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nevermore, nevermore

Chapter Text

Lan Sizhui appears in Yunping city with a sickening pop.

In a remote ally-way, the moon shining, he staggers to one side and down to his knees. His chest is burning, his lungs are heaving, and Sizhui thinks he might be panicking.

Only a few moments ago, Guanyin temple had been collapsing around him, rubble falling at his feet. His uncle and Jin Ling and Sect Leader Jiang were long lost to the building. His father laid to his side, red pooling around him, Jin Guangyao’s sword still lodged in his stomach.

Sizhui had frozen in the midst of it all, completely unmoored. He did nothing still when Senior Wei – his Xian-gege, his Dad – pressed close and smiled at him, blood dripping from the corners of his lips. It was a gory smile, all red teeth, and so obviously forced. “It’s okay, Sizhui,” he’d said. “You’ll be okay.”

And then a talisman was slammed into his diaphragm.

Now he’s outside, in the backstreets of Yunping city, at a loss for how he got here.

Sizhui closes his eyes and takes a shuddering breath. He’s got to get his emotions under control. His family needs him. He’ll find help, anyone, and get his parents out of the Guanyin temple alive. There’s still a chance.

Sizhui pulls himself upright with a hiss, instinctively clutching at his chest. He wasn’t injured in the fight – at least, he doesn’t think so. Glancing down, Sizhui sees that his initial assessment is partially right and partially wrong. Branded into his skin, in the centre of his diaphragm, are runes written in Senior Wei’s handwriting.

‘The talisman must have done this,’ Sizhui realises. The paper itself has burnt away – along with the collar of his uniform – but his Senior Wei’s broad strokes remain as clear as day, an irritated red against pale skin.

The talisman must have teleported him out of the building – that’s the only explanation. But he can’t be too far away; this area of Yunping city is unfamiliar to him, yes, but without spiritual energy, Senior Wei cannot have sent him far. Perhaps if he just starts walking…

There’s a rattle behind him.

Lan Sizhui spins, drawing his sword to see – a woman in her night clothes. She startles at Sizhui’s sharp movements, pulling her robe tighter around her body, and Sizhui immediately feels guilty.

“Oh. I’m sorry. I thought you were – ” Sizhui lets out a shaky exhale; he sheaths his sword and bows his head in apology.

“Are you okay?” The woman asks. “You look… rough.”

Sizhui shakes his head. “You need not concern yourself. If you’d just point me in the direction of Guanyin temple?”

The woman frowns. “Guanyin temple? I don’t know of any temple in town by that name.”

Uh oh.

“Is this not Yunping city?” If the talisman has taken Sizhui too far away –

“No, it is,” the woman replies. “But there’s definitely no Guanyin temple here.”

That – that does not make any sense.

Sizhui’s distress must be visible on his face; the woman takes a hesitant step forward.

“Are you sure you don’t want to sit down? I’d invite you in but, well, you Lans don’t tend to be all that comfortable in brothels.”

Now Sizhui is even more confused. “This is a brothel?” he blurts. He can practically feel his cheeks heating up.  

The woman snorts. “You really don’t know where you are, do you? Yes, little Lan, this is a brothel.”

Where on earth has Senior Wei sent him?

He’s in Yunping city but there’s no Guanyin temple. How does that work?

But –

Sizhui’s stomach churns.

He’s just had a terrible thought.

Didn’t Jin Guangyao mention something about building Guanyin temple over his mother’s brothel?

“This is going to sound very strange,” he starts slowly, “but I must ask. What year is it?”

The woman blinks – processing. Her eyebrows raise. “You’re starting to scare me now, little Lan. Did you hit your head? If you’re concussed, you should tell me. I don’t particularly want your death on my hands.”

“I promise I’m not concussed,” Sizhui presses. “Humour me. Please?”

The woman sighs, begrudgingly ceding. “It’s the year Yiyou, Xuanzheng era.”

Sizhui feels his knees buckle.

He staggers, nearly collapsing (again, his mind adds), and the woman startles, moving to catch him. Sizhui doesn’t even register the woman’s arms coming to steady him. His mind is whirling.

Yiyou – that’s sixteen years ago.

“That’s it,” the woman says. “You’re coming in to sit down. You’re lucky it’s my night off, little Lan.” She pulls him towards the door and Sizhui follows wordlessly. His mouth might be gaping – Sizhui isn’t sure.

Sixteen years.

Only when they step inside does Sizhui realise how cold it is out. The woman hurries him in towards the hearth, only leaving to close the door once she’s sure he’s settled. Sizhui doesn’t feel the cold, of course – one of the many benefits of cultivating a golden core – but he’s shivering, nonetheless. His new acquaintance must think he’s freezing.

“We haven’t even introduced ourselves,” she says, as she pours him a cup of tea. It’s pushed into his hands and his fingers curl around it reflexively, seeking out the heat.  “I’m Sisi. What’s your name?”

“Sisi?” Lan Sizhui echoes.

‘Meng Shi’s friend Sisi? The Sisi that came to Lotus pier to expose Jin Guangyao’s crimes?’ Sizhui had heard that the woman was scarred – Jin Ling had offhandedly described her face as a ‘tragedy’ – but the Sisi before him is unblemished.

Perhaps he truly is in the past.

“You’ve heard of me?” Sisi replies, interrupting Sizhui’s train of thought. She sits down next to him with a teasing grin. “My reputation does precede me. Hm, I guess you Lans are less innocent than I thought.”

She says this just as Sizhui goes to take a sip of his tea. As a result, he nearly chokes on the liquid, spluttering to correct Sisi. “No, no – not like that! I’d just – I mean – ” 

Sisi laughs. “I’m only teasing, Little Lan. You’re so obviously green.” She nudges his knee with her own, encouragingly. “It’s rude to leave a lady hanging, you know.”

“Ah, my name,” he replies. “I am Lan Sizhui. I thank you for your hospitality. This is… very kind.”

Sisi waves him off. “It’s no problem. You’ve livened up my boring evening.” She pauses. “Though, I should probably ask, are you here alone? You look a little young to be out night hunting by yourself.”

‘I wasn’t alone,’ Sizhui thinks. Nonetheless…

“I suppose I am now,” he says, staring down into his cup. Sizhui’s memory of this time is rather hazy – he’s only just begun to recover the memories, in fact. But, counting back, his father must be no older than twenty-two right now, Senior Wei the same age. “What month is it?” he asks off-hand. Is he – the younger him – still living at the Burial Mounds? In fact, is Senior Wei even alive right now?

“Dongyue,” Sisi replies. “Though the full moon is in a few days.”

Sizhui hums in response. What was happening politically sixteen years ago? The Bloodbath of Nightless City occurred in Yiyou, if Sizhui is not mistaken. But what month? He thought he had all these dates memorised, drilled into his head by Lan Qiren’s lectures, but his mind feels foggy.

‘Am I in shock?’ Sizhui wonders. It would make sense – though it’s highly inconvenient right now. He’s on the cusp of something, Sizhui realises.

“Mind telling me what’s going on up there?” Sisi asks, after what must have been a good minute of silence. Sizhui startles, finally looking up from his tea.

He sighs. “I’m not sure you’ll believe me. In fact, I’m not sure I believe it,” he responds, quite earnestly.

“Try me,” Sisi challenges. “I find everything you cultivators do unbelievable.”

Sizhui questions – for a moment – whether he should really be telling this to someone. If he’s wrong, well, he’s effectively declaring that he’s gone mad; but if he’s right… he knows too much. He shouldn’t be putting a civilian in such danger.  

“I – I’m from the future, I think,” he says anyway. It just bubbles out. “I was in a fight. It was going… badly. My – he pushed this talisman to my chest.” Sizhui’s fingertips graze the brand. “I thought it teleported me outside of the temple but – perhaps it did not teleport me through space but through time.” An uncontrollable laugh spills from Sizhui’s lips. “I knew Senior Wei was brilliant but this is insane.”  

“…Time-travel, huh?” Sisi ponders. “How many years?”

“You believe me?”

Sisi shrugs, the corners up her lips twitching upwards. “Why not? Truth is stranger than fiction. Besides, it’s more fun this way.” She nudges him again. “How many years, Little Lan?”

“…Sixteen, I think.”

Sisi whistles. “Have you even been born yet?”

“I’m three right now,” Sizhui says with a smile and the roll of his eyes. Though, Sizhui supposes that Jin Ling may not have been born yet.

…Wait.

Jin Ling was born this year, last month to be precise. His One Month Celebration should be soon.

Senior Wei was ambushed at Qiongqi Path on the way to said celebration.

The incident at Qiongqi Path led to the death of Senior Wei and so many others.

But none of it has happened yet.

Lan Sizhui has the chance to save his family.

He stands abruptly. “I have to go.” If he’s got a chance to save his father and his dad and the Wens – he may be able to save his birth family – he has to take it.

“Little Lan?” Sisi questions as Sizhui makes his way over to the door. “What’s wrong?”

“I can change things,” Sizhui says, opening the door. “Senior Wei has saved me so many times. Now I can return the favour.” If he leaves now – and flies by sword – it should take him about three hours to reach Yiling. He bows to Sisi, her brows furrowed in what Sizhui thinks is concern, as he says. “I have to thank you, once again, for your hospitality.”

He’s out the room and down the street before Sisi can say another word. Someday, hopefully soon, Sizhui will go back and repay her kindness. But, for now, he flies.

Chapter Text

Sizhui arrives at the Burial Mounds just as the sun begins to rise.

He swoops down to the base of the mountain, dog-tired, yet dismounting from his sword with startling efficiency. Originally, Sizhui had considered flying straight to the mountain top and landing in the Wen village – but then he realised how that would have looked. He’ll be perceived as a threat as it is, an unknown Lan disciple climbing the mountain path, let alone arriving by sword.

No, the right choice is to climb the Mounds by foot – though this path is not without its own tribulations.

Corpses surround him on all sides, standing firm at the mountain’s base, eerie guardians of a supposedly lifeless land. Sizhui isn’t quite sure how to approach them. Will they attack if he tries to make his way through? Would he be able to fight them off? Yet, he cannot afford to wait at the Burial Mounds’ entrance. Time is of the essence.

So, Sizhui braces himself for an assault as he begins slipping through the trees and down the dirt road –

But none comes.

Instead, he feels himself seamlessly pass through Senior Wei’s wards, a hot knife through butter. They are unlike Gusu Lan’s, tall and proud. In fact, if it weren’t for the warmth that brushed his skin, Sizhui would never have noticed the wards at all.

He persists, little time to think on the matter. The corpses passed and the wards deflected, he must charge on.

It is strange to think that he climbed this path only a few days ago – albeit under completely different circumstances. Sixteen years in the future, this road has not changed. The trees that line the path cast gaunt shadows in the rising sun and the wind that rages past whistles a melancholy tune.

However, as Sizhui comes closer to the top of the mountain, he smells this scent, wafting down from the hilltop. A warm broth, he thinks, hot, sweet radishes. It’s an aroma Sizhui didn’t know he knew; it’s so strangely nostalgic.

He breaks through the tree line and staggers to a halt.  

There, in the forefront of his vision, is the Demon-Slaughtering Cave, as formidable as remembered. What strikes Sizhui, however, are the homes that surround it. Their construction is tenuous, black wood bound together with twine and nails and mud. Yet – the buildings are delicately cared for, Sizhui can tell. Painted lanterns hang by the doorways, obviously illustrated by a child’s hand, and, in the centre of the buildings, sits a single lotus pond, a burst of colour among a sea of browns and greys.

Sizhui’s here. He’s made it.

Now he just has to find Senior Wei.

In the morning sun, a handful of people bustle around: a greying man with a broom, dusting at the cave entrance; a worn-looking woman, stirring a large pan of soup. They are not Senior Wei, nor are they at all recognisable.  

It is disquieting, how unfamiliar these faces are.

Sizhui honestly doesn’t know who to approach. He knows how he looks; a battle-worn Lan in the middle of a refugee camp. His Sect, in this time, may not be hostile to the Wens – but they have not been kind either.

In the end, the decision of who to approach is made for Sizhui as a small weight collides with his right leg.

“Rich-gege!” A young voice chimes as Sizhui stumbles slightly. That’s evidence enough for how worn out he is. “You’re back!”

Sizhui looks down to face his new limpet with part curiosity and part trepidation; Wen Yuan beams up at him, grubby hands clenched tightly in the fabric of Sizhui’s trousers, hair wildly out of place. Though, after a moment, Wen Yuan frowns. “You’re not Rich-gege,” he pouts, scrutinising Sizhui’s face. He, nonetheless, does not release Sizhui’s leg from its entrapment. After a moment of thought, he tugs on the fabric. “Where’s Rich-gege? He said he’d come back.”  

‘Rich-gege?’ Sizhui wonders, still processing the fact that he’s face to face with his younger self. In his struggle to remember, memories – flashes – flicker through Sizhui’s mind; a dinner, a toy-sword, calloused hands and soft, white fabric.

‘Father,’ Sizhui realises. ‘I’m talking about Father.’

Sizhui’s eyes burn all of a sudden and it takes all his strength to repress the urge to cry.

“I – I know your Rich-gege,” Sizhui placates, crouching down to his younger self’s eye-level. Goodness, he’s so small. “He’s my – friend.”

It is enough for Wen Yuan. “He is?” the boy asks.

“Mm,” Sizhui nods. “He – Hanguang-jun sent me to help your,” Sizhui almost swallows the word, “Xian-gege. Is he here?” It feels wrong to lie – even about something as small as this.

Sizhui has to blink back tears (once again) when Wen Yuan brightens at the lone mention of Senior Wei. He opens his mouth to respond –

“A-Yuan?” a woman calls. “Where are you?” She steps out of the Demon-Slaughtering Cave and the mere sight of her has Sizhui’s heart racing.

“Auntie!” Wen Yuan calls, catching the woman’s attention. “Rich-gege’s friend is here!”

“Hanguang-jun?” Wen Qing repeats. “Who on earth – ?” and she freezes, the blood draining from her face, as her eyes lock on Lan Sizhui.

He can’t help but stare back. Sizhui sees his own eyes reflected back at him on another face.

“A-Mei…?” Wen Qing whispers, obviously staggered. Her gaze shifts – from Lan Sizhui, knelt on the ground, to Wen Yuan, and then back again. Sizhui doesn’t know what she’s thinking but, in the blink of an eye, the vulnerability vanishes.

“A-Yuan, go find Granny,” Wen Qing orders, her resolve resettled.

Wen Yuan frowns. “But – ”

Now.

Wen Yuan huffs, releasing Lan Sizhui from his grip. He runs off towards the nearest hut – but not before shooting his older counterpart a cheeky grin.

It’s because Sizhui is watching him go that he’s unprepared for Wen Qing appearing at his throat. Needles raised, she spits at him, “What are you doing here and why are you wearing my cousin’s face?”

‘Cousin’s face…?’

It hits Sizhui like a ton of bricks. “I look like my mother?”

The two stare at each other in silence.

“Auntie – ”

“Don’t call me that!”

“ – we don’t have time for this,” Sizhui finishes. He tentatively raises his hand to catch Wen Qing’s and pull the needle away from his neck. “Senior Wei and Uncle Ning are in danger. Are they here?”

“…You’re lying,” Wen Qing accuses. Her hand has started to shake in his.

Sizhui holds it tight – squeezes. “I promise, Auntie, I’m not. Have Senior Wei and Uncle Ning left for Koi tower yet?” He can feel his heart pounding in his chest, his breath catching in his throat. He can’t be too late. Anything but that.

Fate is not on Sizhui’s side. “…They left yesterday morning,” Wen Qing yields, to Sizhui’s horror.

‘No…!’

“We have to go after them,” Sizhui breathes, turning on the spot to march back down the mountain. He’s so tired but he’s come so far; he can’t stop now.  

Wen Qing pulls him back, clutching at his hand. “A-Yuan, what is going on?!”

Sizhui’s heart skips a beat – she understands. “There’s an ambush waiting for them at Qiongqi Path,” he explains. “The Jins.”

He didn’t think it was possible for his aunt to pale any further.

She dithers, deciding, for only a second longer.

 

They race down to the bottom of the mountain, side by side. “If they left by foot,” Sizhui hypothesises, “we may be able to catch up to them by sword.”

“I don’t have one!” Wen Qing gasps, nearly tripping over a tree root.

Sizhui catches her by the hand, holding her steady. “We can share mine!”

They continue on down the mountain, running as fast as they can.

It’s all for nought.

“A-jie?” They hear as they approach the entrance to the Burial Mounds. Sizhui staggers to a halt.

Is that – ?

“A-Ning?” Wen Qing calls out, stopping just after Sizhui does. “A-Ning, is that you?”

A body hobbles around the corner and into sight. There, revealed, is Wen Ning, carrying Senior Wei on his back. Both men are in a state; while Senior Wei is completely passed out, restlessly dreaming, Wen Ning is covered in blood – his hands in particular. From where they’re gripping Senior Wei’s thighs, Sizhui can see that they’re stained red.

His uncle’s face seals the deal; Wen Ning looks absolutely distraught.

“We’re too late,” Sizhui realises.

 

Once Senior Wei has been settled – as much as he can be, at least; as he sleeps, waves of resentful energy curl around him – Wen Qing insists on bandaging up Sizhui’s chest.

At first, she tried examining the brand, no doubt trying to decipher Senior Wei’s handwriting. Sizhui had patiently sat through the pokes and prods and his aunt’s mumbling – but he was nonetheless thankful when she gave up.

Now, in the dim light of the Demon-Slaughtering Cave, Sizhui sits as still as he can as his aunt wraps layer after layer of gauze around his diaphragm. The three Wens have been silent up till now, all respectively processing the day’s events. In the quietest moments, Sizhui can feel his eyelids begin to droop. He forces himself to stay awake – the day, Sizhui’s job, isn’t done yet – but the silence is beginning to eat at him.

It’s heavy, full of expectations of what’s to come, a future that has yet to be written.

“That should do it,” Wen Qing says, more to herself than anyone else, as she ties off the bandages. She places a hand on Sizhui’s shoulder. “Not too tight?”

He shakes his head. “Thank you, Auntie.”

There’s a quiet acceptance in her eyes.

“Auntie?” Wen Ning asks, from where he’s sat next to Senior Wei. His tight face is pulled into the closest thing to a frown that he can muster. He blinks – and then again, turning from Wen Qing to Lan Sizhui and then back.

“He looks like A-Mei, doesn’t he?” Wen Qing prompts, her hand stroking down Sizhui’s arm.

Wen Ning thinks for a moment more – and then his mouth drops. “A-Yuan?” He gasps.

Sizhui nods. “It’s good to see you again, Uncle.”

His uncle remains gobsmacked for a few moments more. His gaze flickers to his sister. “How?”

Wen Qing snorts, crossing her arms and sitting down next to Sizhui. “How do you think? Wei Wuxian, of course.”

Oh. She knows. “Did you recognise the talisman?” Sizhui asks.

His aunt shakes her head. “What the talisman did exactly, no. But I know Wei Wuxian’s atrocious handwriting like the back of my hand," she grumbles. "I can’t believe he branded my little cousin with it for life."

“…I don’t mind it,” Sizhui admits, ducking his head. He spreads his palm over the bandages. “I’ll never begrudge something Senior Wei did to save me.”

There’s a beat of quiet – and when Sizhui looks up, he sees his cousins sharing a concerned glance.

Turning back to Sizhui, “What happened, A-Yuan?” Wen Qing asks softly.

‘Lies and truths, destruction and death,’ Sizhui thinks. ‘Sad smiles and futures cut short.’

He steels himself before the thoughts can boil over.

“That’s not important right now,” Sizhui says. “None of it will come to pass if stop Jin Guangyao here and now.”

“Jin Guangyao?” his aunt questions (Wen Ning physically deflates at the mention of the Jins, his shoulder’s hunching). “What has he got to do with anything?”

“He orchestrated the ambush at Qiongqi Path,” Sizhui reveals. “Uncle Ning, the deaths of Jin Zixuan and Zixun are not your fault, nor are they Senior Wei’s. Jin Guangyao planted a demonic cultivator to control you.”

“What?” Wen Qing hisses. “A-Ning…?”

Standing stiffly at Wei Wuxian’s beside, Wen Ning clenches his fists “…I still killed them, A-Yuan. I should turn myself in. Perhaps they’ll let Young Master Wei live if I do.”

“No!” Sizhui objects, rising to his feet. No, he’s here to prevent this! “Uncle Ning, that achieves nothing! Even if you and Auntie and everyone else surrender to the Jins, Senior Wei still – ” The words shrivel away in his mouth. Sizhui can’t say it. “ – it still ends badly.”

“Then what do we do, A-Yuan?” Wen Qing interrupts. “To be blunt, surrendering to the Jins is our only option right now.”

“No, it’s not,” he continues to protest. “If we bring Jin Guangyao and his accomplices to justice, Senior Wei will be proved innocent. The Sects cannot persecute us with no cause.” Sizhui affirms his words with a nod, settling back down at his aunt’s side.

The Wen siblings share another look before Wen Qing speaks, “Then where do we start?”

Sizhui opens his mouth to respond - but - 

He realises he doesn't know. 

Silence settles in the Demon-Slaughtering Cave, only broken by the sound of Wei Wuxian's breathing.

Chapter Text

Sizhui tells his cousins everything he can remember.

He starts with his hazy memories of the Burial Mounds: of being planted in radish patches and of blurry faces, only half-remembered.

He tells them about forgetting – the fever-ridden days that led to it – and of becoming Lan Yuan: of the days spent in the Jingshi – his father bedridden and sad for reasons a small A-Yuan couldn’t understand – and of the happier afternoons, buried in rabbits under the warm sun.

Sizhui tells them about Lan Qiren’s lessons, where he learnt about the evil Yiling Patriarch and his Wen-dogs, about what fate befell them for their sins. He tells his family about their sacrifice and the Bloodbath of Nightless city – Wei Wuxian’s fall from grace.

He tells them about meeting Senior Wei again, sixteen years later, and the adventures they shared: the living corpses of Mo village, Xue Yang and the events of Yi City, the siege of the Burial Mounds…

He tells his aunt and uncle about finding Jin Ling sneaking into Guanyin temple and about tagging along. He tells them about getting captured – along with his parents – and all the truths that were revealed.

He can’t bring himself to talk about the temple’s collapse, nor the fight that led to his travel back in time. It’s still too fresh – too painful. The message is conveyed, nonetheless; Sizhui is here because there was nothing left for him in the future.

There is silence once again when Sizhui finishes his tale. In the quiet, Wen Qing moves to embrace her nephew and Lan Sizhui melts into her hold. If a few tears escape his eyes, no one comments.

 

Sizhui doesn’t remember falling asleep – but he must have because he’s not in the Demon-Slaughtering Cave anymore.

He moves upright, propped on his elbow, and rubs his eyes, adjusting to the light and his new surroundings. He’s sat on a soft blanket in one of the Wen hunts, the evening sun filtering in through the make-shift blinds.

‘How long did I sleep?’ Sizhui wonders, yawning slightly, and hoping it’s not been too long. He supposes there isn’t really much they can do – can plan – until Senior Wei wakes up, but the idea that they’re wasting time makes Sizhui’s skin itch.

He’s been late once already – who knows what will happen if he’s late again.

Sizhui is just beginning to straighten himself out, adjusting his forehead ribbon and brushing down his robes – when there’s the flicker of movement in the corner of his eye. Sizhui turns and, Wen Yuan, realising he’s been spotted, squeaks and ducks out of sight.

Sizhui can’t help the little laugh that bubbles from his chest. “It’s okay, A-Yuan,” he calls. “You can come in.”

“...Auntie said I had to leave you to sleep,” A-Yuan eventually replies, peering back around the doorway, his chubby fingers clutching at the frame.

“And you did,” Sizhui nods. “But I’m awake now, so you’re not breaking any rules talking to me.”

A-Yuan stays where he is. His small face is knotted up tight. “…Auntie said you’re my big brother. Is it true?”

Oh.

A-Yuan is staring at him, eyes wide, hopeful.

…That was probably the best explanation Wen Qing could come up with, Sizhui reasons. If everything works out, if A-Yuan grows up and Sizhui is still here, they’re going to have to have an explanation for why they’re identical.  

It’s true enough.

“Mm,” Sizhui nods with a small smile.

A-Yuan gasps. He skirts out from his hiding place. “So you’re my Sizhui-gege?”

Sizhui feels warm. “I guess I am.”

His younger self beams. Before Sizhui knows it, A-Yuan is launching himself across the room and into his arms. “Sizhui-gege!” He happily declares, settling in Sizhui’s lap. “Did Xian-gege plant you? He said he’d grow me older brothers and sisters. Like the radishes!”

Sizhui laughs again, A-Yuan’s joy contagious. He supposes Senior Wei did plant him in the garden, once upon a time. It wouldn’t necessarily be a lie to say so. He strokes A-Yuan’s hair and opens his mouth to respond when he hears, “A-Yuan, I told you to let him sleep.”

Now Wen Qing appears in the doorway, her arms crossed. At the sight, A-Yuan’s lets out a little “Uh oh,” and tries to bury himself out of sight in Sizhui’s arms.

“It’s okay, Auntie,” Sizhui placates, tightening his grip on A-Yuan. “I was already awake.”

Wen Qing huffs – fondly, Sizhui thinks; there’s a slight upturn to her lips. Leaning against the door frame, “I see A-Yuan has already taken a shine to you,” she says.

The cousins share a glance – just to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation. It is a look that goes over A-Yuan’s head.

“Has Senior Wei woken up yet?” Sizhui asks.

His aunt shakes her head. “I’m afraid not. Although,” she grimaces, “while you were asleep, we received a visit from a Jin Clan messenger.” Sizhui feels his breath hitch. “They want Wei Wuxian’s account of the incident. They said… they said if he hands myself and my brother over, it’ll be over for now.”

“They’re lying,” Sizhui insists. He doesn’t realise he’s squeezing Wen Yuan too tight until the boy squirms in his hold. “They won’t stop until Senior Wei is dead and they have the Stygian Tiger seal.”

“Hush, A-Yu… Sizhui,” Wen Qing soothes, moving to kneel on the floor in front of him. “A-Ning and I are staying. We’re not leaving you.”

Sizhui feels his shoulders unclench. He didn’t realise…

That’s when the shouting starts.

“Xian-gege?” A-Yuan asks – and he’s right. That’s Senior Wei.

Sizhui and Wen Qing are stumbling out of the door in seconds.

“Granny!” Wen Qing calls. “Take A-Yuan!” She continues on running while Sizhui pauses to pass his younger-self to Granny. Then, he’s off again in a dead sprint towards the Demon-Slaughtering Cave.

As Sizhui reaches the entrance, he doesn’t expect the sight he’s met with.

There, in the centre of the cave, is Senior Wei, clutching Wen Ning by the scruff of his neck. “ANYONE ELSE!” he’s crying, hysterical. “ANYONE ELSE BUT HIM! BUT YOU KILLED JIN ZIXUAN! WHY HIM?! WHAT IS MY SISTER SUPPOSED TO DO NOW?!”

“Wei Wuxian! Stop it!” Wen Qing snaps, storming into the room while Sizhui stands frozen. She manages to pry her trembling brother out of Senior Wei’s grip and then stands in between the two men, acting as a human barrier.

Wei Wuxian just continues to sob. “What am I supposed to do now…? What on earth am I supposed to do…?”

“Wei Wuxian, it wasn’t your fault,” Wen Qing tries to soothe.

Senior Wei is having none of it. “Not my fault?! How is this NOT MY FAULT?!” he snarls, expelling a burst of resentful energy

“S-Senior Wei…” Sizhui stutters, just – shocked. He’s never seen Wei Wuxian like this before.

No, Sizhui realises. He’s never seen the Yiling Patriarch before.

At the sound of the unfamiliar voice, Wei Wuxian whips around. Finally, he notices Sizhui in the doorway. “A Lan?” He questions. “What is a Lan doing here?” There is barely a pause before Wei Wuxian seemingly answers his own question. He laughs, but it’s a bitter sound – empty. “Of course. Lan Wangji sent you to take me to Gusu, didn’t he? To lock me up?”

Sizhui is horrified. “Father would never!”

If there is one thing Sizhui has never doubted, it’s his father’s love for Wei Wuxian.

But – Senior Wei has frozen, as have Wen Qing and Wen Ning. Sizhui isn’t sure why until Wei Wuxian asks quietly, “…Father? Did you just call Lan Zhan your father?”

…Ah. Sizhui slipped up.

This may not have been the time to release that bombshell.

“He’s from the future, Wei Wuxian,” Wen Qing interrupts, standing firm; Wen Ning stays huddled behind her, trembling,

“Lan Zhan’s… son… from the future?” Wei Wuxian parrots. He’s staring off into space, processing. When he finally looks up, “You’re lying,” he says, the words directed straight at Sizhui.

“It’s against the rules to lie,” Sizhui says instinctively.

“And time travel isn’t possible, so you have to be lying!” Wei Wuxian retorts. “Do you think I’d still be here, in this mess, if time travel were possible?!”

“H-he’s telling the truth,” Wen Ning finally speaks up. He clenches his jaw, straightening out. “Young Master Wei, you need to listen to him.”

“Why on earth should I do that?!”

“I have proof,” Sizhui realises, all at once. “I have proof!”

The brand – in Senior Wei’s handwriting, no less!

Sizhui pulls his arms out of his sleeves, letting the top of his robes hang loose, and then begins to undo the bandages around his chest. Wen Qing catches on quick; with a small “Oh…!” she races over to help Sizhui unwind the bandages.

Wei Wuxian, however, looks even closer to a conniption. “You’re stripping... Why is there a Lan stripping in my cave?”

“Senior Wei, you’re working on a time-travel talisman, correct?” Sizhui says, ignoring Senior Wei’s protests. “In the future, you used this talisman to send me back in time. You can see for yourself,” he finishes, as the last piece of fabric falls away.

Wei Wuxian just… stares.

Eventually, “That – that’s my handwriting,” he breathes, taking a step closer. He inspects the brand a moment longer – and then scrambles off into the cave.

“Young Master?” Wen Ning calls after him, just as Wei Wuxian nearly trips over a chair.

“One second!” Wei Wuxian calls back. He begins scrambling around in a pile of notes, throwing around pieces of paper frantically. Finally – “There you are!” he announces, flicking the paper dramatically.  Now, Senior Wei hurries back to Sizhui and, once he’s standing before the young man, he holds the paper adjacent to Sizhui’s brand.

“I finished it” Wei Wuxian says. Sizhui glances down; on the paper is a near replica of the burned lines on Sizhui’s chest. “I must have figured out what to use as a power source…” Wei Wuxian continues, before finally meeting Sizhui’s eyes. “You are from the future.”

“That’s how I know none of this is your fault, Senior Wei,” Sizhui attempts. “There are more players in this game than you realise.”

There’s a spark in Wei Wuxian’s eyes and it’s the first time Sizhui has seen in since coming back in time.

“What’s your name?” Senior Wei asks – and Sizhui finds himself faced with a choice.

He turns to his aunt and uncle to confer; Wen Qing just raises a brow, expectant, while Wen Ning offers him a tight smile.

‘Go on,’ it implies.

So, “My courtesy name is Lan Sizhui,” he begins, “but the name I was given at birth was Wen Yuan.”

Wei Wuxian’s face goes slack.

The three Wens hold bated breath.

“…Oh.”

 

Sizhui sits facing Wei Wuxian, as the man wraps the bandages back around Sizhui's chest.

They're illuminated by candlelight alone, the sun having set in the time that Wei Wuxian has been tending to him. Despite having recently slept, Sizhui feels completely drained. He guesses that's what emotional confrontations do to you. It, nonetheless, feels good to have Senior Wei fuss over him – though Sizhui would never admit that aloud.

In the aftermath of Senior Wei’s breakdown, Sizhui had explained – in barebones – what his dad currently needs to know.

No, he didn’t cause Jin Zixuan’s death; that was Su She, who was also responsible for casting the One-Hundred Holes curse on Jin Zixun.

(“Su She? Who the hell is that?” Wei Wuxian had asked, his nose scrunched up in confusion.

Wen Ning had prompted, “Young Master, Su She joined us when we fought the Waterborne Abyss, back when we studied at Gusu,” – but this didn’t seem to jog Senior Wei’s memory at all.)

The true perpetrators of the crime, Sizhui explained, were Jin Guangyao and his father. He tells Senior Wei what they want too: to kill him and steal the Stygian Tiger Seal.  

Wei Wuxian fell worryingly quiet at this news – to the extent that Wen Qing decided the conversation was best finished in the morning. She’d then dragged her brother off, for some vague reason Sizhui didn’t quite catch, leaving him alone with Senior Wei.

Hence Senior Wei has tied – and undone and then adjusted and then tied again – his bandages a few times over now, seemingly insistent on getting it right. This is Senior Wei's way of apologising, Sizhui realises, about ten minutes into the exercise, for the yelling and the accusations.

His parents’ actions have always spoken louder than their words.

Eventually, as he’s finally finishing up, Wei Wuxian breaks the quiet: "You're so grown up," he says. “I wish I'd been there to see it."

"You will be," Sizhui responds. He's especially pleased when Senior Wei sits down in front of him, legs crossed, close enough for their knees to bump.

"Well, yes," Senior Wei says – and frowns. "Wait, have you and the younger you touched?"

"Uh, I've hugged him?"

"Oh… Hmm," Senior Wei muses. "It didn't cause a temporal anomaly. That's good to know."

"That was a possibility – ?"

"Anyway," Senior Wei interrupts, "what I was going to say is that, while I may get to see A-Yuan grow up, at this point you and he are different people.” He bumps his knee against Sizhui’s. "I'd like to have been there to see you grow up too."

Sizhui sniffs. "Me too. I would have liked that."

"...Though it doesn’t sound like you needed me to grow into an amazing young man,” Senior Wei jokes. “How could you when you had Lan Zhan?”

“I missed you as much as Father did,” Sizhui responds. “He was… not himself after you died.”

Wei Wuxian hums – noncommittally. “So how did you become Lan Zhan's son?" he deflects instead. "What, did I marry Lan Zhan and he got you by proxy?" he teases.

Sizhui laughs – and then he has a terrible, terrible idea.

"Yes," he blurts, almost on impulse.

Wei Wuxian stops dead. "...What?"

"You're married. In the future. To father. Hanguang-Jun."

It's official. Sizhui has just told the biggest lie he ever has and ever will. He’s going to have to transcribe the rules at least 300 times as punishment. Father would be so disappointed –

“I am?” Senior Wei asks, his voice watery. “I thought you said I died?”

Ohhhhhh no, Sizhui is going to panic. This was a bad idea. What was he thinking?

‘Okay, Sizhui, focus,’ he thinks to himself. It’s just a white lie. He knows his parents are in love and have been for a very long time. Sizhui is just speeding along the process.

“You did…” he starts – perhaps if he hides his lie with truths? “But you came back. A young man, Mo Xuanyu, sacrificed his soul to bring you back in his body. You and Hanguang-Jun confessed to each other when you met again.”

None of that was a lie. Now he just has to hope Senior Wei will fill in the gaps.

If he buys the lie at all. Sizhui probably has the worlds worst poker face –

"…Did I force him?" Wei Wuxian asks, tearfully.

That – was not the response Sizhui was expecting. Senior Wei seems to have bought the lie – hook, line, and sinker – but, "What?” Sizhui doesn’t understand how Wei Wuxian came to that conclusion. “Of course not. Father loves you."

"Lan Zhan... loves me?" Wei Wuxian echoes.

Sizhui reaches out and takes Senior Wei’s hand. “I think he always has.”

Wei Wuxian – swallows. “That… gives me a lot to think about.” He takes a deep breath out – wipes at his eyes. “Though… Does that make you my son too?" Senior Wei asks. "Since, you know, I'm married to your father?"

Sizhui feels the tears well in his eyes now. He's starting to get a bit sick of crying. Senior Wei is refusing to meet Sizhui's eyes, instead bashfully rubbing at the back of his neck.

"I've always thought of you as my dad," Sizhui admits aloud - for the first time ever.

It’s so easy to say; Sizhui wonders why he didn’t say it sooner, especially when Wei Wuxian’s eyes light up like fireworks. Before Sizhui knows it, his dad has pulled him into a tight hug, like he’s never going to let go.

For the first time in a long time, Sizhui feels safe.

Nonetheless, as he clutches the back of his dad’s shirt, his head on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, Sizhui can’t silence the little voice in his head.

It whispers ‘Liar, liar, liar.’

Chapter Text

“You’re twitchy this morning,” Wen Qing observes, as Sizhui helps her to prepare breakfast. Her next grind of the spices is strangely threatening; “Did Wei Wuxian put his foot in his mouth again?”

“No, it’s fine, Auntie,” Sizhui says, absentmindedly stirring the pot of congee. “Senior Wei behaved himself.” They’d fallen asleep not long after their conversation last night and Sizhui hasn’t seen his dad since dawn, when he untangled himself from Senior Wei’s tight grip and traipsed out of the Demon-Slaughtering Cave. There has been no opportunity for Wei Wuxian to ‘put his foot in his mouth’, as his auntie described.

Yet, Wen Qing is not satisfied with this answer. “So what’s wrong then?”

“Nothing,” Sizhui says - perhaps a little too quickly.

“A-Yuan, you’ve been stirring away while staring off into space for at least half an hour. Something is wrong.”

Sizhui bites his lip. He’s not going to fool her, is he?

It's just... Sizhui hasn't been able to get the fact that he lied out of his head. He feels so guilty and ashamed. What would Father think? Uncle? Lan Qiren? 

He may have irrevocably messed with Senior Wei and Father's love lives. What if they're not ready to confess to each other yet? What if Wei Wuxian isn't in love with Father yet?  Sizhui is pretty sure he is - but what if he isn't? 

Was it even his place to interfere? Should he have kept his parents' private lives as just that - private?

Sizhui's pretty sure he's developing a head ache from all the overthinking; he needs a second opinion.

So, “You can’t tell Senior Wei,” Sizhui starts. 

Wen Qing frowns; she places down the mortar and takes the spoon from Sizhui’s hand. “As long as it’s not too serious.”

Sizhui does a quick scan of the area and, once he’s determined that his Dad is, indeed, not around, “I broke a rule!” he laments, desperately hoping his aunt won’t judge him too badly for this.  

Instead, Wen Qing blinks at him. “You’re upset… Because you broke a rule? A Cloud Recesses rule?”

Sizhui nods.

“…The Lans have corrupted my nephew. Unbelievable.”

Sizhui's mouth gapes. That's her response? “Auntie, you don’t understand!” He continues, as Wen Qing takes over from him at the stove. “It was a fundamental rule! I told a lie!”

“If you told a lie, A-Yuan, I’m sure it was for a good reason,” she takes a spoonful of the congee and blows on it. “Was it to Wei Wuxian? Is that why you’re upset?”

Sizhui nods again.

“What did you tell him?” Wen Qing asks just before tasting the congee.

Sizhui feels his cheeks heat up as he replies, “That he and father were married in the future.”

Wen Qing nearly chokes. “They’re not?!”

Uh? “You thought they were?”

“From what you told us, that’s what it sounded like!”

“I mean,” Sizhui lowers his voice to a whisper – does this count as gossiping? Sizhui hopes not – “they did confess to each other, but then Guanyin temple happened…”

Wen Qing stares at her nephew, dead eyed. Sizhui thinks she’s close to snapping her spoon in half. “I have been watching Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji pine over each other since we were teenagers and you’re telling me they don’t confess to each other for another sixteen years?!”

“Auntie, please! Be quiet!” Sizhui hisses. “We really shouldn’t be talking about Senior Wei behind his back like this…”

Let alone Father, Sizhui adds internally.

In the midst of this horrifying thought – gossiping… about Hanguang-Jun… is this what the slippery slope of lying leads to? – Sizhui is unprepared for Wen Qing clapping him on the shoulder. “A-Yuan. You did the right thing, rules be damned,” she says solemnly.

“I did?”

She nods. “What your future proves is that Wei Wuxian, left to his own devices, is a self-sacrificial idiot. Emphasis on the idiot, in this particular instance.” Sizhui goes to object, realises he doesn’t have a lot of material to object with, and is then, once again, interrupted by his aunt. “Speak of the devil,” Wen Qing says, returning to watching the stove.

Sizhui turns – and "Good morning!" Senior Wei chimes, strolling out towards them. He has Wen Yuan sitting on his hip and a smile on his face. He looks much better than he did last night, post-Qiongqi Path, but that, in itself, is worrying.

"Good morning, Senior Wei, A-Yuan," Sizhui replies, trying to keep his nerves at bay.

But, "Sizhui, what did I say last night? Call me Dad. You're my son, after all!" Wei Wuxian corrects.

Sizhui feels his stomach flip. "O-okay, then. Good morning, Dad.”

"Dad?" Wen Yuan questions with the tilt of his head.  "You're Sizhui-gege's daddy?"

"Mm hm," Wei Wuxian hums. He bounces Wen Yuan to sit higher on his hip and explains, "I told you I'd plant you older brothers and sisters. I grew your Sizhui-gege like a radish! That means he's my son."

"That's what I told Auntie!" Wen Yuan exclaims. "But she told me I was being silly."

"It's your Auntie that's being silly," Wei Wuxian says with the shake of his head. "All little boys are grown like radishes. Right, Sizhui?"

His Dad winks at him, conspiratorially, while Sizhui is sure his aunt is rolling her eyes in the background.

"Right," Sizhui nods, internally bemoaning the breaking of another rule.

It is perhaps worth it, however, when Wen Yuan, after thinking for a moment, tugs on Wei Wuxian's sleeve and asks, "Can you be my daddy too? Since Sizhui-gege is my brother?"

Senior Wei barely misses a beat. While Sizhui feels his breath catch, and Wen Qing’s gaze whips up from her work, "Of course, my little radish!" Wei Wuxian laughs gleefully, spinning himself and Wen Yuan on the spot. A-Yuan giggles back, protesting lightly, and Sizhui's heart feels light.

(Though a little sad. Sizhui tries to squash that feeling.)

There's a cough. "As much as I hate to interrupt," Wen Qing starts, "we have a lot of work to do today."

That draws everyone back down to Earth.

Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath. "No, you're right. We have a lot to discuss... Where's Wen Ning?"

"He's keeping an eye on the wards," Sizhui responds. He holds out a bowl that Wen Qing promptly begins to fill with congee. "Uncle wants to make sure we're not caught off guard. A few Jin messengers have come by while you've been asleep."

If the atmosphere had paled before, this is like emptying a bucket of ice water. "What?!" his Dad snaps. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"We're telling you now," Wen Qing replies in Sizhui's stead, shoving the warm bowl into Wei Wuxian's free hand. "Wei Wuxian, you weren't exactly in the right state of mind to hear it last night."

"No one has been hurt," Sizhui continues, taking two bowls, one for himself and one for A-Yuan.

"...Still," Wei Wuxian grumbles, "I don't like the fact that they're here. What do they want?"

Sizhui and Wen Qing share a look; just before they had begun working on breakfast, they'd seen Wen Ning scurrying up the mountain towards them, worried. He told them that the Jin messengers had changed in their demands; no longer are they asking for Wen Ning and Wen Qing's surrender, but for Wei Wuxian's.

"Just as you'd expect," Wen Qing answers slowly. She's keeping her gaze steady on Sizhui, as if to say 'roll with it.'

So when Wei Wuxian frowns, Sizhui shakes his head. "We'll talk about it after breakfast, Dad. It’s the most important meal of the day, right A-Yuan?"

“Mm!” the boy nods. “Come on, Daddy!”

Wei Wuxian – snorts and crackles a small smile. “So diplomatic. Future Lan Zhan must be proud. Yes, let’s go then. Our problems can wait, I suppose.”

For a little longer at least, Sizhui hopes.

 

Once Wei Wuxian is fully caught up to speed, the first thing they settle on is destroying the Stygian Tiger Seal.

“We really can’t allow it to fall into Jin Guangshan’s hands, can we?” Wei Wuxian says, hunched over, elbows resting on his knees and his head in his hands. He drags his palms down his face. “I wish I’d never made this piece of shit.”

“You can’t blame yourself,” Sizhui placates. “It was made in a time of desperation.”

Nonetheless, “Thank you for trying, A-Yuan,” his dad replies, “but I still did it. You can’t change that.”

Sizhui wishes he could.

So, he does the next best thing. He spends the next few days cooped up in the Demon-Slaughtering Cave, trading information with his Dad and pouring over talismans.

“It’s like having access to the Cloud Recesses library again,” Wei Wuxian jokes, early on in the process, his knee knocking against Sizhui’s. “How many of those texts did Lan Qiren make you memorise, eh?” At the time, Sizhui felt warm – as he always does when his dad compliments him – but as the days draw on, Sizhui begins to feel frustrated.

He may have half the texts in from Cloud Recesses memorised, but its still not enough.

Progress on destroying the Stygian Tiger Seal is slow and time is growing shorter by the second.

Jin messengers stop appearing two days into the work. With no contacts on the outside – none that they can reach, at least – they have no way of knowing if an attack is close. Wen Ning now spends all his time at the wards, taking a constant vigil. Wen Qing, in contrast, has taken to preparing the Burial Mounds for an attack: doors are reinforced, make-shift weapons prepared, and emergency exit plans discussed. The tension in the air is palpable, thick enough to cut.

Overall, Sizhui feels useless. What’s the point in being back here if he doesn’t know what to change? If he doesn’t know how to help?

Wei Wuxian is similarly frustrated. As the days go by, he retreats into himself, spending more and more time working in silence, taking fewer and fewer breaks. If not for Sizhui’s insistence, it is likely he would not eat nor sleep. It scares Sizhui in a way few things have.

His dad is slipping away, like the last grains of sand in an hourglass.

Five days after the ambush at Qiongqi Path is when Wei Wuxian finally snaps.

Sizhui’s sat on the floor cross-legged, circled by notes and talismans. He’s flicking through them, occasionally rubbing at his eyes, when there’s a crash behind him. He startles, nearly jumping out of his skin as he turns to the noise.

His dad has risen to his feet, his chair toppling over behind him, and has seemingly smashed a bottle of ink on the floor.

“Useless!” Wei Wuxian hisses, tearing at his hair. “Why am I so useless?!”  

Sizhui pulls himself to his feet. “Senior Wei, it’s okay…”

“No, A-Yuan, it’s not!” Wei Wuxian growls. “I can’t do this one simple thing!”

“It’s far from simple,” Sizhui says, halfheartedly. He tries to place a hand on his dad’s arm but Wei Wuxian flinches away. “…Perhaps we should take a break and clean up this mess?”

“We don’t have time for that.”

“Senior Wei – ”

“A-Yuan!” His dad echoes back, finally meeting Sizhui’s eye, glaring.

They find themselves in a stalemate.

It is only broken by the sound of hurried footsteps.

“Young Master Wei!” Wen Ning calls, running in. If he were alive, Sizhui is sure he’d be panting from exertion. “You need to come to the wards immediately!”

“Are we being attacked?” Senior Wei asks.

Sizhui holds his breath – but, thankfully, Wen Ning shakes his head. “No, Young Master, but we do have a visitor.”

“A visitor?” Sizhui questions instinctively.

“Who?” his dad adds.

Wen Nin gulps. “Hanguang-Jun.”

Chapter Text

The three men bound down the Burial Mounds, going as fast as they can.

“What did he want?” Senior Wei questions, covering two strides of distance in one sure movement.

“He said he just wanted to talk to you, Young Master,” Wen Ning relays. “Though… there were Lan soldiers at Qiongqi Path. Could this be a trap?”

“No,” Sizhui responds immediately, where Wei Wuxian hesitates. “Father is not working with the Jins. We can trust him.”

They’re half-way down the mountain when Wei Wuxian skidders to a halt. “Wait! A-Yuan!”

Sizhui mimics his dad, coming to an abrupt halt. “What’s wrong, Senior Wei?”

“You need to change,” Wei Wuxian says, gesturing to Sizhui’s attire. “If Lan Zhan thinks you’re trying to impersonate a Lan Sect member – ”

Sizhui shakes his head. “If it was anyone else, I would agree with you, Senior Wei. But Father deserves to know the truth. He will not punish me for wearing my own Sect’s uniform.”

Senior Wei is oddly quiet for a moment. “So you think we should tell him?” He asks. His jaw is set strangely and there is an odd lit to his voice. “Everything?”

“Of course,” Sizhui says, his brow furrowed. “We can trust Father with our lives.”

“…I hope you’re right,” Senior Wei says.

They continue down the mountain.

Sizhui’s heart is racing, somersaulting in his chest, and it only gathers speed the closer they get to the mountain’s base. This could be it – what they’ve been missing.

Father will know what to do; he always does.

They slow to a walk just before turning the last corner. Sizhui doesn’t want to stop – his Father is right there, intact, alive – but he understands Senior Wei and Uncle’s desire for caution.

Right now, they don’t know Father like he does.

“A-Yuan,” Senior Wei says. “Wait here until I signal for you.”

Reluctantly, “Mm,” Sizhui agrees, with the nod of his head. “If you think that would be best.”

Senior Wei, the lines of his face gaunt, places a hand on his shoulder and squeezes before walking off down the path. Uncle hurries after him, giving Sizhui a small smile as he passes, and then the two are gone – the Yiling Patriarch and his Ghost General, side by side.

Sizhui waits until they’re out of sight before ducking into the nearby foliage. He twists in between a haggard black tree and crouches in a huddle of bushes – and that’s when he spots his father.

Lan Wangji is standing ramrod straight at the entrance of the Burial Mounds, a hand on his sword.

That’s his father. Younger, for sure, stiffer than Sizhui remembers, less sure of himself, but it is Lan Wangji, nonetheless.

Alive.

Sizhui watches through the shrubbery as Senior Wei and Uncle Ning enter Father’s eyeline, meaning he sees the moment Father spots Wei Wuxian. His relief is palpable, though it only briefly shows on his face. Sizhui is sure that anyone who does not know Father well would miss it – but it is there nonetheless.

“Wei Ying,” Father breathes. “You’re safe.”

“For now,” Senior Wei replies coyly, crossing his arms. “Wen Ning said you wanted to talk?”

“Why did you kill Jin Zixuan?” Father asks, cutting straight to the chase.

“I didn’t. Neither did Wen Ning.”

“Then who?”

“Su She.”

Hearing this, Father is staggered. “Su Minshan? But – he was of Gusu Lan.”

And?” Senior Wei huffs, his feather’s ruffled. Father has misspoken, Sizhui realises. “What – does a mere association with the Lan Sect make you incapable of doing wrong?”

“Wei Ying,” Father chastises. “Please.”

“Please what, Lan Zhan?” Senior Wei continues. Even from this distance, Sizhui can see the wind begin to ominously whip around his dad. “Did you just come here to interrogate me? If you have, you might as well leave.”

“Young Master…” Wen Ning cautions, twiddling his hands anxiously. It looks as if he wants to say something else, but the words cease to appear.

“I am here to help,” Father supplies – weakly, even he paling in the face of Wei Wuxian’s anger.

“How?” Wei Wuxian spits. “How could you possibly help us now, Lan Zhan?” The trees have begun to sway in the wind now, ominously howling as Senior Wei rages.

His dad is too unstable, Sizhui realises. He needs to step in before this situation turns disastrous.

Decision made, Sizhui doesn’t hesitate. He rushes out from the treeline and calls out, “Senior Wei, please!”

The brewing storm halts all at once as Senior Wei’s gaze turns to him. Jogging over, Sizhui returns his dad’s previous gesture, placing his hand on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder and squeezing gently. He offers his dad a shaky smile. ‘It’s okay,’ he tries to say silently.

Wei Wuxian assesses him – and his frame untenses visibly. He tries to smile back at Sizhui – it is a poor attempt – but Sizhui will take it for now.

With his appearance, however, Father’s countenance changes too. His eyes skirt over Sizhui, taking in his walk, his face, his uniform; his gaze settles on Sizhui’s forehead ribbon, his tie to the Lan bloodline.

“Who is this?” Father says coolly. His face is pinched and grows more so as Wei Wuxian moves to stand in front of Sizhui protectively.

Sizhui, under his Father’s gaze, tries not to gulp. He’s not experienced this before; normally, he’s the one saving others (and by others he means Jingyi) from his Father’s glare. Nonetheless, Sizhui must continue on.

‘Here goes nothing,’ he thinks, as he side-steps out from Senior Wei’s protection.

“Hanguang-Jun,” He begins with a bow, stooping lower than he would usually. “I know you do not recognise me and that my attire may, at first, appear as an affront to your Sect. But I dutifully promise that I am who I say I am.” Sizhui takes a deep breath and meets his father’s eyes. “My name is Lan Sizhui and I am your adoptive son from the future.”

Lan Wangji stares at Sizhui completely blank. He does not move, nor does he twitch. All he does is blink – and even that reaction is staggered.

Sizhui has thrown his father for a complete loop, he realises.

There is a good thirty seconds of silence before Lan Wangji opens his mouth –

He closes it.

Eventually – “You believe him?” Father asks Wei Wuxian, his face breaking its mould to frown.

“Of course,” Wei Wuxian replies plainly, as if commenting on the weather. “He’s my A-Yuan.”

“A-Yuan?” There is another pause – and then Father’s eyes widen. “Wen Yuan?”

Sizhui nods. “You adopted me after the events of the next few days. In my future… To put it simply, I am to be the only survivor of a coming massacre.” At this, Lan Wangji spins sharply to face Wei Wuxian; Senior Wei refuses to meet his eye. “We can discuss what led to that future, and how we can prevent it,” Sizhui picks up, reclaiming his father’s attention, “but first I must prove to you who I am. How can I do that?”

 “…Time travel is impossible,” Lan Wangji argues.

But “The motto of the Jiang Sect is ‘attempt the impossible’ for good reason,” Sizhui retorts, shooting a pointed look at his dad.

Father blinks. “Wei Ying invented time travel?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say invented Senior Wei starts, but Sizhui doesn’t give him the chance to finish.

“I have the brand on my chest to prove it,” he affirms. “If you come up to the village, we can discuss it in detail.”

Father still seems hesitant. “…Why?” he asks.

‘Why should I trust you?’ Sizhui interprets.

So, “You can trust me,” he responds, “because I know things only your son would know. Senior Wei? Uncle?” He asks, “May I have a moment alone with my father?”

Wei Wuxian purses his lips – but takes a few steps back. “I’m not letting you out of my sight,” he says gravely.

Sizhui smiles at him again. “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

This, thankfully, seems to give Wei Wuxian the confidence to back-up. He only goes as far at the bend in the road, Wen Ning at his side, but it is distance enough.

Once Sizhui is sure they’re out of earshot, “I know that you keep a collection of precious items under a loose floorboard in the Jingshi,” Sizhui starts. Lan Wangji gasps, small and shallow. “I know that you’ve built a rabbit hutch in the back mountains of Cloud Recesses. I know, in the midst of your academic texts, on your shelves there is a storybook called ‘The Songster and his Wife.’ Your mother used to read it to you and, when I was small, you read it to me. And,” Sizhui swallows, “I know that every year, on the anniversary of your mother’s death, you spend the day outside the Gentian House. You arrive at dawn and you kneel on the steps of the porch. You only leave when Zewu-Jun comes to collect you at dusk.”

By the time Sizhui finishes, Lan Wangji is as white as the robes he wears. That last truth in particular… Sizhui knows almost no one knows how Father mourns.

“How?” Lan Wangji chokes out.

He offers his Father a hand, a silent offer of passage through the wards and of answers.

 

They make an odd image, the five of them assembled in the Demon-Slaughtering Cave.

They’re decently spread throughout the room. Senior Wei sits on his bed, his legs swinging over the edge. He’s calmer now – than he has been all day, in fact – but Sizhui is unsure as to how long it’ll last. Senior Wei has been a ticking timebomb these past few days and Lan Wangji seems to spark him off. So Sizhui sits at his dad’s side, legs crossed, a last-ditch resort to keep Wei Wuxian soothed.

Opposite them is Lan Wangji. His father sits on one of their make-shift stools – but he holds himself as if he were in the midst of a cultivation conference. His hands are placed in his lap, concealed almost by the fabric, but Sizhui can see that they’re clenched, giving away just how tense Father is.

The cause of this tension may be that Wei Wuxian is pointedly ignoring Lan Wangji; he is, instead, nattering away quietly to Sizhui, about everything and nothing. Father, in contrast, seems unable to look away from Senior Wei. Every move Wei Wuxian makes, Lan Wangji trails.

It is a game of cat and mouse that Sizhui, frankly, finds baffling.

(He desperately hopes its not his meddling that has caused it.)

Wen Qing sits on Lan Wangji’s other side, Uncle Ning stood behind her. She’s pulled a chair in from outside and sits in front of Wen Ning almost like a warden. She, of everyone here, is the wariest of Lan Wangji; he has not once left the range of her glare, not since he stepped inside the cave. Sizhui wonders what Wen Qing must think of him, this man who, in one future, raised her nephew. ‘The Lans have corrupted my nephew,’ Sizhui remembers his aunt saying only days prior.

Does his aunt think… poorly of Gusu Lan? Of his Father?

She has all reason to, Sizhui understands intellectually. Gusu Lan stood by while her family were murdered. Yet, for all its wrong doings, Cloud Recesses and its disciples is still Sizhui’s home – the only one he truly remembers.

“Oh!” Sizhui exclaims, breaking the deadlock. Family, of course! “I just understood why I was able to enter the wards when I first arrived.” He laughs, sheepishly. “It’s rather obvious, now I think about it.”

This drags a snicker out of Senior Wei – despite it all – and a withering shake of the head from Auntie.

“Why?” Lan Wangji asks, his curiosity beating out his awkwardness.

“He’s already written into them, of course,” Wei Wuxian explains. “Wen Yuan is allowed entry.”

Lan Wangji – nods. “Logical.”

“So you believe us? About the time travel?” Wei Wuxian asks. He’s leaning forward slightly, braced on his arms.

“Mm,” Father nods. “For now.” Finally, he meets Senior Wei’s eye – and neither man seems willing to look away; Sizhui has to resist the urge to squirm.

Thankfully, Wen Qing coughs. “Lan Wangji,” she starts. This seems to bring Sizhui’s parents back to earth. “Why did you come?”

“There has been no word from the Burial Mound since the attack at Qiongqi Path. The Sects are growing restless.” He pauses. “I needed to know if you knew.”

“If I knew what?” Wei Wuxian probes.

“There is to be an assembly at the Nightless City. Tonight.”

Sizhui feels his knees begin to bounce uncontrollably. Wen Qing grimaces at the news and Sizhui didn’t think it was possible for his Uncle’s face, dead as he is, to pale even more.

Yet, “Well, we did know this was coming,” Wei Wuxian says so – off-hand, so casually; his resigned acceptance is nothing like the anxious twittering of Sizhui’s mind. “They’re planning a siege, right?” his dad continues.

“Mm,” Lan Wangji agrees. If he’s perturbed by Senior Wei’s manner, he does not show it. “Since Wei Ying has not turned over the Stygian Tiger seal, nor himself, the Sects claim they have no other choice.”

With these words, Sizhui feels as if a chill breeze has just rushed by; he feels his blood turn to ice.

Oh no. This is bad.

Sizhui scans the cave. He’s the first one to comprehend the trouble they’re in – he’s caught onto the particulars of Lan Wangji’s wording long before anyone else, evident by the quiet contemplation around him.

They don’t know what Lan Wangji has given away.

That is, until Wei Wuxian speaks. “Wait, not until I surrender?” All eyes turn to Wei Wuxian – realisation dawning. “What about the Burial Mounds?”

Wen Qing grasps Lan Wangji’s mistake in that moment. She goes to speak –

But Lan Wangji gets there first. “Jin Guangshan said he sent messengers,” he says with a slight scowl. He turns to Wen Qing for answers – but now, with the focus of the room on her, the guilt in her eyes is clear.

It clicks for Wei Wuxian. “You didn’t tell me,” he realises. “You avoided the question. You didn’t tell me on purpose!”

“Wei Wuxian, let me explain – ”

“I thought they wanted the full surrender of the Burial Mounds!”

“The truth is not far from that!”

“Bullshit!” Wei Wuxian snarls, rising to his feet. “You’ve been letting me and Sizhui try to destroy the one thing that could guarantee your safety – everyone’s safety!”

“Senior Wei, it doesn’t matter what particulars they’re asking for,” Sizhui butts in. “No matter what they say, the Jins will not settle until everyone here is dead.”

Wei Wuxian whirls around. His gaze is heated and it takes all Sizhui has not to shrink under it. “How do you know that? How can you be sure?”

“Because they lied last time,” he answers, trying to hide the quiver in his voice. “Meaning this time, they’d be willing to lie again.”

His dad – laughs. It is mocking and cruel and unlike his dad completely. “What is it with you Lans and lying?” Wei Wuxian says. “Everyone lies! All the time! You can’t read into – ”

“Wei Wuxian!” Wen Qing snaps – again. She’s risen from her seat and Uncle Ning, shocked into silence, stands trembling. “That’s enough. Don’t take your anger out on A-Yuan.” She motions for Sizhui and he comes, retreating to her side.

Wei Wuxian stands alone now, circled by his family, a caged lion.

“…Wei Ying,” Father says. He takes a cautious step forward. “Come to Gusu with me.”

Sizhui whips around to face his father, echoes of a conversation – an accusation – in his mind.

‘Of course,’ Wei Wuxian said, seeing Lan Sizhui for the first time. ‘Lan Wangji sent you to take me to Gusu, didn’t he? To lock me up?’

Surely not…?

Wei Wuxian swallows. “I need some air,” he says, and flees. He doesn’t run, no, but he’s gone in almost the blink of an eye, out of the cave and towards the road. In an instant, Lan Wangji is running after him, leaving the Wens alone in the Demon-Slaughtering Cave.

Sizhui is stunned. Paralysed.

He can’t help but feel like something has gone terribly, intrinsically wrong.

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji is running – down the mounds and along the dirt path. He pushes through the trees, around the slopes of the branches, going as fast as he can.

He has to catch up to Wei Ying but the man is fast. Wangji always has always known this but, until now, it’s been more abstract knowledge. In this moment, chasing Wei Ying down like a dog after the scent of a deer, Wangji feels like Wei Ying’s enemy – and he hates it.

It’s just started to rain, making it all that much harder for Wangji’s boots to find a solid grip against the muddy ground. Wei Ying is having no such trouble; he obviously knows these woods like the back of his hand. The route Wei Ying is leading him down, Wangji doesn’t think he could make it back to the Wen Village, he’s so turned around.

Thankfully, it only takes one more leap before Lan Wangji is level with Wei Ying. Finally, he manages to catch him by the arm and Wangji pulls the other man to a halt, unintentionally tripping him slightly. Yet, Wei Ying is quick recover, brushing Wangji off and pushing him away.

“Where are you going?” Wangji asks, dreading the answer.

“Where do you think?” Wei Ying snaps, attempting to carry on back down the path. “To the Nightless city. To end this mess.”

Lan Wangji is rocked to his core – for a moment, all he sees is white and all he hears is static. In the next instant, instinctively he’s grasping for Wei Ying. He takes his friend – his love – and spins him around, the two of them now face to face. Yet, despite it all… words escape Wangji again.

The rain begins to pour down around them.

He wishes he was his brother – heavens, he wishes he was anyone else; his throat has closed and his tongue is lead. Wei Ying is still trying to pull away from him but Wangji can’t let him go. If Wei Ying makes it to the Nightless city –

“Come to Gusu with me,” is the only thing Wangji can think to say, the only solid way he has of declaring his love. ‘Come home with me. Let me protect you.’

Finally, Wei Ying stills – but it is an eerie stiffness. Wei Ying should never be still, not like this. If not for Wei Ying’s shallow breathing, Wangji would have thought the man was dead in his arms.

Wei Ying does not speak, nor does he meet Wangji’s gaze. He, instead, stares at the floor, his hair draping wet against his skin. Wangji’s hand trails down Wei Ying’s arm till he’s, essentially, holding his hand. His skin is cold, colder than Wangji thought possible for a cultivator. In fact, Wei Ying doesn’t look well. Wangji doesn’t like how clearly hollow Wei Ying’s cheeks are, nor how his clothes swallow him.

Finally – “No,” Wei Ying says, to Wangji’s frustration. He doesn’t know what else he can say, what he can offer.

“Wei Ying – ”

No!” Wei Ying shouts. Suddenly, he’s tearing at his hair, his shoulders shuddering. “No, no, no, no, no! You want to lock me up, punish me. You hate me! Why would you want to protect me?! A-Yuan’s wrong, you don’t love me,” Wangji feels his heart judder, skipping a beat, but Wei Ying continues on, unaware. “No, no, no, this isn’t right. I need to go. I have to keep everyone safe – it’s their only chance. It’s all I’m good for, Lan Zhan. I have to try.” He tries to tug away again, but Wangji’s grip is firm. Wei Ying growls, his head whipping up. He finally meets Wangji’s eyes but it’s with a snarl. “Let me go, Lan Zhan! Why don’t you understand?! I have to go!”

“You know?” Wangji breathes, his voice barely above a whisper.

“Know what?”

Wangji – swallows. “You said… Wen Yuan…?”

Realisation dawns over Wei Ying’s features; his eyes go wide and his mouth snaps shut. For a moment, the only sound is that of the rain crashing down around them.

Wangji swallows down his feelings. “I understand, if you are… disgusted by me. But I cannot leave you here, nor let you go to the Nightless city. Let us go back.”

But Wei Ying’s face twists; it’s unreadable to Wangji. “I’m not – ” He huffs. “Lan Zhan, I could never be disgusted by you. Just forget it. Let me go.”

“No.”

“Don’t make me say it again,” Wei Ying pleads, attempting to wriggle from Wangji’s hold. “I shouldn’t have said anything. I didn’t mean to say it in the first place. That’s not how things are, I know.”

That’s not how – ?

Does Wei Ying understand or not?

All at once, Wangji feels this compulsion. This may be it – the end of the road.

Wei Ying has to know.

“I do,” Wangji says.

Wei Ying stalls. “W-what?”

Wangji stops holding back his heart. “Love you.”

Wei Ying gasps, his cheeks, already flushed from the chill of the rain, darkening even still. “Lan Zhan – !”

“I love you,” he repeats. He wants to say over and over again. He wants to shout it from the tallest mountain in Cloud Recesses. Wangji has never said it aloud before, he realises, and do to so in this moment is freeing.

He loves Wei Ying.

He loves Wei Ying…!

“You’re lying,” Wei Ying accuses meekly.

Wangji frowns. “Lying is forbidden.”

“Yes, I know !”  

“So why did you say – ?”

“Because it can’t be true!” Wei Ying shouts, never having sounded more defeated. “Why would you love me?”

Wei Ying’s cheeks are wet – though Wangji can’t tell what from. It’s getting hard to see through this storm; really, they shouldn’t still be stood here. Yet, Wangji feels rooted to the spot.

These next few moments – these next few words – are pivotal, Wangji understands.

“I’m not good with words,” he admits, looping his free hand in with Wei Ying’s, entwining their fingers. “But Wei Ying is kind. Wei Ying is brave. Wei Ying is clever. Wei Ying is selfless.” He pauses. “Too selfless. But, most importantly… Wei Ying is worthy of love.”

“…Of your love?” Wei Ying confirms, his lips quivering.

Wangji nods. “More than anything.”

Wei Ying – sniffs. Wangji is sure of it now, Wei Ying is crying. “Lan Zhan… I wish you’d told me sooner.”

All at once, Wei Ying is leaning across the gap and kissing him.

Wangji melts. This is what he’s wanted – for so long – and its exactly as Wangji dreamed it would be. They move clumsily, yes – it’s not like Wangji has any experience – but Wei Ying’s lips are soft and supple and Wangji thinks he may be in heaven.

As his eyelids flutter closed, Wangji moves his arms around Wei Ying’s waist, drawing him closer. He pulls them backwards, out of the rain and under the shelter of a nearby tree. He never wants to let go. Now he’s had a taste – of Wei Ying’s mouth, his tongue brushing at his lips – Wangji is addicted.

And then there’s a sharp stab at the back of his neck.

Wangji’s body locks, his strength crumbling. He can’t feel his fingers or his toes – he’s completely out of control. As his brain panics, distantly he can hear Wei Ying shushing him, lowering him down to the ground.

“It’s okay, Lan Zhan,” Wei Ying says, stroking a hand through Wangji’s hair. “It’s going to be okay.”

“Wei Ying, what – ”

Wangji feels his vision going spotty. What did Wei Ying do?!

As Wangji feels himself blacking out, the last thing he sees is Wei Ying smiling at him, tear tracks trailing down his face. “Take care of A-Yuan for me, okay?”

The world fades to blissful darkness.  

Chapter Text

Sizhui sits cross-legged on the steps of the Demon-Slaughtering Cave, staring out into the rain.

Senior Wei and Father have been gone for too long now, he thinks.

In the aftermath of the argument, Auntie had told him to give his parents space. “Hopefully they’ll work out some of their various issues,” she’d said, stroking his hair. “It’s okay, A-Yuan. They’ll be back soon.”

Soon turned into one hour – and then another – and it’s started to get dark.

So, Sizhui has resolved to go after his parents once the shower stops. They’re likely just trapped by the weather; Senior Wei has hundreds of hidey-holes across the mountain, Sizhui knows. Most likely, he’ll venture out once the air has calmed and find his parents safe and sound.

There’s a pit in Sizhui’s stomach, nonetheless, and a nagging at the back of his mind. He just has this feeling…

Sizhui rises from his position as the sky begins to brighten, the clouds parting to reveal the setting sun. He stretches out his muscles, tight from holding the same position for so long – and it looks like he’s not the only one emerging now the storm has passed. As Sizhui makes his way outside, he observes Wen Yuan poking his head out from the warmth of Granny’s hut. Seeing that the worst is over, the boy grins, leaping outside and running out into the centre of the village square.

“Hello A-Yuan,” Sizhui addresses, intercepting Wen Yuan just before the cave. “What are you doing out here?”

He’s rewarded with one of A-Yuan’s grins, warm like sunshine. He looks a little like Senior Wei, actually, when he smiles. “Sizhui-gege! Play with me!”

Sizhui wishes he could. He kneels down to Wen Yuan’s level and shakes his head. “I’m sorry – I can’t right now. See, I have to go find Dad and Rich-gege. But I’ll play with you when I get back?”

“Oh,” A-Yuan responds. “Where are they?”

“They got lost in the woods, I think.”  

Wen Yuan thinks on this for a second before crossing his arms and puffing out his cheeks. “Daddy always tells me not to go into the woods but now he’s in the woods! He’s being naughty.”

If only things were that simple. Nonetheless, “You’re right, A-Yuan,” Sizhui says. “Dad should follow his own advice, shouldn’t he?”

“A-Yuan!” a voice calls and Sizhui sees Uncle Ning appear. “Where did you go? I only turned my back for one second…”

“He’s here, Uncle!” Sizhui replies with a wave.

“Uncle Ning!” A-Yuan calls, mimicking Sizhui’s wave. “Come play with me!”

“Why don’t we play inside, A-Yuan?” Wen Ning suggests instead, dithering in the doorway. “You’ll get wet out here.”  

“But that’s the game, Uncle!” A-Yuan giggles, leaving Sizhui’s side to scan the ground. “Daddy taught it to me. You find the biggest puddle and… ah!” Having settled on his target, Wen Yuan takes a running leap –

Splash! Sizhui watches, side by side with Uncle, as A-Yuan happily stomps around, sloshing up the rainwater. Uncle sighs. “A-jie isn’t going to like this…”

“I seem to really enjoy getting my clothes dirty,” Sizhui muses as A-Yuan jumps in a particularly muddy puddle.

“Young Master Wei is endlessly doing A-Yuan’s laundry,” Uncle agrees. “A-jie put him in charge of it after he buried you in the radish patches for the third time.”

Sizhui chuckles. “I don’t remember that… Though I can picture it.” Senior Wei, down by the creek, on his hands and knees bemoaning his life choices as he scrubs away at a small tunic. It’s a humorous image; the infamous and feared Yiling Patriarch, defeated by laundry.

“I wonder how Hanguang-Jun kept you clean at Cloud Recesses…?” Uncle ponders. “Even the children dress in white...

Sizhui grins. “Jingyi was always covered in grass stains as a child. That may be because he was always sneaking out to go pet the rabbits in the mountains. One time, when we were about seven, he took me with him and I fretted the whole way because Father hadn’t given me permission…” He’d cried, Sizhui remembers now, when Uncle Xichen found them later; he thought they’d be in so much trouble. Jingyi had panicked at the sight and then immediately insisted to Zewu-jun that he should take Sizhui’s punishment – whatever that was going to be.

But Uncle Xichen had just smiled and patted them both on the head. ‘Don’t fret, A-Yuan, A-Yi. There’s no rule against visiting the rabbits. I would be in trouble too if there was!’ Zewu-Jun had spent the rest of the afternoon with them, feeding the bunnies and telling them stories. At the end of the day, the trails of his robes were stained green too.

“Jingyi?” Uncle Ning questions, snapping Sizhui back to reality. His uncle’s head is tilted to the side, questioningly – and Sizhui feels silly. Of course Uncle doesn’t know who he’s talking about!

“My best friend,” Sizhui explains. “Lan Jingyi. We grew up together.”

“…Do you miss him?” Uncle Ning asks and – Sizhui frowns.

Does he – ?

Sizhui’s heart sinks to his stomach.

Of course. He’s in the past; Lan Jingyi is currently a toddler, like A-Yuan.

The Jingyi he knows…

“Yes,” Sizhui says softly, ducking his head to stare at his hands. “I do.”

But they don’t have time for this.

Sizhui shakes his head, blows out a calming breath, and rubs any signs of distress from his eyes. “Did you see which direction Father and Senior Wei went in?”

Uncle – hesitates. He looks strangely sad for a fleeting second but answers his nephew regardless. “You’re going after them?”

Sizhui nods. “They’ve been gone too long and its starting to get dark…”

The fact that a siege may reach them tonight is left unsaid; Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian, as their strongest fighters, need to be here and ready.

Uncle nods back at Sizhui. “I’ll get A-Yuan to Granny and join you. I’m sure we’ll find – ”

There’s a crash down the road. Completely caught off-guard, Sizhui jolts out of his skin, Uncle Ning jumps a near foot in the air, and A-Yuan squawks, tripping over his own feet. He scurries back to his family, hiding himself behind Uncle Ning’s legs and gripping tight.

“Was that a monster?” He asks, voice wobbling. As Uncle soothes the boy, Sizhui places a hand on his sword and takes a cautious step forward. Squinting, he can just about see a figure staggering up the path; it’s a man, Sizhui’s sure now, swaying back and forth, his white robes –

Wait, white?

“Is that Father?” Sizhui asks before he registers thinking it.

He’s running in the next moment.

“Hanguang-jun!” Sizhui shouts, skidding to his father’s side. The man doesn’t appear to be hurt, at a first glance, but his robes are stained with mud and he can’t seem to steady himself. Sizhui’s hands flitter anxiously over his father, but he keeps his distance, unsure how welcome the touch will be.

In fact, Father looks furious. “Where’s Wei Ying?” he demands to know – and that’s when Sizhui notices the single needle, lodged in the back of Lan Wangji’s neck.

“Uncle!” Sizhui calls back, “Get Auntie! Hanguang-jun is hurt!”

“Not hurt,” Father says, and repeats, harsher this time, “Where is Wei Ying?”

“We thought he was with you,” Sizhui replies. He can feel his chest closing up and his heart bounding in his chest.

“He’s not here?” Father asks, eyes wide with horror.

Wen Qing is making her way over now, a fierce scowl on her face. “What happened?” she questions, quickly assessing her prospective patient. Her brows pinch even more as she locates the needle. “That’s one of mine,” she hisses. In one sharp move, she pulls it out and Lan Wangji instantly straightens.

“It was Wei Ying,” Father says, stretching his arms and rolling his shoulders. “We have to go.”

“No, hold on,” Wen Qing says. “Wei Wuxian stabbed you with one of my needles? Why would he do that?”

“He’s gone,” Lan Wangji says, the most obviously panicked Sizhui has seen his father.

“Gone?” Wen Qing asks – and pales. “He hasn’t – !”

Father nods, and says, “To turn himself in.”

Sizhui’s world falls apart in that moment.

“But I told him!” Sizhui protests. “The Jins will come to the Burial Mounds anyway!” It’s all he can think to say; his head is reeling.

Why didn’t his dad listen?

“This is why I didn’t tell him about the Jin’s demands, Lan Wangji!” Wen Qing snarls. She stands directly in Father’s space and points an accusing finger into his chest. “You’ve already taken so many of my family from me, you and Gusu Lan and all the other sects. How dare you jeopardise one of the only people I have left!”

“I’m not the reason he’s here,” Lan Wangji barks back. “I’m trying to help.”

Wen Qing scoffs. “Help? You’ve made things worse! ‘Come to Gusu, Wei Ying!’ Like that would fix anything!”

“You – ” Father begins, but Sizhui has had enough.

“We don’t have time for this!” he yells with uncharacteristic anger, shocking his Aunt and Father into silence. He steels his nerves. “Hanguang-jun, how long do you think you were unconscious?”

“Two hours,” he says stiffly, his face returning to its vacant expression. “Two and a half at most.”

Okay, okay. Senior Wei can’t have gotten far, especially by foot. Perhaps he’ll catch a ride – steal a horse – but he can’t move faster than a sword.

“Auntie, Hanguang-jun and I need to go after Dad,” Sizhui says. “We will hopefully be able to catch up with him before he reaches the Nightless city but – ” Sizhui bites his lip, shakes his head. “The Burial Mounds need to be ready for evacuation at a moment’s notice, whether Hanguang-Jun and I are back or not.”

Wen Qing’s eyes well with tears. She takes Sizhui into her arms and hugs him tight. Sizhui melts into the warmth, hiding his face in the crook of her neck. For one moment, Sizhui feels safe. It’s not to last. “Stay safe, A-Yuan,” she says into his ear and pulls away. She turns to Lan Wangji, tension rife. There is an unspoken threat behind her words as she says, “Bring them both home, Hanguang-Jun.”

Father, as solemnly as he can, nods. “I will do all that I can.”

Lan Sizhui and Lan Wangji set off on their swords just as the sun falls beyond the horizon.

 

They fly in silence for a long while.

Sizhui is used to the quiet – but this is different. Normally, Father’s silences are comfortable; Sizhui has spent many hours sat in the Jingshi with Lan Wangji, neither of them feeling the need to utter a single word.

This silence dogs Sizhui and only speaks of all that is left unsaid between them.

The thing is, he doesn’t know where to start.

It shouldn’t be so hard to have a conversation with his Father. But what, at this stage of their lives, do they have in common? Sizhui can think of two things at least – being raised in Cloud Recesses and loving Wei Wuxian – but neither seem like appropriate topics right now.

The situation they’re in doesn’t make this any easier. Sizhui is perhaps the tensest he’s ever felt in his life. He can’t stop his fingers from jittering and his heart is booming in his ears. Father must feel the same – and so the mood isn’t exactly conductive for the talk Sizhui and Lan Wangji need to have.

But this silence is eating Sizhui alive.

So, “I think that’s a Dove tree?” Sizhui comments pathetically as they fly relatively low and close to a forest. He wants to smack himself after speaking.

Lan Wangji hums noncommittally – and Sizhui isn’t even sure his father heard him.

A wasted effort then. Sizhui isn’t sure whether to be disappointed or joyous; at least he doesn’t have to talk to Father about trees now.

Yet – “Why does Wei Ying not want to come to Gusu?” Father asks, completely out of the blue. Sizhui does a double take; Lan Wangji is still facing the sky ahead but his gaze is unfocused, his mind a world away. The only reason Sizhui knows he’s being addressed is because Father continues: “Do you know?”

