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To Believe With Certainty We Must Begin With Doubting

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian is not ashamed to admit he is nervous when he goes to keep his appointment with Lan Qiren at the healers’ pavilion.

He will never admit he is nervous out loud, but judging by Lan Zhan’s level, unimpressed look when he brightly (perhaps too brightly) proclaimed that there was no need for his husband to escort him, Lan Zhan had not been fooled. It would have been easier to let Lan Zhan accompany him, certainly. He doesn’t know what precipitated Lan Qiren’s sudden kindness (his brusque, slightly impatient, extremely terrifying kindness), but he’s wary of testing the old master’s good will. Especially seeing how much it meant to Lan Zhan to witness them actually getting along for once. Still. This is something he must do alone.

If…if Lan Qiren is truly serious about allowing Wei Wuxian to teach in the Cloud Recesses, if he truly means for Wei Wuxian to assume such an important position as instructing the novice class, Wei Wuxian cannot keep using his husband as a buffer. He will not be rude, he will not do anything (too) deliberately outrageous…but if he and Lan Qiren cannot function around each other without Lan Zhan’s calming presence, then there is no way Lan Qiren’s proposal will work.

And oh, how he wants this proposal to work.

It surprises him, how much he wants it.

He is content with this second life he’s been gifted with, it’s true. More than content. This life—with his son at his side, with the respect and affection of the rest of the juniors, with the still-tentative but slowly growing bond he’s forming with his nephew. With the knowledge that his best friend is making his own way in the world, learning to stand as his own person outside Wei Wuxian’s shadow. With the incredible, unfathomable love of his husband. It’s all so much more than he ever could have asked for. So much more than he knows he has any right to ask for.

Still. He would be lying if he said the idea of having a true purpose again, some way to make a difference in the world, is not appealing. And the children…he’s only properly known the littlest Lans for a few days, and he already feels such affection for them. The idea of being involved in their education on a more permanent basis (doing so with Lan Qiren’s full consent no less!)…even if it only lasts until someone more suitable can be found among the Lan cultivators currently assigned elsewhere…

He wants to do this. Very much.

Even if it means waking up at the ungodly hour he will have to in order to be ready for a class that begins at seven in the morning.

He arrives at the healers’ pavilion just a few minutes after the bell tolls for the afternoon study period. Both Lan Qiren and the head healer (he knows her name, he knows he knows her name, but damned if he can remember it) are waiting at the door for him. There is a small part of him that is expecting Lan Qiren to start scolding him, even though he is definitely not late. To his surprise, though, his husband’s uncle merely gives him a grave nod of acknowledgement, without a hint of the undercurrent of barely-restrained hostility that usually colors their interactions.

Its absence is…somewhat shocking, if he’s being honest.

He bows in greeting, rising to find the healer’s eyes flicking up and down his frame with a brisk, no-nonsense air. She sniffs.

“Still too thin, I see,” she says, pinning him with a sharp glare, as though he’s done something to personally offend her by not being plump as a nesting hen.

Ah.

Now he remembers why he doesn’t remember her name. It usually takes him a good week or two of exposure to fix someone’s name in his mind if he doesn’t see them often. He’s been studiously avoiding the healers’ pavilion and most of the Lan healers since he and Lan Zhan arrived back in the Cloud Recesses for the winter. Really studiously avoiding them. It’s not that they’re unkind or even wary around him—if anything, their unflinching professionalism had been very refreshing after the suspicion and anger he’d been greeted with once everyone realized who he was. It’s just that…well…

Lan Zhan had insisted on him seeing the healers directly after the events at the temple. The head healer had poked and prodded his still-sore neck, tsked over the still-tender flesh of his belly where Jin Ling had stabbed him, and then spent nearly an hour checking his meridians and poking and pinching at his stomach, his hips, his arms and wrists before proclaiming him far too underweight for his height and suffering from prolonged exhaustion besides.

She’d been right, of course, but that was beside the point. She didn’t have to say it where Lan Zhan could hear. There they’d been, newly married (all right, perhaps still missing their third bow, but really, he was willing to consider that a mere technicality at that point) and his husband would barely touch him except to try and encourage him to eat more or lie down! For a week!

It was also completely beside the point that he had actually spent the first few days after the temple mostly sleeping. And then napping. And then eating something light and yet filling that Lan Zhan plied him with before sleeping some more, and then waking up to find Lan Zhan sitting on the edge of the bed, just gently stroking his fingers through Wei Wuxian’s hair and staring at him with a heartbreaking mixture of worry, relief, and so much love in his eyes, like he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe that Wei Wuxian was really here, that he was never leaving again and…

What point was he making again?

“Do I need to have someone go over the basics of a healthy diet with you, Master Wei?” the head healer asks, and though the brisk, professional tone that Wei Wuxian so appreciates keeps the words from sounding scornful, he is all of a sudden viscerally reminded of that time he and Jiang Cheng got caught sneaking cakes meant for a banquet Uncle Jiang was hosting from the kitchens.

All right, forget whatever point he was making, his new point is that the Lan sect’s head healer is terrifying and he definitely doesn’t want to get on her bad side.

“Ah, hah hah,” he chuckles nervously, “no, no that won’t be necessary Healer Lan. This one will take more care in the future.”

The healer hums neutrally, her sharp, black eyes giving him another once-over before she clicks her tongue. “See that you do. I would hate for someone to mention it in front of His Excellency,” she says primly. “Teacher Lan is waiting for you in the receiving room. I trust that I don’t have to remind either of you to cut this visit short if he seems to be straining himself?”

She phrases it as a question, but it is clearly not.

This time, the visceral reminder is not of the many cooks who chased him and Jiang Cheng out of the kitchens of Lotus Pier. This time the past clouds his vision with memories of a voice just as sharp, but laced with kindness that its owner only ever showed to people who meant something to her. He almost hunches his shoulders in anticipation of a small, strong hand lashing out at him with her glittering needles.

He forces the memories of his friend aside, manages to nod mutely as Healer Lan’s eyes fix on him again. She nods once to herself and bows to them both, before turning back into the pavilion proper and vanishing down a hallway. Wei Wuxian resists the urge to fidget with his sleeves like some scolded child.

“Did she really just threaten me with Lan Zhan?” he cannot help wondering aloud, and cannot hide his surprise when Lan Qiren snorts in amusement.

“Be grateful that is all she threatened you with,” he mutters. Wei Wuxian waits for him to say more, but he merely strokes his beard once, and then gestures for Wei Wuxian to precede him into the pavilion.

* * *

Lan Guihong is indeed waiting for them in one of the small side-rooms set up for people to visit with patients who are well enough to be out of bed. Wei Wuxian surrenders his snow-dusted cloak to a waiting member of the staff and sits down at the table across from the elder teacher, his posture every bit as perfect as Lan Qiren’s, and accepts the tea he is offered with a friendly smile. He is prepared to be questioned by Lan Guihong. Prepared to have to defend his capabilities. Prepared to be quizzed on any manner of cultivation methods.

He’s even a little bit prepared for Lan Qiren to decide halfway through this meeting that he doesn’t want Wei Wuxian anywhere near the novices after all. That this was all a mistake.

He is not prepared to decide he likes Lan Guihong in less time than it takes him to finish his first cup of tea.

He is not wrong in his expectations. Lan Guihong is clearly feeling him out—the old man asks him all manner of questions about his own training and his duties at Lotus Pier. However, he does it in such a manner that the questions don’t feel at all invasive or accusing. He seems to have a sixth sense about when his line of questioning starts to dig up memories that are painful, and deftly changes the subject. He does not shy away from the topic of Wei Wuxian’s past, his infamy as the Yiling Patriarch, but nor does he dwell on it. Wei Wuxian finds himself answering honestly about his demonic cultivation, whether and when he still uses it (only when there is no other choice and even then only sparingly…Lan Qiren stiffens, but he knows his husband has been just as honest with his uncle about Wei Wuxian’s abilities).

Speaking with Lan Guihong, he thinks he can see what sort of teacher he must be—what values and morals he has been instilling in the youth of the Lan sect for longer than Wei Wuxian has been alive (in either life). Here is a man who values structure, but understands the value of freedom. Who tempers his discipline with kindness. Who loves learning above all else, and only wants the very best for his students.

