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And Time Is But a Paper Moon

Chapter Text

Xichen has been selected to inform Zixuan and his wife that Wuxian is, if not wholly recovered, at last in range of becoming so. He is glad of it; he has not left the rooms in many days, and the fresh air will be more than welcome.

He steps outside, and stops.

The area around the chambers is silent. Jinlintai is a busy place, but not here; no passing cultivators, no guards, no servants.

Only one man, sitting at a desk, working through papers in the courtyard despite the near-winter chill in the air. His papers are weighted down with stones to keep the wind from carrying them away.

He realises it is Jin Guangyao, and feels a chill pass down his spine.

He knows that in another life, he loved this man, but in this one, he does not. Can not. It is all he has been able to do to keep his pleasantly genial mask in place, to keep from showing the revulsion he feels when he looks at him, because in another life, Jin Guangyao was devious, and manipulative, and cruel.

It is easier to loathe Jin Guangyao than it is to think that in another life, Lan Xichen was weak and foolish, and in this life he is just as weak and foolish, but has had Wei Wuxian to guide him.

But looking at him now - the small, neat man, studiously and inexplicably doing paperwork in the courtyard - Xichen finds himself thinking about Wuxian's words inside.

If Xichen had been born the son of a prostitute rather than of a sect leader, if he had been raised in a Yunping brothel rather than the Cloud Recesses, who would he have become? Who would he be if he could not have been Zewu-Jun, one of the Twin Jades of Lan?

Twisted by circumstances, indeed. Jin Guangyao as he is now was never kicked down the steps of Jinlintai. He was never scorned in Qinghe, and he never served Wen Ruohan in his malice. Jin Guangyao was collected from Yunping by the renowned Zewu-Jun, who took him to the Cloud Recesses, where gossip is not permitted, and then came to Jinlintai to be welcomed as a brother. He has a wife, and a son, and a mother. Lan Qiren was openly regretful at his departure, but wished him well.

Xichen does not know what kind of a man Jin Guangyao is now, but he does not trust himself to judge. There are differences. Instead of a hat, he wears his hair as the Jin do, drawn into a high ponytail by an ornate gold headpiece. There are also similarities, and Xichen does not know enough to know which are meaningful.

Jin Guangyao glances up, and smiles; the smile Xichen offers him in return is just as pleasant and just, he thinks, as false.

"Zewu-Jun," Jin Guangyao says, standing. He bows. "Could it be that Senior Wei has recovered from his... illness?" Xichen must have lost control of his expression, for a moment; Jin Guangyao cocks his head and his smile falls away. "I am afraid," he says, in a delicate tone, "that the remarkable silencing wards of the Yunmeng Jiang have a flaw in their design. There is, it seems, no clear indication to the user that they have been exhausted, and ceased to function."

Xichen feels the blood drain from his face. This is... not good.

Jin Guangyao glances down at his desk. "I have taken the liberty," he says, "of adjusting the patrol routes of the guards to avoid this area. I have been working from this courtyard for several days, and sleeping in there." He indicates a storeroom adjacent to the rooms they've been using. "I have intercepted several people who might have passed, you understand, and sent them away."

Xichen swallows. "How much did you hear?" he asks, and he tries not to make it sound like an accusation, but he's not sure he succeeds.

"A lot," Jin Guangyao says simply. "Many things are... clearer, than they were." He hesitates. "When he is fully recovered, I would appreciate the opportunity to speak to Senior Wei."

"Why?" Xichen snaps. He can't help himself.

Jin Guangyao's smile now is not the false, perfect thing he usually presents. It is wry, and perhaps a shade bitter. "To ask him questions," he says. "To understand why you saved me, when you hate me, since it must have been his idea. Why -"

He stops as the door behind Xichen opens.

Wuxian emerges. In the sunlight, he looks terrible - pale and tired, bruises at his wrists where he fought against the restraints. He's flanked by Wangji and A-Cheng, who are followed by Madam Yu and Wen Qing.

