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In My Defence, I Have None (For Never Leaving Well Enough Alone)

Chapter Text

For all his scheming and foresight, Nie Huaisang had never had a long-term plan for his life. For so many years, he had lived his real life in the shadows, scheming against the most powerful man in the cultivation world. In avenging his brother, he had learned to be ruthless, to be vicious in attaining his goals. He has no regrets (though sometimes he cannot help but wonder what his brother would have thought of him now. Would he be proud? Or would he be angry, disdainful of Nie Huaisang’s calculating methods? It would likely be the latter, he knew, but it was nice to pretend otherwise).

There were casualties, of course, as there always are. Lan Xichen may have come out of seclusion a few years ago, but he came out a changed man. His fond and doting Er-Ge has been replaced by a tired and bitter man who refuses to look him in the eye. Mo XuanYu, now Wei WuXian, he supposes, was a necessary sacrifice and one he knows he ought to feel more guilt over. But when he sees Wei WuXian, laughing uproariously with the GusuLan juniors, and Lan WangJi’s fond gaze turned towards his husband, he finds it difficult to feel remorse. No, there was no good life left for Mo XuanYu, with his fractured mind and soul-deep resentment.

He cannot help the way his lips twist at that. He watches the scene in the clearing in front of him silently, cloaked in the shadows of the forest, clutching his favourite fan to his chest tightly. It is one his brother had given him, so many years ago, red in the face and full of awkward affection, refusing to look his starry-eyed little brother in the eye.

Several feet in front of him, the fight continues. Wei WuXian stands on a tree branch at the edge of the clearing with his flute to his lips, resentful energy coiling around him as he suppresses the yaoguai. Below him, Lan WangJi strums his guquin, blasting back any creatures that get too close to his husband and cutting down the resentful beasts that seem to pour into the clearing from the forest by the dozen. At the front, Wen Qionglin tears the creatures apart with his bare hands, protecting the two and fighting with impressive speed.

In a moment’s pause between waves of monsters, he hears Wei WuXian’s strained voice, “Lan Zhan, there are–”

“Mn. Sixteen.”

Safe in his hiding spot, Nie Huaisang clutches his fan tighter. How did they figure it out so quickly? He had placed the Spirit Attraction talismans so carefully around the clearing, with an illusion spell over each.

It does not matter though. The array beneath their feet has almost finished absorbing all the spiritual and resentful energy it needs for him to activate it. He is so close. Another minute and it will be enough.

The array had been amongst the few that Mo XuanYu had stolen from Jin GuangYao, when he was still living at Carp Tower. It had been amongst Wei WuXian’s notes on demonic cultivation, in the same tattered notebook as the soul-summoning array that had brought its creator back to life. Nie Huaisang had… acquired the notes from Mo XuanYu before he made himself into a sacrifice, and had kept them hidden in his personal library ever since.

A few years after the dust had settled, however, Nie Huaisang found himself restless. Aside from caring for his sect, and navigating the still grating politics of the cultivation world, he had very little to do. A new listlessness began to creep up on him that even his paintings and his fans could not dispel.

The truth was, Nie Huaisang had very little left. Though avenged, his brother, who had raised and cared for him would never return and threaten to break his legs. Lan Xichen, the closest thing he had had left to family after Da-Ge died, had newly emerged from seclusion but refused to speak to him. Jiang WanYin was still wrapped up in helping his nephew navigate the greedy politics of the Jin Sect and had little time for a childhood friend.

Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi, the most knowing and yet the most friendly (or as friendly as Hanguang-jun seemed to get, really) of his peers, had leapt straight into a life of domestic bliss after the events of Guanyin temple. Nie Huaisang was genuinely happy for them, glad that all his scheming had at least led to some happiness.

Wei WuXian deserved this happiness after everything. And seeing how the terrifyingly stoic Lan WangJi’s entire demeanour softened in the presence of his husband had been a revelation. No, Nie Huaisang grudged them none of their long-awaited happiness.

Nevertheless, Nie Huaisang was restless. He was plagued by dreams of his brother, of the time before the war, before everything burned to the ground and nothing was ever the same again. And he could not help wondering about what could have been if only he had done more, had known more.

And then, one day, he came across the notes again. And in those notes, he found an array that allowed souls to move through time into the past.

(“Wei-gongzi, do you ever think about how you might have done things differently before, if only you had known how everything would turn out?”

“All the fucking time, Sect Leader Nie.”

At Nie Huaisang’s startled look, Wei WuXian’s mouth twisted into something uncharacteristically serious and bitter, “What, do you think I have no regrets, Nie-gongzi? If I had not been so wrapped up in my pride back then, Lan Zhan would not have had to suffer because of me. All those people at Nightless City might still be alive. And Shijie wouldn’t–”

Wei WuXian took a shuddering breath and turned back towards the training grounds, where the GusuLan Sect juniors were practicing their sword forms under the watchful eye of Huanguang-jun. His eyes gentled as he watched Lan WangJi gently correct the stance of one of the juniors, “But that would be selfish of me. And there are some things I would not trade.”

Nie Huaisang looked away, throat bobbing as he swallowed, “I understand.”

He understands, he really does. He remembers having people too precious to risk or lose. But he looks out at the training field and he wonders.)

Nie Huaisang had never claimed to be as good or selfless as Wei WuXian. There are some things he could never let go. So he started to do what he did best—he schemed. Using the array without a plan would be foolish, after all, if they wanted anything to change for the better (and if he wanted to ensure that Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi did not cut him down where he stood after they realised what he had done).

It took a long time to gather the information he needed to make a proper plan, including many an innocent conversation with Wen Qionglin about Wen Ruohan and Wen Qing. He would not be unprepared and terrified this time, if the array worked.

And would the array even work? The doubt stayed his hand for a long time. He would not hurt Wei WuXian more than he had already. There was much he owed him, and accidentally killing him would be a terrible way to repay him. He had little doubt in Wei WuXian’s skill (and it was his untested array that brought his own soul back, after all). But he would be sure, he would find little ways to get Wei WuXian’s opinion on at least fragments of the array before he used it.

There would still be a risk, but Nie Huaisang was nothing if not very very good at winning against the odds.

In the clearing, Huanguang-jun’s sword flew out of its sheath, gleaming palely as it cut through the clearing, finding every hidden talisman with astonishing accuracy and slicing each one neatly in half. As they fluttered to the forest floor, Wei WuXian pushed out more resentful energy through his flute, crushing the remaining yaoguai into the ground until Hanguang-jun and Wen Qionglin took care of them.

In the silence that followed the end of the battle, Nie Huaisang crept forward, still hidden from view, his golden core silencing his movements. The array was ready, he only needed to get inside and activate it, hopefully while the three currently standing in it remained ignorant of his presence. There is a fine line between suspicion and knowledge, Nie Huaisang knows, and he hopes to take full advantage of it, whether or not the array works.

He enters the array, a corner deliberately drawn in the shadows of the trees, and cuts his wrist. He lets his blood drip onto the lines below him, and prays to every god he knows that this works. He has a feeling that no amount of head shaking will get him out of the retribution if it doesn’t.

His blood soaks into the forest floor and for a minute, nothing happens. His heart plummets until, all of a sudden, every line of the array lights up in a dazzling white, blinding him.

He hears Wei WuXian’s surprised shout and Lan WangJi’s panicked, “Wei Ying!”

He has a single moment of hope, before there is a sudden and uncomfortable pull of something deep within him, and everything goes black.

 

*

 

Nie Huaisang wakes up. He is lying in a bed and the ceiling above him looks vaguely familiar. He sits up with a gasp, shaking, in his room in the guest disciple quarters of the Cloud Recesses and stares at his hands in disbelief. They are trembling and familiar, but strangely different as well. Distantly, he wonders why he finds it so strange that his hands had aged with the rest of him.

He stumbles from the bed and staggers to his mirror. Wide eyes look back at him in disbelief from a noticeably younger face.

And Nie Huaisang, filled with hope and terror and immeasurable relief, falls to his knees and weeps.

Chapter Text

Wen Ning wakes up. This, in itself, is baffling because Wen Ning hasn’t slept in more than twenty years.

He frowns (frowns?) up at the ceiling, blinking slowly as he tries to remember what happened. Wei-gongzi had insisted that he join him and Hanguang-Jun on a nighthunt since they hadn’t seen each other in a few months. Some yaoguai had been killing farmers at the edge of a forest the local sect had sent a plea for help to Hanguang-Jun, and Wei-gongzi had been bouncing excitedly at the prospect of “having some fun with my two favourite boys.” Wen Ning had been glad he could no longer blush, but he could not help shooting a nervous look at Hanguang-Jun’s thankfully indifferent face and stuttering, “T-thank you, W-Wei-gongzi. I w-would be h-happy to join you.” Wei WuXian had cheered and grabbed him by the elbow, dragging both him and Hanguang-Jun out of the healing pavilion and straight towards the gate of the Cloud Recesses.

The hunt itself had been... odd. The number of beasts had been much higher than reported in the plea for help– unusually so, until Hanguang-Jun had destroyed the spirit attraction flags pulling them in. He remembers... he remembers finishing off the last of the creatures and then turning to Wei-gongzi to ask him what was happening. He remembers a bright light from beneath his feet that had blinded him and... and then nothing.

He suddenly becomes aware of a burning sensation in his chest and looks down, wondering what could possibly be causing it. The sight of white and red QishanWen robes that he hasn’t seen in decades had him sucking in a sharp breath, more out of habit than need. Except... except suddenly the burning sensation in his chest vanishes and Wen Ning– Wen Ning is breathing. He sucks in another breath and sits up with a jerk, staring down at himself, at his hands, his pale and pink hands that look– that look alive. But Wen Ning hasn’t been alive in more than twenty years. Wen Ning hasn’t been alive in more than twenty years. He doesn’t understand what’s happening and maybe this is a dream – but he cannot dream – so it must be an illusion, it has to be it has to be it has–

And suddenly Wen Ning can’t breathe. His heart is pounding in his ears (his heart is pounding!) and he clutches his knees, desperately hoping that Wei-gongzi finds him soon, breaks this illusion soon, because Wen Ning has forgotten what it feels like to be alive and he can’t, he can’t, he can’t–

He thinks he must make some sort of sound because, suddenly, a door nearby is crashing open and a voice he recognises – will always recognise, no matter how much time passes – is calling his name. A warm hand is placed on top of his, shaking it gently, and he finds himself surrounded by the scent of bitter medicinal herbs overlaying warm honey and ash, and he knows that scent, he knows who it belongs to, and–

He twists around to face that voice, the one still calling his name so gently – “A-Ning, A-Ning, it’s okay, you’re okay, just breathe, A-Ning” – and she’s right there. She is younger than when he last saw her, and strain and starvation do not line her face yet. Her sharp eyes are filled with concern, and a warmth he has not felt since a cold day in a gaudy golden hall, surrounded by raging, spitting, cultivators screaming for their death, spreads through him. Those eyes are looking into his now, alive and worried, and if this is an illusion it is cruel, but he doesn’t care – he doesn’t care – because right here next to him is “A-jie!” It comes out strangled, and he sees her eyes widen in shock before he throws himself at her, burying his face in her warm shoulder, mumbling her name over and over, “A-jie! A-jie! A-jie!”

He feels Wen Qing freeze for a moment before her arms come up around him carefully, subtly checking the meridian points in his back before tightening around him. Wen Ning cannot stop his hands from fisting in the back of her robes as he pulls her impossibly closer, sobbing (he’s crying!) uncontrollably into her shoulder. Wen Ning knows that his sister was (is?) often seen as cold, as haughty and unfeeling, but her arms have always been his warmest and safest place. And Wen Ning has not felt safe in so long, so he clutches her closer, listening to the steady thrum of her heartbeat and feeling something deep inside his chest that he had long thought broken finally slide back into place.

 

*

 

It’s several minutes before Wen Ning is able to calm down and loosen his death grip on his sister’s robes, disbelief and insidious hope warring within him. Wen Ning has experienced illusions before, he knows how they work; Wei-gongzi had roped him into helping him test his new illusion talismans a few years ago, but none of them had been like this. People made of illusions are not this concrete– good enough, perhaps, to move naturally and handle small objects, but not to survive being crushed to him for so long. And Wei-gongzi’s talismans are certainly the most advanced ones out there. That’s what Hanguang-Jun said, at least, and Wen Ning has no reason to doubt his word; besides, Hanguang-Jun doesn’t lie. No illusion has ever been able to make him feel alive again, either.

Wen Ning doesn’t understand what’s happening at all. He wishes Wei-gongzi or Hanguang-jun were here– maybe they would know, or least be able to figure it out at frightening speed through their back-and-forth of half sentences that no one else has ever been able to keep up with. But… but maybe they are. Wen Ning was not alone in that array (and it must have been the array). It had looked vaguely familiar– he hadn’t been able to see much, but he had caught sight of a couple of sigils associated with the soul. It was probably one of Wei-gongzi’s inventions. After he had summoned Wen Ning’s soul back into his body in the Burial Mounds, Wei-gongzi had done a lot of work on transferring souls, hounding Wen Ning with a lot of questions about being summoned back that he really had no answer to. Wen Ning remembers the uncomfortable pulling sensation before everything faded, a feeling that he has experienced only once before as a semi-conscious wandering soul.

His soul was transferred again. Transferred… back? Back in time?

He takes a shuddering breath and pulls away slightly to look at Wen Qing. She looks back at him, alarmed but silent, waiting for him to sort through his tangle of thoughts and explain what troubles him, as she always had. He swallows, unable to keep from staring, terrified that if he looks away, she will turn into smoke and he will be alone again.

He opens his mouth, but the words don’t come. He is afraid to shatter this, whatever this is (a soul transfer, he thinks, with an edge of hysteria). He does not know how to even begin explaining anything to the very much alive ghost in front of him.

“A-Ning?” she prompts, gently.

“A-jie, are you really here?” he blurts out, and then feels his face heat in embarrassment (and oh, he hasn’t felt that happen in a long time) at her questioning look.

“Where else would I be, A-Ning?”

“I-I meant… I don’t… A-jie, you’re really real, right?” Wen Ning knows his voice is coming out a little too strained, a little too vulnerable and scared, but he cannot stop it. He needs to hear it, needs this confirmation to come from her.

Wen Qing’s eyes widen slightly at whatever she sees on his face before she purses her lips and says, “I’m here.”

Her hands come up to brush against his cheek, and Wen Ning realises that he’s started crying again. But he is also smiling (smiling!), waves of hope and fear and confusion crashing over him.

“A-Ning, what’s wrong? Tell me what happened.”

So Wen Ning does.

It is a long story, but Wen Qing listens to him in silence, expression morphing from disbelief to alarm to fury as Wen Ning describes his meeting with Wei WuXian, the lead up to the war and the burning of Lotus Pier, recuing the Jiang remnants and the golden core transfer, the Sunshot Campaign and its aftermath in the labour camps, and then, quietly, his own death. Her hands tighten around his as he talks and he can feel them shaking, but still she does not interrupt, silently encouraging him to continue. So he pushes on and tells her about being brought back as a fierce corpse, about their life in the Burial Mounds, about A-Yuan and growing radishes. He recounts the death of Jin Zixuan, guilt still clouding his voice even after all these years, even though Wei-gongzi always insists that it wasn’t his fault. He tells her how the Jin Sect demanded that they give themselves up, how they did, how she died to save everyone at the Burial Mounds but how they all died anyway. Her expression tightens and she pulls him closer as his voice becomes choked, letting him lean into her and listen to her heartbeat and calm enough to finish his story.

After a few minutes, he pulls away again – though still keeping a firm grip on her hands – and finishes his story. He sees her fury when he mentions his years of imprisonment and how the Jin Sect experimented on him, and quickly moves on. He tells her about Wei WuXian’s return and the events leading up to the conflict in Guanyin temple. With a soft smile, he told her about A-Yuan, how he had been rescued and raised by Lan WangJi, and what a wonderful young man he turned out to be. He tells her about the years of peace that followed, how he spent them working as a healer in the Cloud Recesses and going on nighthunts with the Lan Clan disciples. He tells her about that last nighthunt with Wei-gongzi and Hanguang-Jun, about the array and what he thinks happened. And finally, finally, his words come to a stuttering halt, his voice rough from overuse, and he looks back up at his sister (his sister, he still cannot believe it) to gauge her reaction.

Outside, the sun has begun to rise over Nightless City and he can hear the tell-tale sounds of servants rushing by to begin their chores for the day. But here, inside this room, everything is silent as Wen Qing slowly absorbs everything she has just heard. He can see the conflict on her face, the disbelief and horror etched into her skin; she does not want to believe him. He watches her nervously, afraid that she will dismiss his words, assign them to a nightmare, and scold him for believing any of it. But Wen Qing has always been a sister first, even before a healer, and she knows her brother well. She knows he would not make this up (could not – how could anyone?) and she saw his pain as he spoke– seeing such a haunted look in the eye of a child who has only ever been naïve and innocent in how he views the world does more to convince her than anything else he might have said. This is her brother, but it is also not. There is a difference in the way he carries himself that was not present just the day before, a new weight he seems to carry that speaks to years of experience and hardship. Wen Qing does not want to believe him, but she will anyway.

She takes a slow breath and looks up, noting his tense nervousness, his fear of being disbelieved, and lets the corners of her mouth lift slightly, “Well then, A-Ning, I suppose we have our work cut out for us.”

Wen Ning bursts into tears.

 

*

 

A day later, the message arrives, floating through the window of the healer’s pavilion. Holding the messenger dragonfly close, Wen Ning feels the tension he has been carrying inside him ever since he woke up loosen slightly. He had believed that Wei-gongzi and Hanguang-Jun had travelled back with him, but seeing Wei-gongzi’s dragonfly messenger– a talisman he created a few years after the events of Guanyin temple, more subtle and secure than the Jin Sect butterflies, and personalised to each recipient so that only the intended reader could open it– makes relief bloom in his chest. It could only have been sent by Wei-gongzi – the Wei-gongzi he knows – and that means that he is definitely not alone, and that all of this is somehow, astonishingly, real.

“A-Ning, what is that?”

There is no one around but he quickly crosses the room to the door and closes it firmly before turning back to her, “It’s from Wei-gongzi.”

He sees her brows rise, faint disbelief crossing her eyes for a second before they become sharp and focused again, “He’s the one who turned you into a fierce corpse?”

He winces slightly, but nods, turning back to the dragonfly in his hand, whispering softly to it, “Wen Ning is the bestest,” and watches the little message unfurl in his palm.

What!?

He feels the blush spread over his face and mumbles, “I-it was Wei-gongzi’s idea. I couldn’t use spiritual energy to open it as a fierce corpse so h-he gave me a password to open his messages. He s-said it should be something f-fun.”

His sister’s eyebrows stayed near her hairline, “I thought you said that Wei WuXian was an adult in your time?”

“He was!” he protests, but he cannot stop the small smile lifting the corners of his mouth, “It’s just the way he is, A-jie.”

“Evidently,” Wen Qing says, amused, “What does it say?”

He looks hurriedly back down at the message and frowns. Ghost General, this laozu and his light bearer have never enjoyed discussions of cultivation, but would be amenable to sharing a jar of Emperor’s Smile with you, should the doctor agree. The head shaker sends his apologies and best wishes for your good health. Until then.

“What the hell does that mean?” A-jie demands, reading the note from beside him.

“I think Wei-gongzi and Hanguang-Jun want us to meet them in Caiyi town during the Discussion Conference in two months. And Nie-gongzi – Nie Huaisang – apparently came back with us too,” he tilts his head and blinks down at the message, “‘Apologies and best wishes…’ A-jie, I think Nie-gongzi is the one behind our return.”

He looks up to find her staring at him in disbelief, “You… how did you... no, nevermind,” she shakes her head ruefully as her lips twist, “I forget, sometimes, that you are not the child you were before, A-Ning. Very well, we shall go and meet this Wei WuXian. And perhaps…” She stops with a frown, considering, “Perhaps it would be best not to return immediately. With all that you say will happen, it might be better to stay with them for now to find out what they plan to do about everything. Based on what you’ve told me about this Nie-gongzi, it is probably no accident that you were sent back. Besides,” here her eyes spark and Wen Ning cannot help but swallow nervously in response, “I have much to say to this laozu of yours. And a single meeting would hardly be sufficient for that.”

“But A-jie, how–”

“I will speak to Uncle,” she says firmly, a martial light in her eye, “After all, with so many sect heirs gathered in one place, it is impossible to say what alliances may be forming without the Wen Sect’s knowledge. Surely, uncle will see the advantage of keeping an eye on this gathering to make sure that those pompous sects remember their place. And then, there is the matter of the Lan Sect’s famous library. So much knowledge and so many treasures of cultivation are said to be hidden within it. How unfortunate that the so-called righteous clan is so hesitant to share any of it.”

Wen Ning feels a chill run down his spine. He has little doubt she will succeed but, “A-jie, how do you know he will send us? We did not receive invitations before.”

She smirks, “Ah, of course, his heirs would be most ideal for this venture. How unfortunate that Wen Xu is too old to attend these classes, and Wen Chao is too… himself. And yet, how fortunate that a skilled doctor with, perhaps, a desire to study from the Lan Sect’s medical texts, and her unassuming but friendly little brother are so willing to help His Excellency. What a convenient opportunity for them to prove themselves worthy of his trust. As for invitations,” she tosses her hand dismissively, “What care has the mighty Wen Sect for such an insignificant matter? Our mere presence is an honour for the GusuLan Sect, as I am sure they will agree.”

Wen Ning looks at her with wide eyes full of awe, and represses a shiver. Yes, his sister is definitely terrifying when she wants to be. He takes a deep breath and turns back to the messenger dragonfly in his hand, whispering a response before twisting one of its folds to send it back to its owner. He watches it flit back out the window and takes a deep breath (still delighting in the necessity of doing so). Two months still. But Wen Ning has plenty to do in the meantime.

 

*

 

He knows that sometimes his movements are a little too stiff and his touches too gentle, as if he’s afraid he will break the things he comes in contact with. And when that happens, he sees A-jie’s frowning eyes following him, worried and conflicted, but willing to trust him as she always has. So he does not mind the learning curve of growing accustomed to being alive again (and isn’t that a thought? He’s alive). No longer needing to be so careful in some of his touches, but more careful in others (sometimes he almost misses being invulnerable to the small pains of cuts and bruises) is a novelty still, but he would not trade this new life for anything, not even if he was offered immortality tomorrow.

He indulges in little things he has not had to do for more than two decades. While not having to eat was convenient, Wen Ning has missed the taste of good food and the satisfaction of a full stomach. He sleeps, and sometimes he wakes up in a cold sweat from nightmares and memories, but he still cannot help but feel pleased by the prospect of dreaming at all. He goes out into the back field and picks up his bow, marvelling at how easily and smoothly his muscles shift into the familiar stance. He nearly cries when he hits his target, muscle memory and small threads of spiritual energy returning a skill he has missed so dearly. As a fierce corpse, Wen Ning had never felt the emptiness and chill that Wei WuXian experienced in his coreless body, had not really thought much about the loss at all. Being dead had forced him to forget so much about being alive and the simple joys of cultivation– had instead given him a painless, nearly invulnerable existence that he had learned to enjoy in its own way. But now, however weak his core, Wen Ning delights in being able to use his spiritual energy again to warm his food and heat his baths, to pick up his sword and train with it again, to meditate and feel the small thrum of energy within him mixing with his heartbeat.

He takes to his cultivation training seriously, if still privately, much to his sister’s surprise. His assertion that he needs to be stronger this time makes her feel uneasy, even as she understands. He spends every moment free moment in the healing pavilion with her, and surprises her with his expertise. He brews concoctions to cure corpse poisoning and healing salves to cure burns that she had thought to be purely theoretical before. Wen Ning shyly explains how he and Wei-gongzi started working on developing new healing techniques after settling in the Cloud Recesses, “W-Wei-gongzi is always experimenting with n-new methods of c-cultivation, b-but he didn’t know much about healing. A-after everything, he and Hanguang-Jun harassed all the sects into r-returning your medical notes that they s-stole from the Burial Mounds, and g-gave them all back to me. Then, o-one day, Wei-gongzi came into the healing pavilion and a-asked me to t-teach him. He knew I was working on d-developing your theories and w-wanted to help.”

Wen Qing turns away at that, ignoring the slight burning sensation behind her eyes, and says sharply, “If you crushed the herbs instead of leaving them whole and let them slowly emulsify before boiling them, it would probably increase the potency of the salve.”

Wen Ning smiles brightly at her.

 

*

 

And in between everything, Wen Ning makes plans. He does not know what Wei-gongzi, Hanguang-Jun, and Nie-gongzi intend to do, but he can guess enough to know that he and his sister are in a good position to act as spies, should the Sunshot Campaign take place again. The two of them spend long hours together on quiet nights, strategizing, determined to protect their family in any way they can. They cannot instantly move their clan to Gusu – where, Wen Ning is absolutely certain, Lan WangJi will make sure that they are protected – at least, not while Wen Ruohan thinks he can use them to control the two siblings. But they know their people and their village, and they start drawing up contingency plans to make sure that their family escapes unharmed, whether or not history repeats itself.

