, if I've managed to write something that's wrong/culturally insensitive, come tell me about it! I'm actually really interested in general.
As promised, Wen Qing brings him dinner. She arrives while he’s still half-dressed, his hair still wet from the bath and leaving dark smudges on his inner robe. He’s wearing an outer robe, but it hangs open around him, and he can’t find the sash. He would have been fully dressed, but he got distracted making a frantic last-minute effort to tidy his room (it seemed polite).
He’s still picking things up off the floor—and finding them a place to sit that isn’t the bed—when she knocks at the door, then enters and closes it behind him before he can take the half-completed compass out of his mouth to answer.
“I brought a tray,” she says, and he’s about to say “great!” when she smacks the tray down and it makes a familiar but deeply out-of-place clinking noise.
Wei Wuxian looks up. The compass tumbles from between his lips, unnoticed.
"You brought me liquor?" He blinks at the tray, disbelieving. "...You brought me five jars of liquor???"
"Uncle Four's best," Wen Qing says tightly, "and we're sharing." She parks herself on the other side of the table an uncorks the first jar, pouring with pointedly raised eyebrows that summon Wei Wuxian into place.
He goes. There's no point in arguing with her when she's like this; she'll do things like insist he eat more vegetables if he tries.
To add insult to injury, his stomach rumbles just as he comes to sit at the table. He guiltily remembers giving a-Yuan half his breakfast earlier when the child had complained about being hungry. Wei Wuxian knows he has to keep his strength up, but he sometimes thinks a-Yuan needs the potatoes and rice more. And he looks so cute with his little cheeks all puffed out around them! But now Wen Qing is wise to his shenanigans, and when she serves up the food she heaps the turnips and hare into his bowl. Wei Wuxian tucks his outer robe around himself as best he can with no sash as she makes a bowl for herself, too.
She also pours herself a cup of Uncle Four's fruit wine, and slams it back with a grimace before immediately pouring again.
“Ehh, Wen Qing... Are you sure about this?!”
“You’re the one who only made up your mind today!” she scoffs. “I’ve been sure for the last year!” She takes another shot.
“Mm, not that! I just meant... the wine? Is that a good idea?” He’s seen her drink before, but never like this. She’s pouring wine like she has a point to prove and she accidentally left it in one of these five jars.
She doesn’t meet his eyes as she pours a cup for him, too. She passes it to him with a graceful tilt of her head, then mutters, “...The texts say it helps to be relaxed,” just in time for him to choke on it.
He takes his time coughing. (Hooo, damn good stuff though, Uncle Four! Keep working on it!) He very much does not want to think about Wen Qing in relation to those aforementioned texts— ever— except... Oh, damn, texts! As in, not experience. He groans—not just at the prospect of yet another meal based in turnip—and swallows. "Have you, uh... Ever... done this before?"
She gives him an unimpressed look. "Didn't I just say? No, of course not. Why would I?"
Wei Wuxian has honestly never been all that interested, either, but there are plenty of people who are. "...Fun?"
She rolls her eyes. "Drink your wine... and hope the babies get my brains. I’m not in love with you, dumbass."
"I know that! I wouldn’t have done this if I didn’t know that—hey, wait wait wait, babies?” Wei Wuxian sets down his dinner, too distracted for food. “You mean, more than one?"
"Well why stop after success?” Wen Qing says defensively, “I lost my entire clan, I need to do my part!"
"We can't make up for an entire clan all on our own!" he yelps. "Wen Qing, hang on! How many babies did you mean?!?!" There’s a hot red flush on his face, and he doesn’t think it’s just from the alcohol.
She looks ready to snap at him again and then stops, face growing sympathetic, and then serious. She lets the wine rest on the table for a moment and speaks softly. Wei Wuxian has noticed before that her voice, when not crackling with temper, is soft and lush; he always finds himself blinking at the sound of it. “Tonight... you shouldn’t worry about it,” she says. “We can only do one at a time, anyway.” She offers him a little smile, earnest and kind, and he remembers at last that she is his friend.
Suddenly, he feels much better about doing this with her.
He takes the bottle from her hand and poured her another cup, then downs the rest of it in five large gulps, letting it spill over his cheeks and lips. He reaches for the next jar and opens it with a wry toasting gesture.
Friends or not, Wen Qing was right: there is no way they are doing this sober.
By the time an hour is over, they're both out of control. Wei Wuxian is lying sprawled on his back on his bed, still clothed in his inner robe, and utterly disinclined to change either half of that status. Wen Qing is still upright, but struggling out of her robes. She got stuck on her second layer of robes and keeps trying to re-wrap them as soon as she gets them open, but she's hampered in these efforts by the fact that her hand keeps missing the sleeve.
"Wen Qing... Wen Qing, I feel awful..."
"Shut up," she growls, "just shut up. You always complain. Isn't this supposed to be fun?"
"Maybe if it weren't with you," Wei Wuxian says. But he doesn't really mean it. Wen Qing is a good friend—maybe his truest friend, because she helped him when he had nothing, and now he has almost nothing and no one else has come forth in his support. This is a small enough thing for him to do for her. And she's right! Isn't it supposed to be fun?
He wouldn't really know. Wei Wuxian has only done this once before, in his youth at Cloud Recesses. It was during that period when Lan Qiren had left from Cloud Recesses and Wei Wuxian and his school friends had immediately run wild.
One night he, Nie Huaisang, and Jiang Cheng had all been drinking and had grown concerned over their inexperience. Or—Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang had, anyway. But then, they were both the sort of people who would be concerned about future “performance.” For himself, Wei Wuxian had never particularly worried about it; he always figured it would sort itself out when he got married, and as the son of a servant he had no particular push to do that. But as the other two would both have to marry and produce heirs, they had been worried, and Wei Wuxian, ever indifferent to the rules of both GusuLan and basic propriety, suggested that they all visit a brothel together.
They did. There was one in Caiyi, and they were in time to sneak out before curfew so they could even go that same night (while still drunk). The madam had presented three different prostitutes to them: one with round, perky breasts, one with a narrow waist but very full hips, and one with a lusty, unrestrained laugh. Wei Wuxian let the others pick first, and ended up with the one with the laugh. He was pretty sure he got the best one.
It was... fine, basically. Wei Wuxian laughingly admitted to never doing this before, and the prostitute had laughed, too, until the wrinkles around her eyes showed through the facepaint before unfastening his robes and grasping him. She was confident in her movements, and pressed her body against his as she stroked him to fullness, smiling all the while like they were in on a joke together. She pushed him gently until he was sitting upright on the bed, his legs splayed, and then seated herself in his lap facing him, gripping him firmly as she slid him inside her. She smiled as she told him to let her do all the work, and he had. It felt nice, and finished in a moderate amount of time. Although, thinking back on it now, maybe she only said that to make him feel good... He didn't know how long it usually took, so maybe his time was really quite short! Now that he thought of it, he was only the second one done, and he and Jiang Cheng had drunk quite a bit more while waiting for Nie Huaisang to be done...
He supposes it doesn't matter now. Wen Qing seems pretty determined, and they have all night to figure it out.
"Wen Qing! Wen Qing, come sit on my lap!"
"Don't be disgusting!"
...It may take all night.
By the time Wen Qing has worked out how to take her robes off—and keep them off—Wei Wuxian is floating on a fruit wine sea. He has pulled his hair out of its topknot, because it felt odd against the bed, and he keeps pulling his hands through it, spreading it around him like a blanket. He scratches his nails against his scalp. It feels good.
Wen Qing lands on his stomach after a running start, and she's so heavy it's like she has secret weights sewn into the insides of her bones. Wei Wuxian's breath whooshes out of him. "Ooof!"
She beams down at him, drunk as a fish. "I got it!" she crows, angry even in her drunken triumph. "Now you have to be with me, because I'm naked!" She crosses her arms over her chest and stares down at him, imperious. Wei Wuxian grins back affectionately, then quickly scowls to cover it.
"Hey hey hey! Who says? Maybe we should wait for the wedding!" His hands go to her waist. She's so small to hold so much personality... His fingers wrap around almost to her spine without him even trying. Her muscles twitch under his thumbs. He can feel her golden core pulsing through her skin, and he looks away so she won't catch the jealousy he can't help but to feel for a moment.
Stupid to feel such things... It was his own fault he lost his core in the first place.
"We're not getting married," she snorts, "I'm just using you for seed." Her hands thump against his chest, two tiny fists pounding him like he's furniture.
"Ruuuude!" Wei Wuxian snaps his head back around to scowl at her. His hair makes a swishing sound in his ear with the movement.
"Imagine what it would be like if we were married!" she argues back, crossing her arms over her chest again, her voice too loud and her movements too big for her tiny frame. "We'd have to spend all day around each other—every day! We'd have to talk about nothing but boring, mundane details all the time, like dinner and work and—and what crops to plant. Can you imagine anything worse?!"
Wei Wuxian pushes himself up on his arms, incredulous at this lunacy. His muscles ache pleasantly after the hard work of the day. "We do all that anyway!"
Wen Qing looks appalled. "Oh, my god—we're already married!"
They both consider this in horror for a second, each staring into the middle distance, and then they come back down to earth and their eyes meet once more. Wen Qing shrugs and starts fumbling with his robes.
Wei Wuxian fights her off, starting a quick, undignified squabble. "Get off—don't! Stop! Nooo, Wen Qiiiiiing, let me do it!!!" They wrestle loosely over it until he turns on his side. She's gripping him with her thighs when he does it, riding him like a restless horse, and when he turns it forces her to tumble off and onto the floor instead.
He narrowly misses rolling right off his bed from the momentum, his eyes curtained by the fall of his loose hair. Despite the intervening time, it’s still damp from the bath, curling long, lazy corkscrews and sticking to his cheek. He grips the side of the bed and pants as the world swims around him.
When he has his balance back, he turns back to scan the room. "Wen Qing...?"
She's still flopped where she landed on the floor about six feet away, her back to him and her knees curled against her chest. He can just barely see the light hitting the upturned sides of her thighs. She picks her head up just enough to tip it towards him and speaks, her words slow, distinct, and angry: "Take. Off. Your. Clothes."
By the time she has worked herself back to her feet and stalked towards him—it takes a while; she keeps zig-zagging side to side instead of managing a straight line—he has successfully gotten himself out of his clothes. He sits back in the bed, and a second later she trips over the edge of it and falls in with him. She immediately grabs his arm and puts it around her, snuggling up to him. “Snuggling” is not a word he has ever associated with Wen Qing before, but somehow it’s a lot better to have her beside him than across from him, so he doesn’t object.
They sit together quietly for a minute, and then she pulls back. She looks him up and down, frowning. “What is it?” Wei Wuxian wishes she would go back under his arm; he liked that better. And it’s a little chilly in this chamber, although being naked before her gaze, his skin is hot enough to forget that part.
Her eyes rove up and down his body again, slow and considering. Wei Wuxian is blushing, now, and plays with his hair to cover. He pulls it back and all into a bunch, off of his neck, then lets it drop again and finger-combs it out.
Plum wine and long hair, he decides, are an excellent combination. He feels sensual, loose.
Wen Qing licks her lower lip, and although she doesn’t appear aware of the movement, Wei Wuxian feels it like a shock in his bones.
“What is it?” he asks again. Something in his voice goes rough this time, which is equal parts exciting and alarming to hear.
She shakes her head. “Something’s different. I’ve seen you naked before, you know—because you’re an idiot—” Four months ago Wei Wuxian got crushed by falling rocks deep in the mountains, and while he thankfully didn’t break any bones he had been pinned for hours, and received a deep, seeping cut on his upper thigh that Wen Qing had to patch up. By mutual agreement, neither of them had ever mentioned it again, at least until now. “Something’s different than it was then.”
Wei Wuxian looks down. “If you reach out and touch,” he offers helpfully, “it’ll get even more different.”
He half expects to get hit for that—it’s hard to keep remembering, they’re doing this on purpose— but Wen Qing just gives him a dubious look before planting one hand on his thigh, lifting her knee—the shadows on her leg dip terrifyingly upward—and swinging around to mount up.
“Oh! Uh uh uhhh, hey... There you are...” Wei Wuxian takes a sharp breath, suddenly feeling like there’s not enough air in his lungs. His eyes are all bugged out. But plum wine sings wild and fae in his veins like the resentful energy rising from a fresh battlefield, and after a second he grins. It's hard to argue with the reality of Wen Qing right here in his lap, hard to put his finger on what seemed so complicated about this a minute ago. Here she is, and here he is; two people, one man and one woman. Simple, right?
Her eyes rove over his face uncertainty and she licks her lower lip again. This time she catches him looking.
He asks, “Do you want to kiss?”
She bites her lip, hesitating, then shrugs dubiously. “We can try, I suppose.”
For the first second, kissing Wen Qing is awkward, both of them too aware of what they’re doing. Also, Wei Wuxian is pretty sure she’s never been kissed before, because she purses her lips up like a child to do it.
Wei Wuxian has been kissed. Just once—and not at the house in Caiyi, either. He remembers the feeling of strong hands on his wrists—he takes Wen Qing’s wrists in his hands, mimicking—and hot breath in his ear—he leans in. The mysterious person who had kissed him while he stood blindfolded in dappled sunlight, they had lingered over it. Their lips had drawn slowly over his cheeks, butterfly-light, and his breath had stopped in his throat, panicky little hitches that felt anything but scary.
Wei Wuxian bypasses Wen Qing’s lips and kisses her jaw, tries to graze his lips against the skin the way that unknown person had done to him. It doesn’t work quite so gracefully for him: he bumps his face against hers once, twice, then gives up and just kisses her mouth.
It’s awkward for a second, both of them slapping their mouths together and then freezing, waiting for the magic to start. Wei Wuxian’s mind is half back at Phoenix Mountain still, and he has no idea what Wen Qing is thinking of. Her hands are still trapped in his wrists, and as they hold their mouths together she twists her arms, breaking his grip. He puts his hand back on her waist, where he can feel the thrum of her golden core through her skin; she puts her hands on his chest, just above where his heart is beating like mad.
Something changes in the kiss, some undefinable barrier giving way. All of a sudden, rather than being stiff puppets, they are human beings together, leaning into each other like they need each other to survive.
Wei Wuxian opens his mouth, not pushing forward with his tongue but just moving his lips against hers, and she either figures it out or follows his lead because she does the same. Something sparks in his bones, an energy that is neither black nor white but bright red. Wen cultivators were the masters of fire, he thinks distantly, and then her hands are curling enough that her nails are scraping against his skin.
Now it's his turn to gasp, his nerve cells lighting up. "Good," he says, "yes," before kissing her again. She scratches lightly over his chest, her nails catching on his nipples. Her fingers are soft; she keeps her nails perfectly clean and manicured. He has wondered if it's because of some doctor thing, or if instead it’s because this is one small thing she can do that reminds her of what she used to be. Either way, his head spins at the sight of those smooth, perfectly ovular white nails against the pebbled rosey-brown skin of his nipple.
She drags her nails up and down, then keeps going up to his neck. He lifts his chin for her, letting out a soft whine without really meaning to, and she gasps again. They both go still for a second as they realize the position they have put themselves in—they may both be naked, about to lie together, but she is pinning him down and her hand is at his neck. Slowly, she slides her hand forward, catching his throat as if about to choke him.
Wei Wuxian says without thinking, "Please," and for the first time feels himself begin to grow hard.
Her nails dig in as her hand tightens around his throat.
It feels good, good enough to send his pulse racing, dangerous and threatening and delightful. It's not enough to cut off his airway, yet; he's very strong, and her hand is very small, so she would most likely need to use her cultivation to truly hurt him. Not that she would hesitate to do so if it were called for... He thinks grumpily of her smacking him right in the wound in front of Lan Wangji, and somehow the thought mixes up with doing this in front of Lan Wangji, and for a second all Wei Wuxian can think of is being displayed in that way.
His blood pulses, rushing to fill his length at the thought.
She doesn’t remove her hand. In fact, her nails dig in, five tiny points of pain on the sides of his throat. Wei Wuxian feels as if he were floating.
"What do you like?" she asks.
He has to think to come up with an answer; he hasn't exactly done this enough to have an essay prepared on what is and isn't nice for him. Eventually he remembers the way that kiss in Phoenix Mountain had ended. "Biting," he decides, and he watches her eyes dilate when he says it. She looks him up and down—she still doesn't move her hand—then leans in to bite his jaw. Her teeth close over the skin, the skin pressing against muscle which presses against bone, and a delicious ache starts up. Her lips are two faint pink ghosts of sensation on either side. Wei Wuxian moans. He wasn’t expecting it to feel so good! His stomach is clenching, the long muscles of his legs tightening. Her lashes sweep down in a glance, and he realizes she can feel that tension against her seat.
She pulls back, narrowing her eyes in study. He feels very displayed before her, but, although he blushes, he doesn't try to hide. He remembers that one thought he had, about doing all of this in front of Lan Wangji, and there's no reason to be thinking about that again but he is. Lan Zhan would blush to see this; he would be so offended. Wei Wuxian loves the idea of getting beneath Lan Zhan's skin like that; he thinks it would be glorious to be laid out and taken the way Wen Qing seems about to, if Lan Zhan were watching.
It's still pretty good even with just Wen Qing watching, actually...
She gives a short nod, as if deciding something for herself, and speaks. "Wei Wuxian, you took out your hair ribbon; your hair is getting everywhere."
That is true: curls of black are all around them, and since Wen Qing's hair is still put up, most of that is from him. Wei Wuxian sort of likes the effect, if he's honest, because it seems like making love in a forest with dark trees all around, or something similarly romantic. But on a practical level he supposes no one wants a bunch of stray hairs in their mouth.
"Gather all your hair together," she orders, "and hold it in a knot on the back of your head."
Wei Wuxian makes a face, even as he gives his head a shake to feel the strands move against him. "I don't know where my ribbon went," he admits. It just sort of disappeared while he was lying in a drunken daze against the bed, earlier. He is beginning to sober up, now—although he's still feeling very pleasantly loose!—but the ribbon might well be gone forever.
"I don't care where the ribbon went—I want you to hold it." Wen Qing says it too firmly, adamantly even, the way she does when she isn't sure of something, and Wei Wuxian pays attention. He peeks at her face.
Her eyes are wide, her brows slightly drawn in together so that a faint line forms between them, but her lower lip is soft and trembling. It glistens with the spit of their kisses, and Wei Wuxian thinks it’s maybe a little swollen, too. There is softness there, but her eyes are hungry, so she wants something, but she isn’t sure she should have it. Well, Wei Wuxian is pretty sure that a man is supposed to give a woman things in bed, so he supposes he’ll do as she asks.
He gathers his hair back into one long tail, then twists it up until it forms a round bunch at the crown of his head. “Good,” Wen Qing tells him, “now hold it there,” and all of sudden he realizes why she has asked: she has just bound his hands.
Oh, there is no tie, no shackle. But still, if he wants to touch or move them, he’ll have to let go of his hair—and that is something she has asked him not to do. He is stuck.
...His mouth is open, he realizes. He is panting, his jaw slack. His penis is fully erect, solid and heavy against his leg. This is nothing at all like the prostitute in Caiyi; that woman was blowsy, laughing in big gusts like a friendly spring day. Wei Wuxian had gotten hard for her simply because she made it so safe. This is not at all safe, but Wei Wuxian thinks he may like this even better.
Wen Qing’s hand tightens again on his throat, and he arches his back. Her eyes dart down, and he realizes he has just shoved his chest towards her when she scratches again with her free hand. His breath hisses as he breathes out between his teeth.
For a second she looks uncertain. Then she tosses him backwards by the hand on his throat, and when he just bobs in place she pounds on his chest with her fists. "Fall back!" she demands. "On the bed."
If he lies down on the bed, he won't be able to dodge backwards at all if she does something he doesn’t like. But...
He swallows, then bends backwards. He arches his back until his hands and then shoulders touch the blanket, then squirms to straighten out until he’s lying on his back with just his knees hanging over the edge of the bed. Wen Qing is still sitting on his thighs, but her legs, bracketing his on either side, are tightening: she’s going to move in a moment.
Tentatively, she reaches up, running her nails across the front of his throat. She digs them in a little deeper as she comes down his chest, and when she reaches the level of his sternum she stops, then lifts her hand to the side and scratches them—slowly—down over his nipple, instead. He can't—his breathing isn't working right. He tries to take a breath, but it stops in his throat; he's not hyperventillating, but he's not alright, either. It's—she scratches his other nipple, then digs her nails in hard as she passes over the taut muscles of his stomach—it's very—
"AH!" He tries to buck, tries to arch up under the sweet little torment, but with her so low on his thighs he can't quite get the leverage—not without throwing her again, anyway, and he doesn't want to throw her. It's good; if anything, it's too good.
"Stay there," she tells him with the over-seriousness of a person at the perfect level of drunk. She swings her leg off him and moves across the room. He can hear her feet padding on the bare stone floor. A small sound, ceramic on wood, and then she's moving back. She sets something next to him on the bed—"Don't look!" she orders—and climbs— oh god— back on top of him. She sits higher on his legs this time, Wei Wuxian notices with a feeling similar to rising panic; if he weren't already so hard his length is pressing up along the trail of hair on his stomach, she'd be sitting right on top of it.
She picks up what she brought, and Wei Wuxian keeps his gaze desperately focused on her face. Don't look, she said, and he can do that. His hands are tangled in his hair, his body arched ahead of her like a scroll to write on. His nipples hurt, too hard in the chilly cave air. His breath is coming much too fast.
She pulls the seal from the object in her hands—the last bottle of wine, he realizes—and bends over with too-careful deliberation to pour some into his open, panting mouth.
He closes his eyes and swallows. It's good; crisp and sweet, with honey notes. The plums of Burial Mounds grow decadent flavors. The burn is just right.
When he opens his eyes, her face is much too close. She bends down and bites him—bites!—right on the chest, on the plump muscle above his left nipple. He shouts and bucks again under the shock of it, able to raise higher now with her farther from his knees. "Shhh!" She presses the cool ceramic jar to his cheek. "Shhh, Wei Ying..." She licks the bitemark—it's a big one, dark and round as a plum itself!—then props herself up. "Another drink?"
She's going to kill him. He tightens his fingers in the now-tangled mass of his hair and nods.
She pours a generous swallow into her own mouth before turning the jug and dripping it into his. Their lips are both shiny, now, and they both have traces of wine on their cheeks and chins. Wei Wuxian feels calmer, though; drinking, at least, is something he is familiar with, and he knows he can play that game much longer than she.
She must realize it, too, because this time she sets the bottle down on the floor rather than the uneven lumpiness of the bed. She straightens up, then rises up on her knees. She doesn't take a deep breath or anything, but Wei Wuxian can still see her bracing herself.
She reaches down for his length.
Her hand is warm—more than warm, it’s hot. Her fingers are soft and thin, wrapping around him with delicate strength. They are not quite long enough to wrap all the way around. She places her left hand flat on his stomach for balance, adjusts the angle of his shaft, and sinks down.
They both wince at the dry, tight scrape.
Wei Wuxian’s breath hisses in between his teeth, and his stomach clenches as he futilely tries to sit up and see—her body will be in the way even if he does sit up. He almost takes his hands out of his hair, but just in time he remembers and asks first.
“No,” she says firmly, “I know what’s wrong.” She lifts up and shifts her weight, bringing her other hand down. He can feel it against the head of his penis; whatever she’s doing, she’s not trying to touch him, and the accidental brushes are just that. That doesn’t make them any less electric, though.
“The skin,” he blurts, “the outer skin— pull it back before...”
She pauses, drawing back. Getting her body out of the way so she can see, he realizes, and the thought hits him hard enough he gives right up. He lies back down against the bed, staring at the rough stone ceiling, and tries not to twitch at the fine-but-strong touch of her fingers against his shaft as she rolls his foreskin up and down.
She gets back into place.
This time her fingers brush against his cock before she sinks down on him. He doesn’t know what she’s doing, but whatever it is, it makes all the difference: rather than a dry, rough entrance, he slides in on a glide of slickness; rather than too tight, her entrance is elastic, clinging deliciously as he slides further and further inside. He pants loosely, feeling very debauched as he stares at the ceiling and feels her take him. “What did you do?”
She has taken him as far as he can go; she’s sitting on his hips, eyes closed, mouth slightly open as she pants. Wei Wuxian is secretly glad of the time to adjust. After a second, she opens her eyes again and smiles down at him, brighter than she ever does sober, and smug as only Wen Qing can be. “I spread myself for you,” she says, and he doesn’t have time to truly understand the impact of that before she rocks in place and he feels it, all up and down the length of his cock. He moans loudly, and she laughs in delight.
“Hold still!” she tells him, and he tries.
She’s obviously inexperienced, experimenting with different motions. He tries to hold still as she does it, but the slick friction of it makes his eyes cross before he gives up and closes them altogether.
For a second he loses himself in a dark world where someone rides in him quiet ecstasy, and then her nails scrape over his nipples both at once and his eyes shoot open again. She grins down at him and slaps his chest with her left hand, then digs her nails into the bitemark she left earlier with the right. “Mine,” she declares, and his heart stops.
“Wen Qing!” he protests, but she slides forward— oh, that changes the angle, ohh!— and wraps her left hand around his throat again. Her right hand she places over his mouth, muffling him, and she’s bracing with her elbows against his chest, now, and her elbows are pointy, they dig in— that one is poking him right in the center of his bruise—
He can’t see because his eyes won’t focus, and he feels hard as a sword—a very good sword, like Bichen. Despite his efforts to stay still, his hips are hitching, thrusting very minutely up against her with every stroke.
She tightens her grip on his throat, even as she rides him below, and he is caught, hanging bound between the two points of where she’s taking him and where she’s choking him. For a second he feels as if he really is owned, as if he is a possession, and a shudder runs all the way from his head to his knees. His head thrashes from side to side, and there are tears on his cheeks.
“Yes,” she hisses, “yesss!” She bends forward, her head dropping on her neck until he can feel her rough pants again the nape of his neck. Her fingers just above tighten further, and it’s still not cutting off his air but it almost is, and it feels so good, so good—!
“Please, I’m close!” he tries to beg. But she’s still gagging him, so it comes out as “Mmmm-hmf-mmmf!!!” and she just smiles more widely at that. She’s barely moving, her hips more rocking than thrusting with all of him pressed deep inside her, but it is more—than— enough—
“Wen Qing!” he tries to cry again, but she doesn’t stop. Her quim clenches, spasming around him, and the world ceases to exist for a second as he comes in a too-fast, almost painful rush.
Drunk!WQ: Let's get naked
End of Act 1
Wen Qing wakes in the morning with soreness in every part of her. Not just the obvious place a maiden expects soreness after her first time—although, to be honest, there isn't that bad; it mostly just stings. But also her head is pounding like there are four big war drums inside her skull. Her stomach turns, and she only barely manages to keep down the vomit.
She bends forward over her knees, staring down at the rough fur of Wei Wuxian's thick blanket. It's the only comfortable item on the bed; he doesn't even have a mattress, not even of straw. Wen Qing’s back and buttocks are both aching as if bruised, just from sleeping on this slab of rock Wei Wuxian uses as a bed! She moans and leans forward further, letting her head hang until the muscles on the back of her neck stretch.
If they’re going to try this again, she's going to have to do something about this bed situation.
She tests the thought with a cautious mental needle. Is she going to do this again?
...Probably? It wasn’t bad...
Her memories of last night are largely scattered by drink, but she distinctly remembers an exhilarating feeling, similar to the first time she ever flew on her sword. In the memory she is rocking, Wei Wuxian spread beneath her with the hard, vulnerable length of him inside her, filling her deepest places. The feeling is so hard to describe, but it was an ache, a slide, a possession and being possessed, all at once...
Strange; very strange. But far from bad.
She nods to herself and—cautious of her hangover—slowly twists to sit upright on the edge of the bed.
Yes, she can do this again.
After only ten minutes or so of sitting and praying for death, Wei Wuxian appears with a tray holding what certainly appeared to be congee and tea.
Wen Qing narrows her eyes. "Since when do we have tea."
"We have lotus tea," Wei Wuxian argues, his voice mercifully muted. "Lotus tea is good for your head, isn't it?" Lotus tea is made from lotus plumules rather than anything off a tea plant, and they don't have much of it, but in fact it is good for hangovers.
Wen Qing grimaces and attempts to drink. "Why don't you feel so awful?” she sulks. “You drank, too."
"Ehhn... Less than you did. You finished two bottles on your own! And you're much smaller than me, and you drink less often..." Wei Wuxian stirs the congee for her before lifting the spoon to her lips. She rolls her eyes at him but takes the bite, then makes a swipe for the spoon and misses. Her head spins and she braces herself on the edge of the bed, only to realize that he has already caught her with one hand pressed against her shoulder. He is warm in the cool of the cave, and his arm is surprisingly strong. He gives her a small smile and says lightly, “Isn't it the man's duty to pamper the woman after a night of passion?"
"Is that what you'd call it?!" Wen Qing demands. She immediately winces at the sound of her own voice, clapping her hands to her ears. "Is that what you'd call it?" she repeats, this time in a pained whisper. "Passion? Really?"
Wuxian spoons up some more congee and holds it out, but doesn't meet her gaze. She rolls her eyes and eats the spoonful, then yanks the spoon out of his grip before he can try to feed her anymore. She eats silently, waiting for her head to subside or for Wei Wuxian to talk—whichever happens first.
No surprise, it ends up being Wei Wuxian talking; that man loves the sound of his own voice.
"Ahhh, Wen Qing... When will you know? About the baby, I mean."
"About the baby?" Wen Qing rests the spoon sideways in the bowl and considers him silently. How much is he likely to know already? He was a high-ranked cultivator before he was the Yiling Patriarch, and he seemed like he at least somewhat knew what he was doing last night. But does knowing what to do in bed really mean he knows about fertility? Wen Qing sighs. "Impregnation is not like stabbing someone with your sword—” she begins.
Wei Wuxian snorts loudly, eyes dancing in sudden mirth. The happiness looks good on him, but that doesn't stop her spurt of irritation. If she dumps the congee over his head, she thinks, that'll look good on him, too. Perfect, in fact: the white gloopy rice will be like pearls in his dark hair and dripping down the front of his black robes...
"...Or," she continues through gritted teeth, glaring enough to threaten him into submission, "like using a poisoned dagger. It is more like the volley a whole regiment of archers will fire in battle. Efficacy comes from good shooting, yes—”
Wei Wuxian presses his mouth shut and avoids her eyes, and she groans with a temper that pounds nearly as badly as her head.
"—but also from many arrows being fired, rather than just one. And it is only after the volley is concluded that one can see whether any of the arrows found its mark."
He nods in hasty agreement, and only then pauses to think about what she has said. "So... we'll have to do this again?"
The bowl is still half-full of congee, but if she tries to eat any more of it she'll puke. She pushes it away and takes up the lotus tea, cupping it in her fingers for warmth. "The literature says that once every other day during the fertile period is the best technique, and my fertile period ends in three days. So yes, once more-- and then we will see if any of our volley landed." In her heart of hearts, though, she is certain it did. Many other women in many centuries have thought the same, but still, she is sure: last night worked, and there is a baby in her belly even now. "If my monthly doesn't come within two weeks, it is very likely that we will not need to try again next month."
Wei Wuxian's hands flutter around himself, and it is only at the sight of this motion that Wen Qing realizes that he has left Chenqing behind himself today. That cannot be an accidental decision, as Wei Wuxian carries Chenqing the way most other cultivators carry their swords: always, and without thinking. He has deliberately made himself non-threatening this morning, and the glow of that does more to settle Wen Qing's stomach than any congee could manage.
"Only two weeks! Ahhh!" It's a very quiet scream, excitement rather than fear. Wen Qing bites back a smile at the sound of it.
He puts the tray aside and leans on the edge of the bed, knees crossed and arms resting atop them, and his chin on top of his arms. "Wen Qing, were you really serious about not marrying me?"
She frowns. She was serious, back when they first discussed this, but now Wei Wuxian sounds unhappy about it, and that gives her second thoughts. In truth, his happiness was a good part of the reason she declined a wedding in the first place. She doesn't need a husband, true—but more importantly, neither does he need a wife, except in the sense that he so clearly needs somebody around to keep him sane.
Furthermore, it isn't exactly as if his family could come to the wedding. This was the original reason for declining his hand, the reason she blurted out a no even before she stopped to apply logic: she didn't—doesn’t!—want Wei Wuxian to marry her only for him to—in the midst of the ceremony, surrounded by her family—to look over and see the emptiness where his own family should be.
She won't be that cruel to a man she cares so much for.
"Why should I marry you? The child is for me, not you. And besides, I want him to have my name—there should be more Wens in the world."
"The good Wens," Wei Wuxian says, but it's more agreement than argument; he, too, thinks there should be more Wens in the world. She thinks he may be the only man in the entire cultivation world who mourned the people she lost to the camps. “But, Wen Qing, this baby... He will be my child, too. And he deserves to have a father.”
She waves this off. “Oh, well—you’ll still be here. It’s not like you’re going to just disappear into thin air, after all. You can play with him and teach him to grow lotus plants, and I’ll teach him medicine, and he will be just as happy as a-Yuan is. And a-Yuan hasn’t said a thing about us being married, yet.”
Actually, a-Yuan asked last spring when Uncle Wei was going to marry Rich Uncle, but Wen Qing decided for the sake of Wei Wuxian’s skin capillaries that she would keep that particular question to herself.
Wei Wuxian bites his lip and looks away, doubtful.
Wen Qing does not feel well enough to deal with this. “We can talk about it after we know for sure I’m with child,” she says, giving up. “In the meantime, we keep trying—and don’t say anything to Madam Wen or the others! I won’t have you getting their hopes up over nothing.”
“Mn nn nn!” He shakes his head emphatically. “No, I won’t!”
The next time they try it, a day later and again in the evening, they are both sober—although Wen Qing does break out her personal stash of chili oil to cook a spicy dinner for him, something she knows he’ll appreciate.
She pulls his hair as she kisses him, and he melts for it. Nails raked down his back make him gasp and press against her. She tells him where to put his mouth, and he does.
She knows from her own self-explorations how to use her fingers to bring herself pleasure, and as she suspected he would be, he is a quick learner; she crests twice, and he looks nothing but delighted by the sight of it. By the time he kneels between her legs and presses inside, she is slick and loose with earlier pleasure.
She holds herself open, and he slides in easily on the first try.
The second “morning after” is considerably better than their first. For one thing, Wen Qing wakes in her own bed, which actually has a mattress, unlike Wei Wuxian’s absolute abomination of a rocky slab. Her muscles are relaxed, almost loose.
But more than that... For the first time in a year—or two; or longer, even—she is happy .
Or at least not worried about the future.
If she was secretly sure after their first time together that she was with child, this time she is completely certain. She feels different: more open somehow, more confident and at ease. She lives in a cave in a land corrupted by corpses, along with the tattered remains of her family and the most irritating friend she has ever had the great good fortune to know, but still: she feels blessed. Surely this is the sign of something great taking root in her body.
And, on a more practical level: she has been monitoring her levels of Yin and Yang energy for months now, trying to create a workaround for the lack of a man. She is too familiar with her own rhythms and frequencies to be unaware that something has changed—although, as the literature had described, the change is too subtle to put her finger on. She can see why the texts told her that certainty would not be reached until the first missed cycle, but she also knows why the texts felt that such a caution was needed.
She is sure. She will wait to tell Wei Wuxian, but for her own self, she is sure.
She makes her way toward the gardens, hunting a-Ning. She draws him aside and passes him a small amount of their minute store of money and secretly sends him into town to buy linens. She is determined that she will make a mattress for Wei Wuxian—the least she can do as far as thanks for all of this—and while the black bamboo that grows around these parts will make an adequate filling, she needs something to wrap it all up in... For her own mattress she used her cloak, but they don’t have enough clothes for her to sacrifice any more to the cause. Maybe if Wen Ning gets a good price on the linen, they can buy a bit of extra to make robes.
It’s a beautiful day, clear and bright. Soon the whole clan is gathered outside, the men farming, the women sewing and doing laundry, all of them taking advantage of the fine weather. After all, you can hunt and farm in a drizzle, but fine work like mending requires good light.
Wei Wuxian is harvesting lotus, determined to re-plant the seeds in the terraces out back this week. He can’t harvest all the heads, though, because some are not ready. Still, it is good to harvest them before the plants grow too old, so that the stems and leaves are tender when they are picked for stir-fry. He is being ridiculously picky about which ones he takes.
Wen Qing herself is taking advantage of the sun to dry herbs for medicines. Over the last year, so many bad things have happened, and she has had so little time to gather supplies. Her stock of medicines has become almost bare. When she was the supervisor of Yiling, she could simply buy supplies whenever she needed, but here she has only what she can harvest herself. It has been painful in a secondary sort of way, like the pull of healing skin around a deep cut, that many of the afflictions of her people she has been unable to treat, not because she doesn’t know how, but simply because they were too poor for her to buy the supplies.
So a day like today—beautiful, peaceful, and on top of that she feels wonderfully happy, for some reason she can’t quite put her finger on—well, it’s too good not to gather medicines.
She has just returned with an armful of moxa when Wen Ning pelts into the camp. His hair is wild—wilder than usual, even—and if he were alive, he would clearly be out of breath. Since he is not alive, although his chest heaves, it’s a muscle memory that’s no longer true—but muscle memory is the hardest kind to shake. He gasps soundlessly beside her, passing a smooth, clean envelope into her hands.
Her first thought is, the handwriting is beautiful. She can guess whose it is even before she reaches the signature, for who else do they know who wields a calligraphy brush with such precision? And on such fine paper, too...
For a second, her eye catches on the name Jin, and her breath stops in her throat. Their past is still too close to her heels. It might be that way forever.
Then she reads the rest of the note.
This shouldn’t hurt. A one-month celebration is a joyous occasion, no matter whose child it’s for; when the child is that of her one-time friend, Jiang Yanli, the occasion is even happier.
And Wen Qing is happy—she’s not about to begrudge an innocent infant his birthday, after all. It’s just that something hollow and greedy has opened up inside of her, that’s all. It’s just her chest, aching like it’s been hollowed out and left to dry. It’s just a cry, rising up inside of her, demanding to know why Jiang Yanli should find happiness when she, Wen Qing, can not.
It isn’t fair! Isn’t Wen Qing the better cultivator? Both of them healed people during the war, but Wen Qing would bet the fortune she no longer has that her own patients recovered faster, better, and for longer than Jiang Yanli’s did; and Jiang Yanli was not running a supervisory office at the same time! True, Yanli probably had more patients than Wen Qing did, since not many dared to come to her for care, perhaps because of her exulted rank at the time... And true, Jiang Yanli also had more patience with her patients than Wen Qing did...
But Wen Qing is sure that she is no less deserving of happiness than the other woman! So why does Jiang Yanli have a happy marriage, and a son about to gurgle his way to one month old? Why is Jiang Yanli surrounded by the gilt and glory of the LanlingJin sect heir, while Wen Qing is thrown away in a cave?
It’s not fair, Wen Qing thinks again, trembling.
She allows herself to wallow in this unreasonable misery for all of a second and a half before thickening her face and looking across to Wei Wuxian.
He’s going to be thrilled: he loves his Shijie, and he knows how much this means to Jiang Yanli. Everything Jiang Yanli has ever wanted is contained in this letter—including the presence of Wei Wuxian. And with Lan Wangji’s name attached, it is certainly no trick; Hanguang-jun would never tolerate being used for such.
Wei Wuxian looks back, unknowing the what fireworks she holds in her hand, and sends her a happy little smile of greeting. The breeze is playing gently in his hair, she notices, and the sun glows in his skin until he looks carved from ivory. If she were just a maiden instead of his friend, she could fall in love with a man who looked like that. It’s lucky that she knows him too well for such things.
He—like her, up until this minute—has been in an uncommonly good mood all morning. This letter is only going to improve it, even though it leaves her feeling sad for no reason she can name. She is seized by the idea that the letter—this beautiful smooth paper in a tastefully-decorated envelope, with dark ink swirled into punctiliously formed characters—is an ill omen; as if it has arrived, innocuous and full of good news, only a few minutes ahead of disaster.
She shakes it off. Wei Wuxian is going to be delighted, and given the increased tolerance this implies, it is to be hoped that she and the rest of her people will not be so heavily hunted now, too. The sun is out, the winds are gentle, and in only a few more days she will have proof that she is with child. How unlucky can this news really be?
She squares her shoulders and marches across to him. She holds the letter out, smiling, and walks away without watching him read it.
Act 1 was three chapters; current estimate puts Act 2 at 8 chapters, Act 3 at 7-ish. That's just a guess, though, so chapter count is subject to change.
Also, I desperately need someone to help me with Chinese names in a few chapters. If I don't get help my backup plan is just to name them all after characters from Disney's Mulan.
A couple notes on language this chapter!
Mostly I've been using all personal names as one word, so Wangji, Wuxian, etc rather than WangJi, WuXian, etc. I'm making an exception for one name, Jin ZiXun. This is because, to my eye--which is a neuroatypical eye, so take this with a grain of salt--it's much too easy to confuse Zixun with Zixuan. I'm sure that wasn't an issue at all in chines, and it's not as bad even when they're written as two words (Zi Xuan and Zi Xun), but for me the one-word form trips me up every time. So I'm doing Zixuan and ZiXun, and hopefully that second big X provides enough of a visual difference. What is the traditional way of doing this? I know I've seen both ways (and more!) in fanfic...
Also, there's a word that's used to refer to people who are not cultivators, and as far as I can tell, that word is pretty much always translated "mediocre". As a person who herself does is not a cultivator, I object! :P So I'm using "humble" for non-cultivators, at least when polite people speak. (If it's Jiang Cheng I might still use "mediocre," who knows; I could well imagine that there's a polite and a rude form of the same word, so I'd be willing to use "mediocre" if it's someone who's supposed to be rude.) But for the most part, if I have someone say "mediocre," it means mediocre and not non-cultivator. Thanks!