Wei Wuxian thinks he sees how such a teacher might have helped produce all the Lans he loves and cares for. Listening to him talk about his students, Wei Wuxian is put in mind of a faithful gardener, carefully tending every precious bloom with just the right mix of care and support for it to become its very best. He can understand how all the little quirks and traits of the people he holds in his heart must have been encouraged and validated in this man’s classroom.

His A-Yuan’s sweet curiosity.

His brother-in-law’s kind gentleness.

His Lan Zhan’s firm sense of righteousness, and even his sly, dry humor.

Lan Jingyi’s…everything.

Wei Wuxian didn’t know that Lan teachers could be like this. Perhaps if he’d been studying with someone like Lan Guihong, his first stay in the Cloud Recesses might have lasted longer.

By the time the tea runs dry, he and Lan Guihong are chatting like old friends. They fall into a discussion about curriculum, making plans for Wei Wuxian to return to the healers’ pavilion over the next few days to firmly plan out at least the first month. When Wei Wuxian glances over at Lan Qiren out of the corner of his eye, he is startled to see that his husband’s uncle looks almost…pleased as he listens to them. Towards the end of the conversation, he even contributes a few suggestions that will help Wei Wuxian’s classes run more smoothly at first.

It is nearing the end of the study period when one of the healers (thankfully, not the one who had so…pointedly…greeted him) comes in to tactfully start shooing him and Lan Qiren out so that Lan Guihong may rest. Wei Wuxian rises, returns Lan Guihong’s warm, friendly smile as he bows to the old teacher. As he turns to leave, though, Lan Guihong reaches up to lay a hand on his wrist.

“Thank you, for coming to see me today, Young Master Wei,” Lan Guihong says quietly. “I want you to know that I am much reassured in speaking with you. I believe you will be good to my students, and good forthem.”

Wei Wuxian has to swallow around the lump that tries to rise in his throat. He coughs, bows again. “It is my honor, Teacher Lan. I will do everything in my power to justify your belief.”

He exits the healers’ pavilion, and takes his leave from Lan Qiren. This may be the longest stretch of time he and his husband’s uncle have gone without antagonizing each other. Lan Qiren seems as reluctant to test their newfound truce as he is, and so he merely wishes Wei Wuxian a good afternoon and turns down the path that will take him back to the classrooms, flicking his sleeves into order as he goes.

Wei Wuxian stands on the quiet path for a few moments, just listening to the (subdued, it must be said) noise of the student disciples returning to their classrooms. Lan Qiren had not gone back on his offer. He had met whatever criteria Lan Guihong had for his replacement, had the old teacher’s blessing even! Next week, one of those classrooms will be his. He will have students—Lan Xin, Lan Mingzhe, Lan Chenli…all of those baby juniors he was so taken with that day in the library and since will be his responsibility. He presses his hands to his chest, wondering that his heart doesn’t burst free of him for how much joy he feels. There is still much to be done, much he has to prepare for, but for now, he lets himself just be happy.

And if there is a thread of nervousness running through him, a current of unease that shivers under that bright happiness, that’s to be expected, isn’t it?

Isn’t it?

Chapter Text

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, how could you? I thought you loved me!” Wei Ying’s voice is a pitiful moan, cracking on the last word as though he is a hairsbreadth away from tears. He stares up at Lan Wangji, betrayal in his eyes, lips pursed in a trembling pout.

Lan Wangji raises a single eyebrow. “You asked me to begin waking you earlier,” he says blandly.

“Lies! Lies and slander, Lan Zhan! How could my husband malign me so? My Lan Zhan has turned so cruel. This is torture!” His husband presses his hands over his heart, screwing his eyes shut in pretended pain. Lan Wangji shakes his head, a small smile twitching at the corners of his mouth at his love’s antics.

“It is nearly eight-thirty.”

Wei Ying pauses in his dramatics, cracking one eye open. “I’m not making you late for anything, am I?” he asks, abandoning his loose-limbed sprawl to sit up properly in their bed.

A familiar wave of affection crests in Lan Wangji’s heart, warm and deep and steady as the ocean on a calm day. “No,” he says. “I have no meetings or urgent matters scheduled for the day.” The ‘for once’ is not stated, but certainly implicit. “There is some correspondence I must attend to, but I had thought to leave that for after lunch.”

“Ah, good, good,” Wei Ying says, his mouth curling into the sly smirk that Lan Wangji could spend hours chasing with his lips. “Then you have time to wake me up properly.” He flops back onto the pillow, his sleeping robe falling artfully open down to nearly his navel in a move that can only be deliberate. And normally, Lan Wangji would be all too happy to take such an invitation.

He cherishes the nights he gets to spend with his love, wrapped around each other so tightly their breath mingles and their heartbeats echo in his ears. It would be untruthful to say, though, that he does not miss the first whirlwind weeks of their marriage—before he was called upon to take up the mantle of chief cultivator, when he could simply devote all his attention to Wei Ying and the incredible, unbelievable miracle of his return. Once Wei Ying had sufficiently recovered from the events at the temple, he had devoted himself fully to making up for lost time, to replacing the memory of those endless, empty, lonely years with the feel of Wei Ying’s skin beneath his fingertips, the slide of their mouths against each other, the breathless gasp of his name tripping off Wei Ying’s tongue.

The way Wei Ying slotted so perfectly into his arms, as if he had always been meant to be there.

He misses those days when they only had each other to focus on. And perhaps someday he will lay his responsibilities aside and they can return to those days. At least for a while. For now, though…

“Wei Ying. Sizhui and Jingyi asked you to join them for sword practice today.”

Immediately, Wei Ying sits up again, his brow furrowing. “Ugh, was that today?” He stumbles out of the bed and begins trying to force his hair into some kind of order, muttering to himself about the inhumane nature of rising at such an early hour, and grumbling about juniors with too much energy for it to be healthy, in between wide, jaw-cracking yawns.

Lan Wangji watches him fondly for a moment, before taking his husband by the shoulders and guiding him over to the table. Their breakfast is waiting, kept warm and steaming on the trays brought by the kitchen staff. It is a scandalously late breakfast by the standards of Gusu Lan, but he thinks it is probably best to ease Wei Ying into the necessary routines of the teaching staff in the Cloud Recesses. Not that his love isn’t perfectly capable of rising on his own at the, ahem, inhumane hours of the sect…Wei Ying likes to laze, but he is not actually lazy…but there is no sense in making the process more unpleasant than it has to be.

“Eat,” he says, before returning to their sleeping area and grabbing a comb and one of Wei Ying’s red ribbons. He settles by his husband’s side and bats his hands away from the knotted nest that last night’s activities left his hair in.

“Ah, my Lan Zhan is so good to me,” Wei Ying sighs. He tucks into a dish of steamed buns as Lan Wangji gathers his hair together and begins working out the tangles with gentle hands.

Wei Ying chats animatedly as he wakes up, flitting from topic to topic as is his wont. Lan Wangji lets the sound wash over him, an almost meditative peace filling him as he strokes the comb through his husband’s hair, basks in the weight of his husband’s body against his side. Wei Ying takes another bun and just holds it, occasionally passing it back over his shoulder for Lan Wangji to take bites of as he works. Improper. Indecorous. Shamelessly indulgent behavior, really. Wei Ying looks over at him as he finishes tying his love’s hair up, smiles that sunlit smile as he leans up to kiss the corner of Lan Wangji’s mouth, and Lan Wangji can only be grateful that he gets to be so shamelessly indulgent with this man. They finish their breakfast, quietly discussing their plans for the day.

“Will you be eating your mid-day meal with Teacher Lan again?” he asks as they linger over a second cup of tea, waiting for their son to arrive at the jingshi. Wei Ying has spent most of the past few afternoons with Lan Guihong in the healers’ pavilion, discussing plans for the transfer of classes to Wei Ying’s care. It pleases him greatly that his love seems to be getting along so well with the old teacher—certainly the favor of one so respected in the clan can only make Wei Ying’s transition easier.