On most days, Wen Qing is summoned by the main branch (and Wen Ruohan particularly), while Wen Ning does his best to avoid the main family like the plague, choosing instead to train and work on his own. Few notice, since Wen Ning has never really had friends in Nightless City, but those that do thankfully seem to shrug off his nervous demeanour. As the days pass, however, Wen Ning sees little of his sister during the day. Convincing Wen Ruohan to let them go to the Cloud Recesses has been slow and delicate work, and while Wen Qing is sure of her success, she is forced to spend more time than she would otherwise surrounded by the more distasteful members of the main clan. Every evening, however, she inevitably seeks him out to make sure that he takes care of himself. Because sometimes, Wen Ning forgets that is no longer indefatigable; he forgets that he cannot work without rest, and that he needs to eat, and that his constitution is still sickly. After he drives himself to collapsing for the second time, Wen Qing loses her patience. After scolding him thoroughly, she sends him off to their village to recuperate for a couple of days, partly as an excuse and partly to make sure that he actually rests (she knows how powerful Granny is in that respect).

Wen Ning spends the couple of days he has with his clan well. Granted, he spends the first hour sobbing into Granny’s lap, but once he has calmed down and she has forced him to eat, he asks to speak to her and Uncle Four privately. It is vital that the number of people who know the truth are as few as possible, particularly amongst the Wens, but they both know they can trust these two elders with the truth. He tells them everything and, slightly disbelieving and more than a little horrified, they agree to begin preparations to evacuate their family to Gusu at a moment’s notice. Neither is willing to risk their family, and they both know enough about the politics of the cultivation world to be wary of their own position in it. They spend the next two days poring over maps and charting possible routes, making lists of supplies they might need to defend themselves or run away or hide. Wen Ning and Wen Qing will leave nothing to chance. Their family will not be made to suffer this time.

When the time comes for Wen Ning to leave, he clasps Granny’s hands tightly in his and stumblingly begs her to keep an eye on A-Yuan’s parents. In the previous timeline, both were forced into the war as medics and died on the field early in the Sunshot Campaign. Though he still feels a deep ache in his heart every time he thinks of Lan Sizhui, Wen Ning is determined that, this time, A-Yuan will grow up safe and knowing his family. He sends a silent apology to Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi, but knows that neither of them would protest. Granny returns the press of his hands and nods, smiling reassuringly, and Wen Ning heads back to Nightless City still basking in the simple comfort of her love.

 

*

 

By the time the two months have passed, Wen Qing has succeeded almost too well in her manipulations. Wen Ruohan is immensely pleased with them, and sends them off with a smirk and a small retinue of Wen cultivators to escort them to the Cloud Recesses. Though it would defeat their plan of meeting the others at Caiyi town, Wen Ning knows that Hanguang-Jun will ensure that they are allowed into the Cloud Recesses to study. And, as A-jie pointed out, making a grand and arrogant entrance will aid them more in the long run than a covert meeting in town.

So Wen Ning does not linger on it as he fills several qiankun pouches with salves and medical notes and maps of their village. The maps he has already made or copied of Nightless City are carefully stashed in his sleeves, using a couple of the illusion and binding talismans that Wei-gongzi had taught him to ensure that they stay there and stay hidden.

By the time he turns his horse towards Gusu, his sister riding beside him, he finds it increasingly difficult to stop the small smile that insistently attempts to bloom on his face.

Chapter Text

Wei WuXian is standing on the walls of the Cloud Recesses, poised to drink his remaining jar of alcohol to taunt the beautiful but rigid Lan Sect disciple who had caught him sneaking in, when he suddenly freezes. Between one blink and the next, the jar of Emperor’s Smile slips from his grasp, shattering loudly on the tiles below him. But Wei WuXian does not spare it a single glance, does not even seem to hear it. His hand comes up to clutch the side of his head, as he frowns unseeing into the middle distance.

Several feet below him, sixteen-year-old Lan WangJi, who had just drawn his sword in outrage to punish the impudent (and fascinating, though he violently dismisses the thought) guest disciple that dared mock the rules of his Sect, pauses in confusion. Then, suddenly – in space between one moment and the next – he is no longer junior disciple Lan WangJi but Hanguang-Jun, the most powerful cultivator of their age and husband to the Yiling Patriarch. He sucks in a sharp breath and stares in startled disbelief at the silhouette of the boy on the wall who does not seem to have registered his presence yet.

“Wei Ying?”

Silver eyes that he hasn’t seen in more than twenty years outside of incense burner dreams snap down to meet his, startled and confused. Lan WangJi feels his heart speed up at the sight of that oh-so-familiar face, tinted by the moonlight. How...?

“Lan... Zhan?”

The confusion and uncertainty colouring that voice makes his heart ache, and the edge of fear in those wide eyes makes his hands tighten around his sword instinctively for a moment before he sheaths it in a furious blink and leaps up to his husband’s side. Because this is certainly his husband. Lan WangJi remembers the bright light of an array, and has his suspicions about what it did and what that might mean, but nothing is more important right now than the lost look on his husband’s face as he turns towards him.

“Wei Ying, I’m here,” he says, as he reaches his arms out to his husband.

With a choked gasp of relief, Wei WuXian throws himself into his arms, pressing his face into Lan WangJi’s shoulder and breathing in the scent of sandalwood and safe and home. Strong arms wrap around him, pulling him in close as Lan WangJi buries his face in Wei WuXian’s messy hair.

“Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian mumbles, tears leaking out and dampening the cloth beneath his face, “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan...”

“Wei Ying,” comes that beloved deep voice, filled with gentle concern, “What’s wrong?”

He receives a shuddering breath in response and then one of his arms is being tugged back between them. Seemingly beyond words, Wei WuXian grasps his hand and presses it firmly to his abdomen, right against his lower dantain. Lan WangJi’s eyes widen in understanding and he sends a small spark of spiritual energy into Wei WuXian (just to be sure, to know for certain that this is real) and feels it touch then mix with his shockingly powerful core. Wei WuXian lets out a sharp gasp when he feels their energies mixing, which turns into a sob; he shudders against Lan WangJi, fists clenched and trembling in the back of Lan WangJi’s robes. Without a word, Lan WangJi lifts him into his arms and leaps down from the top of the wall, choosing instead to sit quietly against it with Wei WuXian in his lap, letting him cling as he runs a soothing hand up and down his husband’s back to offer what little reassurance he can.

Eventually, the sobs turn into sniffles, and Wei WuXian’s hands loosen enough that Lan WangJi’s clothes are no longer in immediate danger of tearing. Not that either of them would care. Lan WangJi doesn’t stop the motion of his hand, but he brings the other up to curl gently over the back of Wei WuXian’s head. He does not speak, does not need to. He knows his husband will talk when he is ready. But he presses a soft kiss to the top of Wei WuXian’s head as he waits, and begins humming their song softly.

The rest of the tension in Wei WuXian’s frame begins to ease out of him. After a few minutes, he sighs softly and opens his eyes to really look up at his husband for the first time. The humming cuts off abruptly as Lan WangJi’s breath seems to catch; wide golden eyes rove hungrily over every inch of his face, and Wei WuXian realises with a jolt that he must be in his old body now, his real one. He looks up, equally wide-eyed, at his much younger husband and suddenly grasps the difference between the memory-based illusions of the incense burner and reality. Lan WangJi is still beautiful, still the young immortal Wei WuXian has thought him on first glance, but now he sees that there is still a slight layer of puppy fat over his cheeks that wasn’t there before, his features are less sharp, his jaw less defined. His eyes look slightly larger in this younger face, and the frame he is curled around is more slender, still missing the muscles that came from years of training. Then, with a sudden gasp of realisation, Wei WuXian straightens in his lap, hands coming up to pull at Lan WangJi’s collar frantically, trying to pull apart his many layers.

Lan WangJi, who had been busy committing his husband’s old-but-new face to memory (Wei WuXian has the faintest mole beneath his lower lip, it’s adorable), is unceremoniously jerked back to the present.

“Wei Ying!”

Wei WuXian ignores him and manages to loosen the robes enough to slide one hand underneath to the back of his shoulder and then down his chest over his heart. A sob wrenches out of him, “They’re gone. They’re gone.”

Oh. Lan WangJi smiles softly down at Wei WuXian, pressing their foreheads together, “They never were, Wei Ying.”

Wei WuXian’s hand slips out of his collar only to grasp it tightly and yank him forward, crushing their lips together. Lan WangJi kisses back, hands coming up to cup the sides of his face, matching Wei WuXian's desperation and relief with his own. ‘He still tastes the same,’ he thinks absently. It had surprised him before, too, the first time he kissed him in Mo XuanYu’s body. As though this essence of Wei Ying had transmigrated with his soul somehow. He deepens the kiss, chasing that sweetness, remembering the long years after their hunt on Phoenix Mountain when he had had nothing but his memories of that stolen kiss to keep him company. Wei WuXian makes a punched-out sound low in his throat – guttural and desperate – that Lan WangJi has never heard from him before. It’s incredibly hot, and Lan WangJi realises that he would do anything to hear it again.

But Wei WuXian jerks back, seemingly surprised by his own noises, and stares at Lan WangJi in wide-eyed shock. Lan WangJi does not even try to stop his little huff of laughter at that, the corners of his eyes crinkling ever so slightly as he takes in the sight of his flushed and ridiculous husband. Wei WuXian breath seems to stop for a moment as he looks at him in wonder, before he lets out a giggle of his own and presses their foreheads together tightly, his breath tumbling against Lan WangJi’s lips, “Lan Zhan ah, Lan Zhan, what am I going to do with you? You’re so cute, Lan Zhan! I forgot how cute you were at this age. My husband is already the most beautiful person in the world and then he has the audacity to laugh like that! Have some sympathy for my poor heart, Hanguang-Jun!”

“Wei Ying is the most beautiful.”

He lets Wei WuXian bury his flushed face in his shoulder again with amused satisfaction, unaffected as always by the whining complaints and admonishments that follow. His Wei Ying has always been the brightest, most beautiful person in any room (no matter what face he wears), and Lan WangJi always delights in letting him know it and watching him melt into an adorable flustered puddle.

Wei WuXian, playfully annoyed by Lan WangJi’s amused composure, leans up to whisper lowly in his ear, “Did you miss this body, Lan-er-gege? Would you like to show me how much?”

“Wei Ying,” comes the strained reply (and oh, how he loves that he can do this to his husband with just a few words). “Not here.”

Wei WuXian blinks and straightens, really taking in their surroundings for the first time. It is long after curfew and they are in a relatively isolated spot of the Cloud Recesses, but if this is what (when) he thinks it is, they cannot risk being found here together and, he smirks, certainly not like this. He and Lan WangJi should have only just met, he thinks, eyes roaming along the wall and landing on the shattered jar of Emperor’s Smile just a few feet from them.

He giggles at the memory of taunting teenage Lan Zhan by drinking on the wall. He turns back to Lan WangJi and laughs in response to his mildly questioning look, reaching up to teasingly twist his fingers in one end of his husband’s forehead ribbon. “Hanguang-Jun, Lan WangJi, Lan Zhan, tell the truth. Were you about to raise your sword against your poor husband?”

Lan WangJi’s ears turn red, much to Wei WuXian’s delight. “Wei Ying.”

He laughs again, reaching up to erase the slight crease of annoyance between Lan WangJi’s eyebrows. His smile gentles as he runs his fingers down his husband’s youthful face and he leans in to kiss him softly right in the centre of his forehead ribbon. Then, with a resigned huff, he clambers out of Lan WangJi’s lap, pulling his husband to his feet and straightening the robes he had yanked into disarray earlier.

“Lan Zhan,” he starts, as he fiddles with his collar, “This is real.”

“Mn.”

“We’re in the past.”

“Mn.”

“We’re children.”

A twitch, “...Mn.”

Wei WuXian laughs again, holding Lan WangJi’s hand tightly in his, “We should probably go somewhere else though.”

“Jingshi.”

Wei WuXian nods, leading the way back to their home, dodging the patrols with practiced ease and refusing to let go of Lan WangJi’s hand for a moment. When they reach the Jingshi, Lan WangJi pauses for a moment to press his palm against the wards, closing his eyes as he modifies them to always allow Wei WuXian access to their home. When he opens his eyes, Wei WuXian is watching him with a small wistful smile.

“Wei Ying?”

Wei WuXian shakes his head, “Ah, it’s nothing, Lan Zhan. Just thinking about our home.”

Lan WangJi nods in understanding, pulling Wei WuXian into the Jingshi with him and sliding the door shut. His rooms are, he supposes, precisely how he left them, with their bed and closet and desk, and little else– clean and tidy and neat, all his minimal belongings put away out of sight. Yet, though he knows it is illogical, he cannot prevent the wave of disappointment that washes over him as he looks around and does not find signs of Wei WuXian’s chaotic existence scattered around his home. There are no black outer robes hung up near the door or red under robes slung carelessly over the privacy screen; no mess of half finished talismans and arrays across his desk; no odds and ends, and little knick-knacks picked up on their travels scattered on the shelves; no stacks of notebooks and scrolls full of Wei Ying’s research mixed with his own books. He does not need to look to know that his floorboards hide nothing now. It is to be expected, he knows. They are not married yet, in this time. They do not share a home. But he feels a surge of sadness and repulsion anyway as he looks around, reminded too closely of those long years without Wei WuXian in his life; of waking up from dreams of their life together only to find his home cold and empty, and his back aching. He tightens his grip on Wei WuXian’s hand and pulls him into his side, turning his head to bury it in the side of Wei WuXian’s face, needing to be reminded that his Wei Ying is here, he is alright, he is here. They are almost the same height now, and Wei WuXian’s arms come up easily to wrap around his shoulders and pull him into a hug.

“It’s alright, Lan Zhan. I’m here. I’m not going anywhere. We’ll make this home again just you wait and see. I’m here, Lan Zhan, I’m not going anywhere, I promise.”

Lan WangJi tightens his grip on him gratefully, marvelling as always at how easily his husband can read him now. He breathes in the familiar scent of magnolias and spice, and lets his heart settle. Wei WuXian is here in his arms where nothing will ever be allowed to hurt him. Lan WangJi will always make sure of that. His Wei Ying will not suffer this time around. They will marry again, make their home again, raise their–

He freezes for a moment before pulling away to look at Wei WuXian with eyes full of panic, and gasps, “Wei Ying. Wei Ying. We have to go back. A-Yuan– Lan Sizhui–”

He sees Wei WuXian’s eyes widen in horror, feels his arms tighten around him. But Wei WuXian does not immediately agree, does not nod and get to work to send them back to their son, and Lan WangJi doesn’t understand. Their son is waiting for them, they have to–

“Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian says, more gently than he has ever spoken before. But his eyes are haunted and full of grief, and Lan WangJi is starting to have trouble breathing. “Lan Zhan, we can’t.”

“Wei Ying–!”

“Lan Zhan. I’m sorry! I’m sorry, Lan Zhan. We can’t–” And then there are tears running down Wei WuXian’s face and Lan WangJi has never felt so lost as he wipes them away, as he tries to calm his heartbeat and even out his breathing and focus on what Wei WuXian is telling him because, for some reason, they cannot return to their son and Lan WangJi needs to know why.

“We can’t go back, Lan Zhan. I– the array that sent us here, it moved us through time. And the second it did, it created a separate timeline. The fact that we know the future, that we are our selves from the future– it’s already means that things have changed, Lan Zhan. Moving to the past is possible because it’s on the same timeline so you can navigate by memory or date. And... an array would only be moving a soul through a path it already knows and to a host – a body – it already knows and belongs to. But if we try to move a soul to the future, it won’t have a path to follow anymore because anything could be different. If there’s even the slightest difference in its path, your soul would be lost. It could end up anywhere. There’s no guarantee we’ll get to the future we left behind... or any future at all.” Wei WuXian swallows a sob and continues, unable to look at Lan WangJi as he explains, “I don’t know what would happen to these younger bodies if we remove our souls from them There would be nothing to replace what we take with us because we didn’t transmigrate our memories, we moved our very souls. If we try to just reverse the array, they might... we might just die and there would be no future at all to return to.”

Wei WuXian keeps his head bowed, tears coursing down his cheeks. He does not make any effort to stop them, does not try to seek comfort from his husband. He does not deserve comfort for this. Not when his husband is looking at him like that, with his face ashen and eyes full of something painful and twisted, as he learns that he may have lost his son forever. Wei WuXian’s voice shakes, words stumbling over one another as they pour out of him, “I- I’m sorry. Lan Zhan, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I can’t fix this. I don’t know how to fix this. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, Lan Zhan. We can’t– I can’t– I’m sorry, I’m so–”

Lan WangJi pulls him tightly to his chest, muffling his apologies. Wei WuXian sobs against him for his son, his precious baby boy, his little A-Yuan who grew up so well and is now gone, unborn, might never be theirs again. He feels a growing wetness against the back of his neck and clutches Lan WangJi closer, tighter, trying to give him what comfort he can as he breaks under the weight of the same knowledge.

It is a long time before they both calm down, though the ache in their hearts does not disappear. They sink down to the floor, still trembling, still holding on to each other in their shared grief.

“Lan Zhan, I’m–”

“Wei Ying,” his husband interrupts, voice a little rough but firm, “Do not. It is not your fault.”

Wei WuXian shakes his head vehemently, pulling away from him, “No. No. I think it is. Lan Zhan, that array... I only saw it for a second but it looked... familiar. Lan Zhan, ah Lan Zhan, my memory is terrible but I think I might have been the one who invented it.”

Seeing Wei WuXian’s abject misery as he walks the familiar paths of undeserved self-recrimination, Lan WangJi quietly wraps an arm around his shoulders and pulls him back into his side. Wei WuXian relaxes instinctively, one hand coming up to clutch at Lan WangJi’s collar.

“I don’t remember making it, Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian says, his voice low and broken, “But I don’t remember a lot of things from those last months at the Burial Mounds. Everything was so terrible and we were starving, and I knew I was running out of time, even if I didn’t want to admit it. I knew it was only a matter of time before the cultivation world came to kick down our door and I just... I kept working. At least, that’s what Wen Ning says. But I think I was trying to find a solution. A way to buy us more time but then there was the invitation and...”

The breath shudders out of him, and Lan WangJi pulls him into his lap, not letting him resist, and holds him close as he trembles.

“Not your fault.”

Wei WuXian lets out a bitter, if watery, chuckle, “It is my fault, Lan Zhan. I invented it, probably. And it’s the reason we’re back here and stuck here. It’s the reason we may not see our A-Yuan–”

“Not your fault,” Lan WangJi states firmly, “Wei Ying did not activate the array. Wei Ying did not even remember it existed.”

“But, Lan Zhan–”

“No, Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi interrupts again, unflinchingly, “It is not the forger’s fault when the swords he makes are used to kill. It is not yours when your inventions are used. You did not do this, Wei Ying. It is not your fault.”

Wei WuXian stares up at him with startled eyes, silenced by the intense certainty of Lan WangJi’s gaze. “Wei Ying, we are in the past. And we are stuck here, as you say. But that also means that we have a chance now, to do things differently. And we will...” he swallows, his voice faltering for just a moment, “We will find our son again. He may not be our A-Yuan this time, if we manage to fix things, but we will still know him. A-Yuan will still live and grow and be happy, Wei Ying. That is what matters most.”

Wei WuXian feels his tears flood over for what feels like the hundredth time that night. His husband is so good. He cannot keep the adoration from his face or voice, does not even want to try, as he mumbles, “Lan Zhan ah, Lan Zhan, you’re too good, too kind. Lan Zhan, I love you so much, you’re the best person I know. I love you, Lan Zhan. I love you, I love you, I love you.”

“Love Wei Ying, too.”

Wei WuXian throws his arms around Lan WangJi and buries his face in his neck, mumbling his devotion into his skin. Lan WangJi’s arms wrap around him tightly, warm and safe, and Wei WuXian finally feels like he can breathe again.

He pulls away slowly, feeling wrung out and exhausted, and sees the answering tiredness on his husband’s face. They still have things they need to talk about, but there are better places to do it than the cold hard floor of the Jingshi.

With a soft sigh, he gets up, helping Lan WangJi rise before leading him around the privacy screen to their bed. He helps him undress with gentle motions, smiling softly at the familiar routine when his husband returns the gesture in his customary comfortable silence. It is a small thing, but Wei WuXian feels a piece of his twisted heart right itself again. He presses Lan WangJi to sit on the bed before disappearing behind the privacy screen to fetch a damp washcloth, some water, and a comb. He returns to find his husband sitting stone-still, eyes following him intently as though he might disappear any second. He drops the comb beside him when he sits on the bed and pushes the water into Lan WangJi’s hands, encouraging him to drink it all before he runs the washcloth gently over his face, wiping away the sweat and remnants of tears that mark it. When he finishes, he puts the washcloth down only for Lan WangJi to immediately pick it up again and wipe Wei WuXian’s face for him, too. Wei WuXian, feeling his heart beat almost painfully with the love he feels for the man in front of him, smiles brightly at his husband and kisses him softly in thanks.

He then gestures for him to turn around and starts taking down his hair. Gently, he pulls out his hair ornament, undoes his topknot, and unravels all his little ponytails and braids until Lan WangJi’s hair is falling loosely around his shoulders. Finally, he removes the forehead ribbon, folding it reverently and placing it on their beside table. He picks up the comb and starts running it carefully through Lan WangJi’s hair, feeling him slowly start to relax under his hands. Only then does he begin speaking, running through what he thinks happened.

“That nighthunt–”

“Planned.”

“Yeah. Definitely. They probably gathered those yaoguai in that place to keep us distracted, too. Huh. Lan Zhan, do you think the souls of those dead yaoguai time travelled, too?”

“No. Already passed.”

“Hm. I guess so. It wouldn’t matter much either way. They were only there for the array to absorb their resentful energy. It was all very carefully planned. That array was drawn throughout the clearing and disguised long before we got there, Lan Zhan, and it made sure that none of us could escape.”

“Mn.”

“Wen Ning was with us, so he must be back, too. And alive. And alone. In Nightless City. Fuck. We need to send him a message soon.”

“Mn.”

Wei WuXian sighed, “You know, he was the one who gave me the idea of taking Wen Ning along, right before we left.”

He feels Lan WangJi stiffen beneath his hands. “Sect Leader Nie.”

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s probably him again. We’ll know for sure tomorrow.”

He can feel the icy fury radiate off of Lan WangJi, but he does not try to placate him. Wei WuXian is pretty fucking pissed himself and he is going to make sure that Nie Huaisang knows it. “We can’t kill him, Lan Zhan. We’re probably going to need him for whatever he has planned to fix things.”

Lan WangJi does not physically pout, but he still radiates a bullied aura that has Wei WuXian stifling a giggle in his now smooth hair. Lan WangJi sighs lightly and turns back around, plucking the comb out of Wei WuXian’s hand and gesturing for him to turn this time. He unravels the red ribbon holding Wei WuXian’s hair up in his usual ponytail, and folds and places it next to his forehead ribbon with the same reverence that Wei WuXian had shown. He combs Wei WuXian’s hair back with his fingers for a few moments, letting his nails scratch lightly at Wei WuXian’s scalp, and his husband melts into his hands with a groan.

“Tomorrow,” he prompts, before his husband can get too distracted.

Wei WuXian groans again, this time in protest, but acquiesces, “Tomorrow. I’ll tell Jiang Cheng I spent the night in Caiyi so that should be fine.”

“Mn.”

“We can speak to Nie Huaisang after classes, I’ll get rid of Jiang Cheng and bring him back here.”

“No. I’ll ask.”

“Hm. You’re right. Less suspicious that way. No one would dare refuse the Second Jade of Lan. But how will you ask for me without Jiang Cheng suspecting anything?”

“Wei Ying will have left the classroom early.”

“I will?”

“Wei Ying does not plan on challenging Uncle this time?”

“Oh. I, uhh–”

“Wei Ying?”

“Lan Zhan,” he says, his voice low, “This time, your uncle doesn’t hate me yet. He doesn’t like me, but it’s nothing like how it was the last time. If I– if I behave this time, maybe it’ll make things easier for us. We’ll need him on our side to fix things anyway, and maybe if he doesn’t hate me, he won’t see me as a taint on your reputation. We could get married properly this time. I don’t want to be a stain on you again, Lan Zhan, I don’t want to drag you down. Your reputation–”

He stops when Lan WangJi drops the comb and turns him around forcefully to look him in the eye. “Wei Ying is Wei Ying. You do not need to act differently. I do not care about my reputation, you know this, Wei Ying. And you have never been a taint or a stain on me. Wei Ying is good. Has always been good. Uncle was wrong before. He is wrong now, to dislike Wei Ying because of rumours and prejudice. I will marry you, Wei Ying. In this and every lifetime, I am yours. And I do not care how our union may come about or what people think of it. It is only you for me, Wei Ying. It cannot be anyone at you.”

Wei WuXian looks back at him with teary eyes, stunned by his husband’s sudden eloquence, feeling his heart try to rip itself out of his chest and throw itself at Lan WangJi’s feet. “Yeah, okay. Okay, Lan Zhan. Anything you ask, I’ll do. It’s only you for me, too, Lan Zhan. Always you. In this and every lifetime. As long as we’re together, I don’t care about anything else. As long as I have Lan Zhan next to me, nothing and nobody else matters.”

