If Wei Wuxian had time between inventing time travel and the impending end of the world to think about how he’d awaken in his younger body, he would have imagined, well, waking up. Unfortunately, while he remembered nearly every detail of the day he met his husband, what he’d been doing exactly three weeks earlier had long since been lost to the sands of time.
Wei Wuxian dropped into the past just as his younger self leaped onto the back of a demon boar.
The boar wasn’t inclined to throw him a welcome to the past party. Fortunately, that worked in his favor. Wei Wuxian was kept from falling into shock when the boar reared onto its hind legs to try to throw him off. He clung to its mane one-handed, landing hard and bouncing when it crashed back to the ground.
Locking his ankles around its neck, Wei Wuxian let go to sketch a talisman in the air with his off hand. The boar crumpled to the ground, immobile.
“What the fuck are you doing?” Jiang Cheng yelled from somewhere above. “Stop showing off and finish it off!”
Wei Wuxian reached for Chenqing in his belt. Only to remember belatedly that he hadn’t created it yet.
“Suibian’s in your hand, did you crack open your skull or something?”
Wei Wuxian looked down at his dominant hand and blinked. Suibian was there, looking like it belonged. An extension of his hand, like he had never given it up. He raised it high and slashed downward, severing the boar’s neck in one stroke.
“Are you going to give me a hand?” Jiang Cheng snapped.
Finally, Wei Wuxian looked up, and the question of why Jiang Cheng had been yelling dubious encouragement rather than fighting was answered. He was caught in a nest of upper branches, his robes hooked over twigs at an angle too awkward to reach without a sword. Sandu was nowhere in sight.
Oh, so this was that demon boar, the one that sent Jiang Cheng flying and earned them both a lecture from Madame Yu. He hadn’t thought about many of his old night hunts in years.
Though come to think of it, all their night hunts resulted in a lecture from Madame Yu. As did existing while Wei Wuxian.
Rather than have a panic attack over his first sword fight in over twenty years, he looked around in the grass for Sandu. Locating it, he tossed it up to Jiang Cheng.
Jiang Cheng reached out to clap him on the back, and Wei Wuxian couldn’t stop himself from flinching. “Are you hurt?”
“Pulled my shoulder a bit, I think. I’ll be fine in a few minutes.” He lied, rubbing at the shoulder in question.
Jiang Cheng bought it, and pulled him to his feet by his other elbow. “Come on, let’s deal with this corpse and hurry back. While you tell me what the hell that talisman was and why you tried to break in that boar like a horse.”
“Oh, it was just a new experiment. It pins someone to the ground. It’s very useful, but I thought you’d rather I tested it on the boar than you.” He grinned as Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes. “I got the idea from that swampy area outside what’s it called town” - it had been the Burial Mounds, and the local corpses’ habit of trying to drown him and the Wens in the creek when they bathed - “And thought hey, I wonder what would happen if I put the characters for —”
“All right, all right, save the boring details for A-jie.” Jiang Cheng knocked him in the arm, forgetting it was supposedly injured. “Just use your fucking sword next time.
It was a good thing Wei Wuxian had a lifetime of lying under his belt. Because this time, Jiang Cheng was never learning the truth.
He hoped Lan Zhan had ended up in better circumstances, and hadn’t dropped into the middle of a conversation with the uncle he was barely speaking to. He’d never had Wei Wuxian’s talent for pretending things were okay. If Lan Zhan murdered his uncle on sight, that would be counterproductive.
Upon their arrival in Lotus Pier, Wei Wuxian squeezed his shijie tight until she insisted he let go, so she could breathe. Shijie, alive and well, was more than he could wish for. Seeing Jiang Fengmian was more complicated.
Madam Yu was like getting tossed in a freezing lake just before it was struck by lightning.
“Oh, Wei Wuxian killed it. Where were you, our sect heir?” Madam Yu snapped, Zidian crackling at her wrist.
“…Stuck in a tree.” Jiang Cheng muttered under his breath.
In a previous life, Wei Wuxian would have jumped to throw himself in her way for Jiang Cheng. But now, he understood that Madam Yu would punish them both no matter what.
They knelt in the courtyard for several hours before a late dinner.
That night, Wei Wuxian waited until the household was asleep for the night to throw all his black and red belongings in qiankun bags. He tried to remember which floorboards creaked as he snuck out into the hallway, and slipped a note under Jiang Cheng’s door.
Going on a last adventure before we’re imprisoned with 3000 rules. See you in Gusu, Chengcheng!
Jiang Cheng would be furious. But when wasn’t he? Better furious now than orphaned and alone until the day he died. If Jiang Cheng never thanked him for it, that meant everything had worked out. And Jiang Cheng would forgive him for being his usual, “irresponsible” self.
Shijie, though, he couldn’t leave without seeing one more time that she was here, alive and as well as she’d ever been.
He knocked on her door. It opened a moment later, revealing the impossible miracle of his sister.
“A-Xian?” Shijie rubbed the sleep out of her eyes. “Where are you going?”
“There’s something I need to do before the lectures. But don’t worry! I’ll be in Gusu precisely on time!” Wei Wuxian straightened to his full height to show how serious he was.
Shijie frowned. “A-Niang will be upset.”
“Madam Yu is always upset with me. I don’t have a choice, though. I left a note for Jiang Cheng saying this was for fun, but it’s not. This is important, trust me.” If anyone at Lotus Pier would, it was Shijie.
“I do.” She held his arms, her eyes searching his face. “Something happened. You’re my Xianxian, but different somehow.”
He closed his eyes, leaning into her palm. “It’s better that you don’t know.”
“You think I don’t want to know how my A-Xian grew up overnight?” Shijie asked, in that lighter, teasing voice she used to extract all his secrets. He’d forgotten what she sounded like, but still, she sounded like home.