Sizhui coughs. “He – uh – ” Is this a secret Sizhui is allowed to share? No, Father needs to know. “He does want to come to Gusu with you. In fact, I think Senior Wei would spend all his time with you, if he could.”  

Father is – processing something, Sizhui thinks. His forehead is creased and his fist, the one Sizhui can see, is clenched around the scabbard of his sword.

“Then why does he refuse?” Lan Wangji asks, frustrated.

Sizhui sighs. He really shouldn’t have to be the one explaining this. “At first, Senior Wei thought you were asking him to submit to punishment.”

“What?!” Father snaps, his sword dipping in the air. He quickly steadies himself but he returns to Sizhui’s eyeline obviously panicked. “I would never!”

“That’s what I said!” Sizhui replies. “I know – well, I know you well enough to know you’d never. But Senior Wei – everyone is against him, Hanguang-jun. He doesn’t know who he can trust.”

Sizhui, so high in the sky, feels a weight in his chest.

Then, “…I apologise,” Father says in the next moment. It’s Sizhui’s turn to nearly fall off his sword in shock.

“For what?” Sizhui replies, bewildered.

Lan Wangji’s next words send a shiver down Sizhui’s spine. “I’m not your Father.”

Sizhui is… speechless. What is Lan Wangji – ? Does he not want – ?

“I don’t remember your childhood,” Lan Wangji continues, before Sizhui can jump to conclusions. “I have met Wen Yuan only once. I care but… I’m not the man who raised you.”

Sizhui – takes a deep breath.

He understands. He wants to cry. But – Lan Wangji is right. This man, before him is so much younger, so comparably inexperienced, to Father.

He’s not Sizhui’s Father.

Yet, perhaps. But – will he ever be? If Sizhui changes things here and now, will this Lan Wangji even have the capacity to become his father?

If this Lan Wangji does not become his father… what does that mean for the man he inadvertently abandoned in Guanyin temple, bleeding on the ground?

His head hurts and his eyes burn. This is all so confusing.

“I’m sorry too,” Sizhui says quietly. “For expecting more from you than is fair.”

“No,” Lan Wangji says. “That is not – ” He stops; and starts, “I want to meet your expectations. I am – trying.”

‘But it is hard,’ Sizhui interprets.

They fly in silence again.

Thankfully, it’s not long before the Nightless City comes into view. Illuminated by constant fires trailing down from the mountain tops, Sizhui can see Wen Ruohan’s castle and the lines of disciples assembled before it; an army summoned to siege a collection of civilians, children, and elderly.

“Stay close,” Lan Wangji says, his back set strong, while Sizhui feels sick to his stomach.

They drop down at the gate to the city.

What they find, unexpectedly, is a group of cultivators, writhing on the ground. Lan Wangji jumps down, landing in the centre of the group and Sizhui follows, arriving just as the cultivators begin to haul themselves to their feet.

“Hanguang-jun!” the men chorus, bowing in sheer relief – and Sizhui scans the crowd. He recognises not a single face – which is perhaps a blessing and a curse. There is no one to question him, here, on his attire and his headband. Alternatively, young as these men are, for Sizhui not to recognise a single man…

What happens to these people tonight?

“Wei Ying?” Lan Wangji asks, and the group is more than eager to answer.

“Hanguang-Jun, you are too late,” the cultivator closest to Lan Wangji responds. “Wei Wuxian just left.”

“Yes, just ten minutes ago,” another man chimes in.

“Where did he go?” Lan Wangji probes, likely already knowing the answer but needing conformation, nonetheless.

The answer is as expected, though it does not hurt any less to hear. “He probably went to Nightless City for the meeting.”

Lan Wangji doesn’t hesitate. With a nod of thanks to the gathered cultivators, he heads for the stairs. Sizhui goes to follow –

But –

There’s something Sizhui’s forgetting.

Lan Wangji halts when he realises he is moving on alone. “Lan Sizhui?” he calls back, halfway up the first set of stairs.

Sizhui wants to go – he needs to follow.

“I’ll be right behind you,” he says instead. “There’s something I need to do here.”

Lan Wangji frowns. “I promised to keep you safe,” he says, and ‘I can’t do that if you’re here’ Sizhui interprets.

He smiles at his – at Lan Wangji. “I won’t be long, Hanguang-jun. I’ll catch up to you.”

For a second, Lan Wangji looks spooked. Sizhui doesn’t know what it is that triggered the reaction – nor does he have time to dwell on it. Lan Wangji composes himself, nods, and then continues his charge up the steps.

In the next minute or so, the group of cultivators follow him up to the city, leaving Sizhui alone at the gate, unsure as it what he’s waiting for.

He paces back and forth before the entry way, racking his brains. What happens tonight? What is he missing? He wishes Senior Wei was here or his – his – Father, or perhaps Uncle Xichen, or even Sect Leader Jiang. They’d know what he’s missing, primarily because they were here, sixteen years ago.

Sizhui is working from second-hand experience, as detailed as whispers down a chain.

He cannot wait here for much longer – Senior Wei needs him – but there is something else Sizhui must do, he knows.

That’s when he notices the woman in mourning robes, stumbling down the road.

The puzzle pieces click.

Chapter Text

Jiang Yanli.

How did Sizhui nearly forget about Jiang Yanli?

He watches as – his aunt, this is his aunt! – makes her way towards him; her breaths are ragged and her footing unstable – but she is undeterred in her pursuit. Jiang Yanli is making good speed as she heads to the Nightless city.

Unknowingly, each step she takes leads her closer to her death.

Sizhui stands in awe of this woman for a moment – her quiet stubbornness – but, soon, shakes his head, forcing himself to focus. He tries to recall Lan Qiren’s lectures – his blow-by-blow account of tonight’s bloodbath.

He pictures his great-uncle, pacing back and forth in his classroom, drilling through the information like a military commander. ‘The Yiling Patriarch crashed the meeting,’ the Lan Qiren of his mind recounts. ‘A fight broke out when he summoned ghouls and ghosts with Chenqing, the Demon-summoning flute. Soon, in his hysteria, Wei Wuxian lost control of the resentful spirits, leading to – ”

With some horror, Sizhui realises that Jiang Yanli’s death was but a footnote in his teacher’s account of tonight. If Jiang Yanli makes it to the Nightless city, Sizhui doesn’t have the information to protect her.

She’s growing closer now and she seems determined to ignore Sizhui; why should she not? Gusu Lan has shown themselves to be aligned with Jin Guangshan, the man who wants to murder her brother.

But Sizhui has to make her listen; he has to make Jiang Yanli trust him.

How Sizhui is going to do that…

“Madam Jin!” Sizhui calls, flying by the seat of his trousers. He’s just going to have to improvise. “Please, a minute of your time!”

Jiang Yanli staggers to a halt, panting. Her mourning robes look cumbersome and heavy, a testament to the Madam’s determination in coming this far, and her eyes are red-rimmed, swollen from tears. She eyes Sizhui cautiously, holding herself a good distance away.

Sizhui bows, face dead to the floor, and asks, awkwardly, “You are Jiang Yanli, correct?” If he’s wrong after all this –  

 “I am,” Jiang Yanli replies, his embarrassment easing some tension in her. She smiles – but her eyes flitter behind him, up towards the stairs. “Though, I am in a hurry. Is it urgent?”

“The most urgent,” Sizhui confirms – and settles on throwing all caution to the wind. “I arrived here with Hanguang-jun. Madam Jin, we are trying to protect your brother.”

Jiang Yanli’s breath catches. “You mean – ?”

“Wei Wuxian, yes. He has been set up,” Sizhui continues. “He is not responsible for the death of Jin Zixun, n-nor your husband.”

Her husband – Jin Ling’s father – heavens, who Sizhui was too late to save. He feels another stab of guilt, as if he didn’t feel ashamed enough already of that failure.

Nonetheless, “A-Xian is innocent?” Jiang Yanli echoes, her eyes growing as wide as saucers. “How do you know?”

“I – ”

Sizhui cuts off.

Can he tell Jiang Yanli the truth? Should he tell her the truth? Where Sizhui knew he would be able to convince the Wens, Senior Wei, and Lan Wangji… He knows next to nothing about Jiang Yanli. She has no future he can tell her about.

Besides, does she even know that he – Wen Yuan – exists? Without knowing who he is, what his relationship with Senior Wei is…

Why should she believe him?

Sizhui can’t risk that, not now, not when things are so time sensitive.

‘In Lan An’s name,’ Sizhui thinks, with some horror, ‘I’m going to have to lie again.’ He’ll have to ascribe himself some punishment later – lying to his Dad’s beloved Shijie. But even then, what does he tell her? It has to be a lie that Senior Wei and Lan Wangji can back up…  

An idea flickers to life, a candle lit without an ignition source.

Perhaps he doesn’t have to lie exactly! More, bend the truth…

So, “My Father was a member of the Lan Sect,” Sizhui says slowly, “but my mother was a Wen.”

And it’s true! Sizhui isn’t lying. He just has to create gaps in his story and let Jiang Yanli come to her own conclusions – which she does readily. She walks forwards, eyes shining, and takes his hands in hers. “Are you saying that my brother has been giving you shelter at the Burial Mounds?”

“Mm,” Sizhui nods. Jiang Yanli’s hands are soft and warm – smooth and delicate. “Senior Wei has been protecting me and my family. I know you must want proof. Um,” Sizhui wracks his brains, biting his lip. What does he know about Wei Wuxian that only those at the Burial Mounds would…

“Oh!” Sizhui snaps his fingers. “I know you visited Yiling just before your wedding. You brought your famous Lotus Rib soup with you. My uncle saved some for m- my little brother.”

The soup Sizhui remembers clearly; he can practically still taste it on the tip of his tongue, the salty broth a sharp contrast to the nostalgic monotony of the Burial Mounds’ radishes.

“Is that enough?” Sizhui asks. “I can think of more – ” but his aunt cuts him off.

“No, no, Young Master Lan, that’s enough,” she placates, the corners of her lips twitching with barely concealed glee. “I believe you. No one outside of the Burial Mounds knows of my visit to Yiling.”

Sizhui feels a surge of relief. “Please, then, Madam Jin, I must ask you a favour.” He clasps back at Jiang Yanli’s hands and says, “Allow me to bring Senior Wei to you. Don’t advance to the Nightless city.”

Jiang Yanli – frowns. Uh oh. Her brow is set in an uncanny imitation of Senior Wei; when Sizhui sees this expression on his Dad’s face, he knows there is no swaying the man. “Why should I not go? My brother needs me.”

“No, please,” Sizhui urges, trying to squash his rising panic. “It’s dangerous. Senior Wei would not forgive himself if anything happened to you.”

“That is exactly why I must go, Young Master,” Jiang Yanli insists. “I’ve already…” She swallows. “I cannot lose another member of my family. Not today. A-Xian has protected me my entire life. This time, someone has to be there to protect him.

Her fingers begin to slide away and Sizhui panics. “Madam Jin!” he basically shouts, unwilling to release his aunt’s hands. He clasps them tight and tries not to shake. “I beg you, trust me! I will bring your brother back to you. Senior Wei – ” Sizhui pushes through his throat’s desire to close up “ – is my family too. I will do everything in my power to ensure he is safe.”

How does Sizhui prove how sincere he is? How does he convince Jiang Yanli to stay?

Can he give her something? Proof that he will return? Yes, that would work, but what? He can’t give her his sword – he needs that for the upcoming battle – but its not like he has anything else notable on his… person…

Oooh, Sizhui has a terrible idea.

He reaches up and begins untying his forehead ribbon, his cheeks burning as he does so. “I am sure you know how important these ribbons are to the Lan sect. Here,” Sizhui says, carefully placing the band in his aunt’s hands. “This is a promise. You keep this safe and I’ll keep Senior Wei safe. When I get back,” Sizhui smiles, hesitant, “we can trade.”

Jiang Yanli, mouth slightly agape, does stares down at her hands, then back up at Sizhui – and then back down at her hands.

Sizhui, internally, wants to scream. This is it. He’s a sham of a Gusu Lan disciple. He has broken perhaps the most important rule of his sect. He desperately hopes that Madam Jin doesn’t know what this – him giving away his forehead ribbon – means.

He really doesn’t want to marry his aunt anytime soon.  

It’s worth it. “O-okay,” Jiang Yanli eventually replies. “I see… you’re serious. I’ll remain here, for now.”

Sizhui feels a weight lift off his chest.

“Thank you, Madam Jin,” he gushes. “I’m so relieved to hear that. I’ll be back soon, I promise, and with your brother in tow.”

Finally, Sizhui can move on, after Lan Wangji and after Senior Wei. He can move on into this fight knowing that he has changed one thing at least. He turns to head up the stairs to the Nightless city –

“Wait!” Jiang Yanli calls after him. Sizhui spins back to see his aunt, one of her hands reaching after him, the other clutching his forehead ribbon like a lifeline. “What’s your name, Young Master Lan?” his aunt asks.

“…Sizhui,” he says, with the nod of his head. “Lan Sizhui. It… It has been an honour to meet you finally, Jiang Yanli.”

Sizhui bows once more, an introduction and a goodbye all in one; it is a promise of future greetings and of new beginnings. He does not wait to see if his aunt returns the gesture. No, in the blink of an eye, Sizhui is gone, racing up the stairs towards the Nightless City.

Chapter Text

Wangji feels like he’s been running for hours. In reality, barely a few minutes have passed – but every step feels like a li and every minute feels like forever.

He has to go faster, climb faster. The Nightless City is like a mountain; staircases stretch on before Wangji, towering up into the heavens. He’d fly the distance if not for the fear of being spotted and detained in his pursuit. Wangji has to make it to Wei Ying in time, even if it’s the last thing he does.

Wei Ying has a family waiting for him; brothers and sisters and a son.

Honestly, Wangji is kicking himself for not seeing it sooner. Lan Sizhui – this young man he supposedly raised in one future – is as much Wei Ying’s son as he is Wangji’s. Seeing Wei Ying’s smile on the boy’s face, as he urged Wangji on to the Nightless city, confirmed that for him.

‘I won’t be long, Hanguang-jun. I’ll catch up to you,’ Sizhui had said, the tone of his voice and quirk of his lips a ghost of a younger Wei Ying.

Wangji left Wei Ying’s son – his son – behind. Wangji doesn’t even know if Lan Sizhui has seen proper combat before. He’s certainly never fought in a war, not like they had at his age. Truly, Wangji wants Lan Sizhui at his side, where he can keep the boy safe, but he squashes the concern.

Sizhui will be okay, Wangji has to tell himself. They had no time to wait – Wangji had to move on.

He’s nearing Wen Ruohan’s palace now, where he knows all the Sects have assembled. His brother is here, Wangji remembers coolly as he climbs the last flight of stairs. He doesn’t want to have to oppose Xichen, nor his Sect – but for Wei Ying, he will.

His brother will understand, Wangji rationalises. When this is all over, he’ll sit down and explain.

For now, however, Wangji will just listen to his heart.

It’s taken him long enough.

Wangji reaches the palace grounds and skids to a halt.

Before him, the Sects stand in single-file lines, facing the castle and Jin Guangshan. Their formation has broken, however, as each cultivator stands with their swords raised, pointed towards the sky.

Wangji follows the line and sees Wei Ying standing on the roof of the palace, his arm outstretched. In his palm, Wangji can see the Stygian Tiger Amulet, spinning and churning with resentful energy.

“Take it then!” Wei Ying snarls; it hurts Wangji to hear the pain in his voice. “This is what you want, right? Take me and the Stygian Tiger Amulet!”

“You’re surrendering?” Jin Guangshan asks, and Wei Ying nods.

“On the condition – ”

A wave of murmurs breaks out amongst the crowd. “On the condition?!” Sect Leader Yao spits. “How bold of you, Wei Ying! To think yourself in the position to negotiate terms!” The assembled cultivators chime in their agreements, sheep in a herd.

“Jin Guangshan,” Wei Ying cuts in, loud and clear, “promised me that the Wens of the Burial Mounds would be left in peace if I surrendered. Are you going to honour those terms, Chief Cultivator?” There is a smirk on Wei Ying’s face, so unlike what Wangji has come to expect from this man.

It is so sad, this sly grin, for all the pain it masks.

In contrast, Wangji cannot see Jin Guangshan’s face and thus cannot judge his mood. Depressingly, he is not surprised, however, when the Chief Cultivator responds to Wei Ying with deceit. “I promised no such thing to you, Wei Ying. In the assault at Qiongqi Path, you slaughtered countless disciples with no respect for mercy. I cannot – nor could I ever – negotiate with a criminal the likes of you.”

In the horror of it all – this straight up falsity – Wangji doesn’t expect Wei Ying to laugh. The Wei Ying of Wangji’s youth laughed like windchimes. This Wei Ying sounds flat – dead.

“You don’t associate with criminals?” Wei Ying echoes. “What a joke!”

“You think this is funny?” Nie Mingjue bites, Baxia raised aloft in a clear threat of violence.

“Of course!” Wei Ying claps back, laughing still. “My life has become nothing but a sick joke! I didn’t kill anyone at Qiongqi Path! I was not only ambushed but set up! You planted a demonic cultivator to control Wen Ning, Jin Guangyao!”

The crowd erupts into whispers once again, the accused man having taken a staggered step back. The eyes of the cultivation world are on him as Wei Ying hisses, “Yes, I am addressing you, you snake. Killing your own brother! How low can you sink?”

“Wei Ying!” Jin Guangshan snipes. “Do you have no shame?!”

“Do you?!” Wei Ying retorts. He’s crying again, Wangji realises with a sharp pang to his heart. “You desire my Stygian Tiger Amulet for your own gain! You turn me into a pariah to push your own agenda! You are nothing but another Wen Ruohan – a dictator in gold rather than red!”

These comments, more than anything Wei Ying has said so far, inspire the most hatred in his audience. As the crowd ridicule and condemn the Yiling Patriarch, Wangji’s love says more to himself than anyone else, “Ah, what a fool I’ve been… Sizhui was right. I should never have come here. Still… I cannot allow you all to siege the Burial Mounds.” Wei Ying rises to his feet, twirling his flute methodically. “No hard feelings, eh?”

He begins to raise Chenqing to his lips –

There’s a sharp twang and an arrow whirls through the air, lodging itself in Wei Ying’s shoulder. The air is knocked from Wangji’s lungs as Wei Ying lurches back.

Sect Leader Yao, shocked as the rest of them but horribly pleased, chortles to the armed disciple, “You got him! Nice shot!” All the while, Wei Ying is passively inspecting the arrow – as if it is but a minor inconvenience. In one smooth move, he yanks the projectile from his chest.

Wangji wants to vomit with the action – he should be up there, protecting Wei Ying. Yet he’s here, at the back of the crowd, his feet as heavy as stone. Wei Ying twirls the arrow round his fingers and –

Hiss-thwack! A body crashes to the ground and the first cultivator of the night is killed by his own weapon.

With that, the bloodbath begins.

Cultivators race for the stairs, piling in like ants, but with one decisive note from Chenqing, they’re all thrown back. Dark tendrils of resentful energy slither through the air, slashing and slicing through disciples like paper. Mayhem breaks out on the palace grounds, as the Sects’ formations quickly fall apart.

This is the Yiling Patriarch, they’ve all forgotten; the man who won them the Sunshot Campaign almost single-handedly.  

Wangji, in the midst of the chaos, finally finds his feet. He has to get to Wei Ying. He has to call this all off! If Wei Ying kills too many here, if he steps one foot further down the single plank bridge…

He mounts his sword and flies, over the battlefield and past the huddled mass of Jiang Sect cultivators, motionless in the midst of the fighting, up to Wei Ying. Wangji drops to the roof – and Wei Ying lowers Chenqing.

“Lan Zhan…” he says softly, his eyes red-rimmed. He’s so far away, across the beam and tiles. “You’re here.”

“Stop this,” Wangji says back.

But Wei Ying just sighs. “I’m sorry. I was hoping this would all be over by the time you woke up.”

“You mean you’d be dead?” Wangji snaps, in a flare of anger. “Wei Ying, please!”

“Do you think I have any other choice now?” He speaks as if talking to a child, precise and slow. Wangji hates how useless it makes him feel.

“What about the Wens? Lan Sizhui?” he tries – but Wangji is rebutted once again.

“They’ll be okay,” Wei Ying replies with the shake of his head. “Sizhui is strong, as is Wen Ning. They can protect the Burial Mounds in my stead. Besides…” Wei Ying trails off, surveying the battle bellow. He continues after a moment of thought, “If they think the true villain has been defeated here...”

It’s easy enough for Wangji to fill in the gaps.

‘You were never the villain,’ Wangji wants to say, but what comes out instead is, “The Wens – they’d rather you live than have you become a martyr. I’d rather – ” and Wangji’s voice breaks, and that says more than words ever could.

“Oh, Lan Zhan... I’m so sorry,” Wei Ying says in response. Wangji dare not meet his eyes, fearful he won’t be able to control his tears if he does. Wei Ying continues, “I knew, one day, it would come to this… But I thought you’d be happy to see me go – that my death would close an unhappy chapter of your life… I never wanted to hurt you.”

“Then stay,” Wangji says.

Come home with me.

Wei Ying smiles. “Perhaps, in our next lives, I can.”

He turns away and raises Chenqing to finish what he’s started.

And then a cry breaks out. “Senior Wei!”

Wei Ying freezes in motion. “A-Yuan…?” he breathes. Wangji turns, scanning the crowd – but he can’t locate Lan Sizhui amongst the sea of white robes. Wei Ying’s gaze searches frantically, Chenqing lowering to his side.

Suddenly, “You brought my son here?!” Wei Ying growls at Wangji.

Wangji gulps. “He insisted.”

“Senior Wei!” Wangji hears Lan Sizhui call again. “Where are you?! Please, we have to go!”

That’s all the prompting it takes.

Wei Ying jumps, ricocheting down the building. Wangji follows, right on his tail, as Wei Ying lands at the base of the castle, then as he sprints down the steps to the palace grounds.

As soon as he does so, “Wei Wuxian came down!” Sect Leader Yao cries. “Kill him!”

This, Wei Ying ignores. “A-Yuan!” he cries. A second later, he has to swerve, ducking the swipe of a Jin cultivator. Wangji steps in, quickly disarming the man, Bichen gleaming the moonlight.

“A-Yuan!” Wei Ying cries again, frantically searching the battlefield.

“Wei Ying, your flute!” Wangji reminds his love, as he knocks another cultivator off balance. Lan Sizhui should recognise the sound and should be able to follow it to them.

Wei Ying, shellshocked as he is, takes a moment to process the prompt. Soon, however, Chenqing’s tune floats through the battleground, clearing their path of demonic forces.

As they fight side by side, clearing corner after corner, Lan Sizhui’s calls to them, so close yet so far. Wangji feels his own panic beginning to swell the longer this goes on, regretting his decision to leave the young man behind.

At some point, they pass the huddle of Jiang Sect cultivators. Wangji can see Jiang Wanyin, desperately trying to meet his brother’s eye, but Wei Ying continues on unaware. As he shouts out for his son once again, Wangji sees Jiang Wanyin startle, his brows furrowed in confusion. Wangji cannot linger, however. He pushes one cultivator back, then another. Bichen is slowly growing stained but Wangji couldn’t care less.

Then, Wangji spots him.

Lan Sizhui stands, sword drawn, half the ground away; he’s missing his forehead ribbon but, otherwise, he appears intact; there’s not even a single stain on his white robes. Wangji meets his son’s gaze across the palace grounds and Sizhui sags with relief. “Senior Wei! Hanguang-jun!”

Wei Ying stops dead at the sound – and this is the same moment that the resentful energy in the air swells and lashes out. Fierce corpses begin to rise around them, unprompted by Chenqing.

Yet Wangji can hear the solemn sound of the flute still, reverberating in his ears.

Someone else is controlling the ghosts…!

A man, behind Sizhui, is engulphed in the smoke. The darkness pours into his chest, the cultivator screaming in agony – and he starts charging for the nearest target, sword raised.

Sizhui.

There is no time to call out – to ask Wei Ying to call the corpses off or to reach his son in time. Distracted by their appearance, Lan Sizhui does not sense the treat lurching towards him. There’s a shrill cry and, distantly, Wangji recognises the voice as Wei Ying’s, begging for Sizhui to watch out.

The sword comes down and Wangji watches his son crumple.

Wangji sees red.

He charges through the crowd and beheads the corpse towering over Sizhui with one sure motion of Bichen. Before the body even reaches the ground, Wangji is at his son’s back, inspecting his wound. “F-Father,” Sizhui says weakly as he does so, but Wangji hushes the boy.

The gash is deep, worryingly so, and blood is seeping into Sizhui’s Lan Sect uniform. But Sizhui is a cultivator, Wangji reminds himself; his son’s golden core is strong. If they get out of here now and back to the Burial Mounds, Wen Qing can see to him. His son will be seen to by perhaps the best doctor in the known world.

He’ll be okay.

“Wei Ying, we need – ” Wangji starts – but then he realises his love isn’t at his side, not anymore.

Wangji looks up and finds Wei Ying stood at an arm’s length, holding himself back. Tears track down his face and his chest is heaving.

“I’m sorry,” Wei Ying is chanting. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m not controlling them! This isn’t me! I’ve hurt him again. Why am I always hurting people?!”

“D-dad,” Sizhui croaks, trying to pull himself to a sitting position. Wangji grips Sizhui’s arms tight, uncontrollably, as Wei Ying breaks down before his eyes.  

“The Yiling Patriarch has gone mad!” Sect Leader Ouyang shouts. “Kill him now! Take his Stygian Tiger Amulet!”

“I’m sorry,” Wei Ying says once more, just before the Yao Sect and Ouyang Sect disciples close in on him.

He flees.

As soon as he does, “No, no, no, no!” Sizhui starts trembling in Wangji’s hold. “Father, you have to go after him!”

Wangji releases his grip on Sizhui’s arms, leaving blood-stained handprints on the fabric. “But – ”

“He’s going to jump!” Sizhui sobs, sending chills down Wangji’s spine. “Father, he’s going to jump!”

Wangji feels his heart break even with the words. Wei Ying is – ? He wouldn’t – ?

“GO!” Sizhui screams and Wangji runs.

He shoves his way past cultivators, hoping over corpses and charging past cultivators. They’re a blur of coloured fabric and swords, Wangji never letting Wei Ying out of his sight. He doesn’t even feel it as his sword-arm is slashed by a stray blade, the pain dull in comparison to the anguish of his mind.

Wei Ying can’t, he can’t, this can’t be happening, this can’t be happening! I have to get there – I have to stop Wei Ying.

Wei Ying.

Wei Ying, Wei Ying, WeiYing, WeiYing, WeiYing,WeiYing,WeiYing,WeiYing –

Wangji jumps through the air and flies down before Wei Ying, standing at the edge of a cliff. His love spins around, not really seeing Wangji, his back to the lava and the drop. He takes an unconscious step back.

“Wei Ying, come back,” Wangji says – but it’s too late.

Wei Ying closes his eyes and falls.

Chapter Text

Sizhui sees the world playing in slow motion.

Hunched over on the ground, the cool stone slats beneath his fingers, Sizhui watches as his father furiously sprints after Senior Wei. Around him, the crowd parts like the waves of the sea, rough and unrelenting but moving, nonetheless.

Sizhui has to go after them both, he knows. His back is screaming in pain and his robes are growing sickeningly wet but he has to get there. Father alone won’t be able to convince Dad to stay; it’s a horrible truth but one that is proved by the world Sizhui grew up in.

He has to get up. He has to move.

With a grimace, Sizhui staggers to his feet and begins to stumble after his parents. Though unsteady, he moves swiftly, ducking around fists and bursts of resentful energy. The distance he has to cover is barely half a li but it stretches out before Sizhui like a choppy ocean, full of hidden dangers.

He ducks, swerves, runs – and then it’s rinse and repeat.

Just as he reaches halfway – his parents are talking now, on the precipice of the cliff, Sizhui can see – an arm grabs Sizhui’s shoulder, dragging him to a halt.

“You!” Sect Leader Jiang spits. “What’s going on? What did you and Hanguang-Jun say to my brother?”

Sizhui tries to wrench his arm away unsuccessfully – all he achieves is aggravating his wound, it twinging uncomfortably with the moment. Indeed, Sect Leader Jiang’s hold is steel-tight, Zidian crackling around his fingertips. “You’re not going anywhere until you explain!”

“He’s going to jump,” Sizhui hears himself say. He – he might still be crying? His voice sounds hoarse and his breaths are ragged. “Sect Leader Jiang, he’s going to jump!”

“Who is?” Jiang Wanyin growls, as Sizhui struggles to keep his dad in his sights. Copying the motion, Sect Leader Jiang swerves so he’s facing the precipice where Senior Wei stands – and in the next moment Wei Wuxian topples backwards and over the cliff.

Sect Leader Jiang wails like a wounded dog, in complete surprise and distress, and Sizhui feels a surge of dread swallow him whole.  

With Jiang Wanyin distracted, Sizhui manages to squirm away, breaking into a dead sprint across the battlefield. As soon as he does so, he can hear the Sect Leader barking orders behind him, but he doesn’t care to listen.

The image of his dad falling backwards is just playing on loop in his mind.

He arrives at the precipice to find Father lying on the rocks, leaning out over the lava, Senior Wei’s wrist tightly in his grip. He’s starting to shake with exertion, and there’s blood dripping down his arm, and Sizhui knows Hanguang-Jun can’t hang on much longer.

So Sizhui scrambles to the cliff edge, down on his front, and thrusts his hand out over the edge.

“Dad, take my hand!” He cries – and shock flickers over his Dad’s face.

“A-Yuan…?”

Sizhui wiggles closer to the edge – not without warning from Father, muttering softly – and manages to get his palm that much closer to his dad.

“You’re not leaving me,” Sizhui chokes out. “I’m not losing you again. Come home.”

“A-Yuan, your back,” his Dad says, fearfully. Sizhui can feel the blood beginning to drip down his arms, but he doesn’t care.

“Auntie is waiting for you to come home,” Sizhui says instead. “As is Uncle, and Granny, and Uncle Four, and everyone else at the Burial Mounds. Wen Yuan doesn’t want you to go, and Father doesn’t want you to go and I really, really don’t want you to go.”

“This is for the best,” his Dad says uneasily, less convinced of this path of action than he was even moments prior and Sizhui capitalises off of that.

“Your sister came! She’s here, at the gates to the city!” and his dad’s breath hitches.

“Shijie?” he questions.

Sizhui nods his head, almost violently. “I promised her I’d bring you back to her. Don’t make me break my promise.”

There are a million thoughts a second, whirling in Senior Wei’s mind, Sizhui can tell, but Father interrupts them, in the effort to make this choice simple: “Wei Ying,” he pleads, his voice strained, “Please.”

Senior Wei’s lip quivers – and his dad eyes Sizhui hand, finally, finally. “I’ve only ever made things worse,” he says.

“But that’s not true!” Sizhui retorts. “I’m alive because of you!”

Senior Wei swallows. “A-Yuan – ” he begins, but Sizhui lets his heart out his mouth.

“If you’ve only ever done wrong, then how is it that there are so many people who love you?!”

That’s the truth of the matter. His dad has lost himself to those who hate him; he was torn down by the world and shaped by the years of threats and violence. Wei Wuxian has been observing himself through a cracked mirror, one that can never show his complete reflection.

His dad is flawed, he’s made mistakes – but haven’t they all?

Sizhui just wants his dad to know how loved he is.

That’s when there’s a voice over their shoulders. “Wei Wuxian…?”

Sizhui turns his head – as much as he can in this position – to see Sect Leader Jiang, as pale as his sister’s mourning robes.

Senior Wei’s face sags, Sizhui’s fleeting progress gone in an instant. “Jiang Cheng…” he says, resigned and final, and with this sight before him, Sizhui is hardly surprised when Sect Leader Jiang’s face twists with anger.

“Jiang Wanyin,” Father spits, his teeth grinding. “Don’t!” But –

“If you fall, I’m jumping right after you to break your damn legs,” Sect Leader Jiang says –

And Wei Wuxian laughs. It bubbles out of him; Senior Wei even looks surprised to hear the sound. Despite it all, despite the battle raging behind them and the blood spilled between brothers, Sect Leader Jiang got his Dad to laugh.

A piece of the cracked mirror heals.

Wei Wuxian, tears flowing freely now, says, “We can’t be having that.” In the next moment, his Dad is reaching up and clapping his free hand into Sizhui’s.

The touch is electric.

Immediately, Sizhui and his Father pull, in a breath of complete spontaneous synchronicity, hauling Wei Wuxian back to solid ground. In the next moment, Sizhui is throwing himself into his Dad’s arms and bursting into tears, uncontrollably sobbing but so incredibly relieved.

“I’m sorry, A-Yuan,” his Dad says in his ear, stroking his hair. “Don’t cry, not for me.”

“You’re so stupid,” Sizhui just about manages to reply. “Never do that again.”

“I won’t,” his Dad says, and Sizhui knows it’s a promise.

 

Senior Wei passes out almost instantly after that. Sizhui finds himself clutching tight to his body’s warmth, burying himself in the fabric at his Dad’s shoulder and revelling in the steady thrum of his heart.

Above them, Father has returned to his feet and, clutching at his arm, the sleeve soaked through with blood, he converses with Sect Leader Jiang in hushed but hurried tones.

“Lan Wangji, what the fuck is going on here?” Sect Leader Jiang hisses. “What Wei Wuxian said – about being framed – is that all true?”

“Mm,” Father nods. “Wei Ying is innocent. He did not kill Jin Zixuan nor Jin Zixun.”

Sect Leader Jiang mutters a string of curses under his breath. “Right, okay. So all this?” he says, gesturing to the battle around them. “It’s a sham?”

“Mm,” Father repeats. “We must leave.”

“…Yeah, you’re right.” Sect Leader Jiang admits, seemingly begrudgingly. He rubs at his temples – exhales deeply. “Right, give me Wei Wuxian then.”

“You’re coming?” Sizhui blurts, finally pulling himself away from his Dad’s embrace.

Sect Leader Jiang glowers at him. “Of course I’m coming. I’m not letting Wei Wuxian out of my sight if he’s pulling shit like this. So, hand him over.” Sect Leader Jiang heads towards them, arms outstretched, but –

“I’ll carry Wei Ying,” Father interjects, stepping between Sect Leader Jiang and them, aura cool.

This only worsens Jiang Wanyin’s mood. “You’re injured, Hanguang-jun,” he snaps. “If you carry Wei Wuxian on your sword, you’ll only fuck up your arm more. You deal with whoever-the-hell-this-is clutching at Wei Wuxian for dear life and I’ll carry my brother.” The last words are said so pointedly that Sizhui is surprised Father doesn’t flinch.

But, in fact, he doesn’t so much as budge.

Sect Leader Jiang throws his arms up in the air, exasperated. “For heaven’s sake, Lan Wangji! My disciples can’t hold the corpses and the Jins off for much longer. If you don’t stop being a stubborn arse, we’re all going to die here!”

And he’s right. Before, Sizhui hadn’t noticed the blockade of Jiang Cultivators gathered at the mouth of the cliff. They’re fending off ghouls and rival cultivators alike, but they’re all too quickly starting to flag.

They really need to go.

“Hanguang-jun,” Sizhui says, “we have to trust him.”

Father turns to Sizhui, his lips pursed.

“…Fine,” he relents, taking a step to the side. As soon as he does, Sect Leader Jiang rushes down to gather Senior Wei into his arms. Sizhui helps to arrange his dad, pushing the man’s head against Sect Leader Jiang’s chest and placing his arms in his lap. Senior Wei is breathing deeply, his chest rising and falling rhythmically with the action, but he’s nonetheless too still in his brother’s arms; too gaunt, too thin.

“Sizhui,” Father says to his side, placing a hand on the back of his neck. He speaks softly, “Can you fly?”

Sect Leader Jiang rises, walking down the ramp somewhat, likely to give them some space. As he’s giving out orders, Sizhui tries to stand – and finds his vision hazy. He stumbles on wobbly legs and has to be caught by Father.

“I don’t think I can,” he says weakly, trying to focus his eyes.

Father is quiet for a moment. “…You’ve lost a lot of blood,” he says before helping Sizhui to his feet. “You’ll fly with me.”

Sizhui doesn’t have it in him to protest. He’s pretty sure he’d fall off his sword mid-flight if he tried anything right now.

Though, “We have to stop at the city gates,” Sizhui remembers all of a sudden. “Madam Jin is there.”

“My sister?” Sect Leader Jiang asks as he returns. “Why in hell – ” He pauses, seemingly finding the answer to his own question, and groans, longsuffering. “She came for Wei Wuxian, didn’t she?”

“I stopped her,” Sizhui replies. Did his voice just slur slightly? Perhaps it did. Sizhui can’t tell through the fog in his brain. “She’s waiting.”

“Let’s go then,” Sect Leader Jiang says, stepping onto his sword. He takes one last look at the Nightless City. “I hate this place.”

Father is silent, only so he doesn’t have to agree with Jiang Wanyin, Sizhui distantly realises. Though, after that thought, Sizhui doesn’t remember much. He can’t recall climbing aboard Father’s sword, nor does he remember taking off, but soon, inexplicably, they’re in the air, high above the conflict and the pain.

Sizhui watches as the lights of the Nightless City slowly fade into the distance.

Chapter Text

They dock down at the city gates mere minutes after leaving the battlefield. For all the time climbing the mountainous stairs took, Sizhui finds their fast descent jarring.

Jiang Yanli is easy to spot, pacing back and forth in her mourning robes. She stands out against the dark, a strangely ominous figure standing vigil in the night.

“A-jie!” Sect Leader Jiang calls out once they’re close enough. She turns, hopeful – Sizhui notices she’s clutching at his forehead ribbon, holding it tight to her chest, much to his embarrassment – but that hope is dashed in an instant.

“A-Cheng!” She replies, hurrying to her brother’s side. Immediately her hands are fussing – over Senior Wei, over Jiang Wanyin. “What happened?! Is A-Xian – ?”

“He’s okay,” Jiang Wanyin soothes, voice softer than Sizhui has ever heard it. Though – he winces. “Physically, at least.”

Momentarily satisfied, “Thank you, Young Master Lan, Hanguang-Jun,” Jiang Yanli says, revolving her attention around to the two of them. Though, as soon as she does, her gaze once again clouds with worry.

It is a fair reaction. They must make a sorry sight, Sizhui admits to himself, the two of them drenched through with red, Sizhui barely able to stand without help. He tries to smile at his aunt – without much success, it seems.

 “You’re hurt,” Jiang Yanli says, but Sizhui shakes his head.

“Thank you, Madam Jin, for your concern. Unfortunately, my wounds are not currently our most pressing problem.”

Though, “Sizhui…” Father cautions. Despite having dismounted now, Lan Wangji keeps Sizhui close, his arm looped around his waist to keep him upright. It is… comforting, Sizhui finds.

“Still,” Jiang Yanli says, moving behind them. Soon, Sizhui feels her hands on his back, inspecting the slash. “If we don’t tend to this soon, you could bleed out.”

With the warning, Father goes ramrod stiff. “Madam Jin, can you…?”

She nods, taking off her headdress. “A-Cheng, your sword, please?”

The Sect Leader twitches. He glances down, to Senior Wei slumbering in his arms, unaware – and sighs. “We don’t have long,” he says, positioning himself at his sister’s side. Jiang Yanli draws Sandu and begins slicing her headdress up into one continuous ribbon. “The other sects – they could catch up to us any minute.”

“This won’t take long,” Jiang Yanli replies, placating her brother, and goes to wrap the makeshift bandage around Sizhui’s chest. Though, just before she starts, “Oh,” she halts. “I must return this first. Hanguang-jun, here.”

Sizhui hears Father gasp – and, despite his blood loss, Sizhui is quite sure his complexion now resembles a vibrant beetroot.

“You had my s– ” Father pauses, corrects himself “ – Sizhui’s forehead ribbon.” He says this so vacantly, like he can’t quite comprehend what he’s just been given. Sizhui is quite glad his Father is currently stood behind him; how disappointed must he look?!

“Yes?” Jiang Yanli replies. “I apologise. I know the Lan Sect places great importance on these ribbons. Young Master Sizhui here gave it to me to keep me calm, I am sure, when he went to fetch A-Xian. Did I… not care for it properly in your absence?”

“No,” Father says quickly – perhaps too quickly. “No harm was done.” Simultaneously, Sizhui exhales in relief. Thank the heavens Jiang Yanli doesn’t know what he’s done.

“Yes, yes, your sect rules don’t make any sense. Glad that’s been established,” Sect Leader Jiang grumbles. “Can we speed this up now?”

Jiang Yanli gets to it. As she begins tying up the fabric – Sizhui is trying to stay as still as possible during the procedure, but he can’t help but flinch with each wind around his chest – Father hovers attentively, eventually pacing around to Sizhui’s front.

“Do you – ” Father cuts off, lowers himself to Sizhui’s eyelevel. His ears are burning as he continues, “ – want me to…?” He gestures down to the ribbon in his hands.

Oh.

Sizhui swallows dryly. He nods.

So, slowly, without breaking eye contact, Father reaches up and loops the band around his forehead. Sizhui finds himself holding his breath the whole time, as Lan Wangji ties the ribbon in a neat bow, and still then as he adjusts the fabric so it lies straight.

Soon enough, Father pulls back to assess his work, eyes narrowed in scrutiny. “…Mm,” he eventually affirms, seemingly pleased with his work.

“Thank you,” Sizhui replies quietly.

“We’ll talk about this,” Father says. Sizhui is confused only for a moment – Father’s gaze obviously flickers back to Jiang Yanli. “Later.”

Ah.

So he’s not out of the doghouse quite yet.

Not a second later, “There!” Jiang Yanli says, brushing off her hands. “All done.”

This saves Sizhui from any further reprimand. Father straightens out and bows his head to Jiang Yanli. “Thank you, Madam Jin,” he says – and Sizhui rises, tensing the tension. Admittedly, the pressure does help, though he still feels unsteady.

“Right, so we can go now?” Sect Leader Jiang says impatiently, adjusting his grip on Senior Wei. “To the Burial Mounds?”

“Mm,” Father nods, wrapping his arm back around Sizhui’s waist, as if they intend to take off right then and there.

However, “What about Jin Ling?” Sizhui asks. “Can we really leave him behind?”

There is a missing beat.

Jiang Wanyin and Father share a look.

Jiang Yanli is quick to catch onto the tension. “You don’t think it’s safe for my son at Koi Tower?” she questions.

Another silence; no one wants to be responsible for breaking this news.

Eventually – Sect Leader Jiang sighs. “Wei Wuxian… At the Nightless City… A-jie, he claimed Jin Guangyao was responsible for your husband’s death.”

Jiang Wanyin’s words are like a punch, vicious enough to knock the air from Jiang Yanli’s lungs. With all but a sentence, she looks ready to topple over. “Earlier, you told me A-Xian was innocent,” she seemingly remembers all at once. “Is what my brother claimed true?” she asks Sizhui.

He hates to confirm her suspicions, but he must “Unfortunately, yes. Hence, why I am cautious to leave your son alone at Koi Tower.”

“Wait, how did you know that?” Sect Leader Jiang probes. “In fact,” he glowers at Sizhui, “who even are you?”

Father squeezes Sizhui’s waist and pulls him slightly behind him. “Jiang Wanyin,” he growls, a warning.

But, “What?!” Sect Leader Jiang bites. “It’s a fair question!”

Thankfully, “A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli soothes, stroking a hand down her brother’s arm. “All these questions can be answered later. I trust Lan Sizhui, as does Hanguang-jun and, evidently, A-Xian.”

Sizhui tries not to wilt under the Sect Leader’s glare – he’s done nothing wrong, he must remember – and Jiang Wanyin seemingly wants to protest further, his foot tapping agitatedly, but with one more withering look from his sister, “Fine,” he grumbles. “Later.”

“Lanling is on the way to the Burial Mounds,” Father diverts. “If we go by sword, it should take just under half-an-hour.”

“Mm,” Sizhui says in agreement. He begins to retract himself from his father’s arms.

Though, “What are you doing?” Father inquires. With the movement, his grip on Sizhui only tightens.

Sizhui shakes his head. “You have to fly with Madam Jin, Hanguang-jun. She doesn’t have a sword.”

“…Ah,” Sect Leader Jiang says. It is like the entire group has been hit with a metaphorical brick of common sense.

Did – did none of them consider how they were going to flee? Five people, three injured, only two with swords?

Sizhui resists the urge to rub at his temples, like a young imitation of Lan Qiren. He’s getting very tired of being the active adult in these situations.

“I can fly alone,” Jiang Yanli offers, “if someone is willing to lend me a sword.”

“You can borrow mine?” Sizhui suggests – though Father twitches ominously with the words. Perhaps he should stop offering his personal affects to Madam Jin, if only for his Father’s sanity…

Though Jiang Yanli’s smile is worth it; it’s quite like Senior Wei’s, Sizhui considers; not his dad’s teasing grins, no, but like his small smiles, the ones he extends in times of comfort, soft and tender. Sizhui feels oddly proud to have received one so early into his acquaintance with his aunt.

As Sizhui presents his sword to Jiang Yanli, “A-jie, are you sure you’re okay to fly alone?” Sect Leader Jiang asks.

Jiang Yanli titters at him. “My golden core may not be strong, A-Cheng, but I am not incapable. I’ll be fine to make the journey to Lanling this way. It is not far.” She assesses Sizhui’s blade and is seemingly pleased with what she finds. Soon, she is mounting it. “Shall we go?” she addresses to the huddle of men behind her.

They follow.

 

Sizhui struggles to stay awake throughout the journey. His eyelids are as heavy as shutters and Father is so warm. But Sizhui doesn’t want to fall asleep, not now. He can hear Wen Qing in his ear, drilling first-aid procedures.

So he tries. But, in what seems like a blink, one second they’re flying over farms and fields and the next they’re descending behind Koi Tower.

 “Sizhui?” Father calls quietly, nudging him to consciousness.

“I’m awake, Father,” he replies – and snaps to awareness. “Hanguang-jun, I mean! Han-guang-jun!

He flickers his attention over to the Jiangs – and they’re not paying attention to anything but each other, thank the heavens. Jiang Yanli has directed them to land right behind the Pageant Hall, likely because her mother-in-law is inside, watching Jin Ling in the midst of the funeral rituals. As expected, Sect Leader Jiang is hovering anxiously behind her, twitching with every small sound, paranoid.

“Quiet,” Jiang Yanli says, with a finger to her lips. “The quicker I am in and out the better. And no, A-Cheng, I should go in alone,” she reiterates, when the Sect Leader opens his mouth. “It will be suspicious if you are found here, away from the meeting.”

So, “Be safe,” Sizhui offers, a subtle acceptance.

She slips ahead of them seamlessly, a petal in the wind.

Their small group tails her, around the building and to the front entrance. The courtyard is, thankfully, deserted, though Sizhui isn’t sure how much longer it’s going to remain that way. The birds have begun to chirp, an indicator that dawn is coming, and with it will come the bustle of the Sect.

They will have to be quick.

Sect Leader Jiang fronts their line. He slides along the walls, stopping just before the hall’s intricately engraved doors, close enough to listen to whatever conversation may begin inside. Sizhui and his Father are not far behind. Through the hinges of the door, Sizhui can see the golden columns and black banners hanging from the ceiling. The room is barely lit, however, illuminated by a handful of candles alone; many appear to have burnt through, leaving the hall’s single occupant in near darkness.

Madam Jin sits on her knees, facing the courtyard, a bundle of white in her arms. She kneels, eyes red-rimmed, but with her back set determinedly taut. Waiting.

“Mother,” Jiang Yanli addresses, as she turns the corner and enters the hall. “Have you been here all night?”

“A-Li!” Madam Jin breathes a sigh of relief as her daughter-in-law strides closer. The older woman pulls herself to her feet, obviously trying not to jostle Jin Ling as she does so. “Where have you been?” she tuts. “I was so worried!”

“Everything is fine,” Jiang Yanli comforts, leaning in to hug Madam Jin. “I apologise for scaring you.”

Madam Jin accepts the embrace, though she continues to chastise: “You were so reckless, running off after Wei Wuxian showed his face! What if he’d tried to hurt you?”

Sizhui blinks, processing this information. “Senior Wei came here?”

“When did he get the time to do that?” Sect Leader Jiang whispers back, equally perplexed. His Dad, unconscious in Jiang Wanyin’s arms, restlessly twitching, offers no answers.

Concurrent to this exchange, “A-Xian would never hurt me, Mother,” Jiang Yanli replies. Returning to an arm’s distance, “May I?” she asks, gesturing down to her son.

“Oh, of course.” Jin Ling is passed over from one set of arms to another – and it hits Sizhui all at once that this is Jin Ling – his Jin Ling! This small bundle, red faced, snoring softly, is the Young Mistress (as Jingyi would call him), his friend and, well, cousin, technically.

“He’s been fussy, as usual,” Madam Jin says off-hand, stroking the baby’s cheek with a finger. “Just like his father at this age…”

Yanli hums in agreement, adjusting her grip and settling Jin Ling more comfortably. Quietly, “I know he’s so young – it may be silly – but a lot of what he does reminds me of A-Xuan,” she admits.  

‘How true is that?’ Sizhui ponders. He can picture the teenage Jin Ling now, standing tall, his father’s sword at his hip. He knows who Jin Ling was – and who he may grow up to be – but how much was that young man like his father? 

There’s a sniff, and then Madam Jin is dabbing at her eyes. “No, there have been enough tears tonight. Come, A-Li. Let’s go wait in my chambers. I’m sure news of the meeting will reach us soon enough.”

“Shit,” Sect Leader Jiang says under his breath.

Madam Jin begins to leave – and Jiang Yanli doesn’t follow. “A-Li?” Madam Jin calls back, once she realises her daughter-in-law has stood firm.

“I’ll stay here, Mother. Someone should be here. With A-Xuan.”

“Oh, A-Li,” Madam Jin coos. “I have been here all night, as has A-Ling. You need to rest – in fact, we all do. My son would not want you to stress like this.”

Jiang Yanli shakes her head vehemently. “No, Mother, it’s – ”

And that’s when Wei Wuxian wakes with a start and a scream. He jostles in Jiang Wanyin’s arms, trying to pull himself upright, breathing frantically.

“Shit, shit, shit!” the Sect leader starts chanting, eyeing the door, while Sizhui staggers over to his Father’s side.

The scream was loud enough to startle Sizhui to his core. Blood pumps in his ears as he tries to hush his dad. “Senior Wei, shh, it’s okay. You’re safe, we’re safe.”

“A- A-Yuan?” Wei Wuxian breathes shakily, obviously disorientated. His hands are clenched in his robes and his gaze cannot settle, flicking from subject to subject erratically.

Simultaneously, “A-Li!” Madam Jin cries. “What was that?” Sizhui can’t see the two women anymore, not from where he’s stood next to Senior Wei, but he can hear the hurried footsteps, edging ever closer to their position. Father moves swiftly, placing himself between Wei Wuxian and the doorway – and then Madam Jin spots them.

She shrieks. Wei Wuxian! It’s Wei Wuxian! Help, help –

Sizhui makes a bad decision. With the Jiangs’ arms full – with their brother and son respectfully – and Father looking like he could draw his sword any second, Sizhui casts the Lan Silencing Spell for the first time in his life.

Madam Jin’s cries trail off instantly, with a final, “Hel-mmmph!”

He has never been more thankful to his Uncle Xichen for teaching it to him a few years early.

“Mother, it’s okay!” Jiang Yanli insists, wedging herself between her Mother-in-law and the stairs. “There’s been a mistake! A-Xian is innocent!”

Madam Jin continues her muffled protests, arms flailing violently.

“Lan Wangji, that damned spell, really?!” Sect Leader Jiang snits.

Before Father can deny it, “I did it,” Sizhui says weakly. “She was going to get us caught.”

He begins to tally the number of rules he’s broken today in his head.

It is a worrying amount.

Madam Jin and Jiang Yanli’s argument continues, with Madam Jin now using her hands to illustrate her objections. Jin Ling has stirred with all the commotion and is letting out frustrated whines – and in the midst of all this chaos, Sizhui hears his dad say, disbelieving, “Shijie?”

All at once, there is utter silence, quiet enough to hear a pin drop.

Jiang Yanli abandons her confrontation, immediately rushing to Senior Wei’s side. “I’m here, A-Xian. Everything’s okay now.” She’s taken her hands in his, with no hesitation, and Senior Wei is gazing up at her with such adoration.

As such, Sizhui is only marginally surprised when his dad bursts into tears again. “Shijie!” he wails, throwing his arms around her. Jiang Wanyin nearly topples over with the movement, but his sister steadies him, wrapped in their orbit.

Senior Wei’s sobs are gut-wrenching in Sizhui’s ears. He’s not sure he’s heard anything more painful. The floodgates have opened, he realises. Everything his dad was holding back, holding close to his chest, is torrenting out. He’s blubbering, almost incomprehensibly, apologies and self-declamations. Jiang Yanli is soothing him all the while, her son in one arm, her brother in the other.  

When she approached, Sizhui had taken a step back – to give the Jiangs some space – and he’s never been more thankful to have his father’s presence at his side. Father doesn’t seem all that comfortable with the tears, rocking on the spot indecisively, as if simultaneously desiring to escape the emotions while also wanting to offer Wei Wuxian his support.  

No one appears more unnerved by this sight than Madam Jin, however.

Her eyes wide in shock, she drinks in the sight before her – and something in her manner changes.

Hmm.

Tentatively, Sizhui releases the silencing spell. “Madam Jin,” he begins, “I understand that there is little we can do to prove our trustworthiness, not here and now… but I ask you to hear me out.”

Madam Jin appraises him – their group as a whole. “What… happened?” is all she can settle on saying.

Sizhui opens his mouth – to offer an explanation, the truth – but Sect Leader Jiang beats him to it.

“Jin Guangyao,” he says – and Madam Jin’s face sets like cool marble. “Madam Jin, it is not safe for your family at Koi Tower.”

“What has he done?” she seethes, with more anger than Sizhui could ever expect – he thought Jin Guangyao to be well-liked at this time.

Jiang Wanyin continues, “He framed my brother for your son’s murder.”

It gets what Sizhui is beginning to think is the intended result: rage. “What?!” Madam Jin snarls. “That rat is responsible?! But – the slaughter at Qiongqi path?”

“It was all orchestrated by your husband and Jin Guangyao,” Sizhui cuts back in. “Though, I expect Sect Leader Jin was unaware of what Lianfang-Zun was planning exactly.”

Madam Jin looks like she wants to break something – preferably a neck. “…A-Li?” she calls, asking for confirmation.

Jiang Yanli peers over her shoulder, while Senior Wei continues to sob into it. “…Mother, I do not believe it is safe here. Not for A-Ling.”

Madam Jin purses her lips. “Where will you go then?” she asks.

“The Burial Mounds.”

“But A-Li – ”

“Mother, I – I need to know the truth,” Jiang Yanli interrupts. Her tone is firm, decided. “To do that, I must follow my brothers.”

Sizhui waits – for whoever is going to be the first to budge.

Madam Jin takes a deep breath.

“Fine. Let us go then.”

Sizhui’s mouth drops.

Us?

 “You’re all lucky I went back for my sword after Wei Wuxian showed up the first time this evening,” the Madam continues, ignoring the spluttering of Jiang Wanyin and the raised brows of Hanguang-Jun.

Sizhui is the only one who can muster words. “You – you’re going to come to the Burial Mounds with us?”

Sizhui has no experience with Madam Jin, no history to lean on. She died when Sizhui was small, he remembers, about eight or nine. He had no way to anticipate that this would be the outcome of their run in with Jin Guangshan’s wife.

What on earth could be motivating her to join them?

“I trust A-Li and her word,” Madam Jin says, “but the rest of you? You do not seem capable of looking after yourselves, let alone others! How can I leave my daughter and my grandson in your hands?”

“The flight to the Burial Mounds is long. You will have to fly accompanied,” Father speaks – the first time this entire conversation – and is met with a scoff.

“You forget who I am, Hanguang-jun.” Madam Jin draws her sword. In an instant, the weariness disappears from her shoulders, the cultivator emerging. “I was a sister to the Violet Spider, after all.”

That, truly, is enough said.

“Any objections?” she continues.

There are none.

They set off for the Burial Mounds, once again.

Chapter Text

When they arrive at the Burial Mounds a few hours later, Sizhui is truly struggling to keep his eyes open.

They’ve been up all night – flying back and forth, fighting and running. At his side, even Father is beginning to tire; as they’ve travelled, their flightpath has drooped lower and lower to the ground. Nonetheless, it is a testament to Father’s spiritual power that he’s been able to fly for so long in a single night.

Their formation changed little in this second half of the journey. Sect Leader Jiang carries Senior Wei still; after his outburst at Koi Tower, he promptly wore himself to exhaustion once again. His sleep has been fraught – Sizhui hears him jolt awake once or twice an hour – but he is far from lucid.

The only difference is that Jiang Yanli now flies with Madam Jin, her son in her arms. She’s stronger than Sizhui anticipated – much to his own shame, knowing he has underestimated her. Still, who would have guessed that the wife of Jin Guangshan could be so capable? Madam Jin soars high in the morning sun, only sinking as they come to land.

Indeed, as they alight, Sizhui hears footsteps, hurrying through the trees. Following the sound, Wen Qing bursts past the trees, Wen Ning right behind her. Spotting them, she visibly sags in relief. “Sizhui!” she calls, racing towards him. The sight of Jiang Wanyin nor Madam Jin stops her as she barrels towards her nephew.

Sizhui opens his arms just in time to catch her, but he hisses in pain as she makes impact. She instantly pulls back. “Sizhui?” she questions, brows furrowed.

He shakes his head. “I’m fine, Auntie,” he says, but Wen Qing is not placated. She inspects his front and then she spins him round – and Sizhui hears her swear.

“What happened?!” she demands to know, fingers nimbly untying his bandages.

“It’s just a scratch,” Sizhui tries again – only to be almost immediately shushed.

“A scratch? Sizhui, this needs stitches!” She mutters to herself – treatments, procedures – and then snarls coolly, “Hanguang-jun, you were supposed to be protecting him.”

Standing as stiff as a board, Lan Wangji nods his head. “I know,” he says quietly, resigned.

Wen Qing’s gaze flickers from Father and over to Wei Wuxian, still in his brother’s arms. His breaths are ragged again, a sign he’s close to consciousness, forcibly awoken by another nightmare. There’s a pallor to his face, a sheen of sweat.

The sight seems to pain his aunt as much as it does him, because when Wen Qing turns back to Lan Wangji, Sizhui sees that she looks furious.  

She expresses said anger by stalking straight up to Father and punching him in the face.

“Auntie!” Sizhui shouts, mortified, as Lan Wangji staggers back, clutching at his left eye. Wen Qing’s jab was sharp and powerful – her fist coated in a golden glaze of spiritual energy – and Sizhui just knows that is going to leave a mottled bruise.

In the background, Sect Leader Jiang cringes in sympathy, sound enough to draw Wen Qing’s attention his way. “Jiang Wanyin!” she snaps – Sizhui is quite sure he sees the Sect Leader cower somewhat with the address – “Bring Wei Wuxian to the Demon-Slaughtering Cave. I’ll be along shortly.”

He nods, more than willing to comply, and rushes up the hill. Jiang Yanli follows behind him, though she spares a glance for Sizhui before doing so. He gestures her on – ‘don’t worry about me’ – and watches as she begins to climb the hill, arm in arm with her mother-in-law. Madam Jin is, by far, the most cautious of their group; she keeps a hand on the hilt of her now sheathed sword, though Sizhui does not blame her. She must think she’s heading towards certain doom, the Yiling Patriarch’s necromantic army ahead.

There’s a tug on his arm, refocusing Sizhui’s attentions. His Uncle Ning stands before him, face passive – though likely not for want of trying.  “Come, A-Yuan,” he says softly. “Let’s get you patched up.”

Oddly – his uncle here, lips pinched in concern, a careful grip on his arm – his aunt in the background, chewing out Lan Wangji to high heaven and back – Sizhui finds himself swallowing down tears. “Uncle Ning,” he says, his voice cracking.

He smiles at Sizhui, so sadly. “It’s okay. You’re safe now, A-Yuan.”

Sizhui, blinking back tears, clutches at his Uncle and lets himself be dragged up the mountain.

 

He falls asleep in the middle of having his stitches done.

It’s a strange thing to nap through; but Sizhui was already so tired and his Auntie, having given him something to numb the pain, essentially knocked him out. Whether that was intentional or not, Sizhui’s not sure.

He wakes, lying on his front, to the quiet of the Demon-Slaughtering Cave; there’s a dripping, a constant leak, and the soft wheezing of a heavy sleeper. Sizhui opens his eyes to the sight of his Father sat at his bedside, Wen Yuan perched in his lap.

“Sizhui-gege!” the boy beams when he notices his older-self’s return to awareness. “You’re awake!”

“A-Yuan,” Father hums. “Quiet.” He has a nasty shiner developing around his eye and the sight of it alone has Sizhui wincing in sympathy. It’ll be gone in a few hours – thank the heavens for spiritual energy – but the fact that its been allowed to develop to this extent means Wen Qing must have been unwilling to treat it.

“Oh, right!” Wen Yuan stage-whispers. He copies Father, placing a tiny finger to his lips. “Daddy’s sleeping. Shhh!”

“Mm,” Father says. “Shhh.”

This is – eerie, actually. Nostalgic may also be the word. Many of Sizhui’s early memories involve sitting at his Father’s bedside, Lan Wangji lying on his front, unable to move or do much of anything.

All at once, Sizhui can’t bear the thought. He pushes up to his knees with a groan, flipping himself around so he can sit upright. Once adjusted, he spots the obvious concern on his father’s face – and A-Yuan mimicking it, lip quivering.

“Auntie said you’re hurt. Is it bad?”

Sizhui feels his heart swell. “No, no, I’m okay. See?” He opens his arms, inviting, and Wen Yuan leaps at the opportunity.

He pushes up from Father’s lap and clambers onto the make-shift bed, into Sizhui’s waiting hold. “I was scared you’d stay away,” A-Yuan says, voice muffled by Sizhui’s inner robe. He’s wearing one of Senior Wei’s, he realises, noticing the dull purple for the first time. It makes sense, his own robes long torn to shreds.

Sizhui rubs a hand down Wen Yuan’s back. “I’m here,” he replies. “I’m sorry for scaring you.”

A-Yuan sighs – contented.

They sit in the silence for a good while. Sizhui’s hand running down A-Yuan’s back promptly has the boy dozing; his body is a comforting weight, a tether to the here-and-now.

“Senior Wei?” Sizhui inquires.

Father shakes his head, his eyes darting behind Sizhui. His dad is asleep there, Sizhui knows, prone and unaware. “Wei Ying used too much resentful energy,” Father explains. “Wen Qing says his body is trying to recover.”

“Hence the sleeping?”

“Mm.”

Though, Father doesn’t know just why Dad’s recovery is taking so long. Sizhui does, he heard it for himself in Guanyin temple.

Senior Wei doesn’t have a golden core.

It’s critical information and recontextualises so much of Wei Wuxian’s behaviour. What must Father – and, indeed, Sect Leader Jiang and Jiang Yanli – think? Has Father tried to play for Senior Wei? Clarity would reduce the potency of the resentful energy in his dad’s system, but not to the extent that Father would expect.

Worst of all – Sizhui isn’t supposed to know this. He’s burdened by a secret no one knows he’s harbouring.

Sizhui sighs. What a mess.

“He was worried,” Father starts – either unaware of Sizhui’s inner turmoil or hoping to offer a distraction to it. “A-Yuan. Once your aunt permitted him to see you and Wei Ying – he refused to leave.”

Sizhui hums in response, holding A-Yuan a little tighter. It is strange – to feel so protective of someone who is, essentially, yourself. Though, the more Sizhui changes, the less likely it is that Wen Yuan will grow up to become Lan Sizhui.

Who will he be, Sizhui wonders?

Father sits with what looks to be a frog in his mouth. The quiet lasts only as long as Lan Wangji can bare it, uncharacteristically. “It is my fault,” he says, the words burning through him, his hands clenched in the fabric at his knees. “That you are hurt.” A beat. “You could have died.”

Sizhui – he doesn’t know what to feel. So, “I didn’t,” he says, plain and true.

Nonetheless, “I failed you,” Lan Wangji continues.

Father,” Sizhui breathes, exasperated. “No, you didn’t.”

“I did,” he persists. “You and Wei Ying.” Father’s head is ducked, Sizhui cannot see his face, but –  

He looks so much like a boy.

“Oh, Father.”

Sizhui doesn’t know what to say.

Eventually, “I will do better,” Lan Wangji says. Once he has regained his composure, he looks back up, resolute. “I will keep you safe.”

Father is hard to waver when he has made up his mind.

They sit in silence again.

Sizhui takes to listening to the rise and fall of his dad’s breathing; in and out, in and out.

After a few minutes – “Ahh, you’re awake, Young Master Lan!”

Jiang Yanli strolls in, a tray of goods in her hands, bowls wafting with steam. She does not disturb the hush; no, she weaves through it, quiet in the way the sun is.

Some tension eases in Sizhui with her appearance. “Hello Madam Jin,” he responds.

“Did you have a good rest?” Jiang Yanli asks, placing the tray down at the end of the bed. From his position, Sizhui can see a familiar broth, radishes and all, though it smells somewhat different from normal.

Jiang Yanli notices his interest. “Oh, I offered to cook. It’s long past breakfast and I assumed you’d all be hungry. Would you like some?”

“Please,” Sizhui answers – before his stomach can for him.  

Thankfully, with the conversation, Wen Yuan has started to rouse. He’ll have to move from Sizhui’s lap; he doesn’t want to accidentally spill anything on the boy, after all.

“Oh, hello, A-Yuan,” Jiang Yanli greets, as Wen Yuan yawns. “How are you feeling?”

He orientates himself – but then notices Jiang Yanli and hides his face in Sizhui’s robes. “Good,” he says, muffled again.

Jiang Yanli holds back a giggle. Sizhui will admit it – his younger self is very cute. He’s straining to see Jiang Yanli from his hideaway, batting his eyelashes, simultaneously shy but curious.

“Are you happy to have your brother back?” Yanli asks, handing a bowl to Father – (he accepts it with a nod of thanks).

“Mm hmm.” Then, “Daddy grew him for me,” he says, offering the information like it explains everything. “Like a radish.”

Jiang Yanli makes an awed sound. “Your Daddy is so clever! Just for you?”

A-Yuan nods, solemnly. “Daddy’s magic. I want him to grow me a sister next time.”  

And Jiang Yanli does laugh that time.

As she continues to converse with A-Yuan, Sizhui meets Father’s eye – they share a knowing look. Sizhui appeared more spontaneously than a radish ever could. Though Jiang Yanli is effortlessly drawing A-Yuan out of his shell, Sizhui does hope she doesn’t ask any more questions about his origins.

Jiang Yanli does not hover much longer; she has more meals to distribute, after all. She leaves with smile and, as she does so, “She’s pretty,” A-Yuan says, unprompted.

Father narrows his eyes.

Sizhui begins to sweat.

Unaware, Wen Yuan purses his lips, in thought – and then he tugs on Sizhui’s sleeve. “Gege, I’m going to marry Auntie Li when I grow up.”

Sizhui nearly chokes on thin air. “A-Yuan – !” he stutters, cheeks burning, but his younger self is not deterred.

“Can I do that, Rich-gege?” he asks, attention redirected to Father.

Father seems close to an aneurysm. He opens his mouth to respond –

He closes it.

Wen Yuan pouts, crossing his arms. “I’ll go ask Uncle Ning. He’ll know. Sizhui-gege!” A-Yuan shuffles forwards and kisses his older self on the cheek. “That should make it better! Be good, okay?”

“Okay,” Sizhui says numbly as Wen Yuan pats his arm before clambering down to the floor. Wordlessly, Father and Sizhui watch him leave the cave, running off in search of Wen Ning.

“…Please stop doing that.”

“That one wasn’t me!”

“It is against the rules – ”

“Yes, I know!”

“Good.”

Sizhui promptly tries to drown himself in his broth.

(Though, with the meal, Sizhui feels some of his rough edges smooth over).

Chapter Text

Sizhui escapes his Father’s lecture mostly intact.

He starts from the beginning, explaining just why he stayed behind at the gate of the Nightless city, carrying his father through his tale to his meeting with Jiang Yanli. In hushed tones, eyes on the door, he tells Father what he knows – of the fate that awaited the Young Madam Jin if he did not intervene – and his panicked solution to that problem.  

Thankfully, Father is understanding. He makes Sizhui promise not to do anything of the sort again – in that moment of scolding, he truly looked like the Father Sizhui remembers – but the whole exchange left Father more contemplative than anything.

Nonetheless, Sizhui pounces on Wen Qing’s reappearance and her offer to take a walk of the camp. “It’ll be good to get you some fresh air,” she says, glaring at Lan Wangji all the while; he shrinks somewhat under her gaze, his black eye all the more prominent. 

The relationship between his aunt and father is likely to be stained for a while.

Though, as he begins to leave, his aunt at his side, “Wait,” Father says. He rises and unclips one of the qiankun pouches at his waist. Opening the bag and rummaging around, Father pulls out a clean Lan Sect outer robe, perfectly folded. “Here.”

Hence, Sizhui leaves the Demon-Slaughtering Cave dressed in white once again; the scent of the robe reminds Sizhui of home, of his Father’s incense and windy mornings.

Today, however, it’s bright in the Burial Mounds. The sun shines down, just past the midpoint of the sky, bathing the village square in a pressing warmth.

A-Yuan is with Wen Ning and Jiang Yanli, giggling away while the two adults finish clearing up from lunch. Nearby Sect Leader Jiang hovers – against the outer cave wall, arms crossed, awkwardly standing vigil over the Burial Mounds. Where his sister has seamlessly slotted herself into the activities of the camp, Jiang Wanyin looks out of place. The Wens potter around him, casting the Sect Leader nervous glances.

Most interestingly, however, to one side Granny sits with Madam Jin. The air around them is sombre, Granny’s shoulders tensed, Madam Jin rocking her grandson agitatedly.

Sizhui nudges Wen Qing in their direction. “What are they talking about?” he asks.

His aunt follows his prompt – and purses her lips. “She’s been asking questions – about life here.”

“Madam Jin has?”

Wen Qing crosses her arms, taps her fingers against her side. “She wants to talk to you.”

Sizhui blinks. “Me?”

Why him? What has he done to capture her attention?

As if answering Sizhui’s unasked question, his aunt shrugs, strangely resigned. “I don’t trust her. But… I don’t think it would do any harm. Answering her questions.”

Sizhui – sighs. Having Madam Jin on their side… That’s an invaluable ally. He can’t pass up any opportunity to talk her round.

He isn’t particularly keen to play diplomat right now, however.

Nonetheless, “A rain check on that walk, Auntie?” Sizhui says, smiling wearily at Wen Qing. He’ll manage, for a few minutes at least.

Wen Qing returns his smile, brushes her hand down her arm. “I’ll be watching, just in case.” She leaves swiftly after that, making her way, unexpectedly, to Sect Leader Jiang’s side. They say but a few words in greeting, a grunt, a nod of the head, before his aunt settles next to Jiang Wanyin, their scowls perfectly matched.

Huh.

Sizhui shakes his head, breathes, and walks over to his Granny and Madam Jin.

“Madam Jin?” he calls as he approaches. “I have been informed that you had some questions for me?”

The two women look up. Granny appears relieved at his appearance – though that only makes Sizhui more concerned for the nature of their conversation; the Madam, in contrast, smooths her expression into polite blankness.

“Lan Sizhui, was it?”

Sizhui nods and then bows. “Yes, Madam Jin.”

He tries not to sweat as her eyes bore over him, assessing his robes, his stance, his headband.

Granny stands, her knees clicking as she does so. “I will go see if A-Ning needs any help with those dishes. Madam Jin. Sizhui.” She claps a hand onto his shoulder as he passes and leans in to his ear, whispering, “Good luck, my dear.”

Sizhui gulps.

Now the seat across from Madam Jin is empty.

She gestures to it.

Sizhui really didn’t think a woman cradling a baby could be quite his terrifying.

He sits down gingerly.

“Now,” Madam Jin begins, knees crossed, hands resting intertwined on them, “you are a member of the Lan Sect, correct?”

Uh oh.

“Yes?” Sizhui responds – then coughs. That sounded like a question, yikes. “Yes,” he says again, trying not to sound so unsure about the matter.

Madam Jin furrows her brows. She rocks Jin Ling a little quicker. “Your forehead ribbon indicates you are a direct descendant of the Lan bloodline.”

Oooooh boy.

How does he even answer that? Sizhui has come to find lying as somewhat of a necessity these past few days. Even so, he doesn’t particularly enjoy it. Yet! He can’t outright say ‘Hanguang-jun is my adopted father!’

…Oh!

“I am related to Hanguang-jun,” Sizhui confirms; half-truths, how useful they are.

He watches as Madam Jin surveys him, once again. His robes are obviously too big for him, a clear indicator that they are borrowed. Unintentionally, Father has supported his testimony.

“Cousins?” Madam Jin finally guesses – and Sizhui feels a knot of tension unfurl in his stomach.

He nods, finding the lie adequate.

(How schooled is his expression when he lies? Sizhui wonders. How decent of an actor is he? No one has truly seen through him yet… Though who’s skill that relies on, he’s not sure.)

With his answer, Madam Jin only seems more distressed. “Goodness, boy, then what are you doing here?”

Uh? “Pardon?”

“Here!” With her free hand, Madam Jin gestures to their vicinity, the surrounding camp. “If you are a Lan, surely you could find safety in Cloud Recesses?”

‘If only they knew I existed!’ Sizhui thinks to himself. He says, instead. “I… am a Wen too, Madam Jin.”

She snorts – not in derision, no, but with the roll of her eyes. “Obviously you are a Lan first. They don’t let just anyone wear those particular ribbons.”

A Lan… first?

Sizhui files that thought away for later.

For now, he must create Lan Sizhui’s life – the Lan Sizhui of this time, of this world. Why did this Lan Sizhui not retreat to Cloud Recesses at the beginning of the Sunshot campaign?

The answer is obvious.

“My little brother is not a Lan,” Sizhui states plainly. He can’t help glancing past Madam Jin, out to where Wen Yuan is still.

He is unsubtle; Madam Jin pivots, following his gaze. “Oh,” she exhales. Jin Ling fidgets in her arms, ever so slightly.

“Besides,” Sizhui decides to add, “I would not want to leave my aunts and uncles defenceless. I am one of the only cultivators here.” He’ll plant that seed, reaffirm what he’s sure Madam Jin has already assessed.   

His judgement is accurate. “Yes…” Madam Jin says, still watching A-Yuan; Jiang Yanli appears to have enlisted his services, showing the boy how to dry the bowls as she cleans. His tongue sticks out between his lips, fiercely concentrating. “Despite what I have been told, there appear to be mainly innocents living in the Burial Mounds....” She turns back to Sizhui. “Is life here hard?” she asks abruptly.

But without hesitation, “Yes,” Sizhui can answer honestly. Even from what little he can remember, Sizhui knows that. It is obvious; even the air around them feels stale. Madam Jin must taste that, taste the sweat and blood and tears, on her tongue.

Something in Madam Jin languishes with that answer.

“…You have given me much to think about, Lan Sizhui,” she says – and all at once there’s a commotion.

Sizhui’s eye is drawn to the Demon-Slaughtering Cave as Father races out of it and into the village square. He meets Sizhui’s gaze instinctively.

“He’s awake.”

So much for getting some air – of course it’s the moment Sizhui leaves that Senior Wei wakes up. Sizhui moves so fast he doesn’t even really remember entering the cave; one second he’s outside and the next he’s not.

His dad sits up in his bed, bags under his eyes, cheeks hollow, but smiling – smiling at him.

“Morning, A-Yuan,” his dad says cheerily, as if it’s any other day.

Sizhui can’t help but laugh.

 

There’s a lot of fuss to be had, now Senior Wei is awake.

He fidgets as he’s checked over, as he’s berated by Sect Leader Jiang, as he’s cried over by his sister. Senior Wei seems – well, better. He’s bubbly, he’s joking – but Sizhui doesn’t trust it. The contrast is too sharp, too sudden.

Dad still doesn’t have a core. He’s still being eaten away by resentful energy. He still nearly died.  

No one – it seems – buys the act. Father seems more unwilling to leave Wei Wuxian’s side now than when he was asleep. He hovers constantly, perched like an owl, poised to swoop at the first sign of danger.

The others – Wen Qing, Wen Ning, Jiang Wanyin, Jiang Yanli – they treat Wei Wuxian as normally as they can, but Sizhui easily catches onto their unspoken agreement.

Senior Wei is not to be left alone.

It becomes a bit much, after a while, all the emotions.

“Auntie,” Sizhui addresses Wen Qing quietly, as Senior Wei gets to hold his nephew for the first time. Sizhui may love his Dad and his cousin, but there are too many tears. “How about that walk?”

They leave unnoticed, seamlessly passing through the crowd. “Are you alright, A-Yuan?” she asks, once they’re out of earshot.

Sizhui nods. “I think so. This is all… just…”

“…A lot?” Wen Qing finishes when it’s clear Sizhui won’t.

“Mm,” is all Sizhui can say around a tight throat.

“…Come on, let’s go get some tea.”

Sizhui leaves Granny’s hut an hour or so later feeling refreshed. His back no longer feels to taut, his shoulders no longer so tensed.

The afternoon has passed now, and the chill of the evening is beginning to settle in. Sizhui’s layers – Senior Wei’s under-robe and Father’s outer-robe – are just right for the temperature, wrapping him tightly.

He’ll go back, see what his parents are up to. Perhaps the cave will be quieter now – perhaps his parents will be alone. They need to discuss what to do next, plan for the future.

It’s as Sizhui goes to take a step towards the cave that he hears rustling.

He turns in the direction of the path, leading into the forest.

There go Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian, hand in hand, strolling into the wild.

A chill overtakes Sizhui, like an egg has been cracked over his head and is slipping down his spine. Senior Wei should not be out of bed – and Father should know better!

The last time his parents slipped away, only one came back.

Sizhui can’t take it; all the day’s anxieties rush back all at once.

So, after checking he’s not being watched, Sizhui follows after them, tailing his parents through the undergrowth.

 

Senior Wei and Father walk silently for a good while. Sizhui is a few trees back watching, as Wei Wuxian swings their hands, Father easily accepting the motion.

Sizhui is trying to squash down any sound that could give him away. He really shouldn’t be doing this – ‘Do not eavesdrop!’ the Lan Qiren that lives in his brain commands – but following rules, quite honestly, as been near impossible recently. In the confined borders of Cloud Recesses, life is simple, guided by its countless doctrines.

Sizhui has come to find that living in the outside world isn’t quite that simple.

While he has been musing, Senior Wei and Father have stopped, just under the shade of a blooming hawthorn tree. It’s a strange plant to find in the midst of the Burial Mounds, and its appearance is far from usual. The bark of the tree is stained a dismal black and its flowers, as white as mourning robes, cut a startling contrast. Yet, the sun beams through the leaves, casting his parents in a soft hue of broken shapes.

Sizhui shuffles behind a bush, crouches down, and settles in to wait.

Wei Wuxian reaches out, taking Father’s other hand, and running his thumb in circles over the skin.

“…I don’t know where to start,” Senior Wei says simply. There is no pretence in his tone, no forced jovialness. He is just honest – Sizhui is relieved to hear it.

Father hums in response. “You owe me nothing.”

But “Lan Zhan!” Wei Wuxian admonishes, with no real heat. “Stop it. Of course I do.”

“Wei Ying…”

“No, I do! You saved my life!”

“That doesn’t mean – ” Father cuts off, visibly uncomfortable. Senior Wei begins rubbing at Lan Wangji’s hand again, waiting patiently for Father to find the words. Eventually, he picks up: “That does not mean you are obliged to love me back.”