Lan WangJi feels his ears burn and hopes that his hair is succeeding in hiding them. Based on his husband’s grin, however, it is unlikely. He moves forward instead, pressing a kiss to that smiling mouth, and feels soft lips chase his when he tries to move away.

“Wei Ying,” he admonishes, “We still need to plan.”

Wei WuXian whines against his mouth in protest, hands twisting their way into his hair. “We can talk more in the morning, Lan Zhan. We have to get up stupidly early because of your ungodly Lan schedule anyway.”

Lan WangJi huffs at that, but lets his husband pull him back in. He’s right. They have time.

Chapter Text

The first intimation Nie Huaisang receives that he is well and truly fucked comes the next morning as he makes his way to their first class. Wei WuXian had been conspicuously absent during breakfast, and Jiang WanYin was already beside himself with worry anger since he found his brother’s bed obviously unslept in this morning. None of this surprises Nie Huaisang, however, and he just hopes that Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi do actually show up for class. But halfway to the classroom, he begins to regret that wish as Wei WuXian appears by their side with a bright smile and light-hearted greeting, slinging his arm over Nie Huaisang’s shoulder in a way that feels far more threatening than friendly to the boy in question.

“Where the hell have you been?” Jiang WanYin demands furiously.

“Jiang Cheng!” Wei WuXian laughs cheerfully, “I stayed the night in Caiyi. Couldn’t risk getting caught breaking curfew now, could I?”

“Since when do you care about breaking rules?”

“Hm. Since my adorable shidi scolded me so terribly about not bringing shame to our sect yesterday! Really, Jiang Cheng, you were so mean to me. That’s no way to show your shixiong how much you love him!”

“You–!”

“Nie-gongzi!” Wei WuXian interrupts his spluttering brother, turning a truly terrifying smile on Nie Huaisang, “How are you this morning? Did you sleep well? I can’t say I got a lot of sleep myself.”

He manages to get out a stuttering, “I-I slept fine, Wei-xiong,” before Jiang WanYin thankfully interrupts with an angry shout of “What are you talking about? He’s not the one who snuck out to get drunk and passed out in Caiyi town, Wei WuXian!”

“Jiang Cheng, loud noises are forbidden in the Cloud Recesses!” Wei WuXian singsongs at him, turning away from Nie Huaisang to mock Jiang WanYin’s slowly purpling face. But the casual arm stays around his shoulder, tightening to an almost uncomfortable degree, and Nie Huaisang can’t help but swallow nervously.

He breathes deeply, trying to calm down as he’s pulled along with the bickering brothers the rest of the way to the Orchid Room, only to freeze in the doorway. Seated at one of the desks near the front of the classroom, Lan WangJi has his head turned towards the three of them, radiating an aura so frosty that Nie Huaisang feels a horrified shiver run down his spine. Oh, he’s screwed.

Seeing that glare pointed their way, Jiang WanYin groans and demands, “Wei WuXian, how did you get in trouble already?”

Wei WuXian pouts at his brother, “Why do you think I did anything, Jiang Cheng? Maybe he’s glaring at you... or maybe, he’s glaring at Nie-gongzi here. He’s the one who studied here before! Maybe he got on Lan WangJi’s bad side.”

Nie Huaisang flips his fan open to hide his face, avoiding looking at either of them. “I don’t know what you’re talking about Wei-xiong. I really don’t know!”

Jiang WanYin snorts, “What would he have done?”

Ignoring his brother, Wei WuXian turns to Nie Huaisang, the disquieting glint in his eye a sharp contrast to his sympathetic tone, “Are you sure you haven’t done anything to annoy him, Nie-gongzi? He seems to be glaring at you quite intensely.”

Nie Huaisang cannot help but shrink beneath his gaze, stuttering out a protest and sending a silent prayer to any god that might hear him that he survives to see tomorrow. Meanwhile, Jiang WanYin is looking between him and Lan WangJi, seeming to realise (if the confusion on his face is any indicator) that yes, Wei WuXian is right, and that absolutely terrifying glare is, in fact, aimed at Nie Huaisang’s poor, unfortunate self. Thankfully, before Jiang WanYin can interrogate him, he’s distracted by Wei WuXian bouncing cheerfully into the room, aiming straight for the white-robed boy at the front of the classroom. Wei WuXian immediately begins pelting Lan WangJi with his customary endless chatter, plopping down in the empty seat beside him and turned all the way to face the impassive boy. Nie Huaisang hears Jiang WanYin groan from beside him, “What is that idiot doing? Does he have a death wish?”

The rest of the students gathered in the room seem to share Jiang WanYin’s opinion, eyeing the two at the front with mingled awe and horror. Nie Huaisang snorts quietly, carefully taking a seat behind Wei WuXian and watching the two fall deeper into their conversation, forgetting, as they so often do, that the rest of the world still exists. They’re really appallingly bad at pretending not to be married, he thinks somewhat despairingly. He peers over the edge of his fan, observing the couple with narrowed eyes. Huh. Then again, maybe they aren’t as casual as they seem. Despite his careless sprawl, there is a tension to Wei WuXian’s shoulders that indicates he is trying very hard to avoid looking at anyone else in the room. Nie Huaisang can understand that, he supposes, though he himself has already made careful note of precisely where Su Minshan is sitting near the back, staring at the two in front with wide and envious eyes.

Jiang WanYin falls into the seat beside him with a thump, eying his brother’s profile with anger and disbelief, which only seems to grow when Wei WuXian completely fails to register his presence. Oh dear. Nie Huaisang foresees trouble in that area. The Jiang WanYin of their time had been awkward enough about his brother’s marriage, despite their tentative attempts at reconciliation. This Jiang WanYin, still young, naïve, and protective of his brother, will likely be worse.

His train of thought is interrupted by the sound of a throat clearing as Lan Qiren sweeps into the room. Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi snap to attention, though Nie Huaisang is sure he sees a grimace pass over Wei WuXian’s face for a second before it turns smilingly impassive. He blinks, slightly confused until Lan Qiren unrolls his endless scroll containing the Cloud Recesses’ three thousand rules and begins reading from it. Nie Huaisang forces himself to swallow his groan. As the lesson progresses, he entertains himself by watching Wei WuXian droop with boredom, and then slowly list forward in his seat and begin doodling, based on the quick glances that Lan WangJi keeps shooting at his desk.

He sees Lan Qiren’s eye twitch as he finally slams the scroll down on his desk and begins berating the class. Nie Huaisang doesn’t miss the shade of annoyance that crosses Lan WangJi’s face as Lan Qiren singles out Wei WuXian and hurls questions at him, and oh, oh no, he remembers this. Does Wei WuXian plan to get thrown out again by talking about resentful energy? Surely not, he thinks a little hysterically, surely they have more sense than to get on Lan Qiren’s bad side right now. But when Lan Qiren gets to his question about the executioner, Wei WuXian pauses once again, raising a questioning eyebrow at Lan WangJi who nods slightly in response, and Nie Huaisang despairs.

It goes as he remembers it. Wei WuXian provokes Lan Qiren (it doesn’t help that Nie Huaisang now knows that he’s perfectly right about using resentful energy), and nimbly dodges the book that’s thrown at him. Unfortunately, Nie Huaisang, sitting right behind him, isn’t so lucky (he’s almost certain he hears a muffled snicker as the book smacks into his face). He brings his hands up to rub his forehead ruefully, almost missing how Wei WuXian stays mercifully noncommittal when Lan Qiren asks him how he would control the resentful energy. At least he has some sense left, Nie Huaisang muses, still a little bitter about being hit in the face with a book. He shudders to think what would have happened if Wei WuXian had looked the Grandmaster of the Lan Clan in the eye and informed him that he plans on using musical cultivation to control resentful energy.

As Wei WuXian cheerfully turns to leave the classroom on Lan Qiren’s orders, Nie Huaisang sees him slip the piece of paper he was doodling on to Lan WangJi and– are those rabbits? Nie Huaisang sees Lan WangJi’s impassive face soften slightly as he glances down at picture before slipping it into his sleeve, and turning back to his now apoplectic uncle with a palpable air of unconcern mixed with disapproval. Nie Huaisang supposes he shouldn’t be surprised. Lan WangJi has never taken well to criticisms of Wei WuXian.

By the time the lesson ends, Nie Huaisang is torn between amusement and nerves. The latter wins out when Lan WangJi turns to him as soon as Jiang WanYin storms off to find his errant brother and quietly says “Follow me” in a tone that leaves no room for argument. Nie Huaisang may have been a Sect Leader for more than a decade, but he has always retained a healthy dose of fear when it comes to his interactions with the expressionless Second Jade. He has never learned to read him like Wei WuXian (who does so effortlessly), and he has never regretted his failure to learn more than he does right now, as he follows Lan WangJi through the Cloud Recesses to what he assumes is his home. Lan WangJi slides the door open, and he sees Wei WuXian seated at a low table waiting for them, a steaming teapot before him along with three empty cups, and a pleasant smile on his lips. Nie Huaisang feels a shiver crawl down his spine at the implications of the scene before him. They know. They don’t suspect, they know, and they have no intention of acting otherwise. Nie Huaisang is completely and undeniably fucked.

Wei WuXian gestures for him to take a seat, pleasant smile still in place, as Lan WangJi activates a silencing talisman on the walls of the Jingshi. “Sect Leader Nie,” Wei WuXian says, his voice dripping with irony, “Thank you for joining us.”

Lan WangJi takes his place beside Wei WuXian, and suddenly all that icy fury from earlier is back with a vengeance. Wei WuXian doesn’t so much as twitch from beside him, his smile staying cool and pleasant, and Nie Huaisang feels the hairs at the nape of his neck rise, a deer frozen between two predators. Lan WangJi watches him stonily, eyes never leaving his face and, fuck, Nie Huaisang really might not make it out of this meeting alive.

“You’ll have to forgive Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian says pleasantly, breaking the uncomfortable silence, “He gets like this when he discovers he’s lost his son.”

He gulps, “But Wen Yuan–”

“Is unborn,” Wei WuXian cuts him off mercilessly, eyes blazing, “And may never be ours again. And even if he were, he will no longer know us or remember the twenty-five years we shared.” He takes a deep breath, but his voice is hard as he continues, “Did I not tell you once that there are some things too important to risk, Nie Huaisang?”

Nie Huaisang flinches. “I’m sorry,” he says quietly, looking down at the teacup in his hand. “I had to do it.”

“For your brother,” says Lan WangJi.

It’s not a question but Nie Huaisang nods anyway, “For him and… for everyone. I just– I wanted a chance to start over, to make things better this time. The war… it cost too much. It’s what pushed my brother so close to qi deviating. It’s what destroyed the YunmengJiang Sect and let Meng Yao worm his way into the Jin Sect. There was too much lost, and the world changed because of it. You know that better than anyone, Wei-xiong.” He looks up, suddenly fierce, to stare at Wei WuXian, “You lost your home and your family. You learnt demonic cultivation and became a war hero, only for everyone to turn their backs on you when you stood up for the Wen remnants. You were left to rot in the Burial Mounds until they found a reason to bring a siege to your door. You died–”

“Enough,” Lan WangJi says, his voice flat but radiating anger, “We are aware.”

He clears his throat, but refuses to break eye contact, his fan clenched in his hand, “The war is where everything started. If we can prevent that—or at least end it early—we can save the people who matter. We can stop Jin Guangshan and Meng Yao from grabbing power. We can protect our families.” He pauses, swallows. “I have lived with so many regrets for so many years, Wei-xiong. I have thought and thought about what I could have done differently so that Da-ge could have lived. And when I found your soul transferring array in Mo XuanYu’s notes a few years ago… how could I not at least try?”

“So it was my array then,” Wei WuXian says, his voice tight.

“Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi calls, his voice softer than Nie Huaisang has ever heard it. He reaches out and grasps his husband’s hand, and Wei WuXian instantly relaxes against him with a sigh.

“Go on. I assume there’s a reason you waited so long to use it?”

Nie Huaisang nods, “I needed time to plan. Coming back blind wouldn’t help anyone and I couldn’t risk history repeating itself. I needed to gather as much information as possible first. And… and I wasn’t sure it would work.

Wei WuXian chuckles, “Oh, it worked alright. And I assume there’s a reason you brought the two of us and Wen Ning back with you?”

Nie Huaisang nods. “I know that you were finally together back in the future, and maybe you were content with how things were. But the three of you were also the ones who lost the most. I just… I thought you deserved a chance to change things, too.”

Wei WuXian’s eyes flash with amusement, though his gaze remains scrutinizing as he voices what Nie Huaisang was trying to leave unsaid, “And you needed us, specifically, for your plan. Which is…?”

Nie Huaisang tells them.

——

“You want me to use Empathy on the peacock!?”

Nie Huaisang sighs, “I know you don’t like him, Wei-xiong, but we need the Jin clan on our side, and he’s the only legitimate heir. And if we want him to stand against his father, he needs to know exactly what Jin Guangshan is capable of.”

“How do you know it’ll work? He’s still a pretentious, arrogant peacock right now, without my Shijie’s influence.”

Nie Huaisang sighs, “You didn’t really know him, Wei-xiong. Jin Zixuan may be a spoilt child right now, but he has a good heart. He never liked his father or agreed with how he… operates, but he had no reason to stand up to him before. If we give him one, he might do it. Besides, we need LanlingJin not to stay out of the war this time.”

“But you want me to show him everything? Even his own death? What about Shijie? What if he decides not to marry her this time because of me? What if this just turns him against us? I killed him. What could possibly get him to–”

“Jin Ling.”

Nie Huaisang blinks at Lan WangJi in confusion, but Wei WuXian eyes widen in understanding. “Oh. You think so?”

“Mn. His son.”

“Fuck. I guess so. Fine, I’ll do it. But under protest. If he tries to kill me after, you’ll have to save me, Lan Zhan.”

“Will always protect Wei Ying.”

Nie Huaisang watches in amusement as Wei WuXian blushes and buries a groan in Lan WangJi’s shoulder.

——

“No.”

“Wei-xiong–”

“No. Absolutely not.”

“We need her to–”

“You are not using my Shijie as a pawn in your plans!” Wei WuXian snarls, “I won’t do it. She doesn’t deserve that. I won’t let her be put into danger! Never again!”

“She won’t be! But Jiang-guniang is also more capable than you give her credit for.”

“I know how capable–”

“No, you don’t! You weren’t there after she married into the Jin Sect. You didn’t see how she navigated their internal politics, how she wrapped those power-hungry sycophants around her little finger. Your sister may not be a strong cultivator—and I have no intention of letting her near the battlefield—but there are some things she can handle better than you and keeping her in the dark would be foolish.”

Wei WuXian glares at him. “I don’t care!”

“Wei Ying.” Lan WangJi says, softly.

“Lan Zhan. No.”

“Nie Huaisang is right. Jiang YanLi is very skilled in political matters.”

“But–”

“She will not come to harm, Wei Ying.” Lan WangJi says softly. “We will not let anything happen to her.”

“But I can’t. If she knows… Lan Zhan, she’ll hate me.”

“She will not. Wei Ying, your sister loves you. She will not turn her back on you.”

“Lan Zhan…”

“Wei Ying does not need to decide now. There is time. Think on it.”

“… Fine.”

Nie Huaisang breathes a sigh of relief.

——

“I understand, but he hasn’t done anything yet. We can’t just kill him without reason.”

“Will you kill Wen Chao?”

“Of course, but it’s not the same!”

“How isn’t it?” Nie Huaisang inquires coldly, knuckles white around his fan.

“Wen Chao is already evil! He’s incompetent and cruel. I can’t let him burn down Lotus Pier again and kill my family again–”

And I can’t let Meng Yao kill mine!

The Jingshi rings silent for a few moments.

“We will revisit this later,” Lan WangJi eventually says, quietly, “But whatever decision we make, Meng Yao will not be allowed near Sect Leader Nie or xiongzhang.”

Nie Huaisang nods but stays silent, hiding his scowl behind his fan. He will have to make revisions to his plan.

——

“Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi says, with a hint of exasperation, “You cannot use Empathy on everyone. It is too dangerous.”

“But, Lan Zhan! There’s no way your uncle and Xichen-ge will believe us otherwise. Let alone the Jiangs!”

“We will have to provide Uncle with proof,” Lan Zhan acknowledges, “But xiongzhang will believe.”

“You don’t think we should show your brother the truth anyway?”

Lan WangJi shakes his head, “I would spare xiongzhang the pain.”

Nie Huaisang nods, “I agree. We cannot show Er-Ge the future without explaining Jin GuangYao.”

Wei WuXian hums, but continues to frown. “I just don’t see how we can get the current Sect Leaders on our side without Empathy though. But, at the same time, there are things people cannot know, especially Jiang Cheng…”

Nie Huaisang sighs, “We’ll just have to talk to them. We know enough about the near future to be able to prove our claims, at least for now. If we can get Grandmaster Lan to believe us, it’ll go a long way to convincing the other sect leaders. Though, really, Wei-xiong, did you really have to annoy him again like that today?”

“Wei Ying is Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi defends immediately, his voice sharp, “Uncle asked and he answered. Wei Ying did nothing wrong.”

“Yes, I know,” Nie Huaisang says, exasperatedly, “But we do need him to trust us for this to work. The other Sect Leaders will take their cues from him.”

“Uncle will recover. Wei Ying needed to be here more.”

Wei WuXian smiles at his husband before turning to look at Nie Huaisang, his gaze sharp, “What about your brother?”

Nie Huaisang swallows heavily, glancing away. “I don’t know. I can tell him the truth, but as he knows me as a teenager, he wouldn’t believe me capable of what I’ve done. And my cultivation isn’t strong enough for Empathy. I can still mobilise him against the Wen Sect though. He won’t need much of a push if he sees other Sect Leaders banding together, not after what happened to Father…”

Wei WuXian tilts his head consideringly and turns to Lan WangJi, “Lan Zhan, do you think if we transfer spiritual energy continuously to Nie-gongzi, we might be able to fuel him using Empathy?”

Lan WangJi shakes his head, “Too unsteady. Would take a long time. The power must be pulled and utilised by him.”

Wei WuXian falls silent, frowning deeply at the table, lost in thought. After a few minutes, he starts mumbling incoherently to himself, and Nie Huaisang shoots Lan WangJi a questioning look. But Lan WangJi only looks back and shakes his head, apparently used to this behaviour. Quietly, he gets up and crosses the room, before returning in a minute with a stack of paper and some writing utensils that he places in front of Wei WuXian before sitting back down.

He then turns unconcernedly to Nie Huaisang and quietly asks him to continue telling him about his plans. Seeing Nie Huaisang’s confusion, he adds, “Wei Ying had an idea. He will emerge when he is able to articulate it. Do not wait.”

Nie Huaisang nods in bemused understanding and continues talking, lowering his voice so as not to disturb the now furiously scribbling boy.

——

“I will speak to xiongzhang soon. We will plan for it.”

“We’ll need to stick to the original timeline as long as possible,” Nie Huaisang says apologetically, “If we deviate too much too soon, we won’t be able to predict anything and all our knowledge will be for nothing.”

Lan WangJi nods, but his expression is tight. “The children and civilians will be evacuated. The books can be copied and preserved. We will keep damage to the minimum.”

“Thank you. I’m sorry about this, but we need to plan for it, in case we fail. And even if we do, Er-Ge cannot be allowed to disappear and meet Meng Yao.”

“Mn. It will be unnecessary.” He glances at Wei WuXian, still writing furiously next to him, “Our priority must be Wen Zhuliu and the main Wen family.”

Nie Huaisang nods, though he still feels a squirm of guilt in his stomach. He tries to smile reassuringly, “We’ll contain the damage and make sure no one loses their life this time.”

He sees something flash across Lan WangJi’s face, but it is gone before he can even begin to guess its meaning. “Mn.”

——

“Can you still use demonic cultivation, Wei-xiong?” Nie Huaisang asks, a while later.

Wei WuXian looks up from the papers he’s been scribbling on for the last hour or so and blinks at him. There is a splotch of ink on his cheek that Lan WangJi wipes away carefully as he grins, “Of course, Nie-gongzi. It’ll probably be easier now, actually, since my core is so strong. Quicker purification, you know. I figured out the question of balance in Mo XuanYu’s body, but his core was too weak for proper purification or expelling.” He pauses and turns to Lan WangJi with wide eyes, “Actually, I should experiment with that now. Lan Zhan! Do you think there might be methods to use them simultaneously? What if a talisman could be used to pull on small amounts of spiritual energy consistently for something, like riding a sword? If it could work independently a cultivator’s focus– but it would require some defence sigils for non-interference, right?”

“Mn. Would also need to allow variation in speed and movement.”

“You’re right! That would require more energy, unfortunately. That might be– oh! Do you remember that talisman I made for preservation to use in the kitchens a few years ago? What if I modified the longevity sigils and combined them with–”

Nie Huaisang watches them with bemused awe as they continue bouncing ideas (that are completely incomprehensible to him) off of each other, and Wei WuXian grabs a fresh sheet of paper and starts writing something on it that looks completely indecipherable to Nie Huaisang. But Lan WangJi only leans over Wei WuXian’s shoulder and points at something he’s written, murmuring something that causes Wei WuXian to let out a little sound of annoyance and immediately start overwriting it. Lan WangJi nods in response and Nie Huaisang can only sigh in exasperation and wait for them to emerge again. Really, he thinks, if the others require proof that they’re married in the future, they would only need to see the two of them together like this. Just a few minutes in their company and no one would deny that they’re not only definitely married, but also most likely insane. He glances out the window at the setting sun and wonders absently if Jiang WanYin is currently tearing the Cloud Recesses apart looking for his errant shixiong.

——

“We’ll send him a message tonight and it should reach him in the morning. He’ll come.” Wei WuXian says, stretching his arms above his head and letting Lan WangJi arrange the messy stack of his work according to a system that Nie Huaisang does not understand. His questions about their content were met with only a bright grin and an order to bring his brother to the Cloud Recesses as soon as possible.

“Are you sure?” Nie Huaisang asks, doubtfully, “They’re still under Wen Ruohan’s thumb. He may not be able to just slip away.”

Wei WuXian shakes his head with a grin. “He’ll come. Wen Ning may be gentle and timid, but he’s also smart. And I have learnt to never underestimate Wen Qing.”

“Wen Qing, the doctor?”

“Yeah,” he says, grin softening to a fond smile, “She’s a lot more sneaky than you might think. I’m sure Wen Ning has already filled her in. She’ll get him here and probably herself in the bargain, if I know her.”

Nie Huaisang hums thoughtfully. He has never met the infamous Wen Qing, but he has heard enough about her from Wen Qionglin and Wei WuXian to form the impression of a talented, sharp-tongued woman with a fiery will. She would be a powerful ally if Wen Ning can convince her to join them. He glances consideringly at the quiet confidence on Wei WuXian’s face and decides to let the matter slide. They will know for sure when the time comes, and Nie Huaisang will be prepared either way.

——

“I don’t care what else we do. I just want him safe and away from that abusive family.” Wei WuXian says forcefully. “You’re the only one who knew him, Nie-gongzi, what would you suggest?”

Nie Huaisang frowns. “We cannot let him go to Koi Tower while Jin Guangshan is alive. I think the best we can do for Mo XuanYu is to provide him and his mother with protection until this is all over.”

“Bring them here,” Lan WangJi says. They look at him in surprise. “Away from Mo Manor. I will talk to xiongzhang. He can be a guest disciple and train in cultivation properly.”

Wei WuXian beams at him, “Yes! So smart, my Lan Zhan, you’re so good. We can keep an eye on him, too! And when he’s older, he can decide what he wants to do. No more soul sacrifices!”

Lan WangJi nods and his hand tightens around Wei WuXian’s own. “Mn. No need.”

——

By the time they finish talking and Nie Huaisang gets to his feet to leave, the sun has long set over the mountains. Exhaustion has settled itself deep within his bones, and he has never been so thankful for the early hours that the Lan clan keeps. This discussion has gone both better and worse than he had hoped, and his head is already buzzing with alterations and contingency plans that he will need to make.

But just as he is about to slide the door open, Wei WuXian’s voice calls out from behind him. “One more thing. You’ve given us a second chance, Nie-gongzi, and for that, we may yet live to thank you.” He pauses for a moment, and Nie Huaisang turns back around warily. Wei WuXian's eyes seem to pierce through him. “But make no mistake, Nie Huaisang, you are alive right now only because we have no other choice. We trust that you had good, if selfish, intentions in bringing us back. We trust your plan to change the future, and that you are indispensible to them. We even trust that your plan is a good one. But. Your scheming has cost us a great deal and, from now on, you may find us less willing to forgive. I would advise you against attempting to trick us again.”

Nie Huaisang remembers a Discussion Conference many years ago that was disrupted by the Yiling Patriarch. He remembers a calm inquiry and cold threats before everything came tearing down. He remembers the fear that pervaded the room long after Wei WuXian had swept out of it.