But Wuxian's air of sharp-edged good cheer has returned.

"Then ask," Wuxian says.

Jin Guangyao bows.

"You lived another life," he says. "I gather that I was... a part of it."

"You were."

Jin Guangyao lowers his eyes. "I gather I was responsible for - many wrongs," he says, more quietly. "I do not understand why you saved me and caused me to be given everything I have ever wanted."

Madam Yu's mouth twists. "He does that," she murmurs.

Wei Wuxian's smile drops, and he looks serious. It doesn't suit him, never has. "Because you were also wronged," he says. "I thought that perhaps if you were given the chance to be a good person and not be treated badly, you might take it. That's why I didn't object and kill you anyway when I heard that Zewu-Jun had gone to get you, which was actually his idea. He doesn't hate you. He hates the things you remind him of. He had to see my memories himself. I am literally his childhood trauma."

"I wasn't a child," Xichen protests.

Wei Wuxian snorts. "You're still a child," he says. "All of you are children. Except Lan Zhan, and that's only because I wasn't going to wait another fifty years for him to grow up before I married him."

Madam Yu gives him a look, and he grins.

"Yes, even you," he says. "You may be my shimu but you are still painfully young. You are younger than Jin Ling was, then." He says it like a joke, but he's clearly not joking. Xichen wonders what it's been like for him. His view of Wuxian's memories stopped when Wuxian remembered only a short amount of time - in Mo Xuanyu's body - from where they are now. He doesn't actually know exactly how many years Wuxian remembers living, but he has the sense that it's quite a few.

Wuxian turns his attention back to Jin Guangyao. "I did terrible things too, Jin Guangyao. Anyone is capable of being evil. Except, again, Lan Zhan, and also my shijie. They are the only perfect people." He shrugs. "You deserved a chance."

Jin Guangyao hesitates, and visibly steels himself. "What about my son?"

Wuxian can't quite hide his flinch. "He - wait, you mean the one you have now? Mo Xu- I mean, Jin Xuanyu?"

"Yes," Jin Guangyao says carefully. "My son A-Yu. Jin Xuanyu. You brought him to Jinlintai. Is there something -" He swallows. "Something I should know? Do? If he is in danger, I would like to know. To keep him safe."

Wuxian gives him a long look, and sighs. "He didn't have a good life, before. People hurt him very badly, and he... was lost."

"Who hurt him?" There's an edge to Jin Guangyao's voice. "Can I keep them away from him?"

"You don't want to know," Wuxian says.

"I need to." Jin Guangyao bows in supplication. "Please. He is my son. I love him, I need to protect him."

"It was you," Wuxian says. His tone is gentle, but Jin Guangyao reels from the words like a blow. "And the Mo family. He is safe from them, and if I did not believe that he was safe from you, that you love him, I promise you I would not have allowed you to become his father. I would have killed you before I let you hurt that boy."

"Thank you," Jin Guangyao says, in a shaky tone. "I am glad of that."

Wuxian smiles. "You should probably know that he will grow up to be a cutsleeve, and he will like wearing makeup, but be very, very bad at applying it."

"I will ask my mother and Madam Sisi to teach him," Jin Guangyao says, without blinking. "They are very skilled."

"Good boy."

"What of my wife?" Jin Guangyao asks.

"Your wife Mo Fan?" Wuxian clarifies.

"Yes. Did I also -" He doesn't finish the sentence.

"I believe," Wuxian says, "that she died of unrelated causes before you ever might have met her."

Jin Guangyao looks at him for a long moment. "I was going to ask about the wife and son I gather I had before," he says, "but I think, perhaps, I do not want to know. It is enough that I have this wife, this son, my coming second child. I am happy and content with my life as it is, and would rather not think of... alternatives."

"Very wise," Wuxian says. "If it helps, I can assure you that the wife you had before is unquestionably a worse match for you, and your marriage was not a happy one."