Sizhui nearly falls out of his hiding place.

He catches himself at the last second, eyes wide, mind going a li a minute.

Father!

Confessed! When on earth did that happen?! Was it – ?

Realisation dawns on Sizhui. The only time Senior Wei and Father have been alone these past few days was when Dad stormed into the woods, just before he fled to the Nightless City.

Sizhui prompted this – he must have. He can say with almost 100% certainty that this did not happen the first time. How did his interventions, what he has said to his parents, prompt them to have this conversation sixteen years early?

Was it his lie? That his parents were married in the future?

As Sizhui is having this internal debate, “Oh, Lan Zhan,” Senior Wei breathes. He tilts his head, trying to meet Lan Wangji’s avoidant gaze. “I don’t love you out of obligation.”

Father’s gaze snaps around magnetically. He opens his mouth… but words seem to escape him. “You…?”

“I’m sorry if I wasn’t very clear,” Senior Wei’s says, his smile turning teasing, “But I kissed you, didn’t I?”

Sizhui begins internally screaming.

THEY KISSED!

Wen Qing is going to be so relieved.

Father blinks at Senior Wei. “I thought that was to distract me?” He seems honestly baffled.

Wei Wuxian huffs. He places his hand on Father’s cheek. “I mean, it also accomplished that, but I wouldn’t have kissed you if I didn’t mean it.” He pauses, laughs weakly. “Besides, I really need to apologise to you for the needle thing…”

“…You really – ?” As his words doubt Senior Wei, Lan Wangji is melting into his touch at the same time.

“Mm,” Wei Wuxian nods, beaming. “I love you, Lan Zhan. I’m sorry it took me so long to figure it out.”

Sizhui finds he isn’t anywhere near so worried anymore.

Their problems are still out there, lurking in the shadows, but they’ll face them together.  

Sizhui slips away, back to the village, as the kisses begin again.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng thinks he’s going to break out in emotional hives.

Sweet fucking heavens, there’s been so much crying today.

He’s sitting outside with A-jie on two adjacent log benches, Jin Ling wailing softly in her arms. With the sun lowering in the sky, the chill has begun to set in, Jiang Cheng notes with discomfort; as a Yunmeng native, he’s not built for the cold. 

He’s watching his sister rock her son, cooing at him softly, and contemplating the day’s events.

Jin Ling is the only one who’s allowed to cry from now on, Jiang Cheng decides – and that’s only because he’s a literal baby and can’t help it.

Wei Wuxian had sobbed when A-jie let him hold Jin Ling for the first time. In fact, Wei Wuxian hasn’t been doing much of anything but crying recently. The sheer pain on Lan Wangji’s face each time it happens…

Jiang Cheng shakes his head.

He really doesn’t want to be thinking about this. Not when this – all this – is partially his fault.

Wei Wuxian is a fucking idiot, of course. To begin with, he never should have run away from Lotus Pier to play house with the Wens. Nonetheless, that’s how things went, and Jiang Cheng should have protected him. He never should have cast Wei Wuxian out.

Maybe if he hadn’t, Wei Wuxian wouldn’t have tried to…

Jiang Cheng wrings his hands through his hair.

What a mess.

“A-Cheng?”

Jiang Cheng waves his sister off. “I’m fine, A-jie.”

Jin Ling wails particularly loud – as if calling bullshit.

“Oh, so fussy,” Jiang Yanli murmurs. “Just like your father. You’ll feel so much better if you have a nap, my little pearl.” She’s been trying to get A-Ling to sleep for a good while now, but the boy is stubborn.

Jiang Cheng sighs deeply. “Give him here.”

A-jie pauses in her rocking. “Are you sure?”

He answers by opening his arms.

Jin Ling likes falling asleep on Jiang Cheng, they’ve found. None of them know why; perhaps it’s the tenor of his voice or the warmth of his hands – but that’s just speculation. Jin Zixuan was particularly peeved about it, being unable to soothe his son’s cries no matter what he did. Jiang Cheng had really laughed about it, once upon a time, but – no, he stomps down the memories.

They make his throat close up.

A-jie leans across the gap and places Jin Ling into his waiting arms. Almost instantly, he quiets. His sister shakes her head, smiling. “I don’t understand how you do that.”

“Neither do I,” Jiang Cheng responds honestly. He’s never been good with children, not before now. He loved his shidis, yes, but they were different. Jiang Cheng could relate to them, draw them in through their shared experiences. Normal kids – real kids, civilian kids – are scared of him.

Not Jin Ling, apparently.

Jiang Cheng feels his nephew settle, exhaling contently – and the boy’s eyes close.

Only once he’s sure Jin Ling is asleep does he offer him back to Yanli.

She takes her son. “You’re such a good uncle, A-Cheng,” she says – and Jiang Cheng tries not to preen with the praise. It’s such a childish instinct.

No, Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to talk about this.

So, instead, now he has his sister’s undivided attention, he takes the opportunity to ask Yanli about something that’s been nagging at him.

“A-jie,” he begins. He hunches in on himself, arms braced on his knees. “What do you know about Lan Sizhui?”

Almost instantly, Jiang Yanli thins her lips – a sign she’s displeased with him but unwilling to admit it. A-jie has taken a shine to the young man, Jiang Cheng knows. Why? he’s not sure, but his sister does have a habit of picking up strays (just look at Wei Wuxian).

Nonetheless, “Not much,” Yanli admits.

“I’ve never heard of him before. Have you?”

“Well, no.

“He’s about our age, right? Probably just a few years younger?”

“It appears so.”

“So he should have been studying with us at Cloud Recesses, right?”

A-jie frowns at him.

“What?!” Jiang Cheng hisses. “It is incredibly suspicious that we’ve never heard of him before!”

It really, really is. This unknown Lan, wearing the ribbon of the main family, turning up out of the blue to save Wei Wuxian’s life? Jiang Cheng has learnt bits and pieces about the boy here at the Burial Mounds, but it paints a strange picture.

Jiang Cheng has a theory, alright.

“A-Cheng, keep your voice down,” Yanli hushes him, nodding down at A-Ling. Though, Jiang Cheng notes to himself, she quite likely also doesn’t want to be heard ‘conspiring’ with him – all too keen to keep the peace. “I think I know why we haven’t heard of him,” A-jie continues. “At the Nightless city, he told me his mother was a Wen.”  

Ah, so he’s related to the Lans on his father’s side. That only confirms Jiang Cheng’s hypothesis.

Though, resisting the urge to roll his eyes, “That’s not a secret, A-jie. I heard Lan Sizhui talking to Madam Jin. He openly admitted it.”

His sister quirks a single brow. “Were you eavesdropping?”

Uh – wait, no. Jiang Cheng huffs and crosses his arms; he’s an adult – he’s not falling for Jiang Yanli’s disappointed big sister act. He will not feel guilty. “They weren’t exactly talking in private. Anyway, Lan Sizhui’s mother may be a Wen, but his father is a Lan. He said he’s cousins with Hanguang-jun.”

“A-Cheng, where are you heading with this?” Jiang Yanli sighs.

But Jiang Cheng will not be deterred. He’s onto something here. “Look, none of this makes sense. Lan Wangji is weirdly comfortable with Lan Sizhui. He touches him! Casually! Wei Wuxian barely gets away with that – and we both know there’s something going on there. That’s not how you behave with some random fourth cousin, let alone someone who doesn’t even live in the Cloud Recesses. Think back to the Lan Clan genealogy, A-jie.” Jiang Cheng is whispering now, hurried and quick. “Mother drilled it into our heads as children. Can you think of any relatives of Hanguang-jun’s that are old enough to have kids Sizhui’s age?”

She won’t be able to. Jiang Cheng’s run through it a hundred times now. Each option – each distant relative – is either too distant to be considered a possibility or too young to have a child Lan Sizhui’s age.

When his sister tentatively shakes her head, Jiang Cheng drops his bombshell. “There’s only one clear option that explains Lan Sizhui’s blood relation to Lan Wangji and their closeness.”

Once what he says clicks – Jiang Yanli gasps. Her free hand shoots up to cover her mouth. “You don’t mean – ?”

“I do. I think he’s Lan Qiren’s son.”

Jiang Cheng has cracked it; he’s sure of it. Even when A-jie recovers from her shock and begins asking questions, Jiang Cheng is ready.

He’s thought of everything.

“But Teacher is unmarried,” Jiang Yanli breathes. “For a Lan, that’s more than against the rules!”

“Which is exactly why Lan Sizhui lived with his mother growing up,” Jiang Cheng posits. “Lan Qiren couldn’t have his bastard son running around Cloud Recesses – not when he was, essentially, the active Sect Leader.

“But Teacher wouldn’t!” his sister insists. “He follows the rules so staunchly. A child out of wedlock…” Jiang Cheng isn’t sure that his sister’s tightened grip on Jin Ling is conscious, but she does so, nonetheless. His intention here isn’t to dreg up memories or grief, so he ploughs on.

“Perhaps that’s why he worships the laws as he does. Besides, it’s well known that Lans are stupid in love. Just look at Hanguang-jun.”

The way he looks at Jiang Cheng’s brother is not platonic. In fact, Jiang Cheng will eat his socks if Lan Wangji attempts to marry anyone but Wei Wuxian.

Not that Jiang Cheng is giving his brother up to the Lans without a fight.

“It does make sense,” A-jie finally concedes. “I suppose Lan Sizhui even looks a little like Lan Qiren… Oh, but that’s so sad! For him to have to grow up apart from half his family… Oh, A-Cheng!” she exclaims suddenly, reaching over to squeeze Jiang Cheng’s knee. “What if that’s why Teacher was so harsh on A-Xian?”

Jiang Cheng – blinks. Okay, his sister has lost him this time. “What has Wei Wuxian got to do with this?”

“Doesn’t Lan Sizhui remind you of A-Xian? Especially when he was younger?”

…Does he? Coincidentally, this is when Lan Sizhui appears, strolling out from the tree line. Jiang Cheng is instantly reeling – what in the name of the heavens was he doing out there?! – but he’s also watching. There’s a bounce in Lan Sizhui’s step, a grin on his face… and yes, Jiang Cheng finds it does remind him of his brother; he’s seen the exact sight before, a younger Wei Wuxian skipping down the docks of Lotus Pier having got his way, somehow or other.

A-jie sees him observing the young man, and picks up her thoughts: “Perhaps Teacher was so harsh on A-Xian because our brother reminded him of someone he missed…”

Jiang Cheng scowls. He doesn’t know how to feel about that.

So, instead of offering an answer, “Oi! Lan Sizhui!” he barks across the village square.

The young man jumps, almost out of his skin. Like a deer in torch light, “M-me?” he stutters, having sighted Jiang Cheng and A-jie.

“I don’t know of anyone else called Lan Sizhui here,” Jiang Cheng bites.

There’s a light smack against his arm, no real strength behind it. “Stop it,” A-jie chastises. She then addresses Lan Sizhui. “Young Master Lan, why don’t you come sit with us?”

He does not fidget – but his lips purse, indicating that he would very much like to fidget. If he wasn’t a Lan, perhaps he would. “I don’t want to intrude,” Lan Sizhui says.

“Nonsense,” A-jie smiles. “We’re inviting you!”

‘You’re inviting him,’ Jiang Cheng thinks. ‘I just want to question him.’

Lan Sizhui hovers for another second, dithering. “…If you’re sure?”

Jiang Yanli pats the open spot next to her, inviting. “Of course.”

Hesitantly, Lan Sizhui sits down – and A-jie instantly plops Jin Ling into his arms. It is both an act of mercy, giving the young man something to focus on, and extremely cunning. He can’t leave now! Trapped by the baby! His sister has given Jiang Cheng the perfect opportunity for an interrogation.

It’s always foolish to underestimate Jiang Yanli.

Meanwhile, Lan Sizhui’s eyes go wide, his arms oddly stiff as A-jie adjusts Jin Ling in his hold. Soon, however, the young man settles, growing comfortable. His expression softens into something – well, unreadable.

Wistful? Sad? Jiang Cheng isn’t sure.

“He’s so small,” Lan Sizhui says. In his sleep, Jin Ling manages to latch onto some of Lan Sizhui’s hair, tugging it. It’s to Lan Sizhui’s merit that he doesn’t flinch – Jiang Cheng knows just how strong his nephew’s grip is.

“He was smaller a month ago too,” Jiang Yanli says, leaning over to tickle her son’s cheek.

Lan Sizhui’s lips quirk surprisingly. “He’s very – cute.”

“I suspect your little brother was just as cute at this age. Not that A-Yuan isn’t adorable now.”

Lan Sizhui hums – and Jiang Cheng takes the opportunity to strike. “Just where did you grow up? You and your brother?”

The young man stills – almost methodically. “W-what?”

“Where did you grow up?” Jiang Cheng persists.

“…I assume that’s obvious?”

“Is it?”

Jiang Cheng finds himself in a stare down with Lan Sizhui. He narrows his eyes, leans further forwards. Lan Sizhui peers at him blankly, cool like jade – and Jiang Cheng swears that’s the face of someone with something to hide.

“Are you harassing my nephew?”

And it’s Jiang Cheng’s turn to be frightened half to death. He startles in his seat, swearing, and spins to see Wen Qing stood behind him, arms crossed, obviously displeased.

Jiang Cheng resists the urge to gulp. What is it that’s so scary about big sisters?

“Auntie, it’s fine,” Lan Sizhui says. Though –

“Wait, Auntie?” Jiang Cheng highlights. His eyes dart between the supposed aunt and nephew. “Aren’t you a little old to be Wen Qing’s nephew?”

He’s slapped over the back of his head. “This is what I mean by harassment!” Wen Qing says. “He’s had a long day. Leave him alone.”

“Auntie, really,” Sizhui reiterates – Jiang Cheng is still rubbing at his skull. She hits so hard! –  “I’m fine.”  

“Where did you go just now?” she asks as she sits down, placing herself at Sizhui’s other side. “I thought you were going to talk to Wei Wuxian?”

Oh? Well, that peaks Jiang Cheng’s interests. Lan Sizhui’s relationship with Wei Wuxian is another thing that’s been on his mind. The way the two Lans had hovered at his brother’s bedside – well, it makes sense for Lan Wangji. But why does Lan Sizhui care quite so much?

It is under his Auntie’s gaze that Lan Sizhui begins to crack. “I was…” Lan Sizhui says slowly, calculated –

“Sizhui.”

“He was – busy?”

“Is that a lie?”

“No!” Sizhui objects. “Of course not!” And –

“We’re back~!” a voice sing-songs from edge of the woods. It is the same chime that Jiang Cheng hears in his nightmares.

It’s the sound of Wei Wuxian, overly pleased with himself.

“What are you doing out of bed?!” Wen Qing snaps, tilting her body so she has a clear view of the idiot, and Jiang Cheng does the same –

The hell, Wei Wuxian is a mess! His robes are askew, Jiang Cheng is sure that’s a twig in his hair, and – and is that a hickey?

The Second Jade of Lan stands at his side, ears red, missing his forehead ribbon.

They’re holding hands.

What.

“Wei Wuxian, what the fuck have you done?” Jiang Cheng hears himself say.

His brother just grins, holding up his and Lan Wangji’s joint hands; the Lan forehead ribbon is tied around Wei Wuxian’s wrist. “We’re going to elope!” he announces proudly.

“Mm,” Lan Wangji agrees shyly.

Jiang Cheng wishes he’d stayed home.

Chapter Text

“You’re going to elope,” Jiang Wanyin echoes, blandly, as Sizhui tries to figure out whether he's done something extraordinarily wrong or extraordinarily right.

"Mm!" Senior Wei nods enthusiastically.

"Now?" Sect Leader Jiang stresses.

"Yeah!"

"No."

Senior Wei's eyes narrow. "What do you mean no?"

"As your Sect Leader, I forbid it."

Uh oh.

A dark cloud passes over Senior Wei. “You forbid it? You’re forbidding me from marrying Lan Zhan?!” He’s shifted so quickly from joy to rage that even Father seems startled.

“Wei Ying,” he starts, but –  

Thankfully, “No, not that,” Jiang Wanyin clarifies, crossing his arms. “As much as I dislike your choice of husband, no.”  

Senior Wei’s anger fizzes as quickly as it accrued. “Oh. Then what?”

Sect Leader Jiang, however – well, he looks like he wants to stab something. “I forbid you from eloping, idiot! If you’re getting married, we’re going to have a proper god-damn wedding!”

“…Oh.”

That disperses the remaining tension. In the next instant, Jiang Yanli is on her feet, racing across to her brother. “A-Xian!” she’s squealing. “You confessed!”

Senior Wei blinks. “You knew?”

“I’ve been waiting for this for years,” Jiang Yanli teases, taking her brother’s free hand and squeezing it.

Father coughs uncomfortably.

Meanwhile, “Is this where you were?” Wen Qing whispers in Sizhui’s ear. She takes Jin Ling from his arms, and so Sizhui is free to rub at the back of his neck

Bashfully, “I caught them leaving… I may have followed them into the woods,” he explains.

His aunt snorts. “Typical. I shouldn’t have expected anything else from Wei Wuxian. Nearly dies yesterday and now he’s engaged… Sizhui, I hope you left before they… well…” She makes a sharp motion with her head; ‘you know’ it says.

Sizhui does not know. He wrinkles his nose in confusion. “Before they what? I saw them kiss, but then I left, I swear.”

“…Please tell me that sex education is part of the curriculum at Cloud Recesses.”

What?

Sizhui processes what his aunt just said – what she implied.

Oh.

OH.

“They didn’t?!” Sizhui hisses. He whips back to his parents, fully taking in their appearances. That bruise is particularly prominent on Senior Wei’s jaw… Sizhui whips his head back and buries his eyes in the heels of his palms. “Auntie, don’t put those images in my head!”

Those are his parents!

Auntie Qing laughs, clapping him on the back.

Meanwhile, “No, you’re not eloping. Absolutely not!” Jiang Wanyin is still arguing. He’s adamant in his position, despite Senior Wei’s moans.

“But Jiang Chengggg…” He whines, hanging off Hanguang-jun like he’s the rail of sinking ship. “It would solve so many problems!”

“Like what?”

“Well, for one, A-Yuan would have two parents. How could you refuse your sweet nephew the father he deserves?”

Sect Leader Jiang scoffs, Jiang Yanli standing to the side, trying to hide her giggles behind her hands. Wei Wuxian wails, flopping back into Father’s arms (he is receptive, bemused, and extremely embarrassed, Sizhui can tell).

“How cruel, Chengcheng! Treating the son I birthed myself so!”

“As if!”

Then Wei Wuxian drops the bombshell. Leaning into Father’s embrace, “And, I mean, technically Lan Zhan and I are already married, sooo…”

What.

WHAT?!” Jiang Wanyin explodes.

“A-Xian!” Jiang Yanli gasps. “How?”

“In the Cold Cave,” Father speaks up. Senior Wei is gazing up at him, the moon in his eyes. “To protect Wei Ying, I had to share my forehead ribbon with him. We prostrated ourselves before my ancestor. In the Lan clan… That is enough.”

WHAT.

“I just brought up something A-Zhui told me,” Dad says, winking at Sizhui, “and then Lan Zhan turned pink and I was like ‘what’s wrong, love of my life?’ and he told me that! What a naughty husband he’s been, keeping our marriage from me!”

Something Sizhui told him?

In the midst of Jiang Wanyin attempting to strangle his brother, Sizhui is wracking his brain. What did he say to prompt this?!

Then it hits him, like a boulder running down a hill.

Wei Wuxian told Lan Wangji they were married in the future.

Which they aren’t.

Sizhui feels like crying from just pure, unadulterated stress. The horror of it all! His lie – his one true lie – has made it around to Father.

FATHER!

This is worse than lying to one person. No, Sizhui has created a labyrinth of falsities! What does this constitute? Breaking the rules regarding deception as well as lying? How many times –

Wait a second.

A current jolts up Sizhui’s spine. He straightens compulsively.

If Father and Senior Wei… have been married this whole time…

“Did I even lie to begin with?” Sizhui mumbles to himself, utterly fazed.

“Wait,” Jiang Wanyin bites, all of a sudden. (He’s been unable to reach Wei Wuxian – for strangling purposes – as Lan Wangji is acting as a stone wall, stern faced, tall and imposing). “The forehead ribbon? It’s a marriage thing?”

Senior Wei peaks out from behind Father.

“Only parents and spouses may touch it,” Father confirms.

Sizhui doesn’t expect Jiang Wanyin to turn to him. As his stomach flips foreboadingly, the Sect leader speaks, so unemotionally it’s scary, “Then why, in the name of the heavens, did my sister have Lan Sizhui’s forehead ribbon when we arrived at the gates to the Nightless city?”

…Shit.

“I-I can explain,” Sizhui says, taking a hesitant step back.

“Did you PROPOSE TO MY SISTER?!” Jiang Wanyin yells.

Shit, shit, shit!

“She didn’t know who I was!” Sizhui tries to reason. Jin Ling has woken up now and he’s crying, agitated by the shouting. “I had to find a way to promise her that I had Senior Wei’s best interests at heart!”

“BY PROPOSING TO HER?!”

“It was to show how serious I was!”

In the background, away from the frontlines, “YOU PROPOSED TO SHIJIE!” Senior Wei is laughing, doubled over in hysterics. “HAHAHA, THAT’S HILARIOUS!”

“WEI WUXIAN!” Jiang Wanyin snaps. “NO, IT’S NOT! SHE’S IN MOURNING!”

“Jiang Wanyin,” Father says sternly. “Calm down. Sizhui meant no harm.”

“I didn’t mean to propose!” Sizhui insists. Goodness, Jiang Wanyin is terrifying when he’s angry. Is this what it’s like to be on Lan Qiren’s bad side? Sizhui has moved to hide behind Wen Qing, hoping his aunt (and Jin Ling) will deter the Sect Leader somewhat. “Please, I have no intention of marrying Young Madam Jin!”

Alas, “OH, NOW YOU DON’T  WANT TO MARRY MY SISTER?! WHY NOT? SHE’S A DELIGHT!”

“What’s going on out here?” A new voice – Wen Ning, Sizhui recognises – interrupts. Sizhui shoots him a desperate glance, trying to say ‘please save me’ with his eyes alone.

“WEN NING,” Senior Wei chokes out. “WEN NING, SIZHUI PROPOSED TO MY SISTER! AHAHAHA, WEN NING!”

Uncle Ning appears baffled. He blinks repeatedly – emoting as much as his face allows. “…What?”

“Ignore him, A-Ning,” Auntie says. Jiang Yanli has rushed over to take Jin Ling from her arms, soothing his wails. (On the way over, she appears to have ‘accidentally’ stomped on her brother’s foot. Sect Leader Jiang is clutching at it, swearing to himself). “Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji are engaged,” Wen Qing finishes.  

Uncle Ning gasps. “You are?” As Wei Wuxian nods, he bounds over to Sizhui’s dad. “Young Master Wei! What great news!”

Leaning close and holding a hand to one side of his mouth, “We want to elope,” Senior Wei stage whispers, “but my mean old brother forbids it.”

“A-Xian, be nice to A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli chastises, rocking Jin Ling. The baby looks very put out, having been woken from his nap so rudely. Simultaneously:

“But… Young Master,” Wen Ning says. “You can’t not have a wedding…”

That starts Sect Leader Jiang off again. “SEE!” His hands flourish emphatically. “EVEN HE AGREES WITH ME!”

“A-Cheng! Shush!”

And Auntie doesn’t like that wording. “Even he?” she mimics. “Jiang Wanyin, what is that supposed to mean?”  

“I just mean – ”

There’s a cough. “Children.”

Sizhui startles, turning. Madam Jin stands at the entrance to the Demon-Slaughtering cave, hands on her hips. Her gaze is scornful and Sizhui feels himself shrink under it.

There is quiet, Sizhui realises in the next second. Madam Jin, with one word, has silenced their whole gaggle. A brief survey of the others – and they look just as sheepish as he feels.

“If you have the energy to converse so energetically,” Madam Jin continues – now she has their collective attention, “I’m sure you have the energy to have an adult conversation. Perhaps it is time that we finally discuss what the hell it is we’re all doing here.”

Though Sizhui would do almost anything to escape this conversation – so it’s not saying much – perhaps it is.

Time.

Chapter Text

They reconvene in the Demon-Slaughtering Cave, though after a momentary pause. Jin Ling has to be lulled back to sleep, and then given to Granny for safe-keeping, and Senior Wei and Father have to straighten themselves out, their robes still suspiciously askew.

Nonetheless, Sizhui finds himself to be the last person to arrive. He didn’t want to wait in the cave with only Sect Leader Jiang and Madam Jin for company – the conversation could turn dangerous again all too quickly – so he hovered instead, watching as each person and group filed in. Sizhui only enters himself when the last stragglers (his parents, of course) traipse in.

He find his family sat in a wide circle. It’s a strange parallel to the other day, when it had just been Sizhui, the Wens, and his parents; now, their numbers have nearly doubled and their circumstances have changed rather drastically.

Madam Jin sits directly parallel to the entrance, hands folded neatly in her lap, back straight. As a self-imposed figurehead, patiently she observes them all, seeing everything and missing nothing.

The Jiangs huddle together, Jiang Yanli to Madam Jin’s immediate right. While Jiang Yanli smiles at Sizhui as he enters (he really has to check in with her later; he’d hate to have offended his aunt, now the true meaning of the Lan forehead ribbon has come to light), Sect Leader Jiang remains hostile, eyes narrowed at Sizhui.

Sizhui resists the urge to gulp.  

Across from them, Wen Qing and Wen Ning assume a well-rehearsed act; Wen Qing sits in front of her brother, as he stands behind, tall yet unimposing, shoulders hunched. The Ghost General was never the Wen to fear, not when Wen Qing is present.

In contrast to their last meeting, the greatest change comes in the countenance of Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji. Gone is the hostility, the miscommunication. They sit almost on top of one another on Senior Wei’s bed, whispering to themselves. Father’s forehead ribbon remains staunchly on Senior Wei’s wrist – it is extremely odd to see Father without it, if Sizhui is honest.

They look… happy.

Walking into the midst of this – Sizhui dithers. He realises he doesn’t know where to sit. All these factions, different sides to Sizhui’s life… Does he make a calculated choice? The Jiangs and Madam Jin, who would they expect him to side with? He sat with Senior Wei, last time, but the circumstances were different. Will Auntie Qing be offended if he does so again?

Perhaps he wavers for too long. “Sizhui!” Senior Wei calls, gesturing to him with a wave. He shuffles off Lan Wangji’s lap and over on the bed, patting the spot between him and Father. Father nods, finding the arrangement agreeable.

Sizhui scurries over.

“If we’re all prepared,” Madam Jin begins as Sizhui seats himself, “I must start this meeting with what I find to be the most pressing of my concerns. Just how is Jin Guangyao responsible for my son’s death?”

Jiang Yanli tenses visibly. She turns to Senior Wei, expectantly.

But, “Do you want to take this one?” his dad asks, nudging Sizhui with his elbow. “You know how bad my memory is, eh?”

The room’s gaze focuses in on him.

Sizhui breathes.

“To answer your question, Madam Jin, I must backtrack somewhat,” he starts. “Jin Guangyao has an accomplice, you see. One Su Minshan.”

“The Moling Su Sect Leader?” Jiang Wanyin probes.

Sizhui nods. “He is the one who is responsible for casting the Hundred Holes Curse on Jin Zixun. He cast it of his own accord, if I am correct, but Jin Guangyao found the situation to be advantageous. Jin Guangshan desires the Stygian Tiger amulet, you see – ”

“And Jin Guangyao desires nothing more than my husband’s approval,” Madam Jin picks up. She begins rubbing at her temples. “I see where you are going with this.”

Sizhui winces in sympathy – for the woman before him, and the woman from his past, who died not knowing the reasons for her suffering. “The attack at Qiongqi path accomplished two of Jin Guangyao’s goals,” he continues. “By leading Jin Zixun to believe that Senior Wei was the one to curse him, the aftermath of Qiongqi Path gave Jin Guangshan cause to siege the Burial Mounds and claim the Stygian Tiger amulet. That is the part of the plan that your husband was likely aware of. The other half, however…”

Sizhui sighs. No one will be happy hear the next part of the tale. Jiang Yanli is already fidgeting, playing with her hair, while Uncle Ning is staring steadfast at the floor, head lowered. He continues, nonetheless. “Jin Guangyao planted Su Minshan in a hidden outcrop at the path and, when the tension escalated, he had the Sect Leader use demonic cultivation to steer control of Wen Ning away from Senior Wei.”

“I didn’t want to!” Uncle Ning interrupts. The outburst startles them all. Fists clenched, eyes gleaming with tears that can never be shed, “I wasn’t even aware of what I was doing!” Wen Ning continues. “But I – I still did it…”

Abruptly, Wen Ning lowers himself to the floor. “I am so, so sorry,” he says, as he prostrates himself before both Madam Jins.

“A-Ning…!” Wen Qing gasps, while Jiang Yanli moves to get out of her seat – but is held back by her brother. Jiang Wanyin shakes his head.

Sizhui feels a burst of panic swell in his chest.

Yet, “Get up, stupid boy,” Madam Jin snaps.

Wen Ning finally looks up. “M-madam?”

Madam Jin is staring down at Sizhui’s uncle. But –

Normally, Sizhui thinks himself to be quite observant. Growing up with Father, it became second nature to read body-language; the ticks of someone’s brows, the curve of their mouth.

In Madam Jin, in this moment, Sizhui sees nothing. Eyes lifeless, face slack, there is no emotion as she speaks. “…You were the blade, Wen Qionglin. We do not blame the sword for its master’s crimes.”

Uncle Ning chokes out a sob, a damn breaking.

Sizhui supposes Madam Jin’s emotionlessness is a form of kindness.

Wen Qing seems to think similarly. “That is very noble of you, Madam Jin,” she says, as her brother scrambles to his feet. Though – “The Jins have rarely treated us so kindly.”

And there is the knife, the twist.  

Madam Jin’s response is coolly calculated. “I do not like to see the innocent punished.”

“You did before.”

And that does it. “I did not have all the information,” Madam Jin replies sharply. “Do not get ahead of yourself, Young Maiden Wen.”

Sizhui has seen battles less charged than this, arrows with duller points.

“Ahhh, perhaps we should get back on topic?” Senior Wei interrupts.

Two equally formidable women swivel to glare at Wei Wuxian.

He laughs awkwardly. “Ahhhaha, A-Zhui,” he prompts, finger tapping his nose, “how is it that Jin Guangyao will benefit from Jin Zixuan’s death?”

Sizhui decides that, yes, it is best to continue.

“Senior Wei,” Sizhui says, mimicking his dad’s tone, “the deaths of Jin Zixuan and Jin Zixun make Jin Guangyao the only legitimate heir to the Sect – other that Jin Ling, that is.”

“So that’s why you said it was not safe for us at Koi Tower,” Jiang Yanli assesses, jumping on the bandwangon. “You truly think…?”

Madam Jin huffs. Arms crossed – and ‘Mission accomplished!’ Sizhui thinks – “I wouldn’t put it past him. I caught the bastard with his mask down once. He was emotionless. Completely blank. I think that man capable of anything.”

Sizhui tries not to think of Jin Rusong.

He succeeds as Sect Leader Jiang interrupts, “How do you know all this?”

Sizhui blinks.

“Eh, Jiang Cheng?”

“No, shut up, Wei Wuxian. You’re not the one doing all the reporting.” The Sect Leader leans forwards, resting on his knees, ready to attack. “How did Lan Sizhui come by this information?”

Sizhui – gulps.

This is the moment. Does he speak truthfully? Dive straight into the depths? He’s willing, if that’s what it takes.

But –

In the corner of his eye, Sizhui sees Wen Qing shake her head. Her gaze lingers on Madam Jin. 

For whatever reason, his aunt does not think that this is the time – nor the crowd.

Sizhui will trust her judgement.

Though, that leaves him with another dilemma – lying.

Thankfully, “Jiang Cheng, let me finish!” Wei Wuxian says. He loops an arm over Sizhui’s shoulders. “Sizhui here isn’t going to want to admit that he’s my spy!”

Oh, thank the heavens. Sizhui exhales, deep and relieved. He doesn’t know what it was that incentivised his dad to step in – did he sense Sizhui’s unease? Did he see Wen Qing’s disapproval? – but he’s mighty glad for it. Now he just has to watch the show, as Senior Wei illustrates a fiction more convincing than the truth.

“Your spy?” Sect Leader Jiang deadpans. “How could a Lan be a spy? Isn’t eavesdropping against the rules in Cloud Recesses? Amongst, like, everything else you’d need to do to be a spy?

As if twirling Chenqing in his brother’s direction, “Exactly why A-Zhui isn’t likely to admit it himself,” Wei Wuxian affirms.

To add to the validity, “In recent times… I have broken more rules than I’d like to admit,” Sizhui says tentatively.

He checks in with his dad – did that help? – and there’s a gleam in Wei Wuxian’s eyes. The next second, “Oh, what lows we have had to sink to!” Senior Wei bemoans, flopping onto Sizhui, “Living here at the Burial Mounds!”

“Oh, cut the dramatics,” Jiang Wanyin retorts. “Wen Qing, is this true?”

His aunt rolls her eyes. “Yes, Jiang Wanyin, it is. Now, can we get on? Or would you rather dally with pointless questions when the Jins could be coming for our heads this very second?”

“We can move on,” Jiang Yanli answers. “I see no reason to believe your words to be lies. We’re with family, right A-Cheng?”

Jiang Wanyin sinks in his chair and grumbles his confirmation.

“If that has been settled, then,” Madam Jin interjects. “I have a question for you, Wei Wuxian.”

Senior Wei perks up. “Yes?”

“If my husband is truly after the Stygian Tiger Amulet – which I believe to be true – and you think him to be close to acquiring it, why have you not destroyed the weapon?”

“Ah. That.”

Senior Wei has tensed immediately; there is still a smile on his face, yes, but in terms of judging his dad’s mood, sadly a smile does not mean much. “Madam Jin,” Sizhui picks up Wei Wuxian’s place. “You’re right. The amulet is too dangerous to exist. Senior Wei and I have been trying to destroy it but – we haven’t been able to figure out how.”

Not without consequence, at least.

“It is made of Yin Iron.” Madam Jin states, far from a question. “My husband claims to have destroyed the pieces accrued during the Sunshot Campaign.”

“He’s lying then,” Dad says abruptly, “because Jin Guangshan is most definitely alive.”

A beat.

 “Wait, what do you mean alive, Wei Wuxian?” That’s Wen Qing. “You told me you and Sizhui were getting there!”

Sizhui flickers between the two, opens his mouth to speak –

“We don’t know how to destroy it without the backlash killing the instigator,” Senior Wei finishes, nonetheless. “I was going to deal with it at the Nightless city and, well, we all know how that went.”

There is a chorus of uproar.  

“Wei Ying…” Father breathes.

Senior Wei smiles at Lan Wangji – weakly – and reaches over Sizhui to squeeze his fiancé’s thigh.

Sizhui, meanwhile, is processing this new information.

His fingers clench in his robes.

Meanwhile, “We’re fucked then,” Jiang Wanyin says. “We can’t destroy it but we can’t exactly keep it either. As long as the Stygian Tiger amulet exists, we’re in danger.”

“We can keep working,” Senior Wei protests. “The amulet will be destroyed. It just – may be destroyed later. Much later.”

“Let’s focus on what we can fix, for now,” Jiang Yanli says – ever the optimist. “A-Xian, earlier you said that your marriage to Lan Wangji would solve some of our problems. What did you mean by that?”

“Ah, right!” Senior Wei grins at Lan Wangji. “It wasn’t my idea, though. I think Lan Zhan should explain.”

Father’s idea?

Hanguang-jun coughs, clearing his throat. “Through marriage,” he speaks, clear and concise, “Wei Ying would become a disciple of the Lan Sect. Wen Yuan would be granted the same privilege, becoming part of the Sect because he is Wei Ying’s family. Hypothetically… we could extent that right to rest of the Wens at the Burial Mounds.”

All eyes turn to Wen Qing and Wen Ning.

Auntie Qing appears frozen. “You… can’t promise that.”

But, “I can,” Father persists. “Brother will allow it. The Elders cannot stop him.”

Or me, the firm set of his jaw implies.

“…Everyone?” Wen Qing says, bewildered.

Father nods. “Everyone.”

“So, Qing-jiejie,” Wei Wuxian interjects, waggling his eyebrows, “do you consider me a little brother or not?”

Abruptly, Wen Qing rises; her stool clatters to the ground and she stalks over, a woman on a mission. Senior Wei raises his hands – in surrender, Sizhui thinks – but, “The worst little brother I’ve ever had,” Wen Qing sniffs, pulling Wei Wuxian into a tight embrace.  

Senior Wei – looks flummoxed. As Wen Qing holds him tight, his arms flounder behind her. Slowly… he lowers them, placing his hands hesitantly on her back. “W-Wen Qing?”

She squeezes. “Of course I consider you family, idiot.”

“Oh.”

As they begin to part, “For what it’s worth, I will vouch for the character of those living here to any objectors,” Madam Jin says.

“Thank you,” Wen Ning replies – in his sister’s stead – offering a bow of thanks. “Your word would go a long way.”

“What I cannot clear, however, is Wei Wuxian’s name.”

Sizhui – he’s been tense, ever since Senior Wei’s confession regarding the Stygian Tiger amulet – but now it feels like its leaking out of him, flooding over and out.

“But, mother, we have proof!” Jiang Yanli objects. “What about Su She?”

Madam Jin takes a deep breath. “All of you have to remember,” she begins, hands clasped and braced on her knees, “that, to the cultivation world, the Yiling Patriarch is a monster  – mythical though he seems to be.” She shoots a wry glance Senior Wei’s way. He grimaces. “We may be able to prove the innocence of the Wens living here, and that you did not cast the Hundred Holes Curse on Jin Zixun, but that does not clear you of my son’s murder. The only proof we have against that, currently, is your word. To truly free you from this… I apologise, but we need more.”

An uncomfortable melancholy settles over their group.

Sizhui doesn’t have anything else to offer. No more evidence, no more answers…

He hates feeling useless.

“We have time, at least,” he offers to the silence – for something to say. “We do not know how long – but it is time, nonetheless. We should do what we can.”

Something. There has to be something.

His dad, always with the inopportune timing, “…So Lan Zhan and I can go elope now?”

Jiang Wanyin stomps his foot aggressively. “DAMN IT, WEI WUXIAN! We’ve had this conversation! You’re not eloping!”

“But we have to!” Senior Wei pouts. “I thought we were on the same page? Lan Zhan and I get married and we can save the Wens!”

“Yes, married,” Sect Leader Jiang clarifies. “As in with a wedding.

“Do we have time for that?” Father speaks up, always logical.

But –

Well.

“I… don’t see why not?”

All seven pairs of eyes begin to bore into his skull.

“I mean,” Sizhui starts, scratching at his cheek self-consciously, “Yiling is barely a sword’s ride away. I’m sure we could find some make-shift wedding robes in town, perhaps some fancier tea too. That would only take the morning… We could hold the wedding tomorrow afternoon?”

“…You’re serious?” Senior Wei asks.

“Yes?” 

“A-Xian…” Jiang Yanli says, rising to her feet. She glides over to take her brother’s hands. “You didn’t get to attend my wedding. Please, let us attend yours.”

Senior Wei swallows.

“Lan Zhan? What do you think?” he croaks.

Father doesn’t hesitate. “At the end of the day, I simply wish to be married to you. But, to have the luxury of a wedding… I would like that.”

Father finishes, so softly that Sizhui is sure only he and Senior Wei heard it and with the words, Senior Wei melts. Across his lips, a beam as bright as the sun breaks out and then he’s moving closer and closer to Father –

Sizhui slithers out from between his parents, just as they collide, lips first.

“Ugh, how shameless,” Jiang Wanyin grunts, as Sizhui is straightening up and brushing down his robes.

Jiang Yanli rolls her eyes. “It’s cute, A-Cheng. You should be happy for A-Xian.”

“I don’t know,” Wen Qing disagrees. She comes to hover at Sizhui’s side. “Couldn’t they have waited till we left?”

“You’ve never been much of a romantic though, A-jie…” Wen Ning adds in.

“Alright children, out,” Madam Jin orders. “We have a lot of work to do tomorrow – though I can’t believe we’re holding a wedding, of all things, at a time like this…” 

The meeting is adjourned.

Chapter Text

Sizhui is woken the next morning by the weight of a small body jumping onto his own.

“Sizhui-gege! Sizhui-gege! Get up!” He’s being jostled, as A-Yuan wiggles back and forth, and there’s a small hand patting at his cheek.  

“Okay, okay, I’m up,” Sizhui groans. Pulling himself upright, “What time is it?” he asks, rubbing at his eyes.

“Past five in the morning, that’s for sure.” That’s Senior Wei’s voice. He’s standing in the doorway of the hut, leaning against the frame. “Don’t worry about it, though. Lan Zhan and I agreed you probably needed the sleep.”

“But you have to go to town soon!” A-Yuan interrupts. “So Father let me wake you!”

“I’m going to Yiling?” is what Sizhui processes first. Then –

“Father?” Sizhui questions, heart skipping a beat. “You mean your Rich-gege?”

“Mm!” A-Yuan confirms.

“O-oh.”

When did that change happen?  

“Lan Zhan and I explained to him what’s happening today,” Senior Wei says, lowering himself to the ground and sitting cross-legged next to Sizhui’s bed. “What us getting married means. You’re excited, right my little radish?”

A-Yuan nods exaggeratedly. “We get two daddies now,” he explains to Sizhui. “But I can’t call them the same thing! That would be confusing. So I’ll call Rich-gege Father, like you do!”

Oh.

Sizhui hadn’t realised A-Yuan had picked up on that – what he calls Lan Wangji.

“Is Father…?” Okay with that? he tries to imply with tone alone.

Senior Wei cackles. “Ah, you should have seen Lan Zhan’s face! I think he was about to cry from pride. It was adorable.”

“I’m going to go find him!” A-Yuan says abruptly. He climbs off Sizhui – all elbows and knees. “He said he’d play with me after breakfast!”

“Don’t run!” Senior Wei calls, as A-Yuan darts outside – running, nonetheless. His dad rolls his eyes. “You were always getting scabby knees as a kid. All that running and no co-ordination.”

Sizhui hums in response. He fiddles with the blanket, puddled at his waist.

“…Hey, A-Yuan?” Senior Wei asks, after a moment of silence. “Are you doing okay?”

Hm? Is he okay?

Sizhui’s a little stressed, sure, but there’s a lot going on to be stressed about. Besides, he – and how he feels – shouldn’t be their primary concern right now.

So, “I’m fine, Dad,” Sizhui tries to placate and tries to smile.

Senior Wei does not appear satisfied. Lips pursed, “…I’m here if you need me, okay?” he says softly, reaching over to take Sizhui’s hand. “I made a promise, remember? I’m not going anywhere.”

“…I know, Dad,” and his smile feels a little more genuine this time.

 

Once he’s up, Sizhui confirms that, yes, he has been delegated as one of the party venturing into Yiling.

His back his healing nicely, according to his aunt, and the trek should do him some good. “I’ve found that cultivators tend to heal better away from the Burial Mounds,” she explains, as they walk arm in arm to where the Jiangs are waiting. “Your dad is the exception to that rule, though.”

“Because of his core?”

Wen Qing halts. “You know about that?”

Ah. “I found out by accident. Just before – ” my world came crashing in around me and I lost my future – “uh, you know,” he finishes, wincing.  

Wen Qing sighs, pats his arm. He leans into the comfort.  

“That’s why Lan Wangji’s black eye is taking forever to fade,” his aunt continues, a deviation Sizhui is thankful for. “The resentful energy on the mountain means he’s not healing as quickly as he normally would.”

“It may also be because you refuse to treat it, Auntie.”

Wen Qing huffs, her nose in the air. “He needed to be reminded of his priorities.” Though, from her position, she cracks one eye open at him and grins.

Sizhui laughs.

“Glad to see you’re all having a wonderful time,” Sect Leader Jiang snarks as they approach. He’s been particularly grumpy, ever since it was decided that he’ll be carrying the cart to town and back.

“Wei Wuxian can’t exactly go into town right now,” Wen Qing had explained doggedly. “He’s a wanted criminal, essentially. A-Ning can’t go for the same reason, Lan Wangji is too conspicuous – and we need him here to entertain Wei Wuxian – and Lan Sizhui is injured. I’m not strong enough to pull it to town and back and neither is your sister. You’re the only option, unless you want to ask Madam Jin to help you out?”

Jiang Wanyin had decided against asking Madam Jin.

Though, he has taken up complaining rather voraciously in its place. “Do we even need the cart?” he’s grumbling now.

“You’re the one that came up with the shopping list, A-Cheng,” his sister comments, examining said shopping list. “We wouldn’t have to bring the cart if you didn’t want so much fabric – or the food for the wedding feast.”

That sounds… expensive. “Do we have the money to pay for all this?” Lan Sizhui asks. There’s a reason he called his father ‘Rich-gege’ as a child; they don’t particularly have money to spare here at the Burial Mounds.  

However, “Excuse me?” Jiang Wanyin scowls at Sizhui. “What are you implying? My brother will have only the best for his wedding day!”

“I didn’t – ” Oh, Sizhui gives up! How is it that he pisses off Sect Leader Jiang every time he opens his mouth?!

“Don’t make me punch you too,” Wen Qing warns. “Sizhui’s right. That does sound expensive. I hope you’re paying, Sect Leader.”

Jiang Wanyin – relents. Arms crossed, “Of course,” he says, trying to sound casual. “I wouldn’t expect anyone else to.”

“Let us get going, then,” Jiang Yanli intercuts, ever the peacekeeper. “We have a long day ahead!”

Get going they do.

As they begin to walk, down the hill and then out onto the dirt road, his aunt and Sect Leader Jiang fall into easy bickering – first about what to buy, then about anything and everything. Watching them, well, Sizhui had never realised it before; they’re quite similar.

Sizhui has never really understood Sect Leader Jiang, neither this one nor the one from his future, but if Jiang Wanyin is like his aunt… Sizhui supposes that gives him some necessary context.

“They’re amusing to watch, aren’t they?” Jiang Yanli commentates to Lan Sizhui’s side.

He hums in response – then realises who he’s talking to.

“Ah, Young Madam Jin!” Sizhui halts momentarily so he can bow to his aunt. “I have been meaning to apologise!”

But Jiang Yanli catches his hands. “Whatever for?”

He blinks up at her. She blinks back, smiling.

“F-for the whole forehead ribbon incident?”

“Oh, there’s no need.”

“Oh.”

They start walking again. Sizhui is – definitely confused. How is she so calm? He proposed to her! He didn’t mean it that way – nor did he actually want to marry her – but he did, nonetheless!

Worst of all, her husband has just died!

It’s perplexing, that these actions did not cause any offence.

Thankfully, “I knew you didn’t mean it that way,” Jiang Yanli elaborates, probably when she notes Sizhui furrowed brow. “You weren’t the only one who made a rash decision that night. While I was waiting for you to come back with A-Xian, I considered how reckless I’d been. Rushing into the battle like that… It could have ended disastrously. But… Well…” She smiles – almost as a reflect. A cover, then, for some other emotion.

Sizhui finds her thoughts easy to finish, for he remembers thinking the same that day. “You did so anyway because thought Senior Wei was alone?”

Jiang Yanli ducks her head, nods. “I’m glad he wasn’t,” she says, slightly watery.

Sizhui swallows. “Me too.”

 

Yiling is relatively quiet by the time they arrive.

It’s just before midday, so Sizhui was expecting a larger crowd, honestly. The merchant stalls are open as usual, clamouring for their business, and there are customers around, locals and tourists alike, perusing the shop’s wares, but – simultaneously, there are whispers, following them like strays, as they trail through the streets.

Sizhui huddles a little closer to his family.

“Stay close,” Jiang Wanyin mumbles, leading the group through the streets, the cart at his back. It’s not long before he’s launched into bartering with a dumpling merchant, arguing over the cost of his meat buns. Wen Qing has moved one stall over with Jiang Yanli to assess some tea, leaving Sizhui to stand at the back of the cart and keep watch.

Yiling today is not so different from its future iteration, Sizhui notes. The paint is perhaps a bit brighter, less chipped, and the population as a whole seems younger…

The greatest difference is the town’s aura.

Ever since they entered, Sizhui hasn’t been able to shake the feeling that they’re being watched.

He feels it strongest perhaps half an hour later, while waiting outside a clothing store with the cart. One second, he’s stood, leant against a wall – and in the next he’s spinning, swearing he saw something in the corner of his eye; a dark figure, he thinks? Hand on his sword, he scans the crowd, searching… and there! In that alley!

He darts forwards and –

A black cat tumbles from a windowsill, landing flawlessly at his feet.

It meows up at him

Ahh, now he just feels silly.

Sizhui takes a deep breath. “Hello, little one,” he says, sheathing his half-drawn sword and crouching down to pet the cat. With the first stroke, it curls into his touch, egging him on. “I thought you were something else,” he explains. “Something scary. Ah, I’m getting paranoid... What to do?”   

He finds the sweet spot, right behind the cat’s ears, just as he’s called.

“It looks like we’re moving on, little one,” Sizhui sighs. With one final scratch, he rises to his feet. “Stay safe, okay?”

The cat stares up at him.

Sizhui takes that as a conformation.

Jogging back to catch up to his party, “How has this thing gotten so much heavier?” he hears Jiang Wanyin curse.

Wen Qing rolls her eyes, loading up their most recent purchase. “And I thought Wei Wuxian was the dramatic one.”

“Ah, it’s a common mistake,” Jiang Yanli says, a mischievous turn to her lips. “They’re as fond as melodrama as the other.”

“Hey! I resent that!”

Smiling at the antics, internally ‘It was nothing,’ Sizhui has to remind himself.

It was nothing.  

 

They arrive back at the Burial Mounds a few hours later, laden with goods. Preparation starts right away.

Sizhui is placed in charge of making sure Lan Wangji’s wedding robes fit. The task is delegated by Jiang Wanyin, who seems to have appointed himself wedding planner supreme.

Simultaneously, Jiang Yanli has been given the task of shepherding Senior Wei into his own formal robes – but she seems to be having less success. Wei Wuxian has run off somewhere none of them are quite sure where, though Sizhui could have sworn he saw the tell-tale swing of dark fabric hightailing it into the Demon-Slaughtering Cave but five minutes ago.

Standing outside a spare hut, waiting for his father to change, Sizhui watches as the Burial Mounds slowly transforms. Red begins to drown out the muddy browns and shadowy greys of the village, vivid lanterns hanging from the houses, fabric wafting in the light breeze.

There’s a cough to Sizhui’s side.

Father has emerged, it appears and – oh, what a sight.

The hanfu Jiang Wanyin has picked out is simple, yet obviously expensive. The fine red silk drapes perfectly over Lan Wangji’s shoulders and down over his arms, the robe synched in at Father’s waist with a neat golden sash. The fabric is sparsely embroidered, but the instances of it are intricate and detailed; the pair of golden ducks, swimming on a cloudy lake, at the hem of the hanfu particularly catch Sizhui’s eye.

The transformation is not complete yet; Father still wears his normal headdress and his forehead is bare – (Senior Wei has supposedly refused to give Father his forehead ribbon back – though Sizhui is quite sure Lan Wangji didn’t put up much of a fight for it) – but Sizhui can clearly picture the finished image.

Father cocks a single brow. ‘How do I look?’ Sizhui interprets and – heavens, he finds himself getting choked up. Oh, he didn’t think this would be quite so emotional.

“You look perfect,” he says, and before he can more –

“Lan Zhan~!”

Father spins just in time to catch Senior Wei, who pounces at him from behind. Though, “Awh, Lan Zhan! I thought I’d scare you!” Senior Wei pouts.

“Wei Ying was very scary,” Father deadpans, settling Wei Wuxian in his arms; said man rolls his eyes, sticking out his tongue in retort.

As much as Sizhui would like to allow this to continue, “Senior Wei, you’re not supposed to be here.”  He’s come from the direction of Granny’s hut, probably playing with A-Yuan instead of behaving.

Like the child he is, “But A-Yuannn,” his dad moans. “I’m bored without your father! There’s nothing to do! Jiang Cheng has forbidden me from helping…”

“You’re supposed to be having your own robes fitted,” Sizhui chastises. “Young Madam Jin has been searching for you.”

“Ah, she has?”

Oh, Sizhui has an idea! “The sooner you find her, the sooner you and Father can be married,” he says and it does the trick.

Senior Wei lights up like a firework show. “Ah, you’re right! A-Yuan, just let me admire my future husband quickly, and then I’ll be off.” Wei Wuxian then pulls away from Lan Wangji, just enough to admire him top to toe.

During the process, Father’s ears go conspicuously pink.

Once he has drunk in enough of the sight, “You’re as handsome as ever, Hanguang-jun,” Senior Wei sighing dreamily to himself. “Though, we’re going to have to heal this,” he hums, brushing his fingers against the remnants of Lan Wangji’s blackeye. The bruising is nearly gone now, though a few pink splodges remain, a stark contrast to the man’s pale skin. “The Second Jade of Lan can’t look imperfect on his wedding day!”

“Heal it then, dipshit,” Jiang Wanyin comments as he passes, carrying in what appears to be an elaborate bronze incense burner. “We’re cultivators, remember?”

He’s trying to joke, Sizhui understands. From what he’s seen of Senior Wei and Sect Leader Jiang’s relationship, this is how they show affection for each other; they trade jibes, jostle each other.

Sadly, this is particular barb is perhaps the worst possible thing Jiang Wanyin could have said.

Senior Wei recoils from Father as if he’s been hit. His smile slips – just for a second – and is replaced with sheer panic. He recovers quick, “Ahaha, I’ve always been bad at that,” he tries to joke, but his shoulders are hunched. “Shijie should do it instead. I might just hurt Lan Zhan more.”

Father is frowning now. It’s all too clear that something’s wrong. “Wei Ying?”

“I’m fine,” Senior Wei replies, far too quickly. “I just – I just realised I forgot to do something. I’ll – I’ll be back.”

And he bolts.

“Senior Wei!” Sizhui calls after his dad – but Wei Wuxian ploughs on ahead, heading straight for the Demon Slaughtering Cave. Sizhui feels his frustrating mounting. “Why did you say that?” he snaps, somewhat impulsively, at Jiang Wanyin.

Though – “Say what?” the Sect Leader parrots back, looking bewildered. “I just stated fact? We’re cultivators! He could have healed Lan Wangji’s black-eye himself!”

“You know something,” Father says, coming to the realisation all at once. “Something we don’t.”

…Uh oh.

Maybe this is why Sizhui shouldn’t be impulsive.

“I – I can’t tell you,” Sizhui says. “I’m not supposed to know.”

“But there is something to know?” Jiang Wanyin says.

Ahhh, this is not good.

“Fa – Hanguang-jun, you should go after Senior Wei,” Sizhui pleads, swerving to meet his dad’s eye. “He may be willing to tell you if you ask. But – I can’t – I can’t betray his trust like that.”

That’s all the persuasion it takes.

Father nods and moves to stride off.

(He squeezes Sizhui’s shoulder in comfort as he passes, however, and the touch is much needed).

Watching him grow further away, Jiang Wanyin goes to follow –

“Don’t.”

The Sect Leader prickles. “Why not?” he bites back – and Sizhui needs a cover. They don’t need Jiang Wanyin finding out about Senior Wei’s core like this – not here, and not now.

“You might overwhelm Senior Wei,” Sizhui tries. “We all know how… sensitive he is right now. Let Hanguang-jun deal with it.”

The Sect Leader glowers at him; Sizhui tries not to gulp.

“…Fine,” Jiang Wanyin concedes. “But I want an explanation later.”

He storms off, leaving Sizhui by the hut.

Sizhui sighs and goes to find Wen Qing. Perhaps she’ll have something for him to do.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian is an idiot.

A complete and utter idiot!

He’s barely resisting tearing at his hair, as he paces back and forth in the Demon-Slaughtering cave. He’s tried distracting himself, hoping that would banish his anxiety, but his fingers had only trembled as he tried to organise his work bench (he could have sworn he left it neater than this, the papers in disarray) but then he’d dropped a stack of notes everywhere, only making a bigger mess.

Like he usually does.

‘How could I have forgotten?’ Wei Wuxian thinks, succumbing to his aching lungs and belting heart. As he paces, he can’t find it in himself to care that he’s stomping over the very notes he just dropped. His mind is somewhere else – it’s like he’s watching himself move, a mere observer.

With everything going on – getting engaged to Lan Zhan, ah, what a dream! – he’d been truly happy, if only for a moment. How selfish of him!

He can’t promise Lan Zhan forever. He’s not capable of it. There’s a void in his chest where his golden core is supposed to be and it keeps him fixed here, unable to move on with everyone else.

“Wei Ying?” he suddenly hears, spoken at the mouth of the cave and Wei Wuxian doesn’t want Lan Zhan to see him like this.

A childish part of him just wants to hide; maybe Lan Zhan will be unable to find him and he’ll move on. But Lan Zhan knows he’s in here, as does Sizhui and – oh, shit, what if Jiang Cheng is coming too? Wei Wuxian isn’t ready for that. He knows telling Lan Zhan will be bad enough – Wei Wuxian can’t marry him, keeping a secret like this. What if Lan Zhan calls the wedding off? What if he hates Wei Wuxian after this? For lying to him, essentially, all these years –

“Wei Ying, breathe,” Lan Zhan says, right in front of him. When did that happen? There are hands on his shoulders, leading him to the bed and then sitting him down. He feels wrong – he doesn’t deserve this affection – but, still, Wei Wuxian drinks in the touch, the warmth, and soon finds himself swaddled in his fiancé’s arms. “Copy me,” Lan Zhan says, and Wei Wuxian listens.

Wei Wuxian, resting his head against Lan Zhan’s chest, feels his love breathe in deeply, slowly, and hold the breath. He mimics the movement and soon they fall into a rhythm; in and out, in and out…

It helps – a little – but even Lan Zhan can’t stop his thoughts, clawing at his skull, trying to escape.

"We can postpone," Lan Zhan says, when it’s clear Wei Wuxian is struggling to speak. His words feel so heavy, so voracious in his mind but so meek in his throat.  

Though postpone? Postpone what? The wedd –

"No!" Wei Wuxian blurts, pushing himself upright. Gods, he can't think of anything worse. Marrying Lan Zhan is the only thing that makes sense right now. “No, no, this – ” whatever this is “ – isn’t about that.”

“Then what, Wei Ying?” Lan Zhan asks, so patient, so kind. He brushes the hair out of Wei Wuxian’s face, cups his face in his palms. Lan Zhan’s fingertips caress his cheeks, the texture comforting, rough and calloused from hours of playing the guqin and fighting with Bichen.   

Despite this – despite everything – Wei Wuxian still can’t say it. He wishes he could, he wants to, so badly – but he can’t.

“…You do not have to tell me,” Lan Zhan tries to reassure him. “I merely wish to help.”

But – Wei Wuxian shakes his head, breathing harsh. Lan Zhan has to know – deserves to know. So he does what he can.

Wei Wuxian reaches up, taking Lan Zhan’s hands and guiding them to his wrist. With two of Lan Zhan’s fingers against his meridians, he waits.

It’s not long before Lan Zhan goes deathly still. He hardens into stone – gone is his relaxed softness – and then he yanks Wei Wuxian’s wrist closer, pressing tighter with his fingers.

Wei Wuxian watches Lan Zhan’s heart break when he can’t find anything. “No,” Lan Zhan whispers, horrified, and grabs Wei Wuxian’s other wrist, checking again.

“It’s gone, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian chokes out. “You won’t be able to find it.”

“How?” he demands to know.

Wei Wuxian swallows. “I gave it away.”

“To who?”

“Jiang Cheng.”

Lan Zhan’s nostrils flare and his teeth grit and, in a fit of what Wei Wuxian can only describe as rage, he begins to rise – but Wei Wuxian tugs him back. “He doesn’t know, Lan Zhan. Barely anyone does.”

“How? When?” Lan Zhan utters, and, finally, Wei Wuxian feels like he can tell the story. He starts at the beginning, with Lotus Pier, and, once he starts, the words pour out of him, an endless stream. His love stays attentive as he speaks, their hands intertwined, Lan Zhan still clutching at Wei Wuxian’s wrists, as if this is all a horrible dream. Oh, how Wei Wuxian has wished that, over the years; to wake up in his bed at Lotus Pier, before the war, and live as free and careless as he once did…

As he reaches the end – it hurts, even now, a shadow pain, to remember the surgery, those two days kept awake lashing out in pain – he feels something drop onto his head. He glances up – and there are tears tracking down Lan Zhan’s face.

Oh, heavens, no, he didn’t want this!

“Ah, Lan Zhan, don’t cry! I’m okay! See!” His hands flitter, unsure where to settle. He ends up brushing at his fiancé’s eyes, cooing and trying to soothe the steady stream of pain.

But Lan Zhan shakes him off. “I am so sorry, Wei Ying…” he says. “I did not understand.”

Wei Wuxian stares. What?

“Why are you apologising?” he asks, baffled. “I’m the one who should be apologising!”

It’s Lan Zhan’s turn to stare at him, listless. “Why?” he asks, sounding just as confused as Wei Wuxian feels.

“I – I lied to you, Lan Zhan! I’ve kept this from you – from everyone! – for years! I – I promised to marry you but…”

“…But?”

Wei Wuxian ducks his head. “I’m – not going to live as long as you, Lan Zhan,” he says. “I want to stay with you forever, but I’m going to get old, and weak, and… I can’t stay. I’m sorry.”

Wei Wuxian’s whole world is going to stay young and strong as he fades away… He has never been scared of death, but he’s scared of what he’ll leave behind. Lan Zhan deserves better – his sons deserve better – but is it too late? What can he do now, to make his absence as painless as possible?

Yet – “We will fix this,” Lan Zhan says, resolved. Wei Wuxian starts to cut him off, ‘There’s no fixing this’ – but he’s hushed, a finger pressed against his lips, “but if we cannot… Wei Ying, there will only be you. I cannot love another. So, I will live, and I will find you in your next life. If needs be, I will find you in the one after that, and the one after that.” He strokes his thumb over Wei Wuxian’s lips. “As long as I roam the earth, I will come back home to you.”

Wei Wuxian processes this – and promptly bursts into tears.

He’s smoothly tucked back into Lan Zhan’s hold, Lan Zhan resting his chin on the crown of Wei Wuxian’s head as he cries.

“When did you get so good at talking, huh?” Wei Wuxian hiccups. His tears are beginning to stain Lan Zhan’s hanfu – Jiang Cheng is going to kill him – but he can’t bring himself to pull away. “Where’s that socially constipated boy I remember?”

Lan Zhan huffs, not dignifying that jab with a response. It gets Wei Wuxian to grin, nonetheless.

As Wei Wuxian’s sobs subside, they sit quietly, needing nothing more than the other’s touch. Lan Zhan takes to running his hands through Wei Wuxian’s hair, undoing his red ribbon and working through the knots, a section at a time.

Eventually, “How did you know what to do?” Wei Wuxian asks. “When you walked in?”

To calm me down,’ he means.

“Practise,” Lan Zhan responds softly. He pauses. “Brother gets them sometimes.”

“Oh.” That – that sounds like a secret not many people are supposed to know.

As if reading Wei Wuxian’s mind, “He will not mind that I told you. You will be family, soon enough.”

That’s one fear placated, at least.

Though…

“I thought I was getting better,” Wei Wuxian admits quietly. He’s been trying so hard to be happy, to be the Wei Wuxian they all remember.

Lan Zhan holds him tighter. “No one expects that from you, Wei Ying. Not after – ” Lan Zhan swallows – “after everything.”

“But what if I’m never better? What if I’m always… broken?”

Because that’s what it feels like; like he’s been shattered into hundreds of pieces and stuck back together with glue. But there are pieces missing, and some pieces have been put back wrong.

Lan Zhan hums, contemplating his response. Eventually, "In our future, there will be bad days," he says, "and there will be good days. No matter what kind of day it is, however, I will be there, for every single one. That's what marriage is."

…Marriage, huh?

Wei Wuxian buries himself deeper in Lan Zhan's arms. "I love you."

"Mm," Lan Zhan says, kissing the top of his head. "I love you too."

"I don't deserve it."

"I disagree."

"I'm a terrible person."

"I disagree."

Wei Wuxian laughs – it bubbles out of him. "I've killed so many people." The world thinks he’s a monster; so many people agree on that. How can all of them be wrong?

But, "So have I," Lan Zhan says.

Wei Wuxian looks up. "Lan Zhan..." he breathes. "Only because you had to. We were in a war."

"Exactly."

...Ah, he's been played and – yes, that is most definitely the hint of a smirk on his fiancé’s lips, the sneaky little shit.

Wei Wuxian could get into the particulars – Lan Zhan has never killed in cold blood like him, has never tortured like him – but it doesn't seem like his husband will tolerate the objections.

He knows and he accepts and that is more than enough for Wei Wuxian.

Brushing away some of the tear tracks on his cheeks, "You look really hot in red, by the way."

Lan Zhan preens with the compliment. “Wei Ying…” he says, trying to sound authoritative, but the flush of his cheeks is a dead giveaway.

Wei Wuxian chuckles. “Come on, Lan Zhan. Let’s go get tidied up before Jiang Cheng maims me for ruining your new robes.”

“There will be no maiming. I will not allow it.”

Guiding his love back to his feet, “Ah, of course,” Wei Wuxian teases, rolling his eyes. “‘Cause you’ll always be there to protect me, right, Lan Zhan?”

Lan Zhan smiles at him. “Always.”

They walk back outside, the sun shining down, hand in hand.  

Chapter Text

Sizhui will concede it – Sect Leader Jiang has done a miraculous job of transforming the Burial Mounds. In the span of a few hours, the dingy town has been transformed into a wonderland of curiosities, of hanging lanterns and sweet-smelling incense.

It isn’t until the ceremony is about to start, however, that Sizhui really has the time to marvel on it. For a good hour now, he’s been running back and forth, between the kitchen (where Jiang Yanli and Wen Ning are slaving away) and the courtyard (where Jiang Wanyin is barking orders), between Granny’s hut (where Jin Ling and Wen Yuan are being kept amused) and his parents.

“You’re a good errand boy,” his Aunt Qing teases, as she pokes another pin into Senior Wei’s hair. “Very timely.”

“Speaking of!” Senior Wei says, just as Sizhui places down the basket of goods he’s been informed to deliver.  “A-Zhui come here?”

“What do you need, Senior Wei?”

He’s waved over, right before his dad (though Wen Qing prods him particularly hard after that, “Keep still, Wuxian!”), and Senior Wei takes his hands. “Return this to your Father, would you?” he whispers.

Lan Wangji’s forehead ribbon is pressed into his hold.

Wei Wuxian winks. “I’ll have it back soon enough.”

Sizhui makes that delivery post-haste, hoping to avoid another engagement scandal.

Now, though, standing in the open air, Wen Yuan held on his hip, Sizhui decides all the stress is worth it.

On the way to Jiang Wanyin’s makeshift altar (it is an odd construction, though it fits this unconventional occasion; here, in the mountains of Yiling, they are as far as they could be from their family shrines and, in Father’s case, his family itself. This mismatched collection, nonetheless, of people and trinkets, feels right, in a strange way), Sizhui’s parents, in their matching red hanfus, are breath-taking. The gold embroidery glitters in the sun as they glide past, and Sizhui already feels himself welling up.

However, just before they reach the awaiting crowd – Sect Leader Jiang steps out in the middle of the path, arms crossed.

“I have some questions for you, Lan Wangji.”

Senior Wei groans. “Jiang Cheng, we decided not to do this bit! I’m not a bride!”

But, “You’re marrying into his clan so shut up,” the Sect Leader snaps back. Then, to Father, “Are you going to answer my challenge or not?” 

“I will,” Father nods, as Senior Wei continues to protest in the background. (“There’s no one here to challenge me! This isn’t fair! I want to prove my dedication to my husband too!”) He’s brought to silence, however, when Sect Leader Jiang begins his interrogation.

“What is Wei Wuxian most scared of?”

“Dogs,” Father responds effortlessly – and the pair continue on as such. Question, response, question, response…

Eventually, Jiang Wanyin appears satisfied – though, after a contemplative nod, Jiang Wanyin opens his mouth one final time, “Most importantly, what is Wei Wuxian?”

Sizhui blinks.

That is – very open-ended.  

Father thinks for a moment.

“Kind,” he says first. “Determined. Resourceful. Brave. Beautiful – ”

“Stupid,” the Sect Leader interrupts. “My brother is stupid. He doesn’t ask for help when he needs it and always over-estimates what he can do alone.” Jiang Wanyin stalks a little closer and attempts to loom over Lan Wangji, despite them being the same height. He waits.

Father does not cower. “I know,” he says simply.

They exchange a silent conversation – and Sect Leader Jiang steps to the side.

He’s immediately tackled into a crushing hug by Senior Wei.

“Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian sniffs, his arms tight around his brother’s shoulders. “You do care!”

He’s joking – still – but Sect Leader Jiang is not when he responds gruffly, awkwardly patting Senior Wei’s back, “You’re my brother. Of course I do, you dunce.”

Wei Wuxian pulls back, eyes suspiciously watery. “You mean it?”

Jiang Wanyin, in lieu of speaking, rolls his eyes, and punches his brother in the arm, no real strength behind it. “Go get married already.”

Senior Wei beams.

If Sizhui cries all the way through the bows, no one says anything; they were probably crying too.

 

The wedding feast is a loud affair.

There’s laughter, echoing around the small village square, and the soft repetitive clink of plates and ceramics. They’ve pulled all the tables out from the Demon-Slaughtering Cave – Jiang Wanyin had assessed the venue as unsuitable, “It’s too cramped and depressing for your god-damn wedding, Wei Wuxian!” – meaning the population of the Burial Mounds is now scattered across the square.

(It puts into perspective, simultaneously, just few Wens remain, while also how many lives Wei Wuxian has saved).

The red silks and lanterns, swaying on the soft breeze, soften the harsh edges and jagged lines of the Burial Mounds. If Sizhui could paint – he’s adequate enough, but no artist – he’s sure he could create a striking image: there’s the crackling braziers dotted about, keeping the chill at bay, the setting sun, casting the whole village in golden light…

Senior Wei hasn’t stopped smiling since the ceremony, and his smile is joyous, while Father, at his side, looks as ethereal as ever. Sitting across from them at the banquet, Sizhui feels the calmest he has in days.

“Mm, A-Zhui,” Senior Wei garbles, around a mouthful of rice, “I’ve run out of wine! Would you mind fetching me another?”  

“How lazy are you?” Sect Leader Jiang reproves from the adjacent table. “It may be your wedding day but you still have legs!”

Wei Wuxian gasps, clutches a hand to his heart. A-Yuan, perched on his lap, giggles. “And dislodge my little radish? Jiang Cheng, you’d leave your nephew to sit all by his lonesome?!”

“Lan Wangji is right there!”

“Daddy, you can go but I am really comfy.”

“See, Jiang Cheng! He’s comfy!”

“I will go,” Father sighs, good natured but longsuffering, meeting Sizhui’s eye across the table with the slight roll of his eyes.

Sizhui squashes down his laughter.

“No, Hanguang-jun, it’s no bother. I’ll go find Fourth Uncle.”

As Sizhui rises to his feet, “See, Jiang Cheng, this is why Sizhui is my favourite.”

Jiang Cheng squawks, and “What about me, Daddy?” A-Yuan questions. “Am I also your favourite?”

“Oh, of course!” Senior Wei is quick to respond. As Sizhui weaves his way through the seated crowd, his dad begins to ramble: “You and your Sizhui-gege! Well, and my Lan Zhan, you can’t forget Lan Zhan. Or my Shijie, in fact! Yes, you’re all my favourites, though…”

Sizhui is sure that line of thought is going to cause more arguments, he notes with a fond smile. After finding Fourth Uncle, he’s directed to the man’s hut for the spare jars and finds them just as expected.

He selects only one – he’d rather Senior Wei pace himself, after all – and turns back with a skip in his step.

That’s when there’s a tug on his robes. “Ah, you’ll do.”

In his shock, Sizhui loses his grip on the jar; it goes crashing to the ground and shatters – and in the next moment, there’s cool metal pressing up against Sizhui’s throat, digging into the flesh.  

“Sizhui?” Someone calls, but Sizhui’s trying to reach around for his sword – and his arm is gripped, so tight it hurts.

“Tut tut, how naughty,” his captor sing-songs – and the voice is so familiar. “I’ll be taking that.” His sword is drawn from its sheath and tossed across the ground. It clatters a few feet away, though the sound is masked by the scraping of stools across the cobblestone.

Father has risen, eyes wide. “Sizhui…!”

In the next second, it is madness.

“Get everyone inside!” Wen Qing is ordering, and the bodies begin to scarper, while Father launches forward, Bichen drawn, Senior Wei and Jiang Wanyin hot on his heels.

But before they can get too close, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” the man says, and the blade is pressed tighter to Sizhui’s jugular. His throat is stinging now, sharp and wet, and the sight is enough to bring all three men staggering to a halt.

“Xue Yang!” Jiang Wanyin spits, Zidian crackling to life with one fierce swipe – and it clicks, the voice.

“Xue Yang?” Sizhui echoes, internally kicking himself. He didn’t even think to factor the criminal into their plans; only distantly had he been aware that Xue Yang was active at this time, but, even then, Sizhui hadn’t thought he’d be a threat, not right now. His Xue Yang, the original Xue Yang, had been lying in wait…

“Oh, you’ve heard of me?” the young man says over his shoulder. “I suppose I am rather renowned… Though, I’ve never heard of you. Lan Sizhui, was it?”

“Let him go,” Senior Wei hisses, the wind beginning to slither around him, Chenqing drawn – and Xue Yang whistles.

“Ooo, protective. I made the right choice then, eh? I didn’t think you’d be quite so pissy if I took – ah – the purple one, for example.”

Senior Wei staggers forwards – but is held back by Father, a hand on his chest. “How are you here?” he asks.

In response, Xue Yang scoffs. “I’ll admit, it wasn’t easy. Well, getting past the wards wasn’t easy. Sneaking onto your cart in Yiling was easy. Though kudos to the kid here for nearly catching me.”

His bad feeling, Sizhui realises, the cat. Jiang Wanyin had complained about the weight of the cart just afterwards –  

“Your wards are strong, I admit,” Xue Yang continues. “Better than anything I could make. But I’m no stranger to demonic cultivation, you have to remember. I masked my spiritual signature with resentful energy, meaning your wards would have just recognised me as another corpse.”

In the background, the village now desolate, Sizhui sees his aunt and uncle approach, Jiang Yanli and Madam Jin behind them. Leaning close to Senior Wei, “Can he do that?” Wen Qing asks and, angrily, Wei Wuxian nods.

“The wards don’t react to what they think are corpses, otherwise they’d be set off every few minutes.” He growls, lodges his hands in his hair. “I stupidly assumed we’d never be attacked by demonic cultivators, fuck!”

“So what do you want?” Sect Leader Jiang says, drawing the attention off his brother. Senior Wei’s composure is fragile, they’re all hyperaware. One push in the wrong direction could have disastrous consequences…

It makes Xue Yang’s appearance all the more frightening.

Speak of the devil, behind him, Xue Yang drapes his free arm over Sizhui’s shoulder – and Sizhui almost compulsively recoils. What’s worse than the invasive touch, however, is Xue Yang’s breath, right at his ear. The huff of air, as Xue Yang laughs, sends sickening twinges down his spine.

“Believe it or not, I’ve not come here to hurt any of you.”

Auntie Qing laughs once, disbelieving. “That has to be a joke,” she snarls. “Release my nephew, then.”

“But my hostage is what’s keeping me alive!” he pouts. “Otherwise, you’d kill me on sight!”

“It’d only be what you deserve,” Senior Wei says, and the coolness strikes Sizhui to his bones – but Xue Yang revels in it.

“See, this is why you’re the master of demonic cultivation! I can’t pull off saying serious shit like that. I’d just sound stupid. No, where was I? Lan Sizhui, do you remember?”

Sizhui resists the urge to gulp – to give off any indication of fear, in fact. “You were explaining what you are doing here,” he says, voice steady, though his mind is racing.

“Ah, yes!” Xue Yang says with the snap of his fingers. “To be honest, Jin Guangyao did send me here to kill some of you. I was supposed to get Young Madam Jin, if I could – ” Sizhui feels his heart flip – “and, better then, frame Wei Wuxian for it. But I decided not to.”

There’s a collective wave of shock, and as Senior Wei takes a protective step in front of Jiang Yanli, “He wants my sister assassinated?!” Jiang Wanyin rages.

Xue Yang waves him off. “She’s just the easiest target. If I couldn’t get her, I was supposed to kill Madam Jin, or even the little brat – though killing a baby is a bit much, even for me. Really, I was just supposed to kill someone that would give the Jin a legitimate reason to continue their pursuit of Wei Wuxian.”

A puzzle piece slots into place. “Because Jin Guangyao is feeling threatened,” Sizhui realises. “He’s aware that we know of his schemes.”

Xue Yang leans forwards, catches Sizhui’s gaze and winks. “Bingo.”

“Why are you telling us this?” Madam Jin asks, pushing forwards to the front of the crowd. She stands tall, hands clasped delicately before her. Despite the threats, her expression gives nothing away.

Xue Yang, with his manic grin, is her polar opposite. “Oh, I’m defecting.”

“Defecting?” Sizhui echoes.

“Uh huh! You see, Lan Sizhui, you were right about Jin Guangyao feeling threatened. The political tides are changing and – honestly? – I don’t want to be around when the ship goes down.”

“So you’re defecting to us?” Senior Wei echoes, incredulous. Though –

“No, silly.” Xue Yang rolls his eyes. “I’m just here to make a temporary alliance. See, you have something I want, and I have something you need.”

“And what is that?” Father questions.

“A witness.”

“To what?”

Xue Yang twirls his sword, uncomfortably scratching Sizhui’s throat as he does so. “Jin Guangyao’s true nature, obviously.”

“Oh, Lan Zhan,” Senior Wei breathes all of a sudden. He reaches out, clasping his husband’s arm tight. “When Xue Yang escaped from Qinghe, just before the war…”

“Fuck,” Sect Leader Jiang curses, catching on quick. “Meng Yao was in charge of the guard. He released you, didn’t he?”

Xue Yang’s smile is answer enough. “The Nie Mingjue will be with the siege force – that’s coming for you, by the way, if you didn’t know – anyway, you use my word to spur him to action, and suddenly you have a credible source advocating against Jin Guangyao. After that, well, if Jin Guangyao was willing to release evil old Xue Yang back in the day, who’s to say he wouldn’t do worse? Say, organise the murder of his half-brother and heir to the Sect?”

“You’re talking about character assassination,” Madam Jin states, plain and simple.

“But it could work,” Wen Qing argues. “It gives the cultivation world a new scapegoat. We present them with Xue Yang as our prisoner, have him testify…”

“Clear Wei Ying’s name,” Father finishes, an odd gleam in his eye.  

“These people don’t want a logical solution, you have to understand,” Xue Yang picks back up. “No, they want a scandal – and I can give you that.”

 “In exchange for what?” Madam Jin asks. “You said we have something you want.”

“Ah, You’re right. I do charge a fee for my services. Hmm, what do I want?” Xue Yang hums, as if contemplating, and strokes his chin. The actions are theatrical, however, perfectly rehearsed. Xue Yang knows exactly what he wants, and he speaks clearly as he voices it. “I think the Stygian Tiger amulet would do as payment.”

“You want – ?” Senior Wei starts, before cutting off, obviously taken aback.

“You already have a piece of the Yin Iron,” Sect Leader Jiang bites. “Why on earth do you need the Stygian Tiger Amulet? Besides, do you really think we’d give it to you?”