Nie Huaisang takes in the cold anger on Wei WuXian’s face and remembers just how terrifying the Yiling Patriarch can be. He looks at Lan WangJi’s frosty countenance and remembers the Hanguang-Jun who stood by the resurrected Yiling Patriarch and raised his sword against the entire cultivation world to protect him.

Nie Huaisang remembers just why the two of them are considered the most powerful and the most feared cultivators of their generation. He nods a little shakily, “I won’t. I swear on my life, Wei-xiong, Lan-er-gongzi, never again.”

Lan WangJi nods at him, expressionless as ever, but Wei WuXian cracks a smile that seems almost genuine. “Good. We’ll see you tomorrow, Nie-gongzi. By the way, if Jiang Cheng asks at dinner, you have absolutely no idea where I am, but think you heard someone say that they saw me wander towards the back hills.”

When Nie Huaisang finally makes his way back to his room, he sits heavily at his desk, feeling exhaustion weighing on him. After a few minutes, he scrubs a  hand over his face, then resolutely picks up his brush and dips it in ink. He swallows as he stares down at the blank paper in front of him and starts hesitantly writing the letter that’s been haunting him since he woke up in his teenage body:

Da-Ge,

A matter of great urgency has arisen and I need you to come visit…

Chapter Text

The next evening finds Lan WangJi at the entrance of the Cloud Recesses, waiting for his brother who was due to return from Qinghe. None of his fellow disciples, observing his usual straight-back and expressionless face, would guess at the thrum of nervousness pulling through his veins, for which Lan WangJi is grateful. Nor do they notice how the hand behind his back clenches ever so slightly tighter when his brother appears at the gate, shooting him a small, slightly confused, but pleased smile.

“Xiongzhang,” he nods in greeting, as his brother approaches him.

“WangJi,” his brother smiles, “Were you waiting for me?”

He nods again seriously, then adds, “Mn. Wish to speak to you.”

“Oh? A matter of some importance?” Lan Xichen asks, one eyebrow raised questioningly. He must read the apprehension on Lan WangJi’s face for his smile dims slightly, “Would this be better discussed in the Hanshi, then?”

Lan WangJi hesitates for a moment then hums in agreement. His brother is home earlier than expected and he is unable to stop himself from casting a last glance behind Lan Xichen towards the entrance—though he knows Wei WuXian will most certainly be sneaking back in over the walls. His husband no longer has quite the free range over the Cloud Recesses that he did just a few days ago, and Lan WangJi is doing his best not to be bitter about it. It is irrational, he knows, but he had fought so hard to ensure that Wei WuXian always felt at home in the Cloud Recesses—one place he was not a pariah defined by his history, where he did not have to look over his shoulder, or worry about disappointing anyone or not being good enough. He wanted his husband to have the home he had always deserved, and had been pleased to see its effects in how Wei WuXian slowly relaxed, how the juniors and children flocked to him in wide-eyed adoration, how even the Elders had begun to view his constant chatter and the occasional explosion from his workshop with indulgence. For all that to vanish is… irritating.

His train of thought is broken when his brother shoots him a curious look, but simply shakes his head. Here is not the place, and it will be easier to explain things when Wei WuXian returns. His husband had zipped out of class the moment it ended to sneak down to Caiyi and acquire the materials he needs for his latest invention. He’d been up nearly all the previous night drawing up diagrams and talisman prototypes, and completely ignoring Lan WangJi’s attempts to get him to rest. Not that Lan WangJi had tried especially hard. He knew that little could deter Wei WuXian when he was in the middle of a project, and the best thing he could do to help was stay up with him and let Wei WuXian use him as a sounding board (“Lan Zhan, what do you think of this design? It’s too unwieldy right? I knew you’d agree. Do you think I should maybe etch–”).

The sun has begun to set; Wei WuXian was meant to be back by now, but Lan WangJi isn’t particularly worried by his continued absence. He knows how easily side-tracked his husband can get. He’ll be back soon. He had promised talk to Lan Xichen with him and his husband never breaks his promises.

He is consequently unsurprised when, a few minutes later, they are stalled on the path approaching the Hanshi by Wei WuXian’s breathless voice calling out from behind them. They turn to find Wei WuXian running full-tilt towards them with a bulky package hitched under one arm. “Lan Zhan! Lan Zhan! I’m sorry I’m late!” he gasps, stumbling to a halt in front of them, panting and beaming up at Lan WangJi from an attractively flushed face. Lan WangJi wants to kiss him. “No apologies,” Lan WangJi says automatically as Wei WuXian remembers himself and turns to bow to his brother, nearly toppling over from the weight of the package.

“Zewu-Jun.” Wei WuXian greets, smile still on his face, “Forgive my tardiness. This is one is Wei Ying, courtesy name WuXian, from the YunmengJiang Sect.”

His brother smiles politely, gaze flickering between the two of them. “Ah, it’s nice to meet you Wei-gongzi.”

Wei WuXian smiles beatifically at him before turning to Lan WangJi. “Oh! Lan Zhan, before I forget, here!”

From beside him, Lan Xichen’s indulgent expression morphs into one of shock as Wei WuXian tosses Lan WangJi’s jade token back to him with a smile. Lan WangJi ignores his brother’s wide-eyed gaze as he reattaches the token to his belt and shoots his errant husband a stern look. “Wei Ying. Go leave the materials in the Jingshi. We will wait for you.”

Out of the corner of his eyes, he sees his brother growing confusion at his familiar use of Wei WuXian’s given name, but he only asks, “We? Will Wei-gongzi be joining us?”

Lan WangJi exchanges a glance with Wei WuXian, who laughs nervously. “Ah, actually, Lan Zhan asked me to join you, if that’s alright?”

Lan Xichen looks at his brother in surprise, but Lan WangJi only calmly says, “Mn. Wei Ying should be there.”

Lan Xichen blinks. “Well then, of course you are welcome to join us, Wei-gongzi.”

Wei WuXian grins his thanks and excuses himself, before rushing off in the direction of the Jingshi. Lan WangJi sighs softly after him and turns back to his still stunned brother, who quickly tries to cover up his surprise with a smile. “Ah, WangJi, I am glad to see that you’re making friends. But, perhaps, you should not lend him your jade token so easily. You know that they are only meant to be carried by residents of the Lan Sect and those we hold in absolute trust.”

Lan WangJi feels his ears turn red at the light censure in his brother’s tone, but he only shakes his head and gestures for them to continue on to the Hanshi. “It is fine. Will explain when Wei Ying returns.”

Lan Xichen walks with him, but the shocked edge to his silence does nothing to put Lan WangJi at ease. His brother has never heard him disregard a rule before. That, and the implication that Lan WangJi does hold Wei WuXian in absolute trust after, apparently, only a couple of days, seems to have completely thrown him. By the time they have settled at the low table in the main room of the Hanshi with nothing but the tea between them and an awkward silence permeating the air, Lan WangJi is hoping rather desperately that Wei WuXian appears soon. This is not a conversation wants to have alone.

“WangJi,” his brother starts, noticing how on edge he is, “Is everything alright?”

Lan WangJi looks up his brother—still so young, and unmarred by war and soul-deep betrayal—and nods firmly. “Mn.”

“I am glad.” Lan Xichen says, before his smile adopts a teasing lilt, “You and Wei-gongzi seem quite close already.”

Lan WangJi cannot help the faint flush that rises to his ears at that. “Mn. Wei Ying and I… we are close.”

Lan Xichen’s smile falls away and his says rather faintly, “I see. But… it has only been a few days since you met, has it not? Are you sure, WangJi?”

Lan WangJi nods firmly. “I am sure, xiongzhang.”

Lan Xichen blinks at him and asks, hesitantly, “Is that what the two of you wish to discuss with me?”

“It is part of it. But not the most important matter.” Lan WangJi hesitates, “It may be difficult for you to believe what we have to tell you, xiongzhang, but I ask for your trust.”

“WangJi, of course!” Lan Xichen says immediately, “Of course I trust you!”

Lan WangJi nods gratefully, but anything further they might have said is interrupted by a knock on the door. Lan WangJi rises to slide it open and finds his husband standing on the other side looking decidedly nervous, but immediately smiling up at him. He lets his own face settle into something reassuring as he ushers Wei WuXian in and closes the door, pressing a silencing talisman to it as he does so.

Lan Xichen glances from the talisman on the door to the now solemn faces of the two seated in front of him, and immediately straightens. Whatever this is, it is serious. Even so, he cannot help but stare incredulously when Wei WuXian grabs his little brother’s hand in his own as though for reassurance, and Lan WangJi, instead of pulling away angrily as he would from anyone but Lan Xichen, squeezes his hand back and relaxes. Close indeed, Lan Xichen thinks, completely baffled by this uncharacteristic gesture from his reserved little brother. He shakes off his confusion and looks back up at his brother questioningly; there are more important matters to discuss, apparently. “What has occurred, WangJi?”

Lan WangJi takes a breath. There is really no easy way to explain this. “Xiongzhang, Wei Ying and I are not from here. We have travelled from the future.”

What?

“It is true.”

“Time travel is impossible,” Lan Xichen says firmly, but doesn’t miss the way Wei WuXian seems to twitch beside his brother.

“Uh, well, it’s not really time travel per se,” Wei WuXian says sheepishly, “More of a soul transmigration. Our older souls moved through time to occupy our younger bodies, basically, and have no way of returning.” Lan WangJi nods from beside him, though his hand clenches in his robes involuntarily.

Lan Xichen looks between them incredulously. Such a thing sounds completely impossible, and Lan Xichen is not inclined to believe them. But he has promised his brother trust and his brother cannot, would not, lie to him, so he takes a breath, pushes aside his scepticism for a moment, and then looks at the two in front of him. Really looks. He has not met Wei WuXian before this, but the boy in front of him hardly meets the descriptions he has heard of an unruly troublemaker. There is a haunted air about the boy that does not befit someone so young, and the way he eyes Lan Xichen with nervous hope and familiarity, and the way he holds Lan WangJi’s hand without a thought (as though he completely expects the gesture to be reciprocated; as though touching Lan WangJi with casual fondness is routine) throws him. So instead, Lan Xichen looks at his brother—because he knows his brother—but what he sees on that familiar face suddenly makes him doubt that. The brother he knew a week ago was a shy, repressed teenager, too confined by the rules set forth by their uncle and the clan; a boy who felt deeply, but could never show it—not since those snowy days all those years ago when he had stubbornly knelt before a door that would never open for him again. But this boy in front of him, looking at him with such pleading resolve, is not that brother. He sits straight-backed as always, but there is an air of assurance about him that was not there before—a quiet confidence in his bearing that speaks of years of patience and experience. And his eyes… they are no longer the eyes of naïve teenager. Those eyes have seen things Lan Xichen cannot imagine; they carry a heavy weight—a strange mix of grief and contentment, of determination and resignation, of loss and hope. No, those are not eyes he knows, and something in his chest aches at the thought. Sometime in the last week, his little brother has grown up, and Lan Xichen has missed it.

Lan Xichen closes his eyes again, pained and still slightly disbelieving, and lets out a shuddering breath before he looks at them again. “How?”

He sees the hope and relief that lights up their eyes, and Lan WangJi gives him a small, grateful smile. “An array. We were on a nighthunt and were caught in the array. And then we were here, two nights ago.”

Lan Xichen frowns, “Caught?”

Lan WangJi nods, “It was a trap, meant to send us back. We did not intend for this to happen.”

“A trap? Do you know who did this? And why?” Lan Xichen asks, alarmed.

“Yes.” Lan WangJi exchanges a hesitant look with Wei WuXian, who nods and takes over. “It’s a long story Zewu-Jun,” he says, “And not much of it is pleasant. There were two others who came back with us, one of whom was behind the array.”

“Two others? Who are they?”

“Nie Huaisang and Wen Ning, Wen Qionglin. Nie Huaisang was the one who activated the array.”

One of those names is unfamiliar to him, but, “Nie Huaisang was behind this? He created a soul transfer array?” Lan Xichen asks incredulously.

“Oh, ah, no. That was me, actually, though I didn’t remember it. Nie Huaisang found it among some of my old notes.”

Lan Xichen blinks at him. “You created a soul transferring array and do not remember it?”

Wei WuXian winces. “Yeah, it’s… it’s complicated.”

Lan Xichen just stares at him. Wei WuXian swallows, “There were circumstances that… that made things hazy in my memory. It’s one of the things we want to prevent from happening this time. This is a second chance for us to change what happened–will happen. And we need your help.”

Lan Xichen looks at them worriedly. “Change the future. You had said things were unpleasant?”

Lan WangJi nods, “There was a war with the Wen clan.”

Lan Xichen pales. There have been signs of brewing conflict recently and, as a budding Sect Leader, he has feared the worst, but to hear such a thing confirmed is unsettling. “I see. When?”

“Soon.” Wei WuXian says, “Wen Ruohan is currently annexing smaller sects, and coercing the ones in his power to do his bidding. At the discussion conference in Qishan next year, the Wen clan will be humiliated in their archery tournament. Soon after, Wen Ruohan will demand that all the sects send their heirs and top disciples to the Wen clan for indoctrination, to teach us proper cultivation apparently. But it was just an excuse to hold power over the sects. Wen Chao confiscated our swords and used us as live bait on their nighthunts.”

Seeing Lan Xichen’s shocked but confused expression, Lan WangJi softly clarifies, “The Lan clan refused the indoctrination at first, and the Wen clan sent Wen Xu to burn the Cloud Recesses down. Uncle and Father were injured and… Father did not survive. Xiongzhang escaped with our sacred texts. I do not know where you hid those months. The remaining disciples and I were forced to attend the indoctrination.”

“After they broke your leg.” Wei WuXian spat.

“Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi says reprimandingly, seeing the horror and pain crossing his brother’s face. “I was fine, xiongzhang.”

Lan Xichen nods, though the pain does not fade, “Continue, please.”

Lan WangJi nods, “We eventually escaped from Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu. But Wei Ying had offended Wen Chao, and they used it as an excuse to burn down Lotus Pier. Of the Jiang clan, only Wei Ying, Jiang WanYin, and Jiang-guniang survived.”

“Wen Zhuliu,” Lan Xichen whispers shakily, “The Core-Melting Hand? They used him to destroy the entire Jiang Sect?”

Lan WangJi nods, but Wei WuXian only stares at his lap in silence, eyes burning. Lan WangJi wraps an arm around his waist and pulls him closer comfortingly before continuing. “They attacked the Nie clan as well after that, but Sect Leader Nie stood against them. The Four Great Sects banded together with many smaller sects and started the Sunshot Campaign against the Wen clan. We won the war, eventually, but much was lost in the process. Too much.”

Lan Xichen nods slowly, though his jaw is clenched tight. “Is that when you returned here?”

Lan WangJi shakes his head. “No. Many years after that. Twenty-six years from now.”

“Twenty-six years!” Lan Xichen exclaims, startled out of his horror. “WangJi, you were over forty?”

Lan WangJi’s lips twitch faintly. “Mn.”

Lan Xichen blinks. Wei WuXian finally raises his head, his eyes clearer now, and grins mischievously at Lan WangJi, tugging at his sleeve. “Lan Zhan, your brother thinks you’re old. You should tell him about all the definitely not old stuff you got up to. For his peace of mind, Lan Zhan!”

Lan WangJi turns to look exasperatedly at him, ears flushing, but his eyes softer than Lan Xichen has ever seen them. The two stare at each other, falling into a silent conversation for several moments that Lan Xichen, for all that he prides himself on being able to read his brother, cannot even begin to understand.

He clears his throat, and cannot help his small twinge of amusement when they both startle as though they had forgotten he was there. “In the future, are the two of you…?” he asks hesitantly, gesturing to the arm that Lan WangJi still has wrapped around Wei WuXian’s waist.

Lan WangJi nods, and smiles softly, “Husbands.”

“I see…” Lan Xichen says, simultaneously unsurprised and absolutely stunned, “Well, that certainly explains a lot.”

Lan WangJi’s ears redden but Wei WuXian just grins at him brightly. “Sorry, but you can’t blame me! Just look at him! Lan Zhan is so perfect, what was I supposed to do?”

Lan Xichen laughs lightly, “Did you get engaged at the Cloud Recesses in your timeline, as well?”

Wei WuXian snorts. “No. Not at all. Though we definitely fell in love then. We got together about… um, almost twenty years from now, I think?”

“Seventeen years.” Lan WangJi corrects.

Lan Xichen looks between them, slightly appalled. “It took you seventeen years? But…”

“There were reasons.” Lan WangJi says quietly, breaking eye contact to look down at his lap, where his hand clenches tightly. Wei WuXian instantly forgets Lan Xichen’s presence, placing a comforting hand over his husband’s and making soft soothing noises at him that have Lan Xichen raising his eyebrows in shock. What happened to make his brother look so haunted even now? Why does Wei WuXian keep softly repeating that he is here and his brother is okay?

There is a lot of the story that Lan Xichen is still missing, he knows. But for now, he is glad to see that his brother has found someone who reads him so well and cares for him as deeply as Wei WuXian seems to. He smiles gently at them as his brother’s shoulders begin to relax again and says, “I am pleased for you, WangJi. You and Wei-gongzi seem happy together. I look forward to welcoming him into the clan when you marry this time.”

He smiles when they look at him in mingled surprise and relief, though they quickly school their expressions. Wei WuXian smiles teasingly at him. “Does that mean I can call you Xichen-ge again?”

Lan Xichen smile broadens just a little, “Of course. As long as I may call you WuXian, since you are to be my little brother, too.”

Surprisingly, Wei WuXian blushes from beside his brother, who smiles appreciatively at him. “Uh, y-yes,” Wei WuXian stutters, “I would like that, Xichen-ge.”

“Then I shall, Wuxian. You are family now, after all.” He says firmly, and watches Wei WuXian flush further and oh, the boy is really quite adorable. He understands fully when his brother pulls his husband (his husband) closer and places a soft kiss on his temple. Lan Xichen has never seen his brother so easy with his affection, so comfortable smiling, as he has been in the last hour, and yes, he is very very pleased to include Wei WuXian in his family.

Wei WuXian melts into Lan WangJi’s side, his blush now extending to the roots of his hair. But a minute later, his pleased smile fades; he clears his throat and visibly gathers himself, straightening in Lan WangJi’s hold and shooting him a meaningful look before turning back to Lan Xichen. “Before you accept me as one of your family, there are things you need to know, Xichen-ge. And I kind of need you to maybe keep an open mind and not freak out until I explain.”

Lan Xichen’s smile falls away and he nods seriously. “Yes, there is a lot more you have to tell me, isn’t there?”

Wei WuXian takes a deep breath and says, “The first thing you might want to know is that, well, I’m a demonic cultivator.”

What?

“It was not Wei Ying’s choice,” Lan WangJi defends immediately, “His control of resentful energy won us the war.”

Lan Xichen looks between them with a frown. “Please explain. I promise to hear you out.”

Wei WuXian nods gratefully. “After the fall of Lotus Pier, I lost my golden core.” He sees Lan Xichen’s eyes widen in horror and chooses to stare down at his lap instead. He will never like telling this story, no matter how much time has passed since it happened, “Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu caught me in Yiling and threw me into the Burial Mounds to die.”

Lan Xichen lets out a small gasp. Every cultivator knows about the horrors of the Burial Mounds. No one, however powerful, who has entered that cursed area has ever emerged again. To be thrown in without power… Lan Xichen cannot imagine it. Lan WangJi’s thumb rubs soothingly up and down Wei WuXian’s side from where his arm is wrapped around him, radiating comfort and reassurance as his husband recalls some of his worst memories. Wei WuXian leans into him gratefully, keeping his voice as even as possible, “I had to learn how to control the resentful energy to survive. I escaped three months later and hunted down Wen Chao and Wen Zhuliu. Jiang Cheng and I killed them and I joined the war, using talismans and raising the dead on the battlefield to defeat the Wens.”

Lan Xichen looks at the young boy with old eyes in front of him and worries, knowing his simple words hide far more pain that he seems willing to reveal. To have survived the Burial Mounds at all is a miracle. To have invented and mastered a brand new cultivation method in the process? His new brother is remarkable. He looks at them thoughtfully, but knows the story is still very much incomplete. “And after the war?” he asks, “What did you do? Was that why the two of you were not together?”

Wei WuXian laughs a little bitterly, “You could say that, I suppose.”

Lan WangJi stiffens beside him, and Wei WuXian looks up at his pained expression and grimaces apologetically, “Sorry, Lan Zhan. I didn’t mean it that way. Just… everything that happened after.”

“Mn.” Lan WangJi says softly, before turning to his brother, who looks at them with a furrowed brow. “Wei Ying was celebrated during the war. But after it ended, the cultivation world turned their backs on him. They feared his power, and desired it.”

“No one knew I didn’t have my golden core anymore.” Wei WuXian adds quietly. “The Jiang clan was still recovering, and Jiang Cheng’s position among the cultivation sects was still weak. Everyone was already questioning my sanity and my right to hold onto the spiritual tools I had created to help me control the resentful energy. If they knew I didn’t have a core, they would have used it to put pressure on the Jiang Sect.”

Lan Xichen winces but nods in understanding. He knows the politics of the cultivation world all too well, and how eagerly the sects would have hounded a seemingly weak sect for such power. He wonders what role the Lan clan might have played in this, but knows it could not have been good, not when demonic cultivation goes against everything they stand for. “What did you do?” he asks, looking at Wei WuXian curiously.

But it is Lan WangJi who answers. “After the war, the cultivation world turned against the Wens. The Jin clan took responsibility for rounding up the remaining Wen clan forces. But they also took the innocents—the civilians, the healers, the farmers, the children, and the elderly—and imprisoned them in labour camps. Many had nothing to do with the war, or had no choice but to obey Wen Ruohan.”

Lan Xichen looks horrified. “And what of the other sects? Did they condone this?”

Wei WuXian’s voice is bitter when he replies, “No one cared. They were Wens; they weren’t even considered human. The cultivation world had decided that all those who bore the Wen surname were evil, and that was that. No one cared to check what happened to them. We had won the war, so what did we care what happened to those who lost? To the innocents who were helpless under Wen Ruohan?”

“But surely the Lan clan did not–” Lan Xichen protests, only to stop short when his brother shakes his head sorrowfully and says, “The Lan clan agreed to allow the Jin clan to take care of the prisoners. After the Cloud Recesses was burned, there was no sympathy left for the Wens.”

Lan Xichen breathes in shakily, guilt and horror gnawing at his bones. What had he done? Could the sects truly have been so callous to the fates of so many? “What happened to them?”

Wei WuXian sighs. “A few months after the war ended, Wen Qing found me. Her brother, Wen Ning, and her clan of healers had been taken away by the Jin clan to one of the labour camps. She begged for my help. I–I owed Wen Qing and Wen Ning a great deal. A life debt and more. After the fall of Lotus Pier, Wen Ning rescued Jiang Cheng and I and took us to his sister. Jiang Cheng was… was injured. They hid us and cared for us until we recovered. They risked everything to help the remnants of an opposing clan that was already gone. When Wen Qing approached me, there was no question about helping her. I interrupted the Discussion Conference at Koi Tower and demanded to know where Wen Ning had been taken. But by the time I found out and Wen Qing and I got there, Wen Ning was already…” He breaks off, his voice shaking.

Lan Xichen listens in silent dismay, feeling increasingly nauseated as Wei WuXian tells him about what he found at the labour camp, about the atrocities the Jin clan had committed, about bringing Wen Ning back as a fierce corpse and how he took revenge on those that killed him; how Wei WuXian took the refugees and vanished into the Burial Mounds, how they lived there while the cultivation world slandered them, and how he left the Jiang Sect; how Lan WangJi came to visit and they brought Wen Ning’s consciousness back. Lan Xichen listens in stupefied amazement; such a thing should be impossible, though he has a strong feeling that that word has very little meaning when it comes to his brother-in-law. But amazement is quickly replaced by dread as Wei WuXian’s voice fails him, and Lan WangJi takes over, quietly relating how Wei WuXian had been invited to his nephew’s one month celebration, only to be ambushed along the way. Wei WuXian’s arms wrap protectively around himself as Lan WangJi quickly and expressionlessly explains the death of Jin ZiXuan, the demand and sacrifice of the Wen siblings, the pledge conference at Nightless City and then, softly, the death of Jiang YanLi and everything that followed.

“You died?” He whispers, looking between him and his brother, both of who look away.

“For about thirteen years,” Wei WuXian says, his lips twisting, “I was summoned back against my will by one of Jin Guangshan’s illegitimate sons to get revenge on his family.” He shrugs and tries to make his voice lighter, “We got together after that, really, when I finally stopped being stupid and realised how much Lan Zhan loved me.”

“WuXian…” He says, at a loss for words. For one person to have suffered so much, for both of them to have suffered so much… Lan Xichen feels sick.

But Wei WuXian flinches back, “Would you still call me that, knowing what I’ve done?”

Lan Xichen blinks at him, appalled, even as his brother calls his husband’s name reproachfully. His throat feels tight as he looks at Wei WuXian’s downcast face and shaking hands, this man in a boy’s body, so tortured and troubled by a world that spiralled out of his control and made him pay the price, and feels a sudden angry surge of protectiveness for him. He takes a moment to school his expression to be reassuring before saying gently, “Of course. If anything, I am honoured to be able to call you so.”

