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And Time Is But a Paper Moon

Chapter Text

Attempt the impossible: that is the Jiang Sect motto.

The pounding on the doors is deafening, but over it, the bellowing of Sect Leader Jiang can still be heard.

"Wei Wuxian! If your plan fails it will kill you. If you don't open this door right now, I will kill you myself!"

Wei Wuxian wants to laugh, but the doors reverberate with the loudest impact yet, and he knows that Lan Zhan has arrived.

"Wei Ying!"

The marks painted on the door are starting to show cracks, but it's too late. The array on the floor is complete.

Wei Wuxian stands in the centre, closes his eyes, and blows a few simple notes on Chenqing.

The power comes up through his feet.

It feels like dying.

It feels like happiness.

It feels like it's working.

---

At first, things are hazy. He's warm and it's dark, and then it's not; a crushing pressure, a cold shock, sudden pain, blinding light.

Wei Wuxian's consciousness floats. Things are happening to his body, he's being washed and wrapped in a blanket, someone's holding him.

He becomes more aware of the world around him oh so gradually, but it's still so difficult. It's difficult to bring his wayward limbs under control. His muscles are weak. He tries to speak, but can't form the words.

It's hard to judge the passage of time, but he's sure it's been months when he struggles awkwardly to his feet and stumbles towards the woman who is kneeling across the room, delight lighting her half-familiar features at his progress.

He reaches her, falls against her. She catches him, laughing joyfully.

"Mama," he manages to say.

She picks him up and tosses him in the air.

"My brilliant A-Ying!" she beams. "Speaking already!"

---

He begs, he pleads, he cries. His parents try to soothe him, try to comfort him, but they still go on night-hunts.

He does not know, does not remember, never remembered which hunt, which night, was the one from which they did not return.

He stops trying. but savours every moment with his parents. He watches their faces, files every moment he can in his memory, and smiles and laughs with his parents. He watches them love each other, basks in their love for him.

Years pass. He's increasingly afraid that he's running out of time, now, and begins trying again.

His parents share a strange look, and then his father turns their donkey around.

---

He is still small, and he tires easily. He often dozes on the donkey's back as they travel, secure in his mother's arms.

He's vaguely aware of being lifted down, but soon the gentle swaying of a boat - so familiar, down to his very soul - lulls him back to sleep.

He wakes in Lotus Pier. It's bigger than he remembers. It's just as beautiful. Jiang Yanli loves him immediately. Jiang Cheng is wary, but pleased to have a playmate.

His mother explains that Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu will take care of A-Ying until they return.

When Wei Ying's parents do not return, the Jiangs are kind. When he bursts into tears, Uncle Jiang hugs him.

Madam Yu softens at his grief. She hugs him too.

---

Wei Wuxian knows the rumours that swirl around him, around the Jiang Sect, around Lotus Pier.

He started most of them.

Madam Yu loves her children, including little Wei Ying, the son of her friend Zangse Sanren.

"Out of my way, brat," the man on the street says, shoving Wei Wuxian aside. A short distance away, Jiang Cheng looks outraged, eyes flashing with fury. Wei Wuxian had been coming to meet him.

"You dare -" he shouts, charging forward.

"No!" Wei Wuxian says, scrambling to his feet. Jiang Cheng stops, confused. "Jiang Cheng! If Madam Yu learns that this man assaulted me, she will be very angry. His life will not be worth living! If you fight him, we will be unable to protect him from her at all!"

"But -" Jiang Cheng begins. Wei Wuxian gives him a look, and he stops.

Wei Wuxian turns to the man who pushed him. "Sir, if you hurry to leave Lotus Cove soon, Madam Yu won't learn who you are. If she does, nowhere in Yunmeng will be safe for you!"

The man stares at him, starts to speak several times. Wei Wuxian meets his gaze, his expression earnest and sincere. He is eleven years old.

The man hurries away, pale and anxious.

Jiang Fengmian and Madam Yu are very much in love.