The one-month celebration is not for another two weeks, so after the invitation is read and put away somewhere safe they all go back to what they were doing before it arrived. Wen Qing mercilessly sends a-Ning back down the mountain again, since he returned without linen the last time, and Wei Wuxian takes his painstakingly selected lotus seeds around the other side of the mountain to plant.
For a few days, life returns to normal. Wen Qing is still woefully short on medical supplies, but three days of beautiful weather put her at least somewhat ahead of where she was. She’ll have to create and sell something expensive if she wants to stock up her more rare supplies; most likely it will have to wait until the next time Wei Wuxian goes on a night hunt, as he did three times last year. Before he always had to cover his face and disguise himself, but perhaps, given the invitation to Jin Ling’s one-month celebration, perhaps the cultivation world is changing its mind about him...
He’s not going out hunting anytime soon, though. As soon as he has the lotus seeds planted, Wei Wuxian buries himself in his cave. He tells her—once she has marched in there and physically hauled him away from his inventions—that he is crafting a present for his nephew, and that seems reasonable enough that Wen Qing can’t be too upset. But despite its favorable contents, she still feels that the letter is an ill omen, and she dislikes the way he has become obsessed with whatever it is he’s crafting.
He shows her what it is the night before he leaves: a bracelet of lotus seeds, grown in the Yin-soaked soil of the burial grounds, suffused with far too much Yin energy to be edible. But Wei Wuxian is the master of repurposing such energy, and he has shaped each seed into a ward, so that all of them together can keep the one who wears them safe. It is a protection, but also the sort of bracelet fit for an infant, with simple round shapes.
“The clasp was the hardest part,” he tells her in between bites of rice. They are having dinner in her rooms, at her request. She has given him the impression that this is because she wants to be sure he is eating properly, and that’s not untrue, because he tends to skip meals when he is creating one of his cultivation devices—but it’s not the whole reason. “I wanted something that would serve both as a bracelet, and then, once he grows, can be converted into a necklace or even a sword charm.”
Such clasps are available easily enough in the village, if one has the money to spend. They do not have the money to spend, a fact that Wen Qing curses at least three times a day. She knows she cares too much about this; her fate is what it is, and cursing her reversal of fortune does nothing to change it. But she remembers what it was like to be one of the top cultivators in the top sect, and to go from that to this...
“It’s brilliant,” she tells him, meaning the bracelet for Jin Ling. She wonders if the Jin clan will appreciate the genius of it, or the hard work that went into its design, but she knows better than to voice that concern aloud. “Will you take Wen Ning with you?”
“Mm-hm, I think so.” Wei Wuxian eats his stir fry. It’s lotus roots, mushrooms, and ginger, and all of it was grown in the last year. Sometimes Wen Qing is so, so proud of what they have accomplished. “The invitation is from Hanguang-jun, but the road is long... And, I was thinking... It’s going to be the largest gathering of cultivators since the Sunshot Campaign ended. If there are night hunts that the major clans haven’t been going on, because the hunts are small and beneath them...”
“I was just thinking of this earlier today. Yes, if you hear of such a hunt, you should pursue it!” She slaps the table with her fingers in her enthusiasm.
“And I could send Wen Ning back to inform you of the change in plans.” But something about the way Wei Wuxian won’t meet her eyes tells her his thought is not yet complete, and after a second of poking at his stir fry he said, “It is also true that—if this is forgiveness, then all must be forgiven—half measures is what put you and your people in the work camps in the first place. If they want me to follow them, then they can’t have only me; they must also accept Wen Ning.” He looked up when he was done, cautious as a colt just born taking its first steps.
Wen Qing smiled, trying to show even ten percent of all the warmth that was filling her heart. She kept her words simple, so that he would know there was nothing to them but truth: “I agree.”
He blushed. She smiled instinctively at the sight, then quickly cleared her expression lest he look up and realize what she was so charmed by. But this—not the flirting from the girls in Yiling-town, nor even the two awkward nights they spent together, but this— is what made him blush? Adorable!
She must never let on how cute this is.
She clears her throat. “Take Wen Ning, yes—but please, send him back as soon as you know about the night hunt.”
“Oh?” Wei Wuxian scoops up another big load of rice and lotus root, barely pausing to ask, “Why?” before stuffing it in his mouth. His appetite’s back, then, now that he’s voiced that one thought. Good.
She takes a deep breath—this is the last moment she will ever have without these words having been said aloud—and then smiles widely, freeing her news into the open air like a bird that doesn’t belong in a cage. “I want him close at hand during my pregnancy,” she says, and there goes Wei Wuxian’s mouthful of rice, spitting out all over the table as he splutters and chokes.
“You’re sure?” he asks once he had his breath back, and all she can do for a minute is smile and nod. Her courses should have begun three days ago; this morning she ran her test, and the result was so clear there could be no mistaking it. She is with child.
The news is too happy for her to even be annoyed with his question. She is caught by surprise at how much joy she feels in this moment. When she planned this dinner she was sure it would be a businesslike imparting of information, but it’s not. It's not. She is with child—she is with child with Wei Wuxian’s child, who she will carry in her womb for the next nine months before delivering, a fresh hope and new beginning for her poor, battered clan.
She is going to be a mother. What a thing!
They laugh together and clean up the mess—which is as much her fault as his, since she knew full well that there was a good chance of him choking when she told him—and then Wei Wuxian comes around her side of the table. He reaches out a tentative hand towards her belly, then stops a finger’s-length away and looks a question at her.
She snorts, too happy to be irritated. “There won’t be anything to feel yet,” she points out, “and anyway, when there is, it will be here, and not in my stomach.” She grabs his arm and redirects it.
He ignores the first half of what she said, and runs his fingertips over her robes. At least he’s in the right area now, she thinks with fond exasperation. “Here,” she says, “press here. And now slowly to the side—you feel that? Inside me. That is my womb. When the babe grows large enough to feel, this is how you will find him.”
Wei Wuxian nods again, a jerky motion of his head, ponytail following behind him. “Do you know? Is it a son, or...?”
“It is much too early.” She removes his hand from her person and stands, gathering their dishes onto a tray. “I thought it was only fair to tell you before you left, though.”
“Mn! Mm-hm! Ah, but, Wen Qing...” He looks up at her, eyes large, but says nothing. She thinks perhaps whatever it is he wants to say, it’s too important to easily find the words. She knows how that feels.
“Be careful on your journey tomorrow,” she tells him. “Be careful of my brother, and careful of yourself.”
He nods gravely, and after that there doesn’t seem to be anything more to say.
Lan Wangji dislikes Koi Tower. He thinks of this often when he visits there, which he tries to do as seldom as possible. He reminds himself, as he does every time he mentally voices his dislike for the place, that for once his opinion in matter this cannot be laid at the door of Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji’s first visit to Koi Tower was quite long ago—one year after the death of his mother, in fact—and he disliked the place even then.
Koi Tower is smelly, dirty, and labyrinthine, unnecessarily complex in design and overly ornate in decoration as if those things could cover the smell of fish from the river—which they most certainly can not. They especially can’t do so when held in comparison to Cloud Recesses, a place of high mists and isolation, restrained buildings constructed in unity with nature and simple—some might even say overly-simple—decor. GusuLan rises high along the side of a mountain, remote and clean; Koi Tower, on the other hand, is a pustule growing smack in the middle of a too-crowded city which sits in the middle of a plain as flat as the surface of Caiyi Lake.
Koi Tower never stood a chance. Lan Wangji does not like it, and will not like it; no number of stairs leading oh-so-grandly up to the palace gates can ever change that. His previous biases aside, however, it must be admitted that the LanlingJin sect’s mistreatment of Wei Wuxian has done nothing to improve his already-poor opinion of them.
Lan Wangji does not share his brother’s gift for socialization; Lan Huan can know when someone is hurt, or happy, or jealous, but Lan Wangji can only deduce based on circumstantial clues. He neither reads nor, according to overheard gossip, displays emotion with any reliability. So when he contemplates Jin Guangshan, he must remind himself of this caveat, because his reading on Jin Guangshan is quite dark. However, this may well be inaccurate.
Still, though, caveat or not, Wangji is certain that Jin Guangshan bears some enmity towards Wei Wuxian. True, most of the snubs and fights between Jin clan members and Wuxian have been at the instigation of the younger generation... but a true sect leader would restrain those youths, and Jin Guangshan has not done so. Further, he is not silly, like Nie Huaisang, nor of limited resources, as Jiang Wanyin is; if Jin Guangshan wished to rein in the youth of his clan, he most certainly could do so. He does not.
It is for this reason that Lan Wangji holds himself wary of the Cultivation world’s leader. If Jin Guangshan holds spite towards Wei Wuxian, then it speaks not particularly highly of him. Wei Wuxian is not the greatest man Wangji knows, for his uncle is more righteous; nor is he the kindest, because that honor will always go to Lan Xichen. But he is still very great and very kind—and he would be even if Lan Wangji weren’t in love with him—and Jin Guangshan apparently believes him to be a prideful, dangerous iconoclast, instead. Ridiculous!
Lan Wangji is frowning. He deliberately redirects his thoughts; this is supposed to be a happy occasion.
Jiang Yanli is the truest kin Wei Wuxian has. Wangji owes her a debt for that, and he would have attended this event for her sake if nothing else. But it was the tempting possibility of seeing Wei Wuxian again—if the Jin clan could be convinced—which ultimately persuaded Lan Wangji to make an appearance.
The Jin clan were convinced. Wei Wuxian is coming.
Lan Wangji’s heart needs to stop trying to escape his chest at this thought.
Unlikely to change. Wei Wuxian in his mind is a smile, a laugh. He sheds warmth into Lan Wangji’s memory where everything else is just snow. Wei Wuxian constantly teases Lan Wangji, and at first this seemed cruel, because everyone else who has ever teased him was cruel. But with Wei Wuxian, it’s different; his teasing is fond, affectionate. Lan Huan is warm-hearted and kind, but not flippant or joking like Wei Ying; Wangji never knew what it like to be the butt of brotherly affection until Wei Wuxian swanned into his life. He was flummoxed, and then pleased—and then enchanted.
However, his feelings towards Wei Wuxian are not what he would call “brotherly.”
That mouth—mobile, too clever by half. Full of wit and sensual smiles and delight. It drives Lan Wangji mad with lust. Every time Wei Wuxian talks—which is always—Lan Wangji wants to kiss him. No, to claim him! He wants to press their lips together in hard, maddening kisses until both of their mouths are purple and glistening with use. He wants to kiss Wei Wuxian until the other man is moaning mindlessly with every brush of his lips. He wants to kiss him until it’s too much, too pleasurable, and he has to bite instead.
He managed it once—just once. That day at Phoenix Mountain, when he saw Wei Wuxian sitting beneath a tree, napping with a ribbon over his eyes, too tempting to resist. Five minutes of heady passion, five minutes living out a dream. Lan Wangji has replayed those five minutes over and over in his mind—especially at night, just before sleep. He feels no shame about this; given that he is passionately in love with a man who does not return his interest, they are likely the only five minutes he will ever spend with a lover. Why shouldn’t he treasure that memory of those lips burning under his?
Lan Wangji snaps his eyes open, shaking himself loose from his daydreaming. A hum of many voices has been rising outside, coming in through the window of the too-generous rooms appointed for use by the Twin Jades of Lan. Some hubbub, people reacting to a shocking sight. Lan Wangji’s heart pounds. Is Wei Wuxian here?
He is on his feet. He does not remember standing. But if nothing else, he can investigate the source of the noise. Even if it is not Wei Wuxian (surely it must be?), it is likely still something he will need to know about.
He is at the door. He opens it—
Jin Zixuan jerks back on the other side, looking surprised. His hand is raised to knock, which means Lan Wangji is surprised, as well: what does Jin Zixuan want with him?
Wangji scans him with a look, then returns his gaze to Jin Zixuan’s face before the other man is done bowing. He tries not to show his alarm: Jin Zixuan is wearing a clean robe wrapped high and tight near his throat, but his shoes have blood on them.
...And for that matter, Lan Wangji realizes belatedly, Jin Zixuan is a proud man in the middle of his own tower. Why is he bowing to Lan Wangji?
He takes Wangji’s arm. Lan Wangji does not like to be touched—with the obvious exception of only one person—and can’t help looking down at where Jin Zixuan is gripping him. His hands are mostly clean, but there are dark, red-brown stains under Jin Zixuan’s fingernails.
Something is very wrong.
Jin Zixuan meets his eyes urgently. “Hanguang-jun... Come with me.” He tugs, then releases Lan Wangji’s wrist. Wangji takes only the time to close the door to his room before setting out to follow him. The pace Jin Zixuan sets is brisk, almost undignified. Their robes swirl around their boots as they stride through Koi Tower.
Jin Zixuan leads him to the family section of the tower, high up where the stairs are narrow but the windows wide. This is the oldest part of the compound, with most of the rooms overlooking the central courtyard. The Jins are a sprawling clan with many branches, and most of them are housed somewhere in this section; only the clan leader lives in a separate pavilion. Jin Zixuan leads him to the second from the top floor and knocks on a door. “It’s me,” he calls, and after seconds of soft rustles on the other side, the door opens a few inches.
Jiang Yanli is on the other side of the door, and Lan Wangji worries more: her sleeves, like Jin Zixuan’s shoes, are covered in blood.
“Come in, quickly,” she says. She glances behind herself before moving out of their way, and they slip into the suite. Jin Zixuan closes—and locks—the door behind them, while Jiang Yanli hastens back towards the rear room. Lan Wangji follows her, curious.
Wei Wuxian is lying on the bed in the next room. He is unconscious, and his robes have been cut away to show a chest and stomach covered with gorey bandages. Two arrows, both broken off after six inches, lie on the bed beside him, red against the gold and white sheets. They have obviously been removed from his person.
Lan Wangji is beside him before he even knows he is crossing the room. He holds his hand up in front of Wei Wuxian’s slack mouth. That mouth should never be so still and limp as this; even in sleep, it shows the stamp of his personality, but now... In the long pause before he feels a faint breath against his skin, Lan Wangji notices that his fingers are shaking a little.
“Dishonorable conduct.” Jin Zixuan crosses the room and kneels beside them, his head bowed with shame. “My cousin, Jin ZiXun...”
Jin ZiXun had left Koi Tower that morning, claiming he wanted to take some cultivators on a friendly hunt for the three days before the celebration properly began. Lan Wangji remembers, because several of the Lan cultivators had requested to go with him. Of course he granted permission; too many cultivators in one place often led to violence, and he had wanted his people to blow off steam.
Often led to violence, he repeats mentally, mocking himself. Well, it certainly has done that. And Jin ZiXun, Wangji remembers, has often showed animosity towards Wei Wuxian.
“Ambush,” he surmises, and Jin Zixuan nods soberly.
“When I learned of it, I went to stop it—but I was too late. When I arrived Wei Wuxian noted my approach, and I believe he thought I was there to support my cousin’s shameful conduct, because he played his flute to send the Ghost General away. When he was alone, despite my words, someone loosed their arrow—and then three more arrows followed. One even—” Jin Zixuan pulled the neck of his robe aside, showing the bandage on his own chest. “—and one missed us entirely. The other two struck Wei Wuxian.
“I carried him back here, and up to my rooms. My cousin will have to be very bold indeed to barge in on me here, so for a time, I will be able to keep him safe. And a-Li was a noted healer during the Sunshot Campaign.” Despite his obvious worry, Jin Zixuan takes a moment to spare a besotted smile for his wife. She throws a similarly fond expression back at him, but otherwise does not break away from the pressure she is putting on Wei Wuxian’s wounds.
Lan Wangji reaches out a hand to touch again, not quite able to stop himself. Wei Wuxian’s hand lies unnaturally still beside him, and Lan Wangji laces their fingers together. This accomplishes nothing, and yet he can’t stop himself or make himself pull away again. Wei Wuxian’s eyes are closed, and too-slight breaths lift his chest. He is thin, his muscles ropey; he has not been eating enough. Will he have enough spiritual energy to survive his wounds? Lan Wangji rubs his thumb along the cool skin on the back of his hand and worries. “He fainted? Did he speak with you before he did?”
“He did, yes. He fainted after only a minute or so of being carried. I believe he only held out so long to extract a promise from me.” Beside him, Jin Zixuan shakes his head. “It was the least I could do, so of course I gave my word.
“He asked me to swear I would protect the Wens. Not all, but the ones he took from the Qiongqi path—I assume those are the same as the two hundred cultivators who we have been told live with him in the Burial Mounds. He asked me to do everything I could to keep them safe.”
“Not cultivators.” Lan Wangji clenches his jaw, remembering the pure shame he had felt when he realized.
Jiang Yanli looks up, her eyes wide. “What did you say?!”
Wangji shakes his head, grim. “Not cultivators,” he repeats. “Old men and women, humble people. A few very old; the rest, merely beyond warfare age. A half-dozen youths too young for cultivation, and another half-dozen who were cultivators, but were too wounded to fight. One has no leg, another no arm. Wen Ning is there, but he was near death when they left the Jin camp; Wen Qing is there, but she is a doctor, not a warrior. And there is also one child, three years of age.” He considers, then amends, “Maybe four, now. Likes to hug people’s legs.”
Jin Zixuan and Jiang Yanli are staring at him, horror naked on their faces. “No cultivators?” Jin Zixuan repeats, his voice that of a man discovering for the first time how thoroughly and disgracefully he has been lied to. Jiang Yanli turns back to her work and says nothing, but her cheeks are red.
“This is why he needs you to keep them safe,” Wangji explains. “If he is not there, no one else will protect them. They cannot do it themselves.”
Jin Zixuan sits back on his heels, then shakes his head. “Yes,” he agrees, “you are correct, of course you are correct. They need protection—well! But so does Wei Wuxian.”
“Mn.” Lan Wangji pushes a little of his own spiritual energy into Wei Wuxian through the hand he still holds. It doesn’t seem to help, much.
“If I left you here, with Wei Wuxian and Jiang Yanli... They would force the door and destroy you both. Maybe all three of you.” Jin Zixuan has the sort of feature that look prettiest when he is worried about something, and he looks very pretty indeed as he watches his wife care for her brother. “But if I stay here, someone must go to the Burial Mounds. They should at least know what has occurred; it would be better if they could be moved, hidden somewhere the cultivation world will not suspect their presence.”
Lan Wangji is nodding before Jin Zixuan finishes the explanation. “I will go,” he agrees. This is the only thing that could take him from Wei Wuxian’s side, but he remembers clearly the pride and desperation of the four dozen people in Burial Mounds. He cannot leave them to die at the hands of those shameful cultivators who would lay ambushes on a man coming to his nephew’s one-month celebration. “You can send me as messenger; I will fulfill your promise.”
“Not just that. A-Li—”
“On the table.”
The two men stand and move to it. There is a small purse on the table; a qiankun purse, actually, with several pockets. “There is gold,” Jin Zixuan explains. “They may need to buy transport, or weapons... I am the one who gave his word, so I should be the one who pays for those things.”
“I added some other things, too. Food, other supplies.” Jiang Yanli looks up at him without taking her hands from the bandages she presses against. “A-Xian cares for them, you know. He cares too much, sometimes. But I can’t believe he would care for those who were unworthy. Please, Hanguang-jun...”
“Mn.” Lan Wangji picks up the purse, then pauses. His eye, like the magnetic arrow of a compass, is drawn once again to the unconscious form of Wei Wuxian. “A minute?”
The two agree, giving him the room. Wangji sinks to his knees beside the bed once more, putting his left hand over the bandage that Jiang Yanli had been holding. With his right hand, he brushes aside a stray lock of hair from Wei Wuxian’s face; it had been clinging to his cheek, which is very slightly damp with sweat.
Ah, Wei Ying...! Why has this happened to you?! If only I could take your burdens...
All Lan Wangji has dared to hope for in the past few years is that he will be able to give Wei Ying some aid. Even so simple a thing as playing "Clarity" for him every night, or buying him the spicy food he loves for dinner... The greater wants, the more lewd wants, the ones involving mouths and skin and pressing his emotions out through caress after caress until Wei Wuxian knows exactly how Wangji feels about him... Those wants may keep him warm at night, but they’re far from realistic. In terms of expectation, small forms of assistance are all Lan Wangji has really had.
Taking responsibility for the Wens is a bit larger than mere assistance, but Lan Wangji is glad of it. There is so much he can’t do, here, so many ways he is powerless to help; this, at least, is an achievable, purposeful task.
He leans forward and brushes his lips over Wei Wuxian’s brow. The skin is clammy, moist with pain. Lan Wangji closes his eyes and lingers in the kiss, silently making promise after promise to Wei Wuxian. In all likelihood, though, he can’t keep such promises—certainly not the ones he means the most—so instead of speaking them aloud he draws back, stands, and moves to the outer room, where Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan are waiting.
He looks at them, and they look back. They are all silent. What can they even say in a situation such as this?
But... time is passing. Lan Wangji thinks again of the tender feeling of a-Yuan trustingly wrapping his arms around his thigh. He imagines those arms being torn away by the strike of a shameful blade and shakes his head in rejection. No.
No. Not while Lan Wangji can stop it.
He strides to the door. “I will leave now. Please notify my brother when you can.”
Research/cultural sensitivity note for this chapter: I needed something which was the equivalent of an elopement or a shotgun marriage, only for ancient China. I pulled up the internet... and could not find one. I did look. I saw modern marriages where dude goes somewhere else, marries a girl, and brings her back before finalizing the paperwork. Traditional marriage (as literally everyone told me) had matchmakers and arranged marriages. They also had marriages of state where you ship your princess off to get married, and they had more-than-one-wife even, but no shotgun marriages that I saw, and while there were *mentions* of elopement under traditional Chinese marriage, there were no *descriptions* at all. As in, "Wives who eloped were lower-status, similar to concubines." OKay??? And how did those wives do that?????
I didn't find this out until I went to write this chapter, and this plot REALLY needs the plot device of marriage-without-parental-approval. Also, from a logistical standpoint, I have enormous difficulty understanding how something that fills that function didn't exist? This may well be a western mindset, but--did no one ever travel very far from home and come back surprise-married? Did teenaged kids never sneak out and get married in spite of their parents? What was involved in these three mentions of elopement I found???
Anyway, I wanted to be respectful, but I didn't see any way around this one. So I made one up. I made two up, actually, and I tried really hard to keep it in line with current Chinese legal marriages, but it is made up. In my defense, I did try to go authentic first. In my defense, this fic is set in "Xianxia," not China. In my defense... It may not be a good enough defense. I don't know; I'm a walking talking jar of mayonnaise, and I don't have any Chinese friends to tell me (that I know of, the internet is full of secrets.) If YOU are a Chinese person who would like to be an internet friend and tell me, I'd love to hear from you! I really wrestled with this, and I'm not at ease in my solution; I don't want to re-write or bin the whole fic, but I'm down for partial rewrites as needed, and the potentially problematic bits of the next chapter haven't yet been written.
She wants to scream.
Almost two years, creating and building and working their hands to the bone, and now Hanguang-jun has showed up to tell them that they have to run, that they have to give it all up, because some no-face moron decided to attack Wei Wuxian?! She wants to scream!
She... does not.
“Wen Yuan can’t walk that far, and Wen Tao only has one leg; if you want to get wherever we’re going before winter, we’ll need at least a horse.”
“A cart,” Hanguang-jun counters. “Two.”
Two would be much better; with two, they could put all the slower people in the carts, and still have room for some luggage. “Can you afford two? We can’t.” Better to be blunt and adapt than to beat around the bush and find an unpleasant surprise.
By way of answer, Hanguang-jun pulls the purse from his shoulder and puts it on the table. He opens the pockets to reveal gold. A lot of gold; more than enough. A qiankun purse of that caliber alone is valuable enough for two carts.
There’s also a stash of food, bandages, medicines—“Who packed this?” Wen Qing opens the tin of ointment and sniffs. Well-made, although with little spiritual power in it; she could do better, but it’s still good.
Jiang Yanli again! Wen Qing smiles wryly. The woman is her perfect foil, it seems; how lucky that Wen Qing does genuinely like her, or she would most certainly despise her utterly. “Please bring her my thanks.”
“Nn.” The answer is only a slight noise, but it’s clearly negative. “I will accompany you to Cloud Recesses.” Hanguang-jun says this with a straight face, as if stating a simple fact and not proposing the purest insanity.
“Oh, will you!” Wen Qing puts her hand on her hip and tosses her hair. Her one-time beauty has suffered sorely from the loss and privation in her life, but her hair remains as glorious as it ever was. “And you think we’ll be safe from persecution there, do you?”
Hanguang-jun rocks back slightly. If she squints, she might be able to consider that expression ‘concerned.’ “Of course.”
Or maybe it’s not ‘concerned.’ Maybe that face is just ‘constipated.’
“Cloud Recesses, which my cousin, Wen Xu, burned to the ground? That’s where you’re planning to take us? You think we’ll find shelter there, do you?”
Wen Qing is a sharp woman; she knows this about herself. But there are times when she doesn’t mind so much. She rests her hand low on her stomach, pressing in to feel the warm pulse of life slowly swelling in her womb. She has a child to protect, an unborn infant whose only chance lies in keeping herself safe. If that means calling the renowned Hanguang-jun an idiot—well, she for one is up to the task.
He shifts under her scorn as if uncomfortable. “My people... We aren’t perfect. We have our biases.” The faintest trace of bitterness crosses his face, just enough for her to wonder at it before it vanishes again. “But if I tell them that I have given my word that you’ll be safe, and if they actually see your people...” Her people meaning the motley collection of elders, youths, and other noncombatants, she supposes. “...then they will protect you.”
She purses her lips to the side, considering. “Your word is that valuable to them?” Maybe, she thinks, maybe, maybe, maybe we can find some shelter, finally, maybe we can be treated as people and not as villains, maybe...
She waits for him to say more, but he does not. Typical of her memory of him, first as a sober-faced youth at Cloud Recesses, then as a quietly polite young lord visiting their camp last year. He seems to genuinely care for Wei Wuxian, though; she remembers that, and remembers too the look on his face long ago at Cloud Recesses when he and Wei Wuxian launched their joint lantern into the sky. And after all, he is one of the most famous cultivators of GusuLan in the modern age. His sect members will be unwilling to disown him the way YunmengJiang did Wei Wuxian. Maybe she can trust this.
And then she realizes, icy as a knife to the throat... She’s going to have to trust this. There is nothing else. No other land is isolated enough for her people to hide in. No other clan is willing to take the part of the Wen refugees. She’s going to have to trust Hanguang-jun and hope that he is worthy of it, as the elders of the LanlingJin sect are not.
Well, that won’t be nerve-wracking at all.
“They’re both perfectly serviceable carts. I’m sure they’ll do fine.” Wen Qing holds the bridle of the nearest horse, rubbing at its nose. She pretends the gesture isn’t as much for her comfort as it is for the horse’s. A-Yuan is jumping in the cart, making it rock on its axles, and as adorable as it is, if he doesn’t stop it soon she’s going to stab him with an acupuncture needle.
Her brother has still not returned.
Her stomach twists, and she presses her hand against it. It’s really her spirit twisting, she knows; although smells have grown more acute, she has been largely blessed with freedom from the typical nausea of the first few months. So far, anyway. But a-Ning’s absence has given her what fate was kind enough to spare, and it’s hard to keep her breakfast down when she remembers how she found him the last time he was captured by the LanlingJin.
She has cared for her brother too long and too carefully to be anything but terrified now.
“Any word?” she asks, her chin defiantly firm.
“Mn.” Hanguang-jun places the last of their boxes—laboriously carried down the long path from the Mounds—into the cart and secures it with a strap before turning to meet her impatient gaze.
...That noise was not a “no,” so what has he heard?!
He steps away from the carts and gestures her to follow, stepping some ways up the path towards the Burial Mounds again. Her stomach clenches and turns again. This is plainly a request for privacy; whatever he has heard, it is not good.
“Hanguang-jun. Please, I beg you...” She catches him some thirty feet up the road from where her people are milling about. “Tell me. What were they saying in town, when you bought the carts? What do you know?”
Hanguang-jun’s face is carved from jade, beautiful and unmoving in the moonlight. He looks at her with a too-blank expression which could be caution, or compassion, or pity. “Captured. Jin ZiXun took his men to hunt Wen Ning rather than pursue Wei Wuxian and Jin Zixuan back to the tower; he and his men returned with Wen Ning mere hours after I left.”
Grief swallows her. The scene swims before her eyes, and she sees again the limp, near-dead body of her brother lying in the mud with a Jin clan flag stuck in his gut. Wei Wuxian saved him the last time, but a-Ning cannot possible get so lucky again.
Her brother is lost, lost to her now. She cannot save her people and get him back, and if she were to attempt to trade herself for him, that would only result in the loss of them both. The loss of all three of them, she corrects herself, pressing her hand again into her womb. It feels a bit larger these days, and harder, swollen. Probably this is her imagination; it’s too soon for these things to be true yet.
Regardless, she is the only leader her people have, and she can’t afford to get distracted by her own loss and loneliness, no matter how tsunami-like the grief may be. “What about Wei Wuxian?”
“Mn.” Hanguang-jun shifts his shoulders; maybe he’s worried, too. “Gossips say he was captured on the road and taken to Koi Tower—true. They don’t mention the shameful ambush; nothing else.” His voice is distracted, now, and he is looking down at something. Wen Qing follows his gaze.
He is staring at her hand where it rests above her pubis. His eyes jerk up to meet hers, and this time, for once, she can read the expression in them plainly: shock.
...And so what if he knows?! Nothing she has done is shameful! Perhaps not within the traditional bounds of morality, but all of her and her people have lost respect for those who claim to be so-fine “lords.” She will love this child, which is better than Wen Rouhan did for his sons; she will care for his needs, which is better by far than Jin Guangshan ever did for his bastards. So what if she isn’t married?
She lifts her chin and waits for Hanguang-jun to speak.
His face blanks again before his mouth opens. She speculates once more about what the silence means; disapproval? Distaste? Neither interpretation seems quite right, but whatever that expression is, it’s not a happy one.
She doesn’t care. Caring what the cultivation world thinks of her is a game she lost years ago; she refuses to continue to play.
He asks, “...Wei Wuxian?”
“Of course,” she says immediately. “Who else could it be?”
Hanguang-jun turns away, but does not begin walking down the path towards the Wens. Hiding his face? Not much point in that; it’s not like she could read it anyway. The man is as expressive and emotional as a good-sized rock. (In fact, considering the goddess at Dafan mountain, it’s safe to say there’s at least one rock that has him beat!)
His shoulders are tense, though. Even with his back turned, she can see that. Disapproval, she thinks again, but the explanation still doesn’t quite fit. He turns his head, preparing to speak over his shoulder to her, and then pauses again as if considering his words. “...Congratulations,” he says finally, formal and distant. “I... was not aware, that you were...”
She waits for him to finish the sentence, but it trails off and never trails back on again. “That we were... what? Trying?”
She snorts almost as loudly as that deserves. “We are not.”
Now he whirls, turning to stare at her as if she has offended every part of his being. His eyes rake her up and down before rising again to glare. “Then why.”
He is furious, she thinks in shock. Why so angry? It’s none of his business, is it? She strikes back first, voice cracking like a scourge. “Why? Because we thought we were safe,” she hisses. She steps forward twice, getting in Hanguang-jun’s face. She reaches up and grips the front of his too-pretty white and blue robes in her fists. “We thought we could make a life, thought that an exile of farming and hunting was lowly enough that we might finally be safe from the vengeance of the bastards who caged us! We— I— thought that I had a chance at a family, and Wei Wuxian graciously agreed to help me in that endeavor. In love? No. But we were ready to be parents.” She drops his robes and turns disdainfully away. “And now I refuse to let the LanlingJin clan—or anyone else—take that away from me.”
She does not have time for this. The prince beside her may be from the famously ascetic GusuLan sect, but he is still a child of wealth and privilege. When did he ever have his face shoved into the ground, and when was he ever expected to be grateful that it was only his face he was losing? When did he watch his family picked off one by one? She does not have time to explain to him the compromises she has learned to embrace because of this.
In truth, no matter what she claims to Hanguang-jun’s face, she has let them make her unready for parenthood. Her secure situation is gone; the father of her child, as well. If she were in her ninth month, this would be utter disaster.
She’ll just have to rebuild her situation well over the next thirty-six weeks.
She strides purposefully back down the path, leading the way back to her people. If Wei Wuxian and a-Ning are both captured, they have little time before forces are martialled to lay siege to the Burial Mounds. They must be well clear of this place before those forces arrive. “Let’s go, then.”
A large, strong hand wraps around her back-swung arm, catching her and swinging her around. Hanguang-jun is staring at her, and she can’t help but notice his eyes. They are—they are not expressionless. They are wide, they are—not horrified, not grief-filled, what is that expression? It’s enough to make a cloud of unhappiness radiate from him, but his voice is strong as ever when he tells her, “I will protect his child.”
It very much has the sound of a vow.
Good. She glares back, lifting her chin again, and doesn’t bother to reign in her scorn. “You do realize that means protecting me as well, right?”
His head tips forward a fraction of an inch, a change sweeping over his features. A small change, as always with him, but after staring she realizes what it is: he is smiling. A tiny smile, a pained smile, and it lifts only one half of his lips, and only so much that his cheek dips, but still: he is smiling.
Imagine that! she thinks, shocked.
“A small price to pay,” he says dryly.
The laugh rips out of her, hysterical and sharp-edged but as real as his smile. Now they are laughing together. The previous tension is ripped away, dispersed by shared humor like acrid smoke drifting away in a brisk breeze.
They set off from Yiling, circling wide around the southern side of Lanling. They will not take the Qiongqi path, which goes off to the east; that would have them crossing Wei Wuxian’s trail, and make it much more likely they will be discovered. Rather, they will circle southward, towards the road that runs between Yunmeng and Gusu.
With anxious chatter among her people and the carts piled high with their few belongings, they set out.
It will take them perhaps two weeks to reach Cloud Recesses. A single cultivator could fly on the sword between there and the Burial Mounds in just over a day, but on foot, with the baggage and the slow pace of their convoy, their trip will be much longer. Still, Lan Wangji estimates that, with the misinformation about the formidability of the Wens, any cultivators planning to attack the Burial Mounds will prefer to round up an army. Even the most organized will take at least a week to reach the now-empty camp. If they press on well, their lead—combined with leaving at night, so that no one in Yiling knows which way they have gone—will mean that they can’t be caught before reaching safety.
Every night, they camp outside of a different town, as their group is too large to find shelter in such rural towns. The third night, however, they reach a larger city, Golden Pond City, and they are able to rent out an inn.
Wen Qing breaks her normally dour mien to smile as she watches Uncle Four and Uncle Six enthusiastically explore the local brew. “They’re going to regret that in the morning,” she snorts, but the kindness underlying it is evident. The longer Lan Wangji travels with her, the more he respects her as both a woman and leader of men: her compassion is matched only by her cleverness, although she doesn’t always show the former as well as she does the latter.
The inn is a popular one; they have nearly bought it out, but a small family of travelling cultivators is also there, taking the last of the rooms. Lan Wangji is trying to avoid them, as casual speech has always been... difficult, for him, and they will doubtless expect him to initiate a friendly conversation.
Wen Qing, on the other hand, does not appear to have such reservations. At first, Lan Wangji notices her swaying, and believes she must have become drunk; however, he is puzzled, because he did not observe her drinking any alcohol. Then he realizes that her “swaying” is actually her putting him between her and the toddler at the next table. She is playing peek-a-boo, using him as the obstacle.
He catches her eyes and she stills, a faint blush touching her cheeks. She shrugs at him and pours some tea, pretending she has not just been caught being ridiculous. On the other side of him, the toddler burbles and raises its arms, reaching for her now that she remains in sight.
Sighing, Lan Wangji lifts his arm. His long sleeve blocks the child’s view of her once again.
The cultivators at the next table over take this as an invitation, and soon they are sitting with Lan Wangji and “Qing-jie,” telling them all their news. “We’re avoiding whatever’s going on in Lanling,” the man says bluntly, stroking his moustache as if it will make him look clever. It does not. However, it is possible the man is clever, anyway, at least in this: it is good he’s not bringing his child close to whatever is happening with Wei Wuxian.
Frustratingly, that is all the other cultivators will say about the matter, no matter how “Qing-jie” presses them. (Lan Wangji assumes his own skills in interrogation are negligible compared to hers; he makes himself useful instead by continuing to entertain the child.)
They leave Golden Pond City behind them, and resume their journey. The next two nights they camp under the stars, once at a campsite deep in the forest, the other outside of Pine Tree Town, which is too small to hold them. On the third night from Golden Pond City, though—the sixth night of their journey—they reach Mountain Mists City, so named because it is the last city on the road before you reach the “Clouds” of Gusu territory.
They are over halfway home already, and Lan Wangji feels a corresponding sense of relaxation as they settle at a table in the common room of the inn. By this time, he is sure that they have moved quickly enough to escape pursuit, and his satisfaction is complete when the innkeeper serves them seared tofu with cabbage and vinegar salad—a favorite dish of Lan Wangji’s since childhood.
So he is completely unprepared when the man at the next table raises his cup and proposes a toast: “To the death of the Yiling Patriarch! May he trouble us no more with his demonic cultivation!”
The entire inn—two-thirds Wen clan, one-third visiting cultivators—are stunned by the announcement. Lan Wangji feels frozen in place, unable to speak. He often has difficulty finding the right words, but even the wrong words are beyond his grasp now. The trace of cabbage and vinegar is sour on his tongue. He clenches his jaw rather than gape like a fish, and his hand tightens on Bichen’s hilt.
Wen Qing places her own small hand over his, holding Bichen in its sheath. “What do you mean?” she demands. She apparently has no difficulty at all finding the words. “Is he truly dead, or are you just expressing a foolish wish?!”
The man bristles at her tone. “Yes, he is dead—I saw it with my own eyes!”
“You did not,” another man calls back—probably the first one’s brother, to judge by the resemblance. “You heard it from Old Yu, who heard it from Maiden Shi, and if we’re lucky Maiden Shi saw the whole thing in person.”
“Yes, but Old Yu is very reliable.” The first man brushes the objection off with a wave of his hand. “He must be dead, if Old Yu says.”
The second man looks ready to object again when a voice cuts across their banter. “What happened!”
...Oh, that was Lan Wangji who said it, wasn’t it?
When he looks, Wen Qing is regarding him with concern. He applies himself to his tofu.
“In truth...” The first cultivator sighs and tosses back his wine, toast abandoned. He sits back down. “Actually, I don’t understand it all that clearly. Old Yu said Jin ZiXun killed him, as vengeance for killing Jin Zixuan... but he also says Jiang Wanyin is supposed to have thrown him from a cliff. Both things certainly cannot be true.”
“Off a cliff?” Wen Qing looks confused. “I thought he was in Koi Tower. There are no cliffs in Lanling!”
Lan Wangji takes a second to remember how much he dislikes Koi Tower, trying to look so grand in its flat featureless plain. From the sound of it, Wen Qing agrees.
“Ah, but didn’t they move the trial to the Nightless City?” asks the second cultivator.
“It wasn’t a trial, was it?” asks the first. “I thought they did the trial at Koi Tower, and just the sentencing at Nightless City.”
“No, that can’t be right—the cultivators were all summoned to Nightless City, and if Jin Guangshan had known what would come to light, he would never have wanted all the cultivation world to be present.”
Lan Wangji and Wen Qing exchange a look.
“We need to know,” she says, keeping her voice down. “We have to find out, is Wei Wuxian alive? If he is not...”
If he is not, the world will be bleak and empty, robbed forever of the chiming bell which is his laughter, the sunshine which is his eyes.
“...they’ll kill me,” Wen Qing finishes, her thoughts so far from Lan Wangji’s that he blinks.
Wen Qing snorts. “The first member of the cultivation world who figures out who the father is,” she hisses. Her hand creeps over her belly again, a nervous gesture that Lan Wangji has seen her do several times during this journey. “If they know that he has a child, they will not suffer the baby to live, and I will be the first to die—both as their mother, and as having been close to Wei Wuxian.” Close didn’t really seem like a strong enough word, considering that she now bore Wei Wuxian’s child, but Lan Wangji couldn’t abandon decorum far enough to say that. “The rest of my people will likely follow, but I will certainly be killed. This will make them very angry. They will do whatever it takes to find me guilty of something.”
Lan Wangji wished he could argue with her, but she is certainly correct. “I will go to Koi Tower,” he decides.
“What?!” She glances around the room, but the attention drawn by her shout fades quickly, the hubbub resuming. “What,” she repeats in a whisper, “why would you do that?! I thought you were taking us to Gusu?!”
“Cloud Recesses is five or six more days along this road,” Wangji says truthfully. “Stay outside Mossy Stream Town tomorrow night, and in the forest the night after that; I will meet you in Juniper Wine Town. Wait for me there for no more than a week; if I do not reappear, continue on to Cloud Recesses.”
“Cloud Recesses will not be safe for us unless you are there to smooth the way!”
“It will.” Lan Wangji is certain of this. “As long as my uncle or brother truly looks at your clan, you will be safe. We do not slaughter elders and infants.”
“And how do I make them do that!”
“You must ask for an audience with Grandmaster Lan Qiren.” Lan Xichen will be in Koi Tower, consulting with Jin Guangyao about the chaos that has occurred. “If you are polite, they will be unable to refuse such a reasonable request. When you see him, say that... Say that I gave you my word that you will be safe there.”
He bows, but she shakes her head, unimpressed. “Your word means a lot more if you are there, as well,” she says bluntly, “and what do I do about this?” She gestures towards her stomach again. “If he is dead... I will have no hope.”
“The other reason,” Lan Wangji says, making his voice carry a calm he does not feel. “Juniper Wine Town is very large, and growing very quickly. Many miners and hunters come there; there is a supervisory office, and many soldiers. Many young people seeking their fortunes.”
“You think we can blend in?”
Hardly. “I think they will write us a Pickaxe Licence.”
Wen Qing sucks in a breath and jerks away from him.