His smile strains slightly as Wei WuXian’s eyes snap up to meet his, wide and startled. Lan Xichen feels completely undeserving of the affection and hope in those eyes. “For what it’s worth,” he says quietly, sorrowfully, “I’m sorry for the role I played in what happened to you. For killing all those innocents, for your family. For the injustices my clan and I perpetrated and condoned. You deserved better. Both of you.”

Wei WuXian quickly looks down, but Lan Xichen still sees the way his eyes flood with tears. He wonders if he ever apologised to him in that future, if anyone did. He doesn’t think he wants to know the answer. Lan WangJi pulls his husband in, letting him shield his face against his shoulder before he looks up at his brother. The two of them look at each other for some time, understanding passing between them, before Lan WangJi nods and smiles slightly. “Not all the Wens perished, xiongzhang.”

A choked laugh escapes Wei WuXian, who looks up sans tears at his startled face, his eyes full of soft warmth. “I told you, Xichen-ge. Lan Zhan is perfect.”

Lan Xichen looks at his brother hopefully. Lan WangJi’s face is impassive as ever, but his eyes are gentle, “Before the Siege, Wei Ying hid A-Yuan. I found him after and brought him back. Adopted him. Lan Yuan, Lan Sizhui. Our son.”

“WangJi!” Lan Xichen gasps, somewhat disbelievingly, “You’re a father?”

Lan WangJi nods, a smile pulling at the corner of his mouth, “Xiongzhang helped me raise him. Made him a member of the clan. My heir.”

Lan Xichen cannot help the wave of relief that washes over him at that. At least in this one thing, he did not fail his brother. He sees the pure adoration with which Wei WuXian looks at his little brother and smiles delightedly at them. “I am glad. WangJi, WuXian, I am so glad.” He reaches out to hold his brother’s hand, and is thrilled when his brother does not hesitate to return his grip.

After a quiet moment, he draws back. “Whatever plans you may have to change this future, you have my support. Unconditionally.” He looks at them both seriously, determinedly, “This time, I will stand by my brothers, no matter what. As will the Lan Sect.”

Their eyes light up as they look back him, nodding seriously in adorable tandem. As they tell him of their plans, he cannot help the small, sly smile that spreads over his face. Lan Xichen, heir to the most righteous of the sects, has always had to be cautious in his position, thoughtful and wary before he takes any step. But not openly showcasing his considerable power does not mean he does not possess it. He has only ever required a reason to do so. And here, sitting in front of him, are the two perfect, important reasons. For his two brothers, he will do anything—he will take all his dormant, smiling authority and place it firmly at their backs. His brothers will be safe this time. They will be happy. Lan Xichen will make sure of it.

 

*

 

“Lan Zhaaaan,” Wei WuXian whines much later, stretching his arms above his head as they make their way back to the Jingshi in the cool night air, “Your brother is just like you sometimes. So kind, but so stubborn.”

“Xiongzhang is right, Wei Ying,” his husband says calmly.

“Is he really going to speak to your uncle alone?” Wei WuXian asks, feeling nervous just at the thought of facing Lan Qiren’s reaction. “Will he be okay?”

“He is capable. Uncle will listen.”

“I still can’t believe he just accepted it all like that. Accepted me, demonic cultivation and all,” Wei WuXian says, skipping his way up the stairs to the Jingshi and pulling open the door. Lan WangJi hums as he enters their home behind him, patently unsurprised, and Wei WuXian smiles. “You know, we’re eventually going to have to talk to Jiang Cheng and it’s definitely not going to go that smoothly. Soon, too, since I can’t keep sneaking back to the guest disciple quarters before everyone wakes up and pretending I was there all night. Jiang Cheng is already suspicious since I keep vanishing.”

Lan WangJi makes a small noise of disgruntlement as he lays out the dinner they snuck out from the kitchens on their way back. He looks up at Wei WuXian, who has already begun pulling apart the package he had brought back from Caiyi. “Did you find what you needed?”

Wei WuXian grins at him, turning the package around and letting the candlelight reflect the dull glint of iron from within. His eyes are already shining. “Set up some strong wards after dinner, Lan Zhan. I no longer have my workshop, and it’ll be a shame if I accidentally blow up the Jingshi.”

“Mn,” says Lan WangJi, thoroughly unconcerned as he draws his excitable husband to the table to eat. He kisses him softly before handing him a pair of chopsticks. “Will do my best, Wei Ying.”

Chapter Text

Wei WuXian is very pleased with himself. Despite the disgustingly early hour, he hums happily to himself as he makes his way back to the guest disciple quarters, his newest invention tucked into his sleeve. Lan WangJi, who had stubbornly insisted on staying up and helping him work, had smiled that special soft smile at him as he nearly bounced out of skin in excitement, and had sent him off with a kiss and a quiet, “I am proud of Wei Ying,” that has him blushing and smiling all the way back. Years ago, when they had first married, Wei WuXian had wondered if, maybe one day, he would grow used to his husband; if, one day, he would be able to see Lan Zhan smile and his heart would not immediately attempt to leap out of his chest. But then his husband gives him those soft glowing looks, and says mushy and ridiculous things like I am proud of Wei Ying, and Wei WuXian feels his heart light up in his chest, and knows that he will always be a lost cause when it comes to his Lan Zhan. Not that he minds. Not at all.

He skips his way into his room, grinning, and quickly readies himself for the day as the bell tolls mao shi. His grin widens when he hears a faint groan through the wall as Jiang Cheng reluctantly gets out of bed. He leaves quietly, sneaking his way down the corridor until he gets to Nie Huaisang’s room, and knocks once before unceremoniously letting himself in, not waiting for permission to enter. Across the room, still sitting on the side of his bed, Nie Huaisang looks at him, startled, before exasperation slowly melts over his features.

“Nie-gongzi! You’re up! Good. I have a present for you!”

“Wei-xiong,” Nie Huaisang says tiredly, “It’s barely mao shi. Can’t this wait at least until I’m dressed?”

“Nope!” Wei WuXian says, grinning wide and delighted. “Don’t look that way, Nie-gongzi! Didn’t I just say it’s a present for you? You should be excited!”

Nie Huaisang sighs, but the upward twitch of his lips gives him away. “Wei-xiong, the last time you had a present for me, I got stuck with three new disciples under the age of ten.” He leaves out the part that those new disciples had shown excellent potential in the saber and had quickly wormed their excited way into the hearts of all his Sect members, himself included. He moves to sit at the low table across from the now pouting Wei WuXian and grins. “Okay, okay, Wei-xiong, I promise I’m excited! What is it?”

Wei WuXian, fully aware that the three orphans he had found in Qinghe had thrived under Nie Huaisang’s eagle eye and were beloved by the sect, still took a moment to grumble on their behalf before his excitement overtook him again. He reached into his sleeve, pulling out an intricately carved piece of iron.

“Wei-xiong, is that–?”

“A seal!” Wei WuXian nods, grinning triumphantly, “A spiritual one to be exact. It should allow you to store your spiritual energy to draw upon later.”

Nie Huaisang gapes at him, his eyes flickering between Wei WuXian’s beaming countenance and the seal being pushed across the table towards him. “But that’s impossible! Something like that… the whole cultivation world would lose their minds! Wei-xiong–”

Wei WuXian waves a hand at him impatiently, “Nevermind that right now, try it! Go on! Just push a little bit of your spiritual energy into it. Come on, Nie-gongzi!”

Nie Huaisang opens his mouth then closes it. Wei WuXian… he really is insane. To be able to wield such a tool… it could make a cultivator invincible. With enough energy stored, even a cultivator with a weak core like him could become powerful. And Wei WuXian is just… handing it to him to use. Wordlessly, he takes hold of the seal Wei WuXian is pushing into his hands and sends a small spark of his spiritual energy into it. The seal glows faintly for a moment—the same olive green as his spiritual energy—as it absorbs the spiritual energy and then settles down, fading back into an unassuming piece of welded iron.

When he looks up, Wei WuXian’s grin has grown impossibly brighter, “Well, go on! Try to draw it back! See how it feels!”

He takes a deep breath and closes his eyes, carefully seeking out his energy within the seal. Immediately, he feels that same spark flow calmly back through his meridians, with the same ease as drawing from his own core. With a gasp, his eyes spring open and he stares in disbelief at the seal in his hands. “How?

Wei WuXian beams. “Remember the Stygian Tiger Seal? If it’s possible for something to absorb resentful energy that can be utilised later, why not do the same with spiritual energy? Obviously we can’t steep this in yang energy for a few hundred years to test how it would work naturally, but if you take the basic principles behind the creation of any spiritual tool by drawing from the core of the wielder, but then add a barrier for storage, it could work. And see here? I’ve inverted the sigils to allow for the energy to be drawn back again. It should work in the same way that you would draw from your own core. You just pull it back through your meridians and–” He looks up at Nie Huaisang’s bewildered appearance and breaks off with a laugh. “Nevermind, that’s not important! Just send another trail of your spiritual energy into it and give it back. Come on, this is the best part!”

Nie Huaisang continues to gape at him for a moment before complying. As the glow of the seal settles back down, he passes it back into Wei WuXian’s grasping hands and watches as his friend bites into his finger to draw blood and immediately starts drawing a complex talisman over the seal. For a moment, a soft hum emanates from the seal as he activates the talisman, and the light of his spiritual energy within it becomes almost blinding, before everything fades away. He blinks, trying to clear the spots from his vision as Wei WuXian continues to beam down at the seal in his hand. He watches in confusion as Wei WuXian sends a small spark of his own red spiritual energy into the seal, only to see it bounce back and sting the tips of his fingers. Wei WuXian lets out a small yelp and then laughs brightly, loud and long, as he tosses the seal back to Nie Huaisang. “There we go,” he says, his grin nearly splitting his face, “Now it should only respond to your spiritual energy. To everyone else, it’s just a pretty hunk of iron.”

Nie Huaisang nearly drops the seal. “What?

But Wei WuXian is already bouncing to his feet. “An advantage of using spiritual energy instead of resentful energy is that it can recognise a master. Congratulations! It’s your own personal spiritual tool. Make sure you feed it as much spiritual energy as you possibly can over the next couple of days till your brother comes, okay?” He makes his way to the door before Nie Huaisang can speak and pauses, looking back at him over his shoulder, his eyes glinting, “I should warn you though, there’s also a preventive built in. It can also recognise one other cultivator, solely to stop the flow of spiritual energy. No offence, Nie-gongzi, but I’m not about to hand anyone a bottomless store of spiritual energy. We can discuss who that person should be after you conduct Empathy with your brother.” Seeing Nie Huaisang pale even as he continues to sit frozen, Wei WuXian’s grin widens, “It is what you wanted, right?”

“I—Wei-xiong!”

Wei WuXian pays him no mind, dancing out of the room and closing the door on Nie Huaisang’s baffled and slightly frightened expression with a laugh. He turns towards the exit, still beaming, only to come to an abrupt halt. A few feet in front of him, Jin ZiXuan has paused on his way out and is looking back at him, his expression a mixture of curiosity and a deep desire not to look curious at all. Wei WuXian freezes, his delight melting away. He doesn’t know what his face is doing, but whatever Jin ZiXuan sees makes him frown and turn fully towards him, obviously getting ready to say something. Before he can speak, however, Wei WuXianquickly gathers himself, schooling his expression to be as neutral as possible as he bows—perhaps a little deeper than necessary—and mumbles, “Jin-gongzi.”

Jin ZiXuan looks at him in confusion, obviously unused to Wei WuXian looking or speaking to him with anything but derision. But before he can react in any way, Wei WuXian hurries past him, making a beeline for the exit. Outside, he pauses for a moment in the cool morning air, jaw clenched as he tries to decide where to go. He’s been making a very concerted effort not to run into Jin ZiXuan over the last few days. He is not ready to face that particular ghost yet, though he supposes it’s a moot point now. He swallows and shakes himself lightly, pushing down his instinct to find Lan Zhan and burrow into his arms for comfort. Instead, he makes his way quickly to the dining hall and focuses on quietly bemoaning the appallingly bland food he will find there. He desperately misses his husband’s cooking.

He finds Jiang Cheng already there, grumpily eating his tasteless congee, still half asleep. He amuses himself by annoying his brother into full wakefulness, shooting small covert, but loving smiles at his husband—who sits primly next to his brother at the head table with slowly pinkening ears—and resolutely ignoring Nie Huaisang, who arrives a few minutes before the meal ends and spends most of it trying to furtively catch his eye.

 

*

 

By the time their class ends that afternoon, Wei WuXian has run out of ways to politely expend all the energy still flowing through his veins. The thrill of his successful invention mixed with his sleepless night and being forced to sit moderately still for the last few hours has lent a slightly manic quality to the restlessness that pulses through him. Jiang Cheng huffs from beside him as he fidgets for the third time in as many minutes and punches him in the arm, “What’s wrong with you now?”

“Nothing, nothing,” he says hurriedly, even as he shifts from foot to foot, “Just need to move. You know I’m not good at sitting in one place for so long.”

Lan Zhan walks over to stand beside him—obviously aware of his agitation—but refrains from reaching out as he normally would. “Fly,” he says quietly, looking down meaningfully at where Suibian is strapped to Wei WuXian’s belt.

Wei WuXian looks up at him, startled, “But I ca–”

He breaks off as Lan WangJi smiles, invisible to anyone except him, because oh, oh, yes he can. His core is strong again. He can fly on Suibian. He grins, wide and bright, “Oh, Lan Zhan, let’s race!”

From beside him, Jiang Cheng looks wide-eyed between him and the Second Jade, “What are you saying, idiot? You can’t just race inside the Cloud Recesses, it’s not allowed!”

Wei WuXian pouts at him, but Lan WangJi calmly says, “Back mountains.”

Jiang Cheng startles, “What? But–”

Wei WuXian laughs delightedly, “It’s not technically in the Cloud Recesses! Lan Zhan, you’re so smart. Are you sure?”

“Mn. Will speak to xiongzhang. Should not be a problem. Provisions made for guest disciples. Good for inter-sect relations.”

“Lan Zhan! You’re so sneaky!” Wei WuXian laughs as Jiang Cheng stares at Lan WangJi in shock, tinged with something very much akin to slowly growing respect.

“Wei-xiong! What’s this I hear? You’re planning on racing in the back mountains?” Nie Huaisang calls, his voice deliberately loud enough to catch the attention of surrounding disciples as he runs up to them, “Can I join? I’ll be the referee!”

“Yeah! Lan Zhan said it was fine.” Wei WuXian responds, grinning as murmurs break out amongst their fellow students. Even Jin ZiXuan looks intrigued. Wei WuXian deliberately doesn’t let his smile falter—he will need to get used to Jin ZiXuan’s presence. It is not the gold-clad boy’s fault that Wei WuXian has trouble meeting his eye.

It isn’t long before they’re making their way to the back mountains, a relatively large group of disciples trailing after them, eager to test their skills against each other. Wei WuXian smirks as Nie Huaisang pulls Lan WangJi into a murmured conversation, having obviously given up on talking to Wei WuXian directly. An elbow digs into his side and he turns to face a frowning Jiang Cheng, who looks meaningfully between him and Lan WangJi and quietly demands, “When did you get so close to Lan WangJi? You’re even calling each other by your given names.”

He shoots his brother a sheepish look. “You could say I harassed him into it?” Technically, he's not lying.

Jiang Cheng snorts, “Of course you did. Still doesn’t explain why he’s letting you do this.”

Wei WuXian shrugs, “Lan Zhan isn’t as rigid as the rumours say. He’s actually really kind. Don’t let that stoic face fool you, Jiang Cheng, he actually loves the idea of flying.”

Jiang Cheng looks at him disbelievingly, but says nothing. Wei WuXian smiles slightly before turning to chat with his fellow Jiang Clan disciples. He’s missed them, too. They come to a halt a few minutes later at the edge of a long meadow, kept invisible from any prying eyes in the Cloud Recesses by the forest that edges it.

Jiang Cheng grins widely and immediately starts organising the gathered disciples into groups to race. “Alright, across the meadow, loop around the border trees and back. Six to a group and everyone else can judge. Nie Huaisang has the final ruling. Top two from each group will make the final six. Alright?”

He’s greeted with nods and murmurs of assent as everyone starts breaking themselves into groups. Wei WuXian grins, seeing the echo of the authoritative Jiang Sect Leader his brother is well on his way to becoming. He sidles over to Lan WangJi and grins up at him, “Separate groups now and then I beat you in the final?”

Lan WangJi’s next exhale is slightly more forceful, which on anyone else would be a snort. “Wei Ying is very optimistic.”

“Lan Zhan!” Wei WuXian gasps, rearing back in mock offence, “Are you sassing me? Isn’t that forbidden in the Cloud Recesses?”

Lan WangJi looks pointedly around at where they are very clearly not in the Cloud Recesses, but only says, “I was merely commenting on Wei Ying’s personality. It is good to believe in victory in competition, whatever the odds.”

“Whatever the odds!?” Wei WuXian screeches, clutching at his heart, “Lan Zhan, how rude! Just you wait, I’m going to leave you in my dust!”

Around them, their fellow disciples fall silent, watching the two bicker back and forth in amazement. The assembled GusuLan disciples eye them with awe as the talkative Jiang disciple manages to breech the walls of ice around their Second Jade as if they simply do not exist, and also apparently read tone and implication what sounds like completely impassive words. A couple cannot help the bitter envy that arises in them, remembering their own failed attempts to make up to the emotionless Lan WangJi, only to be rebuffed. Eventually, as the first group gets ready to race, Jiang WanYin storms over to retrieve his errant shixiong, shoving him towards the assembled racers with an order to “Stop playing around and go race, since this is all your fault!”

Wei WuXian grins at him before drawing Suibian, nearly tearing up at the ease with which he can unsheathe it and the brightness of its sword glare. He steps on to the blade almost cautiously, hovering up and down a few inches as he gets used to the feeling of flying on his own all over again. He aims a radiant grin at Lan WangJi, who watches him fondly from the side, as Nie Huaisang begins counting down, and lets his body relax into the familiar stance as muscle memory takes over.

“Go!” shouts Nie Huaisang, and Wei WuXian shoots forward, wind whipping through his robes. He lets out a shout of joy, pouring more and more spiritual energy into the sword below him, forgetting everything but the feel of the sword beneath his feet, holding him up, carrying him forward, all on his own, his Suibian. He loops around the treeline at a possibly dangerous speed, and closes his eyes as he focuses on the home stretch.

All too soon, it’s over. He hears Nie Huaisang exclaim something as he crosses their finish line, and Jiang Cheng’s “Holy shit, Wei WuXian!” But he only has eyes for his husband as he leaps down from his sword in front of him, robes and hair a mess, his face flushed with adrenaline. “Lan Zhan, did you see that?”

“Mn,” says Lan WangJi, his eyes full of pleased affection. Behind him, a Nie sect disciple crosses the finish line—just a few seconds behind Wei WuXian—but neither Wei WuXian nor Lan WangJi spare him a glance.

Wei WuXian grins widely, “Lan Zhan, don’t lose in the next round. I definitely want to race you later.”

One of Lan WangJi’s eyebrows twitches just the tiniest bit upward as he stares down his incorrigible, attractive husband. “I will not. Now or later.”

He walks away, stepping calmly on to Bichen as he lines up alongside the next round of disciples, and Wei WuXian has to bite his lip to prevent himself from jumping his husband then and there. He finally breaks his gaze to look around, and catches sight of a GusuLan disciple who seems to be glaring at him rather intensely. The disciple looks away as soon as Wei WuXian catches his eye, but Wei WuXian continues to frown at him. There is something familiar about the boy, but he cannot put his finger on it. But then again, he’s had that feeling so many times over the last few days. He shrugs it off and makes his way to Nie Huaisang’s side, smirking as he catches him placing bets with his fellow disciples.

“I’ll put my money on Lan Zhan for the next round,” he says, swinging an arm around Nie Huaisang.

Nie Huaisang snorts at him, “Good luck finding anyone to take that bet, Wei-xiong. Everyone knows Lan-er-gongzi will win.”

“For now,” he says, staring at the broad, white-robed back of his husband as he bends forward slightly before shooting off.

“Wei-xiong, please,” Nie Huaisang sighs, long suffering, “Stop looking at him like that. There are children present.”

“Absolutely not,” Wei WuXian replies absentmindedly as his eyes track the white-robed streak racing across the meadow, “Nie-gongzi, do you have any idea how well he ri–”

He’s interrupted by a low moan and a hand slapping across his mouth. He finally breaks his gaze to look down at Nie Huaisang, eyes shining with amusement.

Please,” Nie Huaisang begs, “Stop talking.”

“What’s he doing now?” Jiang Cheng interrupts, eyebrows raised as he comes up to them. “Wei WuXian, since when have you been able to fly like that?”

“Always, I guess,” Wei WuXian responds distractedly, attention already recaptured by the white-robed figure of Lan WangJi making its way to the finish line, easily ahead of his group. “God. Fuck. I am going to beat him.”

Jiang Cheng eyes follow after his brother as he bounces up to where Lan WangJi has crossed the finish line, and is stepping down calmly from his sword, not a hair out of place. He snorts, “That idiot is going to end up annoying Lan WangJi to death.”

“I wouldn’t get my hopes up, Jiang-xiong,” Nie Huaisang comments from beside him, almost despairingly.

By the time he’s gathered at the final line-up next to his husband, Wei WuXian is almost vibrating out of his skin. On his other side, a smug Jiang Cheng, who had won the last group by narrowly beat out a disgruntled Jin Zixuan, knocks his shoulder with his own and mutters, “Don’t do anything stupid and don’t lose to the peacock.”

“As if,” Wei WuXian snorts, stepping onto Suibian and letting its comforting hum settle him. He turns his head towards Lan WangJi and grins, “Lan Zhan, I’m going to win.”

“Wei Ying is welcome to try,” Lan WangJi says calmly as Nie Huaisang starts counting down.

Wei WuXian chokes back a laugh as they start forward, focusing his spiritual energy on his sword. He’s missed this—being able to meet Lan WangJi head on. He and Lan WangJi rocket straight ahead, neck and neck the entire way. They leave the others behind, whipping around the treeline in unison and dashing back across the meadow. Wei WuXian lets out a loud laugh that dissolves in the rush of wind around them. Lan WangJi’s face curves into the smallest of smiles at the sound, even as he pushes a last jolt of spiritual energy into Bichen, pulling just ahead of Wei WuXian as they cross the finish line.

“No!!”

Lan WangJi quickly hides his smile before turning an impassive face to his distraught husband. He sees Jiang WanYin cross the finish line over Wei WuXian’s shoulder, mere seconds behind them. Thankfully, he doesn’t appear particularly bothered about losing to them, instead turning to shoot a triumphant smirk at Jin ZiXuan, who follows him closely.

“Lan Zhan, I want a rematch!” Wei WuXian cries, snapping Lan WangJi’s attention back to his pouting husband. “Let’s race again right now! I’ll definitely win this time.”

Lan WangJi knows his husband can read the amusement on his face as he says, “Another time, Wei Ying. We must return now.”

Wei WuXian’s pout only intensifies. “But I still want to fly.”

“Fly back,” he suggests calmly, knowing Wei WuXian will expend the rest of his energy practicing tricks on their way through the forest.

“Stop making a fuss, Wei WuXian!” Jiang WanYin says, coming up to pull his brother into a headlock (much to Lan WangJi’s displeasure). “Isn’t losing once enough for you?”

“Jiang Cheng!” cries Wei WuXian, struggling free of his hold, “Don’t be so mean. I can’t help it if Lan Zhan is better than me. But I’ll definitely win next time, just you wait!”

Lan WangJi blinks at the odd choice of wording, wondering if Jiang WanYin understands what his brother is telling him. His feelings towards the Jiang heir are complicated. He can no more blame him now for his actions and words against Wei WuXian in the future than he can blame the current Meng Yao for his future self’s mistakes. At the same time, however, he is very aware of the limitations of Jiang WanYin’s character, and the threshold of his love for Wei WuXian. He does not like it, cannot like it, but he will do everything in his power to make sure it is never reached. Wei WuXian should never again have to fear his brother’s words.

He sinks into his thoughts as the disciples make their way back to the Cloud Recesses, keeping half an eye on his mischievous husband—still on Suibian—who swirls and twists his way around tree branches.

Wei WuXian hums as he spins his way through the trees just ahead of the other disciples, testing out every trick he can remember from his reckless youth. He turns his head back to call out to Lan WangJi and notices the slight frown on his husband’s face. Momentarily distracted, he forgets where he’s meant to be going and promptly crashes straight into the branches of a tree with a winded “Oof!”

“Wei Ying!”

“Wei WuXian!”

He ignores their calls as he tries to pull himself up, only to find his robes caught in the branches, pulling him back down to hang from them comically. Somewhere below him, Suibian clatters onto a low branch and balances there perfectly. The laugh that bubbles out of him at the ridiculousness of it all does nothing reassure his husband and brother appear at his side, hovering anxiously. “I’m fine, I’m fine,” he chokes out between giggles, “Just stopped paying attention for a moment. Really, I’m alright. Wipe those looks off your faces and help me free my robes, will you?”