Once, he would have pouted and told her he was only three. Perhaps one day he would again. But now, he was too choked up with relief. He hesitated, and confirmed her suspicions.
Her grip tightened. “A-Xian. You don’t have to explain now. But whatever it is, you shouldn’t have to carry it alone.”
Wei Wuxian wasn’t truly alone, of course, not when he had Lan Zhan. He crumbled under her concern anyway.
“I’ll tell you when it’s over. I promise.” He gave her his old three-fingered salute.
“You’d better.” She straightened the collar of his robes, and bopped him on the nose. Wei Wuxian felt his mouth curve into an old familiar smile that had died with her. He hugged her tight, clinging, and she patted his back. As always, Shijie understood what he needed even when he couldn’t express it.
“Wait,” She said when he finally managed to pull himself away. Disappearing back into her room for a moment, he retrieved a bulging coin purse. “Don’t forget to eat and sleep.”
As though Lan Zhan would let him.
Since Shijie would only stare sadly at him with her wide, argument winning eye, Wei Wuxian accepted the purse with only a grimace. “I promise I won’t spend it all in one place.”
She saw him off with a sniffle and a wave, pulling her outer robe tighter against the chill of the night air.
Wei Wuxian borrowed a horse from the stables and, whistling, set off to meet his husband.
It started with an increase in elementals and monsters, a problem initially attributed to overflow from the neglected lands of Qishan. Then came the clouds of resentful energy, pouring forth from the volcano at Nightless City. Whole villages choked under resentment, their corpses walking forth to spread their blackened veins like a virus. A few cultivators escaped, at first, and the tale they told could point to only one thing.
When the remaining cultivation clans gathered in the Cloud Recesses, the accusations immediately began to flow. He’d expected most of them, Sect Leader Yao’s nonsensical posturing at the forefront.
The only one that hurt came from Jiang Cheng. “What the hell have you been tampering with? And how quickly can you fix it?”
“But. I didn’t.” He protested blankly.
Jiang Cheng turned the same shade of purple as his robes. “How am I supposed to believe that? You’re the only demonic cultivator with the power to make this happen!”
“What reason would I have?” Wei Wuxian demanded, spinning Chenqing as he leaned against Lan Zhan’s knee for reassurance. “I’m happily married to the Chief Cultivator. If you think I’m chafing under the rules, think of the last time you heard Lan Qiren complain that he can’t punish me for ignoring them because Lan Zhan says I can do what I want. I do have a question, though.” He sat up, pointing Chenqing towards the audience. “What happened to Wen Ruohan’s Yin Iron?”
Despite what that older Jiang Cheng had impulsively accused him of, the end of the world was not Wei Wuxian’s fault. In fact, he’d slept through the event that doomed them.
On the day the Sunshot campaign ended, Lan Xichen, Nie Mingjue, and Jin Guangyao had discussed the problem of the Yin Iron. “We were agreed that it must be destroyed. Even A-Y — Jin Guangyao. There was no known method to do so by cultivation. Therefore, we agreed to throw them where they could not be retrieved, into the Qishan volcano.”
Wei Wuxian laughed hysterically into his hands. His Yiling Laozu laugh, which he’d thought died with his first life. Swords left their sheaths across the room, pointing towards him. Lan Zhan stood, stepping in front of him, a reminder that he would fight and kill to his last breath for the man they despised.
“So.” He said, once he had scraped together a little composure. “We’re doomed. Have a nice apocalypse.”
Lan Xichen raised his xiao, and played the assembled cultivators’ swords into submission. “Wuxian, please explain.”
“You threw the Yin Iron. Into a volcano. You didn’t destroy it — you refined it. It’s been sitting in the lava for over twenty years, gathering resentment. Now it’s spewing it out. I expect we’ll see a final eruption in — A-Zhan, you don’t mind if I scribble over your notes, do you?” Lan Zhan did not. Wei Wuxian scribbled out some calculations for the rate at which the problem had escalated over the past year. “Oh, about two weeks. I suggest you all go home, and spend what time you have left with your families.”
They hadn’t listened, of course.
Never one to apologize before a problem festered, Jiang Cheng had left with Lan Xichen and many of the other sect leaders to attempt a purification. Against the Chief Cultivator’s orders.
Only Nie Huaisang listened, remaining behind in the Cloud Recesses to assist Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji in identifying a real solution. Demanded they find one, in fact, barging into the Jingshi. While he and Lan Zhan were considering their options with as little clothing on as possible, in the hopes that pleasure would spark a miracle from Wei Wuxian’s erratic brilliance.
It had worked before, sending him from their bed to scribble his thoughts into sense.
Ignoring their state of undress, Nie Huaisang proposed his latest wild scheme. Like his other schemes, it was crazy enough to work. “Wei-xiong, what if you could stop this problem from happening in the first place?”
Lan Zhan pulled up the covers indignantly, as Wei Wuxian reached for the nearest robe — Lan Zhan’s — and slipped out of bed. “We’re a few decades to late for that.”
Nie Huaisang snapped his fan shut, and tapped it against the doorway. “Yes, exactly. What if you weren’t?”
With that, what the madman was suggesting became clear. “You want me to invent a way to go back in time?”
“Lan Yi theorized it was possible.” Nie Huaisang casually implied that he had, in fact, voluntarily Read a Book. The end of the world seemed like as good a time as any for world shaking revelations.
“You know there’s more than porn in a library? I learn new things every day.” Wei Wuxian shook his head, clicking his tongue.
Rolling his eyes, Nie Huaisang withdrew a thin volume from his sleeve and tossed it at his head. Catching it deftly, Wei Wuxian collapsed back onto the bed, using his husband as a backrest as he flipped through Lan Yi’s writings. Nie Huaisang must have found it in the forbidden section, as this had clearly been written after Lan Yi first tried to use the Lans’ piece of Yin Iron.