A “Pickaxe Licence,” also known as an “Infantry Licence,” is a marriage license written for a man with no significant family. They became popular in these years because, firstly, there are towns where the population grows much more quickly than the roads, such as when gold or precious gems were discovered near a city. This is the origin of “Pickaxe licence,” because such miners needed a way to get married—often in a hurry, when they had got a girl with child—and they could not take the time to apply to the man’s parents and matchmakers. “Infantry licence” is the same, only with soldiers instead of miners, but there is also another twist on the meaning: sometimes it is the case that instead of the groom, it’s the groom’s family were the soldiers, and the groom is the only survivor of their clan. This has been relatively common in the years after the Sunshot campaign.
Both licences must be issued at a supervision office, and both require the bride and groom to swear that their families can have no objection to the match. If Lan Wangji is to make such a promise, he will have to be very specific in his wording.
“You propose to marry me,” Wen Qing says, obviously trying to adjust to the idea, “while I am carrying another man’s child?”
“I propose to marry you while you carry my child, as far as anyone knows,” Lan Wangji says, still trying to pretend he is as calm as the clouds of Gusu. “I have always wanted a son.” He ducks his head, imagining it.
He will have to lie to every person he has ever loved or respected in order to do this, but it will save Wei Wuxian’s child.
Wen Qing scrambles on her feet, not looking away from him as if he had suddenly turned into a large snake and hissed. The dining room is staring at them, although Wangji doesn’t believe they can have been overheard. Wen Qing shakes her head slowly from side to side, then makes an excuse about needing air.
Lan Wangji watches her go for a moment, and only then, when she is safely out the door, does he turn a thoughtful gaze on the two no-longer-bickering cultivators who started this. “What about the Ghost General?”
He finds her later that night, several meters down the road from their inn, on a bridge overlooking a ravine. He calls her name to alert her to his presence, but she does not startle, so it is likely that she already knew he was there.
He comes up beside her and looks out over the view. It is likely a lovely scene during the daylight, the sun picking up all shades of green and gold among the pine boughs, the hill making a graceful, even poetic slope towards the river chuckling along far below. This world is grand, full of wonders and glory, if one only has eyes to look... But of course, in the darkness, the view is reduced to being merely a safe direction to point ones face to avoid being seen.
“They had news of your brother.”
“I know.” Wen Qing raises shaking hands to her hair, gathering it in a tail behind her and then pulling it in front of her shoulder. It tumbles down over her chest, past her waste, thick and dark. “I asked a passing traveler. The cultivators in there aren’t the only ones who have heard that Wei Ying is dead.”
Lan Wangji does her the courtesy of keeping his face turned away, allowing her something almost like privacy in which to grieve. “I am sorry.”
She shakes her head, silent and numb. “Don’t be. You didn’t capture him, or burn him so that his ashes weren’t even recognizable. You aren’t the one who scattered his cremains in front of Wei Wuxian’s nose as a base goad—oh, yes; you hadn’t heard that part?”
About the cremains in front of Wei Wuxian? No, he had not. Like her, he finds it repugnant.
“My brother was nothing but generous when he was alive, kind to children, soft-spoken, always with an open hand to offer aid. When Wei Wuxian turned him into a fierce corpse he changed somewhat, and we understood that some service was called for. Should he not have honored that debt by standing at Wei Wuxian’s side? But what the LanlingJin sect did... Did they have to use a-Ning so ruthlessly in death, too?” Her voice catches, and Lan Wangji readies the only countermeasure he possess: a clean, neatly-embroidered handkerchief. He does not look to the side as he offers it up.
“Thank you,” she sniffs.
“No need. Wen Qing... Rumor is rumor.”
She blows her nose loudly, rolling her eyes over the white linen of the handkerchief. “You think they both survived?” she asks with pointed skepticism.
“Nn.” He does not think either of them survived. But— “The possibility remains.”
She snorts and folds the mess on the inside of the handkerchief, then tucks it into her sleeve. She says nothing, and truly he can’t object: he shares her doubts.
They stand there on the bridge, gazing out into the pitch darkness.
There is a kind of beauty in this, too, isn’t there? The single plank bridge.
“I will fly to Koi Tower, as we discussed. I will enter by subterfuge and locate Jin Zixuan. I will ask him for the truth of what occurred that night.” Lan Xichen will most likely also be in Koi Tower, and Lan Wangji has thought hard about which of the two men he should speak to. But Jin Zixuan owes a debt, while speaking with Lan Xichen may well mean he cannot swear there is no familial objection in the supervision office when they try for the Infantry Licence. He cannot speak to his brother just yet. “I will reunite with you in Juniper Wine Town. It is likely that you will need to stay there two or more days; I will leave the qiankun purse with you.”
“Two days,” she repeats. Her hands curl at her sides. He wonders how often she misses carrying a sword; very often, he should think, particularly these days. She is a proud woman whose hand has been forced far too often in the past few days. "One, the first night, while we wait for your return; the second night so that we can have our marriage bed in an inn?”
And because the paperwork alone is likely to take them all day. He has always hoped to escape the bustle and spectacle of a traditional wedding, but he cannot be thrilled to replace it with the bureaucracy of an Infantry Licence. He bows his head. “Even so.”
“Are you so unsure of your people, that you don’t trust them to aid us without joining our families?” she spits. Her eyes make it easy to remember that the Wen clan are masters of fire.
“My family will aid a party of refugees,” Lan Wangji insists. They will. Lan Qiren just has to see them, to look at them, with his own two eyes, to understand. “It is the mother of Wei Wuxian’s child about whom I am worried.”
She jerks her head away in answer—because, of course, there is no other answer to that. It is her condition which currently poses the greatest threat to her and her people, and she is too upstanding not to feel shame for that matter.
Together they stare out into the darkness, side by side and silent, for a long, long time.
Turns out vacation is good for my productivity! So this chapter was supposed to be a really simple one ending in the wedding night, but it got up to, uhhhh, 9100 words, so. Now it's two chapters, with the wedding night next time--I might want to add some more to what I have for that, anyway; I was thinking about it in bed last night but I fell asleep and now I don't remember what I was thinking! (Wedding night, btw, was one of those scene that I just DESPERATELY have been looking forward to. I cannot WAIT for y'all to read that one!!!)
Anyway here's what happened in Nightless City, since I know y'all've been worried about it
Wen Qing takes the opportunity of two days (or more) of rest at Juniper Wine Town to take her people to the public baths. The innkeeper got very excited when she asked about such a thing. “The glory of Juniper Wine Town!” he assured her, apparently ignoring the existence of a thriving silver mine only two li up the road. “Take a tea while you’re there—the bathhouse keepers at Juniper Spring make a tonic that is excellent for the circulation!”
The last real bath any of them have had was before leaving the Burial Mounds; there have been cold washes in campsite streams since, but nothing like a real bath. So off they go, first the elders, then the younger members, chattering to each other as they make their way to the springs on the edge of the forest.
For the first time in three days, the elephant in the room can be ignored.
It has been a dismal three days. Wen Ning and Wei Wuxian were, between them, the heart of these few poor survivors; if only one had been taken, the situation would be grim, but both? The silence echoes in the gloomy drips of the rain drops and mists.
Still, the sun is out now, the birds are singing, and they are on their way to the baths. Grief still lives in a hard little ball in the center of her chest, but she has carried that for many days now. Confirmation will be only that.
And a bath will feel good.
She goes in beside Grandmother Wen, offering a strong arm when Granny pretends to need one. They bathe in companionable silence, each lost in their own thoughts, scrubbing at their arms in a meditative sort of way.
It is the first time Wen Qing has relaxed this far in some months, and she does not intend to hurry through the soak.
Granny Wen calls her over, asking her for help scrubbing her back, and Wen Qing goes. It is then, as she is scrubbing, that Granny asks her, “Do you really believe these Lan people will shelter us?”
Wen Qing does not allow her hands to hesitate, or at least not for long. “I have few alternatives. Hanguang-jun believes it, anyway, and who else could we turn to?” She has been over this a thousand times during their journey, but she still sees no alternatives. “He is accounted an honorable man. I do believe, anyway, that he is not deceiving us.”
“Hmm... But he may yet be wrong?” Granny turns her round face to look over her shoulder like an ancient crow, sharp-eyed and curious.
“He may.” Wen Qing shrugs. She picks up the bucket of cold water to throw, and waits until the splashing has subsided to continue. “Particularly if he does not, for whatever reason, make it back from Lanling.”
“Oh, is that where he’s gone?”
Wen Qing doesn’t answer. She doesn’t feel like repeating the obvious.
“Well, I suppose it’s good to know the true answer.” Grandmother Wen changes the subject, “What will you do about that if Wei Wuxian is truly dead?”
Wen Qing is still lost in thoughts of how quickly one can fly from Gusu to Lanling and back. It takes her a moment to deduce what Grandmother Wen is saying.
“You old troublemaker!” She splashes another bucket of cold over Granny Wen’s back in vengeance, then plops herself down on her stool and glares. “What are you saying? How did you know???”
Granny sniffs and stands ponderously from her stood. “You think I don’t know what it looks like when a woman’s body is changing? I’m old, I’m not blind! You think I didn’t hear you two sneaking around like elephants at night? I’m not deaf, either!”
“You are actually pretty deaf.”
Wen Qing resists the urge to hide her face in her fingers.
“So! I ask you again! If your young man—”
“Please do not call him that.”
“—is actually dead, then what are you planning on doing about—that?” She pokes Wen Qing in her stomach, then steals her dry towel to wrap up in.
Wen Qing sighs, and mentally says goodbye to the peaceful evening of silent grief she had been anticipating. It was a nice idea. Maybe she’ll get some peace and quiet when they reach Cloud Recesses?
“...Hanguang-jun has proposed that we acquire an Infantry Licence in such an event.”
Granny Wen looks shocked, which is gratifying; Wen Qing was also shocked by the offer, and it’s good to know she isn’t the only one. Hanguang-jun is the epitome of the honorable, dignified gentleman, and an infantry marriage is the opposite of his usual conduct. Such elopements are legal, but only barely, and far from proper. “That boy?!”
“Hardly a boy, Granny.”
“Young Master Lan— him? He offered?”
“Yes.” Wen Qing swallows nervously. Obviously Lan Wangji’s family are far more likely to object to the match, but hers also has the power to scupper it.
Madam Wen blinks at her for a second, then grabs her by the towel and yanks. “He’s coming back tonight, isn’t he? Hurry up—we have a lot of work to do!”
They have saved Lan Wangji a room at the top of the inn, the nicest room of all the ones they have rented. He is Hanguang-jun, Uncle Four said firmly when he told her, of course he gets the best room.
The Wens know who will be arguing for their safety when they finally reach their destination.
Wen Qing is in the room next door. She arrives late—Grandmother Wen took her shopping for ribbons after the bathhouse—and they spend hours before and after dinner sewing those ribbons onto her spare robes.
It has been a long day.
But in spite of her exhaustion, she finds herself unable to drift off. Her eyelids are heavy, but her mind is full of worry. What if Hanguang-jun was caught? What if Wei Wuxian really is dead? Hanguang-jun offered the elopement, in that case, but what exactly does he expect of her? She recognizes that he is handsome, but he’s so cold—she’s not exactly looking forward to such a marriage bed. And there will be a marriage bed; there must. She doesn’t have anything else to offer, since her people are poor and no one will want a Wen practicing cultivation. Her beauty—such as it is, after years of hardship—and the baby in her belly are the only things she can give.
She shivers and wraps the blanket more tightly around her shoulders, then hears a noise in the hall and sits up to listen.
Footsteps. The slide of a door. A deep voice, quiet both from manner and nature.
Hanguang-jun is back.
She rises from the bed and throws on an outer robe—no time for the middle one—and yanks open her door.
The innkeeper is in the hallway, his folded blue hat almost green under the lantern light. He has a tray with humble food on it—mostly rice, a bit of soup—and was obviously so focused on Hanguang-jun that he didn’t even notice her open the door, so that was as if she appeared from nowhere.
Hanguang-jun did notice the door, and is regarding her in his even, unimpressed way. He says nothing.
She makes an impatient noise in her throat. Unbecoming of a lady, her teacher’s voice echoes in her mind, but her teacher is dead and she’s the only sect leader the Wens have now, so she ignores it and makes whatever noises she wants. “News?”
He shakes his head, grave. “Disaster,” he says. His voice is a gravelly rumble around the word. “Your brother is dead. Wei Ying is dead. I will tell you more in the morning; we will make an early start for the Supervisory Office.”
The Supervisory Office—so he does intend to seek an Infantry License. The small voice she has been unable to completely stifle which doubted the possibility is now permanently extinguished.
And the news he brings...!
Wen Qing holds herself upright under the onslaught of terrible confirmation. It’s different from the worry, painful in a new, equally awful way—which isn’t truly new at all. It has been a few years since she lost someone dear to her, but she remembers well how it hollows one out inside.
She turns her head and addresses the innkeeper, imperious because it’s the only armor left to her: “Wine!”
She shuts the door behind her hard enough to thump.
In the morning her head is vaguely achey, but not the agonizingly painful hangover she experienced after the night she spent with Wei Wuxian. It will do.
She dresses carefully in the robes she altered the night before. They are mostly brown and rust colored, dull things, but the red ribbons are defiantly cheery against them, bright spots of joy in spite of everything around them. Wen Qing strokes the satiny nap of one ribbon and tries to take heart.
Her brother is dead. Her sweet, harmless brother, the one whose greatest joy was to see a-Yuan smile... He is gone, now, gone forever. She will never see his sunshine smile again.
He would have loved to have been at her wedding...
Even a wedding to Hanguang-jun.
She sighs and strokes the ribbon again, then does her daily check of the infant. She presses her palm against the womb from outside, testing the energies that swirl inside of her. Every day they become a little brighter, a little stronger. Slowly, slowly... Today is no exception. Good.
She wonders a little at the pace of the growth. True, it is slow, but she is dealing with very small levels of energy in the first place; even the level of growth which seems slow compared to her cultivation is enormous in terms of the natural levels of a normal living creature. Her child—son or daughter, whichever it is—is going to be an incredible cultivator if things continue to grow as they are. But then, that isn’t a surprise; after all, Wei Wuxian is the father, and more importantly she is the mother. Of course their child is amazing.
She strokes her belly again. Would you be proud of me, Wei Wuxian? Would you be happy to see me marry Hanguang-jun? This is to keep your child safe; I know you can’t resent that. I know you were not in love with me; were you ever in love with anyone?
Oh, Wei Wuxian, did you die without ever knowing love?
Grief is like fifty years of age at once: her memory is gone. She will walk forward, and then remember her grief, and by the time she fights her way out of it she has forgotten why she was striding forward in the first place. Then she will forget her grief for a few purposeful minutes, but the remembering will be like hearing the news for the first time all over again.
You have had three days to get used to the idea, she scolds herself, and in truth, you knew this was coming since more than a week past. You should have adjusted by now!
But there is no adjusting to this. Her brother is gone; her best friend, gone.
I will never forgive the LanlingJin clan.
That thought, at least, is long-worn and familiar.
She shakes her head and touches the ribbons bundled at each wrist, then slides open the door and, chin high, makes her way downstairs.
Hanguang-jun is in the common room, surrounded by elders. Grandmother Wen has definitely told everybody about his offer, Wen Qing reflects wryly.
“What is there to eat?” she says, ignoring the way the aging faces in front of her are all smiling like snakes. “We have to deal with bureaucrats today, I’ll need sustenance.” She crosses her arms over her chest and stares them down.
It doesn’t even make a dent. “Here, sit here,” Uncle Four coos. “Next to Hanguang-jun!”
“There is sweet wine,” Grandmother Wen offers, “Would you like some?”
“Absolutely not,” she and Hanguang-jun say in unison. Wen Qing shares with him a look of horror.
She sighs, then generously decides to rescue him. “The GusuLan sect has rules against the consumption of alcohol,” she reminds the elders, “and I would hate for the Supervisory Office to think that I convinced him to marry me whilst he was in an altered state.”
“Mn,” Hanguang-jun says hastily.
Breakfast proves to be a hot fish stew and cool raw vegetables sliced thin, served with rice and soy sauce. The flavors are a mix of bland and bitter, like all the food in Gusu. Another thing she had better get used to. Thankfully, the bottle of chili oil she has hidden upstairs is still mostly full. That’ll get her through for a while; anything is edible if one adds enough chili oil.
The elders stay with them like solicitous, doting jackals, Uncle Four and Granny Wen leading the pack. After breakfast they all rise and head toward the center of town where the Supervisory Office is. Hanguang-jun appears to know the way, which makes sense considering they’re only three days walk from Caiyi Town.
The Supervisory Office is run by LanlingJin officials, it’s primary purpose is gathering the taxes paid to them by the GusuLan sect. That’s why it’s here, near Gusu’s largest silver mine, and not in Caiyi Town, near Cloud Recesses. The Supervisor here is a Jin cousin—a distant one; this is not considered an especially great posting—and he cares little for the politics of the Cultivation world; mostly he uses his position to acquire wine and food in high quality and large quantity. He has never been as far as Caiyi Town, much less Cloud Recesses, which matters not at all for the performance of his duties because every Lan would sooner cut off their hand than cheat on their taxes.
“Which is stupid,” Wen Qing says tartly. “What’s to stop the Chief Cultivator from setting an unreasonable tax? Do you just obey the law if it becomes unfair?”
“No,” Hanguang-jun says. He grips Bichen, a tiny movement which nevertheless draws Wen Qing’s eye. “If they try to raise the tax so high, we explain why they should not.”
She looks up at the face of—of her future husband—again. He isn’t smiling, but there is something catlike about his expression, something satisfied...
Wen Qing smiles widely. “My mistake,” she says lightly. She reaches out and takes his arm. He looks down, a brief look of surprise crossing his features, then redirects his gaze down the street again. “I should have known that Hanguang-jun would not back away from a fight.”
He flicks his eyes over her again, then stops, turning to face her. “Lan Wangji.”
Few words, but the meaning is unmistakable. She bristles, but agrees. “Fine. Lan Wangji. What, you don’t want me to call you ‘Lan Zhan’ as Wei Wuxian does?”
Hanguang-jun’s— Lan Wangji’s— face shuts down, the momentary openness gone before she even knew it was there. “Did,” he corrects.
“Fuck!” She spins away from him, hiding her face. The pain surfaces from it’s smouldering depths, ready to cut her afresh. She bites her lower lip hard against it, ignoring the faint taste of rose as she smudges her lipstick with the gesture.
She had actually managed to forget for a minute.
Lan Wangji still holds her arm, and after a second she tugs against it, spinning herself back around into his orbit. She twines her arm with his again, and together they turn their faces down the street.
She pretends not to see the anxious glance Grandmother Wen and Uncle Four exchange. She wonders if Lan Wangji has noticed.
The Supervisory Office rises in front of them like a solid stone block, a monument to potential corruption. Wen Qing would scold herself for the dark direction of her thoughts except that Lan Wangji looks similarly grim.
“Have you met this supervisor?” she asks.
“I have not.” After a second, Lan Wangji’s steps resume, and they continue toward the office. “He is said to be a straightforward man, emotional but not scheming.”
“Said by whom?”
“My brother.” Lan Wangji glances towards her at the mention of Zewu-jun, possibly gauging her reaction to him. She has none; Zewu-jun, as far as she knows, has not taken any offensive action towards her people since the moment the Sunshot Campaign ended. In fact, it seems likely that his greatest offense may be that he has not taken any action towards her people at all. “The Supervisor is a Jin, but his mother is from the Ouyang clan. He takes after her.”
They are at the steps of the Supervisory Office now. The door is closed, but as they mount the steps a golden-robed guard steps forward to swing it open; the door is huge, and hinged like a gate. “Petition or social visit?” the guard asks, his eyes jumping from Lan Wangji to the rest of them in confusion. Wen Qing snorts in dark amusement; yes, she can see exactly why the man doesn’t know which group they fall under.
Lan Wangji doesn’t answer. Uncle Four and Grandmother Wen are pressing close behind Wen Qing at the sight of the yellow robes. Wen Qing throttles the bile of anger which rises at the sight of their fear and thickens her face with a smile. “Petition, technically,” she tells the guard. “Although, you know how those greater Cultivators are...” She leaves the implication that it could turn into a social visit at any second hanging in the air between them.
The guard swallows. “Right! You’ll want to see secretary Lung. Good day to you!” And he waves them towards the right-hand hallway.
Lan Wangji turns a disapproving look on her as soon as they are out of sight around the corner.
“What?” she asks. “You think it won’t turn into a social visit, as soon as he knows you’re Hanguang-jun?”
“Lan Wangji,” he insists, looking at his feet. He seems frustrated.
Well, too bad. “Not in this case,” she says airily. She strides ahead of him down the hallway.
The secretary is a foppish man, dressed above his station—at least if Wen Qing can still judge such matters, after years on the outside of the stylish world. He has an awful lot of sleeve for a man whose job includes so much writing, though. And she is quite sure that hat is inappropriate, no matter how many years have passed. Perhaps he is balding, and doesn’t wish the petitioners to see it?
“Purpose?” he demands. His voice is high-pitched and reedy, as if he has a head-cold, and indeed his nose is rather red. Ginger and willowbark, Wen Qing thinks, but she’s not going to say it unless he earns the counsel. She estimates fairly low odds of him doing so.
“Petition.” Next to the reedy tones of the secretary, Lan Wangji’s voice sounds particularly deep and resonant.
The secretary does not seem impressed. “What kind of petition?” he sneers, brush hovering over the ink.
“Pickaxe Licence.” The hand holding the brush is already moving when Lan Wangji begins speaking, but Wen Qing can see the moment the secretary understands the words because it pauses mid-stroke. When it resumes its calligraphy, an unpleasant smile is curling around the secretary’s mouth.
“Name of the oldest family member present?” he asks.
That would be Granny Wen, who is staring silently at the secretary, all but huddled against Wen Qing’s back. Wen Qing gives her arm a pat and answers for her, “Wen Yan.”
The nasty little smirk on the nasty little man grows at her surname, and he looks her up and down—mostly up—in a truly unpleasant way. “You’d be the bride.”
Wen Qing tries very hard to smile like she isn’t thinking of all the places she could stick a hand-sized needle. “Yes.”
“And you’d be the groom?” The incredulity is not flattering to any of them.
Lan Wangji gives the secretary a flat look, very much as if he also is thinking of places to stick pointy things. “Yes.”
The secretary snorts. “You’ll have to wait,” he tells them, pointing. There are three nests of cushions for resting in the room, obviously arranged so that petitioners can wait. The first is entirely taken with a ragged-looking family; the second has two men, sitting separately enough that it’s obvious they did not arrive together. Wen Qing spits out what is almost a polite “thank you” and leads the way to the third.
Wen Qing specifically waits all of about two minutes before she’s turning to Lan Wangji. “We will be here for quite some time, it’s only Granny and Uncle Four here with us, and you promised to tell me in the morning: what happened to Wei Wuxian?”
Lan Wangji bows his head.
Yes, she is being cruel, demanding answers about a death that obviously hurts Lan Wangji deeply. But she needs to know. They all need to know. And she has long ago learned to give up the privilege of tenderness.
“Jin Zixuan gave his word that he would protect you. To do this, he sent me to you. This you knew.”
Wen Qing nods, but Granny Wen and Uncle Four are startled. They did not know that Jin Zixuan was the one who provided the qiankun purse. “Jin Zixuan is married to Wei Wuxian’s sister,” she reminds them. “He was unaware of the plans to ambush Wei Wuxian.”
“Also to fulfill this vow he had made, Jin Zixuan asked his father to call a Cultivation Conference. Jin Guangshan agreed, and called all the cultivators to meet in the Nightless City.”
Wen Qing frowns. Why there? To remind the cultivators of his own prominence? To subtly prejudice them against Wei Wuxian, by reminding them of the horrible things he did in order to win the Sunshot Campaign? Or did he simply want any damages to occur somewhere other than his home? Perhaps all of them; there is no way to know.
“My uncle did not attend, nor did I... And since the one-month celebration never occurred, Jiang Yanli of course was still in seclusion. But we are the only three who were absent; all other cultivators gathered there. Even Wei Ying, wounded, was in attendance.
“Jin Guangshan falsely declared that Wei Wuxian had attacked his men on the Qiongqi Path, just as he did two years ago.”
“He’s a liar!” Uncle Four breaks in, his voice loud in the otherwise-quiet waiting chamber. The other petitioners look over, as does the yellow-robed secretary. Uncle Four ducks his head.
The secretary calls a name, glancing spitefully in their direction as he does so to make it clear they are being stalled for bad behavior. One of the men waiting alone rises and goes forward.
“It was indeed an untruth,” Hanguang-jun says kindly, his voice low to avoid being overheard, “but he proved it.” If he were a less graceful man, his lip would be curling in disdain. As it is, his face is still, but the gesture is still clear in his voice. “He said that Wei Wuxian brought the Ghost General to attack them, and he poured out the General’s cremains right there on the steps of the Nightless City.”
For such a large, empty room, the air is stifling. Wen Qing closes her eyes and focuses on sucking in rasping breaths.
“The road is not safe,” Granny says in confusion, “No other cultivator would ever attend such a celebration alone; why would they expect such a thing of a-Xian?”
Her voice sounds tinny, distant. Oh, when will this incapacitating period of grief pass, so Wen Qing can be a functional sect leader again?! She despises herself like this.
“Hmm.” Lan Wangji says nothing more, but Wen Qing understands: the Jin clan did not expect such a thing. Their whole invitation was a trap—one Wei Wuxian would not have fallen for, if they had not used Hanguang-jun to spring it. She thinks, They’re going to regret doing that...
Lan Wangji seems much less nervous about the prospect of wedding her than he had before he left for Lanling. For the first time, Wen Qing wonders if this might be because Lan Wangji desires revenge. If so, she is happy to assist him. Maybe Jin Guangshan will have a heart attack when he hears; she can dream.
She opens her eyes.
Lan Wangji is watching her steadily, and gives her a sober nod when she becomes present once more. “When the ashes had disbursed, Jin Guangshan asked what vengeance they should take against Wei Wuxian and the Wen Sect for this attack.”
Granny Wen gasps in fear. Uncle Four moans.
“It was at this point that Jin Zixuan proved his boldness. When Wei Ying moved to answer, Jin Zixuan pushed to his feet instead. He stood against his father and his sect, barefaced, and declared that his own cousin, Jin ZiXun, had led an ambush against Wei Wuxian, who had been peaceably invited to the feast. He said that they should all be ashamed at their conduct, and the proper ‘punishment’ for the Wen Sect in this matter would be the ceding of the town of Yiling to you in recompense.”
Wen Qing’s jaw drops. “He said that?!”
“Wait—but you spoke to Jin Zixuan to get this accounting, right? So can you be sure you trust his tale?”
“I did not.” Lan Wangji inclines his head—not to them, but somberly. “Jin Zixuan was unavailable. I spoke to Jiang Yanli, who had the story from Nie Huaisang.”
“‘Unavailable.’” Wen Qing remembers the Nie heir as a coward, but an otherwise good friend to Wei Ying; he’s probably a fairly reliable source. That is not her issue. She stares at Lan Wangji. “Surely the LanlingJin Sect would not kill their own Sect Heir simply for speaking the truth!”
Behind her, two men have arrived and are speaking to the secretary; she can hear the low sound of their voices. They turn away from the secretary’s desk and move towards the waiting area. It is now becoming crowded.
“You assume more cunning that was to be found that day.
“After Jin Zixuan’s speech, Jin Guangyao spoke. He said that Wei Wuxian was the only one who commanded the Ghost General, and that Wen Ning had slain most of the cultivators who pursued him; therefore, Wei Wuxian must have cunningly plotted against them.”
“Oh? And did Wei Wuxian cunningly set an ambush for himself?” Uncle Four is speaking in a whisper this time, but his ire is still plain. “What nonsense!”
Lan Wangji bows his head again. Behind them, another petitioner enters the waiting chamber and is directed to take a seat.
Wen Qing frowns. “Lan Wangji—future husband—what is it?”
He looks up at her, then gives a negligible shake of his head. “Jin ZiXun had requested... Thirty GusuLan cultivators accompanied him to the ambush.” His lips twitch bitterly. “They said it was to be a night hunt; I thought it wise that they attend.
“Those thirty were among those who pursued Wen Ning. Only two of them returned.”
Granny Wen and Uncle Four look as shaken as Wen Qing feels. They hadn’t known this—and they are travelling to Cloud Recesses. If the GusuLan sect believes that twenty of their people were killed by a-Ning, then Lan Wangji must be directly crossing the will of his clan to aid them.
The Wens exchange a speaking glance. “ Hanguang-jun, ” Wen Qing says fervently, meaning that he is truly a gentleman of honor and strong will. The other two nod their agreement.
The four of them sit in a miserable little huddle, waiting as the family that has been there the longest is called to the front. The secretary asks them some more questions—Wen Qing can’t make out the words, but the tone is snide and peremptory—and then they are allowed to pass through the elaborately scrolled door to the Supervisor’s office.
Lan Wangji continues speaking after a bit. “Jin Guangshan demanded that Wei Weuxian prove that was a friend to the Cultivation World by handing over the Stygian Tiger Seal. Wei Wuxian refused.”
“Of course he did,” Wen Qing says tartly. Granny Wen and Uncle Four nod beside her, and Lan Wangji looks at all of them in surprise.
“It corrupts him,” he argues. “Wei Wuxian’s spirit is damaged every time he uses it! Surely it is no harm to ask that someone else carry it for a bit; he could have passed the two pieces to differing clans, one to LanlingJin and one to YunmengJiang.”
“Yes, and then he would be defenseless!” Wen Qing glares at Lan Wangji. “Do you truly trust Jin Guangshan to treat Wei Wuxian fairly once he has given over the Seal?”
Lan Wangji is silent, but it is clear that he trusts Jin Guangshan no more than she does. Wen Qing snorts and shakes her head. “So Wei Wuxian refused to pass over the Seal, and Jin Guangshan ordered his men to attack?”
“And Wei Wuxian did what any idiot could have predicted he would do, and called the thousands of dead of the Nightless City to his aid?”
“Because Jin Guangshan is moron who likes to choose battlegrounds that hand the advantage directly to his enemies?”
Lan Wangji catches her eye, and the corner of his lips twitches up. “Mn.”
Ha! “And then what?”
“A more garbled account; chaos. Wei Wuxian called fierce corpses to his defense, but it seems he lost control, for some living men became puppets as well. Many cultivators died.” Rumor had said three thousand, but it was probably not that many. “Jin Guangyao was wounded, but he successfully removed himself from the battlefield. Jin Zixuan was struck down, but Jiang Wanyin stood guard over his body; he lives, but has not yet awoken from his faint.
“After that, Wei Wuxian moved to the edge of the battlefield, stopping at the cliffs, and Jiang Wanyin and Jin ZiXun followed him. They spoke again, and then Wei Wuxian held up one half of the Stygian Tiger Seal so that all could see.”
Wen Qing knows the area in front of the Nightless City well; she can easily picture the cliffs in question. “What did he say?” There is no chance that Wei Wuxian only showed off his Stygian Tiger Seal without saying anything else.
Lan Wangji’s mouth twitches again in recognition of this truth. “He said, ‘This is what your greed will get for you,’ and then he shattered the Stygian Tiger Seal.”
“Of course he did,” Wen Qing sighs. Granny Wen gives an aggravated moan beside her.
“Jin ZiXun was charging Wei Wuxian, swearing vengeance on behalf of his cousin, but Wei Wuxian shattered the Tiger Seal before he could take it from him. So both cultivators fell over the cliffs. After the battle, Jiang Wanyin searched, but he could not find either of their bodies.”
Of course they couldn’t. “Wei Wuxian had just destroyed the Stygian Tiger Seal! With so much restless energy in the air, of course the bodies would have been destroyed.”
“Wen Qing!” Granny snaps, causing Wen Qing to jump at the sharpness of her tone. “Jiang Wanyin is a-Xian’s brother, and Jin ZiXun was a high-ranking member of the Jin clan. It doesn’t matter what we know about the bodies, it was still the honorable thing for Jiang Wanyin to look.”
...Right. Wen Qing bows her head in acceptance of the scolding.
As bad as the news is—and it is terrible—Wen Qing can’t help but to feel that it could have been worse. Many cultivators died, but the heads of all the major clans were in attendance, and none of them perished in the chaos. “Chifeng-zun?” she checks. “Zewu-jun? Both are well?”
With all this news dispersed, there is nothing else for it but to wait. They all sit back on their cushions, ending their huddled conference. Lan Wangji sits tall and still, of course, and Granny Wen sits patiently as well (although rather less tall). Wen Qing finds herself envying their poise; she has long known herself to be a woman of action, and all this patience is irritating to her. She runs her fingers over the red silk ribbons on her sleeve, thinking.
She mourns her brother, of course; and naturally, she grieves Wei Wuxian’s death. But of all the news that Lan Wangji brought, she finds herself the most disturbed by Wei Wuxian’s loss of control. He does not create puppets unless pressed beyond endurance; they have spoken of this, and he considers them to be a cruel practice.
“When the man regains control of himself, he remembers all the things he has done without wanting to,” Wei Wuxian said. She had found him that night, sitting under a tree, a little too drunk to be this far out beyond their wards. “If he has done horrible things as a puppet, he bears the guilt of that, regardless of whether or not he willed them. It is a torture that lasts a lifetime.”
Wen Qing knelt and took the bottle from his hand. Cheap wine, she discovered, doubtless purchased in Yiling on his last visit—or rather, bartered for; since their funds had not been diminished unduly after that visit. She wonders what he had had to do to afford this.
She takes a swig herself and chokes. Whatever it was he did, if it was much of anything he got ripped off!
“Come back to the cave, Wei Wuxian. Stop drinking cooking wine out in the darkness of a long-dead orchard.”
“Oh, you noticed too? But... Puppets, Wen Qing!”
“What about puppets?!”
“Obviously! That’s why they fill us with dread and despair! It’s why they make good weapons!”
Wei Wuxian nodded with the over-earnest expression of the drunk and tried to swipe the bottle back, only to miss by a good three inches. “That’s why I don’t make puppets. I don’t, Wen Qing! I did it during the war. I never want to do it again!”
“So don’t! Oh, for—come inside, you idiot!”
She had tugged him towards the cave, and he began to stumble after her.
“Oh, forget this!” Wen Qing exclaims, standing suddenly as if she can walk away from her memories. “I’m done. Lan Wangji, give me some money!”
He is surprised, but he passes over a moderately-sized lump of silver regardless. Wen Qing takes it without thanks and turns, striding up to the secretary’s desk. She announces, “The Supervisor will see us now.”
The man bristles under his ridiculous cap and tries to look down his nose at her, but he is seated and she is standing and as short as she is, she’s still looming over him. “I told you—”
She bends and slaps the silver down on his desk with an explosively loud click. “The Supervisor. Will see us. Now.”
The secretary looks at the silver. The secretary looks back up at her. Wen Qing watches as his eyes track from her, to her clothes—obviously poor, the red ribbons tacked on in a fit of stitching the night before—and then behind her to Lan Wangji, and his clothes.
The secretary hesitates, then takes the silver with a scowl. “I’ll tell him right away.”
I realize that there's a giant-ass angst-bus at the end of this chapter, but hopefully it is at least a *little* bit more hopeful for you than the last one! I loved, loved, LOVED this chapter; I hope you do, too!
Lan Wangji was right: the Supervisor, no matter his name, is most certainly an Ouyang. They get as far as the words “Pickaxe License” before he is weeping.
“Forbidden love,” he sobs, “So tragic!”
Lan Wangji frowns and opens his mouth. Wen Qing digs her elbow into his solar plexus before he can speak.
“That’s right,” she lies, “forbidden love. A-Zhan—” If glares were blows, she would be bleeding on the floor. “—came to visit once last year, and we instantly felt a connection. Now I am alone in the world except for him.”
With Granny Wen and Uncle Four pressing in behind her, this might be a bit much.
“Our patriarch is dead,” Wen Qing corrects herself. She pretends she isn’t contradicting her own story and hopes the Supervisor doesn’t notice. “Please, Supervisor Jin, allow your humble servant to find some meager comfort in the arms of my beloved!”
She goes all-in, and prostrates herself on the floor, Granny and Uncle Four dropping down quickly behind her. Lan Wangji does not join them.
Wen Qing punches him in a pressure point on the back of the calf hard enough to bring him to his knees.
Supervisor Jin-Except-Really-Ouyang sobs and rushes forward, pulling them to their feet (starting with Hanguang-jun, because he’s not a total idiot). He throws his arms around Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji looks like he wants to burn the Supervisory Office to the ground, possibly with himself in it.
Oh, well, no one can read Lan Wangji’s expressions anyway.
Wen Qing stands and tries to look dutiful; Supervisor Jin bustles back around his desk and starts looking for the proper paperwork. “Ahh, this is the most romantic thing! How pure the love of two young people, their clans utterly opposed to each other! How star-crossed!” He picks up his brush, then throws it down again and pulls out an ominously-shaped jar. “Ahh, we must drink to this happy event!”
Lan Wangji stiffens, staring at the jar as if it is a poisonous snake.
Supervisor Jin pours cups for them, beaming like he can’t see the glare of death on Lan Wangji’s face. He holds the cup up, seemingly oblivious to the mounting tension among Wen Qing’s party.
Seemingly oblivious, anyway. Is this a test?
Doesn’t matter; they can’t risk it.
Wen Qing digs her fingers into Lan Wangji’s back hard over the kidneys. He shoots her a look, but takes the cup.
He passes it to Granny Wen—respectful, but also maybe hoping the Supervisor will run out of cups? It’s an idea, anyway. Wen Qing uses the excuse of leaning in to embrace him to hiss into his ear: “Drink the wine and don’t flinch.”
He looks pained—as much as he ever does, anyway—but he drinks the wine. Wen Qing keeps her hand planted in the small of his back, and as he swallows she flexes her fingers, exerting her power in a way too small for the idiotic Supervisor to sense. She hasn’t done this in a couple years, and it’s much easier to do it safely on oneself than on another, which is why she told Lan Wangji not to flinch.
She ignites the alcohol in his throat.
She’s going to pay for this later; it’s a cruel thing to do to any man, much less to ones future husband. The alcohol burns fast, but hot, and he can’t show the pain, which makes it even worse. So yes, she’s going to pay later, and if he doesn’t extract a toll she’ll likely feel obliged to punish herself, but in the meantime she is taking this memory and locking it up in a box where she can keep it until the darkest hours of the night when she will take it out and stroke it and enjoy, because—forced to suppress the pain, but still too startled to remain completely impassive—Lan Wangji. Squeaks.
The Supervisor, thankfully, doesn’t notice. He drinks his wine—then pours another cup, and drinks that, too—before returning to filling out the paperwork. Lan Zhan, zi Wangji, groom; Wen Qing, no zi, bride; marriage type, Pickaxe. “It wouldn’t be an Infantry marriage,” Supervisor Jin explains as if it makes any difference to them, “unfortunately, because they’re a bit more respectable—but your families are both clearly still alive. So we will just say that it is an urgent matter—” He looks an apology at Wen Qing, unaware that it actually is an urgent matter. “—and that you haven’t enough time to get in contact with your family.”
“My brother is heavily involved in the recovery efforts from the recent disaster in Qishan,” Lan Wangji says. “Distraction would be dishonorable.”
This is actually true; clearly Lan Wangji has put some thought into what he will say to the Supervisor.
“Right, right!” Supervisor Jin agrees, as if this were a wink-wink matter and not utterly earnest in the way only a Lan can be. “And no one in your family can have any objection to your marriage?” For the first time, he looks a bit concerned. He needs Lan Wangji to lie about this—or at least provide a plausible half-truth—in order for his office to be clear of any misdeed.
“No one in my family would expect me to act in any way which is not in accord with my honor.”
Beautiful. Wen Qing wishes she could applaud.
“Well, then! I’m sure there can be no objection! Now, you’ll need to perform the actual marriage after this—we have a humble shrine for such a purpose down the hall, and I hope you will allow me to attend—”
Supervisor Jin continues to fill out the license, and they all watch his brushstrokes crawling over the paper like a cluster of cats transfixed by a leaping squirrel.
There is little celebration at the inn that night.
Uncle Four suggests they perform the toasts, and Lan Wangji passes over money for the wine without ever actually endorsing the idea. Wen Qing chivvies them through the obligatory three rounds—to the elders, to each other, and to the guests, except they’ve rented the whole inn so the “guests” end up being the innkeeper and his wife—then pleads a headache and takes herself upstairs. She can hear the innkeeper and his wife exclaiming over the unhappiness of their wedding party, but ignores them; the Wens are still full of grief, and this wedding is too obviously the only shield they have for it to be a truly happy occasion.
She hesitates in the hallway outside of her room. She calls over her shoulder, “Do you want a bath?”
She doesn’t recall hearing one brought up last night, likely because of the lateness of the hour, and today has been long and full of irritation.
“Mn,” says Lan Wangji.
Wen Qing shrugs indifferently and opens the door to the room where she slept last night. “Call for one, then. I’ll wait in Granny Wen’s room until I hear them take the tub away.”
She lies down in the dimness of the unlit room while he bathes. It is still afternoon here, so it’s not totally dark, but the shutters are closed because the previous night was chilled, and the lamps are still out. She rests her head on the pillow and closes her eyes, but her mind is too full of worry to come anywhere near to sleep.
Lan Wangji takes a very long bath, she thinks after half an hour.
After a full hour, she is sure he is stalling. She cannot blame him; in fact, she is grateful.
Eventually, however, he calls for the bath to be removed, and as Wen Qing listens she can hear the last pittering footsteps retreating down the hallway.
She rises from her bed.
He opens the door for her, which is gentlemanly. Not exactly a surprise, but still nice. He closes it behind her, too. Also gentlemanly, but—given the nerves she’s trying not to admit that she feels—less nice.