But more than that, it pleases him any time Wei Ying is able to find someone who sees his value…sees Wei Ying, and not the Yiling Patriarch. Wei Ying has friends in the Cloud Recesses. More friends, honestly, than Lan Wangji himself had even realized at first. The juniors love him dearly—even the few who had been wary when his identity was revealed had quickly fallen back under his husband’s charm. But he has also found friendly faces among the staff and servants, and even a few of the senior disciples. There does seem to be a strict generational divide. Generally, it is those around Sizhui’s age—a few years older and a few years younger—who are most willing to see his husband for who he is, not what he was. Among the older generation, even, there are some willing to see how much the manipulations of Jin Guangyao and his father affected some of the worst choices that Wei Ying made.

Not all of them, though.

It pains Lan Wangji more than he will ever admit, to know that there are so many among his clan who only tolerate his husband’s presence because they have no other choice. It pains him more to know that there is so little he can do about it. Those who still hold those views of his love are smart enough not to move against Wei Ying openly, and he cannot order people to like his husband.

Even if he could, it would not be right to do so.

This is a problem that only time can solve. Time and patience. Now, at least, he has more reason to hope that it can be solved.

In all his wildest imaginings, he had never thought that Uncle would ever come to accept Wei Ying. Once his love had returned to him, it had been his greatest sorrow—that the man who had raised him, the man who had shaped him into who he was, could not find peace with the choice Lan Wangji’s heart had made. He had resigned himself to it as best he could, let go of the disappointment and the sadness. He thought he could learn to live with Uncle’s disappointment. He knew he would never be able to learn to live without Wei Ying. Not again.

So, it stunned him when Uncle asked Wei Ying to take over instruction of the novice class. For a single, irrational moment, he’d actually wondered if he was dreaming the entire evening. When he realized that Uncle was serious…

He cannot say that Uncle and Wei Ying are getting along. He cannot say that they are on completely friendly terms. But…they are cordial to each other in a way they have never been before. The possibility of them getting along (and not only for his sake) exists now in a way it never has before.

“Hmm?” Wei Ying says, slumping a little to prop his elbow on the table and rest his chin in his hand. He laughs brightly at Lan Wangji’s pointed look, but straightens again. “Ah, no, I think I’m meant to see the seamstress today.”

Lan Wangji’s brow furrows. “Weren’t you meant to see them yesterday?”

A strange look flits over Wei Ying’s face, one Lan Wangji cannot quite identify before it is gone. “I forgot,” his husband says, a touch sheepishly. He laughs again, not quite as bright and carefree as before. “It’s been so long since I needed a new set of robes, ha!” He sips at his tea, and his smile turns flirtatious. “Is my Lan Zhan so eager to see me in Gusu Lan’s colors again?”

He pictures his husband, his bright, beautiful Wei Ying, dressed in the soft shades of blue and white that will mark him as one of the clan’s teachers, and finds that he must suddenly swallow against a dry mouth.

Whatever that image may have led to is interrupted by a soft knock at the jingshi’s door, and the muted sounds of their son talking to Lan Jingyi. Wei Ying gulps the rest of his tea down and loops his arms around Lan Wangji’s neck, pulling him close and kissing him soundly before he rises.

“They know they aren’t actually going to tire me out doing this, right? I’m not a toddler,” he says, his face going soft and fond as it always does when any mention is made of their son.

“They only wish to help,” he says, rising as well. Wei Ying sniffs theatrically, placing a hand over his heart.

“I know,” he sighs. “My Lan Zhan and my boys…so good to me. So kind and good.”

Lan Wangji cannot help but catch him by one hand, raising it to his lips and pressing a soft, reverent kiss to the center of his palm. “It is only what you deserve,” he says.

He walks with his husband to the door, watches him bound off towards the training fields with Sizhui and Jingyi in tow, his voice raised in exuberance as he talks, one arm slung about each boy’s shoulders. In the face of his husband’s happiness, it is easy to set aside that single, fleetingly strange expression that had darkened his love’s eyes. It is only later that he realizes he should not have done so.

In a gesture of some morbid, cosmic humor, that realization comes with a beautifully engraved invitation from Lanling.

Chapter Text

Lan Wangji spends the rest of his morning in quiet solitude, unspeakably grateful for the rare gift of a few uninterrupted hours to meditate, tune his guqin, even make further inroads on a volume of poetry by one of the Lan ancestors he has been trying to read for several weeks, now. The only thing that could improve his mood would be to have Wei Ying at his side—working on one of his new talismans, or spinning idle notes on his flute at the window, or simply murmuring to himself as he pored over whatever text has caught his attention this week. It is good and healthy for them to have separate activities, of course. Separate plans outside of the hours that Lan Wangji’s duties force him to be away from his husband’s side.

Knowing it is good and healthy for them not to have to be joined at the hip does not stop him from wanting it, however. His instincts continually prod him to seek Wei Ying’s presence like a flower seeking sunlight, to greedily soak up every moment he can, hoard them like precious treasure. He spent so long steeped in his grief and regret, walking through the world with a gaping wound in his heart exactly the size and shape of the man he had secretly given it to. So many nights, he had been unable to stop torturing himself with maybe and what if, imagining what he would do if he had but another day, another hour, another moment with his Wei Ying.

It is difficult to let go of that mindset, even nearly a year after Wei Ying’s return to the living, difficult to truly settle in the knowledge that he has the rest of their lives to speak all the words he kept locked in his heart before, share all the touches he smothered into tight fists. It is difficult. And it does not have to be done all at once.

So, when the bells toll the end of the morning lessons, he sets his book aside and collects Wei Ying’s gloves from where they have been (again) flung over the edge of a privacy screen and forgotten. He stuffs them in his sleeve and ventures out into the Cloud Recesses to see if his husband feels like flying down into Caiyi Town to take their midday meal at one of the noodle shops Wei Ying favors before his appointment with the clan tailors. The Cloud Recesses are still drifted deep in snow, and will be for several weeks yet, but there is the barest hint of warmth in the pale sunlight that sparkles on the ice-glazed tree branches. The quiet babble of flowing water can be heard in streams that have been frozen over for weeks. The promise of the coming spring trembles on the breath of a wind that does not cut quite so sharply as it has been.

It gives him pause, even as he continues down the path towards the training fields. By rights, he should start the process of delegating his most pressing duties in preparation for his and Wei Ying’s departure from Gusu when the snows melt. His love had only agreed to winter in the Cloud Recesses, not stay permanently. The arrangement has worked well enough since he was elected chief cultivator. He and Wei Ying never stray far from the territories of the Great Sects, and young Jin Ling graciously allows them an unlimited supply of the Jin messenger butterflies so that Lan Wangji can be alerted quickly if something needs his personal attention. And apart from the fact that the traveling makes both of them happy, he cannot deny that it has also had a political advantage. It is difficult for people to accuse you of being too aloof and out of touch with the goings-on of the world when you are often literally in the thick of said goings-on, your brow just as sweaty and your clothes just as travel stained as anyone else’s (he knows Wei Ying would scoff at the notion of him every being sweaty or travel stained, but it does happen). Lan Wangji’s reputation as a champion of the common people was pristine before. Now? Now it is nigh-invincible.

However, there is no way they will be able to leave the Cloud Recesses for extended periods if Wei Ying is teaching. Lan Wangji is not entirely certain that Uncle means this to be a permanent situation…but an extremely temporary one would never have moved Uncle to come to Wei Ying. He suspects Uncle is waiting to see how Wei Ying handles the responsibility before deciding if he needs to go about finding someone else in the clan.

Lan Wangji knows how it will go. He knows to the core of his bones that Uncle will find no dissatisfaction with his husband’s ability to guide their youngest disciples.

Or rather…Uncle will likely find several things to be dissatisfied about, but only because he did not think of them first. Lan Wangji has seen his husband on night hunts with the juniors, has observed that clever, quicksilver mind up close. The children of the clan will benefit immensely and Wei Ying…Wei Ying will flourish.