Lan Zhan read eagerly over his shoulder. Even at the end of the world, he was as fascinated by the woman whose techniques he’d based his personal cultivation style on as ever.
Precise control of resentful energy was the key, she concluded. Lan Yi had never managed it. But she had only ever used the Yin Iron itself, not the ambient energy of the spirits around her. The array she proposed wouldn’t work, as it was, but his mind had already begun to draw the missing connections. “Huh. I might, actually, be able to do this.”
And so he had, with only moments to spare.
Though they asked those who remained, in the end, only Lan Zhan came with him.
“I was barely more than a baby.” Sizhui said, when he declined their invitation to join. “I trust you will find a way to be in my life, even if your actions save my birth parents.”
The three of them cried as Sizhui said his goodbyes, their son tearing himself from their arms, leaving them alone with Nie Huisang in the center of the darkening pavilion.
“Me? Go back in time?” Nie Huaisang waved him off with his fan. “No, thank you. Though — one thing. If you can keep Meng Yao from becoming a Jin, Dage would be happier with him alive.”
Lan Zhan frowned at that, ready to dismiss him immediately. But Wei Wuxian considered it. “You think he wasn’t always evil?”
“I have long been cursed with the knowledge that he wasn’t. He was obsessed with his father’s approval, and twisted himself until he was nearly unrecognizable. As much as I hate him, I nearly did the same thing.” The wards broke, sending a shockwave over Nie Huaisang’s final words. “Go, now!”
Nie Huaisang ran out of the array and into the encroaching darkness, as Wei Wuxian raised Chenqing to his lips. He drew tendrils from the limitless resentment to match the lines of the array. The tendrils remained linked to its source, creating an infinite power supply. In that instant, he knew it would work.
Under any other circumstances, it would not have.
They had one shot to get this right.
He kissed his husband one final time as they slashed Bichen together across their palms.
And Wei Wuxian dropped from the sky.
Reliably, Lan Zhan was waiting in Tanzhou, exactly where he said he would be.
Predictably, he was standing a few steps back from the crowd waiting for the Lady Florist, positioned perfectly so that Wei Wuxian’s first glimpse of him would be among the falling petals.
He’d timed it perfectly.
Wei Wuxian had a sneaking premonition he should anticipate recreations of all their chances not taken. He couldn’t say he was opposed.
He took a moment to stare. Lan Zhan had gone to the trouble of planning this, so he should take his time and appreciate his hard work. He’d dressed in far more intricately woven robes than Wei Wuxian could remember him wearing, before the end of the Sunshot Campaign. His outer robe was even in Wei Wuxian’s favorite shade of blue. Of course, none of that held his attention, in comparison to Lan Zhan himself.
Lan Zhan looked down from the flowers, and saw him, so the time for appreciating his husband’s handsomeness was officially over. To be continued, the next time he got that contemplative expression that meant he was about to destroy a sect leader’s dignity with a few well-placed words. Or simply fell asleep before him.
“How did you get rid of your disciples?” He asked, once he’d thrown himself into Lan Zhan’s arms and kissed him silly. Which in Lan Zhan terms meant soft and smiley and uncaring of passerby whistling at their display.
Lan Zhan’s nose crinkled in adorable, misplaced confusion. “I left, in the night.”
It was truly incredible that Wei Wuxian was the one with all the social skills in this relationship.
“A-Zhan, did you remember to leave a note?” He tucked a strand of hair he’d disturbed back under Lan Zhan’s forehead ribbon.
Lan Zhan’s face said, “…”
He nodded decisively. “Ok, so as soon as we meet the Lady Florist, we’re sending your brother a butterfly to let him know you’re alive and not kidnapped.”
“Did you ask permission?” Lan Zhan frowned, clearly imagining how Jiang Cheng would have reacted.
(It was a good thing he’d never met Madam Yu.)
“I left a note, telling them I was off seeking adventure. And I told Shijie I needed to do something important.” He gave a little flourish, though he knew Lan Zhan would see through the act. Even though it would have been out of character for him to run off without good reason, no one would think it was except Shijie. Wei Wuxian had only just been beginning to understand how much had been wrong in the way he’d been raised when the end of the world arrived. “Let’s not scare your brother more than necessary, all right? He still thinks you’ve never broken a rule in your life.”
Lan Zhan sighed, his equivalent of a petulant fine. In a blatant effort to change the subject, Lan Zhan pulled a dizi from his sleeve, and pressed it into Wei Wuxian’s hands.
“A dizi? For me?” It was beautifully carved, from a dark, not quite black wood, and there was a little red agate rabbit adorning the crimson tassel.
“It was my mother’s.” Lan Zhan’s ears flushed as he looked down, nervous in a way he hadn’t been in years. “I thought… Since you do not have Chenqing… A-Niang would have loved you.”
It never escaped his notice that Lan Zhan’s mother was the only person he used informal terms for, save A-Yuan and Wei Wuxian himself. Reverently, he took the dizi in his hands, running his thumb across the characters that adorned it, worn past the point of illegibility.
There was a slight delay in reaching the Lady Florist, due to Wei Wuxian’s overwhelming need to kiss his husband.
“Usually,” The Lady Florist said, when Lan Zhan had finished reciting his poem. “Contestants recite poems in praise of my beauty.” She was seated behind a translucent red curtain, her features obscured just enough that her features would be impossible to describe.
So it made sense that Lan Zhan had not tried.
“I could not be honest, as I have never seen you. Likewise, to me, no one can compare to my husband.” Lan Zhan’s posture was as stiff as it ever was, with a stranger, yet he wore his most loving smirk openly, when he looked at Wei Wuxian.
Who was going to melt into the ground and become fertilizer for the florist’s flowers. He’d grown to accept the occasional public compliment from Lan Zhan, but his poem had reached a level that was only allowed when Wei Wuxian was drowsy and self-satisfied.