The room is the nicest in the inn, which is not all that nice compared to what Hanguang-jun could command, but still pleasant: a low table off to the side, the bed large and with thick covers, a simple but well-made dresser. Warmth rises through the socked soles of her feet: the room is directly over the kitchens, and steam heats the floors. She pads into the room—she left her shoes behind in last night’s room—and stands awkwardly beside Lan Wangji’s bed.
He stands, very still and too tall, in the center of the rug. He is not looking at her. She wishes she didn’t have to look at him. His hair is loose and largely dry; he must have dried it with qi, a standard practice of GusuLan cultivators that she never understood until last night when she had to sit around with wet hair dripping cold against her scalp in the brisk mountain air until she gave in and emulated them. He is dressed in inner robe and outer, but it is obvious he skipped his middle robes while dressing after his bath.
Wen Qing thickens her face and deliberately strips to match him, removing only the outer layer of her robes. She folds them and sets them on the table, so that she can wear them again tomorrow.
Not looking at her, seeming not to notice that she has taken off her outer robes, Lan Wangji opens the sash of his middle robes and folds it with a simple winding gestures around his hands. He sets it on the dresser. Then he takes off his middle robes and, folding them neatly, places them on top of the sash.
Matching her, and raising the stakes. He is down to his inner robes, now. They are light-colored, but obviously a thick, warm fabric, with the high threadcount she would expect of a man of his station. White, of course. They are loose, but fit to his frame. They look very comfortable.
She is mentally babbling. She is putting off the inevitable. Useless!
She takes off another layer, matching him in inner robes. Hers are thin and dull rust-colored, but worn to a delicious softness. Not that he’d care, but. She enjoys them.
Neither of them says a word.
Wen Qing stares at Lan Wangji—at her husband, now—and sharpens her gaze into a dare. He’s down to his inner robes; she also is down to her inner robes. If he wants her to get any more naked, he’s going to have to do it, too—and first.
He does not.
Instead, he pulls back the blankets and sheets on the bed and gives her a flat, direct sort of look.
She raises her chin and waits. He still has to go first.
He turns his face away before he moves his body, then turns that away, too. He rises from his crouch, moves towards the lamp, makes to blow out the wick, and then pauses. “Have you finished your ablutions?”
She nods, then clears her throat. “I’m ready for bed, if that’s what you mean.”
He hesitates visibly. “...Your hair.”
...He’s right, damn it. She scowls and yanks the ponytail out, allowing her hair to cascade around her face. She lets the thin ribbon she uses to secure it fall on the floor; she’ll find it tomorrow morning. “Happy?”
Lan Wangji doesn’t answer aloud, but he blows out the light.
He habitually moves quietly, but she can still sense his steps as he makes his way back to the bed. She waits for him to say something, but he doesn’t; the only noises is the rustle of the bedding as he gets in. He doesn’t demand that she join him. He doesn’t demand anything.
She huffs and gets into bed. It’s where she was heading anyway, after all, whether he says anything or not.
There are a few moments of awkward jostling as they lie down. She is keenly aware of her body, of the cold sharpness of her heels, the nudge of her knee against his. They are both wearing their socks, still. She wonders if he always wears socks to bed. Loosening her hair was a good decision; she usually braids it, but after forgetting to take it out of the ponytail she is certainly not going to give face by braiding it, too.
The sheets are chilled, but warming quickly with their body heat. Her breasts feel heavy and sensitive; nerves, mostly, and somewhat from the pregnancy. Certainly not at all because of Lan Wangji.
They get oriented beside each other and lie still. The room is dark, peaceful. Their breaths are loud in the darkness, but nothing else moves. Wen Qing wiggles her toes under the blanket, where he wouldn’t be able to see them even if it weren’t dark, just to be contrary. She always has preferred motion to stillness.
He doesn’t try to kiss her.
In fact, he doesn’t try to touch her in any respect, not beyond the brush of two bodies in a smallish bed, at shoulder and hip and sometimes knee.
She lies awake in the darkness. She doesn’t bother to close her eyes; sleep is nowhere close. When she turns her head very slightly to the side, there is just enough light from the window that she can see the gleam of Lan Wangji’s eyes, too—her new husband’s eyes—so he isn’t sleeping, either.
She looks back at the ceiling. She gives it a minute; either she’s going to start giggling, or she’s going to brain the man with her pillow.
...And probably it won’t be the giggling, if she’s honest.
She hears a wet sound beside her, and a second later he speaks.
Just in time.
“The thing you fear—”
She immediately scowls. “I’m not afraid—”
“—it won’t happen,” he continues.
She huffs, but doesn’t answer. Her arms lie on top of the covers, beside her body, still as dead things. She keeps wanting to cross them, but doesn’t; their weight on the blankets is its own kind of comfort.
Beside her, Lan Wangji breathes out heavily; she might even call it a sigh. Apparently he isn’t done with their conversation.
“...I spoke inaccurately,” he says with reluctance. “It’s not, ‘it won’t happen...’”
She stiffens, then immediately forces herself to relax again, neither of which he appears to notice as he forges on: “...rather it is, ‘I am unable.’”
And that... Huh!
Her thoughts screech to a halt, piling up on each other like the collision of two carts full of produce in the market. Mental cabbages go rolling off to the side.
The only thing she can think is, Hanguang-jun?
It’s certainly not at all what she expected.
Honor provides only one response. She gulps, winces, and doesn’t look over in the darkness as she offers it: “If it is a medical issue, I am a capable doctor—”
“It is not.”
“Oh, thank god.” She sags into her pillow. She would have done it—of course she would have—but she cannot claim she would have looked forward to doing the examination and diagnosis of Lan Wangji’s erectile dysfunction! “Alright, good. So what is it?”
She considers sitting up to look at him; they are, after all, almost having a conversation, here, and there’s enough light from the window to justify the change in positions. But she finds she likes lying beside him, and she suspects—since this is the third weighty conversation they have had in as many days which has occurred almost entirely without eye contact—that he finds it comforting. There is a sort of depth to the privacy of this, lying side by side and both staring at the ceiling. It seems easier—which is just as well, because the conversations themselves are hard.
She chooses to remain lying down. “Is there another woman you’re in love with? You can marry her too, you know. I wouldn’t mind being a second wife, not as long as my people are safe.”
“Fine.” She tries not to be too relieved at that. She meant it, after all; she’d do just about anything to keep her people safe, so being a second wife doesn’t even come close to being the exception. But she was once the highest-ranked female cultivator in the QishanWen sect, and the thought of being reduced to a second wife does sting her pride, in a feminine kind of way. “So what is it, then?”
Lan Wangji shifts under the bedding, as if he wanted to move away from her, but cannot. She waits him out; he’s quiet, but he’s obviously agitated—and when did she get close enough to him to know that?—so she’s pretty sure that tonight at least she has him beat for patience. He makes that little motion again, then moves his head.
A headshake, she realizes. At her, or himself? It could go either way.
This man is too damn much work to understand! She misses her brother, who was just as quiet but far, far more straightforward, so sharply that for a second it’s hard to breathe.
Lan Wangji gives a little cough, the kind that’s more a too-ragged exhale than a true clearing of the throat.
He says, “Cutsleeve.”
Somehow, in an incredible feat of idiocy, somehow she still doesn’t get it. She thinks, almost the same as she had for her first guess, Cutsleeve? Hanguang-jun, really?!
She even—she will look back on this later and cringe—she is even foolish enough to think, I wonder if there’s another man he’s in love with, then—
And only then, only at that moment, does she figure it out.
She jerks upright in bed to stare at him, her previous enjoyment of their shared moment be damned. He keeps his face pointed resolutely at the ceiling and doesn’t look over, even though she’s sitting right next to him and probably has hair spilling out around her head like the tentacles of some strange black octopus. He doesn’t look over.
She says, “I’m sorry,” and her voice comes out exactly as shocked as she feels.
He says nothing, but she can just barely see his jaw clench.
She supposes that makes sense; positions reversed, clenching her jaw would be the least of what she would do. She shakes her head, her eyes wide in shocked grief. “I’m so sorry,” she says again, but of course it’s not going to do any good.
She swallows the lump in her throat and looks away, giving him room for all his sorrow. She, too, mourns Wei Wuxian, but she knows her own self, and she is certain she was never in love with the man. If Lan Wangji was, though...
She says nothing and lies back down, although she’s catching a hundred bitter words behind her teeth. Her heart pounds from the series of shocks she has received this night. Poor Lan Wangji! It makes so much more sense, now—his visit to the Burial Mounds, his determination to see her and her people safe. His vow to protect the child she carries, and his betrayed rage when he learned she was carrying it. Of course he was angry, if she was carrying the baby of the man he was in love with!
Everything is explained, and the giant, tragic idiocy of it all is made plain. Wei Wuxian would have been a good father to her child, but she can’t help but to also believe that he would have been a great partner to Lan Wangji—if he had ever known Lan Wangji’s feelings. Which of course he did not, because Lan Wangji is a sullen lump of clay disguised as a man, walking around the world gripping his sword tightly and completely failing to display any human emotion!
Wen Qing could scream.
And now Lan Wangji is married to her, and she is carrying Wei Wuxian’s baby, and Wei Wuxian is dead, which means there’s nothing at all any of them can do about it.
What a damned waste this all is!
The connecting thread is tangled, true, but she thinks maybe the best way she can honor her dead best friend is by being a good wife to the man who loved him.
She finds Lan Wangji’s hand in the dark and squeezes; he squeezes her hand back, and doesn’t let go.
Cloud Recesses is aptly named: the path beyond the gate winds up the side of the mountain, and in the mists it does in fact look like it is hidden away among the clouds.
“You know, we used to despise you for this.”
Wen Qing’s voice is conversational, rather than mocking. Lan Wangji flicks his eyes in her direction, an indirect invitation to continue. She takes this in the spirit in which it was meant, and explains, “The isolation. You people hide yourself away halfway up the side of the mountain, and you sit on your rocks and don’t go into the world, and you pretend this makes you better than the rest of us. It was a subject of quite a bit of derision in my uncle’s court.”
...It was easier to disagree with her before the events of the past weeks had occurred.
Lan Wangji once begged Wei Ying to come back to Cloud Recesses with him, but why should Wei Ying have done that? Wangji has legs too, after all. He could have joined Wei Wuxian for a bit. If Lan Wangji had stayed a month at Burial Mounds and played “Clarity” every night, would Wei Wuxian have lost control in the Nightless City? And what about Lan Qiren? If he had attended Jin Rulan’s one-month celebration, would Jin ZiXun have dared such a terrible ambush? Would Jin Guangshan have demanded the turning-over of the Stygian Tiger Seal?
But no: Lan Wangji asked Wei Ying to abandon his people and come to Gusu, and Lan Qiren abstained from a measly one-month celebration in favor of sitting—how did Wen Qing put it? “Hidden away halfway up the side of a mountain”?
And now Wei Wuxian is dead.
Lan Wangji says, “More than halfway.”
Wen Qing snorts her agreement. How nice to be understood.
They pass a turn in the path, and they are almost there. One more twist and they will be in front of the grand monument which is carved with the three thousand rules of the GusuLan sect. Lan Wangji pauses and turns to his companions in the comparative privacy of the path.
“They will be angry,” he warns.
Wen Qing snorts, indelicate but accurate. “No kidding.”
“Both for my interference in political matters—”
“Oh, is that the polite term for my people?”
“—and for the elopement.” If Lan Wangji allows himself to be interrupted by this woman, he will quite possibly never speak again. He keeps going, overriding her words with his own. “There will be punishment for at least one of these actions. You must not interfere with this.”
She waits until he’s done speaking this time, one hand propped on her hip, before answering. “Well, they had better be fair punishments, then!”
“No.” Lan Wangji makes his voice as firm as he can—quite firm indeed, he has been told. He does believe that the punishment will be fair, but this does not matter. “You must submit to the rules of GusuLan, and of Cloud Recesses specifically. Wei Wuxian was rebellious.” Wen Qing will remember their shared time at Cloud Recesses well enough to know the truth of that. “His charges will be laid at your door.”
Wen Qing’s jaw clenches and she turns away, but Lan Wangji believes that she can see the truth in his words. He turns his gaze to Madam Wen and the others, making sure they understand his point.
There is grumbling among them; he is oddly touched by this. They are not his immediate kin, and yet they still show concern for his well-being. They are good people.
Madam Wen is carrying a-Yuan, as she has been since they unloaded the carts at the base of the mountain path. Lan Wangji reaches out to take him from her. “It will not be unbearable,” he assures her as small, chubby arms wrap around his neck. “My Uncle wants what is best for me. He may believe that I have come under evil influences and seek to free me from them, but he will not wish me to take permanent harm.”
“Is it your uncle?” Wen Qing asks. She stands near the edge of the path. Lan Wangji carries a-Yuan over to her, jiggling him slightly as he has seen the others do. “That is, do we know that your brother will still be gone?”
“Mn. Likely he is at Nightless City.” The battle was a disaster; hundreds of dead, although not so many as rumor painted, and from all different clans so that identification is an especially complicated ordeal. A mass burial and monument is scheduled for many of the cultivators, although more prominent ones are being sent home to their own lands.
Furthermore, Jin Guangshan is reportedly devastated by the loss of his heir: Jin Zixuan still lives, but has not yet awakened. Lan Xichen will most likely be with him, and with his sworn brothers.
Wen Qing purses her lips. “Any chance we can stall until he gets here?”
Lan Wangji shows a-Yuan the view over the edge of the path—green foothills, trees and growing things, and beyond them Caiyi Lake, blue under the clear sun—and pretends not to hear her. There is no such chance; surely she knows this.
No one says anything.
After a while Lan Wangji can wait—no, call it what it is: can stall— no longer. He passes a-Yuan back to Madam Wen, and they proceed up the trail to face repercussions at last.
The room is full of cultivators, both elders and students. Embarrassingly, the students are not the only ones breaking decorum to whisper amongst themselves.
There is certainly a sufficiency of matters about which to whisper. Lan Wangji has just finished recounting his actions in regard to both the Wen refugees and his new wife. Neither wife nor Wen clan is particularly welcome.
Uncle Lan Qiren’s face is red. He is saying nothing.
Both facts are poor prognosticators.
“Where are the rest of them?” Lan Xiang asks in a loud whisper. Lan Xiang is one of the youngest Elders, but since he has spent so much time on battlefields, he is more than half deaf.
Lan Wangji glances over and meets Lan Xiang’s eyes, as he never used to be able to do when he was a youth. “No ‘rest.’ Forty-seven: fifteen disabled cultivators, and thirty-two humble people—including a-Yuan. And Wen Qing.”
A hush falls over the assembled sect members, and then the babble begins again, this time not bothering to contain the volume. “We were told there were two hundred!” Lan Yahzu protests, distress on her face. She was one of the most fearsome cultivators GusuLan sent to the final battle of the Sunshot Campaign, and from the fresh bandage on her arm she was at Nightless City last week, as well. Her hand is gripping her sword just a little too tightly. “Two hundred, and all of them cultivators loyal to Wen Rouhan!”
Lan Wangji faces her squarely. He attempts to contain his contempt; it would not be seemly to scream at a venerable clan member. “Untruths.”
The side-conversations are rising to a roar, now. The sect members are perturbed—as they should be. This is not the first time Lan Wangji has broken this particular news, and there is ever a sense of vindication to it. As tragic and stupid as it may be, it is still extremely satisfying to see the realization sweep over these practitioners of misguided righteousness.
He treasures that sense of justice, of vengeance. He suspects he is going to need its warmth soon; his punishment cannot be far off.
The hubbub grows, swelling to unsustainable levels. Soon someone will say something else, and the whole assembly will go still to hear the answer. Lan Wangji has seen this many times.
Right on cue, Huo Rong blurts out, “And you brought them here?”
Just as Lan Wangji has predicted, the crowd quiets down to a hush. Uncle’s face darkens still further, until it is so purple Lan Wangji worries about aneurysm. As soon as he has the thought, he checks Wen Qing’s face and steps sideways onto her foot to prevent her speaking it aloud.
Lan Wangji did not know what to expect from marriage, and it has been a great comfort that, on many topics, he and his wife send their minds down similar paths. But Wen Qing is far more likely than he to put voice to those thoughts. Unacceptable.
... It would be very satisfying.
Uncle gives his beard a single brooding stroke, then points a finger at the collected Wen refugees. His hand is shaking.
(In rage? Or in betrayal? Lan Wangji would have been certain, once. To doubt now is its own kind of ache.)
“YOU!” Uncle bellows, “All of you!” His gesture indicates he means all of the Wen refugees. “Visiting Disciple Dormitories! GO!”
GusuLan no longer hosts visiting disciples; since the attack by QishanWen sect a few years ago, they have not had the resources to host the Discussion Conference as they once did. However, the Visiting Disciple Dormitories were still largely intact after the fires, and required little repair, so some members of the sect had sheltered there until the rest of their buildings could also be repaired. The rooms are problematic in this regard: before being the Visiting Disciple Dormitories, they were the Summer Dormitories, and they are not truly warm enough for the winter. However, with enough blankets, this can be resolved.
And if not, the Wens are masters of fire; they can burn the dorms down again, until they are warm.
This is another thought it is best Lan Wangji never speak aloud.
The refugees murmur amongst themselves—a-Yuan is whimpering softly, and Lan Wangji wishes he could comfort him—and some of those at the back turn as if to go to their quarters right away. Beside him Wen Qing is making a formal bow—it is good that Lan Wangji is the only Lan clan member familiar enough with her manner to see the sarcasm in this—and making to depart with her people. Lan Wangji stops her with a hand on her elbow.
Uncle’s finger has moved to Lan Wangji. “And you! My good student.”
Wen Qing whips back around, fire in her eyes and ready to spill from her lips at his tone. Lan Wangji steps forward just far enough to tread on her foot again.
“Quarters! Isolation! No more of these—these— pernicious influences!”
Long familiarity allows Lan Wangji to understand that this rage, at least, is as much from pain as it is anger. His words to the Wens were the truth: Uncle wants him to be good, and healthy, and just. If Uncle is angry now, it is because he fears that Wangji is taking himself off the path which has so long followed without difficulty. Isolation—in his quarters, rather than any place more dire—is a reflection of this: his rooms are on the top floor of the Student Dormitories, and he will be able to hear the students practicing in the yard below. Even as he is isolated, he will be able to study the principles of the GusuLan sect, and thereby “return” to the rectitude he does not currently believe he ever abandoned.
He bows in acknowledgement of the order, and of the intent behind it.
And then his Uncle ruins everything.
“And finally: you! Harlot!”
Now it is Wen Qing’s turn to step on his foot.
“Jingshi! Isolation! No more seduction of my virtuous students! No more twisting cultivators to your evil means! No more—”
He is interrupted: a-Yuan has started to cry. Piercing, heartfelt wails echo in the large hall.
No one says anything. Lan Wangji certainly does not say anything; he does not trust himself. Madam Wen shushes a-Yuan, but he is not comforted, and with an apologetic look and a half-bow she hurries out of the room.
A low murmur runs around the room once they are gone. A censorious murmur; Lan Wangji cannot help but to find some satisfaction in this. He speaks over it. “I will escort my wife to the Jingshi.”
Uncle narrows his eyes. “I have ordered you to quarters—”
“And I have acknowledge that order.” Lan Wangji is not sure he has ever interrupted his Uncle before. Perhaps it is time.
The dark hue of Uncle’s face says he disagrees. “You will be in your quarters in no more than half an hour!” he bellows.
The irritating hum rises a bit in volume, then subsides when Uncle turns his glare on the assembled crowd. One last whisper continues, uncowed, even after the rest have died off: “The Jingshi is quite far away... To get there and back, that only gives him five minutes to spare.”
“A man can do a lot with his wife in five minutes’ time.”
“Maybe you can! But Hanguang-jun?”
Lan Wangji glances behind him and sees two figures leaning their heads together. Lan Baoyi and Feng Zedong; he will remember those names.
When the burst of snickering that follows this has finally died off, Lan Wangji faces his Uncle. “My wife—” He will say those words over and over again if that is what it takes to make this point, “—is not familiar with the Jingshi. She does not know the way. I will escort her. I will return to my quarters within half an hour, as you have ordered.”
Uncle glares once more, sharp as a sword edge, then turns and leaves without waiting for Lan Wangji to bow.
“Thank you for not making a scene,” Wen Qing says behind him as he leads the way down the not-quite-overgrown path. The Jingshi isn’t abandoned, per se, but it was not anyone’s first choice when they are deciding which buildings to maintain. In fact, most of the upkeep on the Jingshi in the last year has been done by Lan Wangji himself; he is aware that allocating sect resources to its maintenance is selfish, but he cannot quite bear to see his mother’s home neglected.
Lan Wangji turns his head just enough to side-eye her at her words, but says nothing. In his opinion, he most certainly did make a scene.
It could have been worse...
But it was bad enough.
“When he called me that, I mean,” she continues. “Technically, he’s right.”
At this, Lan Wangji cannot stay silent. “He is not.”
A loud raspberry behind him clearly—if not eloquently—states her response. Lan Wangji does not argue with her, but his opinion does not change.
Even leaving aside his own conduct—he has few illusions as to what that conduct would have been if Wei Wuxian had shown even the slightest glimmer of returned interest—there are few reasons for disdain in Wen Qing’s case. Who exactly should she have married? Wei Wuxian? He had no family to offer their approval of the match. And no one else would have given an offer to a maiden of the Wen court, either. Should she have simply let her line die out? That would hardly be filial. She did what was necessary; Lan Wangji has no criticism.
Still, he knows few others would see it in such a way. She is probably correct, it is good that he stifled his objections to the slur.
“What is the place we’re going to,” Wen Qing asks into the companionable quiet, “which is not quite thirteen minutes from the Gathering Hall?” He does not need to turn to hear the wry smile in her voice. Clearly, Lan Baoyi’s speculation about what one can do in five minutes reached her ears, as well.
“Jingshi,” he says—and then, since that’s a bit scarce on details, he adds, “A house.”
“Not a prison?” Her voice, still coming from perhaps three feet behind him, is as light as it is bitter. She has adapted well to her changed circumstances, in a way Lan Wangji is not certain he would be able to manage. Strong.
“Both,” he answers. He isn’t quite sure how to tell her more about the history of this place. It occurs to him that it is very likely that this contributes to his Uncle’s anger. For Uncle to have lost his brother to an unwise love is one thing, but to have lost his brother’s son, as well? And it only makes matters worse that this opinion would not be incorrect: Lan Wangji cannot consider Wen Qing unwise, but he is lost to an unrequitable love, regardless.
She does not ask any more questions as they make their way up the path, Wangji in front, her following steadily. As they pass beneath the lintel, however, her steps hasten, and as he unlocks the building—did Uncle remember that Lan Wangji and his brother currently hold the only keys, or did he expect Wen Qing to break down her own door?—she catches up to him.
She places her hand on his forearm, more a pause than a true restraint. “Will you be alright?”
“I will.” Lan Wangji focuses on the lock, on turning the key in the rusty fixture. It needs maintenance again; he will have to bring the oil on his next visit.
She presses up against him, closer by far than they have been during any day, although they sleep beside each other at night, still. She stands on her tip-toes to whisper, “Someone has followed us. At quite some distance—I only barely heard.”
Lan Wangji jerks his head around to stare into the dense brush behind them. She grabs his focus again by tightening her grip on his wrist, digging in with her nails. “It’s fine—but you have to play the part, Lan Wangji. I’m sorry, but I think you should kiss me goodbye.”
Unpreferable. Still, Wangji has not once forgotten why they have done this. To establish Wei Wuxian’s child as his own... He bends and presents his face to her. She leans up to meet him, her hands gripping the front of his robes tightly—hanging on, he realizes, because despite his bending forward she is still too short to reach. He wraps an arm around her waist and lifts her upward to assist.
She climbs him like a long-tailed pard with a sturdy tree, then plants her elbows on his shoulders, cups her hands over his cheeks, and presses their two faces together. For one second her mouth is hard against his, the ghostly taste of chili oil and soy hot on his lips, and then she changes the angle and takes advantage of the extra space to whisper against his mouth: “Thank you. It helps. They know you too well, they doubt us. Thank you.” Her hand strokes, light and precise, over his ear. Tucking a strand of hair back, he realizes belatedly.
With her hands blocking what view any spy might have, she simply holds the position for another half minute, tipping her head from side to side every few seconds to simulate passion. Her elbows are pointy, and dig in sharply against his shoulders; he hoists her higher in the air to lessen the pressure, and she rolls her eyes before giving a loud, fake moan. She smells of nothing: wind and rock, only the very faintest scent of woman. If it were not for the kissing, to hold her would not be unpleasant.
Then she lets go. He loosens his grip slowly to prevent her dropping too-quickly to the ground, and she slides down the front of his robes, rucking him into disarray but landing lightly enough on her feet. She offers him a smile and reaches up, brushing her thumb across his cheek. It is all he can do not to flinch at the touch.
“Be strong,” she says. “I will be here when your punishment—whatever it should be—is done.”
He bows his head, but it seems best he say nothing.
The Jingshi was his mother’s place, quiet and isolated, a prison and a home both at once. A contradiction. And another: It is lonely, but it is the only place Lan Wangji has ever felt truly enfolded as part of a family. When his mother... left... he sat outside this door for days, cold inside and out, begging for her to open the door and welcome him into her warmth again: the greatest tragedy of his young life.
He wonders if Uncle is aware of the irony of sending Wen Qing here. Or does he think it apt? Does he know the truth? Can he understand how frightened Lan Wangji is right now, that he might come back and find that Wen Qing, too, will refuse to open the door? That she might not be there at all, or might be unable to open the door?
“Firewood in back,” he says. “Use it. They will bring more. Likewise, food; isolation is not starvation." This is Cloud Recesses policy. "There will be two trays each day.”
He can think of nothing more to add. “All will be well”? Wei Wuxian is dead, so inherently that is a lie. “I’ll be back”? He cannot know this; perhaps Uncle intends that he remain isolated in perpetuity. Reassurances are empty, and they only have one minute left.
He settles for, “Here: the key,” twisting it off the ring he usually keeps hidden inside his robes. Intentionally or not, Uncle has made this her place, now; it is only right that she be able to lock it.
She lifts her hand; her fingers close around his and squeeze tightly. He releases the key and turns away, leaving her there before he loses the last nerve he has left.
Wen Qing waits.
The house is simply built. There are three rooms, although the long one in front is so large that it is divided into zones. It takes up the whole front of the building—the Jingshi, as it says over the door. The left side has public room, living room and office in one, with a low desk for working at and enough seating that one could entertain a couple of visitors. The right side has a kitchen area, with a feminine touch slightly blunted by time: the tiny vase by the sink holds no flower, and the painted designs on the cupboards are faded. It is obvious that this place has not been used, as there are no perishable items in the kitchen, and everything dried is sealed up tight and put away. Wen Qing finds a bowl such as would hold fruit stored away on the top shelf. She defiantly pulls it down and takes the last of the Burial Mounds’ chestnuts out of her pack; there are only four, and when she lets them tumble out of her hands into the bowl they spin around each other making scratchy noises against all that extra porcelain, but she still puts the bowl out on the low table in the living room anyway.
Wen Qing is far too obstinate to shrivel in her banishment. Let this be her first step towards thriving.
Behind the living room Wen Qing finds a bedroom so personal that it makes her chest ache. The quilt here is beautiful, hand embroidered by someone with exquisite skill. The stitches are minuscule. When Wen Qing looks closer, however, she can see that it is unfinished; the places in the scene that she mistook for simple empty space have tiny prick-marks in them, as if the artist had tried to depict something, but had been unable to make up their mind as to how. It’s strange, because the scene isn’t a complicated one, just a woman riding a sword with the great mountain of Gusu behind her. The blank space is to her left, the same direction her face is pointed, but Wen Qing can no more read her expression than she can tell what was supposed to go in the empty place.
All the surfaces in this room are full of books. They have obviously been stacked neatly in recent years, but it’s clear there were far too many for the surface area available, and Wen Qing suspects they used to be piled so high they routinely fell off onto the floor.
It’s a surprise, because you would think those books would be out on the shelves in the front room, instead. Perhaps the woman who lived here didn’t want anyone to know what she was reading? Wen Qing picks up a book and nearly laughs; part of her was expecting a secret cultivation technique, but this appears to be a romance, instead! She picks up another book and finds herself grinning; this, too, is a romance, and—since the protagonists appear to be named “Zhao Handsome” and “Sun Beauty”—not an especially highbrow one, either. She starts to put the book back, then hesitates. She pulls out the first romance again—“Min Strong” and “Chin GuileGirl”—and compares the two. There is no doubt about it: the handwriting is the same.
Wen Qing’s smile curls around up into her cheeks. Now not only will she have reading material, it will apparently be reading material written by her fellow prisoner! How delightfully subversive!
Beyond the bedroom is a bathroom. The tub is bronze, and quite large, with a wooden seat in the bottom and a shelf on the underside for coals. She sees a small door in the wall the room shares with a kitchen, and finds a clever pass-through to the back of the stove so that she doesn’t have to trek all the way around through the living room with shovels-full. There’s a spigoted vessel with its own coal-stand for rinsing, too, much better than the chilly buckets you find in bathhouses, and the towels folded on the low shelf by the door are large, if somewhat stiff with years. The bath gel, however, is dried out, dozens of jars now holding just starchy residue and scent. Wen Qing will just have to stretch out the small pat of Fat Bean soap she carries in her pack.
And... that’s it. Wen Qing has explored the entire house, meticulously. Soon she has set out the three books she owns on the shelf, and her spare robes are soaking in the bathtub to loosen the dirt before washing. She has started a fire in the kitchen, and her medical supplies—such as they are—now line a shelf on the bookcase in the living room.
It has been three hours.
Wen Qing sighs and takes out her store of dried lotus plumules, shaking a small amount into the teapot. Lotus infusion is bland, but not harmful, and it’s better than no flavor at all.
Perhaps a pot of the closest thing she has to tea will help her pass another hour.
Around sunset, perhaps fifteen minutes after, a knock sounds at the door. Wen Qing rises from where she was reading, blinking as she realizes how dim the room has grown, and crosses to the door with a frown. She isn’t afraid, because she knows that the GusuLan sect, having accepted her isolation, would never go back and change their minds about killing her. If Hanguang-jun says she is his wife—and he did, repeatedly, in front of far too many people for the rumor to be stifled—then she will not be slain.
That being said, she doesn’t know who she’s going to find on the other side of the door, and this is a source of some quite reasonable concern—but that’s all. She knows she is safe.
She braces herself and opens the door.
On other other side is a disciple, a girl perhaps fifteen years of age. Her face is chubby, her brows thick but straight. She is just far enough off from prettiness that everyone will notice it, and not far away enough to be indifferent to this. Her only truly lovely feature is her lips, which are small and plump like the petals of a perfect rose, pink as the sky at sunset. And like most of the Lans, her skin is milky pale and clear.
She looks terrified.
Behind her, far enough that Wen Qing didn’t notice him until the second pass, is a male disciple, as well. He scowls and watches, returning her gaze with a glare which would have been much more intimidating if he were closer, or older, or larger, or if she hadn’t spent the last two weeks traveling with Hanguang-jun, who if glaring were a competition would win every time.
The girl holds a tray. The male holds a sword. Two swords, actually; the second one is tucked into his sash. From the charm on it, it belongs to the girl.
Wen Qing doesn’t bother to restrain her eyeroll. “I’m not going to attack the person bringing me dinner,” she says, slipping the tray neatly out of the girl’s hands by setting her fingertips underneath and lifting. The look of surprise on the girl’s face in response is just a little too satisfying. “Nor am I going to corrupt you, or seduce you, or whatever else it is I’m being accused of.”
She turns without closing the door and carries the tray into the kitchen. She doesn’t even have to take the cover off to know there’s cabbage on it. The smell is unmistakable, and anyway—oh god, she had almost managed to forget this nightmarish fact—there isn’t a meal served in Cloud Recesses that doesn’t contain cabbage in some respect. She’s willing to bet her left shoe that there’s tofu, too, and that godawful green herb mix which is so bitter it makes her mouth pucker.
Maybe by the time the child is born she’ll be used to it.
“Do you need to watch me eat this, or can I give you the tray back in the morning?” she calls. When there’s no answer, she looks over.
The girl is staring at her, mouth open. Her look of “I Will Be Brave In The Face Of This Terror” has clearly been bumped by “What Is Happening And When Did I Lose Control???” It’s more delicious by far than whatever’s on the tray.
“The dishes,” Wen Qing repeats, just slowly enough to be insulting because apparently petty bitchiness is what she’s reduced to these days. “There’s a sink; I can wash them. Would you rather I just pass them back clean in the morning?”
Washing dishes might take up a whole five minutes of her day. How delightful.
The girl nods.
“Perfect. Would you like a lantern?”
“A what??” She stares at Wen Qing like Wen Qing has offered her a neat plate of fecal matter dressed with a bow: mostly bafflement, with half a dozen other horrid emotions mixed in.
Wen Qing considers trying to calm the twit enough to understand basic language, then gives up. “Wait here.” She takes less than a minute to duck around into the bedroom and pull the spare candles out of the drawer where she had found them earlier, only a few seconds to fit it into one of the lights that hang from the stand by the bed. The previous occupant of this place clearly loved to read at bedtime, but Wen Qing has always found this keeps her awake; she’ll just read at the desk in the front room instead.
In the time this takes her, however, the second disciple has come up to the doorway with the girl, and is gripping his sword even as he passes the ninny hers. Wen Qing stops short when she sees him, then lifts her chin and continues anyway. “Here,” she says, holding up the now-glowing lantern. “It’s late; the path is getting dark.”
The male grips his sword more tightly, but the girl looks a little ashamed. She takes the lantern and jerks out a bow, most likely on sheer instinct: the Lans are very polite, even when they don’t particularly want to be. They turn and leave.
Wen Qing rolls her eyes and shouts after them before they make the gate: “Close the door next time, it’s cold out there!” She makes sure to rattle the door in its track as she slams it shut. “Idiots.” She turns back to the kitchen, wondering if she’s going to turn into a batty old witch already . She had always planned to make the transition eventually, but twenty-three seems a bit young for it...
But she has food, and—when she lifts the cover of the tray—a ewer of juice, as well. It has piney-sharp juniper berries tumbling around in its depths, but a tentative sip reveals that it is mostly pear. The combination’s not bad, though, for all its sharpness. Sometimes even Cloud Recesses gets food right.
She eats. She cleans: her dishes, her robes, and then, once she’s done scrubbing out the tub from doing the laundry in it, herself. She wraps herself in the over-large towels and lounges decadently naked in the living room. She reads for a bit. Zhao Handsome and Sun Beauty meet and fall in love, and go for a walk with a sudden geographical digression which Wen Qing strongly suspects is a euphemism.
By now it is fully dark, and the bird sounds outside have switched from the coos of songbirds to the hoots of owls.
She goes to bed.
She lies awake on a stranger’s mattress and wonders how long this stage of her life will last. She is safe for now, but what about once they discover her pregnancy? Unless she can switch out her food delivery team for a blind one, they’re going to notice sooner or later. Will they believe the baby is Lan Wangji’s? How many times will she have to exchange the stiffest kisses in all of history with him before people believe they’re in love?
And what about her people? Are they warm enough in the Visiting Student Dormitories? Wen Qing remembers those from her long-ago year spent studying here; they were pleasantly appointed—for GusuLan—but always chilly. Do her people have enough firewood? Are they being brought food? And if so, are they asphyxiating from the natural result of too many people eating nothing but cabbage?
She groans and rolls over on the bed, pressing a pillow down over her face. At least she only has to smell her own farts.
Questions for another day, she reminds herself. Specifically, questions to ask Lan Wangji on some other day, since she can’t exactly know the answers herself. There’s no use working herself up about them now.
She props the pillow behind her head again and shuts her eyes, breathing with determined steadiness until her body understands and begins to quiet.
One day down.
One day turns into two.
The girl disciple is there again in the morning, her silent follower gripping the hilt of his sword like maybe Wen Qing hid an explosive talisman amidst her now-clean dishes. Wen Qing eyes the girl cynically and decides to give it at least one more visit before she asks her name. She wouldn’t want to rush things, after all.
Breakfast is a couple pieces of fresh fruit (which Wen Qing will save for later), roasted potatoes in a rich gravy, fresh greens tossed in vinegar and soy, and rice, with a little dish of beans-and-cabbage cooked to caramelized sweetness in brown sauce. Not bad. And to top it all off, the whole thing is still warm when it reaches her. There’s more fruit juice and soybean milk, too. No tea, though; maybe because it would spill on the long walk down, or because they just hate her and don’t want her to have tea, who knows. Whatever, Wen Qing still gives the girl a too-sweet smile as she hands over the tray from last night, even if the one this time does look pretty okay.
She leaves the tray in the kitchen and takes the soybean milk, along with Zhao Handsome and Sun Beauty, out to the garden with her. The thin Gusu sunlight is out in full force today, and she intends to enjoy it. And if the garden is more likely to afford her early warning if someone comes out to her little house-cum-prison, well...
Who do you think you’re fooling, Wen Qing?! You are pregnant and hungry and alone in a hostile land, and you have painted yourself into a corner so that there isn’t much you can do now about any of it.
Well, that’s not quite true. She sips her soybean milk and feels foolish. There, now she’s just pregnant and alone, instead. Much better.
At least I’m still smarter than Sun Beauty.
She raises the book to her face and determinedly tries again to loose herself in the narrative and the scent of gentians.
An hour later she is waving the book around and shouting at the flowers, because—halfway through an impassioned speech on Zhao Handsome’s sterling qualities, where the author might have been assured a digression would not be noticed—Sun Beauty has suddenly begun speaking of a cultivation technique for weaving a firetrap into fabric, like a talisman that will not be activated until it is worn.
The academic work is incredibly well-hidden, here in this terrible novel, and it’s an intriguing bit of cultivation, too—not least because it draws so heavily from QishanWen techniques. In this day and age, those are all but forgotten; even Wen Qing herself barely uses them except to start her fires now and then. She stands amid the gentians and turns the book around, staring at its unassuming cover.
Who did the Lan clan imprison here before her?!
She puts the book aside. She eats the rest of her breakfast—except the pear, which she puts obstinately in the bowl beside the chestnuts—and pours boiling water over the orange rind for tea. She puts an inch of cinnamon stick, scavenged from the cupboard and probably older than she is, in with the orange rind, too.
It’s not bad. It’s also not real tea. Wen Qing’s head pounds.
She cleans her second set of robes, then scrapes out the tub and takes another bath. Why not? She hasn’t anything else to do with her day. The hot water feels incredible, and she almost takes a nap right there. Only barely does she manage to drag herself up and off to bed where she can be assured of not drowning.
When she wakes, she doesn’t bother to dress or leave the bed, and she suddenly has an idea of why all the books are in this room. She picks one at random and flips it open, and three hours later is rewarded by the otherwise-idiotic heroine spouting off into a cultivation treatise on the proper way of banishing fey spirits. It’s decent technique, but less niche than the other book. Wen Qing tosses it aside and gets out of bed.
That night, when they bring dinner, the man comes to the door, as well. He is carrying Wen Qing’s lantern, and glares daggers at her as he passes it over.
“Thank you,” Wen Qing says, then turns to the girl. “And thank you for dinner.” The girl looks a lot more steady, now, less actively hostile now that Wen Qing has failed to murder her a couple of times. Wen Qing weighs the risks and decides to be a bit reckless. She asks, “How is my husband?”
Their faces close down. The boy turns on his heel and leaves, and the girl—Wen Qing blinks in surprise— actually bows before following in his footsteps.
What was that? Was that a... good sign? Or a very bad one?
And whichever it is, how will Wen Qing find out what it means?
She sighs and takes her doubtlessly cabbage-filled dinner inside.
Two days down.
Two days become three. The girl’s name is Chen Zhelan, the boy is Lan Baoyi. Lan Baoyi keeps his distance, but Chen Zhelan proves to be friendly enough once she knows Wen Qing won’t eat her. She tells Wen Qing that her people are sitting tight in the Visiting Disciple Dormitories until the sect leader returns; that is sensible enough that Wen Qing accepts it with a nod. Then she tells her that Lan Wangji has received his punishment and has been returned to isolation. Her face is gray and shamefaced, but whatever the punishment may have been Chen Zhelan refuses to say another word more.
Wen Qing stops herself from taking the girl by the shoulders and shaking. It will not make any words fall out.
As if in apology, dinner that night includes rich orange-fleshed yams, pan-seared and tossed with a little five-spice rub; greens stewed with salt so that they lose their bitterness; raw sprouts and pickled onion tossed with cilantro and crunchy raw pepper; more fresh berries; and, gloriously, a little dish of roast chestnuts wrapped in tofu skin, fried and soaked in syrup.
And a salad. Made of cabbage.
But it’s the same kind of salad Lan Wangji looked so happy to see in Mountain Mists Town, so maybe this is part of the apology, too.
Wen Qing forces a smile and carries it inside.
Today she does gardening, forcing her body to bend and work, tearing weeds from among the flowers and trimming back shoots so that the flowers put out more buds, raking dirt and crafting supports for the tall climbing roses by the back wall, until her body is exhausted. This time she does fall asleep in the bath, and only wakes when Chen Zhelan pounds on her door.
She thinks about staying awake to read, then shakes her head and goes to bed before the sunlight has completely faded from the sky.
Three days done.
How many more days stretch out ahead of her, interchangeable in their emptiness?
On the eighth day, Wen Qing slides open the door at the usual knock and Chen Zhelan looks terrified again, because this time the man with her isn’t her classmate, Lan Baoyi.
Instead, it’s Lan Xichen.
I do actually fuckin' love cabbage. No cabbages were harmed in the making of this chapter.
Me: Oh yay, last chapter of this arc, let's knock it out quick!
Also me: *writes the longest chapter yet, at 8,700 words*
I couldn't get going on this for the longest time, and then I switched POV characters and suddenly it was the easiest thing in the world. It turns out that Lan Xichen has quite a lot of thoughts about things! Also, he may be slightly different from his characterization in canon; I feel like we don't really see much of him to get a handle on, but he's obviously a good sect leader, so I extrapolated some based on that.
