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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.

Chapter Text

There are gasps around the classroom. Even Lan Wangji cannot help but look at his uncle, aghast.

He has lived his life by the rules of the Lan Sect. He can recite them from memory, has been able to do so for as long as he can remember.

Uncle has broken several. Harmony is the value. Do not act impulsively. Be careful with your words. Be respectful and humble. Do not give up on learning.

The senior disciple of the Jiang Sect is... difficult, but that is no excuse.

Be strict with yourself. Be easy on others.

Uncle meets his eyes, and looks away. Lan Wangji thinks he may be shaking.

Honour good people. Uphold the value of justice. Shoulder the weight of morality.

A wrong has been committed.

Lan Wangji stands. So does Jiang Wanyin.

"Class is finished for today," Lan Wangji says, and takes a breath. He wishes he had the gifts of others, in speech, that he knew how to moderate his voice, how to be gentle, as he turns back to his - his classmate.

Wei Ying is paler than Lan Wangji has ever seen him. He is still looking towards Uncle, but does not seem to be seeing him.

Jiang Wanyin is moving to him, putting his hand on Wei Ying's shoulder. He looks almost as helpless as Lan Wangji feels - almost - but his glance towards Uncle suggests a level of fury that - well, it is as well that the training and discipline of the Jiang Sect of Yunmeng lives up to its renown, or Jiang Wanyin might break some rules himself.

There is a clatter as Uncle moves with incautious speed to leave the room. The other disciples start to talk, but Jiang Wanyin silences them with a glare. They, too, leave, but silently.

Wei Ying has lifted one hand, placed it on Jiang Wanyin's forearm, but is otherwise unmoving.

Lan Wangji's chest is aching. "Wei Ying," he says. He wants to say more but the words catch in his throat, tangle in his mouth, like they always do. He's not sure when it happened, but Lan Wangji is now standing next to Wei Ying, very close.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying answers, more than half a sob, and then he turns and buries his face in Lan Wangji's neck. Lan Wangji can feel him shaking, feel his tears against his skin.

He doesn't know what to do. He looks at Jiang Wanyin, who is looking as astonished as Lan Wangji feels, although his shock appears possibly to be directed at Lan Wangji.

"You!" Jiang Wanyin hisses, smacking Wei Ying on the shoulder before returning to a grip that's clearly meant to be comforting. "Is it not enough that you argue with Master Lan Qiren, now you assault Lan Wangji? What, am I not good enough to cry on? You're always making trouble!"

"Not trouble," Lan Wangji manages to say. Hesitantly, awkwardly, ears burning in embarrassment, he moves, pats Wei Ying carefully on the shoulder Jiang Wanyin isn't holding. "I am. Sorry. That Uncle. Spoke wrongly to Wei Ying."

Jiang Wanyin stares.

---

Lan Wangji is in the Library Pavilion to study. Study is important. He is not there simply to distract himself from the memory of Wei Ying shaking against his chest, of Wei Ying sobbing his name and turning to Lan Wangji like Lan Wangji could help, could be of comfort, like Lan Wangji is more than one of the Twin Jades of Lan - like Lan Wangji is - a person who is important to him.

Jiang Wanyin was right there.

Wei Ying turned to Lan Wangji. As if Lan Wangji were worthy of such trust, such confidence.

Wei Ying let his tears fall on Lan Wangji's shoulder while Jiang Wanyin berated him, until Wei Ying turned back, beginning to laugh.

"Jiang Cheng is jealous!" he teased. "Don't worry, Jiang Cheng, your senior brother will always be here for you, even if I marry Lan Zhan. Always," he added, with a curiously serious note to his voice.

"Who's senior? Who's jealous?" Jiang Wanyin spluttered. "My whole family has no face because of you! You're lucky Lan Wangji doesn't fight you for such outrageous behaviour!"

Jiang Wanyin made a show of pulling Wei Ying away as if in fury, even though his hands were gentle, and Wei Ying had time to pat Lan Wangji's arm almost - almost affectionately.

He'd smiled at Lan Wangji, a watery smile that still didn't seem teasing at all.

It was some time before Lan Wangji gathered his thoughts enough to move.

---

The next day, his brother takes the class, instead of Uncle. He does not call on Wei Ying. Wei Ying does not volunteer answers.

Lan Wangji is not worried about Wei Ying. He is concerned because Wei Ying's participation in the class has been valuable. The other disciples have been scrambling to keep up; Lan Wangji knows that Wei Ying is often talking to them late at night, explaining things and helping the weaker students to understand the subjects that they study.

By late afternoon Lan Wangji is nearly frantic with his concern for the educational wellbeing of the other students. He catches himself looking at Wei Ying whenever Brother asks a question, or even if a student does - Wei Ying more than once intercepted a question asked in class before Uncle could answer.

He forces himself to sit straight and look forward. It is forbidden to sit with a disgraceful pose.

"Psst! Lan Zhan!"

His head snaps around.

Wei Ying is still looking towards Brother, but his hand moves. A folded piece of paper flicks across and lands on the desk in front of Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji looks up, aghast, but Brother is looking at the opposite side of the room. Jin Zixuan must have done something to attract his attention - Brother has quite abruptly started firing a serious of testing questions at him. Jin Zixuan is the heir of a powerful sect. It is appropriate that he should be expected to be most knowledgeable. All of the other students are watching, some with poorly-concealed amusement as Jin Zixuan becomes increasingly flustered.

Lan Wangji unfolds the piece of paper.

It is a drawing of him. Quite a good one.

In the corner, Wei Ying has written: "Handsome!"

Ears burning, Lan Wangji shoves the piece of paper into his sleeve.

---

Days later, Wei Ying looks tired. He's slightly pale, and his eyes are red-rimmed. Has he not been sleeping?

He meets Lan Wangji's eyes and smiles secretively.

"Psst! Lan Zhan!"

Something flies across the aisle and lands on Lan Wangji's desk.

Brother finishes his sentence, and startles the room by suddenly chiding the disciple two desks behind Jin Zixuan for inattention, questioning his recollection of Brother's lecture on clan genealogy. The disciple is struggling, and Lan Wangji is not surprised - few students remember the details of other sects' family relations without time for study and memorisation. Brother is being very strict.

It will only push the disciples to learn better. Lan Wangji approves.

He unfolds the little paper packet.

The note reads: "We went to town! I promise we were back before curfew. I got you that candy you like! There were more, but I forgot and ate some. Sorry!"

It had been wrapped around a slightly sad, squashed lump of dragon's beard candy.

Lan Wangji has not eaten candy in a long time.

How could Wei Ying know that this was his favourite?

Brother is still sternly questioning the student. He has walked between the desks. His back is to Lan Wangji entirely. Everyone is looking at Brother and the hapless disciple.

Lan Wangji takes a quick bite from the candy, before wrapping the rest in the note again and tucking it into his sleeve.

---

"Psst! Lan Zhan!"

Lan Wangji is in the Library Pavilion, repairing a damaged book.

Wei Ying is climbing in the window.

What.

"I brought you something!" he says cheerfully. He reaches into his bulging sleeve, and pulls out two rabbits.

What.

Lan Wangji opens his mouth. Wei Ying cuts him off.

"Pets are forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, I know, I know," he says breezily. "That's why these aren't pets. They're food!" He laughs uproariously at Lan Wangji's expression. "I'm kidding, I'm kidding! They're friends. Definitely not pets. Friends. I thought you might like them."

He scratches behind the ears of one of the bunnies, and is gone.

Lan Wangji stares at the bunnies.

---

Lan Wangji attends carefully to the construction of his sky lantern.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says.

Lan Wangji looks up. Wei Ying still looks very tired, but he is still beautiful.

Wei Ying smiles at him. "Shall we set a lantern together to make a wish?"

Lan Wangji doesn't meet his eyes. "I'm used to being alone." It never used to bother him. Or at least, he never used to notice that it bothered him.

"You can change. Besides, my lantern is made for you." Wei Ying shows him the rabbit he has painted on his lantern.

It's adorable.

Lan Wangji feels the smile that comes unbidden to his lips, but as he looks up, Wei Ying just smiles back warmly. Lan Wangji feels his heart do something strange in his chest.

They release the lanterns to the sky. As they take to the air, there is a murmur of voices as the disciples make wishes.

Lan Wangji thinks, treacherously: I wish Wei Ying would never leave.

Wei Ying clasps his hands. "I, Wei Ying, wish that I can always stand with justice, and live without regrets." His voice cracks slightly on 'regrets'. He pauses, and then speaks again, very softly. "And that always, I can be with Lan Zhan."

Lan Wangji's hearing is very good. He still wonders if he must have misheard.

The group begins walking back to Cloud Recesses. The female disciples take the path back towards the women's barracks and classrooms, and some of the male students begin a discussion of possible future cultivation partners.

Someone asks, "Jin-xiong, who do you think is the best girl?"

Wei Ying had looked like he was about to speak to Lan Zhan, but at this, his head snaps forward, and he looks at Jin Zixuan. Lan Wangji tells himself he's not disappointed.

Jiang Wanyin is also looking quite intensely at the Jin sect heir.

Another person speaks. "It's best for you not to ask Jin-xiong about this. He's already got a fiancee, so his answer would definitely be his fiancee."

Jin Zixuan's lips twitch in apparent displeasure. Wei Ying's eyes narrow.

The first disciple continues, oblivious to the rising tension. Lan Wangji makes a note to discuss his lack of observational skills with Brother. "Really? Which sect is she from? She must be extremely talented!"

Jin Zixuan raises a brow. "Forget it."

Wei Ying asks sharply, "What do you mean, forget it?"

Jiang Wanyin does not, on this occasion, chide Wei Ying for his manners. He, too, is glaring darkly.

Jin Zixuan looks back with cool composure. "Is gossip about my fiancee a fair subject for discussion?"

Wei Ying looks barely mollified. Lan Wangji speaks. "Gossip is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses."

Chastened, the other disciples drop the subject, and walk faster. Wei Ying, however, slows down. Lan Wangji automatically matches his speed.

"That guy," Wei Ying says. Somehow, he conveys a world of criticism. "Hey, Lan Zhan." Wei Ying takes a deep breath. "Have you thought about what you might want in a cultivation partner?" He stops walking and faces Lan Wangji.

He looks oddly nervous.

Lan Wangji does not say that he has imagined Wei Ying as his cultivation partner for weeks now. He does not say that the thought of Wei Ying cultivating with someone else makes him want to break things. He does not say that he wishes Wei Ying wouldn't tease him so, that Wei Ying would leave him alone and stop flirting with him, because he is afraid that if he does, Wei Ying will no longer tease him so, will leave him alone and stop flirting with him.

Lan Wangji does not say anything.

Wei Ying glances up the path, where the other disciples have now passed out of view. Their voices are fading into the distance.

"Do you think," Wei Ying says, "that you might someday want to be cultivation partners with me?"

It hurts.

"Do not joke," Lan Wangji grits out, and starts walking again. Wei Ying grabs his arm.

"I'm not joking!" he says.

Lan Wangji stops, turns back, unsure.

Wei Ying looks into his eyes. "I like you, Lan Zhan. I really like you. I want to be your cultivation partner. I want to be by your side. I want -" He hesitates. "I want to kiss you. Lan Zhan, I love you."

Lan Wangji is not sure how it happened. Once again, he is standing very close to Wei Ying. When Wei Ying says that he loves Lan Wangji, Lan Wangji can feel Wei Ying's breath on his lips.

"Yes," Lan Wangji says.

Wei Ying's smile is radiant. Lan Wangji wants to know if Wei Ying's joy can be tasted. He wants to kiss Wei Ying, here and now.

Lan Wangji does.

---

It is days later, and Lan Wangji is conducting a final night patrol before curfew. He is happier than he remembers being since - he is happier than he remembers ever being. Wei Ying has remained attentive. After the evening meal, Wei Ying came back with him to the jingshi. Lan Wangji feels cared for, feels loved. And kissed. Very kissed.

He did not object when Wei Ying left still quite some time before curfew. Wei Ying still looks so very, very tired. Lan Wangji approves of his getting extra sleep.

Lan Wangji is, therefore, surprised and displeased to hear Wei Ying's voice inside the Library Pavilion, and is still more displeased when he hears another voice answer - a woman's voice, speaking softly and gently. (Technically it is not forbidden for female disciples to come to the Library Pavilion, but it is very close to curfew.)

They are not loud. To anyone with hearing less keen than Lan Wangji's, no doubt they would be inaudible.

Eavesdropping is forbidden. Lan Wangji moves to the pavilion window anyway.

"I'm not happy about this, A-Xian," the woman says. A-Xian? So familiar! Lan Wangji feels his lip curl.

"It's fine," Wei Ying says lightly. "It's not important."

What's not important? Are they talking about Lan Wangji? About their... Wei Ying whispered so many promises, of love and always between kisses that sparked like lightning.

Lan Wangji is not his father. He will not force Wei Ying to stay, will not hold him as a prisoner to Lan Wangji's love.

He wants to. But he won't.

"Not important at all, I promise," Wei Ying is saying, still painfully casual. "I'm just not sleeping well."

Lan Wangji has found an angle that lets him see, just, into the pavilion, to where Wei Ying is sitting very improperly, leaning back on his hands.

His attire is also improper. His clothing - even the undergarment! - has been pulled loose and pushed back, baring Wei Ying's chest.

It's a very, very nice chest. Lan Wangji feels as if he may be breaking the rule against acts of promiscuity just by looking at it.

Lan Wangji wishes he were noticing the niceness of Wei Ying's chest less as the woman moves back into view. She is, he supposes, not completely ugly, but she is clearly a woman of low character, who should not be in the Cloud Recesses at all.

"A-Xian, don't lie to me," the woman says. Her voice is still soft, but stern. Wei Ying seems to wilt.

"It's - it's almost finished," he says.

What's almost finished? Is Wei Ying almost finished with his dalliance with Lan Wangji? Lan Wangji wants to die. Perhaps he should just leave, and return to secluded meditation at least until the guest disciples have gone.

"Hmm," the woman says. She's holding a brush and an inkwell. She dips the brush and lifts it to Wei Ying's chest, and starts drawing something that looks like an array.

Wei Ying smiles at her warmly. It's not the smile he gives to everyone so freely, or even the smile he gives to Lan Wangji. She has her own special Wei Ying smile, and Lan Wangji feels sick. "It really is. I'll be fine. I didn't realise I'd drained the ward until it was too late. You know nothing can hurt me with my shijie's protections."

Lan Wangji freezes.

Shijie?

"Many things can hurt you with your shijie's protections," the woman says, a laugh in her voice. Her hand is steady. As she completes each of the symbols she is painting, it seems to sink into Wei Ying's skin, as if they were painted with a needle and had long since healed. "Your shijie would prefer that A-Xian avoid all of them."

Wei Ying pouts. "But that would be so boring," he says, in an exaggerated sulky, childish tone. "Poor XianXian would wither away from the boredom."

"XianXian would just go entertain himself with Lan Wangji," she replies archly. Wei Ying gasps. Lan Wangji is pleased at the suggestion. Does Wei Ying's shijie know? Does she approve?

"What? No! I -" He looks like he wants to flail, but holds very still as the brush is still moving on his chest. The circle is nearly complete.

"Ah-ah," she says. "I told you. Don't lie to me."

Wei Ying makes a thoughtful sound. "What if I decided to go study?"

She does not respond as she paints a line that curls all around the outside of the symbols. Reasonable. Wei Ying has not, to Lan Wangji's knowledge, been seen studying since he came to the Cloud Recesses.

"Or I could annoy Jiang Cheng," he suggests. That is at least plausible, but it is an inferior suggestion.

"You could. You often do," she agrees. "There."

The line is complete. Her hands move in the air, forming a soft, warm glow that builds rapidly until it's almost painfully bright. Even outside, Lan Wangji can feel the power of it, warm like the summer sun. She presses it to Wei Ying's chest, over his heart, and the marks she has painted flash before fading almost to invisibility. Wei Ying sits up and begins fixing his clothing.

"Thank you, shijie," he says softly. She smiles and cups his cheek. She's very beautiful, Lan Wangji thinks; clearly she loves Wei Ying very much.

"Take better care, A-Xian," she says fondly. "Now we must both hurry and return to the dormitories before curfew. Don't delay."

"Yes, shijie. Goodnight, shijie." Wei Ying smiles at her radiantly, and they both slip out of the Library Pavilion.

Lan Wangji has trouble sleeping that night. Even after nine, he lies awake for several minutes, thoughts whirling.

Obviously the woman is Jiang Yanli. Her reputation is clearly well-earned - there was significant power in the ward she created. Lan Wangji has never heard of such power being applied directly to an individual like that, inked onto his skin - but she had clearly done it before.

What could Wei Ying be doing that could erode such strong protections?

Chapter Text

In the morning, he dresses and does not begin his day with meditation. It feels strange and slightly unsettling, but he nonetheless walks briskly (running is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses) to the guest disciples' dormitory.

He is surprised at the state of the guest disciples. Several are still asleep. Most of the rest are dishevelled, not ready to begin the day at all, even though it is almost a third of the hour past five. Lan Wangji notices several reacting with shock at his passing, but pays them no mind; he is looking for the chamber Wei Ying shares with Jiang Wanyin and Nie Huaisang.

Jiang Wanyin sees him first. Jiang Wanyin is, at least, upright, even if his robes are not entirely neat and his hair is untidy. He casts his comb aside. It strikes Nie Huaisang, who mumbles a complaint.

"Good morning, Lan Wangji," Jiang Wanyin says loudly, bowing. Nie Huaisang bolts upright and scrambles out of bed.

The sight is, Lan Wangji realises, comical. But he is disconcerted to realise that Wei Ying is not in the room. His bed is made, as neatly as if he never slept in it.

"Jiang Wanyin," Lan Wangji says, returning his bow. He does not know how to ask after Wei Ying without being impolite, but both of the guest disciples are waiting expectantly.

He is saved from the awkwardness he has created by the arrival of Wei Ying.

"Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying calls as he approaches. Lan Wangji finds himself turning to look without conscious decision to do so. He has not seen Wei Ying yet today. It feels overdue.

"Wei Ying," he says.

Wei Ying still looks tired, but the pallor to his skin has recovered, and his eyes are no longer red-rimmed. His hair is damp. He must have woken promptly at the correct time, and gone to wash.

The light of the dawn catches on his eyes, his smile, the ribbon in his hair. Lan Wangji is considering this carefully, and is fairly confident that Wei Ying is, objectively, the most beautiful person who has ever existed. He has reflected with care on his methodology and analysis, and is certain his conclusion is correct.

Wei Ying is saying something to Jiang Wanyin, who hisses something in return, and then Wei Ying-

Then Wei Ying takes Lan Wangji's hand and pulls him with him as he walks away from the dormitories.

Lan Wangji is aware that he is smiling. It is inappropriate to be overly happy. There is a rule.

He can't seem to stop.

---

Wei Ying leads him confidently along the winding paths of the Cloud Recesses to a meadow overlooking a stream. He talks to Lan Wangji, lightly and cheerfully, and doesn't seem to mind that Lan Wangji is awkward and quiet and doesn't know how to answer, most of the time.

"Today there is a reward for coming to see me," Wei Ying says, beaming as he pulls a wrapped bundle from his sleeve. "Look! Breakfast! Much nicer breakfast than otherwise." He unwraps a packet of steamed buns, still warm, and hands one to Lan Wangji.

It's his favourite kind. He can't imagine where Wei Ying got them - they taste like the ones sold in Caiyi Town, but it's too early in the morning for Wei Ying to have had time to go there and come back.

Wei Ying leans against him as they eat, watching rabbits nose their way cautiously from the shelter of the trees. Wei Ying has also brought a small bag of lettuce, and entices the rabbits closer with it. One comes close enough to reach, and Wei Ying scoops it up, cuddling it to his chest as he turns to Lan Wangji.

"Lan Zhan -" he begins, but Lan Wangji can't stand it any more, and leans over to kiss him.

The rabbit kicks against his chest, and he leans back just enough to give Wei Ying room to put it down before kissing him again. He feels Wei Ying's smile as he leans back, pulling Lan Wangji down with him to lie on the grass.

Lan Wangji nips at Wei Ying's lower lip, trails kisses along his jawline, mouths at his neck. He feels daring, lightheaded with the rush as he noses Wei Ying's collar aside. He thinks of the marks painted into Wei Ying's chest and bites at his collarbone, harder than he means to, harder than he probably should. Wei Ying hisses in pain but doesn't push him away, arches into him instead, whispers his name.

It won't show once Wei Ying fixes his clothing, but he imagines a mark being there, hidden, even later when others are around. He imagines it glowing with his spiritual energy, imagines that he, too, can protect Wei Ying from whatever it is that threatens him.

---

Eventually they hear the bell to call disciples to morning classes. Lan Wangji reluctantly pulls away, despite the way his whole body seems to protest even the slightest distance from Wei Ying. They fix their clothing. Lan Wangji goes behind Wei Ying to brush grass off the back of his robes, and kisses behind his ear.

Wei Ying laughs softly. "Haven't you had enough yet?" he asks teasingly.

"Will never have enough of Wei Ying," Lan Wangji answers honestly, and hears Wei Ying's breath catch. (He has thought about it. He is confident. Every moment with Wei Ying just makes him want more.)

"I forgot how wonderful Lan Zhan's compliments are," he says nonsensically, and turns to look Lan Wangji carefully up and down. "Ah, Lan Zhan, your headband is crooked! I didn't do it, I promise."

He looks oddly nervous, and Lan Wangji kisses him again, because he can, and because it makes Wei Ying smile again, then reaches up and unties the ribbon.

Then he puts it in Wei Ying's hand. "Fix it for me?" he asks. He doesn't think Wei Ying will know what the request really means, but he doesn't have to. Lan Wangji wants this, wants to see it in Wei Ying's hands.

But then he thinks perhaps Wei Ying does know, because Wei Ying looks positively shocked for a moment before his smile returns, brighter than ever, and he reaches up and ties the ribbon on straight very, very carefully.

"Yes, Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says, and kisses him again.

They have to walk much faster than is strictly encouraged in the Cloud Recesses to get to the training fields in time.

---

As it turns out, there is no training this morning. Brother finds them as they're assembling with the other disciples. He glances between Lan Wangji and Wei Ying, smiling, and then bows to Wei Ying.

"Please forgive this interruption, Young Master Wei. I must speak with Wangji for a moment," Brother says.

Wei Ying returns the bow. "Of course, Zewu-Jun." He steps away and joins Jiang Wanyin.

"Where were you at breakfast?" Lan Wangji hears Jiang Wanyin hiss. "Did you eat? I saved some food for you. You shame my mother if you skip meals! People will think we never accustomed you to eating!"

"I ate, I ate!" Wei Ying protests. "I had breakfast with Lan Zhan, I promise."

"I should feed your breakfast to animals!" Jiang Wanyin scowls. "Is he bothering you? I thought you were bothering him. You are a ridiculous person, and you are making Lan Wangji ridiculous. If he hurts you I'm going to break his pretty face."

Lan Wangji wonders if his expression reveals anything as Jiang Wanyin shoots him a narrow-eyed glare. He wonders what Brother thinks; Brother has observed the same interaction, but he can't have understood what Jiang Wanyin is implying, because he is smiling in a way that suggests that something has pleased him greatly.

Brother turns to Lan Wangji, and they walk a short distance away for privacy.

"The Nie Sect Discussion Conference is due to begin," Brother says, "and Uncle is still in seclusion. He is..." Brother pauses. "He is meditating on self-discipline, correct behaviour towards others, and the balance of his qi."

Lan Wangji nods. Uncle broke a number of rules. Such transgressions require correction. It is the responsibility of an experienced cultivator such as Uncle to consider his failures and take care to avoid qi deviation.

"I will attend the Discussion Conference in his place," Brother continues. "I should not be away too long. Classes will be cancelled for the duration. I hope that the guest disciples will pass the time in reflection and meditation." His tone, when he says that, is very bland. The guest disciples, Lan Wangji knows, will probably go drinking in Caiyi Town and stay up far too late.

Brother certainly knows this as well as Lan Wangji does, so Lan Wangji does not say anything.

"There is business, however," Brother says. "There is a water ghoul in Caiyi Town that must be exterminated. When I was looking for you, I happened to meet Jiang Wanyin of Yunmeng. It seems that the disciples of the Jiang Sect are very experienced with such things. I thought perhaps that with the head disciple of the Jiang Sect and the children of Jiang Fengmian, you could eliminate it without too much trouble." He raises a hand in admonition. "If there is difficulty, return to Cloud Recesses at once for reinforcements. If necessary, wait for my return. Take no unnecessary risks."

"Why not take more disciples now?" Lan Wangji asks.

"It is only a water ghoul, and the reputation of the flowers of Lotus Pier is admirable. The four of you should be sufficient in both knowledge and strength." Brother's smile widens slightly. "It might be nice for you to spend some time with them."

Lan Wangji follows his gaze to where Wei Ying is standing with Jiang Wanyin. They are elbowing each other roughly, but both are laughing. Lan Wangji is not at all sure that he wants to spend time with the Jiang siblings. They are... worrying.

"Jiang-guniang will meet you at the gate," Brother says, and walks away.

---

The flight to Caiyi Town is uneventful. They land, and ready two narrow boats.

Lan Wangji intends to share a boat with Wei Ying, but he sees Jiang Wanyin and Jiang Yanli exchanging a look. Jiang Wanyin raises an eyebrow at Jiang Yanli, who shakes her head slightly. They stare for a moment, and then Jiang Wanyin huffs, Jiang Yanli smiles, and they both stare expectantly at Wei Ying. Wei Ying looks back with a defiant expression for several long moments before throwing his hands up in the air.

"Fine!" Wei Ying exclaims. "But if you overdo it, I'm telling Madam Yu that you embarrassed the Jiang Sect! Don't you dare frighten Lan Zhan!"

He and Jiang Yanli jump together into a boat and set off without another word. Jiang Wanyin boards another and looks expectantly at Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji is not sure what is going on, but he's suddenly quite nervous.

He steps into the boat.

---

Jiang Wanyin takes the oars. He handles them expertly, but still rows quite slowly away from the shore.

And then he stops rowing, allowing the boat to drift.

"Lan Wangji," he says, "has a reputation for honesty and unimpeachable behaviour."

Somehow, this does not seem like he is complimenting Lan Wangji.

"Mn," Lan Wangji acknowledges warily.

"I can not pretend that Wei Wuxian has such a reputation, or that he would deserve it," Jiang Wanyin says. He's not looking at Lan Wangji, but rather gazing straight ahead at the mist that curls on the water. "Nonetheless." He turns to Lan Wangji with a smile. The smile is pleasant. It is neutral. It is entirely devoid of humour, and it is terrifying.

Lan Wangji is frozen in place. He does not know how to respond at all.

"A-Jie and I decided that I would tell you the rules."

"Rules?" Lan Wangji asks weakly.

"Rules." The smile disappears. "We will permit you to... spend time... with Wei Wuxian. These are the rules you will follow."

It does not escape Lan Wangji that the rules are not being presented as a choice. That is understandable. Lan Wangji is very accustomed to rules, and rules are not optional.

He listens carefully.

"If you see a dog, or hear a dog, any dog or dogs, even tiny, adorable puppies that couldn't possibly hurt anyone," Jiang Wanyin says, "you must protect Wei Wuxian. Keep them away from him." He leans towards Lan Wangji. "Even the puppies," he says intently. "Wei Wuxian is terrified of dogs. Terrified. We don't know why, but he is, and if he's going to go around with you and not me, you must protect him."

"Dogs," Lan Wangji repeats gravely. This is important information, and he is grateful to Jiang Wanyin for providing it.

"He is reckless and sometimes takes too much risk," Jiang Wanyin continues. "Try to keep him from doing anything too stupid. He is shameless. Try to keep him from bringing shame upon the Jiang Sect. If he cooks for you, do not trust the food. He is a terrible cook and makes everything insanely spicy. If possible, do not let him cook under any circumstances. He burned a hole in a pot once." He exhales. "That will probably do, for now."

The rules are simple, and easy to remember. Lan Wangji is relieved. Jiang Wanyin gives him a crooked smile.

"Did you think I was going to threaten you?" he asks.

Lan Wangji nods.

"I wanted to," Jiang Wanyin says cheerfully. He begins rowing vigorously. "But A-Jie won."

---

They catch up to the other boat quite quickly.

"Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying calls, with a smile. "I hope Jiang Cheng hasn't been too cruel!"

Jiang Wanyin huffs. "Having to cope with such a person as you is already too cruel," he snaps. He guides the boat expertly to match speed with the one carrying Wei Ying and Jiang Yanli, so close they are almost touching, and then sets the oars down and holds out his hand.

Jiang Yanli takes her brother's hand and steps lightly between the boats. Jiang Wanyin then jumps across to join Wei Ying, takes the oars from him, and starts speeding the other boat away again as she turns to Lan Wangji.

"Don't worry too much, Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying calls, his voice fading already into the distance. "I'll see you very soon!"

"Jiang-guniang," Lan Wangji says.

"Second Young Master Lan." She smiles. "I have been looking forward to an opportunity to talk to you for such a long time."

Lan Wangji swallows.

Her smile is truly lovely. It is warm, and seems sincere. He's not sure that doesn't make it worse.

---

Her manners are exquisite. They have not really spoken before; she attends to the necessary pleasantries with grace and apparent sincerity, expressing appreciation for the hospitality of Cloud Recesses and gratitude for the opportunity to study with the learned cultivators of the Lan Sect.

Lan Wangji cannot recall feeling this unsettled since - at least since he began cultivation training.

When, finally, all niceties are complete, she, like her brother, turns to look at the mist.

"A-Xian is a very special person," she says. "He is always very cheerful, even when things are very hard or painful for him, so it is sometimes hard to know when he is sincere." She pauses. "He is more sensitive than he would ever admit."

Her smile is gentle and warm as she turns to face him. "There are things that you do not know about A-Xian. I am certain he will tell you. I think it will be soon. The things he has to say will be very difficult to believe, but please understand, they are all true."

Lan Wangji can't imagine disbelieving anything Wei Ying would tell him.

Jiang Yanli continues to speak. "I know you are a good person, Second Young Master Lan, and I trust that you will not be careless. But it is necessary that you understand that he is... already devoted to you. He will not turn away from you. But he can be quite oblivious and unsure of himself, so please try always to be direct about important matters."

Her expression becomes very, very serious. "It would be very unfortunate if someone important to him were to be careless of his feelings." A chill runs down Lan Wangji's spine.

Jiang Yanli raises her voice. "A-Cheng! Come back!" she calls.

---

Lan Wangji is relieved when Jiang Yanli crosses back to the other boat and Wei Ying comes to join him.

"I hope they weren't too harsh on you," Wei Ying says. His tone is light, but he is looking at Lan Wangji like he is truly nervous.

"They. Care. About Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, because he understands it, he does. "I." Be direct about important matters. Jiang Wanyin did not include that rule, but perhaps that was an oversight. Jiang Yanli is polite, but Lan Wangji is certain that this, too, is a new rule for him to follow. He takes a breath, assembles the words with care. "I understand. I love you. Want always to be with Wei Ying."

The words all came out like he wanted them to, but Wei Ying looks like he's about to cry. Lan Wangji was clearly in error, and now the Jiangs are going to hate him and take Wei Ying away to protect him.

Lan Wangji dares to glance at the other boat. Jiang Yanli has clasped her hands to her mouth, and Lan Wangji heard her gasp when he spoke. Jiang Wanyin looks positively murderous.

This is terrible.

They are supposed to be hunting a water ghoul, and now Lan Wangji may have caused an outright enmity with the Jiang Sect of Yunmeng.

"Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying wails. "You can't just say that, my poor heart can't take it!"

And then Lan Wangji is being kissed again.

If Wei Ying actually wishes this to be a rule, the discipline for violation should be less enjoyable.

"I've changed my mind, this is the worst thing ever and I hate it," Jiang Wanyin mutters. "Hey! Idiot!" There is a splash of water. "If a water ghoul tries to eat you, I'm going to let it!"

"Hush, A-Cheng," Jiang Yanli says. "Leave them alone. I wish every man could be so honest."

Wei Ying breaks the kiss and turns. "Is that peacock still being an ass to you? I'm going to beat him until he begs to confess his love!"

Jiang Wanyin looks like he wants to agree, but Jiang Yanli raises a hand and both of her brothers fall silent.

"We won't find the water ghoul if you're so noisy," she says. "Our necessary discussions are complete. It is time to hunt."

---

Wei Ying pulls two pieces of cloth, a brush, and a pot of ink from his sleeve and quickly marks designs on the cloths. Lan Wangji doesn't get a good look at either. Wei Ying tosses the cloths across to Jiang Yanli, who smoothes her hand over the designs. Rather than smudging the ink, it seems to dry and set it. She passes one cloth to Jiang Wanyin and the other back to Wei Ying.

The boys tie the cloths into the middle of nets, and Jiang Wanyin casts his overboard.

Jiang Yanli makes a talisman and slaps it on the back of her and Jiang Wanyin's boat. Wei Ying makes one for his and Lan Wangji's. Both sets of oars are resting on the boats' floors, but the boats nonetheless stop drifting and move steadily and purposefully, separating a little and then starting to snake their way through the water. The Jiang siblings' boat also pulls a distance ahead.

Their purpose quickly becomes clear.

The boats' path covers a significant area of the water. Lan Wangji sees swirls in the water as something moves rapidly, arrowing towards the lead boat. Jiang Wanyin's arms move as something seems to impact the net he's holding. The rope grows taut.

Jiang Wanyin braces, waiting, holding as the rope gains tension until his arms are straining.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says quietly. "Help me with the rope. You're stronger than I am."

Lan Wangji nods and takes the rope, bracing himself firmly as Wei Ying casts the net overboard. He hears Jiang Wanyin grunt as he starts pulling the other net onto the boat.

The rope Lan Wangji is holding tugs hard and grows heavier.

He can hear the sound of Jiang Yanli's sword, see the flash of her sword glare reflecting on the water as she dispatches what Jiang Wanyin has hauled from the water.

The drag on the rope is becoming enormous, but Lan Wangji sets himself firmly and holds steady. He knows as a matter not of pride but of fact that he is, indeed, very strong.

He's facing the rear of the boat now, so he cannot see the Jiang siblings, but he hears a splash and a call of, "A-Xian! Go!"

"Pull!" Wei Ying says, and Lan Wangji does.

Wei Ying draws his sword and stands ready. Lan Wangji glances to see the name embossed below the guard and feels his brow furrow.

Suibian? How strange. It does not seem like an appropriate name for a sword.

The net drags heavily through the water. Lan Wangji pulls steadily, hand over hand. It comes free of the water and tips over into the boat, water slopping in with it.

There are more water ghouls than Caiyi Town should have seen in years - the people there are skilled with boats and swimming.

Wei Ying attacks, blade dancing, killing the ghouls neatly without damaging the net, then kicks the remains back over the side. He checks the net, briskly but carefully, and throws it back into the water, then waves back to the other boat. Lan Wangji can hear the rope creak and splashing sounds as Jiang Wanyin hauls the other net in again.

The boat is still gliding swiftly. Lan Wangji understands the strategy, now - the nets are somehow attracting the water ghouls (something to do with the painted cloth pieces, he presumes), and the snaking path they take results in a wide sweep through quite a large area of the lake. The boats take turns with their nets, avoiding interruption.

It is admirably efficient.

They take a wide, sweeping curve that curls gently into the middle of the lake. Lan Wangji is puzzled at the number of water ghouls they collect - he and Wei Ying dispatch dozens around the edges of the lake, and he suspects that the Jiang siblings' number is comparable.

The ghouls' numbers finally seem to be exhausted as they approach the middle of the lake, to Lan Wangji's relief. He is aching from exertion; he cannot remember working as hard before.

Wei Ying offered to trade places and take the rope, but Lan Wangji declined. He has no practice fighting through a net like this, and fears damaging the net and ruining the execution of this strategy. He also has observed that Jiang Wanyin has held the other boat's net without interruption.

Have a strong will and anything can be achieved, he recites silently. He wonders if it is improper to be unwilling to give the appearance of being weaker than Jiang Wanyin (especially in front of Wei Ying), but reminds himself that the instructions inscribed on the mountain also say to be mighty.

He holds the rope.

---

"I think that's all of them!" Wei Ying says cheerfully, when they go some distance without anything filling the net. He pulls the rope back into the boat and tugs the now-filthy piece of cloth free. "Ugh, terrible," Wei Ying says, and holds the cloth away from him. The cloth gives off a mighty puff of steam, and then bursts into flame, burning rapidly to ash that floats away on the wind.

Lan Wangji looks at the other boat, and sees Jiang Yanli doing the same thing. She sees him looking and smiles warmly, then turns her attention to Jiang Wanyin, who has slumped to sit on one of the boat's low benches. He looks, Lan Wangji is shamefully gratified to note, as exhausted as Lan Wangji feels.

It is forbidden to look down upon others in victory, or to envy in defeat. It is probably acceptable to be gratified that one has neither won nor lost, Lan Wangji decides. Perhaps it would also be acceptable for him to sit down.

"You did great, Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying says, and hugs him. "Especially for your first time. Lan Zhan, so strong!"

Or this, Lan Wangji thinks, leaning tiredly into Wei Ying. This is good too.

Chapter Text

Xichen returns from the Nie Sect Discussion Conference expecting the dormitories of the guest disciples to be in chaos.

They are, to his surprise, no worse than they had been when he left. He is more surprised yet that, even though it is only mid-morning and there are no scheduled classes, not one of the guest disciples is in the vicinity; not one can even be found still lounging in bed.

Curious, he goes looking for them.

He finds them at the training field where sword practice is held. He would have been impressed by their diligence, but they aren't training with swords - in fact, most of their swords are laid out in neat rows at one edge of the area.

Xichen watches, trying to understand what he is seeing.

He recognises Wei Wuxian of the Jiang Sect, of course, but is unsure why he seems to be taking the role of the instructor. Wangji is the Lan Sect's best junior disciple - surely, even if the juniors have decided to be this assiduous in their studies (unexpected, but commendable), Wei Wuxian should not be conducting any lessons?

Wangji is present. He is watching Wei Wuxian - Xichen notes with approval that he seems properly attentive, instead of just continuing his lovestruck mooning over the boy.

Clearly still besotted, of course, but paying attention.

Jin Zixuan - he and the other Jin disciples are the only ones still holding their swords - is glaring at Wei Wuxian.

"- not trying to dishonour your Jin Sect principles either!" Wei Wuxian is saying, in tones of exasperation. His eyes narrow. "I wouldn't have thought that the cultivation of the Jin Sect would be weak enough that the Jin Sect heir would be afraid of such a simple exercise." He shakes his head in mock-dismay. "I imagine some people would be very disappointed if they heard."

Jin Zixuan's eyes widen. It's somewhere between a taunt and a threat, and Xichen is sure this kind of blackmail is against at least some of the rules, but Jin Zixuan stalks to the side of the field and places his sword carefully on the ground, and the other Jin disciples can only follow.

"Okay!" Wei Wuxian exclaims brightly. "In this scenario, you have all had your swords taken away, even though you definitely tried very hard not to let that happen," he continues, with a glance at the Jin disciples. "It is very useful to know how to cultivate without them, because someone very probably loves you, even if you don't deserve it because you don't ever talk to them honestly like a real person, and it would be very bad if something happened to you. In theory."

Xichen covers his mouth. If one of the disciples should see him here, he should not be too visibly amused by the way Jin Zixuan is turning red.

"No matter how many talismans you practice, you all keep relying on your swords to fight. So no swords at all today," Wei Wuxian declares. "Lan Zhan, bring out the demon!"

Xichen's amusement disappears as Wangji steps out of sight into a nearby hall. Surely these children cannot -

Wangji brings out the head of a paper dragon. The dragon head has been damaged, at some point in the past, and it looks strangely cross-eyed. Several dozen quite complicated talismans are stuck to it. Wangji helps Wei Wuxian put it on.

It looks ridiculous.

"It is a terrifying, evil creature, and has killed thousands of people before you!" Wei Wuxian says dramatically, voice slightly muffled. "Defend yourselves!"

And then... suddenly, the dragon takes on a menacing air. It moves back and forward, erratically hostile. Purple flame jets from its nostrils. When the flames touch one of the disciples, they stick, burning on the disciple's clothing - but, Lan Xichen realises, not doing any actual damage.

When the dragon head collides with a disciple, one of the talismans comes off it and attaches to them as well, and the disciples fall to the ground and stay there, looking disgruntled.

After a couple of minutes, the disciples still standing start to regroup. Some of them dodge with varying degrees of success. Some of them produce talismans of their own that block the flames, dispel them from their friends, and seem to cause the dragon head's attacks slip past without the disciple attracting one of the dragon head talismans.

Jiang Wanyin stays on the sidelines, calling instructions to the disciples still standing, and criticism to the fallen. Wangji is near him, watching silently with a faint smile.

The disciples' numbers are still experiencing a steady attrition. A small group have started to counter-attack, throwing talismans that start to knock the talismans away from the dragon head. In the end, only a handful of them are left, but the dragon head staggers back and begins some rather ludicrously dramatic death throes.

"I die!" Wei Wuxian calls, and Wangji helps him take the head off. "Good job! Well. Mostly." He grins. "Let's go to the classroom and discuss it." He waves a hand, and the talismans that had stuck to the fallen disciples come loose.

Wangji takes the dragon head away. The disciples make a quick sweep of the field, gathering the fallen pieces of paper, collect their swords, and follow Wei Wuxian into the classroom.

Xichen is bemused.

What has been happening?

---

He watches the classroom discussion from the back of the room. Wei Wuxian takes the desk of the teacher. His way of teaching is very different from anything Xichen has seen before - he doesn't instruct so much as tease, hinting and leading until the disciples find the answers on their own.

Jiang Wanyin contributes extensively; when Wei Wuxian is watching the students argue amongst themselves, Jiang Wanyin cuts off any discussion that is going too far in the wrong direction. He and Wei Wuxian both intervene to correct mistakes of fact that will derail the other students' analysis, and between them they monitor the whole discussion very well.

Wei Wuxian sees Xichen almost as soon as he arrives, but merely flashes Lan Xichen a bright smile and returns his attention to the disciples. The debate is intense; hastily scribbled talismans fly back and forth across the room, causing lights to flash and winds to swirl around the room.

Uncle would never tolerate such chaos.

But even when the bell tolls for the midday meal, the students leave the classroom still intently discussing methods for the suppression of spirits, ways to enhance cultivation with the sword by augmentation with talismans.

Wei Wuxian's method is clearly quite inspiring. Some of them don't even notice Xichen standing to the side of the doorway.

He hears Nie Huaisang complaining, "Wei-xiong is so strict. He will make me study my talismans all night. He says talismans will be effective even with a golden core as weak as mine, so no allowances will be made at all!"

"That's right, Nie-xiong!" Wei Wuxian calls back. "There will be a test every day for you!"

Nie Huaisang's eyes widen and he snaps his ever-present fan open as he hastens his way out.

Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin are laughing. Wangji is gazing at Wei Wuxian with the softest expression Xichen has seen on his little brother since Mother died, and because of that Xichen can't stop smiling.

"Wei Wuxian. Jiang Wanyin. Wangji." He steps into the room and bows. The guests return his bow; Wangji nods to him, very slightly, and then his gaze swings back to Wei Wuxian like a compass returning to the north.

"Zewu-Jun," Jiang Wanyin says, "I hope the Discussion Conference went well."

"It did," Xichen says. "Your father sends his greetings. He was pleased to learn that you and Wei Wuxian have distinguished yourselves among your peers. He asked that I assure you that all is well at Lotus Cove. He says your mother misses you very much."

It is lost on no-one, except perhaps Wangji, that there is no possibility that the remarkable Madam Yu said such a thing; it is, however, possible that it is true. Jiang Wanyin flushes slightly, looking pleased.

"Zewu-Jun is too kind," he says, bowing again.

"It seems that it is the disciples of the Jiang Sect who are too kind," Xichen replies. "After hunting on our behalf, you also take on the teaching responsibilities of the Lan Sect. We appreciate your generosity with your time and energies." Xichen notes that Jiang Wanyin looks suddenly very worried, perhaps concerned that he and his brother have overstepped; Wangji is glaring at Xichen now, and Wei Wuxian looks, if anything, terribly amused. "If I may trespass further, I would request that you join me in my office after your meal to discuss your hunt in Caiyi Town."

"Of course," Wei Wuxian says, bowing. "Now is the time to meet with Zewu-Jun. Naturally, shijie will accompany us, as she hunted with us in Caiyi. I will tell her." He tosses a message butterfly into the air that darts past Xichen's head and away. He seems oddly pleased. Perhaps he misses his shijie; male and female disciples mingle rarely in the Cloud Recesses, and it is said that the flowers of Lotus Pier are very close.

"Wei Ying," Wangji says. "Meals must be eaten at the proper time." He hesitates. "Wei Ying worked hard. Eat now."

"I shall see you shortly," Xichen says, and bows.

He hears Jiang Wanyin say, "You know, Lan-er-xiong, if you let taking care of this idiot become your problem, my mother will never want you to leave Lotus Cove."

"Mn," says Wangji. He sounds... pleased.

---

The three Jiang Sect disciples, with Wangji, present themselves promptly at his office.

The meeting is strange from the very beginning.

As soon as their greetings are complete and the doors close behind them, Wei Wuxian turns to Jiang-guniang. "Shijie?"

She nods, and pulls talismans from her sleeve. She places one on the doors and one on each wall, and then returns to the other disciples. "I was already prepared, A-Xian," she says, smiling.

"Thank you, shijie," Wei Wuxian says. His look towards her is sweetly adoring, and then he turns back to Xichen. "Shijie's wards are without equal. This is a silencing charm. No-one will be able to eavesdrop on our discussion."

Xichen blinks. "Is that really necessary?" he asks. He notices that Jiang Wanyin also seems confused. Wangji, unsurprisingly, is unruffled. It would take something truly unorthodox, Xichen suspects, for Wangji to disapprove of anything Wei Wuxian did.

"It is necessary," Wei Wuxian says firmly.

"To discuss water ghouls?"

Wei Wuxian smiles wryly. "We will return to the subject of water ghouls. There is something else I must tell you, and Jiang Cheng, and Lan Zhan." He takes a deep breath, and then... is silent.

Wei Wuxian, lost for words, is a slightly worrying sight.

Jiang-guniang puts her hand on Wei Wuxian's shoulder. "It's all right, A-Xian," she says softly. "You said we could trust him."

"We can trust him," Wei Wuxian replies in a low voice. "But I need them to trust me."

"What are you talking about?" Jiang Wanyin bursts out. "I always trust you. I trust you to embarrass me every time!" He finishes in a mumble, "But also I trust you, you know. In general."

"Wei Ying can be trusted," Wangji says seriously, and then stares at Xichen.

"I am sure Wei Wuxian is very trustworthy," Xichen says. "What is this about?"

Wei Wuxian bows his head for a moment, then looks up and squares his shoulders. The serious expression doesn't quite suit him.

"Zewu-Jun. You once told me about a house surrounded by gentians, where you visited once a month, and how Lan Zhan still waited there, even when the door no longer opened."

Xichen feels light-headed. He feels shocked, and angry. He has never told anyone such a thing. Only Lan Zhan or Uncle could know that, and Uncle would never tell anyone, and even if Uncle would tell someone, that person would not be Wei Wuxian. Lan Zhan is clearly in love with Wei Wuxian so in theory he could have said something, but Lan Zhan is giving Xichen a look of utter betrayal.

"You told him?" Lan Zhan whispers. "When?"

Wei Wuxian takes Lan Zhan's hand. "About twenty years from now."

---

Wei Wuxian explains that he is from the future. A terrible future, so terrible he spent years researching a way to try and fix the past, until finally he found a way to send a soul, with its memories, back to the beginning of its life.

"It was dangerous," he admits. He'd pulled away from the others as he explained, and now sits hunched in on himself, eyes on the floor. "Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng were furious. They were trying to stop me when I did it. But I had to try, because -" He stops.

"I was dead," Jiang-guniang says calmly. "I died a few years from now. A-Xian blamed himself. A-Xian believes that A-Cheng also blamed him, and that A-Cheng hated him. My husband was also dead, and A-Cheng raised my son, who was greatly hurt by our absence."

"Wei Ying," Wangji says, voice aching.

"Lan Zhan grieved, very much," Wei Wuxian says sadly. "I wanted to save people, I wanted to do the right thing, but in the end, I only saved one child. And... sort of another person? He was still dead, but he was up and about."

"Is this a joke?" Jiang Wanyin hisses. "Who hates you? Who blames you? You would never let A-Jie get hurt if you could stop it. You'd never -"

"I left you," Wei Wuxian cuts him off. "I promised I'd always be by your side, and then I left you anyway. You were alone, with just the baby."

That throws a bucket of cold water on Jiang Wanyin's outrage. "Where were Mother and Father?" he asks hesitantly.

Wei Wuxian looks at the floor. He looks like he wants to cry. Wangji takes his hand and holds it tightly.

Xichen realises he is starting to believe this impossible story, because Wei Wuxian's pain seems still to be so very real.

"The Wen sect attacked Lotus Pier about two years from now," Jiang-guniang answers. "Mother and Father died to save us."

"You knew all of this?" Jiang Wanyin demands. "Who else have you told before me?"

"Only shijie," Wei Wuxian says quietly. "I didn't want anyone else to know before you. But there are things I have to tell Zewu-Jun."

"I forced him to tell me," Jiang-guniang says serenely. "A-Xian had nightmares."

"You can never say no to A-Jie," Jiang Wanyin says, and shoves at Wei Wuxian's shoulder. "You're so damn weak. Idiot." He then wraps an arm around Wei Wuxian's shoulder and squeezes, just for a moment.

Wei Wuxian looks heartbreakingly relieved.

"Lan Zhan..." He sighs. "Lan Zhan was in love with me. I didn't realise it. I hurt him a lot, by accident. Later I found out that for him, it started when I studied here. This time I - I understood better, and I didn't want him to suffer, so I maybe..." He looks at Wangji. "I should have told you all this before. This wasn't fair. But I just missed you so much, Lan Zhan, it had been sixteen years, it was wrong, but..."

"Not wrong," Wangji interrupts. "Grateful." He lifts their joined hands and kisses Wei Wuxian's knuckles gently. Xichen looks away. Jiang Wanyin meets his gaze, and they share a moment, Lan Xichen feels, of true understanding. "How long? Before."

"We... became cultivation partners about twenty years from now, also," Wei Wuxian says.

"What?" Jiang Wanyin's head snaps back around. "The two of you were obvious from the first day. It was disgusting. It took you twenty years to figure this out last time?"

"I was dead for thirteen years of that!" Wei Wuxian protests. Jiang Wanyin pales. Wangji looks like he might faint.

"Don't," Wangji says, in a choked voice, and Wei Wuxian turns back to him immediately.

"I won't, Lan Zhan, I promise. I'm going to try really, really hard to make sure none of that ever happens," he says intently. "And part of that, well." He looks at Lan Xichen. "That's where Zewu-Jun comes in."

---

Xichen is not at all certain he wants to use Book of the Mind with Wei Wuxian.

But he doesn't have a good reason not to.

It's unusual enough to use a technique developed for reading the memory of ghosts on a living person, but it will work with the person's consent. He's surprised Wei Wuxian knew that.

He and Wei Wuxian are seated across from each other. Jiang-guniang kneels beside them, watching alertly. Xichen's expression must give something away when he looks at her.

"A-Xian has said that you can be trusted," she says. Her smile does not quite have its usual warmth. "However, this process is still quite dangerous." She pulls out her Jiang silver bell. "If it seems that he is in danger, I will end it. Or, of course, if Zewu-Jun is in danger," she adds, and she means it, he can tell, he's not an afterthought, as such, but he is under no illusions about her priorities.

"Has he - have you seen his memories?" Xichen asks.

Jiang-guniang shakes her head. "No. A-Xian has told me the things I need to know, and I believe him. But there is a great deal to tell Zewu-Jun in quite a small amount of time, and there can be permitted no risk that you do not believe what A-Xian tells you."

Xichen nods slowly.

They begin.

Chapter Text

He sees scattered impressions of Wei Wuxian's youth - an unpleasant town, vicious dogs, Lotus Pier, Jiang Fengmian, children who might be Jiang Wanyin and Jiang-guniang. He sees the Cloud Recesses, sees Wangji, sees his brother frustrated and uncertain and conflicted as Wei Wuxian teases and flirts and pulls away, over and over again.

---

Someone is telling Wei Wuxian that Wen Xu has burned the Cloud Recesses. Wen Chao is taunting swordless disciples and driving them into a cave.

---

Su She offers a girl's life to appease Wen Chao.

---

Wangji is wounded, bloodied and pale even for Wangji. Wei Wuxian is tending him. Wangji is telling him that the Lan Sect will not come to help them, because the Cloud Recesses has already burned.

Wangji is crying.

---

Wei Wuxian and Wangji are fighting the Xuanwu of Slaughter. Xichen wishes desperately for them to stay hidden, to wait for rescue, but he has no power to affect this.

He watches Wei Wuxian grasp a sword that screams with the agony of thousands.

---

Wei Wuxian is looking at the bloody corpses of the Jiang Sect, as Wen Chao gloats.

---

Wei Wuxian is looking for Jiang Wanyin.

---

Wei Wuxian is in agony as his golden core is slowly, carefully peeled away, as the power ebbs -

Xichen hears Wei Wuxian's voice. "Let's skip that part. It's quite unpleasant."

---

Countless Wen die screaming. Wen Chao dies slowly, dies horrifically, and Lan Xichen remembers Wangji, bloody and crying, remembers the corpses of children in Lotus Pier, and is ashamed to think: good.

---

He sees the Sunshot Campaign. He sees Meng Yao kill Wen Ruohan.

---

He sees Wangji arguing with Wei Wuxian, over and over again, about demonic cultivation. He feels the ache in Wei Wuxian's bones, feels the burning in his temper, and thinks: stop.

---

He sees Wangji ask Wei Wuxian to come to Gusu, over and over again, and thinks: oh.

---

Wei Wuxian is alone, fighting to stop an atrocity. Wei Wuxian confronts Jin Zixun in a room full of people. Lan Xichen is among them, and does nothing.

---

He sees Wangji, expression soft as a small child plays beside him.

---

He sees the Yiling Burial Mounds in bloom.

---

He sees the death of Jin Zixuan.

---

He sees Wei Wuxian under siege, he sees the death of Jiang Yanli, he sees -

Wei Wuxian's voice again. "My memory for this part isn't very good. But you'll tell me about it later."

---

Wei Wuxian comes alive in Mo Manor. Xichen sees a dismembered arm, sees Lan disciples in danger - juniors, he realises, not even born yet.

---

He sees Wangji playing Rest, sees him travel with Wei Wuxian collecting pieces of a dismembered corpse.

He sees Wei Wuxian using Empathy in Yi City. The experience is quite surreal.

He sees Jiang Wanyin filled with rage and pain.

He sees Jinlintai.

---

He sees Empathy again. He watches himself through Nie Mingjue's eyes, watches the Sunshot Campaign happen again, sees the treachery of Meng Yao, sees himself defending Meng Yao. Sees Meng Yao become Jin Guangyao, sees Jin Guangyao play Cleansing for Nie Mingjue, puzzles at the wrong notes when he watched himself teach Jin Guangyao to play correctly.

He sees Nie Mingjue die.

---

He sees himself telling Wei Wuxian and Wangji that he trusts Jin Guangyao.

---

He sees Wangji and Wei Wuxian rescuing children from a trap. He sees Su She's treachery.

---

He sees himself, again, telling Wei Wuxian how Wangji almost destroyed himself for love of Wei Wuxian.

He sees confessions of love, and thinks: finally.

He sees complex plans laid bare, betrayals confessed.

He sees Jin Guangyao threaten Wei Wuxian, threaten Wangji, threaten the son of Jiang Yanli and Jin Zixuan. He sees Su She, again, and realises this hot, acid feeling must be hatred, because time and again, Su She has used the teachings of the Lan Sect to do evil things; Su She has used the teachings of the Lan Sect to hurt Wangji, has hated Wangji simply for being Wangji. Xichen thinks: how dare he.

He sees the death of Jin Guangyao.

He sees himself, again. He looks like a broken man.

---

Xichen blinks slowly.

Soft guqin music is playing. For an instant he is afraid that this will be the music of the Book of Turmoil again, but no, he knows this piece, can feel the soothing, restoring energy of it, and he looks up and sees that it is Wangji playing.

He feels, just for a moment, as if he is the one who has fallen through time. Wangji looks so young. But this, he remembers, is correct. Wangji is sixteen. Wangji has never seen the Cloud Recesses burning, has never been to war. Wangji is in love, and Wei Wuxian has never turned away from him, has not died and left him to grieve.

"What," Xichen begins, and coughs. His voice is hoarse and his throat is sore. Shij- Jiang-guniang presses tea into his hand, and he sips it gratefully.

"Drink it all," she says gently, and pours another for Wei Wuxian. Xichen looks at her for a long moment, trying to sort out his memories. He remembers thinking that she was a pleasant enough young woman in appearance, not particularly outstanding, but somehow he's not sure why; he has seen her through Wei Wuxian's eyes, now, and all he can see is a beauty that outshines every other woman in the world.

"You were screaming," Jiang Wanyin says, a strange note to his voice. "A-Jie nearly brought you both out of it many times."

"I am very sorry," Wei Wuxian murmurs. "I tried to skip the worst parts."

The awful thing is, Xichen believes him.

---

Wei Wuxian gazes into his teacup.

"You have to understand, Zewu-Jun, that he is very, very clever. All the whole cultivation world was deceived by him." He sighs. "You blamed yourself. I'm not sure you ever forgave yourself at all. You went into seclusion, and you haven't - you hadn't emerged. After years. Lan Zhan missed you so much..."

Wei Wuxian looks up. "You had to know, this time. You had to understand. Because I think the Sunshot Campaign still has to happen. I think we might even still need him for it. But afterwards -" He shakes his head. "I still want to save the innocents among the Wen. I think they'll still need saving. But last time I pretty much failed, really. Only one of them lived longer than I did, and if Lan Zhan hadn't -"

He swallows.

"There is only moving forward from here, Zewu-Jun," he says. His smile seems forced.

Xichen nods slowly.

"We can prepare for some things. I will conceal the Book of Turmoil better, we can be ready if the Wen attack." He takes a breath. "I am not sure what to do about Su She."

Wei Wuxian chuckles mirthlessly. "I am not the person to ask," he says. "There's only one reason, at this time, I haven't killed him yet."

Wangji's music stops abruptly. Jiang Wanyin looks appalled. Xichen smiles slightly.

"And what is that reason?"

Wei Wuxian sits up very straight, and puts on a very serious expression. "Killing is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses," he says, "and I'm trying not to get thrown out, this time."

Xichen laughs. He can't help it. He laughs until he's weeping, for the dead who are not yet dead, for Wangji, for Wei Wuxian. For the junior disciples Wei Wuxian remembers, brilliant boys who now might never exist. Xichen knows Wei Wuxian misses them. He will look for Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen, and be afraid of never finding them.

Xichen knows, because so will he.

Wei Wuxian stands and comes to kneel next to him, and then, to Xichen's shock, enfolds him in a hug.

It's a good hug. Wei Wuxian rubs his back and murmurs soothingly into his hair. Xichen imagines Jiang Wanyin must be ready to explode, seeing this.

"It's all right," Wei Wuxian says softly. "It's all right to cry. It's all right to admit that it hurts."

Xichen cries until he is out of tears, and only then does Wei Wuxian let him go. He returns to Wangji's side. Wangji's expression is complicated.

"Where did you learn -" Xichen begins to ask, but stops. Wei Wuxian is, after all, not entirely the youth he appears; a sixteen-year-old body carries the mind and soul of a much, much older man. (He wonders if he should be objecting to Wangji's relationship, but dismisses the idea; it wouldn't make a difference, anyway, and Wangji was near forty and still pursuing Wei Wuxian in the body of a teenager, with a mind barely older than that, so.)

Wei Wuxian answers him anyway. "Some of it from shijie. A little bit, by getting it wrong." He smiles. "A little bit from Zewu-Jun, who makes everyone feel better, just by existing nearby."

His smile wavers as he turns to Wangji.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says softly. "You see now how terrible the story really is. You know I am much, much older than you. You don't have to stay with me. I probably tricked you really, you know. If you've changed your mind, that's... that's okay."

He looks at the floor, and Xichen wants to shout at him, but he cannot find the words to say that it's far too late for that.

Wangji's barely audible huff is, for him, a very deep sigh. "Have not changed my mind about Wei Ying," he says firmly. "Still always want Wei Ying."

Xichen looks away as Wangji ducks his head and he does not want to see what happens next. Jiang Wanyin is red-faced and looking at the floor. Jiang-guniang meets Xichen's eyes unflinchingly. She has an indulgent smile.

"A-Xian should know better," she says, as if confiding in Xichen, "but sometimes he does not."

She's not wrong. Xichen saw Wangji in Wei Wuxian's memories - it was obvious, even if not, apparently, to Wei Wuxian, that something about Wei Wuxian was always utterly captivating to his brother.

"He never knows better about anything," Jiang Wanyin mutters. "He's an idiot and an asshole and he's my - and I can't believe your brother has such low standards," he says, glaring at Xichen. Xichen supposes that crying like a child probably dispelled quite a lot of the mystique of Zewu-Jun, but he does not regret it.

Jiang Wanyin apparently does, because he winces, and hastily rises to apologise for his thoughtless words.

Xichen smiles.

"Jiang Wanyin, I think it likely that there will be a... bond, between our families, for a very long time. There is much for the four of us to do together, openly and in secret, and I have many mistakes to avoid repeating." And so do you, he thinks, and I know exactly why Wei Wuxian has not told you what they were. "I hope that we can be unified in purpose."

Jiang Wanyin nods, looking slightly unsure of where this is going.

"I think," Xichen says, "that, if you are willing, I would like you to be my sworn brother."

Jiang Wanyin is a promising young cultivator with a good heart. Xichen knows now that his judgement is not always good (he remembers Nie Mingjue's death, feels guilty, can't decide if he deserves to) but this doesn't just depend on his judgement, this time (he remembers the Jiang Cheng Wei Wuxian knew, who looked at Jin Ling and Wei Wuxian with the same fear in his eyes, and Xichen wonders that Wei Wuxian seems to see everything except that people love him).

"That's a really good idea!" Wei Wuxian exclaims. "It won't cause suspicion for the Jiang and Lan Sects to work together a lot if people think the two of you have bonded."

"We have bonded," Jiang Wanyin snaps. "We share the bond of having shameless, terrible brothers and having to deal with you. Zewu-Jun and I can be sworn brothers and finally there will be someone who can share my pain."

He's right in ways he would probably rather die than admit, Xichen thinks. Wei Wuxian has kept a secret from Jiang Wanyin all their lives. Jiang Wanyin, he imagines, must always have sensed that there was a part of Wei Wuxian that was closed off to him, and now he knows that that part was never kept from someone else.

Xichen looks at Wangji, who sits close to Wei Wuxian and looks at him like he hung the moon, who welcomes Wei Wuxian's touch, who gives Wei Wuxian his tiny smiles and the warmth in him that Lan Xichen thought had died with their mother. Wangji, who will take Jiang Wanyin's brother away from him, and for all that he will still be Jiang Wanyin's brother, it will never again be quite the same.

Yes, Xichen thinks. I share your pain.

---

Wei Wuxian was having a moment with Lan Zhan, their foreheads touching, and it was very heartwarming and intense and Lan Xichen has ruined it by distracting him, but that's actually a really good idea, and he says so, and Jiang Cheng replies meanly because he is a terrible person.

"Hurtful!" Wei Wuxian exclaims. Shijie giggles, because Wei Wuxian is surrounded by vipers, it is treachery, he is giddy with relief that they've come through this revelation and Jiang Cheng is still scowling at him in the way that means love, for him, the way he realised too late always meant love.

Jiang Cheng has endless resources of contempt for those for whom he does not care. Only love makes Jiang Cheng truly angry.

---

It is almost time for the evening meal, and Lan Xichen looks as if he is approaching the point of collapse. (As one of the Twin Jades of Lan, this translates to: Lan Xichen's shoulders have dropped a distance equivalent to the thickness of an infant's finger, and there is an almost undetectable tightness around his eyes; to the average onlooker he would look entirely normal, but Wei Wuxian is an expert.)

He and Jiang Cheng have completed the discussion of their plans, and will go to the temple in the morning.

"All that is left," Zewu-Jun says, "is the original purpose of the meeting. The water ghouls."

"There were a great many of them in the lake," Lan Zhan says. "Far too many, but we found no evidence of a reason."

"Don't think about it too hard," Wei Wuxian interjects. "I know the reason. The water will be safe now."

"What is the reason?" Zewu-Jun asks, sipping his tea.

"There was a waterborne abyss," Wei Wuxian tells him blithely. He wants to see if Zewu-Jun will spit out his tea, and is disappointed that he does not. He pauses in the action of setting down his teacup, almost too briefly to notice, and swallows his tea calmly.

"A waterborne abyss," he repeats.

"Yes. The Wen sect chased it out of their territory into yours."

"What are you talking about?" Jiang Cheng explodes. "There was no sign of a waterborne abyss in that lake!"

"Oh, I know," Wei Wuxian agrees, "but that's because I stole it."

There is a long silence.

"I might need it later," Wei Wuxian explains. He wouldn't steal things without a reason.

Lan Xichen pinches the bridge of his nose.

"Wei Wuxian," he says distantly, "it occurs to me we also have not yet discussed the subject of demonic cultivation."

"Eheh." Wei Wuxian scratches his nose. "It's getting late. Maybe we talk about that another time? Being late for dinner would be against the rules."

Lan Xichen sighs, and nods. Wei Wuxian would be pleased at the reprieve, but by the expressions on Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng's faces, the reprieve probably isn't going to last.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian would never wonder what he did to deserve bad things happening to him. He knows. He knows what he did and how often. He knows that he invented entirely new categories of it to do.

However.

This still seems a little unfair.

Jiang Cheng manifests his concern in the shouts and insults scattered liberally through his questioning.

Lan Zhan manifests his concern through intense wounded stares and insistence.

Wei Wuxian is reasonably familiar with both.

He is not accustomed to dealing with them both at once, and he has access to none of his usual evasion techniques - running away won't work because the two of them have backed him against the wall and are blocking him from leaving, pissing off Jiang Cheng until he stomps off won't work because this Jiang Cheng doesn't hate him yet and also is slightly better-adjusted and usually Wei Wuxian is very proud of that but right now it's highly inconvenient, and driving Lan Zhan away with aggressively inappropriate behaviour won't work because he and Lan Zhan are already at the kissing stage, and also he couldn't bring himself to do it anyway because he knows now it always hurt him.

If a part of him is thinking that it's adorable how Jin Ling clearly got his I would rather die than admit that I am worried about you but also I am going to ensure your safety if it kills me face from Jiang Cheng (the resemblance is uncanny), well, it would probably be extremely unhelpful on many levels to say so.

Jiang Cheng is extremely upset that Wei Wuxian has a) been practicing demonic cultivation and b) doing so without him, Jiang Cheng, being informed and c) been doing so in opposition to something as powerful as a waterborne abyss without him, Jiang Cheng, being present.

Were someone taking notes on this discussion, Jiang Cheng would undoubtedly also wish it recorded that he is upset that i) he is afflicted with Wei Wuxian as an ongoing presence in his life, ii) that people will take such an idiot to be his, Jiang Cheng's, shixiong, which he absolutely is not, iii) that they might think that Wei Wuxian is in any way representative of the teachings of the Jiang Sect, iv) that if his mother should learn of this then he, Jiang Cheng, will have to watch her flay Wei Wuxian alive, and v), that such an occurrence will make his sister cry, which will also be Wei Wuxian's fault.

Lan Zhan is upset that demonic cultivation harms the heart and spirit, and its practitioners are guaranteed to face a terrible end. (At least that is familiar.) Lan Zhan is pressing his face into Wei Wuxian's neck (this simultaneously contributes significantly to Wei Wuxian's inability to run away from this discussion and also to Jiang Cheng's grievances) whispering need and fear into his skin.

Apparently, Wei Wuxian reflects, it wasn't just the years of grief and pining that made Lan Zhan so... intense. Lan Zhan's icy facade hides a maelstrom of feelings, even now.

Knowing what he knows of Lan Zhan's childhood, he isn't at all surprised.

Jiang Cheng doesn't really give him enough time to answer his questions before the next time he shouts at him, so Wei Wuxian pats Lan Zhan's back as comfortingly as he can and waits for Jiang Cheng to run out of energy.

It takes some time. Jiang Cheng probably spent the whole time they were eating their evening meals in Lan Sect-approved silence thinking about things he wanted to yell at Wei Wuxian, and then helped drive Wei Wuxian back to Lan Zhan's quarters with the power of forceful glaring.

At least Lan Zhan lives alone. Wei Wuxian suspects that after Lan Xichen graduated to his own quarters, it was just... quietly understood that none of the other junior disciples were suitable to share with Lan Wangji.

At least they let him set silencing charms on the walls before the argument started.

Finally he thinks Jiang Cheng has exhausted his feelings enough to hear what Wei Wuxian has to say.

"I know it's dangerous," he says quietly. "And I know I can't control it on my own. I thought I could, before, but... I was wrong." He sighs. "Really wrong. But things are different, now."

"Different how?" Jiang Cheng growls.

"Well, for one thing... I know a lot of the places I went wrong, before. It's not like anyone teaches this kind of cultivation, I had to work a lot of it out for myself. And..." He closes his eyes, because he doesn't want to see either of their faces when he says this. "This time I have a golden core."

"You didn't have a golden core?" Jiang Cheng whispers. "How..."

"There is a man named Wen Zhuliu," Wei Wuxian says quietly. "If either of you ever see him, please, please don't fight him. He is also called the Core Melting Hand, because he has the power to crush a person's golden core, destroying it forever. Their spiritual power will never return."

Jiang Cheng makes a choked sound that may be a sob. Lan Zhan is clutching Wei Wuxian's wrist, almost painfully tight.

"So I didn't have the ability to prevent or heal the damage from resentful energy," Wei Wuxian explains. "This time I still do. I've done a lot of work on this, and I'm very certain it will make a difference. Shijie's wards are also very helpful. And I can cultivate normally, so I won't need to use it as much. When I do, my plan was to ask Lan Zhan to play Cleansing for me, or Zewu-Jun if Lan Zhan wasn't willing."

"Willing," Lan Zhan says. "Always willing."

"What about me?" Jiang Cheng demands tightly. "Do I just get to watch you risk yourself like this and do nothing to help? You have him now, I'm useless?"

Wei Wuxian looks at him, sees the fierce expression and the shining eyes, and hears: it sounds like you don't need me and I need you and I'm scared you're leaving me, and his heart aches. "Don't be stupid," he says fondly. "You say it yourself. Shijie is too soft on me. Lan Zhan likes me too much. Only Jiang Cheng will keep me humble. And besides." He looks at the ceiling. This isn't their relationship, never was, either time, but he had decades to realise that that was always part of the problem.

He steels himself.

"I need Jiang Cheng," he says. He looks at the ceiling, because Jiang Cheng won't be able to control his face for this, and he doesn't want to see Lan Zhan's. "I can't promise that I'll always be by your side, that I'll be your subordinate when you become Sect Leader, that we'll be together. I don't know what's going to happen, and I need Lan Zhan, too, for as long as Lan Zhan puts up with me. But Jiang Cheng..."

He takes a breath, wipes away the tears that are running down his cheeks. "I keep Jiang Cheng away from this because it's dangerous, and I need Jiang Cheng to be safe. You'll be the next leader of the Jiang Sect. You'll be strong and brilliant and skilled, and I'll be reckless and irresponsible, and I'll leave you to clean up the mess."

"So just like always," Jiang Cheng says, but there's no heat in it.

"As you say." Wei Wuxian risks looking at him, smiles at him, and gets the secretly-pleased grumpy face in return.

"I'll let you talk to Lan Zhan," Jiang Cheng says, going to the door. "I don't really want to know how you two resolve this."

He starts to open the door, and yelps as a cloud of lights pour in the moment there's any kind of gap. It's a small storm of message butterflies, that split and come charging at both of them.

He hears shijie's voice.

A-Xian remember to talk to A-Cheng carefully

A-Xian A-Cheng loves you very much

A-Xian is everything all right

A-Xian are you hiding from A-Cheng I haven't heard from either of you

A-Xian if you aren't in a warded room I will be very upset

A-Xian answer me as soon as you get this

Jiang-Cheng is wincing as he's bombarded with butterflies of his own, and Wei Wuxian wonders what shijie was telling him. Finally one butterfly hangs in the air between them, and thunders a message to them both.

IF I HAVE TO COME OVER THERE I WILL AND I WILL BE VERY DISAPPOINTED IN BOTH OF YOU

Wei Wuxian hurries to send out one of his own. Everything is all right shijie we talked it's okay I promise. As it flies out it's racing Jiang Cheng's.

---

"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says.

They're finally alone, and he's fairly sure Lan Zhan has been having an emotional crisis for hours.

"It is forbidden to argue with your family, because it doesn't matter who wins," Lan Zhan recites softly.

"That is a rule Jiang Cheng and I will never be able to obey." Wei Wuxian nudges at Lan Zhan until he looks up, kisses his forehead, his nose, intends only a light kiss to his lips, but finds Lan Zhan follows him as he tries to lean back, kissing him with desperate intensity. It's familiar, sweet and heartbreaking all at once, because he remembers this. This is how Lan Zhan kisses when he can't find the words for the things he needs to say.

Wei Wuxian knows this language, even if it's been more than sixteen years since the last time he needed it.

He lets himself be pliant in Lan Zhan's arms, lets Lan Zhan bite afraid for you into his lip, hears need you to be safe in the way Lan Zhan licks into his mouth, please, please, let me keep you safe in the open-mouthed kisses that trail down his jaw, down his neck, and my Wei Ying, mine when Lan Zhan pulls his collar aside and sucks at the bite mark Wei Wuxian very deliberately does not use spiritual energy to heal, the one Lan Zhan keeps coming back to every evening.

On some level, he'd never quite believed that Lan Zhan had really been in love when they were teenagers. He'd expected less intensity, when Lan Zhan hadn't waited the best part of twenty years to have this.

He'd been so very wrong. Lan Zhan presses him against the wall, hands tight on Wei Wuxian's hips, comes back to kiss him with desperate urgency. Lan Zhan gasps as Wei Wuxian wraps his arms around his neck and his legs around his waist, makes a sound like he's been punched when Wei Wuxian rocks his hips forward, presses back with no rhythm but a sweet desperation.

Wei Wuxian is going to regret this so very, very much when he's walking back to the dormitory in unpleasantly sticky trousers, he thinks, but thinking about consequences has never been his true nature, and right now he's a teenage boy again, and Lan Zhan is pressing his face into Wei Wuxian's shoulder, chanting his name like a prayer, until he makes a choked-off sound and squeezes his hips hard enough that it's almost, almost painful, and Wei Wuxian wants to keep this moment forever.

---

At nine o'clock he's curled up with Lan Zhan in loose-fitting borrowed trousers. He smiles fondly as Lan Zhan drifts off in his arms.

The silencing charms he'd put up were hasty and his aren't as good as shijie's anyway; he knows they've worn off when a glowing butterfly flits in and lands on his arm not long afterwards.

I helped Nie Huaisang study and made excuses for you not coming back tonight when it started to look like you wouldn't, so if you're not staying with Lan Zhan IN HIS SPARE BED YOU SHAMELESS ASSHOLE then find a fucking tree to sleep under or you'll embarrass me. I'm going to break Lan Zhan's pretty fucking face if he defiles you before marriage, our family has STANDARDS TO MAINTAIN. I hate everything about you.

---

Xichen has spent the evening making careful notes. He will probably burn them, when he is done, he cannot risk anyone finding them, but he has twenty years of a future that must not come to pass to understand, all thrown into his memory in the space of an afternoon.

He makes notes of what he knows about the people whose lives would have intersected with his and those of his loved ones. (Who still could, one way or another.)

He reaches one name, and stops.

Counts.

Closes his eyes for one long moment.

Xichen finishes his notes. He reviews them, commits his orderly timeline to memory. He sets the parchment alight and watches every single character burn to ash.

And then he goes to see his uncle.

He does not enjoy disturbing his uncle's seclusion, but the dates available to him are not precise enough to waste time, and there exist problems that have no palatable solutions at all.

Before finding his uncle, his steps take him to the secluded cottage in the forest. He stops at the place where Wangji waited, every month, even when he knew that the doors would not open for him, and wonders if he will be able to dissuade Uncle from his efforts to separate Wangji from Wei Wuxian. It seems likely that Uncle will try, as he so clearly did in Wei Wuxian's memories, and it seems even more unlikely that Uncle will succeed.

Wangji, he knows, does not give up on those he loves.

He wonders, shamefully, if those he loves give up too easily on him.

Wangji was always a reserved child, distant with anyone other than their mother. Xichen remembers, barely, a tiny body crawling into his bed at night and shaking against him, remembers sleepily curling around him until he was calm again, but even that stopped after Mother died.

The invisible walls that surrounded Wangji became thicker, taller, seemed utterly impenetrable after that.

Yet somehow, for Wei Wuxian, it was like they never existed at all.

If Xichen had tried as hard - had been the one to reach out, instead of assuming that Wangji would always reach for him, if he was needed - what might have been different?

There is only moving forward from here.

He moves forward, even if at the present time that means turning around. He goes to and knocks at the door of Uncle's jingshi.

There is no answer, but he did not actually expect one, and there are now concerns more important than his Uncle's distress, so he enters anyway.

His Uncle is meditating. Xichen sits across from him.

"I have returned from the Nie Sect Discussion Conference," he says. "It went well. However, I must now go on another journey, and I am not sure how long it will take."

What he is about to do is slightly cruel, but he remembers the scars of the discipline whip that Xichen will not allow Wangji to carry again, and knows a small, petty part of him is going to enjoy it.

"If you wish to remain in seclusion," Xichen says mildly, "that will not be a difficulty. I will ask Wei Wuxian to continue teaching classes. He has been most accommodating."

Uncle's eyes snap open.

---

Xichen sets out in the afternoon, after the swearing ceremony with A-Cheng.

He tucks Liebing and Shuoyue in Qiankun Pouches in his sleeves when he leaves Gusu.

To other cultivators, he will still be very obviously a Lan, but then, most cultivators will recognise Zewu-Jun anyway; to outsiders, he may pass as a prosperous gentleman of leisure.

He has to search to find the boy, and hopes that he is in time.

What he's doing might be just as stupid as he would be to trust Meng Yao, even though he has no intention of placing any trust at all, here; but he has to do something, and he cannot countenance killing a child.

If Wei Wuxian had an adult's freedom to roam, Xichen wonders, would the child already have died?

A part of the bright-faced youth is still the Yiling Patriarch, is still capable of merciless pragmatism and patient cruelty. Will do what he believes needs to be done, no matter the cost to himself.

Xichen does not want Wangji to see that, does not want Wei Wuxian to have to be that man - he did not get the sense that it was ever who he wanted to be, so much as a necessity he wouldn't flinch from.

If the boy must die - well. Xichen has not made the mistakes that Wei Wuxian remembers, but he would have, and he has made others. If blood on his hands is his penance, he will accept it.

He finds a boy who seems a likely candidate to be the one he seeks. Xichen lingers in the area, watching.

And so it is that he is in a liquor shop when he sees a man call the boy over, and offer him a plate of pastries to deliver a note.

He is on his feet before he thinks about it, Shuoyue in his hand. He does not draw the blade, but knocks the man's hand away with the sheath.

"Chang Cian," Xichen says, voice tight, deliberately rude, "it is beneath you to take such advantage of a child. You should be more careful to set a better example to the world."

The man who must be Chang Cian looks up sharply, goes to reach for his sword, but his eyes widen as he takes in Xichen's robes, his ribbon, and then reads the name of Shuoyue.

"Zewu-Jun," he says, swallowing. "I didn't -"

"If you have messages, carry them yourself, or send your disciples," Xichen cuts him off. "I'm sure that you would not wish to bring dishonour and disrepute to cultivators, or to your clan, if the world heard that you were in the habit of abusing the trust of children."

Xichen keeps his expression mild, but does not look away from Chang Cian's eyes. I am Zewu-Jun of the Lan Sect of Gusu, he thinks. If it is my word against yours for what you were planning to do, no-one will believe you.

Chang Cian is beginning to sweat. He is, after all, a coward.

"An excellent reminder, Zewu-Jun," he finally says. "I will... go do that."

Xichen allows him to leave, then turns to the boy, who is looking confused, and perhaps like he wants to cry; no doubt he fears that now there will be no pastries for him. His face lights up when Xichen pushes the plate towards him.

"Eat," Xichen says. "What is your name, child?"

The boy beams radiantly at him and picks up a pastry. "This one is called Xue Yang, Master!"

---

He takes the boy with him. He buys him candy every day, and wonders if this will end in blood.

When he walks into Cloud Recesses with a heavy sack over his shoulder and the smiling child at his side, he points out the rules, carved into the wall. He reads love all beings and embrace the entirety of the world and perform acts of chivalry, and he kneels by the boy who could become a monster, who will be Xichen's first profound labour to change the future.

"First you will learn to read. And then, in time, you must learn all of these rules," he says, seriously. "They are all important. There's a lot of them, I know, but you will be safe, and not go hungry, and if you obey the rules, every day, you will have a reward."

It is not the way of the Lan Sect to reward obedience; obedience should be its own reward. It is not the way of the Lan Sect to encourage food that is not what is necessary to live.

Xichen is a very fair man, and he thinks that there might be a danger in marking this child for special treatment if it fosters resentment amongst the other children.

He draws Shuoyue, and adds a rule.

"What does that say, Master?" Xue Yang asks.

Xichen smiles at him. "Only the obedient may have dessert. Come, A-Yang."

It has been a long journey, and the boy is wide-eyed and excited as Xichen shows him where he'll sleep, where Xichen lives, where Xichen works, the first places he needs to know, and Xichen tucks him into his new bed, in his new home, and tells him to rest, before he goes to the kitchens.

He knows better than to enter; he is the acting Sect Leader of the Lan Clan, but his authority in Cloud Recesses has limits, and one of them is at the doorway to the kitchens. He waits until he is noticed, and the Elder who rules this domain comes to see him.