He’d have to pay him back ten-fold for this later. “My husband is a flatterer. I can compare you to the first rays of dawn if you’d like, but I’m not half the poet Lan Zhan is.”
“Please don’t. I have been waiting a long time for someone to treat me honestly.” At her words, a strong wind swept through the courtyard, stealing away the curtain that hid her.
Any true poetry the Lady Florist inspired would have been a tragedy. It was nothing in her appearance, that of a young woman far more interesting for the way she held her sword than the classical beauty she did, indeed, possess. There was an air of unreality around her, as though if he so much as brushed her sleeve with the tip of his finger, she’d vanish. Behind her was a wall of plain gray brick, with no sign of an entrance to any building.
“You’re a ghost, aren’t you?” Wei Wuxian blurted out. “But unlike any I’ve ever felt before. Except maybe — Lan Yi. You know what you’re guarding.”
She nodded. “And you know what you’re asking for, if I’m not mistaken.”
“We do.” Lan Zhan confirmed, before Wei Wuxian could do something stupid like make a joke about it.
“I was given the responsibility of guarding this peace of the Yin Iron by a long-dead leader of the Jin Clan. However, my fellow guards shut me into that wall with it, brick by brick, when they grew tired of the work. It is long past time someone with the right qualifications came to rid me of my burden.” The Lady Florist gestured, and the wall crumbled into dust, revealing a fountain with a dry bed, the piece of Yin Iron siting in pride of place at its center.
Wei Wuxian stepped towards it, but Lan Zhan grabbed his wrist. Right, no touching with his bare hands this time around, unless he had no other choice. “You would trust us with it?”
“He’s honest.” The Lady Florist smiled at Lan Zhan. Which was only the correct way to react to him. Wei Wuxian decided he liked her, for that. Too few people saw Lan Zhan for who he was. “You intend to destroy it, yes?”
“I have a method.” He confirmed, though shattering it into still-resentful small pieces and risking tearing himself apart in the process was far from his first choice. “And yes, Lan Zhan, I have ideas for a better one. I promise we’ll figure it out.”
Wei Wuxian had figured out time travel. He could beat a few lumps of metal into submission.
“Then I can rest.” Smiling beatifically, the Lady Florist faded away, moving on to find out what was waiting in her next life. He hoped it was better than the last.
Lan Zhan used tongs to transfer the piece of Yin Iron from the fountain to Wei Wuxian’s new, extra strength qiankun bag. Not so much as a hint of resentful energy escaped it. Lan Zhan sighed, relieved, but still tucked it away in his own sleeve. He was convinced Wei Wuxian was Yin Iron catnip, and it cost Wei Wuxian nothing to humor him.
“That’s one down.” He said. “Four more, two sect leaders, and an evil snake-tortoise to go.”
Lan Zhan snorted, his own unique mix of incredulous and amused. Grabbing Lan Zhan by the hand — missing many of the familiar calluses — he pulled him out into the street. He looked back over his shoulder, and Lan Zhan was smiling back at him.
Wei Wuxian was as much in love with his husband at nineteen as forty-three, yet there was something unformed about his Lan Zhan in his younger self’s body.
He wondered if the same could be said about him.
Yes, he decided later, after they’d tumbled into bed for an unexpectedly short round of sex. Mental experience and inexperienced, teenage bodies were a mismatch all around. But the faster refractory period was nice enough compensation.
The Xuanwu of slaughter was almost laughably easy to deal with. Wei Wuxian distracted it with his new dizi, so Lan Zhan could use Chord Assassination — this time with his actual guqin — and it died.
Just like that.
Retrieving the sword turned out to be more difficult, as Lan Zhan insisted he find a way to climb inside its shell and retrieve it, without actually touching it.
In the end, he wrapped a chain around the sword and pulled, bubbles escaping his mouth, and swam for the surface, sword in tow. Lan Zhan pulled him from the water, checking him over thoroughly for any injury. He found none, of course. There was no brand on his chest to become infected, and echoes of the resentment of hundreds of thousands of lost souls were not racing along his meridians. Only tendrils probing curiously at his edges, wondering how he had once been theirs, but was no longer.
But Lan Zhan worried, and never believed him when he said he was fine. Even when it was true.
Wei Wuxian supposed he probably shouldn’t have lied about it so many times.
On the way back to Gusu, they made one final stop.
Lan Zhan insisted on buying a pair of rabbits in the town at the base of Dafan Mountain, as a gift. Wei Wuxian didn’t have the heart to tell him there were even odds those rabbits would end up stewed. He purchased a pair of grass butterflies and a wooden sword, just in case.
And reached for the hand that wasn’t carrying the rabbit cage, for his own sake as much as to keep Lan Zhan from digging his nails into his palms. Their swords they kept out of sight, to avoid spooking those who had reason to fear all but a few cultivators.
Wei Wuxian had never had the chance to see the Dafan Wen’s village when it was anything other than a ghost town, whether its occupants had been turned into puppets or were long dead and gone.
And so it was something of a shock to come across a village in full swing.
Wen Popo sat in a wicker chair in a patch of sunlight, darning a pair of woolen underclothes in preparation for a winter she would have, under other circumstances, spent in a prison camp. Fourth Uncle sat in the shade nearby, working his magic on a bucket of fruit that would no doubt become a truly deadly batch of booze.
And in the background, was the laughter of children.
Children. Not one child, but several at least.
Somehow, Wei Wuxian had managed to forget that A-Yuan once had an older sister.
Before he could dwell on that too heavily — or put his own dwelling aside to drag Lan Zhan out of his own — Popo noticed them. “Are you looking for a place to stay for the night?”
“We are, thank you!” He called back.
Wen Popo frowned at her nephew. “Get moving, you lout. It’s time to do your real work, instead of dreaming up new ways to drink us all under the table.”