"Then I have more reasons to be thankful than I thought," Jin Guangyao replies. He straightens. "I can offer you no proof, or particular reason to believe me, but I can give you my assurance that I am not the monster you seem to remember. I love my wife, and my son, and my brother. I have a place of honour with my family. Truly, I want for nothing. I wish only for things to continue as they are."

Wuxian nods. "Good," he says. "Be happy, Jin Guangyao." He brightens, the impish, playful grin returning. "What else could I want for my son-in-law?"

Wuxian, Xichen remembers, stood with Jin Guangyao's wife at her wedding.

Jin Guangyao laughs. "As you say... father." He bows and begins packing up his paperwork. "I will go now, and tell the guards to resume their patrols, and continue my work where it is warmer."

---

After delivering his message to Zixuan and his wife, Xichen goes looking for the person he least wants to see.

Jin Guangyao has returned to his office. He allows Xichen to see his surprise, even as he rises to greet him.

"Zewu-Jun," he says, with a bow. "How may I be of assistance?"

Xichen closes the door behind him.

"He's right," he says. Admits. "I don't hate you."

Jin Guangyao nods. "I believe it." He waits, politely composed.

Xichen sighs. "Jin Guangyao, I have seen his memories of you. You were -" He hesitates. It is not his place to be cruel.

Jin Guangyao smiles. "If I were to guess," he says, "I was slighted, and never forgave it. I was devious, and concealed it. And I smiled, and planned, and I hurt people." He says it calmly. "I am still myself, Zewu-Jun. I know the darkest thoughts I have held in my heart. I can imagine the person I would become if I followed them. If I dwelled on them, and imagined how I could avenge every slight, every insult, every bruise. If I had more of them than I do now. If I had less reason to be... better."

Xichen can see the echo of the Jin Guangyao of Wei Wuxian's memory, and his skin crawls. "Can you," is all he says.

"Yes." Jin Guangyao does not hesitate. "I have an excellent memory, Zewu-Jun. It is a blessing, because it makes me very, very good at some things. It is a curse, because I cannot forget things, even if I want to." His gaze is level. "I still do not forget them, even now. But I have already taken my vengeance."

Xichen's stomach drops, but Jin Guangyao is still speaking.

His smile widens. "I walked into the brothel where I grew up. I was dressed in gold, with a bodyguard of cultivators, among them some of the most senior of the Lanling Jin. I did not speak. MianMian - Luo-guniang, my brother's shimei and friend - spoke for me. She stood amidst the filth with the grace and dignity of an empress, and announced that she had come to purchase the freedom of Madam Meng. My mother was brought forward, and she wept with joy and pride. The women who had been cruel to her - the women I hated - were shocked. And then MianMian asked my mother - who were her friends? And my mother named only Sisi, who had always been kind to us, and MianMian nodded, and laid down more coin for Sisi. Any others, she asked? As many as you like." His smile takes on a darker, more vengeful curl. "And my mother said no. No others. And then we left, with my mother, and Sisi, and left them all behind."

Xichen blinks. He had not expected... that.

"Since then," Jin Guangyao says, "my mother and her friend have lived with honour at Jinlintai. They shun the company of men who are not their kin, because they can. They take tea with the other ladies, who, it must be said, take an unseemly amount of delight in some of my mother and Sisi's stories, but the ways of women are not the ways of men and I choose not to think about that. And in Yunping, the women who were cruel to us know this. They know that they, too, could have had such reward if only they had thought to be kind." He tilts his head, too polite to shrug. "It is petty, and it is cruel of me to take such enjoyment from this knowledge. But it suffices."

Xichen can understand it. There is, indeed, a cruelty there.

"In Wuxian's other life," he says slowly, "you and I were... friends. I was the last to doubt you. I protected you and defended you when others sought to expose your crimes." He takes a breath, another. This is... difficult. "I don't hate you. I hate that you - the other you. Deceived me. That I was weak. That if I'd realised that you were -" He stops. "Things might have been better. Wuxian thinks I thought I could have saved you, and - others. He's probably right."