He bows deeply, smiling. "Young mistress, it brings this one great joy to see look upon a beauty such as yours," he says, and her eyes twinkle.

"I am old, and if I had ever been so unlucky as to be beautiful, I might have had to marry," she says with a sniff. "Flattery will get you nowhere, A-Huan. Are you here to steal apples? Should I be looking for your accomplice?"

"Of course not, nainai. I am here on business as the Sect Leader."

"Hmph. You might be a Sect Leader to people whose apples you never took, but you'll always be A-Huan to me."

"Yes, nainai." He inclines his head, and does not say that he knows, and that his heart would break if he weren't. Nainai has ruled the kitchens of the Cloud Recesses since before Xichen was born; even Uncle calls her nainai. She treats everyone like a child, and it is... comforting.

He never stole her apples. She gave him apples when she found him crying over his mother's death, slipped sweet baked apple treats onto his plate when he did well in class. She was always gentle with him when he needed her kindness, is always sharp with him when he doesn't. He has long suspected that the boundaries of her domain are as well-guarded as they are in part because Nainai does not adhere to the bland diet she dispenses in accordance with custom.

"So what do you want, then?" she asks.

"I must ask a change to the meal habits of the Cloud Recesses," he says, hefting the sack he brought back from his travels.

"What's this?" she asks suspiciously. She takes the heavy sack without apparent effort.

"Sugar."

Nainai smiles.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian thought avoiding provoking Lan Qiren when he returned to the classroom would be more of a struggle. He still fidgets, because he can't not, and his attention still wanders more than it should, but when Lan Qiren questions him on cultivation, he barely has to think about the answers.

The generational changes of important clans in the cultivation world, the division of their areas of power, famous quotes by famous cultivators, family trees... he might have had more trouble with some of that, but he took pity on Nie Huaisang's fear of his brother's fury, and committed it to memory without really even trying in the course of trying to tutor him.

When the tests are complete, and Nie Huaisang's grade is the coveted, acceptable yi, the other students celebrate their friend's success. Even Jin Zixuan offers a stiff congratulations.

Wei Wuxian is happy, he decides. He knows all too well that they are coming to the end of childhood, that events will become serious, that responsibilities are looming on the horizon.

But for now, the lessons in the classroom are not too onerous. Sparring and training with the other young disciples is fun. Even Jin Zixuan isn't completely awful. The others have started to accept Lan Zhan's presence at Wei Wuxian's side, remaining themselves instead of becoming stiff and awkward when he is near.

(Lan Zhan is learning to let minor infractions of the rules pass without comment, and stop saying something if, say, another student slouches when they are sitting in a group in the dormitories. He still gets a tiny, adorable furrow in his brow, on occasion, but in fairness, the others have said nothing about how close he sits to Wei Wuxian, or the improper way Wei Wuxian will sometimes lean against Lan Zhan's side.)

Best of all, Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng are getting along, an experience that is wholly new to Wei Wuxian.

For, of course, a very "Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng" definition of getting along.

When, one morning, the training master at sword practice assigns Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan to spar together, Jiang Cheng scowls. When, predictably, the match devolves into something much closer to "aggressive flirting", he breaks off from his own sparring partner and stomps over.

Wei Wuxian may have let Lan Zhan get almost, but not quite inside his guard. It's possible they did not immediately then separate but rather stayed almost nose to nose while Wei Wuxian whispered things that made Lan Zhan's ears turn pink.

Jiang Cheng may, it seems, have had enough, judging by the way he shoves them apart.

"Shameless!" he hisses. "How are you both so terrible? What did I do to deserve the two of you?" He glares at Lan Zhan. "I don't expect better of this idiot, but don't you have more self-control than this?"

Lan Zhan seems to consider this question seriously. "No," he finally says.

Jiang Cheng's scowl is approaching epic proportions. "You are the worst Second Brother ever."

"Mn," Lan Zhan replies equably.

---

Of course, Wei Wuxian was also enjoying this stay at the Cloud Recesses because instead of spending all of what should have been his free time on punishment duty, he was spending quite a lot of it kissing Lan Zhan, and walking with Lan Zhan, and playing music together with Lan Zhan.

They are not, he would be the first to admit, particularly discreet.

"Isn't this against the rules?" Wei Wuxian asks, when Lan Zhan kisses him in the Library Pavilion. They're alone, in the empty, semi-hidden room that once held the forbidden collection. (It's gone now. Wei Wuxian has not asked where, and the room is now in use for quiet study.)

"Can let go of regulations with the one you love and cherish," Lan Zhan murmurs, pulling Wei Wuxian into his lap, and, well... how can Wei Wuxian say no to him after that? The very notion is unrealistic.

He's not likely to say no to Lan Zhan anyway, of course, but especially when he says things like that.

Apart from the night after Wei Wuxian revealed his secret, Wei Wuxian has returned to his dormitory by curfew every night. He's determined to let Lan Zhan set the pace when it comes to sex, and so far, Lan Zhan doesn't seem really to be thinking about it.

Wei Wuxian has been very, very good.

Which is why it feels extremely unfair that when Lan Qiren comes downstairs when he's in Lan Zhan's lap, his robes pulled loose by Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan's hand on his hip, Lan Zhan's mouth on his chest, Lan Qiren furiously accuses Wei Wuxian of being the one who is defiling his nephew's purity.

Lan Zhan's robes aren't even disordered. (Yet.) (This time.) (But they're not.)

Also, there is a rule against shouting in the Cloud Recesses, and Lan Qiren is doing that.

It draws a certain amount of attention.

---

Wei Wuxian is very proud of himself for keeping his expression largely under control, and not laughing, even a little bit.

Lan Qiren is deeply, utterly offended, and has no qualms about expressing his outrage.

Jiang Cheng, despite being a junior disciple to Wei Wuxian (technically, if you ask Jiang Cheng; irrevocably and utterly, if you ask Wei Wuxian) is the son and heir of the leader of the Jiang Sect, and on behalf of his Sect and Clan he will not stand for such insults when Lan Wangji was clearly an active and willing participant. If Lan Wangji has despoiled Wei Wuxian's honour, the Jiang Sect has equal objections.

Lan Qiren is unconvinced that Wei Wuxian has any honour to despoil, whereas he is very confident that Lan Wangji was a perfect, pure, and noble boy until Wei Wuxian arrived and seduced him with his cutsleeve ways.

Jiang Cheng has lived with Wei Wuxian since they were small children, and Wei Wuxian has never once besmirched the honour of Lotus Pier with such scandalous behaviour, and now Lan Wangji has ruined his shixiong for any chance of a future respectable marriage.

He actually says shixiong, and Wei Wuxian has never loved him as much as he does in this moment.

Fortunately, Lan Xichen arrives at this point, and adroitly defuses his uncle and his brothers. Both of his brothers, because Lan Zhan was bristling at the implication that there could be a possibility that Wei Wuxian would marry someone who wasn't Lan Zhan.

Wei Wuxian considers that really, he's an innocent bystander at every stage of this, and it's very unfair that Uncle Jiang is being summoned, when you think about it.

---

It's worse than Uncle Jiang being summoned.

Madam Yu comes with him.

Jiang Cheng laughs at Wei Wuxian, because he is terrible.

He also promises not to let her kill him, because he's also kind of great.

---

Wei Wuxian is waiting outside while Uncle Jiang, Madam Yu, Lan Qiren, and Lan Xichen are talking. Lan Zhan is with him, defiantly and insistently holding his hand. (Lan Zhan is slightly nervous, but absolutely in his most stubborn mood, which, Wei Wuxian knows all too well, is absolutely immovable.)

Jiang Cheng and shijie are waiting with them, because (according to Jiang Cheng) Wei Wuxian ruins Jiang Cheng's life along with his own because he is an idiot and a terrible, terrible person who is still definitely not his shixiong, he was just saying that to win the argument with Lan Qiren, or perhaps (according to shijie) because part of the tentative peace agreement Lan Xichen had extracted involved chaperones.

The discussion goes on for quite some time, before Zewu-Jun opens the door and calls Lan Zhan inside.

Lan Zhan is only there quite briefly, and then he emerges. (He's smugly satisfied with what happened inside.) Lan Xichen beckons Wei Wuxian inside.

"I'll burn incense for you," Jiang Cheng whispers, and Wei Wuxian does not kick him, because shijie would be disappointed and also Zewu-Jun is watching him.

He enters to find Lan Qiren looking extremely disgruntled (which is uninformative), Uncle Jiang maintaining a neutral expression (which is just as bad), and Madam Yu smiling slightly (which is terrifying).

"We may have achieved a resolution of this... difficulty," Zewu-Jun says.

"A-Ying," Uncle Jiang says, "We have agreed on terms for your betrothal to Lan Wangji."

Madam Yu stands. "Jiang Fengmian, we haven't seen Wei Ying in months. He has time to greet his shimu." She turns to Wei Wuxian with a smile. "You look well, A-Ying. The air in Gusu clearly suits you. Come, sit."

Wei Wuxian looks surreptitiously at her hands. She is wearing Zidian - that means she can't be possessed, surely?

Surely.

---

It's not that Wei Wuxian wasn't expecting to be married to Lan Zhan eventually, but it seems a little strange to be already betrothed.

It turns out that Lan Qiren, still deeply perturbed about the whole situation, had taken exactly the wrong approach with Madam Yu, and begun by expressing his utter disappointment in the discipline of the Jiang Sect disciples.

As a consequence, it was pretty much war from the outset, because while Madam Yu has never hesitated to take Wei Wuxian to task for his inadequacies, she does not allow the privilege of critiquing the Jiang Sect's disciples to outsiders. To hear her argue with Lan Qiren, Wei Wuxian was a perfect disciple who had only ever brought glory and honour to the Jiang Sect.

Jiang Fengmian and Lan Xichen had endeavoured to soothe them both, and the end result was somehow an agreement that the senior disciples of the Jiang and Lan Sects would marry. When combined with the sworn brotherhood of the acting Leader of the Lan Sect, and the heir of Sect Leader Jiang, a strong bond between the two clans had clearly been forged.

Lan Qiren was grudgingly accepting, because Lan Xichen was gently insistent, and at least his nephew's honour would be salvaged.

Madam Yu was very, very pleased. Wei Wuxian is mildly surprised to learn that the secret to his winning Madam Yu's approval turns out to be making an advantageous marriage.

---

The guest disciples' time at Cloud Recesses is coming to a close, and Wei Wuxian has reached the conclusion that he will have to do something extremely difficult and unpleasant.

Perhaps it is always true that the life of Wei Wuxian must be filled with pain and sacrifice, he thinks.

He's going to have to be polite to Jin Zixuan.

"Jin-xiong," he says with a bow.

"Wei Wuxian." Jin Zixuan looks at him warily. He's not as cold as he was, quite, but they are not, by any stretch of the imagination, friends.

"This disciple seeks the honour to offer Jin-xiong a humble warning," Wei Wuxian is carefully formal.

Jin Zixuan is not. "If I make Jiang-guniang cry, you will break every bone in my body. I recall."

"Not that one." Wei Wuxian closes the doors behind him and puts up silencing charms before he continues. "Jin-xiong, if I were to tell you something, and say that you should only share the information with those you trust absolutely, absolutely, those whose honour and integrity is beyond reproach - who would you tell?"

Jin Zixuan narrows his eyes at Wei Wuxian, but seems to think about the question carefully. "MianMian." He hastily adds, clearly realising that he is addressing his betrothed's shidi, "She is my shimei and my friend. We are not - she is not - and I'm only not saying your shijie because I assume that you -"

Wei Wuxian waves that off. "I know, I know. MianMian would never. And I do think better of you than your father, that way. Speaking of - you would not tell your father?"

Jin Zixuan flushes. "No. My father... He should not..." Wei Wuxian has never seen such miserable humiliation on Jin Zixuan's face, not even when he blurted his feelings in front of a large crowd at Phoenix Mountain and ran away, in Wei Wuxian's first life.

"All right. Good." Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath. "Tell no-one, no-one what I am about to tell you unless it is MianMian. Ask her to keep this secret, too, but MianMian is a good person, I believe she can be trusted. Give me your word, please."

Jin Zixuan stares for a long moment. Wei Wuxian looks back very seriously. "Very well. I give you my word. If I should break my promise, my name will no longer be Jin."

He tells him.

"That - such a thing would be outrageous! A violation of all -" Jin Zixuan exclaims.

"Yes."

"How did you learn of this?"

"I cannot tell you that."

He's not sure, at all, that Jin Zixuan believes him, but he is confident that Jin Zixuan will keep his word.

---

When they return to Yunmeng, Lan Zhan comes with them. It is, officially, for him to study with the disciples of the Jiang Sect, as the Jiang Sect disciples had studied at Cloud Recesses; it is unofficially because not even Lan Qiren could face his nephew's expression when it was suggested that he and Wei Wuxian would be parted.

Lan Zhan solemnly pledged to remember his training and the precepts of the Lan Sect, and to behave in accordance with his conscience.

As far as Wei Wuxian could tell, Lan Xichen read a lot more into his careful wording than Lan Qiren did, but it was equally possible that Lan Qiren just didn't have the energy. A full year of Wei Wuxian appears to have left Lan Qiren a somewhat broken man.

Learning can be difficult, Wei Wuxian thinks philosophically. He'll be a much stronger person in the end for the benefit of this experience.

He revels in showing Lan Zhan around Lotus Cove, the way it is supposed to be. He enjoys watching Lan Zhan best the other disciples at their training; he finds himself forgetting to hold back, showing off, wanting to impress Lan Zhan, but even Madam Yu (who insists he call her shimu, now, but it's hard, hard to change the pattern of his thoughts) simply says that Lan Wangji is clearly good for him, since he has obviously been working harder than he used to.

Jiang Cheng might have been more bothered about being defeated by Wei Wuxian if he hadn't been distracted by his horror when his mother followed her comments with the suggestion that perhaps Jiang Cheng should give thought to his own marital prospects, as of course he is too young to marry now, but...

"You. You did this to me," he hisses at Wei Wuxian, who has fallen to the ground with laughter. "I hate you so much."

---

Xichen was wary of bringing Xue Yang to the Cloud Recesses. The boy could be dangerous. But he does not think him likely to be deceptively so; Xue Yang is, somehow, an extremely honest person. Xichen speaks with him every night, and asks him to report on his behaviour that day; Xue Yang earnestly recounts even his smallest infractions of the rules, when they have occurred.

(For minor violations, Xue Yang does not get dessert with his meal, but Xichen still gives him candy and discusses the rules with him, for better understanding.)

Xichen is tentatively less fearful for Xue Yang's future. He does not regret his trip to collect the boy.

But now he is arriving in Yunping in search of a youth he knows all too well he cannot trust, one he knows is capable of deceiving him utterly, and he still can't think of an alternative.

Meng Yao will depart for Jinlintai at some point he thinks might be quite soon, and Xichen does not want that to happen. He cannot, will not, murder a boy even younger than Wangji for crimes he could commit.

He knows the address of the... place where Meng Yao lives, now, but he cannot bring himself even to turn down the street. What if he is seen? What if someone recognises that Zewu-Jun is in such an unseemly location?

Instead, he loiters around the markets, and worries that he will have to go and wait outside the entrance of Jinlintai, or that he will miss the youth entirely, or -

On the third day, he sees them. A woman, beautiful but dressed... too ostentiously, for the markets in the early afternoon, accompanied by a boy who looks very much like her, but who has a hint of the Jin about him. Something in his cheekbones, the shape of his nose; it is enough.

Steeling himself, Xichen approaches them. They are perusing a stall whose owner is making grand promises about swordsmanship and cultivation and Xichen loathes the man already; he must know his wares are worthless, but is seeking to take advantage of the desperate hope of ordinary people.

"- this one," the woman is saying. "Will it help him to advance his skills?"

"It will not," Xichen says, cutting off the hawker's reply. "Such things have no value. The secrets of cultivation are not for sale in town markets, and swordsmanship cannot be learned from a book."

"You -" the stall's owner begins, and then he takes in the robes, and the ribbon, and the sword, and falls silent, going pale.

The woman turns to him, and sees the same thing; he sees emotions chase one another across her face. Disappointment, realisation, hope, disappointment, fear. A cultivator from a noble sect stands before her; he will not want her son, she will think, but he may want other things, and he may be angry that she was chasing such dreams for her boy, when he is the son of - a person like her.

Xichen takes a breath. "What is your name?" he asks the boy, because he has to be sure; he cannot take the wrong child, and leave the one he seeks behind.

The boy stands tall, even though he is shaking. "Meng Yao," he says.

"If you wish," he says, to both of them, "Meng Yao may come to the Cloud Recesses, and study cultivation properly."

Madam Meng smiles, bright and joyous. "A-Yao," she says, "will not disappoint you."

Xichen smiles, even though he feels sick at it. "I am certain he has potential," he says. Potential for what, he does not say.

He returns to the Cloud Recesses with Meng Yao at his side, and takes him to Uncle, who assesses his knowledge and skills with care.

"The boy has talent," Uncle concludes, "and potential. A quick mind. He needs only be given instruction the once. You did well, Xichen. It would be a shame to waste such an able student." There is a gleam of satisfaction in his eye. "His practical skills may never overcome the delay in his proper training, but his understanding of theory may yet be second to none. He will be a pleasure to teach, indeed."

Xichen knows his uncle genuinely loves to teach; he delights in the learning of others.

Perhaps his joy and pride in his new student will be a positive influence on Meng Yao.

Perhaps Xichen is a fool, and will destroy everyone he loves.

---

At the Discussion Conference of the Wen Sect at Qishan, Wei Wuxian goes looking for someone in the Nightless City before the archery contest. Lan Zhan has been collected by Lan Xichen to visit with the representatives from their sect who have come to the Conference.

Wei Wuxian suspects that Lan Qiren is probably testing him for signs of lax discipline and moral corruption after over a year away. He's not at all concerned. Lan Zhan's discipline is still without parallel, and Lan Zhan is no more morally corrupted than he was when they left Cloud Recesses.

Wei Wuxian finds a boy with a bow, shooting flawlessly into a target, and smiles.

"Wen Ning," he calls, as gently as he can. The boy looks around, wide-eyed.

"Sir - sir, I am sorry, very sorry, I do not - do not know you, I must have forgotten..." He drops the bow and backs away.

"Hey, hey, it's okay." Wei Wuxian tries to be as gentle and non-threatening as he can. "Wen Ning! It really is so wonderful to see you. Tell me, is your sister around?"

"This... this way." Wen Ning scurries away. Wei Wuxian smiles. Of course, Wen Ning would obviously prefer that his fearsome sister deal with this terrifying stranger. He follows.

Wen Ning leads him a short distance away, to where Wen Qing is in discussion with some people from other sects - other doctors, perhaps, Wei Wuxian guesses. Wen Ning hurries towards her, and she immediately excuses herself. Wen Ning says something. She nods, and then approaches Wei Wuxian, Wen Ning hunching into himself at her elbow.

Wei Wuxian can't help but smile widely at her sharp, assessing gaze, the cool suspicion with which she eyes him. He's missed her so very much.

"Wen-guniang," he says, bowing. "It is my honour and joy to be in your presence. This one is Wei Wuxian."

She frowns. Her expression suggests that she is not entirely sure what game he thinks he is playing, but she does not wish to play, and does not approve of the game or of him.

He really does adore her.

"What business do you have with my brother?" she asks.

"Wen Qionglin's archery skills are truly remarkable," he says. "I have never seen anyone of the Wen Sect with such flawless form. However, I must give a warning that it is very frightening to shoot in front of others for the first time, and perhaps he should be careful of his confidence if he wishes to enter the archery competition." He directs a gentle smile at Wen Ning. "Practice in front of other people first."

Wen Qing's eyes narrow. "Is that all? You knew him. You know his name."

"I did. I do. And I know the name of Wen Qing, also. Wen Qing is perhaps the greatest doctor in all the world."

"Is this your idea of flirting?" she asks scathingly, and he laughs.

"I would never flirt with Wen Qing. I am betrothed, and Wen Qing would never be interested in this unworthy one." He bows deeply. "I owe Wen Qing a debt. I owe Wen Ning a debt. My debt is one I can neither explain nor repay." He straightens, steps closer, and lowers his voice. "I am Wei Ying, courtesy name Wuxian. I am the senior disciple of the Jiang Sect. My betrothed is... a quite senior person in the Lan Sect. My shijie is betrothed to the heir of the Jin Sect. If there should come a time when you are afraid, or in need of help, and you call to me, I will do anything and everything in my power to assist you." He looks at Wen Ning. "Either of you."

Wen Ning is staring at him in a familiar way, and Wei Wuxian thinks that he will still not regret the fall of Wen Ruohan, because it is painful, so painful, that Wen Ning's loyalty is won so easily by the first person other than his sister to show him kindness or concern.

Wen Qing cocks her head at him. "Wei Ying, courtesy name Wuxian, who is very well-connected, who owes me a debt he cannot explain, and that I do not remember." She bows with technical precision. "I cannot imagine how such a person will be able to assist me, but I will mark your offer."

He leaves.

Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are tied for first in the archery competition, ahead of Lan Xichen and Jin Zixuan. (Wen Chao fails badly.)

When the Discussion Conference concludes, Lan Zhan returns again to Lotus Pier.

Not long afterwards, the Wen Sect forbids other sects to night-hunt.

Another year passes. Those who notice that Wei Wuxian is training hard and working intensely on his cultivation attribute it to the positive influence of his friendship with Lan Wangji. (Their betrothal has not been announced in public, and Wei Wuxian is far more afraid of Madam Yu than he is of Lan Qiren. They are more careful to be discreet.)

Wei Wuxian is so terribly, terribly afraid of what is to come. Of getting this wrong. He has taken steps, but...

Two things happen in quick succession.

The Wen Sect summons other sects' disciples for indoctrination.

And the Wen Sect attacks Cloud Recesses.

"Brother says the damage was limited," Lan Wangji tells Wei Wuxian, Uncle Jiang, Madam Yu, and Jiang Cheng, voice level. "Copies of every book were stored in the hidden rooms we constructed last year, and they have been warding the buildings and surrounding forests against fire for some time. The vulnerable were evacuated in good order. A supervisory office has been established in Caiyi, but the Cloud Recesses still stand. There were some injuries, but only one death." He hesitates. "There was a person who refused to evacuate, and had refused to allow his seclusion to be interrupted in order to ward the building in which he resided properly."

"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian whispers. "Was it -"

"It was my father," Lan Zhan says. His voice and expression are still neutral, but when Wei Wuxian throws himself at him, hugs him tightly, Lan Zhan presses his face to Wei Wuxian's shoulder, and even Jiang Cheng doesn't say anything about it.

Chapter Text

They travel to Qishan as ordered.

The Wen demand they hand over their swords.

Wei Wuxian calmly unstraps the sword at his side, runs his fingers over the smooth, iron-bound wood, and hands it over.

Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan present the weapons they carry without comment. Jin Zixuan glances at Wei Wuxian after he surrenders his.

Wen Chao looks over the collection of weapons, and sneers. "You're all pathetic! What nonsense do your sects teach that these are your spiritual tools? Now that you are here, you will learn properly!"

As the weeks pass, weeks in which Wen Chao seeks constantly to harass and embarrass Wei Wuxian, Lan Zhan and Jin Zixuan in particular, Lan Zhan retreats further and further into his icy facade. Wei Wuxian hates it, but has to let it happen, because their situation is too dangerous.

He finds it's a relief the day they wake and are ushered towards Dusk-Creek Mountain.

Without exchanging any words, a certain group has developed, tending to walk together on these occasions. Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng, and Lan Zhan, of course, but Jin Zixuan and MianMian walk with them. Jin Zixuan has introduced MianMian as Luo-guniang, and Wei Wuxian has this time not flirted at all.

Lan Zhan is already hurting. He is grieving, and he is struggling with his very difficult and conflicted feelings about his father, and he has been tormented for weeks by Wen Chao.

The cave entrance is found, and they are ordered inside. Jin Zixuan glances at Wei Wuxian.

"Just go," Wei Wuxian murmurs, and Jin Zixuan nods.

The cave is... oppressive. Wei Wuxian concentrates on the plan he has spent so long thinking about, reminding himself of every part of it, to distract himself from his dread and the feeling that the mountain is closing in on him.

He is not enjoying being back in this place.

Last time, his soul had not carried the scars of demonic cultivation, had not held the Stygian sword or been cast into the Yiling Burial Mounds.

Last time, he had not felt the resentful energy, chokingly thick in the air, had not felt it curling around him, reaching for him, begging for him like a well-tamed beast for its master.

He can taste centuries of lostforgottenhurtinglostangryforgottenlostpainhate on his tongue, and can't quite believe that no-one else is even noticing. It's seeping into his blood with every breath, meeting the surging power of the golden core he still has with whispers of vengeance and please and help, thousands of spirits crying for freedom, for release, for him to make it stop.

He closes his eyes, just for a moment, and thinks: yes. I will end this.

They reach the deep pool of water, and the dead end.

Wei Wuxian whistles a brief tune. "Looks like there's nothing here!" he says loudly, drowning out the sounds from beneath the water's surface.

Wen Chao curses. "Well, then -"

He does not get the chance to explain his 'idea', because here, in this place, the Yiling Patriarch does not need the Stygian Tiger Seal to be powerful. The lost weapons of the dead have stirred, hurled themselves against the shell that protects the Xuanwu of Slaughter, and the beast is awakened.

Wei Wuxian staggers slightly through the ensuing melee. He had a plan for this, he did, but he hadn't expected the sheer power that's in this place for someone whose soul it can sing to.

Wang Lingjiao, eyes filled with hate, moves towards MianMian, but tendrils of dark energy send her sprawling.

The Xuanwu almost strikes Jin Zixuan, but a cloud of darkness engulfs him, and the beast passes, leaving him unscathed.

Arrows glance off the Xuanwu's scales, several Wen disciples die in its jaws, jets of fire send disciples scattering, and the Wen begin a frantic retreat.

The other disciples follow them up the tunnel, but find the vine they climbed down cut, and the Wen blockading the exit.

"We can wait," Jin Zixuan mutters, "and break out when they're gone."

He glances around, then reaches into his Qiankun sleeve and draws out Suihua. MianMian produces her own sword.

"How did you -" one of the other disciples gasps.

"We brought replicas to give them," Jin Zixuan replies. "I... had reason for suspicion of the honour of the Wen."

"So did we," Jiang Cheng says, pulling out Sandu. He looks around for Wei Wuxian, and curses. "Wei Wuxian! Are you wounded?"

Wei Wuxian is not wounded, but he is sitting slumped against the wall, and can't yet manage to speak, even to calm Lan Zhan, who is frantically patting him down for injuries.

He can barely hear the others past the screaming in his mind. The spirits below will not accept him leaving without granting them surcease.

He grabs Lan Zhan's hand, looks pleadingly into his eyes, sees the sudden realisation. Lan Zhan moves his hands, and Wei Wuxian feels the cool, soothing wash of his spiritual energy, quieting the chaos in his blood.

Wei Wuxian's cultivation is strong, extremely so for his current physical age, but he's impatient and impulsive; Lan Zhan meditates every day. Their energy has very different character.

"I'm fine," he can finally say. "But we can't go out that way. The Wen might leave guards."

"So what, we just die here?" comes a voice from somewhere in the ranks of the Jin disciples.

"Be quiet," Jin Zixuan snaps. "Wei-gongzi, what do we do?" His tone when he addresses Wei Wuxian is polite, even respectful.

"Help me up," Wei Wuxian says. Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng each take one of his arms. Wei Wuxian takes a slow, careful breath, and a couple of steps back towards the depths. The resentful energy calms somewhat, stops clawing at him so desperately. "Okay. I'm all right now." He does not entertain the illusion that this will stop Lan Zhan or Jiang Cheng worrying. "Who else has swords?" He takes out Suibian.

Lan Zhan has Bichen. (Wei Wuxian still hopes they reclaim the replica Lan Xichen had commissioned at the Cloud Recesses; Bichen is a very beautiful sword, and the replica is a work of art.)

Unsurprisingly, no-one else has a sword at all. Some look faintly chagrined about this, like they feel like they should have thought of it.

"Well," Wei Wuxian says, "I think too much of a crowd will draw the beast's attention. I think just people with swords should go down to look carefully and see if we can make another plan."

"There may be another exit," Lan Zhan says. "Maple leaves," and Wei Wuxian loves him so much it hurts.

Or maybe that's just the resentful energy still clutching pleadingly at his heart.

"Just in case, perhaps Luo-guniang should stay here, so that there's still a way out if you have to go up," he says. MianMian looks as though she wants to protest, but Jin Zixuan nods his agreement.

It's not that he doesn't think she's competent - she is, extremely so. But his plan could go wrong, and the other disciples would be trapped, and he absolutely does not wish to make her a target for Wen Chao's vengeance. Jin Zixuan, Jiang Cheng, and Lan Wangji are the sons and brother of sect leaders. Wei Wuxian does not trust Jin Guangshun to protect her, should it come to that.

Wei Wuxian draws Suibian and cuts wards into the rock between the waiting disciples and the four of them who are descending. They will give the disciples some measure of protection, and also prevent them from hearing what happens.

The others descend.

---

"You have a plan, don't you," Jin Zixuan says softly. "I won't ask how you knew this would happen, but I really get the feeling you did."

"It's not that I forget you're not an idiot," Wei Wuxian says, "so much as that it would be so much easier if you were." He grins in the torchlight. "I mean, you don't think I believe you'll ever be good enough for shijie, do you?"

Jin Zixuan huffs. "Naturally." A pause. "I hope you believe that I will try to be."

"The motto of the Jiang Sect is to attempt the impossible," Jiang Cheng says. "Welcome to the family."

Jin Zixuan smiles, really smiles, and even Wei Wuxian will admit that he is, at least, quite handsome.

---

They are in the last section of the tunnel before they reach the beast's lair.

Wei Wuxian reaches into his sleeve and produces a coil of long, strong cord, which he hands to Lan Zhan.

"Chord Assassination?" Lan Zhan asks. Wei Wuxian nods.

"This is the plan. I need you all not to argue with me." He fixes them each in turn with a stern look. "I will force the beast out of its shell. Lan Zhan will catch it with the cord and use Chord Assassination. Jiang Cheng, Jin-xiong, when its vulnerable parts are exposed, you will also attack. Hurt it, and keep it from turning on Lan Zhan."

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says. "The beast is -"

"Later," Wei Wuxian cuts him off sharply.

"How will you force it out?" Jiang Cheng asks suspiciously.

This was why Wei Wuxian did not want unnecessary witnesses. (Jin Zixuan was necessary. His pride would not let him remain, in any case, but Wei Wuxian had several reasons for wanting him to be a part of this fight.)

He reaches into his sleeve, and pulls out his flute.

It's not Chenqing - or at least, it's not Chenqing yet, and he hopes it never will be. It's a very nice flute; Lan Xichen gave it to him not long after his betrothal to Lan Zhan. It is as white as snow, with a jade charm.

He loves it.

He wants it to be... better... than Chenqing was. He has tentatively named it Baohu.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan whispers. "No."

"Yes," he says softly. "Trust me." He tucks Suibian into his belt. "And be ready."

He reaches into distant, distant memories.

The moment his hand grasped the sword, the screaming, the rush.

The way it felt in his hand. In the cave, and in the Burial Mounds.

The way its power responded to his call, to his command, to his music.

He puts his flute to his lips, and plays.

He can feel it, the focal point, like the point of a needle, so much energy behind it, pushing it. It's clumsy and unwieldy in this form, he needs to reforge it to make it his, like breaking a horse to the saddle, but he can do it, it will obey, know its master has arrived -

Wei Wuxian walks forward, into the open, wondering if the earth is really trembling under him like it seems. He is vaguely aware of the others moving past him to take their positions.

He hears the Xuanwu scream.

The form of the shell is shaking, shuddering, as the remains of the bodies within surge and convulse. The fallen weapons in the water and on the ground take on a life of their own, flinging themselves up. Some manage to get inside the shell and crash around inside.

The Xuanwu's home has turned against it, and it seeks to escape.

It bursts out of the shell.

Lan Zhan catches its neck in the cord, pulls tight and strums Chord Assassination into its flesh.

Jiang Cheng and Jin Zixuan harass it from the shore, sword glares flashing, each in turn retreating rapidly when it turns its attack towards them, between them keeping it from turning to attack Lan Zhan, who's pulling hard on the cord even as it cuts into his hands.

The maddened beast thrashes as Lan Zhan's cord cuts it deeper, ever deeper, and the power of its victims ravages along its length under the fierce tones of Baohu. It swings wildly from one of its tormentors to another, but Jiang Cheng and Jin Zixuan are elegant and careful, dancing in and out of range.

Finally, it stills.

The Xuanwu of Slaughter will never kill again.

Come, Wei Wuxian commands. No-one else can be permitted to have you.

The last notes die away. He lowers his flute in his left hand, and raises his right.

The Stygian sword smacks into his palm.

When he's sure the beast is dead, Lan Zhan leaps down to Wei Wuxian, wraps his arms around him, holds him almost too tightly.

He's exhausted, and Lan Zhan's hands are bleeding on Wei Wuxian's clothes, but he will, unquestionably, take this as an unqualified victory.

"What was that?" Jiang Cheng demands. He turns to Lan Zhan. "You know, don't you?"

Lan Zhan nods slowly. "The Xuanwu of Slaughter."

"The Xuanwu of Slaughter."

"Mn."

"We killed the Xuanwu of Slaughter."

"Mn."

Jiang Cheng sits down abruptly on the rocky shore.

Jin Zixuan is staring at Wei Wuxian. "Wei-gongzi," he says hesitantly, "what did you do?"

"Something I need you not to tell anyone about," Wei Wuxian says. He coughs and spits blood. "I really, really don't want people to know about it, if only because I don't want to have to do it unless it's absolutely necessary."

"When you argued with Master Lan about cultivating with resentful energy, it wasn't just to provoke him, was it," Jin Zixuan says. "You already -" He shakes his head. "When? How? The Jiang Sect can't possibly teach this, can it?"

"It doesn't," Jiang Cheng tells him sharply. "Wei Wuxian knows because - because of other reasons, because he had no choice but to know, and he just saved us all."

Jin Zixuan looks at Jiang Cheng for a long moment, and then at Wei Wuxian, and at Lan Zhan, who has loosened, but not released, his hold.

"The four of us engaged the beast in battle," Jin Zixuan says at last. "The beast was powerful, and we struggled at great length, but emerged victorious. It was my honour to fight alongside the remarkable and admirable disciples of Jiang and Lan. Though the story would be worthy of legend, I cannot fairly speak in greater detail. I was pushed to the limits of my capacity, and could not watch the others with great attention. Were I to try and describe the battle, I cannot guarantee that I will do true justice to my heroic companions." He bows. "This is what I will say. No word is a lie. None will dare to question me."

Wei Wuxian remembers Jin Ling, and thinks that perhaps he was unfair always to assign the boy's best qualities to shijie, and his flaws to his father and Jiang Cheng's anger-based approach to parenting.

Perhaps his father, too, deserved to be remembered in his son.

---

The underwater passage is still there.

They collect the other disciples. MianMian still has her perfume sachet of medicinal herbs, and binds the wounds where Lan Zhan's cord cut into his hands.

They all troop back down, skirt cautiously past the body of the beast, and emerge into a dark night.

Apparently the battle took hours. It really didn't feel like it, Wei Wuxian thinks.

The four who fought are pushed to sit around a fire while the remaining disciples set up a camp around them.

MianMian is insistent. "The four of you killed the Xuanwu of Slaughter, while the rest of us waited around for you to save us, doing nothing. You will rest," she orders, and even Jin Zixuan does not object to being commanded by his subordinate.

"I am exhausted," he admits.

No-one wants to eat fish from the river that touches the cave of the Xuanwu of Slaughter, but someone has caught a deer, and others have foraged for edible plants, and so there is a certain amount of food, of which the combatants are brought the choicest portion.

Wei Wuxian has little appetite. The Stygian sword is in his hand, and the future suddenly feels very real, and very near.

"Eat," Lan Zhan insists.

He eats.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng, Lan Zhan, and the other disciples of the Jiang Sect make their way back to Lotus Pier. Since Jin Zixuan flew back to Lanling immediately, the story of what happened beats them there, and they are met by Madam Yu, who is, presumably, not waiting for their return like a servant as she so deplores, but Wei Wuxian could not explicitly identify the distinction.

She looks Jiang Cheng over, eyes shining with unshed tears, and then she hugs him, which Wei Wuxian has only seen her do, before, on the day she died.

With a pang, he remembers A-Yuan, and Jin Ling, and the other disciples, and understands how she feels.

And then she turns to him.

He is not surprised when she exclaims: "And you! You stupid boy!" He is surprised when she hugs him just as tightly. "I'm sure it was all your idea. What would we tell the Lan if something happened to you? If something happened to Wangji? What would I tell Madam Jin or a-Li if -" She catches herself, and lets him go. "Go, both of you. Kneel in the Hall of the Ancestors. Apologise for being so reckless, and be thankful you came back alive!"

She turns away, head held high, and if any of them hear her choked-off sob, none of them will ever, ever admit it.

Jiang Fengmian walks with them for a way as they dutifully go to the Hall of the Ancestors. "She burned incense morning and night for your safe return," he murmurs. "Both of you."

---

Wei Wuxian sleeps like the d- like a person who is very tired, that night. He's still listless the next day.

When he emerges from his bedroom and approaches the family table for breakfast, Madam Yu takes one look at him and snaps, "I won't have you getting sick and letting everyone else catch it, too. Return to your bed immediately. I'm sure Wangji will be willing to bring you your breakfast there - no, you hurt your hands. Wangji, escort him to his bedroom and make sure he stays there. He's incorrigible, I don't trust him. A-Cheng, take a tray for both of them, then you may return to the table."

"Mn," says Lan Zhan, and rises immediately. Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes but immediately begins loading a tray with dishes, and it does not escape Wei Wuxian that he is selecting heavily from Wei Wuxian's favourites.

As Lan Zhan ushers him back to his bedroom, he hears Madam Yu continue her orders. "A-Li, supervise him closely until he is fully recovered. If he needs a healer, send for one immediately."

"I didn't even say good morning," Wei Wuxian protests weakly, as Lan Zhan presses him gently back into his bed and adjusts the covers.

"Mn," Lan Zhan says. "Rest."

---

After breakfast, he does fall asleep again, and wakes in the early evening to the sound of guqin music.

"Lan Zhan," he gasps, bolting upright, "your hands!"

"My hands are recovered," Lan Zhan says, without pausing in his playing. Wei Wuxian realises what he's hearing.

"Lan Zhan," he groans. "Cleansing?"

"You know why."

He does know why.

So he lies back in bed, and listens.

---

He recovers within days.

Unfortunately, Lan Zhan and shijie don't believe him, so he is only permitted to walk outside and recline in the shade, partaking of the fresh air in a restful manner.

No-one is sympathetic to his complaints that he is being held prisoner against his will, or his protestations that he is fully recovered. He suggests that Lan Zhan and shijie could put their time to better use than such nursemaiding.

Madam Yu hears this appeal, and offers to let her terrifying handmaids Jinzhu and Yinzhu take turns minding him instead, if the devotion of his shijie and his betrothed troubles his conscience.

He says very meekly that that is unnecessary, that he is appreciative that shijie is so dutiful as to show such care for her unworthy shidi, and that he is very grateful to have this time with his future husband.

---

Finally, he is deemed to be healthy again.

Time is growing short. Uncle Jiang goes to meet with other Sect Leaders about the outrages of the Wen and returns seeming quite troubled.

As the senior disciple, Wei Wuxian has a certain authority over other juniors, and he applies it with force. His orders are strict. Until he says otherwise, the boys are not permitted to roam outside the gates, and there is to be no kite-shooting.

Instead, all of them, even down to the smallest shidi, are to stay in the halls and the training fields at all times.

In the meantime, Wei Wuxian flies out a distance and places a ring of talismans, to warn of the approach of certain persons.

He and shijie strengthen the wards around Lotus Pier. Shijie paints new wards on his chest, on his arms, on the ribbon he wears in his hair, on every piece of a spare set of his clothing.

Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan watch these preparations with concern.

Wei Wuxian insists that Lan Zhan stop playing Cleansing, for now, and conserve his spiritual energy.

Clan Leader Yao comes to Lotus Pier, wounded, and Jiang Fengmian leaves to escort him to Lanling.

The talismans go off late that evening.

The next morning, Wei Wuxian dresses in the warded garments, gathers the other disciples, and declares: "I have noticed, you know, that this place is filthy. I know it's all of you, tracking mud into Lotus Pier, and I don't think it's fair to expect the servants to clean it up. Fetch buckets, all of you. Today you will work on strength, and you will do it by hauling buckets of water, and sluicing down the courtyards and the piers. I want them to look like a flood has happened!"

The juniors look around. It really doesn't look that dirty.

But their shixiong's instructions were clear, so they set to work.

"Wei Wuxian," Jiang Cheng asks softly, "what are you doing?"

Wei Wuxian does not meet his eyes. "If we are very lucky, I am being ridiculous," he says quietly. "If we are not, then I hope that I am keeping your mother and father alive."

Jiang Cheng fetches a bucket.

Lan Zhan looks at him. (He is worried.) "Wei Ying..." he says.

"I know, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian sighs. "I just recovered from last time, and you hate that I do this at all." He looks at Lan Zhan, and lets his fear show in his eyes. "But today is a dangerous day, entering a dangerous time. I have to."

Lan Zhan kisses him gently, and gets a bucket too.

In a quite short time, the outside areas of Lotus Pier are sodden, water running everywhere, and the disciples are still adding more.

It's an appalling mess, and Madam Yu is not pleased.

"What are you doing?" she demands.

Wei Wuxian turns to face her, and consciously makes himself see her. He is not just the boy who grew up under her rule, in his first life or in this one.

He is the Yiling Patriarch. He is Wei Wuxian, who was the husband of the Chief Cultivator. He has the memories of the man who lived, in his second life, to be older than she is now, who was loved and feared across the cultivation world.

She is a strong and remarkable woman, an admirable cultivator. She carries wounds. Her marriage is not what she might have hoped for. She fears for her children, fears that if any weakness should be permitted, it could be their downfall. She is proud, but her pride is a mask.

She is also perceptive.

He lets her see it, see that she is seen, remembers how it felt to be untouchable, the man no-one dared to challenge, and lets her see that in him, too.

She gasps, softly. "Wei Ying?" she murmurs, and then frowns. "You are not Wei Ying."

He sees Zidian spark, and hastily grabs her wrist. He does not want to be struck with it ever again, but especially not today, and really not if Madam Yu is doing it in the sincere belief that she will save him from some kind of possession.

"I am. I am Wei Ying, I promise you," and he lets the Yiling Patriarch recede, gives her the insouciant grin he knows she has always found irritating. "Things are going to happen today. I'm going to be a little strange. But I will keep you and Uncle Jiang and shijie and Jiang Cheng alive, and then afterwards, I can explain."

Shijie has clearly spotted this brewing confrontation, and come quickly to join them. "It's all right, Mother," she says quietly. "A-Xian is doing what he needs to do."

Madam Yu is kept from replying by the arrival of Wen Sect cultivators, coming uninvited through the gates near the training fields.

Wang Lingjiao follows after them.

---

She is as rude as he remembers. She does not, this time, tour the outside of Lotus Pier; instead, she expresses her disgust at the water that is running everywhere, and goes directly to the main hall.

As they trail behind her, Wei Wuxian catches fourth shidi's eye and beckons him over. "Get everyone inside," he orders. "Everyone. Lock all the doors." The boy nods and hurries away.

Wang Lingjiao seats herself at the head of the main table.

Madam Yu sits also, with grace, elegance, and poise.

Jinzhu and Yinzhu smirk behind her.

Wei Wuxian breathes slowly and evenly, grounds himself by looking at Lan Zhan's expression of utterly profound disapproval. Lan Zhan wasn't here, before. This is different. This will be different.

He has prepared for this for so, so long.

"Where's the tea?" Wang Lingjiao demands.

"There is no tea. Get it yourself if you want any," Yinzhu sniffs.

"Don't the Jiang Sect's servants ever do anything?"

Jinzhu replies dismissively. "The Jiang Sect's servants have more important things to do. Nobody ever needs others to do things like pouring tea. They're not crippled."

"Who are you?"

"My personal maids," Madam Yu replies.

"Madam Yu, your Jiang Sect really is outrageous. Even maids dare interrupt a conversation in the main hall. Servants like this have their faces slapped in the Wen Sect."

"Jinzhu and Yinzhu aren't ordinary servants. They've stayed with me since I was young, and have never served anyone else. No-one is permitted to slap them. No-one would dare."

There's a threat there, if Wang Lingjiao were clever enough to spot it.

"Madam Yu, what are you talking about? In a prominent sect, there has to be a clear distinction between the superior and the inferior for it to be not in chaos. Servants should be what servants ought to be."

Madam Yu gives Wang Lingjiao a long, slow look. "And yet," she says, with deliberate meaning, "it seems that is not always the case." She waits a moment for that to sink in, and then asks, "Why are you here?"

Wang Lingjiao glares. "I am representing the Wen Sect and Young Master Wen, here to punish someone." She points at Wei Wuxian. "This brat disobeyed the authority of Young Master Wen, and disrupted him when he was in battle with the Xuanwu of Slaughter. Fortunately, Young Master Wen prevailed, but he made Young Master Wen tired, and made it much more difficult."

Interesting, Wei Wuxian thinks. They would hardly dare accuse Jin Zixuan, Jiang Cheng, or Lan Zhan, the sons and brother of Sect Leaders. It's still me.

"That is a lie," Lan Zhan says coldly. Wei Wuxian risks a glance at him. Lan Zhan is outraged and disgusted.

"What?"

"That is a lie," Lan Zhan repeats. "Wen Chao fled from the beast in terror, and sealed the exit behind himself. The Xuanwu of Slaughter was destroyed by Wei Wuxian. By Jiang Wanyin. By Jin Zixuan. By Lan Wangji. To say otherwise is false."

"You dare?" Wang Lingjiao shrieks. "Is this how honoured guests are treated in the Jiang Sect?"

"Lan Wangji is, indeed, an honoured guest," Madam Yu says without taking her eyes off Wang Lingjiao. "We will apologise to him later."

"Unnecessary," Lan Zhan says.

"Most gracious." Madam Yu smiles faintly.

The smile disappears when Wang Lingjiao begins ranting about how clearly this demonstrates the need for a supervisory office in Yunmeng.

"Supervisory office?"

After that it's only a matter of time, so Wei Wuxian stops paying attention and pulls out Baohu. "Don't let her send out a signal," he murmurs to Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng, and starts to play.

Everyone is far too intent on the argument to really notice him. He concentrates on his fluting, trusting in Lan Zhan to protect him if anyone attacks. He hears Madam Yu slap Wang Lingjiao, and crosses to the hall's doorway as the fight breaks out behind him. Jinzhu, Yinzhu, Jiang Cheng, Lan Zhan, and Madam Yu - they would be more than a match for more Wen cultivators than these.

Wen Zhuliu has looked around at the sound of the argument. At the sound of the slap, he begins walking towards the hall.

What Wen Zhuliu has not seen is that the water that has flooded the courtyard, that is still running in steady streams down to the river, connecting into a single body of water, is turning black, darkness coiling through the water.

Wei Wuxian plays faster.

The dark swirls coalesce rapidly until the courtyard looks like it has been flooded with ink.

Wen Zhuliu only looks down when he finds that he cannot lift his feet. He frowns, tugs, pulls with increasing force.

The battle inside the hall has ended. Madam Yu comes to the doorway, looks at Wei Wuxian, at the courtyard, at Wen Zhuliu. "Core-Melting Hand?"

"Wen Zhuliu!" Wang Lingjiao screams from inside. "Wen Zhuliu, help -" her voice becomes muffled.

Wen Zhuliu's voice is cold. "Violet Spider."

Madam Yu snorts. "Wen Zhuliu? The Core-Melting Hand, wasn't your name Zhao Zhuliu? It certainly wasn't Wen. How shameful, to turn your back on your ancestors like this."

"Each serves his own master." He is looking as his feet, kicking hard. He only manages to pull one foot from his boot. After a moment's pause, he places it on top of the boot.

If he pulls the other free, he will be able to jump.

Wei Wuxian plays a particularly dissonant, piercing note.

Wen Zhuliu begins to sink. The water rushes over his bare foot, ripples above the surface where it touches his skin, eager to draw him in.

The water in the courtyard was only as deep as a puddle.

Wen Zhuliu has already sunk to his knees.

"Play, Wei Ying," Madam Yu says coldly.

She stands by him and watches as Wen Zhuliu sinks beneath the surface.

He does not scream. He does not plead. He does not say anything at all.

Wei Wuxian doesn't hate Wen Zhuliu, not really. Wen Zhuliu was a weapon; his hate is for those who wield him.

But Wen Zhuliu could not have been permitted to live.

The ink-black water closes over his head.

The darkness fades, becomes clouds, becomes shadows, becomes clear water once again.

Wei Wuxian lowers Baohu.

Madam Yu raises her voice. "Summon the disciples. Everyone to arms. They came here prepared for this. Soon we'll have herds of them!" She turns to Wei Wuxian, and speaks very quietly. "Can you do that trick again?"

"Yes."

"For how many?"

He meets her eyes. "As many as they send."

She hesitates, for only a moment. "What did you do? Can he come back?"

"He's dead," Wei Wuxian says, because he's not sure they have time for him to explain, I brought a waterborne abyss back from Gusu. I've never asked for a pet before, can I keep it?

Or, for that matter, if he does come back, he'll be working for me.

"Good," Madam Yu says.

---

They have more time to prepare for it. But still, the Wen attack.

Madam Yu fights with Zidian and her sword, fast and powerful, Jiang Cheng, Jinzhu and Yinzhu at her side.

Wei Wuxian stands on the walls of Lotus Pier, Baohu at his lips, Suibian under his feet. If the Wen threaten his position, he can fly to safety, but it doesn't actually happen. Lan Zhan guards him.

Shijie is protecting the children too young for the fight and the servants who cannot fight at all against cultivators.

The Wen who thought to approach by boat slip suddenly and irrevocably under the water.

The Wen who step in the lotus gardens, or the courtyards that are still awash, go under just as fast.

Before long they do try to avoid it, but there is water everywhere, and the Jiang Sect's strategy becomes to try and drive them into it, pushing them until it touches them, until it grasps at them greedily and swallows them. Darkness is everywhere, rising from the ink-black water like steam and coiling in the air.

The Jiang Sect suffer no harm from touching the water. The darkness does not touch them.

Wei Wuxian is dripping sweat.

Wen Chao is backing away from the battle. He looks confused and terrified at how badly this is going for the Wen. Perhaps he would fly away, but the dark swirls of power low overhead are too threatening.

Wei Wuxian concentrates. A tendril of dark energy twists in front of Jiang Cheng and darts like an arrow towards Wen Chao, fading away after a short distance. Look, look, over there...

Jiang Cheng nods, breaks free of the melee and charges towards him.

Wen Chao sees him, Sandu bloody and bright in his hand, and screams, and turns to run.

Wen Chao is the coddled son of Wen Ruohan, who has never lost a footrace because no-one in all of his sect would dare.

Jiang Cheng is the son of Jiang Fengmian and Madam Yu, who has always been pushed to strive, to be the very best he can be, and has been winning and losing footraces fairly in and around Lotus Cove all his life.

He catches Wen Chao with ease.

He disarms Wen Chao with ease.

He kills Wen Chao with ease.

---

There are no Wen survivors. Later, Wei Wuxian will learn that even Wang Lingjiao was killed; she broke out of the storeroom she was locked in (a hasty and inadequate prison), and ran out into the courtyard, heedless of the danger in the water.

Wei Wuxian can control the waterborne abyss enough to separate friend and foe. (There are no Wen bodies, either. Even Wen Chao got kicked back into the water and was swallowed without a trace, leaving only his sword behind.)

He cannot spare enough attention to see if the Wen surrender, does not even know if any of them tried; this, already, is very, very difficult. He can only do this because he loves the Jiang Sect and wants them safe, he cares for the people of Lotus Cove and wants them protected. He is not driving the waterborne abyss to attack, it will do that on its own. Baohu is singing the protection of those he loves, and Wei Wuxian is holding the waterborne abyss back from harming them.

If he loses control, plays too hard, the abyss will not kill at all.

When the sounds of the battle stop, when Lan Zhan sits by him and begins to play his guqin, he shifts the melody again, lulls the abyss back to sleep. Rest, rest, sleep until I call you again.

Baohu sings of love and sorrow for the dead who created it, of solace, of peace, of slumbering beneath the waters.

The waters of Lotus Pier are clear and still again.

Wei Wuxian smiles as Madam Yu glides up to him, filled with spiritual power and alive, so alive. He thinks that he has never before noticed that she is so very beautiful.

He lowers Baohu.

And then the dizziness hits, and he hears Madam Yu and Lan Zhan say, in unison, "Wei Ying!" He wants to laugh, but he can't, because he's vomiting blood, he'd be falling but someone has already caught him. He sees dark red spattering on white. The last thought he has before he loses consciousness is just: Lan Zhan.

Chapter Text

He wakes to the sound of two guqins and a xiao, playing the all-too familiar Cleansing, and the feeling of a hand warm on his chest, pressing over his heart, pushing energy into shijie's protective array that wraps around him and through him, carrying it to every part of him, body, spirit and soul.

He opens his eyes, and wonders if he is dreaming.

One of the guqins is being played by Lan Zhan, sitting to one side of him. The xiao is Lan Xichen, standing at the foot of the bed.

The other guqin is Lan Qiren, sitting right by his bedside, and the person who is sitting on his bed, eyes closed in concentration, giving him spiritual energy faster than he knew was possible, is Madam Yu.

She senses the shift in his consciousness, and opens her eyes. The flow of energy slows, but does not stop.

"He's awake," she says quietly. Wei Wuxian sees Lan Zhan glance up, sees his relief, but the music does not stop. Madam Yu sighs at him. "Stupid boy," she says, and her tone is soft. "Do you know how worried we've been? Master Lan and Zewu-Jun dropped everything to come here." Her eyes are bright.

Wei Wuxian can hear a door opening, but can't see it past the people crowded around his bed.

"Mother, that's enough." It's shijie's voice, but it seems she doesn't mean enough of berating him, because shijie is taking Madam Yu's hand and lifting it away from Wei Wuxian's chest. "If you exhaust yourself completely, we will have two patients to consider."

"As if I would, for him," Madam Yu sniffs, but she sways for a moment as shijie draws her away, and takes Uncle Jiang's hand, leans on it, just a little. Uncle Jiang smiles briefly at Wei Wuxian, and escorts his wife from the room.

Shijie takes her place on the bed, puts her hand to his chest.

Wei Wuxian wants to tell her that it's not necessary, that he's fine, but unconsciousness is calling him again.

"Rest, A-Xian," she says. "Sleep."

He does.

---

The next time he wakes, he feels much stronger. This time, it is only Jiang Cheng by his bedside, reading by the light of a few candles. He looks around when Wei Wuxian shifts.

"It's late," Jiang Cheng says quietly. "You look... less shit than you have been, lately."

"How long have I been..."

"Lying around uselessly and making everyone worry about you? Four days." Jiang Cheng glares. "And I have suffered, Wei Wuxian. Did you know your fiance can't hold his liquor?"

Wei Wuxian stares. "Who - how?"

"He's been worried. Very worried. And then third shidi put a cup in front of him and told him it was the only medicine for worry and that it's important to let go sometimes or else we can't be of use to the people we care about and apparently Lan Wangji thought this meant it was actual medicine, and he drank it, and third shidi is on stable duty from now until the end of fucking time because Lan Wangji has as much alcohol tolerance as taste in men, and I am scarred for life. I hate you. Drink this. I'm under orders."

While making his speech, Jiang Cheng nonetheless has, with gentle hands, helped Wei Wuxian sit up, tucked more pillows behind him, and is now holding a cup of water to his lips.

Wei Wuxian drinks, then asks in horrified fascination: "What happened?"

"First, he passed out, and we thought that was the end of it," Jiang Cheng says, going over to the table to do something Wei Wuxian can't see. "But then he popped up again, and he was. So drunk." He turns back for a moment, and hisses, "One cup! One!"

He resumes. "Third shidi asked how he was feeling. And he answered. I can not tell you how much it pained me to hear Lan Wangji talking about his feelings. He was, by the way, terrified that you would die and then he would die because, and I quote, Wei Ying is his life. I nearly threw up. And then he started marching off here, which was a place from which he had been specifically banished because he had been fretting at your bedside for two fucking days, and we tried to hold him back, but did you know that he is also insanely strong? Because he is insanely strong."

Jiang Cheng returns with a tray, carrying a bowl of broth. It smells like shijie's pork rib and lotus root soup, but all the meat and vegetables have been removed. "I am instructed," he growls, "that you are not to exert yourself to eat this. I will feed it to you. Like a baby. You are the baby. The terrible, asshole baby. If you resist these instructions, I am to wake my mother. I have been told."

Wei Wuxian blinks. "This disciple will not resist." The idea of Madam Yu being woken in the night on his behalf is terrifying.

"Good." Jiang Cheng does, in fact, feed him. The broth is warm, rather than hot, but still delicious. "So he turns up here, at your sickbed, where he's not supposed to be dragging me and third shidi and fourth shidi behind him trying to hold him back and would you like to know who was here?"

Wei Wuxian cannot answer. Jiang Cheng is spoon-feeding him broth, his mouth is occupied.

"My mother and Master Lan Qiren were here. And your future husband comes in, with both of them here, and pushes his own uncle aside to kneel by your bed and just. Stare at your face. Which was bad enough, but then Lan Qiren asked him what he was thinking, behaving in such a way, and then we, by which I mean me, and third shidi, and fourth shidi, and also Lan Qiren and my mother got to hear Lan Wangji use multiple entire sentences, and all of them were about how pretty you are and how much he loves you and how scared he was and how brave and heroic and clever he thinks you are."

Aww. Lan Zhan.

"And then!" Jiang Cheng is reaching an impressive crescendo for someone who is still, very carefully, spoon-feeding the recipient of his outrage. "Then, he crawled onto the bed with you, and said it's nine, rest, and just... passed out! On your bed! I thought Lan Qiren was going to have some kind of collapse, and then my mother came out of the room and pulled me with her and I was worried I was going to be held responsible and she would kill me dead."

The bowlful of broth is finished. Wei Wuxian says meekly, "But she didn't? You don't look dead."

Jiang Cheng huffs. "No. She laughed until she cried and said she was happy your betrothed was so truly suitable a match for you. It was almost worse. And then third shidi and I carried him back to his bed. Apparently he doesn't remember a thing, and no-one is telling him, but I need you to know that I have suffered. How are you feeling? Any dizziness? Nausea?"

Wei Wuxian blinks at the abrupt shift. "No, not at all."

Jiang Cheng glares at him, narrow-eyed, as if he doesn't believe him, and finally grudgingly nods. "Then you may have more soup," he declares, "and this time you may have some meat. And then you will go back to sleep, and tomorrow the healers and my mother and Master Lan Qiren and Xichen will examine you, and they will decide if you will be allowed to do anything other than be a useless lump."

---

He is indeed examined in the morning. He is poked and prodded and peered at, and then he is pronounced to be well on the road to recovery, but still forbidden any strenuous exertion, physical or spiritual.

Madam Yu then declares that she wishes to speak to him alone, and insists that everyone else leave the room. Jinzhu and Yinzhu follow the men outside and close the door.

Madam Yu sits in the chair by his bedside as if it were the throne of an empress. "Wei Ying," she says, in a commanding tone, "I have much to say, and I will ask you not to speak, but to listen, and remain silent until I leave the room. You are aware, I think, that the Meishan Yu are not the gentlest sect, in techniques."

He nods.

She smiles faintly. "Your spiritual energy was exhausted, and I was the very first to offer you mine. You were too weak to resist it when I read through your memory."

He chokes. She does not acknowledge his reaction at all.

"I will not apologise for it. You fought with us and for us, but you used techniques that our Wei Ying could not know, and you did not seem, indeed, to be our Wei Ying. I could not risk that I was allowing something into my home that could be a threat to my family." She chuckles humourlessly. "Imagine my surprise when I learned that you were very much our Wei Ying. Our Wei Ying who loved his family so much that it was not enough to be a hero, to be the husband of the most powerful man in the world, to be loved and admired and have surprising amounts of really quite terrible sex." She smirks. "We'll talk about that before your wedding. You will not thank me now or then. You will, I think, thank me later."

Wei Wuxian wonders if this is in fact, actually some kind of nightmare.

Madam Yu's expression becomes serious again. "Wei Ying could not live with the happiness he had, because the Jiang Cheng he loved was still heartbroken, and his shijie was still dead, and little Jin Ling had neither parents nor grandparents. And it twisted in his soul, and he wondered if perhaps, it was not too late to save the people for whom he had already sacrificed so much."

"Do you know, Wei Ying, why my children disappoint me?" She raises a hand. "Do not guess. I know what you have thought. You are wrong." She looks steadily into his eyes. "A-Cheng disappoints me because he is my son, to his soul. He is to be the next Jiang Sect leader, and he is a Jiang in name but not in nature. He was born to be a Yu of Meishan, and he cannot be a Yu of Meishan."

Her fingers brush across Zidian. "The Yu Sect roam Meishan. We hunt, and we fight, and we kill if we must, and we do not attend the Lan Sect lectures at Cloud Recesses to learn their thousands of rules of proper cultivation. The Yu Sect do not deal in such things. Nothing is forbidden. Everything is permitted."

A soft sigh. "Yanli disappoints me because she is her father's daughter, not mine. She is too gentle. She lacks ambition. If her loved ones are safe, and well, and happy, that is sufficient for her. Yanli disappoints me for all the reasons that we love her."

She puts her hand on his shoulder. "And then, Wei Ying, there is you. You disappoint me because you are not my son."

He stares at her. How does that even make sense?

Madam Yu rolls her eyes, and for a moment, he sees Jiang Cheng, the Jiang Cheng of his second life, the age that she is now. "I will explain. I didn't think you'd understand, idiot boy." Her tone is fonder than her words. "You are a true Jiang. You attempt the impossible without hesitation. You could also be Yu. You see the world not by what is permitted and what is forbidden, but by what is right, and what is wrong. You protect the innocent, and punish the guilty. If you were my son, you could have been the next leader of the Jiang Sect, and made it greater, and freed Jiang Cheng of his burden. Or you could have returned to Meishan, and learned what only the Yu can teach, and remade the world for the better."

She brushes his hair back, with a tenderness he would have thought it impossible that she could ever show to him. "But you are not my son." She stands, and turns away from him. "Wei Ying," she says, "is the son of Zangse Sanren, who was my... beloved friend. But she married Wei Changze, who is the father of Wei Ying, and who was Jiang Fengmian's closest companion, whom he loved."

Her head bows. "I know," she says softly, "that you love Wangji very much. I think, perhaps, that you can understand. I know that when you died, he loved and cared for your A-Yuan better than I have loved and cared for you. Perhaps he would have found it more difficult, if you had chosen A-Yuan's mother instead of him. Perhaps not. Wangji is kinder than I am."

Wei Wuxian feels dizzy.

Madam Yu continues. "I would not dishonour your mother's memory by claiming her son as my own. You are hers. You will always be hers. I... regret, Wei Ying, that you felt so much of my jealousy. You are the product of a union I have never truly forgiven, but that was not your choice."

She turns back, and their are tears on her cheeks, even though her voice is even, and her expression composed. "I thank you, Wei Ying, for all that you have done for my family."

She kneels, and bows, touching her forehead to the floor, and then turns and leaves without another word.

---

Wei Wuxian does not exert himself unduly. He goes boating, but Lan Zhan rows. He picks lotus pods, and piously declares that he needs them to regain his strength. He heckles the juniors as they shoot kites, and takes naps, and lets Lan Zhan bring him snacks and pet his hair, and generally indulges in total and utter idleness, and enjoys the general approval for doing so.

His strength returns rapidly.

He is brought for a discussion of his own with Lan Xichen. Lan Zhan comes with him; Lan Zhan has not wanted to be more than arm's length from him since his recent illness. Wei Wuxian supposes it was quite a worrying episode.

"I need to talk to you about what happened," Lan Xichen says. "Do you know why you collapsed?"

"Over-exertion," Wei Wuxian shrugs.

"Not quite." Even Lan Xichen isn't smiling, which is worrying. "I see what you meant when you said you stole the waterborne abyss from Caiyi. The application of it was... interesting. Curiously, while you clearly used resentful energy in the course of your work, the ultimate result is the suppression of the abyss itself, and you avoided the harm to the spirit that is usually expected as a result of demonic cultivation. While your spiritual cognition shows some evidence of past use, there was no new trauma. Uncle and I are in... disagreement, let us say, about whether your actions were heretical. I have allowed him to believe that the prior damage was probably sustained during your encounter with the Xuanwu of Slaughter."

He does smile faintly now. "A-Cheng, Wangji, and Jin Zixuan have not been examined for such damage, as it is a difficult and invasive process, unless the person to be examined is already in a coma with their spiritual energy depleted almost to the point of death, so this conclusion is theoretical, but it will do to keep Uncle at bay for now."

Wei Wuxian frowns at Zewu-Jun and squeezes Lan Zhan's hand. Reminders that Wei Wuxian nearly died of something always upset him, and Lan Zhan is extremely distraught right now.

"What Wangji, Jiang-guniang, Madam Yu and I have concluded is that the protective array Jiang-guniang gives you is very effective, but presents a risk of its own. It was, I understand, depleted when you were... suppressing... the waterborne abyss in Gusu. On this occasion, it was not. Would I be correct in assuming that you used your own spiritual energy to sustain it?"

"Yes," Wei Wuxian says. "Shijie is very good, but there are limits to how much power she can put into an array, especially one applied to a human body."

"As I thought." Lan Xichen sighs. "Wuxian. I am aware that you have not previously been able to combine normal cultivation with demonic, and you are perhaps still learning. You are a very strong cultivator for your physical age, but you do have limitations. You cannot sustain that power indefinitely either. There will be a war, and you will, I know, be fighting it. You must maintain awareness of the power you expend. The evidence of your prior existence suggests strongly that the damage caused to your spirit by demonic cultivation is largely recoverable, perhaps even more so now that you retain your golden core. It is a lesser price to pay than your life. If you must use demonic cultivation - and I would prefer that to be your last resort - maintain a balance in the use of your spiritual energy."

"Zewu-Jun..." Wei Wuxian hesitates. "I am currently required to expend a great deal of power to do difficult things like that. There could be a way that I could make it... easier, and it -"

"The Stygian Tiger Seal," Lan Xichen cuts him off. "I remember. Do you have the Stygian sword?"

"I do, yes." Wei Wuxian does not clutch at the warded Qiankun pouch he carries.

Lan Xichen nods. "When you made that, you were in the Yiling Burial Mounds. You were hurried, and I think, quite desperate, and far less knowledgeable than you are now."

"I suppose."

"You were also alone." Lan Xichen does smile now. "Perhaps, this time, we can do better."

---

Wei Wuxian declines Lan Xichen's offer to work with him on the new Stygian Tiger Seal. He reminds him that they are in the home of Madam Yu, who carries Zidian, an heirloom of the Meishan Yu.

He speaks to Madam Yu. She understands immediately.

She sends him to Meishan.

---

Lan Wangji accompanies Wei Ying on the journey to Meishan, not least in case the flight should risk straining his spiritual energy. On the journey, Wei Ying explains that they are going to visit an Elder of the Meishan Yu.

They land at one of the most beautiful houses Lan Wangji has ever seen, and are greeted by a woman who looks no older than Madam Yu herself. Lan Wangji realises that she must be a very powerful cultivator indeed.

"Xiao-Ying!" she exclaims. "How kind of you to visit this ancient and decrepit woman, who withers away in the darkness without the sunlight of her grandchildren. Who is your handsome friend?"

"Popo, this is Lan Zhan, courtesy name Wangji," Wei Ying says. He goes to bow, but she slaps his hand.

"Ah! A Lan! One of the Twin Jades, yes?" She narrows her eyes. "Are you here to tell me all the things I'm doing that are forbidden?"

"No, Madam." Lan Zhan bows deeply.

"Popo."

Lan Zhan blinks, and looks questioningly at Wei Ying.

"Call her popo," Wei Ying whispers. "It's... it's a rule. It is forbidden to call popo anything but popo."

Lan Zhan blinks, and nods slowly, and turns back. While he would consider it improper to address such a person so informally, if this is a rule, he will obey it. "This disciple is honoured to meet you... popo." He bows.

She looks at Wei Ying. Wei Ying shrugs helplessly.

"Of all my kin, xiao-Ying, you are the only one who would even think to marry a Lan. Don't look at me like that, it's obvious, don't even bother. Now, you did not come to see popo on the eve of war just for the sake of my happiness. Why are you here?"

Wei Ying tells her.

---

She takes them to one of the outbuildings, some kind of workshop. Lan Wangji watches Madam Popo examine the Stygian sword in Wei Ying's hands. She does not touch it.

"You're playing with fire, xiao-Ying," she says. "You know I won't stop you, but I hope you do know the risks."

"I know, popo," Wei Ying says quietly, looking down.

She frowns, and lifts his chin with one finger. "Eyes," she says sharply.

Wei Ying meets her gaze, and Lan Wangji feels a strange ripple in the air.

"Yes, I see that you do. A Tiger Seal, but you couldn't quite control it." She sighs. "I won't ask you why you did it, or what happened after that. You have a good heart, xiao-Ying, I'm sure you meant well." She frowns. "Now, I want to be very clear, why did you come to me?"

Lan Wangji knows the answer to this. He can make a contribution. "Madam Yu carries Zidian. The Yu Sect's expertise in magical weapons is evident. We hoped to ask advice from such an artisan."

Madam Popo looks at him for a long moment, then turns back to Wei Ying. Wei Ying, unaccountably, grins, and says, "I know. It's adorable."

Madam Popo laughs, a bright, joyful sound. "It really is." She turns back to Lan Wangji. "You are asking advice from such an artisan, xiao-Lan. I made Zidian."

Lan Wangji doesn't quite follow the conversation from there. The two of them finish each other's sentences, working through ideas they both seem to understand implicitly.

"Now, xiao-Ying, the problem -"

"- is control, yes, but at the same time -"

"- you can't weaken... but maybe since you lost -"

"- right, right, but it still could be a matter of temperament... What about -"

"- no, it draws too much power to bind solely to its master, even if it can still know -"

He doesn't follow. The conversation is chaotic. Wei Ying sketches something on a piece of paper. Madam Popo tsks at it and makes adjustments. They argue using words Lan Wangji understands, separately, but the way they are using them, not at all. They both make more notes on the paper, until it is incomprehensible, and Madam Popo draws a new sketch. More discussion, and more notes and adjustment. New sketches.

It takes hours.

Lan Wangji waits patiently, watching Wei Ying work, bright and brilliant. Wei Ying is Lan Wangji's betrothed, he thinks, and Wei Ying is magnificent. Lan Wangji is certain he will never tire of watching Wei Ying - the way he moves, the way he smiles, the wonderful range of his moods. The way he holds his brush, applying ink to paper with an air of careless haste, yet his sketches are precise and beautiful.

Finally, they appear to have reached some kind of agreement.

"You trust him that much?" Madam Popo asks.

Wei Ying nods. "I do, popo. Always."

"Very well." She looks at Lan Wangji. "You. What would you do, what would you give, for xiao-Ying?"

"Anything." Madam Popo has asked many questions of Wei Ying that Lan Wangji would be unable to answer. Lan Wangji is relieved that his question is a very easy one.

"Anything at all?" Her eyes narrow. "Your fortune?"

"Yes."

"Your life?"

"Yes."

"Your heart, your soul?"

Lan Wangji frowns. This one is difficult. "Cannot give what already belongs to Wei Ying."

"Ahh, Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying falls forward onto the table, hiding his face.

Madam Popo smiles.

"All right, xiao-Ying," she says. "This could work."

---

"I need jade from Gusu," Madam Popo says. "Preferably something you've carried for a while, already, something you care about."

Wei Ying sighs, and begins detaching the jade charm from Baohu. "Is this enough?" he asks.

"Yes." Madam Popo looks at Lan Wangji. "And you. What do you have that is part of who you are, that you carry with you, that you love? Not your sword. Something that has meaning that isn't just a weapon."

Lan Wangji pulls out his guqin. "This?"

"Perfect. Put it on the table."

He does so.

"You probably don't want to watch this part," she says, and then -

Madam Popo was correct.

Lan Wangji would have preferred not to watch her take a hammer and slam it into his guqin and shatter it utterly. He would have preferred not to hear the scream of snapping strings. He will not begrudge this loss, not for Wei Ying, but it hurts to see such a thing -

- is still there, intact, on the bench. He can still see the shattered fragments, but they are translucent, insubstantial, and his guqin is still there, solid and real, without even a scratch.

"You can put it away now," she tells him, and her tone is not unkind.

Lan Wangji picks it up with careful, frightened reverence, plucks a few notes.

It seems exactly as it was before.

Lan Wangji looks at Wei Ying. Wei Ying looks pale, and asks the question Lan Wangji cannot find the words for.

"What did you do? What just happened?"

Madam Popo is picking through the translucent things that look like shards of a shattered guqin. "Perfection happened," she says cheerfully. "It's part of who he is, and it's a powerful weapon, but it's also a tool of healing and protection. It means the world to him, and he really wouldn't hesitate to sacrifice it for you. Didn't even regret it when he thought he saw me smash the thing." She holds up one of the fragments. Lan Wangji feels faintly unwell looking at it. "I didn't, of course, it's not even scratched."

"Then what are these?" Wei Ying peers closely at the mess on the desk, looking fascinated. Lan Wangji knows that Wei Ying has a strong stomach, but this seems excessive.

"These are... echoes, of a sort. Of willingness, and of the love and power he's already put into the instrument."

She sets a few pieces aside, and brush the rest from the table with a sweep of her arm. They fade into the air, and the ones on the table darken and become nearly opaque.

Wei Ying puts the jade charm on the table hesitantly.

"And now we can work," Madam Popo says.

---

It takes two nights and a day. They work non-stop. At nine each evening, Lan Wangji is waved towards a doorway, behind which he finds a pleasant, quiet, and well-appointed chamber, with a bed, and a table set with tea and a modest meal, fresh and hot. He can't even hear the sound of hammering that is so frequent and pervasive in the workshop.

Lan Wangji frets about Wei Ying staying awake for so long, but Wei Ying's mouth twists in a way he doesn't like and he says, "I've done it before. This is easier."

The item that results is... intricate. An iron tiger seal, quite delicate and beautiful, inlaid with dark shadow, and jade eyes that seem to glow when they catch the light.

"It is a tool of great power," Madam Popo says. "It will work to your command, and know its master. It will roar for you, xiao-Ying." She looks at Lan Wangji. "And for you, xiao-Lan, xiao-Zhan, the beautiful boy who gave his heart and soul away in the moonlight - for you, it will come back, come home, it will sleep."

"If I lose control," Wei Ying says quietly, "you can stop it. You can stop me. You can stop it all."

Lan Wangji looks at Madam Popo. "Will that hurt Wei Ying?"

"Sweet boy," she says, and beckons, and without even a thought, he bends to her. She kisses his forehead, above his ribbon, and it feels like a benediction. "No, xiao-Zhan," she murmurs. "It will not hurt Wei Ying. The power I give you is for his protection."

---

They leave Meishan. Lan Wangji insists on carrying them both on Bichen, as Wei Ying is still in recovery, and has not slept.

Truly it is for that reason. The opportunity to hold Wei Ying close in his arms for the duration of the journey is a cherished bonus.

"She always complains about not being visited enough," Wei Ying tells him. "If you're passing that place, it's good to go stop by. If she doesn't want to see you, for whatever reason, you won't find her house no matter how long you look."

"Who is she?" Lan Wangji asks.

Wei Ying smiles. "Popo." He laughs at Lan Wangji's expression. "Once upon a time, there was an Immortal who reached enlightenment. Unlike some, she did not draw away from the world entirely, nor did she take disciples. She built a house, that was exactly as she wanted it, and she did not leave. Her children visited her there, as did the children of her children, and as each generation passed, she grieved, but still welcomed the next, and was always their popo."

Chapter Text

At Lotus Pier, Lan Zhan insists that Wei Wuxian rest immediately, in his determinedly obstinate way that's pointless to argue against.

When he wakes, late in the morning, he notices an odd bustle is taking place. There are dozens of people in Gusu Lan uniforms around, and they, alongside the Jiang Sect disciples, appear to be cleaning.

Madam Yu finds him and stops him to examine him critically. "Do those clothes still fit properly? You haven't grown lately, have you?" She frowns. "You have, a little. Honestly, Wei Ying, must you always be so inconvenient?"

She strides away.

He finds Lan Zhan out on the pier, playing his guqin in the sunlight. "Still working?" Wei Wuxian asks.

"I cannot sense a difference," Lan Zhan replies. "I am merely practicing."

Wei Wuxian considers joining him, but the piece Lan Zhan is playing isn't one he knows - a soaring, joyful thing that teases maddeningly at his memory, almost but not quite familiar.

Wei Wuxian sprawls in the sunlight and listens, watching Lan Zhan's hands move across the strings and the small, soft smile on his face.

Late in the afternoon, shijie finds them. By then Lan Zhan is meditating, poised and still, and Wei Wuxian is dozing with his head in Lan Zhan's lap.

Shijie has a strange air of urgency. "A-Xian, Wangji," she says, slightly breathless. "You are very, very sure about getting married?"

"Mn," says Lan Zhan.

"Of course," says Wei Wuxian sleepily.

"Good," shijie says, and leaves.

---

The next morning, Jiang Cheng comes to wake him before breakfast with his usual gentle delicacy.

"Up, up," he says loudly, yanking the covers away. "Your presence is required at the breakfast. Lazy! So lazy! Our guests must think the Jiang Sect has no standards at all!"

Wei Wuxian barely has time to dress before Jiang Cheng is pulling him by the collar, half asleep and stumbling, and all but throws him into the main hall.

"I brought him, he's here," Jiang Cheng grumbles. "Can we eat now?"

"We can eat," Madam Yu allows.

Wei Wuxian blinks, yawning, and looks around the table. It's unusually full. Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu and shijie and Jiang Cheng, of course, and Lan Zhan, but Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren are there, and he'd thought Lan Qiren had returned to Gusu.

And around the hall, the lesser tables are also filled with Jiang and Lan Sect disciples. The breakfast is more elaborate than usual.

He digs in.

The meal is quiet, perhaps in deference to the Lan guests.

Afterwards, the dishes are cleared away briskly, but at the main table, no-one is dismissed.

Jiang Fengmian stands and addresses them.

"In three days, we leave for the council of war," he says. "This will be a war such as none of us here have ever seen. There will be great danger, and great sorrow. None of us can know what the future holds."

Well, Wei Wuxian thinks, not all of the future.

"And so," Jiang Fengmian continues, "it is important to secure the joys we can. We have prepared some gifts."

"First," Madam Yu says, "A-Cheng."

She stands, and moves to her son. Jiang Cheng scrambles to his feet.

"I have always been strict with you, A-Cheng," she says, "because I have always believed you capable of greatness, and could never have been satisfied if you failed to achieve it." He flushes slightly. "You are called upon to go to war." She takes his hand, and Jiang Cheng gasps as she slides Zidian onto his finger. "Come home in glory," she says. "But come home."

She returns to her seat, and Jiang Cheng sits again as if his knees have gone weak.

Jiang Fengmian and Lan Xichen step away from the table to collect two large, lacquered wooden boxes. Jiang Fengmian presents his to Wei Wuxian, and Lan Xichen to Lan Zhan.

"Open them," Madam Yu commands.

Lan Zhan obeys promptly, and Wei Wuxian hears his slight intake of breath. As he lifts the lid of his own box, he understands why.

Inside are silk robes, lustrous and embroidered. A delicate pattern of white clouds and purple lotus.

On red.

"We thought," Lan Xichen says, "that it would be appropriate to complete the bond between our clans."

The robes are red.

"It will, sadly, be less of a celebration than we might have hoped," Jiang Fengmian says. "But it will be a celebration, nonetheless."

The robes are red.

"Thank you," Lan Zhan says hoarsely.

"Yes," Wei Wuxian hears himself say. "Thank you."

The robes are red.

Uncle Jiang and Madam Yu are saying things to shijie. There's some kind of movement. He has no idea what it is.

The robes in the box look beautiful. The embroidery is fine, and the fabric is flawless.

They are also red.

---

As he leaves the hall, Wei Wuxian sees the Jiang and Lan disciples are polishing the woodwork around Lotus Pier and decorating the courtyards. If there is a single pretty flower left in Lotus Cove, Wei Wuxian will be very surprised.

"It's rushed, but the Sect Leaders agreed that the alliance should be secured before the campaign begins," Jiang Cheng says, taking the box (of red robes) from his hands. Wei Wuxian wants to object, but Jiang Cheng glares. "Go bathe, you don't want to stink at your wedding."

Wei Wuxian looks at Jiang Cheng, Zidian on his finger, glaring at him, and feels his face do something. He's not sure what it is, but Jiang Cheng says, "Hey, wait," and shifts the box (of red robes) to balance awkwardly with one arm and grabs Wei Wuxian's shoulder roughly. "I'm happy for you, okay? I mean," he clears his throat, "at least if you're married your shameless behaviour won't reflect so poorly on us. I just." Jiang Cheng looks at the ground. "I didn't think that - I thought - I mean, I knew we'd be getting rid of you eventually, I just thought it would take longer, so it's a pretty exciting day."

Wei Wuxian feels a tear slip down his cheeks, because Jiang Cheng, and this time the thing his face does is smile, which is much more familiar. "Jiang Cheng, even if I'm married, you're never truly going to be rid of me. You and me, we will always meet."

Jiang Cheng's head is still down, but he looks up at Wei Wuxian through suspiciously wet lashes. "Promise?" he asks softly.

"I promise." This kind of sincerity is unnatural to both of them, and this moment needs to be ruined or he'll be a sobbing mess, so Wei Wuxian adds, "If you call for me, your da shixiong will run to you."

"You!" Jiang Cheng says, and shoves at his shoulder, but he's grinning as he turns away.