“Mmm,” Xue Yang hums – and his grip, where it has been slowly slipping, tightens again, upping the pressure on Sizhui’s neck. “If you’re desperate, yeah.”

Sizhui is expecting a refusal, a fight to break out. He tenses, ready to dart if the moment comes, but – there’s a stalemate, instead. Silence and stillness.

They – they can’t be contemplating this agreement? Xue Yang’s deal is tempting, yes, but for the Stygian Tiger amulet…!

Nonetheless, “We need time to discuss your proposition,” Madam Jin says coolly, calm and collected.

“That’s fair,” Xue Yang responds. “Where’d you want me to wait? Somewhere to sit would be nice – ”

“You’re staying right there,” Senior Wei hisses. “Wen Ning, could you watch him?” and when his uncle nods, “A-Zhui,” his dad says, softer, “will you be okay?”

Sizhui is feeling the whiplash. He wants to protest – call this whole deal to a halt – but is this his decision to make? Senior Wei knows what’s to come, as does Father and the Wens…

Sizhui can’t bring himself to smile – more honestly, he wants to cry – but he puts on a brave face. “I’ll be fine, Senior Wei.”

He’s just going to have to trust them.  

As everyone else retreats inside the Demon-Slaughtering Cave, Sizhui’s parents hover, right until the last second. It is only when they can no longer linger that they follow, hand in hand. Sizhui watches the swish of their red robes disappear out of sight.

Behind him, Xue Yang sighs. “Looks like it’s just us for now then,” he quips, as Wen Ning settles himself against a nearby tree. He looks as worried as Sizhui feels. Xue Yang, however, is in his element.

He grins. “Either of you know any card games?”

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian heads straight for his workbench.

"I knew it," he mutters to himself, rummaging through the papers.

"The fuck are you doing?" Jiang Cheng calls – though Wei Wuxian doesn't spare him a moment.

He crouches, finally picking up the discarded sheets from the floor. Is there anything missing? He doesn’t think so, but some of the pages are so trampled over that the text is nearly indistinguishable.

There’s a hand on his back. “Wei Ying?”

Wei Wuxian takes an unsteady breath and shakes his head, continuing his search. “He was in here, Lan Zhan. I thought I’d imagined it, when I first came back here, but Xue Yang has definitely been through my notes.”

Hearing this, Jiang Cheng swears once more. “How did we not notice he was here?!” His brother hisses, flailing his arms and kicking at one of Wei Wuxian’s failed experiments.

Shijie speaks next, trying to console Jiang Cheng. “We were all distracted,” she says – though Wei Wuxian can tell she’s just as rattled as the rest of them. “He found the perfect moment to strike.”   

Wei Wuxian stands – and Lan Zhan follows. “Is anything missing?” he asks, sticking to Wei Wuxian’s elbow as he walks across the cave.

“Thankfully not,” Wei Wuxian replies. “But I think I know what he was looking for.” He stops before the blood pool and lowers himself to his knees.

Jiang Cheng retches as he pulls out the Stygian Tiger Amulet. “You keep it in the blood pool?! You store the incredibly dangerous relic in a pool of blood?!”

“It worked, didn’t it?” Wei Wuxian calls back. He shakes the amulet off, splattering blood against the floor. Lan Zhan crinkles his nose in distaste. Rising to his feet, “Lan Yi sealed her piece of the Yin Iron in the Cold Cave in Cloud Recesses, so I figured sealing the Stygian Tiger amulet in my own weird-pool-in-a-spiritual-cave might dampen its radiation of resentful energy. If Xue Yang couldn’t find it, I was obviously right. Besides – ” he continues, passing the amulet over to Lan Zhan. He can already hear the seal calling to him, whispering in the back of his mind; it’s best that he doesn’t hold onto it – “it wasn’t until after I started storing the amulet in the pool that it became a blood pool.”  

Wei Wuxian was as disgusted with that development as Jiang Cheng appears to be.

As Lan Zhan pockets the amulet, sealing it in one of his qiankun pouches, “So can we make this quick? So A-Zhui doesn’t have to suffer any longer?” Wei Wuxian finishes.

“I think we should proceed with the deal,” Madam Jin states outright, and –

“I agree,” Wen Qing says. “His testimony is what we’re missing. If we can get the Nies on our side, then we’ll have support from all four major clans.”

“But the Stygian Tiger Amulet is so dangerous,” Shijie counters. “Who knows what Xue Yang could do with that power…”

And that’s the real caveat.

In those first days, when Sizhui arrived from the future, he’d speak often of what was to come. Xue Yang cropped up more than once – though Sizhui was quick to divert the subject. “It’s not a happy story, Dad,” he’d said. Now, Wei Wuxian wishes he’d pushed the subject more.

His son, twiddling the edge of his sleeves anxiously, seemed scared of the man. What did Xue Yang do to provoke such a reaction?

As Wei Wuxian is contemplating this, “Could you make a fake, Wei Wuxian?” Madam Jin asks. “A replica amulet?”

Hmm.

Wei Wuxian taps his nose – runs the numbers.

In the time they have, with the resources they have…

Eventually, he shakes his head. “I could trick anyone else, probably, but not Xue Yang. He’s too familiar with demonic cultivation.”

There’s a collective grumbling.

“So we just have to give the psychopath the extremely dangerous weapon?” Jiang Cheng spits. “We have no other options?”

“It should also be noted,” Lan Zhan says, “that Xue Yang’s testimony will only implicate Jin Guangyao.”

…Ah, Lan Zhan’s right. “By framing Jin Guangyao, we’ll be giving Jin Guangshan a free pass,” Wei Wuxian says – and his husband nods.

Jin Guangyao may be trying to ruin Wei Wuxian’s life, but he feels a twinge of sympathy for the man. Jin Guangshan, arguably, is the worse of the two; he’s the one that wants the power and fame, and he’s the one who made Jin Guangyao into what he is.

Nonetheless, “I would not concern yourselves with my husband,” Madam Jin states, rather ominously, actually. “I agree that his misconduct has gone far enough. However, you will make yourselves more amenable to the cultivation world if you do not accuse the Chief Cultivator. No, once I return to Koi Tower, I shall be… reprimanding him for his recent behaviour.”

Wei Wuxian is suddenly very pleased that Madam Jin is on their side.

That matter resolved leaves them back where they started, however.

Wei Wuxian briefly rubs at his temples. Ahh, this day is gradually going from bad to worse. “We’re doing this then? Making a deal with Xue Yang?”

No one speaks – and Wei Wuxian takes that as no objections.

“Let’s go save A-Zhui then.”

His poor son has suffered enough.

As they walk outside, “Hey,” Jiang Cheng asks, pulling him to the side. Lan Zhan, seeing this, halts, but Wei Wuxian waves him on. This’ll probably just take a moment. “Why’d you call him that?”

Wei Wuxian frowns. “Who?” Surely this can wait? He thought Jiang Cheng would have an important question – something on topic. See, Wei Wuxian’s rather impatient to rescue his son. Sizhui better be intact or Wei Wuxian is going to be calling this deal off in the bloodiest manner possible.

Jiang Cheng huffs. “I mean Lan Sizhui, obviously!”

Huh? “What you mean what do I call him?” This conversation feels very pointless. He calls his son by his name?

Jiang Cheng frowns at him and, uh oh, that’s his angry face – and Wei Wuxian means his really angry face, not his resting angry face. Something Wei Wuxian has said has hit a nerve. “It’s A-Zhui this, A-Zhui that!” Jiang Cheng rants. “You don’t even call Lan Wangji A-Zhan!”

…Ah.

Wei Wuxian hadn’t realised he’d been calling Sizhui that in front of his brother. He – doesn’t actually know how to respond.

“Does it matter?” he asks, hoping to dodge the topic, but, apparently, it really does matter to Jiang Cheng.

Like an offended cat, “You treat Lan Wangji’s cousin more like family than you do A-jie and I,” Jiang Cheng hisses, claws out. “What, you marry into the Lan Clan and forget where you came from?”

And that slash, the claws digging in, Wei Wuxian feels. He tries not to be hurt – his brother is just getting defensive – he doesn’t mean what he says – and it’s not like Wei Wuxian can explain that Lan Sizhui is quite literally his son. He wants to tell his brother so badly, but this isn’t the time, nor the place – nor is it entirely Wei Wuxian’s decision to make. But really? “Do you think that little of me?” he bites back. “That I’d forget everything Uncle Jiang and you and Shijie have done for me?”

Wei Wuxian’s heart may belong to Lan Zhan, but his spirit belongs to the man standing before him.

Jiang Cheng grits his teeth and turns away. “Let’s just get this over and done with.”

Wei Wuxian really didn’t think his wedding day would turn out like this.

He takes a deep breath – tries to quell the shaking of his hands – and strides to catch up with the group.

He gravitates to Lan Zhan’s side, at the front of the crowd, and takes his hand. It’s good to have something to hold onto – a tether. As he squeezes, Lan Zhan turns to him and raises a single brow. ‘Is everything okay?’ it implies.

Wei Wuxian takes a deep breath; nothing is okay right now – but he’ll have his breakdown later. Right now, Sizhui needs him, and Wei Wuxian would do almost anything to ensure his safety.

It’s an easy choice, in the end.

“Xue Yang,” Wei Wuxian calls out. “We’ve made a decision.”

To his credit, Xue Yang is right where they left him. Though, for Sizhui, that means he’s spent the time they’ve been deliberating with a sword to his throat. In any other circumstances, Wei Wuxian would slaughter Xue Yang for that offence alone. His son may be putting on a brave face, but A-Zhui is no Hanguang-jun; Wei Wuxian knows just how scared his kid is.

Xue Yang finally turns his way. He raises a brow, teasing.

Wei Wuxian represses the urge to punch the bastard. Instead, he holds out his palm, and Lan Zhan places his qiankun pouch in it. “You get half the seal now, and half the seal after – and only after – we prevent the siege. If a fight breaks out, the deal’s off.”

 Xue Yang flashes his teeth in his widest grin yet, and it makes Wei Wuxian sick to his stomach. “I knew you’d come around.”

“How far away are the Sects?” he asks – because they have to plan. Wei Wuxian distantly knew this was coming – a siege, what has his life come to? – but now it feels real.

“Hmm,” Xue Yang contemplates. His arm still over Sizhui’s shoulder, draped like a snake circling its pray, Xue Yang pats the young man’s head contemplatively and Sizhui grimaces. “Jin Guangyao said he was sending me a few hours or so ahead, but one person can move faster than an army… So about a night’s travel, probably? A day if you’re lucky?”

They have a day.

They have a day to prepare for a siege.

‘Ahhh, I’d really like some Emperor’s Smile right now,’ Wei Wuxian thinks loathingly to himself.

Wei Wuxian dives into the qiankun pouch and routs around – and he knows the instant his fingers find the seal. Contact with the seal comes with a rush, a wave of pain and despair and anger, a sickeningly addictive burst of power. ‘Play with me~’ the Stygian Tiger Amulet sings, but Wei Wuxian ignores it, ripping the seal in half.

He holds the amulet half up in the air. “Let Sizhui go,” he bargains.

But Xue Yang is not so easily bought. “You first.”

“Alright then.”

Wei Wuxian pulls back his arm and launches the Stygian Tiger Amulet through the air.

He throws it in the opposite direction to Xue Yang – meaning the man has to release Sizhui lest the seal smash against the ground.

It works.

Xue Yang abandons A-Zhui in an instant, sprinting across the grass and leaping – dramatically, might Wei Wuxian add – to catch the half of the Amulet, rolling to catch his fall.

At the same time, Sizhui bolts. He zags briefly to reclaim his sword, but with the next moment he zigs back, racing towards Wei Wuxian.

Wei Wuxian spreads his arms wide, expectant, and Sizhui charges into them. Wei Wuxian holds his son close and a knot of tension relaxes in his chest. Oh, Wei Wuxian hasn’t known this version of the boy long, but now he can’t imagine life without him.

“You’re okay?” he asks, pulling back to inspect Sizhui’s neck. It’s rubbed raw and beginning to scab over in a faint line. Nonetheless, despite his son’s trembling – it’s not so visible, but with Sizhui in his arms, it’s impossible not to notice – A-Zhui nods.

Wei Wuxian takes his son’s face in his hands, barely resisting the urge to rub his thumbs over Sizhui’s forehead ribbon.

He pointedly ignores Jiang Cheng’s gaze, boring into his back.

“Sorry to hear about your golden core, by the way.”

Wei Wuxian’s blood turns to ice.

Sizhui stiffens in his arms and Lan Zhan gasps softly and Wei Wuxian whirls his head around to see Xue Yang standing, inspecting the Stygian Tiger Amulet. He closes one eye, sticks out his tongue, as if admiring a fine piece of jade. “A real bummer. Great blackmail material, though.” He tosses the seal up, catches it effortlessly.

“Your golden core?” Jiang Cheng echoes. “Wei Wuxian, what’s he talking about?”

Shijie looks equally concerned. Her eyes dart back and forth, between Xue Yang and himself. “A-Xian?”

Wei Wuxian’s heart begins to pound in his chest, as if it might break lose any second.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no –

Was Xue Yang still in the Demon-Slaughtering Cave when he and Lan Zhan were talking?

Wei Wuxian wants to be sick.

“Oooo, yikes, they don’t know, do they?” Xue Yang continues. “How awkward. It’s the worst, being the last in on a secret.”

“What secret?” Jiang Cheng pushes. He’s taken the bait, fallen for every lure. Wei Wuxian wants to yell and scream, and Lan Zhan is preparing to cast the Lan silencing spell –  

But he’s too late. “Once I’ve said my piece during the siege, if I don’t get the other half of the Stygian Tiger Amulet, I’ll be sure to tell the cultivation world that the Yiling Patriarch gave his golden core to Sect Leader Jiang. Imagine how they’d react to that.

There’s dead silence.

“I’ll leave you all to talk it out,” Xue Yang says, walking away. “Call me if you need me!”

He disappears into the shadows of the surrounding trees but Wei Wuxian barely notices; he’s just waiting for the storm.

His eyes don’t leave Jiang Cheng’s form as he absorbs this information. Distantly, he recognises Lan Zhan moving to stand in front of him, a shield, and Sizhui does the same, holding Wei Wuxian’s hand tight.

Wei Wuxian didn’t even know that his son knew.

Wen Qing is, unfortunately, on Jiang Cheng’s other side; her expression is grim, her face sheet white. Staring at the floor, shoulder’s hunched, Wei Wuxian wishes she didn’t look so guilty.

He’s the one at fault here.

Oddly, Jiang Cheng laughs – though it is nervous and unsure. “What nonsense! He’s lying. He has to be! Wei Wuxian, he’s lying, right?”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t know what to say.

“Tell me, Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng barks all of a sudden. There’s an unhinged edge to his words this time. “Xue Yang’s lying, right?”

Wei Wuxian – he’s speechless.

“Wei Wuxian! Say something!”

“Jiang Cheng, I…”

He trails off.

Wei Wuxian meets his brother’s eye, and the expression on his face must say all that his words cannot.

Jiang Cheng charges at him.

“A-Cheng!” Shijie shouts after him, as Jiang Cheng tries to tackle his way past Lan Zhan – but Wei Wuxian’s husband is stronger, and he holds Jiang Cheng back as he cries at Wei Wuxian:

“Bullshit! That’s bullshit! You took me to Baoshan Sanren! She healed my golden core!”

Wei Wuxian’s frozen to the spot. He can only watch as his brother struggles and yells. Shijie reaches Jiang Cheng just as Zidian begins to spark around his fingers, and she clenches down on his arm. “Please, A-Cheng, A-Xian, let’s just talk about this!”

“Does everyone else here know?!” Jiang Cheng continues. “Everyone but us?! I thought we were family! Wei Wuxian, tell me that you’re lying, god damn it!”

Oh, how Wei Wuxian wishes he could.

“Xue Yang is telling the truth, Sect Leader Jiang,” Sizhui speaks up, out of nowhere. He stands tall, but he’s crushing Wei Wuxian’s hand with nerves. “Though Senior Wei did lie to protect you.”

“From what?!” Jiang Cheng snarls back, face contorted in anger.

“The truth,” Sizhui says simply. “That a golden core cannot be healed, only replaced. Traded.”

“You’re lying!” Jiang Cheng sobs. “Shut up!”

“Do not take your anger out on my nephew.” Wen Ning is speaking up now. He sounds – defiant. Wen Ning was never defiant in life. “He speaks truthfully, Sect Leader Jiang.”

Jiang Cheng finally breaks free from Lan Zhan’s grip, but he staggers backwards, towards Wen Ning. “And how would you know that?!”

“Because I was there.”

Jiang Cheng’s gaze is frantic when he next looks at Wei Wuxian – and Wei Wuxian wishes he could say something comforting. He’s the older brother; he’s supposed to protect, not harm.

“I’m sorry,” Wei Wuxian says – but not for the choice, nor the lie. Only for the pain.

Jiang Cheng, tears streaming down his face, bolts.

“A-Cheng!” Shijie is yelling after him, as he tumbles down the path and out of sight, her own eyes red and wet. “A-Xian,” she pleads, turning to him now, “is it true? You gave A-Cheng your core?”

Wei Wuxian burns with self-loathing, if only for the fact that telling this story will make his Shijie cry.

It has to be told, nonetheless.

Chapter Text

Sizhui is sat on his dad’s bed in the Demon-Slaughtering Cave.

Jiang Yanli stands before him, inspecting the cut at his neck. She’s been silent ever since Senior Wei finished explaining the golden core transfer between himself and Sect Leader Jiang. Sizhui does not blame her; it’s a lot to take in. Instead, she examines Sizhui’s throat with fastidious detail. Her hands are steady as she cleans the cut, moving with a fluidity only gained through years of practise – but she’s tense; the downturn of her lips and the furrow of her brow gives that away.

Worse yet, Jiang Wanyin has yet to return from wherever he ran off to.  

Father has been sent out to look for him, along with Uncle Ning. Madam Jin and Auntie Qing, in contrast, are checking in with the Wens, ensuring their safety and breaking the news of tomorrow’s siege.

All in all, this has turned from one of the best days of Sizhui’s life to one of the grimmest.

It’s beginning to eat at Senior Wei too.

“Please, Shijie, say something,” he begs when he can stand the silence no longer. He’s sat on the stool to Sizhui’s left, hands fisted in his wedding robes. What a stark reminder that is, of what the day could have been.

Jiang Yanli continues on with her inspection. “What do you want me to say?” she says, with the patience one gives to an erring child.

“Shijie, you know that’s not what I mean. I – I’m sorry, I am. This is why I kept the transfer a secret. I didn’t want you and Jiang Cheng to feel guilty – ”

Jiang Yanli abruptly jitters, her hands coming to a sudden stop. “…A-Xian, that’s not why I’m upset,” she says, still refusing to meet her brother’s eye.  

“I don’t… understand?”

Jiang Yanli, controlled, puts down her cleaning tools – and Sizhui resists the urge to shuffle away. He – he really shouldn’t be here for this. “You sent me away, A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli says coolly.

“W-what?”

The damn breaks. “I’m your sister, and I’m supposed to take care of you, and you sent me away!” Jiang Yanli cries. “You gave A-Cheng your core and you didn’t ask either of us, or more importantly A-Cheng, if that was okay!”

“But… it was what I owed him! – and you, and your parents! Shijie, it was the right thing to do!”  

“A-Xian!” she laments, and that’s when Jiang Yanli turns to Sizhui, eyes wide and desperate.

Sizhui stares back at her – and then it clicks. ‘Help me make him see,’ she’s saying.

He gulps, and the action stings.

Where to start?

“Senior Wei,” Sizhui says softly. “I – I owe you my life, correct?”

His dad is instantly frowning. “A-Zhui – ”

“Senior Wei,” Sizhui insists. He places a hand to his chest where his brand lays. “I do. That is a fact.”

“…Fine, okay,” Wei Wuxian accepts, though he doesn’t appear pleased about it.

“How would you feel if tomorrow you woke up with a core and I was the one to give it to you?”

His dad sighs. “A-Zhui, it’s not the same. You’re my so-” he cuts off, coughs – “shidi, like Jiang Cheng is. I’m supposed to be the one protecting you.”  

“So you would refuse my core?”

“Yes!”

They wait a moment – Jiang Yanli and Sizhui – with bated breath, to see if it’ll sink in, but Wei Wuxian just turns between the two of them, almost frantically. It’s clear that he truly, explicably doesn’t understand.

It’s Jiang Yanli’s turn to sigh. Forlorn, she puts a hand on her brother’s head. “A-Xian, you didn’t give A-Cheng that choice.”

“But – ”

“I know Mother made you feel like you owed us,” Jiang Yanli continues firmly, “but your life is not worth less than mine, or A-Cheng’s. You meant well, giving A-Cheng your core, but the decision wasn’t yours to make.”

Senior Wei swallows. “Shijie, it was like he was going to die…” he says, his voice cracking.

“I know,” she replies, stroking her brother’s hair, her eyes welling up with tears. “I know, A-Xian. I wish I could fix this, like I did when you were children – but this isn’t my problem to solve. A-Cheng’s forgiveness is the only one that matters here…”

Sizhui turns his gaze away.

Soon after, there’s sniffing, the sound of wiped eyes and ruffled hair. “Enough of that,” Jiang Yanli says, trying to smile. “I’ll finish telling you off when A-Cheng returns.”

“Ahaha, won’t you hide me, A-Zhui?” Senior Wei tries to tease. His joy is as fragile as his sister’s. “Jiang Cheng’s probably going to yell at me some more. My poor heart can’t take so much shouting!”

“I don’t believe I’m the right person to take shelter with, Senior Wei,” Sizhui responds, as Jiang Yanli returns to tending his wound. She’s pulling out some bandages now, preparing to wrap his neck. “Sect Leader Jiang doesn’t appear to like me very much…”

Jiang Yanli tuts. “A-Cheng will come around. He’s just a little jealous.”

“Jealous?” Sizhui echoes. “Why would Sect Leader Jiang be jealous of me?”

Senior Wei suddenly looks uncomfortable – and Sizhui curses himself. He didn’t want to bring the mood down again! As Senior Wei nervously rubs at his nose, “I may be wrong, but I believe he thinks you’re stealing his position as A-Xian’s little brother,” Jiang Yanli explains – and Sizhui really wasn’t expecting that.

He can’t help the baffled laugh that bubbles out of his chest. “Me? Senior Wei’s little brother?” Their relationship is a little more complicated than that, though it’s not like Sizhui can explain the particulars. Perhaps soon, he can – though only once he’s sure Xue Yang is gone.

“You two are very close,” Jiang Yanli continues, “and A-Xian has just married into the Lan Sect. He’s likely worried about being replaced.”

“I’m not replacing Jiang Cheng!” Senior Wei protests, pouting. He crosses his leg on the stool, puffs out his cheeks. “Or you, for that matter, Shijie! There’s not a rule on how many little brothers I can have.”

“Our fears are rarely logical, A-Xian.” Jiang Yanli is finishing up now, tying off the bandages. “A-Cheng misses you; that’s where the anxiety comes from.”

Wei Wuxian says nothing – and that’s never a good sign.

That’s when there’s a clatter outside.

“Le’go of me!” Jiang Wanyin’s voice clearly slurs in the distance. “Lan Wangji! Gerroff!”  

Ahh, how their problems keep stacking up.

“Should we – ?” Senior Wei starts, rising, but Jiang Yanli shakes her head.

“He probably won’t want to see you right now. I’ll attend to it.”

Senior Wei deflates. Shoulder’s sagged, he sits back down. “Yeah. Okay.”

Jiang Yanli exhales, long and tired. She ties off the bandages at Sizhui’s neck and then moves to her brother’s side. “I’ll see you in the morning, A-Xian,” she says, kissing the top of her brother’s head.

She leaves Sizhui and Senior Wei with the just the sound of the wind, whistling outside, and the fading warmth of her lingering touches.

“…I should maybe follow her. Make sure everything is okay,” Sizhui says after a moment.

Senior Wei smiles weakly at him response. “Thank you, A-Zhui,” – and Sizhui really doesn’t like seeing his dad so sad.

So as he hops of the bed, he leans down and pulls Wei Wuxian into a tight hug. “It’ll be okay, Dad.”

Some of the tension eases from Wei Wuxian; he breathes in, heavy, and hides his face in Sizhui’s shoulder. Patting his back, “I hope so,” Senior Wei says, muffled.

 

Outside, Jiang Wanyin really is causing a scene.

By the time Sizhui exits the cave, the Sect Leader has managed to throw Father off, but that leaves him staggering around clumsily. His eyes are blood shot and his cheeks are flushed and he looks… well, terrible.

“What happened?” Sizhui questions, jogging over to his Father’s side. (Jiang Yanli, simultaneously, has made her way over to her brother in an attempt to soothe him.)

Lan Wangji looks extremely displeased. Hands held stiffly behind his back, “I found him at a tavern in Yiling.”

Oh. Sizhui sniffs and – yes, that is the pungent smell of alcohol, clinging to Father’s robes. No wonder he’s so irritated.

“How is Wei Ying?”

Sizhui shrugs. “As you’d expect.”

Father seethes quietly. “…And you?”

“I’m okay.”

“Are you sure?”

Sizhui tries to smile reassuringly. “Positive, Hanguang-jun.”

Lan Wangji frowns; Sizhui watches as his father assesses first his face, looking for any hint of a lie, and then his neck, so recently bandaged. In due course, “I was… worried,” Father says, placing a hand on Sizhui’s shoulder. “I do not know what I would do… if…” He trails off, but there is no need to say anymore.

Sizhui’s chest swells with warmth. “Go see Senior Wei,” he responds. “I’ll be fine.”

Father nods. “Please, do not stay out to long. We do not know what lurks in the shadows.”

“I won’t,” Sizhui promises. Really, all he wants to do now is sleep. His bed roll in Granny’s hut is calling his name.

With the squeeze of his shoulder, Father turns away, back in the direction of the Demon-Slaughtering Cave. As he leaves, Sizhui turns his attention back to the Jiangs.

Jiang Yanli seems to have a similar idea; her arm around Jiang Wanyin’s waist, she leads him towards their own hut.

“Wei Wuxian, he – ” Sect Leader Jiang hiccups, as they walk, his head bowed. “He – ”

“Shh, I know, A-Cheng… I know… We’ll talk about it in the morning.”

“A-jie, I didn’t want that! He didn’t – !”

“I know…”  

Sizhui watches them leave with a heavy heart – and that’s when there’s a low whistle to his side. “Your family really is a mess, kid.”

Sizhui practically jumps out of his skin.

He spins on the spot to see Xue Yang hovering, hands on his hips. His grin is as maniacal as ever, the man obviously entertained by Sizhui’s fright.

Sizhui is unused to glaring, but he does his best, staring Xue Yang down. “It’s your fault this is happening,” he says, and begins to walk away.

Xue Yang follows him. “What? I just told the purple one the truth.”

“It wasn’t your place to tell him.”

“Someone had to.”

Sizhui huffs. ‘Stay calm, keep your cool, don’t react,’ he thinks to himself. Aloud, “Why are you following me?” he asks.

Frustratingly, Xue Yang just shrugs, nonchalant. “You’re interesting. That,” he says, as he begins rummaging around in his sleeves, “and you remind me of a – a friend, let’s say. Candy?”

There’s a wrapped sugar candy in Xue Yang’s palm, offered up to him. Sizhui scrutinises it, then, in turn, Xue Yang’s face.

The man cocks a brow.

Sizhui turns away. “No, thank you.” He shouldn’t trust anything Xue Yang offers him – nor anything he says.

“Eh, your loss,” Xue Yang replies with a shrug. Unwrapping the sweet and popping into his mouth, “So you’re a Lan?”

“Yes. Is that an issue?”

“Nah. I have no particular grudge against your Sect. I hate them just as much as I hate the rest of the cultivation world.”

Sizhui sighs and sits down at an abandoned table. He can’t exactly head to bed now, not with Xue Yang on his tail. He does not want the man knowing where he sleeps.

In the dark, Xue Yang is ominously lit by the crackling braziers; the light hits his sharpest features and gleams off the sword at his belt. Soon settled across from him at the table, Xue Yang grins again, baring his teeth; he flashes them as a predator would, stalking its prey.

It’s like one of Sizhui’s nightmares come to life.

It has him hoping to found, preferably by someone capable of scaring Xue Yang away – like Father! Sizhui can picture it now. All Father would have to do is scowl and Xue Yang would scurry away, no longer a lion but a timid house cat. To be able to have that effect… Sizhui laments his inability to be anything but mild mannered.

“So what’s the plan?” Xue Yang asks, elbows leant on the table, chin resting in his hands. “For the siege tomorrow? I’m so excited to see what you guys have prepared.”

Sizhui bites back a retort. Instead, he says politely, as if commenting on the weather, “I’m afraid I’m not allowed to tell you.” Perhaps if he bores Xue Yang, if he paints himself as uninteresting, he’ll be released…

“Ugh, spoilsport,” Xue Yang groans. “I bet your Senior Wei would tell me.” His head flops, his arms dropping, and he rests his forehead on the table. It’s exceedingly childish, an action Sizhui would expect more from Jingyi than this calculatedly cruel man.

(Sizhui feels a twinge of regret, remembering his best friend).

That, and perhaps the use of such a familiar name spilling from Xue Yang’s lips, has Sizhui saying impulsively, “Don’t call him that.”

Xue Yang cracks one eye open at him, head still resting on the wood. “Oh? Why not?”

Sizhui presses his lips firmly shut, realising his mistake. ‘Don’t let him bait you, don’t let him bait you, don’t let him bait you…’

There’s a beat of silence – and then Xue Yang snorts.

He closes his eye again. “Possessive, I see.”

“I’m not – !”

Xue Yang laughs. Rising, holding his hands up in surrender. “I’m joking, I’m joking! Wow, you Lans are really fun to tease.”

Sizhui is practically at the end of his rope now. “Can you just leave me be?” he asks, resisting the urge to rub at his eyes and give away another sign of weakness.

Surprisingly, “Fine, I guess,” Xue Yang says. “Just answer one question of mine and I’ll go.”

“…One?” Sizhui repeats.

Xue Yang nods. “Just one.”

“Fine.”

“If you’d been in charge, would you have agreed to give me the Stygian Tiger Amulet?”

…What?

“Does it matter?”

“Humour me.”

Sizhui – Sizhui’s instinct is to say no. Vitriolically and absolutely. In fact, he’s horrified that his parents accepted Xue Yang’s offer! He may be the only one who truly understands what the man is capable of, but still. ‘Do not associate with evil men,’ is one of the most important of the Lan Sect’s rules. To flaunt that so openly…

But what is black and what is white? What is right and what is wrong?

The longer Sizhui has been back here, in the past, the less he’s sure of that.

Saying no would mean risking the safety of the Wens living at the Burial Mounds; saying no would risk leading to a future worse than Sizhui came from…

“I don’t know,” Sizhui says honestly, wishing it was a different answer.

Worse again, he’s given Xue Yang what he wants – and Sizhui doesn’t even know what! He can tell by the way Xue Yang’s grin grows sharper still.

“Look, Lan Sizhui,” he says as he rises from his seat. “I’m a man of my word. Tomorrow, you stick to the deal, cough up the other half of the Stygian Tiger Amulet, and we won’t have a problem. I’ll get what I want, you’ll get what you want… and no one will have to know about this whole ‘golden core’ fiasco.” Strolling over to Sizhui’s side and clapping him on the shoulder, “You’re like me, right? A man of your word?”

The clap needles into his skin. Every casual touch from Xue Yang feels like frostbite.

Sizhui says nothing as Xue Yang strolls away, hands in his pockets.

Once Sizhui’s sure he’s truly alone, he goes to bed.

Chapter Text

Sizhui doesn’t sleep well that night.

He tosses and turns, his mind racing. Best outcomes, worst outcomes… he stares at the ceiling of the hut and contemplates them all.

At some point, he blinks awake from a momentary respite to find Wen Yuan cuddled up to his side, clutching his arm in a death grip. Sizhui adjusts the boy, wipes the toddler drool from his under robe, and dozes a little easier after that, his little brother safe in his arms.

But A-Yuan is clingy the next morning, as if he can sense the agitation of the adults around him. Sizhui indulges it as long as he can, but the inevitable separation has Wen Yuan breaking out in pitiful wails.

“I’m sorry, A-Yuan,” Wen Qing explains, as they’re shepherding the Wens into the depths of the Demon-Slaughtering Cave, “but it isn’t safe outside today. You have to stay here, with Granny.”

Wen Yuan sniffs at her, resting his head on Granny’s shoulder. “But why can’t you come? I want you and Uncle Ning and Daddy and Father and Sizhui-gege to be safe too.”

“We have to make the danger go away,” Sizhui tries to explain, as Wen Qing reaches over to wipe away her nephew’s tears. “But we’ll be back soon. I promise.”

The likelihood of this promise breaking hangs in the air, acknowledged by the adults alone in the conversation.

Jiang Yanli arrives soon afterwards, her son in her arms, just as they’re about to seal up the cave. It has been decided that she’ll stay behind with the Wens – much to her own displeasure – at the insistence of her brothers and mother-in-law.

“Keep my grandson safe, A-Li,” Madam Jin had said. “That is how you’ll be best placed today.”

Sizhui is secretly glad; he’s already had to save Jiang Yanli from one meeting-turned-deadly, and he would very much like his efforts not to go to waste.

Once the door to the Demon-Slaughtering Cave is sealed, warded with multiple layers of talisman and barriers of spiritual energy, Sizhui departs to find some other way to occupy his time; doing nothing will only make his hands jitter.

What he finds is Xue Yang and his father in an odd stand-off, Wen Ning nervously watching them.

“You must look like a captive,” Sizhui hears his father explain as he approaches, “so the Sects do not know of our alliance.” He’s glaring at Xue Yang, holding a bundle of ropes in his hands.

Xue Yang is unfazed. “I’d never have guessed that the great Hanguang-jun was into bondage,” he says, sounding almost impressed.

The words have Sizhui nearly tripping over his own feet.

That is not something he ever wants to be thinking about!

The sound of his tumble draws Xue Yang’s attention his way – and there’s that smirk, the one that always makes Sizhui so profoundly uncomfortable. It’s always followed by a dig, a shameless comment –

“Awh, can’t Lan Sizhui tie me up instead? No offence, Hanguang-jun, but you’re really not my type.”

Ahh, there it is. Sizhui feels his cheeks heating up – this is even worse than the previous imagery! – and in response, “No,” Father says, harshly forcing Xue Yang to the floor.

“Oof, okay, geez!” Xue Yang cackles, as Father begins looping the rope around Xue Yang’s wrists, and then his chest. “Don’t hit on the Junior Lan! Message received!”

Father tugs in on the ropes harshly, and Sizhui tries not to be pleased when he sees the air knocked from Xue Yang’s lungs.

Only once Father is satisfied that the ropes are secure, testing them gingerly, does he stand, returning to Sizhui’s side. “Wen Ning?” Father asks, and Sizhui’s uncle nods.

“No, you don’t have to – ack!” Wen Ning grabs Xue Yang and throws him over his shoulder. “Pick me up,” Xue Yang finishes, grumbling. In his position, though, he’s able to see Sizhui again – and Sizhui watches him blow his hair out of his face dramatically before rolling his eyes, pointedly in Sizhui’s direction. “It’s not like I could walk or anything.”

“You said you would comply,” Father says, blandly. It’s the tone he uses to address his least favourite disciples, those who err willingly and without good reason.

“This is me complying,” Xue Yang retorts. “I’d have sliced your hand off for daring to touch me in any other circumstancessss – hey!” Xue Yang snarls, as Wen Ning spins to face them.

“Where do you want me to put him, Hanguang-jun?”

(Simultaneously, Xue Yang’s legs kick against Wen Ning’s chest. “I’m trying to have a conversation here, you walking shit-stain!” He is ignored by all parties.)   

“Just out of sight of the wards, please. Thank you, Wen Qionglin.”

“Will you be okay watching him, Uncle?” Sizhui can’t help but ask. He knows how unpleasant Xue Yang’s company can be – and there’s the nagging part of his brain that remembers Xue Yang’s odd fascination with Fierce Corpses.

Though, “I think I’ll be okay,” Wen Ning responds, “but thank you for your concern, A-Zhui.” He ducks into a half bow – jostling Xue Yang and making the young man squawk in protest – and then trots off down the path in the direction of the wards.

Sizhui and Lan Wangji watch him leave, Xue Yang sulking all the way.

“…When are we going to give him the other half of the seal?” Sizhui asks once an appropriate amount of time as passed. It’s eating at him, knowing what they’re going to have to do today. To give Xue Yang all that power…

“We’re not.”

Sizhui blinks.

“…What?”

Father blinks back at him. “Wei Ying and Jiang Wanyin have discussed it. They agreed giving Xue Yang the other half of the seal was too dangerous.”

What.

When did they have that conversation?

“The last I saw Jiang Wanyin couldn’t stand to be in the same room as Dad…”

That has Father’s brow twitching, a clear giveaway of his nerves. “Young Madam Jin and I acted as mediators. The conversation was brief.”   

Ah. That can’t have been easy. Sizhui knows his father struggles with his urge to murder Sect Leader Jiang at the best of times, let alone when Dad is so obviously upset…

Speak of the devil, “What was brief, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian appears to their side, tone light but with dark circles under his eyes. The way Father instantly gravitates to his husband’s side, hovering, suggests that it was not a good night.

Nonetheless, Sizhui has to ask, voice hushed, “Dad, we’re not giving Xue Yang the other half of the amulet?”

“Oh. That.” Senior Wei scratches at his nose. “Yeah, Jiang Cheng and I talked it over. It’ll be a pain to deal with if the secret gets out, but it’s better than giving Xue Yang even more power. No, the seal is staying right where it is, with your Father.” For good measure, Wei Wuxian pats the qiankun at Lan Wangji’s waist, as if confirming its presence.

“But…” There are so many questions Sizhui could ask, so many rebuttals he could make. Will the truth put his dad back into the limelight? Will it cause problems for Yunmeng Jiang? Will it overshadow the other arguments they’re trying to make?

Before he can make any of those points, however, a hand is plopped onto his head, musing his hair. “A-Zhui, stop worrying! You’ll get wrinkles at this rate. Let your parents deal with it, eh?” Senior Wei grins at him, loud and bold – and, in a moment of whimsy, his lips quirking upwards, Father copies him.

Placing his own hand on Sizhui’s head (though, instead of ruffling his hair, Father fixes Wei Wuxian’s mess, brushing down the stray hairs), “Let Wei Ying and I deal with Xue Yang,” he says – and Sizhui’s arguments fizzle away.

“O-okay then.” He’ll try to drown out his most anxious thoughts and let his control waft down the river, however unsuccessful he’s likely to be in that endeavour.

“You can just shut Xue Yang up with the Lan Silencing Spell, right Lan Zhan?” Senior Wei continues, simultaneously pulling Sizhui closer so he can drape his arms over his son’s shoulders. Because of this arrangement, Sizhui can feel the exact moment his dad is struck with divine inspiration. “Hey, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan! Now I’m a member of your Sect, I’m allowed to know the spell! The Lan Silencing Spell!” He cackles. “You’ll teach it to me, right?”

Father stares at his husband.

Wei Wuxian stares back, like a spoiled cat, expectant.

“…No.”

“What?! Lan Zhaaaaaaaan! Why not?”

“You would abuse it.”

“I wouldnnnn’t!” Senior Wei whines, and Sizhui can’t help but giggle. “Ah, what a betrayal! A-Zhui, convince your mean Father otherwise!”

“I think he may be right, Dad,” Sizhui has to admit. “You would likely be tempted to – ”

KA-BOOM!

An explosion echoes through the air, followed by a loud t’wang. The sky ripples above them in waves, radiating out a central point down the path.

Oh no.

“They’re here,” Sizhui says, more to himself than anyone else.

The Sects are here – and, if that explosion is any hint at their intentions, already on the offensive. That explosion at the wards… Sizhui watches his parents share a worried glance and knows Senior Wei’s barriers won’t be able to handle many more blasts like that.

“Wei Wuxian!” Madam Jin calls. “Hanguang-jun! Lan Sizhui!”

Sizhui turns to see the Madam of Koi Tower marching towards them, striding like a soldier, Sect Leader Jiang and Wen Qing on her heels. “It is time. Are you ready?”

Wei Wuxian, in response, cracks an anxious grin. “As we’ll ever be.”

 

The bottom of the mountain is quickly turning into a war zone.

As their small group treks down the mound paths, another explosion rumbles through the air – and then another. The sound is a helpful warning, but it doesn’t prepare Sizhui for the sight he’s met with.

The Sects truly have sent an army after them. Countless cultivators in varying shades – golds, greys, and glaringly bright whites – stand in formation, weapons drawn, chanting curses. Though the purple of the Jiangs is noticeably absent, the force is still immeasurable, and it has panic swelling his Sizhui’s chest.

“Kill the Yiling Patriarch!” the cultivators yell.

“Eliminate the Wens!” they shout.

At the front of the crowd stands three familiar faces: Sect Leader Nie, Jin Guangyao, and –

“Uncle…” Sizhui breathes.

Zewu-jun. Lan Xichen.

The last time Sizhui saw him – two-weeks ago, or is it sixteen years? – his uncle had been crying, his sworn brother dead in his arms, a broken man. They were both crushed, moments later, gone with a breeze of dust.

“The Yiling Patriarch!” a voice, separate from the rest, calls. Sect Leader Yao emerges from the crowd, sword pointed directly at Sizhui’s Dad. “He’s here!”

“Kill him!” The crowd choruses.

“Kill him!”

“Kill him!”

Lan Wangji, instinctively, pulls Senior Wei behind him, begins to draw Bichen, ready for a fight – and Madam Jin pushes past Sizhui, to the front of their small group, and shouts, “HOLD YOUR TONGUE, SECT LEADER YAO!”

Sizhui winces as her voice booms through the air, stronger than any of the explosions, louder than the collective cries of the cultivators –

The entire army is brought to silence.

(There is a talisman stuck to her back, one Senior Wei had proudly demonstrated to them that morning. “It amplifies your voice, SEE!” he’d cried, scaring an entire flock of birds out of their nests.)

Sizhui’s ears are still ringing when, “…Madam Jin?” Uncle Xichen asks, the first to recover from his bewilderment. “…Is that you?”

Madam Jin tuts. “Zewu-jun, I never took you for a fool, nor for the visual impaired. Who else?”

Sect Leader Nie speaks next, “We were told – uh – ” though he halts, uncharacteristically sheepish under Madam Jin’s pointed gaze. He swallows. “We were told you had been kidnapped, Madam?”

“You thought I had been kidnapped?” Madam Jin recites his words back to him, but from her mouth the sentiment sounds outright ludicrous. “And who exactly told you that?”

An army’s worth of eyeballs turn to Jin Guangyao.

He barely even twitches.

“You disappeared from Koi Tower, Madam,” he says, so smoothly it sounds rehearsed. “Servants heard you scream out in fear. It was the logical conclusion to draw, especially since Young Madam Jin and her son have also vanished.”

“Wei Ying must have wanted to finish the job!” Sect Leader Ouyang interjects. “First Jin Zixuan, then the rest of his family!”

The cultivators mumble in agreement – but are deftly silenced, once again, this time by the hiss of electricity and the sharp crack of a whip. “You dare suggest that Wei Wuxian would kill his own sister?!” Jiang Wanyin snarls. “A baby?!”

But, “The Yiling Patriarch is mad!” one particularly bold cultivator calls.

“Wei Ying is not related to Young Madam Jin by blood!” another man speaks.

And “He’s done much worse!” others claim.

“Rest assured,” Madam Jin interrupts, overcutting the noise, “my daughter-in-law and grandson are safe, and all three of us are here at the Burial Mounds of our own volition.”

“As am I,” Sect Leader Jiang states clearly and –

“I too,” Father says – much to the shock of his Sect.

“Wangji…” Uncle Xichen says softly, but on the other side of the spectrum –

“Lan Wangji!” Lan Qiren is shouting – oh, how long has it been since Sizhui saw his teacher, his great uncle? – “That is enough! Abandon this childish pursuit of yours!” He’s bombarded his way to the front of the crowd, completely red in the face, enveloped in a cloud of anger.

But Father’s mind is set. “No,” he says simply, calmly.

“You – !”

“Why?” Sect Leader Nie interjects. “Why side with the Yiling Patriarch, now of all times?” Sizhui doesn’t know Nie Mingjue, not like he does the other Sect Leaders – he died just before Sizhui was old enough to attend discussion conferences or go night hunting – but Uncle Xichen always talked fondly of him.

It stands, therefore, that he’s the one inquiring, asking the questions others dare not.

“Because he is innocent of the crimes you accuse him of,” Madam Jin replies – and it is the answer no one wants.

“Ludicrous!”

“We all saw him kill at the Nightless City!”

“Lies!”

“You trust the mad man?”

“SILENCE!” Sect Leader Jiang bellows, cracking Zidian once again. “We have proof!”

“Proof?” Jin Guangyao speaks up. “What proof can you have? Our cultivators saw the Ghost General kill Jin Zixuan. Do you refute their testimonies and question the honour of their words?”

Your words are the ones we cannot trust,” Madam Jin begins – and Sizhui braces himself for the coming fallout. “Jin Guangyao, you are responsible for the murder of my son and I accuse you of treason against the Jin Sect!”

There is uproar.

Not only is Madam Jin making a bold claim, but to do so here and now is to air the Jin Sect’s dirty laundry. Yet, this is simultaneously why Madam Jin is the one to speak; here and now they test the Jin Sect’s loyalties.

Do the golden-clad cultivators trust their Madam, or do they side with Jin Guangshan’s bastard son?

If the cultivation world is as predictable as Sizhui thinks it is, he knows who they’ll side with.

Nonetheless, “Madam Jin,” Uncle Xichen says, his tone placating, his hands raised in mock-surrender, “surely there’s been a mistake?”

And that’s when the snake slinks to Uncle’s side. “Sect Leader Lan, perhaps the Yiling Patriarch has corrupted their minds?” Sect Leader Su suggests. “This – this madness that has befallen Madam Jin may be a result of one of Wei Ying’s many dastardly tricks.”

Sizhui is not an angry person, but the sight and sound of this man

Thankfully, he isn’t the only one enraged by Su Minshan’s words.

Sizhui supposes Su Minshan did always want Lan Wangji’s attention.

Now he has it.

“Sect Leader Su is the perpetrator who cast the Hundred Holes Curse on Jin Zixun,” Father says, so venomously and with such hatred. The anger does not startle Sizhui – he understands where it comes from – but the other Lan cultivators collectively shudder. ‘What has this man done to make Hanguang-jun so angry?!’ they must be thinking.

Simultaneously, “What?!” Lan Qiren snaps, his head spinning to find Su Minshan – and Sizhui is gratified to see the Sect Leader take a staggering step back.

“You should find the rebound scars on his chest, Uncle,” Father continues.

A mass of Lan cultivators turn on Su Minshan.

“W-what?!” The Su Sect Leader stutters. “This is ridiculous! I would never! Why are we humouring this accusation?!”

But Lan Qiren stands firm. “If it is so ‘ridiculous’, Su Minshan, then you would not mind proving your innocence for us.”

“Y-you’re asking me to strip? In front of all these men? Teacher, you ask this of me and not the Yiling Patriarch? Who, of the two of us, has a reputation for evil?”  

“I’m willing to demonstrate my innocence,” Senior Wei says – the first words he’s spoken this entire time. He releases Father’s hand – Lan Wangji has been clutching it for dear life, Sizhui just realises, and Wei Wuxian barely manages to pull away – and strolls, as casually as can be, to the front of their group. “Are you, Su Minshan?”

Su Minshan visibly gulps.

“Eh, Lan Zhan? Will you help me with my clothes?” Wei Wuxian asks, voice low – and Sizhui tries not to blush. He does wish his parents would reign it in a little bit with the flirting; they could at least save it for when they’re not in life or death situations…

Sect Leader Jiang seems to be thinking the same thing, quietly muttering “Shameless…” as Father moves to stand parallel to Senior Wei and begins adjusting the collar of his robes –

But then there’s a yelp. “Let go of me!” Su Minshan is shouting, trying to bat away a Lan disciple. She’s snuck up behind him and pulled at his hanfu, just enough to reveal the truth.

“It’s true!” the woman (who looks oddly familiar, Sizhui realises) laughs in shock. “Hanguang-jun is telling the truth!”

Su Minshan finally succeeds in pushing her away, but the damage is done. None of the Moling Su cultivators protest, too shocked themselves, when Lan Qiren storms over to their Sect Leader and pulls at his collar, revealing the countless blister-like wounds scabbed over on his chest.

“What have you done, you fool?” Lan Qiren mutters, horrified.

“That’s not all, Teacher,” Wei Wuxian picks up. The collars of his robes remain as loose as they can without being indecent, showing the bareness of his chest. “Not only did Su Minshan cast the Hundred Holes Curse on Jin Zixun, but he was at the ambush at Qiongqi path himself.”

“You can’t prove that!” Su Minshan squawks, having finally freed himself from the grip of the Lans. He stands isolated however, a circle’s distance away from any other cultivator, even from those of his own Sect.

“Only because you killed the two people who could attest to the sound of a second flute on the battlefield.”

“Wei Wuxian – !” Lan Qiren gasps. “Are you implying – ?”

“Su Minshan is a demonic cultivator,” Senior Wei confirms, “and he tore control of Wen Ning away from me at Qiongqi path. He is the one who killed Jin Zixuan.”

The army loses it.

“Impossible!”

“Preposterous!”

“He lies!”

“The words of the Yiling Patriarch cannot be trusted!”

It takes another cry from Madam Jin to silence the masses, but before anyone from their side can speak up, “Wei Wuxian,” Jin Guangyao starts. He remains calm, despite his loose ends unravelling. “Though these revelations paint the ambush at Qiongqi Path in a new light, your claim that Su Minshan is responsible for the deaths of my late brother and cousin are unfounded. What proof have you offered us for this? Furthermore, Wei Wuxian, though you did not curse Jin Zixun, you are far from innocent. We were all at the Nightless City, were we not? We all saw you ruthlessly attack old friends and allies.”

The crowd agrees, quick to vocalise their approval, but Jin Guangyao is not finished yet. “And,” he says, “none of what has been said here today implicates me in anyway.”

He sounds confident – assured – but he must know, Sizhui reasons, that they’re catching up to him. He sent Xue Yang on an assassination mission, after all, and Madam Jin’s assertion that Jiang Yanli is safe suggests that Xue Yang has failed.

What must Jin Guangyao truly be thinking, Sizhui wonders? Does he realise what is about to happen?

As if reading Sizhui’s mind, “Ahh, Lianfang-zun, but we haven’t presented all our evidence yet!” Senior Wei says. Then, “WEN NING!” he calls into the forest, hands coned around his mouth. “BRING IN OUR GUEST!”

“R-roger that!” Sizhui hears his uncle reply in the distance, which is followed by the sound of rapid footsteps and groans of discomfort.

The assembled cultivators visibly recoil as Wen Ning jogs into view – and Sizhui feels offended on his uncle’s behalf; he doesn’t look that bad – but their attention is soon grabbed by Xue Yang, dropped haphazardly before the crowd.

He lands on his rear with an ‘Omph!’ – and while everyone else is watching Xue Yang, Sizhui keeps his focus on Jin Guangyao.

The man has gone as pale as bone.

Meanwhile, “YOU!” Nie Mingjue bellows, instantly drawing his saber. “XUE YANG!”

“Xue Yang?!” Their audience gawps. If they were unaware of who sat before them previously, now they know.

“Xue Yang who murdered the Chang Clan?”

“I heard he worked for Wen Ruohan!”

“I thought he was dead!”

Xue Yang ignores the crowd. Instead, adjusting his weight to sit with legs crossed, “Oh, it’s you again!” he greets Sect Leader Nie. “It’s been too long! Last time I saw you – hm, let’s see… Yes, I was escaping your dungeon!”

Nie Mingjue, with a scream of rage, jolts forwards – but is held back by Uncle Xichen’s hand on his chest. As Xue Yang snickers in the background, “Wangji,” Zewu-jun asks, eyes wide with shock and barely concealed panic, “what is going on here?”

“We captured him in the midst of an assassination attempt,” Wei Wuxian answers in his husband’s stead; they all know Father can’t tell even the whitest of lies. “He was sent to kill my shijie, and Jin Ling if possible. Go on,” he urges, kicking Xue Yang blithely in the thigh. “Tell ‘em who sent you.”

“Do I have to?” Xue Yang moans. “I’ll be in sooooo much trouble…” That’s when he tilts his head right back to meet Sizhui’s eye and wink. ‘I’m putting on a good performance, right?’ he’s saying.

Sizhui wants to vomit.

Thankfully, Father takes a firm step to the left, blocking Sizhui from Xue Yang’s view and at the same time Senior Wei slaps the back of Xue Yang’s head, forcing it forwards.

At the same time, “Spit it out, boy,” Sect Leader Nie grows, his patience wearing thin. “Who are you working for?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” Xue Yang says.

“Don’t test me – !”

“Jin Guangyao, of course!”

Sizhui practically hears Nie Mingjue’s restraint snap in half. “WHAT?!” The Nie Sect Leader roars, instantly turning on his sworn brother.

Uncle Xichen is forced to intervene, once again. “Da-ge, please, don’t make a rash decision! We should not trust the words of a criminal so blindly, not over those of a friend. A-Yao would not ally with Xue Yang. Surely so, A-Yao?” Lan Xichen smiles nervously at his sworn brother, so hopeful that Sizhui finds it hurts.

The illusion cracks almost instantly. “Oh, no, Jin Guangyao and I are old friends, Sect Leader Nie,” Xue Yang says. “He’s the one who freed me from your dungeon after all!”

Those words are the final nail in the coffin.

“I KNEW IT!” Nie Mingjue screams, indominable. “I KNEW THERE WAS MORE TO THAT DAY! YOU AND MY GENERAL WERE THE ONLY ONES WITH ACCESS TO THE JAIL, AND MY GENERAL DIDN’T HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO FREE XUE YANG BECAUSE YOU KILLED HIM!” Uncle Xichen continues to hold his sworn brother back, but he’s flagging, Nie Mingjue’s violent jerks and pulls more than he can handle.

Worse yet, perhaps, is that Nie Mingjue’s outburst has sparked the seed of distrust.

“Lianfang-zun released Xue Yang from prison?!”

“And he killed a Nie disciple in the same night?!”

“This can’t be true!”

“But Sect Leader Nie says so!”

“He is known for his honesty…”  

“While Jin Guangyao is the son of a prostitute, remember!”

“Men from that upbringing can rarely be trusted…”

“I SHOULD HAVE KILLED YOU THAT NIGHT…!” Nie Mingjue cries, drowning out all the other voices, rumour already beginning to run rampant, but –

“Er-ge, you can’t believe them,” Jin Guangyao pleads with Uncle Xichen, lip quivering. Even his own cultivators have begun to distance themselves – ‘How easily they’re swayed!’ Sizhui thinks to himself, bitter – and this is before Xue Yang continues his exposé.

“It’s been fun, working for you these past few months, A-Yao~! Teaching Su She how to control fierce corpses, sharing my knowledge of demonic curses…” He sighs dramatically. “Too bad we’ve been caught, huh? And just after you became heir to your Sect! Well, nearly. I couldn’t bring myself to kill poor little Jin Ling, despite your orders. Guess I’m not as cut out for cold-hearted betrayal as you are!”

“I didn’t – ” Jin Guangyao stutters. “Er-ge, I’d never! Jin Ling is my nephew!”

“And my son was your brother, but that didn’t stop you,” Madam Jin says. “Disciples of my Sect, Sect Leaders, I have interrogated Xue Yang thoroughly, and have found he knows trade secrets only the inner most Jin disciples know. He must have had an informant, and I see no reason to doubt his accusations against my husband’s bastard. Sect Leader Nie’s testimony of Jin Guangyao’s character only confirms my suspicions. Wei Wuxian is innocent of my son’s murder, and the true culprit stands among our own ranks.”

“Er-ge, please,” Jin Guangyao begs pitifully.

But, “A-Yao, I – ” Uncle Xichen swallows, hesitating – and there it is, the hint of doubt; that deadly seed, an expression Sizhui remembers so vividly from a different time and a different place. Sighting it, Jin Guangyao’s face goes slack, completely expressionless, and he opens his mouth to speak –

But Su Minshan, in a fit of panic, leaps forward, grabbing Jin Guangyao by the arm – and in the next moment they’re gone, blinking out of sight in a shimmer of blue light.

Uncle Xichen is left frozen, his hand outstretched, reaching for nothing but the wind.

Chapter Text

Silence rules in the wake of Jin Guangyao and Su Minshan’s flight.

The wind whistles and the trees sway, but the army of cultivators, swarmed around the entrance of the Burial Mounds remain shocked beyond words.

Sizhui doesn’t think Jin Guangyao’s departure was intentional – no, Su Minshan’s panic obviously drove that decision – but it’s timing was so perfect. Fleeing paints them as so very, very guilty.

“…Hey, does anyone know how to call them back?” Xue Yang asks – of course he’s the first to speak, how typical – breaking the fragile quiet. “I’m pretty sure Su She owed me money.”

Sizhui resists the urge the groan – though any sound he made would have been drowned out in the next second. Xue Yang’s words have broken the dam and all at once there’s a cacophony of voices.

“Jin Guangyao fled?!” Sect Leader Ouyang cries, echoed by the surrounding mob.

‘This can’t be!’

‘How did they do that?!’

‘Jin Guangyao must have had a teleportation talisman prepared!’

“Does that mean the Yiling Patriarch is innocent?” Sect Leader Yao exclaims, dumbfounded, and Senior Wei throughs his arms in the air, exasperated.

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” he shouts back. “This entire time! For years!”

‘Innocent? The Yiling Patriarch?’

‘He was framed?!’

‘Who’d have thought!’

“AH-ah-ah!” Sect Leader Yao starts, inspiration in his eyes. “But what about the bloodbath at the Nightless City, Wei Ying? There is no disputing the role you played in that slaughter!” He looks terribly proud of himself for a rather weak argument.

In fact, his words appear to have pissed Wei Wuxian off some, and he opens his mouth to retort – but before Senior Wei can put his foot in his mouth, Father steps forward. “Foremost, the meeting at the Nightless City did not break out into a battle until Sect Leader Jin refused to honour a deal he proposed. The instigation of the bloodshed lies with the Sect Leader, therefore. Wei Ying acted to ensure the safety of those living here at the Burial Mounds, albeit with violence. Though the extent of the damage cannot be pinned on Wei Ying, for Su Minshan aggravated the resentful energy present,” and then Father is bowing – why is he bowing? – “the Lan Sect is willing to recompense any families impacted by the events that took place at the Nightless City.”

Oh.

Sizhui sees where this is going.

He starts to sweat – just a little – and eyes his Lan uncles with trepidation. Perhaps he should start planning Senior Wei’s funeral? There is no way in heaven and earth that this news is going to go down well…

“The Lan Sect?” Lan Qiren barks. “Wangji, no matter how much you may… care for Wei Wuxian, we cannot claim responsibilities for his mistakes! It is not our duty!”

“Yes, it is,” Father replies stiffy.

Uncle Xichen coughs, clearing his throat, and regaining his composure. “And why is that, Wangji?” he asks.

Lan Wangji straightens out from his bow and gestures back to Wei Wuxian. ‘Come here,’ he says with the tilt of his head and a small smile. Senior Wei is – expectedly – nervous, Sizhui can tell, but he walks to Father’s side, nonetheless, and takes his hand.

Father’s gaze is so soft. Turning back to the crowd, “Wei Ying and I have married, bringing him and his family into the Lan Clan,” Lan Wangji announces, loud and clear.

The first response comes in the form of Lan Qiren’s eyes rolling into the back of his head, as he collapses to the ground in a dead faint.  

…Yes, that’s just about what Sizhui expected.

There’s an immediate panic amongst the Lan cultivators, as they huddle and fuss around their fallen teacher, and Xue Yang is laughing, and Uncle Xichen –

Well, he just sighs, long-suffering.

‘How long as he been waiting for this?’ Sizhui wonders.

(In the background, Lan Qiren, out like a light, is pulled off to the side to give the man some privacy. Senior Wei watches him leave, conflicted; though he’s obviously concerned, there’s the uncontrollable upward twitch of his lips. He has just pulled off the perfect prank, after all).

“I apologise, brother,” Father says, despite the commotion. “I – I wanted you at my side when I wed. But there was not the time.”

“It’s okay, Wangji,” Uncle Xichen replies. He looks… tired. “We’ll discuss this later. What’s more important right now is what you mean by Wei Wuxian’s family?”

“The Wens,” Father clarifies. “Those living here at the Burial Mounds.”

“You intend to offer them refuge at Cloud Recesses?”

“I have and will.”

Uncle Xichen responds to Father’s declaration with but a nod of confirmation – and it’s for the best that Lan Qiren is asleep, Sizhui suddenly realises; he’s quite sure his great uncle would have made quite the protest against this development. Sizhui sees Wen Qing, who has been tense ever since the news of a siege reached them, finally relax, her shoulder’s sagging in relief.

It doesn’t last. “B-but – !” Sect Leader Ouyang interjects – and Auntie Qing is visibly strained once again. “The Wens are evil! Everyone knows this! How can any of them be forgiven for what they’ve done?!”

There is a polite but intentionally loud cough.

“No, we will be having none of this,” Madam Jin says. Her arms crossed, head held high, “The surviving Wens, of which number under fifty, have suffered quite enough in the opinions of myself, Hanguang-jun, and Sect Leader Jiang. Arriving at the Burial Mounds, I discovered that the cultivation world as a whole has been misled to the status and skill of those living here. There is no army, as Jin Guangyao claimed! Wei Wuxian has provided shelter to the elderly, women and children! There are no cultivators here, apart from Young Maiden Wen – and her safety should not be contested either! After all, my daughter-in-law owes her a life debt, a debt Wei Wuxian has paid by providing her family with aid. I say that living here for a year, in perhaps the most cursed land known to cultivators, is punishment enough for those largely innocent of the crimes Wen Ruohan committed.”

Sizhui is anxious at first that Madam Jin’s words won’t be enough – that the cultivation world’s hatred for the Wens will outweigh their carefully curated rhetoric. It is a fear unfounded, for the assembled cultivators eat this story up, hand-fed like cattle. The tides have already turned, their minds swayed.

Jin Guangyao is their scapegoat now.

Worse yet, it isn’t quite the truth. It was Jin Guangshan who claimed that Senior Wei was gathering an army and the same man again who painted Wei Wuxian as a criminal.

Nonetheless, the army cries, “That son of a whore!”

“He tricked us all!”

“I always knew Wei Wuxian was innocent!”

“We must find Jin Guangyao and take revenge!”

The sentiment echoes round and round, growing more sinister and more fantastical as it goes. How easily the truth is so easily diluted. How quick these men are to forget their principles!

Madam Jin soon continues, “As the acting representative of the Jin Sect, and as wife of the Chief Cultivator, I have no objections to Hanguang-jun’s plans to settle the Wen remnants in Gusu.”

“Neither do I,” Sect Leader Jiang states clearly.

And, “I see no reason to protest,” Uncle Xichen nods.

Though – this decision is not yet unanimous.

Sect Leader Nie scowls, contemplative. He has calmed since Jin Guangyao’s departure, but his jaw remains clenched, his aura deadly. Sizhui doesn’t know what he’s thinking… but, ultimately the decision he comes shouldn’t be a surprise.

“…Give us Xue Yang and the Nie will turn a blind eye to the surviving Wen dogs.”

To Sizhui, this is.

Uh oh.

Instantly, “Sure,” Senior Wei responds, “take him off our hands,” obviously glad to be rid of the man.

But, “Hey!” Xue Yang starts, almost joking, “What about – mpfh!” and he’s gagged, Father finally having cast the Lan Silencing Spell.

He continues to protest, but his words are incomprehensible, muffled – and Sizhui sees the exact moment Xue Yang realises he’s being betrayed.

All at once, he quiets, and then his shoulders begin to shake, as if he’s laughing. His lips sealed shut, he smiles, wide and unhinged and his hands, relatively free behind his back, begin shuffling. Xue Yang is reaching into his sleeves –

Meanwhile, “Hang on, hang on!” Sect Leader Ouyang protests. “What of the Stygian Tiger Amulet?! Surely we cannot allow such a powerful relic to remain in the hands of the Yiling Patriarch?”

“Yes!” Sect Leader Yao readily agrees. “Yes! Though Wei Wuxian’s innocence at this stage is undoubtable, his possession of the Stygian Tiger Amulet remains problematic. No one man should have so much power!”

– and Xue Yang pulls out his half of the seal. The amulet begins to spin in Xue Yang’s palm, gathering resentful energy – and Sizhui can’t be the only one seeing this!

But he is. Everyone else – Father, Senior Wei, Sect Leader Jiang, Auntie Qing, Uncle Ning, Madam Jin – are too focused on the mob. No one else is watching, no one else sees what Xue Yang is about to unleash.

If Sizhui doesn’t act now, there’s going to be a bloodbath.

“The Stygian Tiger amulet – ” Father starts, but Sizhui interrupts him – his breath stalling, his ears ringing –

“ – has been destroyed,” he finishes and prays to whatever gods may be listening that his family doesn’t hate him for what he’s about to do.

“Sizhui…?” Father says, but Sizhui shakes his head. He checks in with Xue Yang – and the man is watching him intently. He is motionless, that smile frozen on his face, and Sizhui knows he only has a long as Xue Yang’s patience lasts.

“Who is this?” Sect Leader Nie asks, turning to Uncle Xichen – which Sizhui can’t allow. He’s seen Uncle occasionally eye him as the time passes, and Sizhui has doggedly avoided meeting his gaze. They can’t have the Lan Sect Leader question him, not now, not in front of the cultivation world, not when Senior Wei’s and the Wens’ reputation hangs on but a string.

Sizhui begins to bow, hopefully to draw Sect Leader Nie’s attention back to him, but then, to his shock, “My cousin,” Lan Wangji blurts, as quick as lightening.

Sizhui blinks.

…Father lied.

“Your cousin?” Nie Mingjue speaks. “Xichen, this is your cousin? How come I’ve never met him before?”

“I did not grow up in Cloud Recesses, Sect Leader Nie,” Sizhui picks up before his uncle can, “so I am not surprised that you have not heard of me. This one is Lan Sizhui, and it is an honour to finally meet you. I have heard many good things.”

It’s strange how instinctual it’s becoming to talk in half-truths.

As he bows, he feels Father shuffle closer to his side, and Sizhui watches the Twin Jades of Lan engage in a conversation of expression alone. Father’s wide eyes – pleading – implore Uncle Xichen to play along, at least for now – and, in return, Uncle’s brows, set in a straight line, indicate his concern, but his mouth remains sealed shut, a sign of his co-operation.

One problem dealt with then.

Nie Mingjue coughs, clearing his throat. “Yes, well, what’s this about the Stygian Tiger Amulet being destroyed?”

“After the meeting at the Nightless City,” Sizhui starts, straightening. He takes one step closer to Lan Wangji and – yes, there’s no one behind them. As he speaks – “it was decided between those of us at the Burial Mounds that the Stygian Tiger Amulet was too dangerous to exist” – he reaches for the qiankun pouch at Father’s waist, where he knows the amulet is stored. “Senior Wei and I have been discussing how to manage this for a while now, though it was the arrival of Hanguang-jun and Sect Leader Jiang that finally allowed us to destroy the amulet,” he says as he slowly, carefully, reaches his hand down and pulls at the pouch’s strings. One wrong move, one twitch, will give him away.

“Is this true, Sect Leader Jiang?” Nie Mingjue asks, just as Sizhui manages to squeeze his hand into the pouch – and he freezes, heart beating frantically, wild with panic.

If Jiang Wanyin gives him away, denies his claims, his very, very false claims, he’s screwed. But, simultaneously, Sizhui has put the Jiang Sect Leader in a very tight spot. If Jiang Wanyin claims the amulet has been destroyed and then it resurfaces

Sizhui is risking everything here, but what can he do? If he doesn’t act, Xue Yang is going to kill them all.

He holds his breath –

“It is,” Jiang Wanyin confirms, though he’s glaring at Sizhui with deep suspicion. “We destroyed it yesterday.”

Sizhui’s hand closes in on the Stygian Tiger Amulet and suddenly there’s a choir of screams in his mind.

‘A new friend~’ the amulet coos. ‘Won’t you play with us? What do you want from life? We can give you á̴̟ñ̴̡y̴͈͆t̵̥̐h̶͔̓į̸̽n̶̖̽g̴͓͛ y̸̬̲̌o̷̯̊̑̌u̴͓̩͗̕͠ w̴͆̽̏ā̷͓̟̇͒͐̚n̵͔̘̩͓̣̩̹̐̒̔̊̈͘͝t̵̗̑ ̵̘͈͖̲̦̿͑̚!̵͇̞̲͋̍͒̑̆'̷̳͚̗̬͙͆̉̕̕

“So there is no reason to dispute the Lan Sect’s claim on the Wen remnants nor the marriage between Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian,” Madam Jin says, though Sizhui can’t really hear it, not through the clamour in his mind. He’s pulled his hand from the qiankun pouch, though he’s not sure when, and now Father is frowning at him, concerned, but Sizhui has to keep going.

“We are more than willing to pass Xue Yang into your hands,” Sizhui says, trying to look composed as he walks back over to their prisoner’s side, “This act of co-operation between sects, I hope, symbolises our desire for peace, here at the Burial Mounds. There is no need for further conflict.”

Sizhui places one hand on Xue Yang’s shoulder and his body, placed right at Xue Yang’s side, blocks his other hand from view as he releases his half of the Stygian Tiger Amulet. The transfer is soundless, as the pieces meet and swirl around each other, giving nothing away to even the enhanced hearing of the cultivators present – and Sizhui watches Senior Wei with baited breath.

If anyone will notice the surge in resentful energy in the air, it’s him – but as Sizhui releases Xue Yang’s shoulder, all his Dad does his turn to Sizhui and raise a brow.

‘You okay?’ he mouths, and Sizhui’s stomach churns in a disconcerting cocktail of relief and guilt.

He nods and smiles; it’s fake.

“If that’s all?” Madam Jin asks, though the question is clearly rhetoric. No one even dares respond, and so the Madam, with a pleased smile, says, “Good. You are all dismissed.”

‘Dismissed?’ Sizhui thinks to himself. Is it really that easy? Can an army be sent off like a class of petulant students?

They can. To Sizhui’s dismay, the cultivators begin to leave. It starts with but a handful, trailing off at the back of the crowd, but those few prompt a mass exodus. They are grumbling, discontent, yes – they were promised a fight and were rallied to senselessness – but they’re going!

Sizhui still feels far from safe.

When the Nie disciples arrive to drag Xue Yang off, he continues to smile, wide and demented at Sizhui.

‘I knew you had it in you,’ he mouths.

 

Once most of the disciples have left, Sizhui finds himself pulled into a conversation with Father and Uncle Xichen.

As Madam Jin departs to discuss strategy with her senior disciples, and as Sizhui stands with his parents, trying to hide his anxiety (he has to tell them what he’s done – oh heavens, he wants to be sick – but he can’t until they’re definitely alone!), “Wangji,” his uncle calls. Hands behind his back, “A word with you and our… cousin.”

Sizhui gulps – but Father places a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Wait here?” Father asks Senior Wei, who happily complies, sending him off with a peck on the lips.

Before Sizhui knows it, he’s stood before a rather displeased Zewu-Jun, and he barely makes it through the pleasantries without suffering a major heart attack. “Mind introducing us, Wangji?” Uncle Xichen drawls and Sizhui blacks out for a second there.

Father is quick to come to his defence. “I assure you, Brother, that Sizhui has not lied about his identity. He is, indeed, a Lan.”

“How can that be?”

Sizhui and Lan Wangji share a look. “I – I promise to explain, Zewu-Jun,” Sizhui say, trying not to jitter and fidget. “I’m willing to tell you everything. Just – not here.”

‘Where anyone could overhear’ goes unsaid.

Uncle Xichen stares at them; he really scrutinises them. Sizhui has to hide his hands behind his back, lest his shaking get to obvious.

Eventually, “I shall have the guest dormitories prepared for the Wens,” Uncle Xichen sighs. “You’re very lucky we’re in the teaching off-season. Once you return, we’ll have to formalise some building plans. But, for now, I expect you have some loose ends to tie up?”

“Mm,” Father hums, obviously relieved, and “thank you,” he says. “I apologise for thrusting this onto you unexpectedly. If I could have consulted you earlier, I would have.”

 “I… I know, Wangji. You have never given me reason to doubt your judgement before. I’ll be waiting for your return.” In these words is an unspoken request; ‘I’ll be waiting for the explanation too.’

Sizhui’s stomach flips. That’s going to be a complicated conversation. Though…

Watching Zewu-jun walk away, returning to his delegation of Lan disciples, Sizhui realises just how much he’s missed his uncle. Before everything fell apart, Sizhui could always count on Lan Xichen, whether that was with his classwork or with his feelings… When no one else could be there – his family at the Burial Mounds lost and Father bedridden – Uncle Xichen was.

Perhaps, by telling Lan Xichen the truth, Sizhui can get some semblance of that relationship back.

‘Though it’ll never be the same,’ his mind ponders – and he’s in such a daze, thoughts a world away, that it takes a moment for Sizhui to realise that his feet have carried him back to Senior Wei. His parents are shepherding him back up the hill, in fact, and, while they’re unaware that he’s looking, Sizhui sees them share a concerned glance.

So he shakes his head, straightens his back.

He’s okay.

He’s fine.

That is until they turn a corner to find Jiang Wanyin lurking.

He’s leant up against a tree, arms crossed, face set in a furious frown – and the sight of him has Senior Wei shrinking in on himself, trying to appear as small as possible. Sect Leader Jiang is obviously waiting for something or someone –

And Sizhui has the oddest feeling that his luck is about to run die.

As if prompting the question with his thoughts, “Why did you deviate from the script?” Sect Leader Jiang asks Sizhui directly. No preamble. No hesitation.

“Jiang Wanyin,” Father snaps, a warning, as he places himself at the front of their group.

But, “No, shut up, Lan Wangji,” Jiang Wanyin persists. “Why did your cousin claim we’ve destroyed the Stygian Tiger Amulet? Does he realise what shit we’ll be in if the truth comes out?”

“It was good improvisation,” Senior Wei offers, despite how much he looks like he wants to disappear. “We couldn’t exactly tell them the truth.”

But, “I said shut up,” Jiang Wanyin snarls and Senior Wei winces. “Not everything is about you, Wei Wuxian.”

“Jiang Wanyin!”

“You gave Xue Yang the Stygian Tiger Amulet, didn’t you, Lan Sizhui?”

Sizhui’s heart officially stops.

He can’t think.

He can’t breathe.

He was going to tell them!

“What?” Senior Wei laughs, bewildered. “Jiang Cheng, why’d you think that?”

“Xue Yang was going to reveal our – ” he halts, swallows, as if he can’t bring himself to say it. “Our – situation,” he settles on, “but then Lan Wangji cast the Silencing Spell and that was it? No fight, no backlash?”

“That doesn’t mean – ”

“You’re not an idiot, Wei Wuxian. He got the other half of the amulet. It’s the only explanation for why he didn’t cause a fuss. Lan Sizhui gave him exactly what he wanted.”

“But Lan Zhan has the other half! He’d have noticed if it went missing! Heck, I’d – !”

“Wei Ying,” Father says softly – and he’s opened the qiankun bag at his waist. He’s obviously searched it. He knows it’s empty.

Sizhui, trembling, stumbles backwards, as Senior Wei assesses the scene – and as the realisation finally clicks.

“I – ” Sizhui doesn’t know what to say. Father’s staring at him, horrified, his hands still clasped around the empty qiankun pouch, and Senior Wei is as pale as his husband’s robes, and Sizhui doesn’t know what to say.

“Who even are you?” Jiang Wanyin continues, with a vicious lurch forward. “I know you’re hiding something – and you’ve got my fucking brother in on it! Is that all you’re good for, Wei Wuxian?” he bites, changing targets. “Keeping secrets? Why is it that you always pick strangers over your family? Well, congratulations. Your hero-complex has fucked us over once again!”

“It’s not his fault,” Sizhui chokes out, pressure building behind his eyes, shaking from head to toe. “It’s mine, not his.”

Attention redrawn, Jiang Wanyin is quick to fire back, “So you admit it? That you helped Xue Yang?”

“H-he was going to use the seal,” Sizhui tries to explain. “No one else noticed and I – I – ”

“What? You thought you had the authority to give him immeasurable power? ‘Course, maybe that’s what you wanted,” Jiang Wanyin spits. “Maybe you’ve been on his side this entire time, you traitorous, little – ”

“JIANG WANYIN!” Father bellows, having finally snapped out of his shock. He moves swiftly, pushing himself right up into the Jiang Sect Leader’s face, and snarls, teeth bared, “That is enough. Leave. Now. Before I make you.”

Sect Leader Jiang laughs, a bitter sound. “You’d protect him still? After what he’s done?”

“Leave.”

The two men stare each other down, almost nose to nose, a game of chicken with potentially deadly consequences.

“…I’d sort your priorities out if I were you, Hanguang-jun,” Jiang Wanyin huffs, finally backing down. With the swish of his hair, he turns and begins marching back up towards the Wen Village. “This is no time to be harbouring criminals.”

With Jiang Wanyin leaves Sizhui’s remaining shred of composure.

He collapses to his knees and sobs.

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji is just about ready to murder Jiang Wanyin.

First, he made Wei Ying cry on their wedding night. Wangji had returned from Yiling to find his husband distraught yet trying to cover his pain with smiles. If Jiang Wanyin hadn’t decided to get utterly intoxicated in town, Lan Wangji would have been there to comfort his husband sooner, but no. Jiang Wanyin had to run away that night. He’s unrestrained and over-emotional and Wangji will never forgive him for nearly vomiting all over his shoes.

(The blame does not lie solely with the Jiang Sect Leader, Wangji understands logically. Xue Yang is the one who wreaked havoc that night, and Wei Ying is the one who made an irreversible choice – but Wangji burns with a protectiveness he’s never really been able to control).

Lan Wangji could have forgiven his brother-in-law for these crimes, if only to appease Wei Ying. Now, however, Jiang Wanyin has crossed a line.

He’s left Wangji’s son completely inconsolable.

“A-Zhui, hush, it’s okay!” Wei Ying repeats, over and over, knelt at their son’s side, as Sizhui, pulled tight into a ball, sobs into his knees. Wei Ying’s hands flitter, unsure where to settle, and he’s growing more and more agitated by the second. Wei Ying is panicked by crying, Wangji knows, paralysed by the need to help but unsure of what action to take.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Sizhui babbles, shoulders shaking and his chest heaving, and Wangji has to take charge, for his family’s sake.

“Wei Ying,” he says, moving to crouch at Sizhui’s side. “We need to get him inside.”

Giving Wei Ying something concrete to do focuses him. “Right! Yes! To the Demon-Slaughtering Ca– wait, Lan Zhan, the Wen Remnants were hiding there. It might not be empty?”

Mm. Drat.

“I shall go ahead,” Wangji decides, “and explain the situation to Wen Qing. She should be able to clear the space for us, if it is not already.”

Hopefully, he’ll be able to reach her before Jiang Wanyin does. Even if Sizhui is guilty of what the Sect Leader has accused – which is undeniable now; how did Wangji not notice how light his qiankun pouch feels? – there has to be a good reason. Right? This is the same boy who risked life and limb for Wei Ying, who holds Wen Yuan with such care, who calls Wangji Father even though he doesn’t deserve it…

Wei Ying nods. “Good plan. We’ll be right behind you.”

‘I can do this,’ Wei Ying means, even if the implication is subconscious.