His laughter at least manages to calm his brother, whose worry is immediately covered up with anger as he starts scolding Wei WuXian for his carelessness, which Wei WuXian happily pays absolutely no attention to. Next to him, Lan WangJi brushes his hand as he pulls his sleeve free from where it was tangled around a branch, quietly passing him a small stream of spiritual energy. His shoulders finally relax when he finds that Wei WuXian really is alright except for a few shallow scrapes, and he lets Wei WuXian see his small, nearly invisible smile in response to his joy. He wraps an arm around Wei WuXian’s giggling and carries him down to the ground where the other disciples are gathered as Jiang Cheng goes to grab Suibian. Out of the corner of his eye, Wei WuXian glimpses that same GusuLan disciple from earlier—face twisted into something ugly as he glares at where Lan WangJi’s arm steadies Wei WuXian—but is immediately distracted by Jiang Cheng, who tosses Suibian to him with a huff.

“What are you laughing for, idiot?” Jiang Cheng demands as Wei WuXian sheathes his sword. But his voice is completely devoid of heat and Wei WuXian knows he’s amused as well. “Getting distracted and crashing into trees like a novice. You’re disgracing our sect.”

Suddenly, a new voice calls out, tone snide and ingratiating, “Do not be so harsh on him, Jiang-gongzi. Perhaps Wei-gongzi simply had trouble controlling his sword. Fine control is a different skill from speed, after all.”

Both Jiang Cheng and Lan WangJi immediately freeze, furious, as the surrounding disciples fall silent. Wei WuXian’s laugh dies out, but he keeps his amused grin as he turns to the offending GusuLan disciple, who visibly bristles when he smirks, “You’re entirely right, of course. They are different. How fortunate that you are here to teach me, umm… who are you?”

The disciple glowers at him, “Su She, courtesy name Minshan.”

Wei WuXian blinks before his smirk widens. Ah, he thinks, this piece of shit. He grins as insultingly as possible when he replies, “If Su-gongzi is unsatisfied with my abilities, I would be pleased to display my skills against his own.”

Su Minshan, who had lost rather embarrassingly to him in the first round of races, colours in anger. Before he can speak, however, Jiang Cheng interrupts angrily, “What display? Everyone knows you’re the most skilled flier in Yunmeng. Criticising your skills is the same as criticising the YunmengJiang Sect.”

Su Minshan pales considerably as the Jiang Sect heir turns his terrifying glare on him. He turns to look at Lan WangJi for help, and is shocked by the visible fury on the Second Jade’s face. Lan WangJi turns away from him stiffly and bows to the Jiang Sect heir, much to said Sect heir’s surprise. “I apologise on behalf of my Sect disciple, Jiang-gongzi. I assure you that the Lan Sect holds the skills of the YunmengJiang Sect in highest esteem, and Wei WuXian has more than proven his skills as a master of the six arts. I assure you that such an insult by my Sect’s disciple will not go unpunished.”

“Apology accepted, Lan-er-gongzi,” Jiang Cheng says, startled and a little smug, “We hold no grudge against the Lan Sect, and will endeavour to forget your disciple’s ill considered words to our head disciple.”

Lan WangJi murmurs his thanks and straightens from his bow, before turning a flint-like gaze on the now shaking Su Minshan. Wei WuXian startles from his wide-eyed staring between his husband and brother and steps forward, laying a placating hand on Lan WangJi’s arm (though he doesn’t miss the way Su Minshan’s face twitches at the contact). “Ah, Lan Zhan. It’s okay.”

Lan WangJi pays him no mind and Jiang Cheng pulls him back, quietly whispering, “Shut up idiot, this isn’t just about you.”

Lan WangJi’s furious stare bores holes into Su Minshan where he stands, but his tone is hard as ice when he speaks, “Condescension and mockery are forbidden. Disparagement of another’s skills is forbidden. Showing disrespect to members of another sect is forbidden. Su Minshan has displayed unbecoming behaviour for a Lan disciple. You will copy the Code of Conduct thirty times, while doing handstands. You will also report to the Grandmaster in the morning for further discussion with regard to your insult to the YunmengJiang sect.”

With that, Lan WangJi turns his back entirely on Su Minshan—who looks embarrassed and dumbfounded, his face the colour of chalk—and looks instead at Wei WuXian and Jiang Cheng, his entire demeanour relaxing. Around them, nobody dares to speak, remembering suddenly just why the Second Jade is so feared. Wei WuXian sees the dawning respect and humour on Jiang Cheng’s face as Lan WangJi politely inquires if they are ready to proceed back to the Cloud Recesses, the picture of a polite young master of his sect. He wants to grin, but is too busy biting his lower lip speechlessly and fighting the urge to jump his Lan Zhan then and there because that was unbearably hot and Wei WuXian is only one man. He takes a deep breath as they make their way into the Cloud Recesses, trying his best to focus on the extremely polite, almost amiable, conversation that Jiang Cheng is apparently having with his husband and not on his desperate desire to tear Lan WangJi’s clothes off.

 

*

 

It’s only several hours later that Wei WuXian is able to sneak into the Jingshi to find his husband, who sits calmly before his guqin and has the audacity to look surprised when Wei WuXian throws himself into his lap. He curls around his husband, wrapping his legs around his waist and burying his face in Lan WangJi’s neck as he whines, “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, you’re so mean! Your poor husband has been living in agony for the last few hours. Lan Zhan, you can’t just eviscerate someone like that and then not expect to jump you immediately! How cruel. You destroyed that idiot. Nie Huaisang was beside himself. I think he may try to steal you from me now.”

Above him, Lan WangJi lets out a small huff of laughter and he wraps his arms around Wei WuXian’s quivering form. But his voice, when he speaks, drips with contempt, “Su Minshan deserved it. He should not have spoken to Wei Ying that way.”

“But Lan Zhan, did you really have to embarrass him so thoroughly like that?” Wei WuXian asks, even as he wiggles in delight in his husband’s lap.

“I only fulfilled my role as a disciplinarian of the Lan Sect,” Lan WangJi says simply, though Wei WuXian can hear the edge of smug satisfaction in his tone, “Anything else would have been remiss of me. He could have affected the Lan Sect’s relations with the Jiang Sect. His punishment was appropriate.”

Wei WuXian pulls back to grin up at him, “Lan Zhan, you fiend! Look at your face. You did it on purpose!”

“He should not have spoken thus to Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi repeats simply.

Wei WuXian blushes and curls further into his husband’s embrace, whining softly. “Lan Zhaaan! Are you going to fight everyone who’s mean to me?”

“Yes. Wei Ying is mine to protect.”

Wei WuXian feels his blush deepening as his control snaps and he pulls his brilliant, amazing, absolutely ridiculous husband to him. Words like those deserve a reward, and Wei WuXian is very very eager to show his Lan Zhan exactly how much he appreciates them.

Chapter Text

As far as Wei WuXian is concerned, Nie Mingjue’s arrival at the Cloud Recesses early one morning, three days later, could certainly have gone better. For one, the sect leader could have chosen not to storm across the Cloud Recesses shouting for his brother without a care for GusuLan’s rules precisely when Jiang Cheng was walking with them to class. For another, it would have been great if said shouting, storming sect leader didn’t draw every eye upon them as they stood frozen on the open pathway. And it would really, really have been preferable if Lan Xichen wasn’t following close behind sect leader, about to witness a reunion that they have deliberately not provided him context for.

Lan WangJi rounds the corner of the pathway at that moment, definitely not running, but his gliding footsteps aren’t exactly slow and measured either as he makes his way to their side. Wei WuXian sees his eyes tighten when he notices his brother before he turns to meet his own despairingly.

“Huaisang!” Nie Mingjue shouts, “What’s going on? If you called me here as another prank, I’m going to make you practice your saber for so long your arms will fall off!”

Wei WuXian turns his eyes to his friend, who has turned white as a sheet, his fan dropping from nerveless and shaking fingers as he stares unblinking at his brother’s approaching figure. He winces and places what he hopes is a calming hand on his shoulder, but it only seems to make the shaking worse. Beside them, Jiang Cheng looks between the two brothers in the pendulum of wide-eyed confusion.

The Nie Sect Leader comes to a thundering halt before them and Wei WuXian has never missed his height more as he looks up at the towering silhouette of Nie Mingjue in his prime.

“Huaisang?” Nie Mingjue asks hesitantly, frown turning concerned and the booming echo suddenly vanishing from his voice as he takes in just how ashen his little brother has become. “Huaisang, are you alright?”

Nie Huaisang sways where he stands, still staring at his brother like he’s seen a ghost, which, as far as Wei WuXian is concerned, is fair and actually pretty fucking accurate. He wraps an arm around his shoulder to steady him and lets Huaisang lean into his side unconsciously, even as Nie Mingjue’s hands come up and hover awkwardly before his brother, unsure of what to do and filled with worry now. Now standing beside them, Lan Xichen looks worriedly between the Nie brothers and then at Wei WuXian, gaze questioning. But Wei WuXian only shakes his head and eyes Jiang Cheng’s baffled profile meaningfully.

“Ah,” Lan Xichen says, cutting into the silence with his usual calm, “Huaisang appears to be unwell. Could we trouble you to escort him to the medical pavilion, Wei-gongzi? I will ensure that you are excused from your morning’s class.”

Nie Mingjue blurts, “What? I can–” before shutting up with a frown, obviously unnerved by the warning look Lan Xichen shoots him.

Wei WuXian nods at him gratefully, and Lan WangJi turns his icy glare on their gawking onlookers, who swiftly recall all the other places they undoubtedly need to be. After a moment’s hesitation, Jiang Cheng bows to the assembled group and hurries down the pathway towards the Orchid Room, only pausing to shoot a look at his brother, which is met with a shrug. As Jiang Cheng turns the corner, Wei WuXian turns to look worriedly at Nie Huaisang, who has yet to say anything.

Nie Huaisang is still staring at his brother, but now he blinks furiously in an attempt at holding back tears as his mouth opens, closes, and open again. “Da-ge…” he whispers, voice hoarse as if he’s been screaming.

Nie Mingjue’s frown deepens in evident worry as he reaches out a hand to clasp his little brother on the shoulder. “Huaisang, what is it?”

But the moment his hand touches his brother, Nie Huaisang lets out a gasp and rips himself away from Wei WuXian to throw himself at his brother, arms wrapping around his middle as he sobs, “Da-ge… Da-ge, Da-ge, Da-ge!”

Nie Mingjue freezes, eyes widened in panic for a moment before he awkwardly lifts his arms and wraps them around his little brother. “I swear to god, Huaisang,” he mutters gruffly, even as his arms tighten, “If this is your way of trying to get out of studying here again, I’m going to break your legs in a dozen pieces each.”

A choked, slightly hysterical giggle emerges from within his arms, muffled against his broad chest. “You wouldn’t, Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang mumbles, even as his tears continue to fall. His only response is a derisive sounding grunt.

Wei WuXian can’t help his small smile, even as he turns to look meaningfully at Lan WangJi, glancing between the Nie brothers an alarmed Lan Xichen. Lan WangJi turns to his brother, “Xiongzhang, we should go to the Jingshi.”

Lan Xichen snaps out of his trance and nods at them in understanding before placing a careful hand on Nie Mingjue’s arm and catching his friend’s eye.

“Xichen,” Nie Mingjue growls, “What has happened to Huaisang?”

Lan Xichen sighs, “This is what I tried to explain at the gates, Mingjue, before you came storming here. There’s something we need to discuss with you.”

Nie Mingjue’s frown only deepens, “Is Huaisang–?”

“I’m fine, Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang says, finally pulling away from his brother and wiping furiously at his face, suddenly unable to meet his eye. “Lan-er-gongzi is right. We should go; we can’t talk here. Wei-xiong has a plan.” His voice breaks into something a little self-deprecatingly at the end.

Nie Mingjue’s gaze sweeps over Wei WuXian for a moment, eyes cool and assessing, before he turns to the Lan brothers with a nod. Wei WuXian represses a shiver at the memory of Nie Mingjue’s violently resentful corpse as he picks up Nie Huaisang’s long-forgotten fan and hands it back to him. He nudges the younger Nie brother gently as they walk towards the Jingshi, “Are you okay?”

Nie Huaisang swallows and nods, eyes trained on his brother’s back as he walks ahead alongside Lan Xichen. “I… yes. Sorry, Wei-xiong, that wasn’t part of the plan. I just…”

“It’s okay,” Wei WuXian says, smiling, “You don’t have to apologise. I get it. It’ll be alright, Nie-xiong.”

Nie Huaisang nods, but his hands continue to tremble as they make their way into the Jingshi and gather awkwardly around the too-small table.

“What’s going on?” Nie Mingjue demands as soon as they’re all seated, forgoing all social protocols, “What happened to Huaisang? Has someone hurt you?” Hia hand clenches over the hilt of Baxia as he speaks, a storm brewing in his eyes.

 “Mingjue,” Lan Xichen starts, “Huaisang is fine. No one has hurt him here. I… I don’t know why–” he breaks off to shoot a suspicious frown at Lan WangJi before shaking his head, deciding to move on. “There’s something important these three need to tell you. It is… rather unbelievable, but WangJi and WuXian have already spoken to me and I trust them. I ask you to hear them out patiently. It is a matter that affects us all.”

Nie Mingjue’s frown stays in place, but he straightens, suddenly the picture of a Sect Leader as he looks at each of the three boys in turn. His eyes end on Wei WuXian, his eyebrows rising in confusion. Wei WuXian blinks and then startles. Oh, of course, Nie Mingjue has no idea who he is. He stands up from beside Lan WangJi and bows quickly, “My apologies, Sect Leader Nie. This one is Wei Ying, courtesy name WuXian, from the YunmengJiang Sect.”

Nie Mingjue nods, his eyes sharp, obviously having heard of him, before turning back to his brother, “What do you have to tell me, Huaisang?”

Nie Huaisang gulps, hands tightening in his lap. “Da-ge, I-we-,” he stutters before falling silent again.

 “Mingjue,” Lan Xichen interrupts, his voice taking on a soothing tone, “These three boys have experienced something rather unbelievable, and they need you to keep an open mind about it. The three of them are actually not as they seem. They have... they’ve actually travelled here from more than twenty years in the future.”

The silence that follows is heavy and uncomfortable. “What?” Nie Mingjue says slowly, voicing biting with anger, “What are you talking about, Xichen? Huaisang, I know you didn’t want to come back here to study, but to make up such a stupid story and convince Xichen to play along is beneath you.”

Nie Huaisang pales, but he draws himself up and looks his older brother determinedly in the eye, “It’s the truth, Da-ge. Lan-er-gongzi, Wei-xiong, and I are from the future.”

“Huaisang!” Nie Mingjue says, frustrated and surprised by his brother’s insistence, glancing at the other two boys who look back at him seriously, “This isn’t a game! You sent me a letter saying there was something urgent! I dropped everything just to rush here because I thought you knew better than this!”

“We can prove it,” Wei WuXian says, deciding enough is enough as Nie Huaisang flinches.

Nie Mingjue’s eyes snap to him and narrow, “How?”

“Nie-xiong will conduct Empathy with you.” Wei WuXian smiles as Nie Mingjue’s eyes widen in disbelief. Next to him, Lan Xichen frowns at him and then at Lan WangJi, who is doing his best to avoid that suspicious gaze, and pushes down a rueful smile. He had told Lan Zhan that he wouldn’t be able to keep everything from his brother so easily. But his husband is nothing if not stubborn.

“Empathy is a high grade and dangerous spell,” Nie Mingjue says, pulling him back to the present. He pauses and frowns, thinking deeply for a moment as his gaze sweeps over them again. “Even if I were to believe you, Huaisang’s spiritual energy isn’t strong enough for that. And even if it were, I wouldn’t allow him to do something so dangerous,” he says, finally.

Wei WuXian grins brightly at the frowning man, “We’ve taken care of that, actually.” He turns to Nie Huaisang, who now looks decidedly nervous, “Do you have the seal on you?”

Nie Huaisang nods, pulling it from his sleeve. Wei WuXian takes it from him, ignoring Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue’s curious looks, and quickly draws a talisman over it. He frowns for a moment in concentration before smiling, “Okay, great. This should be enough spiritual energy. Good job, Huaisang! You listened!”

“Yeah, well, it’s not like you wouldn’t have found another way if I didn’t, Wei-xiong,” Nie Huaisang grumbles, taking it back and holding it carefully in his hands.

Wei WuXian smirks and jumps up, nodding to Lan WangJi who rises beside him, “Okay, we’re going to set up. Nie-xiong, explain the seal to Sect Leader Nie and Xichen-ge, won’t you?”

As Nie Huaisang talks, he and Lan WangJi start moving the furniture of the Jingshi to clear a large section of the floor. That done, Wei WuXian immediately gets to work drawing up his new array as Lan WangJi sets up protective wards all around the borders of the array and the Jingshi, both working together with the smooth ease of long practice. Once Wei WuXian is satisfied with how the completed array looks, Lan WangJi comes over for a last check, looking over his shoulder and placing a small kiss on his cheek in approval. Wei WuXian smiles and looks up, only to blush instantly when he finds the other three staring at them in varying degrees of amusement and disbelief.

Nie Mingjue turns an incredulous look on Lan Xichen, whose mouth turns up ruefully, “Apparently, WangJi and WuXian are married in their time.”

Nie Mingjue chokes, turning back to stare at Lan WangJi, who has always unnerved him with how unflappable and cold he can be, and whose ears now redden as he avoids his wide-eyed gaze. Then, as if struck by lightening, Nie Mingjue spins to face his brother. “Huaisang!” He shouts, voice strained and slightly panicked, “Are you married, too!?”

Nie Huaisang’s eyes nearly bulge out of his head as he chokes out, “What? Da-ge, no!”

Nie Mingjue frowns at his little brother, though Wei WuXian can see the amusement and relief lurking in his gaze, “Aren’t you supposed to be an adult? Why not?”

Nie Huaisang turns red, “You’re an adult! Why aren’t you!?”

Lan Xichen clears his throat, interrupting Nie Mingjue’s angry spluttering, obviously eager to get back to the topic at hand though the corner of his mouth twitches up. “WuXian, will you explain what this is, please? Huaisang has told us about this seal—which is remarkable—but he seems unclear on its precise functioning and your plan to conduct Empathy.”

Wei WuXian grins at him brightly. “I can explain the precise workings of the seal later, if you want, but it basically works as a store for spiritual energy. This array,” he says, gesturing proudly at his latest invention, “Will allow them to conduct empathy safely.” Seeing Nie Mingjue’s sceptical look, his grin widens as he explains, “The array is actually divided into two; one side for each of you. Both of you will need to feed a little bit of spiritual energy into your side, and then stay within its borders while you conduct Empathy. When you need Empathy to end, Lan Zhan and I will use spiritual music to anchor your souls to your spiritual energy. So no matter what happens, you’ll both be firmly tied and easily led back to your own bodies.”

Lan Xichen looks at him with wide eyes and something like awe. Nie Mingjue frowns down at the array. “I’ve never heard of such an array,” he says gruffly, “Where did you find it?”

“I made it,” Wei WuXian says and shrugs when the Sect Leaders snaps his eyes up to him in disbelief.

You made this? How? And how are you certain it will work?”

“It will work.” Lan WangJi says coolly, eyes hard as he stares at Nie Mingjue.

“Da-ge, you can trust it. Wei-xiong’s inventions are always trustworthy.” Nie Huaisang adds, coming up to stand beside Wei WuXian and giving him a slight, strained smile. “Where do I focus my spiritual energy, Wei-xiong?”

Wei WuXian smiles at him and directs him to the right spot, even as Lan WangJi leads a reluctant Nie Mingjue to do the same on the other side. Wei WuXian glances at Nie Huaisang as he finishes, and finds him looking decidedly nauseated, with his hands clenched tightly over the seal. He places a calming hand on his shoulder and smiles as reassuringly as he can. “It’ll be okay, Nie-xiong. He’ll understand.”

“How do you know?” Nie Huaisang asks nervously as his brother sits calmly within the array, staring intently across at him.

Wei WuXian smiles, “He’s an older brother. Trust me, I’ve had the dubious pleasure of being inside his head. He might be mad, but he’ll get it. He loves you and nothing will change that. Just be honest and don’t leave anything out.” He catches the quick glance Nie Huaisang shoots him and raises an eyebrow wryly, “What, you think I don’t know? Nie-xiong, trust me. Show him the truth. He deserves to know.”

Something cracks in Nie Huaisang’s expression and, for a moment, Wei WuXian wonders if this is most honest he’s ever seen him. “Remember that when it’s your turn,” he says, faint amusement colouring his tone as he settles into his part of the array, seal held tightly in one hand as he extends the other to his brother.

“Okay, Nie-xiong, it’s just like we practiced. First, establish an open line with the seal so you have a continuous flow. Yes, good. Now close your eyes and beckon to your brother’s spirit.”

He breathes a sigh of relief as both brothers close their eyes, slipping into Empathy. He pulls out the rough bamboo flute he carved a couple of days ago and twirls it in his hand as he sidles up to Lan WangJi and nudges him, looking pointedly towards Lan Xichen, who is watching the two in the array with worry. Lan WangJi sighs lightly as Lan Xichen looks up and comes toward them, determination marking his every step.

“I believe there are things you left out of your explanation, WangJi, WuXian,” he says, his usual smile nowhere to be seen.

Wei WuXian gulps and looks at his husband, who looks back at him uncertainly. He sighs and turns back to Lan Xichen, “We didn’t tell you much about what happened after I died. Lan Zhan wanted to spare your feelings because none of it will actually happen this time so it doesn’t really matter.”

Lan Xichen’s eyes narrow as he glances back at the younger Nie brother. “I believe I should be the judge of that.”

Next to him, Lan WangJi sighs in resignation. “A few years after Wei Ying... was gone, Sect Leader Nie died of qi deviation. After Wei Ying returned, we discovered that the qi deviation had been orchestrated to murder Sect Leader Nie.”

Lan Xichen pales, glancing instinctively at his friend for reassurance as he whispers hoarsely, “The Jin GuangYao you mentioned. Was it him?”

Lan WangJi nods, looking away uncomfortably, “Nie Huaisang discovered the plot over the years and planned revenge for his brother. Part of his plot involved Wei Ying’s resurrection. But his brother’s death is why he brought us back, we think. Revenge was... not enough, in the end.”

Lan Xichen nods slowly, surprise melting away as he turns back to the two brothers still in the array, his face suddenly haggard. “Thank you for telling me,” he says softly, “It is painful but... I am glad to know it.”

Behind his back, Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi exchange a quick, worried glance. “Um, Xichen-ge,” Wei WuXian says softly after a minute, desperate to distract him. As Lan Xichen turns towards them, he smiles as brightly as he can and says, “None of that has happened here. And it will not. For now, we can only focus on this. Could you play the Song of Clarity for them? I think it would help them as they get to the more… distressing parts.”

Lan Xichen’s eyes soften and he nods, settling in a corner of the Jingshi as he pulls out Liebing and begins to play, eyes sliding shut. With a small sigh of relief, Wei WuXian presses Lan WangJi’s hand and smiles at him reassuringly before going to take his place just outside the array behind Huaisang. Behind Nie Mingjue, Lan WangJi follows suit, summoning his guqin and closing his eyes; he focuses calmly on his brother’s playing and the state of the spiritual energy before him, forgetting all else.

It’s three hours later when even Clarity doesn’t seem to help calm the two in the array. Both brothers frown deeply and Nie Huaisang begins to shake.

“Lan Zhan!” Wei WuXian calls, putting his flute to his lips.

Lan WangJi’s hands are already on his guqin as he nods, and they both start playing. It’s a relatively simple tune, less refined than they would both like, but it works well enough for now. Wei WuXian pushes his spiritual energy into the song, letting it resonate with Nie Huaisang’s spiritual energy in the array and gently call to his soul. On the other side of the array, Lan WangJi does the same for the Nie Sect Leader. For a minute, nothing happens, and Wei WuXian grows increasingly worried as he pushes more of his spiritual energy into the song.

Then, with a gasp, Nie Huaisang’s eyes fly open and he pulls back from his brother, whose eyes flutter open a moment later. Nie Huaisang scrambles to his feet and backs away, eyeing his brother with a mix of trepidation and fear. For a moment, Nie Mingjue doesn’t move, a myriad of emotions flashing across his face, too quick to decipher. Then suddenly, he’s on his feet, advancing on Nie Huaisang with a frankly terrifying look on his face. Nie Huaisang shrinks in on himself, staring up at his brother’s looming form with wide, wide eyes.

There’s a moment of tense silence and then Nie Mingjue smacks his little brother upside the head. “You’re an idiot,” he snarls, and pulls him into a bone-crushing hug.

The seal clatters to the floor as Nie Huaisang’s arms come up around his brother’s middle and clutch fiercely at the back of his robes. “Da-ge,” comes a muffled sob, “Da-ge, I’m sorry. Da-ge!”

“Shut up,” Nie Mingjue snarls, but his hold on his brother only tightens. “I should have you whipped. You fool, what were you thinking!?”