Lan Wangji thinks of it for a moment. Let’s his mind wander in an uncharacteristic flight of fancy: he pictures Wei Ying coming into his office at the end of a long day of exams, dressed in the colors of his clan—probably dirt and grass-stained, yes, but unquestionably belonging to the Lan—chattering about his day as Lan Wangji finishes up his paperwork. He imagines them walking down the paths of the Cloud Recesses together, the trees pink with new blossoms, green under the summer sun, flushed crimson with the waning year, and laden with snow. He imagines Wei Ying watching the children of the clan grow up, his face glowing with pride as his students take their places in the cultivation world, carrying his teachings in their hearts. He imagines the two of them growing old in the jingshi, watching the smile lines deepen around his beloved’s eyes and silver thread its way through his hair. Together. Here.

Home.

He knows Wei Ying is not unhappy in the Cloud Recesses. He would never ask Wei Ying to stay if he was, would give up the mantle of Chief Cultivator in a heartbeat if his duties here ever became incompatible with his love’s happiness. He has lived with only the comfort of his duties, and he will never give up his place by Wei Ying’s side for duty ever again. He is no longer the boy who so foolishly thought he could keep and hide Wei Ying here, if he did not wish to be kept and hidden. He is…he is not his father. However, he knows that Wei Ying’s happiness or unhappiness in the Cloud Recesses is tied entirely to him and their son. Wherever he and their A-Yuan are, Wei Ying is content to be as well.

His husband does not mind the Cloud Recesses. That is not the same as feeling that the Cloud Recesses is home. That he belongs here. That he can belong here forever, if he so desires.

Lan Wangji…Lan Wangji would very much like his husband to feel that he truly belongs here. Not because of their marriage. Not because of their son. But simply for his own sake. Because this is where his work, and his life, and his purpose, as well as his family are. Because after being ripped from his anchors over, and over, and over again he has found the strength to plant roots one more time.

He wants Wei Ying to consider the Cloud Recesses home. To love its peace and beauty the way that he and Sizhui do. He wants Wei Ying to feel sure that he will never again find himself anchorless. Rootless. Adrift.

His husband taking up a position as a teacher here is only one step of many that they must take before the past is truly laid to rest. But it is a significant one. And the hope it kindles in Lan Wangji’s heart is as fierce and bright and beautiful as his beloved.

* * *

He finds Sizhui and Jingyi on the same training field that Wei Ying had taken the novice class to the day they had been left in his care. Nearly the entire circumference of the snow-covered field has been kicked up and trampled, wide divots and slashes showing where feet dragged and jumped and skidded.

Lan Wangji tilts his head, reading the story of a vigorous and skillful sparring session in the footprints. He can easily picture his husband, their son, and their son’s best friend racing around the field, calling out encouragement and challenge to each other. He sees Wei Ying’s quick and acrobatic fighting style—the Yunmeng Jiang sword forms that ebb and flow around their opponents like the hidden currents in the lakes around Lotus Pier—in the disturbed snow on thick, low-hanging tree branches and the roofs of a few surrounding buildings.

The distinctly Jingyi-shaped full-body print on the ground just below a large tree is a dead giveaway as well.

Lan Wangji is pleased to see evidence of how far the sparring session ranged around the training field. Not only is it good for Sizhui and Jingyi to practice against an opponent as creative as his husband can be, it shows how much progress Wei Ying has made with his new body’s golden core. Wei Ying is still not quite strong enough to properly wield Suibian. In truth he may never be strong enough to wield so powerful a blade to its full potential, to fly with her again as he knows part of his husband still longs to. But his love has made incredible progress—enough that Lan Wangji no longer fears that his own cultivation will outstrip his husband’s to the point that he will outlive Wei Ying by decades. Enough that he is able to let go some of his worry that Wei Ying’s (admittedly, now infrequent) use of demonic cultivation will sicken him the way it did before. And it is not impossible that he will reach the point that he can fly on Suibian again.

Lan Wangji has long accepted that to his husband, impossible merely means not done yet.

Sizhui and Jingyi have just finished righting a training dummy that fell over, and are in the process of gathering the practice swords they used, when his son spots him.

“Father!” he says, abandoning the more formal Hanguang-Jun as he always does when it is just them. Jingyi bows to him, nearly dropping the swords in his arms but recovering nicely.

“Sizhui. Jingyi. How did your sparring session go?”

Sizhui’s grin widens. “Very well! Master Wei had us team up on each other—it was very instructive to fight two opponents at once. We even got Master Wei to yield a couple times. He’s very fast.”

Jingyi snorts inelegantly. “He’s a big cheater, you mean,” he says, and then abruptly pales as his brain apparently catches up with his mouth. “Uh, that is…”

Lan Wangji lets the boy flounder a moment, before gravely inclining his head. “Wei Ying’s methods are extremely…creative.” For a few heartbeats his mind conjures the sound of merry laughter echoing off the roofs of the Cloud Recesses, the clink of some illicit jars of Emperor’s Smile.

Sizui takes pity on his friend and elbows him in the side affectionately. “You’re just mad he disarmed you three times in a row. And you’re talking like you’re not going to use that move every time you have the opportunity for the rest of your life.”

“Yeah, well, it’s a good move,” Jingyi blusters, a light blush rising in his cheeks. “Anyway, if you’re looking for Master Wei, Hanguang-Jun, he said he had an appointment to get to.”

“Mm, yes. He was supposed to go see the tailors.”

Sizhui looks startled at that. “I thought he went to them yesterday…that’s awfully fast.”

Lan Wangji lets a little of his amusement color his words. “He forgot.” His amusement vanishes though, when Sizhui’s brow furrows.

“What? No he didn’t. We went to ask if he would come and help us check the wards on the northern wall, but he was already heading to the laundry building.”

A thread of unease unfurls in his chest as he suddenly recalls that fleeting, hunted look that had appeared in Wei Ying’s eyes that morning. Had something happened at the tailor’s yesterday? It is not like Wei Ying to…all right it is precisely like Wei Ying to hide his hurts away, though his love is getting better about it. Sizhui must read something in his eyes,

“I’m sure it’s nothing bad. Lan Guanyu and the rest of the staff in the laundry services are quite fond of Master Wei. Her grandson was in the junior group that Master Wei helped protect from that demon nest.”

“Mn,” Lan Wangji hums, but some of the tension eases in his shoulders. If that is the case, then it is unlikely that Wei Ying had a problem with any of the tailors.

But then, why lie about missing his appointment?

* * *

He abandons his plans to take Wei Ying into Caiyi Town after talking to Sizhui and Jingyi. He will not be able to hide his concern, and he does not want to try and prod Wei Ying into talking in the middle of a crowded restaurant. Instead, he sends word to the laundry building that he will be in his office when Wei Ying is finished getting fitted for his new robes, and has a simple tray of hot soup and scallion pancakes sent from the kitchens.

It arrives only a few minutes before his husband, who bursts into his office with his normal energy, grinning from ear to ear and already teasing him about not being able to go for a whole day without working. He falls onto the food like he has not eaten in days rather than hours, and Lan Wangji considers carefully, watching his husband for any signs of distress, any hint of what may be going on with him.

“If you can get away, you should come meet the boys with me again tomorrow. Jingyi almost had me a few times, I’d love to see how he fares against the great Hanguang-Jun.”

“Mn,” he says neutrally. “Perhaps I can shift a few meetings.” He falls into customary silence as he sips his soup, content to allow Wei Ying to fill the quiet with as much talk as he wishes. He takes in every gesture his husband makes, listens even more intently than usual to the sound of his voice. There is nothing unusual, though. Wei Ying speaks of the tailors in as friendly a fashion as he speaks of anyone he has no quarrel with. He laughs over how apologetic one of the younger assistants was when the boy accidentally stuck him with a pin. He muses over whether he will have time to continue sword practice with their son when he takes over his class next week.

He sounds happy. Excited. Joyful, even.

“Oh! Something’s come from Lanling?”

His thoughts are interrupted when Wei Ying’s eyes light on the pile of correspondence waiting in the center of his desk. When he glances over, he sees that there is, indeed, a thick, gilt-edged folio near the bottom of the pile that is typical of the Jin sect.

“May I?” Wei Ying asks, always eager for any news of his nephew.