Also also, I want someone else to write me 90,000 words about the epic adventures of Lan Xichen's mom.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Wen Qing slams the door in his face.
A second later she opens it again. “Sorry, sorry! I don’t know what happened, I think the door slipped in its track!” She bows, formal, her hands in front of her face, and Lan Xichen reaches out hastily to stop her.
She’s his sister now. Isn’t she? Wangji says she is, anyway, and that should be good enough. It isn’t right for a sister to bow to her brother like that.
Lan Xichen tries to smile at her, assuage the obvious startlement he has caused. His smiles feel worn thin on his face these days, but this one, at least, seems to work. “Please, Wen Qing, nothing like that.” He gestures at poor scared Chen Zhelan, who carries her tray like it’s the only thing staving off her execution. “I would hate to intrude, but I must humbly ask—would you allow me to join you for breakfast?”
His tone is mild, his gestures restrained. There is nothing to put that expression of baffled defensiveness on her face.
In spite of her reservations, however, she accedes to his request, taking the tray from Chen Zhelan. Lan Xichen pretends not to notice the way Disciple Chen mouths the words “thank you!” at Wen Qing before bowing quickly to each of them and running away up the mountain.
Lan Xichen keeps his smile in place and waits quietly. Visiting the Wen Sect Leader would have been one of his tasks today anyway, but hearing that she was now married to his brother... There is no possibility that Lan Wangji— Hanguang-jun— would lie about this, and yet... Lan Xichen knows Lan Wangji as quite possibly no one else in the world does, and he is certain of this: Lan Wangji is not in love with this woman. Lan Wangji is not in love with any woman; in fact, he is in love with Wei Wuxian, and has been for years, possibly from the day—and the night—when the two first met.
But then, Wei Wuxian was Wen Qing’s former friend and protector. Could he have been in love with her, and Lan Wangji has married her for his sake, a sort of three-handed ghost marriage...? Lan Xichen desperately hopes not. His brother deserves so much better than that.
At any rate, something in this situation is false. But that is not necessarily a condemnation; “falsehood is only acceptable in the service of higher ends,” rule two thousand, one hundred thirty-nine. If there is in fact such a higher end at hand, then Lan Xichen is prepared to be complicit.
Wen Qing nods, grave and formal. She turns with careful graciousness and leads him into the Jingshi, which looks...
Lan Xichen pauses for a second, looking around.
It hasn’t changed at all.
There is his mother’s old fruit bowl, sitting on the low table where it always did. Pears, loquats, and—where did this come from? They don’t grow around here—one lonely chestnut sit in it now, rather than the cherries and plums his mother preferred, but still: it’s the same blue-sided bowl. The cushions in the window seat are the same ones his mother embroidered while she was pregnant with Wangji. Lan Xichen can still remember sitting beside her and watching the needle pass in and out, in and out of the fabric...
“A-Huan, this is just like cultivation! You must take it one stitch at a time. And, if you do not practice the basics, your larger efforts won’t work at all... See? If I couldn’t make small, tidy stitches, I wouldn’t be able to craft the image!”
Lan Xichen’s throat closes up. He had thought this visit would be businesslike, a straightforward conversation in which he questioned his brother’s new... wife? Apparently? ...and then went on his way. He did not expect—although now he cannot think why it is a surprise—that he would blindsided with reminiscences, memory after memory sweeping over him.
“A-Huan...! Would you like to hear a story about the stars?”
He coughs and follows Wen Qing toward the kitchen, where she stands on her tiptoes to take down a pair of cups. The water pot for tea is on the fire, the same one his mother always used... The spoon rest is on the counter, and the same leaky-unless-you-push-it-hard spigot drips into a bucket in the corner...
Lan Xichen blinks, but Wen Qing already has the cups in hand by the time he realizes he should reach them for her.
...How on Earth can Wangji be married to this person? He’d get a crick in his neck just from trying to kiss her! But perhaps that thought is unfair; Lan Xichen’s brother is pure of both heart and spirit, so doubtless he has more important motives for this elopement than mere kisses.
Or maybe, whispers the small voice that always sounds like Wei Wuxian, they just find a set of steps.
Wen Qing peels the oranges she has taken off the tray and drops the peels into the teapot, then adds a broken-off piece of cinnamon and pours in the water.
“Look, a flute!” Mother holds the cinnamon stick to her lips and blows, moving her fingers as if playing a tune on it.
“A flute, a flute!” Young Lan Huan grabs a stick in chubby fingers and blows rashly into its hole. He doesn’t get a tune, but his mother’s laughter is still musical around him.
Lan Xichen shakes off the memory and plants a smile on his face. “Do you not drink tea?”
She slams the lid on the teapot with perhaps more force than she intended. “I do not have tea,” she corrects him tetchily. Her eyes shoot over to him, and her shoulders hunch defensively. She adds, “...Sect Leader,” in a tardy show of propriety.
Lan Xichen shrugs. He would hardly want his new sister to call him “Sect Leader,” but he isn’t completely sure she’s truly his new sister. He doesn’t mention it, either way. “Why do you not have tea?”
Her eyebrows arch upward, then jerk down sharply. Her mouth thins, but her answer this time is more polite. “We couldn’t afford it, Sect Leader—we did have a small stash, but that will be with the rest of my people. I didn’t carry any in my own pack.”
Come to think of it, when he visited her people earlier this morning, they weren’t drinking any, either. It hadn’t been meal-time, so he hadn’t noticed the lack. But—
“Why didn’t you request some? Surely Chen Zhelan will supply you with everything you need!”
“Oh, you think so?!”
Lan Xichen marks his words; Wen Qing is too angry, right now, for this to be as simple as it appears, too irate at his simple suggestion that she ask for any needed supplies. It can only mean such a request has already, somehow, gone awry.
He reminds himself, again, that his brother stood in front of their entire clan and declared this woman to be his wife. He would not have done that if she had been unworthy.
That too-clever voice in his mind says nothing, but only snickers in his mental ear. Lan Xichen grits his teeth.
Wen Qing carries the teapot and cups back to the table. He follows her silently and takes his seat on the side, realizing too late that he has automatically taken his seat of many years past—next to her, rather than across from her. She blinks at him in confusion. Simultaneously, they both try to rise, shuffling around the table in some sort of crab-like dance before he settles once more into his previous position and she kneels down gracefully—warily—across from him. Lan Xichen fights off the ghosts of memory that sit with them as the process of serving resumes.
“A-Huan, won’t you eat your pickle?”
“Mama, I don’t like it!”
“Ah, but a pickle is the bravest of foods!” Mama has long fingers, and they dance over his belly, tickling him. A-Huan laughs, and a-Zhan, across from him, giggles too, although he isn’t even the one being tickled.
A-Zhan always was a noisy sort of infant. Lan Xichen hasn’t remembered that, not in years—in decades, most likely. By the time a-Zhan was three years of age he had almost stopped speaking entirely, so it was easy to forget. In fact, in all these years, it is only now occurring to Lan Xichen to wonder why exactly he had changed.
“A pickle will last when all other foods have spoiled,” Mama is saying, “and the strong taste makes us bold! Eat your pickle, please, a-Huan; as a future Sect Leader, you must be bold!”
“I apologize,” he blurts, “I didn’t mean to discommode you. It is only—”
Wen Qing has large, dark, doe-like eyes, but they are too clever for him not to quail before them.
Eat your pickle, a-Huan!
“This was always where I sat when I came here—before,” he finishes. “I suppose it was... habit, of a sort.”
“Before,” she repeats. Then she scowls. “What before? I thought this house was a prison—why would you be in prison?”
Now it is Lan Xichen’s turn to raise his eyebrows. “Wangji didn’t tell you?”
Wen Qing has served out the rice and stew, leaving the other dishes for more courses. She passes him a bowl. “Tell me what? And no.” Her face twists again, but the expression this time is fond, a friendly sort of exasperation which both surprises and pleases Lan Xichen. Perhaps this is a real marriage? Wen Qing smiles wryly. “It’s not his habit to tell much of anything.”
True enough. Lan Xichen smiles, not quite so thinly this time as he did before, and explains. “This was once our mother’s house.”
“Your mother!” Wen Qing’s bowl slaps down onto the table. “The woman who lived here before me was your mother?” She blinks as a thought strikes her and looks even more incredulous. “She was the GusuLan Sect Leader’s wife?”
“Yes, and very unhappy about it.” He’s going to have to tell her the whole story now, obviously. Damn it, Lan Wangji, why did you leave this to me? But perhaps it is better this way; Wangji is some years younger than Lan Xichen, and his memories of that time must be, at best, vague.
Lan Xichen bows a quick thanks for the food, but sets his bowl down. Long habit prevents speaking and eating at the same time, and he has quite a bit of speaking to do. “She was a formidable cultivator, and our father fell in love with her right away, but the last thing she wanted was to be the wife of a Sect Leader. He persuaded her to marry him because our grandfather was still alive at the time—and seemed likely to stay that way for many years to come. Our father said that he would build her a home on the outskirts of Cloud Recesses, and they could live there quietly. They could go on night hunts together and be happy.
“It’s important that you know, my mother didn’t love my father. He was infatuated with her, but while she enjoyed his presence, she did not return his passion. This is not a secret; anyone who saw them together knew at once.
“But although she didn’t love him, as cultivation partners, they were the most successful in the land. No hunt was too dangerous—and it was her favorite thing to go on night hunts, to bring peace to villagers plagued by demons, monsters, and the like. That was how they met, even. So when he promised her that they would simply be cultivators together, she agreed to become his partner.”
Wen Qing is staring at him, her food forgotten. Distractedly she pours him a cup of the thin orange-cinnamon tisane, staring into space as she slides it across to him.
“My thanks,” he says, wetting his throat with one sip, and then a longer gulp. He puts the cup down, staring into it where the cinnamon chips swirl, and sighs. “Unfortunately, their happy marriage—here in this house—it couldn’t last forever. Wangji was still a babe in the womb when my Grandfather died. That was when the trouble began.
“Our father became the new Sect Leader, and demanded she move up to the Frigid Room with him. She refused, saying she would rather become a rogue cultivator than a Sect Leader’s wife. But he was still in love with her, so he sent his most loyal servant, Chen Ruqiang, to bring me up to the main hall, reasoning that she would never leave me behind.” Chen Ruqiang was a clever and compassionate man, as unlike Lan Xichen’s stiff father as Lan Xichen is unlike Lan Wangji. His granddaughter is Chen Zhelan, who is one of the most capable disciples in the current class.
“Nobody knows what really happened that night, but by the break of dawn, Chen Ruqiang was dead by her hand. The Elders demanded that my father divorce her or take a second wife; he refused. He built himself a second house and locked himself away. I was taken to my Uncle Qiren to raise, and my brother as well, once he was born. My mother was imprisoned here.
“We were allowed to visit her once a month,” he finishes. “It was the best day of the month, every time.” Lan Xichen takes another long drink of his tisane, thirsty after all that talking, and then, at last, takes up his chopsticks to try the stew. It’s a good excuse to avert his face for a while.
He can feel her gaze on him, regardless. It’s like too-warm pressure of the sun on a hot day. He resists the urge to flap his robes against his chest.
Her hand still holds her teacup, forgotten in midair. As he delicately picks mushrooms out, chewing each one and swallowing, he watches that cup out of the corner of his eye. A minute passes, and then, slowly, it lowers back down to the table.
She coughs, then speaks:
“What. The fuck.”
Lan Xichen chokes on a mushroom.
In the chaos of coughing and handwaving and concerned shouting that follows—him, both of them, and her, respectively—he almost manages to get away with it, but she calms down ever so slightly faster than he does, and so she catches him in the act.
She jumps up from her seat again. “Hey!” She points accusingly at him. “You’re laughing!”
That, of course, sets him off again, and he sags over the table, chuckling uncontrollably. “It isn’t funny,” he tries to say, “I apologize—”
But all that comes out is hopeless, exhausted laughter, like the breaking of a dam after days, weeks of cold rain and ice-melt overflowing the lake. It’s the sort of laughter which is only a finger’s-length away from sobbing, the sort of hysterical fit that overtakes you when the only other choice is screaming.
Come to think of it, he is truly grateful for release. He looks up, ready to thank her—
She sits across from him, face tight, obviously struggling not to burst. She makes a noise that sounds like a player hiccuping into a suona, then jumps to her feet for a third time. “Excuse me,” she squeaks, and runs through the door to her bedroom.
It’s a good attempt to maintain decorum, but the thin walls do nothing to muffle her giggles.
When they have both finished laughing and wiped the tears from their eyes—barring a false alarm when she starts to return to the family room, only to catch sight of him, bug her eyes out, and leap hurriedly back around the wall again—they go back to brunch.
They have both finished the rice and stew, and Lan Xichen gratefully accepts as she pours them both cups of the cool soybean milk and serves them up the dumplings. She doesn’t portion out the Pucker Sauce, he notices, and makes a tentative gesture towards it; she ducks her head and hastily passes it over. He drips some over his dumplings and then passes it back as if he hasn’t noticed—well, it is a local delicacy, and an acquired taste; perhaps she has not acquired it yet. A little bit drips on the edge of his plate, and he wipes it off with his napkin, thinking as he watches the deep green liquid sink into the linen.
The dynamic between them has changed, now, transmuted by their mutual hilarity. Although it is still difficult to imagine Wen Qing as Lan Wangji’s wife, it is much easier to imagine her as Lan Xichen’s sister.
“Mama, mama! Uncle Chen says that’s my new baby brother in there! Is that true?!”
Laughter, and a hand ruffling his hair. “It may be true. Or, it may be your new little sister in there, instead! How would you feel about that!”
Dancing eyes joke with him over steady fingers making tiny stitches in a pillowcase. A-Huan gasps in pure, childish delight. “MAMA! That would be even BETTER!”
That’s right, he forgot: when Lan Xichen was a child, he wanted nothing more than a little sister to laugh with him! He’s not sure how he feels about finally getting his wish at this late age. He’s not sure, either, how he feels about getting his wish, only for the sister in question to be one of the sect’s enemies.
He’s going to have to figure that out.
“So,” he says, tucking his napkin back in place, smiling pleasantly to blunt the edges of his words, “I understand you and Wangji are married now.”
She swallows, then takes a gulp of her tisane like she’s throwing back a shot of strong liquor. “Yes,” she lies gamely, “we’re deeply in love.”
“How wonderful! When did that happen?” He lifts a dumpling to his mouth, but doesn’t close his eyes even to savor the delicious contrast of silky-soft dumpling skin with the bitter, herb-based Pucker Sauce.
“It was a very long trip from the Burial Mounds,” she answers, which is both true in the literal sense and utterly false in context. She lifts a dumpling to her mouth as if daring him to comment, but then her eyes soften. She lowers it and speaks again. “He’s one of the most honorable men I know—and the only one who was willing and daring enough to aid my people. I couldn’t really see myself falling in love with—with any other man alive.” She looks down at her plate, smiling softly at the dumplings, and then her mouth twists. She flicks a calculating look in his direction.
And, well... That is rather telling, isn’t it? Or at least, it is if one knows what Lan Xichen knows, and suspects what he suspects...
He sets down his chopsticks. Favor plain speech over circumlocution: rule one thousand three. “It didn’t bother either of you that he was in love with someone else?”
She narrows her eyes. “Would you like some more tea, big brother?”
“You don’t have tea!” Lan Xichen inclines his head, acknowledging the loss of control as a point to her, then rallies his straying emotions. He has a smile again by the time he raises his face. “I must apologize for that oversight. You never did say—why didn’t they bring you some when you asked?”
She gives him back a smile just as fake as his own. “Because I didn’t ask.” Her voice has an edge as fine and as delicate as Shuoyue’s. Lan Xichen’s is already smiling, so it harms nothing that he feels a shock of joy now. This is—this is sparring, a playful fight, as truly as if they were down in the practice yard! He remembers that first heavy snow after he learned to ride the sword, sledding down the side of the mountain, going too fast, too fast, but the exhilaration—! This feels a little something like that.
He never gets to do this anymore; he hasn’t for years. Nie Mingjue is too serious, Jin Guangyao too kind... For a while in his youth Lan Xichen was able to find something similar in the academic discussions with Lan Wangji, but even then, there was never this edge. Do not flaunt your gifts, say the rules, Be generous with your counsel. Use appropriate deference. Do not debate when the answer may be readily determined through action... Those and a hundred more injunctions prohibit him from this sort of play. The last time he was able to truly fly, to truly throw his wits joyfully against another’s—
—well, he was sitting at this table.
He hides a smile in his teacup and waits.
Wen Qing catches his expression and wrinkles her nose. “They wouldn’t give me paper,” she says, eventually filling his deliberately provoking silence, “nor a brush. They said such tools could be used to form talismans.”
“Come to think of it, they said the same thing to my mother.” He suddenly remembers his mother swearing she would only use these supplies to write novels, not anything related to cultivation. The next time he came, there had been a stack of three books on the edge of the table, all in his mother’s florid script, but she had swept them out of his hands and put them up on a high shelf. “They’re not the kind of novels for eight-year-olds,” she explains with a laugh. “You can read them when you’re older—if you still want to!” “I suppose it wasn’t unreasonable, given her skill in cultivation.”
She shakes her head and gives him a flat look. “They wouldn’t give me medicinal ingredients, either. Even something as harmless as willowbark—they said I could make poisons.”
Lan Xichen hums thoughtfully. “Were you not once considered the greatest doctor of our generation? I am quite certain you could make poisons... But even so, such stringency does seem over-cautious.”
“They wouldn’t even give me information,” she tells him ruthlessly.
He pauses. “Oh?”
This syllable is not a parry. It is a single, last, desperate attempt at a defense, and she slides neatly in underneath it, ending the game with a kill: “I still don’t know where Lan Wangji is.”
And there it is. Such a refusal is blatantly, appallingly inappropriate.
“I asked them where he is, I asked them how he is, but they won’t tell me! My own husband—”
Her hand sweeps out sideways, then clenches into a fist and presses hard against her breast. “I know there must have been some punishment; he disobeyed your principles, an example must be made—fine. He knew it was coming, and so did I. We were prepared. But that was over a week ago, and I haven’t seen him since! Where is he? How is he? What is going on?”
The spar is over. This is not banter, now, this is truth. She is begging him—this proud, competent woman—because she is desperate to know Lan Wangji’s condition.
In this moment, there is no way to look at Wen Qing and conclude that she doesn’t care. Lan Xichen came out here today to learn the truth of his brother’s marriage, and it is clear now before him.
He stands and moves over to the window.
He sat at this window often, as a child. Even before Wangji was born, Lan Xichen would sit here, because the window overlooks the mountain slope and so has an unobstructed view of the sky.
“A-Huan...! Would you like to hear a story about the stars?”
Outside, thin clouds are whipping across the sky, like the sun a dancer and they are her veils. You can’t see the stars during the day, of course; their beauty goes unnoticed, blending in against the white sky. It is only when the world is dark that men consider the stars precious.
His mother spent the last six years of her life locked up here, her home turned into a prison because the man who loved her wasn’t able to let go. She had a reputation as a wicked woman, and she had suffered the consequences—but in fact, she wasn’t a wicked woman at all. In many ways, she was like Lan Wangji: eager to help, impatient with politics, so skilled at cultivation that she intimidated those around her... and, critically, she was too skeptical of those in power to accept their dictates unthinkingly.
“You remind me of her a lot,” he muses aloud, and this, too, is true. Wen Qing is brilliant, strong-willed, beautiful, and fierce. She is too blunt for diplomacy, but she is her people’s leader, anyway, because it needed to be done. And—Lan Xichen remembers the gratitude in Chen Zhelan’s eyes—she is kind, although she is not soft.
Lan Wangji could do much worse than a wife who resembles him in so many respects.
Zewu-jun makes his decision. “My brother has been sentenced to two years of isolation, beginning once he has recovered. As Sect Leader, I believe it is right that he spend those two years here, with you—and your own isolation will end when his does.”
Wen Qing could well have been isolated her for the entire rest of her life, and without even her husband to talk to; this is clearly a mercy, and her soft “thank you” clearly shows that she understands this. He hasn’t said this, but it is also obvious that Wen Qing is befriending the juniors who show up at her door, and Zewu-jun has no intention of putting a stop to that practice, either. Nor will he curtail her studies as they did his mother. Let Wen Qing’s isolation be gentle, rather than maddeningly cold.
He nods softly to himself at the justice of this. Yes, it is the equivalent of throwing up his hands and retreating, but—it also feels apt.
Lan Wangji has made this bed; he will simply have to lie with her.
“Wait,” she says suddenly, “what do you mean, when he has recovered?”
Lan Xichen flew in last night from Lanling, a long flight in the wrong direction for the wind and with a soaking rainstorm on the way. He arrived cold, wet, and exhausted, but still, the first thing he did after hearing the news was go visit Lan Wangji.
It was a short visit, as his brother was not well. He is even worse this morning.
Wen Qing rushes immediately to his side, dropping to her knees beside his bed. “What is she doing here?!” demands Huo Rong, the chief surgeon of the GusuLan sect.
Lan Xichen fixes him with a look that speaks loudly of his disappointment at Huo Rong’s conduct. “She is visiting her husband—under my supervision,” he says evenly, and as distracted as she is, Wen Qing still looks up wide-eyed at this show of support. Did she really think I would betray her after escorting her here?
Her hands hover over Lan Wangji’s bare back, but she knows better than to touch. He is far too wounded to cover with even so much as a blanket, and the hospital room is stiflingly hot as a result of their efforts to keep him warm. The discipline whip leaves marks far more like burns than lacerations, and so it is useless to bandage the wounds. His back glistens with clear pus; blisters rise, and break, and rise again.
The surgeons dress Lan Wangji’s back with cool, clean water every fifteen minutes, and a healing poultice every two hours. The only other thing they can do is pray.
Wen Qing kneels tenderly by Wangji’s face, whispering fervent sentences to him and stroking the hair away from his face. Lan Xichen can’t hear her words, but her expression is agonizing. He catches Huo Rong’s eye and jerks his head backwards; and when Huo Rong looks reluctant, he physically takes the older man by the arm and escorts him to the next room of the pavillion.
“Sect Leader,” Huo Rong protests, his voice an indignant whisper that will not carry back into the surgery, “you can’t mean to trust her alone with him?!”
“Can you explain to me why we should not?” Lan Xichen looks at the man sadly, and keeps his voice mild rather than snapping. It was rather pleasant to be able to snap back and forth with Wen Qing this morning, but Huo Rong is an excellent example of why he should not inculcate such a habit.
He sighs and looks back at the doorway, thinking of the way Wen Qing staggered back at the entrance to the surgery, shock and horror spreading across her face. He sees again the despair in her small frame as she fell to her knees, the way even her robes seemed to trail behind her as if they didn’t want to believe Lan Wangji’s condition. Does Huo Rong truly think this is the behavior of a woman who would do harm to her husband?
Apparently not: he says nothing.
They stand in the surgery supply room, surrounded by gleaming steel tools with threatening appearances. Lan Xichen stares at the bonesaws and trepanation drills and waits, listening, for the indistinct whispers to quiet. And if there are occasional hiccups or sobs mixed in among those whispers, well... He pretends not to hear them.
Wen Qing is on her feet when they re-enter the surgery at last, standing straight-backed and proud beside the bed. Her cheeks have wet streaks on them, but the fire in her eyes dares either one of them to comment.
She focuses on Huo Rong. “Sect Leader. Who is this man?”
Lan Xichen smiles, unable to help it despite the circumstances. She looked so surprised when I defended her earlier, but now she immediately does the same thing for me? By calling him Sect Leader, she is acknowledging his authority and putting herself under his command; there could be no greater assistance for Lan Xichen’s efforts to incorporate the remainder of the Wen sect into his own. So he smiles, and makes the introduction: “New little sister, this is Huo Rong. Huo Rong is our chief of surgery, here.”
She snorts. “Why? He’s an idiot!”
...Belatedly, Lan Xichen remembers that Wen Qing is the greatest doctor of their generation, and also that she is renowned for her skill, not her manners.
“How dare you!” Huo Rong blusters. His hands fist at his sides. “Don’t you know who I am?!”
“Yes, I just said: you’re an idiot. Grease-based poultice, really? Did you use bear grease for it, or did you just descend all the way down into hell and use rendered fat from raccoons?” She takes a single step closer to the middle-aged surgeon, her dark eyes glowing like a threat. “I’ll turn it around for you: do you know who I am?”
She isn’t being loud. Earlier, when she was demanding to know what had happened to Lan Wangji, then she was loud, but now she speaks in a level, matter-of-fact voice.
Huo Rong, sadly, is not perceptive enough to notice.
“You’re that Wen-dog whore who seduced Hanguang-jun,” he answers hotly, “and how dare you come into my surgery and call me names?!”
“My name is Wen Qing.” She takes another step closer to him. “Tell me, have you ever read Methods of Preparation of Shelf-Stable Salves using Rendered Wine as a Solvent?”
“Of course I have, you—”
Huo Rong stops mid-sentence. His face, already pale, blanches to nearly the color of rice water.
“What about Refinements of Common Products Towards More Readily Available Ingredients? It has several suggestions for ingredient substitutions which can allow a sect to produce larger batches, and the burn cream in particular is also much more effective than the standard recipe.”
Now it’s Huo Rong’s turn to take a step—backwards, towards the doorway. Wen Qing glances to the side, studying Lan Wangji with a clinical gaze, all her previous fear shoved down to allow analysis.
She shakes her head in disappointment. Huo Rong flinches.
“You’ve left the wound open, at least. I take it you’re familiar with Treatments of Cuts, Burns, and Blunt Force Trauma in Humble People.”
“It’s—It’s the most basic, fundamental work there is on the subject, of course I—”
“That’s because it was written almost two decades ago,” Wen Qing hisses, her anger boiling over at last. “I was seven years old when I compiled that tome from my father’s notes, and you’ve still managed to fumble the treatment! A literal child could have done better, and I know because I was that child!”
Lan Xichen raises his eyebrows slightly, but otherwise keeps his expression neutral. When Huo Rong throws him a desperate look, Lan Xichen offers neither comfort nor condemnation.
Huo Rong turns on his heel and runs from the pavillion.
Running is not allowed in Cloud Recesses.
...Why are such mental comments always in Wei Wuxian’s voice?!
“Right,” Wen Qing says grimly. She shoves back her sleeves to the elbows. “Now, where does he keep his medical supplies?”
She starts work right away, making her way around the workspace, poking into cabinets to find the materials she needs. She lights the fire with a single, two-fingered gesture and scours the inside of a hand-cauldron with another. Lan Xichen never realized how much heat-control played a part in the formation of medicines, but in retrospect it seems obvious. After all, aren’t many common ailments caused by too much or too little heat in the body? Wen Sect cultivation must flow very naturally into medical practice.
She picks up jar after jar of ingredients, measuring them by eye with quick, precise gestures. Soon Lan Xichen can smell the mixture simmering in the hand-cauldron, like an acerbic mix of pine and cheap wine. His eyes water, and he can’t see how Wen Qing can possibly smell anything else, but she’s sniffing her way along a row of jugs as if assessing them for quality. She reaches the end of the row without selecting one, and is frowning deeply when the door slams open and Huo Rong stumbles back inside.
He has a large jar with him, and it makes a full-sounding clunk beside him as he drops to his knees. He starts to speak, but cuts himself off again when Wen Qing scoops up the jar and lifts the lid. She stares into it for a second, then asks, “Where was it?”
“Kitchens,” Huo Rong pants. “I am so sorry, doctor, I didn’t think—because they were substitutions, I assumed such remedies would be less effective, not more, so I—”
She nods briskly, cutting him off. “You’re in time; there’s plenty here for the poultice base.”
Just like that, Huo Rong seems to be forgiven. Lan Xichen scouts out an undisturbed corner where neither of them seems inclined to work, then lowers himself to the floor in a meditation pose with his back to the wall.
He has other things to do this morning than sit here in this too-warm, astringently-scented room, but he cannot leave Wen Qing here alone: she is, nominally at least, under his supervision. (There is also the matter of whether Huo Rong’s earlier hostility has been completely negated by Wen Qing’s obvious competence. But firstly, Huo Rong’s character is such that Lan Xichen strongly suspects it has, and secondly, Wen Qing is quite capable of speaking in her own defense.) But this, too, can be considered evidence in Wen Qing’s case, and besides which it benefits none of them to deny Wangji the excellent care she is in the process of providing. So Lan Xichen temporarily postpones his visit to his uncle, and to the families of those cultivators killed at the Nightless City two weeks ago, and—
He sits. He folds his legs beneath him. He meditates.
There is time enough for this.
“...Is he snoring?”
“Shhhh, let him sleep. Didn’t you notice the storm last night?”
A masculine chuckle. “You’ll find that sort of storm is common enough here, young—I mean—Doctor Wen.”
“That’s depressing,but you’ve missed my point.”
“He flew in last night, didn’t he? So he had to come through that storm. And Lanling is quite some distance away... Let him sleep!”
“I wouldn’t dream of waking him!”
“Well, good. What have you been using for pain relief?”
A pause. “...Are we sure the Sect Leader is asleep?”
“Do we care? Pain relief: opium, or anti-inflammatory potion?”
Huo Rong makes a sound like stepping in a pile of cat sick. “You have to understand... The punishment in the Second Young Master’s case was extreme; GusuLan Sect does not issue such severe beatings.”
“Apparently, they do.” Dry as the desert, that. And then, sharply: “You’re dodging the question, Surgeon Huo.”
Insistently, “I’m not! But, please... The usual policy has always been, in the case of a whipping with the discipline whip, no pain relief is to be offered, so that the lesson is—”
“If you have kept him all this time without pain relief, I will throw you out of this tent, and also from the top of this mountain!”
“Shh shh shhhhh!!! I haven’t! Of course I haven’t, he’d be dead— but, please, Doctor Wen, you mustn’t tell! If they find out I broke the rules...”
“Doctor Huo, the body suffers even when the mind does not! Leaving him with no pain relief could kill him!”
“I know, I know! Didn’t I say I did? Tincture of opium, well-mixed with cold water and lychee syrup so that it can be drunk more easily, and because the Lan family tend to be sensitive to the solvent.” Huo Rong’s voice is a hoarse whisper, deeply unhappy at being forced to choose between two loyalties. “You must understand, this sort of thing isn’t the usual; the standard rules—”
“With all due respect, my lady...” Huo Rong’s tone is all injured reproof. “...they’re your rules now, too.”
A pause, and then a deep, aggravated sigh. Wen Qing audibly chooses to let the matter go. “Tincture of opium... How much, and how often?”
Huo Rong names a dosage.
“Good enough.” High praise, coming from her. “When he draws nearer to awakening, wean him off it with copious chilling potions... Otherwise, he’ll still have the addiction when he recovers.”
“No need to leave orders for so far in the future; I will be happy to escort you back out here before then.” Lan Xichen opens his eyes after he speaks and looks around the surgery, making no comment on the conversation he has just overheard, nor on the simultaneous guilty jumps the two doctors give. If they think he is going to punish either of them for keeping his brother alive and out of pain, then they have gravely mistaken his character. “How is he?”
“Very poor.” Wen Qing speaks plainly, but with rough anger in her voice. “Such wounds are far more dangerous than most people realize. Even five strikes with the disciplinary whip is enough to kill a weak cultivator; seven strokes slew Fa Wei, who was accounted a moderately-gifted cultivator, albeit of great cleverness and will.”
“But did not Jiang Yongfeng not famously withstand twenty-one strokes on the order of the last Supreme Cultivator Xue?” It is one of the prides of the YunmengJiang sect. Lan Xichen is certain that this was the precedent of which his uncle was thinking when he assigned Wangji’s punishment.
“Two points! One: Jiang clan has the motto, ‘attempt the impossible.’ So if withstanding such punishment were not impossible, why should they be so proud of it? And two...” She bows her head, but somehow manages to make it look less like deference, and more like averting her face in rage. “Twenty-one is not twenty-eight.”
There is no answer Lan Xichen can make to that. He rises to his feet, feeling old and creaky, achy in his joints. He is far too competent a cultivator to truly be aging so quickly, so it seems likely that he is simply tired. And heartsore: between those lost in the hunt for Wen Ning, and those lost in the Nightless City, there were several who Lan Xichen counted friends.
How to tell his friends’ families that their killer’s sister is now his own sister? How to explain that the past must now be the past, and no more vengeance taken—although there are vulnerable enough targets for such revenge, and close by in the Visiting Student Dormitories? How to protect the Wen Clan remnants when some person inevitably disobeys him? And how to punish such a person without being perceived as a traitor to his own clan?
And, having spent so much time now in at Lan Wangji’s bedside, smelling the stench of poultice and pus, praying that his brother lives through this punishment which has been meted out for an action that is, at its heart, based on love... How, how can his face his Uncle?!
He sighs tiredly. “My thanks for your efforts, Lady Wen. May I escort you back to the Jingshi?”
It’s a pretty walk, at least. Last night’s storm has left the flowers and grasses especially vibrant; the mists drift artfully across their path. The fresh air is good, too, after the heat and stickiness of the surgery. It grants perspective, as well as a respite from the smells.
They spend the walk in amiable silence. Lan Xichen walks with his arm tucked properly behind his back; Wen Qing interlaces her fingers in front of her demurely, allowing her sleeves to fall forward and cover them. She walks beside him and slightly ahead, already familiar with the path.
They pass under the lintel gate in a garden of gentians. They are almost out of time. Lan Xichen pauses on the garden path and waits for his new sister to turn, so that he can ask this question to her face.
“Will he make it?”
She is a professional of some years’ experience, and puts a mask on over her features, but Lan Xichen was watching closely, and before the mask, there was softness.
That’s a yes.
“Good. How long until he is recovered?”
No softness this time, but at least there is no guilt, either. “That truly depends,” she answers, “will you let me visit him? If so, how often? May I make poultices and potions for him, or will you rely on Huo Rong? Is someone going to sneak in there and tell him how horrible he is for marrying me, for sheltering us? That would delay his recovery, even if he were not awake to hear them. And does he—?”
She cuts herself off mid-question and turns away, taking two steps up towards the house. She speaks without turning, her voice half-introspective, as if she can’t quite tell another person, yet also can’t quite stand to stay silent. It is a manner which Lan Xichen finds familiar, although it takes him a second to recognize it, perhaps because Wen Qing’s manner is otherwise so different from his brother. Wangji probably finds it rather comforting.
She says, “With so severe a punishment... Do you think Lan Wangji even believes he has anything to live for?”
Lan Wangji has lost much in the past month. If Wen Qing fears that this incident has taken his clan from him, too—well, she would not be entirely mistaken in that belief. Nor is she wrong about the impact on Wangji’s spirits.
Unacceptable, in every regard.
Lan Xichen sidles closer to a particularly lovely stand of flowers which happens to stand at Wen Qing’s elbow. He bends, inspecting the lovely droop of the blooms. “In regards to that last, at least, I think you can of some assistance,” he observes. “Have you told him yet?”
Her hand has crept automatically to her lower abdomen as he alluded to her condition; now she flexes her fingers and drops that same hand to her side. “Gods save me from observant Lans!”
“If you haven’t told him, I strongly suggest that you do so in person, on your next visit. A note could go astray, and the delay between now and then will not be great.”
“He knows,” Wen Qing admits.
Lan Xichen does the math, although really this is more confirmation than discovery. He keeps his conclusions to himself; they will take no benefit from the current pleasant breeze, and should therefore not be aired. “That must be a matter of great import to him,” he says instead, truthfully. “Have you thought of a courtesy name yet?”
She laughs. It is not a good laugh. “I haven’t even thought of a birth name yet. And shouldn’t I leave that up to Lan Wangji?”
“Will he be well enough, by then?” Jiang Yongfeng recovered from twenty-one strokes, but it took him nearly two years to do it. And when Lan Xichen asked for an estimate on Wangji’s recovery earlier, Wen Qing deliberately equivocated.
This time, she does not. “He will be awake,” she promises. “He may not be ready to walk or hold the child at the one-month celebration, but he will be awake to give the boy a name.”
“Then you should ask him. Or—”
The thought comes to him in a rush. It’s a cruel suggestion, but Lan Xichen will voice it anyway. It is like placing the perfect tile in Go, and then taking the whole line of them up, one after another after another: too clever to resist.
(Lan Xichen hides his sharpness as his Uncle Chen taught him, but as his mother taught him, he has never truly filed away his claws.)
“Perhaps, in two months... I take it my brother will still be in much the same condition as he is now...?”
She nods, finally looking at him again.
“In which case... Perhaps, at that point, you might write to my Uncle, and ask his advice on the matter.”
Her eyes widen, and her mouth drops open. For a second she seems on the edge of some loud protest, and then she chokes and turns away once more. She walks towards the cottage, calling over her shoulder as she goes, “You are not as nice as you pretend to be.”
Being seen—as an individual, and not as a Twin Jade—is like diving into a fresh, cold spring on a hot summer’s day. Lan Xichen enjoys the experience for a few seconds, and then reminds himself that one cannot swim all the time. “I consider it an opportunity for self-improvement,” he calls back. “Wen Qing...”
She is on the last step before her doorway when she pauses. She doesn’t turn, but her head tilts toward him, long hair shifting over brown robes like a tide over muddy shores. She waits.
Lan Xichen thinks, ...Brown robes. Damn! How could my people have missed all of these things? Or—did they do it on purpose? He will order a full wardrobe of Lan sect robes delivered, along the tea and paper and medical supplies he is already planning to order. White robes with red accents, perhaps, to honor her heritage...? Or—no, the red would be provocative, and white unflattering on her skintone. Blue, he thinks, dark blue—so dark it is almost black, and then white accents for her inner robes to prevent any argument about whose colors they truly are. And maybe a pale blue set, as well, with a green inner robe? Green is rare in GusuLan sect, but not unheard of, and with the blue and some white will be quite handsome...
He shakes off the thought—he can deal with it later; he will deal with it later. “Your people,” he says instead.
He has her instant attention; she has been waiting for this part of the conversation. She whips around to face him, instantly stiff and tense.
Lan Xichen continues to amble up the path toward her. He might as well have this conversation in speaking range, rather than shouting across the garden. Hopefully the slow pace will prevent her perceiving him as a threat. “I haven’t decided yet what their future is.”
She nods, looking away from him again. “Have you seen them? With your own two eyes, I mean. Have you spoken with them?”
“I have.” Lan Xichen winces. “A charming young man named Wen Yuan would like to know when ‘Xian-gege’ will be returning... But apart from that moment, it was a pleasant enough visit. However, to make a decision without speaking to my people, without hearing what they say... This would not be the action of a leader.” Lan Xichen’s first choice would be to utterly integrate the Wens. There are other clans that their sect has taken in, why not this one? But depending on how deep the hatred goes, how virulent, how durable, such a plan—beneficial as it otherwise may be—might not be feasible. “I can promise you this: they will not be harmed. And this, too: I will visit you promptly once I have made my decision. You will not be kept in suspense again.”
He is standing just below her on the steps, and so he can see her reaction, although she tries not to show it. He can watch her shoulders sag minutely, then pull back upright again; he can tell that her lower lip wobbles before she bites it firmly between her teeth.
He smiles softly at her, sympathetic but not pitying. “I will leave you for now... Supplies will be delivered with your meal this evening. Perhaps it is too late for me to say this, but... Welcome to the family, little sister.”
He turns and leaves before she can get out a response, walking briskly down the steps and up the garden path. He doesn’t want her to feel burdened by his words, doesn’t want her to worry that he is trying to extract some form of payment from her. In truth, he will be benefiting from her presence here, but he doesn’t have to be selfish to do so: it is obvious that so long as he supplies the materials, GusuLan will have the best medical supplies of any sect in the world. But this is still a form of kindness, and he would never wish his new sister to feel obligated. So he strides firmly towards the gate, making his way among the gentians and the gravel path and up towards the rest of the Cloud Recesses.
Just as he is reaching the lintel gate, she calls him back.
“SECT LEADER LAN!”
She is leaning out the door of the Jingshi, bellowing like a fishwife. He feels the smile stretching across his face, and he is turning to skip back up the trail before he has truly made a decision to.
“Such a delight to have a little sister,” he tells her when he can be heard. “How can I help you, a-Qing?”
She ignores in the diminutive and crosses her arms, tilting her face up towards him, as fierce as ever. “You’re right; if it’s a boy, I should ask Lan Qiren, and for the birth name I should ask Lan Wangji. But what if it’s a girl? How should I name my daughter?”
A little girl, with Wen Qing’s big eyes and Lan Wangji’s sober diligence...? Out of nowhere, he can picture her vividly. She would sit quietly with her piles of books, just like Wangji, and look up at him with eyes wide with curiosity. Lan Xichen finds a clench in his chest.
He hasn’t thought of it until this minute, but now he prays for a girl. He tilts his head to the side, but before he can think of anything good for a name Wen Qing says, “If you tell me your mother's clan, I can try for an allusion to that,” and he is so surprised he jerks out of his onslaught of imaginings.
He looks at her and laughs, delighted. “You don’t know?”
She rolls her eyes. “Why would I know your mother's clan?!” she demands. “QishanWen Cultivators never concerned ourselves with knowing everybody’s pedigrees. I barely even know what clan my grandmother was from! So who was it? What was her clan?!”
He chuckles again, letting his eyelids half-shut in sheer, decadent pleasure. He smiles around the knowledge, lets it drop from his lips with oozing glee.
“It was Wen.”
The look! On her face!
“She was much like you: only distantly related to the former Wen Sect Leader, but so skilled that she was brought to court anyway.” Every word is as delicious as a freshly-picked orange. He revels in it. “A different branch of the family than yours, I believe, but still a distant cousin. I’m sure my brother and I would both be delighted to name a daughter after her.”
He bows lightly, treasuring the look on her face all the while, then turns and walks again back up the path to his home.
End Act 2.
Vacation is over, and I'm back to work, so I can't write as much as I did last month. I'm also going to take a little break before starting the next act to plan out how I'm going to write it. I also want to do a couple silly one-shots, so subscribe to my author page for updates on when I post those! They will be... *very* silly. Both of my ideas are stupid as hell, I love them!