Before he leaves, however, “A-Zhui,” Lan Wangji says, almost at a whisper. “We are not upset with you. We only want to understand what happened. I am going up to the village. It will be quiet when you arrive; I will make sure of it. Wei Ying will stay with you. Is that okay?”

Sizhui’s sobs do not subside but, after a moment, he nods his head, exaggerated but clear.

Having received confirmation for his plan of action, Lan Wangji strokes his hand over Sizhui’s hair before storming up the mountain with a vengeance.

He hates that he has to keep doing this. His family keeps getting hurt, and Wangji is the only one there to pick up the pieces. It pains him - it enrages him - but excessive emotion will not help him now. Wangji must stay steady, calm. 

So, he distracts himself by picturing the many ways in which he’d like to murder Jiang Wanyin.

Sword in the gut, drowning him in the river, poisoning his food…

When he arrives at the Burial Mounds, Wen Qing is easy to find. She’s talking to a huddled collection of Wens, but, spotting Lan Wangji, she dismisses herself from the group and heads straight in his direction.

“Hanguang-jun,” she hisses as she approaches, “why did Sect Leader Jiang just try to call an emergency meeting regarding my nephew?”

Shit.

“Where is he now? Jiang Wanyin?”

“Confined to a hut with his sister until he can control his temper,” Wen Qing replies. “Explain. Now.”

Lan Wangji is not scared of many things; he’s not ashamed to admit that Wen Qing is one of those things.

So, “We do not yet know all the details,” he starts promptly, “but Jiang Wanyin claims Sizhui gave Xue Yang the other half of the Stygian Tiger Amulet. I checked, and it is indeed missing. Sect Leader Jiang then accused Sizhui of acting as Xue Yang’s accomplice. Sizhui is now inconsolable.”

“He did what?!”

Lan Wangji is not sure who Wen Qing is referring to – nor what action she is horrified by – so he keeps his mouth shut.

Wen Qing buries her face in her hands and groans, “Great. Just perfect.” She drags her hands down her face. “What do you what me to do?”

“Ensure the Demon-Slaughtering Cave is empty. Keep Jiang Wanyin away from Sizhui.” He initially considers adding ‘until my son has calmed down’ but decides against it. Lan Wangji is quite sure he doesn’t want the Jiang Sect Leader around either of his children after this. Ever.

“Right. Okay. I can do that.” She pauses. “To Xue Yang? Really?”

Lan Wangji isn’t quite sure what to think of it either.

“I will find out why.”

Figuring his goals have been achieved, Lan Wangji turns, hoping to reunite with his husband and son down the woodland path –

“Lan Wangji,” Wen Qing calls, and Wangji halts. “I’m trusting you with him,” she says, cool, “despite my better judgement. Don’t fail me again.”

Wangji gets a flash – blood on his hands, red staining white robes, the pain of a black eye – and, “I won’t,” he promises.

Wangji won’t fail – can’t fail – because the guilt will eat him up from the inside out if he does.

 

He finds Wei Ying and Lan Sizhui a li or so beyond where he left them, stumbling up the path on shaky legs. Lan Wangji is quick to whisk his son into his arms and towards the Demon-Slaughtering Cave.

This prompts Sizhui to start bawling once again, though he rubs at his eyes and chokes out, “I-I can’t stop. Father, I can’t stop crying!”

“A-Zhui, that’s okay,” Wei Ying coos, trying to be comforting, as they finally reach the cave. He pulls them in deep, away from the entrance and down towards their very rustic hearth. It’ll do the job, at least, and hopefully the warmth will help Sizhui calm.

Alas, “But I have to explain!” Sizhui wails, as Wei Ying settles him on a stone stool. “E-everyone deserves an explanation, and I – I – ”

“Do not worry about Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji says, leaving for but a moment to fetch a teapot. They have some left-over tea from the wedding banquet, Wangji is pretty sure… ah, yes, there it is. He finds it by Wei Ying’s (horrifying) collection of spices and gets to work. “Nor should you worry about informing anyone else. Wei Ying and I can do that, if needs be.”

“What your father said!” Wei Ying agrees, stroking a hand down Sizhui’s back. “You just have to tell us. We’re not scary, right?” He grins, playful, but –

Sizhui sniffs, eyes watery and red. “You’re going to hate me,” and Wei Ying’s heartbreaks.

“A-Yuan,” he says. “I could never hate you. You’re my little turnip, remember?”

“But I’m not. A-Yuan and I are no longer the same person. We’re different. I’m not – We’re not – ”

“We are not your original parents,” Lan Wangji interjects before Sizhui can continue. As he’s placing the teapot over the heat, “I understand that, and you understand that. But that does not mean we do not care. We are trying, and we want to help. Nothing you could do could make us hate you.”

The truth of the matter is that Wangji is already attached – deeply and inexplicably. It is highly illogical – he’s only known Lan Sizhui for a handful of days – but he loves too deeply and too quickly and it’s a curse as much as it is a blessing. Lan Wangji can hide how he feels from the world, shelter his heart behind stone walls and icy façade, but he cannot control who it beats for.

Lan Sizhui blew through Lan Wangji’s defences like they were never there to begin with.

“Yeah, you’re not getting rid of us that easily!” Wei Ying says. He’s moved to kneel before Sizhui on the floor and is perched at eyelevel. Reaching across to brush the tears away from their son’s eyes, “So you made a mistake. So what? I’ve made, like, ten times the number of mistakes you have and guess what? Your Father still married me! You still tried to save me.”

Sizhui’s lip wobbles. “You saved me first.”

“That doesn’t – ”

“At Guanyin temple,” Sizhui says abruptly. His eyes are welling with tears again – “I think you died. Sending me back here.”

Oh.

Wei Ying has told him about that day, sixteen years in the future. Wrapped up in each other under the sheets, Wei Ying had whispered it to him. ‘We died in the future Sizhui came from,’ he’d explained. ‘A-Zhui hasn’t talked about it much, but I know it was bad.’

Wangji hadn’t been able to bear the thought, not after the Nightless City, and so he’d kissed Wei Ying to silence, desperate, assuring himself that his love was – is – here and alive and safe.

But to hear that in the future, he’d lost Wei Ying twice… How long has Sizhui been holding this back? How long has he been ruminating with his guilt?

“Oh, A-Zhui,” Wei Ying says, his voice cracking, and then he’s pulling Lan Sizhui close. “I’m sorry that had to happen. He wouldn’t have regretted it, though. If that me loved you as much as I love you… trading his life for your safety would have been a small price to pay.”

Sizhui is crying again. “But I didn’t want that! I didn’t want you to die because of me!”

“It wasn’t your fault, A-Yuan. None of this is.”

“I couldn’t stop thinking about it!” Sizhui confesses. “Xue Yang was going to attack and kill you all and I couldn’t let that happen again! So I – ” He sobs. “What have I done?!”

“Start at the beginning,” Lan Wangji says, offering his son a cup of tea. He sits on Sizhui’s other side and brushes their legs close. “Help us to understand.”

Sizhui takes a deep breath. His hands shake as he takes the cup from Lan Wangji, to the extent that Wei Ying has to steady him, lest he spill the burning liquid all over his lap. Though, Wei Ying’s hold seems to ground him and, once Sizhui has taken a first sip, he begins to speak.

Sizhui’s story starts further back than Lan Wangji expects. He tells the story of Yi City – of Xue Yang and Xiao Xingchen and Song Lan and A-Qing – and the horrors he faced there: corpse powder, dead cats, thick fog, and paper mannequins…

(It is strange, hearing about himself and Wei Ying. These versions of themselves, older and more experienced, the same but different. How does he compare, Lan Wangji wonders, to Sizhui’s Father?)

Lan Wangji soon understands why Sizhui’s explanation had to start here. From as soon as he begins, its startlingly obvious how terrified Sizhui is of Xue Yang.

‘He cut out A-Qing’s tongue so she couldn’t tell us about his crimes.’

‘He pretended to be Xiao Xingchen, and we only found out when I talked to Song Lan through inquiry.’

‘He slaughtered the whole town, one by one.’

The evidence just continues to pile up.

‘I knew someone was following me in Yiling the other day, but I thought I was being paranoid.’

‘When Xue Yang’s sword was at my throat… all I could think about was how he killed Song Lan.’

‘He offered me candy. I didn’t take it! I was scared it was poisoned, but then Xue Yang ate it anyway.’

The picture Sizhui paints is grim.

‘Xue Yang asked me – I don’t know why – whether I would have agreed to give him the Stygian Tiger Amulet, if I’d been in charge.’

‘He said he thought I was a ‘man of my word.’

‘Everyone else was distracted, by Uncle Xichen, by the mob… No one else saw how Xue Yang smiled when we betrayed him…’

“He manipulated you.” It’s the first thing Lan Wangji says once his son has finished, and the truth is so obvious that Wangji wants to kick himself.

Xue Yang was playing with Sizhui like a cat with a mouse right under their noses and Lan Wangji didn’t notice.

“W-what do you mean?” Sizhui asks him, wide eyed – and he looks so young. He has not been hardened by war, not like the rest of them have. Lan Sizhui is innocent, compassionate, and Xue Yang took advantage of that.

“He cornered you,” Lan Wangji explains, slow. “He ensured you were isolated. He offered you a treasure, tried to win you over. He played on your morals. He planted the idea of giving him the seal in your mind.”

He knew – somehow, perhaps by observation alone – that Sizhui cared so deeply about his family that he would do anything to save them from threat.

A horrible realisation dawns on Lan Wangji. “He revealed the truth about Wei Ying’s core to ensure the rest of us were distracted.”  

What a fool he’s been! He was the last person to talk to Sizhui before Xue Yang cornered him. Wangji should have kept him close – at least escorted him to his bed – but he was too anxious about Wei Ying to focus.

They played right into Xue Yang’s hands…!

Sizhui stares down at his knees. His hands clench around his now empty cup, tight and strained. “…Oh,” he says, meek, and Lan Wangji feels so angry…!

Though, “It’s not all bad?” Wei Ying suggests. “You did prevent Xue Yang from attacking us, A-Yuan, and that could have ended really badly. He may have tried to frame me again! Plus, because you upheld the deal, Xue Yang shouldn’t go around spreading the truth about my golden core. You probably got him off our backs for now… That’s good, right? And – uh – well, the Sects won’t be hounding us for the Stygian Tiger Amulet! Though, if it does resurface…”

He’s obviously improvising, doing as Wei Ying does best and making it up as he goes along, and he brings up some good points, but the fact still remains that, in saving them, Sizhui has created perhaps the most dangerous man in the cultivation world.

“We will work through this,” Lan Wangji says, resolute, no matter how conflicted he may feel inside. “We have dealt with worse. A-Yuan – ” he places a hand on his son’s knee – “we will not leave you to deal with this alone.”

Sizhui’s tears have subsided, but he still looks so miserable as he replies, “I’m sorry, Father.”

Lan Wangji shakes his head. “There is no need.”

“I’ve broken so many rules…”

“Oh, fuck the rules!” Wei Ying interjects – and Lan Wangji turns to blink at his husband.

“Wei Ying?” he questions, brow raised. He knew his love wasn’t fond of Gusu Lan’s many rules, but this objection… It’s rather voracious.

Wei Ying huffs, crossing his arms. “Rules are supposed to keep you safe! Provide stability. I’m sorry, Lan Zhan, but your Sect’s rules, in my opinion, do more harm than good!”

Father and son share a similarly bewildered glance. Harm? What is Wei Ying talking about…?

Seeing his argument is lost on them, Wei Ying sighs, shakes his head. “Forget it. It’s all fine, okay, A-Zhui? Lan Zhan isn’t going to punish you for breaking the rules, nor is anyone else. We’ll get through this together, as a family. Right, Lan Zhan?”

That, Lan Wangji can agree on. “Mm,” he nods. “Together.”

Lan Wangji has always been there to pick up the pieces.

He can do it again.  

Chapter Text

Lan Sizhui sleeps though the preparations of the next few days.

It’s not for want of trying. Each time he tries to help, he’s shepherded back to the Demon-Slaughtering Cave to rest. “I’m not having it,” Auntie Qing says, after she catches Sizhui sorting through their supplies for the third time that day. “As your doctor and your aunt, I forbid you. You’re exhausted. Go back to bed.”

Pushing him back inside, she proceeds to stick Wen Yuan on him, a reliable tactic they’ve found to get him to ‘behave’. It’s Senior Wei prompted, of course. After Sizhui had calmed adequately from his – oh, he’s embarrassed to even think it. Breakdown? Is that the word for what happened? – Senior Wei had left briefly and with little explanation. He’d returned with Wen Yuan. “Sizhui-gege has been feeling sad,” Senior Wei had explained, plopping the boy into Sizhui’s lap, “so we have to be extra-nice to him, okay A-Yuan?”

Sweet little Wen Yuan had frowned and placed his tiny hands on Sizhui’s face. “Don’t feel sad, gege! I’ll make it better. Do you want a story? Daddy tells me stories when I feel bad and it makes the sad go away!”

Sizhui nearly burst into tears again with those words alone. Wobbly, he’d accepted A-Yuan’s offer, and was entertained the rest of the afternoon with the tale of a valiant turnip who travelled the world to find his one true love, the world’s most beautiful potato.

(It’s a story a Senior Wei’s invention, for sure. Sizhui’s dad flushes when he realises what tale is being told, and Sizhui catches him eye Father timidly. If Father is aware of Senior Wei’s plight, he doesn’t show it. He, instead, sits with them the rest of the afternoon, listening intently and reacting appropriately).

Consequently, A-Yuan has made it his life’s mission to ensure Sizhui avoids all stress, shadowing him at every corner. Upon being returned to A-Yuan at the prompting of Wen Qing, the boy shakes his head and sighs, in a near perfect imitation of his aunt. “Gege is being very naughty. Go back to bed. That’s an order!”

Sizhui finds he can’t stand his new little brother being disappointed in him.

So, yes, he goes back to bed, and spends the next day or so either sleeping through his emotions or being watched by a diligent four-year-old. Though – the rest does help, Sizhui has to admit; after a good night’s sleep, he no longer feels like he can taste colour, nor does he continue to spontaneously weep.

Simultaneously, however, he feels so embarrassed and guilty.

What, he breaks the rules, gives a weapon of mass destruction to a dangerous criminal, and is rewarded with love and affection from his parents? That isn’t how it works – hasn’t ever been how it works! Yes, Father never punished him as a child – he preferred to talk Sizhui through his mistakes, if he ever broke a rule – but the rest of his family didn’t follow the same philosophy. Sizhui grew up with Lan Jingyi being punished for every small offence, often by Lan Qiren. He knows what’s expected of him and understands that there are consequences for his actions.

So how can his parents be so forgiving?  

“There is no reason to feel ashamed,” Father says, when Sizhui expresses his concerns. “You were under an immense stress. It is no wonder you reacted as you did. Wei Ying and I do not judge you for it.”

“But Sect Leader Jiang does,” Sizhui had protested. Fiddling with the hem of his robes, “I – I know I made a horrible choice. I – I need to make amends.”

No matter what Father says, Sizhui knows he’s the reason that communication has broken down between his dad and Sect Leader Jiang. Now, the two can barely manage to be in the same room without an argument breaking out.

He has to do something. He can’t let his mistake ruin Senior Wei’s relationship with his brother. “Perhaps – ”

Sizhui cuts himself off.

Would that idea even help?

“Sizhui?” Father questions. He’s been sorting through Senior Wei’s experiments, organising the notes and equipment to be transported, but he abandons that in an instant to come stand at Sizhui’s side.

‘Go on,’ his gaze urges.

Sizhui swallows. “Perhaps… when we tell Uncle Xichen the truth, about who I am… Perhaps we should tell the Jiangs too?”

Father is silent for a moment. His teeth grit but he says, nonetheless, “Providing Jiang Wanyin with context for your actions could change his perspective. It may help,” he cedes.

It is decided between them that, upon their return to Cloud Recesses, a joint meeting will be held to reveal the truth. Senior Wei is accepting of this development – if anxious – while Sect Leader Jiang is begrudging. They do not tell him the subject of the meeting, allowing him to assume it is about Xue Yang and Xue Yang alone. This only conducts more of his ire… but soon he’ll know.

No more secrets.

Madam Jin is the first to leave the Burial Mounds, the day before the Lan Sect is due to arrive. She’s been travelling into Yiling by herself these past few days, meeting with the Jin disciples that came for the siege. Wen Qing was the only one who dared question her actions, and when she did she was rewarded with a smirk. “I am merely setting my affairs in order. Rest assured, once I am done, Koi Tower will be safe for my daughter and grandson, once again.”

That is all the detail she gives, and Sizhui finds he needs little more. He’d rather have plausible deniability, thank you.

Soon after, the Burial Mounds is awash with action. It hasn’t quite hit Sizhui that he’s going home yet – truly home. The Burial Mounds, as much as it is a shelter and a haven, is only home as long as his family lives here. With the Wens now free, there is no reason to stay.

On the morning of their departure, Sizhui finds himself restless. Much like the hours prior to the siege, with the unknown hanging in the air, he just can’t sleep; so he gets up, dresses himself, and leaves his parents and little brother dozing away in the Demon-Slaughtering Cave.

He doesn’t expect to find anyone else awake, the sun having barely risen, but leaving the cave he sees his aunt, sat on the rim of the lotus pond. Wen Qing is staring down into the flowers, off in her own world, brushing her fingertips over the leaves and stems.

“Auntie?” Sizhui calls as he approaches – and Wen Qing looks up, revealing the tears trickling down her cheeks. “Auntie!” Sizhui repeats, somewhat louder, rushing over, but Wen Qing shakes her head at him, rubs away her tears.

“I’m fine, A-Yuan. There’s no need to fuss.”

Sizhui bites back a retort – she clearly isn’t – but he knows pointing out the obvious isn’t going to help. Instead, he sits down next to his aunt and waits.

There’s a sigh.

Her head drops onto his shoulder.

Eventually, “Is it strange to say I’m going to miss this place?” she asks, barely audible.

Sizhui brushes a petal with the pad of his thumb.

“…No. No, I don’t think it’s strange.”

 

It takes two full days of travel in horse drawn carts to reach Cloud Recesses. Said transport is supplied by the Lan Sect, along with a collection of disciples. With their help it doesn’t take long to tie the Wens’ belongings aboard the wagons.

Piled together, Sizhui is surprised by sheer volume. Knickknacks, clothing, furniture… Admittedly, a good quarter of the items are luxuries Jiang Wanyin bought for the wedding, but among that is Uncle Four’s store of wine, and Wen Qing’s medical equipment, and A-Yuan’s toys. The life the Wens led at the Burial Mounds was frugal, hard, but it was life, nonetheless, and life piles up.

The journey itself… is tiresome. Senior Wei definitely thinks so, what with his incessant complaints.

“You would have thought Young Master Wei was the child,” Uncle Ning quips a day into the trek, walking alongside Sizhui’s carriage. “He’s whining more than A-Yuan is.”

Indeed, Senior Wei is, at this moment, lying face down on the carriage floor, moaning away. A-Yuan, sitting happily on his back, pats his dad’s head in sympathy as Wei Wuxian mumbles about travel sickness and how he’d much rather be flying to Cloud Recesses.

“We do not have the resources to fly all the way to Gusu, Wei Ying,” Father explains patiently, as if Senior Wei isn’t behaving like a toddler. “This is the most logical way to travel.”

“I knowwwwwwwww,” Senior Wei moans again, “but I’m borrrrrred. Lan Zhan, entertain me!”

“How?”

“Think of something!”

“…I spy, with my little eye – ”

“Lan Zhannnn!”  

Personally, Sizhui is happy to be bored. Bored means safe. A journey with no incidents, with their track record, is a miracle.

Somehow, ‘boring’ is how their trip pans out. Of all the things that could go wrong – a surprise attack from Xue Yang, retaliation from one of the other Sects, Father murdering Jiang Wanyin in his sleep – nothing does. The Lan disciples watch the Wens cautiously, some more than others, but the rule against gossiping keeps their mouths firmly shut.

Before Sizhui knows it, they’re arriving, the mountain  of doctrines looming over them. It is as peaceful as Sizhui remembers, his childhood home wafting lazily in the breeze. The chill of winter is setting in, many trees now bare of their leaves, and the sky is grey, a clear sign that snow is soon to come. The colour of the clouds contrasts vividly against the whites of the gate façade, the stone as clear and bright as Sizhui remembers, even sixteen years later, and the windchime, hanging from the gateway, clatters as they grow close, as if announcing their arrival.

‘I am home,’ Sizhui thinks, in wonder at the thought. ‘I am home. I am home.’ It is the same yet different, hauntingly familiar yet achingly new. What will it be like, beyond the gate, beyond the climb? Surrounded by old faces that observe him blankly? Treading the same paths but with new purpose?

Wowww…” A-Yuan breathes, stood on Sizhui’s lap, head sticking out the window. “It’s pretty…”

Sizhui tightens his hold on his little brother’s legs, keeping him steady, and smiles to himself, despite his anxieties.

He does not have to face it alone.

The carts come to a halt a short distance from the gate. With how steep the climb is, the rest of the journey must be made by foot. So, Senior Wei is the first out of their carriage, bounding out and onto his feet, seemingly ecstatic to be free from the confined space. “Ahh, that’s much better!” he says to himself, stretching out his limbs. Father is soon behind him, dropping elegantly to the floor – to fumble, and cough.

“Wei Ying,” Father chides, eyes flickering over to the gateway.

Descending from the carriage himself, A-Yuan in his arms, Sizhui sees the source of his Father’s apprehension. Uncle Xichen stands in the gateway, poised and dignified, hands held behind his back, a small group of Lan disciples waiting behind him. 

“What, Lan Zhaaaaaa Zewu-jun!” Senior Wei blurts, leaping up. He jumps to Lan Wangji’s side – who proceeds to adjust his husband’s robes, flattening his collar and straightening his sleeves – before bowing deeply. “Zewu-jun,” he repeats, more composed, “thank you for coming to meet us.”

“Brother,” Father mimics, nodding across the distance – and Uncle Xichen smiles, obviously amused.

“There is no need for such formalities, Young Master Wei,” Lan Xichen says as he approaches. “We are family now, after all.”

“W-What would you have me call you?”

“Hm,” Uncle ponders. Senior Wei squirms before him, oddly unsure. “You could call me brother, as Wangji does? Or, perhaps, just Xichen?”

“Xichen works,” Senior Wei replies, his shoulders relaxing.

Sizhui catches up to his parents seconds later and half bows at his Uncle, as much as he can with Wen Yuan in his arms. “Zewu-jun,” he greets.

He’s expecting a cool response – his Uncle doesn’t know who he is quite yet, of course – but is saved by Wen Yuan’s curiosity. “Father,” he starts, reaching over to tug on Lan Wangji’s sleeve, “why does this gege look like you?”

“Ah, that’s your Father’s gege, that’s why!” Senior Wei is quick to respond.

“Your uncle,” Lan Wangji confirms, smiling softly at A-Yuan.

There’s a gasp.

It seems, despite discussing him, they’ve all forgotten who they’re standing in front of.

“Father?” Uncle Xichen says, his eyes glistening. “Wangji…?”

“Forgive me, brother,” Lan Wangji is quick to explain. “This is my son, adopted by Wei Ying and I. He is called Wei Yuan.”

“Lan Yuan!” Senior Wei corrects.

 Father purses his lips; it is the closest he will get to pouting in public.

“Come on, Lan Zhan. Lan Yuan rolls off the tongue better.”

“You were his parent first.”

“But I’m the one who married into your clan.”

“What is Sizhui-gege, Father?”

“Lan Sizhui, A-Yuan.”

A-Yuan scrunches up his face in thought. He truly considers this matter, assessing first Sizhui, then their parents in turn. He comes to a conclusion with a stunning grin. “I’ll be Wei Yuan! Then it’s fair. Two and two!”

Sizhui can’t resit the grin that takes over his features. Two Weis, two Lans…

“How can I say no to that?” Senior Wei says, voice watery and:

“Wei Yuan,” Father confirms to Uncle Xichen, so proudly.

Uncle Xichen looks close to tears.

He brushes at his eyes, smiling wide, and takes a step closer to Sizhui and A-Yuan. “It is an honour to meet you, nephew,” he says, and Sizhui can almost imagine that the words are being said to him.

The moment is swiftly ruined by the female disciple standing behind Uncle Xichen. She squeals to herself, quite loudly, though she’s promptly shushed by the rest of the entourage.

“I’m sorry, okay?” she laughs. “But come on! This is too cute!”

Senior Wei tilts his head, squints at the woman.

A candle flickers alight above his head. “AH! You’re the woman who disrobed Su She during the siege!”

Oh – yes, Senior Wei is right! It is her. Sizhui remembers her looking distinctly familiar. There’s something about her eyes – perhaps the way she styles her hair…?  

She cackles, crossing her arms. “It was my pleasure. Always wanted to get one over on that dick.”

“Lan Zhensu,” Uncle Xichen sighs, long suffering. “Manners, please.”

That – that name is familiar. Sizhui resists the urge to frown as he takes in this woman’s features. He doesn’t outright recognise her… Yet…

“Sorry, Zewu-jun! I mean, I am right, though…”

“She is!” Senior Wei agrees. “He was a dick!”

Thank you!” Lan Zhensu exclaims. “Honestly, I’ve been saying that for years, but no-one would agree with me!”

“Do not speak ill of others. Do not gossip,” Uncle Xichen recites, though he seems to know it is a wasted effort.

Indeed, Lan Zhensu waves him off. “May I?” she asks Sizhui’s parents, gesturing towards A-Yuan. Father nods at her, so she jogs forward and bows teasingly at Wei Yuan. “Hello Little Master Wei! My name is Lan Zhensu, but you can just call me Lan-jiejie. Your parents might be quite busy this afternoon, so I was wondering if you might like to play with my son? He’s your age, I think!”

Her… son? Standing right before him, those familiar eyes that much closer, Sizhui suddenly realises how he knows this woman.

Sizhui’s good mood is tarnished in an instant.

Those are Jingyi’s eyes.

This – this is Lan Jingyi’s mother. Sizhui only met her a handful of times in his childhood – she died in a night hunt when they were eight – so no wonder he couldn’t recall who she was right away… but she smiles at A-Yuan just as Jingyi used to smile at him, and Sizhui realises for the first time that his best friend is here, just up the mountain.

He doesn’t know who Sizhui is.

“What do you say, A-Yuan?” Senior Wei says. “Would you like to go play with – ?”

“A-Yi,” Lan Zhensu supplies, and that confirms it, doesn’t it?

Sizhui’s hands feel numb so its for the best that A-Yuan decides he wants to be put down. He squirms in Sizhui’s arms and only distantly does Sizhui recognise that he’s moved, lowering himself to the ground so that A-Yuan can run along to take Senior Wei’s offered hand. “Mm!” he agrees. “Let’s go play with A-Yi, Daddy!”

“My wife is watching A-Yi,” Lan Zhensu says to Senior Wei, “and she’s a hundred times more responsible than me, so I can promise that A-Yuan will be safe with her. I can take you to her now?”

“Sounds good to me. Lan Zhan? What are you – ?” Senior Wei meets Sizhui’s eye and he pales. Sizhui doesn’t know what expression he’s making, but he feels like he needs to sit down.

“I will be with you soon,” Father says, and suddenly there are arms around his shoulders, steadying him. “Brother, excuse me for a moment. We will be right back.”

Sizhui doesn’t even see his Uncle’s face, not before he’s whisked away by Father down the hill slightly and off the path. “Breathe, Sizhui,” Father reminds him, and Sizhui complies, focusing on the movement of his own chest.

‘I’m fine,’ he thinks. ‘I’m fine, I’m fine, I’m – ’

“You are not,” Father says and – and did Sizhui say that aloud? “That is okay. Sit, for a moment.”

He’s lowered, down onto a stone bench, and instinctively Sizhui places his head between his knees. He breathes deeply, but it doesn’t help all that much.

A warm hand is placed on his back, and it begins to draw comforting circles. “What is it, A-Zhui?” Father says, hushed, and it all comes spilling out.

“Lan Jingyi,” Sizhui chokes. “He’s here, but he’s – he’s not – !”

Sizhui’s best friend is gone.

“Ah,” Father hums. His ministrations pause briefly, before continuing. “I apologise.”

“W-what for?” This isn’t Father’s fault.

Nonetheless, “I should have realised. I should have been better prepared.”

Sizhui shakes his head, hopes it’s visible in this position. “I didn’t realise either.”

He’s been in denial – probably – that Lan Jingyi, his Lan Jingyi, is –

It’s different from how he feels about Jin Ling or Ouyang Zizhen; he didn’t know them as children, the way he knows – knew – Jingyi. Seeing and holding Jin Ling as a baby is strange, almost amusing, but that’s because it’s a new experience.

Seeing Jingyi as a child is going to be like reliving a memory.

Sizhui can’t think about this much longer. He might burst if he does. So he focuses on Father’s touch instead, tries to steady his breathing.

Eventually, when he feels more anchored, he finds himself looking up, staring straight at the Wall of Discipline. The characters, etched into the cliff-face, sit stark in his vision, running on and on into each other.

Alcohol is prohibited.

Gossip is prohibited.

Running is prohibited.

Killing within the area is prohibited.

“What do you think Dad meant the other day?” Sizhui asks, out of the blue. “When he said that the rules do more harm than good?”

Do not stand incorrectly.

Do not smile foolishly.

Do not be of two minds.

Do not succumb to rage.

“I… am unsure,” Father replies.

Sizhui’s gaze lingers over one rule in particular: Do not tell lies.

“Father…” Sizhui starts, thinking aloud. “I have had to lie almost constantly these past few weeks. It has brought me trouble, yes, but I also would not have made it this far otherwise. All the good that has come, for myself, for you and Dad, for the Wens… I had to break the rules to achieve it. What if – what if Dad is right?”

Father is unnervingly silent.

“Our Sects rules would have had us abandon Dad,” Sizhui continues, unable to stop now he’s begun. “Do not associate with evil men. We know that not to be true, but only because we know Dad well. Therefore, we’d be breaking another rule: Do not mix public and private interests. Public interest would have seen the Yiling Patriarch vanquished… despite that being immoral. Morality is the priority. Father, our rules conflict, and to bring peace, we had to break them.”

Sizhui has to ask, he has to know he’s not alone in this.

“Father… if to live, we have to break the rules… how can we follow them?”

“…There has to be a way,” Father says, not looking at Sizhui. Instead, he stares up at the Wall of Discipline, as if searching for the answers in them. “Our efforts cannot be meaningless.”

But, as soon as Father says the word – meaningless – it echoes round and round in Sizhui’s mind.

Father and son share a horrified look.

…Is it just that? Meaningless?

“…”

‘Shit,’ Sizhui thinks to himself.

Chapter Text

Jiang Cheng has had enough.

Enough of the lies, of the deceit…

Today, he watched as Lan Wangji whisked Lan Sizhui off to only gods know where to not return. Jiang Cheng helped the Wens unpack in their place, as they dodged their duty. The two Lans didn’t even have the courtesy to tell Wei Wuxian where they went! Jiang Cheng knows this because his brother spent the whole shitting afternoon asking after them, pouting away when they couldn’t be found.

Jiang Cheng may not be happy with his brother right now – he’d quite like to punch him, in fact – but that doesn’t mean he’ll tolerate Lan Wangji being an absent husband. Jiang Cheng will murder that man the second Lan Wangji steps out of line.

So Wei Wuxian was miserable, Jiang Cheng was miserable, and it’s all that – that bastard Lan Sizhui’s fault! How he has everyone wrapped around his little finger, Jiang Cheng will never understand! Do they not care that this boy – who appeared as if from nowhere, might Jiang Cheng add – gave Xue Yang the Stygian Tiger amulet? Do they not see the damage he’s caused?!

Lan Wangji told him that they’ll discuss the events of the siege tomorrow with Lan Xichen, but Jiang Cheng doesn’t buy it. The issue may be discussed, but there will not be any resolution. The mighty and judicious Hanguang-jun is too biased in favour of his cousin; with him in control, Lan Sizhui will not face punishment.

So Jiang Cheng is going to strike first.

It’s evening now, as Jiang Cheng storms through Cloud Recesses in the direction of the Hanshi. He’s going to get answers straight from the top. He’ll explain the situation to Lan Xichen before Lan Wangji can get there and he won’t spare any detail. He’ll tell Lan Sizhui’s Sect Leader exactly what he’s done and perhaps then justice will be served.

Perhaps someone will finally tell him who the fuck Lan Sizhui is too. He’s pretty certain at this point that Lan Sizhui is Lan Qiren’s bastard son. The evidence has just continued to pile up: Lan Wangji openly admitting his relation to Lan Sizhui in front of all the cultivators at the Burial Mounds, the strange look he shared with his brother as he did so, as if revealing a sordid secret, the weird conversation the three of them had after the siege… Jiang Cheng’s most important piece of evidence, however, is how Lan Qiren’s gaze lingered over Lan Sizhui.

He looked angry, truly furious – and strangers rarely make you angry, not in the way family does.

That’s an experience Jiang Cheng’s overly familiar with.

Therein lies a possible caveat; how can Jiang Cheng guarantee that Lan Xichen will be willing to punish his first cousin? Simple. He’s the only other person Jiang Cheng has observed that is suspicious of Lan Sizhui. He watched the young man with a cautious eye during the siege and he barely spared him a greeting when they arrived this afternoon.

Finally – finally! – Jiang Cheng might have an ally in this fight.

So, Jiang Cheng arrives at the Hanshi just as the sun begins to set, hesitantly optimistic. He shouldn’t really be doing this – approaching another Sect Leader unannounced, in his own home no less – but this is Jiang Cheng’s only opportunity.

Weirdly, the door is already open when Jiang Cheng arrives, despite the fact that they’re in the early days of winter. He comes to an unsteady stop just before the Hanshi’s deck, wondering just how he should approach this… before shaking his head and ploughing on up.

Reaching the entryway, Jiang Cheng peaks his head in. Score! Lan Xichen is home. He’s sat directly facing the door, perched before his guqin – but there’s no music. Instead, the First Jade stares listlessly at the instrument, his fingers hovering over the string – and, shit, Jiang Cheng is intruding on something, isn’t he?

He pulls back, composes himself, and knocks as loud as he can on the wooden doorframe.

Lan Xichen startles.

“Oh.” He coughs, retracts his hands to place them carefully in his lap. “Sect Leader Jiang. What can I do for you at this hour?”

“I apologise for intruding so late,” Jiang Cheng starts. “I wouldn’t have come if it wasn’t urgent.”

Lan Xichen frowns. “Please, sit,” he replies, gesturing to the space before him on the floor. As Jiang Cheng lowers himself to sit on the cushion, “What is this urgent matter that requires my attention?”

So. Where to start?

He begins hesitantly, trying to ease Lan Xichen into the conversation. “Look, it’s just you and me here, and I promise not to tell anyone… but Lan Sizhui? Hanguang-jun said he was your cousin?”

Zewu-jun goes still. Very still. “He did say that, yes.”

That’s a calculated response.

Suspicious.

“…He’s your first cousin, isn’t he?”  

Lan Xichen blinks at him. “…Pardon?”

Mm, playing dumb.

Typical.

It’s probably what Jiang Cheng would have done.

“Lan Sizhui is Lan Qiren’s bastard son. I figured it out,” he says, cutting to the chase – and Lan Xichen’s mouth drops.

In a very un-Lan-like manner, he gawks at Jiang Cheng. “What?!”

“I know he’s family, and that’s why I’m coming to you directly and not drawing attention to the matter publicly,” Jiang Cheng continues. He thinks that’s rather generous of him, actually.

Lan Xichen tries to interrupt “Sect Leader Jiang, he isn’t – ” but Jiang Cheng has already decided to come out with it.  

“Your cousin gave the Stygian Tiger Amulet to Xue Yang.”

“He did what?!”

Ahh, finally. Someone who is as horrified by this turn of events as Jiang Cheng is. He bites down a smirk as he continues, “During the siege, ‘apparently’ Xue Yang threatened to kill us all, and so Lan Sizhui gave him the Stygian Tiger Amulet to placate him.”

“You all said the amulet had been destroyed!” Lan Xichen protests but Jiang Cheng already has his counter prepared.

“No, Lan Sizhui said that the amulet had been destroyed. That was never part of the plan.” It’s not like Jiang Cheng could have rebuffed such a claim in the moment; they had to present a united front to the Sects. To Jiang Cheng, it looks like Lan Sizhui took advantage of that.

But Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to be a hypocrite; he’s not going to lie to get what he wants. So, he explains the whole situation: how Xue Yang appeared right after their brothers’ wedding, how he threatened them, how they made a deal… “We weren’t going to give Xue Yang the other half of the seal,” he finishes. “The plan was to shut him up and take him out, if needs be, but Lan Sizhui betrayed us.”

Thinking about it now, Lan Sizhui was the one Xue Yang originally targeted too, with that whole hostage-stunt. How far back does this conspiracy go?!

Having heard the whole piece, Lan Xichen has gone as white as his robes and his hands have begun to tremble in his lap. “The Nie Sect took Xue Yang,” he says. “My heavens, Da-ge!” The Lan Sect leader lurches to his feet to nearly topple over; Jiang Cheng has to catch him, lest Lan Xichen make a nasty collision with the floor.

Settling the Sect Leader back in  his seat, “Sect Leader Nie is tough,” Jiang Cheng says, wishing he was better at comforting people. “He’ll be fine. Besides… if anything was going to happen, it would’ve happened by now.” No news is probably good news, on this particular front.

Nonetheless, Lan Xichen buries his face in his hands. “This is a nightmare.”

Jiang Cheng snorts. “You’re telling me.”  

“No, Sect Leader Jiang. You don’t understand. This is far, far worse than you think it is.”  

“How?”

“Lan Sizhui isn’t my first cousin.”

Huh? “What do you – ?”

“I have no idea who he is.”

“…What?”

“I was covering for Wangji. He promised me Lan Sizhui was an ally.”

Jiang Cheng – he’s wrong? Lan Sizhui isn’t Lan Qiren’s son…? And if Lan Xichen doesn’t know who he is… is Lan Sizhui a Lan at all?!

Wait.

“Have you seen your brother this afternoon?” Jiang Cheng asks, his stomach churning anxiously. “Since he left with Lan Sizhui?”

It doesn’t feel right, that both Lan Sizhui and Lan Wangji have been missing all day. If Lan Sizhui isn’t a Lan, which is looking more and more likely, then returning to the Cloud Recesses could blow his cover story wide open. If he were planning to strike, now would be his last opportunity.

Worse yet, if Lan Sizhui is working with Xue Yang…

Meeting Lan Xichen’s gaze across the floor, the Lan Sect Leader appears to have come to the same conclusion as Jiang Cheng: Lan Wangji is in so much fucking danger.

Both Sect Leaders scramble to their feet and run out the door.

“We’ll check the Jingshi first!” Lan Xichen says, leading Jiang Cheng down the path and through the woods at a full sprint. “If we’re lucky… This will all be a big misunderstanding…!”

Jiang Cheng doubts it. He’s pretty much expecting to find Lan Wangji dead, lying in a puddle of his own blood, and, really, it’ll be his fault for being a gullible fool. If Jiang Cheng had been listened too, maybe this bullshit wouldn’t have happened!

Thankfully, the Jingshi is only a short distance from the Hanshi, and so the speed the two Sect Leaders are running at has them pulling up before the building in record time.

Lan Xichen leaps over the fence and takes the stairs leading up the Jingshi two at a time. “Wangji?” he calls, rapping his knuckles on the wooden frame. “Are you home?”

Jiang Cheng, catching up to Lan Xichen, arrives at the foot of the Jingshi and holds his breath – waiting – and “Ah, shit!” Jiang Cheng hears muffled through the panelling. That’s clearly Wei Wuxian’s voice. “Lan Zhan, I’ll answer it. No, don’t get up – !”

The door slides open.

Lan Wangji stands in the entryway, very much alive, and blinks at them blankly. “Brother,” he says.

Jiang Cheng sags. Well, that’s disappointing.

Lan Xichen, in contrast, visibly eases. Releasing a deep breath, “Wangji,” he starts. “Sect Leader Jiang was informing me – ”

Lan Wangji turns to Jiang Cheng, as if he’s only just noticed his presence. Then – then! – he proceeds to show the most expression Jiang Cheng has ever seen on his face. He snarls at Jiang Cheng – properly snarls! – and cuts Lan Xichen off mid-sentence by slamming the door in their faces.

“…”

The fuck?!

“Lan Zhan! What was that for?!” Wei Wuxian chides inside as Jiang Cheng fumes to himself. What game is Lan Wangji playing?!

“Jiang Wanyin,” said psycho replies, and there’s some indiscernible rustling.

They soon find out what that equates to. “Lan Zhan, why are you reaching for Bichen?”

“No killing within Cloud Recesses.”

There’s an indignant squawk. “Lan Zhan! No murdering my brother!”

Oh, Jiang Cheng is sick of this. He wrenches the door open, despite Lan Xichen’s protests, and is met with a sight he never would have expected nor knows how to explain.

Lan Wangji is pacing around the room, calmly chasing after Wei Wuxian who has Bichen clutched tight to his chest. It looks like he’s confiscated the weapon, but now Lan Wangji wants it back. The two men are circling each other round the table in the centre of the room, which is covered with sheets of paper and ink.

Solving another mystery, Lan Sizhui is lying face down on the floor slightly off to one side, hiccupping away. Next to him, sits a single jar of Emperor’s Smile.

Completely empty.

Is – is Lan Wangji drunk? Are they both drunk?!

“Jiang Wanyin made you cry,” Lan Wangji responds to Wei Wuxian, as deadpan as usual despite his inebriation, “and he made A-Zhui cry. It would be justice.”

“But if you murder him, that will make me sad!” Wei Wuxian is pleading. “Please, Lan Zhan, you don’t want to make me cry again, do you?”

Wei Wuxian bats his eyelashes at his husband, pouts at him across the room – and Hanguang-jun relents.

“Hmph,” he says and finally stops tailing Wei Wuxian. “Okay.”

“That’s a good boy, Lan-er-gege,” Wei Wuxian beams, placing Bichen down before trotting over to his husband. He pats Lan Wangji on the head – ugh, Jiang Cheng wants to vomit; Hanguang-Jun should never look that smitten – and says, “Why don’t you look for another rule to break while I talk to our brothers?”

“Mm.” Lan Wangji drops to sit at the table, and quickly begins rifling through the pages on it, but Jiang Cheng is still processing what Wei Wuxian just said.

Rules to break?

Lan Wangji breaking rules?

Voluntarily?!

“What the fuck did you do?!” Jiang Cheng hisses as Wei Wuxian finally scurries over.

(Distantly, he realises these are the first words he’s said to his brother in days, but decides not to dwell on it. If Wei Wuxian doesn’t bring it up, he won’t either).

“Hey, I didn’t do anything!” Wei Wuxian says, hands help up in surrender. “I found them like this!”

“What, drunk?! Yeah, right! Where’d they even get the alcohol?!”

“I promise you it wasn’t me! I was with Shijie until, like, an hour ago!”

“Wuxian, if you will,” Lan Xichen interrupts, having finally broken out of his shock. Rubbing the bridge of his nose, “Could you please explain what is going on here?”

Wei Wuxian winces. “Right, sorry. Well, uh, from what I’ve been able to piece together – neither Lan Zhan or A-Zhui are that eloquent when they’re drunk – they’ve had an existential crisis?”

“An existential crisis,” Jiang Cheng deadpans. “Really.”  

Wei Wuxian tugs at the ends of his hair. “Okay, I know I said this wasn’t my fault, but it may be my fault? Not intentionally, though! It’s just – A-Zhui was distraught after you yelled at him – which I haven’t forgiven you for, by the way – and he thought he was going to be punished so I told him and Lan Zhan to, uh… fuck the rules…?”

Lan Xichen groans, long and pained. “Of course you did. Continue, Wuxian.”

“So, uh, while I was taking A-Yuan to meet Lan Zhensu’s family, A-Zhui and Lan Zhan had a conversation about the Wall of Discipline and realised that the Lan Sect Rules are – and I quote – ‘meaningless’. Not that I agree! I don’t think all of them are meaningless… But that’s what Lan Zhan and A-Zhui seem to think now. Thus, because their whole lives have revolved around following the rules, they’re now having an existential crisis.”

“Why, then, is Wangji looking through a manuscript of our Sect’s rules?”

Wei Wuxian laughs nervously. “Okay, they have a hypothesis? Lan Zhan seems to think that if they break all the rules nothing bad happens, then that proves that the rules are meaningless…”

Jiang Cheng feels a headache coming on. “So, they’re drunk because drinking in Cloud Recesses is forbidden?”

“…Yeah. They probably didn’t mean to get drunk, but it only takes a cup for Lan Zhan to black out and then A-Zhui probably drank the rest of the jar not realising how strong the wine was.”

“Jiang Wanyin,” Lan Wangji suddenly calls. The three men in the doorway turn to him, and Lan Wangji meets his gaze dead on.

“Bitch,” he says impassively.

Jiang Cheng splutters indignantly. This fucker!

Meanwhile, Lan Sizhui begins giggling into the floor. “Do not – hic! – speak in profanities!”

“Mm,” Lan Wangji responds, picking up the brush resting on the countertop. Methodically, he drips it in the ink and turns to his papers.

“Are they – are they crossing off the rules as they go?” Lan Xichen asks, the three men watching as Lan Wangji strikes a clear line across the page.

“He’s not writing in an official manuscript, Xichen, don’t worry!” Wei Wuxian is quick to assure. “No, apparently Lan Zhan kept a few of the transcriptions of the rules I wrote when I was a student here. Heh, he’s so sentimental…”

Though, ‘Even when he’s breaking rules, he can’t do it without being a methodical pain in the arse!’ Jiang Cheng thinks bitterly to himself.

“Dare I ask,” Lan Xichen starts, as Lan Wangji begins crawling away from the desk and over to Lan Sizhui, “how many rules have they broken?”

“…You don’t want to know, Zewu-jun.”

“Wait!” Jiang Cheng has just realised something. “Lan Wangji recited the ‘No killing within Cloud Recesses’ rule… Your husband was going to kiLL ME TO CROSS A RULE OFF HIS EXISTENTIAL CRISIS LIST?!”

Fucking unbelievable!

As Wei Wuxian recoils and begins to babble his defences –

“Jiang Wanyin!” Lan Wangji snaps at him, covering Lan Sizhui’s ears with his hands. “Hush.” Proceeding this, he pulls Lan Sizhui’s head into his lap and begins petting at the boy’s hair.

“Mmmm – hic!” Lan Sizhui hums, followed by the sharp spasm of his chest. “Warm…”

This is – this is shameless. “Are you just going to let your husband flirt with another man?!” Jiang Cheng snarls, suddenly recontextualising all of the casual touches between Lan Sizhui and Lan Wangji. If they’re not related…

Lan Sizhui is the one to respond, and his words have Jiang Cheng reeling.

“Dad doesn’t mind – hic! – sharing Father,” he mumbles into Lan Wangji’s lap, burrowing closer. “Not with me…”

Jiang Cheng – he has to have misheard that, right?

But then Lan Sizhui is continuing, rambling, “Father, can we – hic! – go see the rabbits tomorrow? A-Yuan will like them, ‘cos I like them, and Dad hasn’t seen them in a long, long, loooong time and they probably miss him. I’d miss Dad too, if he wasn’t here, so it’s a good thing he is… Right, Father?”

No, Jiang Cheng definitely heard that right.

Dad?

Father?

What is going on here?!

Lan Xichen, standing motionless at Jiang Cheng’s side, mouths the words – Father, Dad – and his eyebrows have risen so high they’ve almost begun to merge with his hairline. Simultaneously, Wei Wuxian has gone very, very still – and that’s his ‘uh oh, I’m in deep shit’ face. 

Jiang Cheng can’t hold his rage back any longer. “Did Lan Sizhui just call you DAD?!” he bellows, bewildered. Is – is this some weird kink thing? If it is, Jiang Cheng really doesn’t want to know –

But there’s a yelp, as Lan Sizhui startles upright. Jiang Cheng’s shouting appears to have disturbed him, and the young man is now gaping at him and Lan Xichen with a sudden lucidity. His eyes wide, aghast, he begins to tremble. “I called Senior Wei – I – I wasn’t supposed to say that! Oh no, no, no, no, I wasn’t – Fa – Hanguang-jun – I didn’t mean to!”

Wei Wuxian swears under his breath and rushes over. “No, no, A-Zhui, it’s okay! My little radish, hush, we were going to tell them tomorrow anyway, remember?” Wei Wuxian soothes, now kneeling next to his husband and his – his – whatever Lan Sizhui is to him. Though, he’s rubbing a hand down Lan Sizhui’s side like he’s – like he’s a baby.

As Wei Wuxian continues to comfort Lan Sizhui, pulling the young man in for a hug, Lan Wangji rises to his feet. He stumbles over to them, glaring daggers at Jiang Cheng all the while, and says in a tone of finality, “You upset Sizhui. Again. We will discuss this in the morning. Be glad Wei Ying values your life.” Lan Wangji then nods at Zewu-jun as if he hasn’t just issued Jiang Wanyin with a death threat. “Brother, I apologise for disturbing you. Goodnight.”

Lan Wangji proceeds to push both Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng out of his house and slam the door, once again.

“…”

Jiang Cheng is lost.

Standing in the cold, staring at the well-kept front garden, “What the fuck just happened?” he mutters to himself.

He thought – he thought he’d be getting answers tonight.

He only has more questions.

“Sect Leader Jiang, I honestly have no clue,” Lan Xichen responds weakly. His whiplash must be worse than Jiang Cheng’s; he, at least, as been learning this information over the span of a week or so. Lan Xichen has been dunked right in the deep end.

After a moment of baffled silence. “…Wangji has not been murdered, at least.”

Jiang Cheng groans.

He hates his life.

Chapter Text

Lan Sizhui wakes up with a roaring headache.

There are birds chirping outside, sweet and melodic, but Sizhui wants to bury his head in the sheets to drown out the noise because it hurts. His ears are ringing and his throat is parched and he doesn’t want to get out of bed ever again.

He groans, curling in on himself, and attempts to go back to sleep.

Then he remembers what he did last night.

Sizhui sits up with a start – oh, and that makes the world wobble around him, great – and stumbles out of bed. He’s in the Jingshi guest room, he thinks, and is proved right when he turns into the corridor and then the main room of the Jingshi.

Before him, Father is sat at the table – hair down, wearing just his sleep robes – looking very sorry for himself. “Sizhui,” he greets croakily.

“Do you remember what we… did…?” Sizhui dares to ask. He’s pretty sure he only remembers half of it. The evening grows remarkably hazy after the alcohol entered the game…

“Prior to the Emperor’s smile, yes. Afterwards, no. However,” as Sizhui sits down across from his father – ah yes, that’s much better. He’s not getting up again until he absolutely has to – Lan Wangji passes him a stack of papers, “there is evidence.”

The entire first page is completely struck through in bold lines.  

Sizhui turns to the next page.

That is also completely crossed through.

He keeps turning.

Almost every rule is blacked out.

“How many rules did we break?” he asks, somewhat horrified.

“…402. I counted.”

“In one night?!”

Though – Sizhui does recall it was remarkably easy to do. For example, having settled on their venture, one of the first rules they decided to break was the Lan Sect’s rules regarding alcohol. Burning with trepidation and excitement, the father and son duo ventured into town after dark to buy the Emperor’s Smile; along the way, they ran through Cloud Recesses as they departed, pulled faces at each other the whole trip into town, and used as many ‘frivolous’ worlds as they could. Once they arrived in Caiyi town, Lan Wangji tried to flatter the alcohol merchant by complimenting his shoes when they really were quite ugly, and the two then spent the whole trip back gossiping about him and making assumptions… and that’s already twelve or so rules.

402 suddenly sounds like a much more manageable number.

“To be fair, you were counting the smallest things near the end of the night. I think the actual count is closer to 325.”

Ohhh, that is far too loud. “Daddd…” Sizhui moans, dropping his head onto the table and covering his ears.

Senior Wei laughs and, Sizhui hears the clatter of porcelain against wood; what smells like congee begins to waft through the room. “Sorry, sorry,” Wei Wuxian stage-whispers. “I’ll be quieter. How are you feeling this morning, A-Zhui?”

“Dead.”

Another laugh. “Awh, my baby’s first hangover. How adorable!”

“Wei Ying…” Father berates half-heartedly, but it just makes Senior Wei giggle all the more.

“You didn’t even spare me any Emperor’s Smile! Lan Zhan, how could you?”

“Where is A-Yuan?” Father asks, obviously dodging the subject – though that is a concern, actually. Where is Sizhui’s little brother?

Sitting down at the table, “Don’t worry, he’s safe,” Senior Wei responds. “He stayed the night with Wen Qing and Wen Ning. We thought it best that they watch him, what with you two pulling a disappearing act…”

“I’m sorry,” Sizhui says, finally pulling himself upright. “We didn’t mean to worry you.”

“Just tell me next time, ‘kay?” Sizhui’s dad says, reaching over to pat his head. “Eat, then we’ll have a talk about what happened last night.”

Sizhui smiles weakly at Wei Wuxian, and turns down to the bowl set before him –

The congee is a disturbingly vivid shade of red.

“Spicy food is the best hangover cure!” Senior Wei chimes, when he spots Sizhui eyeing the congee warily. “It’s an old family recipe; Shijie would always make it for me and Jiang Cheng after a night of particularly hard drinking. Works like a charm, every time. Eat up!” he finishes, clapping Sizhui on the back.  

Hesitantly, Sizhui picks up his spoon and scoops a reasonable sized portion of rice – not so much as to burn his mouth to a crisp, but also not so little that his dad will be offended – out of the bowl and, before he can change is mind, shoves it into his mouth.

He swallows as quick as he can but that doesn’t stop his eyes from watering, nor does it stop his tongue from catching fire, heavens – !

Ahhh, Sizhui’s stomach is doomed.

 

After eating – and by eating, Sizhui means slogging through his breakfast trying not to vomit – Senior Wei hurries him and Father over to sit on Lan Wangji’s bed. Once father and son are perched next to each other, Wei Wuxian places his hands on his hips and asks, “Now, why didn’t you consult me before deciding to break the rules last night? I’m the resident troublemaker in this family! I could have helped!”

Sizhui shrugs – that would have been a good idea, now he thinks about it – but Father turns his head away and stays firmly silent.

Senior Wei sighs. “Lan Zhan?” he prompts, crouching down to the floor and taking his husband’s hand.

“…I did not want to be a cause for concern. Wei Ying has enough stress to deal with.”

Oh.

“Lan Zhan,” Dad tuts. “You don’t have to hide things from me. I may be a bit broken at the moment, but I’m not made of glass.”

Father furrows his brows. “You are not broken,” he says, but Senior Wei waves him off.

“We’re not talking about me right now. No, right now, I’m reminding you that we’re partners, Lan Zhan. This single plank bridge we’re walking may be tight, but we’re here together. I want to know when you’re upset. I want to help.”

Senior Wei is rubbing small circles into Father’s palm, and he’s smiling softly up at them both, and – really – Father doesn’t stand a chance.

“Okay,” he says, as quiet as a mouse, but it’s confirmation, nonetheless.

Dad nods decisively. “Great! Now that’s settled, A-Zhui,” he says, changing targets, “mind explaining to me what happened yesterday? I could only get so much information out of my drunk little radish.”

Sizhui gulps – but starts at beginning, nonetheless. He takes Senior Wei through everything he can remember from yesterday and, as he speaks, Wei Wuxian’s expression grows more and more pinched.

When Sizhui finishes, Senior Wei claps his hands together, exhaling through his nose. “Okay, okay… When I told you to ‘fuck the rules’, I didn’t mean to give you both an existential crisis. So, I apologise for that – but, also, you know, not all your rules are meaningless? Do not steal, love and respect yourself, do not bully the weak, uphold the value of justice, do not give up on learning… Those are good rules to live by! It’s just – come on – when you have 3,500 rules, you’re not going to be able to follow them all perfectly. It’s about being critical, Lan Zhan, A-Zhui, and not letting doctrine consume your life. You can’t stop living, you know? That’s why I was frustrated the other day, ‘cause I don’t – I don’t want to see you both suffer when you’re already so good.”

That’s… not particularly how Sizhui feels. With what he’s done, what he had to do, he can’t quite understand Senior Wei’s perception of him.

Being met with silence, from Sizhui and Lan Wangji both, “Do you get what I mean?” Wei Wuxian asks, shuffling awkwardly on the spot. “Eh, or maybe just think about what I’ve said?”

“I will,” Father says with a nod. “Thank you, Wei Ying.”

“Did I help?”

“Mm.”

Senior Wei beams. “Right! Onto the penultimate matter! Do you two remember what it is we’re due to do today?”

Sizhui pushes down his conflicted feelings. What is it that they’re doing today…? Oh! It comes back to him all at once; they were going to tell the Jiangs and Uncle Xichen his true identity, right? They should probably get dressed soon and head out –

A memory flickers to the front of Sizhui’s brain – and he feels all the blood drain from his face.

“I called you Father and Dad in front of Uncle Xichen and Sect Leader Jiang!” Sizhui blurts. Shit…!

Father’s eyes go comically wide. “I do not remember that.”

“You never remember anything after you’ve had alcohol, honey,” Senior Wei says, placing a sympathetic hand on Father’s knee.

“What did they say?!” Sizhui has to know. Gods, he’s really messed up this time! Through his muddy memory, he can – just barely – remember the shock on Sect Leader Jiang’s face. Did – did he yell at Sizhui? Yes, he thinks so… He remembers the shame he felt, more than anything.

“Aha, Lan Zhan kicked them about before they could say much,” Senior Wei responds. “Though, that means they’re gonna have a lot of questions. Should we go answer them?”

“N-now?”

“When you’re ready, yes.”

Is – is Sizhui ready? This coming conversation is going to be hard; Sect Leader Jiang is going to be particularly hostile and Uncle Xichen hasn’t any reason to trust him either.

But… the chance to have his uncles back in his life… It’s worth the risk.  

Sizhui takes a deep breath. “O-okay. I’m ready.”

Father settles a hand on Sizhui’s shoulder, a familiar form of comfort. “We will be right by your side.”

“Mm!” Senior Wei agrees. “Though, we do have one final matter to attend to before we spill the beans.” With his head, Senior Wei gestures towards the front door. “Go have a look.”

Hm?

Sizhui and Lan Wangji share a confused glance before rising to their feet and plodding over to the front of the Jingshi. As Father slides the door open to reveal the outside world, Sizhui gasps.  

The garden is full of rabbits; dozens and dozens off them, hoping around happily, nibbling at the shrubbery.

How did they get here...?

“I’m not sure you remember,” Dad says pacing up behind them and slinking his arms over their shoulders, “but you got a little upset last night, A-Zhui. Your father, in his infinite wisdom, decided that rabbits were the only thing that would cheer you up. He flew off before I could catch him and came back with the whole warren in his arms!”

Sizhui tries not to laugh at the imagery – Hanguang-jun, hightailing it through Cloud Recesses, a mountain of bunnies in his grip – as well as his father’s flushed ears.

“No pets in Cloud Recesses,” Father mutters under his breath, as if cursing his drunk self – and that sends Wei Wuxian into a small fit of giggles. He goes slack, the only thing keeping him standing being the support of the two men his arms are wrapped around – and that finally encourages Sizhui to laugh as well.

“Ahhh, as much as I’d love to leave them here,” Wei Wuxian eventually says, wiping his eyes, “they will eat through all your plants, Lan Zhan, and I’m not sure how many of them are poisonous. We should probably put them back where you found them.”

Father nods – and strides down the steps to begin picking up the fluffy creatures.

“Shouldn’t we get dressed first?” Sizhui asks, as Father pushes the first huddle of rabbits into Senior Wei’s hold.

Father looks up – and Sizhui could swear that Lan Wangji is holding back a smirk. “Rule 1,064: dress properly when in public.”

Wei Wuxian cackles. “Oh, you’re going to make such a good troublemaker, Lan Zhan!” Quick to catch onto the scheme, he bounds over to Sizhui and passes a rabbit into his arms. “Oh no! Is this a grandchild you’ve got in your arms, A-Zhui?! I’m too young to be a grandfather! Quick, we must return this little one to its true parents immediately! There is no time whatsoever to get dressed!”

How can he say no to that?

“Okay, Dad,” he responds with a huff, rolling his eyes. Instinctively, Sizhui adjusts the rabbit so it sits more comfortably and, in response, the little creature burrows in close to the warmth of Sizhui’s chest. “Time to go home, little rabbit.”

Miraculously, they make it through Cloud Recesses without being spotted, but Sizhui thinks it would have been worth the punishment, nonetheless.

Chapter Text

Once the many, many bunnies have been returned to their homes, and once Sizhui and his parents have arrived back at the Jingshi, preparations for the day are quick to begin.

Father is the one to press a set of clean robes into his arms – one of his own, Sizhui recognises – and Senior Wei is the one who pushes him back towards the guest room to get dressed. “Hurry uppp, A-Zhui!” his dad moans through the door, as Sizhui is pulling his arms through the sleeves. “I want to do your haiiir…”

“One second!” Sizhui calls back, smiling wide, and once the hanfu has been properly fastened and adjusted, he allows Wei Wuxian to tug him back to the main room by the hand. He’s more than willing to be Senior Wei’s dress-up doll for the next few minutes, if only to keep his mind distracted. The more time that drains by, the more agitated Sizhui is beginning to feel – and, in fact, Sizhui is pretty sure his dad is doing this on purpose.

Plopped before the vanity, Wei Wuxian’s hands running through his hair, Sizhui is finding it harder and harder to focus on his anxieties.

“Can I, A-Zhui?”

Sizhui blinks back to awareness. “Mm?”

Senior Wei is smiling at him in the mirror, gesturing to his forehead ribbon. Oh, right; Wei Wuxian can’t really fix his hair unless he takes it off. Sizhui nods, his cheeks hurting he’s grinning so wide, and watches as Senior Wei handles his forehead ribbon with immense care. Placing it down delicately on the table, he then gets to work, brushing through Sizhui’s hair, deftly working through the tangles and knots.

“Ah, your hair is so much easier to work with than Jiang Cheng’s,” Senior Wei babbles as he works. “Shijie was always trying out new hairstyles on us as children, and I’d always try and mimic them on Jiang Cheng as she worked on me. His hair is just so thick and – ”

Sizhui isn’t ashamed to admit he dozes off during the process. What can he say? He’s tired, and hungover, and it feels so nice.

It isn’t until his dad speaks a little louder, voice travelling through the house, that Sizhui manages to return to consciousness.

“Hey, hey, haven’t I done a good job, Lan Zhan?” Senior Wei is calling back over his shoulder, and in the mirror Sizhui sees Father emerge from around the corner in pale blue robes. Only then does he focus back on his own reflection.

Senior Wei has done his hair in an imitation of his own ponytail, the only difference being the colour of the ribbon trailing down his back. The blue ribbon stands a stark contrast to his white robes and, turning his head to the side, Sizhui can see that it’s interwoven with his forehead ribbon, hanging beneath his ponytail in a neat plait.

Father comes to stand on Sizhui’s other side, assessing his husband’s work. He smiles at them both and nods his head. ‘Perfect,’ he says without speaking.

“Thank you,” Sizhui says, and Senior Wei pats his head.

“Shall we go?”

Sizhui rises from his seat; he’s ready.

 

The family of three arrive at the Hanshi to find the main room sat in dead silence, two camps apposed in the world’s most awkward staring contest.

Though, Sect Leader Jiang spares a moment to glare pointedly at them as they enter, his arms crossed in defiance. Sizhui resists the urge to gulp – ahh, this really isn’t going to be easy, is it? – but, thankfully, Jiang Yanli is a much more welcoming presence. She waves at them in greeting and, bashfully, Sizhui waves back. Simultaneously, he notes that the Jiangs are sat as far away from the Lans as possible; in fact, Jiang Wanyin is eyeing Lan Qiren nervously, as if he’s waiting for the man to explode.

Sizhui turns to his great-uncle.

To be fair, he does look close to an eruption – and the setting is grim. What, Lan Qiren has been called to this emergency meeting, expecting the worst, to instead then be met with a young man – a young Lan, to be precise – who he has never met before and Wei Wuxian.

Great-Uncle must think they’ve set the end of the world in motion, the two of them together.  

Thus, he sits ramrod straight, his posture perfect, but there’s a cup of calming tea set before him. It’s quite a strong one too, if Sizhui recognises the scent correctly. Oolong, he thinks? It’s Uncle Xichen’s work, quite likely; an attempt to steam away the firm set of Great-Uncle’s brow. Lan Xichen himself, in contrast, looks remarkably calm – but Sizhui does suppose his uncle is long used to his brother and brother-in-law’s antics at this point.

There are three empty seats around the table, between the two parties, and before them, Sizhui – wedged in between his parents, bastions of defence – bows in greeting to the assembled group. It is an intentional performance, a formal introduction, to set the tone of the conversation ahead.

“Brother, Uncle, good morning,” Father says.

Uncle Xichen smiles feebly at them. “How are you today, Wangji?”

“…Fine, thank you.”

Senior Wei fails to restrain his snort of laughter, earning Lan Qiren’s ire.

“Sit,” he commands, a bark – and Sizhui is quick to follow. Lan Qiren continues, “Now that this meeting can finally begin, will you please explain to me, Wangji, what it is I am doing here? If this concerns some petty squabble – which I am sure it does, considering how Sect Leader Jiang and Xichen have been behaving these past few minutes – I will not be pleased. I am a busy man, and you know this.”  

“Apologies, Uncle, but this is matter of great importance.” He pauses – mind whirring, likely. Where to start? Sizhui doesn’t have clue either.

Father opens his mouth –

Closes it.

The silence stretches, painfully.

“What Lan Zhan is trying to say,” Senior Wei interjects, when it appears Father has officially lost his nerve, “is that we – A-Zhui, Lan Zhan, and I – have something to tell you all. Well, other than the Wens, they already know. They knew before I did, actually! You know – ”

Wei Wuxian rambles and rambles and rambles. His hands are flittering in the air, illustrating his points, a clear indicator of his own nerves – and Sizhui should just come out with it, shouldn’t he?

Sizhui takes a deep breath.

He can do this.

“ – we’ve wanted to tell you all for a really, really long time, we just didn’t have the opportunity! But, we’re all together now, so – ”

“I’m from the future,” Sizhui says. “Sixteen years to be precise.”

“…”

Crickets.

“Yeah, right,” Jiang Wanyin snorts, “and I’m Baoshan Sanren.”

Sizhui resists the urge to faceplant the table.

“He is serious,” Father snaps.

“He can’t be serious!”

“Wait,” Lan Xichen interrupts. His eyes are wide, his gaze flickering between Sizhui and his parents. “Yesterday, you called Wuxian and Wangji ‘Dad’ and ‘Father’ respectively… You’re not…?”

“It is good to see you again, Uncle Xichen,” Sizhui replies, voice a little watery, the words trickling out with barely concealed hope.

“Oh!” Jiang Yanli gasps all of a sudden. Her hands have shot up to cover her mouth in shock, but Sizhui can see her smiling behind them. “That makes a startling amount of sense.”

Yet – “A-jie, don’t tell me you buy this bullshit? He’s trying to imply what? That he’s Wei Yuan? Our nephew? I don’t know if you’ve realised this, A-jie, but Lan Sizhui is five heads too tall to be our nephew! We can carry A-Yuan in our arms! This is a man!"

“Lan Yuan, actually,” Sizhui corrects. “Though, yes, I was born Wen Yuan.”

Jiang Wanyin stares at him.

His eyes bore into Sizhui’s skull.

The Sect Leader squints.

“…Yeah, it’s definitely bullshit,” he concludes. “He doesn’t even look that much like Wei Yuan.”

Typical.

“This is a rather ludicrous story,” Lan Qiren agrees. “Wangji, you believe this young man?”

“Mm.”

“For heaven’s sake, why? This is obviously a hoax!”

“For one,” Senior Wei interjects, “A-Zhui has provided us reliable information about the future a dozen times over. Secondly, he quite literally has my handwriting burned into his chest in the form of a talisman I’ve never quite got around to finishing.”

The room collectively zones in on the collar of Sizhui’s robes.

He feels himself begin to sweat. “…I can show you?” Though, the idea of displaying what lies beneath his robes is indeed off-putting, in more ways than one.

Thankfully, “No,” Father rejects firmly.

“You burnt your own son?” Lan Xichen says, voice full of distaste.

“He didn’t want to!” Sizhui is quick to reassure. “Dad didn’t have another choice.”

“Wait, Wei Wuxian, you’ve been trying to make a fucking time travel talisman?!”

“Language, Sect Leader Jiang!” Lan Qiren barks – but is promptly ignored.

Senior Wei laughs, shrinking under his brother’s scrutiny, and brushes at his nose. “Only as a last resort. Never could get it work. Somehow future me managed, though!”

“A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli says softly, though with weight enough to silence the room. “If this talisman was a last resort… and Lan Sizhui said you didn’t have a choice…?”

The gaps are easy to fill in.

“You all died,” Sizhui confirms quietly, knowing there’s no avoiding that truth. “Everyone but Grand-Uncle.”

“…Yeah, I still don’t buy this.”

“A-Cheng,” Jiang Yanli scolds.

But Jiang Wanyin persists. “He hasn’t given us any proof!” he cries, arms flailing. “Just a sob story! What, we’re supposed to believe him because he says so? Have you all forgotten that he gave Xue Yang the Stygian Tiger Amulet?!”

“He did WHAT?!”

“Ahaha, we’ll come back to that, Uncle!”

“Excuse me, Wei Wuxian? Did I ever give you permission to call me that, you blasphemous – ”

“Uncle!” Father snarls.

Sizhui has to pull this back, before he completely loses control – but what can he say to convince Sect Leader Jiang? For his Auntie Qing and Uncle Ning, his face, a mirror image of his mother’s, was enough; for Senior Wei, the replica of his talisman was enough; for his father, his word was enough.

Sizhui doesn’t have any physical proof for Sect Leader Jiang. He doesn’t have any stories of his own to relay back, nothing personal or touching. As much as Jiang Wanyin is his uncle, their relationship was never given a chance to blossom in Sizhui’s future. It was a title alone, acknowledged on neither side.

So what can he say?

He wishes Jin Ling were here, his Jin Ling. He’d know what to say.

…Wait! That’s it! Maybe he doesn’t have to use his own words!

“Jin Ling was very fond of you,” Sizhui interrupts, effectively silencing the room, “and you were obviously just as fond, no matter how hidden that was behind barbed words. He told me a story once, over some food – and wine, admittedly. He wouldn’t have told the story sober – about how you tried to cook Young Madam Jin’s soup for his seventh birthday. The story was prompted by, and I quote, ‘the shittest soup in the known world’ that we’d been served at the inn.”

Sizhui remembers how Jingyi had snorted when Jin Ling said that, and how Ouyang Zizhen had nearly choked on his mouthful, which launched another round of laughter…

“Jin Ling said,” Sizhui continues, pushing the memories down, “that he sulked most of his birthday, because he didn’t see you all day. That was because you spent the whole day in the kitchen, trying to get the recipe perfect. Apparently, when you finally emerged with the soup, your hair was a mess and there were stains on your robes and Jin Ling said you looked so grumpy that – that all his anger flooded away. You patted his head and told wished him a good birthday and – and you said ‘Your mother always made this soup for my brother and me when we were children. It’s how she showed she cared.’”

Sizhui finishes, “He never forgot those words. They meant so much to him. Thankfully, in the morning, he forgot he told us – he would have been so embarrassed – as did Jingyi and Zizhen, but – but I didn’t drink, so I remember. I thought about it a lot, after that, every time I saw you with him.”

Silence.

He can only hope that it’s enough.

Jiang Yanli is the first to speak after that confession. “You were close with A-Ling?” she asks, eyes shining.

Sizhui swallows. “He was one of my best friends.”

He misses him.

“Why did you have to tell a second-hand story?” Jiang Wanyin asks, voice low in warning, the calm before the storm. “You claim to be my nephew, but you talk about me as if we’re strangers.”

Sizhui tries not to wince. “We were.” It’s best not to lie, he decides, but he doesn’t exactly want to tell the whole truth either. If he can, he wants to spare his family the pain of their first lives.

This is not an amenable response to Jiang Wanyin however. “Why? What the fuck happened?”

“I do not think you will like the answer, Sect Leader Jiang.”

“Sect Leader Jiang?” he parrots. “Why am I ‘Sect Leader Jiang’ when Lan Xichen is Uncle Xichen? Don’t make decisions for me, Lan Sizhui. Tell me what the fuck happen – ”

“I died, Jiang Cheng!” Wei Wuxian finally snaps. “I died at the Nightless City! Lan Zhan raised our son alone!” Sizhui turns to look at his dad and finds him shaking. The admission has the room reeling, in various stages of shock and grief. Lan Wangji’s face is steeled, close to murderous, and he’s pressed himself close to Sizhui’s side protectively. Jiang Yanli looks like she may be sick, Uncle Xichen is frozen, and even Lan Qiren looks distinctly pale –

But, “No, you didn’t,” Jiang Wanyin laughs, hollow. “You just said the future version of you sent Lan Sizhui back here. He can’t have done that if he was dead.”

“I got resurrected,” Senior Wei says warily. “A young man sacrificed himself to bring me back to life. Didn’t matter in the end, though. I died again not long after, with the rest of you.”

“A-Xian…” Jiang Yanli says, her voice wobbling, but, again

“Resurrection? That’s a load of crap!” Jiang Wanyin insists. “There’s no way that happened! Lan Sizhui is feeding you lies. Of course you didn’t die at the Nightless city. Lan Wangji caught you. I caught you!”

There’s silence.

DAMN IT!” Sect Leader Jiang shouts, banging his fist, clenched white, on the table. “I would have caught you!”

“Jiang Cheng…” Senior Wei breathes – and Sizhui swallows.

“You didn’t. Not the first time.”

Sect Leader Jiang growls at him. “Was I dead?”

“No.”

“Then I was there!” Jiang Wanyin insists, banging his fist against the table. “He’s my brother! I would have been there!”

“…You were there,” Sizhui admits.

THEN HOW DID HE DIE?!”

“Jiang Wanyin!” Father shouts, beginning to rise from his seat – but Sizhui grips his wrist and holds him back. He doesn’t want this to break out into a fight, not over something that now never happened.

“It doesn’t matter,” Sizhui says, trying to keep his voice level and calm, “because now, that future is gone, along with all the tragedy that came with it. We can only judge the reality we have, not what was and what ifs. Sect Leader Jiang… please trust me. You do not want to know what happened.”

There is a beat.

Wordlessly, Jiang Wanyin rises.

He leaves.

The door slams behind him so hard that Sizhui feels the room shake and his bones rattle.

His eyes sting.

“…”

There’s a cough.

“Lan… No, Sizhui,” Uncle Xichen starts, “I hate to probe further, but… this event you speak of, the one that leads to our deaths… What happened? Is there – is there to be another war?”

Sizhui shakes his head. “No. No, there’s no war. That does not mean, however, that treachery is not afoot. In my time, Jin Guangyao was not exposed until it was far too late.”

The name flicks a switch, a change in the direction of the conversation. With the name spoken aloud, Uncle Xichen flinches, as if he’s been slapped. The wound of his sworn brother’s betrayal is obviously still fresh.

“There is still this matter of the Stygian Tiger Amulet to discuss,” Lan Qiren speaks up to cover his nephew’s slip. “Is what Sect Leader Jiang claims – that Xue Yang is now in possession of the seal thanks to you – true?”

Father goes to speak – to cover for him – but Sizhui shakes his head. This is his mess, mostly; he’ll deal with it.

“Xue Yang had half of the Stygian Tiger Amulet before the siege, but I gave him the other half, yes. I made the best decision I could have, regarding the circumstances. Xue Yang was about to use his half of the seal, you must understand, and that would have caused major bloodshed. I – he told me he was a man of his word; as much as I understand now that he used those words to manipulate me, at the same time, there was some truth to it. He held his side of our deal; we gave him the seal, and he provided evidence to prove Senior Wei’s innocence.”

Lan Qiren – sighs. He begins to rub at his temples. “You understand that you may have only delayed a massacre, not prevented it?”

“Yes – but there is time yet to prevent it completely.”

“Do we have any idea what he’s going to do next?” Jiang Yanli offers, a lifeline. It’s nice to know that there’s one Jiang on his side, at least. “Perhaps we can anticipate his next move?”

“Nothing, I would hope,” Great-Uncle grumbles. “He is being held by Sect Leader Nie, Young Madam Jin.” 

“He’s escaped before, though,” Senior Wei reminds them all. “From that exact jail.”

Father adds, “We should be prepared for all eventualities.”

“You know him best, A-Zhui. What do you think he’ll do next?”

Sizhui – he bites his bottom lip. “I… have an idea, though I am not certain.”

“Go on,” Senior Wei urges him, with the prod of his elbow.

“…Xiao Xingchen. I think he’ll try to find him.”

“The rogue cultivator?”

Sizhui nods at Lan Qiren in confirmation. “In my future, Xue Yang was obsessed with him. If he has the chance and the power to torment him… he will.”

Great-Uncle purses his lips in discontent. “I will see to it that our disciples are notified,” he says as he rises to his feet. “We will not send out any search parties – to do so would draw unnecessary panic and alert our enemies to our position – but perhaps someone will sight him in their travels.”

“Uncle… what about A-Yao?”

“Jin Guangyao, you mean.”

Uncle Xichen twinges. “Ah – yes. Jin Guangyao.”

Lan Qiren stares down at his nephew; he looks weary, as if the conversation alone has aged him. “The Jins have sent out teams to find and arrest him, as have the Nie. I believe it is best the Lan Sect does not get involved. You – you are too close to this, Xichen.”

“…I suppose.” Uncle Xichen coughs, regains his composure. “Thank you, Uncle. I, for now – well, I suppose I should update the clan records. Sizhui, could you write down your name for me?” Uncle says, picking up a pot of ink and a brush and passing it across the table. “I want to ensure I have the right characters.”

Sizhui’s breath catches. He can’t quite bring himself to reach across and take the offered brush. “You – you believe me?”

And Uncle Xichen smiles at him; it is for the first time in weeks, but it feels like the first time in years. “I see no reason not to, not now. Wuxian trusts you, and Wangji trusts you, and – and I suppose it makes sense.”

“I am still doubtful,” Lan Qiren says, approaching the door now. With the swish of his sleeves, his nose high in the air, he says, nonetheless, “To make a fully informed decision, I require more information. Come to my office tomorrow, after lunch. I will see to it that you are tested.”

He leaves then without another word – but it feels like approval.

Once he’s gone, “Ughhh, that was tense!” Wei Wuxian moans, flopping back to lie on the floor. “I thought I was going to die from stress.

“No dying.”

“I didn’t mean it literally, Lan Zhan!”

“A-Xian, sit up,” Jiang Yanli chastises with no real heat. “Sect Leader Lan will think I never taught you any manners.”

Senior Wei waves her off. “Eh, it’s fine. Xichen’s family now!”

“I assume that means I should get accustomed to seeing you draped over my floor?”

“Yup!”

“Sizhui,” Father says, almost at a whisper. He moves to pull the ink and paper closer, seeing as his son has yet to make the move to. He raises a brow at Sizhui expectantly.

Sizhui finally releases that breath he was holding.

As he picks up the paintbrush and begins inking the characters, “Ahh, you raised such an amazing son, A-Xian,” Jiang Yanli says.

Sizhui nearly smudges the ink across the page.

“Ahaha, it was mostly Lan Zhan!” Senior Wei protests, rubbing at the back of his neck. “Though my little radish is amazing.”

“Dad…”

“Wei Ying, do not discount your efforts. You are an exceptional parent.”

“Awhhh, Lan Zhaaaan, you have to warn me before you say things like that! My heart can’t take it!”