He and Jin Ling are not exactly…close. Not in the way he knows Wei Ying wishes they were. Lan Wangji thinks perhaps Jin Ling wishes the same. The boy has joined Sizhui and his cohort on several night hunts in the months since Jin Guangyao’s downfall, and though he can be just as brusque and abrasive as Jiang Wanyin, sometimes Lan Wangji thinks he sees a certain longing in the young sect leader’s face when he sees Wei Ying teasing Sizhui or throwing a companionable arm around Jingyi’s or Ouyang Zizhen’s shoulders. That he immediately shrugs Wei Ying off when Wei Ying tries to do the same with him is confusing to Lan Wangji. Still, he and Wei Ying write to each other somewhat consistently, and he never refuses to come on a night hunt when he knows Wei Ying will be there. Wei Ying seems cautiously hopeful that their relationship is strengthening and he knows that things between Wei Ying, Jin Ling, and Jiang Wanyin are, and likely always will be…complicated.

He nods his permission and Wei Ying scrambles to his feet, crossing over to his desk and plucking the Lanling missive from the pile. “Uh oh, I see Sect Leader Yao has written to you again. Undoubtedly something earth-shattering and important that deserves the Chief Cultivator’s attention, yes?” Wei Ying’s eyes sparkle with mischief as he sits back down at the low table, setting his soup bowl aside.

“Undoubtedly,” he agrees flatly, his eyes narrowing at the thought of yet another long-winded set of problems and demands from one of his least-favorite people to deal with. Wei Ying throws back his head and laughs as he breaks the seal on the Lanling letter.

As the missive unfolds, another, smaller message falls into Wei Ying’s lap. This one is simple plain paper folded over and sealed with a wax stamp, and Lan Wangji realizes that Wei Ying’s name is scrawled on the outside in the same bold hand that Lan Wangji recognizes from official documents bearing Jin Ling’s actual signature, rather than just his seal.

Wei Ying’s delight at receiving a note from his nephew is palpable, but he scans the official missive first. “Ah! Lanling will be holding a festival to commemorate Jin Rulan’s first year of leadership and celebrate the continued friendship of the great sects. Blah, blah, blah, whole week of feasts and parties, blah, blah, esteemed Chief Cultivator and guests invited, blah, in the name of strengthening alliances, hope to see you there, blah blah.”

“Hmm. So Lanling Jin wishes to remind the sects of their wealth and power, and secure my attendance before official invitations to other sects’ lantern festivals start going out?”

Wei Ying clicks his tongue twice and points at Lan Wangji. “Good thought. Look at you, being politically savvy.” He beams proudly, before sobering. “We don’t have to go—we see Jin Ling often, and it isn’t good to show any particular favor to one sect over another.”

Lan Wangji considers a moment. “Your nephew has the potential to be a fair and just leader. He has tried very hard to distance himself from Jin Guangyao’s schemes and Jin Guangshan’s corruption, and surround himself with wise advisors. I do not mind the perception that such behavior is favored.”

And…it would not go amiss to remind any of Lanling’s more unsavory elements that Sandu Shengshou was no longer the only powerful figure who would be extremely upset should anything happen to the young sect leader. He is fairly certain that is the reason Jiang Wanyin has not raised any objection to Jin Ling night hunting with Sizhui and the others so often, and being seen with Wei Ying. One would have to be truly desperate to risk the wrath of the Jiang sect leader and the Yiling Patriarch.

Wei Ying’s smile turns blinding and he leans across the table to peck him lightly on the lips. When he settles back he takes up the letter addressed to him specifically, and breaks the seal. It’s a short note, only a few lines long, and Wei Ying’s whole face goes soft, his eyes turning glassy with moisture. Alarmed, Lan Wangji reaches for his husband.

“Wei Ying?”

“Nothing,” Wei Ying says, his voice trembling. “It’s nothing just…look!” He holds the note out for Lan Wangji to read.

There is no greeting, no formal language. It literally looks as though it was dashed off in a few seconds in order to be folded in with the official invitation.

I had the east wing of Carp Tower renovated this winter, so there’s guest rooms there now, if you’re going to be a fool about it. Uncle’s coming to the festival and staying for a week after. We’re going night hunting. You can come too, I guess.

The tone is abrupt and dismissive, if not outright rude, but Wei Ying is still smiling, happiness shining like the light of a thousand stars in his eyes. Lan Wangji hands the note back, not bothering to hide his confusion. Wei Ying laughs, wiping at his still-moist eyes.

“Ah, ah, you’d have to have grown up with Jiang Cheng to understand. Jin Ling is so like him. He had a guest room made up for me in the east wing.”

“Yes,” Lan Wangji says slowly.

“Allll the way over on the east wing. The complete opposite side of the palace from the main courtyards. And the stables. And the kennels. And he said he doesn’t mind if I come night hunting with him and Jiang Cheng. He’d never just spring something like that on Jiang Cheng—which means Jiang Cheng doesn’t mind either. It’s as good as a personal invitation from both of them!”

Yes. Things between Wei Ying, his brother, and his nephew are very, very complicated. Though Lan Wangji cannot deny that it was kind of Jin Ling to set up rooms where Wei Ying will not have to worry about even hearing one of the many dogs that call Carp Tower home.

“Then we will make plans to stay,” he says.

He does not realize it, but the invitation is the tipping point.

*

He wakes to the soft sound of the jingshi door sliding open, the feel of winter cold swirling through the room. He wakes alone in the bed, Wei Ying’s side of the mattress still warm, though rapidly cooling. He sits up slowly, hearing the door slide shut again, the soft thump of his husband’s footsteps on the narrow porch.

This is not an unusual occurrence for them. It has gotten better in the past months, but there are nights when sleep eludes one or the other of them. When the past looms too large in the present, the ghosts and memories that dog their steps too loud to ignore. It is rare for one of them not to wake with the other, too attuned to each other to sleep blissfully on while their beloved is in distress. They have developed almost an entire language of signs and signals and routines for nights like this.

Wei Ying knows when Lan Wangji just needs to hear his voice, needs to sit silently and let his love talk about everything and nothing, to remind him that the jingshi will never be silent again. He knows when Lan Wangji is too far into his own head for words, knows when what will help best is to simply curl up in Lan Wangji’s arms and go back to sleep, letting Lan Wangji hold him as tightly as he wishes. He knows when Lan Wangji needs more…needs to pin him to their bed and mark him with lips, and teeth, and tongue, needs to press his thumb into the hollow of Wei Ying’s throat and feel his pulse beating, alive, alive, alive.

Likewise, Lan Wangji knows when his husband needs to be held and soothed, treated as something precious, something to be treasured and cherished. He knows when his husband’s edges grow to jagged for that, when a gentle touch simply cannot be borne for fear that everything will break apart on it. He knows when Wei Ying needs to be pushed and shoved and forced back together. He knows when Wei Ying just needs a moment to clear his head, to sit in silence and let the voices of the past fade away again. He knows when there just isn’t anything that will help, and all they can do is ride out the storm in his love’s head together.

Pain is not a competition. It is not a matter of who has suffered more and who has suffered less…it is enough that they both have suffered. They learn the best ways to soothe the hurts that life has inflicted on them and they move forward.

Tonight…tonight feels different.

Wei Ying has left Chenqing on its stand beside Lan Wangji’s guqin. He does not intend to go wandering the grounds as he sometimes does when he cannot sleep. He has not gone for the supply of liquor they still keep beneath the floorboards of their sleeping area. He is not looking to numb himself to whatever has woken him. He had risen quietly, trying not to wake Lan Wangji, but he had not truly tried to hide his movements.

Lan Wangji judges that his company is not unwelcome.

Wei Ying’s winter cloak still hangs by the door. He grabs it as he steps out onto the porch, finding his husband sitting down on the steps. The moonglow on the snow gives off an otherworldly light, and Wei Ying’s breath frosts in clouds around his face, coming in short, sharp pants. His love’s arms are wrapped around his middle, his fingers digging into his own ribs as though trying to hold himself together.

Wei Ying had to have heard him come out of the jingshi, but nonetheless his husband startles when he drapes Wei Ying’s cloak around his thin shoulders and then settles down next to him.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, his voice quiet, still rough with sleep. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“It is no matter,” he replies, and lifts one arm in invitation. Wei Ying hesitates for a bare instant before pressing himself against Lan Wangji’s side, burying his face in the juncture of his neck and shoulder and taking a shuddering breath.