I'm a fool. I was so, so wrong. This is not the last third. This is, if I'm LUCKY, the start of the last HALF.
This fic is gonna be so much longer than I expected. I wrote out a little jogged-up summary of what happens in each chapter. The *summary* is over four thousand words long. God help me.
I know, you're all very upset! :P
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The light is coming in at all the wrong angles.
The last thing he remembers, he was in Jin Zixuan’s quarters in Carp Tower. Wasn’t he? Shijie was taking care of him...
Why do his recollections feel wrong? He had been shot; Jin ZiXun’s men had struck him with arrows. He was wounded, and Jin Zixuan took him back to Carp Tower.
A surge of rage takes Wei Wuxian, rising from out of nowhere so that he jerks in surprise. He immediately moans and tries to curl in on himself: moving hurts! Why does he feel so awful?
And then, with a sinking feeling in his stomach, he knows: There’s something I have forgotten. What? What is it?
He raises a hand groggily towards his head, wincing at the burning pains in his arm. He is covered in cuts, he notices in surprise, as if he has been... sacrificed to a demon, or something. What has he forgotten?!
When he rubs his hand down over his face, he gets another surprise: his face is sticky. He looks at his hand; the palm and fingerprints are all white with whatever sticky substance transferred off his skin. What is it? It looks like facepaint, but why would Wei Wuxian be wearing that?
He investigates the building he was sleeping in. Well, “building”—it’s more of a shack. A hut—but it seems to be somebody’s room, regardless. He searches the room—it takes him longer than he would expect given its size, because he is covered in wounds—and finds diary entries from someone named Mo Xuanyu. Mo Xuanyu seems to have a competent mind, but a tragic past: he was the son of Jin Guangshan by a young, humble noblewoman, was acknowledged in by that man in his youth, and was kicked out again after being manipulated by the Jin sect leader.
Wei Wuxian reads that passage again, frowning deeply. Here is something else that doesn’t fit at all: Mo Xuanyu seems to be writing that the leader of the Jin sect is not Jin Guangshan, but Jin Guangyao. Could he have written the character wrong? But “shan” and “yao” are not very similar, so it would be a strange mistake to make by coincidence.
Ahh, he’s so sore! And tired, too; that’s to be expected, since his body is using all its energy to heal his wounds. Without a golden core, it will naturally take him longer—
He stops, realizing what has been bothering him this entire time: he does, in fact, have a golden core.
It’s not a large one! Certainly nothing like what he developed and grew during his youth. Even a mediocre cultivator like Jin ZiXun could take him as he is now... but it’s still a golden core. It’s still there. And since Wen Qing assured him he would never be able to regrow his own golden core, only one possibility remains: this is not his own body.
Wei Wuxian looks around the shack again, but no mirror has magically appeared in the last three minutes since he last looked. He will have to go look for something. Maybe it will jog his memory—
He makes for the door, only to be interrupted when it bursts open and a half-dozen men rush in.
They look angry.
They look... well-armed.
This... probably isn’t going to go well...
An hour later, he is sneaking into Xioaodong Hall and eavesdropping on the conversation as Madam Mo greets the visiting cultivators. By now, Wei Wuxian has figured out what’s going on. Between jogging his terrible memory—he can now recall that terrible night at the Nightless City, can now remember the betrayal and the fear and the loss—and piecing together the information from Mo Xuanyu’s diary, the servants here, and his own form, he has a pretty good picture of why he’s here. So he has to get revenge: well, he’d best find out about all his potential targets, then.
Madam Mo is an interesting piece of work. Wei Wuxian listens to her cooing to the visiting cultivators, half disgusted and half impressed: she’s really trying to turn them up sweet! But she’s using the wrong tactic. These cultivators are all from GusuLan, and everybody knows GusuLan aren’t impressed with anything so banal as mere flattery.
On the other hand, though, they are also all juniors. It’s hard to tell, because in their matching white robes their faces all blur together, but they seem to all be between the ages of sixteen and twenty. There isn’t a single full adult among them, much less an elder. Why, if the years have passed as it seems based on Mo Xuanyu’s diary, then some of these may not have even been born before Wei Wuxian died!
It’s a very strange thought. Remembering your own death is something that no one should have to do; it’s lonely and disorienting. Wei Wuxian shivers, and for a second he’s teetering on the edge of falling into a pit of his own horror—
—but then Madam Mo gives him the perfect entrance, and it’s time to perform some mischief.
He plants his seeds of chaos, steals some liquor, and runs, but he’s doomed to disappointment: Mo Ziyuan is too shameless to be intimidated, and the liquor isn’t liquor, it’s water. Wei Wuxian forgot that the GusuLan cultivators are unlikely to drink wine, and particularly not if they’re Lan by blood as well as upbringing, as their cloud headbands indicate they are. Wei Wuxian rests his purloined jar of water on his knee and thinks it over. Perhaps he had better investigate, and see what they’re up to...
Mo Xuanyu’s notes were clear on what the boy wanted him to do: kill Madam Mo, her son, and their servant, because all of them tormented Mo Xuanyu along with one other person, whom Mo Xuanyu did not name. What a selfish wish! It seems like nothing but a waste.
On the other hand, Wei Wuxian can also somewhat understand. He only spent five minutes around Madam Mo earlier, and already he wants her to go away!
But... Mo Xuanyu is dead; long live Wei Wuxian. In other words: Mo Xuanyu’s priorities no longer matter, because it is Wei Wuxian who will decide what he does. The wounds on his arm will not heal even if Wei Wuxian expends all his minimal golden core patching them up because they are enchanted, but that doesn’t mean he needs to panic. The cuts are small. They may be irritating and unhealthful, but they’re not deadly. He can pursue other goals and ignore them for the time being.
And the Lan babies—alright, the junior cultivators from the GusuLan sect—are much more interesting to him.
He makes his way back to the courtyard to spy on them, wondering what their plan is. He heard them forbidding everyone from coming here, so this must be where they will be, but—
He sees the Spirit Attracting Flag, and understands.
It’s a trap. Unfortunately, it’s one that will trap Wei Wuxian as neatly as any fierce corpse because there’s no way he can just not examine those flags—they’re made with his technique! He has to make sure they’re in good working order, right?? But it’s a good plan for an area as large as this one. Mo Village has almost three hundred square li of farmland around it, and it was in this area that the fierce corpses have appeared, so there’s no way the cultivators can search it all. Assuming the flags are well-made, that won’t matter: the fierce corpses will be drawn to the courtyard, and whatever spirit is making them, the cultivators can destroy it.
He sneaks closer and peers at the flag. It’s hard to see with the folds in the fabric, but it looks like the flag is well-made, with only one minor—or in this specific case, major—flaw: it only specifies this immediate area, rather than the land around it. He might have to physically steal one to get a long enough look—
Something heavy lands on his back, and Wei Wuxian is knocked to his stomach, all the breath crushed out of him.
“Sneaking,” proclaims a voice over his head.
And, okay: the owner of this voice is correct, but! Wei Wuxian is a poor-nephew scapegoat! Surely he can be excused for sneaking everywhere, when it’s a habit of safety that has been built into him for years?! (Wei Wuxian is not actually Mo Xuanyu, and does not have Mo Xuanyu’s habits, but he is a shameless opportunist. He has no hesitation in seizing the nearest excuse to hand.)
The lead cultivator of the group turns around. This is the one who interfered before, getting between Mo Ziyuan and Wei Wuxian when the former would have offered him violence. Wei Wuxian remembers a sweet voice and exquisite manners from that encounter; looking now, he also sees a pleasant smile which may or may not be genuine, and a sympathetic but restrained bearing.
In fact, the lead cultivator of this group truly seems to be a paragon! He is not at all Wei Wuxian’s type, but it’s easy to see nonetheless that this one has pleasant features: a kind mouth and pert chin, wide and well-shaped eyes under eyebrows that hint at stubbornness... Combine all of that with the cloud-patterned headband which suggests he is part of the central Lan family—in fact, didn’t Madam Mo call this one “Sect Heir” before?—and there is only one conclusion to be drawn.
“You must be the most highly-ranked young master out of your entire generation!”
The Lan Sect Heir laughs. His voice is refined, his laugh like the tinkling of the Jiang bell. “I really try not to pay attention to such things...” he demurs. “Senior Mo, please, you must stay out of the central courtyard tonight—”
Wei Wuxian makes a decision in half an instant and decides to play up his supposed madness. “I want a flag!”
It works: the Sect Heir is taken aback.
“All of you have flags; well, I want a flag, too!” He bangs his hands on the ground in loose fists, then takes a peek to see how the Sect Heir is reacting to this.
He truly is a paragon: he just sighs patiently at Wei Wuxian’s antics, then takes a flag and holds it out in front of him. Wei Wuxian runs his eyes over the flag, and confirms his suspicion in an instant: although the flag is otherwise well-made, the range on it is much too small.
Oh, well. If the flags don’t work, he will likely have time to slapstick a correction onto them, later. He will say nothing for now.
“You see?” the Sect Heir asks. “These flags will attract spirits. We need all the spirits here, in this courtyard; if you took the flag with you, it might bring you harm.”
He directs his gaze toward the person on Wei Wuxian’s back. “Lan Yuxue, please—would you be so kind as to accompany Senior Mo back to his rooms? I would hate for him to be hurt, so please, confine him there.”
The person on his back—Lan Yuxue, apparently—shifts. “Night hunt,” is all he says, but his tone is one of objection.
“Yes,” the Sect Heir says patiently, apparently not bothered by the impertinence of argument from Lan Yuxue in front of a stranger. “On our night hunts, we must keep all the vulnerable population safe.”
Wei Wuxian almost chuckles, because that phrasing—“Keep all the vulnerable population safe”—is directly from one of the GusuLan rules—somewhere in the six-hundreds, if Wei Wuxian recalls correctly. To quote it here is to imply that the junior disciple has not learned the rules thoroughly. Apparently, the Sect Heir is not above dishing out a little sass!
Wei Wuxian feels a shift—two booted feet dig into his back as Lan Yuxue jumps up—and then a white-clad figure is standing beside Wei Wuxian’s head and bowing over a sword. “Yes, Sizhui.”
Wei Wuxian frowns. The unadorned name also seems like sass—or perhaps Lan Yuxue and Lan Sizhui are close relatives?
Lan Sizhui bends down to gently lift Wei Wuxian’s elbows, and there is no more time to wonder. Wei Wuxian scrambles to his feet and follows Lan Yuxue away from the rest of the group.
Lan Yuxue sets a steady pace, one foot in front of the other, not ambling but not rushing, either. They walk in silence, making it some two hundred yards away from the rest of the GusuLan group, trending toward the stables, before Lan Yuxue stops and turns abruptly. He fixes Wei Wuxian with a flat sort of gaze and asks, “Where. Is your house.”
Wei Wuxian blinks twice and then bursts into laughter.
It adds to the humor that the young Lan in front of him looks so much like Lan Wangji. Lan Yuxue has a broader, higher forehead, but not by much, and the shape of his eyes is a little different—almost more like Wei Wuxian’s own eyes used to be—and, okay, his face is a bit rounder...
On second thought, maybe it’s the expression and bearing that make Lan Yuxue resemble the Second Jade of Lan.
Right down to the dissatisfied look he turns on Wei Wuxian.
“Hooo! So stuffy, but you don’t even know where you’re going?!” Wei Wuxian laughs again. He ignores the glare he’s getting. Lan Yuxue is a good copy, but Wei Wuxian has been glared at by the original! He moves around the young man and tosses his hair. “Follow me.”
He leads the way to the tiny shack that Mo Xuanyu was forced to call “home,” and gestures with faux grandness at the door. “Here we are!”
He moves to open the locks and trips, sprawling undignified in the mud for the... Is this the third or fourth time today?! Some days, you just don’t have any luck... Regardless, he pops his head up and glares as Lan Yuxue steps over him and into the little hut, then glances behind.
A tiny strand of cultivation energy, perceptible only as flashing glints of red light, is tangled around Wei Wuxian’s boots: Lan Yuxue has tripped him so that he can be first into the rickety shack.
He tripped him. Like a child.
...Wei Wuxian was once the best-known prankster of Lotus Pier; there is no way he’s going to take this sitting down. Er, lying down. Whatever; it is on!
Several hours later, he is taking it sitting down.
He is bored out of his mind.
Lan Yuxue, for all his clever mastery of Wei Wuxian’s pettiest tricks, has no sense of humor whatsoever. He has waited with Wei Wuxian the entire time from when they entered the shack to when night fell. He has said no more than five sentences in all that time—and one of those was, “Stop—you’re playing it wrong,” when Wei Wuxian made himself little grass whistle. Lan Yuxue probably didn’t even know what the tune was, so how could he know it was wrong?!
Two hours ago, the servant was supposed to bring his dinner, but this did not happen. Wei Wuxian supposes this is payback for his actions this afternoon.
He asks, “Do you think the demons have appeared to cultivators on the night hunt, yet?”
This is not Wei Wuxian’s first sortie towards a conversation, which is why he is being so particularly annoying. It’s bait to convince Lan Yuxue to argue with him. To start with, the proper term for what is likely to be making fierce corpses is not demon, but ghost. And moreover, his words serve as a reminder that Lan Yuxue is not on the night hunt: he is stuck here, babysitting Wei Wuxian, instead. Lan Yuxue is one of the youngest-looking cultivators of the whole group, so there is a good chance this is his first night hunt; he is probably angry and resentful that he has been relegated to this duty, instead.
If that’s how he feels, though, he doesn’t show it. He turns his face away and waits, silent as ever.
Wei Wuxian is incensed. He cannot possibly let this child win in a battle of wits against him, the Yiling Patriarch! “Hey—!”
He is interrupted by the sound of footsteps outside, and then the door—the latch already broken from the abuse it received earlier—bursts open in Wei Wuxian’s face. Lord Mo and half a dozen guards flood into the shack, filling it completely to capacity. Wei Wuxian wouldn’t have room to bow, even if he were inclined to!
Lan Yuxue breaks out of his stubborn lotus pose to stand defiantly. “Master Mo...” It is the least amount of respect he can show without descending into sarcasm. For a second, Wei Wuxian is reminded of Wen Qing so strongly it’s like being struck on the back of the head. His eyes water. “...What is the meaning of this?”
Master Mo points a finger at Wei Wuxian and tries to speak, but he is shaking so much he has to open and close his mouth a few times before he can manage it. “Him! He killed my son!”
Wei Wuxian looks at Lan Yuxue in confusion. He points to himself and mouths, Me?
Lan Yuxue shrugs, expressive despite his silence.
They turn back to Master Mo together.
Master Mo flushes a dark and worrying shade. “He said earlier today, he would cut of my son’s hand! Now, my son is dead, and some demon has cut off his entire arm! It was you! Guards, seize him!”
“Wait wait wait—!” Wei Wuxian does not fight as his arms are taken firmly by the men following Master Mo. He may have a golden core again now, but it is a small one, weak; Wei Wuxian will never attain his previous level of cultivation. Six guards is a bit much for him to handle— if he is fighting alone.
He looks pleadingly at Lan Yuxue.
Lan Yuxue’s face is blank, but Wei Wuxian is well-practiced at reading Lans, and so to him, Lan Yuxue is basically scowling. The young lordling looks back at Master Mo and shakes his head. “I was here. He was also here. No time for killing bullies.”
Wei Wuxian blinks. That’s a lot of scorn to heap onto a dead man you’ve only barely met! ...Wow, Lan Yuxue may be an even bigger bitch than Lan Zhan is!
Master Mo flails his arms, apparently close to an apoplectic fit.
Wei Wuxian shakes his head—or rather, he shakes Mo Xuanyu’s head, which may be an important factor to remember. Surely Master Mo’s thoughts would not have leapt so quickly to his nephew if he had not felt guilt over the treatment he gave the boy. And with Lan Yuxue dogging his footsteps, Wei Wuxian still has not had time to find a good soap and scrub his face clean. The white makeup still clings to his cheeks, still makes him look utterly mad. “If there is a cultivation technique which could do this, surely Young Master Lan will know it. Take us to the body, and we can examine it; GusuLan cultivators are famously evenhanded, so if I am guilty then Young Master Lan will definitely say so.”
The oh-so-fair Young Master Lan looks at Wei Wuxian suspiciously. Wei Wuxian raises his eyebrows back, then adds to Master Mo, “Or you can just leave us in here, while everyone else looks at the body.”
Lan Yuxue’s eyes narrow further—message received—but he also agrees, so they make their way back up to Xioaodong Hall, after all.
He will say this for Lan Yuxue: the boy is adamant that guilt not be assigned unfairly. When they reach the Xioaodong Hall, he puts himself between Madam Mo and Wei Wuxian even as Lan Sizhui holds her back. “Not guilty,” he declares.
Lan Sizhui coughs. “My cousin was kind enough to stay with Young Master Mo,” he explains to Madame Mo. Her face is pinched in fury, and she is yanking her arms out of his grip, which: good luck with that. Lan arm-strength is legendary, so she’ll never get free without some kind of trickery. Lan Yuxue steps up to help him on her other side. “I thought he might not understand the restriction against entering the courtyard, given his mental condition.”
Although, that does give Wei Wuxian an idea... He pats down the corpse of Mo Ziyuan, grimacing, and soon finds what he’s looking for. He pulls out the Spirit Attraction Flag and another round of shouting erupts.
While everyone is distracted, Wei Wuxian crouches a little further over the corpse. Using his body to shield what he is doing, he lifts the sleeve of his robe far enough to see the cuts on his arm. As he had suspected, one of the cuts is healed; only three now remain. He slides the sleeve back down and looks up into the cold, judgemental eyes of Lan Yuxue—but before he can say anything to him, the young cultivator turns away and walks toward the back wall.
Behind him, Madam Mo’s shrieking rises to a level that even Wei Wuxian can no longer blow it off. Her son is dead, but she is still talking to very proper young men from the most dignified sect in the world—and these are young people, too, not hardened to the world. Her words will cut them deep if nothing is done.
He rises and turns to her. “How dare you?! Do you think they are your servants? They came all this way to help you out; why aren’t you falling at their feet in gratitude?”
“My son is dead!”
“Your son committed suicide, so why are you blaming everyone else? My life is terrible, and I don’t kill myself; he should be at least half as brave as I am!”
This is more true than Madam Mo can know.
Mo Xuanyu’s life was hard, true, but it’s possible that Wei Wuxian’s was even harder. When he was thrown into the Burial Mounds, he came as close as he ever has to becoming a fierce corpse. The ghosts of the Burial Mounds howled in his ears, and even louder were the voices howling in his mental ears. Jiang Cheng, weak and angry and dying of it, shouting that Wei Wuxian had killed Jiang Fengmian and Madame Yu... For a while, that was all Wei Wuxian was able to hear. And he had nothing left to defend with, either; even Mo Xuanyu’s moderate core is a decadent amount of power compared to having no core at all.
But back then, even with all of that, he hadn’t killed himself. It wasn’t until the final battle in Qishan—standing on the cliffs of the Nightless City, back again after a few illusory years of peace—that he finally gave up. He had stood there, surrounded by betrayal from Jiang Cheng and Jin Zixuan—would the Wens even survive once he was gone, or was that a lie, too?—and there just... wasn’t a point, anymore.
No one fought by his side—Wen Ning was his last ally, and Wen Ning’s ashes were scattered onto the steps of the city he had hated. No one wanted Wei Wuxian to live: Hanguang-jun hated him, and the Wens would be better off without him drawing fire down on them. Even Wen Qing wouldn’t care about his death, now that she had what she wanted from him.
(Did she survive? Did their baby made it to the living world, or did it passed before even seeing the sun? Did she name the child? Is he a father now?)
Wei Wuxian remembers. He can still feel the despair, eating into his mind like decay into a wound, the scornful voices of memory like the piercing shrill of an arcane flute. He had done the only thing he could to silence all of them: when Jin ZiXun came for him on the cliff, arms outstretched to take the Stygian Tiger Seal, Wei Wuxian had shattered the seal and let himself fall backwards.
Dying wasn’t hard at all, actually. It was over very quickly. Compared to the instant of death, it is much more painful by far to come back and see how his name has been ground into mud in his absence.
A small voice inside him asks, Would you do it again?
The only answer he has is, I don’t know...
And meanwhile, Mo Ziyuan has killed himself by summoning an evil spirit directly into his body—suicide by stupidity—and Madame Mo has the nerve to blame him—or, worse, to blame the GusuLan juniors?! They deserve better than this, and they’re too inexperienced to speak up for themselves.
He tells Madame Mo off and ignores her as she turns the shame around onto her husband, instead. She kicks Master Mo out of the Hall and rounds on Wei Wuxian again, but even as Wei Wuxian is opening his mouth to tell her what he thinks of that—not much at all, to be frank—they hear the ruckus coming from outside. Lan Yuxue and Lan Sizhui jerk away from Madame Mo, and together with all the other disciples they rush outside to see what’s going on.
They are just in time to see Master Mo choking the servant with his left hand.
Things are getting complicated, Wei Wuxian thinks, and as soon as the thought crosses his mind someone says it out loud.
“This is so much more than we expected it to be!” One of the Lan disciples, the last one in the group who is part of the Lan clan proper as opposed to a sect member: he also wears the clouds on his headband, but he is much less tidy in appearance than the other three Lans.
“Two deaths in an hour, that is much more fierce than the usual fierce corpse,” Lan Sizhui agrees. “Lan Jingyi, we must settle this quickly.”
“Settle it quickly! We should call Hanguang-jun, that’s what we should do!”
No you absolutely should not! Wei Wuxian almost falls over himself trying to get close enough to stop them, only to run into the scowling wall which is Lan Yuxue.
“But—just because he’s in the area, doesn’t mean he’s close enough to come,” Lan Sizhui is saying. “What if—”
“Just fire the signal, and then try to solve it on our own!”
“No no no no no—” Wei Wuxian stretches his arm out towards them, but can’t move past Lan Yuxue.
“Right. Hopefully he can see, and come quickly.” Lan Sizhui agrees. Before Wei Wuxian can do anything else, he turns and fires the signal into the air, then turns back to the main group and raises his voice. “Get them both back inside!”
Wei Wuxian thinks for a second about what will happen if he is still here when Hanguang-Jun arrives.
He will have to finish this quickly.
He does what he can, but things are still teetering on the edge of disaster: Madame Mo has now been taken by the ghost, too, and she is fighting the corpses of her son and husband, who Wei Wuxian turned into puppets in order to protect the disciples. But the ghost is too strong; it looks like Madame Mo is winning. She breaks her son’s sword, throws her husband away with inhuman strength, then turns her gaze on Lan Jingyi as the closest available target—
—and the calming strains of a guqin fall over the group like a beam of calming moonlight.
Hanguang-jun is here.
Wei Wuxian curses himself for about ten different kinds of idiot, but he still turns to look at his old friend.
He was half-expecting that Lan Wangji would not have changed much since their youth. It was a reasonable guess; after all, Lan Wangji has always had a timeless quality to him. It was a guess of Wei Wuxian’s that of all the cultivators in their generation, Lan Wangji was the one most likely become immortal. He was old for his age as a youth; therefore, now that he is the age he once seemed to be, surely he will be exactly the same as he was then?
He is not.
It isn’t that he has aged; Wei Wuxian cannot phrase the difference so simply. It is more like...
There was a kitten that one of the dockworkers back at Lotus Pier found once, back when Wei Wuxian was a youth there. The kitten was adorable, and Wei Wuxian loved to visit it when he was sneaking out. Then it started to grow, and its body changed; the short stubby legs became long and gangling, the tail grew in length. For a while, the animal was awkward to look at, stuck between being a kitten and being an adult cat, the feline equivalent of being a teenager. But then it grew some more, and turned into what Wei Wuxian had thought was an adult cat; it still had a bit of awkwardness in its face, but Wei Wuxian thought that was maybe just its face.
But then he went away to Cloud Recesses for a year, and when he got back, the cat had changed again. He had thought it was an adult cat before, but he was wrong; this was the adult cat, a proud tom who stalked Lotus Pier for rats and turned a disdainful glance on Wei Wuxian when he made kissy noises and tried to pet it. Wei Wuxian could never put his finger on what had changed in the cat. He had done many paintings of the cat before Cloud Recesses, and he did quite a few after, too, trying to figure out what the change was, but it was no good: there assuredly was a difference, but he couldn’t say for certain, “His cheeks are more round” or “his tail is longer.” In the end, he just decided that the cat had grown into itself, and that was that.
Lan Wangji is like that cat: he, too, has grown into a proud, elegant tom.
He still wears white. Mourning robes! Only, before, they were an affectation, and now, they are as natural as the forehead ribbon. Lan Wangji wears mourning robes: of course he does. Of course.
He still wears an ornate hairpiece. In fact, it is even grander than before; where before it was a delicate silver filigree, now it is a large silver crescent. It must be very heavy, Wei Wuxian thinks distractedly, but he can’t disagree but that it suits Lan Wangji. He doesn’t know many who could pull off such a piece—on most men, it will look as ridiculous as Jin Guangyao’s stupid hat—but on Lan Wangji, it is simply one more piece of his grace.
He has always been a fine form of a man; there were a lot of reasons why he was the second-ranked young master in their generation, but certainly his body was one of them. Now, though... It is just like the cat: Wei Wuxian can’t say for certain that he is taller, or broader, or that his robes are cut differently, or that his sleeves are longer... But he knows that Lan Wangji has grown into himself. He was a youth, before—not a child, but not yet in the full flower of manhood—and he is certainly an adult now.
The juniors greet him with cheerful cries of “Hanguang-jun!”
Wei Wuxian takes advantage of their distraction to flee into the night.
YunshenYuxue is WWX's son. I was totally planning to have Lan Sizhui still be LWJ's son, even though it didn't make nearly as much sense in this one, but I kept wrestling with it, and then I realized: No, with WQ pregnant and everybody knowing Wen Yuan's history, it did not make sense to have LWJ adopt him. But with LWJ's wife a Wen and that the only sect heir in sight, it made absolute sense (in a very politely bitchy fuck-you kind of way) to have Lan *Xichen* adopt a-Yuan. So that's what I did. No, I'm not going to apologize. :P
Me: why is this chapter taking me so long???
Also me: *gets to the end and checks wordcount, it's over 6000* Oh right...
Wei Wuxian is in pain: his muscles are sore all over, as if he has had a flu; his skin feels burned, as if he has been roasted like a chicken; and his head is pounding as if a hundred war drums are all trapped inside.
He groans to himself and rubs a hand over his face, but it doesn’t do much to help.
He sits up.
He finds himself in a window seat, long and wide enough for him to have been tucked in for a nap there. The window looks out onto a beautiful snowy landscape, with elegant architecture and white-dusted pine trees. Very refined, he thinks, and then double-checks the impression, his thoughts stopping like he has walked right up to the edge of a cliff before noticing—
Is he in Gusu?
...He is! That’s definitely a Cloud Recesses walkway going down the mountain. He would know those formless swirls of mist anywhere.
Wei Wuxian groans again. How did he get here? What happened? He rubs harder at his face, trying to remember...
He leaves Mo manor and heads up the road. There are only two options available; it’s not a big place, Mo village, so you can either go up the road or you can go down it. Wei Wuxian has always liked mountains—probably because Lotus Pier has only moderate ones, hills at best—and so he chooses to head upwards, towards the round-shouldered green slopes he can see in the distance.
He steals a donkey on his way out.
He immediately regrets stealing the donkey on his way out.
It’s a terrible donkey: loud-mouthed, stubborn, and just a little too clever for docility. It reminds him of someone, although he can't think who.
Anyway, he and the donkey, who he is definitely not going to name, head up into the hills, and then—trapped in rolling forests, taking a break beside a communal well where Wei Wuxian is finally able to wipe off some of the face-paint—he overhears that there’s a night hunt going on in Dafan.
He immediately brightens, his prospects improving the longer he listens. A night hunt is about the only way he currently has of earning money!
Although he does have a golden core now, it isn't much; he’ll have to be careful. But his old techniques should serve him more than well enough. Moreover, he remembers Dafan as a lovely little area, on the road between Yueyang and Tanzhou. If he goes on the hunt in Dafan, he can easily follow the road up to Tanzhou afterwards and maybe find some news there.
So he heads towards Dafan, keeping his ears open as he goes.
Unfortunately, he hasn't overheard anything too good. The monster—whatever else it may be—is a soul eater. That’s bad enough; soul eaters are very dangerous! But also, this monster has attracted a whole host of cultivators. Small-clan cultivators from every area have arrived, as well as two—some say three—of the more major clans. And most of these people are there already, while Wei Wuxian is still making his way! He’s going to have to work very quickly to solve this before anyone else does.
He starts by snooping. Snooping has always been his greatest technique, the one that requires no cultivation whatsoever. Snooping was how he heard about Dafan Mountain in the first place! It’s a good default action to take when he isn't sure what else he should be doing.
The small-clan cultivators are all huddling around the base of the mountain, afraid to go up. "It's too dangerous," he hears one complain. "There are so many spirit nets!"
But how many spirit nets could there be? The things are frightfully expensive.
"And there are two big cultivator clans up there already," adds another, "so if they can't catch this thing, we don't have a chance."
Hmmm..... Which clans are they, the ones who are already here? There’s only a one-in-four chance of it being GusuLan, but then, Wei Wuxian doesn't want to run into YunmengJiang, either! And the chances of it not being either of those two are also only one-in-four. Not great odds.
On the other hand, Wei Wuxian has worked with worse!
He groans and tugs his blanket up, then throws an arm over his eyes. He remembers thinking that, but looking back now.... Stupid! So stupid. What better way to jinx himself?
The noise of shouting draws him away from his investigations and deeper into the forest. A small group of cultivators, the ones he saw back by the well in fact, has gotten caught in a deity-binding net and are hanging, trapped as neatly as any wild animal. They are definitely not the intended game of this hunt!
Someone rushes into the clearing. He is all in gold with a vermilion mark on his forehead: a member of the LanlingJin sect, and—especially considering his fine clothes and upright bearing—probably of the inner Jin clan, as well.
He looks up at the nets and stamps his foot. “You lot? Again?! Why can’t you be more careful? This is the second time your sect in particular have wandered into my nets.”
“Young Master, please let us down!”
A put-upon sigh is the only reply the young master makes, though. Anything else he would have said is cancelled, cut off when the terrible little donkey—Wei Wuxian has been calling him “Apple” after the donkey’s primary motivation in life, but if he can think of something worse to call the beast, he will—charges forward, towing Wei Wuxian precariously behind it.
Apple makes it through the clearing and out the other side. Wei Wuxian does not.
He stares up at the trees from where he’s sprawled on the grass, trying to breathe even though the fall knocked all the wind out of him. He puts his hands on his belly and wheezes as the young master steps into his field of vision.
From this angle, Wei Wuxian can see the gold clasps on the young master’s footwear: definitely a highly-ranked cultivator, then.
He can also see straight up the young master’s nose, though, so he’s not too intimidated.
The young Jin gets a good look at him, and his eyes widen in shock. “It’s you!”
“Me?” Wei Wuxian is hidden inside of Mo Xuanyu’s form, for there’s no way this young Jin can know who he really is, can he? So he must be familiar with Mo Xuanyu—which puts him one up on Wei Wuxian!
Wei Wuxian scrambles to his feet. “Do I know you?”
The Jin cultivator laughs. “You’re not as crazy as everyone says, Uncle Mo. You don’t have to pretend around me.”
Uncle Mo! Then this young man really is part of the Jin clan—in fact, if Mo Xuanyu is his uncle, that must mean that his father is also the son of Jin Guangshan!
But.... The young man isn’t that young. He must have been either born, or nearly born, when Wei Wuxian died all those years ago. But none of Jin Guangshan’s sons were even married, except for...
The realization is like stepping into a bath and finding that all the hot water has been replaced with icemelt: it’s not the realization itself that hurts so much, but the shock of it coming from nowhere, unexpected.
This is Jiang Yanli’s son.
This is Jin Ling—Jin Rulan.
Wei Wuxian’s nephew.
He has grown into a handsome young man in the intervening years. In the face, he resembles Jin Zixuan’s prettiness, and, even more strongly, his grandfather: there is a shared wildness there around the eyes. Hopefully he has their cleverness without their duplicity; Wei Wuxian is still furious about how he was set up by those two! Jin Ling’s smile reminds Wei Wuxian of Meng Yao—or, as it would be more apt to call him, Jin Guangyao. No dimples, but the inflexibility of it is the same. When Jin Guangyao was still Meng Yao, his smiles were the only weapon he really had with which to face the world—and he faced the world anyway, wielding only his wits and his dimples. Wei Wuxian can see some of that in Jin Ling. Or—he hopes he can, anyway.
And then... Jiang Yanli. Shijie. Hopefully, Jin Ling takes after her as well.
Wei Wuxian knows better than to look for it. Shijie was always the quiet one. The placid one, the source of all their calm. Her features were regular, but not particularly lovely, not until you saw the sweetness in her smile, the kindness in her gaze. Wei Wuxian knows he won’t be able to see her in her son until he has gotten to know the boy some.
In the meantime, though... He really can call himself “Uncle Mo.”
He smiles, helplessly delighted and sad.
He tips his head toward the watching small-clan cultivators, still hanging in their nets. “You should release them,” he says, keeping his voice gentle. “They’ve done you no harm, right? And imprisonment is unjust.”
Jin Ling scowls, his head tipping to the side. “Uncle is being... Uncle,” he says. His voice is quieter, too. “When he is in this mood, only harshness will please him.”
Wei Wuxian nods, mind whirling. Which Uncle? Jin Ling has several. If Wei Wuxian were really Mo Xuanyu, he would apparently be able to guess. What does “being... Uncle” mean? And, “Only harshness will please him...”
Oh, nooo... It's Jiang Cheng, isn't it?
Wei Wuxian smiles, wide and bright as if his heart weren't aching, and claps Jin Ling on the shoulder. He uses the gesture as cover, planting a talisman on his back, and then steals the sword out of Jin Ling’s scabbard as the young man tumbles to the ground. The talisman Wei Wuxian used holds the spirit of a gluttonous ghost far too heavy to lift; Jin Ling won’t be getting up anytime soon. “Not to worry, nephew! I’ll take care of it for you!”
He sends the sword up into the trees. How wonderful to have enough of a core again that he can manage this!
Jin Ling is gaping at him. “You—why did you—?”
Wei Wuxian grins down at him, forcing the smile onto lips that feel cracked. “I’m mad, remember?”
Seconds later, he hears a sound and whirls. If his guess is right, his one-time brother is about to come marching down through the woods, and he can't—Jiang Cheng—their history—
He takes cover, tucking himself down in the hollow of a tree. He can hear everything still, but he can’t see anything.
Not an instant too soon. In a moment, half the cultivation world comes pouring into the clearing, just as Jin Ling’s sword sails down and plants itself in the ground, mere inches in front of its owner’s face.
Wei Wuxian winces to himself. In less than a minute, the small clearing had filled up with people: Jiang Cheng, Lan Wangji, the GusuLan junior disciples, the YunmengJiang Sect disciples, the handful of small clan cultivators scrambling to get away... And in the middle of it all had stood Jin Ling.
Wei Wuxian’s fists clench by his side at the memory of his cowardice. He should have gone to Jin Ling’s side; he should never have let Jin Ling stand alone in such a way.
But on the other hand, Jiang Cheng had taken one look at the talisman on Jin Ling’s back and launched into a fury so powerful that he almost seemed on the edge of Qi deviation, so... maybe it was for the best that Wei Wuxian had hidden himself.
In the course of the short, overheard conversation that followed everyone’s arrival, several things became clear. One, most obviously: the YunmengJiang sect has grown more prominent than ever in the sixteen years since Wei Wuxian’s death. Two: Jiang Cheng is still angry at Wei Wuxian, presumably because Wei Wuxian walked down the lonely, disregarded path of a demonic cultivator instead of staying primly in Lotus Pier and not helping anyone even if they needed it. Three: Jiang Cheng considers himself to be a good uncle to Jin Ling, and, four, Jiang Cheng is actually very bad at being an uncle.
And, five... Jiang Cheng absolutely, completely, cannot stand Lan Wangji these days—a feeling which Lan Wangji does nothing to meliorate.
Wei Wuxian winces again. Jiang Cheng had opened his discussion with Lan Wangji with some truly vitriolic small-talk—and Lan Wangji hadn’t spoken at all! Wei Wuxian only knows he was even there because Sect Heir Sizhui referred to him, and because after Jiang Cheng left Lan Wangji had addressed the Juniors in his familiar resonant tones.
It doesn’t make sense, though. What can possibly have happened between those two?
Wei Wuxian can understand Jiang Cheng’s anger at himself. That part makes an intuitive sort of sense to him; it’s tragic, but logical. Wei Wuxian knows Jiang Cheng—they were raised as brothers! So he understands why Jiang Cheng is mad at him.
It’s the grief.
Jiang Cheng has never been a great scholar, and where Wei Wuxian learned another tongue easily, Jiang Cheng has always struggled even with just the old-fashioned script... And it’s just the same way with feelings. Jiang Cheng speaks only one emotion with any fluency, and that emotion is rage. If he is happy, he pretends to be angry. If he has a crush, he pretends to be angry. If he is hungry, he actually is angry, and if he is grieving...
Jiang Cheng will have mourned Wei Wuxian, in his way. But he won’t have understood that grief was what he was really feeling, and so he will have expressed his anger at Wei Wuxian, instead. Eventually, even he won’t have been able to say how much of the anger was true.
Jiang Cheng must have been all alone after Wei Wuxian died. He isn’t close to anyone else in his sect, because they’re all new. They may be wonderful, but none of them were there back when Jiang Fengmian was the Sect Leader. It’s not the same. And Jiang Yanli must’ve been stuck in Koi Tower, right? So Jiang Cheng would have had no family once Wei Wuxian was gone. The grief will have torn him inside out, and because he is Jiang Cheng, all that grief must have turned to rage...
And so, unfortunately, Jiang Cheng’s hatred of Wei Wuxian makes sense.
But his hatred of Lan Wangji...
What can Lan Zhan have done? Did he give comfort to Wen Rouhan? Did he steal Jiang Cheng’s favorite pony?!
Wei Wuxian puts the speculation aside for now; he has another concern. Several other concerns, actually...
Why was the fairy statue unsealed? Or—no, that was an illusion. Who cast the illusion, then? And why? And did that person cause the walking corpses in the village, or—no, they can’t have; the girl had the affectations of the fairy statue, so in her case at least the statue really was responsible. The soul-eating, then, was as it seemed, but the fairy’s pursuit of them out of the temple was a fake, a made up to trick Wei Wuxian into revealing himself.
Or was there another goal? What other outcomes could there be, from creating the illusion of an aggressive statue?
Well, Wen Ning showed himself; that was one thing. But that raised even more questions! Jin Clan claimed that night when everything happened that Wen Ning was dead; Wei Wuxian had watched with his own two eyes as Jin Guangshan scattered Wen Ning’s ashes. How can Wen Ning be alive now?
And... what’s wrong with him?
Wei Wuxian is depressingly aware that most people’s impression of the Ghost General is more likely to resemble a demon who eats babies than it is the true Wen Ning. Wen Ning is a kind, gentle man who had the misfortune of becoming very powerful. He isn’t suited to being fearsome, and so mostly, he hides his fierceness—like when he plays with a-Yuan.
Played, Wei Wuxian corrects himself. Wen Ning used to play with a-Yuan. He doesn’t anymore.
Because he was murdered.
So how is he still alive?
Aaaagh, it’s too much! Too many questions, no explanations in sight.
Wei Wuxian plays frantically, trying to summon help, and technically he succeeds—by summoning the most helpful but least possible person on the planet! Wen Ning?! How?!
But there’s no time for wondering about it. Jin Ling is directly in the path of the statue, and Lan Yuxue is charging forward, sword gleaming with energy. A dozen figures in mixed white and golden robes follow behind.
Wei Wuxian isn’t sure if they’re attacking the statue or Wen Ning, and he’s pretty sure they’re not sure, either.
Wen Ning, as ever, is the fiercest possible corpse: the statue doesn’t stand a chance. It shatters, the pieces scattering on the ground. Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen as the pieces vanish into nothingness, but there’s no time to consider; the cultivators are surrounding Wen Ning, hostile and afraid both at once.
Wei Wuxian’s eyes narrow. He continues to play.
After a minute—not even that; Wen Ning works fast—he lowers the flute for a second and watches, heart sinking. He has played too wildly: Wen Ning is maddened, challenging the cultivators around him, small clan adults and Lan and Jiang Sect juniors alike.
Wei Wuxian lifts his flute back to his lips and plays a different tune, instead.
One step back as he plays the descending phrase, letting it hit the bottom note like the tired sigh of a mother. Another step back and he plays the corresponding climb, the notes rising to a more hopeful pitch. It’s working: Wen Ning is turning away from the other cultivators, focusing on Wei Wuxian. He must be raising a dozen questions in everybody’s minds—as far as he can tell, Mo Xuanyu had never even touched an instrument—but it’s more important to draw Wen Ning away from the cultivators. He plays the next phrase and steps back again—
Disaster: he steps backward right into a wall. Smooth silk and unyielding muscle—he freezes in shock.
Fingers like iron, cold and hard and rough, wrap around his wrist, and the flute is jerked away from his mouth.
Lan Wangji—again. The one man Wei Wuxian truly fears, and for the second time in one day.
Wei Wuxian whines to himself, smacking his palm against his forehead, then lets himself sag back. The window he is pressed against is hard and cold on his skin, but that's alright; it feels good, actually, as if his skin is too warm.
No wait, actually... His skin really is too warm. He frowns and opens the neck of his robes, looking down at himself.
Lightning shaped whip marks.
There's only one person who can give him such wounds.
He groans again, despair hitting him as he remembers Jiang Cheng’s reaction to even the suspicion of his presence. He—
“If you keep making so much noise, I’ll gag you. I only just got them to sleep.”