Wei WuXian moves to Lan WangJi’s side as Nie Huaisang mumbles incoherently into his brother’s chest, the relieved grin spreading across his face mirrored by his husband’s soft smile. Having aborted his attempt to approach his friend just yet, Lan Xichen politely turns away from the Nie brothers to study Wei WuXian’s array. But Wei WuXian cannot look away from them. He wraps an arm around Lan WangJi’s waist, tilting his head to let it rest against Lan WangJi’s own as he smiles. Whatever else they may or may not be able to change this time around, here at least is one good thing. One good, bright thing and Wei WuXian is trying very hard not to let his tears fall. In his chest, something small and warm flares to life—something that feels very much like hope.

Chapter Text

It is late morning on one of their rare days without lectures and the Jingshi stands peacefully, crowned in warm sunlight as the mountain breeze weaves its way through its open windows, carrying a melody out across the paths of the Cloud Recesses. Lan WangJi sits serenely behind his guqin, hands weaving their way across its strings as he composes. Eventually, he will need to test the melody's capabilities with spiritual energy, but for now he takes pleasure in the simple act of creation. A few feet from him, Wei WuXian is busy sketching out his previous inventions in a notebook, humming along to parts of Lan WangJi’s new melody and occasionally glancing up to shoot him small smiles that Lan WangJi could not prevent himself from returning if he tried.

It is a good day, and Lan WangJi does not hesitate to indulge in this calm joy. Though it has barely been two weeks since they returned to this time, each day has felt far longer in their pretence and mess of emotions, and Lan WangJi has been feeling their weight. Wei WuXian has, as well, if his exhausted sighs in the last week have been any indication.

“Let’s take a break, Lan Zhan,” he had groaned into Lan WangJi’s shoulder three days ago after yet another emotionally charged meeting with the Nie brothers as they stared each other down over another aspect of Nie Huaisang’s plans, “No more confrontations for a few days. I know it’s my turn for a brotherly emotional breakdown, but can we please just postpone it? Just by a few days, Lan Zhan, please?”

Despite the dramatic delivery, Lan WangJi could hear the exhaustion and fear underlying his husband’s request. Wei WuXian was terrified of talking to his brother and losing him again in consequence, and Lan WangJi understands. Unlike Lan Xichen and Nie Mingjue, Jiang WanYin is still a child, still fifteen and naïve and spoiled, and deeply vulnerable beneath his aggressive posturing. And Lan WangJi knows how deeply Wei WuXian treasures this version of his brother, whose angry remarks hold no real bite, and whose rare smiles hold true delight without a shadow of years of bitterness.

So he does not hesitate to agree to give Wei WuXian time to hold on to that happiness as long as he can. And with Nie Mingjue spending his remaining couple of days holed up with his brother and no threats hovering over them that require their immediate concern, Lan WangJi is only too pleased to take a break himself and enjoy simply being with his husband as he hasn’t been able to do in weeks.

It is consequently a shock when he feels the wards around the Jingshi being breached, and hears thunderous footsteps making their way up the steps. He has time only to exchange a shocked glance with Wei WuXian before the main door of the Jingshi is being slammed open and his uncle stands on the threshold, face red with fury.

WangJi!” his uncle thunders as he sweeps into the room, “What is this I am hearing from Xichen? What are–” He cuts himself off as his gaze lands on Wei WuXian’s frozen form still bent to write on the low table, and his face reddens further in anger. “You-!” he says, voice rising to nearly a shout, “What are you doing here? How dare you trespass on WangJi’s private quarters?”

Before either of them can respond, Lan Xichen hurries into the Jingshi behind their uncle and bows to them apologetically. “WangJi, WuXian, I’m sorry for intruding. I spoke to uncle about what you told me, but as soon as I mentioned your marriage, he… insisted to coming here to speak to you. Forgive us for disturbing you.”

Lan WangJi catches his brother’s eye and reads in them everything he is not saying. Their uncle was sceptical about the news of their return from the future but apoplectic at the thought of Cangse Sanren’s son marrying Lan WangJi. He gives his brother a short nod, even as his lips thin in displeasure.

“Xichen!” Lan Qiren snaps, “It is inappropriate for you to refer to a guest disciple with such familiarity. Wei WuXian is–”

“My husband,” Lan WangJi cuts him off firmly.

Lan Qiren’s eyes snap to him. “WangJi! I do not know what he has done to make you play along with this farce, but that is going too far!”

“It is the truth, Uncle,” Lan WangJi says calmly, rising to stand beside Wei WuXian, placing a comforting hand on his shoulder. “Wei Ying is my husband. I am certain xiongzhang has told you of what has occurred.”

“Time travel!” Lan Qiren scoffs, “You would have me believe this? This is another one of his pranks. For you to play along is shameful, WangJi. There will be punishment for this.”

Lan WangJi freezes for an instant, his grip tightening on Wei WuXian’s shoulder.

“No,” Wei WuXian says, quietly, furiously, in a voice cold enough to freeze the sun. “You may punish me for whatever you want, but you will not punish Lan Zhan.”

“Wei Ying,” he tries placating, but cannot continue; the words stuck in his throat.

Wei WuXian stands abruptly and turns to him with burning eyes. “No, Lan Zhan. Never again. You are as much mine to protect as I am yours and that holds true, whenever and wherever we are.”

Lan WangJi feels himself melt as he reaches out to wrap an arm around Wei WuXian’s shoulders to pull him close, ignoring his uncle’s furious cry.

“It will be alright, Wei Ying,” he says, pressing his forehead to his husband’s.

Lan WangJi! Stop this at once! Wei WuXian, how dare you? Unhand my nephew and remove yourself from the Jingshi at once. You have no place here.”

Lan WangJi knows, logically, that his uncle’s anger is meant to be protective. He knows his uncle does not like Wei WuXian as he had disliked Cangse Sanren. He knows his uncle’s anger now is largely rooted in uncertainty and fear. But knowing these things does nothing to dispel the fury that sweeps through him when he feels Wei WuXian flinch at his uncle’s words. Lan WangJi tightens his arm protectively around his husband and turns an icy glare on his uncle, who takes a step back in shock.

“No. Wei Ying is my husband. The Jingshi is his home. He does not have to leave unless he wishes to.”

“You are not married,” Lan Qiren splutters, “Wei WuXian is not your husband, nor will he be! Enough of this foolishness, WangJi.”

Lan WangJi feels his already threadbare patience snapping. His brother has told his uncle they have travelled from the future and this is his uncle’s concern? “If you will not accept that Wei Ying is already my husband, we will take our three bows tonight and xiongzhang will enter him into the clan registry as my husband tomorrow.”

“You will not! I forbid it. Wei WuXian will never be accepted into the Lan clan. His existence goes against everything that we stand for,” Lan Qiren says, his face purpling in his anger.

“He does not, and I do not ask for your permission, Uncle,” Lan WangJi responds, voice a deadly calm even as his eyes flash dangerously. It has been a long and difficult two weeks and Lan WangJi is swiftly reaching the end of his rope. “I am married to Wei Ying. And I will marry Wei Ying again. If the Lan clan will not accept him, I will secede from the clan.”

Lan Zhan!

“WangJi, no!

But Lan WangJi ignores them, keeping his hard gaze on his uncle who appears a step away from qi deviation. Lan WangJi cannot find it in himself to care in this moment. “I am over forty years old, Uncle, and I have been forced to spend too many of those years separated from my husband. I will not allow it to happen again.”

Before Lan Qiren can respond, Lan Xichen steps forward, mouth pressed into a thin, strained line. “Enough of this,” he interjects firmly, “WangJi, you will not be seceding from the clan. We are your family and the Cloud Recesses will always be your home, no matter what.” He pauses for a moment, voice morphing into something pointed, though he does not spare their uncle a glance, “As your elder brother and the future Sect Leader of GusuLan, I have already accepted WuXian into our family and home. Should you decide to retake your bows, now or later, I will not hesitate to add him to our clan registry, should he so wish.”

Lan WangJi deflates as he stares at his brother, stunned and grateful, a look that is mirrored by Wei WuXian, who intertwines his fingers with Lan WangJi’s and squeezes. Lan Xichen sends them a small, determined smile before he turns back to their horrified uncle.

“I have told you what has occurred, Uncle. WangJi, WuXian, Huaisang, and Wen-gongzi are adults whose souls have been sent back in time, and they intend to help us change the future. Mingjue and I have heard their stories and support them. There is a war coming, Uncle, and that must be our priority. We may discuss the details of WangJi and WuXian’s wedding at a later date.”

He pauses for a moment before his pleasant tone takes on a hard, unyielding edge that Lan WangJi has only heard from him a handful of times in the past, and only once directed at their uncle. “Not that there could be any possible objection, of course. WuXian has already shown himself to be a talented cultivator and an asset to WangJi. More importantly, he makes WangJi happy; and my brother’s happiness will always be of paramount importance to his family.”

But this show of rebellion is obviously going too far for their uncle, unused as he is to meeting even the slightest opposition from his nephews. His looks ready to spit blood.

“I will not have that menace corrupt my nephews like this. Xichen, WangJi, you will cease this behaviour at once and stay away Wei WuXian! You will not become like your father, WangJi, placing this– this infatuation over your duties to your clan. You will not throw away your potential; you will not fail, as he did. Have I not warned you against such unseemly attachments? Have I not raised you to be better? You will not disappoint me, WangJi!”

Wei WuXian says something in a furious tone, but Lan WangJi cannot make out his words, his head suddenly filled with white noise. Corrupted. Failure. Disappointment. How often he has heard those words before? How often were they slung at him in those thirteen years when Wei Ying was gone and he was helpless to do anything but mourn him? They should have lost their sting after so long, but he feels hollowed out anyway, an old wound ripped open too many times to count and still bleeding sluggishly.

The edges of his vision start to blur, his focus shifting, spiralling. His uncle is still shouting but Lan WangJi cannot hear him over the ringing in his ears. The skin on his back prickles. No. It’s not real, he knows it isn’t real because years have passed since those wounds scarred over and Wei WuXian is alive and returned to him and not—not—gone. But the lines marking out reality are becoming distorted and the lines of pain across his back feel so real. The empty Jingshi. His brother’s pleas. His uncle’s fury. It is all so familiar, too familiar. He cannot seem to take in a breath. His heart thunders agonizingly as his mind burrows inward, the world around him shattering like glass and falling away.

(He cannot move. He lies face down on his bed, flushed with fever as his shredded back continues to bleed into his bandages. But it does not matter. Nothing matters. Not when his chest feels so empty, as though his heart has ripped itself out of his ribcage and perished at the Burial Mounds with Wei Ying. Wei Ying. Dead. There was nothing left, not even a body to mourn. Nothing of that bright, kind, beautiful man left. Nothing but a child. A-Yuan. Wei Ying’s son. Now his. Theirs. His. Wei Ying is gone. And Lan WangJi is alone.  

“Enough of this, WangJi! How long will you mourn a villain?”

“Uncle...” he manages to force out, unable to rise. His back burns and burns and burns, but it nothing to emptiness in his chest where Wei Ying used to be. Wei Ying who is dead. Wei Ying who is dead because Lan WangJi failed, failed, failed him, just as he always had. He should not have returned, should not have let them punish him, should not have believed him safe enough, should not have listened to Wei Ying when he told him to leave (Get lost!). He should have stood with him, perished with him if need be. That would have been preferable to this—this living in a world without Wei Ying, with an uncle will not stop storming into the Jingshi and using his love for a dead man to punish him. His heart hurts and hurts and hurts, and Lan WangJi cannot stop the tears that drip down his face. 

But his Uncle is not finished. This is not the first time he has stormed in here in the weeks that Wei Ying has been gone. It will not be the last, Lan WangJi knows. But he is helpless (failure) to stop his Uncle’s poisonous words.

“Wei WuXian was nothing but a menace! A demonic cultivator driven mad by power. You know what he did, you saw all those he killed at Nightless City, and yet you tried to save him. You raised your sword against your own clan for that heretic! You are truly your father’s son, and thrice the fool! You dare to mourn him, after he killed your own clansmen? After he used you, took advantage of you? Has your punishment taught you nothing? I did not raise you this way, nephew. How much more will you disappoint me?”)

He hears a voice call out in alarm but cannot focus on it through his daze, cannot place it. There is shouting but he cannot make out the words. His head aches. Then another (familiar, beloved) voice rises above it all in a furious snarl, and finally, finally, there is silence. His heart continues to thunder in his chest as he tries to breathe, tries to remember, to ignore the lines of fire burning their way across his back because they aren’t real, he knows they aren’t real—his back hasn’t burned like that in years and Wei Ying is... Wei Ying is...

He shudders violently when he feels hands gently cup his face and hears a soft voice mumbling in his ear. He cannot make out the words, but the voice is comforting and the warmth of those hands is grounding in its familiarity. Wei Ying’s hands. He opens his eyes, not knowing when he closed them, and meets the concern and love in the silver eyes before him. Wei Ying’s eyes. Wei Ying is here. He is alive.

Slowly, the world comes back into focus. The echo of pain across his back fades away and the soft murmurs in his ear coalesce into discernible words. “It’s okay. You’re alright. I’m here, Lan Zhan. You’re not alone. I’ve got you, sweetheart. Nothing can hurt you here. I’ve got you. Just focus on your breath, okay? In and out, slowly. That’s right. You’re doing so well, Lan Zhan. I’m so proud of you.”

His breathing slowly comes back under control; his thoughts settle and calm. He knows where he is and what is happening again. He knows that Wei Ying is here, helping him as he always has.

Over the years, his episodes have become few and far between, but he remembers when they were more frequent, more easily triggered. He remembers the first time it happened in Wei Ying’s presence, after a particularly upsetting encounter with his uncle on their return to the Cloud Recesses; how Wei Ying had watched it happen in wide-eyed terror and hesitated to touch his trembling body; how that hesitation was replaced with fierce affection when Lan WangJi gasped out his name and reached for him; how they had curled up together in bed afterwards and Lan WangJi had slowly, hesitantly whispered a stumbling explanation into Wei Ying’s throat and Wei Ying had listened quietly, full of love and acceptance and grief, and held him close until Lan WangJi fell asleep to the sound of his heartbeat; how Wei Ying had become fiercely protective of him after, not hesitating to mercilessly shut down anyone who spoke to him in such a manner, even antagonising a dozen Elders, including his Uncle; how that led to a heated conversation between Wei Ying and Lan WangJi’s brother, as a result of which Lan Xichen had left the Jingshi in a storm of protective fury that he bore down on said Elders and Uncle. None of them had dared to try and antagonise Lan WangJi after that, and Lan Qiren had avoided them for weeks, which Wei Ying had been smugly pleased about though Lan WangJi had felt nothing but immense relief.

But that was then, and this is now.

He lifts his hands to cover the ones cupped around his face gratefully, squeezing them lightly to let Wei Ying know he’s alright now. He sees those eyes flicker with relief and flood with warm affection, and draws courage from the love he sees there before raising his head. Behind Wei WuXian, Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren stand frozen in shocked silence. His brother is pale with concern and alarm, his hands unnaturally clenched at his sides as though to stop himself from reaching out and pulling Lan WangJi to himself. Beside him, Lan Qiren’s fury has bled away, leaving him ashen with a mixture of fear and alarm as he watched his perfect nephew breakdown in response to his words.

Lan WangJi swallows and bows to them (only a little unsteady), his ears flushing in embarrassment. “I apologise for my unseemly behaviour, Uncle, xiongzhang,” he says, ignoring Wei WuXian’s indignant objection. Wei Ying has told him often and repeatedly that he has nothing to apologise for, but years of conditioning to remain stoic (excessive displays of emotion are forbidden) have left an indelible mark on him that he is still working on overcoming.

Lan Xichen steps forward quickly and pulls him out of the bow, gripping his arms tightly. “Do not apologise, WangJi,” he says, eyes full of concern and a fierce protectiveness, “It is we who should apologise. Uncle’s words were inconsiderate.”

Behind him, Lan Qiren lets out a half-hearted grunt before turning away to sit down at the low table and pouring the tea. His face is calmer now, his composure returned, as he sits perfectly straight and gestures for them to sit as well. He hands each of them a cup of tea, even Wei WuXian, the closest to an apology Lan WangJi knows his uncle is capable of making. They remain silent for the next few minutes as Lan WangJi assembles his thoughts and they finish their tea, until Lan Qiren finally places his cup back down with a small clink.

“Xichen informed me that you have travelled from the future,” he says, looking at Lan WangJi, still obviously conflicted but calm enough, “Explain. I will listen.”

So, Lan WangJi does.

 

——

 

“Have you any proof?” Lan Qiren asks shortly, frowning at his nephews. He has not looked at Wei WuXian once since they sat down.

“Immediately, none. Only the appearance of the Waterborne Abyss and the events of the Discussion Conference in six weeks.”

Lan Qiren grunts in acknowledgement before his expression twists unpleasantly. “And you insist on upholding this- this marriage?”

Lan WangJi stiffens. “Yes.”

But his uncle only looks away with a frown. “Very well. But you will not break any rules, and the two of you will not make this matter known to anyone until there has been a proper announcement of your betrothal.”

Wei WuXian inhales sharply from beside him but stays silent. Lan WangJi can only blinks at his uncle in confusion. Betrothal? Does that mean his uncle is willing to accept that they are telling the truth?

Lan Qiren huffs, obviously noticing their shock, and rises to leave. “I do not know yet that I believe your tale, and I do not pretend to be pleased by your choice in a partner. But it is my duty as Acting Sect Leader to protect GusuLan. As such, I will take every precaution to prevent the possibility of this future you speak of. As for your- your marriage, we will address it at a later date.”

Beside their uncle, Lan Xichen rises as well and smiles.

 

——

 

As the door finally clicks shut behind their two guests, and peace descends once more on the Jingshi, Wei WuXian lets himself slump in exhausted relief. He has not stopped touching Lan WangJi since they sat down, a warm hand pressed to the small of his back, and he reaches out now and wraps his arms tightly around his husband, pulling him close and letting Lan WangJi bury his face in his shoulder for comfort, breathing deeply.

“Okay, I’m serious this time, Lan Zhan,” he mutters, hands running soothing lines through Lan WangJi’s hair and down his back, “No more emotions for a week. At least. If we have one more emotional confrontation in our home in the next seven days, I am personally going to raise every single corpse in Gusu and have them stand guard around the Jingshi so that not a single person can approach us ever again.”

“Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi sighs, closing his eyes and snuggling closer into the warmth and safety of his husband’s arms, feeling his heart finally begin to settle down again, “If that happens, I will help you.”

Chapter Text

Nie Mingjue is firmly of the opinion that his brother is a brat. Technically older than him by a couple of decades or not, in many ways, Nie Huaisang is the same little brother he’s always been: spoilt, calculative, and stubborn. Being inside his head has done nothing to dissuade him of this assessment. His brother may believe he’s hidden his manipulative streak well up to this point, but Nie Mingjue more or less raised the boy and he is, unfortunately, keenly aware of how his baby brother likes to get his way. Which is why the desperate doe-eyes his brother is currently aiming at him only serve to make him roll his eyes.

“No.”

“But Da-ge! It doesn’t matter!”

“Eat your breakfast, Huaisang.”

“How can I eat when you’re being so unreasonable?”

Nie Mingjue groans, praying for patience. “Travelling from the future does not mean you’re allowed to slack off and fail your classes this year, Huaisang.”

“But I already passed them, technically! Why do I have to do it again?” Nie Huaisang pouts at him.

Nie Mingjue clicks his tongue in irritation. “Because I sent you here to learn. And I know that you forgot everything you learned here the second you left. I also know that you know that it matters to our sect not to lose face by having its heir fail classes at the Cloud Recesses twice. I’ll be damned if you pull that helpless act again when you’re Sect Leader someday!”

Nie Huaisang’s teasing glint vanishes, his expression shuttering. “I am not going to be Sect Leader! Not someday or ever!”

Nie Mingjue glares back at him for a moment, then sighs. “Huaisang,” he says, trying to soften his tone, “You and I both know it’s still a possibility. Even without Jin Guangyao, our cultivation technique means that Nies live short lives. I need you to be prepared.”

“No,” his little brother says mutinously, refusing to give an inch. He glares at Nie Mingjue and threatens, “If you die again, I will dismantle the entire Nie Sect and order all sabers to be destroyed.”

Nie Mingjue wonders how mad Xichen would be if he violated the ‘no killing’ rule just this once to strangle his brother.

“Huaisang,” he growls, warningly.

“No,” Nie Huaisang glares at him stubbornly, “Da-ge, if you think I’m just going to sit around and wait for you to kill yourself and prepare to replace you just because Nies live short lives—” He breaks off, knuckles clenched white over his fan. “There has to be a way. And Lan Xichen already said he’d teach me Cleansing and Clarity on the erhu. It’ll slow things down at least, until we find something more permanent.”

Nie Mingjue stares at his brother for a few moments, trying to process all of that. It is mostly a well-worn argument at this point, except… Nie Mingjue pinches the bridge of his nose, feeling a headache begin to build behind his eyes.

“Huaisang,” he says slowly, “Did you guilt Xichen into teaching you secret Lan techniques?”

Nie Huaisang stares down at his nails unconcernedly, “I wouldn’t say I guilted him precisely.”

The headache begins to grow with a vengeance. “Huaisang! You can’t just manipulate people into getting your way with everything!”

“Watch me,” says his provocative shit of a little brother.

Fuck sect relations, Nie Mingjue is going to strangle him right here on Cloud Recesses grounds. He opens his mouth to inform him loudly of this plan, only to be waylaid by a firm knock at the door.

Nie Huaisang immediately jumps up to answer it, leaving Nie Mingjue to glower after him. On the other side of the door, a Lan disciple bows and informs them that Lan Qiren has cancelled classes for the day as he is unwell.

Nie Mingjue frowns in concern. It is unusual for any cultivator to fall ill, let alone one of Lan Qiren’s calibre. He wonders what could have struck Lan Qiren down so suddenly and if he should be worried. Xichen had mentioned meeting with his uncle the previous day. Could Xichen be in danger of falling ill, too? If so, Nie Mingjue will certainly have to delay his return to Qinghe the next morning.

He stews in his thoughts until Nie Huaisang returns to the table, smiling mischievously.

Nie Mingjue takes one look at him and sighs, “What do you know?”

Nie Huaisang flips his fan open with a casual air of innocence that doesn’t fool Nie Mingjue for a second. But his brother’s smile only widens as he fans himself languidly, “Nothing at all, Da-ge. Xichen-ge went to talk to his uncle yesterday, didn’t he? How interesting.”

“Huaisang, what—?”

“Eat your breakfast, Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang interrupts cheerfully, digging into his own congee, “Lan Qiren will be fine. And if I’m right, Wei-xiong and Lan-er-gongzi will be here soon to fill us in. We should be prepared to greet them properly, no? I’m sure one of Lan Qiren’s lectures focuses on proper etiquette in receiving members of other sects. So important for maintaining inter-sect relations, Da-ge. Can’t possibly afford to fail that class, can I?”

Nie Mingjue rolls his eyes, and reaches over to smack the back of his brother’s head, ignoring his affronted yelp as he turns back to his breakfast.

 

——

 

True to Huaisang’s prediction (and Nie Mingjue has given up on even acting surprised at this point by his brother’s apparent and uncanny omniscience), there’s a knock on their door not ten minutes later. A moment later, the door slides open as Wei WuXian unceremoniously lets himself and Lan WangJi in, and comes to collapse dramatically at their table.

Nie Mingjue raises an eyebrow at him, which only serves to make Wei WuXian grin impishly.

Nie Mingjue huffs in amusement. He is, much to his chagrin, already rather fond of this irreverent boy. He reminds him too closely of Huaisang at his cheekiest, sometimes. He may be a demonic cultivator, but Nie Mingjue has seen enough of him (in and out of Huaisang’s memories) to know the boy is genuine in his affections and fiercely protective of those he cares for. And evidently, Huaisang is one of the people he cares for. Which means he will keep Huaisang safe. Nie Mingjue approves.

Beside Wei WuXian, Lan WangJi takes his seat far more gracefully. Nie Mingjue pauses in the act of reaching to pour himself some tea, looking between the two and frowning slightly. They look tired. There are dark smudges beneath Wei WuXian’s eyes as he lists against Lan WangJi’s shoulder, and even Lan WangJi has a mild air of weariness about him, which is saying something since Nie Mingjue hasn’t ever seen him have an air of—well, anything, really. He pushes the teapot towards them instead.

“So,” Nie Huaisang says after a moment of silence that remains surprisingly unbroken by Wei WuXian, “You talked to Lan Qiren?”

Wei WuXian slumps in his seat with a sigh. “Oh, we talked to him alright.”

Nie Huaisang makes a noise of sympathy. “He didn’t believe you?”

Wei WuXian waves a hand at him and sighs deeply, “At this point, who even knows?”

Nie Mingjue blinks, taken aback. Lan WangJi shakes his head and clarifies. “Xiongzhang spoke to him. He has been informed of most things up to the end of the war, with the exception of Wei Ying’s demonic cultivation. He is willing to make preparations, provided he has concrete proof soon. He will receive it with the Waterborne Abyss.”