“Thank you, Lan Sizhui,” Jiang Yanli says, reaching across the table. She places her hand on top of Sizhui’s and squeezes. Her smile is blinding. “For everything you’ve done for us. I suspect we’re living in a kinder world due to your efforts.”

“It – it was my pleasure, Young Madam Jin.” His heart feels tight –

Jiang Yanli tuts. “None of that. Call me Auntie. You’re my brother’s son, after all.”

“O-okay, Auntie.”

“Now,” she says, shuffling closer, “could you tell me some more stories about you and A-Ling? I’d love to learn about you both, and what your life was like.”

Sizhui smiles softly, a half-formed thing. “I can do that.”

He’s mostly stories now, he supposes.  

Chapter Text

Lan Qiren stares at his great-nephew from across the table, his eyes narrowed in scrutiny.

Sizhui smiles back, temperately, trying not to twitch.

The tea sat before them has long gone lukewarm, untouched; Sizhui doesn’t for one second dare to reach for the cup. This game they’re playing – teacher and student, uncle and nephew, cat and mouse – Sizhui knows the rules.

He must be perfect. Not a single mistake will slide.

He will not sip his tea before his great-uncle does, lest he appear rude. He will not slouch; no, his posture will be faultless. He will not speak unless spoken to, and he will speak as concisely as he can.

Yet, he’s been here for about an hour now and Sizhui’s nerve is beginning to waver.

Lan Qiren – he’s not giving anything away. No comments, no eyebrow twitches, nothing! Sizhui is quite sure all his answers have been correct, but he has no way of knowing for sure. And what questions Lan Qiren has asked!

“Recite rules 674, 2,025, and 2,998.”

(“Do not take advantage of your position to oppress others,” Sizhui quoted effortlessly, the answers ingrained in him. “Be fair, and others will follow. Finally, reject the crooked path.”)

“Who was the third sect leader of Gusu Lan, and what was their most notable achievement?”

(“Lan Yi was the third leader of our sect, her most notable achievement being the invention of the chord assassination technique.”)

“When conducting inquiry, what would this phrase on the guqin translate to?”

(Sizhui had listened intently to his Great-Uncle’s playing, the notes fluidly translating in his ears. “Who were you poisoned by?”)

“There is an executioner with parents, a wife, and children, but before he died, he executed more than one hundred people. He died suddenly and in public; therefore, 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?”

(Now that required a moment of thought. Nonetheless, Sizhui had answered: “First, liberate; second, suppress; third, eliminate. The initial approach should utilize the gratitude of his relatives and grant his dying wish, hopefully releasing the spirit. If that fails, the spirit should be suppressed. However, depending on the extent of the man’s crimes, and on the circumstance that the spirit’s resentful energy does not dissipate, the worst case scenario would see the spirit exterminated completely.”)

He can’t help but imagine what Jingyi would have said, if he were here. It’s likely that Lan Qiren would have eaten the young man alive.

Just when Sizhui is about to give up hope – his great-uncle purses his lips and speaks: “Your answers are flawless. You know our sect’s rules like the back of your hand, better than many of our disciples. Your posture and manners are perfect… I can find no fault.”

Oh, thank the heavens!

To hide his relief, Sizhui bows his head in thanks. “You taught me well.”

Great-Uncle huffs in response. “You certainly hold yourself like one of my students. I recognise the mark of it, after so many years of teaching. Though…”

“…Yes?”

“I also see much of my nephews in you,” Lan Qiren admits. “Your answer to the executioner dilemma – you spoke just as Wangji would. You are clearly your father’s son.”

Oh. That – that is such praise. For Great-Uncle to compare Sizhui to his most prized student… “So, you are convinced?” he asks, heart beating fast. “That I am telling the truth?”

Lan Qiren finally reaches for his tea. He hides a small smile behind the cup as he says, “Rarely is Wangji such a poor judge of character. I suppose, on this occasion, I will accept his discernment.”

Sizhui feels like singing with joy.

Lan Qiren takes a sip – and grimaces as the cooled liquid passes his lips. He places the cup back down with a disgruntled clink. “Though, you understand, I am sure, that this secret must be kept close at hand. The knowledge of time travel… I believe it is best kept a mystery. We will have to forge you a new identity.”

“I understand,” Sizhui nods.

“I have a meeting scheduled with Xichen tomorrow morning. I shall discuss this with him then, since I assume he has already made amendments to the clan records. Is there anything I should be aware of as we craft your – ah – let us say ‘backstory’?”

A thought suddenly strikes Sizhui, out of the blue.

“…Doesn’t this count as lying?”  

For, it does. Sizhui may be much less concerned with breaking the rules now, but he didn’t expect this from Great-Uncle, not ever.

“…Mayhaps,” Lan Qiren admits with a wince. “These are exceptional circumstances, however. Lan An could never have anticipated our need to tackle time travel and its moral consequences. In this instance… lying protects your future – and the future of Wei Yuan – and it prevents the spread of powerful, powerful knowledge. What is rule 1,364, Lan Sizhui?”

“Protect your family,” Sizhui recites, instinctively.   

Lan Qiren nods. “Exactly.”

Sizhui – he – he hadn’t thought of it like that before.

“I didn’t know that – that you were willing to – ” he cuts himself off before he says something he’ll regret, but Lan Qiren catches his drift, nonetheless.

He rises from his seat and Great-Uncle crosses his arms behind his back, standing aloof. “Twisting our sect’s doctrines does not please me in the slightest – but exceptional circumstances call for exceptional measures. If my life has taught me nothing else, it is that.”

“Have you ever told Father this?” The question slips out before Sizhui can bite his tongue.

Lan Qiren frowns at him – quite genuinely confused. “Why?”

‘He needed to hear it from you,’ Sizhui thinks to himself.

“No particular reason,” he says instead. This is Father’s grievance, not his. It may be best not to get involved.

Lan Qiren sighs. As walks across the floor to the office entrance, “Wangji is a smart man. I raised him and Xichen to be better – better than their parents, better than me. I am sure he would have no need to defy our sects principles as I have – ”

Lan Qiren opens his front door and Lan Wangji topples through, landing on the floor.

He’s quick to pick himself up, brushing down his robes and composing himself as if nothing is amiss – but from the angle he landed at and the brief image Sizhui caught before Father’s fall, it’s easy to conclude what he was up too, just outside the door.

“Were you – Wangji, were you eavesdropping?” Lan Qiren asks, bewildered.

“No.”

“You were!”

“I was not.” Father’s face is perfectly neutral, betraying no sign of guilt.

“I thought you better than this!” Lan Qiren huffs. “You do this just after I praised you to your son, no less! This is a consequence of Wei Wuxian’s wicked influence, mark my words, Wangji!”

“I merely came to collect Sizhui,” Father says coolly, refusing to take the bait. Though – his jaw is clenched, a clear sign of his discontent. It may be best if they make a quick retreat. “You have detained him for some time.”

“Ah, I’m due to watch A-Yuan this afternoon, right Father?” Sizhui interjects, scurrying over to his father’s side. “We do not want to keep him waiting. I promised I would take him to play with the rabbits, after all.”

Lan Wangji and Lan Qiren engage in a silent standoff.

Neither of them blink for a full minute.

Eventually –  

“If you must,” Lan Qiren says begrudgingly, the first to cave. “But this behaviour cannot persist, Wangji. I cannot protect you if the elders catch wind of your… antics. They are already quite displeased, having been backed into a corner by Xichen and yourself.”

“I understand, Uncle,” Father says, seemingly accepting of Lan Qiren’s judgement – but his words are purposefully obtuse. They merely acknowledge Great-Uncle’s warning; Lan Wangji is far from offering his compliance.

Thankfully, the subtleties go right over Great-Uncle’s head.

“Good,” he says with a sharp nod. “Before you interrupted us, I was asking Lan Sizhui if there is anything Xichen and I should know before we update the sect records. For example, familial connections?”

Father thinks. Then – “Wei Yuan. Many know him as Sizhui’s brother.”

“Including Madam Jin,” Sizhui adds. “So that should probably be acknowledged in our official records.”

“Noted,” Lan Qiren replies. “Though Wei Yuan will be officially adopted into the clan as Wangji’s son, I’ll ensure the familial link is still clear.”

“Thank you, Uncle, for your efforts.” Father bows – and Sizhui mimics him.

As they rise, Sizhui observes his great-uncle; his expression is pinched. He clearly has something he wants to say – it’s lurking in his throat – but he swallows it.  

Sizhui and Father leave without another word.

“…It went well?” Lan Wangji says after a moment, once they have turned the corner and created some distance.

“I believe so.”

Father hums. “You were not reprimanded?”

“Not once.”

“Mm. Good.”

The wind whistles overhead, churning, but Sizhui doesn’t feel it, protected as they are by Cloud Recesses’ sheltered pathways. They walk along these halls as they used to – before – and, in the moment, it feels as if little has changed. Yet, as they reach Cloud Recesses’ more populated halls, the more disciples they pass and Sizhui can’t help but notice how their gaze lingers. ‘Who is this stranger with Hanguang-jun?’ they must be thinking. ‘Why does he dress like one of us?’

It is disconcerting.

Sizhui does his best to distract himself from it as they cross the remaining distance between Cloud Recesses and the Jingshi. As if sensing his unease, Father amuses him with meaningless chatter, an effort than must be intentional for all it is out of character. It leaves him feeling warm, oxymoronic to his nerves. 

He is releieved when they finally arrive home. As they cross through the main gate, “Sizhui-gege!” A-Yuan chimes, sat on the front step. He’s kicking his legs back and forth as Senior Wei hovers over him, adjusting A-Yuan’s new winter cloak. Gusu, in the midst of winter, is cold enough for cultivators to deal with, let alone little boys. The light blue cloak, tied high at the neck, drapes down to Wei Yuan’s calves, and – as A-Yuan hops off the step to run over, launching himself into Sizhui’s arms – Sizhui feels how soft the cloak is, light and lined with wool. “Bunnies!” A-Yuan cries, patting his soft mittens against Sizhui’s chest excitedly. “Can we go now? Please?”

“Aiyah, calm down, my little potato! Give your brother a second to breathe.” Dad stands on the stairs, arms crossed, but his smile is fond. He’s shivering slightly, wearing just his normal robes – and Father is quick to notice.

He frowns before bounding forwards to pull Senior Wei into his arms. “You’re cold,” he says, rubbing his hands down Wei Wuxian’s arms, the motion as much to comfort himself as it is to warm his husband.

“Lan Zhan, I-I’m fine,” he tuts, though his cheeks and nose are tinged pink, and his teeth are chattering quietly.

“You should be wearing your cloak.”

“I o-only stepped outside for a m-moment!”

“Wei Ying could get ill.”

Dad whacks Father lightly on the arm. “I’m n-not that delicate!”

Meanwhile, “Sizhui-gege?” A-Yuan blinks up at him, puppy-dog eyed.

Sizhui snaps his attention back to his little brother. “Yes?”

“Can A-Yi come with us to visit the rabbits?”

…Oh.

Sizhui’s stomach flips. “Y-your new friend?” he asks, trying to hide how much the name has thrown him.  

He must succeed, in the child’s eyes at least, for A-Yuan merely nods. “Mm! He’s really funny and he likes rabbits too! It’ll be fun! Please, gege!”

Seeing Jingyi.

Today.

Lan Jingyi.

As a child.

“Ahh, maybe another day, A-Yuan?” Senior Wei says, rushing to Sizhui’s rescue. He’s begun to extradite himself from Father’s hold, his brows furrowed but –  

Sizhui shakes his head, recovering from his shock. “No, Dad, it’s okay.” Sizhui pulls A-Yuan closer and stands, hefting the little Wei to sit up on his hip. “We will stop by A-Yi’s house on the way over. I’m sure his mothers will agree.”

He can’t avoid Jingyi forever, not since his friendship with A-Yuan is already blossoming. It’s best to get it over and done with, facing his once-best-friend. It will hurt – but maybe it’ll be easier afterwards, easier to move on.

Sizhui can cope.

It’ll be fine.

He’ll be fine.

Wei Yuan cheers, throwing his arms around Sizhui’s neck. “You’re the best gege ever!” he says, while their parents gaze down at them, obviously concerned.

“If you’re sure…” Dad says.

And, “You know where we will be if you need us,” Father echoes.

Sizhui nods back at his parents, a confirmation and a promise, and then turns to his brother. “Shall we go?”

A-Yuan beams. “Mm!”

Chapter Text

From the outside, Lan Jingyi’s childhood home looks exactly as Sizhui remembers it.

The tree they’d climb when no one was looking, though bare of its leaves, is still as strong and tall as it always was. The hole in front wall is still a botched job; Lan Zhensu made various attempts to fix it through Sizhui’s youth, but with her non-existent craftmanship it remained poorly patched. The flower beds are bare, what with it being mid-winter, but Sizhui can see how delicately cared for the soil is, ready for the next season’s seedlings. He can already picture the orchids and chrysanthemums and camellias…

Wei Yuan skips down the path, down to the door, oblivious to Sizhui’s nostalgia. With Sizhui’s permission – an absentminded nod – he knocks and waits, vibrating excitedly.

“One moment!” a woman’s voice calls, low and calm, and so, so familiar.

Lan Xuanji slides the door open, smiling softly, and it’s like coming home all over again.

Sizhui spent as much time in this house with this woman as he did the Jingshi growing up. Even after he and Jingyi moved into the disciple dormitories, they visited Lan Xuanji often, especially after Lan Zhensu died. She’s tall, just a few inches shorter than Sizhui, with a lithe figure. Her frame is softened, however, by her waist length hair, trailing down her back, and, in the same way, her sharp, regal features are tempered by the dark hue of her eyes, the exact same shade as Jingyi’s.

It’s like being drawn into the dawn after hours of darkness, seeing this face he didn’t realise he’d forgotten so much of.

“Oh, hello, A-Yuan!” Lan Xuanji says happily, smiling down at Sizhui’s brother. “What brings you here?”

Inside, “A-Yuan?!” a young voice screeches. There’s a clatter, frantic footsteps, and a young body launches itself into the doorway. Lan Jingyi grins. “A-Yuan!!”

Lan Jingyi.

He’s small – tiny even, compared to what he will be, one day – but his face is the same: the curve of his nose, the shape of his brows, the crinkle of his eyes…

“A-Yi!” Wei Yuan replies, covering the final distance to throw himself at Jingyi, hugging tight. Lan Jingyi reciprocates with a giggle, a sound that Sizhui has heard a thousand thousand times, a laugh he could replicate in his dreams. “Gege said you could visit the bunnies with us!”

A-Yi gasps. “Really?! Ah, Mama, Mama, can I go?!”

“Hold your horses, snowdrop. What have we said about manners?”

Jingyi grimaces. “But Mama! Mother said I didn’t have to! Not with family!”

“Last time I checked,” Lan Xuanji says, a single brow raised, “I only had one son. Did you adopt A-Yuan when I wasn’t looking?”

Jingyi grins again, mood flip-flopping like the weather. “Me and A-Yuan are gonna be sworn brothers when we grow up,” he declares proudly, pudgy little arms crossed. “So no bowing!”  A-Yuan nods along in agreement, though Sizhui is quite sure he doesn’t know what the term ‘sworn brothers’ means.

Lan Xuanji laughs and pets her son’s hair. “Well, even if A-Yuan is going to be your sworn brother, you still have to bow to Young Master Lan over here. Go say hello, A-Yi.” She winks at Sizhui, as if to say ‘kids, huh?’ – and Sizhui doesn’t know what to think, let alone say in response!

Then – then! – as if couldn’t get any worse, A-Yi sighs and plods over to stand before Sizhui. “It’s nice to meet you, gege,” he grumbles and bows, arms raised perfectly, head ducked neatly and Sizhui is going to cry.

“I – ” he swallows a sob. Ohhhh no, he’ll traumatise this small child if he suddenly bursts into tears! He coughs, wet, and tries to regain his composure. “A-Yuan wanted to see if Jing – ” he takes a deep breath “ – if A-Yi would like to accompany us to visit the rabbits.” He says all this to Lan Xuanji, unable to look at Jingyi any longer.

Her soft smile, lightly teasing, isn’t much better. “You’re Lan Sizhui?”

Ah – shit – Sizhui hasn’t even introduced himself! As he bows, quick and clumsy, “I’m sorry, I – I’m A-Yuan’s older brother,” he says. “It’s – uh – it’s a pleasure to meet you?” To re-meet you? To reunite with you? She looks younger, Lan Xuanji, despite her cultivation. Lan Zhensu’s death aged this woman –

“Ahh, there’s no need to be so nervous, Young master,” Lan Xuanji replies. “I’m no Hanguang-jun. I’m not going to refuse my son the opportunity to play with his new friend.”

Jingyi gasps, running back to collide with his mother’s legs. “Really?! I can go?!”

“If you behave yourself for Young Master Lan.”

A-Yi cheers in unison with A-Yuan, in a euphoria only small children can feel. As they celebrate, “Do you want to sit down?” Lan Xuanji asks, turning back to Sizhui. “Have some tea before you leave?”

“No,” Sizhui says, firmly, far too quickly. He coughs. “No, no, I wouldn’t want to intrude.” If he goes inside – if sees Jingyi’s childhood artwork, plastered to the walls – if he sees Lan Zhensu’s antique tea set, the one she inherited from her own mother – Sizhui really will start sobbing.

Thankfully, “Mamaaaaa,” Jingyi moans, “but that will take forever!”

Sizhui tries to smile – but it feels fake, plastered on slapdash. “It appears the bunnies cannot wait.” 

Lan Xuanji – well, she obviously has her reservations, if the slight downturn of her lips is any indication. Eventually, however, “Oh, alright. Let me find A-Yi’s cloak and gloves and you can set off.”

More cheers, followed by Jingyi darting inside. “I’ll get it!”

His mother quickly turns after him – likely to avert some disaster – with a call of “A-Yi, don’t run in the house!”

Sizhui and A-Yuan are alone again.

Thank the heavens.

Sizhui sits on the porch steps and buries his head in his knees. This is so much worse than he expected. He feels like his heart is about to split in too.

As he tries to steady his breathing, “Gege?” a small voice says, a warm weight settling at his side. “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” Sizhui is quick to reassure. There’s no use crying in front of children. He brushes at his cheeks and sits up, smiling at his little brother – but A-Yuan just frowns back at him.

“You’re sad. Why’re you sad?”

Sizhui’s smile drops, as he curses his bad acting. Though, rather… Wei Yuan – Lan Yuan, he, himself – is smarter than many people realise. Lying to himself was never going to work, was it?

He strokes a hand over and through A-Yuan’s hair. “A-Yi reminds me of an old friend, that’s all,” he admits.

A-Yuan frown deepens, thinking. “…Your friend isn’t here anymore?” he asks eventually, hesitant.

Sizhui nods.

After a moment – A-Yuan sighs, sweet and kind, and drops his head into Sizhui’s lap. “I’m here, gege,” he says, and pats Sizhui’s knee, conciliatory, as he’s seen adults do before.

A-Yuan closes his eyes, settles, and Sizhui continues in his petting, soft and calm. He tries to stop the teardrops from melting into his younger-self’s hair.

 

The walk to the bunny field is awkward – for Sizhui at least. The little boys flank him on each side, Sizhui holding their gloved hands tight as he leads them through the woods. The chatter has been incessant, which would be fine if so much of it wasn’t directed at Sizhui himself.

A-Yi is morbidly curious. He’s asking question after question, the inquiries growing more and more absurd as he goes.

For example, “A-Yuan told me,” A-Yi is probing now, frowning up at Sizhui doggedly, “that his daddy grew you in a field. Like a radish. Is it true?”

Sizhui resists the urge to groan. How does he even respond to that? A-Yuan really needs to stop spreading this particular rumour, especially now they’ve settled in Cloud Recesses. What will the elders say? They’ll probably start to believe that Sizhui is nothing more than a fierce corpse.

Sizhui is saved from having to answer – “Uh huh!” A-Yuan chimes in. “That’s what Daddy said!”

A-Yi makes an awed sound. “I want one!” he declares, tugging on Sizhui’s hand. “Mama says I can have a little sibling, but I want a big one, like you!”

A big sibling, like Sizhui. That would be his Jingyi.

Sizhui doesn’t even know what happened to his Jingyi though, and from what he’s discussed with Dad, it’s likely his Jingyi doesn’t exist anymore… Not that there’s anyway for Sizhui to travel forwards in time and check.

As Sizhui ponders this, “Daddy says he can’t make me any more big brothers,” A-Yuan sighs. “He could only grow Sizhui-gege at my old home because the dirt was magic, and Auntie Qing says it’s not safe to go back.”

A-Yi deflates. “Oh.”

But, “We can share though!” A-Yuan is quick to offer. Beaming across at A-Yi, “We’re gonna be sworn brothers, so my gege can be your gege!”

Sizhui’s heart skips a beat. A-Yi is already grinning, jumping up and down, wrenching on Sizhui’s arm. “Yeah! Be my gege! Please! Please, please, please!”

He’s never been able to say no to Jingyi. Sizhui swallows. “O-of course, A-Yi.”

A cheer. A-Yi pumps his fist and A-Yuan laughs.

It’s not the relationship he ever thought he’d have with Jingyi, not in a million years, but it’s better than nothing. A big brother – he can be that.

Sizhui tries to ignore the way his throat has seized shut.

As they turn the corner, down in the direction of the rabbit field, A-Yuan and A-Yi are nattering away, giving Sizhui a brief respite – and their attention is drawn further from him when they find themselves no longer alone.

Lan Xichen sits in the midst of the rabbit field, a bunny in his lap and a huddle around him.

“Uncle!” A-Yuan calls, picking up his pace to run over to Lan Xichen. Jingyi is quick behind him and soon the two boys are crowding the very surprised Lan sect leader. Similarly startled, the small creatures scatter, much to A-Yi’s discontent.

“Hello A-Yuan, A-Yi. What brings you here?” Lan Xichen asks, genuinely surprised but offering nothing but warmth.

As expected, “Bunnies!” A-Yi declares proudly – perhaps a little too loud.

So, “Shh!” A-Yuan chides, finger against his lips. “Father said the bunnies don’t like noise. We have to be quiet.”

“Oh.” A-Yi coughs, corrects his volume: “Bunnies!” he repeats, voice now at a stage-whisper.

Uncle Xichen laughs, delicate, and pats the grass next to him. “Sit, boys. I’ll show you how to entice the rabbits over.”

A-Yi and A-Yuan scramble to the ground, sitting cross-legged – and turn to Sizhui expectantly.

“Come on, gege!” A-Yuan calls over, softly, mimicking Lan Xichen’s pats of the grass. “Uncle is going to teach us!”

The three of them – sat on the grass, dewy in the winter air – green-stains already licking up the cuffs of Uncle Xichen’s robes – it’s oddly disquieting, like recalling a memory in third person. Sizhui, here and now, is an outsider to his own life.

He sits down and listens to Lan Xichen speak, aware he has heard this spiel long ago once before, feeling so terribly out of place.

 

After the demonstration, A-Yuan and A-Yi flitter away, seeking to acquire a litter of bunnies all on their own. Sizhui sits next to Uncle Xichen, a black speckled rabbit contently napping in his lap, watching the children work.

“How are you settling in?” Uncle asks, hands running through the fur of his own little rabbit.

Sizhui hums, as he collects his thoughts. He’s feeling a tad better, now the attention is no longer focused on him, but his mind is still a muddle of thoughts. Long before he can express this, however –  

“Ah. I see. You are troubled. Do you wish to talk about it?” Lan Xichen asks.

Sizhui blinks.

How – how did his uncle know that? First A-Yuan, now is Uncle… Is he that open of a book?

Lan Xichen smiles, contrite. “I apologise. That must have caught you off-guard. It’s merely, well, you looked so much like Wangji in that moment. I am very used to reading his moods.”

“Oh.” He looked… like Father? “You never…” The other Lan Xichen, Sizhui’s first uncle, never mentioned that before.

Uncle Xichen shrugs. “Perhaps the other me assumed speaking it aloud was stating the obvious. So, yes, nephew of mine, what is troubling you?”

Sizhui breaks their eye-contact, looks back down to his fluffy companion. Resisting the urge to shrug, “It’s nothing to concern yourself with.”

“Sizhui.” A hand reaches out, placing itself on Sizhui’s forearm. Sensing Uncle Xichen’s warmth, the rabbit unconsciously wriggles closer to the heat. “I know we did not get off on the right foot. I was suspicious of you, concerned for my brother’s safety, but I was wrong. If Wangji deems you his son, that makes you my nephew. Let me help.”

Sizhui feels his lip tremble.

This is the Uncle Xichen Sizhui remembers – and he’s missed him uncle so much.

It comes spilling out.

“It’s hard, being here. I’m home but I’m not. No one knows me – I’m a stranger to everyone – but I know them. My own best friend – ” he chokes off.

What is his place here? How does he move forwards?

Uncle Xichen’s hand begins stroking his arm comfortingly. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly. “That is an impossible burden to carry.”

They’re quiet as Sizhui collects himself. They listen to A-Yuan and A-Yi, playing and laughing, the birds chirping in the trees and the soft thump of the rabbits pacing through the grass.

“What do I do?” Sizhui asks, eventually, barely above a whisper.

Uncle Xichen continues his ministrations. After a moment, “Live, I suppose. That’s all we can do. Take each day as it comes with the hope that tomorrow, someday, will be better. For what it’s worth… you may not feel like you have a place here yet, but yet – yet is the key word. Already you have a place in this family. You are my nephew and Wangji’s son and A-Yuan’s older brother. In time, you’ll find your place in this sect, your new place, and it will be strange at first, different, but different does not necessarily mean bad. Change, Sizhui, is the only constant in our lives. Change is what you brought us here in this world and you changed our lives for the better – to your own detriment. It is the universe’s turn to be kind to you; it is what you are owed. I will be here, as will your parents and your uncles and aunts, to ensure that happens.”

Sizhui finally looks back up. A-Yuan is beaming at A-Yi, a collection of rabbits bundled in his arms, as A-Yi tries to settle another creature onto the pile. The memories fall around him, like snow, like petals in the breeze, and Sizhui remembers when that was him, a bundle of rabbits in his arms.

Yet – the memory is different, because Sizhui isn’t just an observer. A-Yuan catches him watching and turns to him and beams. Sizhui is seen. He’s here. At Uncle Xichen’s side and across the grass from his best friend and that makes the memory different – new.

“I’m glad you’re here, Uncle,” Sizhui replies, and Lan Xichen smiles.

“And I you, A-Zhui.”

Chapter Text

The next day, Lan Xichen finds himself having a wonderfully peaceful morning.

He woke before the sun, dressed himself for the day, and then sat at his desk with a pot of tea to watch the sunrise. The Hanshi doors are open wide, the chill morning air breathing in, and Xichen basks the peaceful quiet of Cloud Recesses. This is the perfect start to a long day, and a ritual Lan Xichen has long perfected.

His routine has been out of sorts, these past few weeks, what with Jin Zixuan's murder and the chaos it led to. Xichen spent many a night unable to sleep, just worrying. Worrying and worrying and worrying. He worked instead, where he could; anything was better than being left alone with his thoughts.

Thankfully, the world is righting itself now. Even though A-Yao is... lost, Wangji is safe. That is what matters most. Furthermore, Xichen received correspondence from only Qinghe yesterday. He's looking at it again now, in fact, to reassure himself of its contents. 'Xue Yang isn't going anywhere soon,' Nie Mingjue has written. 'He's escaped my prisons once. I will NOT allow it again.' The ink of the last line is smudged, almost, indicative of how hard Mingjue was pressing as he wrote.

Absentmindedly, Xichen brushes his thumb over his sworn brother's signature, scrawled onto the page in his virtually unintelligible handwriting. 'Yours, Mingjue', he’s written, and Xichen finds himself smiling.

A-Yao is lost, yes, but Xichen isn't alone.

Lan Xichen takes a deep breath, eyes closed. No, he’s not alone.

He carefully places the letter down at the edge of his table and begins arranging his paperwork. Now then, he really should be getting on. Cloud Recesses is quiet now but it will not remain so for long. Soon there will be meetings to attend and disciples to teach. So, where to start? He could begin with writing his reply to Mingjue – but, no, on second thought, he’ll save that for later. A treat, it will be, for working on some other reports –  

Suddenly, "LAN XICHEN!"

Xichen startles in his seat, his heart flipping in his chest. Heavens, who is it that’s shouting? This early too!

A quick glance outside reveals the culprit.

His uncle is storming down the path and he looks far from happy. No, in fact, Lan Qiren appears absolutely murderous. Red in the face, huffing and puffing, he has a book clenched in his fist, clutched so tightly that the pages have begun to crinkle.

Lan Xichen sighs.

How quickly his peace is destroyed.

“Uncle,” he begins, as Lan Qiren makes his way inside the Hanshi, “what brings you here this morning?”

“What is the meaning of this?” his uncle spits, thrusting the book towards Xichen’s face.

“You are going to have to be more specific.” Xichen can’t even tell what book it is he’s holding.

“This!” Lan Qiren proceeds to slam the book down on the table for his nephew to see.

Xichen leans over to read the title –

Oh.

It’s that.

Xichen wondered how long it would take his uncle to find out about this. Honestly, he thought it would take longer.

“The clan records, Uncle?” He’s been found out, yes, but Xichen isn’t going to outright admit what he’s done – and it’s not technically lying, since he’s not denying what he’s done. He’s merely holding his cards close to his chest.

Lan Qiren catches on quick, however. “Do not play dumb with me, young man! Turn to the most recently amended page.”

Xichen humours his uncle. He takes the book – straightening the crinkled paper – and deliberately turn the pages as delicately and slowly as he can.

Flick.

Flick.

Flick –

Uncle loses his patience. He snatches the book back and tears through the pages till he reaches his desired page. “Here!” he cries, flinging the book back down. “Please, Xichen, if you will explain yourself!” He points to the most recent record, documenting Lan Sizhui’s induction into the clan.

Lan Sizhui, it reads. Proceeding his date of birth, his parents are listed.

Mother: Wen Mei.

Father: Lan Qiren.  

The words are most clearly written in Xichen’s handwriting.

“…I do have an excellent reason for this.”

Lan Qiren explodes. “SO IT WAS YOU! XICHEN, WHAT IN HEAVEN’S NAME WERE YOU THINKING?! THIS IS PERMANENT! THERE IS NO REVERSING THIS! LAN SIZHUI IS NOT MY SON!”

“No,” Xichen says calmly, “he is Wangji’s. But that cannot be official.”

“THEREFORE HE MUST BE MINE? XICHEN, I AM NOT MARRIED! THIS WOULD MAKE HIM A BASTARD. WHAT WILL THE ELDERS THINK?!”

Uh oh.

“I have not made Lan Sizhui a bastard,” Xichen explains and waits for the puzzle pieces to click.

He watches as his uncle’s brows, deeply knitted, all at once leap upwards towards his hairline. “You didn’t – !”

Lan Xichen stays silent. It is answer enough.

Uncle reaches for the book – again – and hurriedly turns through it’s pages until it reaches the section documenting clan marriages.

There, clearly linked, are Wen Mei and Lan Qiren’s names.

“LAN XI-CHEN!” Uncle rages. “WHAT HAVE YOU DONE?!”

“I have solved a problem, Uncle.”

Really, it was Sect Leader Jiang who gave him the idea – that night, a few days ago, where he randomly appeared at the Hanshi door with his conspiracy theory. It struck a chord with Xichen, especially after the truth of Lan Sizhui’s origins were revealed.

“You have to understand,” Xichen begins to explain to his uncle, “Wangji has already claimed publicly that Lan Sizhui is our cousin. Our clan records, therefore, must reflect this. The issue is, of course, that there is no family to tie him to. Revealing him to be your son is the only solution.”

“THE ONLY OPTION?! WHY WOULD THE SECTS BELIEVE THIS – THIS NONSENSE?!

“Uncle,” Xichen chastises. He begins to pour himself another cup of tea, as he explains, “For one, our clan has a reputation for being hopeless romantics. For proof of this, you need look no further than my parents. It would not be hard to convince the other sects, therefore, that you fell in love with a Wen in your younger years and decided to keep the relationship a secret. This turns Lan Sizhui’s existence from an impossibility to a scandal – but that grounds him in this reality. It gives him a place. This way, his close relationship with Wangji can be explained and he remains an heir to the sect – behind Wangji, A-Yuan, and yourself. Most importantly, however, it stops people from asking questions. Who would suspect time travel after uncovering this?”

Uncle grits his teeth – but his shoulders have sagged. Xichen is convincing him, slowly but surely…

“What about A-Yuan?” Lan Qiren asks, still venomous but with less heat. “He shares a face with Lan Sizhui. It will be assumed he is my son also.”

The implication in these words are clear: my reputation is doomed.

Xichen picks up his cup and takes a sip. Mm, lukewarm. “There will be rumours, yes, but it is not so farfetched an idea that Wangji would wish to raise his cousin as his son, especially since he is unlikely to have any biological children himself. It will be a boon to Hanguang-jun’s image.” Even if it is a detriment to yours.

Here it lies in the balance; what will win out? Lan Qiren’s desire for perfection or his love for his family?

Lan Xichen stares his uncle down.

So flushed he looks like he may explode, “You haven’t thought this through, nephew,” Lan Qiren spits.

Xichen places his cup back down. Not meeting his uncle’s eye, “When do we Lans think clearly, when it comes to protecting those we love?” he says.

Something in Uncle relents.

He exhales. “It will not take long, for this to get out.”

It is as close to acceptance as Lan Qiren will announce aloud.

It tastes like victory.

“No,” Xichen confirms. “I would not be surprised if the whole sect knows by the end of the week.” For all the tenants they have against gossiping, rumours still fly around the sect, swiftly and surely.  

Uncle groans, grips the bridge of his nose, and turns to leave. “Ludicrous. All of it. Lan Sizhui has turned this family on its head.”

Xichen holds in a chuckle. “I think Wangji was on the way to doing that all by himself.”

Lan Qiren leaves shaking his head, off to set his affairs in order.

 

The peace returns and Lan Xichen’s morning progresses as originally intended. He writes his reply to Mingjue, he works through some paperwork, and at noon, he prepares to venture out. Not into the belly of Cloud Recesses, mind you. No, Wangji has invited him over for lunch.

It’s the perfect opportunity for Xichen to bond with his new brother-in-law – and his nephews, of course.

On the walk over, Xichen contemplates the nature of the coming meal. It is unlikely to be silent, as the Lan rules dictate, not with Wei Wuxian in attendance. That will encourage young Wei Yuan to talk – as well as Lan Sizhui, quite possibly – but Lan Xichen doesn’t mind. He’s used to Mingjue and Huaisang chatting happily over him during meals whenever he spends time in Qinghe and, Xichen notes, Mother never obeyed that particular rule either. She seemed to take joy in breaking it, in fact, often using mealtimes as an excuse to ask Xichen about his studies. The quiet thrill of breaking the sect rules in front of an adult once made his young stomach churn with an indistinguishable flutter of excitement and nerves.

Xichen rounds the bend and strolls down the path in the direction of the Jingshi. Soon, he’s taking the short stairs, one at a time, and knocking on the wood of the door.

“Daddy!” Xichen hears from inside. “Someone’s here!”

“Ah, that’s probably your uncle! A-Zhui, could you get it?”

“Of course.” There’s footsteps, then the door slides open. Lan Sizhui stands in the doorway, smiling. “Good afternoon, Uncle.”

Ahh, that’s still so novel. Uncle. He’s more used to hearing from his own lips, rather than being addressed as it. Xichen smiles back. “Good afternoon to you, A-Zhui. How are you today?”

A-Zhui nods. “I’m well, thank you.” He looks it, thankfully. Yesterday in the rabbit field, sat there so quietly, trying to contain himself – well, Xichen had looked at him and just seen Wangji. Repression of emotion, it seems, runs in the family. But, yes, Lan Sizhui does look better today. His eyes are bright and his posture is relaxed. Xichen does not know the reason for the change, but he hopes their talk helped, if even marginally.

A weight suddenly collides with his right calf. “Uncle! Hello!” A-Yuan greets him, cheery as can be.

Xichen laughs, already so fond of this small child. “Hello to you too, nephew,” he says, patting the boy’s head. “How are you today?”

“Goooooooood! Auntie is teaching me how to draw duckies!”

“Auntie?” Xichen looks up and past Lan Sizhui. Jiang Yanli waves at him from where she’s sat at the table, ink and paper spread before her.

“I hope you don’t mind me intruding on your lunch,” she says – and her voice prompts A-Yuan to run back over and settle himself in her lap.

“Nonsense.” As A-Zhui closes the door, Xichen replies, moving in the room, “Who could ever begrudge your presence, Young Madam Jin?”  

There’s a laugh in the doorway – the tell-tale sound of his brother-in-law’s arrival. “A textbook perfect answer, Xichen-ge!” Wei Wuxian says, meandering in from down the hall. “Congratulations, you have proven yourself worthy of being in my shijie’s presence!”

Xichen resists the urge to roll his eyes. Ahh, he’s going to have to get used to Wei Wuxian’s mischief, isn’t he? “Wuxian,” he greets. “I see everyone but my brother is here?”

“He’s in the kitchen,” Wuxian replies, settling himself down next to his sister. With a pout, “He kicked me out.”

Jiang Yanli pats him on the arm, conciliatory. “He didn’t let me help him cook either, A-Xian.”

“But that’s because you’re a guest!”

“Don’t feel bad, Daddy” A-Yuan says, picking up his brush to continue with his painting. “Father wouldn’t let me help either and he says I’m a very good cook!”

Wei Wuxian huffs, fond. “Well, that is sound logic. How can I debate that?” He shakes his head. “So, what are you going to paint next, my little potato?”

“Another duckie!”

As that conversation moves on, “Father was afraid Dad’s cooking would burn your tastebuds off,” Sizhui whispers to Xichen.

Xichen holds back a laugh. “I thank him, then, for his foresight. May I?” he says, gesturing towards the kitchen with the tilt of his head.

Sizhui nods back. “Of course. I’m sure Father will be pleased to see you.”

“Gege!” A-Yuan calls, recapturing his brother’s attention. With ink on his face, somehow, he holds up his painting. Waggling it in the air, “Look!”

So Sizhui goes, moving to kneel and inspect the drawing better, and “What a lovely duck!” he responds. Xichen uses this moment to slip away into the Jingshi’s kitchen.

He finds Wangji assembling his dishes, adding the finishing touches. Xichen would be lying if he said he hadn’t been concerned for his brother these past few weeks, with everything he’s been through. It doesn’t help that he knows Wangji will not come to him for aid, no matter how stressed he becomes. Something changed in their dynamic over the years; at some point, Wangji decided he had to tackle all his problems alone. Right now, though, Xichen’s little brother seems content. Hearing Xichen enter, Wangji looks up and there’s the slightest upturn of his lips. That’s all the confirmation Lan Xichen needs to know his sweet, baby brother is happy.

“Brother,” Wangji offers as a greeting, and Xichen replies:

“Do you need any help with that?”

His brother goes to shake his head – and then seems to think better of it. “…Help me carry the plates. Please.”

And isn’t that a pleasant surprise? “Of course,” Xichen says. He walks over and takes the stack of empty bowls in one hand, reaching for the larger bowl of rice with his other hand. “You haven’t been working on this meal for too long, I hope?”

“It was worth the work.”

That’s a ‘yes, I have been overworking myself’ then.

Xichen resists the urge to sigh. What ever will he do with this brother of his?

“You didn’t need to go to all this fuss, Wangji.”

But he shakes his head. “Wei Ying says Young Madam Jin is a wonderful cook.”

Oh. “So you wanted to impress her?”

Wangji reaches for his completed side dishes – the consequence being he doesn’t have to meet Xichen’s eye as he says, “Not impress. To show her Wei Ying is in good hands.” His ears are suspiciously tinged pink – and at the sight, Xichen feels a wave of fondness overcome him.

How anyone could ever deem his little brother, Hanguang-jun, cold is beyond Xichen.

“Wangji,” Xichen starts, all of a sudden, the need to speak his thoughts aloud suddenly compelling. “You know I am proud of you.”

Wangji stills. “…Proud?”

“Certainly.” How can he say it like it’s a question? How doesn’t his brother know? “Wangji, I have always been proud of you, but more so now than ever. This family you’ve created, the way you have stood up for yourself and your principles… A few years ago, I wouldn’t have thought you capable of it. You have grown up. I am so very happy for you.”

Wangji deserves this happiness, after everything he’s been through.

“…Thank you, Brother.” Wangji’s head is ducked, and its clear he doesn’t know how to deal with the praise. So Xichen leaves, giving his little brother space to process what he’s said, and heads to settle his plates on the table.

“Is Sect Leader Jiang joining us?” he asks, as he begins arranging the dishes.

“Oh, no,” Wei Wuxian responds. “He’s busy.”

As Xichen’s brother-in-law begins clearing his son’s artwork from the table, Jiang Yanli meets his eye. She shakes her head.

Ah. So Jiang Wanyin is still a sore subject then…

Simultaneously, “A-Cheng volunteered to watch A-Ling this afternoon,” she says, and Sizhui replies:

“That was kind of him.”

“Yeah, sure,” Wei Wuxian grumbles. “It’s something.”

“A-Xian...”

“Shijie, stop it. I’m fine, really,” and Wei Wuxian grins at her, all teeth, offering proof.

No one is convinced. Xichen knows what a fake smile looks like; he sees it in the mirror often enough, after all.

That’s when Wangji decides to enter. He moves with practised finesse, leaning down to kiss his husband’s hair as he passes before placing down his bowls. Wei Wuxian untenses with the contact, exhaling softly.

Xichen looks away, giving the couple some privacy, and sits himself down next to Lan Sizhui. He shares a knowing glance with his nephew. “Were they like this? In the future?” Xichen asks quietly.

Sizhui bites his lip, smiling. “Always.”

That’s when there’s a knock at the door.

The whole room turns to look.

“Who could that be?” Sect Leader Jiang, possibly? Though, Xichen doubts it…

Since he’s still on his feet, Wangji is the one to pad over to the door. He slides it open –

“Hanguang-jun, I apologise for disturbing you,” a junior disciple apologises profusely, bowing low. “I was told the Sect Leader is here?”

“He is,” Xichen replies from where he’s sat. “Is it urgent?”

The disciple goes to nod – then shake his head – but ultimately cannot settle and instead hunches his shoulders. “He says it’s urgent, but the Young Master is known for exaggerating… Though, he is quite upset…”

The Young Master?

“Who?”

“Nie Huaisang, Sect Leader. He just arrived. He says he must speak with you immediately. Were you expecting him?”

Huaisang? He’s here?

“No, I wasn’t…”

Mingjue wrote to him yesterday; he said everything was well. What could have changed in Qinghe in the span of a day?

Xichen shares a glance with his brother. Wangji nods.

They need to know.

“Send him to us,” Xichen says.

Something tells him his peaceful day is officially over.

Chapter Text

Of all the people Lan Sizhui has met in the past, Nie Huaisang is the least changed. The Headshaker, it turns out, is just as much the Headshaker as he was in the future, even before he became a Sect Leader.

They hear Nie Huaisang approaching before they see him.

“J-J-Jiang-xionggg…!” a voice wails from down the path. “What should I dooooooo?”

“First of all,” Sect Leader Jiang barks back, “get off me! You’re pissing off the baby!”

“But I’m a baby tooooo!”

“Oh, grow up!”

Sizhui would say he pities Sect Leader Jiang for running into the Headshaker – but, honestly, that would be a lie. They make quite an amusing sight, trudging up the path. Nie Huaisang has draped himself over Jiang Wanyin’s chest and is sobbing woefully into his robes, while the Sect Leader attempts to pry himself free. He’s juggling Nie Huaisang’s weight and Jin Ling’s, who is, might Sizhui add, perhaps the most disgruntled baby he’s ever seen.

It’s maddeningly funny.

Sizhui keeps his composure – of course – and refrains from laughing, but that’s largely for Uncle Xichen’s benefit. He appears genuinely worried for the Second Young Master of the Nie Sect, his lips pursed in displeasure and his brow’s furrowed – and Sizhui really doesn’t know if his concern is justified. The Headshaker, in the future, was known for his drama…

Sect Leader Jiang and Nie Huaisang eventually manage to reach the Jingshi entrance, where Uncle Xichen has taken to hovering, and the switch is instantaneous.

“Er-geeeeeee!” Nie Huaisang cries, flopping from one set of arms to another. “Help meeeee!”

“What’s wrong, A-Sang? Is it Mingjue?” Uncle asks without a beat, starting a soothing rhythm of pats on the young man’s back.

Thankfully, Nie Huaisang shakes his head from where it’s pressed into Uncle’s chest. “Nooooo… Da-ge is fineee…” A sniff. “He doesn’t know I’m here.”

(Sect Leader Jiang, meanwhile, he stomps in the room and pulls the door closed behind him. “So I’m chopped liver,” he grumbles to himself. “Good to know.”

A-Ling grunts in agreement.)

“He doesn’t know? A-Sang… did you have an argument?”

“Can this wait?” Dad suddenly interjects. “We were, you know, in the middle of something?” He gestures to the various bowls laid out before them. Sizhui has to admit, the idea of all this food getting cold is rather off putting…

Drawing Nie Huaisang’s attention across the room has an unintentional consequence. The Headshaker gasps. “Wei-xiong! He’s so cute!”

All his tears instantly forgotten, Nie Huaisang scrambles across the room to where A-Yuan is sat in Senior Wei’s lap. Both A-Yuan and Wei Wuxian instinctively recoil, Senior Wei’s grip on Sizhui’s little brother tightening.

“Say hi to your uncle Huaisang!” the Headshaker coos – to be cut off by a growl.

“The fuck?! What the hell did you do to deserve that title?” Sect Leader Jiang says, tugging Nie Huaisang away by the scruff of his hanfu.

The man lands with a thud on his behind. “Oof! Jiang-xiong! So rough!” Nie Huaisang complains, rubbing at his behind. “I’m delicate, remember?”

MY shitting nephews are delicate, you arse! First A-Ling and now A-Yuan? Keep your hands to yourself!”

Sizhui feels his eyebrows raise reflectively.

That –

That is the first time he’s heard the Jiang Sect Leader refer to him – A-Yuan – as his nephew. Sizhui turns to his dad – and Wei Wuxian is oddly pale. He catches his dad’s eye, and parent and child share a bewildered glance.

It’s a development, alright.

Father rises, largely so he can place himself defensively between their family and Nie Huaisang (and Jiang Wanyin too, probably) – and Uncle Xichen moves similarly; the difference is that he offers a hand to the Headshaker, helping the young man to his feet.

“A-Sang… I know you mean well, but you may want to tone down the enthusiasm.”

Nie Huaisang shrinks, his shoulders tensing. “I’m sorry, Er-ge…” He pauses. “Wait! No I’m not!”

Uh?

Pouting, “You never told me you had a cousin, Er-ge!” Huaisang accuses, pointing a finger at Lan Sizhui. “And I thought we were close!”

Oh boy.

“It was…” Uncle Xichen swallows. “A secret. For his safety.”

To be fair, that’s not exactly a lie.

“Da-ge has been sulking for days! He won’t admit it, but he doesn’t like that you kept him in the dark.”

“…I’ll be sure to introduce the two of them soon?”

“You better!” and then the Headshaker switches targets.

In the blink of an eye, Nie Huaisang is leaning down before Lan Sizhui, a hand shielding the side of his mouth. A mischievous twinkle in his eye, “So, Lan-xiong, do you have any juicy childhood stories about your cousins you’d like to share with the class?”

Ohhhh, Lan Sizhui is really out of his depth.

He can feel his face heating up from embarrassment, but he’s saved – thank the heavens – by Father, Lan Wangji sliding himself between Nie Huaisang and his son. Towering over the Headshaker, “An emergency or a social call. Choose what this is.”

Nie Huaisang begins laughing, almost compulsively, with nerves. Hands raised in surrender, he backs away, “Ahh, Hanguang-jun, I meant no offence! I’ll get to it, I’ll get to it. You see,” he coughs, “I – I told Da-ge you should know, Er-ge, about what happened. You’d help, of course you would! But he wouldn’t have it… You know how prideful my brother is.”

“Tell me, A-Sang,” Uncle coaxes. “I promise not to tell Mingjue that you informed me.”

Nie Huaisang – he bites his lip, contemplating. “I know I shouldn’t but… but it’s too dangerous for you not to know. Xue Yang – he escaped.”

“He what?!” Sect Leader Jiang barks. “Nie Mingjue thinks he can keep this information to himself?!”

Sizhui feels numb.

“You don’t understand, Jiang-xiong! Xue Yang played him!” Nie Huaisang defends. “Xue Yang was in our highest security cell and he disappeared without a trace. No one saw him leave, not a single guard was injured or even incapacitated. It’s like he’s playing a game! Worse yet, this is twice now that Xue Yang has escaped from Qinghe’s dungeons. If this gets out to the cultivation world, Da-ge’s reputation will be ruined. There’s honour in battle and Xue Yang has robbed us of that.”

Of course this is about Xue Yang, Sizhui realises all at once. Why else would the Headshaker be here, unannounced? That was the pattern, in the future. The Nie Sect Leader would call ahead, usually, to announce his arrival, except on the occasions he was so flustered he’d forget to. That history is repeating itself before Sizhui’s eyes…

Nie Huaisang’s theatrics aren’t anywhere near so funny anymore.

‘He’s toying with them – with us,’ Sizhui thinks, ‘like a cat with a mouse.’ It’s clear now that Xue Yang would never let himself be captured, not if he didn’t have a way out. Even in chains, he was free. The difference is now that they don’t know where he is.

Xue Yang could be anywhere.   

Sizhui sees it then, in his mind: sharp teeth, a slanted smile, a mouthed ‘I knew you had it in you’.

“I don’t think is a conversation for little ears…” Auntie Yanli says, reaching for her son. Sect Leader Jiang carefully deposits Jin Ling in her arms, and she rises. “A-Yuan, do you want to come for a walk with me and your cousin?”

Sizhui’s brother is clutching at their dad’s robes, eyes wide with anxiety, flicking his gaze between the various shouting adults. Instinctively, Senior Wei is running his hands through A-Yuan’s hair – and, yes, Auntie is clearly right.

“Are you sure, Shijie?” Dad says as he stands, walking Jiang Yanli to the door, A-Yuan still in his arms.

She nods. “You and A-Cheng can catch me up to speed later. Come on, sweetie,” she says, addressing A-Yuan now. Dad has placed him down and is knelt at his son’s side as A-Yuan assesses his options. “Perhaps we’ll see a duckie, like the one in your picture?”

A-Yuan checks in with their dad. Wei Wuxian gives him a grin.

“…Okay,” he concedes and takes Auntie’s hand.

She’s quick to lead him out the Jingshi and, once they’re out of earshot, “What is the primary theory?” Father asks.

(Senior Wei, simultaneously, sits himself back down, but next to Sizhui this time. He places his hand palm up on his knee and Sizhui reaches out to grip it instinctively. He squeezes vice-tight, needing the contact to steady himself).

Nie Huaisang shrugs. “There isn’t one. We have no leads – nothing. Hence why Da-ge is so angry…”

“So you came to us. Why?”

Nie Huaisang blinks. "Isn't it obvious? You've already dealt with Xue Yang and come out unscathed.”

Unscathed.

Ha.

That’s not how it feels. Sizhui can still feel the ghost-like touch of Xue Yang’s blade at his throat – of Xue Yang’s hands dusting across his shoulders.

Unaware of Sizhui’s inner turmoil, “Plus," Nie Huaisang continues, scratching at his cheek self-consciously, "Da-ge would quite literally kill me if I told anyone else. He trusts Er-ge at least... And, I mean, who else could I turn to for help? The Jins? Not only would they bend over backwards to ridicule my sect, but they're far too preoccupied right now, aha..."

"Preoccupied?" Sect Leader Jiang echoes. "What do you mean 'preoccupied'?"

Nie Huaisang cocks his head. "With, you know..."

He reads the room.

Pales.

"...You don't know."

"A-Sang... What have you heard?"

"...You didn't hear this from me."

"Of course we didn't!" Sect Leader Jiang snaps. "Spit it out already!"

He does. "Jin Guangshan is dying!"

A pin drops.

He - what?

Sizhui – no, he heard that right.

The Jin Sect Leader is dying?

"You're lying," Dad says, beyond belief.

But Nie Huaisang flails his hands. "I'm not! I'm really not! This is just what I've heard! There was a break in at Koi Tower, not long after the siege of the Burial Mounds, and the word is that Jin Guangshan is on his death bed. It's all very hush, hush, though I've heard that funeral preparations have already begun. Madam Jin, apparently, is distraught."

"Who?" Jiang Wanyin interrupts. "Who told you this?"

"...I don't remember?"

Sect Leader Jiang screams in frustration. Grabbing the Headshaker by his collar, "You must know! How could you forget something like that?!"

"I really don't know!" Nie Huaisang is wailing again, as Sect Leader Jiang pulls him back and forth. "I don't knoooowww!"

"Do you think it – " Uncle Xichen cuts himself off. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. "Could it have been Xue Yang, A-Sang?"

The hurried movement stops. Sect Leader Jiang releases Nie Huaisang, hands stilled. Sizhui understands where the conversation is heading. With pity in his gaze, Nie Huaisang shakes his head. "I'm sorry, Er-ge. The timelines don't match up... If it was anyone, well," Nie Huaisang swallows, "it was probably Jin Guangyao."

'Or so it would seem,' Sizhui thinks to himself. Madam Jin is good; Sizhui will give her that. How did she do it? Was it poison? Did she force a qi deviation? The method, in the end, doesn't matter all that much. She has, after all, done what she promised.

'I am merely setting my affairs in order,' Sizhui remembers her saying as she left the Burial Mounds. 'Rest assured, once I am done, Koi Tower will be safe for my daughter and grandson, once again.'

Sizhui expects Madam Jin is far from distraught, as the Headshaker described.

He casts his gaze to Uncle Xichen - and he can't tell him, can he? Madam Jin has planned a coup, essentially, and Sizhui can't guarantee that Uncle won't let the cat out of the bag to save whatever scraps are left of Lianfang-zun reputation.

That doesn't change how much it hurts to see Uncle so devastated.

Father moves to stand behind Uncle Xichen and grips his shoulder tight with one hand. Without looking, Uncle reaches up to clasp back at his brother’s hand.

After a moment, “How long, A-Sang? Until everyone knows?”

Nie Huaisang shrugs. “A week, at best. A few days is more likely. I’m sorry.”

“There is nothing for you to apologise for,” Uncle says. He reaches up to grip the bridge of his nose. He breathes deep. “We should move quickly, before the whole cultivation world is looking for A-Ya – ” a cough “ – Jin Guangyao, and before Xue Yang causes any more damage.”

“When do we leave?” Sizhui asks. Tomorrow is most likely. It’s funny, he thinks. He’s just started to feel settled again, here in Cloud Recesses, and now they’re leaving again. Oh well. It can’t be helped. Sizhui has to do this for his own peace of mind, to fix the problem he created –

“No.” Three voices say simultaneously.

Father, Dad, and Sect Leader Jiang turn to each other awkwardly – and Sizhui blinks at them all.

“I’m coming,” he says, a little baffled.

“As if we’d let you,” Sect Leader Jiang spits, and:

“It is not safe,” Father says, and:

“Ahh, A-Zhui, I’d rather you didn’t. I’d stay if I could! Who wants to see Xue Yang’s face again?” Senior Wei concurs, with a forced shiver tagged onto the end of his sentence for theatrical effect.

Sizhui isn’t quite sure what’s happening here.

Did they – did they collectively ground him?

Father turns to glare at Jiang Wanyin. “This is not your decision to make.”

The glare is returned full force with a sneer. “He’s my – ” Sect Leader Jiang catches himself at the last second “ – cousin in law. I get a fucking say.”

My cousin.”

“Boys, boys!” Wei Wuxian interjects. “Cool it! There’s no use fighting over a matter we agree on. A-Zhui stays home.”

Okay, now Sizhui feels affronted. “I’m coming!”

“No.”

“Absolutely not!”

“Like hell!”

“I feel like I’m missing something,” Nie Huaisang says. He’s been watching the conversation like it’s a riveting game of jiju. “Yeah, I’m definitely missing something.”

Uncle Xichen pats Nie Huaisang on the back. “I believe we should leave them to it. Come, A-Sang. You must be tired after the journey here.”

Nie Huaisang squints at Uncle Xichen. 

Uncle smiles back angelically and innocently. 

“...I would like some tea,” the Headshaker concedes.

Ultimately, that’s all the persuasion it takes.

Uncle Xichen leads the Headshaker away, presumably to the Hanshi, reducing their number once again. Faced with three very stubborn men, “I’m coming,” Sizhui repeats into the deafening silence. Before anyone else can protest, “I know Xue Yang best,” he persists. “I know his future and therefore his mind. There is only so much experience I can share through words. You need my insight to anticipate him – to take him down.”

In a perfect world, Sizhui would back down. It’s not like he wants to see Xue Yang ever again – he’s outright terrified to face him again, in fact – but he lost his family once. He won’t let it happen again.

Senior Wei squeezes his hand tighter. “A-Zhui… You’re only a junior.”

It leaves Sizhui feeling uncharacteristically defiant. “And you’re only twenty-two!”

“It is different,” Father says. He comes to kneel before Sizhui. “We fought in a war. It aged us.”

“I’m not a naïve child you have to protect. I can fight! Father, you trained me for this!”

“I trained you for night hunts.”

“We only want to protect you,” Dad says, placing his hand over Sizhui’s. “Is that so terrible?”

“But that’s exactly what I want to do!”

“Ugh.” Sizhui watches Sect Leader Jiang drag his hands down his face. “Just let the brat tag along with us. He’s your spawn, Wei Wuxian. There’s no stopping him, probably.”

Sizhui opens his mouth to reply – and then isn’t quite sure what to say. Was that – was that an insult? Or did – did Sect Leader Jiang take his side?

And then there’s that wording. ‘Along with us.’ In unison, the Lan-Wei family pan to stare at the Jiang Wanyin.

“Wait, Jiang Cheng… You’re coming?”

A pregnant pause.

YES!” Sect Leader Jiang explodes, his cheeks conspicuously pink. “I’m not leaving you idiots to deal with Xue Yang alone! You fucked it enough the first time! We’ll leave in the morning. Agreed? Agreed. Okay, have a shitty day. Bye.” With that, he storms out of the Jingshi.

After a moment, “…Are you okay, A-Zhui?”

Sizhui takes a shaky breath. “I will be once we take Xue Yang down for good.”

“He will not hurt you,” Father says. A pause. “Though you would be safest here.”

“I know.” Sizhui swallows. “But I have to do this.”

For better or for worse, he must.

Chapter Text

“I don’t trust him,” Jiang Cheng says, as he stuffs a spare set of robes into a qiankun pouch. It’s full, nearly, so he has to really force the clothes in there. “What? He appears at the opportune time with a shit ton of intel? It’s a setup, A-Jie, for sure.”

“A-Cheng,” Yanli sighs, holding A-Ling against her shoulder. He’s nodding off now, meaning Jiang Cheng has to be quieter than he’d like, but there’s no way he’s going to be a shitty uncle and wake up his nephew with his complaining. A-jie continues, “Nie Huaisang’s just worried. There’s no conspiracy afoot here.”  

Jiang Cheng resists the urge to snort. “You don’t know Huaisang like I do. That bastard is always up to something.”

Besides, Jiang Cheng was right last time. There was something up with Lan Sizhui. He merely reached the wrong conclusion ‘cause, really, who would consider time travel? Lan Sizhui being Lan Qiren’s illegitimate son sounds downright rational in comparison to the truth of the matter.

So, yes, Jiang Cheng is going to trust his instinct that Nie Huaisang is up to something. His bullshit sensor is very well attuned, it turns out.

“Have you packed a cloak?”

“Yes, A-jie.”

“What about emergency flares?”

“Yes, A-Jie.”

“Sandu?”

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “Yes, A-jie. I did remember to pack my own sword.”

Yanli chuckles, somewhat self-consciously, and ducks her head. “I’m sorry, A-Cheng. I know I worry too much.” A pause. “You will be safe though?”

Hmm.

Jiang Cheng abandons his task, moving across the guest room to kneel before his sister. Looking up into her eyes, “Xue Yang is a brat. Him versus me, Wei Wuxian, and his stupid husband? Pfft, Xue Yang doesn’t stand a chance. We’ll be back before you know it.”

A-jie laughs again, a little more genuinely, and reaches down from her chair to run her hand over Jiang Cheng’s hair. It makes him feel like a child again, every time A-jie does this. He resists the urge to close his eyes and lean into the touch; there’s quite obviously something Yanli needs to get off her chest.

As predicted, after a moment, quietly, “I don’t think I could lose you, too,” A-jie admits. “You or A-Xian. I don’t think – ” A shaky breath. “I don’t know what I’d do.”

It’s barely been a month since Jin Zixuan died, Jiang Cheng remembers all of a sudden.

A month.

“A-jie…” Jiang Cheng breathes – and there’s a horrifying moment where he sees the tears well in his sister’s eyes. He thinks to himself, ‘Oh heavens, fuck. She’s going to start sobbing on me and I don’t know what to say!’ but then A-Jie is shaking her head.

She brushes at her eyes, trying her hardest to smile, and says, “No, that won’t do. I’m not going to cry.”

“You’re allowed to be upset…”

A-jie succeeds in smiling this time. “I know that, I promise. But I’ve cried enough. There’s work to do now.”

Jiang Cheng scrunches his nose in confusion. “Work?”

“It sounds like my mother-in-law has been busy back at Koi Tower.”

He gulps. Ah. “So, it wasn’t just me that thought – that.” Jiang Cheng has to give it to Madam Jin; she has guts, killing her own husband. Testing the waters, “How do you feel about it?” he probes.

A-jie shrugs her shoulders – or, at least, as much as she can with A-Ling sleeping on her. “I never liked him – Jin Guangshan. I have to admit, I will feel safer at Koi Tower without him there.”

Jiang Cheng agrees. He feels much better about leaving A-jie in Lanling, widowed, now the Chief Cultivator is soon-to-be dead. He didn’t like the way Jin Guangshan leered at her when he thought no one was looking…

“Who will become Sect Leader in his place?” Jiang Cheng asks out of curiosity.

“Hmm… Mother, I suppose, until A-Ling comes of age.”

They both turn their attention to the baby. Jin Ling, dozing away, is completely unaware of his mother and uncle’s gaze. He fusses in his sleep, worming his head closer to the warmth of Yanli’s neck.

“I’m excited,” Yanli says, “to see the young man he’ll become. A-Zhui sounded so fond.”

Jiang Cheng blinks. “Lan Sizhui told you about him?”

“I asked.”

Jiang Cheng waits for his sister to elaborate.

She doesn’t.

“What did Lan Sizhui say?” he’s forced to ask once the silence stretches too long.

A-jie hums. Readjusting Jin Ling’s weight in her arms, “Why don’t you ask him? You’ll have a lot of time to talk over the coming days.”

Ugh.

A-jie.”

Yanli merely rolls her eyes. “You are going to have to apologise eventually if you want to get to know him. He’s our nephew.”

Jiang Cheng rises to his feet, retreating back to his packing. “I don’t have to do shit,” he grumbles, aggressively pulling the drawstrings tight.

He has to apologise. Internally, Jiang Cheng knows this. Lan Sizhui is family, it turns out, and it would be hypocritical of Jiang Cheng to accept the flaws of one half of his family and not the other. He doesn’t want to, however, because it’s going to be really fucking awkward.

Worse yet, he’s going to have to talk to his brother sooner or later. Jiang Cheng still thinks Wei Wuxian is a sacrificial shithead and he’s still furious about the whole golden core thing, but – and Jiang will never, ever admit this aloud – he misses his brother. He hates that, when Wei Wuxian enters a room, his gaze dances over Jiang Cheng. He misses the days when Wei Wuxian would always look to him, first, before anyone else.

Where did everything go so wrong?

“A-Cheng.”

He looks up to meet his sister’s gaze. She smiles.

“It will be okay.”

Jiang Cheng doubts it.

 

A few hours later, their rag-tag team sets out.

It’s just the four of them – Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji, Lan Sizhui, and himself – and Jiang Cheng has never felt so out of place in his life.

They leave Cloud Recesses just before noon. It gives Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji time to ensure A-Yuan is settled with the Wens before they depart, and for any last-minute preparations to be made.

Jiang Cheng arrives at the gates to Cloud Recesses first, so he’s forced to wait in the cold, impatiently tapping his foot, for a good ten minutes. Then, his already bad mood sours further once he spots his brother heading down the mountain, flanked on both sides by his husband and son.

Wei Wuxian is wearing Lan white. His hanfu is its usual black, yes, but its disguised by the cloak he wears, and that garment is as white as snow. He melds with the aesthetic of his husband and son seamlessly; meeting them for the first time, you’d know instantly they were a collective.

Bitterly, Jiang Cheng notes that Wei Wuxian rarely ever wore purple when he was a Jiang disciple – and that bitterness dogs him the rest of the day.

They travel by sword in the morning, covering as much distance as they can, but Wei Wuxian can’t fly by himself and, not knowing for sure when they’re going to find Xue Yang, its sensible to conserve as much spiritual energy as they can. So, the afternoon finds them trekking through the woods on foot, Wei Wuxian leading the pack with his compass of darkness or whatever.

“It’s a ‘Compass of Evil’,” Wei Wuxian corrects, after some probing from Jiang Cheng. “And, yes, it is pointing us in the right direction. I didn’t stay up all night reconfiguring it for nothing! Xue Yang has Yin Iron, so that’s what the compass is pointing us towards.”

“I trust Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji says rather pointedly, eyeing Jiang Cheng up as he does so – but of course Jiang Cheng’s stupid brother is too oblivious to catch onto the double meaning.

“Ah!” he swoons. “My husband is so loyal! I trust you too! With my life!!” He proceeds to throw his arms around Lan Wangji – Jiang Cheng hears Lan Sizhui sigh. It’s quiet, barely noticeable, and Jiang Cheng only catches it he because he’s standing right next to his nephew. So, Jiang Cheng raises a brow at him – and it takes a moment for Lan Sizhui to realise he’s being watched. When he catches on, he flushes and coughs into his hand. “Pardon me.”  

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes, breaking eye-contact to return his gaze to the road ahead. “Most embarrassing couple I’ve ever seen,” he mutters off hand – and is pleased when he hears Lan Sizhui swallow a laugh.

“I am pleased for them, do not misunderstand me. I enjoy seeing them happy. At the same time… those are my parents.”

“You’re lucky you didn’t travel further back in time. They were worse as teenagers.”

“Worse?” Lan Sizhui is actively looking at him now, brows raised – and a little voice in the back of Jiang Cheng’s head shouts ‘Score!’

“Oh yeah,” he continues, trying to be nonchalant. This totally isn’t the first proper conversation he’s had with his nephew. There’s nothing riding on this conversation what-so-ever. “When Wei Wuxian and I first studied at Gusu as disciples, Lan Wangji was all your dad would talk about. ‘Lan Zhan this!’ and ‘Lan Zhan that!’ It was unbearable. I timed him, one night. He talked for an hour straight about Lan Wangji before realising I wasn’t listening to him.”

Lan Sizhui laughs properly then – and Jiang Cheng can’t quite place who it reminds him of more. He laughs quieter than Wei Wuxian, his brother’s laugh sharp and wild, but with the same tenor to the sound that feels warm – friendly. Perhaps that’s Lan Xichen’s influence, as polite and refined as he is. Jiang Cheng has never seen Lan Wangji smile, let alone laugh – but maybe that’s where the melodic pacing of his nephew’s laugh comes from. He runs through everyone else in their lives – A-jie, Wen Qing, Wen Ning – but still can’t place the laugh exactly, not to one of them exclusively.  Perhaps he can’t because the sound is unique to his nephew.

Jiang Cheng must have been staring this whole time because his nephew has grown awkward, once again. As if realising who he’s talking to, Lan Sizhui has stiffened, his posture straightening, his expression levelling out – and small talk isn’t going to fix this, is it?

“Look,” Jiang Cheng starts. He should just get this over with. “I’m sorry.”

There! He said it! A-jie can’t be mad at him now!

But “…For what?” Lan Sizhui responds.

Jiang Cheng frowns. Ugh. “Don’t make me explain it. You know what for.”

“…I’m afraid you are going to have to elaborate, Sect Leader Jiang.”

Oh, this little shit. Lan Sizhui blinks at Jiang Cheng, fluttering his eyelashes so innocently, but they both know he’s the one with the power in this situation.

Jiang Cheng sighs. “I’m sorry I yelled at you and accused you of working with Xue Yang and for generally being a dick. Are you happy now?”

Lan Sizhui considers him, his lips pursed.

Eventually – he nods. “Very.”

They spend the rest of the afternoon walking in silence – but its companionable, at least.

 

The sun begins to set quite early, what with it being mid-winter. They decide (or rather Lan Wangji insists that) it’s best not to continue walking into to the night, so they stop in the first town they come across after dark.

It’s small – and understandably so, since they’re on the fringes of Gusu country. There’s only one inn but, thankfully, they’re still advertising vacancies. Jiang Cheng hurries his party inside and Wei Wuxian is quick to saddle his way up to the woman behind the counter.

“Ahh, excuse me Madam!” he says, leaning forwards on his elbows. “My friends and I were hoping to stay the night. What vacancies do you have left?”

The woman smiles back at him. “We only have two rooms of two left. Is that alright?”

“Perfect!” Wei Wuxian replies, a little too quickly Jiang Cheng thinks. He’s doing the mental maths – two rooms of two – when Lan Wangji says:

“I will share with Jiang Wanyin.”

Their party collectively pans to him. Lan Wangji’s expression is grim, as if he has just accepted a death sentence.

That’s exactly how Jiang Cheng feels. “Excuse me?!” he protests. “I’m not sharing a room with you! Share a room with your bloody husband!”

“I cannot trust you to share a room with Wei Ying, nor Sizhui.”

“You can’t trust me?!” Honestly, the nerve on this one! “What do you think I’m going to do? Slit their throats in their sleep?!”

“It would not surprise me.”

“Oh, fuck you!”

“Hanguang-jun,” Sizhui interjects, nervously, “please, I do not mind. I can share a room with Sect Leader Jiang.”  

“No,” Lan Wangji says, stone-cold. The matter is clearly not up for debate. “I will sleep on the floor.”

Jiang Cheng wants to scream. Why are his brothers-in-law always so petty?! He thought it couldn’t get worse than Jin Zixuan! But no! Hanguang-jun, the light-bearing lord himself, is willing to sleep on the floor just to spite Jiang Cheng. He’s probably going to do it with perfect Lan posture, too.

Fine! He can have a terrible night’s rest for all Jiang Cheng cares!

Just as he’s about to declare this aloud. “Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian scolds softly. “Stop it. It’s two rooms for two people, honey. It would be silly not to make use of the other bed. I’ll room with Jiang Cheng.”

He’ll – ?

Lan Wangji has shrunk slightly, reasonably chastised. Nonetheless, “What about – ?”

Wei Wuxian puts a hand on his husband chest. “I’ll be fine.” His brother says – but he’s refusing to meet Jiang Cheng’s eye and his smile doesn’t quite reach his eyes.

Lan Wangji is as convinced as Jiang Cheng is. “Wei Ying…”

Wei Wuxian is adamant. “We’ll take the rooms,” he confirms to the inn-owner, placing a pouch of money onto the counter – and that’s that.

 

They have dinner downstairs – but the argument over rooms has really fucked the mood. Wei Wuxian tries to natter the tension away, but the atmosphere dogs them, following them upstairs and into their shared room.

Jiang Cheng flops onto his bed the second he gets the chance. The day has sucked. There’s no doubt about that. Lying on his back, eyes closed, he takes a deep breath.

He ends up listening to Wei Wuxian pace the room.

His brother is refusing to settle. He flitters from one thing to the next. One second, Jiang Cheng hears rustling, Wei Wuxian checking over their supplies, the next he hears footsteps, over to the windows. There’s a shuffle, a stutter of wood against wood, and then the street noise is tangible for a moment, before its quiet again, Wei Wuxian tugging the shutters tightly closed.

Jiang Cheng continues to listen – but now, he’s not quite sure what his brother is up to. Wei Wuxian is moving around the edges of the room, he thinks, steps at a time. Step, step, step, pause. Step, step, step, pause. It repeats, again and again.

Eventually, Jiang Cheng’s curiosity gets the better of him. He cracks an eye open. He’s not expecting to see the walls littered in talismans. Are they – ? Yes, squinting, Jiang Cheng can see that they’re silencing talismans.

“What are you doing?” he can’t help but ask, completely baffled.

Jiang Cheng doesn’t expect his brother to flinch so viscerally. All – all Jiang Cheng did was ask a question. Wei Wuxian shouldn’t look so spooked!

“N-nothing,” Wei Wuxian replies. He takes a deep breath, returning to what he was doing. “It’s nothing.”

“…Want to make sure no one hears you kill me in my sleep?” Jiang Cheng jokes. It’s stupid, a nonsensical notion. Hopefully, Wei Wuxian will scoff, and grin, and jab Jiang Cheng right back, and they’ll start to feel normal again.

Instead, his brother halts.

He clenches his fists.

He says nothing.

For some reason, it makes Jiang Cheng’s blood boil.

Hey!” he barks. Sliding into a sitting position, “Don’t ignore me!”

That pushes Wei Wuxian over the edge.

“Like you’ve been ignoring me?” his brother snaps. He spins to face Jiang Cheng – finally – but it’s with a sneer. “Before yesterday we hadn’t talked properly in weeks! You can’t have it both ways, Jiang Cheng. Do you want to associate with me or not?”

Honestly – ! “I was angry! You made me angry!” Wei Wuxian knows how he works. Jiang Cheng can’t think when he’s angry. It’s best for him to take a step back, until he can rationalise his problems again.

Besides, this was all Wei Wuxian’s fault in the first place!

His brother laughs; it’s hollow. “Yeah, so you should have taken your rage out on me! Not A-Zhui! He was distraught!”

Ohhhh, so they’re discussing this now? “I didn’t know who he was! You know I’d never have done that if I knew he was my nephew.”

“That doesn’t justify it! He could be Wen Ruohan’s son and it wouldn’t make it right for you to use him as a punching bag!”

Wei Wuxian is yelling now, and so Jiang Cheng feels justified shouting right back. “I didn’t say anything I regret!” he proclaims, “and Lan Sizhui gave Xue Yang the Stygian Tiger Amulet!! What else was I supposed to think?!”

“Oh, I don’t know! Maybe you should have let him explain!”

Jiang Cheng grits his teeth and throws his hands in the air. “I don’t know why I thought I could talk this out with you. You’re so fucking stubborn!”

“And you’re blind!” Wei Wuxian bellows. “We didn’t tell you for a reason! Don’t you see that I was just trying to protect you?!”

It’s Jiang Cheng’s turn to laugh. “Now that’s a joke. Keep me in the dark, you mean! Like you’ve always done!” His chest burns, right where his – their – golden core sits, and Jiang Cheng wonders if Wei Wuxian can feel it too.

Maybe he can, because his brother knows exactly where the conversation has diverted. “I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d react like this!”

“What? Horrified? You performed an experimental medical procedure on me without my consent!”

Wei Wuxian explodes. “YOU WERE SUICIDAL! WHAT ELSE WAS I SUPPOSED TO DO?! I PROMISED YOUR PARENTS THAT I WOULD PROTECT YOU!”

“THAT DIDN’T MEAN YOU HAD TO THROW YOUR WHOLE LIFE AWAY FOR ME! IT’S MY FAULT YOU ENDED UP IN THE BURIAL MOUNDS! I – ” Jiang Cheng’s next words are cut off by a sob. It bubbles out of his throat, unexpectedly, drowning him. There are – there are tears tracking down his face. He can feel them now, burning against his cheeks.

He didn’t notice them before now.

He’s crying.

Wei Wuxian is staring at him, horrified – and Jiang Cheng seethes with embarrassment. He breaks their staring contest so he can rub at his tears, burying the fabric of his sleeves into his eyes. If he presses hard enough, if it hurts enough, maybe he’ll be able to pull himself together.

Unfortunately, “…The blame for that lies entirely with Wen Chao,” Wei Wuxian speaks up, “and he’s dead.”

Great. So now that he wants his brother to shut up he has things to say.

“Not soon enough,” Jiang Cheng mutters, venomous. “I should have done more.”

“There was nothing you could do.” Wei Wuxian is speaking softly now, like he’s talking to a child, and Jiang Cheng hates it.  

So, “I could have died,” he bites.

Wei Wuxian sucks in a breath, harsh. “Don’t even joke about that.”

“It’s true. If I’d died when the Wens captured me, none of this would have happened.”

“Your death wouldn’t have solved anything!”

“You’re such a hypocrite.”

“I’m still right!”

“And I meant it!” Jiang Cheng breaks, finally meeting his brother’s gaze again. “I’d die a hundred times over if it kept you safe! Instead, I gave myself up to the Wens for nothing!”

He doesn’t realise what he’s revealed until he can’t take the words back.

“…What?” Wei Wuxian utters.

Shit, shit, shit, shit!

Jiang Cheng hunches his shoulders and starts towards the door. “Forget it,” he says, internally cursing himself. He never wanted Wei Wuxian to know and look what he’s gone and done – !

Suddenly, a hand closes in around Jiang Cheng’s wrist – and Zidian flickers. It’s reactionary, the electricity that tingles down his knuckles to his fingertips, as instinctive as anger to Jiang Cheng. “The marketplace,” Wei Wuxian starts, “the day after Lotus Pier fell. Jiang Cheng, you didn’t…”

He tries to tug away, but Wei Wuxian holds tight, no matter how much it must hurt. Jiang Cheng takes a shaky breath, trying to calm Zidian, and Wei Wuxian squeezes.

“Please. Talk to me.”

Jiang Cheng can’t find the will power to pull away anymore.

“…I knew you’d take care of A-jie – better than anyone else ever would.” A breath. “I’d do it again.”

“…Me too.”

Jiang Cheng turns.

Wei Wuxian is smiling at him, wide and blinding, tears tracking down his cheeks. “I’d do it again. In a heartbeat.”

All at once, Jiang Cheng realises it’s just not worth it. The anger, the fighting…

He misses his brother.

He sobs, again. Through it, he says, “We’re so fucking stupid,” and Wei Wuxian laughs – properly this time.

Still holding Jiang Cheng’s hand tight, “We make a pair, alright,” his brother responds, wobbly. “What would Shijie say?”

“She wouldn’t say anything. She’d just give us the look.”

Wei Wuxian cackles. “Ah, yes! The ‘I told you so’ face!” He then proceeds to do his best imitation of ‘the look’ – and it’s so spot on that Jiang Cheng finds himself snorting.

He wipes at his face again. “What are the talismans for?” he asks – because that’s what prompted this debacle. Jiang Cheng’s got to know.

Wei Wuxian huffs, weary. “Do I have to tell you?”  

Jiang Cheng gives his brother ‘the look’.

“Ha! Okay, okay!” Wei Wuxian releases Jiang Cheng’s hand to flick at his nose. “I – uh – I get nightmares.”

Oh.

Wei Wuxian spoke calmly, as if to reassure Jiang Cheng, but he knows to be wiser. So, “Are they like the ones you’d get when we were kids?” he probes – because those were bad.

His brother winces. That’s confirmation enough.

“How bad are they?” Jiang Cheng pushes.

Wei Wuxian shrugs. “Not much helps,” he admits. “I didn’t want Lan Zhan to hear. He’s – protective.”

That’s putting it mildly.  

Jiang Cheng sighs, deep.

“Fine,” he says, and then marches back over to the bed. He throws himself onto it and shimmies right up against the wall.

He waits a moment – nothing happens. So, he’s forced to turn back to his brother, who has remained motionless by the door. Jiang Cheng raises a brow at him. “Well? Are you getting in?”