Wei Wuxian looks up at a figure who has stepped, silent and unnoticed, into the room beside him.
She stands bathed in moonlight creeping in through the window. It glints on her blue and white robes. Her hair is bound up like a matron’s, dressed with combs and beads. It’s a mark of status in a very Lan sort of way: they all wear austere robes with fine headpieces.
Wei Wuxian gapes. She’s not the last person he would ever have expected to see, but she’s in the bottom tenth of the list.
She had expected Lan Wangji to return today, true—but she had expected him to return alone. Not sailing out to the Jingshi on his sword with a strange young man covered in burns cradled tenderly in his arms.
The whole situation is just... bizarre. Lan Wangji refused to say the young man’s name, so either he doesn’t know it, or he doesn’t want anyone else to know it. And if the latter, why would he hide it from Wen Qing? They’ve been married for sixteen years; there’s no one alive he trusts more.
She gets no clue from the stranger’s clothes. His robes are shabby, good quality but very poorly maintained. His hair is wild, barely restrained by a simple thong. He is covered in dirt as if he has been rolling all over the ground, and there is a distinct smell of animal about him—a horse, or maybe a donkey.
But then Lan Wangji lands and staggers over to her, the stranger in his arms, and says “Help him,” and suddenly nothing else matters. Wen Qing's life has changed in many ways, but she will always be a doctor at heart.
Electrical burns in the shape of a whip are distinctive as such things go: Zidian has been used here. Well, Wen Qing has treated such burns before. She remembers from when Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng sought refuge with her in Yiling that the best treatment is a variation on the normal burn salve, so she brews some up quickly enough. She treats the wounds, binds them—unlike regular burns, these will heal best if covered—and then leaves the stranger asleep in the window seat. She has drifted off there more than once herself, so he should be comfortable enough.
She turns her attention to Lan Wangji.
He seems... jittery. It’s a strange word for the Second Jade of Lan, but it's the only one that’s apt. Wangji doesn’t show his nerves obviously, but Wen Qing has grown used to him enough by now to recognize the long pauses in his motions as he stops to consider and then reconsider his actions.
She watches him drift around the room, picking up and then putting down a piece of fruit, straightening a shelf full of knick-knacks that were already straight.
For him, this is practically pacing. Combined with the stranger—and with the stranger’s wounds... There is only one conclusion to draw.
“What did he know?”
Wangji startles when she speaks to him, turning away from a bookshelf he has been contemplating in silence for three minutes. “Know?”
“The boy.” Wen Qing jerks her head at the stranger, ignoring the fact that he is far from a child. Referring to anybody younger than she is as a "boy" is just one of the prerogatives of motherhood. “He knows something about Wei Wuxian, or else Jiang Wanyin would not have struck him.”
Lan Wangji looks torn, which is telling in and of itself: this is something big, then, something he’s not sure how to say. Something he’s not sure he should say? But he knows that she, out of all the cultivators in the world, is the least likely to work contrary to his aims in this...
Lan Wangji opens his mouth.
The door of the Jingshi rattles in its tracks as it opens.
They both look up, their confidence interrupted as a-Qin and her nurse, Huo Fan, burst in with their usual onslaught of sound: a-Qin is chattering already, describing painting and picking flowers at high pitch and even higher volume, and Huo Fan is cheerfully talking over her about the walk they took and the subjects they studied, and meanwhile the door is rattling shut again and there are footsteps and a-Qin is jumping up and down in place for some reason—
The word cuts through the welter of noise, loud and in unison from two different throats. Once Wen Qing would have feared to speak so harshly to her child, but, firstly, that was before all the boys—four boys! Four of them!!!—and also, it was before she got to know her daughter a-Qin.
The boys all take after her and Lan Wangji—astonishingly so, especially considering that Lan Wangji did not actually father all four of them—but Wen Qing has no idea where a-Qin’s disposition comes from. If she didn’t know better, she would have said a-Qin was the child fathered by Wei Wuxian... But Lan Wangji personally handed over the inseminator and also Wei Wuxian was dead for twelve years before a-Qin’s conception, so probably that is not the case.
Still, there is no one else whom a-Qin is more like: she has a huge, infectious, irrepressible smile, and she babbles.
Her constant stream of speech doesn’t actually end as she wanders off towards the bathing room, despite the fact that none of them follow her; it just gets quieter. Wen Qing exchanges a speaking look with Lan Wangji—they need to talk, but there is no chance of that as long as Huo Fan is here—then turns to the nurse. “We’ll watch her from here; thank you so much,” she says, and Huo Fan bows her way out with the dismissal.
Wen Qing turns back to Wangji with a pointed expression.
By the time the stranger wakes up some hours later, she has just gotten Lan Wangji and a-Qin to sleep, and they still haven’t had ten minutes in private to talk about who he is.
Which makes it all the more alarming when the stranger opens his eyes, and the first expression on his face when he sees her is recognition.
They stare at each other.
It is... incredibly awkward.
Wei Wuxian shifts his position, propping himself up more and then swinging his legs out so that he’s sitting facing her. He can give that much politeness at least.
A million questions are rattling through his head. Does she know it’s him? Is she angry? It’s Wen Qing, so she’s probably angry.
How did he get here? She’s probably wondering that, too, but he means it in a less cosmic sense. He was at Dafan last thing he remembers, and he definitely didn’t walk. Was he really wounded so badly by Zidian that he didn’t wake for days? Or did—and this thought sets his stomach to squirming like he’s full of live eels—did Lan Wangji carry him on his sword all the way back to Gusu?
Just how badly was he wounded, anyway?
He swallows and braces himself.
Wen Qing scowls at the question. “Badly enough,” she answers, her familiar tones unleavened by her apparent... inculcation into the Lan Sect. Adoption? Marriage? Wei Wuxian tries to picture either and fails miserably. “I’m going to kill your brother,” she adds, and all the breath goes out of him.
He stares, speechless.
So she does know, then.
He tries, “Technically, he isn’t really my brother—”
“Wow.” She folds her arms across her chest. The gesture pushes up her bosom, and Wei Wuxian blinks. Has that gotten... large? Something’s different.
“I was never actually adopted?”
“Mn! And even if I were... YunmengJiang Sect disowned me after—after the Qiongqi path... So, technically...”
“Look at my face. You see this face? Does it look like I care?” She punctuates this with a glare. “He was your brother! And he did that to you!”
He winces, hands crossing to cover his arms where Zidian’s lash had cut the most deeply. “Well... I have to say... Right now, I don’t really look like his brother...”
Her eyes grow shiny, and she looks away.
He’s not really sure how to explain it. He knows why Jiang Cheng is... like that, he knows what’s going on in his head, but how to say it? How can he tell her that his brother doesn’t understand what vulnerability is, that the only way he knows how to relate to the world is by shouting? And that’s not the worst of it. Sometimes Wei Wuxian thinks that the greatest tragedy of Jiang Cheng’s life is that he’s the son of sect leader, because for a sect leader, all that shouting is a good thing. Or—not exclusively, but... Men will follow a leader who is as angry as Jiang Cheng. They will be made brave by his fury, made bold by his explosive bursts. Because of who he is, he rewards action and daring, and so the clan will still prosper under him.
It’s just, he will always be unhappy while it does so.
Wei Wuxian shakes his head to clear it and changes the subject. “How did you know it was me?”
She sniffs, and if it sounds more wet than her disdain usually does, he isn’t saying anything. “I know you,” she tells him, “and you know me.”
He nods, but then chews his lip. His nose itches, and he takes the distraction of rubbing it to think. “Did Lan Wangji tell you...?”
“He told me nothing. No time; we’ve had no moments alone together since I got you stabilized.” Her eyes narrow. “Why, what do you know?”
His stomach twists again. The eels are back, twisting in his guts. He opens his mouth and forces words out anyways. “LanlingJin Sect,” he begins, then immediately discards that explanation and tries, “We didn’t know,” and then, “they’re liars, Wen Qing, they said—but he’s not—I saw him, and he wasn’t like him but I couldn’t believe—”
“What are you talking about?”
Those eels are angry. “Your brother,” he manages, “Wen Ning. He was there.”
Her face has gone terrifyingly blank. She asks, “Where.”
“Ahh... at... Dafan? I played to summon the nearest strong fierce corpse, and he—he answered the call. He’s alive.”
A pause as they mutually consider that phrasing.
Wei Wuxian coughs. “...Well... He’s not as dead, anyway.”
Wen Qing is glaring at him as if she can’t believe she ever associated with someone as stupid as he is.
That seems fair.
She surges to her feet and stomps away into the kitchen Wei Wuxian can just barely see on the other side of the house. When she returns—several minutes later—her eyes and cheeks are red. She hands him a bowl of cold rice without meeting his eyes. “Here.”
“Ah, thank you!” He bows miserably to her, a quick, jerky thing, then takes up the chopsticks she hands him next only to pause with a bite of rice halfway to his lips.
He lowers the bite again, uneaten.
“I’m sorry.” He is miserable, which he's sure she can tell, but that doesn’t matter, does it? Not when he led her brother into death—twice, since he didn’t interfere sooner the first time, either. “He shouldn’t have been... It’s not right. I didn’t know, and I’m sorry; I swear if I had known, I would have gone after him.”
“What, and died faster? You moron.” She swipes at her eyes, transparent and unashamed of her tears. “It’s not your fault. You didn’t set up your own ambush!”
But he did set it up in a way, didn’t he? If he had handed over the Stygian Tiger Seal earlier, maybe no one would have been so suspicious. Or if he had played the politician more, like Jiang Cheng, or if he had followed Lan Wangji to Gusu when he asked the first time...
But no, he couldn’t have done those things. If he had handed over the seal, he would have been as powerless as he eventually ended up, and it’s not really in him to smile and hide his true feelings and lie. And as for following Lan Wangji to Gusu... If he had done that, he never would have met Wen Qing in Lanling. He might well still be dead—he’s pretty sure he’d have gone mad in isolation here—and Wen Ning definitely would be, as well as Wen Qing, and maybe a-Yuan—who might still be dead, but at least this way Wei Wuxian has hope—and also....
He clears his throat and sets the rice down entirely. The few bites he has eaten sit in his stomach like paste, solid and heavy. “Wen Qing...”
She shoots to her feet as if she has been waiting for him to speak. “Do you want to see something nauseatingly sweet?” She doesn’t give him a chance to refuse. “Come on, it’s this way.”
She moves to the doorway, the one that leads to the back of the house, and waits there for him to join her. She is uncomfortable with his apologies, he realizes; she doesn’t want his guilt any more than he wants her grief. He can understand that, a little.
He stands and moves to her side, the rice left forgotten on the ground behind him.
She leads the way through the doorway and turns, then holds aside a long embroidered curtain and places her finger over her lips. Silently Wei Wuxian tiptoes to her side.
The room beyond is a bedroom, humble but well-crafted decorations in a style that is very distinctively local. There are books everywhere on the other side of the bed, shelved so tightly together their spines bulge faintly outward, and overflowing still to stack haphazardly down the wall on the far side of the room. The near side of the room, by contrast, is punctiliously neat, restrained in its decor. Wei Wuxian knows immediately and instinctively whose side of the bed is whose, but his mind refuses to fully process the idea.
In the center of the bed, clad in inner robes and with loose, still-damp hair, are Lan Wangji and a little girl no more than four years of age. They are lying in the exact same pose and wearing the same white inner robes, so that it looks as if someone has copied Lan Wangji exactly except at one-third scale. Both of them are completely, soundly asleep.
Wei Wuxian works very, very diligently on not squeaking at the sheer overwhelming cuteness of it.
Wen Qing is regarding the two with a certain fondness, and the little girl, now that Wei Wuxian looks, does have a certain Wen-ishness about the forehead and eyes. Could she really be...?
Wei Wuxian looks back and forth from Wen Qing to the two sleepers, then back to Wen Qing, then back again to Lan Wangji. This time he can’t quite stop the surprised squeak.
Wen Qing hustles him back out of the room again and into the living room, sitting him down at the central table and going to the kitchen for what turns out to be a pot of tea. “You have questions,” she says more than asks.
Wei Wuxian nods, still stunned by the revelation. “You... and Lan Zhan?!”
“Why not?” she asks, but she isn’t meeting his eyes. Her shoulders hunch as if she is chilled, and she wraps her hands tightly around the warmth of her teacup.
Wei Wuxian watches her, lost for words. There are so many reasons why not, it’s just that he can’t bring any of them to mind. Or—not true; he can bring one reason to mind, but the reason in question is I’m genuinely shocked you haven’t stabbed each other so it’s a bit too rude to say. “...His family?” he manages eventually.
She coughs. “Pickaxe licence,” she admits.
Wei Wuxian gapes. "How were the two of you not murdered for that?!"
"He almost was," she mutters, glancing down and to the right like she's remembering. Then her eyes flick up, and she catches his expression. “Well, what did you want me to do?” Her voice is still low because of the two sleeping just on the other side of the wall, but her tone is anything but soft. Her knuckles go white where she grips the cup. “I was alone; we had no allies save him—and even he only came to us through the grace of Jin Zixuan—”
Rage rises like a geyser in his chest, hot and destructive, and without intending to he hisses like a cat.
“Get over it,” she spits back. “He was the only chance I had, and I never would have even asked, except he offered.”
Her hand goes to her stomach
“...Anyway, we did the licence, and we have a total of five children now—a-Qin is only the youngest—and nobody even suspects that they aren’t all—”
—that they aren’t all his, she means.
It hits him like a fall from six hundred feet and he curls over, sick to his stomach.
One of her children—the oldest one—is Wei Wuxian’s.
Did he drive her to this? It’s a disturbingly plausible thought, and he shudders at the idea that he might have forced any woman, even by proxy. If he hadn’t lain with her, she wouldn’t have had a pregnancy to force her hand, and wouldn’t have been forced to accept Lan Wangji’s offer—
Except, no. No, that’s not quite right. Because she said the only reason Lan Wangji had offered was the pregnancy, so maybe they would have found another way without it? Or maybe...
There is no way to know.
He sighs and picks up his cup, sipping cautiously at the tea, hoping it will settle his stomach. The liquid is still hot, almost as warming as a good wine, not that he’ll be getting any of that here: the Lan’s don’t drink, and Wen Qing has always disapproved when Wei Wuxian consumed liquor.
...He could have been in love with her, once.
He wasn’t! He definitely was not in love with her—and he’s pretty sure she was never in love with him, either. At least he prays she never was. But still... Wei Wuxian remembers her refusal to marry him, and remembers his own determination to keep working on her until she gave in. He would have won that argument if he hadn’t died first; she must have married Lan Wangji within only a couple months of that discussion, and he wasn’t her best friend beforehand! Come to think of it, he hadn’t been too close with the Wens, either. If they had been competing for her affections Wei Wuxian totally would have won.
But... they weren’t competing, were they? Their situation isn’t even close to rival suitors. Lan Wangji didn’t have a deep, hidden passion for Wen Qing, and Wen Qing—again, he prays—never carried her broken heart behind a well-thickened face. This isn’t a tug-of-war, it’s a—Wei Wuxian pictures their arrangement in three dimensions—a tripod. It’s all three of them holding up a fiction and a frail remnant of a clan together...
But that’s just the problem. Alliances like that... Not now, of course, and not in the limited time they ended up having, but... if Wei Wuxian hadn’t died, or if Wen Qing hadn’t been pregnant... Maybe he could have fallen in love with her, then. Because he is already softly fond of her, and his heart already aches at the thought of her married to Lan Wangji. Something about that idea is like a door closing firmly in his face. He rubs the phantom sensation of wood grain off his nose.
He wants to ask, Does he love you, but he doesn’t dare. He doesn’t know which answer would be worse, but he finds he doesn’t really want either.
He settles instead for, “Are you happy?”, and watches as Wen Qing slams her cup back down on the table.
“What kind of question is that?” she demands. “Rude! What do you think the answer is? My best friend is back from the dead and my husband is too exhausted to celebrate with me! My daughter is adorable and far too clever for words! What do you think?”
Ah, yes, he thinks fondly, this. How could he ever have failed to fall in love with this?
Hang onto your hats, kids, this one's got a lot of notes.
FIRST OF ALL: A big, HUGE thank you to sailorstkwrning, who has graciously helped wrangle the last few chapters into shape as beta. If this chapter manages to achieve emotional continuity, then sailorstkwrning is whom all y'all should thank! *bows repeatedly* SECOND of all, thanks to adhd-wifi for agreeing to answer questions about Chinese language and culture. I finally have a sensitivity reader!!!
Having a sensitivity reader has meant changing some things, though. In the early chapters it's all small stuff; adhd-wifi hasn't gotten to the marriage chapter yet, so let's all hold onto our hats and pray on that one. I did also run the names of LWJ and WQ's kids by them though, and unfortunately all my names don't make much sense in Chinese! So they have been changed. A-Qu is now a-Qin
and now at least 60% less likely to get a sibling named a-Sneeze, thanks Mel Brooks,and Lan Yunshen is now Lan Yuxue!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Wen Qing turns slowly in a circle, taking in the devastation. Disciples lie unconscious near the doors of the Underworld Chamber, their limbs sprawled in such a way that it is obvious they are not merely asleep. Lan Baoyi, well-known as the number five cultivator of his generation, is fallen at the head of the room, and Grandmaster Lan Qiren has collapsed behind him, just as lost as the others.
Wen Qing takes Grandmaster Lan Qiren’s arm in her hands and begins to feel for his pulse. She doesn’t comment on his flesh—Wangji does not need to hear it—but although Lan Qiren’s muscles are as strong as ever, his forearm wiry and solid with the famous Lan upper body strength, his skin is as thin as paper. He grows old, even if he doesn’t show it. With his beard and hair as black as ever, it’s easy to forget that he’s pushing sixty. And while on the topic of things being forgotten... Huo Rong was telling her, too, about the strange comments that Lan Qiren makes sometimes, comments that suggest he does not remember things discussed only the day or so before...
He has blood trails from all of his qiqiao, but it appears the active bleeding has stopped. Probably because the Sword Ghost has been subdued.
She glances over her shoulder to where Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian are standing on either side of the darkly-roiling blade. "You have been back for less than a day."
Wei Wuxian jumps, then stumbles: off-balance in his borrowed body, she would bet. It's a bit lighter and weaker than his old one. "I didn't do this!" he protests. His arms spread wide, his face contorts. Wen Qing grins to herself as she sneaks another look behind her. Even out of his own body, he still has all his old mannerisms: broad, dramatic gestures, cleverness in the corners of his eyes and lips, restless energy and careless hands. She gives it no more than five minutes before he starts twirling the rude flute that has appeared in his grasp.
"Sure, it has nothing to do with you," she jeers, covering her fondness with scorn. "You reappear, and suddenly Cloud Recesses is once more being attacked, but certainly you weren't involved at all."
Wei Wuxian is her good friend, but even she isn't dumb enough to believe this.
She feels eyes on the back of her head and pauses, lowering Grandmaster Lan Qiren's arm to his side. She's going to have to kick them out if they don't let her work, but she can give them one or two minutes first. She turns.
Her husband is staring at her. "You know him."
She stares back, her jaw fallen open at the impossibility of what he is suggesting. "Are you saying you didn't?"
His eyes shift away, and she can breathe again. Okay, okay—he does know it's Wei Wuxian. Good; for a moment there, she was worried about brain damage. She rolls her eyes and returns to the topic at hand. "I don't think you released the Sword Ghost," she tells Wei Wuxian carefully, "but there's no way this timing is a coincidence."
"I agree." He shrugs and walks a careful three steps around to stand by Lan Wangji's side, then lifts his flute and twirls it between his fingers as he thinks. "Don't think I'm ungrateful to be alive, but... Someone is responsible for the deaths of the Mo clan, and—I know it was supposed to be me, but I really don't think it's me."
"It is not."
They both ignore Lan Wangji—Wei Wuxian because he's lost in thought, and Wen Qing because she knows full well how biased her husband is on this particular subject. She thinks back to what Wei Wuxian told her late last night as they stayed awake talking about his situation. "Those curse wounds on your arms don't heal until the target is dead, right?" she demands now. "So even if you personally killed them, you would still have been doing so as the tool of Mo Xuanyu. You had no other choice."
Actually, that's not quite true: she can think of at least one way to break the curse coercing him into killing Mo Xuanyu's targets. If he were struck several times in a row with Zidian, the accumulated charge from the whip would overwhelm the curse and shatter it. She's certain they could persuade Jiang Wanyin to cooperate, but she still doesn't mention the idea. Not only is the risk enormous—probably Wei Wuxian's spirit would depart again, and even if it didn't, so much lightning in his body could well leave him paralyzed—but also, even with all the risk, she's pretty sure that if she mentioned the idea, Wei Wuxian would want to try it. Completely unacceptable.
"I didn't kill them, though! It really was Sword Ghost," Wei Wuxian is saying. "But I think Sword Ghost was sent because someone knew GusuLan was coming. And I think I was sent for the same reason—but how could anyone know what Mo Xuanyu was planning?"
"Irrelevant." Lan Wangji is leaning, very slightly, to his right, just enough that his sleeves are brushing Wei Wuxian's skirts. Wen Qing tries very hard not to roll her eyes at how obvious he is, but it's difficult.
"What? How is it irrelevant?!" Wei Wuxian turns to Wangji and his actions grow even more exaggerated. He pouts like a child and this time Wen Qing fails to restrain her eyeroll. (Wangji's shoulders soften, though, so she supposes she should probably give him that one.) "Lan Zhaaan, why wouldn't it matter??"
Lan Wangji dips his head to indicate the sword again. "Track the spirit. Find the source."
...He intends to cut through all the misdirection by walking the straightest path humanly possible.
She wishes she were even close to surprised.
She turns away from them again, bending once more over the Grandmaster. "Take plenty of supplies," she tells them, "and make sure you keep me updated."
She refuses to turn around again. "You think I can't see where this is heading? I'm not stupid."
"Qing-jie—! I think I may be stupid. What are you talking about?"
She feeds a thin stream of qi into the Grandmaster through her grip on his hand. "Wangji is going to backtrack the source of the Sword Ghost," she repeats. "Well? Aren't you going with him?"
She knows Wei Wuxian. Ever since Lan Wangji left seclusion—and before he entered it, even, really—he has had a reputation for being wherever the chaos is. But in truth, that reputation should just as much belong to Wei Wuxian. Neither one of those two idiots has ever been capable of sitting on their hands for any period of time.
She’s had years to get used to this, and she wouldn’t expect anything else from Wangji. But from Wei Wuxian it hurts a little.
She does know better—she does! But... he only returned to her last night. This morning he woke and left the house while she was in the Surgery, and by the time she found him again he was here, wreaking havoc. Or—that’s not fair; it’s not his fault the Sword Ghost is wild and untameable. But still: he appeared, and now he’s dancing off again, and she hasn’t even had time to work up to talking to him about... things. About her marriage and her accomplishments.
She wants, for what are hopefully obvious reasons, to introduce him to her children, but she’s also afraid. What if he doesn’t like them? He has had difficulty getting along with certain Lans in the past, and her children are all Lans. And very Lan-ish Lans, too! But it’s still important, for many reasons, that he meet them, and in spite of her own nervousness—she had skittishly turned the subject every time her own marriage came up the night before—she was still planning to make the introductions as soon as a good opportunity arose.
She’s surprised Wei Wuxian didn’t ask her more directly about the matter; he’s not usually so restrained. And he must know she was pregnant, because she remembers telling him before he left, all those years ago.
Knowing Wei Wuxian... Oh god, what conclusions has he leaped to? Does he think she lost the pregnancy? Or did he decide something really crazy, like that she gave birth to his baby and abandoned it in favor of seducing Wangji? (Wen Qing thought about actually seducing Wangji on exactly one occasion in the last sixteen years she’s been married to him. She promptly lit the thought on fire and ground it under her foot. No.) The possibilities range from the tragic to the outlandish, and all of them are sure to be wrong. She needs to introduce him to her children—
But, regardless, it’s going to have to wait, now.
She knows that this is more important; she does. But it still stings.
On the other hand, though...
Wei Wuxian has never been hers alone. She can’t expect his death to have changed that; in fact, it only made it worse.
He’s not yours. You were never even in love with him!
But she could have been...
The missed chance still aches like the cold mountain air of Gusu in her throat.
“Take plenty of supplies,” she repeats after swallowing. “Write to me often. And for now, get out; I have work to do here.”
Indeed, they all have work to do.
(That’s the entire problem, isn’t it?)
They ride out that afternoon, making good time: with fresh horses and no significant baggage, they make it as far as Juniper Wine Town that first night.
Lan Wangji leads the way to an inn near the outskirts of town, clean but simple and rather large. Wei Wuxian is surprised: he had expected Lan Wangji to find the finest inn in town, or even go to the Supervisory Office of the LanlingJin clan. But when Lan Wangji enters the more humble inn, it is immediately obvious that not only was Lan Wangji not mistaken about the nature of this inn, he has also stayed here before. The innkeeper and his wife both welcome Lan Wangji with genuine happiness, far more than many who see the First Jade only for his rank.
“He stayed here the night he was married, you know,” the mistress of the inn tells Wei Wuxian, who tries not to raise his eyebrows too high in response. “His lovely wife arrived first, along with her whole family, and then him. They even had their banquet here!”
“Really?” Wei Wuxian asks, trying to look like he’s hanging on her words instead of telepathically asking Lan Wangji what the actual fuck??? “Wow, I didn’t realize they eloped!”
And why? Why on earth would Lan Wangji, would Hanguang-jun, do that?
Wei Wuxian had been under the impression that somehow, in the midst of all the terrible things that happened back when Wei Wuxian was, well... dying, Lan Wangji had spent more time with Wen Qing and they had fallen in love. Wen Qing has an abrupt nature and Lan Wangji is famously circumspect of his emotions, so neither is demonstrative, but the affection between them now is still obvious. Wei Wuxian remembers the soft smile on Wen Qing’s face as she regarded her sleeping husband and daughter, remembers the way she understood Lan Wangji’s plans back in the Underworld Chamber without him saying a word...
So it’s clear they are fond of each other, and Wei Wuxian has made some assumptions about the evolution of that affection, because it wasn’t in evidence at all the last time he saw the two of them together—back before his death. So it must have developed later, right? Lan Wangji must have travelled to the Burial Mounds to help the Wens and fallen in love with her then.
It seems now, though, that those assumptions were... not accurate. Completely wrong, in fact!
Lan Wangji loves rules. Loves them. If he could wear rules, and eat rules, and sleep with rules as his pillow, he would do it. (In fact, given his white robes and bland food and early bedtime, he somewhat already does!) Wei Wuxian can remember, early in his time at Cloud Recesses, Lan Qiren had listed off the many rules there for their class, and when Wei Wuxian had looked over, Lan Wangji had been smiling. Not widely, but it was a lot for Lan Wangji. (Wei Wuxian had been so struck by the sight that he immediately had to do something to annoy the other boy.)
So given how much he loves rules, Lan Wangji would never have eloped, not if there wasn’t an absolutely vital reason to do so.
Lan Qiren would have resisted the marriage to Wen Qing; that was clear enough. Lan Qiren never approved of the Wen arrogance, and had never stood up for the Wen Sect survivors. But there would have been ways around that.
Wei Wuxian thought about this some last night, and decided that Lan Wangji must have concealed the name of his bride, revealing only that he was in love and wished to marry until Lan Qiren had agreed to back the match. Once his word was given, Lan Qiren could not have backed out, and so the marriage proceeded. It would have worked: Lan Wangji is so important to his clan, and he is more than stubborn enough to refuse to marry anyone other than his love. Lan Qiren would have had to agree to such a demand.
But apparently, Lan Wangji took a more direct but far less sensible route, instead. Elopement! What on earth?!
Wei Wuxian thinks back to the harsh whip scars he saw on Lan Wangji’s back this morning. It wouldn’t surprise him to learn that some of those scars are due to this very situation.
And the timeline doesn’t work, either. The innkeeper’s wife said the Wens arrived first, then Lan Wangji—so he can’t have been with them from the Burial Mounds, can he? And for that matter, why wait until only a few days from Gusu before getting married, when there are towns every four or five days between here and there in which they could have accomplished the deed?
None of this makes any sense. None of it.
He turns to Lan Wangji and opens his mouth, ready to ask.
Lan Wangji glares. He looks at the innkeeper’s wife—standing ready, arms now empty of the meal she has just set down in front of them—and then back to Wei Wuxian, a warning in his gaze.
Wei Wuxian subsides, affecting an injured expression.
The food that night is classic Gusu fair, which means it is disgusting: bland, or bitter, or somehow both at once. Wei Wuxian works his way through it in a mechanical daze, washing it down with the cheap but serviceable wine, then follows Lan Wangji up to their rooms. The finest room in the inn has been given to Hanguang-jun, of course, but Wei Wuxian has the one next door, which is also quite large and well-appointed. He pokes his head into his own room, nods once in approval when he has seen it, then immediately ducks into Lan Wangji’s room instead and slides the door closed behind him.
Lan Wangji is standing in the middle of the room, staring at the bed. He is not moving. Wei Wuxian hovers near the door, watching, for long, silent seconds, but Lan Wangji does nothing.
He stands, back erect, his sword held in his left hand, his right clenched in a fist behind his back. He stares, intent on the bed which lies, seemingly innocent, in the middle of the floor.
In a contest of silence with Lan Wangji, Wei Wuxian is never, ever going to be the winner. He sighs internally then deliberately makes his voice light. “Fond memories?”
Lan Wangji turns at last, facing him swiftly enough that Wei Wuxian knows for sure he was caught unawares. He stares at Wei Wuxian for a second, too—not quite the same way he stared at the bed, but Wei Wuxian can’t put his finger on the difference. He says, “...I have stayed here many times in the last sixteen years. I have more memories of this place than the one night.”
Wei Wuxian nods, then realizes that Lan Wangji might think he was asking for details of his wedding night and hastily begins babbling instead: “It must bring back good thoughts though, right? There are many other inns in Juniper Wine Town, and you could always stay at the Supervisory Office, too. In fact, that might be more polite! But they know you here, so you must stay here frequently... Do you come here every time you travel?”
Lan Wangji cuts his eyes away and moves towards the dresser. He begins unloading his pouches onto the surface there. “When Wen Qing is with me.”
Wei Wuxian lifts his right hand and rubs idly at the surface of his chest. It aches; maybe he ate too much terrible Gusu food at dinner. “Not when you’re alone, though?”
“No need; swifter by sword.”
Of course; that should have been obvious. No need for Lan Wangji to stay in Juniper Wine Town when he can make it all the way to Mountain Mists City without straining.
Lan Wangji places the last of his luggage on the dresser, then moves away. There is a window set into the back wall, and he gestures Wei Wuxian over to stand with him before it.
Wei Wuxian goes, turning the answer he has just received over in his mind. It makes sense that Lan Wangji, who is strong in both body and cultivation, would choose to travel by sword whenever possible, but... “Wen Qing doesn’t have a sword?”
She lost hers during the Sunshot Campaign, but it’s not like GusuLan sect can’t afford a new one for her. It would be a small price to pay to add a cultivator of her ability to their ranks, and there’s even a small but real possibility that they will even have her original sword! It was taken as a prize during the Sunshot Campaign, after all.
“Nn.” Lan Wangji’s lips press briefly together. “Her idea.”
And Lan Zhan hates it, Wei Wuxian thinks to himself, watching the grim downturn of Lan Wangji’s mouth. Why? And “why” on both counts: why would Wen Qing decline a sword, and why would this refusal of hers so irritate Lan Wangji?
It’s the only guess that makes any sense, and Wei Wuxian is rewarded with an affirmative grunt at his deduction. “And the Elders,” Lan Wangji adds.
To be fair... If Wei Wuxian’s best, most rule-abiding student had up and eloped with a member of the enemy forces, Wei Wuxian would also take a great deal of comfort from a palpable show of non-aggression from that enemy. If Wen Qing is practicing as a doctor but not a cultivator in order to soothe ruffled feathers, it’s probably because there are so many feathers available for the soothing.
Wei Wuxian does not feel like being fair, though. “She should have a sword. She’s an excellent cultivator!”
Lan Wangji’s lips tighten again, so apparently, he agrees. But—
And, well, okay, it is... But this is still wrong.
Wei Wuxian changes the subject instead of fighting an already-lost battle. “The innkeeper said you got married here? Why?”
Lan Wangji gives him an odd look, as if he suspects Wei Wuxian has forgotten something important. Which he might have; his memory is legendarily terrible. “Supervisory office.”
“Right, but—why elope in the first place, I mean?”
This produces an even odder look, as if Wei Wuxian had suggested they get a drink together or forgotten that Lan Qiren hates him. Lan Wangji doesn’t answer.
Wei Wuxian sighs and tries again. Lan Qiren may have been a lost cause, but, “Why not persuade your brother to let you marry her? It’s easy to see how much he cares for you. I’m sure if you had said that you wished to marry, he would have helped you persuade your Uncle.”
“He would not.” Lan Wangji turns his head again, staring hard out the window as if he is angry. “In any event, there was no time for such a thing.”
“No time? Why not? When did you two get married, anyway?”
Lan Wangji gives him another incredulous look—well, for him, anyway—with wide eyes and pulled-together eyebrows for all of two seconds before he pulls himself together and clears his face. He looks back out the window again, but this time Wei Wuxian gets the impression it’s a way of avoiding the reaction he’s about to get. “We were wed as soon as possible after your death,” he answers, his voice low with... grief? Apology? Frustration? Maybe all of them.
The air leaves Wei Wuxian’s lungs in a rush. His stomach clenches, and his heart drops, too, like all of his internal organs have protested this declaration at once. “You weren’t at the Nightless City,” he remembers suddenly. “You didn’t see all that. Is this why? You were too busy romancing Wen Qing?” It shouldn’t hurt as much as it does. Lan Wangji had every right to romance Wen Qing; they’re obviously very happy together now. If it feels like a door closing right in his face, well, that’s hardly Lan Wangji’s fault.
But Wangji gives him that “how can you be this stupid?” look again, the one everyone gives Wei Wuxian when he forgets about obvious facts, and of course it’s not that simple. “Escorting,” Lan Wangji says, correcting him. “Burial Mounds was an unsafe place for the Wen Sect.”
“Everywhere was an unsafe place for the Wen Sect,” he answers, but the truth is Lan Wangji is right: if it weren’t for the intervention of Lan Wangji—which Wei Wuxian didn’t even know about until now—then, when he died, Wei Wuxian would have left his only remaining family on a mountain surrounded by corpses with no escape plan and no support. “But then why the haste in marriage?”
Lan Wangji turns away from the window in full now, staring at him, and come to think of it Wei Wuxian did sound pretty aggressive when he said that just now, didn’t he. There is an apology already rising to his lips when Lan Wangji says, “Before she showed.”
For half a second, Wei Wuxian still doesn’t know what Lan Wangji is talking about—showed? Showed what?—and then the angle of Lan Wangji’s hand as it hovers gently in front of his stomach spells it out.
Wei Wuxian’s knees become watery. He drops to the ground, only barely catching himself with his hands before crashing face-first into the floor.
This, this is what he had forgotten about. It’s a big thing, an enormous thing, an obelisk of obvious that comes crashing to the ground six inches in front of his nose, sending shockwaves through him and everything he believed about Lan Wangji’s marriage. No—everything he had thought he believed.
Wen Qing had not discussed this. She and he had stayed up for an hour the night before and Wei Wuxian had told her all about the things he had learned in regards to his own resurrection. He had explained to her the perfidy that led to his death, the trickery of the Jin clan and the betrayal by those he thought he could trust. But somehow, the child she and he had made together—the son, or possibly the daughter—had not come up. By design, he realizes now; every time he turned the topic to anything relating to her marriage, Wen Qing had distracted him by asking about something else. He knows little of her life in general at this point, much less that portion of it which might in any way involve him.
He didn’t even know his own child’s name. He could pass his son or daughter in the street and not know who he—or she—is.
He presses himself up on his hands and forces his body into a kneeling position, then cranks his head back so that he’s looking up at Lan Wangji. The world swims in front of his eyes for a second, and he has to bite his cheek savagely in order to keep himself steady. Wei Wuxian has a naturally thick face—it is one of his gifts from childhood—but, he thinks, no one would have a face thick enough to do this without quailing.
He squeezes his eyes shut, takes a deep breath, and says, “Thank you for raising my child as your own,” all in one breath without stopping.
Then he cracks one eyelid and peeks up at Lan Wangji.
Lan Wangji is looking down at him, but he doesn’t look quite... himself. Not like he’s possessed or anything, but as if he is... distracted by something? He’s still looking at Wei Wuxian, though, and—Wei Wuxian glances around quickly—there’s nothing on the floor or behind him that Lan Wangji could be focused on instead. It’s just Wei Wuxian here, albeit in a borrowed body, kneeling in front of Lan Wangji and thanking him from the bottom of his heart.
Lan Wangji’s gaze sharpens, his attention focusing on Wei Wuxian like sunlight through a far-seeing lens, and burning just as hot. He says, “Mine.”
Wei Wuxian’s jaw drops, not entirely of his own volition. True, expressing gratitude of this level is frightening, but it still doesn’t explain the way his heart is suddenly galloping in his chest.
He says, “What?”
“Mine,” Lan Wangji grunts, turning away to look back out the window. “Raised my own children—all of them, now. They are all mine.”
Lan Wangji, of all people, is babbling; he must be dissembling, but what is he trying to hide that he had almost revealed?
Still... “I am glad,” he says. His throat is thick, and his eyes are stinging. He doesn’t think it’s just from the loss of face. “Children deserve to have good fathers. They deserve to be loved.”
Lan Wangji continues to look out into the rain and pointedly says nothing.
Wei Wuxian sits back, less kneeling than sitting with his feet under him, and thinks about what he has just said. He’s right; it’s true, that children deserve to have good fathers. He thinks about his own father—fathers, plural. He has few memories of his blood father, but the one that stands out is golden with love, saturated in it like a sweet sponge full of syrup. And Sect Leader Jiang...
Wei Wuxian closes his eyes against the stinging. Sect Leader Jiang loved him as his own. He never hesitated to offer Wei Wuxian comfort when he was hurt, or counsel when he was confused, or...
Actually, that’s not quite true; he did hesitate, but only if Madame Yu was around. Wei Wuxian can hardly blame him for that, since Madame Yu became very upset when she thought Sect Leader Jiang was coddling Wei Wuxian. Or any of them! He can hardly blame Sect Leader Jiang for that.
Wei Wuxian thinks back to the last day of the last time he was at Cloud Recesses. He and Shijie and Jiang Cheng were all heading home, and he and Jiang Cheng were messing around, as usual. He had done an impression of Lan Qiren, only to stick his tongue out at Jiang Cheng, who immediately gave chase.... He can still remember the look on Sect Leader Jiang’s face when he circled back around to walk beside him and Shijie again. No, Wei Wuxian has no doubt that Sect Leader Jiang loved him as much as any person could love Wei Wuxian. Truly, the day Sect Leader Jiang found him as a child, he was extremely blessed.
Lan Wangji’s robes rustle as he turns back from the window and looks down once more at Wei Wuxian. His hand rises, then falls again to his side. He says, “Goodnight.”
Wei Wuxian is on his feet suddenly and without any particular decision to move. “Right!” he agrees, feeling awkward. His body isn’t reacting in the way he’s used to; he’s not sure if that’s because of his own high state of emotion, or because it actually isn’t his body. “Bedtime! I’ll just—go back to my room. Goodnight!”
He bows jerkily and ducks back through the door, not looking at the bed that Lan Wangji and Wen Qing must have shared. He enters his own room and, only barely pausing to kick off his shoes, flops into bed. He really should change the bandage on his one remaining curse wound before sleep, but...
The bed is quite comfortable, really. His eyes drift shut without any input from him.
Jin Ling should never have let Fairy go to Qinghe, but firstly, Nie Huaisang personally requested him, and secondly, going to pick up his dog was better than going straight home. Jin Ling does not love Koi Tower. (Also, if he has to spend even one minute more than necessary dealing with the banal plebes who babysit him every time he does anything, he’s going to scream or possibly murder one of them in short order. And some people would consider that poor behavior, Uncle Jiang!)
He tosses his head and strides through the marketplace, short legs taking long steps. (They’ll grow eventually; his father and Uncle Jiang are both quite tall. He has to get that last growth spurt eventually... right?)
He doesn’t like Qinghe. It could be worse, of course; the cities near the Unclean Realm are all bustling enough. They’re just so... businesslike!
Jin Ling shakes his head again, abruptly self-conscious of the jingle of golden chains in his hair. But that’s basically his point: Lanling is a place where wealth is accumulated in order that the residents might live a good life, but here it’s all business. Merchants who make a profit in Lanling buy silks, or gold, or wine; or they give their hired hands a bonus, so that those servants can enjoy the same.
Here, merchants who turn a profit invest all of that money back into their enterprises. It makes for a stable sort of economy, of course, and there’s prudence behind this course, but Jin Ling never forgets what his father told him: a life of nothing but prudence is not a life. A man must also have honor, and love, and joy.
(At this point, he had taken Jin Ling’s mother’s hand and smiled into her eyes: so soppy. Sometimes Jin Ling expects little birds to spontaneously show up and twitter around those two. He has spent too much time with his Uncle Jiang to take this with anything sort of an eye-roll.)
(Jin Ling actually has a great deal of respect for his father, but he has been taught by all three of his uncles and also every last minute of his own experience that life is easier if he does not show this.)
Anyway, Qinghe isn’t bad, it’s just... a little short on joy.
Of course, what does he know, right? He’s the son of the indolent Jin family, so of course he thinks there should be more leisure. Right? Probably he thinks there should be more prostitutes, too, because of his grandfather. Right?
...Jin Ling a little bit hates Qinghe, but he hates Lanling so much more, sometimes.