"I don't think I ever want to marry," Wei Wuxian declares, loud and obstinate. "Imagine always having to be so decorous in public. Look at Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu. Whenever other people are around, they're so stiff. Why can't they just be affectionate all the time? You see how they look at each other. It's so obvious anyway."

"Be quiet," Jiang Cheng hisses, cheeks scarlet. The observers - they are in the midst of a crowd - take this as a confirmation by the Jiangs' own son of their young ward's observations. Obviously Madam Yu and Jiang Fengmian must be terribly affectionate in private - even their son is embarrassed that his friend should mention it.

When they appear in public, people see what they wish to see. Everyone knows that they are very much in love; their restraint is admirable. (No-one would even think to suggest that Wei Wuxian's existence is the result of Jiang Fengmian's infidelity. Why would he betray a wife he adores so utterly?)

Jiang Fengmian and Madam Yu are strong cultivators, who teach their children well.

Wei Wuxian is determined that his shijie will be safe. Thus, she must know how to protect herself. Few sects attend closely to the cultivation training of their daughters, and shijie, he is certain, has potential that was left to rot.

That will not happen again.

He encourages her in her studies, gives her gentle guidance where she finds things difficult. He realises, with a fresh rush of love, that her cultivation can be just as strong as her brother's, but her strength is different.

Cultivation is driven by will. Shijie protects what she loves with a fierceness that is staggeringly powerful. She will never be strong in aggression, but her defensive prowess is incomparable.

Wei Wuxian teaches her secretly. He teaches her wards, and protective talismans. He teaches her to guard against attacks, physical and spiritual. By the time the three of them depart for the Cloud Recesses, she can build stronger defensive arrays than any he has ever seen.

As for her brother, Wei Wuxian knows that it is... a problem... if he is stronger than Jiang Cheng.

So he isn't.

He is, with care, almost, but not quite Jiang Cheng's equal. He is always, always on the verge of exceeding him.

Jiang Cheng strives constantly to keep ahead of him. He works hard, harder than Wei Wuxian remembers, to keep the edge. (Sometimes he yells at Wei Wuxian, because Wei Wuxian does not work hard; it's not who he is, it has never been who he is, and he is enjoying too much being home, with the freedom of a second childhood. He goes boating. He swims. He picks lotus seedpods and hunts for pheasants.)

Uncle Jiang is still stricter with Jiang Cheng than he is with Wei Wuxian. Madam Yu is still rarely satisfied with either of them.

But when guests speak glowingly of the renowned prowess of her children, speak admiringly of the Jiang Sect's teachings of cultivation, when they hint at sending their own children to study at Lotus Pier, she glances at the boys with a small, satisfied smile.

By the time they leave for the Cloud Recesses, it is known throughout the cultivation world that Jiang Fengmian and Madam Yu have raised three of the most promising cultivators of their generation. The flowers of Lotus Pier are discussed alongside the Twin Jades of Lan.

---

The first night in Cloud Recesses - having arrived without incident, presenting the invitation that he had taken great pains to remember at every stage of the journey - Wei Wuxian is restless.

Lan Zhan is somewhere nearby. He has just emerged from secluded meditation.

Lan Zhan is here.

It's been so long.

He slips out of the guest disciples' dormitory, and floats easily up to the rooftops.

This time, he's not coming back late from Gusu, and he has no jars of forbidden alcohol in his hands.

Lan Zhan still finds him, standing in the moonlight with his face turned to the crisp mountain breeze.

"It is after curfew. Rest begins at nine in the evening. Delay is not permitted," he hears.

He can't help but smile as he turns, drinking in the sight of Lan Zhan standing before him. Lan Zhan. Finally.

His cheeks ache with it as he sees Lan Zhan's expression shift - he almost can't believe he found Lan Zhan unreadable, once. He watches the thoughts cross Lan Zhan's face, one after another. He disapproves of the violation of the curfew. He's disappointed that one of the guest disciples is already breaking the rules. He thinks Wei Wuxian is really pretty. He's horrified that he thinks Wei Wuxian is really pretty.