“Wei Ying,” he says, pulling his love even closer. He reaches up to stroke his husband’s hair. “Wei Ying, what troubles you?” He takes a breath before slowly, gently asking, “Did you dream of your sister?”

It is the most likely scenario, with the missives from Lanling serving as a reminder. Wei Ying’s nightmares are many and varied, but he is never so hurt by them as when he sees his shijie in them. Of all of the wounds fate has left on his love’s heart, Jiang Yanli’s death is the one that he knows will never heal, the pain that will remain sharp and fresh for the rest of his days. Wei Ying loved her too much, feels too responsible, for it to ever be otherwise. Their pain is not a competition, their suffering not comparable…but it is true that Lan Wangji’s nightmares are easier to fight free of. When he wakes with his heart in his throat, the sight of his love falling to his death painted with lurid detail across his mind’s eye, he has only to reach out and touch his husband to know it is not real. To know he has been given a second chance.

The people Wei Ying cries out for in his sleep are gone forever.

To his surprise, Wei Ying shakes his head and gives a laugh that is just as shuddering as his breath. “No. It’s nothing,” he whispers.

Lan Wangji presses his lips together, but before he can even think what to say, Wei Ying is shaking his head again. His husband’s arms wind around his waist and even after so short a time outside, his love’s fingers are so cold.

“No, Lan Zhan I’m serious, there’s nothing wrong. There’s nothing…the problem is there’s nothing wrong.” Wei Ying laughs again, a wet, ragged sound that is devoid of any mirth. “Isn’t that ridiculous? I couldn’t make myself go into the tailor’s yesterday, because it felt too real. Too much. A set of teacher’s robes was too much. I don’t understand it myself, but…I can’t…it doesn’t…” He breaks off with a hurt, strangled sound.

“Wei Ying,” he says, squeezing his husband tighter, the hand that was stroking his hair moving to cup the back of his neck. “Wei Ying,” he says again, helpless.

“I have so much, here,” Wei Ying murmurs, not raising his head from Lan Wangji’s neck. His voice is so quiet, Lan Wangji doubts he would be able to hear the words at all but for the stillness of the snow-covered night. “I have you, and A-Yuan. And Jin Ling doesn’t hate me…Jiang Cheng is willing to go on a night hunt with me. I—Teacher Lan has been so kind, and I like him Lan Zhan, I like talking to him and planning with him. Your uncle and I haven’t even argued at all. And the kids…Lan Zhan, your uncle is actually going to let me teach those kids, and I’m going to love it. I know I will. It’s so much more than I ever thought I’d have, more than I ever dreamed I’d have.”

Finally, finally he raises his head, looks Lan Wangji in the eye. His hands are shaking where they clutch at Lan Wangji’s sleeping robe.

“It scares me to be this happy, Lan Zhan,” he says, his voice breaking. “It’s all always fallen to dust in my hands. How can I be this happy? How long before I do something to ruin it again?”

“No,” Lang Wangji says immediately, strong and sure, as though his simple denial can chase away every doubt clawing at his love. “Wei Ying, you will not.”

“I have before!” Wei Ying pulls back from him, swallowing roughly. Lan Wangji lets him go, but keeps his arm around his husband’s shoulders. “I have before. Not all of it was me, I know that now, but part of it was! Choices I made, actions I took. What if I hurt the children this time? Or A-Yuan? You?” He curls in on himself, looking down at his hands as though they are dripping with the blood of all his ghosts.

Lan Wangji has never met anyone as adaptable as Wei Ying. As able to simply roll with whatever was thrown at him, to take it and twist it and find a way to thrive in it when all reason and logic said he should crumble. Lan Wangji is utterly convinced that no one—not him, not Jiang Wanyin, not his brother or his uncle, or any of the sect leaders that had condemned Wei Ying in his first life would have been able to go through the things he had and make it out to the other side. Anyone else, the Burial Mounds would have simply devoured the way they always had. Anyone else, the resentful energy of demonic cultivation would have utterly destroyed, snuffing out any light and goodness in them.

And yet, it has never occurred to him that that very adaptability might be able to wound his love. To damage him. To leave him unable to trust that he will not have to find a way to adapt and survive again, unable to simply feel happiness and contentment in something without looking for all the ways that it could go wrong. Like a sailor so used to the treacherous pitch and roll of a turbulent sea that it feels like their legs have forgotten how to balance on solid ground once they leave the ship.

Wei Ying swallows again, raking his hands back through his hair. Lan Wangji tugs at him lightly, and he does not fight or try to pull away. He almost collapses against Lan Wangji’s side, his arms going back around his waist and clutching close.

“You may make mistakes,” Lan Wangji says. Slow. Measured. He reaches for every word, turns it over in his head the way a jewel crafter might examine a stone for flaws. “And you may hurt those around you. Just as we may hurt you.”

He will try not to. With everything he is, every bit of his strength, he will always try not to hurt the man in his arms. He pulls Wei Ying closer, holds him tighter. Presses his lips against the chilled skin of Wei Ying’s forehead, his cheek, the corner of his mouth.

“But you will never be alone with your choices again. You will never be forced into a corner with no options. You will never be without help.”

Wei Ying releases a pent-up breath, his whole body shivering with the force of it.

“If you doubt yourself, then trust me. Trust our son. Trust the other juniors, and those who will be your students. Trust all those who love you, until you can trust yourself.” He gathers his love still closer, until there is no room for even air between them, until his husband is wrapped completely in the shelter of his arms, where nothing will ever harm him so long as Lan Wangji draws breath.

“We will not let you fail.”

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian has put a lot of effort into finally syncing up his, ahem, erratic sleep schedule with the prescribed hours of the Lan clan—though he doesn’t think he’ll ever enjoy rising at five the way Lan Zhan and A-Yuan seem to. He foresees a lot of afternoon naps in his future. Preferably with his head pillowed on his husband’s lap while Lan Zhan runs his fingers through his hair…a pleasure that surely rivals anything the heavens can offer. However much effort he has put into adopting more regular hours, though, it cannot counter the nervous, thrumming energy that has been building in him for these last few days.

Therefore, perhaps unsurprisingly, he rises before he actually has to on the day he is to begin teaching the novice class.

The jingshi is dark, the only light glowing from a few stubborn embers not buried in the ashes in their fireplace, and a candle set in the center of Lan Zhan’s writing desk in an ornate bronze holder. A series of notches cut into the soft wax down the side mark the hours and he squints at it, trying to determine how far down the candle has burned. He judges the hour early morning, rather than late night and silently debates the pros and cons of trying to catch a little more sleep before giving it up as a lost cause.

The hour is silent, but for the sighing of the wind outside and Lan Zhan’s slow, steady breaths. They started the night tangled together. Wei Wuxian loves to fall asleep with the soothing thump of his husband’s heartbeat in his ear, Lan Zhan’s arm wrapped securely around his waist. Unfortunately, he has always been a restless sleeper. He’s rolled away from Lan Zhan in the night (taking most of the blankets with him, he realizes with a guilty start—not that Lan Zhan has ever seemed to register the cold the way he does), and somehow worked his way onto the complete opposite side of the bed he started on.

He leans up slightly, propping his head up on one hand as he takes a moment to enjoy the novelty of being awake before his husband. It still catches him off-guard sometimes, that he is allowed to have this. At odd moments throughout his day, in the trembling instant before he falls asleep, in the breathless heartbeats between kisses, it hits him. Lan Zhan loves him. His Lan Zhan loves him with his whole heart, and Wei Wuxian gets to keep that love for the rest of their lives. Gets to love Lan Zhan in return. There are still moments when he struggles to believe it is all real, that it is not some dream from which he will someday have to awaken.

He traces one finger lightly over the jut of Lan Zhan’s cheekbone, smiling to himself when his husband’s eyebrow twitches and his face turns into Wei Wuxian’s touch. His smile turns rueful as he withdraws his hand.

Lately, he has found himself struggling more than usual.