---

After Wei Wuxian bathes and dresses in a simple house robe, before he dresses in his new (red) robes, Madam Yu comes to see him.

"Wei Ying," she says, smiling in a way he is certain is evil. "I was grieved to realise how badly I failed you. There are things you should have had the chance to know, if only I had had the chance to tell you. But I cannot blame myself, of course. I died." Her smile widens. "But on this occasion, I live. I am so grateful. And now we shall talk." She takes a seat with perfect elegance. "I have already spoken with Wangji," she adds, horrifyingly. "He took notes."

She is between him and the door. Yinzhu and Jinzhu will be outside it. One may even be outside the window.

There is, he realises, no escape. He is going to have to hear Madam Yu talk about sex.

Wei Wuxian reminds himself that he was once the Yiling Patriarch, who inspired terror across the cultivation world. He was once a person who could threaten to kill a Sect Leader's nephew in a room full of people knowing no-one would dare try to stop him. He was also a married man, and famously shameless, and known not to shy away from discussions of marital activity.

It doesn't seem to help, because Madam Yu.

---

Her talk is detailed, explicit, and sometimes pitying. Wei Wuxian can't remember ever blushing this much, and imagines that the enemies, friends, and Jiang Cheng of his second life would be finding this hilarious.

But he does pay attention, because if she thinks he isn't, she goes back to the beginning.

At the end, she pats his shoulder and says, "It could have been worse. I could have asked Jiang Fengmian to tell you directly. He has more... personal experience. A long time ago now, before your father left, of course."

Wei Wuxian stares.

And then she sweeps out, and Yinzhu and Jinzhu enter.

"We are here to do your hair," Jinzhu says.

Yinzhu holds up a razor-sharp comb that looks like it could be used to kill a man. "Hold very still."

---

He is faintly surprised that having his hair combed and styled by Yinzhu and Jinzhu is entirely painless. The glare he receives if he even thinks about fidgeting feels like it should leave some kind of mark, but it does not.

When at last they are satisfied, they each hold up a mirror, so he can see what it looks like.

"It's beautiful," he says, because it is. They nod in unison, in a way that seems to suggest less that they are pleased with his praise, and more that they consider it to be acceptable that he is capable of recognising perfection when he sees it.

His hair is drawn high into a stunning gold headpiece, fixed with jade hair sticks. It cascades smoothly down, not a hair out of place, and is ornamented through with fine, amethyst-studded gold to exactly the degree that is stunning without reaching a tasteless level of ostentation.

His hand moves fractionally, and Jinzhu catches his wrist. "Do not touch it," she says.

"We will know," Yinzhu adds.

"We will return when you are dressed," Jinzhu finishes, and they leave without further fanfare.

They are immediately replaced by Jiang Cheng, Nie Huaisang and Jin Zixuan.

"When - what?" Wei Wuxian blurts without thinking. He is having a very difficult day, with many shocks, and Surprise People is unfair.

Nie Huaisang laughs softly, and Jin Zixuan rolls his eyes. "This morning," Jin Zixuan says. "Of course, representatives from our sects were invited, even on notice as short as this. Our Sect Leaders are busy preparing for war. Do you think the Jiang and Lan sects would be disrespected by their sending anyone but us?"

"And as we are your friends, we offered to come and help you dress," Nie Huaisang says. "It is so wonderful that you are to marry, Wei-xiong. It is my honour to be here."

Wei Wuxian can't help himself. "We're friends now?" He looks at Jin Zixuan, who looks straight ahead.

"If Wei-gongzi is willing," he says simply.

"Answer one question," Wei Wuxian says.

"Ask."

"Do you think my hair looks pretty?" He bats his eyelashes, because if this is too much, then friendship with Jin Zixuan will never work. He can see Jiang Cheng glaring, although he's not sure if it's even at anyone in particular. Jiang Cheng is glaring generally.

Jin Zixuan looks at his hair. He even walks a circuit around Wei Wuxian, before returning to position and nodding.

"Your hair is the second-most beautiful thing I have ever seen," he says gravely.

"And what, then, is first?" Nie Huaisang blatantly feeds him the line.

Jin Zixuan smiles. "Jiang-guniang, of course."

Oh, he is getting much better at this. Wei Wuxian grins. "Then yes, Zixuan. We can be friends."

---

Nie Huaisang, it turns out, has strong opinions about matters of dress, particularly on such a special occasion. So does Jin Zixuan.

Every time Wei Wuxian moves to adjust something, Nie Huaisang raps him on the knuckles with his fan.

The division of labour is clear. Nie Huaisang and Jin Zixuan will dress him, and arrange every part of his clothing with extreme precision according to some vision they seem to share. Wei Wuxian will hold very still, moving only as and when they instruct him to.

Jiang Cheng will loiter to the side and laugh at his suffering.

The robes are heavy and warm. He is sternly informed that he is not permitted to sweat. Nie Huaisang is kind enough to fan him, and instructs Jiang Cheng to open the window.

It takes a very long time. Even when Wei Wuxian thinks they are finished, and Jiang Cheng lets Yinzhu and Jinzhu back into the room to correct the damage done to his hair by the changing of his clothes, Nie Huaisang and Jin Zixuan are still fussing over his robes.

"It's nearly time," Jiang Cheng says. Wei Wuxian is pulled to his feet. Jinzhu and Yinzhu frown at some disturbance that the movement has apparently caused, and do something to his hair.

"Adequate," Jinzhu says.

"We must return to our lady," Yinzhu says.

Jin Zixuan and Nie Huaisang make a number of final adjustments to the drape of his robes and the precise set of his sash as Jiang Fengmian comes in. He is wearing new robes, very fine, rich in the colours of the Jiang Sect.

"A-Ying," he says, eyes shining. "You look good." He clears his throat. "I have been so very busy lately, we have not had a chance to talk."

Jiang Cheng, Nie Huaisang, and Jin Zixuan hastily bow and go to wait outside.

"Uncle Jiang," Wei Wuxian says.

"I want you to know, A-Ying, I am very grateful to have had you here, and I am very, very proud of the man you have become," Uncle Jiang says. "I hope - I don't know where you and Wangji will choose to live when the war is over, but you will always be welcome at Lotus Pier. This is your home, and your family will always be our family."

Wei Wuxian thinks of Hanguang-Jun and Lan Sizhui, the heartbroken, grieving father raising the son of the man he loved, and realises that perhaps he knows now why Madam Yu's hints were so very pointed.

"I hope," he says carefully, "that the son of Jiang Fengmian and Wei Changze is worthy, and brings honour to his fathers." He bows very carefully. If he ruins his hair or his clothing, he may not be permitted to live long enough to get married.

When he straightens, Uncle Jiang is smiling through tears that stream freely down his cheeks. He bows as deeply as if Wei Wuxian had just achieved Immortality, and leaves.

Jiang Cheng comes back in and says, "It's time." He pauses a moment. "Remember, if he hurts you, I'm still going to break his pretty face."

---

Long ago, in Wei Wuxian's personal reckoning of time, he married Lan Wangji once before.

It wasn't a big deal. They had been together for some time, and had already confessed their love and devotion in a temple in front of quite a number of people, and by comparison with that event - with all the blood, and hostage-taking, and revelations of decades of scheming, and so on, very dramatic - their actual wedding was kind of an anticlimax.

Wei Wuxian had expected not to find his wedding in this life particularly affecting. It isn't a traditional ceremony; it is rushed (they are even making their vows at the wedding itself), and it is extremely political, with careful symbolism of dual association.

And yet.

It's overwhelming. His impressions of the ceremony are scattered.

Later, he will remember shijie, beautiful and beaming through her tears, and Jin Zixuan staring at her as if he cannot bring himself to look away. He will remember Jiang Fengmian, dignified and proud, heedless of his tears, and Madam Yu, giving him the warmest, truest smile he has ever seen from her. He will remember Lan Xichen looking joyful, and Lan Qiren looking grim.

He will remember Lan Zhan, the most perfect vision he has ever seen, utterly stunning in crimson, and the small smile he wore the whole time, there in front of everyone.

He will remember the feeling of Lan Zhan's ribbon against his fingers as he removed it, the feeling of it being wrapped around his wrist, Lan Zhan's voice. "All that I am and have been, I have kept for you, and I give to you." He will remember tying a new ribbon in place. Lan Zhan's voice again. "Today I am a new man, and all that I will become shall be for you."

He will remember giving Lan Zhan the small silver bell. He will remember telling him, "In an imperfect world, there can be no perfect love. Let us attempt the impossible." He will remember tying the bell to Lan Zhan's belt. "As the bells call us back to ourselves, let this call you always back to me."

He will remember bowing three times, and looking back to see his family, alive and whole at his wedding.

He will remember a joy unlike anything he had ever experienced in all of his lives.

---

After the banquet, they are escorted to their new chambers, where their combined belongings have been moved.

Wei Wuxian is very aware of the large bed they contain. It has been almost two years that he and Lan Zhan have been engaged. He has waited so long. He has been so good. And now they are married, and he is finally, finally going to get to see Lan Zhan naked for the first time in this life.

Eventually.

After the second time he said "ow" trying to get all the ornaments out of his hair, Lan Zhan has taken over, and Wei Wuxian is experiencing an exquisite torture. Lan Zhan standing close behind him, Lan Zhan's fingers brushing against his hair, his skin, carefully extracting each piece.

It takes forever.

He is thankful that the Lan take their forehead ribbons so seriously, and need to be able to put them on neatly during their weddings, because Lan Zhan's hair isn't complicated at all.

Finally it is done, and Lan Zhan kisses his neck, slides his hands around Wei Wuxian's waist to undo his belt.

"Wei Ying," he says. "Husband."

It's not like he remembers.

The smooth skin of Lan Zhan's upper body is jarring, even disorienting at first, but in almost no time at all he finds he loves that too; he traces it with his eyes, his hands, his lips. It is proof, warm and real, that Lan Zhan has not been hurt, has never had his own sect try to break him.

In his first life, he died a virgin, and he realises now that his own body responds differently from the one he wore in his second. Lan Zhan is younger, and does not carry years of grief and loss; he is nervous, gentle to a fault, but still sweetly enthusiastic.

Wei Wuxian wonders if he should feel bad that he thinks he might like this better, but he can't, not when his golden core is surging in him, the power rising to meet every thrust, not when Lan Zhan is here, whole and unmarked by the echoes of agony.

It's perfect, and he's not sorry at all.

---

Lan Wangji wakes later than the customary hour, and is still disinclined to move. He is in bed with Wei Ying. Wei Ying is naked but for the white ribbon wrapped around his wrist. Lan Wangji is also naked. This is his favourite place in the whole world.

He reflects on the previous night. It was quite astonishing. The advice of Madam Yu had been extremely helpful; Lan Wangji has always worked very hard to do everything he does as well as he possibly can, and he was very pleased to have had the correct methodology explained.

Wei Ying's impatience was typical, he thinks fondly, but for all his extensive complaints about Lan Wangji's careful attention to detail, and his demands that Lan Wangji exhibit greater haste in his exacting preparation, he had definitely seemed to be satisfied with the results.

Lan Wangji is amazed at how so many people can live without such strict disciplines and self-regulation as the Lan Sect insists upon in all of its disciples. Without such training, he wonders, how do they get anything done?

He knows, as a matter not of pride but of fact, that he is an exemplary disciple. He knows all of the disciplines perfectly, and has adhered to them all his life without exception. His self-control is excellent.

Nonetheless, at this time, he can remember Wei Ying pressing reverent kisses to the smooth skin of his chest, of his back. He can remember sweat-slick skin and the feeling of being, in part, inside Wei Ying.

He wants to do that again. He can't imagine not wanting to do that, all the time.

He is confident that by virtue of his excellent training in self-discipline, he will, reluctantly, be capable of spending hours at a time not doing that. He is, however, puzzled by the question of how people without such rigorous development can equal such an accomplishment.

Perhaps, he considers, they don't know. Perhaps they lack someone like the formidable Madam Yu to provide appropriate instruction.

That must be it.

He probably shouldn't tell anyone. It would be unfortunate if people with less self-discipline were to learn of the addictive properties of sexual activity when correctly executed. Nothing would ever get done.

Chapter Text

They get two glorious days before it's time to depart for war, and before Wei Wuxian has a debt to repay.

Jin Zixuan has - apparently, not that Wei Wuxian paid any attention, he was busy - stayed in Lotus Pier since the wedding, and is to travel with the Jiang Sect's delegation to Lanling, which will be unusually substantial. Even Madam Yu will be going.

Lotus Pier will be left lightly defended, but apparently no attack is anticipated. The Wen Sect sent a considerable force to attack with Wen Chao, and not only were there no survivors, there were no reputable reports as to what had happened to them. Not even bodies were left. Only Wen Chao's sword, which was sent back to Qishan without any additional messages attached.

While Jin Zixuan's dedication is possibly sweet, and Wei Wuxian thinks that the soft, happy smile shijie has is not only because she's so happy for him, it is also slightly inconvenient.

So Wei Wuxian makes some comments about wanting to do some night-hunting so Jiang Cheng can test his mastery of Zidian after two days of solid practice, and then Wei Wuxian takes his husband and Jiang Cheng to fly ahead on their swords with a promise not to be late rejoining the procession.

"So what's this really about?" Jiang Cheng asks once they're in the air.

"I have a debt to repay."

The weather is beautiful, perfect flying conditions, and Wei Wuxian exults in the steady, easy cruise above the trees.

As far as Wei Wuxian can tell, having large amounts of really amazing sex is excellent for his golden core. He really should have worked harder to develop the one he inherited from Mo Xuanyu sooner.

The kid probably had had potential, after all. He'd been poorly-taught, and had not even begun cultivation training until fourteen, so he was doing well to have one at all.

Thinking about Mo Xuanyu is still a little bit depressing.

Which is unfortunate for him, because that afternoon, they reach Mo Village.

---

"What are we doing here?" Jiang Cheng asks, as they stop and hover.

"We are, we will say, stopping to buy lunch and ask around for strange occurrences," Wei Wuxian says, "and by sheer chance I am going to happen to overhear some gossip, which I will find terribly fascinating, and because I am nosy and inquisitive, I am going to discover in this village there lives a young woman and her infant son."

"Why do we care about a woman and a baby?"

"Because the child should be somewhere around a year old, and his father is a cultivator." He pauses. "And the mother is seventeen."

There is a long silence.

"Seventeen," Jiang Cheng says flatly.

"Yes."

"And the child is..."

"About a year, I think. I'm not totally sure. Some of the dates are a bit vague."

"So the child was born - born - when she was sixteen."

"Yes."

Jiang Cheng snarls. "Who is the father?"

"That part comes later." He gives Jiang Cheng a pleading look. "I need you not to know right now, Jiang Cheng."

"Well... all right." Jiang Cheng scowls. "But I better find out later, so I can go and break his face."

"I will assist you," Lan Zhan says.

Wei Wuxian doesn't answer. He's found Mo Manor, and leads the others to land in the courtyard.

Their method of arrival distinguishes them as being, quite obviously, cultivators. Someone in the household has clearly noticed, because they have barely sheathed their swords when Madam Mo appears to greet them.

"Greetings, Cultivators." She bows. "To what do we owe the honour of your visit?"

Wei Wuxian, as a rule, abhors the arrogance with which some cultivators approach interactions with non-cultivators. He likes people.

He does not like Madam Mo.

So he allows himself to give her a flat stare and does not bother to return her bow.

"Our business is with the Second Young Lady Mo. Please convey to the mistress of your house that we are here, and ask that Second Young Lady Mo and her child should pack for a journey as quickly as possible. We are on our way to Jinlintai."

She flushes at his apparent assumption that she is a servant.

"Of course, Cultivator. Would - would you like to come inside? May we offer you refreshments?"

Wei Wuxian glances around. He looks towards where the shed Mo Xuanyu was kept in should be, and allows the disgust he feels to show on his face. "No thank you," he says coolly. "We will wait here."

"Yes, Cultivator." She bows nervously and retreats back into the house.

Jiang Cheng stands close at his left shoulder, Lan Zhan at his right.

"That was rude," Jiang Cheng murmurs.

"She'll live," Wei Wuxian says. "And in exchange for her life, that's a small price to pay."

"If you don't explain this properly later, I'm going to break your legs."

"Breaking Wei Ying is unacceptable," Lan Zhan says. "But I will assist Jiang Wanyin in persuasion."

They wait.

Madam Mo clearly wants the rude cultivators gone before too many people can see them waiting outside her house and assume that something has gone scandalously wrong inside, or that her hospitality is too inadequate. In a remarkably short time, a girl Jiang Cheng's age emerges, a baby in her arms, with a servant carrying an offensively small bag. She looks nervous, torn between hope and anxiety.

Wei Wuxian steps forward and bows deeply.

"Second Lady Mo, this one is honoured to meet you," he says gently. "Please come with us."

"Yes, Cultivator," she says.

Jiang Cheng takes the bag, and Wei Wuxian escorts her to outside the manor's gates.

"If I may," he says, "it would be preferable if we could ask you to accompany us by air. If you are willing, and only if you are willing, I would suggest that if you permit me to carry your son, my husband can carry you with him, and you need not fear dropping Xuanyu."

"You know his -" She flushes. She'll assume Wei Wuxian was sent by the boy's father, and have more trust, but he is aware of sharp looks from Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan.

"Of course." He smiles. "Second Lady Mo, I am Wei Wuxian. This is Jiang Wanyin, and my husband, Lan Wangji."

Every time Wei Wuxian says the words my husband, Lan Zhan looks pleased. It's adorable.

"I am grateful, Wei-gongzi," she says. "As you have said."

She gives him the baby.

Wei Wuxian cradles him to his chest. He has a strange, heady sense of worlds colliding.

Mo Xuanyu blinks sleepily up at him and smiles. He's a sweet-faced child, and there is nothing in him now to suggest the tortured young man who would destroy his own soul for revenge.

I will keep you safe, Mo Xuanyu, Wei Wuxian thinks. And when you are older, I will find someone to teach you how to apply makeup properly.

He holds him very carefully as they take off.

---

They're supposed to meet everyone in Lanling that night. The Jiangs and Jin Zixuan are flying at a less pressed pace, and the luggage for an extended stay away from Lotus Pier will follow, brought by some of the seniors of the Jiang Sect.

They bring Second Lady Mo and Mo Xuanyu to the very nice inn that has been selected, and settle them in a room to rest after the unaccustomed trip.

She handled the flight quite well, considering, but she clearly found it stressful. Mo Xuanyu appears to have slept through all of it.

Wei Wuxian can see that Jiang Cheng is positively itching to demand explanations, but there are too many people around in the inn, so they make small talk about his training with Zidian, and the news (not gossip; gossip is forbidden) Jiang Cheng heard from Nie Huaisang before he left after the wedding.

Second Lady Mo tentatively emerges as evening is drawing in. They order food, passing Mo Xuanyu around in turns in order to eat.

Wei Wuxian looks up from his food at one point to see Lan Zhan holding baby Mo Xuanyu, gazing down at him with a faintly puzzled smile. (Wei Wuxian focuses on the sheer sweetness of the scene, rather than contemplating the ways in which Lan Zhan holding that particular child is possibly even stranger than Wei Wuxian himself doing so.)

"This child is very cute," Lan Zhan announces after a moment, with the air of one reaching a conclusion that has been considered with great care. Wei Wuxian feels the restraint he exercises in not squealing out loud at that is truly an achievement, because Lan Zhan is also very cute.

"They often are," Jiang Cheng says. He looks from Lan Zhan to Wei Wuxian, and rolls his eyes. "Please don't mind Wei Wuxian and his ridiculous face," he tells Second Lady Mo. "They were only married three days ago."

"I think it's lovely," Second Lady Mo says, looking down.

Wei Wuxian gives Jiang Cheng a look: Good job, talking about getting married in front of the unwed mother!

Jiang Cheng winces.

Perhaps fortunately, it is then that the others arrive.

Wei Wuxian hastens to meet them at the door. "Uncle Jiang, shimu, shijie, Zixuan," he says quickly, "we have a guest."

Madam Yu glances past him. "So I see," she says. "Two, in fact. Unless you and Lan Zhan are already giving me a grandchild?" she suggests archly.

"Absolutely not," he says. "The child is the young lady's son."

Madam Yu frowns. "How old is she?"

"She is seventeen."

"And the child?"

"A year."

A moment's pause. "Who is the father?" There is a razor-sharp edge to her tone.

Wei Wuxian clears his throat. "As I understand it, a cultivator of the Jin Sect."

"What?" Jin Zixuan hisses. "Are you sure? At seventeen? Even my father wouldn't -" he flushes, and falls silent. Wei Wuxian looks away. He knows that Jin Zixuan is embarrassed by his father's behaviour, and will be appalled to have acknowledged it.

He also knows that yes, in fact, Jin Zixuan's father would, and did.

"We stopped in a village to eat and ask around about unusual happenings, and I learned of the girl and the child. Her family are... not well-disposed, so we thought it better to bring her away."

"Quite right," Madam Yu says. "Which village, Wei Ying?"

He meets her eyes. "Mo Village." He sees understanding dawn.

"A-Li, Zixuan, Jiang Fengmian should eat," she says firmly. "Wei Ying, introduce me to the girl."

"Yes, shimu."

As he crosses with her to the table, she murmurs, "I hope you have a plan."

"I do," he says. "Madam Yu, may I introduce Second Young Lady Mo?"

---

That night, Jiang Cheng resolutely follows Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan into their room and glares at Wei Wuxian. "Explain."

Wei Wuxian momentarily considers trying to drive Jiang Cheng away by shamelessly flirting with Lan Zhan, but his husband is also looking at him expectantly.

He sighs.

"You know that I died... before." Neither of them look happy at the reminder, but they nod. "I came back because there is an ancient technique, although it is forbidden. A person could sacrifice their life, and their soul, and summon a vicious spirit into their bodies to take revenge." He pauses. "I would like to be clear that I was a very harmless wandering spirit and never hurt anyone and I still object to being considered a vicious spirit, really, but he called for me by name."

"How is this connected to - oh, no." Jiang Cheng looks distraught. "That cute baby?"

"Yeah, he... didn't have a good life. Obviously. And when he was eighteen, he destroyed himself to bring me back. Completely." Wei Wuxian sighs. "If you think about it, it did... work out well for me? But I don't intend to die, this time, and I feel like I owe the kid a better life. I mean, even if I didn't, I couldn't live with knowing just how bad it was for him and not doing something about it."

"Yeah," Jiang Cheng says. "Okay."

---

They arrive at Jinlintai the next morning. Madam Jin is delighted to greet Madam Yu and Jiang Yanli, and appropriately welcoming to the rest of them. Wei Wuxian is slightly amused that his status, in her eyes, has clearly risen; he is no longer the son of a servant, an unjustly indulged ward, but the husband of the Second Young Master Lan, after all.

Madam Yu introduces Second Young Lady Mo as a disadvantaged girl, quite wronged; we are taking steps to rectify the situation, you understand. Madam Jin welcomes her as the guest of her dear friend. Wei Ying is carrying Mo Xuanyu.

Jiang Fengmian, having greeted their hostess, leaves to join the other Sect Leaders immediately.

"Perhaps Second Young Lady Mo should rest," Wei Wuxian says. "I will take the child to see his father, and bring him back shortly."

Madam Yu raises an eyebrow. He smiles.

"An excellent idea," Madam Yu says. Madam Jin summons a servant, who escorts the girl away. Once Second Young Lady Mo is gone, she turns back to him with a look. "And how, Wei Ying, do you intend to do that?"

He grins, and passes the baby to Lan Zhan. (Because Lan Zhan, as usual, is standing closest to him, not because the sight of Lan Zhan holding a baby does something to his chest.) "May we go to the common hall? This will be easier in a place with plenty of people."

"Of course," Madam Jin says. "I take it you don't know whose child this is?"

"We know he is a cultivator of the Jin sect," Madam Yu says. Madam Jin's steps falter, only for a moment.

"How old did you say the girl was?"

"Seventeen," Madam Yu says, and her voice is cold.

Madam Jin, too, appears to believe that Jin Guangshan would not sink that low, as she seems slightly relieved.

They reach the common hall. Many cultivators in Jin robes are in the vicinity, a few in Nie and Lan.

"I've worked out a new tool," Wei Wuxian says brightly. "I think it will be very useful. So many times on night-hunts, you find spirits whose difficulty is tied to their families, but they don't have enough spiritual cognition left to tell you who their families are. This will tell you." He marks a talisman. "It works by generations. A blue light goes to siblings. A white light goes between parents and children. Since I am touching it also, if my relatives were in the vicinity, it would point to them, of course. But of course, by blood, I don't have any!"

A small crowd has gathered. Wei Wuxian sees several smirks and sidelong glances; it seems a few people still believe the rumours that he is Jiang Fengmian's son by birth. This should dispel them.

He has always liked efficiency.

"I can demonstrate the effect,” he says, holding it up. No lines emerge until he touches it to Jiang Cheng's hand.

A blue glow streaks from Jiang Cheng to shijie, a white light to Madam Yu. Another white light runs away through the door towards the pavilion where the Sect Leaders are meeting.

"Observe, the brother of Jiang Yanli to his sister, the son of Madam Yu to his mother, the son of Jiang Fengmian to his father. The light won't be visible up there, sadly, though wouldn't that be funny!" He grins. "The light doesn't go very far from the talisman, but it does go the right way, so you can follow it. As you can see, it correctly finds all of Jiang Cheng's blood-related family."

The light dies when he pulls it away from Jiang Cheng.

Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath, meets Madam Yu's eyes for a moment, and then presses it to Mo Xuanyu's tiny hand.

Blue lights stream out in several directions.

There are gasps.

And then people notice that one runs to Jin Zixuan, and a white light runs out the door once again.

Jin Zixuan goes pale, then red, and he clenches Suihua in his fist. "Bring the child," he growls, and stalks away, following the white line.

They follow.

The line leads them towards the pavilion.

The group following is quite substantial. Jin Zixuan is followed by Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan, of course, but also Madam Yu, the coldly furious Madam Jin, shijie, Jiang Cheng, Yinzhu, Jinzhu, and most of the people who were in the hall are also moving up. Some have stayed behind, and rising arguments can be heard.

Wei Wuxian is disrupting a number of families today. More than he expected.

Jin Zixuan approaches the doors. "Keep the child safe," he says tightly. "If that boy is my brother, he will be protected."

"Madam Yu," Lan Zhan says, "take the child."

"Give him to Jinzhu," Madam Yu says. "Jinzhu and Yinzhu will see no harm comes to him."

Jinzhu uses a fold of her sleeve to hold the talisman against Mo Xuanyu's hand. Yinzhu draws her blade, and nods.

Jin Zixuan throws the doors open.

A white line glows, running directly to Jin Guangshan.

The Sect Leaders inside all look out at the crowd that has come to interrupt their conference.

Jin Zixuan draws his sword and steps inside.

"You have dishonoured my mother," he says. His voice rises gradually in volume. "You have shamed and humiliated me with your disgraceful behaviour, and neither of us ever said a word. But to have violated that girl? A child? Is there no limit to your shame?"

Jin Guangshan draws himself to his feet. "What do you think you are -"

Someone has been shoving through the crowd and bursts through, pointing a shaking hand at Jin Guangshan.

Wei Wuxian recognises Qin Cangye.

He may have slightly miscalculated, he thinks faintly, as Qin Cangye bellows, "My wife! You raped my wife! My daughter - my Qin Su -" His voice breaks.

Jin Zixuan closes his eyes, just for a moment, and then advances and levels his sword at Jin Guangshan's throat.

"Get out," he says. "Leave Jinlintai and never return, and I will allow you to leave alive. What happens after that is up to you."

"Don't be ridiculous," Jin Guangshan scoffs. "They're only women."

"You don't even deny it? Last chance," Jin Zixuan says. "And I assure you that it is against my better judgement."

"Nah, forget it," Jin Guangshan says. "This -"

He stops speaking, because Jin Zixuan has slashed his throat. Jin Guangshan clutches at the wound, blood welling through his fingers, staring wide-eyed at the son he had acknowledged.

"You were warned," Jin Zixuan says.

Jin Guangshan collapses, shattering the table.

Jin Zixuan speaks. "My apologies, Sect Leaders, for this disruption. I will -" He stops, and goes wide-eyed. "I will. Oh no." He shakes his head. "I will endeavour to meet with you this evening." He wipes Suihua on his father's body, sheathes it, and turns to face the crowd.

"Sect Leader Jin," Madam Jin says, voice shaking only slightly. "What will you do now?"

Jin Zixuan inclines his head. "Wei-gongzi has kindly provided us with a means to identify... my long-lost siblings," he says. "I will acknowledge them as my family and seek to redress any - any difficulties in their circumstances. And while I know that it will not make amends for my father's wrongs, I will do my best to offer reparations to his victims."

Madam Jin nods. "I look forward to meeting the brothers and sisters of my beloved son," she says, and turns, beckoning to a wide-eyed servant nearby. "Fetch some others," she orders, "and clean up the mess in the pavilion."

She then turns and sweeps the crowd with a glare, and many people suddenly, it seems, remember that they have important business anywhere. One of the people who does not is Madam Qin, who had followed her husband but not fought her way through the back of the crowd, and is left standing, crying, with Qin Su crying with her.

Madam Jin goes to them, and speaks gently. Madam Yu glances at Wei Wuxian, and then goes to join her.

Jin Zixuan returns with a heavy tread, and looks at Mo Xuanyu, who has been frowning at the commotion, though Jinzhu had turned to shield him from actually seeing any of it. "May I?" He takes the child from Jinzhu. "My brother," he says softly.

Mo Xuanyu reaches up and touches the tears that have started to fall on Jin Zixuan's cheeks.

It's a remarkably tender moment, right up to the point where Mo Xuanyu pulls his hand back and smacks Jin Zixuan in the face, then giggles.

Jin Zixuan huffs a laugh. "Yes," he says. "I think so, today."

Uncle Jiang, Lan Xichen, and Nie Mingjue emerge from the pavilion and bow to Jin Zixuan.

"Sect Leader Jin," Uncle Jiang says. "We believe we have... some understanding of what has taken place today. We have agreed that your actions were just and justified, and there can be no question of the righteousness of your succession."

Jin Zixuan bows awkwardly, unable to assume the proper form while also holding his infant brother. "Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang." He hesitates. "Today has been... the shame my father's actions brought upon my clan has become all too evident. If the Jiang Sect wishes to end my engagement to Jiang-guniang, the Jin and I will take no insult."

"Absolutely not," shijie says sharply. She steps forward, and bows to Jin Zixuan, and then to her father. "Sect Leader Jin may choose not to marry me, if he does not want to marry me. No other reason is acceptable."

Wei Wuxian is so, so proud. He is also so, so horrified, because Jin Zixuan is looking at her like - like Lan Zhan looks at Wei Wuxian, like he can't quite believe someone so perfect is actually real. (Obviously, in shijie's case, this view is objectively correct, but still.)

"This unworthy one wants nothing more than to marry Jiang-guniang," he says. "I would marry you tomorrow, but -"

"But there is too much to do. You have just become leader of your sect, and we are all preparing for a war. Perhaps it is better to wait."

They smile at each other.

Wei Wuxian looks at Jiang Cheng, who looks back. They share a moment of true understanding, because Jiang Cheng knows his pain.

Today was Wei Wuxian's worst plan ever, because it succeeded, but at what cost?

Chapter Text

Early in the afternoon, he is sitting with Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan when one of the gate guards comes to find him.

"Wei-gongzi," the guard says, bowing, "a message for you was delivered to the gate. It is... quite strange."

"What message?"

"The doctor will see you in the Lanling town square."

Wei Wuxian stares for a moment, and then nods, and stands. "I will go."

"We'll come with you," Jiang Cheng says immediately.

"No, no." Wei Wuxian smiles apologetically. "I must go alone. I will see you both later."

He hurries away.

---

Jiang Cheng will, grudgingly, admit that there's nothing technically wrong with Wangji. Or at least, nothing he can explicitly object to, since most of what's wrong with Wangji is that he doesn't talk enough or have facial expressions and also has absolutely terrible taste in men, and Jiang Cheng does not have a face thick enough to think he can be critical of someone else for being sort of antisocial, nor for their romantic preferences.

He can forgive not talking, because after growing up with Wei Wuxian being around someone like Wangji is frankly restful, and after a couple of years of close association, he's got some idea of how to read the non-expressions.

It's possible that he would quite like Wangji, and would appreciate having him in his family by way of his sworn brother, if not for the part where Wangji married Wei Wuxian (see: terrible taste in men) and now he and Wei Wuxian have a mostly-silent shadow who gets all tetchy when Jiang Cheng hits Wei Wuxian, even though he always deserves it.

But he's really not used to being around Wangji without Wei Wuxian as a buffer. It's... strange.

However, it's necessary, because they both know Wei Wuxian is deeply deficient when it comes to self-preservation, and wandering off alone in Lanling when he's just been the catalyst for the total disruption of the Jin Sect is unacceptable, and Wei Wuxian is an idiot for thinking they would let him do it.

Obviously they had no choice but to shadow him and now be watching him from the distance as he stands around Lanling Town Square like a moron. Wei Wuxian basically forced them to do this.

Jiang Cheng's life is an ongoing trial and it's Wei Wuxian's fault.

He watches from behind a market stall as Wei Wuxian is met by someone he's pretty sure is a woman in nondescript, hooded robes, and his face lights up.

Jiang Cheng can feel Wangji's displeasure. He glances around. Yep, his eyebrows have very fractionally made a move in the direction of furrowing, and his lips are very slightly pressed together. Wangji is obviously seething with jealousy, which Jiang Cheng still doesn't really understand because Wei Wuxian is absolutely and utterly besotted with him, but whatever, he's not going to judge Wangji for being a possessive bastard. Jiang Cheng has grudgingly accepted sharing Wei Wuxian's attention with Wangji, he's not going to be happy about someone else entering the mix either.

He looks back. Wei Wuxian is listening to something the woman is saying. He replies. She shakes her head. Wei Wuxian says something, looking quietly earnest. She nods, slowly.

Wei Wuxian moves his hands, and his fingertips glow with spiritual energy. The woman touches his hand, they bow, and then separate.

"What the fuck," Jiang Cheng says quietly.

"Mn," says Wangji.

Wei Wuxian watches the woman walk away, and then turns, and walks straight towards them.

Shit.

---

"No explanations," Wei Wuxian says, slinging an arm around each of his loving, yet not remotely subtle companions. How adorable! Did they think that the robes of Lan and Jiang were unobtrusive? "Come on, hurry."

---

He finds Zewu-Jun speaking quietly with Nie Mingjue.

"Brothers. Wuxian." Zewu-Jun very rarely shows surprise, even when three people burst in on his conversations. "Is there a problem?"

"A solution," Wei Wuxian says breathlessly. "If Sect Leader Nie can forgive this interruption, I need a word with you."

"Forgiven," Nie Mingjue grunts. "It is clearly important. I will speak to Zewu-Jun later."

They all bow as he leaves.

"What is this urgent solution?" Zewu-Jun asks mildly.

"Meng Yao," Wei Wuxian says. "Have you had contact with him? Do you know where he is?"

"I do," Zewu-Jun allows. "He is at the Cloud Recesses. His background in cultivation is somewhat erratic, but Uncle is pleased to have such an assiduous student."

Wei Wuxian blinks. He can see the reasoning - no-one in Cloud Recesses would dare to be caught backbiting and gossiping about Meng Yao's parentage.

"I think," Wei Wuxian says, "we can bring him here. Jin Zixuan will look for him, anyway."

"We won't... need him?"

"No," Wei Wuxian says. "No, we have something better."

---

Meng Yao is brought to Jinlintai with the greatest urgency, and arrives that evening. He wears the simple white student robes of the Lan sect, but no ribbon.

He is accompanied on his way to see the Sect Leader by Wei Wuxian and the Twin Jades of Lan.

Wei Wuxian is not sure he isn't making a terrible, terrible mistake, but it cannot be denied that Meng Yao is extremely gifted, and he can probably be trusted not to kill people who treat him decently, and he should, at least, be less bitter and twisted now, especially since Jin Guangshan is already dead.

In any case, Wei Wuxian has every intention of still being around for the next few years, and he will be watching Meng Yao with some care.

They are brought to the residence of Jin Zixuan, who is still in the rooms of the Jin Sect heir. His mother, Madam Yu, Jiang Fengmian and shijie are with him.

They all bow. Meng Yao's expression is blandly pleasant, but there is a hint of wary fear in his eyes. Wei Wuxian is actually sympathetic, because he has not explained what is going on here. Just in case.

"Zewu-Jun, Wangji, Wuxian," Jin Zixuan says. "And... guest. May I be of assistance?"

Zewu-Jun looks at Wei Wuxian, who nods.

"Zixuan," he says, deliberately placing this on the level of an interaction between friends, "I would like you to meet Meng Yao, who is your younger brother. He is a clever and gifted man and a tremendously able administrator, and may be of some use to you, with your new responsibilities."

Jin Zixuan blinks, and bows again. "It is my honour to meet my brother," he says firmly. "Welcome. If Meng Yao is willing, I am sure that Wuxian is correct."

Meng Yao is blinking, looking genuinely shocked, and a little as if he is waiting to hear the punchline on a cruel joke at his own expense.

"I... am honoured," he says finally.

Madam Jin rises. "Meng Yao," she says. He doesn't quite flinch, but it's close. "Jin Guangyao, perhaps. If you choose." She takes his hands. "Welcome. If I may ask, is your mother still alive?"

Meng Yao looks at the floor. "She is," he says quietly.

"Would you like to bring her to Jinlintai?"

Meng Yao closes his eyes. "My mother is... my mother is a prostitute," he whispers. "I cannot afford to buy her freedom."

"I see," Madam Jin says. "Zixuan?"

Jin Zixuan nods. "Come, A-Yao, I will show you to the treasury."

Meng Yao looks up with the most honest expression of pure astonishment. Jin Zixuan smiles. "Later, I will introduce you to our brother xiao-Xuanyu. You'll like him, he's really cute. Come along."

---

Over the next few days, many things happen.

Madam Meng is brought to Jinlintai, along with her dearest friend, and installed in rooms near those of Madam Jin and Second Lady Mo. Qin Su is recognised as Jin Zixuan's sister, but remains with her parents, who are presenting a thick face to the world; it is the firm position that Madam Qin was left without choice in her actions, and all blame falls to Jin Guangshan.

The name of Qin rarely appears in the stories that fly so fast - after all, there is so much else to tell, especially with Jin Zixuan accepting a famous prostitute into his home, and making her son his closest advisor!

No discussion of Madam Meng's history is permitted within Jinlintai.

Meng Yao, with coaching and instruction from Madam Jin, takes charge of the administration of the internal affairs of Jinlintai. His genial efficiency is quickly recognised, and draws grudging respect, at minimum, and the admiration of many.

This allows Jin Zixuan time to meet extensively with the other major Sect Leaders. Wei Wuxian laughs at Jiang Cheng, who will have to attend the meetings as the Jiang heir, until Madam Yu declares that Wei Wuxian should also be there.

"Wei Ying may have... insight," she says, and Uncle Jiang thinks too highly of him for him to get out of it after that. It's terrible.

But they have the broad outline of a plan, to which he has substantially contributed, before the leaders of the smaller sects have all arrived.

It isn't as bad as he feared, this time; Lan Xichen knows his secret, and has always, in every life, taken Wei Wuxian's most outrageous behaviour with equanimity. Uncle Jiang is Uncle Jiang, Jin Zixuan is his peer and friend, and Nie Mingjue is unconcerned with Wei Wuxian's youth and lack of rank when his understanding of war and tactics is clearly substantial.

Jiang Cheng, Nie Huaisang, and Lan Zhan are present as the current heirs to their sects. Lan Zhan, it turns out, finds Wei Wuxian confidently arguing tactical analysis with the leaders of four major sects to be almost unbearably attractive. Wei Wuxian's evenings and nights are also kept very busy.

He's quite tired by the time the leaders of the smaller sects have all arrived. The four major sects have reached the broad outline of a plan, and Wei Wuxian is relieved to be excused from attending the broader discussions. The other sect leaders will hardly accept someone in his position addressing them at all.

It's terribly, terribly unfair that Lan Zhan still has to attend, that Wei Wuxian can't keep him in bed. He loves sex with Lan Zhan, loves touching the smooth skin where Lan Zhan has now never carried the scars of a discipline whip, loves just having leisure to be together.

Maybe later, he sighs. Maybe after the war. Maybe this time, they can find peace.

---

"And finally," Xichen says, "we come to the matter of the innocents."

"Innocents?" Clan Leader Ouyang exclaims. "What innocents?" There are murmurs of agreement.

"Indeed!" Clan Leader Yao says, standing. "There are no innocents among the Wen!"

Xichen can see Nie Mingjue scowling. He and Wuxian had succeeded in persuading Nie Mingjue to accept their view on the matter, but he is not particularly enthusiastic about it. (Jiang Fengmian is mild man, by temperament, but in any case, rarely disagrees with Wuxian; the rumours of his favour for his ward are clearly very accurate.)

"What about children?" Xichen asks mildly. "Infants? If you find a newborn child, only hours old, what, would you say, are the child's crimes?"

Clan Leader Yao hesitates, and then blusters again. "If the child is young, and someone is willing to care for it - fine! But the adults are all just as evil as each other!"

Xichen sighs. "Many of the people in the areas under Wen control are not cultivators. They are farmers, artisans, and merchants. They are no more culpable for their actions than the peasants in your areas are for yours. Are you saying that the farmers and villagers have power over you, Clan Leader Yao?"

He does not give him time to answer. "The peasants, the farmers, the villagers are non-combatants and should be left in peace to the best of our ability. What is more, even some cultivators, even some named Wen, are innocent, and have harmed no-one."

"They have done nothing to prevent the Wen from harming others."

"Until now, neither have we," Xichen answers evenly. "Those more directly under Wen Ruohan's control have experienced far more harm than any of us."

"The Jiang, Nie, Jin and Lan Sects are in agreement," Jiang Fengmian cuts in. "Mundane people will be left alone. Wen cultivators who surrender, or render assistance, will not be harmed, and their cases will be judged fairly when the campaign is complete."

"We will not destroy the Wen only to become them," Jin Zixuan says firmly.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian remembers the Sunshot Campaign of his first life.

He remembers how it dragged on. He remembers the death toll, and the mobilisation so total that there were children on the battlefields, brought there to fight for their lives.

He does not want that to happen again.

He also does not know how much he can do to prevent it.

The war begins.

There are differences, right from the start.

The Jiang Sect is still alive and strong, and Jiang Fengmian leads them into battle.

Wei Wuxian watches legends form.

Of Chifeng-Zun, who battles hard in Hejian to contain that vital front, who sweeps over every obstacle, and leaves no Wen combatants alive.

Of Zewu-Jun, who always seems to appear where he is most needed, who saves lives and turns the tides of countless battles.

And of Sandu Shengshou, who strides across the battlefields with sword and lightning, and leads the advance towards Qishan.

At first, he and Lan Zhan roam too. They travel unglamorously, going to places where the lines might weaken to ensure that they do not, reinforcing an advance that might falter.

He knows what he will have to do, but first, the allied sects must draw closer to Qishan, because he also knows that even he has limitations.

It is a time of frantic activity that still seems like they are waiting, marking time.

The war is not the same as it was before; different paths, different moments that turn events, random chances that fall differently, and then suddenly it is different in the way that seems most important of all.

---

The Wen have chosen to retreat through a farming village, and the pursuers are chasing with more enthusiasm than care.

The village is burning. A handful of survivors are fleeing, and a few cultivators break off as if to pursue them. An old woman stumbles and falls, not far ahead of them.

Lan Wangji sees Wei Ying land hard, slamming Suibian into the ground, and a line of dust kicks up, knocking the pursuers back for a moment.

"Do they look like cultivators to you?" Wei Ying bellows. "Focus on your task! If you harm a single peasant, you will answer to me!"

Wei Ying is pale, and the light of the burning village reflects in his eyes. Lan Wangji has never seen Wei Ying look quite so furious.

The Nie and Jin sect cultivators back away and rejoin the others as Wei Wuxian kneels by the old woman. "It's all right, Granny," he says quietly. "Are you hurt?"

She shakes her head fearfully, and he helps her to her feet. "Go -" he starts to say, and then his head snaps up.

Lan Wangji hears nothing.

Not far away is a burning house. Part of it has already collapsed.

Lan Wangji follows as Wei Ying runs to it, but he can't see how anyone could get through the flames alive, even if there's something there.

For a moment he is desperately afraid that Wei Ying will run into the fire, but he doesn't; he puts Baohu to his lips and plays a short, urgent melody.

Long moments pass.

And then something emerges from the flames.

Lan Wangji has been going on night hunts for years. He has seen many terrible things. He is not certain that any were as terrible as the sight of a human body, burned almost to a skeleton, walking through the fire, carrying something utterly surrounded by curling dark energy.

It takes a few stumbling steps outside, and thrusts the thing it carries towards Wei Ying, who accepts it gravely.

It stands very still.

"Yes," Wei Ying says. "I promise. Rest, now."

The body collapses.

"I'm sorry," Wei Ying says softly. "I wish I knew your name." He looks down and gently waves away the darkness, revealing the thing that could hold a spirit to so ruined a body.

It's a sleeping child. A baby, very young.

"Hello, A-Yuan," Wei Ying says softly.

"Wei Ying?" Lan Wangji has many questions.

"She hid him in the oven," Wei Ying says, still very quiet. "But that still wouldn't have been enough."

He looks up, and his expression is... very strange. "Lan Zhan. This is our son."

---

They fly back to the field hospital - not the nearest, in fact, but the one commanded by Jiang-guniang. Wei Ying lands and runs to look for his sister without even picking up Suibian. Lan Wangji collects it for him, and follows.

"Shijie," Wei Ying calls. "Shijie!"

Jiang-guniang emerges from a tent. "A-Xian? Are you wounded? Is Wangji -"

"No," Wei Ying cuts her off. "No, it's - I need milk, I need - I - look."

"Oh A-Xian," she says. She places a gentle hand on his, cradling the baby against his chest. The baby started to whimper when they were only most of the way here, and Wei Ying became almost frantic immediately. "Is this..."

"It's A-Yuan," he says. "My A-Yuan. He was trapped, in a house, it was burning, his mother called me, and I don't know what to do, shijie, he could walk and eat real food, before!"

Lan Wangji thinks he understands. This child, it would seem, is one Wei Ying knew... before, somehow, and perhaps had adopted? And now he intends to adopt him again, but the child requires more care. This makes sense. Lan Wangji also knows very little about infants. The disciplines of the Lan Sect do not contain any rules specific to babies. But the sight of Wei Ying holding him, holding their son, does something very strange to his chest.

"Give him to me," Jiang-guniang commands. Wei Ying releases the child only reluctantly, and when Jiang-guniang takes a step back, he follows. "No, A-Xian. Stay here. There is a refugee woman who has a baby of her own, and might have the kindness this once to play wetnurse for A-Yuan, but she does not need you to stand over her, covered in smoke and blood. I will keep my nephew safe."

Jiang-guniang is the only person Lan Wangji has ever met with such an ability to command obedience from Wei Ying, who does not follow her, but paces anxiously while they wait.

Our son, Wei Ying had said. Lan Wangji considers that, and finds he likes the idea. A son. Their son. He will teach him the rules, and Wei Ying will teach him how to get around the rules, and their son will be perfect, like Wei Ying.

"Oh no," Wei Ying says suddenly, and comes close, and clutches at Lan Zhan's arm. "Lan Zhan, I - are we even ready to be parents? Did you want children? You raised Lan Yuan, before, but -"

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says. Wei Ying will not stop talking if he does not interrupt. "Our son."

Wei Ying smiles like the sunrise.

---

After a time, Jiang-guniang returns with their son.

"You should take him home," Jiang-guniang says. "We can't really help enough here, and you can't take him back to the battlefields, of course." She smiles at Wei Ying. "He is beautiful, A-Xian." She gently kisses their son's head, and then she moves towards Lan Wangji.

"Has Wangji had a chance to hold him yet?" she asks.

And then. Jiang-guniang places the baby in his arms.

He is very very small.

Jiang-guniang gently corrects his hold. "Like this," she says. "He must be very secure."

He is holding their son. Their son is blinking up at him sleepily.

"A-Xian," he hears Jiang-guniang say. He cannot interpret her tone, but he finds himself unable to look away from their son. He wonders if he should be concerned by this sudden compulsion. What if their son carries some kind of curse?

"I know, shijie," Wei Ying says. "I really am very lucky."

---

Wei Wuxian has always thought that Lan Zhan is the most beautiful person in the world. (Shijie doesn't count. Shijie is her own specific category.)

He was not prepared for this.

No-one could have prepared for the sight of shijie placing the tiniest A-Yuan into Lan Zhan's arms, still so very small and already theirs, theirs, because Lan Zhan is already his husband. Lan Zhan, standing tall and straight and as perfectly flawless as ever, looking down at their son and smiling.

"A-Xian," shijie says softly.

"I know, shijie," he says. "I really am very lucky." Lan Zhan's smiles are rare, and usually only for him. He knows most people think Lan Zhan is cold, even icy, and he's mostly happy for them to think so; Lan Zhan would not be comfortable if too many people were trying to be close to him, and anyway, Lan Zhan is his.

But he likes that shijie has seen this. Seen the warmth of him, can see that Lan Zhan keeps his distance because he feels too much, not too little. Shijie can be trusted with this.

And he likes that shijie has seen just how truly beautiful Lan Zhan can be, because if it should happen that she's only agreeing to marry Jin Zixuan because he's pretty, then she will surely call it off, now that she can compare him to the image of Lan Zhan holding a baby and smiling.

---

Wei Wuxian carries A-Yuan on the flight back to Lotus Pier. While heart-meltingly adorable, Lan Zhan's enraptured inability to look away when he holds their son would probably be unsafe for air travel.

A-Yuan is asleep when they land outside the wards, but he suspects it won't be too long before he needs to be fed again.

---

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says, before they enter. "Our son." He tries to work out how to say what he wants to - that it has been hours since he held their son, that his arms ache from the absence, that he knows that they cannot stay away from the battlefields, that they will have to leave their son, and he is not sure that he will survive that if he cannot hold their son again first.

Wei Ying seems to understand. Wei Ying smiles and places their son in Lan Wangji's arms again, and only then do they enter Lotus Pier.

They stop in the courtyard, and Wei Ying orders a boy to go, and find Madam Yu, and tell her that Wei Wuxian is here, but everything is all right with her family. This is correct. Madam Yu is waiting, ready to defend Lotus Pier, while her husband and her children are at war.

They have a brief wait while she is located. Lan Wangji is not sure how long. He is very busy. He is looking at their sleeping son. It takes all of his attention. He is compelled to examine every smallest detail, to lock him in his memory forever.

Madam Yu has arrived. "Wei Ying," he hears her say, "what - oh. Is this?"

She is moving towards Lan Wangji and their son. That is acceptable. Madam Yu has been very helpful. She is unlikely to pose a threat to their son.

"Yes, shimu," Wei Ying says. "This is A-Yuan. We found him. His house was on fire, and his parents had already died. His mother called me."

"Look at that face," Madam Yu says. "He really is beautiful."

This is correct, if puzzling. Lan Wangji is taller than Madam Yu, and she is not yet very close. He is unsure how she could see their son's face from where she is standing, but her conclusion, however she reached it, is nonetheless flawless. Their son is the only thing Lan Wangji has ever seen that is as beautiful as Wei Ying.

Lan Wangji has a terrible realisation. When he met Wei Ying, Wei Ying was already nearly grown. He changes very little, and slowly. Babies this small do not last very long at all. Their son will be different by the time he and Wei Ying return again from battle.

It is vitally important that the Wen are destroyed as quickly as possible, Lan Wangji concludes. The longer the Sunshot Campaign takes, the more time he will have to spend separated from their son.

Madam Yu has come closer. Lan Wangji bends sufficiently to permit her to see their son properly.

"How wonderful," Madam Yu says. Her voice is warm. "Bring him inside immediately. Wei Ying, go to my bedroom. Bring me the silk blankets from the second cabinet, and the linens from the third."

"Eh? Why?" Wei Ying sounds confused.

"Wei Ying," Madam Yu says. Her voice, suddenly, is cold. "Do you think that it is acceptable to swaddle my grandson in scorched rags?"

Lan Wangji considers this question, and considers it valid. Wei Ying is sometimes quite foolish. It is good that his family will step in to correct his errors in this way.

---

Wei Wuxian remembers being hungry, eating as sparingly as he could to ensure there would be more food to give A-Yuan, and still not having enough for him.

He remembers A-Yuan in filthy rags, patched and mended.

Now he looks at A-Yuan being wrapped in fine linen and silk.

He is, he thinks, okay with this.

Madam Yu had torn some of her finest blankets into appropriate-sized pieces without a moment's hesitation. A-Yuan has been bathed, and dried, and returned to Lan Zhan's arms, because Lan Zhan has already become very, very attached.

Wei Wuxian is carefully repressing his realisation that Lan Zhan holding a baby is painfully hot.

"The timing may be quite good, under the circumstances," Madam Yu is saying. "Madam Ce, in the town, has a child who is old enough to be weaned. I've sent the boys to ask her if she would be kind enough to come to see me. If she's willing, I can hire her as a wetnurse." She brushes her fingertips gently over A-Yuan's head, the dusting of dark hair there. "Such a precious boy," she murmurs.

Wei Wuxian smiles. "Your grandson?"

Madam Yu sniffs. "Yes. My grandson. I told you I would not dishonour your mother's memory by claiming her son as my own. But whose house was A-Yuan brought to? Whose blankets warm him? Who will care for this perfect boy while his parents are pulled from him by duty? A-Yuan is my grandson." She turns to Wei Wuxian. "And you! Be sure that you come home to him. He has been an orphan once. Don't you dare make it twice."

"Yes, shimu."

---

Leaving A-Yuan is difficult, even if he'll be safer here, even if he genuinely trusts that Madam Yu will care for him and protect him fiercely. Madam Yu's children survived infancy, she knows what she's doing, and given that A-Yuan the first time survived his own early infancy in prison, labour camps, and the Yiling Burial Mounds to become a pretty much perfect young man, Lotus Pier and Madam Yu will be fine for him.

But even if Wei Wuxian wanted to leave him behind - and he doesn't - Lan Zhan's pain is vast and visible.

He should have remembered that Lan Zhan met a toddler he didn't even see as his own and bought him one of everything at the toy stall. That Lan Zhan, when he loves, loves immediately and completely.

That Lan Zhan, when confronted with: "Surprise! We've been married hardly any time at all, and we're in the middle of a war. Meet your new son!" would fall instantly and irrevocably and completely in love.

In this life, Wei Wuxian had run at full speed straight into Lan Zhan's arms because he didn't want to watch Lan Zhan walk away like he was leaving pieces of himself behind, not again.

And yet, here they are.

He finds himself wondering if this is fate's cruel joke; that Wei Wuxian simply will not be permitted to keep Lan Zhan's heart from breaking.

They have already been away from the front too long.

They take flight and return to war.

---

He tells himself they'll visit often.

They don't. They can't. There's too much to do, too many places they need to be, too many desperate fights and frantic rescues, too many nights they slump, too exhausted to go anywhere. Lan Zhan fights with a fury born of lost time and desperation, blazing into battle everywhere they go, always at the front where things are darkest.

Wei Wuxian calls him Hanguang-Jun by reflex, and is not surprised that it spreads.

He fights, they fight, and Wei Wuxian does not yet make the dead rise. He doesn't, even though the war, in some places, is desperate, even though the dead are already numerous.

Because there is a cost to it, and there is only so much he will be able to pay, and he dares not spend his coin too soon.

Because he's not sure Jin Guangyao was wrong, when he said that Wei Wuxian would always end up besieged.

And he knows, he knows, that he simply could not let himself be taken, any more than he had before. Not when the people who would refuse to abandon him would always pay the price - he knows himself, he knows the limits of his kindness and compassion, and he knows that for Lan Zhan and shijie and Jiang Cheng he would kill thousands again without so much as a moment's regret - he'd just do it better, sooner, harder.

He will protect the ones he loves. He will care for the innocent. These things he will do. Where it does not conflict with those goals, he will forgive the complicit and show mercy to the guilty, but only then.

So many people never understood that the driving force of the Yiling Patriarch was not lust for power, was not evil, was not any kind of villainy.

It was love. Wei Wuxian knows that his is the kind of love that can burn entire continents, and that he must guard against letting it become necessary for it to do so.

Such is wisdom.

---

Days become weeks become months. Wei Wuxian receives messages from Madam Yu that tell him his son is alive, is well, is thriving, is growing. Wei Wuxian delivers messages to Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen that tell them that the Wen are disposed so, are planning this, are moving there.

Often he fights alongside Hanguang-Jun. Sometimes they are separated, and he knows that Lan Zhan will be afraid every moment until they are together again.

He is twice too late to prevent the Wen from making their shameful attacks on the field hospitals that care for the wounded and arrange for the disposition of the ever more numerous refugees. The first is the one under shijie's command, and when he arrives, shijie is leading a motley collection of cultivators who are mostly the walking wounded in defense, and has held off the Wen because she is powerful, so powerful, when she is protecting the people under her care. With his assistance, they are driven back completely.

The second is not so blessed as to have shijie there, and when he arrives, he finds the bodies of the doctors, of the wounded, of the refugees, and he finds the Wen eating from the stores of the hospital, and he feels himself reaching for Baohu before he really thinks about it, the two halves of the Stygian Tiger Seal snapping together of their own accord.

There are no survivors at all. There are also no witnesses.

But the Seal is in play, now. Wei Wuxian is in play. After so many years, it seems he had forgotten what it felt like to wield the Stygian Tiger Seal truly, and this new one is better than the first - more control, more finesse, more power, because the first was forged in desperation by a youth barely clinging to his sanity, and this one was crafted with care by one who had been an expert in the use of the first, in concert with the greatest expert on magical tools and weapons who has ever lived.

So when Wei Wuxian returns to find his husband hard-pressed and badly outnumbered, at the head of a battle line that is faltering, he reaches for his flute and not his sword.

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji is exhausted. He is still fighting largely because there exists no alternative; he has a husband, and a son, and either would be sufficient for the possibility of defeat not to be permitted.

He takes no particular pride in the knowledge that he is one of the greatest cultivators of his generation. It is simply a fact. The cultivation of the lesser Wen is inferior; they have perhaps been too arrogant too long for it to be otherwise, but they have numbers, and Lan Wangji is surrounded.

Wei Ying has been away some time; if Lan Wangji can hold them off long enough for Wei Ying to return from his efforts to relieve the field hospital, they will, again, come through. He is confident.

So he fights.

And fights, until he is on the verge of collapse, and it is then that he hears the sound of a flute.

Wei Ying.

The Wen around him begin to scatter. There are new foes for them to engage, he realises, and when the last of his foes is sent flying away from him, Lan Wangji can dare to turn around.

He sees Wei Ying.

He has, in the past, heard vaguely of what Wei Ying was. He knows that Wei Ying was powerful, and that he was feared, and he sees, at last, why.

This is not the brilliant boy with the smile like the sunrise who brought light and warmth into Lan Wangji's cold, austere life, or the radiant, playful man Lan Wangji married.

This is the Wei Ying who mastered demonic cultivation.

Wei Ying is floating above the battlefield, Suibian still tucked into his belt, with dark energy curling around him and a wind that exists only for him whipping at his hair.

The fires of the battlefield reflect in his eyes. The Stygian Tiger Seal floats above his shoulder, glimmers of jade light almost completely obscured by the darkness that fumes around it.

And everywhere around them, the dead march.

The bodies of friend and foe alike are rising, are moving, are charging. Too newly passed even to be stiff, only the black marks that crawl along their veins and the blank whiteness of their eyes truly show that this is the army of the dead.

It's a rout.

The line of the Wen shudders, and breaks, and even as they turn to flee they are overrun. After this bloody a battle, the numbers of the dead are many, and each new body that falls rises in turn to fall upon their former comrades.

Only when there is not a single living Wen to be seen does the music stop. The dead tremble like leaves in the wind, and collapse.

Wei Ying floats to the ground, a strange light in his eyes.

Lan Wangji looks at his husband, and is afraid.

He is so very, very afraid for Wei Ying.

---

The war, until then, had been hanging in the balance.

Now, the allied sects have an incontrovertible edge, but progress is still slow. Wei Wuxian can not be everywhere.

They are still pushed to their limits.

Wei Wuxian does not permit Lan Zhan to play Cleansing for him. Lan Zhan is running too close to the limit of his spiritual energy; he is still young, and Wei Wuxian needs him to be mobile, to be there, to be with him, because most of all he needs the one person who can stop this if it needs to be stopped.

They still move from crisis to crisis, and everywhere, the dead march.

Days become weeks become months, and they are approaching the Nightless City.

He has no illusions about how he looks, now. He knows that his skin has become pale, his eyes are red-rimmed, that he looks sick. Somewhere along the way his Jiang Sect robes had taken too much damage to be salvaged, and the replacements he found were black and red, and he wondered, again, at fate's dark sense of humour.

In their rare moments of rest, he finds himself turning Baohu in his hands, examining minutely the snow-white flute and the white ribbon on his wrist, reminding himself that this is here, and now, and he is not the person he was. He feels for his golden core, sometimes - he's been pushing so hard, riding the edge of the limits of his spiritual energy, that sometimes he thinks it's gone again, and he can't breathe until he locates it, dim with exhaustion but there.

He's so, so tired.

---

Nie Mingjue kneels unwillingly in the Sun Palace in the Nightless City.

He is angry. He is often angry, but currently he is angry at himself.

Wei Wuxian had warned him against going too far, too fast, against letting his forces be drawn ahead of the rest. The boy had been adamant.

Nie Mingjue had been so sure that his advance was justified, that the lines would not leave a gap sufficient for encirclement.

And yet, here he is.

A prisoner of Wen Ruohan.

Wen Xu is standing in front of the group of Nie cultivators. Wen Ruohan is on the throne. A woman is standing near the throne, watching the scene impassively.

"Welcome," Wen Xu says, "to the Sun Palace. Look well upon your masters."

"Sun Palace?" one of the cultivators to the side spits out. "This is only the den of the Wen-dogs!"

Wen Xu's expression changes, and he draws his sword. Blood flies, and there is angry screaming.

Another cultivator roars, "You Wen-dog! If you're so confident, why don't you kill me as well?"

Wen Xu does.

Standing in the pool of blood, he smiles and asks, "Does anyone else want to say it?"

Nie Mingjue says, loudly and clearly, "Wen-dog."

He's going to die. He has nothing to fear.

Wen Xu smirks, and claps his hands. One of the Wen brings a long box forward, from which Wen Xu takes Baxia, Nie Mingjue's own sabre. Nie Mingjue scowls to see Baxia profaned by the hands of Wen Xu.

There are dim sounds of shouts and the sound of something impacting the doors. Wen Xu frowns, and looks towards them.

Nie Mingjue lunges, wrenches Baxia from his hand and cuts his throat with it in a single motion, spins and cuts down the Wen cultivators grouped around the prisoners.

The palace doors crash open.

Nie Mingjue looks back towards Wen Ruohan, but for all that the Wen Sect Leader has always been fearless, and is known to be a very powerful cultivator indeed, Wen Ruohan is standing frozen, motionless.

He does not move as Nie Mingjue approaches.

He does not move as Nie Mingjue raises his sabre.

He does not move until Nie Mingjue swings, beheading him cleanly, and Wen Ruohan falls to the ground.

Nie Mingjue turns to the woman, whose face, through all of this, has been utterly impassive.

She stood at Wen Ruohan's side, she watched as Wen Xu murdered his men.

Nie Mingjue raises his sabre.

"Sect Leader Nie!" comes a voice from behind him. "Stop!"

The voice is familiar, and he hesitates. Takes a wary step back, and glances to see his allies storming the Sun Palace. Jiang Fengmian's son, and Lan Xichen and his brother, Jin Zixuan, and Wei Wuxian, and a motley collection of others from lesser sects.

Most of the others slow, taking in the scene, but Wei Wuxian runs, doesn't stop until he has placed his body between Nie Mingjue and the Wen woman. Only Lan Xichen's brother keeps pace with him, and places himself between Nie Mingjue and Wei Wuxian.

"She's not an enemy," Wei Wuxian says, and Nie Mingjue feels anger rising again.

"She was standing next to Wen Ruohan! She watched -"

Wei Wuxian nods. "She did. She didn't have a choice. She also stopped Wen Ruohan." He leans down to Wen Ruohan's corpse, and plucks three bright silver needles from the body. "See? She's a doctor. A very, very good doctor. And besides," Wei Wuxian looks like he's been very ill, lately, but his smile is still bright. "You know all those reports I've been bringing, of the Wen formations and movements and plans? I got them from her."

Nie Mingjue looks at the woman. She inclines her head fractionally.

"I am Wen Qing," she says. "I am the sister of the new Wen Sect Leader. On behalf of the Wen who remain: we surrender."

---

It turns out that she means it.

Wen Qing has a brother named Wen Qionglin, and it seems that Wen Qionglin has taken a small cadre of cultivators and has spent the war collecting children and peasants and hiding them in the hinterlands of Qishan. Apparently in the line of succession of the Wen, everyone between Wen Xu and Wen Qionglin has already died, and now so have Wen Xu and Wen Ruohan.

Wen Qionglin is brought forth. He carries a bow and a quiver and his sword, and when a voice from the crowd demands that he should surrender his weapons, Wen Qionglin takes them off immediately, and bows, and hurries earnestly to offer them, standing on his toes to peer over the crowd, trying to find the one who demanded them, and looks mildly distraught when he can't.

"Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian calls, "take his weapons, would you?"

Jiang Fengmian's son does so, and Wen Qionglin bows to him several times and thanks "Jiang-gongzi" repeatedly.

This is a Wen? This is the person who is being put forward as the Wen Sect Leader?

Wen Qionglin then turns his back on the crowd and approaches Wen Qing. "Sister," he says, "I told everyone to stop fighting. Some of them didn't want to, but I think they're all dead now." He turns to Wei Wuxian. "Wei-qianbei, it is wonderful to see you!" He frowns. "Sister, Wei-qianbei is very pale. Is he sick? Wei-qianbei, my sister is the best doctor, you should -"

"Wen Ning!" Wei Wuxian says, laughing. "I am well enough, and all of that can wait. You have to be a Sect Leader now, and talk to the other Sect Leaders."

Wen Qionglin looks nervous, and swallows. "M-Me?"

---

In the last Sunshot Campaign, the one that only exists in Wei Wuxian's memory, there had been no negotiations of peace. There had only been slaughter.

So this is new.

And kind of entertaining.

The leaders of the minor sects shout their demands, all various levels of unreasonable, for the wrongs they had actually experienced at the hands of the Wen or for the part they had played in their defeat, and also for wrongs they did not experience, and the parts they did not play.

And Wen Ning just bows, and says okay, almost as if he's just trying to take notes, even when some of those demands are mutally exclusive, until finally Nie Mingjue apparently cannot take it any more.

"ENOUGH!" he bellows. "SILENCE!"

Scowling, he stomps up to Wen Ning, who takes several steps backwards until he comes up against Wen Qing, who grabs his collar and holds him in place.

"Er," Wen Ning says. "Sect Leader Nie ?" He's fiddling nervously with the ends of his belt. It's painfully adorable, Wei Wuxian thinks, and apparently even Nie Mingjue - prepared by a lifetime of Nie Huaisang to buckle in the face of sweetly useless young men – can’t resist, and sighs.

He turns to the assembled cultivators. "The discussion of terms can be completed later. For now we will see to the wounded and the end of hostilities, and then," he glares at Wen Ning, "we will decide which concessions honour demands of the Wen."

---

The war is over.

A flurry of messages go out.

The leaders (and heirs, and Wei Wuxian, who is not officially anyone very important at all, but who is nonetheless expected to behave like someone very important indeed, and he can't tell if that thought makes him tired or if he is simply, already, very very tired) are to return to Jinlintai.

He doesn't want to.

He wants to go home. He wants to see A-Yuan, and then he wants to sleep for a month.

He feels the fury at the people who would dare to suggest they have any authority over him, any right to expectations of him, is shaking with it, and under it he feels the fear, because he knows this feeling. He has done too much, has corroded his own spirit, and he doesn't care, he wants to break them all under his will, and he knows that he can.

The fear makes him angrier.

He sees Lan Xichen is watching him, like he thinks he knows him, like he thinks he can judge him, and feels his lip curl, but before he can speak, Lan Zhan is in front of him, and Jiang Cheng is at one side, and Jin Zixuan at the other.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says, softly, urgently, but this isn't getting him home, isn't getting him any nearer to his son, and how dare -

He can hear voices, distantly, and then Lan Zhan is kissing him, sweet and earnest and strangely desperate, here in front of all of the gentry of the cultivation world, and he's realising how long it's been since they've had even this, and his rage falls into the background as he loses himself in Lan Zhan's arms.

---

Zixuan untenses as Wuxian melts into Lan Wangji's kiss. Crisis averted.

Wuxian's furiously muttered rage had been slightly terrifying, and ordering Lan Wangji to kiss him had been the only diversion he could think of.

"It fucking pains me that that worked," Wanyin says, scowling. "I'll send my mother a message to meet us at Jinlintai. And then I'm going to break his legs, because what son?"

"Tell her it's urgent," Zixuan suggests, "and that Jinlintai will be happy to supply anything she might need if she arrives without luggage of any kind."

"All right." Wanyin's message away, he turns back to Zixuan. "If she's angry when she finds out about Wei Wuxian sucking face with his husband in front of literally everyone who matters, I'm telling her it was your idea, because it was."

"Mmhm," Zixuan says, and turns to the crowd, many of whom are in fact staring, and wishes A-Yao were here. He's good at people in a way that Zixuan has never been. He tries to think what A-Yao might say. "Friends, I'm sure we're all equally sympathetic to these two renowned cultivators, who were married only days before the outbreak of war, and are anxious to give them some privacy at this time. Please, let us all return to Jinlintai, where I am sure that my brother will have food and rooms prepared for us all."

He really was sure of the last part; he'd already dispatched a message of his own, and A-Yao is truly gifted as an administrator. He is deeply grateful to have him.

---

The return to Jinlintai is an operation executed like a battle plan.

Jiang Cheng stretches himself to race ahead, and finds A-Jie, who returned to Lanling weeks ago with a convoy of wounded. She's with their father, who has been there still longer, since he was quite badly wounded in a battle.

"A-Xian and Wangji adopted an orphaned child they found," she explains, because of course she fucking knows, A-Jie always fucking knows, and why would anyone tell Jiang Cheng anything?

He feels slightly better when his father says, "Wait. A-Ying has a son?"

At least it's not just him.

When he tells A-Jie about Wei Wuxian's apparent new rage issues, she looks concerned, assures him she'll deal with it, and gives some orders.

When Wei Wuxian arrives, still looking like he's teetering on the brink of murderous rage, she smiles her sweetest smile at him, the one that neither Wei Wuxian nor Jiang Cheng can ever, ever say no to, and sends him to bathe, because: "A-Yuan will be here soon, but you came here straight from a battlefield, so you'll just have time to wash it off."

When he emerges, his dark robes have been whisked away to the laundries, and the softest, most luxurious garments the stores of Jinlintai could provide - which is saying something - are waiting for him. (Later, Jin Guangyao will apologise for the failure of the hospitality of Jinlintai when the dark robes are "lost", and helpfully supply new robes in the colours of the Jiang Sect.)

Jiang Cheng is not jealous. He's not. He also has bathed, and put on fresh clothing, and his clothing is perfectly acceptable and comfortable.

It turns out A-Jie has soup, because she started making soup as soon as the reports of imminent victory reached her, in hopes of welcoming her brothers home with their favourite food. This is also helpful. Wei Wuxian is plied with soup and A-Jie's smiles and Wangji's solicitous attentions (Jiang Cheng is present In Case, and he doesn't want to think about in case of what or and what the fuck am I supposed to do about it) until his mother arrives on her sword carrying a blinking bundle of toddler and is ushered hurriedly in.

"A-Yuan," Wei Wuxian says urgently. "Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, it's him."

Mother gives them the child without hesitation, and Wei Wuxian holds him, tears running down his cheeks, murmuring meaningless things, and Lan Wangji leans over them both, presses a reverent kiss to the child's tuft of dark hair, and Lan Wangji smiles, and Jiang Cheng realises, really understands, that this is their son, this is his nephew.

"Fuck," he says. "I'm an uncle."

His mother smacks his shoulder hard. "Language," she sniffs.

---

Jiang Cheng's nephew is the sweetest, most well-behaved baby who ever lived, and Jiang Cheng finds himself thinking that maybe having to marry and have children of his own won't be so bad.

A-Yuan burbles happily at Wei Wuxian. He smiles sweetly at Lan Wangji. When Jiang Cheng is permitted to hold him, A-Yuan giggles at him and says, "Blup."

Jiang Cheng is in love. He would die for this child. This child is the best person who has ever lived. He fully understands why Wei Wuxian would be so angry at being kept from such a perfect, perfect baby.

"He's cute, I guess," is what he says, as he gives him back.

A-Jie holds him tenderly, and A-Yuan beams at her, because he is Wei Wuxian's son, and is clearly, obviously and instantly in love with his aunt forever. (Jiang Cheng cannot judge, A-Jie is perfect.)

Jiang Fengmian bounces A-Yuan on his knee and glows with pride. Xichen is called to meet his nephew, and smiles gently at him as he holds him.

A-Yuan looks from Xichen, to Wangji, to Xichen, to Wangji, and frowns thoughtfully before smacking Xichen firmly in the face and reaching out towards Wangji.

"I think," Wei Wuxian says, amid general laughter, "he thinks you're some sort of fake Lan Zhan."

"So it seems," Xichen says. "I am clearly an inferior substitute for the real thing." He sounds amused, at least.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says, "take him, but hold him by Zewu-Jun. Perhaps if A-Yuan knows we're not trying to pass off a counterfeit father, he'll be more willing to greet his uncle."

A-Yuan still seems faintly dubious. Jiang Cheng tries not to look smug that he is clearly A-Yuan's favourite uncle.

(But he is definitely A-Yuan's favourite uncle, and he is already thinking about what toys to buy him to cement his position. Jiang Cheng is going to be the best uncle ever. He has decided.)

A-Yuan keeps Wei Wuxian well diverted until Lan Qiren arrives. Lan Qiren hurries in, his usual frown well set, and sets down a guqin.

"I was called -" he says, and then he sees A-Yuan in Wangji's arms, and stops.

"Uncle," Xichen says, "this is Wangji's son."

Lan Qiren stares. "A son? Wangji?" He takes a few steps closer.

"Yes." Wangji looks up. "Uncle, this is Lan Yuan."

Jiang Cheng spent a year in the Cloud Recesses, most of it with Lan Qiren as his teacher. He's pretty sure this is still the first time he's ever seen the old man smile.

---

The dark, angry tension has been building in Wei Wuxian's blood for months, but here and now, surrounded by his family, finally reunited with A-Yuan, it doesn't really find a purchase on him.

When Lan Qiren has been introduced to his great-nephew, has held him and allowed A-Yuan to pull very solemnly on his beard, and returns to the guqin to play Cleansing, he finds he can't object.

This, too, is family; it is healing.

He closes his eyes, and listens to the music, and the soft voices and laughter of his family.

He doesn't even notice falling asleep.

The next day is one of respite, as the clan and sect leaders assemble. Wei Wuxian plays with his son, and sleeps, and listens to Cleansing played by Lan Qiren, or Lan Xichen, or Lan Zhan, despite his protests that they should probably all be resting.

It does help.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng is stopping by after lunch to check that Wei Wuxian isn't going to go on a rampage, or something, and not, at all, because he hasn't seen A-Yuan all day and he wants to bask in the cute, and anyway, even if it was because of the cute, he's spent the last couple of years at war, on bleak and miserable battlefields, he deserves to spend some time watching his first nephew be adorable.

He did not expect to be ambushed.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says, "I need to talk to Jiang Cheng about something. Would you mind taking A-Yuan to see shijie? She said she's been arranging some new clothes for him."

"Mn," is all Wangji says, and then he takes the kid away. Unfair. If he's going to have to put up with Wei Wuxian in serious talk mode, why can't he at least still get to see the cute kid?

"Jiang Cheng." Oh, no, no, no, that's Wei Wuxian's Really Serious Voice, the one he almost never uses, the one that only ever precedes "so I traveled through time from a future where your whole family is dead except for me and you're such a fuckup I think you hate me because you're probably still an idiot who doesn't know how to use his words" or "surprise also I was dead and you were a shitty parent to our nephew because on the incredibly rare occasions I'll say anything about him, he kinda sounds like a brat" or "yeah we're going to war and I'm going to lay out entire fucking battle plans and remind you that you've only ever beaten me at anything because I let you" or some awful shit and Jiang Cheng already hates this conversation.

"Wei Wuxian." There's no real escape, he knows all too well.

"Jiang Cheng, I really need you to answer me honestly. Is there someone you might be interested in marrying? Is there a girl who's caught your eye?" A pause. "Or a boy?"

"Fuck you," Jiang Cheng says, but there's no heat in it. "No."

"Never? Not ever, at all? Even a little bit?"

Jiang Cheng glares at Wei Wuxian, that asshole. "No."

Wei Wuxian nods slowly. "Jiang Cheng... are you... is there anyone you've even found attractive?"

He hates that he can feel that he's blushing. "No," he grits out.

"I'm sorry, Jiang Cheng, I really am." Wei Wuxian sighs. "I know this isn't a fun conversation for you."

"Before." Jiang Cheng swallows, looking at the floor. "In your... before. Was there... did I?"

"No," Wei Wuxian tells him. "You never married, and I never even heard of you showing interest in anyone. I had to ask, because you know, things had gone pretty badly, maybe it was just that you were all traumatised, but even after things settled down, after your nephew grew up, and all of that, you didn't, and it didn't seem to bother you."

"Right." Which means he probably didn't have any children, which means he probably failed in his duty as a Sect Leader to actually have an heir, too.

"Here's a question, then." Wei Wuxian leans forward. "What if I could tell you there's someone who's perfect for you anyway? Someone who also isn't interested in other people that way, who could be your friend and your partner, and wouldn't be upset that you weren't... interested?"

"I'm the next leader of the Jiang Sect. It's my duty to have children," Jiang Cheng says heavily.

"Eh, children," Wei Wuxian waves that concern away. "Consider that later. Not everyone has children even if they try. Maybe you adopt, or something. No-one will dare to say you didn't do your best."

"Who did you have in mind?" Jiang Cheng asks.

Wei Wuxian tells him.

"Is this some kind of joke?"

---

In the evening, a crowd of distinguished personages have, officially, decided that they must pay their respects to the possible future heir of the Lan Sect. His one-month and one-year celebrations were not held, because of the war; they must, of course, make alternative arrangements.

Unofficially, they have come to plan the outcome of the conference, and this is a very useful excuse for them all the be in the same place, so Zixuan, Nie Mingjue, Lan Xichen, Jiang Fengmian, Wanyin, A-Yao, Wen Qionglin, and Wen Qing all gather in Wuxian and Wangji's rooms.

Zixuan's mother accompanies him, and Madam Yu is already there; Zixuan is given to understand that Madam Yu is easing Lan Yuan's transition from her care back to that of his parents, and Madam Jin is visiting her friend and meeting her friend's new grandson.

Fortunately, the quarters for honoured guests at Jinlintai are spacious, and there is just enough room.

"Before we start," Wuxian says, "I would like a quick word with Wen-guniang. A-Yuan has a... thing, and I would like the opinion of such a renowned doctor."

Wen Qing narrows her eyes at him, but nods, and Wuxian hustles her into the bedroom. Wangji frowns after them.

"Jiejie is a very good doctor," Wen Qionglin says, beaming with pride.

They wait some minutes, and then Wuxian emerges, his son in his arms. Wen Qing follows, smiling faintly, and says, "A-Yuan is very healthy."

Wangji's expression smoothes back to its customary neutrality.

Lan Yuan is the possible future leader of the Lan sect, so the assembled Sect Leaders dutifully greet him. Zixuan's mother coos over him, and Zixuan winces slightly at the look she sends him, because he can read it perfectly; she and Madam Yu are dear, dear friends, and if Zixuan had been a little more assiduous and confident in his courting of Jiang Yanli, then perhaps they would already be married, and their mothers would possibly have acquired their first grandchild at the same time. His mother may never forgive him for allowing Madam Yu to be a grandmother first.

And then the real discussion begins.

Jiang Fengmian speaks first. He is the oldest of the leaders of the major sects, and well-respected.

"I don't really like the idea of letting all of Qishan be open territory for the clans to fight over," he says. "Obviously in their reduced state, there's too much ground for them to cover, and, no offense intended to Sect Leader Wen and Wen-guniang, but I think we'd like to keep them somewhat reduced from where they were."

"We take no offense," Wen Qing says. "No clan should stand over all others as the Wen did. Had the Wen been less powerful, many of the Wen and our affiliated sects might have chosen to live more independently than was ever permitted for us."

Wen Qionglin nods his agreement.

"As you say," Jiang Fengmian smiles wryly. "With the aftermath of such a conflict, there will, too, be a rise in the activity of restless spirits and the need for night-hunting. I regret to say that we must insist on a significant reduction of Wen territory, and until you have... recovered, somewhat, if Sect Leader Wen is willing, we can arrange terms for other Sects and Clans to conduct night-hunts in Wen territory, also."

"Reasonable," Wen Qing agrees. "The Wen are in no position to make demands. We will trust in the honour of the four Sect Leaders, and accept the borders you impose."

Wen Qionglin nods his agreement.

Nie Mingjue grunts. "There is the issue of defense," he says. "Some may be... opportunistic. The Nie are at one flank, and we will respect agreed boundaries. However, some may not."

Zixuan stands. "If I may," he says, "Jin Guangyao had a suggestion for that. A-Yao?"

A-Yao bows. "It is not unheard of for a season of war to be followed by a season of... rebirth, or for peace to be resolved by forming new bonds between former enemies. Perhaps it would be helpful to symbolise the return of the Wen to our community by forming such alliances. If the Wen were - for the time being - subordinate to other sects, but connected to them in such a way, it would communicate to the world at large both containment and protection."

"Did you have anyone specific in mind?" Zewu-Jun asks mildly.