“I make more selling wine then renting out the room and you know it, Gugu,” Fourth Uncle replied, before turning to them. “It’s three silver pieces a night. And we only have one spare room. You’ll have to share.”
“That’s alright, Si-shu — Uncle. I prefer to share with my husband, even when he’s being grouchy.”
“Newlyweds, then?” He smiled knowingly. “It’s only that you’re both so young. My parents and Popo would never have stood for me leaving so soon after my marriage.”
“We are not newlyweds,” Lan Zhan promptly informed him. Because heavens forbid someone assume a couple not quite out of their teens had only recently taken their vows.
Wei Wuxian laughed and forced a grin, elbowing Lan Zhan in the side as he shifted to a two-handed grip on his arm. “It’s only that we’ve known each other for so long. It feels like we’ve always loved each other.”
“My wife and I are the same.” Uncle Four said.
That was strange. Uncle Four had never mentioned he’d been married in all the time he’d known him. “Will she be joining us for dinner?’
“Ah - no,” A shadow passed over his eyes. “She’s away, in Nightless City.”
Now that he noticed it, the village seemed rather empty. Despite the late afternoon hour, there were only a few youths coming in from the fields, most of whom he knew. And of those, none were cultivators, nor had been conscripted to accompany the Wen troops as servants, due to disability. “Are may of your clan in Nightless City now?”
“How did you —” His gaze sharpened suddenly on Lan Zhan’s ribbon. “You’re Lan Clan, aren’t you? If you think you can —”
“Popo, shushu, I found a big spider!” A young girl of about seven raced up to them, waving around said spider impaled on a stick. Though it was dead, Lan Zhan started ever so slightly, and twisted his fingers tight in Wei Wuxian’s sleeve.
(Lan Zhan protected him from horrible yapping dogs, Wei Wuxian checked the ceiling and bed for spiders in every inn they stayed at, and shooed them out of the Jingshi. Their relationship was truly a partnership.)
“So you did,” Popo chuckled, with a suspicious glance at the two of them. “Put that down in the rocks over there before you frighten your poor aunties to death. You know they’re delicate.”
“Yes, Popo.” She shuffled her feet and pouted as she went to obey, flinging the stick as far as she could.
Wei Wuxian felt a tug on his robes, and looked down to find his little boy grasping his robes with one hand, and Lan Zhan’s with the other. As though he could not decide which leg he’d rather hug. “Bunnies?” A-Yuan asked with a gap-toothed grin.
His heart attempted to crumple and swell at the same time.
He hadn’t let himself feel that Sizhui was gone yet. Couldn’t. But here he was, practically a baby, chubby cheeked and smaller than Wei Wuxian had ever seen him. A happy little boy, who’d never suffered those two years of malnutrition that left him unusually prone to infectious disease, for a cultivator, his growth likely stunted, and with problems digesting food.
Their Sizhui was gone, and he was going to cry about that in Lan Zhan’s arms tonight. But Wei Wuxian swore that this time, A-Yuan would not go a single day without everything he needed.
Lan Zhan dropped to his knees. “Yes, rabbits. They are for A-Yuan.”
“For me?” A-Yuan gasped, reaching out to grasp the brown ear of an otherwise white rabbit with his pudgy, baby hands. “Thank you, gege!”
“How do you know A-Yuan’s name?” It would have been too much to ask for Popo not to notice what was wrong with that interaction.
As Wei Wuxian slapped a hand against his forehead, Lan Zhan grimaced apologetically.
Wei Wuxian laughed nervously. “About that. Long story. If I promise we’re here to make sure all of you, Wen Qing, and Wen Ning survive the war that’s coming, can we sit down and explain?”
“I can spare the time. But my nephew will take the children to a safe place while we speak.” She glanced down at A-Yuan, who was already cradling a rabbit close to his chest, the other nestled on his lap. This was clearly the greatest thing that had every happened to him. The older girl had begun to edge closer, less trusting of the strange men, but the lure of soft, fluffy creatures was too much for any child to resist. “With the rabbits, I suppose.”
Lan Zhan was very reluctantly separated from A-Yuan. Reluctance Wei Wuxian shared, dread at the possibility of learning that A-Yuan would never again be their son.
They did not tell Popo the whole story, after she was settled in her hut on cushions arranged from back support, the two of them kneeling across the table. Only the barest essentials, of what her family meant to Wei Wuxian, and A-Yuan meant to them both. What not only could, but would happen if they did nothing.
All it took to convince her was Wei Wuxian allowing the tea to over-steep the way she liked it — her sense of taste having diminished with age — before pouring her a cup. That, and a few details on each member of her clan.
Wen Popo sipped her bitter tea with a pleased sigh. And the Lans said Wei Wuxian’s sense of taste was damaged! At least spicy was a valid flavor profile if you didn’t grow up thinking everything should taste like ginseng. “Wards, that will keep out any who do not know the path in? And what of Wen Qing and Wen Ning? The other members of our clan, if any remain?”
“We’ll give them the key, whether Wen Qing agrees to help or not. Your safety is not a bargaining chip.” Not for him. Not ever. Whether the Dafan Wens could ever see him that way again or not, they were his family.
And even if they weren’t, all Wei Wuxian had ever wanted to do was protect innocents.
“Very well. If it will keep Wen Chao and the Jin away, I agree.” “Now. You took in A-Yuan, you said. And A-Wu?"
He shook his head, stricken. Wei Wuxian had never let himself think about the lost children, but this bright, curious girl — “We never met, I’m sorry.”
“We have heard, recently, from Wen Qing, that neither of their parents will be returning. She would not say what happened.” Popo shook her head sadly.
Knowing what he did of Wen Ruohan’s experiments, that was likely for the best. Perhaps Wen Qing had shown mercy, perhaps it had simply been a whim. And bam: mindless, undead puppets.