Wei Wuxian laughs. He doesn't mean to laugh at him, but - now? Already? Did Lan Zhan really start to fall for him the moment they met?

Lan Zhan is angry that Wei Wuxian is laughing at him.

Wei Wuxian bows. "My apologies, Lan Zhan. I couldn't sleep, so I thought to take rest in quiet contemplation. I will return to the dormitory immediately."

He can't resist turning back. "Lan Zhan, you look so pretty in the moonlight!" he calls.

Lan Zhan jumps down after him, and for a moment Wei Wuxian thinks they're about to fight again.

"Shouting is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses," Lan Zhan hisses, and stalks away.

---

Wei Wuxian tries. He really does try.

But he can't bring himself to listen attentively as Lan Qiren reads through the rules of the Lan Sect, and the other guest disciples are not doing any better.

He looks at Lan Zhan instead. He does so enjoy looking at Lan Zhan, and it's been so long since he could. He looks so young, so small.

But still so beautiful.

Lan Qiren slams the scroll down, again. He complains bitterly about others not paying attention to the rules, again.

He calls on Wei Ying, again.

"Here." Wei Wuxian stands promptly.

"Let me ask you. Are yao, demons, ghosts, and monsters the same things?"

Wei Wuxian smiles as Lan Qiren goes through his questions, answering them all easily. He senses the other disciples relaxing around him, and wants to laugh. He's enjoying himself, anticipating.

"Let me ask you again," Lan Qiren starts. "There is an executioner with parents, a wife, and children, but before he died, he executed more than one hundred people. He suddenly died in public and, to punish him for his deeds, he was left on the streets for seven days. With the repressed energy of resentment, he started to haunt and kill. What should be done?"

Wei Wuxian waits a moment, trying to look very serious. The other disciples are shifting around them.

Lan Qiren scolds them. "Why are you looking at him? Think about this as well. Don't open your books!"

That's long enough, Wei Wuxian thinks. He answers. "First, liberate; second, suppress; third, eliminate. The initial approach is to make use of the gratitude of his family and grant his dying wish, set free what he could not let go of. If that fails, suppress it. If the crimes were extremely wrongful, and its energy of resentment does not dissipate, exterminate it."

He may have looked it up before class, just to make sure he had the wording right.

Lan Qiren looks stunned. "Not a single mistake was made..." he whispers. Wei Wuxian speaks again before he can collect himself.

"But I have a question."

"Speak," Lan Qiren says.

"Although liberation comes first, it is often impossible. To grant his dying wish sounds simple - it would be easy, if the wish were a new piece of clothing, but what if the wish was to kill lots of people for revenge?"

Lan Zhan answers him. Wei Wuxian has his attention, now. "Thus suppression assists liberation. If it is necessary, elimination would also follow."

Wei Wuxian smiles. "Of course. But what of the fourth path?"

Lan Qiren scowled. "What fourth path?"

"Because the executioner died in such a way, it is only natural that he turned into a ferocious corpse. Since he executed more than a hundred people before he died, why not dig up the graves of these people, arouse their energy of resentment, and use them to fight with the ferocious corpse?"

Lan Zhan is frowning at him. Lan Qiren is outraged. Wei Wuxian continues without waiting for response.

"There are some things that have no use after liberation, so why not find a way to make use of them? When Yu the Great tamed the flood, obstruction was the inferior method, and redirection was the superior. Suppression is the same as obstruction. Resentful energy is energy, just as spiritual energy is. Why can't it also be used by humans?"

He's expecting the book Lan Qiren hurls at him, and catches it easily, places it carefully on the desk unharmed.

"How will you make sure that the resentful energy only listens to you and does not harm others?"

"The development of appropriate spiritual tools to direct and redirect the energy would be necessary."

"How will you prevent the resentful energy from harming you? Such things cause damage to the heart and the spirit!"

"I can't," Wei Wuxian replies calmly. "But surely that is not important."

"Not important?" Lan Qiren repeats incredulously.