Zixuan smiles. "My sister Qin Su is, ah... a very sweet and lovely young woman. I would, of course, never dream of imposing an unfit marriage on her, but perhaps we could introduce her to Sect Leader Wen, and see if it might be agreeable to the two parties."

Wen Qionglin is wide-eyed, and looks hesitantly at his sister.

"Acceptable," Wen Qing says.

And then, to Zixuan's surprise, Wuxian stands up. "If we cannot guarantee that Wen N- Qionglin and Qin Su will find one another... agreeable, we should have another plan also in place. Even if they fall madly in love immediately, our new state of affairs would still be more secure if we established another relationship to a different sect."

"What did Wei-gongzi have in mind?" A-Yao asks.

"Jiang Cheng should marry Wen Qing."

Zixuan blinks, and wills himself not to laugh. He doesn't dare look at Wanyin, who's probably apoplectic, but he can see Madam Yu, who looks... intrigued.

"Acceptable," Wen Qing says.

Wen Qionglin nods his agreement.

Zixuan is surprised.

Wanyin stands. "I also find this acceptable," he says.

Zixuan is shocked.

"If my son is willing," Jiang Fengmian says, "the Jiang Sect agrees."

"That could work well," A-Yao says. He looks thoughtful. "I believe I heard a report that the four great heroes of the Sunshot Campaign swore brotherhood on the battlements of the Sun Palace."

"Is that really what you heard?" Zixuan turns to his brother. "Four great heroes? I was just - they were - and Hanguang-Jun, and Wei Wuxian, and -" He can't think of any combination that comes out to a total of four great heroes of the war. He can think of three, or five, or more, but not four. A-Yao smiles, the smile that says that he finds your simple honesty adorable. Zixuan suppresses a groan. "What am I missing?"

"People like stories they can tell themselves that make grand and complex events... simple. The Sunshot Campaign was complex, and difficult, and many efforts were required to achieve victory. The Jin Sect is large, and powerful, and there are those who will be unwilling to believe that the Jin were not vitally important, and therefore a Jin must be a hero. Jin Zixuan, the Sect Leader, cannot possibly have been a young and inexperienced fellow who did his best to play his part according to the battle plans of others. It cannot be that he was valiant, yet unexceptional."

He continues. "Jin Zixuan must have been one of the heroes of the Sunshot Campaign. There is no acceptable alternative. Chifeng-Zun is the Sect Leader of the ferocious Nie, and won many battles, and fought mightily, so he cannot possibly have erred, and been captured; that is not a satisfactory conclusion to the story. Chifeng-Zun's heroism can have no admitted flaw. He must be praised."

"That's ridiculous," Nie Mingjue snarls. "Who wants that?"

A-Yao inclines his head. "Indeed, Sect Leader Nie, but I am afraid the praise will be yours whether you want it or not. If I may continue: Zewu-Jun saved many lives, turned many battles, was there where he was needed. Zewu-Jun is also the Leader of the Lan Sect. Zewu-Jun must be a hero of the Sunshot Campaign. Jiang Wanyin is not the Leader of the Jiang Sect, but he is the heir of the Jiang Sect, and Sandu Shengshou was a very striking figure. Who could miss the powerful cultivator who fought with lightning? He was visible from great distances! After his father was honourably wounded in battle, Jiang Wanyin took his place, and faltered not at all."

A-Yao continues. "I do not actually know whether the four of you swore brotherhood on the battlements of the Sun Palace. I cannot, in fact, even guess, because I would have heard that you did whether or not it had happened at all." He pauses. "However, you are all still wishing to protest that Hanguang-Jun and Wei Wuxian were heroic, were vitally necessary, even if the efforts of all the other combatants are disregarded. Perhaps even that Wen Qing was the one who disabled the formidable Wen Ruohan, yes?"

There are murmurs of agreement.

He sighs. "Unfortunately, that does not matter. Wen Qing is a Wen. And a woman. Perhaps one would be acceptable, but not both. Hanguang-Jun is remote, and unapproachable, and remarkable for his strength and his integrity, so he is more respected than all of you, and less loved than any of you. Except that he is loved by Wei Wuxian, because he is also..." He hesitates.

"A cutsleeve," Wuxian says flatly.

"Just so," A-Yao says. "Which matters little, as it happens, save that it makes the remote and unapproachable Hanguang-Jun still that little bit more... distant. Someone most people find it difficult to relate to. More fortunately, the devotion that the unimpeachable Hanguang-Jun shows towards Wei Wuxian in return is very, very helpful, because Wei Wuxian is... a problem."

Wuxian laughs bitterly. "Aren't I always. Tell me more, Jin Guangyao. Is my destruction inevitable?" He is looking at A-Yao strangely, and his hand is tight on Baohu. The air crackles with tension Zixuan doesn't fully understand.

"Wangji," Xichen says sharply, and then they both, for some reason, pull out guqins and begin to play. Madam Yu brings Lan Yuan and all but shoves him into Wei Wuxian's lap.

Lan Yuan looks at the flute in his father's hand and leans forward to chew on it thoughtfully. Wuxian looks at him, takes a deep, shuddering breath, and loosens his grip so Lan Yuan can get a better hold, curling his free hand around to hold his son securely.

Baohu is renowned across the cultivation world now, a powerful spiritual tool both admired and feared.

Lan Yuan is drooling on it.

Wen Qionglin gives Lan Yuan a little wave.

"No, Wei-gongzi," A-Yao says carefully. "Not inevitable. There is presently a certain risk, because if Wei-gongzi is a hero, then Wei-gongzi is an untamed hero, who can only be loved or hated. I regret that I have obviously upset you, but I have to ask: if you decided, right now, to kill me, who do you think could stop you? Who do you think would try?"

Zixuan wants to say that he would, but has to admit to himself: he wouldn't try, because he knows he couldn't succeed. Wuxian is powerful, is as strong a cultivator as anyone Zixuan knows and has his... other skills, to call upon, as well. He wouldn't dare.

"Where are you going with this, Jin Guangyao?" Xichen asks evenly.

A-Yao smiles. "Everyone knows that Wei Wuxian can command armies of the dead. Everyone knows that Wei Wuxian is the real reason the Sunshot Campaign was successful. No-one wants to admit it, because if the world turns on Wei Wuxian, or Wei Wuxian turns on the world, no-one wants to be remembered as having supported him."

"I support him," Jiang Fengmian says flatly.

"As do I," Nie Mingjue growls.

"Me too!" Wen Qionglin says.

The Twin Jades of Lan continue to play, but Zixuan supposes that their support can be assumed, on the basis of the pristine white ribbon still bright at Wuxian's wrist.

"And me," Zixuan says hurriedly.

"As should we all," A-Yao says. "Wei Wuxian has been exemplary. He has fought hard, at great personal cost, doing much to avert casualties among cultivators and civilians alike. He has undoubtedly saved many thousands of lives. He is a romantic hero, fighting beside his beloved - since almost the day they married - and longingly absent from his son, the war orphan he ran into a burning building to save. Why, Wei Wuxian is so noble that even the restless, unsettled dead will rise to follow him into battle. Of their own volition, of course."

Wuxian looks up from his son and stares. "You know that's not what happened."

A-Yao smiles. "I do. And I do not. I did not participate in the war. I am but a humble seneschal. What contribution could I have made? I merely organised the collection, transportation, and distribution of supplies, the resettlement of refugees, the housing and care of the wounded, and other trivial details."

Zixuan blinks. "You worked extremely hard, A-Yao, and your work was vital. We couldn't have done it without you. We needed all of those things! You did them brilliantly, better than I ever could have!"

This is A-Yao's I am too polite to laugh at you smile, and Zixuan flushes.

"I am most gratified by da-ge's praise," he says. "However, the point remains that I was not present on the battlefields, and could not possibly suggest that, say, Wei Wuxian has demonstrated an expertise in demonic cultivation that would, were Wei Wuxian a less kind and well-intentioned man, be deeply and profoundly terrifying. That, were the cultivation world so foolish as to turn against him, I would expect the resulting conflict to cost thousands of lives, even if he stood alone. I can only say what everyone knows to be true."

"I don't want to... cause problems, Guangyao," Zixuan's mother says, "but I don't think that's what everyone is saying."

"Not yet, no," A-Yao replies calmly. "But such things can be arranged."

There is a moment of silence.

"In any case, to return to my original point: if the four heroes of the Sunshot Campaign, however uncomfortable they may be with that role, do in fact share a strong bond of brotherhood with one another, and Wen Qionglin has married the sister of one, and another has married the sister of Wen Qionglin, it will be assumed that they will all look unkindly on transgressions against the new peace in general, and the Wen in particular."

Zixuan nods. "I am very fond of Qin Su," he says. "I would indeed look unkindly on such a thing."

"And I," Wuxian says, "am very fond of Wen Ning, and have great respect for Wen Qing. I would also be quite affronted."

Zixuan is slightly surprised at such familiarity towards the Wen Sect Leader, but Wen Qionglin smiles shyly.

"This one is also very fond of Wei-gongzi," he says.

Zixuan is not the only one who looks at Wen Qing, who smiles slightly, but says nothing.

"And thus," A-Yao says, "we can establish a new, stable balance in the world. Sect Leader Wen can - ah. Did you wish to speak?"

Wen Qionglin has raised his hand - not imperiously, or in any kind of grave and serious fashion, but like a student trying to draw the teacher's attention.

"Would it - can I - I mean, would it be better if we still dropped the sun? I mean, it was the Sunshot Campaign, and... and... the whole sun thing is a bit..." He looks down and fiddles nervously with a loose thread on his sleeve. "Our branch of the family aren't really... like that, anyway. We have many great doctors! Maybe we could make our symbol a, a needle? But people don't really like needles, either..." He trails away sadly, then brightens. "How about something people do like? Something cute, like a rabbit!"

Zixuan looks at A-Yao, who looks uncharacteristically blank for a moment, and then his smile returns. "Changing the symbol is probably a good idea," he says gently, "but perhaps not a rabbit."

"A plum blossom," Wen Qing says. "The gentleman of winter, when the power of the sun is weak, but not entirely gone. When the sun still gives light, and some small measure of warmth, but nothing more."

A-Yao considers this thoughtfully. "Yes," he says, "that should do nicely."

"All that remains," Jiang Fengmian says, "is the issue of territory."

A-Yao nods, and unrolls a map.

The discussion of border adjustments is extensive. The war was long and difficult; their subordinates will not be well pleased if this results in no benefit to their respective sects, but only the Nie and Jiang really share extensive borders with the Wen. It would make for an awkward disposition of territory for the Lan, especially, to claim much in way of spoils from the Wen, but the Lan are forbidden to be greedy.

The Jin, Zixuan is uncomfortably aware, very much are not.

"There were a number of affiliated sects who were quite unhappy with the Wen," Wen Qing suggests. "Where those survive, with their independence restored, they could regain the areas they held."

"And the Nie have long been quite compressed between the Jin and Wen," Zixuan adds. "That pressure would be lessened if they expanded westward."

"We have the northern hinterlands," Nie Mingjue grumbles. The scourge of the Wen-dogs, who left survivors only grudgingly if at all, has been remarkably reluctant to accept that Wen Qionglin should cede much of the territory of the Wen.

"Even so," Jiang Fengmian says with a smile. "We must take as much as honour demands, neither more nor less."

Xichen has already stopped playing his guqin, and has been attending closely to the discussion. It is at this point that Wangji's music stops, too, and the clustered group fall silent as he abruptly stands.

"Wangji?" Xichen says.

"It is nine," Wangji replies. "It is time to rest. I do not wish to disturb your discussion. You are welcome to remain."

That may be the longest sequence of words Zixuan has ever heard Wangji say, and it seems to have exhausted his capacity. He goes to where Wuxian is sitting, and oh, that's why Wuxian has been so quiet - he's fallen asleep and so has Lan Yuan, curled in his lap cuddling Baohu like a toy.

Wangji lifts them both together, with exquisite care and no apparent effort, and carries them into the bedroom.

It puts a curiously effective pressure on the gathering; they speak very quietly, and draw much more rapid conclusions after that.

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji wakes earlier than his usual time. Wei Ying is still asleep. This is good. Wei Ying is still pale and drawn and seems very tired. Wei Ying did not wake when Lan Wangji carried Wei Ying and their son to bed.

Their son is not asleep. Their son is climbing over Lan Wangji's chest, towards the side of the bed. This is why Lan Wangji is awake.

He sits up, catching their son in his arms. Their son giggles happily, and Lan Wangji looks towards Wei Ying, alarmed.

Wei Ying is still asleep.

This situation is very high-risk. Lan Wangji must take immediate action.

He moves from the bed as quietly as he can and takes their son into the outer chambers.

The formidable Madam Yu gave him extensive instruction the previous morning in the proper care of their son. (Lan Wangji intends to review any available materials in the Library Pavilion when he returns to Cloud Recesses, but as Madam Yu has cared for their son for most of his life thus far, Lan Wangji assumes that her expertise is significant and reliable.)

The guest quarters of Jinlintai include a small kitchen. This is good and useful.

However, Lan Wangji cannot help but see that almost everything in it is far too dangerous to be permitted anywhere near their son.

This is a problem.

Leaving their son somewhere he cannot see him would also be a problem.

Lan Wangji considers this carefully.

---

Wei Wuxian wakes alone and decides that this fact means that today is already a bad day.

He grumbles resentfully out of bed.

He can hear sounds from the kitchen, and what may even be Lan Zhan's voice.

Lan Zhan is cooking, sleeves tied back. A-Yuan is tucked into his outer robes, against his chest, extra straps carefully securing him tightly so only his little head pops out. It's adorable. And Lan Zhan is singing, softly, that oddly familiar, curiously joyful song Wei Wuxian distantly remembers him singing at Lotus Pier before they were married. A-Yuan is singing with him - or at least, is making happy little noises that come nowhere near the melody.

Wei Wuxian wants to keep this moment forever.

If the sharp edges inside him, the razor-edged anger that's still coiling through him, the way he still feels worn thin and ragged from so long at war, such heavy use of the Stygian Tiger Seal - if all of that is the price he had to pay for this, then at least he can know that it was absolutely worth it.

Lan Zhan scoops congee into a bowl. "Portion for A-Yuan," he says seriously, "must cool before eating. A-Yuan enjoys congee sweetened with fruit." He picks up a plate of finely cut fruit, slides it into the bowl, and stirs it, then scoops out another bowl from the pot and sets that aside. He then picks up a smaller dish and pours its bright red contents into the remaining congee in the pot. "Portion for Wei Ying."

A-Yuan watches this process closely. When Lan Zhan stirs the pot, there is a swirl of steam, and A-Yuan's face scrunches in disapproval. "Indeed," Lan Zhan sighs. "The congee will simmer. A-Yuan may play while your portion cools."

He turns away from the stove and sees Wei Wuxian. "Wei Ying." He freezes in the action of reaching to free A-Yuan from his robes.

"Lan Zhan, that was so wonderful to see," Wei Wuxian says, because he does not want to take the risk that Lan Zhan is embarrassed and thinks he should hide this kind of thing from him. "You're such a good father, Lan Zhan." He closes the distance between them, kisses Lan Zhan briefly, and laughs as A-Yuan squirms against his chest.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says reprovingly.

"Yes, yes, I am terrible," Wei Wuxian agrees. As Lan Zhan loosens the straps that held A-Yuan in place, Wei Wuxian takes him and lifts him high in the air. A-Yuan giggles. "Our poor son, so trapped, crushed by the unyielding power of his fathers' love. So terrible! He must be so wounded, how will he live? He will cry out to be saved! Father!" He points A-Yuan at Lan Zhan. "Daddy!" He points him back at himself, then spins him back towards Lan Zhan. "Father!"

"Father!" A-Yuan says.

Wei Wuxian blinks, and smiles. Maybe today isn't a bad day after all.

---

Today the expected tedious and irritating meetings are due to begin, and Wei Wuxian is expected to attend them.

And so he and Lan Zhan must, reluctantly, take A-Yuan to the section of Jinlintai where a number of apartments are set for the women of Jin Zixuan's family. Madam Yu has been staying as the guest of her friend Madam Jin. Nearby too are Second Lady Mo, and Qin Su, and Madam Meng and her friend Madam Sisi.

These last two ladies being quite renowned, Wei Wuxian is utterly delighted at Jin Zixuan's approach; where others might be reluctant to acknowledge such people, Jin Zixuan has brought them to his home, as if to declare that the face of the Jin Sect is so thick that they need have no care for what anyone might say. It is the kind of thing that Wei Wuxian himself might do, simply daring anyone to question it.

To his surprise, when Wei Wuxian's small family arrive at Madam Jin's apartments, Jin Guangyao and the Second Lady Mo are there too, drinking tea with Madam Jin and Madam Yu.

"Wei-gongzi," Jin Guangyao says, bowing. "Would you object to keeping Lan Yuan with you today?"

"Of course not," Wei Wuxian says. "But why?"

Jin Guangyao smiles. "With the greatest respect, Wei-gongzi, one of the difficulties we seek to overcome is the... perception, shall we say, that you are a terrifying figure with the power to destroy us all, unbound by all possible limitations or constraints. Lan Yuan is a remarkably well-behaved child and unlikely to be disruptive, and his presence will demonstrate, as nothing else can, that you are a husband and father, a man among men."

Wei Wuxian considers this. "And if A-Yuan is there, you are much less concerned that I will lose my temper. I have noticed, you know, that every time I get angry, someone comes to throw my son at me."

Jin Guangyao inclines his head. "As you say. It will also be easier to persuade our guests that they need not fear your fury if they do not see it."

"What do you think, A-Yuan?" Wei Wuxian turns to his son. "Do you want to come to the boring meeting with Daddy?"

"Daddy!" A-Yuan says happily.

Madam Yu sets her teacup down abruptly. "He's speaking? All this time with nainai, nothing, and he speaks after a day with you?"

A-Yuan giggles. "Nainai!"

She stares. "A-Yuan, have you just been waiting for Daddy and Father?"

A-Yuan nods. Madam Yu sighs.

"I should never have told you so much about them," she says, and returns to her tea.

---

Zixuan is nervous. He is still both the newest and the youngest of the leaders of the major sects, and even the minor sects and clans are all led by men who are older than he is, even the handful who rose to leadership during the course of the Sunshot Campaign.

But he is the leader of the Jin, and as a sect, they have their pride, and many among his people would have been deeply offended and upset if he had not insisted upon hosting the banquets and discussions in the aftermath of the Sunshot Campaign. The Unclean Realm was nearer, but for that very reason, already overloaded with wounded taken there for care.

(Wei Wuxian had insisted that Nie Huaisang could handle the complex priorities of administering the temporary transformation of the Unclean Realm into a hospital, and been proven entirely correct. Nie Huaisang was not a good fighter or a particularly strong cultivator, but he was much more intelligent and able than his lacklustre marks when they were classmates had suggested.)

And so it falls to Jin Zixuan to preside over meetings of his elders.

His father would have had maids cowering on the dais at either side of him.

Zixuan has maids guarding the boundaries of a little play area, mats softening the marble floor and surrounded by cushions, for Lan Yuan's comfort, with snacks and drinks appropriate for a child at the ready. There are toys.

Jin Guangshan would be livid at the very notion; for that reason, Zixuan thinks, it would be worth doing even if the leaders had not quietly agreed that Lan Yuan's value as an impediment to Wuxian's temper made his presence an outright necessity.

As a leadership strategy, "What would annoy my father most?" had yet to fail Zixuan even once.

In the awkward discussions around Wei Wuxian, no-one quite explicitly said that the Sunshot Campaign might well have failed without him and his use of methods that none of them would have known how to use even if they'd been willing to accept the toll it had clearly taken on him. No-one quite explicitly said that, collectively, they owed him a tremendous debt and should probably be taking steps to ensure that his newly - and, Xichen seemed fairly confident, temporarily - brittle temper would not be tested.

But it was strongly implied.

Zixuan feels that going to great lengths to give honour and accommodation to his fiancee's beloved adoptive brother, despite Wuxian's lack of personal rank by birth, would be the best possible path in any case. Wei Wuxian is a man of great personal power and significant general influence on several of the most prominent people in the cultivation world. Zixuan would far rather have him as a friend than an enemy. And his father would disapprove, which is good.

And then Jiang Yanli made a point of coming to see him to thank him for his kindness and consideration for her dear brother, and smiled at him warmly and suggested that she hoped that the Jiang Sect would have the opportunity to repay his hospitality at Lotus Pier, which was a clear indication she wanted to see him again and probably soon, which is excellent.

The leaders are starting to arrive. Zixuan really needs to focus, and not daydream about the possibility that Jiang Yanli might be willing to set a date for their wedding.

There are sidelong glances from the leaders present when Wuxian and Wangji stroll in, but Zixuan's preparations make it clear that the child is expected and welcome, so no-one actually says anything.

Lan Yuan toddles around the play area under his fathers' watchful eyes, choosing toys according to a system that eludes Zixuan utterly, and putting them in a pile. This process complete, he takes a wooden duck and leans against Wei Wuxian's side to suck on it, looking around the room with wide eyes.

Perhaps the toys were selected according to flavour.

Wen Qionglin enters nervously and hesitantly, escorted by his sister, both wearing new robes in a shade of pale pink, embroidered with a fairly simple pattern of plum blossoms. (The seamstresses and embroiderers of Jinlintai are excellent, and worked hard; there was only so much time available.)

A-Yao arrives, escorting a flustered man who takes the last empty seat, then comes to Zixuan's side. "Su Minshan of the Su Sect of Moling," he murmurs. "He got lost. We should be ready to begin now."

Zixuan really is so grateful to have A-Yao here at Jinlintai. He's never even heard of a Su Sect.

---

The discussion is going well, Zixuan thinks. Having the major decisions already agreed is helpful. A-Yao makes occasional remarks, always with the air of a deferentially helpful assistant merely reminding Zixuan of details that may perhaps have slipped his mind, and somehow the assorted leaders of minor sects and clans all come to agree to the same conclusions that the major sects had already reached.

They could impose the same decisions simply by insisting, by their united will, that things would be so, but there would be resentment. This is undoubtedly preferable.

But then Su Minshan stands. Zixuan is slightly surprised that the leader of a sect so small he'd never even heard of them would dare to address such a meeting.

"We have not discussed the matter of the heretical path that came into use during the war," Su Minshan says. He has an ugly, sneering tone. "Surely we must address the use of techniques that are forbidden." He puts a strange emphasis on the word, and Zixuan would swear he saw the man glare for a moment at Wangji as if the man had personally offended him.

A-Yao opens his mouth, but is cut off.

"Good point," Clan Leader Yao says. "Even some of our own cultivators felt the residual effects of the Stygian Tiger Seal. It was Wei Wuxian who had it, was it not?"

Zixuan sees A-Yao's eyes narrow for a moment before his expression smooths back to its customary pleasant geniality.

"It was," says a new voice, and that's Jin Zixun, and oh, Zixuan is not happy. "Perhaps we could all feel... safer, if Wei Wuxian were to surrender the Stygian Tiger Seal?"

"And to whom," Wuxian says sharply, "would you be suggesting that it should be surrendered?"

Lan Yuan tugs on his robes, and Wei Wuxian pulls him into his lap automatically.

"Well," Jin Zixun begins, with an unpleasantly smug look, but Zixuan cuts him off.

"Sit down, Zixun."

"But -"

"I said sit down." Zixuan glares at his cousin. He will not have Zixun making trouble.

Jiang Fengmian rises, and gazes evenly at the room at large until it is quiet, and everyone else has resumed their seats. "Wei Wuxian," he says mildly, "is a valued and honoured member of the Jiang Sect. Items in his possession are one of two things. They are either his own personal property, or they belong to the Jiang Sect, but have been entrusted to his care. If you wish to suggest that this is not the case with regard to the Stygian Tiger Seal, I question your reasoning."

He strikes an exaggerated pose of consideration. "Now, could it be that there is some suggestion that the item is stolen? I regret to say that anyone with such a view is misinformed. The item was forged by Wei Wuxian himself with the assistance of my wife's grandmother. If you doubt this claim, you are welcome to travel to Meishan and attempt to question the Elder Madam Yu."

Silence. No-one would dare.

"Of course," Jiang Fengmian continues, "it could, perhaps, be the case that some of you believe that the most precious treasures of a Sect should be given away at the first demand another might make. If so, I advise you to mark your words, for the Jiang Sect will insist that the rule for one is the rule for all." He smiles thinly, and sits again.

A-Yao speaks before anyone else can dare. "Sect Leader Jiang is all too kind to clarify the provenance of the spiritual tool of Wei Wuxian. I'm sure we are all relieved to know that it is blessed by the legendary Madam Yu of Meishan, whose works are famously of the first order." He smiles. "Sect Leader Jiang is wise, thoughtful and just, with the benefit of great wisdom and experience. The Jiang Sect has never sought to gain power at the expense of others, and it is good to know that we can trust his leadership in this difficult time. There is one final matter of importance to discuss: the election of a new Chief Cultivator."

Zixuan blinks. They hadn't really discussed this point in the meeting the previous night, and he wonders if A-Yao was flustered by the deviation from his planned agenda. After that introduction to the topic, especially when Jiang Fengmian has just responded to some outrageous demands so calmly and fairly, hardly anyone will dare suggest anyone but Jiang Fengmian himself!

He resolves not to say anything. A-Yao will only be embarrassed if he realises.

Unsurprisingly, Jiang Fengmian becomes Chief Cultivator by unanimous agreement (sole objection: Jiang Fengmian, whose modesty is greatly admired), and A-Yao wraps up the conference with the announcement of the Phoenix Mountain Hunt.

---

It's been a long day, Wei Wuxian thinks, but it went surprisingly well. The meeting wasn't as bad as it could have been, the banquet wasn't intolerably tedious, and now they're back in their quarters with A-Yuan tucked up fast asleep in the infant bed in the other room. No-one is coming to their rooms to hold more meetings, it's just him, and Lan Zhan, and A-Yuan safe.

Lan Zhan slides into the bed and leans over to kiss him, a long, slow, building sort of kiss, kisses along his jawline, his neck.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian murmurs.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan nips at his collarbone. "Missed this." He moves to remove the loose under-robe Wei Wuxian is wearing, and Wei Wuxian lets him.

Thinking about it, Wei Wuxian can't really remember the last time they did anything like this. Early in the Sunshot Campaign, perhaps, when there was less exhaustion, and a little more space for privacy. He has a distant memory of taking Lan Zhan in his mouth when they stopped to wash at a stream, but that surely can't be it - that was the previous spring, and it's spring now, so that would be a whole year. Surely not.

He realises Lan Zhan is moving down his chest, and catches him, draws him up again to kiss him. He can feel Lan Zhan, already hard against his hip.

"Get the oil, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian murmurs against his husband's lips, and rolls over to lie on his stomach, pulling a pillow under his own hips.

Lan Zhan doesn't move.

"Lan Zhan?"

"Wei Ying." Lan Zhan pulls him back firmly, just short of rough, and yanks the covers away.

Exposed in the candlelight, Wei Wuxian's lack of arousal is very obvious.

"Lan Zhan, so aggressive -" he tries, but Lan Zhan cuts him off.

"Wei Ying." Lan Zhan stares at him. "Do not..."

"What?" He sits up, presses his body against Lan Zhan's, reaches for -

Lan Zhan catches his wrist. "Wei Ying," he says softly. "You are not."

"I know. But you are, and that's enough," Wei Wuxian tries for a smile. "I don't need to be. I want you to have this. You should have this. Ev-" He squeezes his eyes shut, just for a moment. "Every day." He doesn't know how to tell Lan Zhan that it really is okay, it won't bother him at all - most of the time he doesn't really feel anything much at all when he isn't angry, lately, so there's no way this will make him feel bad.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says, and his voice is aching. "No. Only if you also want. Not like this."

"It's been too long, Lan Zhan, you need -"

"Need you to be... to be here. To be my husband. Do not need this unless you want it too. Do not want this unless you want it too. This is not... a requirement for loving Wei Ying." Lan Zhan brushes a kiss against his forehead, painfully sweet. "Only require Wei Ying to be Wei Ying."

"I'm not the same person I was before," Wei Wuxian says. He knows Lan Zhan isn't... good at people, needs him to understand this. "I'm not going to be the same Wei Ying ever again. I'm..."

Too damaged. Left too much of himself behind, or perhaps poured too much into Baohu and the Stygian Tiger Seal. Lan Zhan needs to understand that this is not going to get better.

"Still Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says firmly. He's silent for a long moment. "It is. Not preferred, but acceptable, to be... as you are. Recovering. Am certain Wei Ying is recovering. But if you are correct. If this is always. Want Wei Ying to be happy. Will never leave Wei Ying for being unhappy." He gives Wei Wuxian back his nightclothes and dresses again in his own.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian sighs. "I don't think I'll ever..."

"Irrelevant," Lan Zhan says. He takes Wei Wuxian's hand and rubs his thumb over the white ribbon at his wrist. "Married me. Stuck with me."

"You could still -"

"No." Lan Zhan nudges him over in the bed. "Can talk. Can hug. Can sleep. Only those."

Wei Wuxian sits very still for long moments, and then sighs. "Yeah. Okay." He's too tired to keep fighting for something he doesn't really want. He can try again another time, perhaps, because Lan Zhan deserves better than this.

Lan Zhan draws him close, wraps his arms around him, holds him as tenderly as ever, lets Wei Wuxian use his shoulder as a pillow and kisses his hair gently. It's sweeter, he thinks sadly, than he deserves, because he doesn't really feel anything at it. The shell of numbness around his heart is untouched.

---

In the morning, after breakfast, he's sitting on the floor while Lan Zhan plays Cleansing for him, attempting to follow the game that A-Yuan is trying to get him to play.

It's something to do with the arrangement of A-Yuan's toys, but so far his son has given him disappointed looks both when he moves the toys around and when he doesn't.

"Daddy, yes," A-Yuan says seriously, picking up a wooden ball and moving it a little way to the left, and then back to where it started. "Daddy, no," A-Yuan adds, doing the exact same thing again.

Then he looks at Wei Wuxian expectantly.

The arrival of Madam Yu is almost a relief.

"Nainai!" A-Yuan exclaims happily. He stands carefully and toddles over to Madam Yu, clutching at her skirts with drool-wet hands in a way that will definitely leave marks and creases that she would absolutely have scolded her own children or Wei Wuxian for doing.

A-Yuan is greeted with effusive delight and warmth.

Wei Wuxian can't decide whether he wants to be there when Jiang Cheng sees this or not.

She sets him back down by his collection of toys and sits gracefully. "Ah, I see we're playing the things-in-places game today," she says.

"How does this work?" Wei Wuxian asks plaintively. "Everything I do is wrong."

"You know, I actually think that's the game," Madam Yu says. "If it isn't, I never worked it out either. Jinzhu apparently gets the answer right every time, but Yinzhu never does. I get the right answer very rarely."

"He's just... messing around with us?" Wei Wuxian stares at his son, not sure if he's impressed or horrified.

"He's perfectly behaved in every other respect. Perhaps this is how he channels his urge to make life difficult for the adults around him. It really could be worse," Madam Yu says unconcernedly. "Wei Ying, I wanted to talk to you about something."

He looks up warily. "Oh?"

"Yes." She takes a deep breath, exhales slowly. "Wei Ying. My husband is now His Excellency, the Chief Cultivator. My daughter will marry Jin Zixuan in a few months. My son is a hero. The Jiang Sect has gained eminence. You have married well, and I am already a grandmother. I have everything I have ever wanted since my marriage to Jiang Fengmian. More than I ever thought possible. And I -" She swallows, looks away. "I am unworthy."

"Madam Yu..."

"Hush, Wei Ying." Her hands, folded in her lap, clutch at each other. "I have seen your memories. I have seen myself through your eyes. You feared me. You felt guilt and shame, and you never truly believed you had a place in the only family you remembered, because of me." She looks back at him, and there are tears in her eyes. "Do you think Jiang Cheng would be so averse to admitting that he loves you as his brother if he were less afraid that I would be angry for it? I have wronged you, Wei Ying. And despite that..."

She wipes impatiently at her tears. "Despite that, you risked everything - everything - for my family. You went to impossible lengths to protect them - and protect me, even though you had no reason to expect that I would thank you for it. You saved my life, and my home, and my husband, and I cannot, for a moment, believe that I deserve it. I wish I could tell myself that you didn't do it for me, that you cared only for the happiness of others, but I know all too well that you did. I know that when I died, you grieved for me. You grieved for this unworthy one, who had not earned your tears."

Madam Yu touches his shoulder. "Thank you, Wei Ying. For my life, and for my family, and for my happiness. I will not apologise for my wrongs, because I do not deserve your forgiveness. I simply want you to know that I know it, and I am thankful. I am thankful that you are a part of my family, that you loved us, and love us still."

This is not something he expected, would ever have expected, perhaps could ever have expected.

Something in him cracks.

He's not sure he likes it, because the veil of numbness, pierced, releases a flood of sheer hurt that he's not confident he can handle, a tidal wave of raw pain, but he can't stop it. He's overwhelmed, and he's not sure how long it is before he becomes aware of himself, of his surroundings again, and he finds himself somewhere he would have never imagined he'd be.

He's sobbing uncontrollably in Madam Yu's lap, with Madam Yu's fingers carding through his hair as he ruins her robes with tears and snot. She's singing something half-familiar - he thinks maybe he remembers her singing it when he was a child, sharing a room with Jiang Cheng, and she would occasionally sing Jiang Cheng to sleep.

Finally his tears slow, and he takes a couple of hitching breaths.

"Your mother would be so very proud of you, Wei Ying," she murmurs.

He wails, he can't help it, and sobs again, dimly aware of A-Yuan pulling himself up by Wei Wuxian's sleeve.

"Daddy cry," A-Yuan says. "Daddy yes."

Chapter Text

Afterwards, he feels... more.

Not better, exactly. He feels raw, and fragile, and is sharply aware of his own hurts.

But he feels.

Madam Yu kisses his forehead before she leaves, and then Lan Zhan is attentive, affectionate, and solicitous, even in front of other people when shijie and Jiang Cheng stop by in the afternoon.

Shijie brings soup, and lotus seeds, and the warmth of her smile, which has always, he thinks, been his greatest comfort, and he thinks about how long he lived without her, how much it never stopped hurting, and he starts crying again.

He expects Jiang Cheng to shout at him, but he doesn't. Jiang Cheng takes A-Yuan and puts him on his shoulders and stomps around the room growling like a monster until A-Yuan is shrieking with delight and Wei Wuxian is laughing too much to cry.

And then shijie wonders aloud if A-Yuan even knows who his aunt is, and Jiang Cheng lifts him down and hands him over, and it's Jiang Cheng who comes to talk to Wei Wuxian.

"Mother talked to us," Jiang Cheng says, "obviously."

He still looks so young.

"It's hard," Jiang Cheng, "not to..." He scowls. "I hate this," he mutters, and then visibly braces himself. "It's hard not to be jealous of you. Because you're always... you always seem to know what you're doing, even when it seems like you shouldn't, and you always have the answer for everything."

Wei Wuxian smiles wryly. "I cheat."

Jiang Cheng snorts. "You really do, don't you." He looks down, fiddles with Zidian. "I know you've always tried not to make me feel like I'm... less than you. The thing is, I am, and I'm starting to understand that that's okay." He glances up. "After all, you cheat."

"I really do."

"The thing that - the worst part is - fuck, I don't know how to say this." Jiang Cheng huffs in frustration. "Okay. You know what the worst thing is? You know what I really can't stand?"

Wei Wuxian tenses. "What?"

"You really, really think that I hated you. In your - before." He finally looks back at Wei Wuxian, and he's glaring. "And every time I remember that, I feel like a failure. Because I can't - there's just no way that's true, and if I weren't such a shit brother, you'd know that. That I was obviously angry with you and obviously hurt and obviously was absolutely fucking terrible at everything, but there's no way, no way at all, I didn't still - and then I get angry at you, because you're an idiot, because shouldn't you know me better than that? Shouldn't you know I wouldn't stay angry for thirteen years where you were already dead if I hated you? I'd have celebrated your death and moved on with my life."

"But - it was my fault that -"

"Shut the fuck up," Jiang Cheng hisses. "Seriously. Don't. Don't you dare tell me you think I believed that you would ever let her get hurt if you could stop it. I may be an asshole, but I'm not an idiot."

"I left you."

"Did I actually ask you to stay?"

Wei Wuxian is silent.

"I think I got a lot of things wrong, in your - before," Jiang Cheng says quietly. "And I hate it. And I hate that I can't fix it, and I'm shit at, at caring about people. About you. But I..." He stops, and takes a breath, and Wei Wuxian has seen Jiang Cheng go into literal battle with less grim determination than this. "I love you. You're my - I love you, and I'll always love you, and I know, I know myself, I know that there's nothing you could do that would change that."

"Jiang Cheng..."

"No. Shut the fuck up, no arguing, no answering, I said what I said and I know you heard it, we are not talking about this." He pauses. "But you can fucking hug me already, you asshole."

He does.

If they both cry when shijie comes over and says, "I'm so proud of you both," then they're not talking about that either.

That night, Wei Wuxian voluntarily goes to bed even before Lan Zhan 'encourages' him to. He's somewhere beyond exhausted, but he feels different - like the day has shattered him, but he's been put back together in a new, better configuration.

Like his wounds haven't healed, but they've been cleaned, and treated, and dressed, and now they can.

That night, Wei Wuxian curls close to Lan Zhan because he wants to, needs to, not because he doesn't object.

---

The next morning, Lan Xichen comes to see them, and Wei Wuxian ponders the logistics of running away from Jinlintai with A-Yuan to take care of. He can't travel as lightly with a toddler, but he really, really would like just one fucking day where he and his husband and his son can be left alone to just... be.

Thankfully, after greeting Wei Wuxian and A-Yuan politely, Lan Xichen draws Lan Zhan outside to speak to him alone.

When Lan Zhan returns, his expression is... dark. (By Lan Zhan's standards; his lips are faintly pursed and his brows have drawn fractionally together, and his eyes are very slightly narrowed.)

"What's wrong?" Wei Wuxian asks.

"Brother would like you to return to Gusu with me," Lan Zhan says.

"Well, that would make sense. It's not that far from here, and we haven't been back there since... wow, since classes. It's been nearly five years. You haven't even had a chance to go back there since the Wen attacked. Of course you should visit... Lan Zhan?" His husband's expression has only grown darker. "Seriously. What's wrong?"

"Some of the Elders," Lan Zhan bites out, "want to discipline Wei Ying. For use of forbidden techniques."

Ah. Of course.

Wei Wuxian did eventually come to understand that Lan Zhan's insistence, in his first life, that he should return with him to Cloud Recesses was not to punish or imprison him.

He was never convinced that that might not have happened anyway.

"Well," he says, "I did do that. What do you think they have in mind?"

"Do not care." Lan Zhan almost growls. "They will not."

"What did Zewu-Jun say?" Wei Wuxian asks carefully, because this is the Lan Zhan who fought his own clan for him, and Wei Wuxian deeply appreciates his husband's smooth, unscarred skin, that this Lan Zhan has never been beaten almost to death for loving him.

"To come now." A huff. "Wei Ying and I are expected to return for the Phoenix Mountain Hunt. They cannot hold you. Brother believes that Uncle will win."

He blinks. "Your uncle? Lan Qiren? What will he win?"

"Argument. With Elders. Uncle is arguing that he was your teacher. If Gusu has standing to discipline Wei Ying, authority is his. That Uncle can discipline Wei Ying. Elders can discipline Uncle."

"Discipline your uncle? For what?"

"Failure to teach better."

Wei Wuxian thinks.

The Elders of the Lan Sect are, he knows, the wellspring of stuffiness. He knew many of them in his second life, and he was aghast to discover that Lan Qiren was positively louche by comparison with some. Lan Qiren was, at least, capable of interacting with the children of other sects.

He is certain that Lan Qiren never liked him, and never will.

He is equally certain that Lan Qiren loves his nephews far beyond his capacity to express it. Once Lan Qiren accepted that Wei Wuxian was a permanent fixture, a necessity for Lan Zhan's happiness, he had been one of Wei Wuxian's strongest allies, even if he had still also been deeply disapproving of pretty much everything about him. (The rules carved into the cliffside still look strangely incomplete without do not go near Wei Ying.)

This life, Lan Zhan has already married Wei Wuxian. Lan Qiren attended the wedding and handed Wei Wuxian the ribbon for Lan Zhan. It's very likely the old man has already reached the acceptance stage, and will, in his cranky and disapproving way, do everything he can to protect them.

"Let's go to Gusu," Wei Wuxian says.

---

Along the way, he gets to fulfill a fantasy he'd almost entirely forgotten he'd had.

Lan Zhan is still concerned about Wei Wuxian's level of exhaustion, and Lan Zhan himself has been spending a lot of his spiritual energy on playing Cleansing for him, so they buy a donkey in Lanling, and go by road. (It's not Lil'Apple, of course; Lil'Apple's parents might not yet even exist.)

He realises it as they're passing through the hills that rise towards the mountains that hold Cloud Recesses. Wei Wuxian is riding on the donkey, and Lan Zhan is walking with A-Yuan on his shoulders, holding the rein in one hand, and securing their son with the other.

A-Yuan points at things, and Lan Zhan patiently tells him the names of them.

It's perfect, and Wei Wuxian feels another shattered piece of himself lock back into place.

---

Lan Xichen meets them at the gates. It's mid-afternoon, and A-Yuan is asleep in Lan Zhan's arms, having become accustomed already to having his naps as they travel.

After greeting them, Lan Xichen explains, "Uncle has asked me to escort you to your quarters and explain the punishment he has ordered. He is... unavailable."

"Is something wrong?"

"Not as such. The Elders were... displeased, but Uncle was quite obstinate. He insists that as Young Master Wei's teacher, any... lapses that have followed are his responsibility. Accordingly he reserves the privilege of discipline to himself. The Elders suggested that if that was his view, then perhaps he too should be disciplined."

Wei Wuxian stares. "What did Master Lan say?"

Lan Xichen's expression is bland. "He said that if that was their conclusion, he would await them in the ancestral hall. I'm sure you understand why, then, he asked that I convey his instructions to you."

Lan Qiren, Wei Wuxian realises, is recovering from being beaten with discipline rulers if he's lucky, and if not -

"Did they -" He almost doesn't want to ask.

"He was not whipped." Lan Xichen says reassuringly. "In any case, his orders are clear. Wei Wuxian is forbidden to eat with everyone else at the dining hall. Nainai, who commands the kitchens, has agreed that she will supply meals for all three of you separately, or you may request ingredients to prepare yourselves. While it would undoubtedly be of educational benefit for you to make use of the Library Pavilion, you will not be permitted to remain there. Special dispensation for you to borrow texts has been arranged."

He begins leading them into the Cloud Recesses themselves. "You will not, I regret to say, be permitted to stay in the usual accommodations for guests, or in Wangji's old room - if it still existed. I'm afraid that building was damaged in the attack by the Wen, and in Wangji's absence, it seemed purposeless to retain an empty room. Such belongings as you left here have been moved to another location, which will be kept for you henceforward."

"Where?" Lan Zhan asks.

Lan Xichen is silent for a long moment. "It was formerly our mother's cottage." He clears his throat. "Uncle has ordered that no-one other than your family will be permitted to visit you there."

Wei Wuxian considers this.

So his punishment is to eat his meals with his husband and son, without the furious glares of the Lan Sect if he should speak during the course of them; to have access to the books of the Library Pavilion, and dispensation to take them home and read in comfort; and to be left alone, visited only by family.

All while, perhaps, allowing Lan Zhan to form new memories of that place of sadness, with his own family, his own child, who is not and will not be limited to seeing either of his parents on only one day each month.

"He forgot to demand that I must be forced to drink at least one jar of Emperor's Smile each day," he murmurs.

Lan Xichen smiles at the acknowledgement that he understands Lan Qiren's kindness. "Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses," is all he says.

---

Their stay in the Cloud Recesses is restful.

Lan Wangji feels years of tension begin to uncoil from him across weeks in which there are no demands on him to be anything other than husband and father.

Wei Ying sleeps a lot. He naps even more than their son does. He reads, and takes walks in the forest, and plays with A-Yuan. Wei Ying lies in the sun in grassy meadows, and laughs until tears come when Lan Wangji buries A-Yuan in rabbits. Wei Ying plays Baohu not to summon armies of corpses, but to make their son laugh and clap and dance. Wei Ying makes notes, but also paints - portraits of Lan Wangji, of A-Yuan, sketches of the landscapes of the Cloud Recesses, paintings of a strange, dark town Lan Wangji doesn't recognise.

Wei Ying receives a letter, very formal, inviting his attendance at the wedding of Jiang Wanyin and Wen Qing, and smiles.

Lan Wangji's memories of the cottage as a place of silence and grief are crowded out by memories of Wei Ying's smile and A-Yuan's laughter. Where he remembers only loneliness, there is Wei Ying, dozing half-sprawled across his chest, or A-Yuan giggling and calling to him, A-Yuan sitting on Lan Wangji's foot and wrapping his little arms and legs around his calf.

Wei Ying occasionally frets at him about their lack of sexual activity. Lan Wangji is wholly unmoved. He cannot deny that he misses it, somewhat, but what he misses is not currently available. He misses Wei Ying's joy in it, his enthusiasm, his desperation, his need; without that, the idea is actively distasteful to him.

When Wei Ying wants, truly wants, Lan Wangji will be more than ready. Until that time, Lan Wangji has Wei Ying, and A-Yuan, and peace, and the crisp morning air of the Cloud Recesses.

This, he thinks, is happiness.

---

They've been there three months and Wei Wuxian is down to a mere one nap per day when his sense of peaceful relaxation is interrupted.

Wei Wuxian has not been ungrateful for Lan Qiren's protection and kindness, so he has taken care not to break any of the rules of the Cloud Recesses where there's any risk he'll get caught.

On this afternoon he's making an innocuous and wholly permitted trip to the Library Pavilion when he sees a boy in Lan Sect robes walking sedately down the path. Wei Wuxian smiles reflexively. The boy returns his smile more readily than most Lan Sect disciples, and Wei Wuxian feels the blood drain from his face, and he almost stumbles, because that is a memorable smile.

The boy looks concerned, and reaches to steady him, and it's all Wei Wuxian can do not to flinch. "Are you all right, Master?" the boy asks. "Do you need assistance?"

"I'm fine," Wei Wuxian says. "Tell me, disciple, what is your name?"

The boy smiles radiantly. "This one's name is Xue Yang!"

---

Xichen pauses to compose himself before he approaches the cottage, bracing for what he rather expects will be a distinctly awkward conversation.

Unfortunately, he has clearly already approached too closely, because Wuxian yanks the door open and steps out, closing it behind him, giving Xichen a flat stare.

"Wuxian," Xichen bows.

"What the fuck," Wei Wuxian replies.

Xichen sighs. There is no point trying to avoid this. "I went and found him. I got there before Chang Cian could harm him. I know I should have told you, but there never seemed to be a suitable time. As best I can determine, he carries no grudges against anyone."

"No-one? Are you sure? He hasn't been disciplined here? Because if he's had one strike of the discipline rulers, he may yet plan to kill your entire clan."

"Actually, he hasn't been disciplined at all. He's the most promising boy in his class. His behaviour is flawless, and he's an excellent student."

"Of course he's an excellent student. He's a genius. He's just also a crazy murder genius."

"He has shown no violent tendencies at all. I am cautiously optimistic as to his future."

Wuxian is staring at him.

"In any case, killing is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses."

"Why would he care?"

Xichen smiles. "If he breaks the rules, he doesn't get candy."

"Shit," Wuxian says. "That might actually work."

"Indeed."

Wuxian nods, and smiles, the clouds dispersing like mist in the sunlight. "Would you like some tea?"

"I would, thank you."

Inside, Wangji is sitting at his guqin with A-Yuan sitting on his lap in tiny white robes. A-Yuan has a little drum, which he is banging erratically as Wangji plays. Wangji's expression is soft and sweet.

Xichen does not make a delighted squealing sound at the overwhelming cuteness of the scene, but it's quite a near thing.

Chapter Text

It is autumn in the hunting grounds of Phoenix Mountain.

Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan delivered A-Yuan to Madam Yu in the morning, before she went to join Madam Jin in the watching tower and they went to join the riding formations. They ride together in between the Jiang and Lan sects. There's an audible sigh from the young women who throw flowers at the cultivators they find handsome, and Wei Wuxian tries not to look smug when he picks out the word "married" from the murmur of their conversation.

He catches the flower shijie throws to him and smiles, waving up at her.

Ahead of them Jin Zixuan has reached the target arena, the obstacles for entry to the hunt on the mountain. He pushes his horse to a canter, and Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes as Zixuan's arrow hits the centre of the seven concentric target rings.

"If anyone here remains unconvinced, then feel free to try if you can shoot better than Zixuan!"

A whole other lifetime, and Jin Zixun is still such an unpleasant person, Wei Wuxian thinks.

Zixun is staring at him, sneering, and he can't help but roll his eyes. "Hey Lan Zhan," he says, "want to help me?"

Lan Zhan blinks at him. "How?"

"Can I borrow your forehead ribbon?"

Wordlessly, Lan Zhan unties the ribbon and hands it across.

"What are you doing?" Jiang Cheng demands, from where he's pulled up his horse nearby.

Wei Wuxian smiles, and wraps Lan Zhan's ribbon around his eyes as a neat and careful blindfold. Urging his horse forward, he concentrates, draws, and looses an arrow.

The watching crowds cheer.

Jin Zixun snorts. "It's only the opening archery event, and you're already showing off. Can you keep your eyes covered throughout the hunt? Later, on Phoenix Mountain, we can show our real abilities, and see who's really the better one!"

Wei Wuxian turns towards him.

"A contest between you and me?" he queries.

"Yes!"

"To see which of us is superior?" He smiles.

"Yes!"

Wei Wuxian tilts his head as if in thought. "And then, Young Master, will you light a candle, and challenge the moon?"

He leaves the blindfold on anyway as he dismounts and strolls towards the path of entry, Lan Zhan at his side. A thought has occurred to him.

---

Lan Wangji follows Wei Ying some distance along the path, watching carefully for anything that seems like it might be a danger to him, blindfolded as he is.

Finally they come to an obstacle - a thick branch, growing from an even thicker tree, that blocks the path. Wei Ying tests its sturdiness, and then jumps up to sit on it.

"And now, Lan Zhan, I want you to walk away for a little while, and then come back and kiss me without saying anything."

Lan Wangji blinks.

An odd request, but hardly objectionable.

He walks a short distance away and waits, watching his husband. Wei Ying seems relaxed, one leg kicking idly in the air. But he's blindfolded, with Lan Wangji's forehead ribbon, and Lan Wangji is keenly aware of the way the air brushes across his own exposed skin. The way the ends of the ribbon trail across Wei Ying's shoulders, matching the ribbon he wears at his wrist.

The one at his wrist declares that Lan Wangji is Wei Ying's.

The one that covers his eyes whispers that Wei Ying is his.

The ribbon represents self-regulation.

Lan Wangji is feeling dangerously unregulated.

His steps are slow, careful as he moves back towards Wei Ying.

Wei Ying asked him to kiss him.

Lan Wangji will oblige, because he feels oddly as if he might simply die if he does not.

---

It's not the same as the kiss Wei Wuxian distantly remembers.

It's better.

His back still hits the tree trunk, but he knows this is Lan Zhan, this time, and Lan Zhan kisses him expertly now, knowingly - but Lan Zhan, for some reason, still seems to be shaking.

Wei Wuxian deepens the kiss, wraps his legs around Lan Zhan's hips to draw him closer and - oh, he's hard, they both are, Wei Wuxian has want coiling tight in his belly for the first time in a long, long time, and they're on Phoenix Mountain with thousands of cultivators all wandering in the area.

He doesn't care. He doesn't want to stop. When Lan Zhan goes to pull away, he follows, pressing their hips together meaningfully.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says softly, "I - you -"

"Please, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian whispers, "please, please, please, I need -"

"... just a Measuring Snake," says another voice, and they both freeze.

---

One of the nice things about autumn on a mountain is that the air is quite chilly, especially in the shade, and comfort requires dressing in layers; sufficient that no observer will be able to tell if, say, a given individual stopped to make out with his husband until they both nearly came in their pants.

---

Wei Wuxian knows better than most that Lan disciples are taught from childhood that the ribbon represents self-regulation, and they all take it very seriously.

He's long since noticed the tendency for Lan Zhan, at least, to get a little bit... headstrong when his ribbon is off.

So when they hear people approaching, the first thing he does is replace Lan Zhan's ribbon, because his husband is visibly struggling to regain his customary calm demeanour.

"Later," Wei Wuxian whispers, because he hasn't felt like this in a long time, and now he wants.

Lan Zhan nods, and straightens, adjusting his robes.

"I've never liked them," and that's his shijie's voice. "Perhaps they would be less irritating if I were taller," she says, with a light laugh.

"You're the perfect height." That's Jin Zixuan and Wei Wuxian thinks that hearing him flirt with his shijie is almost worse than hearing him upset her. Except it isn't, obviously, but that's only because shijie being upset is the worst thing. This nonetheless comes close enough that he's sorely tempted to break a tree just to disrupt their conversation.

He settles for jumping down from his perch and jogging to the crest of the ridge, where he can see them, and waving. "Shijie! Zixuan! How is your hunting?"

"A-Xian!" Shijie smiles. "And Wangji! We aren't really hunting, just taking a walk. How is yours?"

"Eh." He rubs his nose. "We are also just taking a walk, really." Of course, if Zixuan and his shijie have been taking the kind of 'walk' Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan were just taking, Wei Wuxian will kill Zixuan.

"It is a beautiful day for walking," shijie agrees. "And I suppose it's pleasant not to worry about A-Yuan for a little while."

"Yes and no," Wei Wuxian admits. "It's strange. We've had him this whole time, and I was looking forward to a break, but at the same time, I already miss him. It's probably a good thing to have the time without him anyway, so then we can be happier to have him back."

"I'll have to remember that," she says, with a glance at Jin Zixuan, who smiles in a way that Wei Wuxian finds personally offensive. "Oh, A-Xian. Did you see Zixuan brought Qin Su, today? She and Wen Qionglin came to breakfast with us."

Wei Wuxian glares. "You and him?!"

Shijie just laughs. "Him, and me, and Mother, and Madam Jin, and Second Young Lady Mo, and Jin Guangyao. Such a scandal, A-Xian. Anyway, Qin Su and Wen Qionglin are so cute together! He's so very sweet. He refills her tea if she takes so much as a sip, and says the most charming things so earnestly."

Jin Zixuan grins. "The first time I introduced them, he bowed to her twice, then asked me if he could have a word with me, because he didn't want to offend me, and he was very sure that I had tried my best, but perhaps there was some mistake and did I have another sister because this one was too pretty for a political marriage. He was so flustered he said all of that before we stepped away from A-Su. I think she would have married him right then."

"He's so cute, I want to adopt him," shijie says.

"I know exactly what you mean," Wei Wuxian says, because he does.

Their conversation is interrupted as they see the glow of approaching swords, and then Jin Zixun, at the head of a group, comes storming into the clearing.

"Zixuan, is Wei making trouble for you?" He glares at Wei Wuxian. "Why are you always bothering people?"

Wei Wuxian looks at him with a carefully neutral expression. "Who are you?"

He knows, of course, but he also knows that it will infuriate Jin Zixun for him to ask, and he really, really dislikes Jin Zixun.

Surprisingly, Lan Zhan answers. "He is Jin Zixun. Uncle has mentioned him. Jin Zixun offered his assistance in the defense of Gusu a month after the very last Wen attack. You did not meet him, as he did not at any time come to fight at the front."

Jin Zixun flushes. "I had an injury."

"Of course," Lan Zhan says. "How fortunate that you have since recovered fully, after being injured for so long. It was brave of you to offer your services at all, with cultivation weak enough to permit of such persistent difficulty."

Shijie laughs, very softly and demurely, and Wei Wuxian blinks and looks at her, because there is no way she didn't know that that would only make Jin Zixun angrier, and there is also no way that she couldn't have contained her amusement if she'd wanted to.

"You!" Jin Zixun snarls, and draws his sword. "Do you want to see if my cultivation is weak?"

Lan Zhan bows. "I meant no insult. I assumed that you could not have been absent from the battlefield due to cowardice. I apologise for my error."

Wei Wuxian has a moment to consider that this is really unfairly attractive under the circumstances before Jin Zixun roars, and attacks. Lan Zhan has Bichen at the ready instantly, but Jin Zixun's sword is blocked before it can get there; Jin Zixuan, looking coldly furious, has stepped between them with Suihua.

Only moments later, Madam Jin arrives.

She looks immediately at shijie. "A-Li, are you all right?"

Shijie nods. "Thank you, Madam, I am fine."

"Good." Madam Jin whirls on her nephew. "Jin Zixun, do you want to die? What are you doing? Are you attacking our guests?"

Jin Zixun takes a step back. "Aunt, I -"

"Silence." He shuts his mouth, visibly fuming. "Zixuan. What is going on?"

Zixuan lowers Suihua, but does not sheathe it, and his eyes are fixed on his cousin. "Zixun arrived and immediately offered great offense to Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian expressed his confusion, as he did not recognise Zixun. Hanguang-Jun attempted to remind him, as is only to be expected of one so renowned for his courtesy. Zixun took offense at his words, despite their accuracy, and attacked."

Madam Jin nods. "Zixun, do you have any justification for your outrageous behaviour? The Lan Sect will not take kindly to assaulting Sect Leader Lan's brother."

Jin Zixun scowls. "Wei has -"

"Wei Wuxian," Zixuan cuts him off, biting off the words.

"Wei Wuxian," Jin Zixun says sullenly, "has been showing off his abilities. On such an important hunt involving all of the sects! More than a third of the prey has already been taken!"

Lan Zhan's head tilts slightly to the side. "One third of the prey?"

One of Jin Zixun's crowd of followers speaks up. "You should know already, Hanguang-Jun! A while ago, we searched for a long time and realised that not a single fierce corpse or resentful spirit is left in the grounds!"

Another shouts, "We only know what happened because we asked Jin Guangyao and he said that almost as soon as the hunt began, the corpses and spirits just walked into the Jiang Sect's nets and surrendered themselves!"

Wei Wuxian laughs. "And you think that means I did it?"

Zixun glares. "Your reputation is well known. And before the hunt began, I challenged you to show your real abilities. But this is just a crooked path!"

Shijie speaks up. "Actually, this is an insult to the Jiang Sect," she says in a chill tone. "Is it your suggestion that the Jiang Sect can't hunt without Wei Wuxian? That if cultivators of the Jiang Sect have captured prey, it must have been his work, not theirs?"

"Isn't it a little bit presumptuous for Jiang Yanli to be saying this?" Jin Zixun demands.

"How so?" Lan Zhan asks. "Jiang-guniang is a senior member of the Jiang Sect."

"Jin Zixun," Madam Jin says icily, "will apologise most abjectly for his insult to the Jiang and Lan Sects."

"I will do no such thing!" Jin Zixun shouts.

"You will," Jin Zixuan says flatly.

Jin Zixun looks around at the large crowd of witnesses. He's already declared that he will not; what little face he has left will be destroyed if he kowtows now.

"I will not," Jin Zixun declares defiantly.

"Very well." Jin Zixuan turns to Jin Guangyao, who arrived with Madam Jin. "A-Yao. Please arrange on your return to Jinlintai for Zixun's personal belongings to be packed. He may receive them if he presents himself at the gate to request them. The guards may on no account allow him entry." He turns back and looks coldly at his cousin. "Zixun is no longer a member of the Jin Sect. If he is determined to walk this path, we will no longer shelter him from the consequences."

"What?" Jin Zixun exclaims. "You can't do that!"

"Of course I can," Jin Zixuan says. "You attacked Hanguang-Jun. While no-one would expect you to be a serious danger to him, that is still an insult to the Lan Sect. You have openly insulted the Jiang Sect, and you refuse to apologise. Do you think the Jin Sect will oppose the Lan, the Jiang, and the Chief Cultivator for you when you are the one who is wrong?"

He deliberately turns away. Jin Zixun's followers are all backing away from him.

Madam Jin speaks. "Hanguang-Jun, Jiang Yanli, Wei Wuxian. I apologise on behalf of my family for my nephew's insult."

She goes to bow. Shijie steps forward and catches her hands. "For the Jiang Sect, that is not necessary," she says hurriedly.

"Nor for the Lan," Lan Zhan allows.

Wei Wuxian is relieved. He's not sure he could quite handle the sight of Madam Jin humbling herself, even as the representative of her family rather than her sect.

"Perhaps," Jin Zixuan suggests, "Jiang-guniang, Wangji and Wuxian would like to accompany my mother and me back to the watching towers for refreshments."

"Don't just walk away from me!" Jin Zixun howls.

The next few moments are busy.

Jin Zixun, purple with fury, charges towards them, though whether his target is Zixuan, Lan Zhan, Wei Wuxian or even Madam Jin is unclear.

Zixuan and Lan Zhan both whirl, drawing their own swords. Wei Wuxian pulls Madam Jin back and pushes her behind him.

And shijie moves diagonally to step to Jin Zixun's side, tripping him neatly and slapping a paperman talisman on his back. Jin Zixun tries to get up, and can't.

Wei Wuxian spent a lot of time hitting the ground to practice that move with her. Every moment was worth it just for this.

Zixuan and Lan Zhan sheathe their swords again.

"Refreshments sound lovely," shijie says.

Wei Wuxian glances back as they walk away. Someone appears to be trying unsuccessfully to lift the talisman off Jin Zixun's back.

He hears Jin Guangyao speak. His voice is blandly polite. "I regret to say, Jin Zixun, that I must reclaim your crested robes before you depart."

---

At the watching tower, Wei Wuxian looks out at the view of the mountain. He is relieved to note that the spot where he was kissing Lan Zhan is obscured by the trees, even if the area below it is visible.

He can just make out a tiny Jin Zixun on the ground, wiggling as Jin Guangyao's men slide his outer robes, with the embroidered crest that marks him as a senior member of the Jin Sect, out from under the talisman and off him. Tiny-distant Jin Guangyao bows, and returns to the tower too.

Maids set out tea, and little decorated cakes, and small, artistically arranged savoury dishes. One brings forward a separate covered dish, and serves some equally artistic dishes that are a luridly bright red, which are served exclusively to Wei Wuxian.

He's touched. Jin Guangyao always had a gift for hospitality.

He smiles at the woman who sets out his dishes, and is pleased when she smiles pleasantly back. The maids of Jinlintai have become far more pleasing to see in the years since Jin Guangshan's death. He remembers pretty women who looked perpetually frightened and unhappy, who lowered their eyes and avoided meeting his gaze, scurrying anxiously to perform their duties.

Wei Wuxian has heard rumours that a cultivator behaved improperly towards a maid not long after the conclusion of the Sunshot Campaign. She told Madam Meng and Madam Sisi, who are said to take tea with women of all ranks, and Madam Meng told her son, who told his brother, who banished the cultivator from his sect upon the spot.

Now the maids of Jinlintai are cheerful and unafraid, and no longer pretty, but beautiful with it.

Madam Yu was already at the watching tower when they arrived, sitting next to a long woven basket with a padded interior in which A-Yuan appears to be soundly asleep. Wei Wuxian thinks how useful that would have been, travelling with their son. He really should have thought of something like that.

He's not used to having A-Yuan and still being wealthy at the same time.

"What happened?" Madam Yu asks, glancing towards the struggling Jin Zixun. Her voice is quiet and her tone moderate, but Wei Wuxian suspects that that is solely due to the presence of her sleeping grandson.

"My nephew has disgraced our sect and family for the last time," Madam Jin says tartly.

"He gave insult to both the Lan and Jiang Sects, and refused to apologise," Zixuan says. "He was in the wrong. I cannot stand by him." He doesn't sound particularly sorry.

Madam Yu raises an eyebrow. "I saw him attack Wangji. What could he possibly have been thinking?"

Lan Zhan sips his tea, face impassive.

Shijie smiles. "Wangji attempted to remind A-Xian who Jin Zixun was," she explains.

"Zixun appears to have taken great offense to Hanguang-Jun's level of accuracy," Zixuan adds. "He was... extremely accurate."

Shijie giggles. "A-Cheng will enjoy hearing about this later."

Wei Wuxian wishes they'd stop talking about it. He still has to be around all these people, and seeing Lan Zhan set a logic trap in which Jin Zixun had to admit to being either a weak cultivator or a coward was painfully attractive. It's unfair.

(It's also unfair that his libido deserted him entirely for so long, and yet on its return has still brought with it a keen awareness of just how long it's been.)

Still, it's nice that apparently he's not the only one who found Jin Zixun so unpleasant.

Shijie turns to Wei Wuxian. "A-Xian, did you really not do anything?"

"I didn't," he says. "No, I really didn't! Jiang Cheng and Uncle Jiang and I met yesterday. I finished the designs for some new lure flags while we were at Gusu. The library of the Cloud Recesses is very good, it was helpful. The Jiang Sect are testing them today. Uncle Jiang is going to tell the other sects about lure flags at the banquet this evening. Probably just the more basic ones, the new ones could be a bit tricky for people who aren't used to them, but we thought it might be nice to demonstrate what they can do."

"Lure flags?" Zixuan asks. "Lures for spirits?"

"Yes!" Wei Wuxian grins. "They're really very useful, especially for night-hunting. You can use them to attract spirits before you fight them, so they'll come away from populated areas, for example, and you can trap them more safely."

"A-Xian has developed many new uses for talismans and flags," shijie says proudly. "Now that Father is the Chief Cultivator, we are preparing to offer some of his designs for everyone to use."

"His Excellency is most generous," Zixuan says. "I'm looking forward very much to seeing them."

"Hm," Wei Wuxian says. "Jin Guangyao!"

"Yes, Wei Wuxian?" Jin Guangyao is immediately attentive.

"If there are other new devices that are actual devices, and I don't have many to give away yet - should I give them to important people like Zixuan, or to ordinary people, like... whoever?" Jin Guangyao is nothing if not adept at managing public opinion.

Jin Guangyao smiles. "An interesting question. I would suggest something of a mix. Perhaps bestow them upon those to whom you have some sort of personal connection, or upon those individuals it would be... beneficial to have very slightly in your debt. Depending on the nature of the device, for example, you could give examples to your friends, but also to those of lesser standing where it would be most remarkable. Is the item at all dangerous?"

"No, not even a little bit." Wei Wuxian is, in this instance, wholly confident. "It's this." He pulls one of his Evil Compasses from his sleeve. "It's a compass, but it points towards evil spirits and things. Useful, but harmless unless someone follows it while being too unwary."

"I see." Jin Guangyao smiles the knowing smile that Wei Wuxian still has to force himself not to react to, the one he thinks of as his Scheming Smile. "Clan Leader Ouyang's wife has just had a son. Perhaps it would be a suitable gift for the child."

Wei Wuxian blinks. "Ouyang Zizhen?" he says before he can think better of it. Jin Guangyao nods.

"Yes, Clan Leader Ouyang's son Ouyang Zizhen. I'm surprised you've heard. It would be unexpected, but not inappropriate, to offer him a gift for him on such an occasion."

"I will do that. Thank you, Jin Guangyao."

Jin Guangyao inclines his head.

It is still strange, so very strange, to speak to Jin Guangyao as if he is an ally, but he has begun to suspect that Jin Guangyao is an ally - the hint of poison in him doesn't seem to be there, this time, and Wei Wuxian had never had difficulty seeing it, even if others did.

He wonders if it's to do with the connection he has to resentful energy - if poisonous thoughts leave their mark even on the living. He wonders if there's a way to test the theory.

"Speaking of special occasions," shijie says, "A-Xian, Wangji, we haven't had a chance to tell you. The Jin Sect will be hosting weddings quite soon."

Wei Wuxian feels very, very conflicted. "Weddings, plural?"

"Yes!" Zixuan beams. "Yanli and I will marry at the end of winter. And A-Yao will marry in two months!"

"Congratulations," Lan Zhan says gravely.

"Thank you," Jin Guangyao says, blushing faintly. "I am... very pleased. We thought it best not to conflict with Jiang Wanyin's wedding next month, as my brother, naturally, will be expected in attendance at both." He bows to Wei Wuxian. "My fiancee has asked me to request that Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-Jun will be kind enough to come, as well."

Wei Wuxian blinks. "Of course. We are honoured to attend the wedding of Jin Guangyao." He appreciates that Jin Guangyao has, to all evidence, worked very hard for Zixuan and shijie, and even if he didn't, he is wary of snubbing Jin Guangyao at all. "But who is your fiancee?"

Jin Guangyao's smile this time is a small, shy thing, less polished and perfect than usual. "Mo Fan. The Second Young Lady Mo," he says, his voice sweet with joy.

"A-Yao will adopt her son," Zixuan says proudly. "It's slightly irregular, perhaps, but he's so little he really is more like a nephew than another brother. To me, at least." He grins at Jin Guangyao. "A-Yao has become quite paternal. It's very charming."

Wei Wuxian smiles. Jin Guangyao's real joy is quite touching, and Wei Wuxian is very, very relieved to know that the young lady in question is one they can all be confident is not, in fact, Jin Guangyao's sister. It's really such an improvement.

---

Wei Wuxian is surprised when Jin Guangyao personally escorts his small family to their guest chambers at Jinlintai.

"Da-ge has instructed that these rooms be kept for you permanently and exclusively," Jin Guangyao says. "He wishes it to be clear that you are always welcome at Jinlintai." He bows deeply. "Wei Wuxian, may this one have the honour of speaking to you alone at your convenience?"

Wei Wuxian nods. "Lan Zhan, are you all right to settle A-Yuan?"

"Mn."

"Then now works." Wei Wuxian suppresses a sigh, because it's time for A-Yuan's afternoon nap, and he was about to have some... quiet time... with Lan Zhan before the banquet, and he feels like he's been waiting for hours, and -

He walks with Jin Guangyao to one of the secluded gardens of Jinlintai.

Jin Guangyao hesitates.

"Whatever it is, just say it," Wei Wuxian says.

"As you now know, I am to marry," he says. "My mother will stand with me, and my brother insists that he will take the place of our father."

That's nice, Wei Wuxian thinks. It's a very good thing for Jin Guangyao to feel... respected.

He's not sure what it has to do with him, but Jin Guangyao is continuing.

"My fiancee has become quite... estranged from her family," he says. "She and Madam Jin have become close, and Madam Jin will take the place of her mother at the wedding. However." His ingratiating smile is gone, for once, and he looks earnestly imploring. "She would also wish to have a man to stand in place of her father, and she... if Wei Wuxian is willing, we would be honoured if it could be you. You were the one who found her and A-Yu, and brought them to Jinlintai."

Wei Wuxian blinks. This is not what he expected. He never met Mo Fan in his second life, but he knows that she loved Mo Xuanyu very much, that she did her best for him; when he has seen her in this one, she has seemed like a very sweet girl, a little overwhelmed by... life, really.

Jin Guangyao misreads his hesitation to reply, and drops to his knees. "I know that it must seem a terrible imposition, to stand at the marriage of the son of -"

"Stop!" Wei Wuxian does not want to hear him finish that sentence. "That's not - I'm just surprised, Jin Guangyao, that's all." He grabs his hand and tugs him back up. "You really need to stop taking the circumstances of your birth so seriously! You have a mother who loves you, and - well, okay, your father was a terrible person, but no-one holds that against Zixuan or Qin Su or Mo Xuanyu. Don't listen to the people who say backbiting things. Do they stand where you do? Do they have your gifts, your talents? Do the leaders of all five elite Sects listen to their counsel as they do to yours?"

Jin Guangyao looks to be slightly in shock. "Wei-gongzi, don't - don't you hate me?"

Wei Wuxian stares. He doesn't, is the thing. He'd been angry with Jin Guangyao in his second life, and had not mourned his death for even a moment, but he of all people is in no position to judge someone for becoming so twisted by events that they end up hurting people. "Why would I? Have you done something I should hate you for?"

"No, of course not, but - I seem to make you angrier than anyone else, and you seem like you don't trust me. I thought - perhaps I have not been grateful enough for the kindness you have shown me, when I know it was you who had me brought here to meet my brother, and -"

"No, no, no," Wei Wuxian stops him again. "No, I don't hate you, and you don't owe me gratitude for introducing you to your own brother, that's - no." He sighs. "Last time we were at Jinlintai, I was... unwell. You may remember I was angry with everyone. I apologise for all of my hostility, and that it seemed I had more for you than anyone else." He bows. "I would be honoured to stand with Mo Fan at your wedding."

Jin Guangyao's real smile, hesitantly pleased, is actually quite nice.

---

When he gets back to their rooms, Lan Zhan is just emerging from A-Yuan's bedroom. Wei Wuxian puts Suibian down gently, lest a crashing sound wake their son, and begins taking off his clothes. Lan Zhan's eyes widen.

"Wei Ying..."

"We have some time before the banquet," Wei Wuxian says quietly. All of his outer robes hit the floor together as he walks slowly towards his husband. "I want this. I need this. I need you. I have been very good and very patient all day, and you have been very good and patient for a lot longer than that, and now we have time." He toes his boots off as he reaches Lan Zhan and pushes gently at his chest.

Lan Zhan, unresisting, backs into their bedroom. Wei Wuxian kicks the door closed as he pulls off his inner robe and winds his arms around Lan Zhan's neck, presses close. "I need Lan Zhan," he breathes, their lips almost touching. "I need you to kiss me, touch me. I need to feel you close." He nips at Lan Zhan's lip. "I need you inside me, Lan Zhan. Right now." He tugs lightly at Lan Zhan's forehead ribbon, pulling it loose and free, and drapes it around his own neck. "Please," he whispers.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says.

They're slightly late to the banquet.

Chapter Text

At the banquet, Jiang Fengmian announces the flags at the outset, before anyone gets too drunk to follow his explanation. The assembled cultivators seem broadly impressed; Wei Wuxian sees Su She in a back corner looking oddly sullen, but figures it's perfectly possible that Su She simply failed to catch any prey.

Wei Wuxian introduces the concept of the Evil Compass, and presents examples to Zixuan, as their host, and to Clan Leader Ouyang as a gift for his infant son.

There are toasts to the Jin, to the successful, to the unsuccessful, to Jiang Fengmian as Chief Cultivator, and surprisingly to Wei Wuxian for his innovations. Wei Wuxian drinks; no-one pretends to be insulted when the Lan do not.

Wei Wuxian is almost enjoying himself, but he supposes that it helps to have already been feeling quite relaxed when they arrived.

---

When they return to their chambers afterwards, Wei Wuxian takes the time to look around and consider them properly.

Zixuan has not been ungenerous. The two bedrooms are of modest size, but well-appointed. The main room is spacious, with plenty of seating, and the kitchen is small, but also well-furnished. There are chests and cabinets for storage, and an attached private bathing area.

In his first life, at this age, he had lost his golden core, he fought Lan Zhan as often as he saw him, and Lotus Pier was still badly damaged, the Jiang Sect barely beginning to be rebuilt. When he was near there, Wei Wuxian tended to avoid it, unable to look at the damage, and would drink and stay in the town at Lotus Cove. In a few weeks, he would have gone to Qiongqi Path and set himself against the world. He would have had to live in an unpleasant cave that reeked of blood, and farmed turnips and radishes in the poor soil they had.

His core is strong. A-Yuan is here, and Lan Zhan is getting him ready for bed right now. Lotus Pier is unharmed.

The Yiling Burial Mounds are still wholly untamed, without even the improvements he made when he was first thrown into them, still a nightmare for the people of the surrounding area.

He rubs his nose.

He'll think about that tomorrow.

Right now his son is in his night-clothes and ready to be tucked in.

He goes into the bedroom. A-Yuan is sitting up in bed, Lan Zhan crouching next to him.

"Daddy!" A-Yuan says, beaming.

"What's happening here?" he asks, mock-confused. "Why is A-Yuan still in bed? It's time for breakfast!"

"Daddy, no," A-Yuan says sternly. "A-Yuan sleep."

"You can't sleep! It's time to get up! Breakfast!"

A-Yuan puts his little fists on his hips and frowns seriously. "No, Daddy. Not breakfast. Sleep time."

"A-Yuan is correct," Lan Zhan says. "Daddy is being very silly. It is time for rest."

A-Yuan looks adorably smug at this victory. "Father and Daddy sing?"

"Of course," says Lan Zhan, and unhesitatingly begins singing a lullaby. Wei Wuxian sings the harmony, and A-Yuan lies back and closes his eyes. Lan Zhan tucks the blankets around him securely.

When the song is finished, they whisper their goodnights and slip out of the room.

---

A few days later, he's standing in Yiling with Lan Zhan, A-Yuan left safe at Lotus Pier.

"This place is... ominous," Lan Zhan says.

Wei Wuxian nods. "I lived here as a child... before," he says. "Fighting feral dogs for scraps of rubbish to eat until Uncle Jiang found me."

"Wei Ying..."

He doesn't look around. He doesn't want to see the expression that goes with that kind of aching voice. "This time my parents left me at Lotus Pier, before they went on the hunt that killed them." He sighs. "I tried to get them to stay, but they just decided they would leave me with people instead of alone."

"It is good that they did," Lan Zhan says. "Wei Ying should not be alone."

"I won't be. I have you." He squeezes his hand.

"Yes. Always." Wei Wuxian feels Lan Zhan kiss his hair. "Are you sure about this?"

"Very sure. Yiling is in Lotus Pier's area of responsibility, and we've been ignoring it too long because it's such a big problem and the people here are too poor to afford to pay for as much work as it's going to take, but how is that an excuse? With this kind of shadow over the whole area, they'll stay poor if no-one does something about it."

He knows he's right. Even here, not at the Burial Mounds themselves, the soil is poor and the air carries a whiff of rot. Everything seems faintly unpleasant, almost tainted; they've walked from the edge of town to the least-bad inn, and Wei Wuxian feels like he needs to bathe. There's only one exception to the general sense of filth that pervades the place, and it's Lan Zhan.

Who doesn't count, because Lan Zhan always seems somehow pristine. Bichen is well-suited to its master. Wei Wuxian should know. He has tried very hard to dishevel and debauch Lan Zhan in a wide range of ways, and it does not work. Lan Zhan somehow looks noble and pure even lying in bed all sweaty and - he needs not to think about this right now.

They book their room, and eat a light meal that has a faintly gritty texture, and set out for the Burial Mounds.

He's not actually sure what the best approach will be. When he came here with the Wen remnants, the place had already had the benefit of the first three months he spent there. He has a golden core, and a better sense of what he'd need to do to bring the place under control, and he already has his new, more powerful Stygian Tiger Seal.

But those first three months in the Burial Mounds were truly very awful.

He skirts a path around the edges of the area, Lan Zhan following him closely, and sighs.

Trying to quell the dark clouds of resentful energy from the edges seems like it would be rather akin to trying to empty a river with a spoon.

"Lan Zhan," he says, "I think you should stay behind while I do this."

Oh, he has not missed that look on Lan Zhan's face. That's his I am clearly in love with an idiot, because only an idiot would say that face.

"I mean it," Wei Wuxian says. "I think I'm going to have to go straight to the heart of the mountain, or it won't even make a dent. Far too many people have tried to work on this from the edges without success for that to be possible."

"Then we will go to the heart of the mountain," Lan Zhan says.

---

He prepares carefully, and plans with precision.

There's no point trying to do this all at once. Even if he has more knowledge and better tools now, it took a long time before, and quite a bit of the area was still uninhabitable. There's no specific urgency, this time. He just wants to be sure he's made progress.

Lan Zhan is adamant that he's not staying behind.

Wei Wuxian gives strong consideration to spiking Lan Zhan's drink and heading out before he wakes up, but he doesn't want to risk it; there's no telling what a drunk Lan Zhan would do, given he would definitely panic.

So instead, they both dress in robes marked with shijie's protective wards. Wei Wuxian has many talismans ready to go, stored in Qiankun sleeves.

He's confident he can do this.

He's only less sure of the cost, but he's clinging to the recollection of Zewu-Jun's confidence that spiritual damage is recoverable.

Lan Zhan flies them both on Bichen, coming in from high above to the plateau where the cave entrance is situated, where he'd once helped to build houses and tilled terrible soil to grow food.

Wei Wuxian puts Baohu to his lips, and begins to play. The overwhelming mass of resentful energy is reaching for them, tendrils of hatred straining into the sky, and he calls the Stygian Tiger Seal too, lets the halves snap together to spin above his shoulder. The Stygian Tiger Seal can draw the energy, channel it, direct it, but it can't destroy it outright; he lets the energy whirl around them, because his ideas for what to do about this are going to require time and a steadier footing.

They land in the eye of a tornado of dark energy.

Lan Zhan follows closely as Wei Wuxian walks slowly towards the cave. He can't see it, but he knows it's there, he knows this place too well not to find it.

The cave entrance starts to peek through the swirling wall of darkness, and he changes his melody, directs all of the power to flow behind them.

The cave is still clear. It's bare rock, inside, he knows - no bodies were buried there, and he hasn't been here, now, to start using it for refining corpses or awakening Wen Ning.

Once they're both inside, he stops playing, throws talismans from his sleeve down, and then quickly cuts his fingers and makes an array on the stone floor.

They won't be safe for long, but it's a start.

---

He really misses Wen Ning.

Wen Ning is, of course, alive and well, but that's sort of the problem; he's alive, and well, and courting his likely wife-to-be, so he's not here being an unstoppable ferocious corpse. (Also, he doesn't remember their years of friendship, and Wei Wuxian misses that part a lot. With his other loved ones, he has made new memories to share, and he barely notices the difference; he has had almost no time to spend with Wen Ning.)

The potential horde of ferocious corpses here will be his objective later. For now, it's time to deal with the mass of resentful energy.

His memory of how he did it last time is... hazy.

"Lan Zhan," he says, "stay behind me."

Carefully, wincing slightly at the biting chill in the air, he pulls off the warded outer and inner robes to stand bare-chested in his trousers and boots. Shijie's array on his chest is glowing in reaction even with the wards at the cave entrance.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says, "I do not think you should be removing the wards."

"I have to," Wei Wuxian says. He drapes his robes over Lan Zhan's shoulders. They might provide additional protection. It's worth a try.

He holds out his hand, lets the Stygian Tiger Seal float over his palm, and then catches it in a firm grip.