It feels so silly to him when he sits and thinks about it. What kind of fool fears things going well for them? What kind of person could look at the bountiful gifts he can call his own in this second life and be upset? He has his husband and their son…he gets to be a part of Sizhui’s life again, will get to watch him finish growing into an amazing man, will get to watch him marry and perhaps have children of his own someday. Jin Ling speaks to him, seeks out his presence on the night hunts he attends with Sizhui and Jingyi. His sister’s son cares for him, even if they haven’t quite yet figured out what they will be to each other, if Jin Ling will ever be able to call him “uncle.”

Jiang Cheng…there is so much they haven’t talked about, yet. So many things they are neither willing nor able to address right now. Whatever he said in the temple, Wei Wuxian knows in his heart that there are things he and his brother must both forgive and ask forgiveness for before they can even look at the splintered foundations of their relationship and decide if they can rebuild. Wei Wuxian…Wei Wuxian doesn’t think he’s strong enough to have those conversations, yet. He doesn’t think Jiang Cheng is, either. But he has hope that someday they will be. Perhaps someday soon.

And now this.

He looks over at the dressing cabinet, barely visible in the weak light from the fireplace. Carefully hung up inside are two new sets of robes, finer and more formal than anything he usually wears outside of the insufferable banquets he and Lan Zhan often have to attend. The robes he will wear as a teacher in the Cloud Recesses. Him. The official teacher of the Gusu Lan novice disciples.

It has been so long since he dared to let himself think of the future in any solid terms. Once, he thought he knew where his path would lead him, the way his life would turn out. Looking back, he wants to shake his head at how naïve he’d been. The life he’d thought he would live had burned to ashes with Lotus Pier and he’d never…he’d never rebuilt any of those dreams.

No. That wasn’t exactly true, was it? He’d expected to die, at first. Resigned himself to it. Even if Wen Chao hadn’t cast him into the Burial Mounds that first time, a part of him had fully expected to die on a battlefield somewhere before he ever had to think of what giving up his core to his brother truly meant for him. But later—

Later, he had thought he might be able to build a future for and with the Wens. Might be able to keep their little patch of land on those mountains of corpses, might be able to keep them all safe. He’d thought he might be able to raise the little boy who had stolen his heart without even trying, eke out some kind of life with him. With Granny Wen, and all their uncles and aunties. With his best friend and the woman he’d quietly thought of as another sister, people he had grown to love almost as much as Jiang Cheng and Shijie.

That life had been burned to ashes, too.

And now? Now, he knows that he will never leave Lan Zhan’s side. In the months since he realized how very deeply he loves Lan Zhan, he has never once contemplated a life without him. Apart from him. Whatever it cost, whatever sacrifices he might have to make, it would be worth it to stay with this man. As certain and sure as he is of that, though, he’d not yet really allowed himself to consider what shape such a life might take. What it might look like in a year’s time, in ten years, in twenty. So far, it has been enough to take every day as it comes, to work around Lan Zhan’s duties as Chief Cultivator and carve out space for himself to figure out who he is now in this world that has gone on without him for sixteen years whenever and wherever he can.

For the first time since he opened his eyes in that pitiful shack on the Mo family estate, he’s found himself truly thinking of what he wants to do with the rest of his life. What he wants to do, where he wants to be, besides at Lan Zhan’s side.

A year, ten years, twenty years—suddenly building an entire life is not such a nebulous concept. Suddenly he has found himself wondering if he has it in him to reach one more time for permanence. For dreams. For goals. For a home. Something real and tangible, something that will exist with or without his husband and his son.

He wants to. Oh, how he wants to. He wants to define himself…to pull the tattered and scarred bits of him together and back into a whole person. Wei Wuxian, Wei Ying. Not just Lan Zhan’s husband. Not just the Yiling Patriarch. Not just the mistakes and injustices heaped upon him by his own actions and the actions of others.

Teaching a class of less than a dozen novice disciples will not do that for him. Nor would he disrespect his students—his students—by piling such expectations on them. But this can be a first step. The trust that Lan Qiren has shown in him by offering him this, the hand of friendship that Lan Guihong has extended to him…those are things he can build on, things he can use to help lay a strong foundation for this second life.

He is still wary. Still afraid, some part of him still so sure that heavens will not stand to see him so happy, will snatch it all away from him the moment he lets himself trust it.

But he is no longer alone. No longer cornered and trapped and trying to choose the least terrible of a handful of terrible options. He can do as his Lan Zhan asks—can trust in his husband, in their son, in the number of people that do not want to see him falter (so much larger a number than he would have ever thought, and with every expectation that that number will grow). He can trust that they will help him until he can trust in himself again.

The candle on the writing desk sputters, finally dying to nothing as it counts down its last hour. A few moments later, Lan Zhan starts to stir, the ingrained habits of a lifetime rendering the candle clock unnecessary. Really, they only keep it because Wei Wuxian is somewhat less likely to let a burst of invention keep him up to all hours if he has the visual of just how late it is getting right there in front of him.

Somewhat less likely.

Wei Wuxian rolls back to face his husband, smiling as one of Lan Zhan’s hands gropes for his warmth, immediately settling on his hip. “Good morning,” he whispers, unwilling to completely disturb the stillness of the jingshi. Even in the darkness, he sees Lan Zhan’s start of surprise at finding him already awake, the large, warm hand moving from his hip to cup his face gently.

“Good morning,” Lan Zhan replies, eyes searching Wei Wuxian’s expression for signs of distress, any hint that his rest had been disturbed by more nightmares or anxieties.

Warmth bubbles in Wei Wuxian’s chest, bright and effervescent, and he can’t help but lean forward. He kisses his husband’s cheek, mindful of the fact that he has not even washed his face yet, let alone cleaned his teeth. “I just woke up a few minutes ago,” he says in answer to Lan Zhan’s unasked question. His husband hums softly, shifting to gather him close.

They lie together in the darkness for a few moments, Lan Zhan’s hand running idly up and down his back. The quiet stretches between them, comfortable and soothing, and on any other day Wei Wuxian would happily fall back to sleep, warm and secure in his Lan Zhan’s embrace. Today, though, he has commitments. Today, and hopefully many more days to come.

Lan Zhan insists on helping him dress, draping the fine garments around him with hands as gentle as though he is cradling a priceless treasure. Wei Wuxian lets him, a small, pleased smile quirking his lips at the heat in his husband’s gaze as he wraps Wei Wuxian in the colors of his clan. He has had many opportunities to watch his Lan Zhan’s heart start to race with desire for him, but it is a sight that he knows he will never tire of. They confine themselves to a few lazy kisses as Lan Zhan finishes tying off his sash, well aware that the Cloud Recesses is waking up around them, and they both have places to be this morning. When he is done, Lan Zhan steps back and just stares at him a moment—his pride and his joy and his love shining in those beautiful eyes.

“Is this one acceptable?” he can’t help but ask, teasing as he spins in a circle before his husband. Lan Zhan snorts out a small laugh and shakes his head.

“Always. In all ways. More than merely acceptable,” he says seriously, reaching out to catch Wei Wuxian by the hand.

“Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, how am I supposed to concentrate on classes when you say such things?” he cries, and laughingly clutches his husband’s hand to his chest before lifting it to his lips. He steps closer into the circle of Lan Zhan’s arms, and they stand like that for just a few heartbeats, basking in each other’s warmth.

“Are you ready?” Lan Zhan asks finally, brushing a gentle kiss over Wei Wuxian’s forehead. Wei Wuxian smiles, closing his eyes.

“You know what? I am. I really, really am.”

* * *

They take a light breakfast with Lan Guihong at the healers’ pavilion, ostensibly to give him and Wei Wuxian a few extra minutes to talk about the plans made over the last several days. Really, Wei Wuxian thinks the old teacher just wanted to give him a chance to ask any last-minute questions, perhaps share any last-minute doubts in a more private setting.

What actually happens is Lan Guihong spends a pleasant length of time after they’ve eaten talking about the time Lan Zhan spent in his classes. Apparently just as serious and intently focused as he is now, but with the addition of chubby baby cheeks and a set of front teeth that refused to come in for almost a full three months. The end result is Wei Wuxian being driven to breathless laughter at the mental images while his husband sips his tea in stoic silence.