Wei Wuxian's expression is uncharacteristically serious. "Master, imagine, if you will, that you are trapped in a cave with people without spiritual power, and a horde of fierce corpses is attacking you. There is a protective array at the entrance to the cave which could seal them outside, but it is damaged. What would be the correct action?"

"Repair the array," Lan Qiren huffs.

"How would you do that?" His tone makes it clear that he knows the answer.

"A cut to my hand would supply blood with which to mark the missing or damaged symbols."

"Wounding oneself is to cause harm," Wei Wuxian says. "If self-harm is the wrongful path, even for the greater benefit, then is repairing the array with your blood not also the wrongful path?"

Lan Qiren scowls. "That is different. With care and the use of spiritual energy, the injury can be healed."

Wei Wuxian smiles. "Of course." He bows. "This disciple will take this lesson, and appreciates the correction of the Master."

---

Wei Wuxian bows formally to Jin Zixuan.

"Jin Zixuan, If you are not too busy, I would like to speak with you privately," he says politely.

Jin Zixuan is not too busy. Wei Wuxian was careful to ensure that this was so before he approached him. Their lessons for the morning are complete, but it is not yet time for lunch. Jin Zixuan is waiting near the dormitories for his obnoxious cousin.

Jin Zixuan returns his bow. "I am of course at the disposal of Wei Wuxian," he answers.

Wei Wuxian smiles. "The courtesy of the Jin Sect of Lanling is well-known," he says.

"How can I be of assistance?" Jin Zixuan asks, and Wei Wuxian is impressed that he can hardly tell that the peacock is gritting his teeth.

"The Jin Sect of Lanling is also renowned for the virtue of courage," he lies shamelessly. "Of course, honesty is a great virtue also. Sincerity in affairs of personal feeling and sentiment is the mark of decency and worth."

Jin Zixuan's eyes widen, and then he glares. "I am not sure I fully understand your point," he replies icily.

Wei Wuxian's smile widens.

"It is possible that my shijie would not find it unwelcome if you were to express to her your sincere affections," he says. "However, should you speak cruelly to her, or make her cry, it is certain that I will break all the bones in your body. Some of the small ones are quite difficult to do. I can offer every assurance that I will apply myself with all possible dedication to the task."

Jin Zixuan's face has gone first red, and then pale.

Wei Wuxian bows. "Thank you for your time."

---

The first time Wei Wuxian attended the Lan lectures at the Cloud Recesses, he missed many, if not most, of the classes due to punishment. He is almost tempted to provoke the same punishments again, to spend more time flirting with Lan Zhan, but he does not; partly, because he has an important goal, and partly because this is fun. So very much fun.

Besides, he flirts with Lan Zhan at sword practice, at mealtimes, and in the evenings, and never once backs off and tells him it was just a joke. In class, Lan Zhan can have a break. (Lan Zhan does not ignore him during class. Lan Zhan watches him like he can't tear his eyes away. Lan Zhan is horrified that he is arguing so much with Lan Qiren. Lan Zhan thinks it's the hottest thing he's ever seen. Lan Zhan is appalled that he thinks it's the hottest thing he's ever seen.)

Lan Qiren seems almost to have forgotten the other students, or that Wei Wuxian is a mere disciple. It is as if he is arguing with another adult, forgetting that Wei Wuxian is a student himself.

For all that he really does feel like a teenager again, there are ways in which Wei Wuxian is considerably older than Lan Qiren is now. It's a fair fight.

"Proper cultivation of established methods assures success," Lan Qiren snaps. "Inefficient methods are incorrect methods."

"Is every problem always simply identified?" Wei Wuxian asks. "If methods are applied to a complex problem that are believed to be correct, and the problem is not resolved, cultivators must be prepared to adapt."

"With proper study, all problems will be identifiable to one who works diligently and is attentive to all signs! If anyone should know that undisciplined methods are too dangerous, it is the son of Zangse Sanren!"

Wei Wuxian's mouth opens. He does not speak.