It burns his fingers even as he feels like it's freezing his arm to the elbow. The Stygian Tiger Seal, even in this form, isn't really meant to be touched.

He holds it anyway.

And then he steps forward, and breaks the array.

The Stygian Tiger Seal can draw the energy, channel it, and direct it, but it can't destroy it outright.

What it can do is absorb it. Store it. Contain it.

He still doesn't know the origins of the sword that had bathed in the resentment of thousands of victims of the Xuanwu of Slaughter. He doesn't know what cultivator wielded it; he thinks they must have been strong, to have so powerful a spiritual weapon, even if they weren't quite strong enough to survive.

The metal of it knows how to hate, how to hoard the darkness to itself. The first Stygian Tiger Seal he made was forged here, in this place, was shaped with this fury.

This one was crafted in a workshop, forged and shaped and inlaid with love and protection and devotion. They both have something of the nature of the beast they are made to resemble; the first was a wild thing, trapped and resentful of captivity. This one is akin to a tiger captured as a cub and raised as a well-loved pet, but a tiger cannot truly be tamed, and now it is snarling and biting at his soul.

It hurts less, this time.

It still hurts.

The storm flows into him and through him. He thinks he might be screaming, but he's not sure. He's caught in the shuddering nightmare of it, and it won't stop, he can't make it stop, it's been hours or maybe it's been weeks and he can't -

"Stop," he hears, and the storm winks out like a candle being snuffed.

Lan Zhan is peeling his fingers away from the Stygian Tiger Seal. It drops away, floats tamely into its pouch, two halves separating of their own accord, and Wei Wuxian realises that he's shaking, that it's dark, and that his hand is covered in blood, that blood has run down to his elbow, is dripping to the ground below him.

"That is enough," Lan Zhan says gently. "You cannot afford more energy for the protective array, and I cannot give you more and still fly us back to Yiling."

He redresses Wei Wuxian tenderly, and then sets Bichen on the ground, pulls Wei Wuxian into his arms, takes them both into the air.

The density of resentful energy is lessened.

This is progress.

He leans back into Lan Zhan's arms and closes his eyes. He doesn't remember the journey to Yiling.

---

They return to Lotus Pier the next day, and take a few days for recovery before the next trip to Yiling.

Lotus Pier is buzzing with activity. Jiang Fengmian's responsibilities as Chief Cultivator have been steadily mounting; the disputes and disagreements that no-one would have dared to take to Wen Ruohan (not least because his "judgement" would have likely gone badly for both sides) are now being brought to him.

As a result, many of the duties of the Jiang Sect Leader are gradually becoming Jiang Cheng's, even as preparations are also underway for his wedding. (Not that he's very involved with those; when shijie offered to help, he handed off pretty much every part of it outside of "actually marrying Wen Qing" to her with every sign of utter relief.)

Wen Qing is dividing her time between Lotus Pier and Qishan, and she and Madam Yu seem already to have become friends. The discipline and skill of the Jiang Sect could soon be the envy of the cultivation world, as any cultivator or disciple who is perceived to be lazy in their training faces the ire of Madam Yu, and anyone who becomes injured through carelessness or inattention is guaranteed to experience that of Wen Qing.

Wei Wuxian knows from experience that her tongue can be sharper than her needles, and her needles are very very sharp; all he can tell his shidis is to train hard and take care when they night-hunt.

Apparently not all of them listen. After fifth shidi receives his spiritual sword, he crashes it into a rooftop showing off for the younger disciples.

Wei Wuxian is the one who brings him back - he was genuinely not encouraging or approving of fifth shidi's actions, and had in fact gone running out to tell him not to be so stupid just too late, and he is simultaneously appalled at fifth shidi, at himself for being too late, and also at himself for apparently being a responsible adult again already.

He delivers him to Wen Qing's office. The commotion has drawn Madam Yu's attention, and she is frowning sharply.

Wen Qing sets fifth shidi's broken bones without missing a single beat in the scathing lecture she delivers throughout. Wei Wuxian thinks he sees a tear in Madam Yu's eye, and leaves fifth shidi to his fate to go to her.

"I'm sure fifth shidi will recover fully," he reassures Madam Yu.

"Of course he will," Madam Yu says. "I'm just..." She wipes her eyes, and tugs him outside. "She's so perfect. She's exactly the daughter I always wanted." She presses a hand to her heart. "If A-Cheng fucks this up I will actually kill him."

Smiling, she walks away.

Wei Wuxian stares, and goes to find Lan Zhan.

His husband has, it seems, collected every disciple who had been watching or encouraging fifth shidi's display, and has them doing handstands one-handed while they write essays on responsible behaviour under his disapproving eye.

(The senior authorities of Lotus Pier have very different approaches to discipline. Madam Yu is sharp, Wen Qing is scathing, Uncle Jiang offers correction with gentle reproof, Jiang Cheng shouts angrily, shijie is grieved by her disappointment, and Lan Zhan is stern. Wei Wuxian will unrepentantly deliver the guilty to the person whose approach he thinks will be most suited to the crime and the criminal; somehow this has resulted in the juniors developing a shared conviction that the threat of Wei Wuxian disciplining them personally is the most terrifying danger of all. He uses it sparingly.)

Wei Wuxian walks straight at him until he thuds into his side and presses his face into Lan Zhan's shoulder. "Thank you," he mumbles.

"For?" Lan Zhan's wraps an arm around him, apparently by reflex; his attention is still mostly on the disciples.

"Being you. If it hadn't been for you, I might have ended up marrying a woman, and I can't, Lan Zhan, they're confusing and they scare me and I don't want to." He whimpers plaintively. "Don't let me have to marry a woman, Lan Zhan. Please."

"Will not," Lan Zhan says firmly. "Wei Ying is mine."

Wei Wuxian smiles, as he feels a warm weight wrap around his shin. "Hello, A-Yuan," he says, and straightens, turning to the disciples. "Just so you all know, fifth shidi will be fine."

"Does that mean we don't have to finish doing this?" sixth shidi asks hopefully.

"If Lan-qianbei says you can stop, you can stop," Wei Wuxian answers sweetly.

"Continue," Lan Zhan says.

---

They manage two more trips to Yiling before it's time for Jiang Cheng's wedding.

Zixuan's envy is poorly disguised as he looks around the brightly-decorated courtyards of Lotus Pier, and Wei Wuxian tells him so.

Zixuan flushes. "It's not my fault my wedding has to be so..."

"Ridiculous?" Wei Wuxian offers.

Zixuan grimaces. "Yeah."

With Jiang Cheng being his sect's heir, and no war currently brewing, Lotus Pier is still crowded with sect and clan leaders, all eager to be seen at the wedding of the son of the Chief Cultivator, many of them vying to outdo each other with the generosity of their gifts.

Jiang Cheng is scowling with embarrassment over it all. Wen Qing's composure shows not so much as a flicker.

Wen Ning is beaming, entirely oblivious to the other guests who variously aim sly barbs in his direction or carefully-crafted compliments intended to make a start at currying favour with the Wen in their reduced state in the hopes of greater profits when their status is regained. He clearly has no concern for anything that isn't the wondrous joy of this, his beloved sister's wedding day.

To Wei Wuxian's delighted amusement, Lan Zhan has been drafted into the bridal party. Wen Qing has no living close female relatives, nor, it seems, many friends. MianMian and Qin Su arrived with Jin Zixuan, but somehow, it seems, they all decided that Lan Zhan would also be necessary.

"Is it because he's so pretty?" Wei Wuxian had asked. "Aren't I pretty enough?"

"Not as pretty as Hanguang-Jun," MianMian had answered, which he can't really argue with, "and you are Jiang Wanyin's brother, so of course you have to be with him."

"You know Lan Zhan and I are both married, don't you?" Not that he can pretend that he's ever been particularly traditionally minded, but he's a little surprised nonetheless.

Wen Qing had smirked. "We decided that Jiang Cheng can still have you, because you're not married to a woman, and also because he really wants you there. And if he can have you, than I can have Hanguang-Jun. He's married to you, anyway. It hardly counts."

MianMian and Qin Su had giggled. Wei Wuxian had fled.

And now he's helping Jiang Cheng get dressed, and he suddenly understands the ordeal that Zixuan and Nie Huaisang put him through at his own wedding as he finds himself frowning at the precise hang of Jiang Cheng's sash, making tiny adjustments to the set of his robes, because he cannot live with the idea that Jiang Cheng will look less than perfect today. Even shijie is laughing at him.

Jiang Cheng's temper runs out sooner than Wei Wuxian's did, and he finally snaps and smacks Wei Wuxian's hands away. "Stop it! Stop it! Wen Qing isn't going to cancel the wedding because I'm not completely and utterly perfectly dressed." He scowls, and goes to flick his hair back, but Yinzhu catches his wrist and glares sharply.

"Do not ruin your hair," Jinzhu hisses.

"A-Cheng looks very beautiful," shijie says. "I'm sure this will be fine."

Jiang Cheng really needs to work on his temper, Wei Wuxian thinks. He's just so tetchy sometimes.

---

The wedding itself goes off without a hitch.

Lan Zhan attends Wen Qing very seriously, although when someone needs to drink for her, it's mostly MianMian who does so, occasionally Qin Su, and never, ever Lan Zhan.

Jiang Cheng and Wen Qing bow three times.

Wei Wuxian cries without shame.

He loves them both, and now he can believe that Jiang Cheng won't be facing the future alone, and Wen Qing will be safe, her fate guarded by the entire Jiang Sect.

(He's not really surprised that she will be known even yet as Madam Wen; it's a political statement, even more than her casual defiance of all custom and tradition to have Lan Zhan attending her, and the son of Madam Yu, in the house of Madam Yu, would never have registered even the slightest objection.)

Chapter Text

Lan Zhan plays Cleansing for him every night. Wei Wuxian can't pretend it isn't helping, that his project in Yiling isn't taking a toll on him, but he refuses to give up on it.

If nothing else, he doesn't want to take the risk that someone else might be thrown in there too, to die horribly or to come out... changed, in the way he had. He has no illusions that the Burial Mounds made him a better person, they absolutely did not, and for all that arrogance has always been a flaw of his, he doesn't think it's just arrogance for him to think that someone else, possessed of power like his, could be far, far worse.

He only needs to imagine Su She, or Jin Zixun, or the Jin Guangyao who murdered Nie Mingjue and was willing to use the children of cultivators as bait to kill their parents.

One of the things he needs to do in this life is ensure that no-one else can find the path he did.

Still, they take a longer break before resuming their work after Jiang Cheng's wedding. By their next trip to Yiling, they're getting near to winter, and the wind at the top of the mountain is bitter and biting.

The work this time, at least, is much less difficult and not nearly as unpleasant. The resentful energy has thinned enough to take a gentler approach to dealing with it.

They fly again to land outside the cave, but this time they can simply walk in without real threat.

Lan Zhan sets out his guqin as Wei Wuxian marks out a very carefully designed array. It glows faintly as he completes it and steps back, drawing Baohu, and then brighter as it begins to draw the resentful energy towards it.

Lan Zhan begins to play, and Wei Wuxian joins him on Baohu.

This time there's no agony of assault on his sense of self; this time they're using the approved techniques of the Lan Sect, calming and dispelling the resentful energy even as the array gathers it.

Hour after hour, they play. Wei Wuxian pauses briefly when his mouth is getting too dry to play, sipping water they brought with them from Lotus Pier and holding the container for Lan Zhan to drink as well before resuming.

Finally it's getting dark, and they're both tiring, and their water is starting to freeze, and this still isn't a good place to be at night.

They return to Yiling, and then go back to Lotus Pier in the morning.

---

Only days after that, it's time to go to Jinlintai for Jin Guangyao's wedding to Mo Fan.

Wei Wuxian enjoys himself, standing proudly in his role as father of the bride. Jin Guangyao and Mo Fan seem very much to be in love, and Mo Fan is definitely not his sister (Wei Wuxian did, in fact, check), so he has high hopes for the couple's future.

A-Yuan and Mo Xuanyu are painfully adorable playing together in their little formal robes.

Jin Zixuan, with Madam Meng on his arm, smiles at the guests as if daring them to comment.

(Wei Wuxian will forever regret mentioning to shijie that Zixuan almost seems like he's deliberately challenging everyone present to make a comment about it, because her reply of, "Yes, it would seem so. It's very... loyal of him," is perfectly defensible, but he can see the moment where she decided not to say that it was attractive or sexy or something equally terrible, and Wei Wuxian regrets all of his choices.)

---

They spend the winter in Yunmeng. Gusu is very cold in the winter, and Lotus Cove is not.

They still visit Yiling every few days, except for the miserable time when A-Yuan has a cold. (He's still a remarkably sweet child, even when he's sick, but his quietly tragic misery is heartrending.) Their progress is gradual, but definitely there.

By the time winter is coming to an end, they've made really a lot of progress, but the final stage of his plan can definitely wait until after a very important thing has happened.

Because shijie is getting married, and Wei Wuxian is going to be there.

---

In this life, again, he and Jiang Cheng have fantasised about how lavish, how beautiful, how perfect shijie's wedding should be.

With the money of the Jin paying for all of it, and the Jin themselves determined to go all out, to put on a thick face after everything, to show that after the death of Jin Guangshan, the war, and the irregular additions to the Sect Leader's household, they are still, very much, the Jin, they get their wish.

Every part of shijie's wedding hovers on the very edge of the boundary between sumptuous luxury and obnoxiously tacky ostentation.

It's perfect.

When Zixuan comes to knock down the door for shijie, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng are prepared.

First, he has to get past Lan Zhan at the entrance to the courtyard beyond which are shijie's rooms. Lan Zhan has prepared a list of questions on cultivational technique, on history, and also on music theory. (Because why not?)

Zixuan gamely does his best, and his score is... adequate. Lan Zhan permits him to pass (after the occasional expressionless stare conveying his disappointment). Zixuan looks relieved until he steps into the courtyard, and both Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng step out to block his way.

Wei Wuxian is giving his most menacing smile, twirling Baohu in his left hand. Jiang Cheng is scowling, and Zidian is sparking.

Zixuan bows warily.

"You didn't think it would be just one test, did you?" Wei Wuxian asks.

"For her?" Jiang Cheng adds, and flicks his wrist for effect. Zidian cracks in the air.

---

Watching from the window of the pavilion where she waits, Jiang Yanli sighs fondly. Her brothers are so sweet.

---

"So tell us, Jin Zixuan," Wei Wuxian says, drawing Suibian. "Will you face us?"

"Both of us?" Jiang Cheng draws Sandu. In unison (they may have practiced this, Wei Wuxian admits nothing), they level their swords at Zixuan's throat.

"Do you think -" Wei Wuxian says.

"- for a moment -" Jiang Cheng adds.

"- that you can win?" Wei Wuxian finishes.

Zixuan looks at them both. Their blades are very steady.

And then he draws his sword. "No, I can't win," he says simply. "Not against both of you. But for her, I'll try."

Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng nod, and sheath their swords. "Acceptable," they say together.

"We can't have you marrying her all sweaty and bleeding," Wei Wuxian tells him cheerfully. "So that will do. Apart from finding her shoes, of course. They're in Jinlintai. We were going to tell you Lanling, but shijie insisted."

---

The wedding itself is beautiful, because the thing that Wei Wuxian has to admit is that they really do love each other.

He's so very glad to be there, standing between Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan (who, for the occasion, has respectfully foregone wearing his customary white robes, and has instead worn the colours of the Jiang Sect; it looks odd, but still wonderful, both because Lan Zhan would look good in absolutely anything, and because this is Lan Zhan's silent declaration that he, too, is shijie's family).

He's so very glad to see her bows, and to celebrate this moment, to toast their health, their fortune, and their future.

In his first life, he missed this, and it hurt, even if the Wen did their best.

In this one, he's here. He's standing with her brother, he's standing as her brother. He's leaning slightly to press his shoulder to Jiang Cheng's, and Jiang Cheng is pressing back; this is it, we're here, we did it, it's perfect and she's happy. It's everything they wanted for her, because they've known all along that she wasn't theirs to keep.

Wei Wuxian is glad that he and Zixuan are friends, now. Zixuan is a better man than he thought; he has come to think so highly of him that he can even think that he will, in truth, be an adequate husband for his shijie. He adores her and respects her, and his joy today is evident.

And Wei Wuxian is here to see it.

---

A few days later, Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan are back in Yiling. It's a very pleasant day, the spring sun bright and warm, a crisp, refreshing breeze blowing through the town.

Wei Wuxian stops at the stall of the toy-seller to buy a grass butterfly for A-Yuan, feeling nostalgic, but the man refuses to accept his money. "Please, please, my gift," he says earnestly.

"Thank you, then," Wei Wuxian says. "Very kind."

They walk through the town. Several other merchants come out from their shops or from behind their stalls to press things on them, quite insistently - food, jars of wine, a paper lantern, a basket to carry the rest.

"Is there some kind of festival I don't know about?" Wei Wuxian wonders, but Lan Zhan is as mystified as he is.

And then they reach the inn, and the innkeeper flatly refuses to accept their money too.

"Why not?" Wei Wuxian asks.

"I couldn't possibly take money from my lord Patriarch!" the innkeeper protests. "We are so grateful to you. So thankful. It is my honour to host you at my inn."

"... Patriarch?" Wei Wuxian says weakly.

"Is the title unacceptable? Everyone has been talking about you! Since you started visiting, everything has been getting better and better. You go to the Burial Mounds every time, we know, and the darkness has been lifted from our humble town. We cannot pay the fair price for what you have done for us, but we will forever give honour to the Yiling Patriarch and Hanguang-Jun!"

Wei Wuxian doesn't know who, or what, truly determines the vagaries of fate.

But if he ever finds out, he's ready to go quite a long way for the privilege of punching them in the face.

---

The enthusiastic support of the townsfolk gives him an idea.

When he suggests it to the innkeeper, the man's response is positive. The townsfolk will be honoured to help him complete his work, he's certain! Honoured Patriarch is sure it will be safe for them, yes?

The word goes out.

The townsfolk bring axes, and rope, and assemble everyone who can be spared.

For three days, they cut, and carry, and drag, clearing all the most tainted stands of trees and brush and hauling the wood to the summit, stacking it in the cave.

Once, on an occasion that only Wei Wuxian now remembers, over a thousand living cultivators took refuge in the cave that was then called the Demon-Slaughter Cave with room to spare. It's very large indeed.

They put all the wood and branches they can into it.

Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji spend the time going through the cave placing talismans along the walls, as many as they can manage.

Finally they've cleared as much tainted plant life as he dares - much more, and they'd risk a mudslide engulfing the town when the rains come - and filled the cave with wood and talismans.

"Thank you all," Wei Wuxian tells the townspeople who've worked so hard. "Please return to the town, now, and stay away from here until we return."

"Yes, Lord Patriarch!" they chorus.

He's not sure he's going to get used to that.

Lan Zhan mounts Bichen. Wei Wuxian joins him, lets Lan Zhan wrap his arms around him to hold him steady, relaxes against him, trusts in Lan Zhan's strength.

They begin.

Lan Zhan flies them in a slow, steady spiral, looping around all of the Burial Mounds and ascending slowly as Wei Wuxian plays on Baohu, the Stygian Tiger Seal spinning above his shoulder.

The dead crawl free of the soil, thousands of ferocious corpses dragging themselves up, many of them dragging the bones of more dead with them.

As they climb, it almost looks like the mountain itself is rising with them, shuddering and seething upwards.

And still they rise.

It takes a long time to get to the top. When they do, the cave is clearly full, even as the dead climb over and on top of each other to fill every part of the space inside.

He shifts the melody slightly, adds a long, low note, and triggers the talismans within.

If they were relying on normal fire, there wouldn't be enough air inside the cave to burn.

They're not. Not yet.

And the flames roar white-hot.

Lan Zhan eases them back, away from the smoke that pours thickly from the cave entrance. The breeze carries it away; it will disperse high in the sky, and be harmless before it is returned to earth. The dead keep pressing forward. As the bodies within crumble to ash, new ones enter, rank after rank of them, marching steadily into the fire that consumes them each in turn.

They've almost all been dead long enough that their bodies have become very dry, and each new wave provides fuel for the flames that will consume the next.

It seems an eternity before the very last of them stumbles in.

The heat radiating from the entrance to the cave is intense as Lan Zhan and Wei Wuxian land on the plateau. The stone itself has taken on a muted orange glow.

Lan Zhan pulls out his guqin, and together they play Rest for the ashes of the dead of the Yiling Burial Mounds.

When it's done, they move further away. Wei Wuxian sighs, and plays a short, trilling melody on Baohu. Lan Zhan adds a counterpoint on his guqin.

The rock above the cave entrance shudders, and cracks, and falls, blocking the cave entrance completely.

Wei Wuxian closes his eyes and listens, breathes, extends his senses as far as he can reach.

There are traces of resentful energy still on the mountain, clinging to the soil and to some of the vegetation, but it's weak, scattered - he's felt much worse in other places.

He opens his eyes, and smiles.

"I think," he says, "it's over."

And then the world goes dark.

---

He wakes at Lotus Pier.

He can hear guqin and xiao music - he is, he thinks, starting to get quite tired of Cleansing, actually - and when he opens his eyes, Wen Qing is leaning over him.

"You're an idiot," is the first thing she says.

"Is that a way to address your husband's shixiong?" he protests weakly.

"Yes." That's Jiang Cheng's voice. "Because you're an idiot. And not my shixiong."

"We thought all your little trips away were just night-hunting," says Madam Yu, and he is in so much trouble, apparently.

"Or even just taking some time for yourself would be fine," Uncle Jiang adds.

"You did get married right before the war started, after all," says Lan Xichen, and the only reason that this isn't pretty clearly the most trouble Wei Wuxian has ever been in is that there was that one time when Jiang Cheng and a few thousand other people all came to kill him. And that other time Jiang Cheng and hundreds of other people came to kill him. Or the time he got thrown into the Burial Mounds, or -

"We didn't realise that you had decided to cleanse the Yiling Burial Mounds by yourself," and how is this getting worse, but that's shijie's so very grieved by her disappointment voice, and he has even less resistance to that than the juniors do.

"Lan Zhan was with me," he says weakly.

"Yes," says Lan Qiren, "that is also disappointing. Wangji should know better."

"We've all been very worried," says Wen Ning, and Wei Wuxian is about ready to give up. He's not sure what he's giving up on, but he's ready. Did everyone decide to visit Lotus Pier at the same time?

"If you'd asked, we could have helped," says Madam Yu. "There was no need to exhaust yourself like this and trouble Madam Wen to take care of you. Imagine if the people of Yiling hadn't sent to tell us that Hanguang-Jun had collapsed after he carried the Yiling Patriarch back to town?"

Lan Zhan is clearly fine, or they wouldn't all be having such fun at his expense. Wei Wuxian looks at Wen Qing. "Just kill me," he pleads.

She raises an eyebrow, and her lips twitch into the faintest of smiles. "Wei Wuxian, do you really imagine I would ever let you off that easily?"

---

The worst punishment is yet to come, but they save that for when Lan Zhan - who's just in the next bed, it turns out, having over-exerted himself somewhat, but suffered no other ill effects - is also awake.

That's when Madam Yu brings in A-Yuan, whose little lip trembles as he looks between his parents. His expression is heartrending.

"You see, A-Yuan? Father and Daddy are fine," she says. She looks flatly at Wei Wuxian, as if Lan Zhan hadn't been right there with him - which he has to admit is fair, because Lan Zhan would have preferred to take the whole thing more slowly, but Wei Wuxian had pushed and Lan Zhan, in any life, can rarely say no to him, really - and adds, with the air of one delivering the killing blow: "A-Yuan has been very worried."

A-Yuan nods emphatically. "A-Yuan worry," he says mournfully.

Wei Wuxian is the worst person in the world.

---

Earlier:

"They'll be fine," Wen Qing said. "Lan Wangji will be all right as soon as his spiritual energy recovers, which won't take long. Wei Wuxian will take a little longer, but with care and Master Lan Qiren's assistance, he'll be up and about within two days, I think."

"And then I'll kill him," Jiang Cheng declared.

"He's so reckless," Madam Yu fumed. "I'm going to forbid him from leaving Lotus Pier without giving me an itinerary."

"He won't take that well," Jiang Yanli said mildly. "There is a much better way to encourage A-Xian to show more restraint."

"Really, A-Li, you're far too soft on him," Madam Yu began, but stopped, blinking, when Wen Qing shook her head with a smile.

"Forgive me, Madam Yu, but I think we should listen. What did you have in mind?"

Jiang Yanli's smile was soft and warm as she rose and went to sit next to A-Yuan, who was playing quietly on the floor.

"A-Yuan, Daddy and Father have been quite foolish and naughty," she said.

The child looked up with an expression of astonishment. "Father naughty too?" The idea seemed to be revelatory to him.

"Yes," Jiang Yanli said very seriously. "Father was very naughty. What happens when people are naughty?"

"Displin!" A-Yuan replied instantly. Jiang Yanli smiled, and he looked slightly dazzled.

"That's right! But sometimes adults need special discipline. Daddy and Father need very special discipline this time. Would you like to help?"

"A-Yuan help!" He clambered into her lap.

"Wonderful!" Jiang Yanli said. "Now first, let's practice making a very sad face..."

Madam Yu pressed her hand to her heart. "I've never been so proud," she murmured.

"I don't know whether this is amazing or terrifying," Jin Zixuan said.

Jiang Cheng was staring in horror. "Does she - does she do it on purpose?" he whispered.

Wen Qing looked at him. "Hasn't she had you and Wei Wuxian wrapped around her little finger for your entire lives?" she asked.

He opened his mouth, closed it again, opened it. "I - but - she -"

Wen Qing tilted her head. "Will it really make a difference if she does it on purpose, or if she's just teaching A-Yuan to do it because she knows it works?"

He stared.

Wen Qing continued. "Do you think you will somehow magically develop the ability to say no to her?"

He wilted.

Wen Qing smirked. "That's what I thought."

---

The disciplinary instruction of Lan Wangji is severe, and undertaken before Wei Ying awakens.

"He will recover," Madam Wen informs him when he asks, "but it was a very near thing. He nearly died."

And then she simply leaves Lan Wangji to think about that.

Lan Wangji knows, as a matter of certain fact, that he lived for a number of years before Wei Ying entered his life.

It nonetheless doesn't seem quite... real.

His memories of who he was before he knew Wei Ying have a strangely dreamlike quality, as if they happened to someone else.

They did, he thinks. He isn't the same person, he couldn't be the same person again.

He knows only a vague outline of how things happened, the first time Wei Ying remembers him. That Wei Ying teased, and flirted, and did not know he meant it; that Lan Wangji resisted, and turned away.

That they fought, and Wei Ying walked away from him, and he walked away from Wei Ying, over and over again.

He can't, doesn't want to, imagine the kind of turmoil he would have felt, knowing that Wei Ying would have been in him by then - Wei Ying, he knows, would always become part of him, he'd always be helpless to resist the way he seeped into his skin, the warmth and light of Wei Ying filling all the cold, dark places of him.

Lan Wangji was born to a cold austerity, raised to treat his feelings as weaknesses and accept that his isolation from others was a mark of virtue, a glorious reward for his excellence and not a prison.

He knows that Wei Ying died, and was dead for a number of years.

He knows that he survived - wounded, somehow, Wei Ying is still sometimes breathlessly overcome at Lan Wangji's smooth, unmarked skin, and Lan Wangji knows that the reverent kisses on his chest, on his back, are not, entirely, for this Lan Wangji, but he does not resent it. If anything, he is thankful for them, because he is thankful for the man Wei Ying once knew him to be, thankful that whatever else he may have been in that other life, he was enough for Wei Ying to love him, to want to find him again in this one.

He thinks that perhaps that other Lan Wangji was a stronger man, because in this life, he is not sure he could survive losing Wei Ying.

Or perhaps he could. Perhaps, again, their son would be enough to hold him to the world.

He does not wish to find out.

Loving Wei Ying has brought him a fierce joy he could never have imagined possible, a warmth of feeling where once there was only emptiness.

Loving Wei Ying has brought him a fear too large for him to encompass. Love is many things, he has learned, and one of those things is fear. He fears losing Wei Ying more than he fears death itself; what is death compared to the loss of that which makes life worth living?

Wei Ying, he knows, will not be careful, because Wei Ying is brilliant and knowing and perceptive except when it comes to understanding that he is loved, that he is necessary, that there are those who will feel his absence in every breath, every heartbeat.

Lan Wangji will have to be careful for him.

Chapter Text

Wen Qing finds Madam Yu standing on one of the piers, gazing out at the river.

She never expected to have a mother-in-law. There was always the possibility that Wen Ruohan or her father would decide that she should marry... someone, but Wen Qing's chief worry had been for what might happen to A-Ning without her to take care of him, because she had been certain that death would be a preferable alternative to marriage.

And yet, here she is. Madam Wen of Lotus Pier, with a husband.

A husband who keeps his own bedroom in their shared chambers, who responds to the sharpness of her tongue with equal fire and a challenging gleam in his eye - a husband who is fun, who is a friend. She has not had many friends in her life - among the Wen, there weren't that many people who would or could have dared to speak to the favoured daughter of Wen Ruohan's cousin, and none of them were anything but repellent to her.

A husband who listens to her and always considers her advice, when it isn't to do with medical matters, even if he scoffs at it, will argue with her and argue with her until there is an agreement, and then often he will do what she said he should do; even when she has to convince him, he always gives her the opportunity to do so. (When it is to do with medical matters, he does not argue, he merely listens; on such subjects, her word is the law of Lotus Pier.)

In the months since their wedding she has become fiercely fond of him in a way she never imagined. She has come to realise that his temper hides a good heart, easily hurt, that his bluster masks a terrible fear of inadequacy.

She has loved A-Ning for as long as he has been alive. She is at peace with her weakness for soft-hearted boys who fear the world that wants to cause them pain, and A-Ning is no longer hers alone. (She is conflicted. She wants him to be loved, to have more people who will care for him, but she is aware of her own selfish desire to keep him to herself, the one love she was permitted to hold in the long, dark years of Wen Ruohan, pure and perfect. She is aware, too, of her own fear that others can not be trusted, that they will not be careful enough with something so precious.)

Her husband is hers, and hers alone, to the extent that she could ever want him to be. He has his family, of course, and his sworn brothers (she would not object if he had more friends, but he's no better at friendship than she is), but only she will call him husband.

She is Madam Wen, who is the daughter-in-law now of Madam Yu, who calls her Madam Wen with a gleam of pleased satisfaction.

Wen Qing thinks she understands it perfectly.

"Madam Yu," she says.

"Madam Wen." Her mother-in-law does not turn, but Wen Qing knows that if her presence were unwelcome, Madam Yu would say so. After a lifetime in Qishan, the bluntness of her new family is a balm. (She has never been so productive; no-one expects her to interrupt her work unless there is an emergency. Not even Jiang Fengmian, the Sect Leader and Chief Cultivator, will disturb her merely upon a whim.)

"Wei Wuxian has a secret," she says. "You know what it is, don't you?"

Madam Yu does turn, now. "Yes," she says simply, and waits, expectant.

Wen Qing meets her gaze evenly. "Should I?"

It is the correct question. Madam Yu smiles. "Some of it, perhaps. You are his doctor, now, and you are family - although I should tell you that Jiang Fengmian and Jin Zixuan are also his family, and they do not know, and that A-Cheng and Wangji know only some of it."

Wen Qing nods. She understands. Men are fragile creatures, and to love them is to want to protect them.

"Come," Madam Yu says. "Let us take refreshments in my rooms."

---

In the late stages of the war, Wen Ruohan would have given a great deal for access to the silencing wards of the Yunmeng Jiang. He was certain that they were being spied upon, that his plans were being stolen and given to the enemy.

He never contemplated that it would not have helped, when Wen Qing was still in the room. (She knows he never considered it; she is alive.)

She has no regrets.

In Madam Yu's rooms, their privacy assured, Madam Yu speaks.

"I will not tell you everything," she says. "When he was eighteen, I read his memory, and I did so without his consent. I have given him no apology for that, nor will I. I had reason. But I will keep the secrets I have no need to tell."

"Does he know?" Wen Qing asks carefully.

"He knows that I read his memory. He never asked me to keep my silence, nor did I tell him I would. I suppose he thought it would be pointless. If I were willing to keep his secrets, I would do so without his asking; if I were unwilling, then his asking would not change my mind. Or perhaps he didn't think of it at all. Wei Ying is the most brilliant idiot you will ever meet. Sometimes he thinks about things. Sometimes he does not. Sometimes he understands things that are subtle and arcane. Sometimes he does not understand things that are painfully obvious to everyone around him."

She gazes into her tea for a long moment, and sighs.

"He is very much like his mother in many ways. Among them is that he loves me in ways that I do not deserve, and does not love me in the very few ways that I do, nor in the ways that I wanted, when I was younger, and more foolish."

Wen Qing has the sense of skimming across the surface of very deep currents. She knows almost nothing about Wei Wuxian's mother, or what Madam Yu might have wanted from her, and would not dare to guess, but she can find the shape of what Wei Wuxian lacked in the spaces between her husband's complaints about him. Wei Wuxian was brilliant and talented, but always wild and untamed. Wei Wuxian was never studious, never dedicated, was always brilliant, and always knew it.

Madam Yu likes order. Wei Wuxian is chaotic by nature.

Wen Qing understands; she herself is reluctantly charmed by him, but she was never required to be responsible for him. She also recognises that this is a gift; the formidable and admirable Madam Yu does not give way to sentiment unless she chooses to, does not share of her self this way lightly.

Wen Qing does not know whether this is the overture of a mother or of a friend; she has little experience with either. She values it either way.

"In any case," Madam Yu says, straightening, "you should know this much."

Wen Qing learns.

That Wei Wuxian found a way to send his soul, with memories attached, back to his own beginning.

That Wei Wuxian remembers another life, one in which A-Ning was his friend, even after A-Ning's death. One in which Wei Wuxian sacrificed everything he had left to save A-Ning, to save her, to save the handful of their distant relatives who had survived a more comprehensive slaughter of their people than she has now seen.

That he failed, and saved only A-Yuan. (That Lan Yuan is her distant cousin.)

And that he did all of it without a golden core, because she had transplanted his into the body of the man who is now her husband.

"The core transfer is only a theory," she says, aghast, when she learns this. "It's never been done!"

"And yet you did it," Madam Yu says calmly. "Jiang Cheng and Wangji don't know about that part, and probably shouldn't. But that is, I think, much of why he believes he owes you a debt."

She blinks. "You said he did everything he could to save us," she says.

"He did. He sacrificed his home, his relationships with his family, everything he had."

"Why would he think he owes me?" She doesn't understand this, at all.

"Because he tried, but he did not succeed." Madam Yu sighs. "It may be my fault."

"Then I am grateful, I think," Wen Qing says, "even if that makes me selfish." Wei Wuxian has, after all, done a lot once again to keep her brother, and her, and their extended family alive.

Madam Yu smiles faintly. "He loved you. I think he would still have tried to find you. In his heart, you are family."

Wen Qing does not know if she wants to admit that the thought pleases her. Admitting to a fondness for Wei Wuxian is dangerous; there is no question that he will take shameless advantage of it.

"So now I understand why Yiling," she says. "Does he know how dangerous his demonic cultivation could be?"

Madam Yu's expression sharpens to disapproval. "He does, but he is very nearly as reckless and headstrong as he was before. He uses it only when he thinks he has no choice, but he is not always sensible as to whether that's actually true."

Wen Qing nods.

"If there is nothing more I need to know, I think I will consult my books," she says. "There may be something that suggests a way the damage can be better treated."

"If you speak to Wangji or Lan Xichen, I'm sure they'll be more than eager to get you access to the Cloud Recesses Library too," Madam Yu says. "They've both looked, but they lack your expertise."

Wen Qing had not considered the possibilities that followed from marrying the brother-in-law of one of the Twin Jades of Lan, who is the sworn brother of the other. Access to the Library at Cloud Recesses? Under the circumstances, Lan Wangji would probably arrange for her to be permitted to study there for as long as she wants. If she'd thought to ask, they could have discussed it before Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen left to return to Gusu.

"Madam Yu, I -"

"Go," Madam Yu says, laughing. "I will tell A-Cheng that the new buildings should include space for a library of our own."

---

Lan Wangji has been given permission to leave her small infirmary, but that is nonetheless where she goes first to find him, because Wei Wuxian has not.

Surprisingly, Lan Wangji isn't there.

"Oh no!" Wei Wuxian exclaims upon seeing her. "You're back! Am I in trouble? I haven't done anything, I promise, I've been good. A-Yuan, save me!"

A-Yuan, who was sitting on the bed playing peacefully with his grass butterflies, is pulled up and held in front of his father like a little toddler shield. He takes this disruption surprisingly calmly; Wen Qing had not known that such a small child could look so long-suffering.

"Daddy being silly," A-Yuan says, with a world-weary sigh, and Wen Qing smiles without meaning to. (She quells the momentary alarm she feels at her slip of unguarded expression, reminds herself that here, in Lotus Pier, it is not dangerous to smile.)

"Is Daddy often silly?" she asks.

"Yes," A-Yuan replies firmly. He squirms free of Wei Wuxian's hold and returns to his butterflies.

"Such betrayal," Wei Wuxian says mournfully, then turns his attention to Wen Qing. "Are you here to check up on me, or stick needles in me?"

"Neither. I was looking for your husband."

Wei Wuxian nods. "He'll be back very soon."

Wen Qing hesitates, but only for a moment. "I understand that one at Lotus Pier is my distant cousin," she says carefully.

Wei Wuxian stills. "Is that a problem?" he asks, just as carefully.

"No." She doesn't hesitate on that one, doesn't need to. "He is loved. He is thriving. I am glad. And there are a great many advantages to being a Lan and not a Wen."

He relaxes, and smiles again. "There are. Even more than being a Lan and not a Wei. Lan Zhan suggested that, you know, but I told him it was a ridiculous idea. There's no Wei Sect, or Wei Clan. Being a Lan gives him a connection. To a family, you know. People to share his name with." He says it lightly. There's no sign that it bothers him.

If A-Yuan had been Wei Yuan, then Wei Wuxian would have shared his name for the first time since he was a child.

She does not say so. He is undoubtedly aware.

It is then that Lan Wangji returns. Wen Qing hesitates. She doesn't really know how to begin a conversation with him. Normally, she doesn't need to. Conversations with Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian are conversations with Wei Wuxian; Lan Wangji listens attentively. Occasionally he will make a cryptic comment to Wei Wuxian; even more rarely, he will say something clearly to other people.

Wen Qin wonders, sometimes, about the Lan Sect. The Twin Jades of Lan wear masks almost as impenetrably as she does, but they are the Sect Leader and his brother. Wen Qing was raised to know that allowing her thoughts (or worse, her feelings) to show would be dangerous, but the sons of Wen Ruohan had no such fear.

But then, Lan Qiren is always expressive (if what he usually expresses is outrage, she can't be certain that isn't because she has only seen him in the presence of Wei Wuxian), and Wei Wuxian seems to find Lan Wangji's expressions to be, somehow, varied and meaningful. Perhaps one simply needs to know them better.

Wei Wuxian cracks the ice that surrounds his husband as if it isn't there, as always. "Lan Zhan!" he says. "Wen Qing came to see you. And not me. Because I have been very good and I am not in trouble."

"I wouldn't go that far," she says without thinking. (She does not flinch. She has not flinched from anything since she was very small.)

Wei Wuxian laughs in clear delight. (He knew her, once. They worked together, tried to build a home together. He loved her like family. Is that why he tries to provoke her so often? Did they spar with words easily, once, did she trust him? She wonders what he was like, before. What they were like.)

Lan Wangji speaks. "How may I assist Madam Wen?"

"Madam Yu suggested that the Library of the Cloud Recesses might have information useful for the treatment of unusual spiritual wounds," she says. She's not sure how to elaborate, but apparently she doesn't need to.

Lan Wangji inclines his head. "If your visit can be delayed until Wei Ying is well enough to travel, it would be simplest if I were to escort you. If there is... reason for urgency, I can give you a pass token for the wards and a letter for Brother."

"It is not that urgent," she says, because she will not allow Lan Wangji to fear for his husband to satisfy her childish impatience, and because she shouldn't leave Lotus Pier until Wei Wuxian is stable (in medical terms, at least) in any case. "Thank you."

She bows, and takes her leave.

---

As they approach the Cloud Recesses (by road, with a donkey; Wei Wuxian has been deemed well enough to travel, but not well enough to travel by sword), Wei Wuxian watches Wen Qing. She is not quite perfectly hiding her excitement, her eagerness (for the Cloud Recesses Library, of all things), and it's delightful.

He missed her, in his second life. In their time at Yiling, she had gradually become less guarded with him, allowed him to see her more fully, see the dry wit and compassion she hid like shameful secrets.

To his great joy, she has been the same at Lotus Pier. Here an unguarded remark, there an honest and genuine expression. He's been so very proud of Jiang Cheng, because Jiang Cheng is terrible at people and perhaps too accustomed to having Wei Wuxian and shijie there to talk to people for him, but with Wen Qing he has tried so very, very hard.

He argues with her - and Wei Wuxian doesn't think either of them would be happy if he didn't - but he is careful not to say the things she might not want to forgive, the things that would actually cause her pain.

He is still Jiang Cheng. He still scoffs at her and says terrible things, but it has clearly become a game; Wen Qing responds just as sharply, with a curl at the corner of her mouth that suggests she is enjoying herself.

Wei Wuxian is not going to take responsibility if they argue in Cloud Recesses, but he will laugh.

The oddest thing about their arguments is that they seem to switch sides. Much of their discussion during the journey has revolved around the idea of setting up a medical school at Lotus Pier.

Lotus Pier is expanding; building new accommodations for the frequent guests who come to see the Chief Cultivator and also, slightly tentatively, for guest disciples who wish to train at Lotus Pier.

Wen Qing was arguing that it would be good for such skills to be more widespread, while Jiang Cheng contended that it would be too much work for her, since only she would really be qualified to teach. Somehow that resolved into Jiang Cheng insisting that it is practically a necessity, since it would simultaneously enhance the prestige of both the Jiang Sect and the Wen, while Wen Qing is now arguing that it would be too expensive to establish and maintain.

Wei Wuxian has some ideas on the subject, but at this point he doesn't want to get involved. The problem now is that they're approaching the entrance to Cloud Recesses, and no matter how much fun they're having, propriety probably does require that they stop arguing, at least for the moment.

The trouble is finding a moment to interrupt. He's not sure whether he has hesitated too long or not long enough when A-Yuan takes care of it for him.

"Daddy," A-Yuan says, from his perch in front of Wei Wuxian on the donkey, "Uncle too loud."

Wei Wuxian grins. "Yes, A-Yuan, much too loud. Shouting is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, isn't it?"

"Yes!" A-Yuan squirms. "Down please, Daddy!"

Wei Wuxian passes him to Lan Zhan, who sets their son carefully on the ground. A-Yuan immediately scampers over to Jiang Cheng and tugs on his robes.

"Do you know nothing about money? The construction budget is -" Jiang Cheng stops mid-sentence and blinks down at his nephew. "Uh, A-Yuan? Everything okay?"

"Shouting forbidded in Cloud Recesses," A-Yuan says sternly, and points. "We nearly there."

Jiang Cheng gapes.

"Fatherhood is the best thing that ever happened to me," Wei Wuxian says, to no-one in particular.

---

At Cloud Recesses, Wen Qing disappears into the Library Pavilion, and Lan Zhan goes to assist Lan Xichen with Lan Sect matters.

Wei Wuxian is walking towards the cottage with Jiang Cheng and A-Yuan when he realises something very important, and stops dead.

"Jiang Cheng," he says urgently, grabbing at Jiang Cheng's sleeve. "Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng, I just realised."

"Realised what?" Jiang Cheng scowls.

"Jiang Cheng, what responsibilities do we have while we're here? You and me?"

"We have to look after A-Yuan, and -" Jiang Cheng stops. "That's it. That's all of it."

Wei Wuxian grins at him. Jiang Cheng is starting to grin back.

"You still have to recover. Nothing too strenuous until Wen Qing says you're allowed or I'll break your legs."

"Of course," Wei Wuxian says.

"And I told my father I'd finish the plans for the new buildings."

"Naturally."

They're going to have so much fun.

---

For the first weeks there, Wei Wuxian behaves himself. He rests in the cottage, is attentive when people are playing Cleansing for him - which happens a lot, because Lan Qiren decides that it will be excellent practice for the Lan Sect disciples to play it for him.

He's probably correct; several of them clearly need practice at guqin cultivation outside the classroom. If playing Cleansing for Wei Wuxian in a pleasant cottage in the Cloud Recesses makes them this nervous, they're really not ready to use it for night-hunting.

He and Jiang Cheng pore over the plans for the expansion of Lotus Pier, and seriously discuss the prospect of guest disciples at Lotus Pier; by the time Wen Qing lifts his restrictions on exertions and cultivation, they've more-or-less worked out a curriculum. They even discuss it with Lan Qiren; Wei Wuxian's husband's uncle is an experienced and respected teacher, and his advice is actually very helpful.

They have been very good. Wei Wuxian feels extremely virtuous.

Lan Xichen has left Cloud Recesses to visit Nie Mingjue at the Unclean Realm. In his absence, Lan Zhan has developed a very set routine. He rises early, and goes to attend to his duties as the temporary acting Sect Leader. In the evenings, he returns and plays with A-Yuan until it is time for them to put their son to bed, and then he takes Wei Wuxian to bed. (The silencing charms of the Jiang Sect are very, very useful.)

This leaves Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng the whole day.

---

Lan Qiren has left the doors of his rooms open to enjoy the warm spring air. This means that he notices that Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin are approaching his rooms. (It also means he cannot pretend he isn't there, but he shouldn't do that anyway, he tells himself.)

The two young men of the Jiang Sect are laughing and nudging each other like children as they approach.

How, he wonders - not for the first time - can it be that these two are the husband and sworn brother of his nephews? They're so undisciplined, so demonstrative, so wild.

He clearly went wrong somewhere in their upbringing, but he isn't sure when or how.

The boys enter with reasonable decorum and bow with adequate form. Their greetings are appropriate.

"How can this one be of assistance?" he asks grudgingly.

Wei Wuxian smiles excessively. (Lan Qiren represses a forlorn sigh. Did Wangji somehow just never chance to see the boy smile before he let himself be so defiled that he had to marry him?)

"These unworthy disciples are most grateful for the advice of the Master," says Jiang Wanyin. "We find ourselves without duties to occupy our time while Madam Wen and Lan Wangji are still working here."

Lan Qiren feels faintly nauseated by the idea of these two with free time.

"We had an idea," Wei Wuxian says.

Lan Qiren does not feel well at all.

"We have an idea for a training exercise," the boy continues, "in which we would set up a kind of practice night-hunt for the disciples to attempt to complete. Not dangerous at all, but designed to be something of a challange for them. We thought it might be, ah, educational to try it for the junior disciples of the Lan Sect, if Master is willing. We could set it up in the forest."

Lan Qiren considers this.

The preparation and setup of such an exercise would keep these boys occupied for some time, away from the heart of Cloud Recesses, where they won't be bothering him or causing disruption to the Cloud Recesses, and he's reasonably confident they won't do lasting damage to the juniors.

"Master is willing," he says shortly, and pretends not to see the look of unwholesome glee they share. "If it will make your preparation work easier, you are also welcome to leave Lan Yuan here with me."

He'd like to tell himself he has some kind of serious, responsible ulterior motive about seeing to the early education of his nephew's son, but he knows he doesn't. It is simply that it has been a very long time since Lan Qiren has had his work constantly interrupted by the necessities of caring for a small child, and he misses it more than he could ever have imagined he would when his nephews were small.

---

It becomes something of a competition between them, because of course it does. For Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng, everything becomes a competition.

Wei Wuxian is looking forward to doing this at Lotus Pier, too. He has ideas that depend on water or on climbable trees that are just impossible in a pine forest.

They work for weeks. (He was worried, at first, about leaving A-Yuan with Lan Qiren so long, but it turns out that for A-Yuan, Lan Qiren is the softest of soft touches. Wei Wuxian has serious doubts that Lan Zhan or Xichen were fed as many cakes, or received quite as many new toys as A-Yuan does.) The return of Lan Xichen does not interrupt their preparation. (Jiang Cheng insists that having Lan Zhan to help him at this stage would be cheating, so Wei Wuxian encourages his husband to spend some time with his brother, because he's into this, now.)

By the time they're ready, they have the prospect of even more young disciples than they had initially planned for, because this year's guest disciples have arrived.

Wei Wuxian would be worried that there would be too many, but he's pretty sure the numbers are going to be thinned out quite quickly.

He's looking forward to this.

Chapter Text

The morning of Wei Wuxian's challenge is bright and pleasant, with clear skies, a light breeze, and a hint of the approaching summer in the air.

They decided in the end to set up two separate paths, divide the juniors in half, and see whose route can eliminate the juniors the fastest. (Or, if some make it to the end, who can eliminate the most.) Each group is told they will be accompanied, although not advised or assisted, by two adults, something in between chaperones and referees.

Lan Zhan and Lan Qiren had observed Jiang Cheng's group, and Wen Qing and Lan Xichen will observe Wei Wuxian's. (There was an argument about the bias of spouses and sworn brothers.) Wei Wuxian was not permitted to watch Jiang Cheng's ("in case it gives you ideas"), and Lan Zhan swore on his honour, his name, and Wei Wuxian's life (Jiang Cheng insisted) not to tell him anything until afterwards.

Wei Wuxian's group is thirty young disciples, about a third of them Lan. They run the gamut from nervous to cocksure, and they are, by and large, adorable. He wants to pinch their cheeks.

Instead, he tells them: "You have followed a trail of strange and threatening occurrences until you reached a path that leads to a mysterious town. The events so far were very clearly deliberate. The path goes through this forest. Your task is to find out what's causing the strange things to happen, and stop them."

Wei Wuxian's course is partly in the forest, and partly in the meadows around Cloud Recesses; he marked out most of the buildings with sticks and strings and paper, but there were a couple of peripheral buildings that weren't in use he was able to work with, as well. It doesn't seem very real, but he has a plan for that.

The juniors set off into the forest. Wen Qing and Xichen follow behind them. Wei Wuxian strolls along at the back until they're almost at the meadow where he's set up the main part of the town. When the screaming and swearing starts, he mounts Suibian and glides overhead for a better view.

The juniors are under attack by several dozen paper mannequins, animated by the Summoning of Painted Eyes. Each mannequin has "HELLO I AM A FEROCIOUS CORPSE =)" painted on its chest. They fight vigorously; they have been instructed very firmly not to injure the disciples, but they are trying to get hold of them and pull them away; if they succeed, that disciple is "killed".

Wei Wuxian is pleased to note that the two juniors who had been most arrogantly confident are among the six who are eliminated by the mannequins before the group manage to cut them down.

When each mannequin is broken, powder explodes from inside them. (It took him nearly a week to work out how to do the powder; it's a mixture of flour and spices and spiritual energy. He's very, very proud of it.)

The juniors are congratulating each other on winning the fight until one of them - Wei Wuxian makes a note to find out his name, because this one is smart, he thinks - says, "Wait. Those were ferocious corpses, and they got powder on everyone. I think anyone who breathed it or swallowed it might have corpse poisoning."

They stop. "But we can't -"

One of the boys who'd been most enthusiastic in the fight, and is covered in really quite a lot of the powder, says: "No, I think he's right. I feel -" and then falls over.

Wen Qing is at his side almost before he hits the ground. She examines him quickly, and then frowns. "He seems like he should be fine," she says, then looks up at Wei Wuxian, still overhead. "What did you do?"

Wei Wuxian grins. "The powder has a charm on it. If it reaches your heart, you'll fall asleep. If you fall asleep before you're given a cure, you're eliminated. Who knows how to treat corpse poisoning? It can be cured the same ways."

The juniors are silent. "I do, but I'm just supposed to be watching," Wen Qing says, eyes on Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian turns to the disciples. "Boys! You are very fortunate! You have encountered two senior cultivators, who are willing to assist you! Pay close attention to these wise ones, and you might not die!"

Wen Qing raises an eyebrow. "We are in the game entirely, now?"

"You are!" Wei Wuxian spreads his arms wide. "This is a competition. Jiang Cheng and I are seeing who can eliminate the most juniors in our challenges. If you can help them survive, you can help him win."

Because they're them, and they never did learn not to escalate things.

Jiang Cheng should have told Lan Zhan and Lan Qiren the same thing. Wei Wuxian can't wait to hear how it went. He doesn't even know yet how many survivors Jiang Cheng had.

Wen Qing nods, and turns to the juniors. "All those who have been poisoned, speak now." As they do, she goes to each of them in turn and does... something that seems to paralyse them rigid. "The rest of you, carry them. Keep them upright. They may not be safe here, we cannot leave them."

Xichen hefts a boy in each arm. His glance at Wei Wuxian is opaque.

Wei Wuxian laughs to himself. Surely Xichen must know better than to think he knows what's coming, here?

He lifts his flute and begins to play.

---

Wen Qing is not sure what she might have expected when Wei Wuxian began to play his flute again, but it was definitely not this.

Wei Wuxian has been famed as a prodigy in cultivation since they were teenagers. He was not what she was expecting, when they met; she had expected an intensely studious young cultivator, not the unserious, ridiculous boy. Even after he embarrassed Wen Chao in the archery contest at Nightless City (and if a part of her had delighted in that, she would never have been so foolish as to admit it), she thought his reputation must be wildly exaggerated.

She has heard of the things he did in the Sunshot Campaign, and thought she understood that his reputation was well-earned after all. She thought she had the measure of him.

As the mist rises around them, the sky grows dark, and the comical outlines of buildings in the meadow become solid, shadowy houses, she is astonished by him again.

The evocation of illusions is not a customary technique of the Jiang Sect, nor of the Lan. It is of very little practical use, and members of the elite sects rarely dabble in it; few have any proficiency at all. She would have thought it unlikely that Wei Wuxian would have learned it at all, and impossible that he would have had time to learn to do this.

She had not doubted Madam Yu's tale of Wei Wuxian having lived a life before this one, but it was... an idea, hard to encompass truly. This, somehow, makes it real. Wei Wuxian is far more than even the most dedicated student could hope to be by his age.

She knows that she is a strong cultivator. She can sense the illusion, the spiritual energy that shimmers behind everything; if she concentrates very hard, she can see that it is still a beautiful day, it is not a foggy night in an imaginary town, but when her concentration slips, the illusion returns completely.

Even knowing his advantages, Wen Qing is very, very impressed.

In her husband's exercise, she had played a role, but it was far simpler; she was a villager, giving the disciples information about the local hauntings, but the information was less than completely accurate. (Not maliciously so; very much in the way that non-cultivators often misunderstood these things.)

In Wei Wuxian's, Wen Qing is now responsible for the "survival" of twenty-three junior disciples. Her husband's victory is one thing, but now her own pride is at stake.

She leads them into the town.

There is a strange tapping sound ahead of them, like someone rapping bamboo on the ground. Wen Qing takes note of it, but she doesn't have enough information to decide what to do about it, and what she needs is something she can use to make a cure.

She has a certain amount of faith that Wei Wuxian will play fair.

This does not mean she necessarily feels obliged to do the same.

The illusion is settled into place now. She can see that it is an illusion, but she cannot see what lies beneath. She had, however, looked out before he created it. Most of these buildings are sticks and string, but there was one that was real... that way.

The tapping sound stutters, then skids ahead, raps hard in front of one of the buildings in the vicinity of where she was sure the real one was.

Warily, Wen Qing approaches that one, and the tapping sound stops.

Just in case, she knocks at the door, waving at the juniors to stand back.

The door creaks open, just a little way. Eyes gleam in the darkness within.

"We're closed," says a voice. It sounds like an old woman.

"Please, Madam," Wen Qing says, "I have injured children to care for. If you could be so kind as to allow us shelter, we will leave very soon."

"Closed," the voice says, and starts to close the door, but Wen Qing jams her foot in the gap.

"I am very sorry, Madam, but it is very urgent."

The door opens wider, and the person inside shuffles away.

She enters warily, drawing her sword to see by the light of it.

Wen Qing grew up in the Nightless City of Wen Ruohan. She attended him in the Fire Palace, was called upon to treat his victims so as to prolong his entertainment. (For all that she has never killed, never drawn blood to harm and not to heal, Wen Qing has no illusions that her soul is unstained.)

Wen Qing, therefore, does not scream, and after a brief moment realises that the room is not hung with corpses; they are paper mannequins.

Several of the juniors do scream, and she hisses for them to be quiet.

They drag all their poisoned compatriots inside, and she closes the door firmly. "One of you come with me," she says, and goes to look for the kitchen as Lan Xichen lights candles.

There must be something in here, she thinks, and sure enough, she finds rice.

Wen Qing has never cooked in her life. She is an expert at brewing - tea, elixirs and the like. She does not cook. "Make congee," she instructs the junior disciple who follows her. "Use this. When it is done, give some to each of the poisoned ones."

While he is cooking, she goes to talk to Lan Xichen.

"What do you think?" she asks quietly.

"Many things," he says. "I fear that I am unable to suggest anything, right now. If I do, I may lead us all into a trap."

She frowns. That is surprisingly useless from one of the Twin Jades of Lan.

He smiles faintly. "I have some knowledge of... an incident much like this," he explains. "But I also know that Wei Wuxian is aware that I know it, and I can only assume that he has prepared for me to use that knowledge to try and find the answers. I am afraid that anything I might say will be dangerous to us."

Wen Qing does not pace. She does not display her emotions outwardly in such a way, but she has a feeling that there is something she is missing. She releases the boys from their paralysis, cautioning them to remain still, and goes to look out through the gaps in the paper window, to see if there is something that can be seen. There are a few ferocious corpses standing in the street outside - and they do, now, look like ferocious corpses.

The boy she instructed to make the congee returns, and starts distributing it to the ones who have been poisoned.

"Are you sure about this," she hears one say.

"Madam Wen's instructions," the boy replies. She hears him head back to the kitchens.

"All together," one says ruefully. "Three, two... eat!"

There are choking and spluttering sounds. She turns around, wondering just how bad the boy's cooking had been.

"I feel like my tongue is going to burn off," one of the boys says weakly, just as the scent of spices reaches her. "Madam Wen, did it have to be so spicy?"

"What?" Lan Xichen says, sounding alarmed. He had been standing by the wall, seemingly lost in thought, but he crosses to the boys with quick strides. "Stop! Stop eating immediately!"

"But Madam W-"

The boy collapses mid-sentence.

The others follow within moments.

Wen Qing goes to one, but he is simply unconscious, just like the one who had "died" of poison before.

"I don't understand," she says. "Glutinous rice should cure corpse poisoning."

"Not if the rice itself has been poisoned," Lan Xichen growls. "Madam Wen, how many boys did we have with us?"

"Twenty-three," she says. There had been thirty. Seven had fallen. Eleven had been poisoned.

Lan Xichen's expression is grim.

She looks around, and counts.

Eleven boys are on the floor, unconscious.

Twelve boys are standing, looking horrified.

The one who took the pot back to the kitchen did not return, but there are still twenty-three boys in the room.

Twenty-three here, and another one who left. If she'd looked, would she have seen the shimmer of illusion over him? She's stopped noticing it, when everything around her is illusory, but he must have come into the house with them.

Only twelve boys are still, in the game, alive.

Wei Wuxian has taken out more than half of their juniors, and they've barely even begun.

"Groups of three," she says. Her voice is even. Her voice is always even. She will murder someone with her bare hands before this day is over, but her voice is still very even. "Stick close together at all times. Don't lose each other no matter what. Make sure you know who your partners are and don't get switched."

She goes to check the kitchen.

There is still some uncooked rice left, if she were willing to trust it. The residue of spices and Wei Wuxian's fake corpse poisoning powder is around the table. There is no-one else present.

The woman who was here when they arrived is sitting motionless in a dark room. The room's doorway is between the front room and the kitchen; they would have seen her if she had left it while they were there.

So much for that.

Back in the front room, the boys have sorted themselves into groups of three. Each group is definitely three, and there are four groups.

One of the groups is at the window, crushed together to peer outside, and when she returns, one of them - the one who thought of corpse poisoning, she remembers - turns to her, frowning.

"Madam Wen," he says, "there are ferocious corpses outside. And I think I saw a ghost."

"We should be safe in here." They're not making progress, but they do at least have time to try and formulate a plan.

"I know," he says, "but they're not even trying to get in. They're walking along the street, and they all seem to be going in the same direction."

She blinks. "What is your name?"

The boy sketches a hasty bow. "This one is Nie Jian, courtesy name Guoyi."

She nods. "Lan Xichen, how close did you get to the corpse powder?"

"Not at all," he says.

"Good." She crosses to him, flicks out a sharp blade, and cuts away a panel of his outer robes. "You're being no help at all, so you can be the one to lose clothing." She tears the material into strips, and concentrates, infusing each with spiritual energy.

This is the cultivation of her family.

She presses a piece over her nose and mouth, where the fabric clings to form a seal. She can breathe through the mask, but it will admit no toxins or noxious fumes. She quickly supplies one for each of the survivors.

"Do not take that off," she instructs sharply. "It will keep you from inhaling corpse powder."

She sighs. She can't help the feeling that she is absolutely falling into a trap.

"We'll leave by the back door," she says, "and go over the rooftops. Ferocious corpses shouldn't be able to get up there, but stay very, very quiet. Let's see where the corpses are going."

---

Outside, the air is still and heavy with fog. Wen Qing leads the boys along the rooftops, leaping from house to house.

She's walked across several when she suddenly remembers that they've already left the one solid building; these ones were made of sticks and string and paper, and were entirely unroofed.

She tests her footing.

It really does feel solid.

She wonders whether she would fall if she were to concentrate sufficiently to see through the illusion, but suspects she would probably be better off asking Wei Wuxian later than testing the idea herself.

The ferocious corpses do seem to be moving purposefully. She can't see very far in the fog, so she follows along, cautious and quiet, until some kind of large, hulking structure begins to take shape, lit by a dim glow. She stops there, and waits for the rest to catch up.

The boys reach her, three by three. She counts them anyway; there are twelve.

But that is all.

"Where," she whispers, "is Lan Xichen?"

The boys look around. "He was behind us," Nie Guoyi says. "He was - he was right there."

One of the other boys whimpers.

Wen Qing is restraining the urge to use language that she is quite certain is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses.

But after a few moments, she sees austere features emerging from the fog. "My apologies," Lan Xichen says. "I thought I saw something." He looks very tense.

"Keep up," she mutters, and starts moving forward again cautiously.

The fog is perhaps not quite as thick here. The street opens up into a square, over which looms some kind of... palace? Temple? Something. There are lanterns burning on the building's facade.

And then two figures land in the square, swords flashing. One of the swords is obscured by some kind of dark energy, as is the face of the person who wields it.

The other has a pale glare, and the swordsman is -

She stares. Looks from the swordsman to Lan Xichen, and back.

In the fog, and the dim light, with the masks they're both wearing to cover their noses and mouths, they look identical.

The Twin Jades of Lan, she thinks.

One of them is surely Lan Wangji, but -

"What is Wangji doing here?" the man near her asks. He has come closer to stand next to her. She can't really see their expressions under the mask, and the method she has always used to tell them apart has been, more or less, that Lan Xichen smiles and Lan Wangji doesn't. She doesn't know their swords well enough to tell them apart without reading the names inscribed on them.

If she asks, he'll know of her suspicions.

Wen Qing swallows.

She cut Lan Xichen's robe.

The man in the square is facing the wrong way. She can't see where the cut should be.

Her gaze slides down the man who stands near her.

His robes are perfect, entirely undamaged.

She sees Nie Guoyi follow her gaze, sees his eyes widen in realisation. He gives her a questioning look as he puts his hand to his sabre.

She nods.

Nie Guoyi draws and strikes in a single smooth motion, swinging hard until his weapon is near Lan Wangji's neck, twisting the blade as he does so so that the blunt back of his sabre is what actually touches lightly against his skin.

"Sir," Nie Guoyi whispers, "you are dead."

Lan Wangji nods and inclines his head with a rueful look in his eyes, then walks away, disappearing into the fog.

Below, Lan Xichen is pressing the masked man back, back, back, and then abruptly the man jumps further back still and turns and flees into the large building. Lan Xichen chases him, disappearing into the dark doorway.

The ferocious corpses are still coming up the street. They don't enter, but turn to the sides. It looks as if perhaps they're forming some kind of circle around the building.

Wen Qing has a truly terrible feeling about this.

Reflexively, she glances back to count her collection of junior disciples, and has to repress the urge to just start shouting.

One of the groups is missing.

She's down to nine.

---

She really doesn't want to go into the building, and is giving serious consideration to whether setting it on fire would count as solving the issue haunting the town.

Sadly, probably not.

Lan Xichen emerges from the building and leaps gracefully up to the rooftops where they wait. (Wen Qing looks at his robes, just in case; they have been cut.)

"He's in there," he says flatly. "He is guarding some kind of artifact."

"Just him?"

"Yes."

Wen Qing sighs.

This is going to go so badly.

"Let's go," she says.

---

Inside, the building is a single cavernous hall. Lanterns and candles abound; it's surprisingly well-lit. At the back of the hall is a large, crude statue of a woman, posed as if dancing.

The masked man is near the middle, leaning over a pedestal on which rests a corroded bell.

As soon as they enter, the doors close behind them.

The masked man straightens. He seems to be looking at them. He doesn't seem to be built like Wei Wuxian, but at this point, she really can't see what's illusion and what's not.

"Give us the artifact," one of the boys says, stepping forward. Wen Qing grabs his collar and yanks him back.

The man shakes his head.

"What are you doing here?" Wen Qing asks.

"He is a demonic cultivator," Lan Xichen says. "He is taking the souls of the townspeople to empower his work, but they are insufficient. He has lured cultivators here to gain greater power from our destruction." His tone is grim.

"What do we do?" one of the boys asks.

"Now?" Lan Xichen asks. "Die."

He pulls his mask away.

He isn't Lan Xichen.

A chill of ice runs down her spine.

She can't tell what's illusion and what's not.

Were the other man's robes really intact, or was that another illusion?

One of the boys draws his sword and swings at Lan Wangji, but he draws his sword and blocks the strike easily, disarms the boy and taps him with the flat of his blade. "Dead," he says calmly.

Several of the other boys attack, to her utter dismay and fury. "No! Fall back!" she shouts, and drags Nie Guoyi away with her.

Four of the other disciples manage to pull free and back away.

Five, she thinks, slightly hysterically. There's no chance the three boys fencing Hanguang-Jun will survive, even if his care not to cause them real injury is delaying his ability to dispatch them swiftly.

And if they don't act soon, no doubt he will turn his attentions to the rest of them then.

"Madam Wen," Nie Guoyi whispers urgently, "If you distract the masked man I think I can smash his artifact."

She doesn't have any better ideas, at this point.

She draws her sword, and attacks.

The man is not Wei Wuxian. His style of swordsmanship has none of the flair and unpredictability, but he is very, very skilled, and moves with flawless precision.

She is hard pressed immediately. She is not incompetent with a sword, but not truly outstanding; this was never her focus. She's a doctor, she was never supposed to be a soldier, and Wen Ruohan would never have permitted her to night-hunt. She can only hope that Nie Guoyi will hurry.

She does manage to draw the masked man away from the pedestal - by retreating, admittedly, but it's still away, and from the corner of her eye she sees Nie Guoyi charge, raising his sabre high to smash hard into the corroded bell. It shatters with a hideous noise.

The masked man stops fighting her and leaps back.

Wen Qing looks around.

Nie Guoyi is standing by the pedestal and the shattered remains of the bell. The boys who were fighting Lan Wangji are sitting on the floor around him, presumably officially dead. So is one of the others who'd backed away from him, but Lan Wangji has also leapt away to disengage since the shattering of the bell.

"That was unwise," Lan Wangji says.

The ground shakes, and she hears a terrible cracking sound.

The statue has started to move.

Wen Qing closes her eyes, just for a moment.

---

After that, it's a massacre.

Chapter Text

After the statue has killed them all - massive stone fists passing through where they stand without actually being solid at all, but Wen Qing will not argue that it doesn't count - the illusions flicker and disappear like mist in the sun.

The sun is high overhead. It's only been hours. It feels like much longer. She's exhausted.

Wei Wuxian appears from... somewhere, grinning. There is a small crowd following him; the disciples who had fallen to the corpse poison, now awake, along with Lan Xichen. The masking shadows have fallen away from the man she fought, revealing him to be Lan Qiren.

"Well!" Wei Wuxian exclaims. "That was pretty educational, I think!"

"Yes," Lan Qiren says. "Both of these exercises have revealed many areas where the disciples are in need of instruction." His tone is ominous.

"Not just the disciples." Her husband has arrived. "Second Brother, you got taken out by a child. You aren't keeping up with your training enough." He glares. "If you were faster, I might not have lost, and also, you would be more likely not to die. I'm going to tell da-ge that you're soft."

Lan Xichen winces. Wen Qing is amused by that, at least; Nie Mingjue will undoubtedly find such a thing just as worrying as her husband does, and between them, they will force Lan Xichen to regain his training standard.

Her husband has reached her side, now.

"I'm sorry," she says. "I tried, but I couldn't save any of them."

"Don't be hard on yourself," he says wryly, and drops his voice to a whisper. "He cheats."

"I never asked," she says. "How many survived yours?"

"Eleven," he sighs. "Wei Wuxian had the brother who isn't soft." He glares in Lan Xichen's direction. "I really am absolutely going to tell da-ge, and he's going to deserve every single bruise."

She lets herself smile, slightly. "Is night-hunting always like that? I've never been."

"Almost never," he says. "Like I said, he cheats."

---

The juniors are breaking off into groups, discussing the exercise animatedly. Uncle is talking quietly and thoughtfully with Wangji, and A-Cheng is speaking quietly with his wife. Wuxian is talking to one of the juniors.

Xichen can probably leave.

"I should return to my work," he says to no-one, and starts walking. He realises after a moment that he's gone in the wrong direction, but doesn't stop.

He suddenly hates the rule against running in the Cloud Recesses more than he has since he was a child. He wants to be away from here, away from all these people who watched that happen, who -

He realises he's stopped, that he's shaking, that he can't see because his hands are pressed into his face.

He can hear someone raising their voice, too loud, this is the Cloud Recesses, but he can't say anything.

It's Wuxian. "Lan Zhan! You should take the juniors back to their classrooms. Jiang Cheng, perhaps you should, ah, accompany Master back as well, to discuss your... observations. About the training exercise."

A-Cheng. "What? But - oh, sh- okay. Yes. Master, what did you think... the students need to learn from this?"

The voices begin to fade away.

Xichen is relieved. It's getting hard to stand, and when they're all gone, perhaps he can just sit down here.

"Hey, Lan Xichen. Lan Xichen. Zewu-Jun." Gentle hands are tugging on his wrists, but he can't lower his hands, if he stops pressing them into his face so hard, something terrible will happen, he's sure of it.

"I think he's in shock," Madam Wen's voice is quite near. "I can -"

"No," says Wuxian. "Let me try something." Tugging at his wrists again. "Hey, Lan Huan!"

Xichen's arms go slack in surprise, and Wuxian is able to tug his hands away from his face. He can feel his lips shaping the syllables. No-one but Nainai has called him Huan since he was a child.

"Always works," says Wuxian, and his smile is warm and fond and not, Xichen knows, solely for him. He wonders if he and Wangji would still be closer if Xichen still called him A-Zhan. He wonders if Wangji would still spend more time at the Cloud Recesses if he did, if he would be less alone.

He kind of wants to punch Wuxian. The feeling is strange and alien, but somewhere inside him there's anger, anger at the fey young man who came into his home and stole his brother away, and stole his peace of mind, showed him his own terrible weakness, left him floundering. He's tried to do better and he knows he's still weak, and he's so, so afraid, because he loves Xue Yang now, like something between a brother and a son, and he knows the boy could still become a monster.

Wuxian did this to him. All of that he could have accepted, but today? How can he accept today? Using his memories of Yi City for some kind of game? Xichen has nightmares about Yi City. How does Wuxian live with all the terrible things he remembers when Xichen has only seen some of them and he -

His face is wet and his throat is sore and he realises he's been saying this aloud, screaming it, he's on his knees in the grass and someone is holding him. Wuxian. He remembers he did this that first afternoon, too, but Wuxian is a little taller now, a little broader, and Xichen wonders if this is what it would have been like to be held by his father.

"I'm sorry," Wuxian murmurs. "I didn't want to hurt you this much, I didn't realise today would upset you, I'm sorry." Xichen feels lips press into his hair, and sobs. "I forgot that you saw Yi City so recently. Fifty years ago it would have upset me too."

"How," Xichen pleads. "How do you, how do you cope with all of this?"

"I've had a good life, this time around," Wuxian says, rubbing his back, "I've had a lot of time since the bad stuff happened. The way I coped before, you can't use."

He's angry again. "Why not?" He shoves at Wuxian, but his strength has left him, and Wuxian just keeps holding him.

"Because you don't have the alcohol tolerance for a drinking problem like the one I used to have," Wuxian says, "and anyway, you're not allowed."

Xichen has never drunk alcohol, but he remembers it from Wuxian's memories; the burn of it, the blunting edge of it, and he wonders, just for a moment, if he cares whether he's allowed or not.

"Here," Madam Wen is approaching; at some point she must have left. "The stove was still hot in that kitchen."

Wuxian doesn't let Xichen go, but his hold shifts, and a cup is put to Xichen's lips.

"Drink," Madam Wen tells him, and he does. It's something hot, a mild sweetness masking something bitter, and he feels himself getting calmer, exhaustion creeping into his limbs as the agonised tension leaves him.

"Will he be all right?" Wuxian asks quietly.

"He wasn't quite at qi deviation," Madam Wen says, "but you should probably be planning to stay here a while longer so Wangji can take over his duties. He should take some time to rest." Xichen feels her hand grip his shoulder firmly. "I know something about dealing with terrible memories," she adds. "I can help you, Lan Xichen."

Wangji is coming in at speed, flying low above the trees, until he leaps down and hurries to join them. "Wei Ying," he says. "Brother?"

"He'll be okay, Lan Zhan," Wuxian says. "Let's take him back to the cottage. We can get there without anyone else seeing."

Xichen is tired, but he would be capable of walking unaided. He doesn't need Wuxian pulling one of his arms over his shoulders, his brother the other, each with one arm around him.

He doesn't pull away.

---

Wen Qing leaves to collect some things from her quarters, promising to return soon.

Once they're at the cottage, Wei Wuxian suggests that Lan Zhan should go collect A-Yuan from the Elders who were looking after him. Lan Zhan nods and goes, and Wei Wuxian turns to Xichen.

"Lan Huan," he says. (He won't call him that in public, but he's suddenly realised that his husband's brother has much the same damage that his husband does, he just hides it better, and Wei Wuxian is unquestionably the world's foremost expert on Lan Zhan and the things that call to him.) "Lan Zhan loves you very much. If you hug him, he will hug you back."

"He doesn't like touching people," Xichen says, and Wei Wuxian just stares at him for a moment. He always thought Lan Xichen understood his own brother so well - does he really not understand this? Is this where they went wrong?

"He doesn't like touching people unless he loves them," Wei Wuxian explains slowly. "He doesn't like touching people who don't love him. He doesn't like touching people who'll leave him." He shakes his head. "When did he pull away from you, Lan Huan? When did he stop hugging you when you were children?"

"When -" Xichen's breath catches. "When our mother died."

"Yes." Wei Wuxian says, and gentles his voice. "When the mother he loved very much went away, and left him, and he didn't understand why." He sighs. "Sometimes I could kill your uncle, I really could. You poor boys." He's sure that Lan Qiren did his best to raise his nephews well, but Lan Qiren is an excellent teacher for many reasons that would make him a terrible parent.

He can teach rules and discipline and cultivation, but he is rigid, and strict, and never, ever playful, and Wei Wuxian seriously doubts he has any understanding at all of how to be loving.

Xichen is crying again, and Wei Wuxian feels, at this moment, very old. He wraps his arms around Xichen again.

"I'm sorry I didn't understand," he murmurs. "You've always hidden it all so well."

Lan Zhan returns not long after Xichen stops crying, A-Yuan on his shoulders. A-Yuan is smiling, which becomes a shriek of laughter when Lan Zhan lets him fall backwards, then spins to catch him before he can get below chest height.

Wei Wuxian hates when he does that - his heart seizes in his chest every time. But A-Yuan delights in it, and Lan Zhan gets that tiny smile, and on the scale of feats of speed and dexterity Lan Zhan is capable of, it barely even registers, so he can't ever bring himself to say anything.

A-Yuan throws his arms around his father's neck, and Lan Zhan holds him close.

"You still think he hates touching people?" Wei Wuxian murmurs. He pats Xichen on the shoulder and stands. "Here, Lan Zhan, give him to me," he says aloud. He takes their son, but doesn't step away; Lan Zhan's arm comes around him as if by reflex.

Wei Wuxian looks back at Xichen and raises an eyebrow. See?

A-Yuan tugs on his robe. "Daddy," he says, "Uncle sad." He looks up at Wei Wuxian. "Daddy fix? A-Yuan fix?"

Wei Wuxian smiles at him. "Daddy has been working on it. A-Yuan can help soon." He gives Lan Zhan a little push towards Xichen. "Uncle and Father have to do some fixing first."

He carries A-Yuan to the kitchen to start tea, and says lightly over his shoulder: "Hug your brother."

---

"You still think he hates touching people?"

Xichen stares at his brother. Wangji holds his son like it gives him joy to do so, reaches for his husband like there was nothing he wanted more than to be touching him. Xichen suspects he knew even before Wangji did that Wangji wanted Wei Wuxian, could barely stand to keep his hands from the boy, but it's somehow jarring to see that want so... non-sexual, so purely loving.

Xichen has no memory of having seen his parents even in the same room as one another. He can't imagine them like this - can't imagine himself as A-Yuan, his parents exchanging soft warm smiles as he is passed between them.

Are other families also like this in their homes where no-one else can see?

A-Yuan is a perceptive, attentive child, who obviously adores his parents, and he's not even paying attention. There's clearly nothing unusual there to him. He's looking at Xichen, and frowning.

His nephew has noticed his sadness; Xichen's loss of composure is all too clear, which means he cannot allow himself to be seen by anyone outside. He has no escape when Wuxian pushes Wangji towards him, tosses an instruction to hug back as he leaves like there isn't a vast, impassable chasm between Xichen and Wangji.

Wuxian always treats the barriers that keep everyone at a distance from Wangji like they're not even there. Xichen has envied him for years, but is it possible that it's just that simple?

Do Wangji's walls disappear if you just don't believe they're there?

"You do not have to," Wangji says. There's a heaviness in his voice. To Xichen, it sounds like reluctance, but he wonders for the first time if it's resignation - if Wangji thinks he doesn't want to, and has accepted that as his lot, accepted that even Xichen would not care for that closeness, that even Xichen would leave him waiting outside and never open the door for him.

"I know," he says, and throws himself forward before he can think about it any further.

Wangji's arms come around him, hesitantly, and then he feels his brother exhale, feels strong arms wrap around him and squeeze tightly.

It's nothing like his memories. Wangji is almost as tall as he is, now, strong and solid, not the tiny, fragile thing he remembers. A-Zhan had needed comfort; Wangji is comforting.

Perhaps, he thinks, he doesn't have to be so alone.

---

Madam Wen returns with A-Cheng at her side, carrying several stacked boxes. They both go into the kitchen, and Xichen suspects the use of a silencing talisman, because all sound from the kitchen cuts off abruptly.

After a brief delay, it returns; he hears A-Yuan laughing, and the murmur of Madam Wen's voice, and then everyone comes back out. Wuxian has a tray with tea; Jiang Cheng is carrying another, with food. Xichen realises that they haven't yet had lunch.

Wangji goes to take the tray from his husband and begins serving the tea. Xichen starts to move to the table, and then has to stop as a warm weight settles on his foot.

A-Yuan is sitting on his foot, arms wrapped around his shin, grinning widely up at him.

"Hello, A-Yuan," he says. He can't help but smile back.

"Uncle Purple bring food," he says. "Uncle Tall eat?"

"Of course, A-Yuan," Xichen says. "But I need to be able to move my foot to get to the table."

A-Yuan extends his arms upwards, beaming. Xichen takes the hint and picks him up.

"Uncle Purple is better than some things he's called me, I suppose," A-Cheng grumbles. Xichen takes the seat next to him and sets A-Yuan down. "But how come," A-Cheng adds, "you're Uncle Tall? I'm taller than you!"

He nudges Xichen sharply, the same way Xichen has seen him nudge Wuxian. Xichen is too startled by that to reply. His youngest sworn brother has always been a little bit reserved with him, compared to his interactions with Wuxian.

"I think it's because he's a tiny bit taller than Lan Zhan, and they look so similar," Wuxian says, covering the silence before it can be awkward. "Is that why, A-Yuan? Is he Uncle Tall because he's taller than Father?"

"Mn!" A-Yuan nods emphatically even as he takes an excessively large bite of a steam bun. He's leaning against Xichen's side. It's... nice. A-Yuan has no concern for his status as Sect Leader or the renown of Zewu-Jun. He's just Uncle Tall, and A-Yuan will cheerfully treat him like furniture.

"Ridiculous," A-Cheng says, but he's smiling slightly. "Wei Wuxian, next time we run training hunts, I'm disallowing these two. You cheat at everything, but that was too much."

"Hey, hey!" Wuxian protests. "They could have included him in their groups to keep track of everyone, or they could have talked to the ghost. There were lots of ways they could have won and survived. They even had Wen Qing to tell them how to cure corpse poisoning, but none of them volunteered to help her, or even noticed that they never met the boy who did!"

They bicker cheerfully over the tea and food, frequently demanding that one of Madam Wen, Xichen, or even A-Yuan arbitrate some point of disagreement. (Very occasionally, Wei Wuxian appeals to Wangji, but Wangji just looks at him fondly while A-Cheng protests that Wangji is too biased.)

Xichen realises that this is a deliberate tactic when they succeed in drawing Madam Wen into their conversation.

Wuxian and A-Cheng never seem to tire of provoking each other. Together they are entertaining, and they keep the mood light, but their appeals offer points for the others to enter the conversation if they choose to, and ensure that none of them are left to feel ignored.