Wei Wuxian continues to stare at him, gaping like a fish.

“You’re… asking me to share the bed with you?”

Jiang Cheng feels his cheeks begin to heat. “It’s not like I want to! But we both know you sleep better this way and, frankly, I don’t want to be woken up by your screeching.”

“…I don’t want to get in the way.”

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “Get in already.”

Wei Wuxian cedes.

He pads over to the bed and tentatively sits down. As he does so, Jiang Cheng flips back to facing the wall, to give his brother some privacy, and only then does he feel Wei Wuxian slip under the covers.

“We haven’t done this since we were kids,” his brother whispers, his back knocking against Jiang Cheng’s as he settles.

However, “Wrong,” Jiang Cheng replies. “End of the war, night before the march on the Nightless City. Remember?”

“…Oh yeah!” Wei Wuxian yawns. “I’d forgotten.”

“You have such a shit memory.”

“I think it’s genetic.”

“Yeah?”

His brother hums. “Apparently, my mother was the same.”

Huh. “I didn’t know that.” Jiang Cheng hesitates. “Did Dad – ?”

He feels Wei Wuxian shake his head. “Nah. It was Lan Qiren.”  

And that response is worth twisting so he can raise an eyebrow at his brother. “Lan Qiren? Really?”

Wei Wuxian snorts. “He was trying to insult me – you know, back when we were students.” His brother shifts so that they’re both lying on their backs, staring at the ceiling. “Said I was just like her, sieve-like memory and all. Always wondered how he knew that about her.”

“…You didn’t forget that.

Wei Wuxian lightly thwacks him on the arm. “Shut up. The war was worth forgetting. I try to hold onto the stuff that matters.”

Jiang Cheng feels himself beginning to drift off. All that yelling and crying really took it out of him. “Like what?”

Wei Wuxian hums, considering. Soon, “Like lotus picking in the summer heat,” he says. “The first time I saw Lan Zhan smile. Uncle Jiang teaching me how to shoot an arrow. The taste of fresh meat buns. A-Zhui drawing with A-Yuan. Shijie telling us ghost stories. That time we…”

Jiang Cheng falls asleep listening to his brother, illustrating the past a word at a time.

Chapter Text

It is a long night for Lan Sizhui.

Father fusses the whole evening: ensuring Sizhui is well settled, that their guqins are properly strung, that their room is adequately secure… Sizhui tries to not let it irritate him, though the behaviour is smothering. ‘Father is merely anxious about Senior Wei,’ he tells himself, and its an anxiety he shares with his father, in fact.  Wei Wuxian is occupying a room with Sect Leader Jiang, after all. Who knows what is going on in the room next door? It’s suspiciously quiet, and that’s only making Father all the more agitated – and its leaking out of him and into Sizhui.

It’s no wonder that he doesn’t get much sleep; no, Sizhui feels much too wired for that. Anticipation travels his nerves, keeping him awake no matter how hard he tries to drift away. That sense of foreboding sticks with him, now, as light begins to filter in through the shutter cracks. The only relief dawn brings is the fact that Sizhui no longer has to pretend.

Going through the emotions, Sizhui dresses and prepares himself for the day ahead – and Father does the same. They move around each other seamlessly, silently, and the room is packed up in record time. The issue is that neither Jiang Wanyin nor Dad are likely to be up, let alone awake.

Either they wait and wallow in their nerves, or they go next door and knock and face whatever alternative awkwardness that brings.

Sizhui leaves before Father can. While Lan Wangji is finishing up, Sizhui slips out of the door and speed walks down the corridor. Any warning Sizhui can give Senior Wei – to compose himself or, perhaps, to hide Jiang Wanyin’s body – he’ll do so readily. So, when he reaches the adjacent room, he knocks, loud and clear, and waits.

And waits.

And waits.

There’s the sliding of the door, and then soft footsteps down the corridor. Father arrives at his side before long. “No response?”

Sizhui shakes his head, frowning. “Nothing.”

Father has the nerve to do what Sizhui cannot. Without hesitation, he reaches for the handle and pulls the door open.

The room is empty.

Spotless.

“Did they leave? Already?” Sizhui speaks more to himself than his father – because Lan Wangji is already charging down the length of the corridor and down the stairs. Sizhui is quick on his heels, flying down the stairs two at a time, worried as much for his dad as he is for what his father might do.

What he doesn’t even consider is the possibility that awaits them in the dining room.

In the far corner of the room, Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin are sat, shoulder to shoulder, elbows bumping, leaning over a map drawn across the table. Wei Wuxian is muttering away, talking as much with his hands as with words, and Jiang Wanyin is listening intently while he simultaneously munches on a bun of some kind. They’re so obviously comfortable with each other, familiar in a way Lan Sizhui has never seen them – to the extent that its jarring.

Senior Wei, with one particularly large flourish of his hands, manages to look up long enough to catch Sizhui’s eye. Instantly, he beams. “Oh! A-Zhui! Lan Zhan! Good morning!” Waving them over, “Jiang Cheng and I thought it would be best to get an early start,” he continues. “We’ve got a lot of travelling to do today!”

It takes a moment for Father to stride over. He’s frozen, for a good minute, at the foot of the stairs. When he does make it over, however, Lan Wangji stares listlessly at Sect Leader Jiang. He looks back to Senior Wei. To Jiang Wanyin. Back to Senior Wei.

“…Did you sleep well?”

“Like a log!”

Jiang Wanyin snorts – and Senior Wei responds by thwacking him on the arm. Still, he doesn’t break eye contact with Father, instead tilting his head up further. With a teasing lilt to his voice, “Can I can a good morning kiss from my husband now?”

Father looks like he’s overheated. “I am – confused.”  

Dad blinks up at him, innocently. “About what?”

“…” Father sighs. “Nothing,” he says, deciding it’s just not worth it, and leans down to peck his husband on the lips.

As this happens, Sizhui sits down at the table, opposite to Sect Leader Jiang – and the man catches his eye. “Want one?” he offers, nudging the plate of buns across the table.

Hmm.

Sizhui eyes the pile, considering his options. He would like to get to the bottom of what happened between his dad and uncle last night – but Sizhui’s stomach rumbles in the next second, as if to argue for the correct plan of action.

Sizhui mimics his father’s sigh.

“Thank you,” he says, reaching for the nearest bun. He takes his first bite, wondering if that was Sect Leader Jiang’s plan all along; buy his silence with food.

If it was, it worked.

“So!” Wei Wuxian begins again, as Lan Wangji seats himself. He points at a town on the map. “We’re here and the Compass of Evil – I’m pretty sure – is pointing us westward. I think that we should head towards Fancheng but Jiang Cheng thinks – ”

I think we should head towards Yunping,” Jiang Wanyin interjects. He opens his mouth to say more –

But Sizhui drops his bun out of shock. It bounces onto the table, and rolls, haphazardly, in a circle. He scrambles for it, grabbing it just before it settles, and pulls it close to his chest.

Sizhui dares look back up – and the whole table is staring at him.

“I apologise,” he squeaks. “That – that name, the city – I wasn’t expecting to hear it.”

“What’s wrong with Yunping city?” Jiang Wanyin asks, with his nose scrunched. “What, someone you know die there?”

Sect Leader Jiang’s ability to hit the nail on the head so bluntly continues to amaze Sizhui.

He gulps, for a lack of words.

“…Shit. Sorry.” 

Father turns to Jiang Wanyin. Deadpan, “You are a terrible uncle.”

And Jiang Wanyin throws his hands in the air. “I was joking! How was I supposed to know?! He didn’t even grow up in Yunmeng!”  

A hand finds its way to Sizhui’s. Senior Wei, reaching across the table, brows furrowed, asks, “Is that where we – ?”

Sizhui nods, and his dad squeezes a little tighter.

“Right,” Wei Wuxian says, louder this time. “So let’s avoid Yunping city for A-Zhui’s sake of mind – ”

“No, we should go.”

Senior Wei blinks. “Didn’t you just say we… you know? Died there?”

“Wait, we’re the ones that died there! The fuck?!”

“No shouting in the restaurant.”

That’s what concerns you? Wei Wuxian, you need to sort out your husband’s priorities!”

As Wei Wuxian placates his brother, Sizhui looks down to where Yunping sits on the paper. He can picture it still, so clearly – Guanyin temple: the shape of the building, the grand columns, the floating fabrics… all of it closing in around them.

He doesn’t want to go back; Senior Wei is right about that. Yet – “Jin Guangyao, originally… He returned to Yunping city to unbury his mother’s coffin. It was the last thing he planned to do before fleeing to Dongying.”

Sizhui has managed to recapture his uncle’s attention. “He was going to make a run for it?” Sect Leader Jiang asks – and Sizhui nods.

“As he is now.”

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian breathes, putting the pieces together. “He may be heading there, if he’s not already.”

They may be closer to another enemy than they expected.  

“…But it’s Xue Yang we’re looking for,” Jiang Wanyin says. “Do we really have time to make a detour?”  

“It is not a detour. With this route, we remain on Xue Yang’s tail.”

Jiang Wanyin huffs, crossing his arms. “Yeah, but taking Jin Guanyao out is going to cost us valuable time. How do we know his mother’s remains are there anyway? Sizhui’s information is sixteen years out-of-date.”

Hmm. That is true. Though…

“I… I have a way to be sure. A friend.”

Jiang Wanyin raises a brow. “A friend?”

“Yes.”

“When did you have the time to do that?”

“The night I got here.” Sizhui swallows. “I landed outside the residence where Meng Shi used to live. One of her friends helped me orientate myself.”

Sizhui waits for the realisation to drop.

“But Meng Shi was…” Jiang Wanyin gasps. “You went into a brothel?!” He’s utterly scandalised, as affronted as an old madam.

Sizhui shrinks under his withering gaze. “I didn’t know what it was at first!”

“Yes! At first!”

“Eh, what’s the big deal, Jiang Cheng? He was disorientated! No harm was done!”

(Sizhui bites his tongue. He can confess that he told Sisi he was from the future later).

Jiang Wanyin whips around to glare daggers at his brother. “You’re a heathen so of course you don’t care!”

“Hey! I’m not a heathen!”

“Lan Wangji! Back me up here!”

Father’s face remains perfectly blank. “I take no issue with my son’s actions.”

UGH! Seriously?! What if someone had seen? This could have destroyed his marriage prospects!”

Oh-kay, this is going too far now. “Marriage?” Sizhui peeps. He’s barely been in the past a month! He doesn’t even know anyone! Well, other than Sisi, but he’s not marrying her!

Senior Wei seemingly agrees. “Ahahahaha, Jiang Cheng,” he starts, a little pale in the face, “isn’t it a little early to be thinking about marriage?”

Jiang Wanyin crosses his arms. “If he’s anything like you – which he has proved, what with that whole stunt with A-jie and his forehead ribbon – we need to start prepping his wedding now.

Ouch.

Father coughs. “We are off topic.” His ears are a little pink. “Our path of action must be decided. I agree with Wei Ying and Sizhui. Yunping should be our destination.”

Jiang Wanyin narrows his eyes. He turns to Wei Wuxian. Then Lan Wangji. Then Sizhui. Under his scrutiny, Sizhui finds it hard not to start sweating.

It’s only once Sect Leader Jiang decides he’s truly outnumbered that sighs. “Fine. I can’t believe I’m agreeing to this. We’ll head to Yunping. What’s your ‘friend’s name?”

Sizhui relaxes. With the nod of his head, he says, “Thank you,” and then clarifies, “for your trust. Her name is Sisi.”

 

They follow the previous day’s routine: flying in the morning and travelling on foot in the evening. The difference is that today’s journey is much less awkward. As Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin banter and bicker, Lan Sizhui and Lan Wangji, in contrast, spend the day in silent communication, trying to figure out what changed.

(Walking two abreast, Sizhui makes a circular gesture with his hands. ‘Perhaps they talked out their issues regarding Dad’s golden core?’

Father purses his lips – and then minutely shakes his head. ‘That cannot be it alone,’ Sizhui interprets. Tilting his head in Sizhui’s direction, ‘It could be that Jiang Wanyin apologised for upsetting you,’ he suggests.

Sizhui’s not sure that answer is conclusive either. He shrugs).

They make it to Yunping in good time, arriving in the early afternoon. According to the Compass of Evil, they’re still closing in on Xue Yang – however:

“Stupid thing,” Senior Wei grumbles, hitting the side of the device. “I don’t know why it’s acting up now.”

Sizhui looks over from where he’s walking next to his dad. Indeed, it appears the compass point has started to move erratically, though it generally settles after a while in a westward direction.

“Is there something interfering with the signal?” he asks. That would explain the fluctuations.

Senior Wei sighs. “I can’t be sure until I’ve had some time to prod at it. I thought I’d accounted for other large sources of resentful energy…”

“We should stop to get some lunch then,” Jiang Wanyin calls back. “I’d love to see you practise demonic cultivation at the table and freak the waiter out!”

“Oh, shut up!” Wei Wuxian shouts back. “Though… I am hungry…”

“Food it is,” Father agrees then, striding past them to fall in line with Jiang Wanyin.

They’re walking down one of Yunping’s market streets, so they have to speak quite loudly to be heard over the clamouring merchants. There are a distracting quantity of goods on sale, largely fine fabrics and intricate accessories, and Sizhui finds himself having to dodge overly keen traders at every turn.

They haven’t entered the older part of the city yet, where Sizhui knows Guanyin temple will one day stand – or where it would have, that is. With Jin Guangyao ruined… Sizhui supposes the brothel will remain standing. Jiang Wanyin leads them closer, though, as he rounds a corner into the hospitality district. The perfume in the air is quickly washed away by the scent of grilled meats and spices.

“This one!” Jiang Wanyin has stopped before a fancier looking restaurant. “I’ve been here before. Wei Wuxian, you have to try their pork.”

Senior Wei waves him off. “Yeah, yeah, one second. I could have sworn I saw…” He trails off and, as he squints into the crowd, Jiang Wanyin rolls his eyes before heading inside. Sizhui goes to follow him and Father, but –

“Wait, hold up!”

There’s a tug on his sleeve – and Wuxian is pointing down the street, at the junction at the end of the road. “Isn’t that Xiao Xingchen?”

What?

Sizhui searches the crowd, eyes bouncing off every figure – and then he spots him: a man in white, standing at a toy stall, fabric tied over his eyes. There’s a young girl at his side, a rattle-drum in one hand, the cultivator’s sleeve in her other. She pulls on it repeatedly as she beams up at him, talking a mile a minute.

It is Xiao Xingchen – and that’s A-Qing, Sizhui suddenly realises. He didn’t realise they’d already met this early on in the timeline. She’s so small, in comparison to what Sizhui remembers, and so very alive. Her smile is so wide it looks like it hurts, and it widens still as Xiao Xingchen, fondly shaking his head, offers payment to the merchant for the toy.

Unable to contain himself, “Hey, Senior Xiao!” Wei Wuxian calls, arm raised in the air. “Over here-mmfph!”

Sizhui slaps a hand over his dad’s mouth, effectively shushing him. “Forgive me, Dad, but this doesn’t feel right!” The wrongness, that Sizhui has been feeling all day, has come back in full force. He has a bad feeling about this – this coincidence.

“Is everything okay?” Father asks, now behind them – and its only his appearance that prompts Sizhui to sheepishly pull his hand away – when Lan Wangji’s eyes widen inexplicably. “The compass…!”

The – ?

Sizhui looks down – and oh. The needle of the compass has begun to move erratically, back and forth, unable to settle. It swings in a perfect circle, suddenly, all the way around, before pointing to the left junction of the street, moving steadily from left to right. Sizhui looks up onto the street – and he sees Xiao Xingchen beginning to walk away. But the needle isn’t pointing at him. No, it’s following the movement of a hooded figure, lurking behind him.

As this person strolls along, they toss a pebble size object in the air, catching it in their mouth – and this dislodges his hood slightly. Xue Yang chomps down on the candy, grinning wickedly, before tugging his hood back up.

Xue Yang.

They’ve found Xiao Xingchen because Xue Yang has been stalking him.

“Are you coming or what?” Jiang Wanyin cuts in from behind them – before noticing the mood. “What? What happened?”

“The compass – ” Senior Wei starts, but he cuts off with a sharp inhale.

The compass point has started to spin again, settling back at the left junction of the road – which doesn’t make sense! The only source of Yin Iron should have passed by now! It tails two new hooded figures – and at the bottom of their cloaks, Sizhui catches the colour of their hanfus.

Gold and white.

“He’s wearing gold,” Sizhui hears himself say. “Jin gold.”

This is bad.

Very, very bad.

Sect Leader Jiang is quick to catch on. “Holy shit! That’s Jin Guangyao, isn’t it?”

“Xue Yang and Jin Guangyao in the same place…” Wei Wuxian say weakly.

“Why’s the compass pointing to them?”

“You do not think…” Father peters off. The party of four watches in silence, for a moment, as the two men walk down the street, right after Xue Yang.

“Father?” Sizhui prompts.

Lan Wangji grips the sheath of his sword tighter. “It is impossible to destroy the Yin Iron without backlash. Lanling Jin had the three remaining pieces.”

And Jin Guangyao teleported away from the Burial Mounds long before news of his crimes would be able to reach Lanling. He would have been able to enter the vaults and remove the Yin Iron, undeterred.

The Compass of Evil fluctuates now, back and forth, between what must be Xue Yang and Jin Guangyao.

“…Well, we’re fucked.”

“Jiang Wanyin!”

What?!” he retorts. “You know I’m right! They have all the bloody pieces of the Yin Iron! Wen Ruohan was a monster with just three!”

“We have to warn Xiao Xingchen,” Sizhui interrupts. “Xue Yang’s going to kill him.”

“Xiao Xingchen is the least of our worries!”

“He’s a potential ally!” Senior Wei says. “Besides, he has a child with him! You’re not going to let an innocent child get in harms way, are you, Jiang Cheng?”

A beat. “Ughh,” Jiang Wanyin groans, throwing his head back. “Fine. You’re so lucky I like children.”

“How do we contact Xiao Xingchen without Xue Yang finding out?” Father interjects, ever the voice of reason. Sizhui – doesn’t know what to say. His mind has clamed up. All he can think is ‘Xue Yang is here. He’s here, he’s here, he’s here – !

Thankfully, Senior Wei clicks his fingers – hit with a moment of inspiration. “I have an idea!” he says – and woosh! Gripping Sizhui’s sleeve, he starts running down the street after Xiao Xingchen, and Xue Yang, and Jin Guangyao, rummaging through his pockets as he does so. “You’re all so lucky I remembered to prep my talismans before we left Gusu!”

Dragged behind Senior Wei, Sizhui thinks they’re going to need more than luck to get through this alive.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian slides under the door with a gust of wind, floating across the entry way and through the room. The breeze carries him quite a way, but soon enough he has to rely on his tiny paper legs to cover the distance between him and Xiao Xingchen.

The inn is busy, which has its pros and cons. Pro: it’s unlikely that Xue Yang will spot him where he’s sat, in a dark corner with more jars of alcohol than is socially acceptable. Con: Wei Wuxian has come very close to being trampled already.

Weaving through waiters and chefs, travellers and locals, Wei Wuxian has to dance across the wooden floor to avoid a painful fate. He nearly has a whole glass of wine poured over him, in fact, when one diner gets a little too rowdy.

HA HA!” the man bellows, banging his fist against the table, a long-suffering waiter kneeling to clean up the mess. As the inn-worker stands, Wei Wuxian bounds towards him and manages to find purchase on his leg just as they begin walking away. He pats the waiter’s calf thankfully – what good transport they make! – waiting and waiting… Now!

Wei Wuxian jumps, right as the inn-worker passes Xiao Xingchen’s table. He’s still a little distance off, but is close enough to catch the conversation between Xiao Xingchen and his charge now, a girl A-Zhui has explained to him is called A-Qing.

She’s staring up at him with milky-white eyes, munching away on a mouthful of rice. “Daozhang,” the little girl starts, “I heard that golden cores are actually loquats – that cultivators swallow the pits and then they grow them in their chests. Is it true? They’re the right colour!”

A-Qing is a curious one – and Wei Wuxian decides pretty much immediately that he likes her. Perhaps he can convince Senior Xiao to part with his little disciple so A-Yuan can have an older sister.

Xiao Xingchen huffs fondly. With amazing grace, he reaches for the water jug and easily fills up his cup. “It doesn’t work like that, sadly. If cultivating a golden core was as easy as swallowing fruit seeds everyone would do it. You can only become a strong cultivator through hard work, I’m afraid.”

A-Qing crosses her arms, pouting. “How boring!” she declares, and Xiao Xingchen laughs.

He looks worse for wear – the bandages over his eyes have begun to stain red, disconcertingly – but appears genuinely happy. “These sorts of thing tend to be, despite what you’d expect.”

Well, Wei Wuxian can’t be having that! He’ll just have to prove how entertaining cultivation can be!

With as much might as his paper body contains, Wei Wuxian launches himself forward to fly through the air. He lands next to A-Qing’s hand with a flourish – and watches the little girl contain her squeak. She’s staring directly at him, eyes wide, proving A-Zhui’s words.

‘She looks blind and claims she is, but I can assure you, Dad, she’s not. You will be able to catch Senior Xiao’s attention through her.’

Now Wei Wuxian just has to try and convey his message to her with only his nubby paper arms at his disposal.

No pressure.

He waves in greeting and decides, first of all, that he should gain her trust.

So Wei Wuxian does a flip.

A-Qing stifles a laugh.

Heh, Wei Wuxian is great with kids.

“A-Qing?”

This snaps the girl’s attention back to her guardian. “N-nothing, Daozhang! I just – ”

Wei Wuxian jumps, and does his best to point to the ceiling. ‘Upstairs! Go upstairs!’

“I juuussst…?” A-Qing frowns at him, raising a brow. ‘What?’ she mouths.

Hmm. A new tactic is needed.

Wei Wuxian scans the table. What can he… oh! That’s an idea! He dodges around some bowls and cups, so he can point in Xue Yang’s direction. ‘Look over there!’

A-Qing does so. “Daozhang, I think that – ” Once A-Qing is looking, Wei Wuxian reiterates his point, before making an ‘X’ with his arms. ‘Bad man!’ he thinks, really, really loudly, and then draws his hand across his neck. He dramatically falls dead upon the table and waits for A-Qing’s reaction.

She pales.

“ – that we should go to bed now!” A-Qing blurts. She yawns, theatrically. “Yes, Daozhang, I’m really tired. Let’s go to bed! Like, now!” She stands, then, scooping Wei Wuxian up as she does so.

It helps that Xue Yang looks immensely threatening, perched in that dark conner. He’s still wearing his cloak, the hood drawn up, and his sword, prominently placed on the table, catches the light every now and then, gleaming menacingly.

Xiao Xingchen, meanwhile, seems bemused by this rapid change in the conversation. “But what about our dinner?”

“I’m not hungry anymore! Come on,” A-Qing whines, scrambling to Xiao Xingchen’s side of the table to tug on his sleeve. “You’ve finished eating anyway!”

If Senior Xiao could roll his eyes, Wei Wuxian thinks he would. “Okay, okay, we’ll go. I suppose an early night would do us both some good.” He rises – and Wei Wuxian slips himself into A-Qing’s sleeve to ensure he remains hidden from Xue Yang. From his position, he sees Xiao Xingchen offer A-Qing a hand – and a smile. “Come along then.”

A-Qing takes it eagerly, clasping her senior’s hand tight and pulling him out of the inn dining room. She does well to not look back, despite the wave of nerves Wei Wuxian feels coming off of her. Fully trained cultivators panic in Xue Yang’s presence, and this little girl is staying remarkably calm.

Clutching tight to the fabric of A-Qing’s sleeve, Wei Wuxian hears the pair of wanders climb the stairs, chatting stiltedly as they go, a thump at a time. The time drags, every second, as Xiao Xingchen and A-Qing move down the corridor, as Xiao Xingchen reaches for the door handle, and they finally, finally enter the confines of the inn room.

Only when he hears the door click shut does Wei Wuxian climb out of A-Qing’s sleeve. He twists onto her arm to give the girl a proud pat – ‘You did so well!’ he tries to convey – before fluttering over to the shuttered windows. He lands – and jumps, repeatedly.

‘Open them!’ he mimes, pointing to the window.

“Daozhang!” A-Qing begins. “It’s really warm in here. Can we open the window?”

Xiao Xingchen quirks his lips at A-Qing. “Little blind,” he says affectionately, “it’s the middle of winter.”

“So?”

So, it will be really cold out.”

“Please, Daozhang! Just for a minute! I’m sweating!”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t know how good the excuse is – he can’t really feel temperature with his paper body – but, with a sigh, Xiao Xingchen agrees. “I’ll open it, but only for a minute, okay? I don’t want you to freeze in the night.”

Wei Wuxian pumps his tiny arm. Success!

“Thank you!” A-Qing replies, visibly relaxing – and, smoothly, Xiao Xingchen slides the shutters open.

His escape in sight, Wei Wuxian dodges Senior Xiao’s arms to dive out of the window to clamber to the edge of the roof. Thankfully, Xiao Xingchen’s room backs onto the alley behind the inn, where Wei Wuxian’s party is stationed. Appearing at the edge, he scans the street… There!

Wei Wuxian throws himself into the air – effectively catching his son’s attention. “Father, Jiang Wanyin,” Sizhui prompts, directing them up to where Wei Wuxian stands. His brother and husband turn, and Jiang Cheng shoulders sag with relief.

“What took you so long?” he grumbles, before shifting into a running stance. After a second of calculation, Jiang Cheng leaps into action, running at the wall before jumping up to grab onto the roof titles and swing himself up. A-Zhui is right behind his uncle, and Lan Zhan is right behind him; he’s a little slower, but that’s because he has Wei Wuxian’s unconscious body in his arms, tightly tucked against his chest, and wooow, is it weird to see himself from this angle! His body looks really comfy – and Wei Wuxian thinks he’s now jealous of his own body.

He’s going to have to insist on more cuddles from his husband later to balance the scales.

Jiang Cheng walks straight past Wei Wuxian – how rude! – but A-Zhui, the sweet boy, kneels down to offer him a lift, palm offered upright. Wei Wuxian rewards his son with a bow, arms and all, before clambering up Sizhui’s arm to sit on his shoulder. Now settled, Wei Wuxian kicks his legs back and forth as A-Zhui rises and makes his way over to the window.

Having beaten them over, it appears that Jiang Cheng is going straight for the punch. He knocks on the shutter pane before sticking his head into the room. “Senior Xiao, this is Sect Leader Jiang,” Wei Wuxian hears him say. “May I come in?”

Personally, Wei Wuxian thinks they’re long past the time for pleasantries. He’d have jumped right in the room already. Though – perhaps Jiang Cheng does have the right approach because Xiao Xingchen startles. He was in the process of walking away from the window, but with the sound he spins back, drawing A-Qing behind him, Shuanghua already drawn.  

“Sect Leader Jiang?” he echoes. “Jiang Wanyin?”

“That’s right,” Jiang Cheng responds. “I understand if you want to verify my identity. We only met the once, after all, and that was years ago now.”

“What are you doing here? At my window, no less?”

“Xue Yang is tailing you. We think he’s here to kill you.”

Shuanghua drops slightly. “Xue Yang?” Xiao Xingchen repeats. “He’s here?”

“Yes. So, can we come in?”

“…We?”

Jiang Cheng is doing very well here, responding so patiently, but Wei Wuxian can see him starting to get antsy. “Myself, Hanguang-jun, Hanguang-jun’s cousin, and my brother.” A beat. “You know, it’s pretty cold out here.”

Xiao Xingchen is frowning, his brows peaking under his eye covering, and Wei Wuxian can tell that he’s not convinced – but after one last moment of scrutiny, he completely lowers his blade.

Jiang Cheng takes that as confirmation. He clambers in the window, and A-Zhui follows him in. He lands with all the expected Lan grace and, as he does so, Wei Wuxian catches A-Qing’s watching them – him specifically. So Wei Wuxian waves again gaze again and A-Qing’s lips quirk in amusement – before realising, oh yes, she’s supposed to be blind. All at once, A-Qing’s expression goes blank – and Wei Wuxian hears his son chuckle.

Sizhui raises his hand to his mouth and puts a singular finger over his lips. Then, he winks at A-Qing, making direct eye contact. ‘We won’t tell,’ he’s telling her – and they know she’s got the message, even if she doesn’t visibly respond. Her pink cheeks are telling enough.

“We want to move you to a safe location,” Jiang Cheng picks back up, “while Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji remain, temporarily, to keep an eye on Xue Yang. They’ll regroup with us once I give them the signal to confirm you’re safe.”

“Wei Ying is here,” Lan Zhan begins to explain, “but he cannot respond to you. His is soul currently occupies a paperman talisman. He is how we learned of your location.”

Xiao Xingchen has a look of dawning realisation. “Ah!” he says, snapping his fingers. “I thought I felt Shuanghua reacting to a whiff of resentful energy. I dismissed it since the force was so small. He is…” Xiao Xingchen raises his sword and moves slowlyyy… until he’s pointing his sword directly at Wei Wuxian. “Here?”

“Correct.” Lan Wangji confirms. “…Your sword.”

“Oh, of course.” Xiao Xingchen chuckles, lowering Shuanghua again. “My apologies. I would never hurt my shijie’s son.”

Wei Wuxian feels the dull twang of an old wound. He pushes it to the back of his bind but, perhaps, once this is all over… maybe he’ll ask, again, if Senior Xiao has any stories to tell him; if not of his mother, where she grew up at least.

“No hard feelings,” Jiang Cheng replies in their stead. “So, are you going to come with us or not? I’d rather not leave you here to come back in the morning to find you’ve become mincemeat.”

Xiao Xingchen hums. “What do you think, Little Blind? Do you trust them?”

Peering out from behind Xiao Xingchen’s back, scowling at them – A-Qing meets Sizhui’s gaze again. “…They don’t seem so bad, Daozhang.”

Sizhui beams and A-Qing whips her head back to hide her face in Senior Xiao’s hanfu. Wei Wuxian doesn’t blame her; his son can be awfully charming.

Xiao Xingchen smiles down at her and runs his free hand over her hair. “You have good judgement. I’ll trust you.” He turns back to Jiang Cheng. “We’ll come with you.”

They go back out the window, Jiang Cheng first, followed by Xiao Xingchen, giving his ward a piggy-back ride. Sizhui, after passing Wei Wuxian over to Lan Zhan’s shoulder, goes to follow them – but lingers, perched in the window.

“I’ll see you soon,” he says, softly – and Lan Zhan nods.

“We will,” he confirms.

Sizhui is gone in the next moment.

In the emptiness of the room, Lan Zhan takes a deep breath before carefully lowering Wei Wuxian’s body onto the bed. He sits down gingerly next to it, his gaze lingering for a moment, before, “Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan starts, addressing him now. He cups his hands together and Wei Wuxian takes that as his queue. He patters down his husband’s arm to place himself into his palms, and then Lan Zhan raises them so they’re eyelevel.  

“You will be cautious?” Lan Zhan asks of him, and Wei Wuxian nods.

Lan Zhan continues, “If you are not back in half an hour, I will come looking for you,” and Wei Wuxian nods again. They settled on the plan and its protocols while Wei Wuxian could talk, but he knows this is his husband’s anxiety speaking more than anything.

To reassure him, then, he leans in to press his paper face against Lan Zhan’s lips. It’s the best goodbye he can offer, but it has the intended effect of making his husband smile. Ohh, Wei Wuxian wants nothing more than to kiss his husband properly! It can be a reward, he decides, for when he gets back.

Right now, however, it’s time to get down to business.

Blowing a kiss, he springs off Lan Zhan’s hands and flies towards the door. He lands just before it and leans down to squeeze himself under the crack – when he sees a shadow.

Uh oh.

Wei Wuxian lays down completely and sticks his head through.

Xue Yang is sitting with his back against the door.

Shit.

When did he get here? Currently, Xue Yang is staring at the wall, drumming his hand against the floor, his other clutching at a jar of alcohol, propped up on his knee. With his hood down, Wei Wuxian can finally see the bags under his eyes and the stray hairs that frame his face. He looks… almost dishevelled. It’s the most out of sorts Wei Wuxian has ever seen him.

Still, that doesn’t mean he’s not a threat. Was Xue Yang listening to their conversation? That’s the ultimate question. If he was, they’re busted. Though… Wei Wuxian thinks it’s unlikely. After all, why would Xue Yang still be sat here if he knew what was going on inside? He’d have charged in and killed them where they stood, the second they arrived, and it would have been easy work with the Stygian Tiger Amulet.

So, what gives? Why hasn’t he? The wooden door isn’t exactly thick, and Jiang Cheng isn’t quiet.

Wei Wuxian’s answer comes in a mutter. “Not yet,” Xue Yang mumbles to himself. “I have to wait. Make this as painful as possible.” He’s silent for a moment. “Come on, that’s a bit much. The kid has nothing to do with this. As long as she doesn’t get in my – Hm. That’s a point. The expressions she’d make…”

He’s not…

No, Wei Wuxian thinks he is. He can see the wisps of resentful energy collecting at Xue Yang’s collar, his paper eyes all that more sensitive to the world of spirits.

Wei Wuxian thinks Xue Yang might be talking to the Stygian Tiger Amulet.

It whispers, alright; the Yin Iron is really quite chatty. Wei Wuxian just never had the nerve to talk back. He thought if he did, it would consume him.

 Xue Yang grins – and Wei Wuxian shudders compulsively.

None of this is good.

Suddenly – there are footsteps on the stairs. Arriving at the top, Su She on his tail, Jin Guangyao drops his hood and smiles pointedly at Xue Yang. “I think it is time we talked.”

Xue Yang takes a swig of his drink. He doesn’t spare Jin Guangyao any of this attention. “Can’t you see I’m busy?”

“A-Yang,” Jin Guangyao coos, with the patronising tilt of his head. “I’ll make it worth your while.”

“What could you possibly have that I want?”

“I can complete something that was rightfully yours to begin with.”

Jin Guangyao walks further down the corridor, past Xue Yang, without even blinking, to a room adjacent to Xiao Xingchen’s. He opens it and strolls in. Just behind him, acting as a bodyguard, Su She glares at Xue Yang as he enters, but leaves the door open behind him.

Inviting.

It’s too tempting.

With a big huff, Xue Yang begins pulling himself to his feet – and while he can, Wei Wuxian latches onto the fabric of his trousers, beneath Xue Yang’s hanfu. He won’t be seen here – hopefully – but, really, Wei Wuxian is playing a dangerous game, lingering so close to detection. On the flip side, they need the intel. Learning what their enemies are planning could tilt the scales in their favour.

Xue Yang closes the door behind him before slinking to sit at the low table with Su She and Jin Guangyao. Wei Wuxian dives out closer to the door, slithering along the wall and behind a chest of draws. He has a prime perch to watch the conversation unfold while also being close enough to the exit to escape at a moment’s notice.

“You know, I should be mad at you, Yao-gege,” Xue Yang quips as he settles. “You left me all alone at the Burial Mounds! I had to make it out of Qinghe all by myself, you meanie!”

Jin Guangyao purses his lips in something that could be called a smile but feels much more like a grimace. “I would have not had to abandon you if you had not left me out to dry first. I hope you understand now that your actions have consequences.”

“Hm? They do?” Xue Yang strokes his chin, contemplatively. “Yeah, not sure about that one. I’ve been doing fine since the Burial Mounds. I’ve got everything I want right in my grasp!”

“You are planning on murdering Xiao Xingchen.”

“Of course.”

“What comes after that?”

Xue Yang leans forward propped on his elbows. “Why should I tell you? If you’re just here to catch up, you know, I have better things to be doing.”

“Let us cut to the chase then.” Jin Guangyao clasps his hands together firmly. “Minshan and I wish for your protection until we can make it to Dongyue safely. In exchange, we will give you the three remaining pieces of the Yin Iron.”

Wei Wuxian feels someone walk over his grave.

His body may be made of paper, but he trembles.

He has the urge, all at once, to leave now, escape while he can, retreat to Lan Zhan’s warmth – but he stays, as if frozen to the spot.

It was bad enough when the Yin Iron was split between the two groups – but Xue Yang, with every single piece...! That’s the nightmare scenario. No one since Xue Chonghai has held all of the Yin Iron at once, and it drove him insane.

Xue Yang rhythmically drills his fingers against the tabletop – as if there’s anything to truly consider. He’ll accept this deal; they all know it.

“What does this ‘protection’ entail? I get bored reallllly easily.”

“What you would expect,” Jin Guangyao replies. “I wish to recover my mother’s remains before moving out of Yunping as soon as possible.”

“So you’re going to make me speed up my timeline? I was hoping to string Xiao Xingchen along a bit longer.”

“It’s not much like you’re doing anything right now…” Su She spits bitterly.

“Minshan,” Jin Guangyao chides, but it’s too late. Like a shark sensing blood, Xue Yang latches onto the insult teeth bared.

“What do you know?” he bites at Su She, still grinning. “You’re a cookie-cutter cultivator who wouldn’t know creativity if it hit you over the head. My plans are beyond your wildest imagination. Stay in your lane and let the adults talk, eh?”

Su She surges upwards, reaching for his scabbard, shouting, “You – !” but Jin Guangyao reaches out and grabs his companion’s arm, pulling him back down.

“Contain yourself,” Jin Guangyao admonishes.

“But Lianfang-Zun!”

Enough.” Jin Guangyao stares Su She down – he doesn’t even blink – and it is only under this glower that Su She folds. He crosses his arms and sinks into his seat, sulking like a child.

The sight brings Xue Yang much joy.

“Good dog,” he coos, before turning his attention back to Jin Guangyao.  “Are you expecting anyone to come after you?”

“The Jins, eventually. The Nies. It is in Wei Wuxian’s interests to see me… defeated as well.”

“Wei Wuxian, eh?”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t like hearing his name come from Xue Yang’s lips.

“I expect his merry band are also likely to be on your tail.”

“Hmm.” Xue Yang starts picking at his nails. “I suppose so.”

“They will be.” Jin Guangyao sounds so sure. “I have studied them well, these past few years. The combined saviour complexes of Wei Wuxian, Lan Wangji and Jiang Wanyin could topple mountains. None of them know how to leave well alone.”

…Well that’s rude.

 Correct, but rude.

As Wei Wuxian recovers from being read for filth, “You know all of them?” Xue Yang picks up.

“Yes,” Jin Guangyao confirms.

“Inside and out?”

“I can play them like a guqin.”  

Xue Yang scrapes his nails together, flicks away some dirt. “What do you know about Lan Sizhui?”

No.

No, no, go back to talking about him! Leave his son out of this!

Simultaneously, Jin Guangyao goes very, very still.

Xue Yang smiles. “You don’t know anything. The genius has nothing to go off!”

“I did not calculate for his existence.”

A snort. “No, you didn’t. Never mentioned him once to me, not in all the time we were working together.”

“What’s so important about him?” Su She interjects, having regained his confidence. “He’s just another Lan cousin.”

“You really are stupid, aren’t you?”

“Hey!”

“That ‘Lan cousin’,” Xue Yang drawls, “has the most powerful people in the cultivation world wrapped around his little finger. Not just anyone worms their way into the Yiling Patriarch’s good graces. He’s important.”

“Why do you bring him up?” Jin Guangyao speaks up, hoping to reclaim the flow of the conversation, but this is Xue Yang’s race now.

“He turns up?” the demonic cultivator replies, “I want him.”

Oh, heavens, no.

Jin Guangyao raises a brow. “You want to be the one to kill him?”

Anything but that! How can Wei Wuxian protect him, his sweet son, from Xue Yang?! He’ll rip this bastard limb from limb if he even dares

“No,”  Xue Yang snarls, as if – as if the idea disgusts him. “I want him,” he echoes, firmer this time. “He’s mine. No harm comes to him.”

…What?

Jin Guangyao blinks. “Uh. Yes. I can agree to that. If that is your only term…?”

“Oh, I also want payment now.”

Jin Guangyao’s response is deadpan: “One now, the other two later.”

Xue Yang laughs. “Ehh, it was worth a try. Yeah, that works.”

“We have a deal then?” Jin Guangyao asks –  

And Xue Yang doesn’t hesitate. “We do.”

Wei Wuxian can’t stomach this anymore. He slips under the door when he’s sure no one is looking, with more to report than he ever anticipated.

Chapter Text

“Ugh,” Sizhui hears his uncle say behind him. “Are you sure this is the place?”

“Positive.” He’s having to think quite hard to remember the exact path but, yes, he’s quite sure this is the right end of town.

“I was right to worry about your reputation, if this is where you landed,” the Sect Leader continues absentmindedly, as they round a street corner and enter a decrepit alleyway. “I’m pretty sure I saw someone pissing on the wall back there.”

“Sect Leader Jiang,” Xiao Xingchen chastens, A-Qing giggling where she’s propped on her senior’s back. “Language.”

Jiang Wanyin winces. “Right, little ears. Sorry.”

“My ears aren’t little!” A-Qing responds, indignant. She rolls her eyes, in fact. “Daozhang, I’ve heard much worse.”

Xiao Xingchen sighs. “Please don’t remind me of that.”

Personally, Sizhui thinks Senior Xiao isn’t going to have much luck with A-Qing on the swearing front; he never heard the girl speak in the future, but he’s quite sure she’s going to grow up with a tongue to rival sailors.

Sizhui puts those thoughts to the back of his mind, though, as he realises that they’re close to Sisi’s brothel now. They’re approaching from behind – thankfully – meaning they’ll be able to sneak through the back relatively unnoticed; Sizhui just hopes that, once they do arrive, Sisi will be easy to find.

Their party turns one more corner – and there it is: the spot he found himself barely a month ago.

(A month and sixteen years; a grand temple and dingy backwater. Time can change so much.)

Sizhui wastes no time, locating the brothels back door and knocking, loud and clear.  He waits with bated breath, hoping that he’s not going to have to make his way through any – ahem – awkward explanations.

“One moment!” a sultry voice calls from inside, and in the next moment the door is swinging open to reveal Sisi.

Sizhui breathes out, relieved.

“Oh, little Lan!” she chimes. Sisi drops her performance and her face brightens; it is nice to see a genuine smile on her face. “You came back!”

“I did,” he replies, bowing in greeting. “I hope I am not imposing?”

“I wasn’t busy,” she waves off. Peering past him and down the street, “I take it this isn’t a personal call?”

“A personal call?!” Always looking for an invitation to be insulted, Sect Leader Jiang storms forwards, shoulders tensed and fists clenched. “Of course not! Don’t ask for such things from my cousin!”

Sisi blinks down at Jiang Wanyin, fuming. She towers over him, only by the virtue of the few steps between her building and the street, utterly unphased. No, instead of responding, Sisi leans closer to Sizhui and whispers n his ear, “Does he know that you’re not actually his cousin? That you’re… you know?”

Sizhui swallows a laugh. Of course that’s what Sisi wants to know. “This is my uncle,” he whispers back. “He knows, though the two over there don’t.”

Sisi whistles. “You’re better connected than I thought you were, my little Lan! You’ve got such a rich cultivator for an uncle!” and this time Sizhui does laugh aloud.

Jiang Wanyin’s mouth drops. “You said uncle,” he hisses furiously. “She KNOWS?!”

“Yes, I know! I was the one who found him and patched him up! Don’t sound so incredulous!”

“You didn’t tell me for weeks and you told her in the first minutes of meeting her?!”

“If you’re acting like this, no wonder the boy didn’t tell you sooner! He likely feared you’d rip his head off!”

“I didn’t!” he protests, gesturing to Sizhui’s very well attached head, but all that earns him is a thwack over the back of his skull.

“Stop agitating your cousin and get inside before you cause a commotion! Honestly, you rich boys are all the same!”

Jiang Wanyin squawks, taking the bait and chasing Sisi inside. “What’s that supposed to mean?!”

Sizhui shakes his head, fondly, then turns to face Xiao Xingchen and A-Qing. They’re standing awkwardly on the other side of the path, identical expressions of bewilderment on their faces.

“What was all that about?” A-Qing asks.

Sizhui scratches at the back of his neck self-consciously. “I – uh – told my friend a secret before I told my cousin. He’s not too happy about it.”

“Oh.” A-Qing thinks for a moment. “…What’s the secret?”

Xiao Xingchen takes that as his queue to shuffle A-Qing inside. “Come on, Little blind. Let’s get you into the warm.”

“But Daozhang!” she sulks. “I’m curious!”

‘Isn’t everyone?’ Sizhui thinks and follows them in.

 

They’ve long settled around the hearth, Sizhui’s cup of tea grown cold, by the time Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji re-join them. Between Jiang Wanyin and Sisi’s chatter, Sizhui hears them making their way down the street, Dad asking Father if he’s sure this is the right part of town. Sizhui rises, making his way over to the door, sticks his head out.

Yes, there they are, hand in hand, searching anxiously.

To put them out of their misery, “Over here!” Sizhui waves, catching his parent’s attention. He meets Senior Wei’s eye – and then Wei Wuxian is running at him “Oof!” Sizhui is pushed backwards as his dad tackles him with a hug, staggering. “S-senior Wei?”

His dad’s arms clench tighter for a moment, before he pulls back, sheepish, his smile a little pinched. “Sorry, sorry! I was just happy to see you!”

“I’m happy to see you too,” and Sizhui is, but he thinks there’s more to it than that. So, “Was it bad?” he asks. “What happened with Xue Yang?”

Senior Wei flinches.

“Oh…” So it was bad. His dad appears intact but, “Are you okay?” Sizhui questions anyway.

“I’m fine, but – ”

A hand comes to rest on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. Father is grim-faced. “We have much to discuss,” he says.

That does not bode well.

Sizhui ushers his parents in, out of the cold, for them to be immediately accosted by Sisi. Surveying them closely, “One of these two has to be your father,” she teases, waving closed fan between the two, “though at this point, I’m thinking it may be both.”

Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji blink at Sisi.

“These are my parents,” Sizhui confirms, trying to smother his amusement. It is hard to, however, with Senior Wei’s eyes blown so wide.

Sisi flares her fan. “If these are your parents, then who’s looking after the even Littler Lan? Oooh, you should have brought him along! I’d love to have squeezed your tiny cheeks!”

“A-Zhui… She knows?” Senior Wei interjects.

“She knew before anyone else did!” Sect Leader Jiang shouts over, still bitter.

This catches A-Qing’s attention. “What? The lazy man knows gege’s secret too! No fair!”

“Lazy man – ? Are you talking about me? Excuse me, young lady, but I was very busy back there!”

A-Qing crosses her arms and pushes her nose up in the air. “Sounded like you were just sleeping to me.”

“I’ll have you know – ”

As Senior Wei continues to rant in the background, “It is a pleasure to meet you, Maiden Sisi,” Father says with a bow, for lack of a more formal title to use. “I thank you for keeping my… cousin,” he says, gaze flickering to Xiao Xingchen, who is trying to diffuse A-Qing and Senior Wei’s argument, “safe when he arrived here.”

Maiden, oh stop it,” Sisi gushes. “I’m old enough to be your mother. Sisi is fine by itself. Come, Hanguang-jun, sit down. I expect your party has a lot to discuss. You wouldn’t be dropping in here otherwise.”

She leads Father towards the stools around the hearth, though he remains standing as Sizhui retakes his seat. Lan Wangji’s hand comes to rest on Sizhui’s shoulder, as he says, “Your hospitality is greatly appreciated. I understand we are imposing and will ensure you are duly compensated for your time.”

“Depending on how long this meeting of yours goes on, that may end up being a lot of money.”

Father nods, sincere. “I can afford it.”

“Ughhhhhhhhh,” Sect Leader Jiang groans, throwing back his head. “I pity Zewu-Jun. This is going to look so dodgy in your financial records.”

A glare. “Jiang Wanyin, be respectful to our host.”

“What!” he protests. “It will! If anyone finds out Hanguang-jun is paying off prostitutes, they’ll think you’re cheating on your husband, my brother.”

“You pay her then, if you are so worried for my reputation.”

“FINE! I WILL!”

Jiang Wanyin processes what he just agreed to.

There is silence for a moment.

Grumbling, begins looking for his money pouch.

Once that matter is settled, a sizeable chunk of Sect Leader Jiang’s funds now burning a hole in Sisi’s pockets, Senior Wei can put off his account of the evening no longer. Sat in a semi-circle around the fire, Sizhui listens with a grim fixation as his dad explains the situation. He tells them that Jin Guangyao has bargained for his safety with the Yin Iron; he tells them how Su She maintains staunchly loyal to his puppet master; and he tells them how he thinks Xue Yang is slipping, talking to no one.

Sizhui is the first to speak up once his dad has finished. “So, we were right. He is here for Senior Xiao.”

Dad nods, solemn.

Sizhui almost doesn’t want to ask, but, “He didn’t mention anyone else?” It’s silly, probably, to think Xue Yang is still thinking of him. Sizhui was a pawn to him, nothing else. Simply a means to an ends. He knows that, intellectually.

But – sometimes – when Sizhui is trying to sleep, he wakes in a fright, expecting to feel eyes watching him.

Yet, “No one else,” Father interjects. “Right, Wei Ying?”

Senior Wei’s gaze flickers over Sizhui’s head, to where Father stands. Something flickers in his eyes that Sizhui can’t read – but then his Dad is shaking his head. “I don’t think so,” he confirms. “At least, no names I recognised.”

That – should be a relief.

It’s not.

The conversation moves on swiftly.

“How long did Jin Guangyao say they’d be in town for?” Jiang Wanyin asks.

“Not long,” Senior Wei replies. “He’s here largely to recover his mother’s remains. He’ll move tonight, I think.”

“This whole time, you’ve been speaking of a… Jin Guangyao?” Sisi echoes. Her hand has stilled, where previously she was fanning herself.

Dad nods.

“…I hate to ask, but he didn’t used to be known as Meng Yao, did he?”

Ah. This is an harsh truth to break, and one Sizhui’s whole party knew was coming. “I apologise,” Father replies, “but yes.”

Sisi – sighs. “I thought so. It’s just – he never came back, you know, after his mother died, but I’d hear rumours. It always sounded like him, but I could never be sure.”

“You wouldn’t happen to know where Meng Shi is buried, would you?” Sizhui probes, and he does so with some regret. He doesn’t like to bring up old wounds; he knows how it feels. “I wish the situation were different… but he’s dangerous. We can’t risk letting him escape.”

Sisi smiles, sadly, and reaches over to pat Sizhui’s hands. “It’s okay, little Lan. I understand. Young Master Wei has said enough, and I believe him. Meng Shi is buried on the outskirts of town, in the local graveyard. Don’t ask me how we managed that – it cost… a lot. If you find me a map, I’ll point it out to you.”

Father moves to Sisi’s side, and as he dives into his qiankun pouch to find said map, “We should strike tonight, while they’re distracted.” Jiang Wanyin says.

“To do so before Jin Guangyao can pass Xue Yang any more of the Yin Iron would be wise,” Xiao Xingchen agrees.

Isn’t that a prospect? Xue Yang with even more of the Yin Iron. It sends shivers down Sizhui’s spine. “We need a strategy,” he suggests. “Perhaps one that keeps Xue Yang and Jin Guangyao separated?”

Senior Wei considers that, absently nodding his head. “Jin Guangyao is beyond intelligent, but he’s not the strongest fighter. He and Su She shouldn’t be too hard to defeat, if we can distract Xue Yang.”

Jiang Wanyin frowns. “What would lure Xue Yang away from Jin Guangyao, though?”

Sizhui swallows. “Isn’t it obvious?”

The room turns to stare at Senior Xiao.

Said man scratches at his nose. “…You’re all looking at me, aren’t you?”

“We’re all looking at you,” Senior Wei confirms.

A-Qing pats her guardian sympathetically on the leg. “You’ll make good bait, Daozhang.”

“…I guess Xue Yang did come here to kill me,” Xiao Xingchen cedes. “Okay. As A-Qing said, I shall be the bait. Where should we lead him?”

Senior Wei hums, twiddling Chenqing between his fingertips. “I suppose I could set a trap. I mean, we are going to be fighting in a graveyard.”

“You shall keep Xue Yang occupied with Senior Xiao,” Lan Wangji speaks up. “Jiang Wanyin, Sizhui and I, in the meantime, will detain Su Minshan and Jin Guangyao. Between three people, it should be dealt with swiftly. We can then regroup, so it is five versus one.”

That sounds like as good a plan as any to Sizhui’s ears.  

“Um, I have a question?” A-Qing has raised her hand. She’s blinking at them, chubby-cheeked, the picture of innocence. Assessing that she now has the room’s attention, “Yeah, what the fuck am I going to be doing while you all are fighting bad guys?”

Sizhui resists the urge to snort.

“A-Qing!” Xiao Xingchen must be scolding her out of principle alone at this point. There is no winning this battle.

“What!” she huffs.

“Don’t swear!”

“But the angry guy is allowed to swear! Why can’t I?”

“Sect Leader Jiang is an adult,” Xiao Xingchen chastises, waggling his finger, “and a poor example of manners, at that.”

“Back to A-Qing’s point,” Sizhui interjects, before his uncle can respond to that particular jab. “We cannot bring her with us when we go to fight Xue Yang.”

“She could stay here, with me?” Sisi suggests, and:

“That would work?” Senior Wei agrees.

The room’s attention turns to Jiang Wanyin. Or, more specifically, the purse in his lap.

He grits his teeth. “Fine.” He goes to pull on the strings –

Thankfully, Sisi shakes her head. “I’ll do it at no extra cost,” she says, before shooting Sect Leader Jiang a crooked grin and a wink. “I already overcharged you.”

“Like that’s any better!” Nonetheless, Jiang Wanyin’s shoulders untense.

Simultaneously, “Daozhang, do I have too?” A-Qing is gazing up at Senior Xiao with puppy dog eyes. “I want to help you take the bad man down!”

He smiles down at her, soft. Though, most of what Xiao Xingchen does now is tainted by an air of eeriness. The bandages over his eyes, seeped through red, make it seem as if he is always crying.  Nonetheless, “I’m afraid so,” Xiao Xingchen replies to his ward. “That bad man is dangerous, and you could get hurt. Or, worse, he could use you to hurt us.”

Sizhui thinks of the sounds of a cane, echoing around the abandoned streets of a misty town, endlessly searching. He feels his lungs ache, anxiously, his heart beating in his chest.

He will not allow history to repeat itself.

“A-Qing,” he starts. Sizhui rises from his seat, moving swiftly to kneel before the little girl. “There’s something you can do for me, something very important.”

She perks up. “Really?”

“Mm hm.” Then, he reaches into his sleeves and pulls out a worn, paper butterfly. As he presses it into her hands, he hears his parents gasp behind him. Sizhui ignores them. “This is my friend,” he begins to explain, “Young Master Butterfly. He’s very, very special. If something bad happens to us, you and Sisi have to get him home for me, okay?”

A-Qing frowns at him. “Why? What’s so special about him?”

Sizhui pauses for dramatic effect before whispering, as if revealing a grand secret. “He’s magic.” A-Qing’s eyes widen, as Sizhui continues, “If you give him to a friend, he’ll work his powers to make sure you meet again. You have to get him home for me, so he doesn’t end up in the hands of bad people.”

“…He’ll make it so we find each other again, even if something bad happens?”

Sizhui nods, and watches as A-Qing considers the proposition.

Eventually, “Okay,” she agrees. “I’ll stay here and keep Young Master Butterfly safe. But, if he really is magic, that means nothing bad’ll happen tonight, ‘cause you’ve given him to me! We have to meet again now!”

Sizhui stands and places a hand on top of A-Qing’s head. “We will,” he promises, and hopes he sounds more confident than he feels.

Chapter Text

For almost all of the walk towards the graveyard, Senior Wei and Jiang Wanyin have been talking in hushed whispers. They’re a short distance ahead on the road, far enough away that they cannot be overheard – and its suspicious.

“Do you know what they are discussing?” Sizhui asks Father, walking to his left. Lan Wangji is quiet, not unusually so, but the silence lingers for a moment too long after Sizhui’s question.

His lips purse. “…No.”

“No?”

“No,” Father reiterates, sounding surer this time.

Lan Sizhui is almost certain that his father is lying to him. For all his resolved moral quandaries regarding the rules, none of that means Lan Wangji has become a master fibber overnight. His tells are obvious.

Nonetheless, with a sigh, Sizhui drops the conversation. Amongst many other qualities, Father is stubborn. If there is a secret, one dangerous enough that his family is reluctant to tell him, Sizhui won’t know until the time is deemed right. He doesn’t mind being kept in the dark, though, not really. He trusts his parents with his life; if they’re keeping secrets, it’s for good reason.

Aware that he has been caught red-handed, Father places a hand on Sizhui’s shoulder and squeezes; it is an apology, one that Sizhui shakes his head to. ‘There’s no need,’ it says, and he knows Father understands.

Later, when Father has moved ahead to run over the plan one last time with Xiao Xingchen, Senior Wuxian finally trots back to him. “How’re you doing, A-Zhui?” he asks, jostling his son’s shoulder with his own as they fall in step together.

The motion makes him smile, as it always does, such casual affection filling him with warmth. “I’m good. Is everything alright with Sect Leader Jiang?”

As expected, his dad waves him off. “Yeah, yeah. It’s all peachy. Nothing you need to worry about.”

Sizhui nods. “I will take your word for it.”

A diversion in the conversation comes quickly. “You know,” Senior Wei starts, as he pulls Chenqing from his belt, giving it a twirl. “I wanted to ask you something.”

“Mm?”

Chenqing deftly weaves its way around Wei Wuxian’s fingers. He doesn’t meet his son’s eye as he asks, “Young Master Butterfly. He isn’t – ?”

Ah.

“It’s the same one Father bought me, yes,” Sizhui replies quietly. “Uncle Ning had him, all those years. He returned him to me just before… you know.”

“Hence the story.”

Sizhui nods again. Quite honestly, he’d forgotten he even had the old toy on him, only having found it after the events of the Nightless City. He’d been rummaging around in his ruined hanfu pockets, checking for any valuables before disposing of the fabric, when he felt the brush of paper against his fingertips. He truly hadn’t expected to pull the butterfly out.

With everything else going on, Sizhui supposed it was best to keep the toy tucked away for now – out of sight, out of mind. The paper butterfly returned to his sleeve pockets, albeit now in his clean robes. Nonetheless, Sizhui couldn’t stop thinking about it. He began to find it comforting, in fact, just knowing it was there; being able to run his fingers over the butterfly’s rough wings, to feel the weight of the toy in his sleeve.

He shrugs. “I thought the story might help settle A-Qing. I don’t know why.”

The toy isn’t magic, of course. It feels silly to even remember what he said, now Sizhui has some distance from the moment. But – but there is a history to it, the paper butterfly; it’s a tether, between one time and the next. It brought Sizhui home, once before. Who’s to say it can’t do it again?

“Hey.” Senior Wei speaks up, interrupting Sizhui’s train of thought. “It’s all going to be okay, magic butterflies or not. You know that, right?” He’s staring at Sizhui with a firm intensity, the corners of his lips quirking up softly. It makes Sizhui wonder, all of a sudden, how he survived so long without his dad.

“Hey!” Jiang Wanyin interrupts. Calling back, “We’ve found them!” he announces – and it’s down to business.

Lan Sizhui and Wei Wuxian share one last glance before jogging to catch up to the rest of their party. The three men are crouched down a little off the path behind a line of bushes, looking out into the cemetery. Arriving at the treeline Sizhui mimics them, ducking down under the cover of the foliage. “Over there,” Father says, nodding in the direction of the clearing, and Sizhui follows the movement.

It leads him directly to Xue Yang – and Sizhui’s breath hitches reflexively. There he is, the creature of Sizhui’s nightmares, in the flesh once again. The man is slouched against a particularly large gravestone, cheek resting on his fist, looking incredibly bored. He’s sat before a pit in the ground about waist deep, evidenced by the two figures stood inside of it. Flinging dirt out onto the grass, Jin Guangyao and Su Minshan labour away, seemingly working as fast as they can.

They’re lit in a dull orange by a lantern sat by Xue Yang’s side, the only source of light in the whole cemetery. It casts the grounds in an ominous glow, stretching gaunt shadows into spindly monsters. There is no need for illusions, however, not tonight, when the real predator lurks in the light. The silence of the forest confirms that almost; there’s nothing, no rustling or chirping, as if all the wildlife has fled for its own safety, the danger palpable.

“This is my cue, yeah?” Senior Wei rises, stretching out as he does so. “I can feel a good well of resentful energy to the left of us, off into the forest a bit. Senior Xiao, want to come scout it with me? Can’t have you springing the trap, after all.”

Xiao Xingchen stands. “Lead the way.”

Before they leave, however, “Jiang Cheng,” Senior Wei starts, waggling his flute in the air scoldingly, “you better not let my son get hurt while I’m gone! We can’t have A-Zhui thinking you prefer A-Ling to him!”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Jiang Wanyin scoffs. “I don’t pick favourites!”

“Eh? But I have a favourite nephew!”

“You only have one nephew, dumbass!”

“Exactly! That’s why I can play favourites and you can’t!”  

“Wei Ying…”

Senior Wei winces at the worry in Father’s tone. “Right, right, getting distracted. Sorry Lan Zhan. I was only trying to say – well – ” Dad coughs. “Be careful, okay, Jiang Cheng?”

For but a second, Sizhui can see the weariness Jiang Wanyin feels. It paints his features, from the crease of his brow to the sag of his shoulders. “You should be more worried about yourself.”

And, “I agree.” Father implores, “Please, Wei Ying… Do not be reckless.”

“Lan Zhan…” Senior Wei reaches down to caress Father’s cheek. Tenderly, “I’ll be okay,” he says. “Trust me.”

Father swallows. “I do.” He clasps the hand on his cheek, bringing it before his lips. He kisses the back of it. “I will see you soon.”

“See you soon,” Wei Wuxian echoes – and he meets Sizhui’s gaze as he finishes, “I promise.”

 

About half an hour after Senior Wei leaves, “This is worse than watching paint dry,” Sect Leader Jiang grunts. “All they’re doing is digging.”

“Patience.”

Jiang Wanyin shoots his brother-in-law a glare. Father has barely moved since Dad left, perched as perfectly as a statue. It’s obviously beginning to grate on Jiang Wanyin, who has long since toppled to sit on the floor cross-legged. “I know you’re bored too,” Sect Leader Jiang baits.

“Not bored.”

“Liar!”

“He’s more anxiously, actually,” Sizhui interjects.

Lan Wangji sighs.

“You can read his stupid face?” Jiang Wanyin asks, thumb jerked in Father’s direction.

“Yes?”

“How?”

“…I’m his son?”

“No, I know that. I meant what’s the trick. Is it the eyebrows? I always thought it might be the eyebrows.”

“…It’s the mouth.”

“No shit?”

“Sizhui.” ‘Please stop revealing my secrets,’ Father’s tone implies.

Lan Sizhui laughs weakly. “Apologies, Father.”

The party of three turns their attention back to the graveyard.

Xue Yang is laid down on his back now, hands cushioning his head. He’s chewing on a long piece of grass, nattering away about something or other while his companions slave away, completely unsympathetic to their work. Sizhui focuses, trying to tune into what Xue Yang’s saying. If he really listens…

“…so then, after the men make it back onto their ship, their leader is like: ‘how many of us didn’t get eaten by the one-eyed demon fuck?’ and it’s, like, barely seven of them. So, the ship captain, really pissed off, goes to the stern of the boat and shouts back at the island – ”

“You know,” Su Minshan interrupts. Hunched over, kept up by his shovel alone, breath heaving, “this would take a lot less time if you actually helped.”

Xue Yang twiddles the reed in his mouth. “I’m really busy over here, actually.”

“Doing what?”

“Standing guard. Obviously.”

Su Minshan sneers. “What a fabulous job you’re doing.”

“Hey, I can leave? You know that, right?” Xue Yang shifts, propping himself up on his elbow. He pulls the blade from his mouth, flicking it away. “There’s nothing keeping me here.”

“Minshan,” Jin Guangyao’s authoritative voice cuts in. “Ignore him and keep working.”

 “But – !”

Minshan. We don’t have long.”

Su Minshan huffs. “Fine.” He reaches for his shovel –

There’s movement in the bushes, off to the east. The direction Senior Wei and Senior Xiao headed, in fact.

Sizhui feels himself tense and, simultaneously, Lan Wangji and Jiang Wanyin begin to ready themselves.

“Here we go…” Sect Leader Jiang mutters.

With the movement, from where he was previously retreating back to his work, Su Minshan’s head whips out of the hole. “What was that?”

A yawn. “Probably just a fox or something,” Xue Yang replies.

Su Minshan spares a momentary glance to glower at Xue Yang before turning his attention to the forest. He squints out into the darkness. “Aren’t you supposed to be our protection? Go check it out.”

“If you can’t protect yourself from wildlife, your life isn’t worth saving.”

That’s when there’s another snap – louder than the first time.

“Over there!” Su Minshan points. “Are those white robes?”

That catches Xue Yang’s attention. Like a rocket, he springs up, immediately searching the treeline with his eyes.

“Minshan?” Jin Guangyao starts. He drops his shovel as Su Minshan begins clambering out from the pit, frowning into the darkness. “Are you sure?”

Su Minshan never gets to respond – because Xue Yang starts barking with laugher. “This day keeps getting better and better! That’s Xiao Xingchen!”

“What?!”

“Oi!” Xue Yang calls, hands cupped around his mouth. “How did you know I was tailing you?”

Silence.

Xue Yang’s grin widens. “Awh, come on! Give it up already! We know you’re there!”

After a moment longer, the tree branches part. Xiao Xingchen is revealed, Shuanghua glowing faintly.  “You weren’t exactly subtle.”

“Ha!” There’s only one word for it – Xue Yang is overjoyed. “Well,” he purrs, “I’ll forgive you for that insult. It’ll be one of the last things you do, after all.”

“Xue Yang,” Jin Guangyao suddenly hisses. “We had a deal!”

Yet, Xue Yang doesn’t even spare him a glance. He’s clambering to his feet, drawing his sword. “Don’t worry, A-Yao. This won’t take long. I’ll be back before you can worry your pretty little head.”

“Your impulsiveness is going to get us killed!”

Xue Yang shrugs. “You, maybe. I’m untouchable.”

Xiao Xingchen is the one to respond. “We will see about that,” he says, ice cool. “Xue Yang. Let us finish this.”

He runs.

Xue Yang cackles. “Oh, I love it when they run!”

“Xue Yang – !” Jin Guangyao shouts – but it’s too late. In a swish of grey fabric, Xue Yang has disappeared.

Exactly as planned.  

After a moment, “Is he gone?” Jiang Wanyin checks. “Like, truly?”  

Father surveys the scene a moment longer – then he nods.

“Finally.” Jiang Wanyin proceeds to click his neck, followed by his wrists. With the motion, Zidian begins to flicker with electricity. “Hey, Lan Wangji.”

“Mm?”

“I bet a bottle of Emperor’s Smile that I can capture Jin Guangyao before you.”

Faintly, almost imperceptibly, Father smirks. “…Deal.”

They move.

Like lightning, Hanguang-jun and Sandu Shengshou burst from the bushes and race across the plain. Sizhui is quick on their heels, but he ends up hovering back, instead watching the fight in sheer awe.

Sweeping over grave markers, Lan Wangji and Jiang Wanyin practically fly through the air. They move so fast Su Minshan barely has time to swear – a squawked “Shit!” echoing in the dark – before he and Jin Guangyao are trapped.

As Father darts after Su Minshan, Zidian arcs through the air, blindingly bright in the dark of night, and swipes down with a deafening ‘crack!’ As the little remaining wildlife swoop away from their nests in the aftermath, Sizhui can see Jin Guangyao, illuminated in a vivid violet. Sect Leader Jiang’s first swipe has missed, barely, but he’s rearing up for a second. Grinning viciously, Sizhui knows Jiang Wanyin is about to make Jin Guangyao dance.

Zidian flicks, cascading through the air, and Jin Guangyao jumps, just high enough to skip the strike – to only find Hanguang-jun shooting right towards him, Bichen drawn. Jin Guangyao lands and draws his sword just in time to parry – but it sends him skidding back across the ground, right into a large gravestone. Effectively cornered, it’s easy for Sandu Shengshou to find his purchase, and in the next moment Jin Guangyao is restrained, Zidian coiled around him hissing.

“Lianfang-zun!” Su Minshan cries, from where he’s been tied to a tree with wires of spiritual energy. Sizhui recognises Senior Wei’s work instantly, the blue thread flickering through the air back to where it’s looped around Father’s wrist. Father must have run circles around Su Minshan, effectively pinning the man to the tree – but the cord’s strength is not iron tight.

With some wriggling, Su Minshan manages to pull his right arm loose – and a flute drops from his sleeve. They’re all too far away to stop him, not before he can place the instrument to his lips and blow – and that’s it all it takes for the world begin to scream. The shrill note rings through the air, ear-splitting, so loud even the dead could hear it – and hear it they do.

The ground begins to tremble and the earth begins to split.

CRACK! The slab of a tombstone to Sizhui’s right shatters completely. He jumps away from the debris, shards of stone and dirt alike, only to come face to face with a freshly risen corpse. This is bad! Really, really bad! Sizhui ducks, dodging a swing, when he hears “FUCK!” screamed across the plain as his uncle is grappled to the ground. A corpse has sprung up right bellow Jiang Wanyin and is using his ankle as its climbing post, like he’s a bridge back to the waking world. It’s flung away in the next second, kicked off and into the sky – but Jiang Wanyin’s concentration on Zidian has broken.

Jin Guangyao has squeezed out of the whip and is now sprinting for the tree line.

If Sizhui knows anything, he knows they can’t allow Jin Guangyao to escape tonight.

He thinks, ‘I’m closest,’ and makes a run for it.

As he darts away, “Sizhui! Wait!” he hears, and “For fuck’s sake, don’t!” – but he’s the only one who can do this. Father and Uncle are surrounded on all sides by the dead and will be until they can wrestle control over from Su Minshan – and by then, it’ll be far too late.

Swift-footed, it doesn’t take long to catch up to Jin Guangyao; he’s an easy spot, after all the gold of his robes a blinding contrast to the muted colours of the forest. Sizhui tracks him, as the man slips behind trees and jumps over long-forgotten memorials. This far out, the whistling of Su Minshan’s flute does not reach them, leaving the dead beneath their feet dreaming, something Sizhui is immensely grateful for as they stumble on a glade, graves littered around them in a higher frequency.

Reaching the centre of it, Jin Guangyao spins round and draws his blade. With the flick of his wrist, Hensheng is tossed and the sword flies through the air – right in Sizhui’s direction. He swerves at the last second, the blade missing his cheek by a hair, but then Sizhui is ready, his own sword drawn.

When Hensheng comes for him again, Sizhui parries. Pressing back with all his might, his blade collides with Jin Guangyao’s, sending the opposing sword cartwheeling manically back through the air. It lands with a solid thud in the earth, lodged tip first, but is drawn in quick succession by Jin Guangyao charging forwards.

Sizhui’s next few moves are made on muscle memory alone. In his life, he’s fought monsters and ghouls, ghosts and malformations, but rarely has he fought against people. He has sparred with classmates and his father, but sparring is not fighting.

Jin Guangyao is coming at him with the intent to kill.

He moves, unthinkingly, deflecting Jin Guangyao’s blows and swipes, and their swords sing with clangs and chimes as the metal clashes together. It is a song and dance all in one – and it does not take long for Sizhui to take the upper hand. For all of Jin Guangyao’s strengths, his memory and intellect, he is not a master swordsman. Sizhui, in contrast, is one of the strongest young masters of his generation, trained by Hanguang-jun himself.

Sizhui waits, blocks and blocks and blocks, until the perfect opportunity presents itself. He flips back, past a gravestone, and Jin Guangyao overreaches with his next jab. It leaves his sword arm vulnerable – and with the twist of his sword, Sizhui effectively disarms Jin Guangyao. Hensheng is tossed far out of reach, thumping to the ground, and as Jin Guangyao attempts to retrieve it, Sizhui surges closer. With one carefully timed shove, the man crumples to the floor, tripping over a broken slab of stone. Sizhui’s sword is at Jin Guangyao’s throat in the next moment.

“It’s over,” Sizhui says, pleased his voice doesn’t tremble. “Stay down.”

Open mouthed, Jin Guangyao stares up at Lan Sizhui, utterly bewildered – but soon that shock morphs into malice. “It had to be you!” Jin Guangyao growls. “Why you, Lan Sizhui?”

Him? What does that mean?

Damn it!” Jin Guangyao snarls – quite genuinely frustrated, Sizhui thinks. “I know everything about everyone, but I know nothing about you. I didn’t hear your name until a month ago – it’s like you didn’t even exist before then!”

Oh. That’s why he’s so angry.

“You think I outsmarted you.”

“You did!” A chilling laugh. “There’s no doubt about it! One cannot account for the chess piece they do not know is on the board. Therefore, you won and I lost.” In all the years Lan Sizhui has known Lianfang-zun, he’s never seen the man so angry. “Oh, you’re a pest,” Jin Guangyao continues, spitting venom. “A thorn in my side! Who even are you?”

That – that Sizhui can’t answer.

He stays silent.

What he doesn’t expect is for Jin Guangyao, all at once, to deflate. With a heavy breath, “Come, there is no reason to keep your secrets any longer.” He speaks mournfully – dejected. “I am defeated and disgraced. Give me this, at least.”

It gives Sizhui whiplash – the quick change in tone.

And then he remembers he’s seen this all before; Jin Guangyao is baiting him. It’s what he did at Guanyin temple, a moon and sixteen years ago.

It’s what got his family killed the first run around.

Automatically, Sizhui’s lips clamp shut. No! No, he will not be naïve this time! He will not be manipulated!

The silence stretches – and then Jin Guangyao sighs. “Fine,” he says. “I know when I have been bested. Let us get this over with.” The man then tilts his head back, bearing the soft skin of his neck to the sky. His Adam’s apple bobs, catching Sizhui’s blade – and a trail of red begins to trickle from the point.

Instinctively, Sizhui recoils – and, like a cat ready to sink in its claws, Jin Guangyao smiles. “…Oh, you won’t?”

He’s found his weak point.

“T-there has been enough death.”

Sizhui hasn’t killed a person before and – and he can’t.

He can’t do it and Jin Guangyao knows.

A scoff. “What do you expect to happen after you hand me in? Madam Jin is control of Lanling Jin now. Even if you secure me a trial, a fair one at that, she will still see me executed.”

“I – I…”

“You would not be breaking any rules.” Jin Guangyao is growing bolder with every word. “What was the wording again?” He’s pulled himself up to his knees and climbs higher and higher as he speaks. “Ah, yes. Be merciful. Isn’t that what killing me would be? A mercy?

Sizhui’s hand has begun to shake, jittering, though his sword remains pointed at Jin Guangyao’s neck. It’ll be for nought, however, if he can’t find the strength to move; to knock Lianfang-zun back down or out, even, like extinguished candlelight.

He has to do something!

Jin Guangyao is on his feet now, standing a mere arm’s length away. “Come on, Lan Sizhui. Kill me!”

Sizhui flinches with the shout, and his sword drops by the barest of an inch.

Suddenly, he sees the glint of metal in the moonlight. Jin Guangyao moves, something dropping from his sleeve into his hand, and forward he lunges. Sizhui, caught completely off-guard, doesn’t even have the time to stumble backwards. There’s the sound of a blade unsheathing – and Sizhui closes his eyes.

The impact that comes is unexpected.

It’s warm.

Delicate.

A splatter of liquid hits his cheek and the front of his robes.

There’s a gasp, a wet gurgle of pain.

It’s not him.

Sizhui opens his eyes and meets Jin Guangyao’s; they’re wide with disbelief, as blood drips from his chin. A dagger in his hand drops to the floor with a soft thud, unsoiled. Sizhui instinctively follows the movement – and sees the tip of a sword, pushed through Jin Guangyao’s chest.

He’s been stabbed clean through.  

In the next moment, the weapon is violently yanked free and, just like that, Jin Guangyao crumples like a doll – revealing Xue Yang stood tall behind him. Jiangzai coated in blood, he grins menacingly down at Jin Guangyao.

“I told you, A-Yao. You knew what would happen if you tried to touch him.”

Writhing on the floor, Jin Guangyao still manages to meet Xue Yang’s eye. His voice laced with contempt, “Go to hell – !” he shouts – but is cut off by Xue Yang stomping on his throat. Sizhui hears a snap, and the sound makes him want to be sick as much as the following silence does.

He’s frozen to the spot in complete, abject horror.

Sizhui can’t tear his eyes away from Xue Yang, who is now wiping his sword off on his trousers. “That’s one way of ending that,” he hums to himself cheerily; he flips Jiangzai in his hand and, deeming it clean enough, sheathes it, before redirecting his attention to Sizhui.

Xue Yang’s lips quirk upwards. “You’ve got a little something on your face.” He taps his own cheek. “Right here.”

Sizhui dare not breathe, let alone move.

“You’re not going to…?” Xue Yang raises a brow – and after a moment more grows impatient with Sizhui’s inaction. “C’mere,” he says with the roll of his eyes, and begins walking in Sizhui’s direction.

Lan Sizhui takes a wobbly step back. No, no, no, he doesn’t want Xue Yang any closer to him! How’d he even get here?! Didn’t Senior Wei set a trap for him? Why isn’t Xue Yang chasing Xiao Xingchen?

Why did he save Sizhui’s life?

Xue Yang befuddles him again, as he reacts to Sizhui’s movement. “Awh, don’t do that,” he pouts, before bounding closer. Sizhui’s lost whatever temporary power he found to move his legs and is frozen once again as Xue Yang enters his personal space. “I’m not going to hurt you, I promise. I’m a man of my word, remember?”

Sizhui does remember.

He wishes he could forget.

He tries not to flinch when Xue Yang raises his arm, his sleeve pulled over his fingers, nor does he as much as twitch when he feels the fabric against his cheek. The pressure is soft, barely there, as Xue Yang wipes away Jin Guangyao’s blood; it is the most care Sizhui has seen Xue Yang give anything.

He watches the man’s face as he works, haunted by the perpetual smile of his lips. “Heh,” Xue Yang chuckles. “You’re like a rabbit, A-Zhui. How cute. You’re not going to bolt if I move too fast, are you?”

Sizhui wishes he could.

Xue Yang lowers his sleeve. “Just stay there, okay? We can go in a moment. I just have too…” He stalks back to Jin Guangyao’s corpse, oh gods, and kneels. With his back to Sizhui, Xue Yang begins patting Lianfang-zun down, searching. “Where is it?” he mutters to himself, tugging on Jin Guangyao’s collar, then his sleeves, before inspecting his waistband. He finds a qiankun pouch attached to it, and tugs on the strings. “Aha! There you are!” In goes Xue Yang’s hand, and out comes the last two pieces of the Yin Iron.

He pockets them before Lan Sizhui can feel even a tingle of resentful energy – and then Xue Yang is back. He reaches out and takes Sizhui’s hand – and he swings it, playfully, like a child. “I’m done here,” he says, smile wide and happy. “I think you are too. Hey, let’s go, then! We’ve got so much we have to do.”

Xue Yang pulls, his palm calloused and rough, and, without instruction, Sizhui’s feet carry him along – hopelessly.

Chapter Text

It’s as cold as one would expect a night to be in the dead of winter.

Every breath Lan Sizhui takes peters out like dragon smoke, billowing up in the air. It mixes with the mist that has begun to settle along the woodland floor, effectively shrouding him and Xue Yang from sight as they trudge through the undergrowth. He's been walking with Xue Yang for a few minutes now – silently pulled along, his hand limp in Xue Yang's tight clasp. The grip is so firm, it makes Sizhui wonder just what Xue Yang thinks they are to each other.

He has to know, before he gets himself into a bind he can’t unravel. So, Sizhui exhales, shakily and, finally mustering the nerve to speak, “Where are we going?” he asks.