Nie Mingjue nods and then frowns when Wei WuXian continues to look upset, “That’s good, right?”

Wei WuXian nods, but his voice is still a sigh when he says, “Yeah, it’s good. It means that he’s at least willing to listen and act to protect the Cloud Recesses.”

Nie Mingjue blinks. He is still clearly missing something vital. “We received word that he has taken ill.”

Wei WuXian groans, “He’s probably spitting blood about me again.”

Nie Mingjue stares at him disbelievingly. What? He looks at Lan WangJi, who remains tellingly silent, his eyes hard as glass.

Opposite Nie Mingjue, Nie Huaisang sets his tea down, obviously coming to a realisation. “Ah, Lan Xichen told him you were married.”

Lan WangJi stiffens, his face truly looking as though it was carved from impenetrable jade. Wei WuXian slumps even further into his space and groans, “You fucking bet he did.”

Catching Nie Mingjue’s confused frown, he elaborates, “He, uh, doesn’t approve of me.”

“I thought you said he didn’t know about the demonic cultivation?” Nie Mingjue asks.

It is Lan WangJi who answers, voice brittle as he stares at his tea. “Uncle has preconceived notions about Wei Ying.”

Nie Huaisang lets out a hiss of sympathy, “Yeah, he’s never liked Wei-xiong. Even before the whole demonic cultivation thing.”

Wei WuXian shrugs, “Something to do with my mother. Apparently, I take after her.”

Nie Mingjue frowns, finding this ridiculous. He has heard tales of Cangse Sanren, and by all accounts she was an accomplished cultivator. “That’s ridiculous. And it’s clearly too late to object anyway. You’ve been married for years and WangJi is obviously happy. What is there to spit blood about?”

“Da-ge,” Nie Huaisang interjects, “You know how Lan Qiren is. He’s not good with new ideas.” He shoots Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi a small smile, “He’ll get over it.”

They both nod, and Wei WuXian’s answering smile is small but genuine.

“I hope so,” Wei WuXian sighs, “I think poor Xichen-ge is bearing the worst of it, though. He broke the news and went to talk to him once he stormed out of the Jingshi, too.”

Nie Mingjue frowns at that. Storming out indicates that the issue wasn’t resolved. He should go check on Xichen sometime today. Soothing his uncle always leaves Xichen feeling tired and listless.

He sees his brother look at him knowingly over the top of his fan and glares.

They finish their tea in silence. Putting his cup down finally, Lan WangJi makes as if to rise.

“Ah, leaving already?” Nie Huaisang asks.

Lan WangJi nods. “Mn. I have work to do.”

Wei WuXian notices Nie Mingjue’s questioning look. “He’s changing the wards around the Jingshi,” he explains, “Only the old ones were up. Lan Qiren broke through them yesterday.”

Lan WangJi’s expression darkens, “I forgot before. Will not make that mistake again.”

Wei WuXian smiles at him, rubbing a soothing hand up Lan WangJi’s back.

“You can manipulate the wards in the Cloud Recesses?” Nie Mingjue asks, surprised.

Wei WuXian shrugs. “Lan Zhan can. Wards are his area, not mine. He’ll update the ones around the Cloud Recesses over the next few months, too.”

“Mn. They will require more time.”

Nie Mingjue looks at the younger Twin Jade, impressed. Ward manipulation, particularly with regard to wards as old and complex and the ones in the Cloud Recesses requires an enormous amount of skill and usually multiple cultivators working in tandem.

“Can you show me your work sometime? We could use that kind of skill in the Nie Sect.”

Lan WangJi nods. “You require better wards for the Nie ancestral tombs. I will draw up the designs and give them to you soon.”

Nie Mingjue raises his eyebrows at them, more surprised than he would like to admit. Of course they already know about one of the Nie Sect’s most guarded secrets. He saw this in Empathy, but it is still a shock to hear these little confirmations. But wards for the tombs? He looks at Nie Huaisang, who shrugs.

“I asked Lan-er-gongzi to come up with new wards before. We put them up a year ago in our time. They’re very powerful. If he can replicate them, they will be unmatched.”

Nie Mingjue nods and turns back to Lan WangJi. “Thank you,” he says gruffly, “We will pay you, of course.”

Lan WangJi frowns, suddenly looking distinctly unhappy, much to Nie Mingjue’s surprise. “Unnecessary.”

Nie Huaisang waves his fan languidly over his face, but Nie Mingjue can see his eyes crinkling with amusement, though he says nothing. Wei WuXian grins widely when he looks at him in question, sliding an arm around an unhappy Lan WangJi’s waist.

“Ah, Lan Zhan didn’t want payment last time either. But Nie-xiong insisted, and when Lan Zhan refused, he kept finding more and more ridiculous reasons to shower poor Lan Zhan with extravagant gifts in public that Lan Zhan couldn’t refuse until he had made up the cost.”

Nie Mingjue turns incredulous eyes on his brother as Lan WangJi glowers at the wall. “Huaisang. That’s… actually not a bad idea.”

His brother’s eyes light up as Wei WuXian chokes on a laugh. Lan WangJi turns swiftly towards him, his eyes ever so slightly widened. Nie Mingjue has a feeling that on anyone else, that look would be one of open betrayal. He grins, slowly starting to understand why Xichen keeps referring to his little brother as adorable.

He shrugs nonchalantly at the disgruntled boy. “If you’re going to use your extensive skills to aid the Nie Sect, you will be compensated accordingly. It is only right.”

Lan WangJi’s jaw clenches for a minute, before he nods in— not quite defeat, but definitely something not neutral. Nie Mingjue isn’t sure if it’s the amount of time they’ve spent together this week or if the future Lan WangJi is just more expressive, but either way, he feels like he’s definitely getting better at detecting at least some emotions on Xichen’s brother’s face. Xichen will be proud.

“We will discuss it later, once I have recreated the designs.” Lan WangJi says, no inflection whatsoever in his voice. Nie Mingjue is not fooled. He grins.

Lan WangJi stands without another word, bows, and makes his way to the door. Wei WuXian shoots to his feet as well and grins brightly at them both, eyes dancing, and hurries after him, placing a soothing hand on his arm as they leave.

Nie Mingjue snorts as the door closes behind them. He turns back to his brother, who smiles at him gleefully.

“So, are you going to go check on Xichen-ge now?”

Nie Mingjue reaches over swiftly and hits him again.

 

——

 

Nie Mingjue does, in fact, go looking for Lan Xichen soon after, and is surprised when Lan Xichen finds him first.

“Mingjue,” Lan Xichen smiles, but looking too worried and pale for Nie Mingjue’s liking, “Do you have time to talk for a bit?”

Nie Mingjue frowns and nods, letting Lan Xichen lead the way to the Hanshi. He heroically says nothing until Xichen has finished pouring them both tea and has sighed into his cup twice.

“Xichen, what is the matter? Is it your uncle? WangJi and Wei WuXian told me what happened. Has he been making things difficult for you?” Nie Mingjue clenches his hand on Baxia’s hilt, ready to go start his own shouting match with Lan Qiren if necessary.

Lan Xichen startles and meets his gaze. “What? No. Mingjue, no, it’s alright. Uncle is just… surprised. He will come to terms with everything eventually. That’s not why I asked you here.”

Nie Mingjue nods and loosens his hold on his saber. “What is it then? What troubles you?”

Lan Xichen sighs again. Nie Mingjue feels his blood pressure rise in response.

“Mingjue, you’ve seen all of Huaisang’s memories, right?”

Nie Mingjue immediately has a bad feeling about this. He nods anyway. “Whatever he wanted me to see, at least.”

Lan Xichen opens his mouth to speak before visibly hesitating. The seconds drag on.

Nie Mingjue sighs. “Just ask what you want to know, Xichen.”

Lan Xichen takes a breath and straightens then, meeting his eyes determinedly. “Did you find out anything about WangJi being punished? By– by uncle, or the Lan sect?”

Nie Mingjue takes a moment to blink in shock. Well, that was not what he expected. Lan WangJi being punished? Preposterous.

He combs quickly through his borrowed memories but, “No,” he says, shaking his head, “There was nothing in Huaisang’s memories.”

He sees Lan Xichen’s shoulders droop and frowns, concerned, “Xichen, what is this about? Why would WangJi be punished?”

“I don’t know,” Lan Xichen whispers, looking down at his lap, “They’re hiding things from me, Mingjue. But I think WangJi was hurt somehow in their future; by the Lan sect, or uncle, or–or me.”

“Xichen–”

Lan Xichen looks up at him, and Nie Mingjue is shaken by how distressed he looks. “Yesterday, in the Jingshi, uncle thought they were lying and threatened to punish WangJi. He said some things, wrong things, hurtful things, but WangJi, he—Mingjue, he had a panic attack.”

Nie Mingjue freezes. “What?”

Lan WangJi panicking? He cannot even begin imagine such a thing. But then he recalls the weariness on WangJi’s and Wei WuXian’s faces that morning, and wonders if maybe he could.

Lan Xichen’s hands clench tightly in his lap but Nie Mingjue can still see how they tremble. “Wuxian defended him. He was so angry, Mingjue. He told WangJi that he would not let him be punished again. And then, when WangJi was panicking, he kept telling him he would not be hurt. I’ve never seen WangJi like that. He was shaking, Mingjue!”

Nie Mingjue reaches out and places a large hand firmly on Lan Xichen’s shoulder for a moment, urging him to look up. Lan Xichen meets his eyes and oh, he knows that look. It was the same look he used to see in the mirror in the days following his father’s death, when Huaisang would not eat or sleep, and Nie Mingjue had been so terrified of losing him too—the helpless fear of an older sibling who does not know what to do to protect their little brother. His heart aches for the elder Twin Jade.

“Xichen, it’s alright. WangJi is alright. I saw him this morning and he was fine.”

Lan Xichen just shakes his head in response, “How can you know that, Mingjue? WangJi doesn’t like to show his emotions. And the way he was last night– I don’t– I've never-”

Nie Mingjue sees Lan Xichen working himself up again and grits his teeth over the urge to groan. He has never been good at comfort and reassurance. All he has ever had to offer is the truth. He tries it now.

“Xichen, stop. Calm yourself and listen to me,” He waits until Lan Xichen takes a couple of calming breaths, his hands settling once more in his lap as he focuses on Nie Mingjue. Good.

“You know that I saw Huaisang’s memories. But Huaisang was never on the forefront of the war, as WangJi and Wei WuXian were. My brother has always worked best behind the scenes, and even he has come out of this future of theirs changed,” He pauses, sighing at the truth of it but focuses quickly back on the matter at hand, “Those two have probably told you more about their experiences than they’ve told anyone else. But I don’t think either of us will really be able to understand what they’ve been through. Even with Empathy, I don’t. But our brothers are different now. And as much as I hate it, we cannot protect them from everything anymore.” He frowns heavily as he grits out the last part, feeling as though the admission is ripped out of him. His hand clenches unconsciously on Baxia’s hilt. He cannot protect his brother from the world anymore and he hates it. He hates it with a deep and abiding fury.

Lan Xichen stares at him for a moment, his own jaw clenched slightly, then nods, his shoulders dipping ever so slightly in defeat. The troubled look still hasn’t left his eyes however.

“You’re right, Mingjue, as much as I may dislike it. But if what you say is true, why, after all they have been through, did my brother flinch at the idea of being punished by his own clan? He is head of discipline for our disciples and he knows what those punishments entail. So why?”

Nie Mingjue’s frown deepens. He doesn’t know the answer to that. “Have you asked?”

Lan Xichen shakes his head, “I do not think WangJi will tell me willingly.”

Nie Mingjue raises an eyebrow at him. Ah, of course, the rules. WangJi would not lie, but Xichen would not pull the truth out of him unwillingly. They will have to find another source then.

He narrows his eyes in consideration, “Wei WuXian will not tell us if WangJi has asked him not to. But the boy is obviously protective. He may be willing to tell you enough to prevent it from happening again,” He frowns; it is not enough, “Our only other alternatives are Huaisang and that Wen Qionglin.”

Lan Xichen looks at him curiously, “You said there was nothing in Huaisang’s memories?”

Nie Mingjue snorts, “That doesn’t mean Huaisang has shown me everything he knows. We will ask him. Now.”

Lan Xichen startles, “Now?”

Nie Mingjue shrugs, “I’m sure he’s around. I wouldn’t put it past him to spy on us anyway.”

He ignores Lan Xichen’s protests and walks over to the entrance of the Hanshi and pulls the door open. There is no obvious presence on the other side, but Nie Mingjue recalls his brother’s teasing smile this morning with annoyance and has absolutely no faith that his little brother was willing to forgo an opportunity to gather more gossip.

“Huaisang,” he calls out, raising his voice and letting his annoyance show, “Come out. We have a question for you.”

There is no reply. Not even a leaf twitches.

“Stop wasting our time, Huaisang.”

Still nothing. Nie Mingjue rolls his eyes.

“Fine. I’ll close the door. You have two minutes. Don’t keep Xichen waiting.”

He turns back inside, ignoring Xichen’s doubtful look. He knows his brother and exactly how incorrigible he can be. Exactly two minutes later, there is a knock on the door of the Hanshi. He almost laughs at the incredulous look on Xichen’s face. He opens the door to reveal Nie Huaisang’s pouting face.

“Really, Da-ge, you’re so mean,” his brother whines, “Accusing me of spying! I would never.”

Nie Mingjue rolls his eyes but resists the urge to whack him as he leads him to the table where Lan Xichen sits, still looking faintly appalled. He knows his brother is trying to goad him, but he won’t give him the satisfaction. Not in front of Lan Xichen at least. “Cut the crap, Huaisang, and answer Xichen’s question.”

Nie Huaisang unfurls his fan and blinks at them innocently over its rim, “What question, Da-ge?”

Nie Mingjue glares at him. “You know exactly what. Do you know anything about WangJi being punished?”

His brother glances quickly at Lan Xichen, but shakes his head, “No, I don’t know. I really don’t.”

Seeing Nie Mingjue’s sceptical look, Nie Huaisang sighs in exasperation and rolls his eyes. “I mean it, Da-ge. If something happened to Lan WangJi, it wasn’t made known to anyone outside of the Lan clan, and neither he nor Wei-xiong have said anything.”

Lan Xichen’s face falls and Nie Mingjue sighs.

“But you have suspicions,” he accuses.

Nie Huaisang frowns at him in annoyance, but Nie Mingjue refuses to budge. “This is important, Huaisang. Lan WangJi had a panic attack yesterday because of things his uncle said to him. If you know something, tell us.”

Nie Huaisang sobers at that. He hums consideringly for a few moments as he stares at the design on his fan, “Lan-er-gongzi has been working very hard on the wards around the Jingshi today.”

Nie Mingjue frowns in confusion. He knows this already so why— he looks up in time to see Lan Xichen startle. Ah.

“It is understandable, since it is his home. I heard Lan Qiren broke through the wards yesterday. It must have bothered Lan-er-gongzi a great deal. He is very protective of his own,” Huaisang muses, still examining the design on his fan in careful detail.

“Just tell us what you know, Huaisang,” Nie Mingjue barks, losing patience as Lan Xichen flinches slightly.

Nie Huaisang looks up, his face unreadable, “Fine. But I really cannot think of any incident for which Lan WangJi would be punished. Only a time when it might have happened.”

“When?” Lan Xichen asks, staring intently at Nie Huaisang.

Nie Huaisang hums, “For three years after Wei-xiong’s death, Lan-er-gongzi vanished. The Lan clan said he had gone into seclusion to focus on his cultivation. No one thought much of it. Later, I thought he must have been in mourning.”

“But?”

“But now I wonder. A while after Wei-xiong returned, I found out that Lan-er-gongzi had a son. That he was the last Wen child and Lan-er-gongzi had rescued him after the siege on the Burial Mounds.”

“So?” Nie Mingjue asks impatiently.

Nie Huaisang peers at Lan Xichen over the top of his fan, his eyes calculating. “So, Lan-er-gongzi doesn’t seem the type to rescue a child and then immediately abandon him, even to mourn—especially if that child was Wei-xiong’s. I have seen Lan-er-gongzi with his son. They were both very obviously attached to each other. It seems unlikely that Lan-er-gongzi would not see him for three years, particularly since, by all accounts, the child was ill enough to lose all his memories.”

Nie Mingjue feels an uncomfortable twisting in his gut. He doesn’t like where this is going.

He sees his brother look at Lan Xichen consideringly, something unreadable in his eyes, “That doesn’t sound like Lan WangJi, does it, Xichen-ge?”

Something dark and heavy flash across Lan Xichen’s face for a fraction of a moment. “No,” he whispers, his eyes far away, “That is not something WangJi would do.”

“What you’re saying,” Nie Mingjue growls, his hands clenching into fists on the table, “is that Lan WangJi was prevented from seeing his son for three years?”

Nie Huaisang shrugs, “I don’t know, Da-ge. It’s only conjecture.”

Nie Mingjue levels a sceptical look at him, but surprisingly, Nie Huaisang shakes his head at him firmly, “No. It really is, Da-ge. I suspect the only people who can tell you the truth about this are Wei-xiong and Lan-er-gongzi. Even if I’m right, I don’t know why or how Lan-er-gongzi might have been punished, or by whom. And relying on rumours and conjecture will lead nowhere.”

Nie Mingjue and Lan Xichen look at him in wide-eyed surprise, anger dissipating.

Nie Huaisang huffs at them and looks away, saying quietly, “Rumours and conjecture were one of the main reasons behind Wei-xiong’s death in our time. I have already hurt them enough in this time. I will not add to it, and especially not like this. I made them a promise. Whatever it is they are hiding, it is their right.”

Nie Mingjue blinks at him, shocked. He forgets, sometimes, just how much his brother has matured. Huaisang is very good at playing the fool.

Across from him, Lan Xichen frowns at his brother. “You hurt them, Huaisang?”

Nie Huaisang looks back at him with raised eyebrows and says a little impatiently, “I brought them back here, Xichen-ge. Because of me, they have lost their son.”

Nie Mingjue feels the shock course through him like lightening, and then immediately feels ashamed for it. How could he not have realised this sooner? One look at Xichen’s suddenly pale face tells him that Xichen has not considered it either. They were parents. The notion is inconceivable to Nie Mingjue. He had known about the child, of course, had seen him briefly in Huaisang’s memories, but somehow, he has failed to connect that knowledge with the reality of the two young teenage boys he had seen this morning. He grinds his teeth together, suddenly furious.

“Oh, WangJi,” Lan Xichen says, soft and sad.

Nie Huaisang looks between them disbelievingly. Nie Mingjue looks away guiltily.

“Will they not adopt him again?” He asks the wall gruffly.

His brother stares at his fan as he waves it slowly, his expression unreadable, “I thought they would but— he was an orphan of war last time. In this time, he has not yet been born.”

“He may be in no need of adoption if their plans succeed,” Lan Xichen realises, grief colouring his tone.

Nie Huaisang nods. Nie Mingjue feels his gut twist. The silence drags on until Nie Huaisang finally snaps his fan closed, startling the other occupants in the room.

He rises in his place, “If there’s nothing else, Xichen-ge, I will take my leave.”

Lan Xichen nods and pulls up a small smile, “Yes, of course. Thank you for talking to us, Huaisang.”

Nie Mingjue stands as well, knowing Lan Xichen needs some time to think. He has much to think about himself. He will check in on him later before he leaves. He gives Xichen a reassuring nod, and Xichen’s answering smile is ever so slightly warmer. He makes his way to the door, only to realise that his brother still hasn’t moved from where he’s standing and looking at Lan Xichen.

“Huaisang,” he calls in annoyance. Why is his brother staring at Lan Xichen like that? Isn't he planning to leave?

His brother startles at his voice and unfurls his fan, waving it in front of his face in a flustered manner. “I’m coming, Da-ge, there’s no need to shout!” He turns back to Lan Xichen, his eyes crinkling at him sadly, “See how mean he is to me, Xichen-ge! You would never be so mean to your brother, would you? No, I know you wouldn’t. I remember, even so far in the future, Lan WangJi still always had so much affection for you. Won’t you teach Da-ge to be nice to me, too, Xichen-ge?”

Nie Mingjue scowls at him and opens his mouth to growl out a reprimand when Lan Xichen speaks, his smile now warm and almost relieved. “Of course, Huaisang. And… thank you.”

Nie Mingjue frowns, looking between them in confusion until Huaisang snags his sleeve as he passes and drags him out. Behind them, Lan Xichen’s smile lingers long after they leave.

 

——

 

“You really don’t know?” Nie Mingjue asks shortly later that night as they settle in Nie Mingjue’s guest room after dinner.

His brother startles slightly before looking up at him with a frown, “I told you I don’t, Da-ge.”

Nie Mingjue shrugs, “I thought maybe you didn’t want to talk about it in front of Xichen, the same as with Jin Guangyao.”

Nie Huaisang’s knuckles whiten on his fan as he shakes his head.

Nie Mingjue sighs, “Huaisang, you agreed not to kill him.”

His brother glares at the wall in front of him, his fan carefully covering most of his expression. “Did I?”

“Huaisang,” he growls warningly.

Nie Huaisang huffs and points his fan at him accusingly, “He killed you. Why do you even care if I kill him?”

“He hasn’t, and he won’t.”

“He’s a viper,” Nie Huaisang hisses, “As long as he lives, you’re in danger.”

“Enough, Huaisang!” He slams his fist on the table, losing patience with this argument entirely. They have already had it more than a dozen times this week and it still always boils down to the same thing, “He already paid for his crimes. But this Meng Yao has done nothing to warrant his death yet. And he won’t ever have to, if we follow your plan.”

“But—”

“Fine!” he snarls, “Then I promise you this. If he steps a toe out of line, if you suspect that he might step a toe out of line, I will put Baxia to his neck myself, whatever anyone else may say.”

Nie Huaisang stares at him intently and Nie Mingjue meets his eyes with his own furious gaze.

“Do you swear?” his brother asks quietly, “Do you swear on our mother’s ashes?”

Nie Mingjue pauses on a sharp inhale. This is more than words for them. This is the deepest promise they can make, an unbreakable vow between brothers. One they have shared since the day after their father died and Nie Mingjue sat his sobbing little brother down and swore to protect him for all of his life. Nie Mingjue lets the remnants of his anger drain away as he straightens in his seat and reaches out a hand to grasp his brother’s shoulder, squeezing it firmly.

“I swear it. Of all his crimes, it is my death you grudge him the most. Then, if necessary, it is my right to take his life.”

Nie Huaisang looks between his eyes, searching for a lie, before letting go of his breath.

“Thank you, Da-ge,” he says quietly.

Nie Mingjue tightens his hand on his brother’s shoulder. His brother should not be so quiet and serious; he was not made for that haunted look in his eyes. He is still so young, even if his soul is old. And no matter his age, it will always be Nie Mingjue’s job to protect him, not the other way around.

But Nie Mingjue was not made for comfort or reassurance. So he shakes the shoulder under his hand and growls, “You just focus on passing your classes this time. I expect you to do better than you did in your lifetime, since you aren’t actually a child anymore.”

The tension broken, Nie Huaisang instantly scowls at him and pulls away from the offending hand. “Da-ge! That’s unfair!”

Nie Mingjue snorts, “Unfair, is it? Lan Qiren knows you’re an adult now. And I’m sure Xichen is already having trouble convincing him that you’re intelligent enough to be one, let alone that you were Sect Leader. Don’t make me lose face when I see the old man next by lazing around now.”

Nie Huaisang's scowl deepens above his fan and he turns away with a huff. “Who needs all that stuff about clan genealogy and all those rules? It doesn’t matter to me. I’m going to be a lazy young master for the rest of my life.”

“Oh, are you now?” Nie Mingjue asks dangerously, “Or maybe I’ll start training you thrice as hard and won’t stop until you’re head disciple.”

“Da-ge, you wouldn’t!”

“What was it you said this morning?” Nie Mingjue asks, grinning ferally, “I believe it was, ‘Watch me’?”

“Da-ge, you—” his brother splutters, pointing his fan at him in outrage.

Nie Mingjue suppresses his laughter and rises to his feet and stretches. “I’ll be sure to start gathering the right tutors and instructors as soon as I get back to Qinghe tomorrow. So make sure you study properly under Lan Qiren until then.”

“Da-ge!”

Nie Mingjue grins and ruffles his little brother’s hair as walks past. “Just focus on your studies for now and leave all the political bullshit to me, okay? That’s my job anyway, as your Sect Leader.”

He makes it all the way to the door separating the sitting room from the inner chambers before he’s called back by a quiet, “Da-ge?”

He turns around with a frown, only to find his brother watching him with a strange, oddly vulnerable look.

“Thank you,” Nie Huaisang says, “For everything.”

Nie Mingjue feels his face redden at the actual sincerity in his brother’s voice and spins back around to storm into the bedroom. What the fuck, Huaisang? “It’s my job to make sure you’re not stuck in the middle of war or whatever,” he growls, “Go to bed, Huaisang. I’ll see you tomorrow at whatever infernal hour we have to wake up at.”

He slams the door shut and storms towards the bed, but not before he hears the giggling, “Goodnight, Da-ge,” from the other side.

Nie Mingjue definitely does not smile in response.