He suspects they might not bother if it were just Wangji. Wangji is visibly content just to watch his family. He watches Wuxian speak, smiles faintly at his more ridiculous gestures or arguments. He watches A-Yuan eat, beckons him over to wipe his little mouth when needed. He looks at Xichen, gazes at him for a moment as if searching for something in his expression, and then returns his attention to his husband and son.

This is the Cloud Recesses. Technically, their animated conversation is forbidden; after all, they are eating.

He can't bring himself to say anything.

---

After lunch, Wuxian transparently declares that he needs Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng both to help him and A-Yuan return the dishes to the kitchens.

Xichen is left alone with Madam Wen. She moves to sit across from him at the table.

"They aren't subtle," he observes.

"They aren't," she agrees. "It's part of their charm. That, and they're never boring."

She flicks her sleeves, and something in her demeanour shifts; suddenly, she is not his youngest sworn brother's wife, she is the renowned doctor and cultivator, Madam Wen.

"Lan Xichen," she says seriously, "what do you think happened today after the training exercise?"

"I was... upset," he answers, carefully. "Wei Wuxian's exercise was... was reminiscent of -" He's not sure what to say that won't give too much away.

She rolls her eyes. "I know he lived this time before. I gather you have seen his memories directly?"

That makes it easier. "Some of them," he says. "Today's exercise was drawn in part from some of his memories."

"Unpleasant memories," she says clinically. "Were the original events worse?"

He exhales. "Much."

"You came dangerously close to serious qi deviation," she says. "You are still at risk. I suspect you are considering going into seclusion for a time?"

He nods. Was it that obvious?

"Do not," Madam Wen tells him. "Isolation will only put you at greater risk. Wuxian, Wangji, my husband and I will all remain at the Cloud Recesses for the time being. Wangji will assume your duties as the Sect Leader. If he needs assistance with things that involve talking to people, Wuxian will assist him. I will continue my work in the library, and you will spend time with my husband. Among others, but you will not spend very much time alone."

She pulls a pouch from her sleeve, and sets it in front of him. "You will also drink this tea every morning."

---

And so it is.

A-Cheng has clearly been told that he is expected to be physically affectionate with Xichen; he nudges at him, bumps elbows, and at least twice a day, he hugs him. (At first, he has the air of one undertaking a duty with grim determination, but gradually, he relaxes, and it becomes more natural, and his touches soften over time into something gentle and sweet.)

Xichen drinks his daily tea. It's mild, and soothing, and infused with spiritual energy of some kind; he finds it does lift his spirits. Things are just... easier.

He can't face seeing Xue Yang at first, but he's told that Xue Yang has been informed that he is unwell, and he should see Nainai at the kitchens in the evenings instead; apparently Xue Yang was concerned, but not overly so. When Xichen reaches a point where he can - where he wants to, wants to see the boy he's cared for again, not the monster he could have been otherwise - A-Cheng accompanies him.

If Wuxian has told A-Cheng anything about Xue Yang, it doesn't show.

A few weeks after what he has started to think of as the incident, Wuxian finds them both standing watching the junior disciples at sword training.

"Come on, but be quiet," he says, grinning, and then leads them to a meadow on the edge of Cloud Recesses. A very nice one, Xichen thinks, with a beautiful view, and then he sees what Wuxian is actually pointing at.

A-Yuan is lying on the grass, giggling softly, buried under a heap of rabbits. Wangji is, as they watch, solemnly adding another one to the pile.

It's painfully cute.

A few days later, he and A-Cheng go to the same meadow to enjoy the sunlight and quiet. Xichen falls asleep in the grass.

He wakes up covered in rabbits.

A-Cheng admits nothing, but there is a smile playing at his lips.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian isn't sure if he's glad that the training exercises were an unknown concept when he was a guest disciple. Lan Qiren's class schedule has, if anything, grown more intense in the aftermath, and the young juniors are collectively starting to seem slightly despairing.

He's not surprised that it's the smart one - Nie Guoyi, he learns - who approaches Wei Wuxian himself one day as he's walking through the Cloud Recesses with A-Yuan.

"Wei-qianbei," the boy says, bowing. "This disciple humbly requests your wisdom."

"But I have so little to spare," Wei Wuxian says, grinning. The boy smiles slightly.

His questions are reasonable. Lan Qiren has challenged them to list ways that they could have avoided such disasters as they experienced, and Nie Guoyi wants to throw his ideas at Wei Wuxian and see what he thinks.

They're not bad ideas; some wouldn't have worked, but they would still have been worth trying, and some might have been very helpful. Wei Wuxian gives him some hints - points out some things Nie Guoyi clearly hadn't realised were significant - and agrees to talk to him again later when the boy has had time to work on what he has some more.

He walks him to his class - the boy has risked being late for the chance to speak to Wei Wuxian, and Lan Qiren is rarely forgiving of that - and he is surprised when Lan Qiren comes out to speak to him, instructing Nie Guoyi to take his seat inside.

He is shocked when Lan Qiren bows to him.

"Wei Wuxian," Lan Qiren says, "this one humbly requests your guidance."

Wei Wuxian returns the bow automatically. He wants to ask what in the world Lan Qiren could be approaching him so formally about, but he is distracted by the sight of A-Yuan mimicking their bows by his side. It's so cute and he wants to show everyone.

Lan Qiren sees it too, and even he smiles.

Wei Wuxian meets his eyes and grins, and for once, Lan Qiren doesn't scowl in response.

"Very good bowing, A-Yuan," Wei Wuxian says seriously.

"Yes. You are a credit to your parents," Lan Qiren says, and he even sounds like he means it. A-Yuan beams.

"How can I be of assistance?" Wei Wuxian asks. Probably less politely than he should, but Lan Qiren doesn't object.

"Your mastery of the evocation of illusion is truly impressive," Lan Qiren says. It is the most unambiguous compliment Wei Wuxian has ever heard the man utter. "If Wei Wuxian is willing, this humble student would be grateful for the opportunity to learn."

This is... unexpected, Wei Wuxian thinks, but he knows that Lan Qiren takes the Lan disciplines very seriously indeed, and they do include an admonition never to give up on learning. It is also true that it's quite difficult to find anyone who can teach the cultivation of illusions. Wei Wuxian is pretty sure that his first instructor isn't even born yet.

"It would be my honour," he says. "However... I am not certain it is feasible via the guqin. The notes are too... definite. They lack the required flexibility."

Lan Qiren nods. "You use the dizi. Would the xiao be acceptable?"

It should be. "I think so," he says. "I didn't know you played."

Lan Qiren's lips twitch. If it were Lan Zhan, Wei Wuxian would think he was amused. "I taught Xichen," he says in a neutral tone. "I suspect I am now less proficient than my nephew, but I can hope that my skill is sufficient." He glances towards the classroom. "I must teach my class, now. Are you available in the evenings, perhaps?"

"Certainly," Wei Wuxian says, slightly dazed. "We can start tonight, if you wish."

"The master is very kind," Lan Qiren says, bowing. It doesn't even sound sarcastic.

---

Spring becomes summer. Madam Wen is still working daily in the Library Pavilion, but her notes are stacking up in the rooms she and A-Cheng share, and sometimes she works with them, instead. Xichen and A-Cheng sometimes keep her company, playing weiqi in the room to be near her without causing disruption.

Either she's becoming more relaxed around him or the deliberate physicality of his and A-Cheng's interactions when they're in private is somehow contagious, because she gradually becomes less distant and reserved; she leans on A-Cheng's shoulder when she looks at their weiqi board, or nudges him when he's in her way.

One evening Xichen falls asleep on the daybed in their quarters. He wakes the next morning late, feeling more rested than he has in years.

They don't really talk about it, but somehow that's the last time he goes back to his empty, silent room to sleep. He stays in theirs, where he can know that they're near, and he's not alone. Wen Qing moves from the second bedroom in their rooms to share a bed with A-Cheng (they argue briefly but cheerfully about blankets and space, and then settle peacefully), and the other bed becomes his.

He sleeps late every day, now, later than he ever has in his life. Wen Qing insists that this is good, that he should, that sleep is healing. (That if he starts forcing himself to rise early, she will force him to stop.)

So he's barely awake one morning, hair loose, wearing only his inner robes, when Wei Wuxian knocks once and barges in, calling, "Jiang Cheng! Jiang Cheng! Emergency! Nobody is probably in danger emergency!"

Xichen is suddenly, painfully aware that he is not presentable, even though he's standing in a room with A-Cheng. He has been carefully not thinking about the inappropriate intimacy of his behaviour with them - it's just so nice, so warm, and if anything, they both clearly encourage it. But now Wuxian will see, and -

Wuxian just shoves A-Yuan into his arms. (Xichen was nearest the door.) "Take care of him today, please! Thank you! I have to go!" And then he's gone.

Xichen looks helplessly at A-Cheng.

A-Cheng sips his tea.

"What," Xichen says. "I - what?"

A-Cheng shrugs. "If it bothers you that he's a ridiculous person you should have done something about it before he married your brother. At this point you're stuck with this family." He stands and comes over to where Xichen is standing, A-Yuan still in his arms, casually wraps an arm around Xichen as he leans in to kiss the child's forehead. "What do you think we should do today, A-Yuan?"

A-Yuan ponders this with a serious expression. "Swimming," he decides, finally.

A-Cheng looks at Xichen. He's standing very close. His arm is warm around Xichen's back, their nephew between them. Family, he thinks.

"Swimming sounds good," Xichen says.

---

Wei Wuxian arrives at Jinlintai and runs straight to the Sect Leader's family's quarters. The guards raise an eyebrow at his haste, but allow that Sect Leader Jin's wife said that he would be coming and instructed that he should be allowed entry.

Zixuan is there when he reaches his shijie, looking outright amused at how flustered he is. He kneels in front of her.

"Shijie, you called? Is it -"

She smiles. "I'm going to have a baby, A-Xian," she says, reaching for his hands. He looks down, at the first curves that are starting to soften her figure, and feels faintly dizzy. "What's his name?"

He blinks, and looks back to her face. He never told her, before, he didn't want to burden her with the life she had, but - "Are you sure?" he asks. "You don't -"

"A-Xian." She squeezes his hands, and he concentrates on that, on shijie's hands in his, real and solid. "Tell me his name."

"Wait," Zixuan says. "Don't I -"

"Not this time," shijie says serenely. Zixuan goes quiet.

"Jin Ling," Wei Wuxian whispers. "Courtesy name Rulan. I'll - I'll write it down."

"Jin Ling," she says, and nods.

---

After Wuxian returns from Jinlintai with the news of Sect Leader Jin's wife's pregnancy, he and A-Cheng work themselves into a fret about it until Wen Qing can't stand it any more. She goes to see her, and begins visiting Jinlintai every couple of weeks.

The assurances of Wen Qing that their sister is healthy, that things are proceeding well, keeps them from fussing too much or forming plans to go to Jinlintai and either attack Jin Zixuan for having dared to defile their sister (apparently having married her first only compounds his crimes, because what, Wuxian demands, with A-Cheng's clear agreement, made him think he had the right) or kidnap her and take her back to Lotus Pier.

And so a fragile peace is maintained.

One evening when A-Cheng and Wuxian are at the peak of their ridiculous dramatics, Xichen finds himself looking at Wangji, and sees the same exasperated fondness he feels in his brother's expression, an amused acknowledgement when Wangji feels his gaze and meets Xichen's eyes.

They're ridiculous, he seems to say, but they're ours.

Xichen feels a pang at that thought; Wuxian is Wangji's, but A-Cheng is not his.

Shortly after midsummer, they're in the rooms when Wen Qing makes a breakthrough. A-Cheng is oiling his sword and Xichen is practicing a score on Liebing when she makes a small exclamation of delight and jumps up from her desk.

"This might be important," she says, eyes sparkling. "I'm going back to the library." As she passes A-Cheng, she presses a light kiss to his temple.

Then she passes Xichen, and does the same.

Xichen, shocked, looks at A-Cheng.

"What?" A-Cheng says. "Keep playing, I like that one."

The summer is waning when he wakes in the grass of the meadow again. This time, his head is pillowed on a muscular thigh, and he can feel fingers carding gently through his hair and a warm, reassuring weight on his chest.

When he opens his eyes he sees A-Cheng, his features soft and beautiful in the early evening light. It's his hand on Xichen's chest, and he's the one stroking Xichen's hair.

His pose seems improbable when both of his hands are too occupied for him to lean back on them, but then Xichen hears a page turn, and Wen Qing's voice.

"He's awake," she murmurs, and Xichen realises that she's sitting behind A-Cheng, back to back; they're leaning against each other.

A-Cheng looks down, and smiles, and Xichen feels as if the evening's golden light is flowing into him, through him, suffusing him with warmth. He's never felt so safe.

"He should stop that," A-Cheng says. His thumb brushes Xichen's cheekbone. "Go back to sleep."

Xichen does.

---

Wei Wuxian is strongly considering taking his son and his husband, leaving Cloud Recesses, and never returning.

He has tolerated their rules, he has lived tolerably within their disciplines, and he has done his best to be helpful to the Lan Sect in every way he can while they've been here, and now he is being repaid with betrayal, threats, and the attempted kidnapping of his son, after accosting him when he had innocently left his only child in the clutches of Lan Sect Leader Xichen.

When he says as much, Lan Qiren manifests a pained expression Wei Wuxian hasn't seen since he was a student here.

"Wei Wuxian," he says, "every Lan child for generations has spent their mornings or their afternoons in the children's hall. If their parents are both occupied, they can spend both, but that is in no way required. It is very beneficial. The Elders, who are very experienced, guide the children through games and exercises which aid in laying the foundation of a golden core. I believe A-Yuan has great potential, and it would be beneficial for him to go to the children's hall as his father did before him."

Wei Wuxian glares. "Just because the Lan do it doesn't mean it's necessary," he snaps. "And we'll be going back to Lotus Pier. The Jiang Sect approach this differently. Are you saying you think the Jiang methods of cultivation are inadequate for Sect Leader Jiang's grandson?"

That argument gets a flat unimpressed look. "No," Lan Qiren says. "I hope that the Jiang Sect will continue his education while he is at Lotus Pier. However, at this time he is in Gusu, and this is how we do it here."

Wei Wuxian sniffs. "When I was his age, I was on the road with my parents," he says, "and I turned out fine. I was the fourth-ranked young master of my generation."

"And my nephews were first and second," Lan Qiren points out.

"I'm the son of a servant, and I outranked a sect heir," Wei Wuxian argues. He did, too - the first time he was ahead of Jiang Cheng. This time, the reputed brilliance of the flowers of Lotus Pier took Jiang Cheng to third and Wei Wuxian was still fourth, pushing Jin Zixuan to fifth. (Jin Zixuan never seemed to care; Jin Guangshan, Wei Wuxian knows, held something of a grudge about it.)

"Which is undoubtedly to your credit, and that of the Jiang Sect," Lan Qiren says, with quite remarkable diplomacy. "And I'm sure your influence will be of great benefit to A-Yuan's cultivational prowess."

He must really want A-Yuan to go to the children's hall with the other Lan kids, Wei Wuxian thinks, to be saying that out loud to Wei Wuxian's face.

"Lan Zhan and I will discuss it," he says finally, "and let you know."

Lan Qiren hesitates only a moment, then nods. "I will give you time, then. I give you my word that I will take no action on the matter without your permission."

Clearly he does not want to lose access to his great-nephew.

After Lan Qiren takes his leave, Wei Wuxian turns to his husband. "What do you think?" he asks.

Lan Zhan is much more troubled than Wei Wuxian would have expected. He takes some time to answer.

"I am... unsure," he says finally. "The children's hall is... tolerable. Brother and I did spend time there. I'm sure he would not experience harm there. However..." He exhales heavily. "Wei Ying. He's so small. Isn't it too soon?"

He'd honestly expected Lan Zhan to be all in favour, but he seems truly distraught.

This is deeply unfair, because it means Wei Wuxian is going to have to be the responsible one.

He looks at the heartache written into Lan Zhan's expression and simply can't stand it. He moves over, sliding his arms around his husband's neck and straddling his lap. "Lan Zhan," he says, and kisses his nose. "Look at me."

He waits until he has Lan Zhan's full attention, until the lost look in his eyes recedes a little. "Wei Ying."

"Lan Zhan, A-Yuan is our very own tiny bun and I absolutely agree that he is too small for this, but I have to ask you a question." He presses his forehead against Lan Zhan's and closes his eyes. "Do you think you'll ever be ready? Because I don't think I will."

Lan Zhan hesitates, and then he exhales, and his shoulders drop.

"Until Xichen produces a child of his own, our A-Yuan is an heir of the Lan Sect," Wei Wuxian says regretfully. "We should probably allow him to be exposed to your sect's teachings."

"What if he's unhappy there?" Lan Zhan asks, sounding very young. "What if the other children don't like him, and he's lonely, and he doesn't like the games?"

Wei Wuxian doesn't ask if that's how Lan Zhan remembers the children's hall; it seems very clear that it is.

"If he doesn't like it," he says firmly, "then he does not have to go. He can stay with us, and I will continue to teach him as my mother taught me, and he will be fine, just as I was. I know that this time it's not the same at all, but seriously, Lan Zhan, in my first childhood, I spent years on the street and hardly remembered my parents at all by the time Uncle Jiang found me, and I really was the fourth-ranked young master of our generation."

Lan Zhan sighs. "Sometimes, the parents stayed with the children, at first. Perhaps we could..."

"Definitely," Wei Wuxian promises, and kisses him. He intends it to be gentle, but this discussion has touched something wounded in Lan Zhan, who returns this kiss with something very close to desperation.

Oh, Lan Zhan.

"I'm here, Lan Zhan," Wei Wuxian says, as Lan Zhan's lips move to his neck, to the place on his collarbone where Lan Zhan always likes to bite. "I'll always be here. You have me, and our son, you won't ever be alone again. I - ah - I promise." His breath catches as Lan Zhan sucks at his collarbone.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan breathes into his skin, and Wei Wuxian shudders. It's possible it says something terrible about his character that Lan Zhan's moments of desperate need have the effect on him they do, but he can't bring himself to care.

"A-Yuan's with his uncles until this evening," he says. "If you want..."

"Yes." Lan Zhan's hands tighten around his hips as he surges to his feet, taking Wei Wuxian with him, and carries him to the bedroom.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng flips Sandu around his hand as he takes his stance. The sun is bright and it's a warm day, but that isn't why he's sweating. There are hundreds of people watching. There's even a crowd of women here, visiting from the other side of Cloud Recesses.

Jiang Cheng has fought in the presence of hundreds, even thousands, before, but that was in the Sunshot Campaign, and everyone involved had their own concerns.

He's never fought with spectators.

Two days ago, some Lan cultivators came across the outlying meadow where Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng and Wangji have been doing their sword practice since they arrived.

When one of the sword masters had come to ask if they would permit students to observe the admirable display of skill by such accomplished cultivators, he had desperately wanted to refuse, but as a guest of the Lan Sect, he felt that doing so would have reflected poorly on the Jiang, and so he had to say that he would welcome the opportunity to give instruction by example to the junior disciples.

So today they have come to the training fields. He'd expected perhaps twenty observers at most.

Instead there's a sea of Lan robes surrounding the training fields. There are people perched on the walls and rooftops. There are people hovering overhead on their swords for a view.

Jiang Cheng is honestly not sure he can do this. Even Wen Qing has come to watch, although she at least looks faintly amused by the whole thing.

Wei Wuxian holds up a hand, lowers Suibian, and comes over to talk to him.

"I just want you to know," he whispers, "that your shixiong will go easy on poor Chengcheng in front of -"

At that point he leaps away, laughing, as Jiang Cheng attacks, outrage singing bright and pure in his veins.

For all that Wei Wuxian exceeds him in every other area, they're very closely matched at swordsmanship. He loses his awareness of their audience in the intensity of the fight.

It ends at something like a draw - Jiang Cheng isn't sure who should have won, but at least once he missed an opportunity to disarm Wei Wuxian because it would be far too dangerous to send Suibian flying into a crowd this large, and he suspects Wei Wuxian may have done the same.

Still, it was a good fight, and there are appreciative murmurs in the crowd.

Next is Wangji and Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Cheng can only hope desperately that they'll just fight, and not flirt outrageously.

Honestly, most days it can easily go either way.

He can hear the senior Lan swordsmaster talking to the assembled students. "Now, that display by our Jiang guests was extremely impressive!"

Even Jiang Cheng can identify the extremely irritated look that Wangji has at that statement. Wei Wuxian might not notice the implication at all - that he is a guest and not a member, by marriage, of the Lan Sect - but Wangji definitely did, and Wangji definitely did not like it.

Not that Jiang Cheng would ever say so, but... it's sort of sweet.

The swordsmaster, oblivious, is continuing. "But now Hanguang-Jun will be fighting, and you should observe very closely. Hanguang-Jun had mastered the Lan sword technique when he was only sixteen. He has been away from Gusu for some years, so now at last is your opportunity to see the sword art perfected."

Jiang Cheng does not swear aloud, but he does meet Wei Wuxian's eyes. They think he'll fight like he did when they left. Do they think the Jiang Sect wouldn't have taught him anything?

Wei Wuxian shrugs fractionally with just the barest hint of an eye-roll. Either that, or they just think it has nothing worth teaching.

Outrageous, Jiang Cheng thinks, but he contains his reaction to a little puff of air through his nose.

On the bright side... this definitely won't devolve into flirting.

Wangji takes his place in the middle of the field, and Jiang Cheng goes to stand by his wife, who subtly adjusts her posture so her hand brushes his, sending a message through the skin contact with spiritual energy.

Wangji looks furious and Wuxian has his troublemaking face.

He gives her a very small nod. She smiles at him, just for a moment, and then returns her attention to the field.

Wei Wuxian and Wangji are in position. There's a moment of tense silence, and then they both move at once.

Almost immediately, he can tell that Wei Wuxian is not the only one who decided to make trouble.

You're amused, why? Wen Qing asks.

They're showing off, he replies, as Wangji dodges a strike by rolling across the ground, getting dust on his robes and coming up with a handful of detritus he throws directly at Wei Wuxian's face. Wei Wuxian jumps away from it, blinking, and Wangji presses his advantage. They're both deliberately using tactics that will have Wangji being as unorthodox as possible.

He risks a glance at the Lan swordsmaster who had made the ill-judged comments. The man is turning a very strange colour.

Wen Qing's cultivation is strong, but her skill with the sword is... less so, and she is familiar solely with the sword techniques of the Wen. Wen Ruohan would never have permitted her to night-hunt, Jiang Cheng knows, and the Wen never saw any value in understanding the methods of other sects anyway, so he keeps a silent running commentary on the fight for her, pointing out the many, many ways in which Wangji is giving the Lan swordsmasters absolute fits with almost everything he's doing.

Jiang disciples learn the traditional techniques of the Jiang Sect, as passed down by Jiang Fengmian, but that isn't all; the Jiang sword form has also come to include some of the methods of the Meishan Yu, as taught by Madam Yu, Jinzhu, and Yinzhu, as well as a few moves Wei Wuxian introduced from somewhere... and then they went to war, and honed their skills on the battlefield, discarding the honourable but ineffective in favour of whatever worked.

Right now, his brothers - not that he'd ever say that, either - are displaying the full breadth of their hard-won skills.

Jiang Cheng doesn't know whether Wei Wuxian lets Wangji win or not. The fight was definitely a performance, but it could still go either way. Nonetheless, Wangji does win. In the end, Wei Wuxian is face-down on the ground, and Wangji has a knee on his back and the flat of Bichen pressed against his shoulders.

Jiang Cheng really, really hopes that an audience of hundreds, some of them children, will be enough to keep this from turning into aggressive flirting.

Apparently today is a lucky day for him, because when Wei Wuxian yields, Wangji simply stands and offers his husband a hand up.

"Lan Wangji!" the swordsmaster splutters. "That was not the correct and proper technique! Why are you using these... unorthodox and deviant methods?"

Wangji gazes back at him impassively. He straightens his robes, and with a brief, almost undetectable flicker of spiritual energy, the dust puffs away and he is pristine again. Wei Wuxian is smiling, but it's his sharp, dangerous smile, the one that he wears when he's absolutely definitely about to ruin someone's day.

"Orthodox techniques are predictable," he says. "Even an inferior swordsman can counter the Lan style if he is familiar with it."

The swordsmaster looks like he might go for Wei Wuxian's throat, but that's nothing compared to his clear shock when Wangji says, "Wei Ying is correct."

"Nonsense!" the swordsmaster shouts. Wei Wuxian's ability to make senior members of the Lan sect forget the rule about shouting remains unmatched. "If technique is perfected, it will succeed against any opponent!"

Wangji raises an eyebrow very slightly.

Uh-oh, Wen Qing sends.

"There is always more to learn," Wangji says.

"Not when by learning new things you degrade the skills you had!"

Oh shit, that's Wangji's try me, fucker head tilt, Jiang Cheng's only seen that maybe twice.

"If the master is certain that the techniques I have learned since I left Gusu are inferior and have degraded my skills, I am sure he will have no difficulty demonstrating as much," he says.

In the years Wangji spent at Lotus Pier before the Sunshot Campaign, Jiang Cheng had the opportunity to get to know him much better. One of the things he had learned was that Wangji is, nearly all of the time, a very disciplined and well-behaved person.

A very small amount of the time, Wangji is an absolute little shit.

Another thing he had learned was that when Wangji decided to fuck with people, he was all the fuck in. The shidis had learned to fear and adore him. (They are accustomed to having Wei Wuxian as their senior disciple. Sometimes it shows.)

So it doesn't really come as a shock when Wangji follows that statement by taking his stance again on the field as Wei Wuxian comes over to where Jiang Cheng and Wen Qing are standing.

"I would not want to be responsible for the disciples gaining improper ideas about correct technique if all they see today is three members of the Jiang Sect sparring," Acting Lan Sect Leader Lan Wangji adds, his white headband almost glowing in the sunlight. The bell tied to his violet belt chimes just once as he moves, which does not happen accidentally.

And Jiang Cheng had been worried that Wei Wuxian would cause a diplomatic incident while they were here.

The swordsmaster, glaring, steps out from the ranks and takes the field.

This seems like it could go badly, Wen Qing tells him.

I have a headache and its name is Wangji, he sends back, just to feel her amusement.

The fight begins.

Wangji displays none of the intensity of focus he used against Wei Wuxian. He counters every attack the swordsmaster attempts with clinical precision, and then - after less than a minute - he simply steps to one side, flicks Bichen, and the swordsmaster's own sword clatters to the ground.

"As I said," Wangji says calmly. "Predictable."

Jiang Cheng nudges Wei Wuxian, and meets his eyes with a very definite glare. If you say one word I will murder you with my bare hands.

Wei Wuxian grins, but nods in acquiescence.

It's just as well, because after that, there's what one might call an argument.

He's very, very glad Xichen decided not to join them today, because he might have felt required to get involved.

Wangji is standing, tall and straight, looking faintly bored as four angry swordsmasters shout at him. (Slightly further back, several others are looking thoughtful. Over where the women are standing, he can see some of them arguing with each other.)

The collected juniors are an interesting mixture of gleeful, stone-faced, and similarly outraged; Xichen's ward A-Yang is looking awed.

Meanwhile, Wangji is doing nothing to calm the situation.

"I have been away from Gusu for some years," he says blandly, when the swordsmasters splutter to a halt. "I will, of course, be honoured to accompany such worthy masters to the Wall of Disciplines, in order that the masters will be able to point out each of the rules I broke directly."

Jiang Cheng looks sharply at Wei Wuxian. Did he break the rules?

Wei Wuxian grins back. Not a single one.

The swordsmasters are not calmed by that contribution at all.

And now there's movement in the crowd - someone is making their way through the ranks, and the crowd is parting for them, so it's probably -

"What is the meaning of this unseemly commotion?" Lan Qiren demands. His tone is sharp, but not loud; his voice nonetheless carries across the whole crowd. Most of the people present go silent, and a number of the rest trail away in mmph sounds. Jiang Cheng wonders how many silencing charms were just cast, and who cast them. It could be the kindness of good friends to silence the people around them, just to avoid drawing Lan Qiren's attention right now.

Even Jiang Cheng finds himself straightening his posture, even though it means he can't talk directly to Wen Qing any more.

Three of the swordsmasters begin talking at once. Loudly.

Lan Qiren glares, and they are silenced too.

He turns towards where Jiang Cheng is standing. "Young Master Jiang," he says stiffly. "Madam Wen. I apologise for the appalling failures of discipline you have witnessed. Such behaviour is highly unacceptable in front of guests."

Jiang Cheng wonders just how many of the people present are going to be disciplined for this... and who'll be doing the disciplining. They may have to take turns disciplining each other.

Notably, Lan Qiren does not apologise to Wei Wuxian, and Jiang Cheng isn't sure, but he thinks Wangji might be looking faintly smug about that, because Wangji is quite proud and happy about it that his husband is not a guest.

To Jiang Cheng's great relief, Wei Wuxian is standing quietly and correctly. Probably because his inner chaos demon is satisfied by the pandemonium around them, but Jiang Cheng will take it. He bows his acknowledgement.

Lan Qiren gives him the faintest of nods and then turns back. "Wangji," he says. "Explain."

"The swordsmasters requested that we train where we could be observed for the edification of the junior disciples. They have subsequently offered great insult to the sword forms of the Jiang Sect in the presence of the Jiang Sect heir."

Jiang Cheng bites down on any response he might have made. You could technically interpret it as an insult to the Jiang, but it was obvious they were just upset that their precious Hanguang-Jun, specifically, was no longer a pure and perfect Lan.

"I see," Lan Qiren says. He looks at the senior swordmaster. "Have you anything to offer in mitigation?"

"Hanguang-Jun was using the Jiang forms!" the swordsmaster explodes, apparently released from silence. "He has been corrupted by the Jiang Sect! Tarnished! He -"

"Silence!" Lan Qiren snaps.

Just as well. Now Jiang Cheng is offended.

"I apologise again to the Jiang Sect," Lan Qiren says tightly. "Young Master Jiang, Young Master Wei, Madam Wen, and Wangji, I deeply regret my colleague's shameful behaviour." He glances at the crowd. "I think it is time that this gathering disperse," he says, but when the swordsmasters start to move, his glare snaps back. "Not you. Wangji, I will speak with you later to discuss this further."

Wangji nods, and comes to join them. He and Wei Wuxian lock eyes, and Jiang Cheng rolls his.

"It's nearly time for A-Yuan to finish at the children's hall," he says. "I'm sure Xichen would enjoy seeing his nephew. Shall I collect him, and we can keep him for the afternoon?"

"That sounds great, Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian says, not breaking eye contact with his husband. "You're the best. Lan Zhan and I will just -"

"Do not finish that sentence," Jiang Cheng interrupts. He offers Wen Qing his arm. "My lady, shall I escort you back to the library?"

"Please," Wen Qing says, taking his arm. "I must say, husband, that was a very entertaining morning."

Chapter Text

The weather is cooling, heralding the approach of autumn, and Xichen's happiness is deserting him.

Correspondence between Sect Leader Jin's wife and Wen Qing has resulted in the agreement that Wen Qing (with, it can be assumed, her husband in tow) will go to Jinlintai before the expected arrival of the new Jin Sect Heir, if only to keep the child's uncles from going into qi deviation. Both A-Cheng and Wuxian swing wildly between eager anticipation of their new nephew (Wen Qing has confirmed that the child is a boy), and frantic worry for the dangers of childbirth.

Xichen's heart is breaking by inches, because A-Cheng and Wen Qing are going to be leaving, and he'll be alone again, and he doesn't quite know how he'll survive it.

---

"Of course we're leaving you here," A-Cheng says. "We're married. You're nobody. We've given you most of a year, already, what more did you want? Haven't we been kind enough yet?"

"I thought he knew better," Wuxian says critically. "Only Wangji gets to be loved, because it's not his fault he's broken. You should have taken care of him better," he adds, looking at Xichen.

Xichen looks away, and sees Wangji walking towards them, limping painfully. His robes are bloodied and torn. "You did this," Wangji says. "It's your fault."

He wants to reply, but there's a moment of confused unreality, and then he realises he's lying in bed, and someone's shaking him gently. Or maybe they're just touching, and he's the one who's shaking.

"Hey," A-Cheng's voice says softly. "Second brother. Xichen. Lan Huan. Wake up."

He was dreaming. That was a dream.

"I'm awake," he says. "Thank you."

"Yeah. Move over." A-Cheng shoves at him, and he moves over, confused. A-Cheng crawls into bed with him, lies close to him, throws one arm over his chest.

"I don't understand," Xichen whispers.

"Wei Wuxian used to, when we were little," A-Cheng mumbles. "Have bad dreams. I'd sleep with him after. I can leave if you want."

He's warm, and real, and there. His arm is a weight across Xichen's chest, solid and reassuring.

"No," Xichen says. "Stay."

In the morning, Wen Qing and A-Cheng rearrange the bedrooms. Xichen's things - most of his belongings have somehow migrated to this guest house, he tries not to think about it - move to the larger bedroom, and Wen Qing's to the smaller.

When he protests, A-Cheng just grins at him. "No, this is better," he says. "I'm always worried she'll stab me with her needles if I stray across to her side of the bed."

Wen Qing raises an eyebrow, a smile tugging at one corner of her mouth. "And I'm always strongly considering it," she says.

That night, Xichen gets into the larger bed with A-Cheng. There's room here for them to sleep apart, with space between them, but A-Cheng still moves close to him anyway, still throws an arm across his chest.

A few days later he wakes up just this side of too warm, lying on his side with A-Cheng behind him, curled around him, A-Cheng's breath on the back of his neck.

It feels wonderful.

He tries not to cry, because he can't stand how much he knows it's going to hurt when they leave him behind.

He's quiet that morning, he knows he is, but he can't make himself be normal. He knows they notice - sees the significant look A-Cheng and Wen Qing exchange, the silent communication he can't quiet follow, and then Wen Qing leaves for the library.

Some time later, Wuxian arrives. "I need to talk to Jiang Cheng," he say flatly. "Lan Huan, A-Yuan was asking about the differences between your flute and mine. Show him how to play the xiao, will you?" He sets A-Yuan on the floor and pulls A-Cheng out by his sleeve.

"Yes please, Uncle," A-Yuan says, smiling sweetly.

Xichen obliges. A-Yuan watches attentively as he shows him how to play the different notes, asks questions. He's speaking much better now, Xichen notices, and clearly has a bright, alert mind. Xichen finds himself wondering about the boy's birth parents for perhaps the first time ever; if the child has the gift for cultivation, he seems very promising.

Wuxian and A-Cheng are gone for a long time. A-Yuan's hands are too small to play a full-sized instrument properly, but by the time they do come back, Xichen has A-Yuan perched on his knee, practicing the correct blowing technique while Xichen holds Liebing and does the notes.

Wuxian feigns outrage at the sight. "What is this? I said show him the differences! Are you stealing my son for your rival technique? A-Yuan, the dizi is superior to the xiao, because of reasons. Pay no attention to your Uncle's crooked path!" A-Yuan giggles, even as Wuxian pulls him away gently. "Jiang Cheng! Take my son away from Uncle Viper, immediately!"

A-Cheng tucks A-Yuan under one arm and carries him away, giggling and squirming at his side.

Wuxian sits down. Xichen has a feeling of impending doom.

"So," he says. "Wen Qing and Jiang Cheng are worried about you. They're not sure how to talk to you about it, because they're afraid of hurting your feelings, and afraid that you'll hurt theirs, so now I'm going to talk to you, because I am much older and much smarter than any of you, and I do not care about your feelings -"

Xichen doesn't quite snort at that, but it's close.

"- and none of you can really hurt mine."

That, Xichen believes. He can't hurt Wuxian, not really; he can't even think of anything he could do that would cause him more than a moment's frown. Wuxian cares about him as a person, cares about him as someone who is very important to Wuxian's husband, and he thinks Wuxian likes and respects him, but he is not one of Wuxian's deeply beloved people.

A-Cheng and Wen Qing are, but this A-Cheng could never and would never say anything like the things Wuxian remembers from the older, embittered man who had survived the deaths of his family. Wuxian will be unbothered by even the sharpest remarks from Wen Qing or A-Cheng because they are here, and they are alive, and that is enough for him.

He has been silent too long, and Wuxian sighs at him.

"I won't tell them anything if that will hurt you, either," he says quietly. "Just tell me what's bothering you, and we can work it out."

Xichen closes his eyes. He can't.

"Okay," Wuxian says. "Let me tell you what I think is going on, and you correct me if I'm wrong."

Xichen nods. "All right."

He's not sure whether he wants Wuxian to have worked it out or not.

"You've spent all this time with them. You've pretty much moved in with them. You and Jiang Cheng are sleeping in the same bed. The three of you are like a family. And you think they're leaving soon to go to Jinlintai, and they'll leave you here alone." He pauses. "Breathe."

Xichen hadn't realised he'd stopped, and forces himself to exhale, inhale. "Yes," he says.

"I was going to ask if you wanted them to," Wuxian says, "but it seems pretty clear that you like it this way. You like being with them so much it's killing you because you think they're going to leave you, and you'll be alone."

Xichen nods. He can feel tears escaping, even though his eyes are still closed.

Wuxian sighs. "Wen Qing is worried you're going to fall back into qi deviation, that this has all somehow gone wrong. I think she's afraid that you want them to leave you behind. Wen Qing is - you know she's great, yes?"

"Yes," Xichen says confidently. "She's wonderful."

"Good," Wuxian says. "Wen Qing is wonderful. We are all agreed. But she is not good at a certain kind of trust. She will love you, and she will care for you, but she will not say so, because she will be afraid that her love will be used against her. If she does not tell you that she cares for you, that it will break her heart if you leave her, then it will hurt her less when you do. Lan Huan, look at me."

Xichen opens his eyes. Wuxian is leaning forward, his expression intensely serious.

"She never admitted to caring for me, and she still died to try and protect me. Wen Qing will do anything - anything - for the people she loves except tell them so. Her heart is a delicate thing, Lan Huan, and it has been badly treated. If I ever thought you were intentionally careless with her feelings, I would give serious consideration to causing you harm."

He's surprised that's not a death threat, and says so.

Wei Wuxian smiles without a shred of humour. "Lan Zhan loves you," he says. "I wouldn't kill you. Even if you broke Wen Qing's heart. But I'd think about it."

Xichen probably shouldn't find it as pleasing as he does to hear Wuxian assert with such casual confidence that Wangji loves him.

"Wen Qing wants you to be with them," Wuxian continues. "If she didn't, you wouldn't be here. She has not cared for you as your doctor - as a doctor, certainly, but she has not kept a professional distance from you. She has welcomed you into her home. She has shared her husband with you - which brings us to Jiang Cheng." His smile widens, takes on a hint of unholy glee. "You know, I hadn't thought I'd actually get to threaten someone about Jiang Cheng, this is great!"

Is Xichen supposed to stay away from A-Cheng, but not Wen Qing? He's not sure how that would even work.

"Jiang Cheng," Wuxian says, "is a scowly, angry man who does not know how to express his feelings. Jiang Cheng does not want to admit that he likes hugs, or comfort, or nice things like holding the man he loves in his arms while he sleeps, all close and warm where he can know that you're safe and if anything tries to hurt you, even your own dreams, he can protect you. Jiang Cheng does not want to admit that he will be devastated if you leave him, even though it's true, and I will definitely break your bones if you break his heart, because Jiang Cheng is an ugly crier and I don't want to see that again."

Xichen feels hope creeping into him. Wuxian and A-Cheng were talking for a long time. Is it possible that he's right? That this hasn't just been kindness and concern for his nightmares - that A-Cheng wants him there, wants to hold him, wants the closeness they've been sharing?

Or is this something else?

"Is A-Cheng a cutsleeve?" Xichen whispers. "Does he want -"

"No," Wuxian cuts him off. "Jiang Cheng does not want. Jiang Cheng wants this, what you have, he wants it always, but Jiang Cheng isn't built that way. Neither is Wen Qing." He tilts his head. "Do you? Want either of them?"

"No," he admits. "Not like... that." He's thought he was defective for a long time - at first he'd just thought that his distaste was a product of being raised in the strict disciplines of his Sect, but Wangji had always been, if anything, the more disciplined of the two of them, and yet as soon as Wei Wuxian had arrived at Cloud Recesses, Wangji had so clearly wanted.

"That's good, really," Wuxian says. "Lan Huan. If Wen Qing and Jiang Cheng wanted to keep you with them, wanted the three of you to find a way to stay together, be a family, just like this, would you want that?"

The tears slip free. "Yes," he admits. "More than anything."

"They want that too," Wuxian says gently. "They want this. They want you. Lan Zhan is making preparations for Lan Qiren to take over as acting Sect Leader when we go to Jinlintai, so you can come with us, with them. Afterwards, they want to come back here. Wen Qing isn't done with the library yet. Madam Yu has been helping Uncle Jiang in Lotus Pier in Jiang Cheng's place, he doesn't have to go back. If you're ready to start being Sect Leader again after Jin Ling is born, Lan Zhan and I will go to Lotus Pier until A-Yuan is old enough to start his schooling, and then we'll come back, and then Lan Zhan can help your uncle, and you can go to Lotus Pier with them. We've worked it all out."

They've been discussing this, Xichen realises. Perhaps for a while. Have they even talked to Uncle about it? It could work, this is a whole plan that could allow him to stay with them, his - his new family.

"Why didn't you - no-one told me," Xichen says. This whole time, they've been making plans, preparing.

They're not leaving without him.

He's dizzy with it, relief and a rising happiness he's not quite sure what to do with.

Wuxian smiles wryly. "I know. We should have. We thought it was better if you didn't have to think about the future. You needed time to rest, to recover. I'm sorry, I was probably the one who should have pushed it."

Xichen nods. "It's okay," he says, and he means it. "This can work."

Wuxian's smile widens, becomes bright and joyous. "Excellent," he says. "I'll tell Lan Zhan to sort out some permanent quarters for the three of you. You can't spend your lives in guest rooms." He stands. "I'll find Jiang Cheng and Wen Qing and tell them to come back," he says. He goes to leave, but then stops at the door and turns back. "By the way," he says cheerfully, "you did notice the parts where I threatened you, right?"

Xichen smiles despite himself. "I did, yes."

"Good good," Wuxian says. "I had to do them both, Wen Ning is too nice and shijie is unavailable. Oh, I nearly forgot." He pulls two small boxes from his sleeve and tosses them gently to Xichen. "Lan Zhan wanted me to give you those." He smiles brightly and leaves.

The boxes are small and lacquered, and Xichen's breath catches, because he knows exactly what these boxes are for. He tucks them in his sleeve.

A-Cheng returns first, quite quickly. He gives Xichen a searching look, and seems relieved at whatever he sees. "You're an idiot," he says, coming straight to Xichen and wrapping him in a tight hug. "Of course we're not leaving you." He presses a kiss to Xichen's hair, carefully avoiding his forehead ribbon in a way Xichen no longer wants him to do. "You can leave us if - if you want to, but we don't want you to go."

"I don't want to leave," Xichen says. "I want this. Want you. Both of you." He closes his eyes, leans into him.

"Good," is all A-Cheng says.

He's not sure how long they stay like that, but it's good - soaking in the contact, without the pain of thinking it was something he was going to lose. After a time, he hears Wen Qing enter.

"I hope this means it all went well," she says. He feels her touch his shoulder, and opens his eyes to see her other hand is on A-Cheng's.

"It did," he says. Takes a breath, meets her eyes. "I love you. Both of you."

Wen Qing is breathtakingly beautiful when she smiles.

Xichen decides to be brave.

"Wuxian gave me something," he says. "From - from Wangji. I don't know if - you might not want -" He bites his lip. He's committed now, in more ways than one. "These." He takes the boxes from his sleeve, gives one to each of them. "We can't really make it formal, but -"

"Yes." A-Cheng has opened his box, and cuts him off. "Put it on. We can work out what we'll do permanently later. Put it on."

He holds the box towards Xichen. Xichen feels like he can barely breathe, like his chest is too full of something warm and wonderful to leave room for air as he pulls the pristine white ribbon from the box and wraps it carefully around A-Cheng's wrist.

A-Cheng is smiling widely at him, even as he moves back to make room for Wen Qing to kneel gracefully, for Xichen to do hers too.

When it's done, she presses a kiss to his forehead, deliberately touching the ribbon Xichen wears.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian is starting to think that they've been in the Cloud Recesses too long. He's getting restless. He feels like his clothes are too small for him, like he's been too long in one place, or perhaps just too long staying in Cloud Recesses and not making trouble this whole time.

At least Jiang Cheng and Wen Qing and Lan Xichen seem like they'll work things out. He was deeply touched that Wen Qing came to him for help. That she trusted him, and believed he could help.

He can't wait to see Madam Yu's face when she finds out about their new... arrangement, that the three top-ranked young masters of their generation she didn't raise are now more or less her sons-in-law. She'll be delighted. The Jiang Sect Discussion Conference is next year, and no doubt they will be making a point of inviting all of the Sect Leaders to bring their wives, making any excuse they can to assemble her generation of mothers, just so she can be smug when the top five young masters of their generation all come to sit at her table.

He'll have to pay a visit to Popo, too. Who says he's the only one of her kin who'd marry a Lan?

It was a nice interruption to his sense of stifling confinement. He needs to get out of the Cloud Recesses, he decides; after lunch, he'll leave A-Yuan at the children's hall and go to Caiyi Town for the afternoon.

---

Lan Wangji is mildly surprised when he returns to the cottage for the evening meal and Wei Ying is not there.

He is also not at the children's hall (although A-Yuan is, and Lan Wangji collects him from the attendants who have stayed late to mind him), in the library, or the meadow, or in the vicinity of the kitchens, or at the training grounds, or at the guest house where Jiang Wanyin, Madam Wen and Brother are living.

Lan Wangji feels awkward about intruding, but it is at least an opportunity to express his approval of their arrangements, however unconventional.

"Brother," he says, "You are familiar with the house to the west of the hanshi. It is presently unoccupied. I have made it available for your use."

He hopes that will be sufficient.

"Wangji," his brother says, "you look distressed. Is something wrong?"

That is unfortunate. There is a risk that they will think he is secretly disapproving of their happiness when he is not.

"Daddy not home," A-Yuan says. Lan Wangji is very grateful for their son sometimes. "Not library, not fields, not kitchens, not with rabbits." He leans forward in Lan Wangji's arms to peer inside the guest house. "Not here."

"He went to Caiyi Town this afternoon. Has Jiang Wanyin returned?"

"I didn't go," Jiang Wanyin says, emerging from a bedroom. "I didn't even know he was going," he adds, and Lan Wangji feels something in his chest lurch. He'd just assumed - "A-Yuan can stay here. I'll help you look for him."

"I would not wish to interrupt," Lan Wangji says, but Madam Wen is already coming to take his son from his arms. When she reaches towards him, Lan Wangji observes the white ribbon at her wrist. Jiang Wanyin has one too.

"You're not interrupting, and he wasn't asking," she says. "Would you want to be spending a quiet evening at home if Xichen went missing?"

"No," he admits. He would want to be looking for him. If he were unaware that his brother was missing, he would want someone to tell him, even if he was at home with Wei Ying and their son.

"Take my kit," Madam Wen orders. "Just in case. Wangji, has A-Yuan eaten?"

"He has not," Lan Wangji says, as Jiang Wanyin puts a wrapped bundle in his sleeve as well as retrieving his sword.

"We'll take care of him," his brother assures him.

"Let's go," Jiang Wanyin says.

---

According to Wangji, Wei Wuxian went to Caiyi Town.

"Maybe he's been drinking and lost track of time," Jiang Cheng suggests, but he doesn't really believe it. Wei Wuxian does occasionally drink, but he never really seems to get drunk, and he's very dedicated to Wangji and A-Yuan. He'd know Wangji will worry. "We'll go that way first."

They set off towards Caiyi Town, flying low to the ground. It's not dark yet, but they don't want to fly straight past him if Wei Wuxian is on the way back.

He isn't.

They start with the inn Jiang Cheng is pretty sure Wei Wuxian liked when they were students, but he's not there.

Jiang Cheng is starting to get a bad feeling about this.

Wei Wuxian should be easy to spot, even among all these people. The violet robes of the Jiang Sect are not particularly subtle to start with, and Wei Wuxian has taken to having his lined with white to reflect his connection to the Lan Sect.

He can't see him anywhere.

They go from inn to inn. Wei Wuxian is in none of them.

However, when they enter the third inn it's immediately clear that they've found his trail.

Several tables have been overturned. One of the maids is crying, and a young man is leaning against the bar, looking like someone has badly beaten him.

One of the other maids sees them enter, and looks relieved. "Hanguang-Jun!" she says. "They took Young Master Wei! We tried to send a messenger to Cloud Recesses, but they were waiting -" she gestures helplessly at the man who has been beaten.

"Who?" Jiang Cheng snarls. "Where did they take him? How?"

"Cultivators," she says. "No sect I know. A large, ugly man with dogs. They went west."

Dogs, Jiang Cheng thinks. Fuck. No wonder they were able to take him out - Wei Wuxian will have been paralysed with terror. Jiang Cheng remembers all too well when they were children, and Jiang Cheng's parents talked about giving him puppies. Wei Wuxian had cried, truly upset and afraid of the very idea of puppies, and Jiang Cheng had turned to his parents and told them he didn't want any stupid boring puppies. It had ended there, and Jiang Cheng had promised Wei Wuxian he wouldn't let any dogs hurt him, ever.

He'd promised.

As they run to the west, bystanders along the road see them and point. The people of Caiyi Town all know Hanguang-Jun, and most know Hanguang-Jun's husband, even if they don't know Jiang Cheng; whoever took Wei Wuxian wasn't even subtle.

On the outskirts of town, they run out of witnesses, but they've only gone a short way out, looking for any signs, when Wangji's head snaps around. He starts running hard towards some farm buildings in the middle distance. Jiang Cheng follows, and as they get closer, he hears it too - barking dogs, and the sound of Wei Wuxian screaming.

Jiang Cheng is going to kill every single person in that building who isn't Wei Wuxian, and then he's going to kill Wei Wuxian.

He grabs Wangji's shoulder. He doesn't definitely think Wangji will run straight in, but Wangji is looking... very upset, and there's a risk that if he charges, Wei Wuxian could be hurt.

Badly.

Apparently the kidnappers have had lookouts posted (Jiang Cheng will admit they haven't been subtle either), because there are men coming out to meet them. He doesn't recognise any of them, and they're dressed like rogue cultivators.

Oh.

Jiang Cheng's fist tightens around Sandu and he can see a flicker of purple from the corner of his eye as Zidian sparks when Jin Zixun emerges, followed by a man dragging Wei Wuxian, who looks nearly catatonic, no doubt because two more men are holding large dogs very, very near him.

"Jin Zixun," Jiang Cheng snarls.

"Jiang Wanyin," Jin Zixun sneers. "And Lan Wangji. Come for your pet?"

"Wei Wuxian, are you hurt?" Jiang Cheng asks, ignoring that. He keeps his grip on Wangji's shoulder, because Wangji is shaking, with fear or fury or both, and Jiang Cheng needs him not to do anything rash.

"Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian says weakly. "Jiang Cheng, dog."

"I know," he says, gentling his tone as much as he can with the rage that's burning for him to move. It's possible he might not be in that much better a state than Wangji is, but the oldest, deepest surety in his life is that protecting Wei Wuxian is his job, and he is not going to fail for a piece of shit like Jin Zixun. "Just breathe, Wei Wuxian. I won't let them hurt you."

"Oh won't you?" Jin Zixun asks incredulously.

Jiang Cheng meets his eyes. "No," he says flatly. "I won't. How do you think this is going to go well for you, Jin Zixun? What's your stupid plan?"

"My plan is to get back what he stole from me. What all of you stole from me. My place in an elite sect, my honour." Jin Zixun is red-faced.

"You threw that away yourself," Jiang Cheng snaps. "And kidnapping Wei Wuxian won't get it back for you."

"Not directly," Jin Zixun says smugly. "But this will." He reaches into his sleeve, and -

Oh.

- holds up the Stygian Tiger Seal. He has a piece of cloth to keep it from touching his skin directly, but he has it, and it's active. Black shadows are coiling around it, though the glimmers of jade light Jiang Cheng remembers are still dark.

"With this, any sect I choose will become elite," Jin Zixun says, smirking. "And the rest of you can bow or die."

Jiang Cheng's mind races, trying to calculate whether he thinks he can get to Jin Zixun before he can use the Seal, past the men in between them, they're unlikely to be strong cultivators, but -

"No," Wangji says simply. He raises a hand. "Stop."

And the Stygian Tiger Seal... does.

It slips free of Jin Zixun's hold and floats through the air, coming to rest in Wangji's hand. The dark energy blinks out.

Jiang Cheng will care about what just happened later.

He charges.

A flick of Zidian sends one of the dog handlers flying, and he knocks the other clear with his fist, the weight of Sandu and all his fury behind it. He won't attack the dogs, but another crack of Zidian in the air sends them running, yelping, and he's not sorry.

"Jiang Cheng," he hears Wei Wuxian, in a fragile, vulnerable, thankful tone he absolutely fucking hates. A quick glance shows no obvious wounds, and that will have to be enough - he can't look, he has to fight, and he doesn't want to see the tearful, shaken gratitude on Wei Wuxian's face.

Jin Zixun's men have charged at Wangji, who's fighting them off with a cold fury, but Jin Zixun is turning towards Wei Wuxian, hate and anger in his eyes.

"What the fuck did you do?" he screams. Jiang Cheng blocks his attack and kicks him back, hard.

"Don't even think about it," he spits, and attacks. This asshole has had Wei Wuxian for who knows how long - it could be hours - and has been holding him with dogs, when Jiang Cheng hasn't let a dog near him for more than fifteen fucking years.

He hurt Wei Wuxian.

Jiang Cheng slices at him with Sandu. Jin Zixun is good enough to block the strike, but not good enough to evade Zidian, coming in hard and fast after it. It hits him in the ribs with the full force of Jiang Cheng's rage and knocks him hard to the ground. Jiang Cheng follows, and kicks his sword away before he can recover. When Jin Zixun goes to scramble after it, Jiang Cheng hits him again with Zidian, leaving him gasping for breath, and then again, leaving him choking for it.

"Move again," Jiang Cheng says, "I fucking dare you." He looks around. The last of Jin Zixun's men, seeing their leader defeated, are surrendering in the face of the fury of Hanguang-Jun.

"I'll let the rest of you live," he tells them, "but make sure you tell people that plans like this one won't fucking work." He looks at each of them, memorises their faces. "And if you come for him again, you will die." He raises his sword.

"You can't kill me," Jin Zixun grits out. "This is Gusu. The Lan Sect... won't."

Jiang Cheng turns to face him slowly, in disbelief at the sheer arrogance of him. "You're right about one thing," he says. "This is Gusu. You can throw yourself on the mercy of the current Lan Sect Leader, and tell him that even though we let you live after you attacked Lan Wangji, you have kidnapped Wei Wuxian to get the Stygian Tiger Seal and threatened the entire world." He doesn't turn his head, stares at Jin Zixun as he says: "Sect Leader Lan? Are you inclined to protect him from the vengeance of the Jiang Sect?"

Jin Zixun's eyes widen.

"No," says Wangji.

Jiang Cheng swings. A swift, clean strike is a kinder death than he deserves, but Wei Wuxian needs them and Jin Zixun is not worth another second of their time. He's at Wei Wuxian's side before Jin Zixun's head stops rolling, letting Sandu fall to the ground.

The rogue cultivators are running, a few dragging the unconscious ones away.

"Wei Wuxian," he says. "Wei Wuxian, Wei Wuxian, look at me."

"Wei Ying," Wangji says, voice aching, kneeling at Wei Wuxian's other side.

"Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian says. "Jiang Cheng, dog," and he looks painfully scared and painfully young, and Jiang Cheng hates this so much because Wei Wuxian has only ever looked like this when he's afraid. Wei Wuxian was never truly young in Jiang Cheng's memory, it's so deeply and utterly wrong that it hurts.

"The dogs are gone," he says, as gently as he can. "You're safe. They're gone. I'm here. Wa- Lan Zhan is here." The words taste strange and wrong in his mouth.

"Lan Zhan?" Wei Wuxian says wonderingly. "Lan Zhan is here, now?"

"Wei Ying," Wangji says desperately. "Wei Ying, I am here," and he gathers Wei Wuxian in his arms, very very gently as Wei Wuxian makes a tiny, choked sound of agony.

"Maybe..." Wei Wuxian says, "maybe this time I'll come back to Gusu." He closes his eyes and slumps into Wangji's hold, and Jiang Cheng will take it.

He pats Wei Wuxian down, pulls his clothing aside to check for injuries. His arms are bruised, and there are bite marks on his legs, bad ones, some of them still bleeding. Jiang Cheng feels a fresh hot wave of fury and thinks maybe he regrets letting the dogs run away. He briefly considers finding their handlers and killing them now, but Wei Wuxian needs him. He can't examine his torso properly, but what he can see shows mottled bruising that Jiang Cheng is very, very unhappy about.

He has Wen Qing's kit, and he's not Wen Qing, but she's taught him the basics; he knows where to find the right herbs to put on the bites right now. He's not sure whether the sedatives can be used without making them into a tea or something, and not sure if they're appropriate, and he resolves he's going to ask, and pay attention when she goes over the uses of it again; right now, at least, she's not far away.

"Can you carry him back?" he asks Wangji. "I'll go ahead and tell Wen Qing what happened, she can - she can help, I'm sure." Because Wei Wuxian is still pale and shaking and got bitten by dogs, and Jiang Cheng does not want to see his own brother go into qi deviation, not when Xichen is only now recovering from it, never mind his maybe-broken ribs.

"Will carry Wei Ying anywhere," Wangji says, and stands, lifting Wei Wuxian carefully, as easily as he does their son.

"Meet you at the guest house," Jiang Cheng says, and Sandu is lifting as soon as his foot touches the blade.

He crouches low and concentrates, reaching for all the speed he can, and at the first opportunity he's talking to Xichen about a pass token because getting past the wards takes too fucking long, even if the guards wave him through on sight.

He flies through the Cloud Recesses, because fuck the rules this is urgent, and leaps off Sandu, landing at a run. Xichen and Wen Qing come out of the house, Xichen carrying an anxious-looking A-Yuan.

"Daddy?" A-Yuan asks plaintively.

"Your father's bringing him back," Jiang Cheng says. "Xichen, take him... somewhere."

Xichen nods, and walks away briskly, saying something soothing to their nephew, Jiang Cheng doesn't listen. He pulls Wen Qing's emergency kit from his sleeve in case she needs it.

"Dog bites, shock, maybe broken ribs, bruises, completely fucking terrified for hours," he says. Wen Qing looks increasingly upset at the list before her mask of absolute impassive calm snaps into place. "Wangji's bringing him here."

"Pull the small bed out into the main room and then start heating some water," she orders crisply, and he hurries to obey while she goes into her bedroom.

Somewhere in the back of his mind he is vaguely aware that there are healers at the Cloud Recesses, that their reputation is solid, that they undoubtedly have adequate facilities, and he does not care. This is Wei Wuxian. He has been hurt today, he's been attacked by dogs, Jiang Cheng cannot be expected to relinquish him to the care of strangers.

Wangji arrives shortly afterwards, obeys wordlessly when Wen Qing directs him to put Wei Wuxian on the bed. Jiang Cheng knows she had him pull the bed out to give her room to work, but he hates how exposed it seems when she starts cutting away Wei Wuxian's clothes. (Before she can get to it, Wangji carefully unwraps the white ribbon at Wei Wuxian's wrist.)

"Wen Qing?" he hears Wei Wuxian say. His words are slurred. "I made it home? I thought... I thought Lan Zhan..." He trails off, and then makes a horrible choked sort of moaning sound, short and bitten-off. Jiang Cheng spins in spite of himself.

"Don't try to move," Wen Qing says sharply. "I don't want you unconscious right now, but hold still."

She's finished removing his clothes, and in a room containing only his husband and Jiang Cheng, makes no move to preserve his modesty. Jiang Cheng almost wishes she would, even though he knows there are more important things for her to do, because Wei Wuxian's body right now is deeply, deeply upsetting and he doesn't want to be able to see any of it.

He'd seen the bite marks on his legs and those would be bad enough, but those are claw scratches on his chest, the bruising on his arms is worse than Jiang Cheng thought and he's breathing in shallow, pained pants that strongly support the broken ribs theory. He's terrifyingly pale, and sweating profusely even though the air is cool.

Jiang Cheng wonders if demonic cultivaton works on beheaded corpses, because he would quite enjoy killing Jin Zixun again right now.

"Wangji," Wen Qing says, "give him spiritual energy, if you can." She puts her hand lightly on Wei Wuxian's stomach, doesn't flinch when he screams, and Jiang Cheng can see the faint glow around her fingers. "A-Cheng, you too."

He hurries to obey. There's something muddled and awful in the flow of Wei Wuxian's spiritual energy, something horribly wrong that's disrupting it badly.

"Wei Wuxian," Wen Qing says, in a gentler tone, "try to relax, let me take care of you, don't try to fight. Trust me."

"Always," Wei Wuxian whispers. "Wen Qing, Wen Qing, it hurts," and he tries to reach for her.

"Hold still," she says. "Take his hands."

That is a command to Jiang Cheng and Wangji. Jiang Cheng takes Wei Wuxian's hand, then looks up at Wangji and has to look away; the sheer terror and naked desperation on his face, normally so impassive, is painful to see.

He closes his eyes and concentrates on pushing spiritual energy, because he can do this, and he's already failed Wei Wuxian too much today.

He shouldn't have let him go outside alone, shouldn't have let him be alone, he's reckless and he clearly didn't realise that this was probably inevitable, that someone would try for that fucking Tiger Seal after the Jiang Sect shut down the idea of him surrendering it to anyone.

Jiang Cheng can feel tears on his cheeks but he doesn't have a free hand to wipe them away.

The terrible wrongness in Wei Wuxian is clearing, easing away. Jiang Cheng is incredibly grateful for Wen Qing in an entirely new way, because he knows he would have no idea how to do whatever she's doing.

"All right, you can stop," she says. He doesn't, and she huffs. "Stop. Both of you."

Reluctantly, he does, and opens his eyes.

Wei Wuxian has a little bit of colour back, and his breathing is still shallow, but not quite as frantic.

Wen Qing runs careful fingers over Wei Wuxian's torso, brow furrowed in concentration and a faint glow still around her fingertips, and then exhales. "Wei Wuxian, you can sleep now," she says gently.

"What if they're coming here?" he asks. "Lan Zhan found me, he knows where we are... Where's Wen Ning?"

What the fuck?

Wen Qing blinks, and then smiles softly, and strokes his hair back from where it's plastered to his forehead with sweat. "It's all right, we're safe," she says. "A-Ning is safe, I promise."

"Need to find him," Wei Wuxian mumbles. "Wen Ning..."

Wen Qing does something with her needles, and Wei Wuxian goes limp. Wen Qing's smile disappears.

"What the fuck?" Jiang Cheng says, because what the fuck.

"I don't know," she says. "I think..." She frowns, and then shakes his head sharply. "I've stopped the internal bleeding. He shouldn't be in danger so long as he doesn't move, and he won't wake up until I let him. I think he's just... a bit confused, right now, but I'll send a message to A-Ning and ask if he can come visit, just in case. I don't want Wei Wuxian worrying unnecessarily."

She shifts her attention to the bite wounds, sends Jiang Cheng to fetch the hot water to mix with herbs she presses to the marks. Two of them need stitches, and Jiang Cheng looks away from the sight of his wife calmly sewing Wei Wuxian's flesh back together.

Finally she's done and pulls a light blanket over him. Jiang Cheng is pathetically relieved to see the evidence of his failure as a brother mostly concealed.

"I wouldn't normally bother with stitches on a cultivator as strong as he is," she says, "but spiritual healing would be better directed elsewhere, for now. Xichen, you can come in now," she adds, without raising her voice.

"We." Wangji stops, swallows, takes a shuddering breath. "We have cultivators. We can - I can send more. To give him energy."

"I can take care of that, Wangji," Xichen says, as he slips in the door. "You can stay here with him." He smiles gently. "A-Yuan is with Uncle. I tried to comfort him, but he is... perceptive, and quite upset. I thought I would see if there is more I can tell him."

"Wei Wuxian will be fine," Wen Qing says. "You can bring A-Yuan to see him if it will calm him down, but be sure to tell him he has to be very careful, and not touch him or bump the bed."

"All right," Xichen says. "But after that, I really want to know what happened."

Chapter Text

Wen Qing sends a message to her brother. Qishan is too far to send a butterfly when she's already expended as much spiritual energy today as she used on Wei Wuxian (and Jiang Cheng is so desperately glad she was here, because he doesn't want to think what might have happened if they had only less gifted, less dedicated doctors available), so a Lan cultivator is dispatched carrying a letter.

Another goes out to Yunmeng, because Jiang Cheng is too exhausted to send one even to Lotus Pier, and his parents would kill him, separately or together, if he failed to notify them that this had happened.

After some deliberation, it is decided that a message will be sent to Jin Zixuan, with instructions to break the news to his pregnant wife as gently as he can, and with (at Wen Qing's instruction) a stern reminder to open by telling her that Wei Wuxian is going to be fine.

Also at Wen Qing's instruction, Jiang Cheng and Xichen move their belongings to the house Wangji set aside for their use. Wen Qing will be staying in the guest house until Wei Wuxian is more recovered, and Jiang Cheng has to suppress his instinctive deep hostility to the idea that there will be a procession of cultivators, most of whom he's never even met, going in there, going near Wei Wuxian when he's unconscious and vulnerable. (He trusts that Wen Qing can take care of herself, but she needs to sleep.)

He feels much better about it when he goes back after the evening meal (he didn't want to go, but Wen Qing insisted). First, because he finds a group of Lan Sect cultivators and disciples guarding the guesthouse, and second because Lan Qiren is there, giving Wei Wuxian spiritual energy.

The people they know, Jiang Cheng thinks, have spent far too fucking much time playing let's take turns giving Wei Wuxian energy so he doesn't fucking die.

Wangji is there holding A-Yuan, who looks less upset than Jiang Cheng feels, and much less upset than Wangji looks. The adults he trusts have told him that Daddy will be fine, and as far as he's concerned, it's just a matter of waiting. Jiang Cheng envies the kid. He's not even three, it's not his fault Wei Wuxian is pale and unconscious and was out of his fucking mind before Wen Qing rendered him unconscious.

Lan Qiren glances up when Jiang Cheng enters, then closes his eyes again and speaks without interrupting the flow of spiritual energy. "Jiang Wanyin," he says gruffly.

"Master," Jiang Cheng says. He would never say that he and Lan Qiren have a particularly good relationship, but it's not particularly bad, either; he respects the man, and he suspects Lan Qiren knows as well as he does that when they have come into conflict over whose fault it is that Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are shameless and terrible, the truth is that they're both as bad as each other.

"I would be grateful if Jiang Wanyin would take Wangji and A-Yuan away," Lan Qiren says. "Wangji must eat. Both must rest."

"Uncle," Wangji says, in a low, distressed voice. "Must stay with Wei Ying."

"No," Lan Qiren says. "Wei Wuxian is unconscious. Madam Wen, will he wake before morning?"

"He won't," Wen Qing says. She's sipping tea; by the faintly bitter smell in the air, Jiang Cheng suspects it's one of her restorative teas, that taste terrible but are actually very effective.

"Will he heal faster if Wangji is present?"

"He won't." Wen Qing is smiling faintly. Jiang Cheng suspects that she is amused that Lan Qiren is throwing Wangji out, since now she doesn't have to do it herself.

"Madam Wen, how would my nephew best make himself useful?" Lan Qiren asks.

"By resting and recovering his strength, and caring for Lan Yuan," she says.

"Jiang Wanyin, please take my nephew away and ensure he eats and rests," Lan Qiren says, returning his full attention to Wei Wuxian.

Jiang Cheng looks at Wen Qing, who nods.

"Brother and Jiang Wanyin can take A-Yuan for the night," Wangji says stubbornly, like that was the point of the discussion.

Jiang Cheng wonders whether he's going to be able to shift him, or if he's going to have to ask Xichen to help, and hope that that's enough.

He sees A-Yuan look from Lan Qiren to Wen Qing and then up at his father with an expression Jiang Cheng can only call calculating, and then A-Yuan tugs on Wangji's robes and gazes at his father with his little lip trembling and his eyes shining.

"Daddy sick. Father leave A-Yuan alone?" he asks plaintively, and Jiang Cheng saw him scheming, he saw him, and his heart is still breaking.

If this kid ever uses his powers for evil, they are in serious trouble.

Wangji looks stricken. "No," he says. "We could -" He looks at Wen Qing.

"A sickroom is no place for a small child," she says calmly. "Go with A-Cheng, Wangji."

Wangji, defeated, stands.

"Come on," Jiang Cheng says. "You can both stay with us."

---

Wangji follows him to the new house and then just... stands there. Jiang Cheng isn't quite sure what to do, but after a few moments A-Yuan looks exasperated and squirms.

"Down, please, Father," he says, in a distinctly pointed tone.

Wangji sets him on the floor, straightens, and resumes standing motionless.

Fortunately, at that point, Xichen emerges from the bedroom. Jiang Cheng turns to him and points at Wangji. "Your brother, your problem," he declares. "I am going to go give my nephew a bath and get his things, because it is almost his bedtime, and I am fff- I am done with this day."

Brothers should take care of brothers, he thinks miserably, as he sets A-Yuan on his shoulders and makes his way to the cottage.

He'll bathe A-Yuan here - there's a little child-sized tub that will require heating much less water, and it will give Xichen time to try and... fix Wangji, somehow.

In Wei Wuxian's other life, Jiang Cheng knows, he raised an orphaned nephew from infancy to adulthood. He gets the impression he was terrible at it, but still.

Looking after A-Yuan for the night while one of his parents is injured but going to recover - Wen Qing wouldn't lie, she wouldn't say he was out of danger unless it was true - and the other is having an emotional breakdown is nothing. Especially when the nephew is A-Yuan, who's well-behaved to the point where it's a little weird.

While the water for A-Yuan's bath heats (on the stove; he is still too tired to do it with spiritual energy), he has the kid go around the cottage with him to pick out the things that they should take back with them. A selection of toys, a couple of books, clothes for tomorrow. Clothes for his parents, too, A-Yuan insists. His favourite blanket, which A-Yuan says he always has, they always take it with them, and Jiang Cheng feels a pang, because he recognises it.

It's violet silk, a little worn and faded, and he knows with certainty that this once belonged to his mother. Just for a moment, he misses her fiercely. If his mother were here, she'd tell him where he went wrong so he could stop having to wonder, and she'd tell him what he was supposed to do now.

His mother isn't here. At least, he tells himself, he knows that she's alive, that he'll see her again, and he's not alone with a nephew forever - he's not alone at all, he has Wen Qing and Xichen, and A-Yuan's parents will be fine.

Jiang Cheng has not been solely responsible for A-Yuan's bath before. It must be the same as for adults, he reasons, except he's pretty sure you're not supposed to leave the kid alone, in case they... drown? Eat the bath beans? Something, anyway.

A-Yuan requests Jiang Cheng's assistance with washing his hair, and only cries a little bit when Jiang Cheng gets the suds in his eyes.

Jiang Cheng has no idea how his sister's son could have survived infancy in his care.

Once A-Yuan is clean and dry and dressed in his sleeping clothes, Jiang Cheng collects the bundle they packed and carries him back to the house.

Xichen is in the main room. Wangji is nowhere to be seen, but he can just see down the hallway that one of the bedroom doors is closed.

"He's sleeping, I think," Xichen says. "He's... very upset, but I got him to bed."

"Bedtime for A-Yuan, too," Jiang Cheng says. There's something in Xichen's expression he doesn't think he wants to engage with while the child is still around.

"Uncle read?" A-Yuan asks. "Uncle sing?"

"Uh. Sure." He can do that. They brought books. He can sing... something.

He takes A-Yuan to a bedroom, the one that will probably be Wen Qing's, when she actually gets to sleep at their house. It's next to the one he and Xichen will be using, which means if A-Yuan needs something in the night, they should be able to hear him calling.

He sits on the bed, his nephew leaning into his side, and reads a book aloud. He tucks A-Yuan into bed, with his blanket, and toys, and vaguely hopes A-Yuan will forget about the singing.

A-Yuan does not.

Jiang Cheng searches his memory for something appropriate, and dredges up a song he just barely remembers his mother singing to him. He has to make up a few of the words as he goes along where he's forgotten the originals, but A-Yuan is at least not a music critic.

"Goodnight, A-Yuan," Jiang Cheng whispers when the song is over.

"Daddy and Father kiss me goodnight," A-Yuan protests sleepily. "Here." He points at his forehead.

Jiang Cheng obediently kisses exactly where he has been instructed. A-Yuan smiles. "Goodnight, Uncle," he says.

Jiang Cheng extinguishes the candles with a wave of his hand and slips from the room, closing the door behind him gently.

Wei Wuxian nearly died today, Jiang Cheng thinks. He doesn't deserve the trusting way A-Yuan leans against his side while Jiang Cheng reads, or A-Yuan's sleepy smiles. A-Yuan is Wei Wuxian's son and another victim of Jiang Cheng's failure.

He returns to the main room. Xichen is waiting.

"I have been very patient," Xichen says. His tone is mild, but there's not even a hint of a smile. "Please tell me now what happened, because it has been hours, and I still don't know."

Oh right.

Jiang Cheng sighs.

That.

"What do you know?" he asks. He's mostly buying time, but he really, really doesn't want to talk about it.

"Wuxian went to Caiyi Town today, and is now badly injured." Xichen's gaze is level as Jiang Cheng slumps to sit across from him. "The only people who know how he came to be so are you and Wangji, and Wangji is... not capable of talking about it right now. So I have been waiting."

Jiang Cheng balls his hands into fists and presses them hard into his thighs. "We looked through the town, and found the inn where he had been. There were signs of some kind of violence. Someone there had been beaten for trying to bring a message here. We should - we should send someone to check on him. I forgot. One of the maids knew who Wei Wuxian is and recognised Wangji. She told us that cultivators had taken him."

"How?" Xichen looks honestly perplexed, and Jiang Cheng closes his eyes.

"They had dogs. I don't know if it was coincidence or if they knew that -" He takes a breath. "That Wei Wuxian is terrified of dogs. We don't know why, but he always has been."

"In his first life, he wasn't left at Lotus Pier before his parents died," Xichen says tonelessly. "Before your father found him and took him home, he lived on the streets of Yiling. He was attacked by feral dogs. More than once. He had scars."

"Fuck," Jiang Cheng says, with feeling. Xichen saw Wei Wuxian's memories directly, he remembers. That's... awful, and does in fact make all this worse. He actually isn't even upset that Wei Wuxian never told him. Wei Wuxian hates to talk about bad things that have happened to him.

"Yes," Xichen says. "I imagine if they had dogs, whether or not it was a coincidence, he would not have been in a state to resist them effectively."

"No." Jiang Cheng presses harder into his thighs. The pain is grounding, but he feels Xichen come closer to take his hands. He draws them gently away, holds them. Jiang Cheng is considering rethinking their relationship, because that is unhelpful.

"What happened next?" Xichen asks gently.

"We found where they'd taken him. A building just outside town." He wants to go back and burn the place to the fucking ground, but it probably belongs to some innocent farmer.

Xichen is carefully unfurling Jiang Cheng's fingers, rubbing his thumb over the marks where Jiang Cheng's nails were digging into his palm. "Go on," he says.

"It was Jin Zixun," Jiang Cheng says. "They'd had Wei Wuxian I don't know how long, they had dogs at him, and - Jin Zixun had taken the Stygian Tiger Seal." He hears Xichen's sharp intake of breath, but doesn't stop. "He was gloating. How he was going to take over the world with it. He'd managed to activate it, it -"

"Breathe," Xichen says. He moves, comes to sit behind Jiang Cheng and wrap his arms around his waist, pressing close. "Breathe with me," he murmurs, and Jiang Cheng does, follows the slow, deliberate breaths he can feel Xichen taking. "What happened next?"

"Wangji just - he said stop. And the Seal just... came right to his hand, and deactivated."

"It what?" Xichen at least sounds as confused as he is.

"Obeyed him. I don't understand it either." He leans back into Xichen's embrace. It helps. "And then I got the dogs away from Wei Wuxian, and Wangji fought the minions and I fought Jin Zixun. I killed him, he - he wanted to claim that the Lan had authority in Gusu, but I asked Wangji if the Lan Sect was going to protect him from the Jiang Sect and he said no. So I killed him."

"Good," Xichen says simply.

"And then we brought him back here. He's been bitten by the dogs, his ribs are broken, and Wen Qing said something about internal bleeding." He half-sobs on his next breath, he can't help it. "He was out of his mind. He was worrying about Wen Ning, Wen Qionglin, for some reason, and he was surprised Wangji was there. He didn't even seem to remember that we were already in Gusu, he told Wangji that maybe this time he'd go back to Gusu with him."

Xichen has gone very still.

"He was attacked by Jin Zixun," he says slowly, "and then he was very worried about Wen Ning. He didn't expect Wangji to be there, and told him that he'd come back to Gusu with him. This time."

"Yeah." Jiang Cheng sighs. "Hours with dogs, he's a mess."

Xichen's head falls to rest on Jiang Cheng's shoulder. "It's not just the dogs," he says, voice slightly muffled. "It's much, much worse than just the dogs." He straightens enough to hook his chin over Jiang Cheng's shoulder. "In his first life, Jin Zixun attacked Wuxian on the way to your nephew's one-month celebration. Wuxian lost control of Wen Ning, and Jin Zixuan was killed. At that point Wangji had been trying for at least a year to convice Wuxian to return to Gusu with him."

Fuck, Jiang Cheng thinks. That can't be good.

"Controlling Wen Ning? How - Wen Qionglin Wen Ning? Wen Qing's brother? How would he kill Jin Zixuan? How would that -" None of this makes sense. Why would it be Wei Wuxian's fault if Wen Qionglin killed someone? Why would Wen Qionglin be killing someone? He's sweet but he's timid.

"Wen Ning was some kind of ferocious corpse. Wei Wuxian had returned his spiritual cognition somehow. People called him the Ghost General." Xichen sighs. "Hopefully it was just that he was... very upset, and badly hurt."

"Yeah." Jiang Cheng is suddenly very, very tired.

---

He's in bed, Xichen curled around him, and it's driving him crazy, because he can't sleep, but if Xichen is asleep (it's hard to tell, Xichen can be very still sometimes), then Jiang Cheng will wake him if he moves.

And he needs to move, he needs to... go do a patrol, check the guest house, check on Wei Wuxian, something.

Maybe if he moves really, really carefully?

"What is it," Xichen says, arms tightening around him.

"Nothing," Jiang Cheng says. "I just need to get up for a minute."

Xichen doesn't let go. "Something's bothering you," he says.

"Of course something is fucking bothering me," Jiang Cheng snaps. "Wei Wuxian nearly died today!"

"But he didn't," Xichen says. "He's going to be fine. He'll be upset, but he'll get through that too. He's been through much worse than this," he adds, like that makes it better.

"Not for a long time." Jiang Cheng pulls free, sits up. "Not for years. Because he's supposed to have me, and it's my job to keep him safe, I promised him I'd never -" He chokes on the words, for a moment. "I promised him I wouldn't let a dog get him, and I fucking failed. He could have handled all of them if not for the dogs. It's my fault he got hurt."

There. He's admitted it.

"Oh, A-Cheng," Xichen sighs. He lights a candle with a flick of his fingers.

Jiang Cheng looks away. "Want your ribbon back?"

"What? No! Come here," and Xichen is pulling him back, down, holding him close and it's far more gentle than Jiang Cheng deserves, he can't stand it. He tries to pull away, but Xichen doesn't let him go. "A-Cheng. It wasn't your fault."

"What? Of course it was. I should have - I should have protected him," he says, because he hasn't worked out how, exactly, hasn't worked out where he actually fucked up specifically, but he doesn't want to admit just how hard he failed and is still failing.

"You had no way to know that today he was going to leave the Cloud Recesses," Xichen says gently. "You had no way to know that Jin Zixun was in Gusu, or that he was traveling with dogs, or that he would be foolish enough to attack Wuxian. You've been here for many months, and I don't think Wuxian has gone to Caiyi Town alone even once, has he?"

"I don't think so," Jiang Cheng mumbles. He's pretty sure Wei Wuxian has always gone with Wangji, or with Jiang Cheng himself. "But I didn't tell him he couldn't."

"If you had, do you think that would have stopped him?"

"No," he admits. Wei Wuxian doesn't really listen to instructions most of the time, because he's a shameless asshole and an idiot and he doesn't understand that there are consequences or that people need him. "But I should have... something."

"When you heard he was missing, did you ignore that?"

"I wouldn't!"

"And you didn't," Xichen agrees. "Did you delay going out to find him? Did you dawdle in your search, or get distracted? Did you let him take further harm once you were there?"

"No, but -"

"Stop. You did everything you could. It wasn't your fault."

"But he got hurt," Jiang Cheng says plaintively.

Xichen sighs deeply. "A-Cheng. While you were away with A-Yuan, I had a conversation much like this with my brother. Wangji was very insistent that it was his fault Wei Wuxian was hurt. I'm sure you know my brother's reputation for honesty. Are you calling him a liar?"

"No, but - he's mistaken," Jiang Cheng says hotly. "It wasn't his fault, he was in the Cloud Recesses, he probably thought I was going with him, or - he's just upset because Wei Wuxian got hurt and he loves -"

Xichen is giving him a look.

"It's different," Jiang Cheng mumbles.

"I am eager to understand how."

Because Wangji gets to see him all the time and I don't and I miss him and I don't know what I'm supposed to do any more, because Wei Wuxian is always the one who knows what to do, and I'm not, I'm useless except that it's my job to keep him safe, he doesn't say.

He's crying, he doesn't even know why, so he just buries his face in Xichen's shoulder and sobs.

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji returns to the guest house as soon as he as able, which is not as soon as he would have liked. His brother is insistent that he eat, and his son is uncharacteristically demanding of Lan Wangji's attention. It takes far too long before Lan Wangji is able to leave A-Yuan with his uncles and return to his husband's side.

Wei Ying is still pale, but at some point the grime has been cleaned from his skin, and the ruins of his clothing have been removed from the bed. He is far too still. Wei Ying sleeps restlessly. Lan Wangji had to learn to sleep through it. During the night, he kept being awoken by the absence of it.