Part of Wei Wuxian had feared that A-Yuan’s parents would be there, alive and well, and that he was never to be theirs. He’d felt terrible for that fear. But his guilt did not overwhelm the relief at the news.
He squeezed Lan Zhan’s hand, seeing the same feeling echoed on his face.
“A-Yuan does not yet understand, and A-Wu tries too hard to laugh.” Popo continued. "It has been hard on both of them. They need stability, and you look barely out of your teens. No, not even — my eyes are playing tricks. Because of course you’re much older, and fathers already.”
“A-Yuan was — our son, before, yes. If, after —” Lan Zhan said, haltingly, clinging so tightly to Wei Wuxian’s hand that his fingers began to tingle with painful pinpricks.
Yet he clung back just as fiercely, and picked up the threads. “A-Yuan grew into the best of us. A skilled cultivator, and more kind-hearted than any in our generation, but clever and not at all naive.”
Popo caught their meaning immediately. “You would like him back, I see. Yet now, he is not alone.”
“I’ve always wanted a daughter.” Wei Wuxian said, more earnest than his usual flippant brightness. Once, he’d missed his chance to raise his son. He and Lan Zhan had just begun talking about adopting a second child, when the resentful energy began pouring forth from the volcano.
A-Yuan had asked for older siblings, more than once. And here one was, a reversal in time providing what no god of radishes or agriculture could.
“If other children have been orphaned, we would be happy to take them in as well.” Lan Zhan added. For all his shyness all those years ago in Yiling, Lan Zhan was fonder of children than anyone else he’d met. If he wasn’t to be Chief Cultivator, Wei Wuxian would have to keep him occupied with flocks of baby disciples or he’d never get his husband to himself again.
“Leave us some of our children, please.” Wen Popo said with a chuckle that implied they should consider themselves lucky she would consider letting them adopt any of the Dafan Wen. “I would expect A-Yuan and A-Wu to know their clan.”
“Yes, of course.” Wei Wuxian assured her. “We never had the opportunity to know our own parents, but family is important to both of us. Blood related or no. In fact, Popo, I once considered you like my own grandmother.”
“Hmm.” She reached out to pinch his cheek, and looked surprised that she’d done so, even as Wei Wuxian felt his face scrunch up in cat-like pleasure. “If you can come to an arrangement with our clan leader, I have no further objections. You are the strict father, and you the indulgent one, yes?”
Popo pointed first to Wei Wuxian and then to Lan Zhan.
He gasped. “No one’s ever guessed that correctly before!”
And so it was settled.
When Popo brought them to find A-Yuan and A-Wu, they found them playing on the ground with the rabbits, utterly enamored.
(Clearly, there would be no rabbit stew.)
They set up the wards the day after they learned they would not only keep their son, but gain a daughter. For another few days, they stayed, relearning A-Yuan, and getting to know A-Wu.
(Wei Wuxian handled all spider related endeavors, and even invented a bug-catching talisman on the spot. A-Wu was absolutely fascinated, and Wei Wuxian was in love already. Lan Zhan, on the other hand, got to hold A-Yuan and the rabbits in his lap, for the price of only a few wacks of a toy sword.)
But finally, it was necessary they go. A-Yuan clung tight to first his, and then, more effectively, Lan Zhan’s thighs as they said their goodbyes. A-Wu was more wary. In her world, people didn’t leave and come back. Wei Wuxian had to exercise every scrap of Strict Parent skills he possessed to separate them, though he himself wanted nothing more than to stay.
They met back up with Lan Zhan’s frantic group of disciples at the branch clan that had been attacked by one of Wen Ruohan’s infectious fierce corpses. Despite the Lan prohibition against gossip, the disciples were clearly more interested in finding out exactly what Lan Zhan’s relationship with him was than obvious signs of impending war.
Shame they didn’t stop at an inn. The expressions on their faces would have been hilarious, when Wei Wuxian entered the same room as their distant Second Jade. Ah, well. There would be plenty of opportunities to scandalize all of Gusu Lan in the future, simply by making Lan Zhan smile.
It was perhaps no surprise that they arrived at the gates of the Cloud Recesses to find Jiang Cheng arguing with the guards.
Wei Wuxian hadn’t been the only one to forget about the invitation, after all.
“What’s this?” He asked, walking up behind them with his hands clasped behind his back.
Shijie spun around and lit up, launching herself at him. “A-Xian!”
Jiang Cheng sputtered, torn between his desire to look like a mature sect heir and to cause an avalanche to fall on his innocent da-shixiong’s head.
Wei Wuxian pet Shijie’s hair, holding her close for a long moment. He would never stop being amazed that she was here. And if things went according to any of the precisely forty-seven plans he and Lan Zhan had brainstormed with Nie Huaisang, she never wouldn’t be. Reluctantly, he set her back at arms length. “See? I’m here, all in one piece. Just like I promised.”
“Xianxian will have to forgive his big sister for worrying.” She patted him on the cheek, and he grinned back at her. More than once, while traveling, Wei Wuxian had been mistaken for her real sibling, because they shared the same smile.
Jiang Cheng had not been pleased.
Planting himself between Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng, Lan Zhan addressed the guards. “What is going on?” He asked, though he damn well knew the answer. Leave it to his Lan Zhan to be petty over things that hadn’t even happened yet.
The guard pulled himself up straighter, though his posture was already impeccable. It made him look like a beanpole stretching up toward the sun. “These cultivators claim to be guest disciples from the Jiang clan who misplaced their invitation.”
“Jiang? Wei Ying, do you know these people?” Lan Zhan turned to him, and — oh, that was just unfair.
Mischievous Lan Zhan came around so rarely, he had to play along, just a little. “This is my shijie, but the purple-faced, yelling one can’t possibly be my angelic shidi.”
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng shouted.
As much Wei Wuxian loved his brother, his eardrums did not. He rubbed his left ear, grimacing. “Nevermind, there he is.”