Jin Guangyao nods. "And in this life, Zewu-Jun, you did save me. But I thank you for - the thought, I suppose? That you might believe me still worth saving, even when I had done such terrible things." He smiles - not his polished, perfect smile, but a small smile, wry. "At the risk of sounding arrogant, or impertinent, I would like to say that I think perhaps you should forgive yourself. I imagine I was extremely convincing. And if we were truly friends... you would have seen that for all my faults I am capable of both love and loyalty."

Xichen can give him this. "Wuxian thinks that I am the one person you never harmed, or sought to harm, at all."

"In a lifetime in which I must have succumbed to my every darkest whim, that suggests I loved you very much indeed," Jin Guangyao says. "Zewu-Jun, allow me to be clear: I do not expect we are or will be friends, in this life, but I hold no grudge towards you. You were kind to me when it would have been easier, and arguably safer, for you to kill me, which you could have done with no consequences at all. You took me to your home, where I was treated well, and then you brought me to my brother. If I sensed your distaste for me, I also sensed that you tried very hard to hide it. I am thankful for your kindness. If this unworthy seneschal can ever be of assistance to you, you have but to ask."

Xichen finds that he is smiling. "As our sects are allied, and Zixuan is my sworn brother, I would expect no less of my smallest brother."

Jin Guangyao blinks, looking surprised, and then laughs like he means it. "Does that mean I should call you Second Brother?" he says, in a joking tone.

Xichen wonders if he's a fool or if this is, in fact, the path to a better future. "Yes," he says. "Do."

---

On the day Wei Wuxian died, he wakes in his sumptuous rooms in the section of Jinlintai reserved for the sect leader's extended family. He rises and dresses in silk; elegant robes in the colours of the Jiang and the Lan. He puts his hair up in a silver headpiece, and goes out to eat the breakfast his husband prepared for him. His son smiles happily at him.

On the day Wei Wuxian died, his husband looks happy to see him, but there is something abashed in his expression as well, and Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes and demands to know what Lan Zhan is hiding.

On the day Wei Wuxian died, his husband looks adorably mortified, and his son exclaims: "We found a thing!"

On the day Wei Wuxian died, his son takes his hand and tugs him to a corner where there is a basket, and in the basket there is a small black kitten, fast asleep.

On the day Wei Wuxian died, the worst thing that happens is that A-Yuan cries when Wei Wuxian explains that kittens grow up to be cats, who are a danger to bunnies; that kittens and cats do not travel well, and A-Yuan and his fathers will continue to be required to travel; in short, that they cannot keep the kitten.

On the day Wei Wuxian died, A-Yuan's cheer is restored when Wei Wuxian suggests that the kitten can be a gift for his cousin A-Yu, to be A-Yu's friend when A-Yuan leaves, as he soon must, so that A-Yu will not be lonely.

On the day Wei Wuxian died, Jin Guangyao looks at the kitten, and at him, and says in a blandly neutral tone, "Look, A-Yu. Your grandfather brought you a present."

On the day Wei Wuxian died, he says farewell to his joking-not-joking son-in-law and visits his brother, and his shijie, and their husbands, and Wen Qing, his brother's wife, and his shimu. He forces himself to an unnatural sincerity, and tells them each in turn that he loves them.

At the hour of Wei Wuxian's death, he sits alone with Jiang Cheng and his shijie. They each hold one of his hands, and they talk lightly, not minding his silence; they speak as they always have, since they were children, light and fond.

At the moment of Wei Wuxian's death, he squeezes their hands, and they squeeze his. "We're here," Jiang Cheng says. "We love you," shijie says. "Don't let go," Wei Wuxian says. "We won't," they say together, and they don't.

Afterwards, they cry together, all three of them, because the moment is past, they are all three of them alive. "We three will always be close," shijie says.

For the first time in a long time it is a new time. Wei Wuxian has not lived these moments before.

It is as if the shackles of his past have been released. He feels lighter. He feels free.

And then they step out to rejoin three generations of their family together.