When the bell tolls a fifteen-minute warning until the end of the breakfast hour and the beginning of class periods, the three of them leave the pavilion together. Lan Guihong takes Wei Wuxian’s arm as they make their way down the pathways to the dining hall. Wei Wuxian half expects him to impart some advice, or go over the concepts they have chosen for Wei Wuxian’s first few weeks of curriculum…but instead the old man asks him about a new talisman he’s been working on. He lets Wei Wuxian wax on and on, nodding in the right places, and offering a comment here and there.

Wei Wuxian can almost feel the last of his nerves settling, the easy give-and-take of an intellectual discussion reminding him one final time that he is good at this. He flashes Lan Guihong a grateful smile as they walk up the steps to the dining hall, pausing outside the door so that he and his husband can both bow low to the old teacher.

“Thank you again for everything you have done for me, Teacher Lan. I swear, I will do everything in my power to be worthy of the trust you’re placing in me,” Wei Wuxian says quietly as he rises. To his surprise, Lan Guihong takes his hand again, the way he did the first day they met.

“The children of this clan love you. Even the ones who have only known you a short time. They trust you, and they accept you. That is all I need to know about your worthiness. I entrust my students to your care, Wei Wuxian. And I do so without hesitation. I look forward to watching them succeed under your instruction.” With that, he squeezes Wei Wuxian’s hands once and lets go, turning to make his way into the dining hall.

Wei Wuxian is a little proud of the fact that he only needs to stand by the door for a few moments, blinking rapidly, before he and Lan Zhan follow.

The servants are clearing the breakfast dishes from the tables, and the low hum of a few murmured conversations can be heard among the disciples gathered. Wei Wuxian spots Sizui and Jingyi at the tables reserved for the oldest juniors, nearest the tables where Lan Qiren, Lan Fang, and the rest of the teaching staff are seated. As he understands it, teachers are not required to take every meal in the dining hall with the junior disciples…but they are encouraged to at least put in frequent appearances.

Wei Wuxian isn’t sure it’s a good idea to seat himself by Lan Qiren with any frequency (their apparent truce is, miraculously, holding strong so far, but he doesn’t want to press his luck), but he thinks he might like to join his students at their table whenever he and Lan Zhan do not have other plans.

His students. His students.

What little conversation there was has died down again, the junior disciples all turned towards him, Lan Guihong, and Lan Zhan. As they realize the Chief Cultivator is present, the students hastily stand and bow in greeting. Wei Wuxian catches Sizhui’s eye, exchanging a bright grin with his son as he settles back into his seat by Jingyi.

The novice class is seated off to the side of the more senior disciples, and Wei Wuxian sees them craning their necks to catch a glimpse of who has caused such a stir. A thrum of noise seems to ripple over them as they catch sight of Lan Guihong, and more than one childish voice rises in a cry of, “Teacher! Hello, Teacher Lan!” before they are quickly hushed.

From his current position, Wei Wuxian has an excellent view of when the three boys who unwittingly started him on this path catch sight of him. Little Lan Xin is the first to notice him, and he tosses the boy a small wave as their eyes meet. He sees Lan Xin tilt his head, looking him up and down, and then his eyes flick between Wei Wuxian and Lan Guihong, before going wide. Wei Wuxian bites back a laugh as Lan Xin reaches over to poke his cousin’s shoulder, leaning over to whisper furiously in Lan Mingzhe’s ear. Lan Xin is almost shaking, a gap-toothed grin on his face that Wei Wuxian can see from across the dining hall.

The three of them make their way to the front of the room, and Lan Qiren rises, greeting them gravely as a hush falls over the room.

“If I may have everyone’s attention for a moment,” he begins, as though everyone has not focused on him from the instant he rose from his seat. “We have a series of announcements about the future of instruction in the Cloud Recesses. Firstly, I wish to inform everyone that Lan Guihong shall be officially retiring from his position as instructor for the novice class. Although it saddens us to see such a venerable career come to an end, we are deeply grateful for and humbled by his years of service and dedication to the clan.” Lan Qiren turns to Lan Guihong and bows deeply, as do Lan Zhan, Wei Wuxian, and all the other teachers at the head of the room.

Row by row, the senior disciples, the juniors, and especially the novice class rise from their seats, bow, and then kneel, reverently kowtowing to one of the most respected elders of their clan…the man who shepherded every Lan disciple in the room through their first steps into the cultivation world, through the development of their golden cores.

Lan Guihong swallows heavily, tears standing in his eyes as his students—all his students—show their great love and respect. When the disciples rise, Lan Guihong’s are not the only eyes that are wet. The novices are huddled together, and Wei Wuxian can see tears sliding freely down Lan Chenli’s serious face. Lan Mingzhe has his arm wrapped around Lan Xin’s shoulders, even as he rubs at his eyes with his sleeve. Lan Xin is teary-eyed as well, but every few moments his eyes find Wei Wuxian’s again, and Wei Wuxian’s heart clenches at the naked hope he sees on the boy’s face. He tries to smile reassuringly.

Lan Qiren clears his throat once, and then once more, before nodding at Lan Guihong and taking a deep breath. “Over the past weeks, myself, Lan Guihong, and Lan Fang have had many discussions about who should take over the novice class. I will not pretend that our choice is not…unorthodox, perhaps…but all of us agree,” here Lan Qiren pauses, sighs. He glances over at Wei Wuxian, and Wei Wuxian is not sure he’ll ever be used to Lan Qiren looking at him without rancor. “It is the best choice. Therefore, effective today, Lan Guihong’s duties will be formally taken over by Wei Wuxian.”

A swirl of sound ripples through the disciples, and Wei Wuxian is not so naïve as to think none of it is disappointment and disapproval. However, most of the faces he looks out over seem…pleased. Sizhui and Jingyi are grinning up at him proudly, and the rest of their cohort are whispering to each other. He thinks he hears a few voices near them asking if this means Senior Wei and Hanguang-Jun will be staying in the Cloud Recesses permanently.

They sound excited by the prospect.

Their excitement though, is nothing compared to the faces of the novice class.

Wei Wuxian looks at his students, finally, and thinks his heart might actually seize in his chest. The children are glowing. Every single small face is smiling, joy evident in every expression. Lan Xin clutches his cousin’s hand and actually bounces up and down on his toes a few times before Lan Mingzhe nudges his shoulder and obviously whispers to him to settle down.

Lan Qiren hrmphs to himself at the (by Lan standards) excessive display, but Wei Wuxian knows he is not imagining the lack of actual irritation in the sound. If it was literally anyone else, Wei Wuxian might actually say his husband’s uncle looks a bit…fond. Beside him, Lan Guihong smiles serenely, winking at Wei Wuxian when their eyes meet.

“As I said, Master Wei. No hesitation at all,” he says softly enough that Wei Wuxian is the only one who hears.

Outside, the bell tolls the start of the instruction hours, and Lan Qiren claps his hands once, drawing instant silence in the dining hall. “To your classes, then,” he says gruffly. Then he turns to Wei Wuxian and gestures towards the novice class. “If you care to escort your students to their classroom.”

Lan Zhan sways close to him for a moment, just long enough to press their shoulders together. “I will see you later this afternoon,” he murmurs, his eyes shining with happiness. Wei Wuxian knows an answering happiness glows in his own.

“This afternoon,” he agrees. “Grandmaster, Teacher Lan,” he says, bowing respectfully to the other two.

The novice class have already fallen into two perfect lines as he approaches. He cannot help the grin he feels splitting his face as he stops in front of them, answered by each of his new students. Lan Xin bounces again before shyly beckoning him to bend down, as if he wants to share a secret with Wei Wuxian.

“I’m glad it’s you, Master Wei,” he says earnestly when Wei Wuxian crouches down to his eye level. “I’ll miss Teacher Lan, but I’m so glad they picked you.” Behind him, Lan Chenli and Lan Mingzhe nod their agreement. Wei Wuxian presses his lips together, smiling so hard he knows his face is going to ache later.

“So am I, Lan Xin,” he says, standing up again. “So am I.” They walk to the dining hall door together, his students trailing after him.

And Wei Wuxian takes his first steps out onto a new path, one brighter and broader than he ever thought he would find.