Lan Zhan looked like he was contemplating making Jiang Cheng wait longer, so Wei Wuxian nipped that in the bud. “Lan Zhan, please don’t make Shijie wait out in the forest.”
Unable to think of a way to force only Jiang Cheng to wait, Lan Zhan pouted, but ordered the guards to let them in. Wei Wuxian stepped forward to pass through at his side. Once inside, Lan Zhan ordered two of the disciples with them to show the guests to their quarters. Shijie squeezed his arm a final time, and departed with the other female disciples.
Jiang Cheng, however, doubled back when he realized Wei Wuxian was continuing on with Lan Zhan, and not him.
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng pulled him back by the shoulder hard enough to hurt, “Stop! You’re not going anywhere until you tell me what the hell you’re doing with the Second Jade of Lan.”
He twisted away, rubbing his shoulder, and stopped Lan Zhan from pulling his sword on Jiang Cheng with shake of his head. “Because we’re married obviously, right Lan Zhan?”
Jiang Cheng misinterpreted the Lan Zhan’s fond smile as a glare. “Stop bothering him and come find our rooms.”
This time, he had to grab onto Lan Zhan’s wrist. It wasn’t like Jiang Cheng’s reaction was unreasonable. From his perspective, Wei Wuxian had run off, and had the gall to show back up not only without needing rescue, but with someone who was decidedly Not Family. “Ah, no. Lan Zhan and I have to go report to Xiche — to Lan-zongzhu about this puppet we found. I’ll talk to you tomorrow, yeah?”
“Wei Wuxian!” Jiang Cheng repeated. He really needed some new material.
“Be good, Chengcheng!” Waving back over his shoulder, Wei Wuxian dragged Lan Zhan towards his brother’s office, leaving Jiang Cheng protesting in their wake.
For the length of their explanation of the puppet’s condition, Lan Xichen did not stop looking between them, his expression torn between knowing and confused. “I see your assessment of the victim’s condition appears to be accurate. Wei-gongzi, if you don’t mind my asking, how did you and Wangji come to travel together? Our uncle and I were very concerned when we learned Wangji had separated from the other disciples.”
It was strange, how very young Lan Xichen looked.
“I was traveling, seeing if I could get a little more experience in before the lectures. I was tracking a demon that was terrorizing a village. Lan Zhan was tracking the same demon, but neither of us knew it could create illusions. We fought each other under the moonlight —” The only true detail of the day they met in the fabrication he spun “— until we figured it out, and took out the demon. And then we bonded. Right, Lan Zhan?” He swayed into his side.
Lan Zhan smiled at him fondly as he nodded his agreement.
Lan Qiren made a choking noise. And repeated it every time Wei Wuxian called Lan Zhan by his birth name.
(They had discussed whether to let others know of the Yin Iron, but decided against it. Their plan involved far more underhanded dealings than a Lan who never lived through the Sunshot campaign would countenance. Lan Yi’s piece they would share, when they retrieved it, but not the others.)
“I’m glad to see Wangji is making friends, then, Wei-gongzi.” Lan Xichen said with a matchmaking smile.
“Oh, I’d say we’re more than that. He’s my zhiji. We’re equally matched with the sword and he’s the funniest person I’ve ever met. I can talk to him for hours, and for some reason, he never tells me to stop.”
“You— you —” Lan Qiren, who had caught nothing but the mild sword euphemism, sputtered on repeat.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan said, admonishing, though Wei Wuxian could tell he was pleased.
“I said nothing that isn’t true,” He knocked his shoulder playfully into Lan Zhan’s.
Lan Qiren glowered, as though looking for a way to kick him out on his first night. Unfortunately for Lan Qiren, he hadn’t. Yet. Wei Wuxian wasn’t the one who picked up those bottles of Emperor’s Smile in Caiyi. “Wangji, let me speak to you in private.”
Lan Zhan pretended he had not heard him.
(If there was a family relationship more deeply damaged than Wei Wuxian’s own, it was Lan Zhan’s with his uncle.)
Lan Xichen looked between them, and as always, played peacekeeper. Helpful now, but in retrospect it was rather obvious why he’d missed all those glaring red flags. “I think it’s past Wangji’s bedtime, don’t you think, Shufu?”
“Yes. I am very tired.” Lan Zhan lied. “Exhausted, even.”
Lan Qiren reluctantly dismissed them.
The Jingshi tragically contained the younger Lan Zhan’s slim single bed, which Wei Wuxian would definitely be falling off of every morning. But for Lan Zhan, he would suffer and be happy about it.
After his turn in the bath to wash off the grime of the road, he ran a comb section-by-section through Lan Zhan’s freshly oiled hair while Lan Zhan tuned his guqin.
As Wei Wuxian’s thoughts jumped erratically from topic to topic, he caught upon something important they’d forgotten. He hurried to tell his husband before it slipped away. “The wards for the Cloud Recesses, Lan Zhan. We should update those.”
Lan Zhan made a noise of agreement. “We may begin tomorrow evening, after curfew.”
Wei Wuxian froze with the comb halfway through a lock of hair as a shiver of delight ran down his spine. “My rule breaking A-Zhan, I’ve ruined you.”
Lan Zhan shook his head, pulling his hair out of Wei Wuxian’s loose grip. “Not enough. Ruin me now.”
Slowly, Wei Wuxian set the comb on the table and pushed the curtain of his hair aside, lowering his lips to Lan Zhan’s neck to begin the process of slowly and methodically taking him apart.
If there was one thing that could be said for Lan Zhan’s early rising habit, it was that Wei Wuxian was rarely late in the mornings anymore. At least, if Lan Zhan wasn’t in the mood to be dragged back to bed.