Lan Shangmian is at Wei Ying's side, giving him spiritual energy. The sight is strangely upsetting. Lan Wangji does not interrupt. He stands in the corner of the room, out of the way, and simply waits, his eyes on Wei Ying.

He does not know what to do right now. He does not know how to take care of their son without Wei Ying. A-Yuan becomes distressed when Lan Wangji is present and he does not know how to fix it or prevent it. He knows that he is too obviously in turmoil, but he cannot be otherwise when Wei Ying is so badly hurt.

Lan Wangji has always struggled with interactions with others. He knows he is too cold, too remote, too awkward and unapproachable, too different. People kept their distance from him, were always afraid of him - until Wei Ying came to the Cloud Recesses. Wei Ying teased him and included him, and others around them began to respond to him in ways other than nervous respect.

But the magic only works around Wei Ying. Lan Wangji does not know how to deal with people without him. He still does not know how to speak easily and freely, he does not know how to be approachable in any way. He has for years now been content, in groups, just to be at Wei Ying's side, to watch Wei Ying speak and move and smile.

He does not understand why Wei Ying went alone to Caiyi Town. If Lan Wangji had known that Jiang Wanyin was not going with him, he could have arranged to go himself.

He does not understand why Wei Ying is so careful of Lan Wangji, protective of him, gentle with him, and yet can be so careless of himself. Wei Ying will go to great lengths to protect Lan Wangji from things that hurt him infinitely less than this.

Wen Qing has assured him that Wei Ying will recover. Lan Wangji will endeavour to explain it to him then.

After a time, Lan Shangmian is replaced by Lan Bubai, who arrives with food that he puts in the kitchen. Wen Qing emerges from her bedroom shortly afterwards, eats, and then goes to Wei Ying.

"Don't look," she instructs Lan Bubai. "I need to examine him."

Lan Bubai nods. His eyes were already closed in concentration.

Wen Qing looks closely at the wounds on Wei Ying's legs, then pushes the blanket down to his waist, baring his upper body. Lan Wangji feels sick.

The bruising looks worse, even if it isn't, as happens with bruises that have not been repaired with spiritual energy. It is appalling. The hand-shaped bruises on his wrists, his upper arm, the dark, mottled marks on his ribs, on his belly, the deep, ugly scratches on his chest - Lan Wangji hates every part of it.

"I know you won't think so," Wen Qing says, "but it looks good. No infection, no worsening, and his ribs haven't displaced at all." She runs her fingers lightly over his chest. "If," she says, with heavy emphasis, "you have recovered your strength, you can help with spiritual energy. Briefly."

He hastens to do so.

He can feel a strange tugging sensation. Wen Qing has apparently found the point she sought, and is directing the flow of energy to a specific point.

"Madam Wen," Lan Bubai says, "I -"

"You can stop," she says. "Wangji, you stop too."

He does so immediately; he will not waste his strength before she is ready to use it.

Lan Bubai bows, somewhat apologetic, and leaves. Wen Qing tugs the blanket up. Lan Wangji hears someone else coming in, but his eyes are on Wei Ying. "It's still quite bad. When we have some strong cultivators to hand who are well-rested," she looks at Wangji severely, "I can reconnect the bones sufficiently for him to be woken. I don't want the blood to settle too much, but coughing now could... cause significant injury."

"I am at your disposal," says a woman's voice. "If necessary, the Jin Sect will gladly send the strongest cultivators we have available."

Lan Wangji looks around.

It is Madam Jin.

---

Earlier:

The Cloud Recesses have been on alert since Hanguang-Jun's husband was brought back so badly wounded.

The arrival of Madam Jin - alone - caused a certain amount of consternation for the guards, and she was kept waiting at the gates while a message was sent inside.

Madam Jin stood with absolute calm and patience.

After a short time, Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen came to meet her.

"Madam Jin." Lan Xichen bowed. "How may I be of assistance?"

Madam Jin bowed deeply, holding the position as she spoke. "Lan Xichen, my son and I were both deeply grieved and ashamed to hear of the crimes of my nephew. I am at your disposal. We will offer any assistance that we can. The Jin are ready to compensate his victims." She straightened. "My son sends his apologies that he is unable to leave Jinlintai at this time. Jiang Yanli is deeply grieved that at present she is not in a condition to travel. I have a letter from her for Wei Wuxian."

"I see," Lan Xichen said. "You may enter."

He escorted Madam Jin towards the guest house. "If you are willing," he explained, "we need every cultivator we can find with the strength to share their spiritual energy."

"I will do all that I can," Madam Jin said. "My nephew brought shame upon our family. If I may ask - did he escape? Is he alive?"

"No," Lan Xichen told her. "He is dead."

"Good."

---

By reputation, Lan Wangji remembers, Madam Jin is a strong cultivator. It is said that she and her friend Madam Yu night-hunted together when they were younger, before they married; while Madam Yu continued to do so even after her children were born, Madam Jin did not.

She enters flanked by Uncle and Brother as Lan Bubai leaves. When she sees Lan Wangji, she stops and kowtows to him.

"Hanguang-Jun," she says. "I apologise on behalf of my family for the crimes of my nephew."

Lan Wangji doesn't know what to say. He looks desperately at his brother. Xichen nods to him, then turns to Madam Jin.

"Please rise," he says. "My brother is not a man of words, but I assure you he will not bear a grudge or enmity towards your family or your sect."

"Correct," Lan Wangji manages. He doesn't blame the Jin Sect or Jin Zixuan for the actions of Jin Zixun. He is simply desperately, desperately afraid for Wei Ying.

---

Madam Jin rises and turns to Wen Qing. "What can I do?" she asks.

Wen Qing narrows her eyes for a moment, and then exhales. She's not sure she trusts Madam Jin, or the motives of the Jin Sect. They are powerful and wealthy, and the powerful and wealthy tend to wash away the crimes of the young men of their families.

Still, she is confident that she can prevent Madam Jin from causing harm to Wuxian.

"The repair of bones is difficult," she says. "Even for a strong cultivator, it can take weeks. There is -" her eyes cut to Wangji, just for a moment - "- a need to repair Wuxian's more urgently. With sufficient power, it can be done."

Wangji does not need to know how close his husband came to death yesterday, or that an incautious movement could kill him still. That it is a testament to Wuxian's strength that he made it to the Cloud Recesses alive at all, with so many internal injuries and his ribcage shattered.

"I will do all that I can," Madam Jin says. She hesitates for a moment. "Madam Wen, did you treat his initial injuries?"

"I did," Wen Qing answers coldly. "Why?" She will not lie for the Jin.

"If I may, when you - have time and opportunity, I - we - would be grateful if you could report on the full extent of them. There are... some... at Jinlintai who have been unhappy with my nephew's banishment, and may raise objections when they learn of his death. My son wishes to be ready to dispel any rumours that arise."

Wen Qing considers that for a moment, then nods. "The report will not be pleasant reading."

Madam Jin inclines her head. "I understand."

---

She cannot begin the process immediately. She herself is still exhausted; she would not normally consider using so much of her own power for healing another. Cultivator doctors are strongly discouraged from the practice from the beginning of their training; it is dangerous, and if Wen Qing were presented with another critically wounded patient at this time, she could do very little to help.

But this is Wuxian. If she did not care for him herself - and she knows that she does - she would still know how much he means to her husband and his family, and also that she owes him a great debt; it is because of Wuxian that her brother is alive and the leader of a Sect that is rebuilding in A-Ning's image, that many members of her extended family still live, that she has a husband and the safety she now enjoys.

Wen Qing does not regret her efforts, but she must maintain an accurate awareness of the toll they took on her. It would be irresponsible to allow herself to become overstrained.

She will undertake the next step when they have gathered sufficient reinforcement and not before. For now, she sets about preparing. She makes her strongest restorative tea, and gives some to Wangji, Xichen, and Lan Qiren.

When she pours tea for Lan Qiren, she sees him looking at the white ribbon wrapped around her wrist. When he looks up at her, she meets his gaze evenly.

He says nothing. She does not know him well enough to read his expression.

Madam Yu arrives while Wen Qing is allowing Wangji to lift his husband's head so she can pour liquid down his throat. It's a mixture of nourishing broth and medicinal herbs, and she knows that it is, without question, utterly vile in flavour, but is effective for patients who are not at risk of regaining consciousness.

Her husband brings Madam Yu into the room quietly, and she waits until they are done and Wuxian has been settled safely down again to speak.

"I came as soon as we received the message," she says quietly. "Jiang Fengmian wanted to come, but I insisted he stay. He has much work to do, and -" She takes a breath. Her eyes are on Wuxian. "I don't think he should see Wei Ying like this." She comes closer to the bed, and addresses Wen Qing very quietly. "How bad?"

Wen Qing shakes her head, glances pointedly at Wangji.

"That bad," Madam Yu murmurs, and she nods.

---

Wen Qing decides she is ready to proceed after lunch.

The work she has to do is delicate, and she decides it will be easier to work with few separate streams of energy; in any case, since the use of spiritual energy is profoundly affected by the will, and therefore the emotions, of the cultivator, she would prefer the direct flow of energy to Wuxian to come only from those who care for him most.

She will allow Wangji and A-Cheng to contribute directly; Madam Yu and Madam Jin will reinforce A-Cheng, and Xichen and Lan Qiren can offer support through Wangji. The other cultivators, whose names she does not know, form up around them.

Wen Qing has not explained that the thing she is attempting to do pushes the limits of medical cultivation. Apparently, she could perform a golden core transfer, if the occasion called for it. This is, by comparison, no major task at all.

She pushes the blanket down to Wuxian's waist, hears the sharp intake of breath from Madam Yu and a choked sound from Madam Jin. Wen Qing does not comment; she is not actually displeased by the sight of Wuxian's battered torso now. It was so much worse before.

"Begin," she says, and runs light fingertips across his chest, finding and catching the twin streams of energy; Wangji's is cool and blue and honey-sweet on her tongue, A-Cheng's is violet lightning and the air after a storm.

She takes them and directs them, going from point to point, using the pressure of her fingers and her own power to bring the pieces of his ribs back to their places, force them to begin the process of binding themselves back together. Wuxian will still ache for weeks, if not months, as they heal fully, but she needs to get him to the point where he can sit up without risking his heart or lungs being pierced by a shard of his bones.

It takes hours.

The texture of the energy she's using shifts as the other cultivators begin contributing, even filtered through Wangji and her husband.

Finally it is done; she checks every rib again, just in case, and confirms that they are broadly whole; Wuxian will still need care, will still be fragile and at risk from the cracks that still run through him, but he can be permitted to wake.

"Enough," she says. A-Cheng and Wangji don't stop, and she pulls their hands away, rolling her eyes. "Everyone who is not his family, leave the room."

The cultivators whose names she does not know and Madam Jin file out. Lan Qiren hesitates a moment.

"He is of my family," he says, "but I do not think he would thank me for remaining." He bows. "Madam Wen is very impressive." He leaves.

Wen Qing wakes Wuxian.

---

The first thing he's aware of is that everything hurts.

"Help him sit up," someone says, and he's being lifted by hands that press painfully on bruises. He takes a breath, and even that hurts, but nothing like the agony that whites out the world when he coughs.

He can taste blood, and feel the edge of some kind of bowl against his chin. When the coughing stops, the bowl is taken away, and a damp cloth wipes across his chin.

He's lowered back onto pillows that have appeared behind him, and he lies there for what feels like an eternity, gasping painfully for breath, and tries to regroup.

He must have been captured. He's clearly been badly injured, and even if his captors are being gentle, now, that doesn't mean he's safe, especially when he's not sure he could even move unaided. His legs are throbbing and it's agony when he tenses the muscles as if to move.

Inventory... no point. It's hard to tell past the pain, but he's pretty sure he's naked.

His eyelids work. He opens those.

He's in a room, clean and pleasant enough, and if it isn't the Cloud Recesses, whoever owns this place definitely wishes it was.

Without moving his head, he can see... huh. Lan Zhan is standing next to the bed, looking very, very upset, and Jiang Cheng is on the other side, just as upset.

Wei Wuxian's memory is hazy, but he thinks he might have agreed to come back to Gusu.

He's going to regret that, but given how much pain he's in, he probably wasn't in any condition to do otherwise.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan whispers, fear and distress in his voice, which is just unfair - it can only have been Lan Zhan's idea that Wei Wuxian is here.

And then Wen Qing comes into view. She's wearing Jiang robes - Jiang Cheng must have been the one who captured her. With those robes he might even be protecting her. That would be good.

"Drink this," Wen Qing says, and holds a cup to his lips. He drinks.

He wants to ask her - about the other Wen, about A-Yuan, but he doesn't dare, not in front of Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng, and he thinks she might have just drugged him, because consciousness is slipping away from him again.

At least it will give him respite from the pain. She always was kind to him.

---

He dreams of Madam Yu.

He dreams that he wakes again in the same room, at night; that he can still not even move for the pain, but Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan are gone, and Madam Yu is sitting at his bedside.

"Wei Ying," she says, and her tone is gentle. "Don't try to get up." She lifts her hand as if to reach towards him, lets it drop. "You're very hurt."

And then Wen Ning comes towards him, but it's not Wen Ning - this Wen Ning is alive, wearing unfamilar robes that are still lustrous and fine.

"My sister is resting," Wen Ning says, "but she left instructions." Alive Wen Ning offers him a cup with a reed to drink through. It's some kind of cold herbal tea. Wei Wuxian wonders what that means.

Despite the pain, he's a little bit sorry to drift away. Wen Ning and Madam Yu are here. He likes this dream.

---

He drifts in and out for what he's pretty sure is at least several days.

Wen Qing is there often. Lan Zhan is there almost all the time - guarding him personally. Wei Wuxian could tell him it's not worth the effort, he doesn't think he could even stand up if he tried, but it doesn't seem worth the effort to speak, either.

Sometimes he still sees Alive Wen Ning and Madam Yu. He's sad when Alive Wen Ning comes to tell him that he's glad that Wei-gongzi is recovering, but he must sadly return to Qishan. Alive Wen Ning might be a hallucination, but he's such a nice hallucination.

After a few days, Wen Qing removes the stitches from his legs. After that, she pronounces him well enough to "go home" - he's surprised, he doesn't think he can handle that kind of journey yet, but he doesn't get to leave, anyway.

Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng dress him - his whole body still hurts and he's stiff and can't really bend at all, he needs it - and then from somewhere they bring an actual sedan chair to put him in, which Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng carry through the Cloud Recesses to a secluded cottage.

This makes sense. This is where Lan Zhan's mother was kept imprisoned by Lan Zhan's father. If Wei Wuxian is to be his lover's prisoner, this would be the place for him to be kept.

His mind is hazy from pain and exhaustion (made worse because the pain keeps him from sleeping more than brief snatches at a time), and he can't remember how they got to where they are, but he remembers the taste of Lan Zhan's skin, the feel of his body, he's sure of it.

Lan Zhan carries him from the chair into the cottage, and sets him gently on the daybed. Wei Wuxian has a thought.

"A-Yuan," Wei Wuxian says. "Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, where is A-Yuan?"

"A-Yuan is with Brother," Lan Zhan says.

Even being carried every step of the way, the journey has exhausted him. Wei Wuxian sleeps again.

Chapter Text

At some point - that night, probably - he wakes to the sound of water being poured.

Lan Zhan is filling a bathtub, and apparently it took some time for Wei Wuxian to be woken by it, even though Lan Zhan must have carried it here into the main room, near the daybed, because the tub is nearly filled.

He's still in pain, and it's enervating enough that Wei Wuxian can't be bothered to move, or speak, or... anything, really, so he just watches. Lan Zhan tests the water temperature, finds it unsatisfactory, and stirs the water with his hand for a moment. Steam begins to rise from the tub.

Proper cultivation is so useful, Wei Wuxian remembers. He misses it. If he still had a golden core, he could use it to ease his pain, too. (He doesn't reach for it; he remembers the awful, aching emptiness of trying to call upon a core that isn't there. Overcoming the reflex took him a very unpleasantly long time.)

Apparently satisfied, Lan Zhan turns towards him. He's pleased that Wei Wuxian is awake. He's still very worried about him.

"Heat should help the pain," Lan Zhan says, and begins oh-so-gently undressing Wei Wuxian, who does not resist, because he will take anything that helps the pain, right now.

When Lan Zhan also strips himself naked, Wei Wuxian is momentarily alarmed, but it makes sense when Lan Zhan carefully lifts him into his arms and then climbs into the tub with him.

The heat does help, soaking into his aching muscles and bones, and Wei Wuxian takes a deeper, easier breath than he has had since he woke up so injured. (How did he get hurt? He's not sure he remembers. Something about Jin Zixun.)

Lan Zhan bathes him with delicate care, and a comfortable ease and familiarity with Wei Wuxian's body he wouldn't have expected. He can remember hazy flashes of him - Lan Zhan driving into him, Lan Zhan biting at his collarbone, things he'd enjoy remembering if his body hurt less - but this kind of tenderness doesn't really fit the aftermath of angry sex after their confrontations over his demonic cultivation.

It's probably just that Wei Wuxian is so injured, but he indulges in the fantasy that Lan Zhan is doing this because he loves him, because he cherishes Wei Wuxian just this much. It's nice.

"Is it better?" Lan Zhan asks, when Wei Wuxian is clean.

"Mm," he replies. "The heat helps a lot, thank you." He'd like to stay here longer, revel in the lessened pain, but if Lan Zhan gets out and gets dressed, he'll get all wet when he comes back to get Wei Wuxian again. It's time to get out.

"Mn." Lan Zhan gathers him into his arms, as he expected, but instead of carrying him out, he arranges them both so that Wei Wuxian is supported against his body, can relax without even needing to keep his own head above water. Then Lan Zhan flicks a message butterfly into the air, and simply goes still - the meditative stillness of Lan Zhan when he has no present reason to move.

A few minutes later, Jiang Cheng enters the cottage, a bundle of something slung over his shoulder. He sees them in the tub and looks away. "I'm going to gouge my fucking eyes out," he complains. "I never wanted to see your unsightly chest again, Wei Wuxian, and naked shoulders is more of him than I ever wanted to see."

He stomps over to a cupboard. "This one?" he asks.

"Mn," Lan Zhan says.

Jiang Cheng pulls out extra blankets, then carries those to the bed. The thing he was carrying turns out to be a fur, fluffy and luxuriant; he spreads that out, and then arranges the blankets next to it, ready to be pulled across. He also spreads towels on top of the fur.

"It's getting cold at night on your stupid mountain," he says pugnaciously, and aggressively builds up the fire before returning. He picks up a large towel and flicks it out in the air, then drapes it across his arms and holds them out.

To Wei Wuxian's shock, Lan Zhan lifts him carefully out of the water and places him in Jiang Cheng's arms.

The towel is already very warm.

Jiang Cheng turns and sets Wei Wuxian gently onto the towels on the bed, wrapping the first towel around him. Behind him, Wei Wuxian can see Lan Zhan climbing out of the tub, drying himself quickly and roughly and pulling on a house robe.

There is something deeply disconcerting about Lan Zhan, hair damp and loose, feet bare, barely dressed at all, seeming unconcerned that Jiang Cheng is seeing him like this. Jiang Cheng is drying Wei Wuxian's hair with gentle hands despite his scowl, and Lan Zhan comes and pats his body dry, and then they work together to dress him again and wrap him in fur and blankets - after Jiang Cheng smoothes his hand over all of them, and they, too, are already warm when they are tucked carefully around Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian is too confused even to tease them about it.

The fur is soft, and he's very warm - not quite too warm, not when the heat is keeping the aches at bay. It barely hurts at all.

Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan together carry the tub from the room. Wei Wuxian is asleep before they're all the way out the door.

---

Properly clean and very warm, Wei Wuxian sleeps much better that night.

Come the morning, he's feeling much better. He still aches, but he feels more alert. When Lan Zhan brings him breakfast, he is able to feed himself, sitting propped against a pile of pillows, and he doesn't fall asleep again immediately.

"If you are well enough," Lan Zhan says, "A-Yuan wishes to see you."

He's definitely well enough to see A-Yuan.

A-Yuan toddles in shortly afterwards, wearing adorable little Lan Sect robes, trailed by Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen. Wei Wuxian blinks for a moment - he's still hallucinating, apparently, because it looks like Madam Yu is with them, but A-Yuan looks healthy, which is all he really cares about.

"Remember, he's hurt, don't jump on him," Jiang Cheng tells A-Yuan softly.

"A-Yuan!" Wei Wuxian calls. "I'm so happy to see you. Your Xian-gege has missed you!"

Jiang Cheng stops dead, eyes wide. Lan Xichen does some kind of whole-body flinch, and Lan Zhan is confused and upset. A-Yuan frowns at him.

"A-Cheng," Madam Yu seems to say.

Jiang Cheng says, "I'll get Wen Qing," and leaves the room at a dead run. Maybe she was supposed to be here, Wei Wuxian thinks, or she wanted to check him over before, but it can't be that urgent.

"Running is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses!" Wei Wuxian calls, laughing.

"Xian... gege?" A-Yuan says, in a trembling voice. He bursts into tears.

The vision of Madam Yu seems to kneel and stroke A-Yuan's hair gently, murmuring something that Wei Wuxian can't quite hear and doesn't care to, a hallucination of Madam Yu can say nothing he wants to listen to.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says hesitantly.

"Lan Zhan, are you just going to let A-Yuan stand there and cry alone?" Wei Wuxian is livid. He knows Lan Zhan wasn't hugged enough as a child, but surely he's aware of the concept? "If you're not going to comfort him, at least bring him to me."

"He has his nainai," Lan Zhan says. "Wei Ying -"

"She's his Granny, not nainai. You brought her here?" Wei Wuxian is struggling to get up. "Why? Who else?"

"He doesn't have a Granny!" Lan Zhan hisses. He is distressed, very distressed. Wei Wuxian is too angry to care.

"Then how can he have her? Where is she? What did you do?" Were the Burial Mounds attacked? Did he capture the Wen and bring them all here?

"He has his nainai!" Lan Zhan says. "Wei Ying, be still, you'll hurt yourself -"

"What have you done, Hanguang-Jun," Wei Wuxian says, voice low and dangerous.

The door crashes open. "Wei Wuxian, if you do not stop trying to get out of bed, I will remove the decision from your hands," Wen Qing snaps as she enters, followed by Jiang Cheng. He stops. She kneels by A-Yuan. "A-Yuan, Daddy's having a - a sort of bad dream," she says, and what? "He's still sick. He'll be fine, I promise, but you'll have to come see him again later." She kisses his forehead, quick and fond, and stands. "Wangji. Take him to play with the other children. Keep him occupied."

Lan Zhan hesitates. "But Wei Ying..."

Wen Qing levels him with an icy glare. "Go," she says, and Lan Zhan does. (There are tears on his cheeks.) She turns her gaze back to Wei Wuxian. "Xichen, go with him," she says.

No-one - including Zewu-Jun - even blinks at her giving orders to the Lan Sect Leader. Xichen just nods and leaves.

There is a brief, tense silence.

Wen Qing comes towards him and gently adjusts his position on the bed. It's a relief - he's moved into a position that's awkward and painful, and couldn't manage quite to get back.

She smoothes his hair back with a gentle smile. "I'm going to ask you some questions," she says. "Don't think about it too hard, just answer."

He nods.

"Where are you?"

"The Cloud Recesses."

"Why are you here?"

"Hanguang-Jun brought me back."

"How were you injured?"

"I was attacked by - by Jin Zixun."

"Do you know why?"

"He thought I cursed him."

Jiang Cheng starts to speak, but Wen Qing holds up a hand, and he stills.

"Who's in this room?"

"Me. You. Jiang Cheng."

"Just the three of us?"

Madam Yu is looking at him with an opaque expression. Can Wen Qing tell he's hallucinating?

"Yes," he says. "Just three. Wen Qing, Jiang Cheng, and me."

"How do we know each other?"

These questions are getting stranger, he thinks. "Wen Ning brought us to your place after Lotus Pier fell. You - you sheltered us, and then after the Sunshot Campaign we -" He stops.

"Why am I wearing Jiang Sect robes?"

"I don't remember. I guess Jiang Cheng is protecting you? I hope so. What happened to the others?"

"I'm asking, not you." She's still looking gentle and fond. "What were you doing when Jin Zixun attacked you?"

"I was on my way to Jinlintai -" He stops, looks at Jiang Cheng. "I was invited."

"That's enough questions, I think," Wen Qing says. "Wait here a moment. Be still."

She goes to the kitchen. Wei Wuxian looks at Jiang Cheng. He's staring at him, looking upset and angry.

"I'm sorry about Jin Zixuan," Wei Wuxian says quietly. "I -"

"Stop him," Madam Yu says, almost as soon as he starts speaking. Wei Wuxian ignores her, but Jiang Cheng interrupts him.

"Shut up," he says. "Just - just shut up right now, Wei Wuxian." Jiang Cheng scrubs tears from his cheeks roughly. Wei Wuxian can understand that - he knows Jiang Cheng is upset that his sister is a widow. Madam Yu puts her hand on his shoulder, and Wei Wuxian wishes Jiang Cheng could see her too, could feel it.

Wen Qing returns with tea. "Drink this," she instructs, and Wei Wuxian obeys. A faint lassitude overtakes him, and the pain in his body lessens.

"You're safe, aren't you, Wen Qing?" he asks.

She doesn't hesitate. "Yes, Wuxian, I am safe," she tells him. "We're safe." She pulls the Jiang bell from her belt and lets it ring. "I've had this bell since I married Jiang Cheng," she says. "You were at my wedding. Do you remember?"

He blinks at her, then looks at Jiang Cheng. He remembers Jiang Cheng in red. Why does he remember that? "Married?"

The bell is chiming steadily, soft but persistent.

"Yes," she says. "I wish we'd put your ribbon back on already. You're married too. You married Wangji when you were younger."

"Eighteen," He hears Jiang Cheng say hoarsely. "You were eighteen."

Wen Qing continues. "Wuxian, you're remembering a time from your first life, but you're not there any more." She looks him in the eye. "Reach for your golden core."

"What?" He's horrified. "No, you don't understand, it hurts when I do that, it -"

"Trust me," is all she says.

He braces himself, and reaches for it, and -

- a smooth surge of power meets him.

"What?" He goes to press against his belly, but she catches his hand and he remembers that he's injured.

"What about the core transfer?" he asks without thinking.

"It wasn't necessary," she says. "Lotus Pier didn't fall. The Wen attacked, but they failed. There were no Wen survivors. Wen Ruohan was furious, and I think a little bit afraid. I think there were very few casualties for the Jiang."

Jiang Cheng leaves the room. The door doesn't quite slam behind him.

"There were none," Madam Yu says, "apart from Wei Ying."

"None at all?" Wen Qing laughs lightly. "I wish Wen Ruohan had known that."

Wait. "You can see her?" he whispers.

"Yes, I can see my mother-in-law." Wen Qing is still smiling, warm and gentle. "She's here. She's real. She's alive. So are Jiang Fengmian, and Jin Zixuan, and A-Ning."

Madam Yu nods, and leaves the room.

She presses her hand to his forehead lightly. "Listen to the bell, and bring your spiritual energy to the surface," she says, and he does.

He can feel something surging and warm as her power comes to meet his own, a strange sensation like diving into a warm lake on a hot humid day.

Oh, he thinks. Memory is creeping in, and he feels embarrassment, hot and sharp - how could he be so stupid, so thoughtless? Lan Zhan was so hurt, and A-Yuan -

"Breathe," Wen Qing says. "It's all right, Wuxian. Everyone understands. They know that -" She stops. "The attack was very upsetting."

He remembers the dogs, and a shudder runs down his spine. Or did he imagine that too?

He pulls his robe up hurriedly, inwardly cursing his stiff limbs when it's difficult. Wen Qing, understanding, helps him. She lets him see the bite wounds on his legs only briefly, and then covers them again.

"It happened," she says. "You don't need to look at them more than that."

He's shaking.

She pours another cup of tea and puts it to his lips. "Drink," she says.

---

Jiang Cheng knows that he is not as brilliant as Wei Wuxian. He has always reminded himself that Wei Wuxian cheats. (If, in his heart, he suspects that he could never have been Wei Wuxian's equal even if he didn't cheat, well. Wei Wuxian cheats, nothing can be proven.)

But he's not an idiot.

He can make the connection between your parents were dead and I didn't have a golden core and core transfer. Wei Wuxian didn't have a golden core because he gave it away. It was someone else who was careless and stupid and incompetent enough to have their golden core destroyed.

It was Jiang Cheng.

He wants to break something, but this is the Cloud Recesses, and he's a guest, so he ends up walking, fast and aimless, until he finds himself somewhere in the back hills, overlooking a cliff that leaves him with nowhere else to go, and when he turns around to find a new path, his mother is there.

"You knew," he says, because she did, he can tell.

"I know everything," she says simply. "After the Wen attacked, I read his memory. If you have questions, ask me. If you are angry, be angry with me, because I didn't tell you either."

He swallows. He does not want to ask, because he knows his mother will tell him; she will not protect his feelings, because his feelings should not be protected. He should be strong enough to handle anything anyone might say to him.

But not asking will also be weakness, and he doesn't want to wonder.

"He gave his core to me, didn't he?"

She nods, and it's like a punch to the solar plexus. "He did," she says.

"And I let him?" Was he really that selfish, that fucking weak?

"No," his mother says. "He didn't tell you. You didn't find out for many years."

Oh. Not weak. Just stupid.

He really wishes, sometimes, he could travel to the future that didn't happen, just so he could punch himself in the face.

"Did it hurt?" He doesn't want to know. He needs to.

"More than you can possibly imagine."

He can imagine a lot.

He believes her anyway.

"Why," he whispers.

"I was dead. Your father was dead. The Wen killed all of us, down to your smallest shidi. Only the three of you were left." His mother's tone and expression are neutral. "You were seventeen, and you had to be the leader of the Jiang Sect. You needed a golden core." She pauses. "But that wasn't why. He did it because he loves you. Losing your golden core hurt you, and giving you his hurt him less than seeing you in pain."

Maybe he was wrong about his mother not lying to him, because that can't be true. He knows that he would be destroyed if he lost his core, if he were condemned for a lifetime to be mundane, to be mediocre, but Wei Wuxian doesn't need him.

His mother looks at him for long moments, and then sighs. "Why do you think he came back, A-Cheng?"

"Because his future was terrible," he says. "Everyone died."

She shakes her head. "Not everyone. Wangji was alive. A-Yuan was alive. Wei Ying had his husband, and a new family. More junior disciples who adored him. Even your nephew had become fond of him. Wei Ying was happy. Happier than he'd ever been in his life." She takes a step past him, looks out at the view of the mountains of Gusu. "His childhood, after all, had not been happy. His parents died, and he grew up in an unhappy home. Jiang Fengmian loved him, but Jiang Fengmian's wife treated him quite hatefully, and tried hard to set him and her own son against each other."

"What?" He stares. "You never -" She didn't. Did she? He would remember.

"Not this time." Her lips twist, just for a moment, and then her expression smoothes. "Wei Ying devoted a great deal of effort to ensuring that this was so. But he was still very afraid of me." She turns back to Jiang Cheng. "No, he was happy. He could have been content, but there was one person he had to come back for."

Oh. This makes sense. He can understand it, be sympathetic to it. "A-Jie," he says. "She died. He really does love her."

"Not your sister," his mother replies, and he's confused again. "He does love her. When she died, he was quite literally insane with his grief. But he mourned, and could have gone on living without her."

"Then - Dad?" That makes less sense, but Wei Wuxian does love Jiang Fengmian.

His mother rolls her eyes. "No, you foolish boy. You." Her expression is serious, nothing to suggest this is a joke at his expense. "Wei Ying looked around at his new life, at his husband and the children who gathered to him, and he was happy. But every so often, he would see you, and you were not. He believed you hated him - you didn't, I think, but he believed it - and even that would have been acceptable to him if you could be happy, but you weren't. How could you be? You had lost everyone you loved."

She reaches up to brush her fingers across his cheek. He's struck by the fact that she's reaching up - that she's smaller than he is, when in his mind she towers over everyone. "You survived so much pain, A-Cheng. You were strong. But you had been angry so long that you no longer knew how to be anything else. Your nephew grew to be a man, and no longer needed you. You were truly alone, and no-one could reach you any more."

He imagines it - imagines losing everyone, being alone with just a baby and his grief, rebuilding his Sect and trying to keep up with everything without his sister or Wei Wuxian to help him.

He would be angry. He's always angry when he has to deal with things alone - he doesn't know how to smile and make people want to do things, he never had the knack. His sister does, Wei Wuxian does, and they always did the talking when it mattered. When Jiang Cheng tries he gets frustrated and starts shouting and threatening people until one of his siblings comes to clean up his mess.

He's good at many things, he is, but he's not good at people.

"A-Cheng," his mother says, sighing. "My son. Always my son, to your credit and your cost." She pinches his cheek, hard enough to hurt. "Afraid to admit that you love, afraid to accept that you are loved. Only at ease when you are angry, because anger is safe." Her hand drops.

He stares at her.

She smiles wryly. "I have seen you through the eyes of a mother, A-Cheng, and I have seen us both through the eyes of your brother. You are a good man, and I am proud of you."

He feels dizzy. He wants to cry but he will not, can not cry in front of his mother.

She continues. "I know I will not persuade you that you are deserving of the love Wei Ying feels for you. Believe me when I tell you I understand, because Wei Ying loved me, grieved for me, and I am certain I did not deserve it. I simply wish you to understand that he does. That he gave his golden core to you once, and he did not regret it for a moment. That he gave up his future, his happiness, because it was all like ashes in his mouth if you were miserable. Things will not be the same for him. If he can find his happiness again, he will still miss the people he knew, because even those who live are different from what he remembers."

"It's too much," he says. "For me? All of this for me?"

"For you," she says. "I am alive, right now, simply because Wei Ying loves you. Your father, your shidis, all of us live because Wei Ying loves you and wants you to be happy. He has sacrificed much for you. A great debt is imposed upon you."

He lowers his eyes. "I know."

"I don't think you do," she tells him sharply. "The debt you owe is that you must let this go. He does not want your gratitude, or your humility, or your regret. He wants your happiness. Honour requires that you accept his boundless gifts as your due, and live as if you knew nothing of them."

"But that's not fair," he says plaintively, knowing how childish it sounds.

"Fair is a meaningless concept. This is what is."

Chapter Text

The advantage of having a golden core again is that he can use it to help with the pain and stiffness of his injuries, holding power warm and thrumming in his limbs. (Once, he could handle injuries with resentful energy, but the Cloud Recesses has none to use, and he's not sure where his things are. Baohu, Suibian, and the Stygian Tiger Seal must be somewhere, but he doesn't know where, and the Stygian Tiger Seal is the only source of resentful energy around.)

Wen Qing still frowns severely when he goes to move.

"Lan Zhan was upset," he reminds her, "I need to -"

"You need to stay exactly where you are," she says, flicking a message butterfly into the air. "Wuxian, I need you to understand that you nearly died a few days ago, and your health is still extremely delicate. You currently feel better than you have any right to feel. Don't be deceived by that."

"But I feel terrible." He really does.

"I know," Wen Qing says flatly. "You still feel better than you have any right to feel, because I am a very good doctor, and you are still very drugged."

He blinks. "How bad was it?"

"Bad." She looks at him, and sighs. "You had three ribs that weren't broken and significant internal injuries. If they had taken another hour to find you, you would almost certainly have died. If you'd been brought to a doctor less skilled than I am, you would almost certainly have died."

"But -" He stares. "You're the best doctor in the world, aren't you?"

She smiles, just a little bit. "Probably. So please take what I am saying seriously and rest. Use your spiritual energy for healing."

---

Lan Wangji knows that A-Yuan is a remarkably even-tempered child. He has very little experience of small children, but the Elders have told him so. The Elders who care for the small children of the Lan Sect, guiding them through the games and structured playtime exercises intended to lay the foundation for the development of a golden core, are very impressed with his son; he has been praised for his excellent behaviour and the sweetness of his disposition.

Elder Dezi also told Lan Wangji that A-Yuan is very cute. Lan Wangji has always thought so, but it is good to have confirmation from an outside source.

A-Yuan cries very rarely.

Perhaps as a consequence, on those occasions where he is confronted with his son's tears, Lan Wangji feels that he is very, very bad at dealing with them. Usually Wei Ying takes care of their son on these occasions, rare as they are. Wei Ying can have A-Yuan laughing and smiling again very quickly. Lan Wangji has never had the knack, with adults or children.

His son's distress is very upsetting to him. Lan Wangji would normally be more than eager to annihilate the cause of it, but he cannot eradicate Wei Ying's current... illness.

Instead, he carries his wailing child through the Cloud Recesses, walking fast, burning with shame when people look towards them and see; see his failure, his inadequacy, that he is useless without Wei Ying.

There's a boy ahead of him on the path, but instead of averting his eyes and turning aside like the other people Lan Wangji has passed, he stops. "Hanguang-Jun?" He sketches a quick bow. "May this disciple be of assistance?" He smiles brightly. Lan Wangji recognises the boy - this is the child his brother brought to the Cloud Recesses years ago.

"Wangji," Brother says, coming up behind him. "And, ah, A-Yang. I'm not sure if my brother -"

"If you can," Lan Wangji says. "Please."

The boy smiles brightly and steps closer, turning his attention to A-Yuan. "Hello, young master," he says. "Tell me, why do you cry?"

A-Yuan sobs something even Lan Wangji can't understand, but A-Yang simply nods.

"That sounds simply terrible," he says seriously. "There is no cure for such troubles today, but perhaps things will be better tomorrow?" He feigns a speculative look. "Perhaps, for today, it is time to take comfort in the small pleasures of life, such as we have. It is forbidden to be overly sad, young master!" He reaches into his sleeve, and withdraws a small wrapped object. "If Hanguang-Jun permits?"

Lan Wangji blinks, and realises the small thing is a piece of candy. "Yes," he nods.

A-Yang smiles again, radiant, and unwraps the paper, offering its contents to A-Yuan. "Please, young master," he says, "accept this humble offering."

A-Yuan's wails lessen as he looks at it, seeming slightly confused and uncertain. "Go on," Brother encourages.

Hesitantly, A-Yuan takes the candy. A-Yang, smiling, pantomimes putting it into his mouth, and A-Yuan does so.

His expression becomes comically startled. Lan Wangji cannot recall his son ever having been given candy before, and wonders if this, too, is a lapse in his parenting. Wei Ying's early childhood was not settled, and Madam Yu does not seem the type to have plied her children with sweets. It may not even have occurred to him.

A-Yuan has been taught not to speak while eating, but in the moment, he seems to have forgotten.

"Nice," he says. "Thank." He has stopped crying.

A-Yang bows. "The young master is most welcome," he says.

"Thank you very much, A-Yang," Brother says. "That was very well done, and very kind of you."

A-Yang smiles, eyes sparkling. "Be generous, be kind. Harmony is the value," he recites. "I must hurry or I will be late to class. It is good to see you out and about, Lan-gege." He bows and walks on.

Lan Wangji resumes walking towards the children's hall, slower now. His brother walks beside him.

"This is only temporary," Brother says. "Wuxian will recover."

Lan Wangji doesn't answer, but quickens his stride again. He does not wish to discuss it. He cannot. He does not want to think of Wei Ying saying Hanguang-Jun in that way, of Wei Ying's voice low and cold.

He will endure, until Wei Ying is... himself again. There is nothing else that he can do.

All too soon he reaches the children's hall, where he finds he does not want to put his son down. The way A-Yuan leans into him is comforting. Lan Wangji has not failed his family so much that his son can no longer find comfort in Lan Wangji's arms. The quiet trust of his child, so small and precious, fills the yawning void that Wei Ying's strange, wary distance has created.

Unfortunately, one of the other children sees them, and it seems has formed an attachment to A-Yuan. The child runs towards them eagerly (too eagerly; he is more enthusiastic than co-ordinated, and cannot stop in time to avoid bouncing off Lan Wangji's shins).

"A-Yuan!" the boy shouts. "A-Yuan play!"

Elder Quan is coming over hurriedly. "A-Yi!" she says. "Be moderate! Do not run at Hanguang-Jun like that! Do not shout!"

"A-Yuan play!" the child - A-Yi - insists, and A-Yuan is now starting to squirm.

"Down, please, Father," he says, and Lan Wangji regretfully sets his son on the floor. A-Yi takes A-Yuan's hand and tugs him towards the game he was playing. Elder Quan follows, after hasty apologies to Lan Wangji.

Lan Wangji already misses when A-Yuan was smaller, and there was no real need for them to share him with others. When A-Yuan walks away, a part of Lan Wangji goes with him, and he does not feel he has enough to spare, when Wei Ying is not...

"Wangji," his brother says. "We can return."

---

Lan Wangji is almost afraid to enter the cottage.

He does so nonetheless, his brother following behind him.

He finds Wei Ying still on the daybed, propped against pillows and watching the door. When Lan Wangji enters, Wei Ying's smile is a sad, painful thing.

"Lan Zhan," he says. "I'm sorry about before."

"Don't apologise," Lan Wangji says immediately. He does not need Wei Ying's apologies. He simply needs Wei Ying. He approaches carefully and kneels in front of his husband. "Are you..." He does not know how to finish that question.

Wei Ying's smile becomes rueful. "I'm aware of where I am, and when, and why," he says. "How is A-Yuan?"

"Better," Lan Wangji says. He feels he should confess his failure as a father. "I was unable to comfort him, but A-Yang was more successful. A-Yuan is playing with A-Yi at the children's hall."

Wei Ying's face does several strange things as he speaks.

"A-Yang?" he says carefully.

"Xue Yang. He is a... ward, of sorts, of Brother's," Lan Wangji explains.

Wei Ying nods thoughtfully. He seems calm, but Lan Wangji feels an impact on his arm as the Stygian Tiger Seal, tucked in his sleeve for days, bucks and leaps and pulls free to fly to Wei Ying's side, at the same time as Suibian - which he had placed in their bedroom - comes out, tumbling across the floor and clattering to a halt at Wei Ying's feet.

"How did he achieve his success?" Wei Ying asks, in a casual tone that makes the hairs on the back of Lan Wangji's neck stand on end.

"He gave him candy," Lan Wangji says warily.

"How thoughtful of him," Wei Ying says. The eyes of the Stygian Tiger Seal begin to glow. Wei Ying looks at Brother. "He is a credit to your guidance, Zewu-Jun." Suibian rises again to float in front of its master. The blade edges a hand's width out of the sheath.

Lan Wangji doesn't understand what is happening here, and he's not sure he can stand it. These days have been so difficult, so painful, he just wants Wei Ying to come back to him, and he seems to be falling away again.

"Wei Ying," he says, heart aching. "Please."

Wei Ying looks back at him. "Oh, Lan Zhan," he says softly. The Stygian Tiger Seal drops to the bed, Suibian to the floor. Wei Ying reaches out and cups his cheek. "It's all right. I'm sure it's fine." He smiles again, this time with gentle warmth. "It's been a difficult time for you, hasn't it? Come here."

Lan Wangji goes willingly as Wei Ying draws him closer, closes his eyes and leans carefully into his kiss, sweet and familiar.

"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying murmurs as they part. "I have a terrible problem."

"What is it?" Lan Wangji asks immediately.

"My wrist," Wei Ying says, pouting. "It's naked." He holds out an arm.

Lan Wangji's spirits lift as he pulls the ribbon from his sleeve and wraps it carefully around his husband's wrist, as if in the process he is replacing some important part of himself that had been missing.

"Thank you, my husband," Wei Ying says, and draws him in for another kiss.

---

Jiang Cheng doesn't want to ask, but he needs to know. "Can you tell me something?" he asks his mother.

"Perhaps."

He steels himself. His mother has always been strict with him, and there are ways in which that is reassuring. "What did I do wrong?"

She frowns. "Be more specific."

He supposes that for his mother, that is a very broad category. "When Wei Wuxian got attacked. What should I have done differently?"

Her eyes widen slightly, and she stares at him for a long moment.

"I know it was my fault," he adds miserably. "I'm not pretending it wasn't, I just - I can't work out how."

"You -" She stops and smacks his arm. "Idiot boy! Did you raise Jin Zixun? Are you his father, or his mother? Did you force him to attack Wangji and be disowned by the Jin? Did you tell him to attack Wei Ying? Did you make it known Wei Ying is afraid of dogs? Did you send him to Caiyi Town alone? Did you even know he was going?"

"No," he admits.

His mother sighs. "A-Cheng," she says, quieter. "A Sect Leader must take responsibility for his Sect and his people, but you cannot control the world and all that is in it. When Wei Ying did not return, you dropped everything to look for him, did you not?"

"I did." It, too, feels like an admission, somehow.

"You looked for him, and you found him. Did you protect him from further harm?" Her tone is sharp.

"Further harm, yes, but -"

"Hush. You found him and you protected him, and you brought him back. You did everything that you could, and everything that you should. There is no fault in your actions... on this occasion."

Jiang Cheng blinks, replays the words in his memory. He knows, as surely as he knows anything, that his mother would not lie to him about this, would never offer him empty praise or reassurances.

Perhaps, he thinks, he can allow himself to believe it.

---

Wei Wuxian will admit that he had been somewhat unsettled by the sudden realisation that Xue Yang had been in proximity to his son, who is still a child, but Lan Zhan's clear distress had broken the spell and he is remembering, again, that at the moment, so is Xue Yang. As far as Wei Wuxian knows, there is still no sign of the boy being at all, well, murderous; apparently the teachers have nothing but praise for his diligence and obedience.

Apparently Xichen's idea has worked; allowing the boy to grow up steeped in Lan discipline and the tranquility of the Cloud Recesses has, unsurprisingly, produced better results than pain, resentment, and privation. Perhaps it doesn't have to matter too much if Xue Yang is capable of such tremendous cruelty when such monstrous acts are against the rules he has become accustomed to living by.

Xichen, he thinks, was quiet unnerved by his reaction, but in true Lan fashion he has responded to it by being very still and quiet.

Wen Qing had reacted by drawing needles, and Wei Wuxian is glad Lan Zhan distracted him before she used them. He recalls that she is capable of throwing the damn things with remarkable accuracy, but he suspects it would still be quite unpleasant.

"If the four of you could all manage to keep from hovering on the edge of qi deviation all the time," she says tartly, "I might actually be able to return to my work at some point." She glares at him. "Wuxian, if you give me your word that you will rest and avoid further strain, I can let you stay with Wangji unsupervised, and have A-Yuan come back for the day. I think it's probably still better if he spends tonight with his uncles."

"I will rest," Wei Wuxian says meekly.

Wen Qing turns her gaze on Lan Zhan. "Wangji, I expect you to see to it, and do nothing that risks strain. His bones might as well be fine porcelain right now."

Lan Zhan nods. "Will be careful with Wei Ying. Will see that Wei Ying is careful," he says. (He means it. He is still very worried.)

"Very well then," Wen Qing says, in a calmer tone. "Rest well. Enjoy the piece and quiet. We'll see to it your meals are brought here. When his classes are done, one of the family will bring you A-Yuan. I don't trust you, Wuxian, I don't want Wangji to let you out of his sight."

(Lan Zhan doesn't want that either.)

If something in him goes warm and soft when Wen Qing refers so casually to one of the family, no-one has to know.

---

Wei Wuxian is moderately surprised when the family member who comes to deliver A-Yuan before lunch is Lan Qiren.

Seeing A-Yuan with his great-uncle does make it easier to understand why Lan Zhan and Xichen love the man as much as they do. For all that Lan Qiren still appears incapable of smiling or, say, hugging, he is nonetheless gentle and kind in every other respect. Whenever A-Yuan has time with Great-Uncle, he peppers him endlessly with questions, far more than he ever does his parents, and Lan Qiren will answer every question with care.

He arrives today with A-Yuan's hand in his. Wei Wuxian is, of course, in bed, and Lan Zhan is sitting next to him.

"Daddy!" A-Yuan exclaims. "Great-Uncle says you're feeling better!" He makes as if to dash towards his parents, but Lan Qiren tightens his hold, just long enough for A-Yuan to stop and frown up at him.

Lan Qiren kneels to talk to him. "A-Yuan, do you remember I told you that Daddy was still hurt?"

A-Yuan's eyes go wide. "Yes! Great-Uncle said A-Yuan must be gentle and careful."

Lan Qiren nods, and releases his hand. A-Yuan approaches Wei Wuxian slowly, wide-eyed, with care that is very nearly comical and very definitely adorable, and reaches out to pat his hand so lightly Wei Wuxian can barely feel it.

"Hello, Daddy!" he whispers.

"You don't have to whisper," Lan Qiren says, with a twitch of his lips that, on Lan Zhan, would be a smile.

"Hello, A-Yuan." Wei Wuxian pushes away the painful shame of making his son cry that morning, and smiles. "Your Great-Uncle is right. Daddy is feeling much better. I'm very happy to see you." He goes to lean forward, but can't suppress a wince.

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says chidingly, and picks A-Yuan up, setting him on his own knee where Wei Wuxian can better reach to lean forward and kiss his son's forehead.

"Still hurt," A-Yuan says sadly.

"Yes," Wei Wuxian sighs. "For a little while, yet. Do you think you will be all right spending another night with your uncles and aunt tonight?"

"Mn," A-Yuan says, sounding so much like Lan Zhan it's all Wei Wuxian can do not to squeal in delight. "Uncle Purple still sad. A-Yuan fixing."

Wei Wuxian pauses. A-Yuan has developed a habit of gravitating to family members who are in some kind of distress. It's sweet, but he doesn't want his son to think it's his job to take care of the adults. "How is A-Yuan fixing?" he asks lightly.

A-Yuan beams, spreading his arms wide as if to say: existing!, and Wei Wuxian laughs.

"Well, if you still have important work to do, we can't possibly keep you here tonight," Wei Wuxian replies seriously. He's not sure what Jiang Cheng's sad about - probably that Wei Wuxian is still too injured to be shouted at for losing a fight with Jin Zixun - but he dotes on A-Yuan, and he is usually happier when he's had time with his nephew. If A-Yuan thinks his family will be happier simply for his presence... he's not wrong.

Lan Qiren is watching him - staring at him, in fact, examining him. Wei Wuxian is aware that he's not properly dressed, but he's currently confined to bed, he's not allowed to dress properly.

"Is everything all right, Master?" he asks carefully.

Lan Qiren clears his throat. "Wei Wuxian. It is good to see that your condition is improving. Please be sure to take care and be obedient to the instructions of the doctor. You have an obligation to your family to ensure your recovery." He bows stiffly. "I have duties. If you will excuse me."

Wei Wuxian stares after him as he leaves. That almost sounded like -

"Uncle was very worried," Lan Zhan says.

- that.

"I'd have thought he'd be worried that I would recover," he jokes, but his heart isn't in it, and Lan Zhan can clearly tell.

"Uncle was very worried," he repeats. "Wei Ying is family."

"He just doesn't want anything to happen to me until his illusions stop flickering," he tries. He's not comfortable, somehow, with the idea that Lan Qiren might care about him for him, rather than simply tolerating him for Lan Zhan's sake. (Admittedly, he's been entirely civil during their lessons on illusion cultivation, but Wei Wuxian has assumed that Lan Qiren was making a show of diplaying the deferent politeness he is determined that a student owes his teacher.)

His husband, however, has apparently decided to be stubborn about this. "No," he says. "Uncle told Wen Qing that you are his family. Uncle was very worried."

Wei Wuxian blinks, and then decides he'll put off thinking about that until... later. "A-Yuan," he says, "how was the children's hall today? Did you see your little friend?"

"Yes! A-Yi and I played the balance game!" A-Yuan tells him excitedly.

"How did that go?" he asks.

A-Yuan's babbled description of their game is somewhat difficult to follow, but Wei Wuxian gets the general impression that it was fun, and that A-Yi didn't do very well, but he tried very hard, and A-Yuan tried to help him.

He's pretty sure that A-Yi is the future Lan Jingyi. He's met the kid, and there's some resemblance in appearance, and a definite resemblance in A-Yi's eager, rambunctious, and very un-Lan-like disposition. Wei Wuxian has heard the Elders express a hope that A-Yuan will be a good influence on A-Yi - they are in agreement that A-Yuan is practically perfect.

Wei Wuxian blinked for a moment when he heard one of them say, "Well, what else would you expect? He's Hanguang-Jun's son. It's in his blood." To a chorus of general agreement.

He'd managed to keep the words safely behind his teeth, but for long seconds all he could think was: he's my son too, you know! None of the Elders approve of him that much.

Some time later, it occurred to him that also, he's adopted! He isn't Lan Zhan's son by blood at all.

Still, it's nice that A-Yuan is so well-liked here, since he'll be spending so much time in Gusu. He'll also spend time in Yunmeng, of course, but Wei Wuxian has a strong suspicion that no-one there would dare to speak ill of Madam Yu's eldest grandson. Whereas the Lan Sect Elders are...

Well. He suspects the rule about backbiting and gossip was an attempt to tame their own sect's Elders, with somewhat limited success.

A-Yuan was also born a Wen. He should also have regular visits to Qishan. I'll have to talk to Lan Zhan about that, Wei Wuxian thinks. He should make sure to find time to take him to visit.

He catches himself, realising suddenly that he's been thinking of the future as if he won't be a part of it, just assuming that he won't still be A-Yuan's parent as he grows up.

In his first life, at this age, he was growing crops in poor soil while hawkers used his name in Yiling. He'd already made a public separation from the Jiang Sect.

The approach of Jin Ling's birth gives him a strange feeling of impending doom. Jin Ling's one-month celebration was the catalyst for so many deaths - Jin Zixuan, Wen Qing, his shijie, Wei Wuxian himself.

No matter how much he tells himself that obviously things are so very different, now, he can't seem to shake the feeling.

"Daddy still tired," A-Yuan says, and Wei Wuxian realises too that he allowed himself to become lost in his thoughts when he was supposed to be talking to his son. "Father, Daddy needs a nap."

"Mn," Lan Zhan says. Wei Wuxian has made a terrible mistake.

"I don't need a nap," he protests, but Lan Zhan is already shifting pillows to ease him back onto the bed. "I need -"

"Rest," Lan Zhan says, expression soft.

Wei Wuxian is prepared to argue. The fight goes out of him, however, when A-Yuan crawls across the bed and sits next to his head. Then he strokes Wei Wuxian's hair - the way Wei Wuxian often strokes his, when he's tucking him in to bed - and begins singing one of his favourite lullabies.

No-one could be expected to resist an assault like this.

He is still quite tired.

He gives in.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng can't really complain about having to deal with unexpected sect obligations at the Cloud Recesses. In all the time they've been here, he's had almost no duties of any kind. He's in Gusu because Wen Qing is in Gusu, and there would be gossip if his wife travelled without him, especially for so long, and so soon after they married.

He hasn't felt so rested since before the Sunshot Campaign. He's caught up on all the sleep he lost during the war, and had more time to meditate and to train. (After the debacle that happened when all of the Cloud Recesses turned out to watch, they returned to the meadow, where they have been left entirely alone, but he has heard that Wangji and Wei Wuxian, who were asked - as members of the Lan Sect, of course - to give their assistance in training, have had no shortage of students even among the older generations.)

So he puts on the most formal robes he brought, does his hair nicely, and goes to stand as his father's representative when Madam Jin presents the formal apology on behalf of her family to Wei Wuxian.

Wangji, as Wei Wuxian's husband, can't really serve as the host for this, so Lan Qiren is also in attendance. Jiang Cheng's mother is also going to be there; whether on behalf of the Jiang or to accompany her friend is unclear.

For once, Wei Wuxian's usual inability to be decorous will not be an issue. He is still, by Wen Qing's orders, confined to his bed.

Madam Jin arrives escorted by Lan Qiren. Jiang Cheng, Wen Qing and Madam Yu are already there, as of course are Wei Wuxian's husband and son.

She is clearly taking this seriously; she has dressed as formally as she did for his sister's wedding to her only son, but where that day she had been clearly joyful, today she is carrying herself with a terrible, brittle dignity.

Wei Wuxian is, after all, an important person in a way that can't be pinned down to a single cause. He is, technically, the son of a servant and a rogue cultivator, but he is the senior disciple of their generation in the Jiang Sect, and - Jiang Cheng is all too bitterly aware - the favoured child of the Chief Cultivator, for all that his status is unofficial. He's the husband of Hanguang-Jun, who is the brother and heir of the Lan Sect Leader, and the father of the Lan Sect's next heir. Madam Jin's daughter-in-law has made it very clear that she views him as a brother; Wen Qionglin adores him, for reasons that have never quite been clear to Jiang Cheng, and while he has no particular relationship with Nie Mingjue beyond a certain mutual respect, Nie Huaisang is his brother's most trusted advisor, and considers Wei Wuxian a friend.

All that, and everyone knows that he was the true hero of the Sunshot Campaign. It makes it very hard to judge his status, for those who care about that sort of thing. (Jiang Cheng doesn't, particularly, but he is aware that it's probably because he has never had to; he was born the only son of the leader of one of the five elite sects. There are five people who outrank him; one day there will be one at most.)

Madam Jin bows to the floor.

"Wei Wuxian," she says. "On behalf of my family, I have come to offer my apologies for my nephew's shameful and dishonourable attack on your person. We offer commensuration for his wrongs."

Wei Wuxian blinks, wide-eyed, and shoots an imploring look towards Madam Yu, who nods fractionally. Jiang Cheng is relieved when she steps forward, clearly taking over. (Apparently his role in these proceedings is to be present. He's okay with that.)

"Madam Jin," she says formally, "my tudi is ready and willing to grant his forgiveness. We are all eager to put this matter behind us."

Madam Jin stands, and nods. "There is the issue of commensuration," she says. "Name any price."

Madam Yu names a figure, and Jiang Cheng has to fight to keep his expression appropriately neutral; it's quite a lot of money. He's not surprised that Madam Jin is frowning, but -

"Surely that is insufficient, for such a worthy one as your tudi," she replies, and names a higher sum.

And then they're haggling. Madam Yu cites Wei Wuxian's carelessness in going alone and unguarded; Madam Jin throws back that this is Gusu, and Wei Wuxian is a Lan, and Jin Zixun's violation of Gusu's boundary is also at issue. Lan Qiren, who apparently expected this, apologetically points out that the security of Gusu is also the responsibility of the Lan, and Madam Jin retaliates by citing ancient treaties between the Lan and Jin, and suggesting that perhaps compensation is owed also to the Lan.

They argue for almost an hour.

Finally they agree on enough money to buy a small town, and Madam Jin promises to have it delivered in short order. Over the course of the discussion she seems to have untensed, and when she bows to Wei Wuxian again - a more normal bow, this time - she adds: "It is good to see that you are recovering, Wei Wuxian. A-Li will be very relieved to hear that you will be well. She has been quite concerned for you, and grieved that she could not come here to see you herself. I will return to Jinlintai to give her my personal assurances of your wellbeing."

She bows to them all, and takes her leave with her head held high.

"I don't understand what just happened," Jiang Cheng says, before he can think about it.

Lan Qiren looks at him, but there is no censure in it. "I am not surprised, Young Master Jiang. Commensuration is a complex and tedious subject -"

If Lan Qiren thinks it's tedious, Jiang Cheng isn't sure he wants to know about it.

"- and is rarely relevant even to the leaders of sects. I am sure your parents will discuss it with you in due time. Suffice to say that there is a complex system of factors which determine the price of guilt for crimes against another person of rank."

"That was... a lot," Wei Wuxian says cautiously.

Lan Qiren shakes his head. "The price was fair, for a person of your worth, given the severity of the wrong that you suffered. The Jin will pay gladly. Their debt to you will be fully paid; they need carry no guilt or further obligation to you because of it." He glances towards the door. "Madam Jin is a very honourable woman. She drove an exceptionally hard bargain. Quite admirable. Wangji, I assume you are happy for your husband's money to be placed in your treasure room?"

"Yes." Wangji nods.

"As Xichen is not yet returning to his duties, I shall see to it, of course," Lan Qiren says, and bows. "I will take my leave."

Wei Wuxian watches him go with a curious expression, and then he grins. Jiang Cheng's wariness at what is definitely Wei Wuxian's troublemaking face is overwhelmed by how relieved he is to see his br- Wei Wuxian's spirit returning.

"Lan Zhan," he says. "Jiang Cheng, Wen Qing, my beloved A-Yuan, please step outside for a moment? I need to have a private word with Madam Yu."

A-Yuan jumps down from where he was sitting on the bed next to Wei Wuxian, takes Wangji's hand, and toddles unconcernedly towards the door, tugging his father behind him.

Jiang Cheng has a bad feeling about this, but he doesn't really have an excuse to say no, so he goes outside with Wen Qing.

"Wen Ruohan occasionally paid off Wen Xu and Wen Chao's... incidents," Wen Qing says off-handedly, gazing into the distance. "The negotiations were less... detailed. Usually he'd either pay a pittance and dare people to object, or pay a fortune to show off that he could afford it."

Jiang Cheng isn't sure what to say.

"Wen Ruohan is dead," Wangji says, and then seems to hesitate. "He..." He stops.

Wen Qing looks at him, and smiles. "Yes," she says. "He is."

Wangji's expression softens fractionally in the way Jiang Cheng is pretty sure means he's smiling. He suspects Wangji was trying to be sympathetic and comforting, even though he's bad at it. (He resolves that he is going to work on his own ability to be sympathetic and comforting, because Wangji still did better than he did.)

After a few minutes, his mother opens the door to the cottage. "You can come back in now," she says, and they do.

Wei Wuxian is still wearing his grandmaster-of-assholery-cultivation grin, which is worrying, but Jiang Cheng sees that his mother is also smirking outright, and he discovers a new level of terror he's not sure he could ever have imagined at the idea that the two of them are conspiring together.

He doesn't dare to ask.

---

After the evening meal, Wen Qing is relieved to be able to retire to their Cloud Recesses home. A-Cheng is carrying A-Yuan's little bathtub and the child's overnight supplies, while Xichen, who joined them at the dining hall, is carrying their nephew.

They reach the house, and A-Cheng sets down the tub and A-Yuan's bag before removing his heavy formal robes. Xichen, smiling, passes him the boy. He says something that makes A-Yuan giggle and A-Cheng smile, and Wen Qing watches them thoughtfully - her husband and their fiance, smiling together over their nephew.

A-Cheng builds up the fire while Xichen goes to fill the little bathtub. A-Yuan stands a careful distance back and watches, and then Xichen returns with the filled tub.

"I don't know what temperature it should be, so I left it cold," he admits, setting it near the fire.

Wen Qing kneels by the tub and runs her fingers through the water, heating it carefully to an appropriately warm-but-not-hot temperature for a child while A-Cheng gets A-Yuan undressed.

"There," she says. "What do you think, A-Yuan?"

A-Yuan leans over to test it. He almost falls over, because A-Cheng was at that moment taking off one of his little shoes, but A-Cheng catches him deftly and holds him over the water with a patient expression. A-Yuan pokes a finger into the water, and nods happily. "Mn!"

Wen Qing smiles.

A-Cheng manages to get him out of his clothes and deposits him into the water.

Wen Qing watches in fascination as A-Cheng supervises his nephew's bath and washes his hair for him. A-Cheng is gentle, and smiles more than she's ever seen him. He laughs softly and is... playful, in a way she's not sure she's ever seen him be before.

When A-Yuan is clean and his hair is well-rinsed, A-Cheng lifts him out and bundles him in a towel, wrapping it around him thoroughly like a swaddling-cloth. He then frowns theatrically and picks him up.

"Wen Qing," he says. "Xichen. I just found this parcel all wrapped up in our house. What do you suppose it could be?" He tosses him in the air, and A-Yuan shrieks with delight. "Is it... hm. Is it a packed lunch?"

"No!" A-Yuan exclaims. "Is A-Yuan!"

"I don't know," A-Cheng says. "I never had a talking lunch before." He tosses A-Yuan in the air again. The bundle of cloth that is A-Yuan squirms in his arms. "Do you think it will be tasty?"

He makes exaggerated hungry noises as he unwraps his nephew, and feigns surprise when A-Yuan begins to appear. "Why, this isn't food at all!" he says, as if shocked. "This is a nephew!" A-Yuan giggles.

"Uncle silly," A-Yuan says. "Uncle silly like Daddy."

Wen Qing looks at her husband's expression of shocked betrayal and laughs until there are tears in her eyes.

It feels strange, unfamiliar - but nice.

---

She combs A-Yuan's hair before bed. It reminds her of when A-Ning was very small. He would come to her room, smiling shyly, often with some toy or trinket he'd found that he wanted to show her. She would comb his hair, taking longer than she needed to, so that if anyone found him there they would have an excuse; a sister attending to her brother's hair was proper behaviour for a girl in Wen Ruohan's household. A sister talking to her brother simply because he was her brother, and she loved him, was not.

Being, as she was, a prodigy, brilliant and promising, gave her more freedom and more danger, because Wen Ruohan approved of her, was proud of her, and that meant she had his attention. It made it easier to protect her brother, even from Wen Xu and Wen Chao; it was worth it, she'd thought, if she could keep A-Ning safe until he was grown.

She'd stood by Wen Ruohan's side when he showed her off at conferences, she'd accompanied him to the Fire Palace and worked to sustain his victims. She'd been tempted, so many times, to allow herself to fail, to grant them the respite of death. She hadn't done it.

Wen Qing has never taken a life. Some days, that knowledge is the thing that sustains her, allows her to hold her head high among decent people. Some days, when she has awoken from dreams of blood and smoke and the screams seem to ring in her ears for hours, it is a crushing burden.

The comb slides through A-Yuan's hair without resistance. A-Yuan - her distant cousin (she thinks she might know whose son he was, but she's not completely certain, and she knows who son he is, now, and has resolved that she will only speak of it if she is asked), her nephew, with whom she is trusted to be alone.

She sets the comb down, and he turns to face her. She tries to smile, but it feels wrong, because her thoughts have been melancholy, and something in her insists that the false smile she wore when necessary under Wen Ruohan's eye would taint this child if she let him see it.

A-Yuan frowns at her. "Auntie, Daddy says it okay to be sad," he says seriously. "Daddy says try not to be sad alone." He holds out his arms expectantly.

It's not like holding A-Ning. When he was this small, she was bigger, but still a child. A-Yuan is tiny in her arms, but something about this moment touches upon some deep, raw place she has been concealing even from herself, and she realises she is crying.

It's a strange feeling, because Wen Qing has not cried since she was barely older than her nephew is now.

"Good job, Auntie," A-Yuan says. "A-Yuan proud of you." She feels a little hand pat her hair.

---

She lets A-Cheng and Xichen put him to bed. She feels... strange, as if everything about her self is raw and tender, so when she has stopped crying, and A-Yuan declares himself ready for bed, she calls the men back into the room and steps back to the doorway.

They both look at her oddly, and share a glance; she suspects that she may look as if she has been crying. (She knows that is a thing that happens to people. It probably happens to her.) But she has a smile, small and genuine, and they turn their attention to their nephew.

A-Cheng sits beside him and reads to him from a book of stories. A-Yuan leans against him and looks at the pages; now and then he points at a character and asks what that one means, and A-Cheng smiles and tells him. When the story is finished, A-Cheng tucks his nephew into bed, and sings a lullaby. He has a good voice; slightly hesitant, but very nice to listen to.

He kisses A-Yuan carefully on the forehead and wishes him goodnight.

"Uncle Tall kiss too?" A-Yuan asks, slightly plaintive.

Xichen, who has watched all this with an expression of open adoration, looks startled, and then obligingly leans down and kisses A-Yuan's forehead.

A-Yuan frowns. "Wrong place," he says disapprovingly. "Daddy and Father kiss here." He points at his forehead. It looks like more or less the same place to Wen Qing, but perhaps this is a matter where more or less is insufficient.

Slightly hesitantly, Xichen tries again. Apparently this time his accuracy is adequate, because A-Yuan smiles. "Good night, Uncle," he says. "Good night, Uncle. Good night, Auntie."

"Good night, A-Yuan," they chorus.

A-Cheng puts out the candles as they leave.

"It's been a long day," A-Cheng says quietly. "I think I might go to bed too."

"As will I," Wen Qing says, and Xichen smiles and says he'll go too, just to be sure he doesn't disturb anyone.

The ritual of getting ready for bed is soothing. She removes her hair ornaments, and combs her own hair, and bathes; but when she gets to her room, and looks at her neatly-made bed, she thinks for the first time in her life that sharing a bed, at least for a little while, might actually be nice.

Wen Qing turns around.

She stops, hesitant, at Xichen and A-Cheng's door, and doesn't so much knock as tap very lightly.

The door opens anyway.

The men are in bed. Xichen opened the door with a wave.

"Is everything all right?" he asks.

"Yes," she says. "No," she admits. "Can I...?"

"Always," A-Cheng says. He shifts over in the bed and pushes Xichen gently over to make room between them. The bed is large; there's space for her on the outsides, or between them, and A-Cheng makes a vague gesture as if to offer her choice of all three.

Wen Qing climbs into the space between them with something very like relief. Her husband wraps his arms around her - tentative, at first, until he's sure she welcomes it, and she loves him so much it hurts - and then Xichen cautiously follows, putting his arm across them both.

"Is this good?" A-Cheng murmurs against her hair.

"Yes," she tells him, and lets her body go lax. "This is good."

She has difficulty sleeping with them so close. She can't imagine she'll want this often.

But she really likes knowing that she can have it when she does.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian passes several extremely tedious weeks with very little to do but work on a gift for his coming nephew while his bones knit, by the end of which he's more or less recovered. (Wen Qing still strictly forbids training or vigorous exercise of any kind; Wei Wuxian makes a point of being smug about having doctor's orders to be lazy. He resumes attendance at the training of the Lan disciples, but sprawls to one side and gives verbal advice and instructions (heckles, but it amounts to the same thing, obviously).)

He accompanies Lan Zhan sometimes to his office, where he has been concluding his work in preparation for their coming departure with visible relief. Shijie's baby is due soon. Madam Yu has already left, accompanying her friend Madam Jin.

Lan Zhan's work is all dull sect business; the only surprise is when Wei Wuxian witnesses a discussion about matters relating to the recent death of the leader of a nearby minor sect.

The visitor who speaks is unhappy and nervous. The men who came with him stand in rows, looking downcast.

"Sect Leader Su was a great man and he has taught us much, but we are not... confident, as yet, of continuing without him," the visitor says wretchedly. "To be plain, Hanguang-Jun, we - we have discussed it, and we are agreed that we are not... we cannot stand as a sect without our sect leader." He swallows, and straightens, though he still can't make eye contact. "We know that the cultivation of the Su Sect has things in common with the Lan. We have come to petition for - for trade." He bows to the floor. "The Su Sect will dissolve. We offer the territory of Moling to the sect which accepts these unworthy disciples."

Lan Zhan looks at Wei Wuxian. Wei Wuxian is holding his expression to polite neutrality with extreme effort.

"Do I understand correctly," Wei Wuxian says, "that you want to join the Lan Sect, and have the Lan take over Moling?"

The assembled Su Sect look varying levels of miserable and hopeful.

"Yes," their leader says. "We - we fear that Sect Leader Su was trying to protect us from a great threat, and was overcome. He was found dead in his quarters, pierced through the heart by a single stroke. No-one saw anything. No-one heard anything. The room was not even disrupted. If even he was unable to face the thing which killed him and live, we have no hope at all. The Lan are strong and powerful."

Wei Wuxian will address the question of Su She's death later. Or he will leave it to the Lan, who are, indeed, strong and powerful. "You realise," he says, "that there are... differences in the cultivation of the Su and Lan. If they are willing - and Hanguang-Jun will of course have to speak with his Sect Leader and Elders - you will have to take your places among the junior disciples of the Lan, and learn their ways. Some of it will be... similar to, but not quite like, what you learned from Su Minshan."

There are some very unhappy looks, but the leader soldiers on. "Yes, Young Master Wei, we know. The Lan do not like or respect us, and the Lan are very strict. We will have to learn their ways, and abandon our own." He takes a deep breath. "We have agreed. We are willing. The unwilling will... go elsewhere."

Wei Wuxian actually feels bad for them. "And you realise that if you are... dissatisfied, here, and leave - they won't cast you out unless you do something really very bad, but they are extremely persistent with discipline and so on - then you will not be able to simply reclaim Moling?"

The leader sighs. "We are aware of the... ways of the Lan," he says. "Sect Leader Su has told us much of how every minor infraction and deviation is punished harshly here. He told us he was driven away because he was a visionary. But we are not visionaries. We do not look for independence or seek leadership of our own. We will do our best. The people of Moling are good people, and deserve the protection of a capable sect."

Lan Zhan nods. "Return to the guest quarters," he says. "I will call for you when the decision has been made."

The idea that this would be discussed with Xichen and the Elders was of course a polite fiction; it will be discussed with Lan Qiren, who will be the one who has to teach the criminally shitty Su Sect cultivators, so he really should get to make the final decision but technically doesn't, so then they'll tell Xichen about it, who will do whatever his uncle has decided.

Wei Wuxian is unsurprised when Lan Qiren decides to take them in. As far as he can tell, Lan Qiren never met a tedious obligation he didn't think it was his duty to handle personally.

They're due very soon to depart for Jinlintai when Lan Qiren comes to see Wei Wuxian.

It's fairly early in the morning. Lan Zhan has already left to deliver A-Yuan to the children's hall and go to his office.

Lan Qiren's cultivation of illusions has been coming along nicely - the old man is much more intelligent than his choice of facial hair suggests, and a genuinely strong cultivator - but it's nowhere near the usual time for their lessons. He assumes this will be about the former Su cultivators, but he's wrong.

"Wei Wuxian," Lan Qiren says, with a strange tone in his voice, "there is a... question that troubles me. I have spent some time considering it. I thought for a long time that I did not wish to know the answer, but I think, after all, that I do."

"If this one can be of assistance, it will be my honour," Wei Wuxian says carefully.

Lan Qiren looks him in the eye. "What are you?"

Wei Wuxian blinks. "Jiang and Lan? Lan Zhan's husband? I'm not sure -"

Lan Qiren shakes his head sharply. "My question was inelegant. Wei Wuxian. You are, to the best of my knowledge, approximately twenty-one years old."

"Twenty-two in about a week," Wei Wuxian says, because it's true.

"Twenty-two, then. I have known you since you were sixteen, and you were the most infuriating, and most gifted, student I have ever known. You were brilliant."

Wei Wuxian has a suspicion he knows where this is going, and reflects that he really has only himself to blame. "Thank you," he says.

Lan Qiren makes a dismissive gesture. "I thought it remarkable that one so young could be so strong. Your gifts strained credulity. And then you left, and Wangji went with you. My nephew has been at your side ever since. You went to Qishan together, and slew the Xuanwu of Slaughter; Wangji insists that the four of you contributed equally to that battle." His eyes narrow. "Wei Wuxian, do you know how often in his life my nephew has lied to me?"

"Never?" Wei Wuxian guesses.

"Close. Once. About the Xuanwu of Slaughter. He insists that the four of you were equal in your efforts, and he is lying. He is embarrassed by the lie. I asked him if it was really you who should have the credit, and he did not answer." Lan Qiren fixes him wth a glare.

"Everyone fought very hard," Wei Wuxian says truthfully.

"No doubt," Lan Qiren says drily. "In any case, Wei Wuxian, after that you returned to Yunmeng, and my nephew was still with you. I have heard several versions of the events at Lotus Pier when the Wen attacked, each less believable than the last, but I know, because I saw, that you had exhausted yourself utterly; I know, because I assisted in your recovery, that your golden core was stronger than I would have believed a teenager's could be."

"I am very grateful for the instruction of the Jiang and the Lan," Wei Wuxian tries, but Lan Qiren's look in response is positively withering.

"You went to war, Wei Wuxian, and you were the hero of the Sunshot Campaign. You and Wangji were always in the thick of battle, and legends of your deeds will live for centuries, no doubt. At no time since you left Gusu the first time, Wei Wuxian, did you find a master of illusion cultivation and spend years studying to achieve the level of skill required to do what you did in the training exercises."

He gives Wei Wuxian a challenging look. "Wei Wuxian, I have studied for some months, now. You are, to my eternal astonishment, an excellent teacher. Have I been a poor student? Do I lack aptitude for this?"

"No," Wei Wuxian admits, because he hasn't and he doesn't. Lan Qiren has shown remarkable improvement in such a short time. It took Wei Wuxian years to reach the level Lan Qiren has - admittedly, some of that time was spent simply finding teachers who could teach him more - illusions are a rare, niche technique, and his knowledge was gathered from many different individuals who each knew something, but not all that Wei Wuxian has learned.

"And yet," Lan Qiren says, "after months of study, my illusions are still quite small and insubstantial."

Wei Wuxian surrenders. "You're doing well," he says. "It took me years to learn what you have. I think it took about thirty years before I could do anything like what you saw me do that time."

Lan Qiren nods. "Thirty years," he says. "And yet you are not quite twenty-two. I knew your mother, Wei Wuxian. She was a remarkable woman." He hesitates, and his voice softens. "I was glad to know that you were at Lotus Pier when she died. That you were safe. Had that not been the case, I would have looked for you."

Wei Wuxian blinks. That is a surprise. "If you did, you didn't find me," he says. "The first time my parents died, I was a street kid in Yiling for years before Uncle Jiang found me."

Lan Qiren stares. "Yiling?" he says. "But I thought -" He shakes his head sharply. "What do you mean, the first time?"

Wei Wuxian tells him.

He leaves out quite a lot, but he gives him the gist.

---

Lan Qiren listens as Wei Wuxian explains: that his soul is much older than his body, that he returned from an intolerable future, that this is his third lifetime. Third, in his second chronology.

It is an improbable story, but it fits the available information.

He does, however, have questions.

"Does my nephew know?" If he doesn't... Lan Qiren has no idea what he will do, but he is reassured swiftly.

"Yes," Wei Wuxian says. "I told both of your nephews when I was here for classes. It was a few days after, ah... you went into seclusion, that time."

Lan Qiren suppresses a wince. His behaviour then had been shameful; his pride had been stung that a mere stripling from another sect could argue with him so knowledgeably, could outshine even his nephew.

He wonders if this is why Lan Huan set out to collect the strays he brought back not long afterwards. Xue Yang is a promising young cultivator indeed; Meng Yao had been... less gifted, but a pleasing youth, a tremendously diligent student with flawless manners. Lan Qiren misses him.

"You and Wangji," Lan Qiren says carefully.

"Ah..." Wei Wuxian rubs as his nose. A childish gesture. "The first time, I... did not realise that I... liked him as much as I did. I found out much later. We got married about twenty years from now, but Lan Zhan always insisted that he... liked me... from the start. So I thought that perhaps I would. Start things sooner? And he wouldn't be sad for so long."

Lan Qiren considers that. It makes a certain kind of sense; he knows the curse of his bloodline. They often fall in love instantly and irrevocably. This has always been the way of their line, and Lan Zhan is his father's son. (Perhaps he should have explained this to his nephews sooner, but how could he? Lan Zhan's father destroyed himself for love of the woman who murdered Lan Huan's. Better to leave them innocent of their fathers' crimes, and allow Lan Huan to believe himself to be Lan Zhan's father's son. They both look just like their mother, in any case.)

For all that it pains him to think of his teenage nephew being courted by one whose soul is older than Lan Qiren's own, he cannot deny that Lan Zhan would have been miserable, even if Wei Wuxian's tale suggests that his nephew was, at least, a more honourable man than his father.

Not that that would a tremendous achievement, Lan Qiren thinks, with the bitterness of one who has devoted his life to cleaning up his brother's messes, but Lan Qiren knows all too well how much it hurts to fall in love with a guest disciple, only to watch them leave.

He is prevented from asking further questions by an indecorous knock at the door. Wei Wuxian looks apologetic, and goes to answer.

"Wei Wuxian," Elder Quan says, her tone indignant. "Please come at once. Hanguang-Jun is occupied, and Lan Yuan's behaviour has been most unacceptable."

He sees Wei Wuxian's eyes narrow, and suppresses a groan. The Elders at the children's hall are - not the best and brightest, to be sure, but he thought it was understood that any concerns regarding his great-nephew should be brought to him - both Lan Zhan and Wei Wuxian are deeply protective parents. It is to their credit, of course, but neither of them will respond... calmly to criticism of their son. Such things must be handled carefully.

Wei Wuxian tosses a hasty apology over his shoulder as he strides towards the children's hall, and Lan Qiren hurries to keep up. If he runs for a few steps to regain lost ground... he considers it justified. If necessary he will write a new copy of the Disciplines later.

If he is very careful and very fortunate, he can mitigate the damage of this incident. So long as it is completely resolved before his nephew hears anything about it, it might not be a complete disaster.

He raised his nephews to be righteous men.

He succeeded possibly too well with Lan Zhan.

At the children's hall, he finds a tense silence, disturbed only by A-Yi's hiccuping sobs. A-Yi is sitting on the floor; A-Yuan is kneeling beside him, his little arm around his friend, and is glaring at Elder Lu.

Lan Qiren remembers A-Zhan at this age, and his heart clenches in his chest.

Wei Wuxian surveys the room with a mild expression. "What happened?" he asks.

Elder Lu draws herself up. "This child -" she begins, but Wei Wuxian cuts her off.

"Quiet," he snaps. "I wasn't asking you." He kneels by the boys. "A-Yuan?"

"Elder made A-Yi cry," A-Yuan growls. "Elder was mean. A-Yuan was fixing. Elder shouted. Shouting is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses."

"Well that's not good," Wei Wuxian says. "Don't worry, boys, I'll take care of this." His smile is warm, but it falls away from his face as he stands and turns to face the Elders.

"Now," he says, "you may explain why you made a child cry, and then you can tell me why you would dare to raise your voice to my son."

"We don't have to -"

"You do," Lan Qiren cuts in. "The boy is correct. Shouting is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, and upsetting the children is contrary to the goals of the children's hall." And if she doesn't explain to Wei Wuxian, he is absolutely certain that Wei Wuxian will call his husband, and Lan Qiren will consider running away and becoming a rogue cultivator in the most remote mountains he can find. (He won't. He will stay and clean up the mess. But he will want to, and he will think about it wistfully.)

As much as it pains him, he must acknowledge that Wei Wuxian is by far the more accommodating of the two of them. He is amenable to conciliatory gestures; Lan Zhan is not.