Xue Yang hums, not looking back. “I was thinking north, towards the mountains. I thought you'd like the snow. What Lan doesn't?”

“…To hide from the Sects?”

“Till the worst of this blows over, yeah.” Xue Yang glances back over his shoulder, grinning. “Besides, living in the mountains sounds fun. I’ve always wanted to have a snowball fight.”

“…Fun?” Sizhui can’t even think about having ‘fun’ right now! The situation he’s in right now is the complete opposite of fun!

Yet, “Yes, fun,” Xue Yang replies, with the roll of his eyes. “You do know what that is, right?” When Sizhui remains silent, “Sheesh, those 3000 rules have really been holding you back!”

Lan Sizhui finds himself sighing and, more out of instinct than anything, “Xue Yang,” he chastens – though he’s kicking himself a second later when the familiar address has Xue Yang preening.

“Yes, Lan Sizhui?” he teases back. “Oh! or should I use your birth-name, like you use mine?”

“No one calls me by it.”

“All the more reason for me to use it! It could be our thing. Special.”

Special… That is perhaps the worst thing he’s heard Xue Yang utter. None of this – their ‘relationship’ – is special! It’s terrifying…! Besides, he cannot allow anyone to connect the puzzle pieces between him and Wei Yuan. His birth-name will stay buried as long as he can help it.

So, “No,” Sizhui insists. “For reasons I cannot explain, I cannot tell you my name.”

“Ugh, fiiine. Have it your way,” then, immediately, undeterred. “What about a nickname then?”

Sizhui glares at Xue Yang.

All it does is make him laugh. “Even when you’re angry, you’re cute! You really are like a little rabbit!”

All of a sudden, Xue Yang’s face looks particularly punchable.

Sizhui suppresses the urge. Instead, “So you’re running away?” he says, diverting the conversation.

Xue Yang takes the bait, though with a knowing glint in his eye. “Hmmm, I wouldn't call it running. More accurately, I’m moving on. There's not really anything left for me here.” He pats the qiankun pouch on his waist then, right where Sizhui knows he's keeping the Yin Iron pieces – and isn’t that a terrifying reminder.  

Though, “What about Xiao Xingchen?” Sizhui can't imagine Xue Yang leaving a job unfinished. Surely... he hasn't…?

Xue Yang confirms Sizhui's worst fears.  “Oh, don’t worry your pretty head about that. He’s been dealt with.”

Oh, no. “You killed him?!”

So quickly? The fight must have barely lasted minutes…

What does that mean for his uncle? His parents?

As if reading Sizhui’s mind, “I didn’t touch your precious Senior Wei, if that’s what you’re worried about,” Xue Yang says, “as enjoyable as it would have been to dance to the death with the Yiling Patriarch... Yes, somehow I was able to restrain myself…!” he finishes overdramatically.

Nonetheless, Sizhui hates how relieved that makes him feel – especially since Senior Wei’s life came at such a deadly cost…

He swallows, his throat tight. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome~” Xue Yang sing-songs. “Ahh, we’re going to have such adventures, my little rabbit! You know, I’ve heard rumours of civilisations you could only dream of beyond the boundaries of the known cultivation world! Apparently, there’s this city to the west that’s made completely of brass! They say no one has made it out of the city alive – it’s guarded by metal soldiers, you see - but we could be the first! There’s surely treasures beyond our wildest dreams beyond the gate - ” He’s rambling on and on, so visibly excited… but enough is enough.

“Xue Yang, I can’t come with you.”

Everything comes to a staggering halt.

Xue Yang stops walking so abruptly that Sizhui bumps into his back. “What do you mean you can’t come?” he says, his voice as chilled as ice. In a fraction of a second, his joy has vanished, replaced with an unblinking emotionlessness. Once again, he is the killer the cultivation world knows him as.

Despite that… he’s still clutching tight at Sizhui’s hand, as if holding on for dear life. Perhaps that’s why when Sizhui starts explaining he keeps his tone soft. “My… My family is here. I don’t want to leave them behind.”

“Then they can come.”

Sizhui shakes his head. “They can’t, Xue Yang. We both know that.”

“…You’re picking them over me?”

“Yes.”

As if it’s a choice. As if he wouldn’t traverse heaven and hell for his family. As if choosing Xue Yang was ever an option.

He feels the resentful energy then, beginning to simmer under the surface of Xue Yang’s skin.

His teeth bared in rage, “Why?” Xue Yang demands to know.

The answer is simple. “Because I love them.”

Sizhui’s free hand is snatched up and pulled close to Xue Yang’s chest, close enough that he swears he can feel Xue Yang’s heartbeat. With it, char-smelling smoke begins to encircle Sizhui’s wrists, the resentful energy mimicking its master’s movements. “Then love me,” Xue Yang commands. “You’re coming with me, whether you like it or not. It would be easier for you if you loved me.”

Sizhui tries to stay calm. “It’s not that simple.”

“Why not?!”

“Love can’t be forced. You have to work for it.”

“Work harder then!”

You have to work for it,” Sizhui reiterates. It’s sad, he thinks, that he’s having to explain this concept at all. “Not me. You have to prove that you care.”

“I want you!” Xue Yang bites, frustrated. “Isn’t that enough?!”

Lan Sizhui meets Xue Yang’s gaze… and, for the first time, despite the danger he finds himself in, despite the resentful energy merging with the mist –

– he doesn’t feel afraid.

It’s gone, just like that. Suddenly, Sizhui can think clearly again – he has control of his body again. Looking into Xue Yang’s eyes, all he can think is: ‘How lonely must it be to not know how to love?’

It recontextualises… everything. Xue Yang really is a child.

Carefully, Sizhui slips his right hand out of Xue Yang’s grip and, as if reaching towards a wounded lion, places his palm against Xue Yang’s cheek. “I’m not a possession. I’m a person. You can’t control me. I’m sorry.”

“A-ZHUI!” a voice echoes suddenly through the trees. “A-ZHUI! WHERE ARE YOU?!”

Both their heads whip in the direction of the sound. “Senior Wei?” Sizhui breathes. Despite Xue Yang confirming his safety, it’s a relief to hear his dad’s voice – though it is a comfort short lived.

“No!” Xue Yang snarls. He swivels round, tugging hard on their joined hands as he tries to move away. “No, no, no, no! They can’t have you! You’re mine!”

This time, however, Sizhui’s able to remain firm. With all his strength, he holds Xue Yang in place. “Turn yourself in,” Sizhui asks of him. “Murder is forbidden in Cloud Recesses. Turn yourself into the Lan and I can save your life. If you want to stay with me, that is.”

Xue Yang finally snatches his hand away. With venom he spits, “I will not be trapped! You will not IMPRISON ME!”

Sizhui smiles at him. “Then flee without me. Those are your options.”

SIZHUI! SHIT, WHERE ARE YOU?” That’s Sect Leader Jiang.

“This way. Tracks.” And that’s Father.

Xue Yang buries his fists in the hair at his scalp. “No, no, no, no, no, no, NO!” It’s pitiful, the tantrum he’s throwing.

It’s instinctive to try and comfort him, and Sizhui doesn’t resist the temptation. “Xue Yang…” he calls, reaching out – but Xue Yang flinches away.

“Don’t touch me!” He snarls. “You’re a traitor…!”

“I’m sorry if I hurt you.”

Xue Yang shakes his head, hunched over. “You’re not sorry! No one ever is! I thought you were different! I thought Xiao Xingchen was different! But you’re all the SAME!”

The charred smell grows, and the air begins to ring discordantly, a buzz in Sizhui’s ears. Then – Xue Yang laughs to himself, or so Sizhui thinks so at first. “No… You’re right. I can’t let them have him. He’s mine – mine! I’ll force him to come with me… What about his family? …Mm, I will have to kill them. He’ll definitely be mine then, right?”

With each pause, the resentful energy surrounding Xue Yang pulses and the ringing grows momentarily stronger, as if – as if it’s responding to him. The shadows particularly collect around Xue Yang’s waist, where his qiankun pouches sit –

And it clicks.

Sizhui realises he’s seen this all before.

The resentful energy – the Yin Iron – is pulling strength from Xue Yang just like it once did from Wei Wuxian. It’s consuming him from the inside out, ruining his temperament and clouding his judgement.

He’s being eaten.

This realisation unfortunately coincides with his family finally catching up to them.

Father and Jiang Wanyin arrive first, storming into the fray with weapons drawn. Both look relatively unharmed, having sustained only scratches in their fight against Su Minshan; he’s with them, in fact, tied up and hanging over Lan Wangji’s shoulder like a cumbersome bag of potatoes.

Right behind them is Senior Wei who, admittedly, looks a little worse for wear. There’s a trickle of blood running down his forehead and his white cloak is coated in a thick layer of mud - but he’s alive; that’s what matters. Upon catching sight of him, “A-Zhui!” Wei Wuxian cries, his relief palpable. 

Most notable, however, is the figure hanging over his back, seemingly unconscious – Xiao Xingchen.

He’s alive. The steady rise and fall of his chest is proof enough.

Xue Yang notices as immediately as Sizhui does. Pointing, “Is he alive?” he says, disbelieving. “Xiao Xingchen is alive? But I killed him!”

“He was dead,” Senior Wei replies, “but only for, like, a minute. If my wonderful husband hadn’t shown up when he did, we wouldn’t have been able to restart his heart. Spiritual energy’s a real life-saver, eh?”

“You’re getting sloppy, Xue Yang,” Sect Leader Jiang picks up. “I think it’s time to throw in the towel.”

Father raises Bichen, pointing it right at Xue Yang. “Return Sizhui to us.”

Sizhui is pushed behind Xue Yang. “No.”

“Xue Yang, please…”

NO!” Xue Yang snaps back at Sizhui. “I don’t care what you want! You’re staying with me!”

“Well, we gave you a chance,” Jiang Wanyin says – and in he rushes. While Father tosses Su Minshan down, and Senior Wei places Xiao Xingchen carefully next to him, Sandu Shengshou raises Zidian high. The whip arcs, up and up, ready to begin its down curve and slam straight into Xue Yang –

– who hasn’t moved.

Instantly, Sizhui knows something is up.

Watch out!” he shouts as he sees Xue Yang smirk.

There’s a whistle and with it the world is thrown into chaos.

The qiankun pouch at Xue Yang waist explodes, the fabric blown into smithereens. The fallout has everyone in the clearing flung back, all except for Xue Yang and Sizhui, tethered to the spot by the Yin Iron and its dark tendrils of smoke. All four pieces spin and whirl in the air, round and round, with the Stygian Tiger Amulet in the centre of it all. That low buzz Sizhui heard has transformed into singing, shrill yet contented, as all the Yin Iron pieces are reunited for the first time in over a hundred years.

“Heh,” Xue Yang chuckles, just the once. “This is going to be so fun.”

He whistles again.

SCREEEEEACH!

Screaming, the dead begin to rise, as angry as they have ever been. They crawl out of their graves one after another, tearing at the earth and at each other, clambering towards their targets with a single-minded focus. The flow of them is seemingly endless, dozens upon dozens rising each second and soon they are immeasurable.

It is three versus an army.  

“Wei Ying!” Sizhui hears Father cry, as the three men are quickly overwhelmed. A full line of corpses have sprung up between him and Senior Wei, leaving them stranded from one another. Lan Wangji is hacking at them, slicing off limbs and decapitating heads, but the dead can’t die. 

Each corpse he cuts down is replaced by two more. 

“Lan Zhan, where are you?!” Sizhui hears his dad shout back, over the corpses’ heads. Without a sword, all he can do is duck and dive, dodging whatever enemy comes his way. Then comes Chenqing, played desperately, furiously, to little effect. With the Yin Iron in Xue Yang’s possession, there’s no way he’s going to be able to wrangle back control. 

Wei Wuxian is helpless. 

“SIZHUI!” he hears his uncle bellow over the crowd. Jiang Wanyin for a split second is able to catch his nephew’s eye through the mass of bodies. He sounds so desperate as he pleads, “GET OUT OF HERE! RUN!” – as if he’s given up hope of making it out of here himself. 

Terror begins to settle in Sizhui’s stomach. 

If the fight continues on like this – ! 

No!

NO!

Xue Yang!” Sizhui begs, tugging on the back of his robes. The resentful energy in the air is so thick now that he feels like he’s choking on it. “Please, stop this!” They’re going to die. His family is going to die – again, right before his eyes – if Sizhui can’t stop Xue Yang now!

“Why should I?” Xue Yang argues, as the Yin Iron and Stygian Tiger Amulet dance in the air above his palm. The sight of the Amulet in particular fills Lan Sizhui with what can only be described as self-hatred; this is his fault! If he hadn’t given Xue Yang the other half of the Amulet that day, if he hadn’t endeared himself to this man…!

This is his mistake to fix. Why should his family pay for his choices?!

He has to fix this – but what can he do? Leaving with Xue Yang now won’t fix anything – it’ll only delay this fight – and Sizhui himself, alone behind enemy lines, isn’t strong enough to kill Xue Yang. There’s nothing to say Xue Yang would even stay dead, what with all of the Yin Iron in play. If he could destroy the Yin Iron, that would level the playing field, but Sizhui spent days researching how to do so with Senior Wei in the Burial Mounds. There’s no way to destroy the metal without killing himself in the process, and that might just send Xue Yang –

Oh.

Suddenly, he knows what he has to do.

“Destroy the Stygian Tiger Amulet!” Sizhui pleads. “Destroy it and I’ll come with you! Of my own free will!”

Xue Yang stills, unnaturally. 

Finally, finally, Sizhui has his attention.

“…You want me to destroy the Stygian Tiger Amulet?”

Sizhui nods, frantically. “My family will be in so much trouble if it turns out the Amulet hasn’t been destroyed. This will keep them safe! I can leave them, then, without fear. I’ll choose you!”

Xue Yang turns his glance to the metal. “Is it even possible to destroy the Yin Iron?”

“If you use the remaining four pieces against the Amulet, yes, I think so! Enough resentful energy should overwhelm the metal and it should shatter!”

Xue Yang stands silent, considering the proposal.

Eventually, he asks but one question more. “…You’ll be mine?”

Sizhui takes Xue Yang’s hand. He smiles, wobbly. “I’ll be yours,” he lies.

“Okay…” Xue Yang laughs. “Okay, okay! I’ll do it. Stand back,” he requests, pushing Sizhui playfully back to the tree line. “This will only take a minute.”

Sizhui nods and Xue Yang walks backwards, prolonging eye-contact with Sizhui for as long as he can. He winks before, with a flourished twirl, facing out into the clearing again - but as soon as he does so, Sizhui’s smile drops, the pretence no longer needed. Instead, he searches through the crowd for his family. Frustratingly, the corpses are too densely packed; he can’t see anyone. Sizhui clenches his fists and bites his lip. A little longer… If they can survive a little longer…

Meanwhile, Xue Yang separates the Stygian Tiger Amulet out from the Yin Iron with the swipe of his palm, leaving the Yin Iron hovering over his left hand and the Amulet hovering over his right. The force of four pieces against two should be enough to destroy the Stygian Tiger Amulet for good, Sizhui thinks – but then the Stygian Tiger Amulet sings. 

Its low whisper is indecipherable to Sizhui’s ears, but Xue Yang, extending his right hand, stops to listen.

Sizhui holds a bated breath.

After a moment, “…Hey, A-Zhui,” he starts. Xue Yang’s smiling. “I knew you were different. I never should have doubted that.”

Xue Yang clenches left his hand into a fist and the Yin Iron surges.

Resentful energy pours out of the metal and into the Amulet in wave after wave. It whips the wind into a frenzy, nearly blowing Sizhui right back. He manages to grab onto a tree branch, keeping himself steady, and watches as the Stygian Tiger Amulet absorbs more and more smoke. The air howls and there’s the tell-tale sound of cracking, as the Amulet is slowly, slowly, overwhelmed.

In one second it is there – and in the next, with a sudden tremor, it shatters.

BOOM!

The resulting detonation is catastrophic. There’s no steadying himself this time, as a tidal blast of resentful energy careens out from the explosion epicentre, sending Sizhui flying. He ends up smacking his head as he lands, thrown right against the base of a tree, and his head rings with the impact. He can’t hear anything else, his ears overwhelmed by the volume of the explosion, and it takes all his might to not black out right then and there.

Still, propping himself up by his elbows, he rises high enough to see out and assess the devastation. 

The cemetery is destroyed. The mist that enveloped the night has been completely blown away, and the explosion has levelled every tree for a good li. In fact, the ground has been flattened outright, erasing all signs of the graves that once lay beneath it. 

Amongst it all, right in the epicentre, Xue Yang remains standing – panting.

In the next second, he topples over, down to one knee, and the remaining four Yin Iron pieces thump into the grass.

He’s alive, though.

Alive.

Xue Yang tilts his head back to face the sky and laughs.

Then the corpses descend on him.

Each and every soul Xue Yang pulled from their rest clamber over themselves to reach their summoner, no longer controlled by anyone or anything. Made of resentful energy themselves, they were unaffected by the blast; instead, it made them stronger. They swell with the smoke, breathing in the hatred, and lash out with everything they have. 

The Stygian Tiger Amulet gets its final revenge, and Lan Sizhui watches, unable to tear his eyes away, aghast, horrified, as Xue Yang is ripped limb from limb, destroyed himself as he destroyed others.

Sizhui can’t help but retch. 

He knew it would be bad the second he suggested this. He knew he was sending Xue Yang to his death! But he didn’t think… Xue Yang didn’t deserve this!

Suddenly, there are arms around his waist, and Sizhui is flung up and onto his uncle’s shoulder.

“Get him out of range!” Senior Wei orders, sliding across the floor and snatching the remaining four pieces of the Yin Iron. With the corpses now congregated in one place, his family must have been able to worm free of their confines. “Lan Zhan and I will calm the corpses!”

“Right!” Jiang Wanyin is already running back the way he came, but that gives Sizhui a clear eyeline of what his parents are doing.

Wei Wuxian has Chenqing raised to his lips and Lan Wangji, who has run to halt beside his husband, materialises his guqin with the flick of his wrist. In the next moment, without even a glance at the other, Lan Sizhui’s parents begin to play in perfect sync. Rest begins to sweep across the battlefield, its melody humming around every tombstone and every tree.

The army of undead, in response, sag, soothed by the song. Some of them, so battered they are but bones, simply begin to disintegrate. Many others though… simply begin to walk away. They’ll go back to their graves, Sizhui knows, and climb back in, pulling the dirt over themselves like bedsheets. Tucked back in, they’ll dream, peacefully, as if they were but sleepwalkers. 

Nod will reign once again over the dead.

Once most of the corpses have left, Sizhui unsteadily pulls himself to his feet. Silent in his worry, Jiang Wanyin does not stop him as he slowly makes his way through the graveyard.  As he approaches, Senior Wei finishes playing, but, largely, Sizhui ignores him. Instead, he heads straight for where Xue Yang stood but minutes ago. There is nothing left, not skin nor bones nor fabric. It is all gone – but for a sword.

Jiangzai is all that remains of Xue Yang.

Sizhui collapses to his knees before it.

“A-Zhui?” Senior Wei crouches down next to him, placing a hand on his son’s back. “Are you okay?”

No.

He’s not.

“…Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“Why did Xue Yang want me?” He thinks he knows… but he hates the answer.

“You want to know what I think?”

Sizhui nods.

“Hmm.” Dad crosses his arms, braces them on his knees. “Well, we can never know for sure... but I think it's because you loved. Not him, but us. You gave him a terrible, terrible power to keep us safe. In doing so, you showed how great your capacity for love was... and Xue Yang wanted it. He craved it. That man had a hole inside of him and he tried everything he could to fill it. He stuffed himself with sweets, and power, and violence... He wanted you to fill that hole, A-Zhui. He probably thought that if someone like you could love him, maybe the emptiness would go away.”

That’s what Sizhui thought.

How sick is that. Xue Yang wanted Sizhui to – to fix him and – “All I ended up doing was killing him.”

To save his family, he sacrificed another human being.

He’s never taken a life before.

Yet, “I don't think so,” Dad hums. “I think you gave him something no one else ever did.”

He… gave Xue Yang something?

“What's that?”

“A chance to be better.”

“…What?” That doesn’t make any sense.

“He would have known,” Senior Wei explains. “The Stygian Tiger Amulet, it whispers to you. As soon as he decided to destroy it, the Yin Iron would have told him the risks. He knew it would kill him.”

Xue Yang’s final words trickle back to him: ‘I knew you were different. I never should have doubted that.’

“…He knew?” Sizhui’s voice wobbles with the words. His cheeks feel hot – wet.

Dad nods. “He knew, and he chose to help you anyway.”

Sizhui’s too overwhelmed. He can’t process any of this - what his dad thinks, how he feels… So he sits there, listlessly, and lets his thoughts be drowned out by the guqin strings as Father puts the spirits of the cemetery to rest.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian never liked the war. He hated it, in fact. One thing he appreciated about the fighting, however, was that it was simple.

Mindless.

The aftermath is always harder.

Lan Zhan flies Xiao Xingchen back to town on Bichen, leaving as soon as he finishes playing Rest. There is no time to waste, not with the cultivator in such serious condition. Jiang Cheng, in contrast, is left to deal with Su She. He’s knocked out cold – he took Bichen’s hilt to the head, apparently – and so is easily lugged over Jiang Cheng’s shoulder.

“I’m going to take him back to Lotus Pier,” Wei Wuxian is informed by his brother. “He’ll be best contained in the sect’s jail. It’ll take me two hours tops. Will you be okay while I’m gone?”

Admittedly, Wei Wuxian’s hair feels sticky with blood and his vision is a little fuzzy – but his son needs him. Lan Sizhui hasn’t moved an inch since he collapsed before Xue Yang’s sword, and he’s so quiet that it’s starting to scare Wei Wuxian.

Jiang Cheng is watching them both anxiously, his brow furrowed in a furious frown – and it’s a justified reaction, considering the circumstances. Nonetheless, there are more pressing matters at hand than Wei Wuxian’s growing headache; he can survive for an hour or so longer by himself.

So, Wei Wuxian gives his brother a thumbs up. “We’ll make our way back to town. See you there.”

Jiang Cheng appears doubtful, but must come to the same conclusion Wei Wuxian has, as in the next moment he’s jumping onto his sword and racing away.

It’s eerily quiet in the woods once his brother has left. The ground around them is utterly decimated, flattened and wiped clean of life. “Come on, A-Zhui,” Wei Wuxian appeals to his son, rubbing a hand up and down his back. “We should go.”

It’s best not to linger around the dead any longer than they have to.

Yet – Wei Wuxian is given nothing but silence.

“A-Zhui, you hit your head pretty hard earlier. We need to get it checked out.”

“I’m fine.”

His son’s eyes are glassy – unfocused.

He’s definitely not fine.

Wei Wuxian doesn’t think arguing is going to help, however.

He decides to use the tactic that always works on Lan Zhan.

“Well, I’m pretty sure I have concussion, so…”

That gets his son’s attention. “You’re hurt? Oh, Dad, you’re bleeding!” Regaining some clarity, A-Zhui raises a hand and gingerly prods Wei Wuxian’s forehead. The touch is light enough that Wei Wuxian doesn’t feel it, but A-Zhui’s fingers come back splodged red. Hm. Wei Wuxian thought he was bleeding less than that…

Meanwhile, his son, staring hauntedly at the blood on his hands, asks, “Did Xue Yang do this?”

Uh oh.

Wei Wuxian could lie…

Nonetheless, “Yes,” he admits. A-Zhui needs the truth right now.

His son swallows uncomfortably. “I see,” he chokes out. His hands have begun to tremble.

“…He didn’t hurt you, did he?” Wei Wuxian has to ask.

“No,” A-Zhui replies. He’s gone back to staring at the sword. “No, he didn’t.”

Wei Wuxian sighs. At this rate, they’ll never leave this stupid cemetery.

So he reaches out and takes Jiangzai by its hilt. A-Zhui watches him pocket it, his eyes trailing after the weapon, and it’s only once it’s out of sight that his attention refocuses – like a spell has been broken.

Wei Wuxian stands and offers a hand down to his son.

“Come on,” he repeats.

A-Zhui finally moves.

 

They’re forced to walk back to town. A-Zhui is too out of it to fly and Wei Wuxian can’t fly at all. That’s what he misses most, he’s found – being able to fly under his own power. It would be so helpful now, to be able to hold his son close and carry him up and away to safety.

It takes about half an hour to reach the city… and then Wei Wuxian finds himself lost, unsure where exactly to take them. He could lead them back to Sisi’s brothel, but A-Zhui needs medical attention – as does he – so that’s probably not the wisest choice right now. Thankfully, Lan Zhan will likely be wherever the closest doctor is – the catch being that Wei Wuxian doesn’t have any clue where his husband is.

He should have asked before Lan Zhan left! Or, they should have at least decided on a meeting point!

Just when Wei Wuxian is about to give up and begin aimlessly walking, like light from the heavens, Hanguang-jun appears before them. “Wei Ying!” he calls, rushing over the rooftops.

Wei Wuxian exhales, relieved. Waving his husband over, “We’re okay, Lan Zhan!” and as he drops down to the ground, “How’s Xiao Xingchen?” Wei Wuxian asks.

“Stable,” Lan Zhan is able to confirm with the nod of his head. “The local doctor is attending to him at a nearby inn. He will be fine.”

That’s another weight off Wei Wuxian’s chest. He doesn’t know what he’d have done if Senior Xiao had actually died.

Lan Zhan leads them both to the inn, then, bustling them in the door and up the stairs to their room. He fusses continually until the doctor can check them over, an action that goes unnoticed by their son, completely disassociated. As A-Zhui stares blankly at the floor, his face completely unreadable, Lan Zhan shoots Wei Wuxian a worried glance over their son’s head.

In response, all Wei Wuxian can do is shake his head. Sizhui’s processing, he thinks. They need to leave him to it.

It turns out Wei Wuxian does have a concussion, the stern-faced doctor Lan Zhan found determines. She gives Lan Zhan all the usual advice, while forcing Wei Wuxian to drink what he would describe as a rancid pond-water and what she indignantly corrects is called medicine.

A-Zhui gets off lightly in comparison. He’s more in shock than anything else, the doctor concludes, and so when she leaves, A-Zhui is bundled up in a blanket next to his father who is steadily passing him spiritual energy. It brings some much-needed colour back to his cheeks, if nothing else.

There is, unfortunately, more to be done.

Wei Wuxian is sitting at Xiao Xingchen’s beside when Lan Zhan walks over to him. “Jin Guangyao needs to be buried,” he says, placing a hand on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, “and we must relieve Sisi of A-Qing. Do you know how much longer your brother will be?”

“Jiang Cheng should be here soon,” Wei Wuxian replies. He can’t help sinking into his husband’s touch, the warmth comforting. “I’m not entirely sure when, though. Should I – ?”

Lan Zhan shakes his head. “You need to rest,” he says – and normally Wei Wuxian would object, but he really doesn’t want to randomly collapse on the street somewhere.

Then, “I can go,” A-Zhui speaks up. Wei Wuxian does a slight double take, not expecting to see his son stood behind Lan Zhan. He didn’t even realise Sizhui was listening to their conversation.

Lan Zhan is instantly frowning. “Sizhui – ” he starts, but never gets to finish.

“Father, it’s okay,” their son interjects. “I’m feeling better. I can fetch A-Qing and Sisi at the least.” Wei Wuxian doesn’t buy it, not in the slightest, but, “I’ll be gone half an hour at most,” A-Zhui insists. “I promise.”  

Frustratingly, splitting up the two jobs makes sense.

“You will be careful,” Lan Zhan says, and it sounds more like a promise than a request. A-Zhui nods his head mutely and doesn’t protest as his father hands his money pouch over. “Just in case.”

“Thank you,” A-Zhui responds with a nod and a strained smile. “I’ll be back soon.”

He leaves without another word.

“…I’m so worried about him,” Wei Wuxian admits to his husband, knowing Lan Zhan feels the same.

His husband leans down to kiss the crown of his head. “Give him time,” he says. “It is all we can do for now.”

Wei Wuxian just wishes he could do more.

 

Xiao Xingchen wakes later that morning.

“Hey, hey, hey! Don’t try to sit up just yet,” Wei Wuxian urges, pushing Xiao Xingchen back down into the comfort of the mattress. “The doctor said you need to rest and, frankly, it’s a miracle that you’re even awake right now.”

“I feel like I was trampled by a stampede,” Xiao Xingchen groans, and Wei Wuxian can’t help but snort.

“You practically were. Xue Yang really didn’t go easy on you.”

“…It’s over then?”

Wei Wuxian nods, even though he knows his senior can’t see it. “Yeah.”

“He’s dead?”

“He’s dead.”

Xiao Xingchen takes a deep breath. “…I should feel happy about it. That he’s gone for good.”

Wei Wuxian hums. He begins to fiddle with a stray thread trailing off the bedsheet. “It would be well within your right. Xue Yang was a monster. He took…” Wei Wuxian trails off, ‘everything from you’ on the tip of his tongue.

“I know,” Xiao Xingchen replies quietly. “And yet… it doesn’t help. Not in the slightest.”

Wei Wuxian understands.

“What are you going to do now?” he asks instead.

“Continue on as I was before, I suppose. Wander with A-Qing. Help those who need it.”

“What about Song Lan?”

Xiao Xingchen stiffens. “…What about him?”

“Are you going to find him?”

“No.” The answer is instantaneous, reflexive. “He doesn’t want to see me.”

Wei Wuxian – swallows. He doesn’t like to open old wounds – not for anyone – but his hand drifts to rest over his chest, where his golden core once sat. “Speaking from experience… these things don’t fix themselves. If you don’t talk, you might never again.”

“He’ll find me when he’s ready,” Xiao Xingchen says coolly. He’s turned his head away from Wei Wuxian to face the wall; it is as much as he can do to escape in the present circumstances.

Nonetheless, Wei Wuxian has one last thing to say. “Maybe he will, but how much time will you waste in the process? We’re not here forever, Senior Xiao. Don’t leave it till it’s too late.”

The stony silence that follows Wei Wuxian’s words indicate that the conversation is well and truly over.

Fortunately, not long later: BANG BANG BANG, the sound of force against wood. “Wei Wuxian!” he hears called through the door. “I’m back! Let me in!”

Jiang Cheng. Thank the gods.  

Wei Wuxian is quick to rise from his seat and pull the door open. It’s a relief to see his brother standing there, healthy and strong. “Everything okay at Lotus Pier?”

Jiang Cheng nods and steps past him into the room. “Su She is nice and comfy in the Sect’s jail. He won’t be going anywhere anytime soon.” His brother does a quick sweep of the room – raises a brow. “Where is everyone?”

The room is too empty for Wei Wuxian’s liking. “Lan Zhan is dealing with Jin Guangyao’s body,” he replies, “and A-Zhui went to retrieve A-Qing.”

Jiang Cheng blinks at him.

Wei Wuxian blinks back.

Jiang Cheng clasps his hands together. He purses his lips. “Wei Wuxian.”

“…Yes?”

“Did you let your obviously traumatised son out by himself?!”

Oh, come on!

Exasperated, “A-Zhui needed some space!” Wei Wuxian replies. “What else was I supposed to do?! He may be my son but he’s still an adult and I have a concussion, Jiang Cheng! I’d have gone myself if I could!”

“I’m going after him,” Jiang Cheng says, spinning on the spot and heading right back to the door.

“He’ll probably be back in a minute!”

“Then I’ll meet him on the street!”

Jiang Cheng reaches for the door handle, but it swings open before he can get there.

Lan Zhan stands in the doorway, unimpressed.

“…Jiang Wanyin.”

Uh oh.

“I can’t BELIEVE you let my nephew wander off!” Jiang Cheng explodes at Lan Zhan. Wei Wuxian groans, throwing back his head and dragging his hands down his cheeks. “He could be anywhere! ANYWHERE, Lan Wangji! Have you not learnt by now that your son is a danger magnet?! He’s worse than Wei-shitting-Wuxian! What have you got to say for yourself?!”

Lan Zhan impassively glances up, to where he is still trapped under the doorway.

He looks back down.

“…Please move out of my way.”

“Oh, fuck you!”  

“I hate to interrupt – ” Xiao Xingchen suddenly starts “ – but are you three implying that Lan Sizhui is your son and nephew respectively?”

Wei Wuxian, Jiang Cheng, and Lan Wangji freeze simultaneously.

Xiao Xingchen is sat propped up in his bed, hair draped over his shoulders, utterly bewildered.

Wei Wuxian really had forgotten he was there.

Shit.

“…You couldn’t just forget we said all that, could you?”  

“…Probably not, no.”

So, “Lan Sizhui is my and Wei Ying’s son,” Lan Zhan says outright – no beating round the bush.

Jiang Cheng squawks indignantly. “You’re going to tell him just like that?! UNBELIEVABLE!”

“Senior Xiao is trustworthy. He will be able to keep the secret.”

“AND I’M NOT?!”

“Jiang Cheng, you’re not still hung up on that are you?”

“YES!”

“Why is everyone shouting?”

That silences the room.

Wei Wuxian peers around his husband, still trapped in the doorway, to see his son – accompanied by A-Qing and Sisi.

Though, seeing a way in, A-Qing quickly weaves past Lan Zhan. “Daozhang!” she shouts, launching herself across the room into Xiao Xingchen’s waiting arms. He topples over with a ‘oof!’ but with a smile too. “You’re okay!”

Xiao Xingchen tucks her tighter to his chest, nuzzling his head into her hair. “Of course, I am, little blind. There was no need to worry about me.”  

Wei Wuxian can’t help but watch them with a smile. He wonders how long it’ll be till A-Qing becomes Xiao Qing. Not long, if appearances are anything to go by.

While this is occurring, however, “Do you have any idea what your son has done?” Sisi asks him. Wei Wuxian redirects his attention to find her in complete disbelief. Her eyes blown wide, clutching a small bag closely to her chest, she continues, “He freed me from the brothel. He paid off my whole debt.”

Her – her whole debt?!

Wei Wuxian gapes at his son. “A-Zhui! How on earth – ?”

Indignantly, his son crosses his arms. “When I arrived at the brothel, I found her madam verbally abusing her! I couldn’t exactly leave her there after I saw that!” He appears genuinely angry – and seeing the rage in the furrow of his brows calms Wei Wuxian somewhat. He’s just happy to see his son feeling something.

So, “A-Zhui, A-Zhui,” he soothes, “I’m not objecting to what you did, I’m just confused. How in heaven’s name did you afford that?!”

“Uh, Father gave me his purse?”

His – his purse.

Wei Wuxian spins to stare at his husband.

Lan Zhan stares back at him blankly. “…What.”

“Lan Zhan, how much money do you carry around with you?!”

“A normal amount.”

“Obviously not!”

A comforting hand pats Wei Wuxian’s shoulder. “These damn rich people, am I right?” Sisi whistles.

Wei Wuxian gives up.

 

They settle into the inn room for the day – all seven of them. It’s a tight squeeze, but after the day they’ve had, no one really feels like being alone. They chat aimlessly for some time, but the matters they have to resolve before parting ways creep up on them as night falls.

After dinner, their whole group gathers around the inn table, solemn in their silence. A-Qing has long since fallen asleep, tucked in her daozhang’s arms, though Xiao Xingchen himself sits cautiously upright in his bed. Sisi resting against the base of the bed, cross-legged on the floor, and Jiang Cheng is perched next to her, fidgeting with Zidian’s chain. Lan Zhan and A-Zhui sit closest to where Wei Wuxian stands, sat on cushions around the low table.

On said table, Wei Wuxian has placed four separate qiankun pouches. From them radiates the faintest hint of resentful energy.

“You want us to what?” Jiang Cheng blurts after Wei Wuxian has explained himself.

“I want us to each take a piece of the Yin Iron and hide it. One for you, one for Xiao Xingchen, one for Lan Zhan and I, and one for A-Zhui.”

“And to never tell the others where we hide our piece?” Xiao Xingchen confirms.

Wei Wuxian nods. “The Yin Iron is too powerful to exist but to dangerous to destroy. Jin Guangshan told the cultivation world he destroyed all but Xue Yang’s piece of the Yin Iron. I say we let the sects continue to believe that. If everyone thinks it doesn’t exist, and if no one knows where all the pieces are, hopefully it’ll eventually fade into obscurity.”

“How’s that different from what the Sects did a hundred years ago?” Jiang Cheng points out.

All Wei Wuxian can do is shrug. “It’s not – but what else can we do? Maybe we’ll get luckier this time.”

An answered question prompts a new one. “Why me?” A-Zhui inquires. “Why give a piece to me? You and Father could take a one each.”

There’s more to Lan Sizhui’s question than meets the eye. It expresses his son’s lack of faith in his own abilities.

Wei Wuxian can’t be having that.

He kneels down before A-Zhui. “Well, for one,” he starts, “I don’t think I could keep a secret that big from your father. I’d spill the beans within, like, a day. Plus,” he places his hand on the top of his son’s head, “there’s no one I’d trust more with this than you.”

A-Zhui’s eyes shine, watery.

It’s decided that Xiao Xingchen, A-Qing, and Sisi will join Jiang Cheng when he returns to Lotus Pier. Xiao Xingchen needs somewhere stable to recuperate from his wounds and Sisi –

“It’s not like I have anywhere else to go,” she shrugs, “and, no offence, but that mountain of yours sounds a bit too stuffy for me.” Wei Wuxian laughs at that, secretly agreeing. It’s his husband and sons that keep him at Cloud Recesses, after all. “No, I’ll go to Lotus Pier and keep an eye on that brother of yours. Someone has to,” she finishes with a wink.

Secretly, Wei Wuxian is pleased. He can’t help but worry about his little brother, alone at Lotus Pier now he and Shijie have married. He knows Jiang Cheng isn’t keen on marrying any time soon – if ever – but there’s a difference between that and isolating himself.

Perhaps Wei Wuxian will get Sisi to send him reports – a weekly breakdown of his brother’s welfare and social activities.

Nice and early the next morning, a carriage led by Jiang disciples arrives before the inn. All that needs to be done is settle Xiao Xingchen, Sisi, and A-Qing, so while the disciples attend to that, Wei Wuxian takes the moment to speak to his brother.

Standing a short distance off from the carriage, “You’ve got the you-know-what, right?” he asks.

Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. “Yeah, yeah, it’s packed. And I have the talisman you gave me to seal it away too. I’m not an idiot.”

“You’ll be careful with it? The Yin Iron can be – ”

“I’ve got it handled.” Jiang Cheng huffs. “Who do you think I am? I’m a Sect Leader, not some reckless junior.”

Wei Wuxian internally berates himself. Shit, he didn’t mean to push. “Aha, sorry,” he apologises, a little embarrassed. “You know me! Always poking my nose into other people’s business.”  

He’s not a member of the Jiang Sect anymore, he has to remember. Technically, he’s a Lan now. It’s not his role to fuss over Jiang Cheng or Lotus Pier’s business like – like he’s their First Disciple still, or something.

Jiang Cheng will be fine without him.

There’s a cough.

“Hey,” Jiang Cheng starts. “I – uh – wanted to give you something.”

That catches Wei Wuxian off guard. “You wanted to – ?” As the surprise wears off, he grins teasingly. “A gift? For little old me? Awh, Jiang Cheng, you shouldn’t have!

“Ugh. Shut up before I change my mind, okay?” Jiang Cheng then reaches for his waist and begins to untie from his belt –

A chill washes over Wei Wuxian when he realises what his brother is doing.

“Jiang Cheng,” he gasps. “What are you doing?”

“Exactly what I said I was,” his brother grumbles. Then, “Here,” he says, holding his Clarity Bell aloft by its tie. “I know you lost yours. Take it.”

Wei Wuxian is flapping his mouth like a fish. He must look so foolish. “I – I can’t just – ! Uncle Jiang gave that to you!”

“I know.”

“It’s irreplaceable!”

“Then we’ll be even.”

Wei Wuxian’s stomach flips.

Oh.

Jiang Cheng grows impatient with him. “Look, I’ll just…” He marches closer and begins fiddling with the loop. He stares down as he works, stubbornly refusing to meet Wei Wuxian’s eye. “You’re my brother,” he says so quietly it could be imagined. “That means you’ll always have a home in Yunmeng. If you want it, that is. There.” He straightens out, revealing his Clarity Bell now fastened tightly to Wei Wuxian’s belt. “Now you’ll always carry a piece of you with me, like I do you.”

“Jiang Cheng…” Wei Wuxian is so embarrassed by how his voice trembles.

He thinks his brother feels the same, if his furious blushing is anything to go off. “Don’t mention it.”

“I don’t know how to thank you enough…”

“Hey! What did I just say?!”

Wei Wuxian laughs. “Fine, I’ll drop it!” He brushes at his eyes, hiding any hints of moisture. “You’re coming back to Gusu in a few days to escort Shijie to Koi Tower, right?”

“Of course. I’m not letting her travel alone with our nephew, not after the month we’ve had.”

“Can you make it to Cloud Recesses for the twelfth?” Wei Wuxian requests.

Jiang Cheng raises a brow at him. “I can do that. Why the twelfth, though?”

“Oh, no reason,” he waves off, like a liar. Before his brother can dwell on the request any longer, “A-Zhui!” Wei Wuxian calls back to his son. “Come say goodbye to your uncle!”

He sees Sizhui perk up from where he’s been chatting with Lan Zhan. His eldest son still looks incredibly worn for wear, and Wei Wuxian thinks he will for a little while yet, but he’s perhaps a smidge cheerier than the day before, a good night’s sleep having done him well.  

After walking over, “You’re leaving?” A-Zhui asks, and Jiang Cheng nods. “Well then,” his son bows, “goodbye, Uncle Jiang.”

Wei Wuxian’s heart seizes in his chest. Jiang Cheng, similarly, goes completely bug-eyed. Both brothers are simply too startled to respond, so when the silence persists:

“Should I not have called you that?” A-Zhui asks, his shoulders hunched anxiously.

“It’s not – ” Wei Wuxian cuts himself off. He’s not sure there’s a way to explain their reactions simply and efficiently.

Thankfully, “For fuck’s sake,” Jiang Cheng mutters under his breath. Reaching up to massage the bridge of his nose, “You Lans are going to be the death of me. What have I said before? Just call me shufu.”

“…You’re sure?”

Yes, I’m sure!” Jiang Cheng shouts, arms flailing, and while Wei Wuxian knows it’s all in jest, A-Zhui flinches. Just when he was doing better – shit.

If it feels like a punch to the gut to Wei Wuxian, it must be worse for his brother. Expectedly, Jiang Cheng turns pleadingly to Wei Wuxian, silently screaming ‘how do I fix this?!’ but all Wei Wuxian can do is shrug. This isn’t his problem to solve! He points at his son, gesturing so. If Wei Wuxian covers for Jiang Cheng every time he messes up, his son and brother will never have a stable relationship.

He gets a fowl glare in response.

Wei Wuxian sticks his tongue out.

Jiang Cheng shoots him a viciously jabbed middle finger. “Fine,” he growls, before returning his focus to Sizhui. After floundering for a moment more – “Look, Sizhui,” Jiang Cheng says, “I’m not angry at you. You did nothing wrong. You surprised me, that’s all. Uncle Jiang is what your dad called my dad and I – I don’t want our relationship to be like theirs. You’re not my ward or my friend’s son. You’re my nephew.”

A-Zhui swallows. “Even after everything I’ve done?”

Jiang Cheng scoffs. “Oh, come here already,” he says – and pulls Lan Sizhui into a crushing hug. As Sizhui stands ridged in his arms, “You’re too much like your parents,” he continues.  “I’m not going anywhere, no matter what bullshit you pull. We’re family.”

“…Really?”

“Always.”

Sizhui gives in. Sinking into the warmth and safety of the embrace, “Okay,” he chokes out. “Okay, shufu.”

 

It takes two days of travel to make it back to Cloud Recesses.

The journey is, thankfully, uneventful, but there’s an unshakeable weariness in Wei Wuxian’s bones by the time they alight. He wants to sleep for a decade, perhaps longer – but there’s one last thing he has to do before that.

One last thing to bring his nightmare of a month to an end.

So as Lan Sizhui is whisked away by Wen Qing and Wen Ning and Lan Xichen, Wei Wuxian slips away with his husband – down the well-worn paths of the Cloud Recesses, out the back of the main complex and out towards the mountains.

The journey to the Cold Springs is nostalgic and Lan Zhan, slipping off his headband to tie it around their wrists is even more so. They slip through the wards into the Cold Cave seamlessly and end up hovering in the entry way for some time.

Wei Wuxian is the first one to move, taking a hesitant step forward – and since he refuses to let go of his husband’s hand, this eventually drags Lan Zhan along with him. If not for the sound of their footsteps, echoing around the cave, the chamber would be utterly silent – so quiet, in fact, that Wei Wuxian thinks he’d be able to hear his heartbeat.

“To be quite honest,” he starts, “I never thought I’d be back here.”  

Lan Zhan stays silent. He grips Wei Wuxian’s hand tighter.

Wei Wuxian knows exactly what he’s thinking.

So, “Hey,” he says, squeezing right back. “I’m here. Don’t worry about what could have been.”

“What was,” Lan Zhan corrects.

“Hm?”

Lan Zhan glances down at their intertwined hands. “If not for A-Zhui…”

Ahh.

“Are you thinking about the other versions of us?” he asks softly. “The ones that…?”

Lan Zhan nods miserably. “To live for so long without you only to lose you again… It must have been indescribably painful.”

“Lan Zhan…” He moves his hand to cup his husband’s cheek; Lan Zhan’s comes to rest on top of it, his ribbon dangling between their wrists. “That’s not what happened here though, is it? A-Zhui saved us. We’re together and... Lan Zhan, even if I do leave, I'll always come home to you. No matter how many lifetimes it takes, I'll come home." 

Wei Wuxian gaze flickers momentarily to watch a water droplet trickle down from a stalactite and plunk into the pond bellow. With it, the water ripples.

“Besides,” he finishes, “the other versions of us… they weren’t alone in the end, Lan Zhan. They found each other too.”

Wei Wuxian really isn’t sure what became of A-Zhui’s future, whether that timeline continues on without him or whether it simply ceased to be, but this he’s sure of; that Lan Sizhui was loved, and Lan Zhan was too.

When his husband stays silent, contemplative, Wei Wuxian knows the best thing he can do is move them along. So, after giving Lan Zhan a peck on the cheek, “Let’s get this over with,” he says. “You have the Yin Iron piece, right?”

Lan Zhan nods, then reaching into his sleeve to pull out his qiankun pouch. Carefully, he loosens the strings and dips his hand inside the bag. “Are you ready?” he asks.

Wei Wuxian nods back. “Ready!” he chimes, the paper talisman held up between two fingers.

Only once he’s received the affirmative does Lan Zhan fully withdraw the Yin Iron – and before the metal can hum or buzz or sing, plop! Lan Zhan has tossed it into the pool. As the Yin Iron begins to sink, slowly, fizzing dark smoke, Wei Wuxian closes his eyes. He focuses, pouring energy into the talisman… and releases it, quick, with the swish of his wrist.

It collides with the water and instantly disintegrates. In its place, the symbol appears in light above the pond, flashing bright once before settling into a hazy glow, layered across the surface of the pond. The seal is quantitative, meaning the longer it runs, the stronger it’ll grow. Drawing natural energy from the Cold Cave, it’ll be self-sustaining, too.

If no one comes looking for it, the Yin Iron will remain trapped here – forever.

“This is just like our first date,” Wei Wuxian notes absentmindedly.

Lan Zhan quirks a brow at him. “We did not have a first date?”

“Lan Zhan! You didn’t forget, did you?” Wei Wuxian gasps, mock offended. “This is where we first got married! I’ll admit, it was a pretty intense first date, but it was definitely romantic! Hence! A date!” Twiddling the ends of Lan Zhan’s forehead ribbon round his fingers, batting his eyelashes up at his husband, “Lan-er-gege, you were so naughty, not telling me we were married for the longest time!”

Lan Zhan huffs. “Ridiculous,” he says, his ears blushing bright.

It’s so adorable that Wei Wuxian has to kiss him.

 

The sun is setting by the time they leave the cave. Their exit is far more graceful than the first time around, Lan Zhan climbing out first to offer Wei Wuxian a hand.

“What a gentleman you are!” Wei Wuxian teases, accepting the offer and allowing his husband to help him find his footing. What he doesn’t expect is the crunching sound his step makes, and when he gingerly lifts his foot to inspect the ground –

“It snowed!” he gasps. “Where did this all come from?” They weren’t inside that long!

Admittedly, it’s also really bad that it took treading in the snow for Wei Wuxian to realise it was there. But what can he say! Lan Zhan and his devilishly handsome face is just that distracting!

 “There must have been a brief storm while we were inside,” his husband muses. “It is not unusual for this time of year.”

“I love snow. You know that about me, right Lan Zhan?”

“Mm.”

Wei Wuxian tugs on his husband’s hand to begin leading him back up the path. “It never really snows that much in Yunmeng since it’s so close to the river. There was one year, though, where it snowed so much that Uncle Jiang had to close the Sect for the day, and Jiang Cheng and I had the best snowball fight! I totally won – ‘cause I managed to dunk him in the snow head first – but don’t ask him; he’ll say I lost, which I didn’t, Lan Zhan, honest!” He scratches at his cheek. “Though, I guess you don’t really get snow days here, do you? If your brother closed the sect every time it snowed, you’d never get anything done!”

Lan Zhan smiles at his rambling. “Unfortunately so.”

Typical! “Well, when it snows in the future, I can’t promise I’ll be productive! It’s just too exciting! I’ll never be able to focus on work!” Even now, Wei Wuxian is barely containing the urge to skip gleefully down the riverbank. If Wei Wuxian thought Cloud Recesses was beautiful in the summer, the trees in full-bloom, it’s even more gorgeous in the winter.

With a fine coating of snow, the rolling hills of Gusu appear delicate. Like it’s a meditating disciple, no one dares disturb the silky white coating of the woodland floor, not even the wildlife that makes its home in the mountains. It is the definition of quiet – tranquillity. That is until Wei Wuxian ploughs down the covered paths, eagerly dragging his husband home.

“Lan Zhan!” he prompts, as they’re re-entering civilisation. The pale woods and paper screens blend in so perfectly with their landscape. “We need to get home quicker!”

“Hm?”

Wei Wuxian leads them through a shortcut in the buildings, past the disciple’s dormitories and round the corridor towards the main complex. “A-Yuan probably hasn’t seen snow before! We’re missing our son’s first snow day!”

“I am sure A-Zhui is keeping him entertained.”

“But I want to entertain him! Both of them, in fact!”

“Wei Ying will have to walk quicker then.”

Wei Wuxian does.

When he and Lan Zhan finally make it back home, Wei Wuxian pushes past the gate and is immediately tackled by a waist-high white blur.

“Daddy!” A-Yuan cries as he throws himself at Wei Wuxian’s leg. “Daddy, Daddy! You’re back!

“I am!” Wei Wuxian replies. He reaches down to heft his son onto his hip and is rewarded with the pitter patter of icy mittens on his chest. He kisses his son’s cheek and asks, “Did you miss me and your father?”

“Mm hm! Father! Kiss!”

Lan Zhan eagerly complies. Pecking the top of their son’s head, “What did you do while we were gone?” he asks.

A-Yuan beams. “I built a snow bunny!”

“A snow bunny?” Wei Wuxian echoes. “Really? Wow! My little potato is so talented! Ahh, you must get your artistic talents from me! Your father can’t draw more than a stickman, after all.”

As A-Yuan giggles, “Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan sighs, long-suffering, so incredibly slandered, prompting Wei Wuxian to laugh himself.

“Okay, okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration. Of course your father can draw more than one lonely stickman.” A dramatic pause. “He can draw two!”

As the giggles continue, “Father! Dad!” a voice calls from the Jingshi porch. Lan Sizhui is stood in the doorway, waving, Lan Xichen stood at his side. “Uncle Ning is making dinner!”

“We’ll be right in!” Wei Wuxian calls back. Hitching A-Yuan higher up on his waist, “Did you hear that, A-Yuan? Food! Are you hungry?”

“Yeah!” he agrees. “But no radishes!”

Wei Wuxian laughs, joyous. “No radishes! I promise!”  

 

That night, once dinner has been had and the boys have drifted off to sleep, it starts snowing again. For a good while, Wei Wuxian sits by the Jingshi doors, watching it fall over the grass, but his body isn’t what it used to be.

“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls just as Wei Wuxian’s fingers are starting to go numb, “come to bed.”

Wei Wuxian doesn’t protest. He slides the door closed and eagerly pads across the room, ready to be warmed by his husband’s embrace. Lan Zhan runs hot and it’s perfect for nights like this. “I’m sorry my face is so cold,” he says, muffled, nuzzling his nose into the heat of his husband’s neck. “And my hands. And my feet.”

There’s a huff. “If you did not insist on sitting outside, you would not be cold.”

“But it’s such a gorgeous night! It’s would be waste not to appreciate it.”

“The snow still be there tomorrow.”

“Hmm, I suppose so… Alright, you win, husband mine. Take me to bed!”

“Gladly.”

He laughs.

After they’re tucked into their bed, the covers cocooned around them, soft against Wei Wuxian’s skin, he listens, just to see what he can hear. There’s the wind knocking against the windows as the snow flutters down, the soft snoring of A-Yuan from a few rooms over… Most prominently, Wei Wuxian finds, is the steady thumping of his husband’s heart, soothingly rhythmic.

There’s no one else to hear it but him. Wei Wuxian alone is allowed this close to Gusu’s Hanguang-jun, it’s darling Second Jade.

Perhaps that’s what makes him ask it, the question.

“Hey, Lan Zhan?” Wei Wuxian says. “Why do you love me?”

His husband hums. “Because Wei Ying is kind,” he says, kissing Wei Wuxian’s cheek. “Because he is brave.” His nose. “He is clever.” His eyelids. “Selfless.” His lashes.

The feather-light brush of lips against his skin has Wei Wuxian giggling – and he surprises himself with the sound so genuinely that it turns into a fuller laugh. When he opens his eyes, he sees Lan Zhan gazing at him so sweetly that it makes Wei Wuxian’s stomach flip.

“Do you believe me this time?” Lan Zhan says, reaching up to brush a stray hair out of Wei Wuxian’s face.

He leans into the touch… and then shuffles closer to his husband, so their lips are nearly touching. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I do,” Wei Wuxian says against Lan Zhan’s mouth, and melts as he feels Lan Zhan smile.

They're already tangled in each other, inexplicably so, but then Lan Zhan's hands worm their way around his waist and Wei Wuxian slides his legs between his husband's and the point arrives where Wei Wuxian doesn't know where Lan Zhan ends and he beings. In fact, Wei Wuxian doesn't think he'll ever be able to pull himself away, not completely. When they rise the next morning, a piece of him will stay with his zhiji, his lover, his husband, and when they part, inevitably, Lan Zhan will keep it still. He'll hold it close and keep it warm until Wei Wuxian can re-unite with it and be whole, once again.

For now, however, there are no duties or obligations, no reasons to separate. Now, in the quiet of the Jingshi, they kiss and kiss and kiss and kiss.

Chapter Text

Sizhui can’t sleep.

It should come easily. He’s in his father’s house – his childhood bedroom. These four walls, when he was a small, felt like the safest place in the world. In fact, on the bed next to him, A-Yuan is dozing peacefully, clutching at his big brother’s arm. In turn, Sizhui is petting his little brother’s hair, brushing it soothingly, and he does this for what feels like hours, staring at the ceiling, eyes achingly tired.

It would be proper, Sizhui supposes, to look into moving into the disciples’ dormitories. The idea of sharing a room with a stranger, however, is unappealing. It would only make him miss Jingyi more; his messy bed, his collections of fantasy novels…

So, no. For now, Sizhui will stay in his childhood bedroom. If he can’t sleep here, he won’t be able to sleep anywhere.

Sizhui tries, at least. He gives sleep its best shot – but when he starts to hear the birds chirp outside, he decides his efforts are futile. So, an hour or so before dawn, Sizhui tiptoes out of the Jingshi, hoping a walk will help clear his mind. The chill morning air certainly wakes him up, fresh against his face. The snow, Sizhui observes, making his way down the path towards the central complex, has finally begun to thaw, showing hints of the life underneath. It’ll take days until the full green of Cloud Recesses returns, but it’s a start.

By the time Sizhui has done a full lap around the hills and buildings, the sun is only just beginning to rise. It is late enough, however, for disciples to start littering the paths, the morning bell fast approaching. He could stop for breakfast, in fact, Sizhui thinks to himself as he passes the disciple’s dining hall. By the time he’s finished, it’s likely his father will be up. Sizhui could even bring some food back with him.

Yes, that sounds sensible.

Decision made, Sizhui nips into the dining hall. Grabbing himself some congee, he settles at a table near the corner of the room, and digs in.  

Sizhui gets halfway through his meal before he realises he’s being watched.

It starts with a tingling at the back of his skull. He dismisses the sensation at first – he must be paranoid after the month he’s had – but it persists.

Then there’s the sound of ever so quiet and ever so illegal chatter.

Sizhui knows for sure that he’s not imagining that.

He swivels quickly to survey the room, hoping to surprise his observers, and watches as three heads frantically spin back around to hunch over their breakfasts. The dining hall is silent now, the disciples having been caught in the act, confirming that they were talking about him.

It’s enough to put Sizhui off his food, his stomach suddenly churning with self-consciousness. He manages three more mouthfuls before he gives up, rising from his seat. After discarding the bowl appropriately, he makes for the exit, a longing to be home and safe in his bed overtaking him.

He makes it approximately half a minute out the door before he hears scrambling behind him.

“Shixiong! Please wait!” he hears, along with the distinct sound of rapid footsteps.

“No running,” Sizhui says instinctively as he turns to face his little band of stalkers. Abashed, three teenaged disciples stand before him – and Sizhui finds he recognises none of them. It’s a pleasant surprise, after being dogged by painfully familiar faces for so long now. The tallest of the three disciples, a young woman, bows to him as if to mitigate for their earlier behaviour.

“Apologies, shixiong,” she says. “I didn’t mean to offend you. This Lan Yingyue simply wanted to speak to you.”

The three juniors before him… appear genuinely nervous, Sizhui observes. Why, he wonders? It’s not… it’s not because they’re shy to speak to him, is it? So, “How is it I can assist you?” he responds, attempting his best impression of Uncle Xichen. That should put them at ease.

Probably.  

The girl hunches her shoulders and smiles back weakly. “Well,” she says, “We overheard some rumours and wanted to bring them to your attention! Because gossiping is against the rules, of course, and this way you’d be able to shut the rumours down!”

Ah. Gossip. Sizhui sighs. “What do the rumours say?” he asks, longsuffering, and before his shimei can respond –

“That you defeated Xue Yang!” the youngest of the three disciples blurts. “By yourself! Is it true?” His eyes are wide with what Sizhui, rather uncomfortably, recognises as awe.

The boy is then promptly thwacked over the head by his other friend. “Lijie! We were going to go about this tactfully, remember?!”

The young boy ducks his head. “Sorry Nianzhen, I got too excited…”

Lan Nianzhen pinches their nose in frustration.

Meanwhile, “So, is it true?” his shimei asks, repeating Lan Lijie’s question. “Did you defeat Xue Yang?”

The three teenagers close in on him then, staring up at him with childlike wonderment.

Sizhui takes an automatic step back, a little overwhelmed. “Aha ha,” he laughs anxiously, holding his hands up in surrender. “It wasn’t like that. I didn’t defeat Xue Yang, I – ” he swallows his next words. ‘I manipulated him into dying for me,’ isn’t the answer these disciples are going to want to hear. “I – I was with Senior Wei and Hanguang-jun and Sect Leader Jiang. They did most of the work.”

“But isn’t that Jiangzai on your back?” Lan Nianzhen points out.

Sizhui clutches at the sword strap instinctively. Admittedly, he has been wearing Jiangzai, slung over his back in a criss-cross formation with his own sword. Sizhui doesn’t really understand why he’s doing it.

Gauging his reaction, “It is, isn’t it?” Lan Nianzhen persists. “I thought I recognised it! So the rumours are true!”

“They’re really not – ”

“Ahh, stop being modest, shixiong!” Lan Yingyue insists.

“Yeah!” Lan Nianzhen echoes. “Take credit due where credit’s due!”

“You must be so strong,” Lan Lijie sighs, almost dreamily. “How cool! To take down such a villain! Just what I’d expect from Lan Qiren’s so-mFPH!” A hand is slapped over his shidi’s mouth, cutting off those final words.

“HAHAHA, ignore that, shixiong!” Lan Yingyue laughs. “Anyway, back on topic! Xue Yang! How’d you do it? Defeat him, I mean?”

“It was nothing, really – !”

“Will you train us?!” Lan Lijie pleads, having shaken off his shijie’s grip. His words ring in the air, leaving Sizhui outright bewildered and his sect siblings holding bated breaths.

Sizhui realises with a belated horror that this may be the beginnings of a fan club.

He is not ready for this.

At all.

Shit.

They’re – they’re so cute, though. Wide eyed, inexperienced. He can’t say no, Sizhui instinctively knows, without hurting his sect siblings’ feelings.

He’s trapped.

So, “I’ll consider it!” he blurts, without really thinking about it. Gods, he feels so awkward! “I have to go now, though. I have to – uh – meet with Hanguang-jun! So, yeah! Rain-check! Bye!”

As he runs off, he hears a chorus of three voices.

“Bye, shixiong!”

 

Sizhui practically sprints home. How ironic, after he told off his juniors for the same thing! Rarely is Sizhui actually out of breath but, upon arriving at the Jingshi’s porch, he braces his hands on his knees, panting softly.

That was a close one.

Train juniors.

Him.

They sought him out!

Him!

Senior Wei is undoubtedly going to find this immensely amusing – Sizhui can hear his laughter now – but perhaps Father will have some advice for him.

Or some sympathy, at least.

After composing himself, Sizhui slides the front door open and the first thing he sees is his dad tossing Wei Yuan up in the air. “Did you grow over night, my little potato?” he coos, catching his son and nuzzling his head against A-Yuan’s hair. “You’re such a big boy now! A whole four years old! Does that mean you’re too old for kisses from your old dad?”

A-Yuan giggles, pushing at Senior Wei’s face as his dad tries to place sloppy kisses against his son’s cheeks. “Silly Daddy! Stop ittt!”

“Oh, alright,” Wei Wuxian sighs theatrically. “Lan Zhan, what will we do now? Our boy is too grown up!”

“I do not know,” Lan Wangji agrees, playing along, sat before the Jingshi’s main table nursing a cup of tea.

“One day, they’re little potatoes… the next they’re ready to face the world alone!” Senior Wei fakes a sob then, throwing an arm over his eyes, and Sizhui sees A-Yuan roll his eyes.

“Daddyyy…” he moans, flopping backwards out of exasperation – and as he does so he finally catches sight of Sizhui in the doorway. Upside-down, A-Yuan beams at him. “Gege!” he calls happily. “It’s my birthday!”

Sizhui freezes.

It’s his – ?

Finally noticing him, “Ah, A-Zhui!” Senior Wei says. “Where’d you go this morning? You’re supposed to sleep in on your birthday, not get up early!”

“It’s gege’s birthday too?” A-Yuan asks.

“Mm hm! Not all brothers share a birthday, but you two certainly do!” Senior Wei winks at Sizhui then, an acknowledgement of the truth of the matter – that Sizhui and A-Yuan share the same birthday because they were, once, the same person.

In any other circumstance, Sizhui might find the situation rather funny. Right now, however, he thinks he’s in shock.

“It’s my birthday?” he whispers. The question tumbles out without his permission. He can’t stop thinking it, either.

Today. His birthday is today.

“Uh, yeah?” Wei Wuxian is smiling at him still, but it doesn’t reach his eyes. “A-Zhui, are you okay?”

“I didn’t know.”

“Didn’t know?”

“The date.”

Father breathes in sharp as he realises. It clicks with Senior Wei in the next second, and his eyes blow wide. “You didn’t remember…? Even that?

Sizhui shakes his head. “Only in the past few months have I begun to remember my life prior to Cloud Recesses. I couldn’t have told Father the date even if I tried, and everyone else who knew – ” he swallows, the next words too painful to speak.

The knowledge died with the rest of the Burial Mounds.

Sizhui ducks his gaze and crosses his arms to clutch at himself. “It isn’t that Father and I would never celebrate my birthday. We would, just around the new year.”

It’s his birthday. Today. Every year since he turned three, Sizhui treated it like any another day. It passed like clockwork, unceremoniously and, in another world, he’d have continued not to know.

It’s not like he’d never wondered, but birthdays often pass in Cloud Recesses with little fanfare, so it wasn’t like Sizhui was missing out in comparison to his peers. It rarely bothered him, that the date he celebrated his birthday was but a stand-in. He had his father and his uncle and their undivided attention and that was enough.

Now, it feels like another thing Sizhui didn’t even realise he was missing.

There’s a hand on his back. Father has risen to come stand beside him and the warm weight of his hold is tethering. “We know now, and we are here,” he says.

“Eh, it’s a good thing we didn’t have the time to prepare for your coming-of-age ceremony,” Senior Wei says, now standing to his right. He brushes at his nose, sheepish. “I suppose that would have been even worse of a shock.”

Oh. That’s right. Of all birthdays, it’s his twentieth; in the eyes of the cultivation world, he’s an adult now. But – well, that’s another complication, isn’t it? They’ll have to throw a public celebration, an announcement of his adulthood, but his family has such a bad track record with parties. There will be so much to plan, so much to consider –

“A-Zhui, A-Zhui, stop worrying!” his dad soothes. “We don’t have to sort that out right now! Most capping ceremonies are held in the spring anyway. Just enjoy your birthday and leave the stress till later.”

“Mm,” Father nods along. “Fun now, stress later.”

Lan Sizhui laughs then, caught off-guard by such an uncharacteristic statement from his father. That must have been Lan Wangji’s intent as, faintly, he sees his father smirk.

“Come on,” Wei Wuxian urges, tugging Lan Sizhui over to sit at the Jingshi’s table. “Sit down and relax while A-Yuan and I finish getting dressed. We’ve got so much to do today!”

Sizhui allows himself to be pulled along. He’s sat down, and A-Yuan clambers into his lap, his brow furrowed. “Gege didn’t know it was his birthday? Or A-Yuan’s?”

Sizhui shakes his head.

A-Yuan frown deepens. He thinks hard for a moment, considering – then, the answer comes to him, easily, as it does for children. “Then today has to be the best birthday ever! All Zhui-gege’s birthdays in one day!”

It’s a simple answer, but the most obvious.

He knows now, and he’s here. The best time to make up for lost time is today.

 

Sizhui isn’t sure how his parents organised this behind his back, but it’s rather impressive.

So much to do today, as Senior Wei described it, equates to a surprise party.

The first of the buildings down at the Wen’s new settlement has been completed: a sturdy town hall, with enough empty space to house a sizeable gathering. Inside may be, in fact, everyone Sizhui knows in the past. Everyone he loves and cares about in one place.

The Wens give him their well wishes in what feels like wave after wave, a steady stream of congratulations and affection. Sizhui almost tears up when Granny comes by to squeeze his cheeks. “You’ve grown into such a wonderful young man,” she says to him, “even without us all. What a pleasure it is to be here with you today.”

It leaves his throat feeling tight, but every time the feelings grow too overwhelming, Father is suddenly there at his side, whisking him away to some new distraction. “I am not fond of being the centre of attention either,” he comments unprompted after the first time it happens. “We are alike in that regard.”

A-Yuan, in contrast, is preening under the attention. The fuss he receives is almost silly, as is the pile of gifts slowly accumulating nearby. Senior Wei protests each and every present – “Really, this isn’t necessary!” – but it’s done so weakly. It may not be traditionally significant birthday, but after everything the Wens have been through – after everything A-Yuan has been through – no one can begrudge them this.

Well, almost everyone.

“Why did no one tell me it was your birthday?!” Jiang Wanyin fumes, once he arrives with Jiang Yanli and baby Jin Ling in tow. “Wei Wuxian needs to stop keeping me out of the loop! I’d have brought a gift – something! – if I’d known!”

“To be fair, Uncle, I didn’t know it was my birthday either,” Sizhui responds, to Auntie Yanli’s delight.

“A-jie! This isn’t funny! Stop laughing at me!”

“A-Cheng, I have to admit, it is rather amusing.”

“Can you believe this, A-Ling?” Jiang Wanyin huffs, taking his nephew from Auntie Yanli’s hold. “They’re bullying me! Unbelievable!”

A-Ling grunts in what Sizhui interprets to be affirmation. That or he’s annoyed by all the noise the adults around him are making.

“You’re heading back to Koi Tower tonight, aren’t you, Auntie?”

Jiang Yanli nods. “I’ve been away long enough. Mother must be getting lonely without A-Ling and I.”

“That, and Jin Guangshan’s funeral is likely to be right around the corner,” Jiang Wanyin tacks on. “If he’s not dead already, that is.”

“A-Cheng.”

“What! I’m right! We all know I am! Madam Jin will be the next Chief Cultivator before we all know it!”

That… doesn’t sound like the worst idea. Madam Jin certainly is terrifying enough to hold the position. Cultivation conferences will certainly start to run more efficiently.

As he begins to seriously consider the possibility, “Ah, A-Zhui!” Uncle Xichen calls, walking across the room from where he was talking to Fourth Uncle (they were discussing the establishment of a winery on site, Sizhui is pretty sure). “I forgot to give this to you earlier. Here.” Lan Xichen pulls a letter out of his sleeve, passing it into Sizhui’s hands.

“Is that Nie Huaisang’s handwriting?” his Uncle Wanyin comments, peering over Sizhui’s shoulder.

Lan Xichen nods. “It came with Mingjue’s last missive. I do not know what it concerns.”

Flanked by his nosy uncles, Sizhui easily pries open the seal on the envelope and unfurls the letter. They read then, all three of them, his uncles doing so over Sizhui’s shoulders.

“Oh,” Uncle Xichen says once he’s finished. “That was nice of him.”

“How come Nie Huaisang knew it was my nephew’s birthday and I didn’t?!”

“I can assure you, Sect Leader Jiang, I did not tell him.”

That has Sizhui frowning. “Then how did he know? Who could have told him?”

There is a moment of contemplative silence.

“Oi! Wei Wuxian!”

Senior Wei looks over from where he’s play fighting with A-Yuan, a wooden sword in his grip. They’re in the midst of defeating the evil dragon that is Wen Ning. “Yeah?”

“Did you tell Nie Huaisang it was A-Zhui’s birthday?” Auntie Yanli asks him.

“…No?”

“…Well, that is peculiar,” Uncle Xichen hums.

Sizhui scans the letter again.

I look forwards to getting to know you in the future, Lan Sizhui, Nie Huaisang has written. I’m sure there is much we could learn from each other.

 

A-Yuan falls asleep against Sizhui right in the midst of dinner, the excitement of the day finally wearing him out. Sizhui pulls the soup spoon from his tiny hand before it clatters to the floor, placing it delicately on the table before them, and juggles A-Yuan’s weight in his hold. Somehow, he manages to rise without disturbing his younger brother’s sleep.

“Do you want me to take him?” Senior Wei offers, arms empty and waiting, but Sizhui shakes his head.

“I’ll take him home,” Sizhui responds. “I know you want to see Uncle and Auntie off.” He’s tired himself, honestly. It’s been a long day – but a good day, in the end. Sizhui feels pleasantly exhausted, like he could drop off and dream peacefully.

Sizhui makes the rounds then, effusing his thanks to his various aunts and uncles, before slipping out the door, A-Yuan snoring peacefully against his shoulder.

He doesn’t expect to see Wen Qing sat outside, sat staring up at the night sky. She turns to him as he exits. “Oh, Sizhui. Heading back?” she asks.

Sizhui nods.

“Want some company?”

He smiles in answer.

For some time, the two walk in companionable silence. Auntie Qing’s eyes keep turning up to the stars that loom over Gusu, and Sizhui finds himself mimicking her. It’s a comforting sight, the same sky he grew up under. He wonders if they’ll catch a shooting star.

“Your parents tell me you’re going on a trip tomorrow,” Wen Qing says, as they begin to approach the Jingshi.  

“I am,” Sizhui confirms.

“Where?”

Jiangzai feels a little heavier on his back – but, simultaneously, A-Yuan is steady weight in his arms.

“…To settle unfinished business,” Sizhui responds eventually.

Wen Qing hums. “Good.”

They’re quiet again for a moment, as Auntie Qing pushes the Jingshi’s gate open. She holds it so Sizhui can pass, and escorts him the final steps up the path. Before she wishes him goodnight, “You know,” Auntie Qing says, “I never thought I’d see the stars again. Did you notice you can’t see them from in the Burial Mounds?”

Wen Qing kisses his forehead then. “Thank you, A-Zhui. For everything.”

 

It’s as he’s walking A-Yuan through the house that his little brother finally begins to stir. “Gege?” he slurs, sleepily, rubbing at his eyes. “Is’t bedtime yet? A-Yuan’s tired.”

“It’s bedtime,” Sizhui confirms. “Can you keep your eyes open a little longer, didi? Just until I can get you ready for bed?”

A-Yuan nods. He yawns and his breath is warm against Sizhui's neck. “Uh huh. Can do that. A-Yuan’s a big boy now.”

The response is too cute. Sizhui can’t help the smile that comes to his lips. “Did you have a good birthday?” Sizhui asks, as he walks A-Yuan into his bedroom.

“Mm hm,” the boy hums. “Did you?”

“I did,” Sizhui agrees sincerely. He then makes quick work of preparing A-Yuan for bed, and it isn’t until he’s tucking the boy under his covers that his little brother speaks up again.

“Gege,” he says, eyes lidded, “can you tell me a story? Till I fall asleep?”

“Hmm, a bedtime story?”

“Mmm hmm…”

Sizhui brushes a hand over his younger-self’s hair. “I can do that.”

He’s made of stories, after all.

 

The sun has barely risen in the sky, the colour a loquat orange against the retreating white of the snow clouds, when Lan Sizhui leaves the Jingshi. Wrapped up tightly in his over cloak to avoid the morning chill, he hovers on the porch, surveying the fresh snow.

Father stands in front of him, tugging woollen mittens over Sizhui’s fingers. “You have everything you need?” he asks.

Sizhui nods. “Yes, Father.”

“And you will be back by tonight?”

“Yes, Father.”

There’s a yawn from behind them. Wei Wuxian leans against the door frame, still in his night clothes, hair sleepily tangled. “Save travels, A-Zhui,” he says. “Love you.”

“I love you too,” Sizhui replies easily. He’s pulled into hugs with his parents – Father’s firm and reassuring, Senior Wei’s lazy and warm – and then he’s off.

The qiankun pouch on his waist is impossibly heavy. Sizhui feels like it should weigh him down but, as he mounts his sword, he flies away as seamlessly as ever. He keeps a hand on the bag, nonetheless, as the mountains and hills roll by, passing like brushstrokes beneath his feet.

He flies all morning, pushing on long enough to reach Yiling by lunch time. Sizhui supposes he should eat, even though he feels a little queasy, knowing what he’s come here to do. Still, he knows his parents will ask later, so it’s worth stopping just so he doesn’t have to lie when he faces their questioning.

Sizhui wanders into a small restaurant and picks gingerly at the meal the establishment server eagerly recommends him. He spends the time more so listening to the chatter around him than eating, in fact.

‘Did you hear Xue Yang died?’

‘I did! Ha! Good riddance!’

‘I heard it was Hanguang-Jun’s cousin that killed him.’

‘Hanguang-jun has a cousin?’

‘You didn’t know? Lan Sizhui’s his name.’

‘How come we’ve never heard of him before?’

‘Rumour has it that his mother was a Wen.’

‘He was living in the Burial Mounds, with the Yiling Patriarch!’

‘I always knew that Wei Wuxian was innocent! No wonder Hanguang-jun fell in love with him, if he was protecting his cousin from persecution!’

‘That is a couple that was fated to be together. I remember when…’

After consuming as much of his portion as he can, which is less than he’ll admit to his parents later, Sizhui makes his way back through the town and up a familiar path. The trees lining the dirt road are as barren as they always have been every time Sizhui has made this journey; he doesn’t know why he expects it to have changed, now everything is different.

No, the path to the Burial Mounds is as it always has been – empty, quiet. As Sizhui climbs, his journey is unfettered by corpses and resentful energy alike, and as he goes further still, he feels the old wards brushing past his skin, accepting him as they always have.

It is eeriest of all to see the village at the top of mounds completely abandoned. It has been but a dozen days since his family left for good, but the tilled radish patches have already begun to sprout weeds and the houses have already begun to collect dust.

Amidst it all, Sizhui lingers in the village square. He takes a second to close his eyes and breathe in the stale air. After all this time, inexplicably, the waft of decay on the breeze still smells like home.

Yet, Sizhui hasn’t come here to reminisce, he has to remind himself. So, he moves on, past the square and to the Demon-Slaughtering Cave. He pushes himself past the entry way and in – past his dad’s work bench, past the doodles plastered to the walls, past the makeshift dining area…

Lan Sizhui only stops once he’s stood before the Blood Pool. It sits stagnant, unnaturally still, the liquid as red as death. In mimicry, Sizhui moves silently. With nimble fingers, he unties the strings of the qiankun pouch at his waist… and he can’t bring himself to reach inside the bag. He doesn’t want to touch it, the Yin Iron; he doesn’t want to know what it has to say.

It has done enough harm already.

Sizhui doesn’t then. He simply tips the bag upside-down and out the Yin Iron tumbles, into the viscousness with a satisfying plop. The broken piece sinks slowly, gradually and gradually, until it is overtaken by the blood of the pool, completely submerged.

Gone.

Sizhui reaches across his back next.  

He unsheathes Jiangzai.

The sword is perfectly balanced across his palms and the metal of the blade, recently polished, shines in the dim light of the cave. Sizhui catches his reflection in it and his own eyes stare back at him, dark and tired, and – and Sizhui doesn’t know what he expects; he doesn’t know why he’s so disappointed to see his own reflection. 

He nearly tosses Jiangzai, right then and there, out of disgust. The crimes this sword has committed… The lives it has ruined. Why does he clutch it still, like it means something to him?

It doesn’t.

It doesn’t!

Xue Yang didn’t mean anything to him! He was a monster! He terrified Sizhui to his core, right up until the end. Xue Yang threatened his family, held a blade to his neck, manipulated him, tried to own him! So why doesn’t he want to toss his sword?! It shouldn’t feel like a disrespect! Why does it?!

Deep down, Sizhui knows. It’s because Xue Yang still helped him. He helped Sizhui and it killed him. Xue Yang knew it would kill him and he helped anyway.

Sizhui just wants to know why? He wants to shake Xue Yang, demand to know what he was thinking in that moment. His last words plague Sizhui like a curse. ‘I knew you were different. I never should have doubted that.’ Different how? Different from who? From Xiao Xingchen? From the rest of the cultivation world? Sizhui can’t figure it out!

He’s not special. He’s really not. He merely got lucky. That’s all it’s been.

Fortune.

He was fortunate to survive the prisoner of war camps at Qiongqi pass. Fortunate to be saved by Wei Wuxian. Fortunate to be found by Lan Wangji. Fortunate to be standing next to his dad when Guanyin temple collapsed.

Sizhui can’t help but wonder about who Xue Yang could have been in another life, if he’d been given the chances Sizhui had himself.

If he’d been offered a shred of kindness before it was too late.

Sizhui stares into Jiangzai’s blade, into the reflection of his own eyes, searching for the answers to questions he knows he’s not going to get – not from anyone but himself.

“I cannot part with you till I understand,” he whispers to the sword, in the isolation of the Demon-Slaughtering cave. Maybe he never will understand Xue Yang completely, but he can try each day.

He can offer others the kindness Xue Yang never received.

Lan Sizhui sheathes Jiangzai, slings it over his back, and flies home.

There’s so much waiting for him.