He’s making for the outer gates of Qinghe—but not in any particular hurry—when he hears the words “Yiling Patriarch” shouted off to the side, followed by something that sounds an awful lot like “curse.” His Uncle Jiang and his Uncle Jin both were very particular that no one must practice the wicked tricks of the Yiling Patriarch; anything that sounds anything like that bears investigation. Jin Ling was actually more frightened by Uncle Mo using one such trick than he had been by the soul-stealing statute. Uncle Mo should know better; nothing good can come of this! Uncle Jiang will know!
Except, Jin Ling recalls as he comes up behind someone talking to a merchant selling sketches of the evil Patriarch, Uncle Jiang does know now—and could do nothing, because for some reason Hanguang-jun of all people chose to interfere.
Now, Jin Ling is not stupid. He’s quite clever, and he has been learning sect politics since he was roughly five—the age he was when his cousin a-Song died. His parents are excellent in their joint role in the Supervisory Office, and Uncle Jin and Uncle Jiang both fostered him at their sides. In that order, too, so he learned how to read faces and then went to where there was a face worth reading. He knows his Uncle Jiang hates— haaaates— Hanguang-jun. What he does not know is why.
But apparently Hanguang-jun returns the sentiment, because he looked downright bitchy when Uncle Jiang tried to take Uncle Mo in.
And speak of the devil... “Uncle Mo, what are you doing here? Why are you talking to this charlatan?” Jin Ling reaches out before anyone can react and rips a page out of the peddler’s hand. He glances down at it and snorts in derision. “I don’t know if I should even punish you, to be honest; there’s no way this is accurate.”
“Ha! I told you!” Uncle Mo crosses his arms over his chest and glares at the peddler. It’s strange to see him without cosmetics; his face is bizarrely open, much more easy to read than usual. (For example, right now he looks petty and vindicated.)
Jin Ling tosses the papers in the air and puffs out his chest, then pokes the charlatan in the chest with the hilt of his sword. “You! Take your cheap quackery and buzz off! Be glad you got found by me, and not my Uncle in the YunmengJiang sect!”
Uncle Jiang’s reputation is well enough established that this reference is understood, and the peddler runs away. Jin Ling turns his attention to Uncle Mo, who is looking at him with a strangely obvious expression of disbelief. “What’s wrong with you?”
“With me? What’s wrong with you! Such manners from such a young man... What are the youth learning these days!” Uncle Mo presses his fingers against his chest.
Jin Ling scowls. He can’t even think of the words for how fundamentally wrong this is. Uncle Mo is mad; Jin Ling knows this, knows it maybe better than anybody else in Lanling, because everyone else only saw one side of him. But Uncle Mo is not mad like this.
“Are you ill?” he demands, “Do you have a fever which is messing with your mind? What happened to your personality??”
What he actually wants to ask is, “Did all that time locked up in a podunk village drive you the rest of the way crazy?!” But that’s the voice of Uncle Jiang talking to him, and so he puts it aside.
Uncle Jiang is the battle Uncle, but for talking to Uncle Mo, Jin Ling always listens to his mom instead.
Mom was the one who figured out that Uncle Mo was lonely. She met him on one of her visits to Koi Tower, took pity, and promptly pulled him from the tower and dragged him home with her—which luckily meant that Jin Ling had an excuse to go home with her, as well. Thank god, really; Jin Ling really doesn’t like Lanling very much. When he’s the sect leader...
Ah, but the list of changes Jin Ling wants to make is exhaustive and also off-topic. The real point here—without distractions—is that Uncle Mo is acting seriously unlike himself.
Jin Ling is worried.
“Where are you heading?” he asks, not waiting for Uncle Mo to answer his previous questions because he already knows the answer will be nonsense anyway. “Is Hanguang-jun still with you?”
“Oh! Yes, he’s... somewhere up there.” Uncle Mo waves a hand casually, and for a second Jin Ling relaxes; that sort of fluid gesture is pretty normal for Uncle Mo. “We’re on a night hunt; he’s gathering information. Why, what are you doing here?”
“Picking up his dog after Fairy provided stud service” is the actual answer to that question, but that’s such an embarrassing thing to say to his uncle! “None of your business,” he sniffs. “What night hunt? I haven’t heard of anything in the area... Do you want help?”
“No, I do not want help! It’s dangerous!”
...Okay, what is going on with Uncle Mo? He has to know that that is exactly the wrong way to discourage Jin Ling... right? “I can take care of myself! Come on, what’s the story?”
“Oh, no! Do you think your mother wants you going on night hunts like this?”
“I’ll be fine! I’ve got Fairy, don’t I? And since when do you go on night hunts, anyway?”
“Fairy! Who’s Fairy?” Uncle Mo demands, and Jin Ling feels it like a splash of cold water down his back.
“Uncle Mo! What is wrong with you? Did you hit your head?!” For a second, Jin Ling remembers his Uncle Jiang’s assumption that the Yiling Patriarch’s spirit would return at any time and take over an innocent person. Obviously, this isn’t the Yiling Patriarch, and come to that Uncle Mo isn’t exactly innocent either, but it’s still disquieting to see him so unlike himself.
Uncle Mo knows who Fairy is. Uncle Mo loves Fairy—he used to rub Fairy’s belly while Fairy rolled around on the floor in ecstasy.
Maybe he did hit his head.
Jin Ling whistles, short and sharp, and is rewarded with the pad of soft feet and the click of blunt claws. He and Uncle Mo both look down to see the wild-maned wonder dog take up its place at his side.
Jin Ling smiles in pleasure at having Fairy back with him once again.
Uncle Mo, on the other hand, screams like a girl—a loud girl—and takes off running.
Fairy looks up at Jin Ling and whines, betrayed by the terror of his former playmate. Jin Ling shakes his head in bafflement. “Don’t look at me, Fairy; I’ve got no clue, either!”
After that, of course, he at least has to check the story. He asks around to see if there’s a night hunt in the area. Much to his surprise, there actually is: a man-eating bunker, which sounds ridiculous but is corroborated by at least three different people.
Jin Ling sets out for Walker Ridge, Fairy trotting faithfully along with him. The dog even takes point when the fog gets too thick; it’s easy to become confused in the mist, but there’s no fooling the wonder dog’s nose. Jin Ling uses his sword to cut a hole in the side of the bunker—with enough qi poured into it, a good blade can cut through anything, a fact which maaaaybe brings Jin Ling just a little bit too much joy. He steps over the edge of the crawls in, trying to see what the big deal is.
He hears... something. He shakes his head to clear it, rubs at his ear, then closes his eyes and listens. He hears—
The world goes dark.
Jin Ling wakes glaring and batting Wei Wuxian’s hands away, which is a relief because from what Wei Wuxian can tell this is normal: Jin Ling spends most of his life glaring and hitting things.
Or rather, glaring, hitting things, and being rude— which he immediately is. “Who are you, and what have you done to my Uncle!”
Wei Wuxian pretends to rear back in offense. He and Lan Zhan had gone out to that bunker and rescued Jin Ling at great trouble to themselves—okay, mostly through the efforts of Lan Zhan, who did all the Inquiry-ing and finding his way through the fog and is now off chasing the mysterious figure they saw, but—still! Wei Wuxian is the one who hauled Jin Ling all the way back into town, and that wasn’t easy!
For someone so short, Jin Ling is surprisingly heavy. Must be all those gold chains he wears.
“Oh, I like that! The ingratitude of this generation! I just saved your life—and, hey! I am your uncle!” That last bit is technically true. Wei Wuxian is quite pleased with himself for it.
“Saved my life? Maybe; although without you I wouldn’t have even gone out there in the first place—”
What? No, wait— what?
Wei Wuxian now remembers telling Jin Ling he was on a night hunt. Well, he had to tell him something, didn’t he? He couldn’t just say he was in Qinghe tracking the source of a ghostly arm! But if that was indeed the hint that had sent Jin Ling out to investigate that bunker, it meant that Wei Wuxian was partially responsible for Jin Ling’s near-death experience.
Wei Wuxian droops like a flower in too much sun as Jin Ling continues, “You’re not my Uncle, though. Uncle Mo knows my dog’s name, and doesn’t run from him, and doesn’t use demonic cultivation!”
Jin Ling spits this last bit like a curse. Wei Wuxian grimaces, then waves his hand languidly in the air. Jin Ling’s eyes follow the gesture, and a frown of confusion crosses his face. “Ah, aha, that’s right,” Wei Wuxian says, wincing. “You’ve caught me; I’m really the Yiling Patriarch, spirit summoned with a foul blood ritual, here to take vile revenge.” He watches Jin Ling cautiously and with relief as the young man—really, he’s only a boy—swallows this misdirection.
“Who do you think I am?! I’m not my—I mean, I’m not paranoid!” Jin Ling squeezes his eyes shut and takes a deep breath, and Wei Wuxian has a sudden, nauseatingly clear memory of his Shijie doing the same thing when they were children together. He swallows the sudden ache, the feeling in his chest like the spreading bruise from a solid kick.
Jin Ling opens his eyes and speaks bluntly. “I know you’re not really the Yiling Patriarch, but... Who are you, though? Because you can’t be my Uncle Mo. You just can’t.”
“Eh?” Wei Wuxian cocks his head. “Why do you say that?”
Jin Ling rolls his eyes and gestures a large circle around Wei Wuxian’s face. “Because that, for one thing. Come on! You trust me enough to save me from... whatever that was... but not enough to tell me your name?” He snatches up his boots and starts to put them on. He doesn’t seem to have noticed the curse mark on his leg, and Wei Wuxian isn’t inclined to tell him: he’ll just get all weird and defensive about it, and then Wei Wuxian won’t be able to lift it off.
Wei Wuxian grins, enjoying himself now. “I told you, I’m the Yiling Patriarch! What, do I have to summon a corpse to convince you?” Although, come to think of it, he already has summoned a corpse: Wen Ning came to his flute back at Dafan. And how was that possible, anyway?! Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes in thought. The Jin sect claimed that they had burned Wen Ning...
Jin Ling, clueless as to the direction of Wei Wuxian’s thoughts, makes a disgusted noise and shoots to his feet. He grabs the sword off the nearby table and brandishes it without taking it out of the sheath.
“If you’re not going to tell me, then don’t! I don’t care. Just know that you can’t torture my Uncle by taking his body and not have anything happen! Some day we’re going to get rid of you!”
He pushes past Wei Wuxian and down the stairs. After a second of gaping at his back, Wei Wuxian follows; it wouldn’t do for Jin Ling to get lost in the Qinghe streets, after all.
He’s too late. By the time he reaches the street, Jin Ling is gone, and no matter how Wei Wuxian calls, no answer comes from his nephew.
Wei Wuxian chews his lip in frustration and slows to a walk, pacing through the dark streets. He glances in the direction of the bridge where he and Lan Zhan are supposed to meet, but there are too many buildings between here and there; it’s out of sight.
He can’t just let Jin Ling wander around alone, can he? Sure, Jin Ling is sixteen, but he’s not exactly an adult! What if something were to happen? Who could Jin Ling call to for help?
Wei Wuxian strains his ears, but he doesn’t hear any cries for help.
He does hear something else, though.
Something close, and hip-height.
Something that sounds like the panting of an enormous, slavering beast.
He looks down...
Jin Ling is not at all inclined to believe the stranger looking back from Uncle Mo’s eyes is the Yiling Patriarch. Currently, though, it doesn’t matter what Jin Ling believes, because Uncle Jiang has gotten ahold of the poor sod, and no matter what or who is inside, Uncle Jiang will always see the Yiling Patriarch first. It’s why he’s so hard on anybody caught using demonic cultivation.
Mind, this one actually is using demonic cultivation—obviously, since he isn’t Uncle Mo— so Jin Ling is pretty furious with both of them. And to add to his problems, the stranger still isn’t telling anybody his name.
Actually, Not Uncle Mo hasn’t been telling anybody anything. Mostly he’s just been whimpering a lot: Uncle Jiang has Fairy standing guard.
Jin Ling isn’t sure how he feels about this. To be honest, Jin Ling is rarely sure how he feels about Uncle Jiang, but never more than right now. It doesn’t help that “curled into a ball and whimpering” is the closest the stranger has come to looking like the real Uncle Mo all night, but also... Are the extreme lengths Uncle Jiang goes to to destroy demonic cultivation really worth it? He’s very cruel, and has only grown more so with time. It’s like he’s always searching for something, and only grows more frustrated with every year he doesn’t find it.
But Uncle Jiang and Uncle Mo are family, and Jin Ling knows he should always be on their side.
On the other hand, what if they aren’t on the same side as each other? Uncle Jiang would absolutely slay Uncle Mo’s body if it meant destroying the spirit inhabiting it. And Not-Uncle did save him from the man-eating bunker...
Jin Ling sighs and waits by the door. A minute ago, the shouting began; it’s too muffled by the wooden door to make out the words, but obviously it’s Uncle Jiang and Not-Uncle Mo, both of them distressed and angry and... hurting?
Jin Ling’s brows draw together so sharply he can feel the little ridge of flesh between the wrinkle. He reaches up and knocks.
When Jin Ling opens the door, Not Uncle Mo is watching Uncle Jiang, and this, too, sends an unhappy qualm through Jin Ling’s stomach.
His face is...
Jin Ling bites his tongue.
Not Uncle Mo is looking at Uncle Jiang like Uncle Jiang is carrying a handful of gold coins and passing them out one by one to everyone else but him. He looks like Uncle Jiang is choking him to death while at the same time promising to raise his grandchildren up to the highest rank in the land. (Not that Uncle Mo had any children, or would... Not the point, though.)
He looks like Uncle Jiang is wonderful, and terrible, both at once, and like he has simultaneously longed for and dreaded this moment of seeing him again.
...“Again” implies he has seen him before.
None of this matters. Jin Ling owes Not Uncle Mo a debt; maybe he had better just pay that off right now...
Jin Ling adjusts his own expression and starts in on a distraction.
Wei Wuxian is in pain both physical and mental by the time he meets Lan Wangji on the bridge. His body hurts from Zidian’s strikes, and his leg pulses with the curse wound he lifted off Jin Ling every time he puts pressure on it, but the worst of the pain is his mind.
Jiang Cheng is so angry at Wei Wuxian for dying. He really can’t credit it... Everyone seems better off with Wei Wuxian written out of the story, so why should Jiang Cheng be so furious with him? Grief, yes... But this much grief? Really?
Wei Wuxian knows Jiang Cheng, knows this is just how he is. Grief becomes anger; loss becomes anger; jealousy becomes anger. There’s no need for Wei Wuxian to take it personally. But so much rage when Wei Wuxian has done nothing but make Jiang Cheng’s, Shijie’s, everybody’s lives better by dying...
Maybe Jiang Cheng is only angry that Wei Wuxian came back.
But no—because he seemed honestly relieved when he saw Wei Wuxian running from the hellbeast.
What’s its name? Fairy? A ridiculous name.
Wei Wuxian would surely have chosen a much better name than Fairy. He’s sure of it.
He crosses the last street before the bridge, his eyes on his feet, one step after another, pain throbbing throughout his body. Almost to Lan Wangji; almost to safety.
Ahh, but what about Jin Ling?
This is another tragedy. Wei Wuxian’s bones ache with it, adding to the symphony of pain.
Jin Ling freed Wei Wuxian by distracting Jiang Cheng, at great risk to himself—or at least, so Jiang Cheng made it sound. Jin Ling seems unimpressed with Jiang Cheng’s threats, so maybe they are all for show. But still, Jin Ling did not have to free Wei Wuxian, especially since afterward, he didn’t seem clear on whether he could trust him or not.
“You’re not my uncle,” he had repeated as they stood under the forest outside town, and Wei Wuxian had finally given in.
“I am not your Uncle Mo,” he admitted, and Jin Ling looked briefly vindicated. “Heyyy, I am no demon, though! Your Uncle Mo... Ah, are you sure you want to hear this?”
“I’ll have to sooner or later.” Jin Ling crossed his arms and turned his face in the direction of the stream they stood beside. Trying to look tough; he mostly just looked young.
Wei Wuxian winced. Jin Ling was doubtless right, but Wei Wuxian didn’t want to have to be the one to tell him!
Still, this was Shijie’s son. Wei Wuxian owed him the truth.
“There was a ritual,” he began, and then described it. He went into detail—too much detail to be faked—but held back crucial information that would allow Jin Ling to actually perform it. There had been enough of that already in the world! “...And then I was summoned into his body, and he went on to the afterlife—his spirit is settled, there’s no way for it to linger after such a ritual. You can be sure of that, at least.”
“Hmmm...” Jin Ling crossed his arms and stood like a thoughtful, angry, stocky little statue. “So he is at peace?”
“Yes—I swear. He is not among the restless dead.” It was the one comfort Wei Wuxian could take from the whole wretched tragedy.
“Hmmm... And you have no ill intentions towards anybody?”
Wei Wuxian laughed, a little crazed. He had never had ill intentions towards anybody! They had always had ill intentions towards him— that wasn’t the same thing! “The curse compels me to take his vengeance,” he admitted out loud. “Other than that one life, whoever it is... I have no plans to harm anyone.” He allowed his smile to turn dark and twisted, the way that used to intimidate people. “I suppose that can always change if I’m treated too badly, however.”
“Hmmm...” Jin Ling said for a third time. Finally he turned away from the river, fixing Wei Wuxian with an angry glance. “So what is your name, then? Since you’re not my uncle?”
“I don’t think I should tell you—hey hey hey, hey! No hitting!!!” Wei Wuxian blocked with his arms and scrambled down the bank of the stream. “I have a reason! I do!”
Jin Ling swung with his scabbarded sword. “Well, tell me, then!”
“Hey! I am your Uncle, you know—”
“You are not!”
“—or at least, I’m in your Uncle Mo’s body! If you knew my name, can you be sure you’d never use it? If you knew who I am, can you be sure your behavior towards your ‘Uncle Mo’ would never arouse suspicion?”
Jin Ling paused, listening, face tight with anger still. Such a short fuse... He’ll have to learn to damp his match sometime!
Wei Wuxian lowered his arms from over his head and sighed. He stepped back, then shocked Jin Ling by going into a formal bow.
“I’m trying to do good in the world,” he said, head lowered. “I can promise you that. I’m here to lay a ghost to rest, and it’s a complicated spirit; it’s going to take me a while. We may run into each other again. And at that point, I will still have nothing but avuncular thoughts for you. I’m not your Uncle Mo—but will you let me be your Uncle anyway? Please?”
Jin Ling gaped at him for a long, silent moment, but at last he agreed. Wei Wuxian had persuaded him...
...Which would make him the first person in about twenty years to change their mind about me!
Wei Wuxian looks up.
Lan Wangji is waiting for him at the bridge, standing tall and elegant, his hair and robes gently swaying in the breeze over the water. Moonlight drips down over him like a fine silver cloak, like even the goddess in the moon wants to reach out touch Lan Wangji’s cheek.
Wei Wuxian smiles and limps onto the bridge.
This chapter is 8900 words, and I STILL didn't get to drop the damn "mind blown" moment! Next chapter is not quite finished, but it's close... It's currently sitting at 10,000 words.
What am I doing with my life.
ETA: it's drafted now, it's at 13,000+ words and it's gonna get
some more as I edit for smoothness, no seriously, what am I doing with my life!cut in half due to length
Also, I am informed that in the original canon MXY's soul was in fact destroyed by the ritual. I didn't get that so much because at the very start of the show, that soul stands there and argues with WWX, and I'm inclined to do canon divergence on that. I hate killing people
as you can probably tell from the 90k+ of Everybody Lives ficso fuck it, even MXY gets to move his ass along now :)
CW this chapter and the next for non-gender-based dysphoria
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Wei Wuxian dreams of falling and falling, air whipping past him as he plummets to the ground. He gropes for some hand, any hand, to catch him...
No hand appears. He falls.
He always falls.
When it was a child, it was easy. Jump from a tree, Shijie will catch him; jump from the pier, the river will break his fall. His falling dreams—he’s had them as long as he can remember—were harmless, almost fun.
It’s a little different when the fall ends in the Burial Mounds, though. He wanted to live—even as he mourned his core, even through the pain of its loss and the beating he had just received, even though Sect Leader Jiang was dead and Madame Yu was dead and Wei Wuxian’s parents had been dead for most of his life but he still missed them sometimes—
Even with all of that, he still wanted to live.
He wasn’t giving up; he wasn’t.
But the things that caught him in the Burial mounds were almost worse than death—and when he fell again, years later, he got to make that comparison personally.
When he wakes, it is with the sheets tangled around him.
He tumbles out of bed and only barely makes it to the bucket before vomiting. He is clammy and shaking, and his head pounds, but although he drank last night, it was not nearly enough to account for this. No, this is a simple reaction to a common enough condition—although, in most people, the trauma is not caused by memories of actually dying.
He sits back and wipes his mouth, then abandons any hope of frugality and calls for a bath, instead.
By the time his bath is cooling he feels much better. Good to face the day clean, with no drying sweat of nightmares on his back! He brushes his hair and pulls it up into a ponytail, then pauses with his hands still on the strands.
It has now been weeks since he was brought back, weeks of travelling with Lan Wangji and searching for the body parts of the Sword Ghost. How many days? Wei Wuxian has lost count.
Well, how many days has it been since he began thinking of this as his hair, his hands?
How long has he been comfortable with his possession of Mo Xuanyu’s body?
Wei Wuxian lowers his hands and turns, looking around the room. There are few enough signs of personality here; it is, after all, the second-best room in the second-best inn in Yueyang. No need for individuality in such temporary accommodations. Still, Wei Wuxian’s effects are scattered around the room: his scarlet hair ribbon is still draped across the dresser in front of him, his night-colored outer robes are tossed carelessly across the bed. His flute sits on the table beside the bed, the red threads of its charm spreading like bloodstains over the lacquered wood.
Wei Wuxian looks again, but finds nothing new on a second examination.
Few enough signs of personality in a richly-decorated room, and all of them his.
Disorientation strikes him a blow from behind, horrible and sudden. He staggers to the bed, falling down onto it. Better not to be standing right now; this has happened to him three times previously in the past couple weeks, and slowly he is learning the lessons of adaptation.
It’s not his body, is the problem.
Or rather, it is—it was given to him, fair and square—but it’s not the one he was born with, and sometimes that’s just... too much. The room is too large (he is too short), or the sounds are wrong (Mo Xuanyu has broken his nose at some point, and yes it healed straight but he can hear his own breathing).
There is no way out of these fits except by persevering through them, but it helps if he can lessen the sense of wrongness. So Wei Wuxian crawls beneath the covers—bedsheets are mostly the same everywhere—and closes his eyes. He breathes through his mouth until the whistle that’s always on the edge of his awareness these days ceases—in and out, slow like the tides. It’s okay if he shakes while doing it; there isn’t anyone here to see it.
Give it some time. The fit will fade.
Give it some time. He’ll be fine.
Wei Wuxian thinks of his words to Jin Ling. He promised that Mo Xuanyu was not haunting the world, and that should be true.... but.
He shivers beneath the blanket, feeling as if he were at sea on an ill-formed boat.
Mo Xuanyu was not born into a prominent clan; he would not have been through the spiritual ceremony as a child. And, also...
Wei Wuxian’s arm throbs, a painful reminder of the last, still-unhealed wound.
He still hasn’t taken Mo Xuanyu’s last vengeance.
It occurs to him as he huddles, dizzy and sick beneath the blanket, that there's no harm in honoring Mo Xuanyu’s spirit. Nothing wrong with saying a prayer and lighting some incense.
It would be better still if he could find something for an offering.
But what? The only things Wei Wuxian knows about Mo Xuanyu are that the young man was a cutsleeve, and mad, and unhappy, and that he thought giving his body to Wei Wuxian would be preferable rather than continuing to be all of those things.
Wei Wuxian will just have to come up with something to offer.
He remembers the Jiang words: Attempt the impossible.
But—no, he’s not part of YunmengJiang anymore.
Well attempt it anyway, dumbass!
...Yes, that’s a bit more his style.
Wei Wuxian stays beneath the blanket until the fit of disorientation passes, and then resumes his slow progress towards starting his day, now with a renewed sense of purpose.
They push hard that day and the next, making their way to Yueyang where Lan Wangji turns Wei Wuxian’s world on its head twice in twelve hours: the first time, by drinking with baijiu with him, and the second by sleeping it off until the sun is high and the market in full swing.
Wei Wuxian takes advantage of the time alone to meet in secret with Wen Ning, whom he instructs to follow them discreetly, before heading to the market district.
He grins, basking in the sunlight and remembering Lan Wangji’s behavior of the previous night. A spring comes into his step as he walks. Grabbing Wen Ning into a hug, stealing chickens, carving graffiti... It was like Lan Wangji was a whole different person once the alcohol kicked in. And yet, he was still himself, too... It was actually incredibly charming!
“Oooh, Hanguang-juuuun! What would your wife say if she could see you now, behaving in such a way?”
A large, strong-fingered hand gripped Wei Wuxian’s tightly. “She cannot know.”
Wei Wuxian grinned teasingly. “Well, she doesn’t know! She’s back in Gusu, and we’re all the way out here!”
Lan Wangji shook his head, however, and didn’t release Wei Wuxian’s arm. “Do not tell her. Alcohol is forbidden to Lan Wangji.”
“Yes, yes, three thousand rules—”
“Wait, you added another thousand? ....Seriously?!”
“The rules say not within Cloud Recesses.” Lan Wangji looked down at his feet, scuffing one toe in the earth like a schoolboy. “But Wen Qing says, Not Ever. Because, last time,” he added, and this was nothing even close to an adequate explanation.
Wei Wuxian twitched his robes in an impression of an angry housewife. “You mean to tell me you have been going and getting drunk... without me??? How could you!” He pouted exaggeratedly, then laughed again.
Lan Wangji shook his head at these antics. “Emperor’s Smile,” he answered, overly literal and very serious about it, in the too-careful manner of drunks everywhere.
Wei Wuxian gaped for a second and then danced up to Lan Wangji, poking him in the firm thickness of his bicep. “Ahh?? Isn’t it the greatest?”
Hanguang-jun shook his head somberly and rearranged his robes, giving an impression of primness. He said, ”It tastes like frostbite.”
Wei Wuxian gasped, pressing one hand to his chest, cut to the quick by this blasphemy.
It’s no surprise that Lan Wangji is still sleeping it off!
But it’s a beautiful day and Wei Wuxian is in an unrecognizable body—even to himself, these days—so he sees no harm in making his way through the city.
As is his habit, he chats with all the merchants he meets as he shops for a suitable offering. Ribbons and charms, vegetables and hot fried noodles... Yueyang is alive with vibrant color both literally and metaphorically.
It makes the strangeness in Mo Xuanyu’s bones and skin recede further, and leaves Wei Wuxian almost a whole individual once more.
He finds the rouge just as he starts to think he should return to the inn. The sun is hot overhead, although a brisk breeze prevents it from being oppressive, and Lan Wangji will most likely want to get on the road shortly. He should turn back and go see how Hanguang-jun is recovering from his maiden voyage on the good ship Baiju—
A neat row of small jars catches his eye.
He isn’t even thinking about rouge when he heads over; he’s just a self-indulgent person who wants something nice to wash his hair with, at first. The sweet-scented bath gels and bean soaps in the stall are well made, and Wei Wuxian really does want to buy a jar of the gel—but they aren’t the only thing the merchant has to offer.
The rouges are positioned to catch the sun in their pink and red depths, their jars made of clear glass so that shoppers can see their hues. Wei Wuxian looks at the baffling variety available and mentally flails.
He turns to the merchant. “Which one should I get?”
“Is it for you, or a young lady?” asks the amused merchant, thankfully without any judgement to the question. “I can’t match the color to someone I can’t see.”
“Uh... For my... cousin?” Wei Wuxian winces. Surely Mo Xuanyu will not mind the tiny fib about their relationship? “Yes, he looked—looks! ...very much like me.”
Exactly like him, actually. Oh well.
The merchant nods, face sad. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she says. Then her eyes gleam and she pulls out five jars of rouge and six of the soaps Wei Wuxian had been looking at, and the bargaining begins.
By the time Wei Wuxian leaves the stall after a dizzying round of haggling he has a jar of lemongrass-scented bath gel, a pot of rouge the same shade of warm pink as a sunset, and two more pots of blood red lipcolor that he has no idea what he’s going to do with, but the merchant threw them in as a bargain if Wei Wuxian would buy the larger size of the soap.
...Eh, he’ll find a use for sooner or later.
He is waiting outside the inn when Lan Wangji finally makes it downstairs. He isn’t resentful of this, exactly, but he does think he might bring it up the next time Lan Wangji is up and active at some ridiculously early hour of the morning. (So, probably tomorrow.)
“Do you remember anything that happened last night?”
Lan Wangji looks at him out of the corner of his eye and then tips his head to the side. It’s not an answer, but Wei Wuxian is pretty sure it’s the closest Lan Wangji will come to saying, “Some, and I actively dread learning what it is that I’ve forgotten.” It’s a delicious set of words to put into his mouth, anyway.
Wei Wuxian wants to bring certain things up. The hauling Wen Ning around by his collar, why was that? Aren’t they brothers now? Is that how brothers behave?? And the chickens! Why would Lan Wangji give him two chickens? It’s a traditional wedding gift, but Lan Wangji is already married—and married to someone Wei Wuxian would rather die than betray.
Death is a lot less scary than crossing Wen Qing, as Wei Wuxian is uniquely positioned to know!
So he doesn’t ask about the chickens. He definitely doesn’t ask about the way Lan Wangji’s face had gone soft in the moonlight when Wei Wuxian finally put him to bed, exhaustion and inebriation combining to place strange emotions on his face. That had to be why; how else to explain the yearning that crept into his gaze? How else to account for the way he had swayed towards Wei Wuxian, his spine going lax, his neck curving just so...?
He’d been beautiful.
Lan Wangji is always beautiful, but last night.... Last night Wei Wuxian had been aware of that beauty, in a way he was not— is not—used to.
...Wei Wuxian does not know what to do with this.
Lan Wangji’s lips glistened blue in the moonlight, and for the first time Wei Wuxian had wanted to press his own against them until they were purple and swollen. Lan Wangji’s eyes had tilted sadly, and Wei Wuxian had wanted to kiss them shut.
It doesn’t matter. He did nothing; he acted on no novel, powerful urges. He’s discovering now that he still has those urges—they were not banished by a good night’s sleep—but it is at least manageable in the bright sunlight of noon and fresh air of the open street. He's bought himself some time to think about things.
He shoves the matter to the back of his mind and turns the conversation towards more serious matters. “Do you remember the stranger who broke into our rooms?”
Lan Wangji’s face hardens, his brief vulnerability vanishing under a smooth mask of purpose. He nods once.
It’s impossible that the stranger—who may well be someone they know; impossible to say, given the mask—broke into their rooms at random. Wei Wuxian’s room had been utterly ransacked, to the point where Wei Wuxian had had to wake up the innkeeper and explain about the burglar lest he face the man’s wrath in the morning.
(Lan Wangji had been unconscious by that point—Wei Wuxian had gotten him settled in his own room before even opening his own door—and after a minute of dithering Wei Wuxian had decided to just sleep beside Lan Wangji for the remainder of the night. If Wangji objected, Wei Wuxian would explain in the morning, but there was no way he could sleep in his own bed tonight, not given the treatment the stranger had subjected it to, and anyway Lan Wangji was probably too drunk to mind.
Mostly this strategy had worked fine. Wei Wuxian even woke up before Lan Wangji, so there was no need to explain. But there was one moment in the early morning when Wei Wuxian tried to shake off a restless dream, only to find Lan Wangji’s arm flung around him and his head pillowed on Wei Wuxian’s chest, as if Wei Wuxian were an enormous pillow Lan Wangji was snuggling.
Wei Wuxian isn’t sure what to make of that so-late-at-night-it’s-really-early-morning memory; it’s liminal and clearly impossible, but so tender Wei Wuxian feels like melting whenever he thinks of it. So he doesn’t; he shuffles it away, yet another thought to address later, along with the softness of Lan Wangji’s cheek in the moonlight, and the twisting Wei Wuxian’s stomach when he woke up with Lan Wangji’s breath puffing against the soft, sensitive base of his neck.
He isn’t thinking about it, not any of it. Not yet.)
But if the Masked Burglar broke into first one room and then another, it meant he was searching for something—and the qiankun bag clutched in his hand when they found him provides a good hint as to what. The Masked Burglar is hunting Sword Ghost—the remnants of him they had so far collected—which meant that someone knows they have these remnants.
Someone is working against them—most likely the person who killed Sword Ghost in the first place.
If their enemies are moving against them, then they need to get moving, too.
The call of the Sword Ghost takes them east of Shu, winding slowly farther and farther into the countryside until they reach an isolated offshoot road so overgrown they can’t even read the sign. The nearest farm is not far, and when Wei Wuxian knocks on their door the farmwife is reserved but willing to talk—especially when he gifts her with one of the spare pots of red rouge he bought in Yueyang.
He questions her briefly and then reports back.
“The town is called Yi City,” he says, knocking back weeds from their path, “Coffin Town. They craft all sorts of goods related to funerals, and those who live there usually die early deaths.”
He and Lan Wangji both stare grimly at the overgrown pony track that winds upward before them. The land here is up-and-down, not quite craggy enough for mountains but more than hills, and the path winds between two taller not-quite-mountains on either side. The bulk of rocky hillside around them renders it shadowy and cool. Wei Wuxian would have welcomed that an hour ago as the sun beat down against his black clothes, but now he finds that it’s too cold—and disconcerting, to boot.
Lan Wangji’s face is the particular flavor of blank that means that he is highly dubious. He pulls out the qiankun bag again, but it still indicates clearly that they should climb the path.
The two men exchange one more look before mounting the slim trail of hard-pounded dirt.
It doesn’t get any less creepy as they go along. Mist springs up, a vile mist tainted with enough resentful energy to raise all the hair on Wei Wuxian’s arms. He finds that he has his flute out, although he can’t remember drawing it. Lan Wangji’s hand is tight around the scabbard of Bichen.
The mist thickens, curdling until it’s almost impossible to see Lan Wangji pacing beside him. He could be replaced by a ghost, or a demon, and if it made no sound Wei Wuxian wouldn’t know at all.
Something crunches under foot and he jumps, skittering backwards and grabbing for Lan Wangji’s arm to pull him back, too—but Lan Wangji is already jumping in front of him, Bichen clearing its sheath and coming to bear on the threat in under a second. The danger is—
Well that’s embarrassing.
The “danger” is nothing more than paper: one of the paper doll heads that the folk here are so famous for making. In fact, Wei Wuxian even told Lan Wangji that, less than five minutes ago!
Wei Wuxian watches the paper doll head split and fall apart on Lan Wangji’s blade with eyes that feel too wide—and more borrowed than ever, today. Maybe it’s the cliffs that now loom up on either side of the trail, but he can’t help but feel small and vulnerable here, surrounded by blindness and resentful energy and death...
Lan Wangji is watching him.
It must be time to keep moving.
He paces forward slowly, made cautious now by his encounter with the paper doll. They soon reach the main part of town, but the more open space doesn’t dissipate the mist. Instead, the curling fog sits over the city like a too-fat frog on a lilypad, slimy and heavy and gross.
Twice, Wei Wuxian thinks he sees something out of the corner of his eye, but when he turns he sees nothing except the mist. He grumbles to himself and turns to the front again—
He darts forward, eyes fixed on the curl of movement seen ahead. Lan Wangji moves beside him, swift and so quiet Wei Wuxian can’t even hear his footsteps, not even though he’s right next to him.
Something passes them on the right and Lan Wangji splits off to chase it; Wei Wuxian sprints up the street until he can squint at the distant forms in the mist: more than one form, all upright, human sized, moving forward—he sees blades—he sees—
Oh, god damn it! He sees the fucking Juniors!
The Juniors spot him at the same time Wei Wuxian sees them. Lan Sizhui in front sheaths his sword; Jin Ling and Lan Yuxue follow suit a couple seconds afterward. “Oh, it’s you,” Jin Ling grumbles. Lan Yuxue elbows him in the side.
“Senior Mo!” Lan Sizhui raises his arms and bows. The others all echo his gesture, although most of them lack his confidence in the motion. “But—Senior Mo, what are you doing here? Does that mean Hanguang-jun is here, also?”
Wei Wuxian crosses his arms and pretends not to be delighted at the sight of familiar faces asking what are actually pertinent questions. “‘Oh, it’s me?!’ Very nice! But what are you all doing here?!”
There’s a whole crowd of them, and in quite a few different uniforms. He sees robes the color of mulberry juice, and some ivory-colored robes at the back, neither of which he recognizes—although the hats the latter are all wearing look vaguely familiar; probably he knew them at one point and has just forgotten. Jin Ling is the only LanlingJin sect member; mostly Wei Wuxian sees the white and blue robes of GusuLan.
Lan Yuxue in front exchanges nudges Sizhui in the shoulder, then jerks his head beyond. Easy to guess what that means: Bichen’s light is well-known throughout the cultivation world.
Wei Wuxian snaps his hands in front of their faces then waves away their offense. “Don’t tell me you’re all here together on a night hunt,” he prompts.
Lan Yuxue tenses, giving him a suspicious, hostile look. Wei Wuxian doesn’t take offense; he figures at least sixty percent of that is just Lan Yuxue’s face. “Hunting something,” Lan Yuxue says grimly.
Sizhui nudges him back, then turns mild eyes to Wei Wuxian. He opens his mouth, oozing the sweet charm of an oncoming lie. “It’s a long story,” he claims. “We ran into each other, and as it’s so strange here, we stuck together so as not to get lost.” Yes, because that sounds exactly like something a group of teenaged cultivators would do. Young cultivators are famous for their cooperation and lack of competition, everyone says it. “And then—”
He cuts off, looking at something beyond Wei Wuxian’s shoulder and flinching. Wei Wuxian doesn’t turn. Sizhui was just about to lie to him, and this is the oldest trick in the book; only an idiot would turn. “And then...?”
Sizhui opens his eyes wide, but not his mouth. His jaw works, but his lips stay sealed together. Beside him, the others are also jumping and miming. It dawns on Wei Wuxian that one of them should have found their words by now, though—and then he notices that they aren’t even opening their mouths.
The silencing charm!
Someone points, and soon all of them are pointing. Wei Wuxian has no choice, now.
...Okay, horde of undead puppets. Not ideal, he can admit...
He summons a charm and snaps his fingers, but it has no effect on the puppets. He’s preparing to hustle the juniors off when Lan Wangji descends from above—and just in the nick of time, too.
He really is Hanguang-jun!
But there’s no time to do a tearful reunion: Lan Wangji destroys the puppets, but as soon as he has, the Masked Burglar appears out of nowhere and makes a swipe for Wei Wuxian’s spirit collecting pouch. Wei Wuxian dodges, the Masked Burglar runs—and just like that Lan Wangji is gone again, giving chase to the only lead they have about the identity of the villain behind all of this.
The scene in his wake is... chaotic. The Juniors are agitated as a flock of ducks and some of them are coughing, and Wei Wuxian does ask a few questions to check but it’s pretty clear that some of them have corpse poisoning.
Wei Wuxian makes an executive decision. “Alright, let’s get out of here! Everyone, follow me!”
He leads them away from the still-falling corpse powder and finds a quiet spot to examine the juniors. Lan Jingyi, Lan Yuxue, Ooyang Zizhen—Ooyang, those were the berry-colored guys!—and Shen Mingyuan all show the blackened tongue of those affected by corpse powder.
“Congratulations!” he tells them, “You’ve been poisoned!”
He orders them carried heart-up by their fellows, then leads the whole clutch of Juniors farther into the city, looking for a house with signs of habitation.
Lan Sizhui, Lan Yuxue, Jin Ling and the others knock on doors. Sizhui finds one with an old woman behind it, and Wei Wuxian hustles over to stick his foot in the door before she can close it in their faces. He takes over the kitchen, and once the congee is going—best cure for corpse poisoning, congee—he stares down the assembled Juniors, interrupting their bickering about Fairy and L’il Apple— what? —to say, “You never did tell me why you were all here.”
A glance goes around, the sort of glance people exchange when they’re trying to decide whether to lie or not. Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. “Who do you think I am?” he asks them pointedly. “Just tell me!”
“We—we were trying to help a-Qing,” Sizhui explains uselessly.
“Ah, aha, of course! Right! ...Who’s a-Qing?”
“A-Qing is Lan Biliu’s future wife,” says Lan Yuxue immediately. He says it firmly but with a trace of something else under there, as if... Wei Wuxian tries to think where he has heard that tone before.
It’s a very Wen Qing sort of tone, he decides, like the one she used to use sometimes when she had heard several arguments about a topic, knew she was going to hear many more arguments about the topic, and was saying something about it now specifically to provoke those arguments in order to get them over with because she knew she was going to win them.
Wei Wuxian decides not to bother with the argument part. He never starts fights if he can help it, after all. “Right, right,” he says instead, “and, uh... who’s Lan Biliu?”
The Juniors all give him strange looks at that, like they were walking down a flight of stairs and tried to put their feet through a step which was broken: surprised, and a bit worried about the situation. “I am Lan Biliu,” says the man who just spoke, who is clearly not Lan Biliu.
Now Wei Wuxian is wearing the missing stair look. “I thought you were Lan Yuxue!”
“No,” says a voice from the back of the crowd, “I’m Lan Yuxue.”
The crowd parts. Wei Wuxian looks from the person he has been thinking of as Lan Yuxue to—
—someone else, who is also Lan Yuxue. This is the Lan Yuxue who had been a victim of the poisoning, come to think of it. The other one— Lan Biliu, apparently—is hale and hearty still, and belatedly Wei Wuxian realizes that this really should have tipped him off sooner.
He looks back at Lan Yuxue— actual Lan Yuxue.
He looks forward to Lan Biliu.
Same forehead; same jaw; same nose and lips that look like the Wen clan, although of course they can’t really be because the boys aren’t Wens, they’re Lans.
Lan Yuxue and Lan Biliu: two different men—
—with the same face.
Wei Wuxian blurts, “There’s two of you?!”
I've been waiting to drop this bombshell on y'all since chapter fucking 2, okay, do you know how hard that was to hold in?!