Elder Lu scowls. Elder Quan clears her throat. "A-Yi was... not succeeding at the game he was assigned," she says. "He asked A-Yuan to assist him. Elder Lu said that... A-Yi is unlikely to be able to rely upon the assistance of others on all occasions, and he must embrace the challenge of accomplishing his goals alone."

Wei Wuxian's glare remains fixed on the Elders. "A-Yuan, is that true?" he asks.

"No," A-Yuan says angrily. "She said A-Yi useless."

Lan Qiren winces. Wei Wuxian rests his hand on the flute tucked into his belt. He doesn't even seem to realise he's doing it, but Lan Qiren has heard stories of what he achieved with that instrument during the war. It is a worrying gesture.

"I see," he says, in a terrifyingly bland tone. "And then?"

Elder Lu, who is significantly less observant than Lan Qiren had realised, lifts her chin. "Then your son decided to involve himself, including playing the unauthorised instrument he brought into the hall!"

Wei Wuxian raises an eyebrow. "Instrument?"

"His idiotic bell," Elder Lu sniffs, and Lan Qiren is getting very tired of apologising to the Jiang Sect. He is going to institute remedial lessons on how not to embarrass the Lan Sect in public for everyone. Surely - surely everyone knows that all members of the Jiang Sect carry bells? To ask them to leave them behind would be as offensive as suggesting that the Lan should be seen without their ribbons!

Wei Wuxian, surprisingly, smiles widely and turns to his son. "A-Yuan!" he exlaims. "You played your bell?"

"Mn," A-Yuan says. "It make happy."

"I'm very proud of you, A-Yuan. We'll tell Father and Uncle Purple later, they'll be very proud of you too." He leans down and ruffles his son's hair, and then turns back. "A-Yuan's bell," he says pleasantly, "is the symbol and signifier of his membership of the Jiang Sect. It was a gift from his grandparents - Madam Yu and the Chief Cultivator - when he was a baby."

Elder Lu has paled, but Wei Wuxian continues. "It is also a remarkable and celebrated achievement the first time a Jiang child plays it, because the Jiang bells can only be played with the use of spiritual energy."

Of course, Lan Qiren realises. He looks at his great-nephew. Such a small child, truly?

Wei Wuxian pulls his own bell free from his belt and lets it swing by the ribbon that held it there. The bell goes back and forth, silent, and then - with no visible change - begins to chime sweetly. After a few strokes, it ceases just as suddenly, and Wei Wuxian catches it in his hand and returns it to its place.

"Now," he says, with a smile that doesn't touch his eyes. "This is a very important day. If we were at Lotus Pier, we would have a feast to celebrate. A-Yuan has reached the stage of building his golden core where he can make use of spiritual energy."

"He's far too young!" Elder Quan, apparently, can no longer contain herself. "We haven't even begun to -"

She stops, probably because Wei Wuxian's smile fell away.

"Perhaps you have not," he says, "but A-Yuan is my son, and he has learned from me, as I learned from my mother, who learned from Baoshan Sanren." He pauses for a moment. The name of the famed Immortal hangs heavy in the air. "If you wish to take issue with how A-Yuan has been taught, perhaps you should complain to my grandmaster." His look is cold. "For myself, I am not inclined to discuss it, although I suppose you could also raise your concerns with my husband."

"Do not," Lan Qiren says. He does not want to deal with his nephew in one of his moods again. To raise this subject with him would be to express simultaneous objection to his husband and his son; either would be sufficient to provoke him to his most obstinate and intransigent hostility.

"A-Yuan," Wei Wuxian says, "we're leaving. You won't be coming back to the children's hall. We're going to Jinlintai soon anyway."

A-Yuan looks stricken. "But Daddy -"

Wei Wuxian kneels again and smiles. "I'll find who A-Yi's parents are," he says reassuringly, "and ask if A-Yi can come and visit at our house, okay? And we can send letters from Jinlintai and bring him a present when we come back."

"Okay," A-Yuan says, mollified. "Daddy, can A-Yi be my friend always?"

"You'll have to ask A-Yi that," Wei Wuxian says gently.

A-Yuan turns to the other boy. "A-Yi be my friend?"

"Yes!" A-Yi says, beaming. "Friend!"

It's actually very sweet, and Lan Qiren resolutely does not think about what it's going to be like having A-Yi and Wei Wuxian's son together in his classes in years ahead, because perhaps A-Yi will be more disciplined when he's older, and perhaps his nephew's influence will win out over Wei Wuxian's on their son.

Lan Qiren has done his best to be a righteous man his whole life, and he surely has to be lucky at some point.

Wei Wuxian picks up his son and settles him on his hip, then turns to Lan Qiren. "Master, shall I assume that you will handle the question of things it is acceptable to say to young children?" he asks. His smile has teeth, but no amusement.

"I will," Lan Qiren says, glaring at Elder Lu. "I can see that standards in the children's hall have fallen to quite unacceptable levels."

"Excellent," Wei Wuxian says. "In that case, if you will excuse me, I must find A-Yi's parents and organise a party."

Lan Qiren will happily provide that information, because if Wei Wuxian is sufficiently distracted by organising a celebration, he may neglect to inform his husband and Jiang Wanyin of what has happened in the children's hall.

Fortunately for Lan Qiren, he was able to complete the restructuring of the sword training program already, and will not be required to juggle that and the overhaul of the children's hall simultaneously.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian goes first to Lan Zhan's office. His husband is doing paperwork. Wei Wuxian smiles at the sight; as always, Lan Zhan's posture is perfect, his expression composed, his calligraphy artistic.

He knocks lightly. Lan Zhan looks up, and his expression softens to see the two of them there in a way that Wei Wuxian will never be tired of.

"Wei Ying," he says. "A-Yuan."

"Are we disturbing you?" Wei Wuxian asks as he enters.

"Never," Lan Zhan says simply, and rises from his desk. He presses light kisses to Wei Wuxian's lips and A-Yuan's hair.

"A-Yuan," Wei Wuxian says, "do you want to show Father what you can do?"

"Mn!" A-Yuan smiles. He tugs his bell free from his belt and swings it emphatically, and it chimes loudly.

Lan Zhan's lips part in a silent gasp. He takes A-Yuan's hand, pressing his fingers reverently to their son's wrist.

Wei Wuxian feels his own eyes fill with tears at Lan Zhan's expression of joy, pride, and awe.

He hopes A-Yuan can see it, can recognise it; by the way the kid is beaming, Wei Wuxian suspects he can.

---

Their next stop is A-Yuan's uncles and aunt. Lan Zhan accompanies them, now carrying A-Yuan; he is taking the rest of the day off to be with his family on this momentous occasion. He's smiling, small but visible even to strangers. A-Yuan keeps looking up at him in apparent amazement.

At the house, Wen Qing appears to be collating, filing, and packing a truly prodigious collection of notes and copied texts from her work in the library these many months. Xichen and Jiang Cheng appear to be helping, carefully sorting pieces and bundles of paper. Both of them keep going back to several sheets of paper stuck to the wall with some kind of chart and instructions written on them.

He can see, because this system appears to have overflowed out into the courtyard in front of their house, where entire rows of labelled boxes have been set out.

Wen Qing is in the courtyard when they arrive. "Do not touch anything," she says, as soon as she sees them. "If you get these out of order, it will take me weeks to fix it when we get home."

Home, she said. He likes that.

"We will be careful," he promises, and means it. "We have news."

Jiang Cheng comes out of the house. "Do I need my sword for this news?" he asks suspicously.

"No!" Wei Wuxian grins. "Lan Huan, you'll want to see this too."

Xichen emerges, with his customary pleasant smile.

"Go on, A-Yuan," Wei Wuxian says. "This is the last time, I promise." The kid is probably getting tired, and borrowed spiritual energy is never quite as good as your own.

A-Yuan nods, and rings his bell.

Xichen looks politely confused; Wen Qing, who has a bell of her own, looks surprised and pleased, and Jiang Cheng looks positively delighted.

"Bell!" he exclaims. He does a little happy bounce on his toes, like he can't contain his joy. "That's - you - my nephew!" He smiles, wide and open, and Wei Wuxian is struggling not to cry, now, because Jiang Cheng's happiness is real, and his pride is so evident, and just - it's Jiang Cheng, and he's happy, and he's coming over to nudge Wei Wuxian like he always used to when they were kids and Jiang Cheng didn't know how to say he was happy Wei Wuxian was there.

"Wei Ying?" Apparently it shows, and now Lan Zhan is worried, he's ruining the moment.

"It's okay, Lan Zhan," he says. "I'm just..."

Jiang Cheng looks at him, and Wei Wuxian thinks perhaps that's understanding in his eyes, because Jiang Cheng throws an arm around him and pulls him off-balance into a not-quite-hug, and he can't help but laugh.

"It's a big day," Jiang Cheng says expansively. "None of you grew up Jiang, so you might not get that it's a really big day. If we were at Lotus Pier there'd be a huge feast." He grins. "Instead we'll have a late huge feast. Probably two! Auntie Yanli will want to be there for one, so we'll have one at Jinlintai, and then we'll have another one at Lotus Pier so the rest of the sect can be there."

"Feasts?" A-Yuan asks, eyes wide.

"Feasts!" Jiang Cheng says. "Nainai and Yeye are going to be very very proud of you, A-Yuan. Ringing your bell means you're forming your golden core -" Xichen's expression clears of confusion, and he looks impressed - "and you're on the way to being a strong, impressive Jiang cultivator. I remember the first day I did it. Your yeye was very proud of me, he picked me up and gave me a big hug..."

Wei Wuxian has never thought of Jiang Cheng as a storyteller. He's always seemed to prefer to let Wei Wuxian or shijie do the talking. But here and now, only occasionally awkward, he recounts the story, only occasionally fumbling, with half an eye on Wei Wuxian, padding it out until he can marshal his feelings again.

It's one of the sweetest things Jiang Cheng has ever done, he thinks, because he doesn't want to ruin this day because of his stupid emotions.

When the story is done and Wei Wuxian is back to himself, an agreement is reached that Lan Zhan will help their brothers finish helping Wen Qing sort her papers enough to put them away for the day, and Wei Wuxian and A-Yuan will stay out of range and not disturb them at all.

After that, they shall start preparing a small, Lan-appropriate feast for the six of them and Lan Qiren, because this day is still one to celebrate with family.

Wei Wuxian really can't stop smiling again.

---

If Jiang Cheng had had any lingering doubts about his mother's explanation of Wei Wuxian's reasons for gambling his life to return to its beginning, they have surely been dispelled, he thinks.

He was, of course, sincerely overjoyed about A-Yuan's achievement - his nephew is already such a promising cultivator, and so young! He is retroactively annoyed that his parents didn't formally adopt Wei Wuxian and give him the name of Jiang Wuxian, because his amazing, wonderful, perfect nephew might not then have been named Lan.

And Wei Wuxian had looked at him, at his joy, and seemed to be completely undone by it, overcome.

He really threw away his entire future, came back to live through his whole life again just because he couldn't stand it if Jiang Cheng was miserable.

Wei Wuxian isn't at his side all the time any more, and won't ever be again; they're both married now, and Wei Wuxian is a father. They have families and responsibilities that will, he suspects, only pull them apart more as time goes on.

But Wei Wuxian loves him.

Wei Wuxian still loved him, even when he thought that Jiang Cheng had hated him for decades.

No matter what happens, it's clear, Wei Wuxian will always love Jiang Cheng, because Jiang Cheng will never give Wei Wuxian as much reason to stop as he did then, and Wei Wuxian didn't stop.

Jiang Cheng smiles through days of sorting through paper and packing it into boxes, and packing the carefully labelled boxes into Qiankun bags. Jiang Cheng smiles as they set out for Jinlintai.

For most of his childhood, Wei Wuxian was the rock to which Jiang Cheng's boat was tied.

And then they went to Gusu, and Wei Wuxian found Wangji, and since then Jiang Cheng has been unmoored and trying desperately to hide it, because it seemed all too clear that Wei Wuxian was not his to keep, not really, and in the years since, they've drifted together and apart with the currents of events.

After the last few turbulent weeks, he feels steady again. Centred.

Wei Wuxian will always love him.

They will have their own families, and their responsibilities and obligations will pull them apart again and again, no doubt.

But they will always meet again. Wei Wuxian will love others, and it doesn't matter any more, because he will always love Jiang Cheng.

Jiang Cheng has no need to begrudge sharing Wei Wuxian's love because he, himself, has an endless supply of it.

When A-Yuan is of age, Jiang Cheng is going to make sure to see to the forging of his spiritual sword personally. His nephew, Jiang Cheng has decided, shall have a blade as fine as Sandu, as beautiful and as strong and as perfectly, obviously Jiang.

Lan Yuan will be a Lan, and he will, no doubt, be a great and righteous man.

But he will also be Jiang, the son of two families, the living embodiment of alliance between their two great sects, and everyone who sees his sword will know it. They will know that if they hurt him, they will face the wrath of Sandu Shengshou.

The idea feels good. It feels right.

He hopes that Jin Zixun's idiot minions have told their story to everyone they meet, because Wei Wuxian already has a sword, and would probably object to wearing a sign around his neck that says if you touch me my brother will end you.

Jiang Cheng still might suggest it.

He's feeling good.

---

Wei Wuxian can, just barely, accept that it's too soon after he was quite severely injured for him to fly, even from Gusu to Jinlintai. He still aches unless he uses spiritual energy to overcome it, he should probably still be conserving his strength.

He'd have been happy to walk, or ride a donkey.

But apparently if you are travelling with a sect leader, and two sect heirs, and a sect leader's sister, and also the son of a sect heir, and you are on your way to visit a sect leader, you are supposed to arrive in a bit more style than that.

The stables of the Cloud Recesses are technically outside them. They walk that far, to where a carriage has been prepared for Wen Qing and A-Yuan. It's visibly Lan; tall and elegant, beautiful and tastefully carved, with horses already in the traces. More horses are saddled and ready. Some juniors are waiting for them. Since their stay is expected to be at least a number of weeks, the juniors are coming to bring the horses and carriage back to Gusu.

"Which one's mine?" he asks, surveying the horses. They're good animals; the standards of the Lan are high in everything.

Wen Qing gives him a look. "None of them," she says in a cool tone. "You're riding in the carriage."

He opens his mouth to object.

Her eyes narrow.

"A-Yuan, pick some toys out of your bag to have with you in the carriage," he says. "We're going to be riding inside to to see Auntie and Nainai in Jinlintai."

Wen Qing smiles, satisfied.

Lan Zhan drives the carriage. Xichen and Jiang Cheng ride to either side, and the juniors follow behind.

By sword, the journey would take a few hours.

By carriage, it takes almost a week.

Wei Wuxian is just never going to get hurt again, it is the most boring thing.

He says so two days into the journey. Wen Qing smiles at him and simply says, "Good."

On the fourth night, they stop at an inn in a small town that he feels strongly is also boring.

"Daddy, will there be food?" A-Yuan asks as Wei Wuxian lifts him carefully down from the carriage.

"Of course," he says. "Are you hungry?"

"Yes, hungry," A-Yuan replies, in a sad plaintive tone, and for a moment Wei Wuxian feels dizzy. He sees Yiling, not a perfectly pleasant border town between Gusu and Lanling, and when he looks at his son he is momentarily confused by his neat, pale blue clothes with the violet sash; he expects mud-stained rags.

He reorients himself by force of will, and smiles. "Well then, we shall buy A-Yuan lots of food," he says firmly, because he is here, and now, and his money pouch is full, and his son will not go hungry.

Xichen is talking to the innkeeper about their rooms, so Wei Wuxian calls over a waiter and orders food - probably more than they need, so he makes sure to request that some of the dishes be entirely unspiced, explaining: "My husband is quite intolerant of spice, you understand."

The waiter smiles and nods.

By the time he comes back, Jiang Cheng has finished settling his horse, and come inside. He comes over to where Wei Wuxian is sitting with A-Yuan.

"Wangji and Wen Qing are still messing with the luggage," he says cheerfully. "Apparently this morning the juniors packed the carriage, and they've somehow buried Wen Qing's things under the gifts for Zixuan, and they haven't found A-Yuan's bags at all, but I am told that I am surplus to requirements. Wen Qing is glaring at the boys and Wangji looks completely calm and yet somehow he is radiating forthcoming disciplinary action. It's hilarious. I think at least two of them are going to cry."

Wei Wuxian grins. The issue will undoubtedly be resolved extremely quickly.

The waiter returns with a loaded tray, and sets out the dishes efficiently; he puts the plain-looking ones in front of Jiang Cheng with a pleasant smile. "The young master ordered these particularly," he says. "You are his husband, I assume?"

To Wei Wuxian's surprise, Jiang Cheng doesn't get angry at this idea. He laughs, quite pleasantly. "No, no, his husband's outside, he'll be in shortly," Jiang Cheng says cheerfully. "I'm his brother."

Wei Wuxian, who was in the process of filling a bowl for A-Yuan, drops his chopsticks. Jiang Cheng notices, but simply gives him one of the warmest smiles Wei Wuxian has seen including the time Jiang Cheng found him and got him back to shijie after he'd been missing for three months and picks them up to load food into his nephew's bowl himself.

---

When they arrive at Jinlintai, Wei Wuxian observes that Zixuan looks mildly tense. The young sect leader has come to greet them at the gates, Jin Guangyao at his side, and moves through the customary pleasantries with just short of unseemly haste; once done, he turns immediately to Wei Wuxian.

"Wuxian," he says, with a note of entreaty in his voice. "Please come and see my wife. She has refrained from coming all the way to the gates to wait for you only on my assurances that I will do everything in my power to persuade you to go to her at the absolute earliest moment. Name your price."

He looks slightly wild-eyed. Wei Wuxian blinks, and smiles. "No price, of course. Still your old rooms, or did you move?"

"We moved," Zixuan says. "This way."

He sets off at a pace just short of a run. Wen Qing glances at Jiang Cheng, who grabs Wei Wuxian's collar before he can follow.

"Walk," she says. "I will also accompany you."

Zixuan frets adorably the whole way up Jinlintai; Wei Wuxian is honestly touched. Clearly, his shijie has been very worried indeed.

They reach Zixuan's new chambers - the Sect Leader's pavilion, newly refurbished - and Zixuan barely even looks inside before ushering Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing in. Lan Zhan, Xichen, Jiang Cheng and A-Yuan wait outside.

"A-Li, he's here, I brought him," he announces.

"A-Xian!" His shijie stands to greet him with less than her usual grace. She is extremely pregnant. Zixuan reaches towards her as if to try and stop her, and Wen Qing rolls her eyes.

"I told you it's important for her to continue to move around before the birth, Zixuan," she says. "Calm down."

Wei Wuxian ignores the exchange. He is crossing the room to greet his shijie and take her hands, and trying very hard not to cry, because she's here, and she's beautiful, and she's crying, even though she's smiling.

"A-Xian, I've been so worried," she says. "How are you feeling? Is it still painful? Tell me the truth," she adds, in a warning tone.

He sighs, because he was absolutely going to lie to her. "It still aches, especially in the mornings," he admits. "It was pretty bad. But it's definitely getting better, I promise."

"Oh, A-Xian." She cups his cheek. "Zixuan was so upset when he heard about it. He was ready to go and kill that one himself until we heard that A-Cheng and Wangji already did."

Shijie makes that one sound like a vile curse.

"Very thoroughly, as I understand it," Wei Wuxian says, with a weak smile.

"Good," she says firmly. "Come, sit. Zixuan, I am well enough for guests. I'm sure my other brother, Wangji, and my nephew came too." She resumes her seat.

"Also Lan Xichen, it's a crowd," Zixuan grumbles, but he goes to the door.

The others come in, and all greet shijie with varying levels of warmth. A-Yuan bounds to her side and accepts a kiss with a wide smile. He leans against the side of her knees, gazing up at her, and Wei Wuxian would laugh at his expression of utterly rapt adoration if he didn't have a strong suspicion of where his son gets it from. Jiang Cheng kneels in front of her, eyes bright, and murmurs something soft and fond. Xichen is graciously polite, and Lan Zhan...

Wei Wuxian will admit to surprise.

Lan Zhan also kneels, and takes her hands. "It is good to see you well," he says, in that gentled tone that is loving sincerity, on Lan Zhan. "Wei Ying has missed you." He hesitates only a moment. "As have I."

"I missed all three of my brothers," shijie says.

He knew they spent time together, in the years at Lotus Pier, but he hadn't realised they were genuinely close. He should have known that shijie would be perceptive enough to understand Lan Zhan, to see how sweet and warm he really is, but it was a dangerous thing to know, clearly, because his heart is about ready to burst with love.

Shijie glances around the room, smiling warmly.

"Zixuan," she says sweetly, "would you go and make sure that all of their things are being brought up? And perhaps arrange for some refreshments. It's a long journey, and I know you didn't give them a moment before you brought them here to see me. I am very grateful, but we must be good hosts."

"A-Yao will -" he starts to say, and something in her expression becomes fixed. "- undoubtedly be very busy with all the other work he does for me," he finishes smoothly. "I'll just go do that."

He leaves the room, and shijie looks at Jiang Cheng. "A-Cheng," she says, in a pleasantly bland tone that Wei Wuxian is extremely glad is not directed at him, "do you have something to tell me?"

Wei Wuxian loves Jiang Cheng with all his heart. Jiang Cheng is his brother, his friend, his oldest companion. He is brave, and skilled, and loyal, he is very responsible and very talented, and he has done great things in each of Wei Wuxian's lives.

But sometimes he's not very quick on the uptake.

"Nothing I can think of," Jiang Cheng says extremely unconvincingly. Wei Wuxian just feels bad for him. That wouldn't even fool Jiang Fengmian, let alone shijie.

"A-Cheng." Her tone is still pleasant, but she is no longer smiling.

Jiang Cheng's look of sudden terror suggests he has just realised he is in so very much trouble.

"I. Uh." He is going slightly red. Xichen's expression has hit that exact level of blank geniality that suggests he is losing his mind. Wen Qing's expression has gone completely impassive, and she has her hands clasped behind her back.

Shijie sighs. "A-Cheng. You're wearing a Lan ribbon on your wrist. You know that I was at A-Xian's wedding too, don't you?"

Jiang Cheng stares, wide-eyed, but doesn't speak.

And then shijie's lips twitch, just for a moment. She presses them together, but they're still trembling. Her gaze flicks, just for a moment, to the side - to Wen Qing, Wei Wuxian realises, whose own eyes are getting very bright.

"What the -" Wei Wuxian catches himself. "What a surprise. You knew?"

Shijie loses it. Suddenly she's laughing, bright and joyful, and Wei Wuxian realises that Wen Qing's shoulders are shaking too.

"Wen Qing has been visiting here regularly," Lan Zhan says quietly. "Including one visit since you gave Brother their ribbons."

"Boys," shijie says, with fond exasperation. She's dabbing tears away. "A-Yuan, promise me when you grow up you'll try to stay as clever as you are."

"Promise!" A-Yuan says cheerfully.

She looks back at Jiang Cheng. "I thought perhaps I hadn't received a letter because you wanted to tell me when you saw me," she says pleasantly. "Apparently not."

Xichen bows. "It is undoubtedly my fault," he says. "Please forgive this unworthy one for leading A-Cheng astray."

Shijie smiles. "I can't see how it would be, but it's very sweet of you to try."

Jiang Cheng sighs, and bows his head. "Sorry, A-Jie," he says.

Wei Wuxian has an idea. "Shijie?" he says.

He gets her warmest smile, still, because he is not in trouble, and it warms his heart. "Yes, A-Xian?"

He lowers his voice. "On the way here, a waiter at an inn thought Jiang Cheng was my husband," he tells her. "Jiang Cheng said no, he's my brother."

She gasps softly. "He did?"

"Mmhm." He nods.

Shijie has tears again, but she's smiling radiantly. "That's wonderful," she says, and looks at Jiang Cheng. "A-Cheng is forgiven."

Jiang Cheng looks visibly relieved, and meets Wei Wuxian's eyes. Thank you.

Wei Wuxian grins back. You're welcome, brother.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng is in slight disbelief that it didn't occur to him to tell his sister about Lan Huan. He'd probably be in even more trouble if Wen Qing hadn't already talked to her about it - she'd probably have been sad that it was kept from her rather than just disappointed he didn't tell her himself.

Wei Wuxian saved him, because A-Jie is always happy when they get along. (That will only work once, but he doubts he'll ever be in quite that much trouble again.)

It prompts a serious discussion; his sister sends a message butterfly to her husband to tell him to give them more time.

"Wen Qionglin will be visiting in two days," she says, and smiles. "He comes regularly to see Qin Su. I think he's only been waiting on the chance to talk to Wen Qing before he proposes a wedding date."

Wen Qing's expression goes blank for long moments, and then she exhales slowly. "Qin Su is..." She hesitates.

A-Jie's expression is gentle. "She is very kind, and she adores him," she says. "She will never intentionally hurt him."

Wen Qing nods slowly. "All right, then." She closes her eyes for a long moment, and then smiles, but it is tinged with sadness. "All right."

Jiang Cheng isn't sure what to say, but fortunately, his sister is here.

"I know how you feel," she says softly. "It's always so difficult to know that others can be trusted with something so precious as little brothers. I promise you, I would be no more careless with yours than I have been with my own."

Wen Qing nods, and her smile becomes wry. "Wangji makes sense, but you let A-Cheng marry me."

"And I have no regrets," A-Jie says equably. "A-Cheng loves you very much." She glances at Jiang Cheng, who knows that's his cue.

"Yes," he says. "I do." It's easier than he expected, even in front of Wei Wuxian and Wangji; he does love her, completely, and he is not ashamed of it. (Besides, Wei Wuxian and Wangji are utterly shameless, they're in no position to judge him.)

"And if you are both in agreement about Zewu-Jun, I will of course not stand in your way," A-Jie says, and he's glad of that; he doesn't know what he would do if they didn't have his sister's blessing. "But I will have... limited opportunity to be there in the near future."

"We'll have to do something about that," Jiang Cheng says, glancing at Wen Qing and Lan Huan.

"Shijie, is that everything you needed your husband away for?" Wei Wuxian asks. "Because there's another thing, but he can be here, and Madam Yu will be livid if she isn't."

"That's all, I think," A-Jie says. "Is this a good or bad another thing?"

"Oh, it's good," Wei Wuxian says, tossing butterflies into the air.

Zixuan returns very quickly, as if, perhaps, he had finished what he was sent to do and had been loitering just out of earshot until he was permitted to return. Jiang Cheng’s mother arrives not long afterwards.

There is a further delay for greetings; her children, her sons-in-law and daughter-in-law, her grandson, and the leader of a closely allied sect are all in the room, after all.

Finally: "As delighted as I am to see you all," she says, "I suspect I was not summoned solely because you all yearned for my company."

Wei Wuxian smiles. "No. It's for this. A-Yuan? You can show Nainai and Auntie and Uncle Gold now."

"Mn." A-Yuan pulls out his bell and rings it emphatically. "Bell!" he declares.

A-Jie gasps, and gets joyfully teary. Jiang Cheng looks at his mother. She looks overcome.

"Wei Ying," she says, her voice barely more than a whisper. "Wei Ying, how wonderful." She smiles more brightly than he has ever seen her smile in his life.

A-Jie turns to her husband, who is looking mildly perplexed. "Please order a banquet prepared," she says sweetly. "My nephew has formed his golden core." She's smiling joyously, and he looks a little dazed.

Understandable.

"Of course, dear," he says, and then seems to actually process what she said. "Wait, seriously?"

She nods.

"Wow. Okay. Yes. Banquet, definitely." He nods. "I'll go make the arrangements." He looks at A-Yuan. "Most commendable," he adds stiffly, and leaves.

Wei Wuxian tilts his head.

"Shijie," he says, "is that his talking-to-children voice?"

"Yes," she says, with a light laugh. "I'm hoping he'll get better with practice."

---

A few days later, they gather in the lotus garden Zixuan planted for A-Jie, because it's beautiful and it's very private.

They are all dressed well, but not quite well enough to draw suspicion about their unconventional activities. They're each accompanied by their siblings. (Wen Qionglin had been pleased to learn that his sister was loved; so long as Jiang Cheng has no problem with his sister having another man, Wen Qionglin has no problem.)

They are also accompanied by Jiang Cheng's mother. (And his nephew, but A-Yuan is missing his nap for this; he is drowsy in Wangji's arms.) His sister had reminded him that their mother was present at Jinlintai, and would be furious if she found out about this later and hadn't been told. He had accepted her offer to tell her on his behalf with relief; A-Jie is pregnant. His mother can't be too harsh with her.

To his surprise, his mother actually seems quite pleased by the whole thing.

It is simple, and quiet, and purely symbolic, because this marriage will be secret, hidden from the eyes of the world.

It's still overwhelming, because it means something to them; he feels his heart is overfull when he looks at both his wife and his husband, because this, he thinks, means more than his first wedding to Wen Qing. He barely knew her, then. He had expected they would live pleasantly separate lives in a manner of mutual respect.

He never imagined he would grow to love her as deeply and fiercely as he does.

They bow, and bow, and bow, and Jiang Cheng is not the only one crying as he gives Lan Huan the bell his mother gives to him.

Wangji stands quietly, and his expression seems impassive, but when it is complete, he bows to Jiang Cheng and calls him Second Brother; he bows to Wen Qing, and calls her sister-in-law. He has had the right to call Jiang Cheng his second brother since he and Lan Huan became sworn brothers in the Cloud Recesses, or he could have called him Fourth Brother since the end of the Sunshot Campaign. Jiang Cheng probably wouldn't mind if he called him Jiang Cheng.

He has only ever called him Jiang Wanyin.

Afterwards, his mother smiles at him. "You have done well, A-Cheng," she tells him softly. "A mother - even one such as I - hopes that when her children are grown, they will be loved."

Jiang Cheng can feel himself blushing, and ducks his head. "I am," he says.

"Yes," she says. "You are."

And then, to his astonishment, she hugs him.

She is small in his arms; he's always surprised to be bigger then she is. The sensation is unfamiliar, still, because he only remembers her hugging him once before, and briefly, and she was upset at the time. Her embrace was rough, and she was shaking. Today she is gentler, and when she pulls back, she smiles at him, and there is only warmth in it.

Later, at the small, private banquet Zixuan has arranged, his mother looks around the table and smiles smugly.

"You must all come to the Discussion Conference at Lotus Pier," she says. "I will have the five top-ranked men of your generation at my table."

Wei Wuxian laughs. "I knew it," he says, and smiles at her.

Jiang Cheng is not sure what to make of the way she smiles back, because he remembers the two of them smirking in Cloud Recesses, and he really does not know that the world will be safe if the two of them have somehow bonded.

---

In the weeks that follow, Wen Qing visits his sister daily. After a couple of weeks of this, Jiang Cheng asks her about it, but she assures him - while rolling her eyes - that Yanli is fine, that everything is going very well indeed, and Wen Qing is visiting because they are each other's only sisters and because otherwise one of them will kill a man; whether it will be Zixuan, Wuxian, or A-Cheng himself is, she assures him, still entirely to be decided, and they may in fact settle on all three.

Yu Ziyuan did not raise her son to be an idiot; he bites back the but are you sure she's all right, should we do anything that was on his lips, fetches his brother and brother-in-law, and declares they're going to town to toast his nephew's impending arrival.

They could drink in Jinlintai, but Jiang Cheng has a strong suspicion that it would be safer to take some time to be entirely out of reach of his wife and sister. Wen Qing has a spare husband now. If he keeps fretting anywhere she can see him, she may decide that one was sufficient before and will be again.

Lan Huan and Wangji accompany them; they don't drink, but Wangji is unwilling to trust Wei Wuxian's safety to Zixuan's guards, and Lan Huan says with a gentle smile that he enjoys the company. They invite Jin Guangyao, too, who seems delighted to be asked and sets his work aside to come along. (A-Yuan is with his grandmother, who is taking tea with the other matrons of Jinlintai. A-Yuan has been reintroduced to Jin Xuanyu; the older boy is gentle with his young cousin, and they seem to be becoming friends.)

They take over Lanling's finest inn, order Lanling's strongest alcohol, and toast to the health of the forthcoming Jin Sect heir and that of his mother.

A few jars in, Jin Guangyao shyly announces that his wife is also with child, and they toast the health of Jin Guangyao's child and that of his mother just as emphatically.

They toast a lot of things.

By late afternoon, Jiang Cheng's companions - the Lan brothers, of course, excluded - are quite drunk. Zixuan and Jin Guangyao are, as far as he can tell, jointly endeavouring to compose a poem in celebration of the perfection of their wives and the joys of fatherhood, smiling widely at each other and celebrating each completed line with another drink.

Wei Wuxian is quiet, watching the others with an expression Jiang Cheng can't quite identify, but as usual he's draped shamelessly over his husband.

"Hey, Lan Huan," Jiang Cheng says. He likes that he gets to call him that now, and says it again, just to enjoy saying it. "Lan Huan, Lan Huan, Lan Huan." It's nice. He leans against his husband's shoulder - well, he means to, he sort of misjudges and slips and it's more his chest than his shoulder - and smiles at him. "Lan Huan," he says sincerely, "I like you so much."

He looks around at a thumping sound. Wei Wuxian is pounding his fist on the table. For a second Jiang Cheng thinks he might be crying, but no, he's laughing.

Wangji must have said something, probably.

Wei Wuxian has no sense of restraint in public places.

---

Lan Wangji was aware of the change in Brother's relationship with Jiang Wanyin, his Second Brother. He attended their wedding, after all.

However, he also attended Jiang Wanyin's wedding to Wen Qing, and he has not seen Jiang Wanyin drape himself over her in such a fashion. (He will allow that Wen Qing does not seem like she would welcome such a gesture.)

Wei Ying is quite overcome at the sight. Lan Wangji can understand the source of his amusement - Second Brother has frequently registered vociferous objections to Wei Ying behaving in a similar manner towards Lan Wangji himself, after all - but Lan Wangji is distracted by his concern for his brother.

Brother has frozen in place. Lan Wangji understands. He is sympathetic. But they are in a public place; it is a dilemma.

He reaches out, fingers glowing, and touches his brother's forehead. (Not on the ribbon. Siblings are neither parents nor children.) He has used this technique very rarely, but it is useful.

Brother, he sends, forming the thought with care. They do this. It is probably normal husband behaviour among the Jiang Sect. Wei Ying does it too.

There is no response. His brother has not moved. He has not blinked. Lan Wangji is, fortunately, reasonably confident that he is still breathing.

It becomes less disconcerting when you are accustomed to it, he tries. Brother?

---

Eventually Brother regains something of his composure. He curls an arm around Second Brother with a smile, and says, "I like you too, A-Cheng."

Second Brother smiles back at him. They remain in that pose for a remarkably long time.

It is almost time for the evening meal, and Lan Wangji says as much.

"We don't need food," Jin Zixuan proclaims. "We're going to be fathers! We need more wine!"

Lan Wangji is already a father. He did not require alcohol to become one, but he supposes it is not impossible that it is different if wives are involved. Lan Wangji has been fortunate, and has not been called upon to engage in sexual activity with women; others are less fortunate.

He has heard that people use alcohol to soften the burden of unwelcome experiences. Sexual activity with women would qualify, of course, but he presumes that these obligations are in the past. Perhaps the memory is troublesome.

Lan Wangji is sympathetic, and calls a waiter.

"No, no," Wei Ying says. "We have to make them eat, or they will be far too miserable later." He orders an abundance of food. He also orders tea and water. "All the food must be eaten before there will be any more wine," he declares. "I have fatherhood seniority over all of you, and you must do as I say."

This is fair. Lan Wangji was not aware that they were fathers until Wei Ying told him. Brother and Second Brother are not fathers at all. Jin Guangyao's child is older than A-Yuan, but Jin Guangyao has not been his father for as long.

"But Senior Father," Jin Zixuan protests. "I'm going to have a son. I need more wine!"

That does not make sense. Lan Wangji has a son. He has yet to need wine.

"After food. Listen to your shixiong," Wei Ying says sternly.

"Not my shixiong," Second Brother declares loudly. "My brother." He struggles upright. "He - he - he is the best brother," he says with a slightly aggressive air, and then hesitates. "Except yours," he tells Lan Wangji. "Yours is good too." He turns back to Brother and smiles some more.

Lan Wangji is beginning to suspect that the later part of the evening will not be wholly enjoyable. Their companions are becoming immoderate in their behaviour.

---

There is food, and then, as Wei Ying promised them, there is more wine.

They have been drinking since midday; it is still quite early in the evening when Jin Guangyao falls asleep face-down on the table.

He is a small man, with cultivation that is not the strongest, and he has consumed a great deal of alcohol. It is not unexpected.

"I think that's our sign that it's time to head back," Wei Ying says, and stands. He is still quite steady on his feet.

Second Brother, when he tries to stand, is not.

"Lan Huan, take Jiang Cheng," Wei Ying instructs. He is pulling Jin Zixuan to his feet. Jin Zixuan sways, but does not protest, except to insist that they must collect the poem he has been writing with Jin Guangyao. "Lan Zhan, please bring the little uncle."

Lan Wangji takes the pages and tucks them in his sleeve to return to them later, and then picks up Jin Guangyao. He is not very heavy. It is not an undue burden to carry him to Jinlintai. It is possibly a less difficult task than Wei Ying's, as Jin Zixuan is unable to walk reliably in a particular direction.

Wei Ying perseveres, and they make their way up the tower. Brother turns aside with Second Brother towards their own rooms; Wei Wuxian pulls Jin Zixuan towards the section set aside for the women of Jin Zixuan's family. (Other than his wife, of course, who lives with him, which is understandable. If Lan Wangji had been required to marry a woman, he thinks a woman like his husband's shijie would have been tolerable. She is very kind, and her company is restful.)

They reach the chambers of Madam Jin, and Wei Ying knocks. The door is opened by a maid. Her eyes go wide, and she shuts it again.

Moments later, it opens to reveal Madam Jin. Madam Yu is standing with her. She raises an eyebrow; Madam Jin sighs.

"Bring him in," she says. Wei Wuxian all but carries Jin Zixuan into the room; the Jin Sect Leader's steps have been dragging, and he seems near to unconsciousness himself. Wei Ying lets him fall onto a daybed there.

Lan Wangji, waiting at the door, can see several other women inside. One of them, an older woman, sees him and looks shocked. "Is that my son?" she asks.

He hesitates. Jin Guangyao's mother is Madam Meng, but Lan Wangji has not met her. "If you are Madam Meng, then this is your son," he says carefully. "Otherwise, it is not."

She smiles and rises. "I am Madam Meng," she says.

"Bring him in too," Madam Jin orders. "We can watch over them both here." She glances at a maid. "Please go tell Mo Fan that her husband is here. He is drunk and in the care of his mother."

The maid nods and hurries away. Lan Wangji, as instructed, brings Jin Guangyao inside; in accordance with Madam Jin's gestured instructions, he places him next to Jin Zixuan.

Madam Meng looks them over. "I have some experience with drunk men," she says. "They'll be fine, but in the morning, they definitely will not think so."

"What exactly happened?" Madam Yu asks.

Wei Ying’s smile is tired and rueful. "Apparently Wen Qing and shijie are getting close to murdering us," he says. "We went to town to toast your coming grandson and stop annoying them so much."

"I see." Madam Yu looks amused. "And my son?"

"Lan Xichen is taking him home," Wei Ying assures her.

"Which will undoubtedly solve Madam Wen's irritation completely," Madam Yu says, with a light laugh. "Men. Honestly."

Wei Ying grins. "We can't all be good Lan men," he says. "My husband is dependable and helpful, and has not annoyed Wen Qing or shijie at all."

Madam Yu's smile is brighter, just for a moment. "That is true," she says. "The men of the Lan Sect of Gusu are remarkably sober and faithful."

Wei Ying nods earnestly. "Lan Zhan is a wonderful husband. He is very devoted and thoughtful. You do have to make the first move. It seems like being shy runs in his family, but they're just wonderful once you get to know them."

This conversation is confusing. Lan Wangji does not disagree with it, and he does not feel like he is being exposed; he expects that his shyness is obvious to anyone who has met him. But he does not understand why Madam Yu and Wei Ying appear to be making a point of discussing his virtues as a husband.

Madam Yu is nodding. "I have known Wangji for some years, now. He's a good boy. A credit to his sect."

"Really, if I had to live my whole life over again, I'd marry Lan Zhan again, as soon as I could," Wei Ying says earnestly. Lan Wangji blinks. Did Wei Ying not already do exactly that? "His uncle raised him well," Wei Ying adds. "Master Lan Qiren has been devoted to his duties for many years. I don't know what he'll do with himself now that his nephews are grown and he might finally have free time."

"I'm sure he'll find something," Madam Yu says. Her back to all the women in the room, she winks at Wei Ying. "Wei Ying, A-Yuan is asleep. I think perhaps it might be better if he stays here tonight. I'd hate to disturb him."

"Yes, shimu," Wei Ying says, smiling. "Come on, Lan Zhan, let's go home."

When they get back to their rooms, Wei Ying kisses him fiercely. "Thank you, Lan Zhan," he says.

"For?" He really does not understand what was happening in that conversation.

"Being you," Wei Ying says. "I love you." He nips at Lan Wangji's lower lip. "Now take me to bed. We have the night off from being responsible fathers, and I just did some extremely good work I will explain to you at a much later time. It is very cruel of me not to explain it to you now, and I think you should take your revenge."

Lan Wangji raises an eyebrow. "Wen Qing has not cleared you for vigorous activity of any kind," he says. Wei Ying pouts.

"Lan Zhan," he complains.

Lan Wangji kisses his pout away. "Perhaps I can take some very careful revenge," he suggests.

Wei Ying smiles and begins removing his clothes. "That will have to do."

---

Wen Qing is reading quietly when her husbands come home.

Lan Huan is half-carrying A-Cheng, who is - ah. Drunk. Very drunk. He beams when he sees her and says her name undoubtedly louder than he intended to.

She raises an eyebrow at Lan Huan, who is looking surprisingly happy. "Have you been drinking too?" she asks suspiciously.

"No," he says instantly. "But I enjoyed myself."

"Lan Huan," A-Cheng says. "Lan Huan Lan Huan Lan Huan."

"Yes, A-Cheng?" Lan Huan says patiently.

"Lan Huan! That's my wife," he says, pointing vaguely in Wen Qing's direction. Lan Huan nods.

"That is your wife," he says seriously.

A-Cheng nods vigorously. "Lan Huan. Lan Huan, that's your wife too," he says. "Isn't that great?"

Lan Huan chuckles. "I am very pleased, yes."

A-Cheng grins widely. "It is the best thing," he says.

Wen Qing stands and crosses to them. A-Cheng continues to smile fatuously at her as she examines him where he stands, still supported by Lan Huan.

She has to loosen his robes to touch the skin of his chest, and he giggles. "That tickles," he whispers like it's a confession. Wen Qing rolls her eyes, and sends a thread of spiritual energy into his body.

"He's not at risk of alcohol poisoning," she says, withdrawing. "So I think, tonight, he is your problem." She smiles sweetly at Lan Huan. "I'm going to bed." She does love him, so she adds: "He should drink plenty of water before he goes to sleep."

In the morning, if he is suffering, she will make restoring tea for him the moment she is certain he has suffered sufficiently.

Chapter Text

Days pass.

The autumn is drawing to a close, and the nights are getting chill.

So when a servant knocks loudly on the door of their rooms in the small hours of the morning, Jiang Cheng slips out of bed as quickly as he can without waking Lan Huan. Wen Qing is picking up the bag of supplies that has been waiting by the door since they arrived; he hastens to put a warm robe over her shoulders, because she is underdressed for the night air.

"Isn't it too soon?" he asks, worried.

"It's early, but not too early," Wen Qing tells him with a tight smile, and then she's gone.

Jiang Cheng does not return to bed.

He paces. He tidies their rooms. He boils water for tea, then doesn't make the tea.

Lan Huan emerges from their bedroom and looks around. He looks at Jiang Cheng, at Wen Qing's open bedroom door, at the place where her bag should be and is not.

"I see," he says, and then he makes breakfast, and forces Jiang Cheng to eat it. (He sets out breakfast for both of them, sits at the table, and doesn't eat, but stares patiently at Jiang Cheng until Jiang Cheng sits and eats. Then Lan Huan eats too. Jiang Cheng is starting to realise that Wei Wuxian's occasional claims that Lans are terrible bullies and just impossible sometimes may have merit.)

After breakfast, Lan Huan gently pushes him back into the bedroom. "Get dressed," he says.

Jiang Cheng has nothing better to do; he dresses. Lan Huan combs his hair and puts it up for him, and then ushers him out into the brisk morning air. Jiang Cheng doesn't actually know where they're going, and asks.

"We're going to see our brothers," Lan Huan says. "You and Wuxian can panic at each other, and I can throw our nephew at both of you, and my brother can help me keep you both from breaking anything, including yourselves."

Jiang Cheng can't really think of anything to say to that. He suddenly realises that Wei Wuxian is exactly who he wants to see right now.

At his brother's rooms, Wangji is awake and impeccably dressed and opens the door for them. A-Yuan peers at them from behind Wangji's legs.

"Uncle and Uncle be quiet," A-Yuan whispers. It's a small child's whisper; it is almost louder than his normal speaking voice. "Daddy sleeping."

"We'll be quiet," Lan Huan says as Wangji stands aside to allow them entry.

"No we won't," Jiang Cheng says. "Wei Wuxian! Get up!"

"Jiang Wanyin," Wangji almost growls. Apparently he's not Second Brother if Wangji is annoyed with him.

"Not today," Jiang Cheng says. "Wei Wuxian!" He bangs his fist on the bedroom door.

The bedroom door opens, and Wei Wuxian peers out blearily. "Jiang Cheng? What's going on?"

"Wen Qing was called earlier this morning," Jiang Cheng says, and Wei Wuxian's eyes go wide.

"Seriously?" he says. The door opens all the way. Wei Wuxian is wearing trousers, but he is barefoot and shirtless. Jiang Cheng can't stop himself from looking him over.

He's slightly thinner than Jiang Cheng remembers, but it could just be that he's lost a little bit of muscle tone in the time he's been forbidden to exert himself, or it could be that the last time Jiang Cheng saw Wei Wuxian undressed he was badly bruised and there was extensive swelling. Now the bruising is gone, and his skin has returned to its usual colour. The relief is heady.

When his eyes track back to Wei Wuxian's face, he finds a raised eyebrow and a look of faint amusement. "I'm fine, Jiang Cheng," Wei Wuxian says, as if there was the slightest possiblity that Jiang Cheng would ever trust that statement from him. Jiang Cheng glares by reflex. Wei Wuxian pokes him. "Wen Qing? Shijie? Isn't it too early?"

This is why Jiang Cheng needed Wei Wuxian. "That's what I thought, but Wen Qing says it's early but not too early. So."

"So." Wei Wuxian nods. "Wait, what's the date? Lan Zhan?"

Wangji, who is still glaring at Jiang Cheng, tells him.

"Sh- oh my." Wei Wuxian says. "It's still today." He mutters something Jiang Cheng doesn't catch. "I'm getting dressed. A-Yuan, you're going to have a cousin!" He closes the bedroom door.

A-Yuan is frowning. "Already have a cousin," he says. "A-Yu is my cousin."

Lan Huan smiles. "You are permitted to have more than one," he says gently.

A-Yuan is still frowning. "Does Father have a cousin?"

Lan Huan hesitates. "... No. Your father and I don't have any cousins."

"Does Daddy have a cousin?" The frown is, if anything, getting fiercer.

"Not that I know of," Jiang Cheng says, and now he's frowning too. Of course Wei Wuxian has no-one on his mother's side, but he's realising he knows nothing about Wei Changze; did he have a family? Wei Changze's family weren't cultivators, at all, so they would have been wrong to send Wei Wuxian to live with them, but were there people who should have been brought to Lotus Pier?

He'll have to ask his father about that.

A-Yuan is shaking his head. "Then A-Yuan not need cousins," he says firmly. "Have one. One enough. Please tell them thank you but I must decline," he says primly, and Jiang Cheng is overcome. He must have heard that phrase somewhere, but it's utterly adorable coming from his nephew.

"That's... not how it works," Lan Huan says faintly.

Wangji's expression flickers. Jiang Cheng's pretty sure he caught an eye-roll, and Wangji kneels by his son.

"Auntie Yanli is having a baby," he says. "The baby will be a little boy, like A-Yuan. Auntie Yanli's child is your cousin. You will have a cousin because Auntie Yanli is Daddy's sister."

"Oh," A-Yuan says. "Okay." He smiles. "Who is cousin's father?"

"Jin Zixuan. Your Uncle Gold."

A-Yuan nods. "And who is cousin's Daddy?"

Jiang Cheng freezes.

Wangji does not. "Your cousin has only one male parent," he says patiently. "Just like your friend A-Yi, your cousin has a mother and only one father."

A-Yuan's little lip trembles. "Cousin too?" he says sadly. "Why?"

For the first time in their acquaintance, Jiang Cheng watches Wangji retreat in abject surrender.

"They just do," Wangji says weakly. "Daddy will explain. When you're older." He pats his son's shoulder and goes to the kitchen. A-Yuan doesn't look particularly satisfied, but picks up a kongzhu from the floor; presumably it was abandoned when Jiang Cheng knocked at the door.

Jiang Cheng can't blame Wangji. He's pretty sure everyone in the room is now desperate to get out of this discussion before A-Yuan asks why he doesn't have a mother if all his cousins get one of those, and he's pretty sure that his nephew is too young for the conversation that goes your mother is dead, her spirit clung to her charred corpse just long enough to ask Daddy to adopt you, and by the way you're adopted.

Wei Wuxian emerges from the bedroom, now fully dressed. "Jiang Cheng," he says. "Jiang Cheng, I'm going to be an uncle," he says, and Jiang Cheng grins at him.

"I'm a pretty experienced uncle, I think," he says. "It's great."

Wangji sets a bowl of bright red congee on the table, and then puts a spoon beside it with a louder-than-expected clack.

"Wei Ying," he says. "Breakfast."

Jiang Cheng sees Lan Huan's head snap around. He's frowning at Wangji now.

Wei Wuxian ignores the food and raises an eyebrow at his husband. "Lan Zhan? What's wrong?"

Wangji is silent for long moments. Wei Wuxian just stares at him. "Lan Zhan."

Wangji's eyes flick, just for a moment, towards Jiang Cheng.

"Oh, for -" Wei Wuxian rolls his eyes. "Lan Zhan, I'd have been mad at Jiang Cheng if he didn't come and wake me. You're being ridiculous." He goes to the table. "Thank you for breakfast. Please stop sulking."

"Wei Ying still recovering," Wangji says. "Needs sleep." His look towards Jiang Cheng is definitely a glare.

"Lan Zhan. I am fine, and our nephew will be born today." He sighs, and looks at Lan Huan. "Can't you do something?"

Lan Huan smiles. "Historically," he says, "No."

Wei Wuxian's look towards Jiang Cheng is faintly imploring, and Jiang Cheng sighs, and levels him with a glare. You owe me for this, asshole.

Wei Wuxian grins back, and Jiang Cheng approaches Wangji and bows.

"This one regrets his foolish and thoughtless discourtesy," he says. "It will not happen again."

Because his sister's not going to be having her first child again.

"Mn," says Wangji, but he has presumably been mollified, because he stops standing stiffly behind Wei Wuxian and goes to sit with A-Yuan, who is struggling somewhat with the kongzhu.

The day passes at a crawl.

Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian swing back and forth erratically between catastrophic worrying that something has gone wrong and optimistic plans for their nephew's future: how much they'll help him train, how strong he'll be, what amazing gifts they'll give him; how he'll go to the guest lectures at both Lotus Pier and Cloud Recesses, and he'll be amazing and brilliant, better than any other young disciple who isn't A-Yuan (who is, of course, older, and therefore has a head start).

Lan Huan makes them tea, and makes them eat lunch, and otherwise occupies himself with his brother and nephew.

A-Yuan is somewhat distracting, because he is cute and delightful, but when he goes down for his afternoon nap, Jiang Cheng and Wei Wuxian may, possibly, become quite fretful indeed.

They're both pacing, following one another on a circuit around the room, when the Twin Jades of Lan both rise simultaneously from their meditative poses and assault their respective husbands.

Well, hug, but Jiang Cheng does not, at this moment, appreciate that.

His only comfort as he is manhandled to one of the long, low couches is that Wei Wuxian has been similarly betrayed.

They're both being pulled down into their husbands' laps, and both being firmly, patiently hugged. It's very calming, and Jiang Cheng does not want to be calm right now.

He shares a look with Wei Wuxian. Lans.

Wei Wuxian's expression is rueful. They're the worst.

He may be comforted, but he refuses to like it.

Finally, late in the afternoon, after approximately ten thousand years, the announcement comes that the wife of Sect Leader Jin has been delivered of a boy: Jin Ling, courtesy name Rulan.

"Rulan?" Jiang Cheng says. He glances at Lan Huan. "I like it."

---

His newborn nephew is small - so very tiny - and perfect. Jiang Cheng is permitted to meet him briefly the next day, and he can't stop smiling for hours.

All of Lanling is celebrating. Wen Qionglin has arrived for his regular visits to court Qin Su and taken time to pay his respects, and Nie Huaisang has come to deliver gifts from Nie Mingjue for the new parents, so Wei Wuxian insists that they must go into the city to enjoy the festival atmosphere.

They toast the health of Jin Rulan, but do not get as catastrophically drunk as they did before.

(Wen Qionglin doesn't get drunk at all; he has one drink, as if to show willingness to participate, and then joins the Lans in drinking only tea.)

The Wei-Lan and Jiang-Wen-Lan households have collectively agreed to remain in Jinlintai until after Jin Ling's one-month celebration; Lan Huan was oddly insistent on it. Jiang Cheng has a few official diplomatic meetings with Jin Guangyao on behalf of his father, but there aren't any real issues between the Jin and Jiang to address; still, it's sort of expected. (Jin Zixuan is taking some time off from his duties.)

Wei Wuxian is, Jiang Cheng thinks, celebrating perhaps too hard - by the time his second nephew is three weeks old, he's pretty sure it's been at least two weeks since he saw his brother without a jar of wine in his hand.

His mother has developed a tendency to frown when she looks at him, but to Jiang Cheng's surprise, she doesn't seem to actually say anything about it.

On the day of Jin Ling's one-month, Wei Wuxian presents his gift in the morning: a beautiful silver bell (of the Jiang style) with a nine-petalled lotus wrought into the waist, worked with protective charms. He congratulates the parents, and holds his nephew, and smiles.

After that, he drinks steadily for the rest of the day.

Jiang Cheng's mother finds him and his spouses. "A-Cheng, no drinking today," she says crisply. "I need you to keep an eye on Wei Ying. Make sure he - make sure he's safe, and that he doesn't hurt anyone."

Jiang Cheng doesn't entirely understand, but Lan Huan answers her. "We will, Madam Yu," he says firmly. "I thought about trying to keep him from drinking, but..."

"Yes," his mother says. "Today, it may be kinder to allow it." Her glance towards Wei Wuxian seems... sad, and worried, and makes no sense on such a joyous occasion.

Still, he has his instructions.

His mother takes Wen Qing aside and has a long, quietly intense conversation with her.

Wen Qing's expression, when she returns, is entirely unreadable. Jiang Cheng doesn't ask; if he was supposed to know, he would have been included in the conversation.

Early that evening, Jiang Cheng gets to be worried too. He stays in the vicinity of Wei Wuxian all day, and is in earshot when Wangji comes to him, A-Yuan asleep in his arms. Wei Wuxian is sitting at a table in the banquet hall, wine in front of him, with a dark expression.

"Wei Ying," he says. "We should go."

"Get lost," Wei Wuxian says, and Wangji, who is always pale, somehow becomes even paler.

Wen Qing moves very fast. "Give A-Yuan to me," she tells Wangji in a low voice. "Hurry."

Wangji does not so much comply as fail to resist when she takes the boy. He appears to be in shock.

"Wei Ying..." he says, almost inaudible.

Wei Wuxian stands and whirls angrily. "I said get lost," he snaps. His eyes cut sharply to Wen Qing. "Wen Qing, get him away from here," he adds.

Wen Qing simply nods. "A-Yuan will be safe," she says.

"Good." Wei Wuxian turns and stalks away, shoving the banquet hall doors aside. Jiang Cheng is only moments behind him, but when he emerges into the cool night air, Wei Wuxian is nowhere to be seen.

"Wei Wuxian?" he says. Louder, "Wei Wuxian!" He's looking around, around corners, down the steps, anywhere it seems like his brother might have gone. He can't find anything.

"Wei Wuxian!" he bellows.

There is no answer.

His mother emerges from the hall, followed by Lan Huan. "Damn it, A-Cheng," she says with a sigh. "I told you to watch him."

Jin Guangyao comes out just after that. "Is there a problem?" he asks carefully. "May I be of assistance in any way?"

His mother turns to Jin Guangyao and draws herself up to her full height. "Call out the guard," she says. "Call out everyone you have. Wei Wuxian must be found. Tell them that under absolutely no circumstances should they attempt to apprehend him, speak to him, or contain him, but he must be found. When he has been located, please inform me at once."

Jin Guangyao blinks, just for a moment. "Ah," he says. He looks at her, and at Jiang Cheng, at Lan Huan, and nods again, then turns and sketches a light signal in the air. It puffs up just above the rooftops, and moments later, a guard comes running.

"Is there a problem, Second Young Master Jin?"

Jin Guangyao smiles. "Not as such. Call out the guard, and all available assistance. We are searching for Young Master Wei Wuxian. He must be found, but do not attempt to speak to him, apprehend him, or hold him in any way. Keep a distance, but inform me immediately. Young Master Wei and my brother have undertaken a wager, and I am sure we all look forward to celebrating our Sect Leader's victory."

"At once!" The guard runs off.

Jin Guangyao turns back, still smiling. "If you will excuse me a moment, I will go and call others to the effort, and... assure da-ge that his wager is under way. If anyone mentions it to him, it is of course important that he be confident." He goes back inside.

Jiang Cheng stares. He obviously means it's important that Zixuan have at least some idea what they're talking about. That will do a lot to prevent any rumours getting started about why all of Jinlintai is getting turned out to search for Wei Wuxian. "That was quick thinking," he says.

"Yes," Lan Huan says, in an odd tone. "He has a... quick mind."

His mother nods. "A useful young man," she says, "so long as his talents are... appropriately directed." She turns to Jiang Cheng. "A-Cheng. I must do something I told myself I would not do, ever, even if my life depended upon it."

"What's that?" This is not a good night and he does not want to know but apparently he's going to.

His mother sighs. "This."

He feels sudden warmth and static as Zidian transforms into a serpent of purple lightning around his hand, and then leaps, arcing between them and reforming on his mother's.

"I am sorry, A-Cheng," she says quietly. "Zidian is yours now, but it has known me as its master far longer, and has not yet forgotten me. It is I who must go to Wei Ying, and if I must constrain him by force, I will, and if you are the one who finds him, it will be better if Zidian is not with you. I will return it as soon as possible."

"She's right," Lan Huan says softly. "I - we may have to explain, but..."

"Later," his mother says. "Right now? Find Wei Ying."

---

Wei Ying is not found that night.

Lan Wangji is ordered to take his son to the quarters of the Jin Sect Leader's family, where he will remain in the company of Jin Zixuan's wife and mother. He is vaguely aware that this is officially in case something untoward should happen while Jinlintai is distracted by the Sect Leader's wager with Wei Wuxian, and to prevent him from interfering, as a loving husband might.

He is acutely aware that he is actually going there because Wei Ying does not want to see him. Because Wei Ying is in trouble, and Lan Wangji cannot help him.

It is agony.

Wei Ying's shijie is speaking to her mother-in-law. He cannot focus enough to listen, but he notices dimly when Madam Jin leaves the room. His gaze is fixed on the floor.

"Wangji," Wei Ying’s shijie says. He wants to answer, but cannot overcome himself enough to do so.

He hears her sigh. "Oh, you poor thing," she says softly. "My poor A-Zhan."

My poor A-Zhan. He remembers those same words in a woman's voice - a different voice, in a different accent, but something in his soul is wrenched nonetheless. No-one has called him that since... then. He looks up, stung by it, and she smiles at him sadly.

"Did you know, the first time A-Xian told me about you was... hm. I think twelve years ago now? I was thirteen, and I thought it was terribly romantic. He was so in love with you, even then - it was obvious, even though, you understand, he really was a child then. I think being in the body of a child had an effect, you know, even though he remembered what it was like to be grown up."

Lan Wangji imagines it; that even back then, when he was a child in the Cloud Recesses, alone, expecting nothing but the same cold austerity his whole life, Wei Ying was thinking of him. He wishes perhaps that he could have known.

Wei Ying’s shijie continues. "I wanted to meet you," she says. "But I couldn't, yet. I saw you at the conferences, but I had no excuse to speak to you. Still, A-Xian told me so much about you, I think I thought of you as my third brother before we even went to Gusu, that time." Her smile brightens slightly. "And you are also a Jiang, now. You really should call me shijie too."

"Shijie," he says softly. If he is losing Wei Ying, will he still have this? Will he still have the family he has found through Wei Ying? He doesn't know how to ask. "If. If Wei Ying... does not..." He stops. The words are choking him.

"A-Xian loves you," she says. "He will return to us. Do you understand what is happening?" Her voice is gentle.

"No," he says. "I do not." He doesn't. He doesn't know what is happening and it's tearing him apart.

Shijie nods. "As I recall," she says, "in his first life... things at this time went badly. He was invited to this celebration, but A-Xian was attacked on his journey by Jin Zixun. My husband tried to intervene, and was killed." She is composed. This story is old, to her, and her husband is alive. "The sects combined. They pledged to destroy him." A note of anger, at that. "There was a confrontation. I went there to try and stop it, to save him, and I was killed. A-Xian went mad. Not long afterwards, he died." She pauses. "Come and sit by me, please."

There is a chair by hers. He goes to it unsteadily. He is becoming aware that he is shaking badly.

"Wangji," shijie says softly, "he is alive. I am alive. My husband is alive. A-Xian is going through a difficult time. His memories haunt him. He struggles with them, and sometimes he forgets that they are only memories." She takes his hands in hers. "Do you know why he told you to get lost?"

"Doesn't want." He swallows. "Me. With him."

She shakes her head. "He does," she says gently. "He does, I promise you. But a part of him believes he will be attacked by the whole world now. He wants you to leave him so that you will be safe." She squeezes his hands. Her expression is sad, fond. "You know and I know that you are only safe with him. Without him, you are hurt, even if your body is undamaged."

"Yes." Lan Wangji feels tears fall. She understands. He has not thought, before, that anyone understood how central Wei Ying is, how necessary to the very core of him.

"A-Xian is bad at love. At being loved, not at loving. But he will return to us, and I will continue to love him, and I think - I hope - so will you."

"Always," he says, and she smiles.

"Then in time, we will force him to get better at it," she tells him, the barest hint of a laugh in her voice. "And he will be very sorry for how much he made us worry, and we will be very upset, but we will forgive him, because we love him, don't we, Wangji?"

"A-Zhan," he says, swallowing. "Please."

She is not his mother, but her kindness touches the place in him that leads him still, once a month, to wake and think today, and aches again with the grief when he remembers that no... not today, nor ever any day again.

He will never again have a mother, but he can perhaps be permitted to have a sister, and that, he thinks, would be something he could cherish, too.

She smiles at him, and he feels his lips move in return, because she is truly the most beautiful woman in the world, and she is smiling at him, and he will live to see Wei Ying return to him after all.

If he did not, she would be sad, and Lan Wangji is realising that he would go to war for her happiness. It is a small thing, by comparison, to endure this pain.

Chapter Text

Late the next afternoon, Wuxian has not been found. By then A-Yuan has been placed in the the care of Jin Guangyao's wife and is playing with her son, and Wen Qing has threatened Wangji with sedation if he doesn't calm down. She wouldn't - yet - but it has prompted him to meditate, and he has, in fact, calmed himself somewhat.

A-Ning wanted to stay and help, but he was expected back at Qishan, and had made no arrangements for an extended absence; Wen Qing sent him away.

She is surprised to see his message butterfly coming towards her. Qishan is quite a distance, and he has been gone mere hours.

Sister Senior Wei is here he is acting very strange please come send help he's nice to me but he is very angry if anyone else comes near please hurry.

Wen Qing frowns, and turns to her mother-in-law. Madam Yu has remained at Jinlintai; she has not gone to search, because she insists - with Lan Huan's agreement - that as soon as he as located, she must be the one who goes to him.

"Madam Yu," she says, "A-Ning says Wuxian is at Nightless City."

Madam Yu freezes, just for a moment.

"Fuck," she says. "Come on. Hurry."

And then, in seconds, she is a shrinking dot in the sky.

Wen Qing is not carrying her sword. Her primary tool is her needles. She often leaves her sword behind, especially when she is working.

There is a clatter as Shuoyue hits the ground by her feet. Lan Huan is stepping onto it, and holds out his hand. "I'll take you," he says. "You're the only other person who might reach him."

She steps onto his sword.

---

The sight of Nightless City makes her stomach twist. She has not been back since she married; she has not missed it. She deliberately does not look in the direction of the Fire Palace, but points Lan Huan towards the Sun Palace.

"I know it," he says. His voice is warm in her ear, his arms are strong and secure around her, and she wants to go home, but she has to be here. She is needed.

They left only moments after Madam Yu did, but she appears to be very fast. She has already landed. Wen Qing can see her in the wide courtyard in front of the Sun Palace. Her vivid violet robes are distinctive. She is standing in the middle of a wide circle of onlookers, facing two men, who are standing close to one another. One is Wuxian, in Jiang colours with flashes of Lan; the other is A-Ning. (She would know A-Ning anywhere, in any clothing.)

The onlookers don't appear to be trying to intervene. They are acolytes of the remade Wen; they are either A-Ning's chosen disciples, who tend to be sweet and kind and timid, or they are doctors, who should know qi deviation when they see it. (Would-be cultivators who are too aggressive for A-Ning are encouraged to try at the Nie Sect in Qinghe; both sects are thriving.)

They can hope that the rumours from this, at least, will be limited.

They land just inside the circle, at the edges, and Lan Huan stays back as Wen Qing approaches carefully.

"- hallucinating," Wuxian is saying, a desperate tone to his voice. "Wen Ning, what do you see?"

Wuxian has his hand on A-Ning's shoulder, clutching desperately hard. He keeps turning around jerkily, trying to keep an eye on everyone around, and every time he yanks A-Ning with him. A-Ning is unresisting, even when Wuxian pulls him off balance.

"I see Madam Yu of Lotus Pier," he says earnestly. "I definitely recognise her. She is my sister's mother-in-law."

"What?" Wuxian presses his free hand to his own face, very hard. "Wen Qing married. I was there, I remember. But Wen Qing is dead. I remember that too."

"She's just over there," A-Ning says helpfully, pointing.

"Wei Ying," Madam Yu says, her voice low and intent. "I am alive. Wen Qing is alive. Zixuan is alive. Please, Wei Ying, let us take you back. Wangji and your shijie are worried." She takes a step closer, but Wuxian jerks back and away.

He stares. "Oh," he says. "This is a dream. Wen Ning is alive, and Madam Yu is being nice to me." He laughs, but it's bitter, painfully bitter.

"Wuxian," Wen Qing calls, approaching slowly, carefully. "Please."

"I miss you too," he tells her. "I wish you hadn't gone, you know. I would have fought for you. It was three days before I could move, and by then it was too late. They'd already burned you, and -"

"Wei Ying," Madam Yu says. "Stop. Please."

He looks back at Madam Yu. "You're not real," he says sadly. "You never liked me enough to worry about me."

Wen Qing sees her mother-in-law close her eyes, just for a moment, and then she straightens, and her expression becomes cold and angry. "Wei Ying, what trouble are you stirring up this time?" she snaps. "You damn little brat. I hate you! Why must you always make trouble for our sect like this?"

This time, when she steps forward, Wuxian is wide-eyed and does not move away.

He doesn't even try to avoid it when she moves her hand sharply, and Zidian flashes bright into the air; he just closes his eyes as if waiting for the pain.

Zidian lands and stays, wraps around him, crackling and flashing but apparently not hurting him at all. It slides around his arms, his whole body, binding him tightly.

When Wen Qing looks at Madam Yu, she has tears in her eyes, but she stands tall and proud as she turns away.

"It is better if he is not in Qishan," she says, voice thick with emotion. "Xichen. You are stronger. If you can carry him back, I can take Madam Wen."

"Everyone go away now," A-Ning calls to the watchers. "Everything is sorted out."

It isn't, but she's happy to leave it at that.

She and Madam Yu have developed a certain degree of trust, she thinks. Even of affection, enough that the strange intimacy of sharing a sword is not uncomfortable. Madam Yu's skill is impressive; to travel at speed, a cultivator must learn to shape the air around them or else the wind is too strong an impediment to movement, and Wen Qing can feel barely a breeze.

Madam Yu speaks. She is holding Wen Qing from behind; Wen Qing cannot see her face.

"I suspect," she says, "that you are thinking that my words were very cruel."

Wen Qing weighs her answer. "It was effective," she says carefully.

"Yes," Madam Yu says, and sighs. "It is some time to Jinlintai, yet. I would not wish to burden you with awkward intimacies. I shall not speak of my feelings." She says feelings as if the very notion is distasteful.

Wen Qing exhales. "In the house of Wen Ruohan, the only person I could trust was my brother, and I could not dare to speak openly even to him, for fear that I could be overheard," she says. "I have little experience of what it is like to have a friend or a mother, but I think that you have been both to me." Madam Yu's arms tighten, just for a moment. "If you wish to share them, your feelings would not be a burden."

"Thank you," Madam Yu says softly. She is silent for a moment, and then she speaks. "Wei Ying remembers two childhoods, as you know. I was present in both of them. I have seen his memory. I have seen myself through his eyes, and I did not enjoy that experience."

Another moment, and she continues. "I am not a good mother," she says, tone flat. "My children fear me. If Wei Ying's mother had seen what I became, how I treated him - especially the first time, in the time that exists only in his memory - she would have been - she would have -"

She stops, and takes a breath. "My life has not been what I hoped, when I was younger. I became a bitter person, and I let my bitterness rule my heart. I punished all three children for things that were beyond their control. Despite that, Wei Ying loved me, and loves me still. In this life - in which I am alive at all only because Wei Ying risked himself to ensure that this is so - he has caused me to have everything I could have dreamed of once I married Jiang Fengmian."

Wen Qing nods. She understands that. Madam Yu is the envy of many of the women of her generation; she is the wife of the Chief Cultivator, the mistress of Lotus Pier, and her children have married well.

"I do not pretend to deserve it," Madam Yu says. "I am unworthy of his gifts. But I cannot change the past. I cannot make amends for the actions of the fool I do not myself remember being. Perhaps, one day, his heart will no longer know me best as a monster, but that day is not yet here." A sound suspiciously like a sniff. "I could wish that it were otherwise, but it is not. I could wish to return through time myself, but I can not. I could wish to travel to his memories, and slap myself for my thoughtless cruelty, but I can not."

Wen Qing is familiar with regret. The past can not be changed. It can only be borne.

Unless you are Wei Wuxian, of course.

Madam Yu sighs deeply. "I know, I am certain, that I loved him in both of the lives in which he remembers me. I wish I could say that it is different now, because I loved him this time, and did not before, but I know myself better than that. He is just like his mother; I could never have failed to be charmed by him, but I am by nature too easily inclined to be cruel and spiteful. Perhaps this is the penance I deserve. To have come to know him, to know that I love him, and to have no choice but to repeat the words I wish he had never heard me say."

Wen Qing squeezes her hands. "I don't believe he would say so," she says.

"Of course not," Madam Yu replies. "That foolish boy was always kind to a fault."

---

They land in a patch of dense forest in Lanling, some way from Jinlintai, because they cannot bring Wuxian in bound by Zidian and struggling.

When Wen Qing goes to him, he stops his efforts to escape, and the litany of complaints and threats and pleading he was directing at Lan Huan stops.

"Wen Qing," he says quietly, urgently, "I need to go. They'll kill me anyway, maybe you -" His voice breaks. "Maybe you can hide. Take Wen Ning and run. Don't go to Jinlintai, they - they'll kill you, you know they will. Go to Dongying, it can't be worse than this. Please, please, just leave me and run."

Wen Qing looks away as she reaches into her sleeve, because this feels like betrayal.

Wuxian sees the needles and his struggling resumes with new intensity. "No," he says, "No, no, you'll die, don't, please -"

And then he slumps, going limp in Lan Huan's hold.

They return to Jinlintai.

They cannot avoid Wuxian being carried up the tower, or his being seen. Jin Guangyao immediately puts out the word that alas, Sect Leader Jin lost his wager with Young Master Wei. (If Wei Wuxian is the winner, he explains, then all strange behaviour will be assumed to have fallen under the requirements of a drunken bet.)

At Yanli's insistence, he is taken to rooms near the quarters of the Sect Leader. A-Yuan can stay in the home that is familiar to him in the care of Jinzhu and Yinzhu, without being exposed to... his father's illness.

The following days are difficult.

Wuxian is strapped to the bed before he is permitted to wake, bound firmly at wrists and ankles with thick, strong leather straps marked with talismans and infused with spiritual energy. The Stygian Tiger Seal is placed in Wangji's care. Suibian is taken away and clamped into place.

And then he is woken, because the only way out is through.

Wuxian cannot be left alone, but he is desperate to drive everyone away, lest proximity to him get them killed. He says cutting, hurtful things to the people he loves most in the world. He threatens them, and pleads with them. He is dangerously, terrifyingly close to qi deviation; Lan Huan plays Clarity of Mind, but it is of limited effectiveness. He is too far gone for Jiang bells to reach him.

Yanli, pale and upset, speaks to her husband.

Zixuan comes into the room, resplendent in the robes of the Jin Sect Leader, and kneels at Wuxian's bedside. Wuxian stares at him silently.

"Wuxian," he says. "You succeeded. I am alive. We are all alive. My son still has a father, and he will always know you as his uncle."

It helps, until Wuxian decides that that's a hallucination too.

"Just how bad was it, the first time?" Wen Qing asks Madam Yu quietly. They are standing in the far corner of the room from where Wuxian is, at that moment, raving at Lan Huan and A-Cheng, accusing A-Cheng of wanting him dead and Lan Huan of failing Lan Zhan, screaming variations on how could you let them do that to him? He's your brother, heedless of both of their tears or of Wangji's.

She sighs. "Very. Years of demonic cultivation without a golden core to heal the damage. He went mad even before A-Li died, and afterwards...." She shakes her head. "How close is he to dangerous levels of qi deviation?"

"Very," Wen Qing says. "His golden core is very strong."

Madam Yu nods. "This won't help, in the short term," she says, "but he will live. Xichen," she calls, "come here."

He does so. Wen Qing's heart aches at his expression; grief and remorse and shame. "Madam Yu?"

"The music Su She played at the Burial Mounds," she says. "Do you know it?"

His eyes widen. He hesitates, and then shakes his head. "I do not," he says, "but I know where the book is."

"Fetch it," Madam Yu says. "As fast as you can."

He nods slowly, and leaves the room.

By air, for a strong cultivator who is highly motivated, the journey between Jinlintai and the Cloud Recesses does not take very long at all.

Lan Huan returns hours later with a book he handles as if he finds it repellent even to touch. Madam Yu's expression is sympathetic, but her words are not.

"You know the song I mean," she says. "Learn it." She turns to Wen Qing. "If Wei Ying is truly in danger, his spiritual powers can be temporarily suppressed. It will not cause him pain or any long-term harm."

Lan Huan pulls a guqin from his qiankun sleeve and sits in the corner, looking at his book; the music he plays, softly and without spiritual energy, sounds to her like battle music.

She does not want to call upon this option at all, but later that evening, when Wuxian spits blood and she touches his wrist to find him on the verge of burning himself up from the inside, the closes her eyes and says: "Lan Huan. Play it," and he does. (He is skilled enough to direct the energy only at one person in the room; she holds Wuxian's wrist and feels the power ebb away. It's horrifying.)

In the end, it is persistent devotion that wears him down.

Yanli visits. She calms him in a way others don't, can't - he cannot bring himself to speak harshly to her, even as he begs and pleads with her to go, to stay away, to be safe.

She sits by him on the bed and strokes his hair. She feeds him soup and sings to him and calls him XianXian, and he unwinds by tiny increments. When she has to leave - appearances must be maintained, and she has a newborn son, after all - he looks lost and bereft and heartbroken.

When A-Cheng can't take it any more, he shouts back, and it seems like that, at least, reaches Wuxian in a way that nothing else A-Cheng can say ever seems to.

"Shut up," A-Cheng bellows, and Wen Qing is thankful for the silencing wards on the walls. "Shut the fuck up, you asshole, I'm not fucking leaving you! I will literally die before I leave you, you bastard, you're my best friend and my fucking brother and I will never! ever! leave you!"

Wuxian cries, then, and he still doesn't really believe it's not a hallucination, but anything that winds down his agitation to levels less likely to kill him is good.

Whenever Wuxian looks at Wen Qing, she can feel her heart breaking at the plaintive, desperate love and grief she can see. It takes her longer than she likes to find a way to respond to it; this isn't the kind of thing she has ever had reason or opportunity to learn. It takes her longer still, trial and error and painful honesty, to find the words he needs to hear, because it turns out it isn't that he needs to be told that she loves him. It isn't anything like that.

A new crack forms in the walls of his distress when she tells him, "I'm not in danger. I'm safe. I have Jiang Cheng, and he loves me. I have Lan Huan, and he loves me. The Jiang and Lan sects will go to war if anyone should threaten me, Wuxian. No-one can hurt me, not like that."

Her husbands murmur agreement, and the tension eases a little more.

But Wuxian turns on Lan Huan again, his fury returning - demanding to know how he can protect Wen Qing when he couldn't, he wouldn't even protect Lan Zhan.

Lan Huan snaps, then.

"Because I know better now!" he roars. Wen Qing has never heard him raise his voice like that. "I know I was weak, I was stupid, I failed at every fucking thing that mattered. But I learned, I'll do better, and I will kill my own sect's Elders myself before I let them do that to my brother!" He stops, breathing hard.

Wuxian is staring, wide-eyed. "I - I never heard you swear before, Zewu-Jun," he whispers.

"I like it better when you call me Lan Huan," he says.

"Come back to me," Wangji says. "Please, Wei Ying." He's said it over and over, for days now, and been met only with harsh rejection, but he hasn't given in.

"Lan Zhan," Wuxian says. "You don't understand." It's the first response that hasn't been a variation on get lost, and Wangji looks up sharply, hope bright and desperate and bleeding raw on his face.

"I understand," Wangji says urgently. "I love you. I need you. Our son needs you. Please, Wei Ying."

"They'll hurt you," Wuxian says, almost a whisper. "They'll hurt you, and they'll still kill me. You need to go find A-Yuan. Keep him safe."

"He is safe," Wangji insists. "He needs you. I need you. I love you."

"Stop saying that," Wuxian says. "It's - stop saying that."

"No," Wangji says. "I love you. Always. I love you."

"I said stop."

"I love you."

It continues for longer than Wen Qing thinks she can stand - an endless cycle of protestations, of denials, refusals, rejections, and Wangji answers every single one the same way.

Finally, Wuxian says, "Oh for - I love you too, Lan Zhan, but -"

"No buts." Wangji cuts him off. "You love me. Stop there. I love you."

Wuxian makes a movement that looks like he's trying to reach for Wangji, but is held back by the straps. Wen Qing gets her husbands' attention, and looks meaningfully towards Wuxian; they nod, and take up positions on either side of the bed. Wuxian's spiritual powers are suppressed, and have been for days; she's confident they can handle him if needed, so she goes to him and warily releases one of the wrist straps.

He immediately wraps a hand around the back of Wangji's neck and pulls him in for a kiss that looks more bruising than enjoyable, but when they part, Wangji looks desperately, painfully happy.

"I'm broken, Lan Zhan," Wuxian says softly. "This will probably happen again."

"Do not care," Wangji insists. "Will get through it again. I love you."

Wuxian looks past him, to Madam Yu.

"You're still here," he says. "This is really -"

She nods. "Wei Ying." She hesitates for a moment. "I know that I hurt you. In your first life, and in this one. I was petty and cruel and I punished you for things that were not your fault, and I was wrong." She approaches the bed, and Wangji reluctantly makes room for her, though he does not release Wuxian's hand.

Madam Yu kneels beside him. "I was a fool. I was too weak to admit that I wished you were my son. That I wanted the son of Zangse Sanren to be our son. I hurt you, and I hurt A-Cheng, and I do not ask for your forgiveness, because I do not, can not deserve it, but..." There are tears on her cheeks, but she pays them no heed as she places her hands over his. "I am sorry, Wei Ying. I will always be sorry. You deserved better from me." She glances at A-Cheng. "You both did. I am equally unworthy of the son I have and of the son I do not."

A-Cheng is silent. He looks shocked, and like he doesn't know what to say, and he's looking imploringly towards Wuxian, who glances at him and makes a face; A-Cheng makes a sound that's somewhere between a laugh and a sob, and Wuxian looks back at Madam Yu.

His nose twitches like he wants to rub it, but one hand is still strapped to the bed, and Madam Yu is holding it, and Wangji has his free hand.

"The thing is," he says quietly, in an oddly reflective tone, "I do understand." A wry smile. "People make mistakes, and they can be... twisted by circumstances, until they end up at a place where they don't recognise the person they used to be at all in the person they have become. I should know, you know? I keep seeing you all beating yourself up about mistakes you've made, but... way back when, I killed thousands of people. Some of them deserved it, others..." He exhales. "You have to find a way to live with yourself."

"Wei Ying..." Wangji says.

"No, quiet, I'm not done." He cranes up and kisses Wangji's nose, as if to take any potential sting out of that. "What I figured out is, all you can ever do is your best. So long as you do your best, it doesn't matter if you find out later you did the wrong thing - sure you'd have done something different if you'd had all the information, but you didn't." He meets Madam Yu's eyes. "You've been good to me, ever since you had all the extra information." He smiles, bright and warm. "You don't have to ask for my forgiveness, shimu. You already have it."

Madam Yu pulls him into a brief, rough hug, then, and if she's weeping... she's not the only one.

Wen Qing suspects that the storm has passed at last.

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.