Wei Wuxian sprawled across Lan Zhan’s desk, renewing his acquaintance with Mianmian as the disciples and young masters slowly trickled in for the greeting ceremony. They hadn’t known each other well in his first life, but after his resurrection, she’d become one of his few close friends. Even better, unlike Nie Huaisang — not yet arrived, likely sneaking his bird past Meng Yao’s watchful eyes — Lan Zhan liked her.
“The Lan style is both forceful and precise,” Mianmian was saying. Jin Zixuan sat to her right, staring determinedly straight ahead (Not worthy of his sister, but she was capable of making her own choices. And this time, Wei Wuxian would have the comfort of knowing her poor taste in men would result in A-Ling.) “The Jin style is more of a court dance, to the Jiang’s country dance of agility and speed. I’ve been thinking that supplementing our respective techniques with cross training in the other two sect’s forms might better prepare us for unpredictable opponents.”
“I like the way you think!” Wei Wuxian grinned lazily at her, even as the edge of the desk wrecked havoc on his spine. “Lan Zhan?’
“We will spar.” Lan Zhan agreed.
Wei Wuxian brought up a recently published poetry volume, and the rest of the time before the bulk of the students arrived passed quickly.
Jiang Cheng cast a looming shadow over him. “Where were you last night?”
Wei Wuxian stretched the hand Lan Zhan wasn’t holding captive above his head. “With Lan Zhan? Like I told you.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t come back.” Jiang Cheng said, and oh boy how had Wei Wuxian not noticed that this eighteen-year-old version of Jiang Cheng’s entire perception of flirting came from what Wei Wuxian told him explicitly.
Is he stupid? Lan Zhan asked with his eyes, as he stroked his thumb along Wei Wuxian’s palm beneath the cover of his sleeve.
Only I’m allowed to call him stupid, husband, Wei Wuxian said with his smile in return. But also kind of yes.
(That he’d ever thought Lan Zhan was interested in Mianmian, simply because he hadn’t figured out how to flirt back yet, was truly hilarious in hindsight.)
It had taken years of petty teenage squabbles for Jiang Cheng to figure out what infatuation and love really looked like, and to figure out he wasn’t actually interested in it, thank you. He hadn’t been in love with Wen Qing, he just admired her skills and thought she was, objectively, pretty.
(Speaking of, Wei Wuxian would have to remember to track down the rogue cultivators who could become Jiang Cheng’s most loyal disciples. Those three were far better at the subordinate-slash-friend role than Wei Wuxian could ever have been. Even when there was only a year and seven days difference between them.)
“Aw, did my favorite shidi wait up?’ He teased, and ignored the ensuing threats of leg breaking. Jiang Cheng was simply stuck in his own way of thinking. In his mind, Wei Wuxian was never serious about anything, and Lan Wangji, the epitome of all that was serious, must therefore despise him. Only the three months Wei Wuxian spent in the Burial Mounds had changed that, before.
Wei Wuxian wondered how obvious they’d have to be in front of him before he noticed. He’d have to test it. For science.
Jiang Cheng fumed, but did not have the chance to protest further.
Lan Qiren walked into the room, caught sight of them, and turned on his heel. Lan Xichen braced his hands against his uncle’s arms to prevent their collision. With his expression broadcasting that he’d much rather be sticking his head in the cold springs until his suspicions about his younger nephew’s choice in romantic partner was cleansed from memory, Lan Qiren reluctantly made his way to the front of the room.
Though the seating arrangement had somehow ended up less divided along clan lines while Wei Wuxian wasn’t looking, the greetings went on without a hitch, until the Wen showed up.
He didn’t even have to remind Lan Zhan they’d promised not to kill Meng Yao before he killed anyone once!
This time, it was not Wei Wuxian who angered Wen Chao. Jiang Cheng handled that all on his own. Which reminded him why he’d always taken care to act out first. Jiang Cheng was less impulsive, but his anger burned hotter and longer.
“How dare you!” Jiang Cheng snapped when Wei Wuxian failed to start problems, beginning to draw Sandu. Wei Wuxian leaped over the desk between them to slam it back into its sheath, simultaneously casting the Lan silence spell on him.
It wasn’t something he used often. Lan Zhan had taught him largely so he knew the trick to breaking it without spitting up blood when Lan Qiren had cast it on him.
(Sadly, it was inappropriate for the Chief Cultivator or his husband to silence their political opponents. No matter how idiotic they were acting. Lan Zhan had struggled with that.)
But sometimes, it came in handy.
Jiang Cheng continued in increasingly frustrated mumbles, glaring at Lan Zhan, the assumed culprit.
Wen Chao laughed at him, and Zewu-jun was able to diffuse the situation. Jiang Cheng was furious with him, after, but Yunmeng Jiang had not yet become Wen Chao’s special target.
As Wen Qing talked Wen Chao down from further embarrassing himself with a few choice words, Wei Wuxian heard a sharp inhale from beside him. “Oh my heavens.” Mianmian breathed. Her lips parted and her eyes shone, reminiscent of the way Lan Zhan looked at him
“Is she your type?” He whispered, knowing the answer was yes. Her husband had also been clever and sharp-tongued yet kind — albeit far less intimidating than Wen Qing.
“Are you kidding? Look at her. She’s the best kind of terrifying.” She sighed wistfully. “Not that I have a chance.”
Wei Wuxian could not say firsthand whether Mianmian was Wen Qing’s type — she’d always held herself too aloof to tell; her interest had been as good as a death sentence — but he did know she liked girls. And who wouldn’t like Mianmian? Wei Wuxian might have tried to flirt more seriously himself, if he hadn’t met Lan Zhan and had all other romantic possibilities wiped from his mind by the first spark of attraction. “I wouldn’t be so sure.”
As Wen Qing followed Wen Chao out the door, her hand guiding Wen Ning, her shoulders slumped with exhaustion.
Yes, he decided. The woman he’d thought of as his second sister and closest friend in the last days of his first life deserved a little happiness. Mianmian would be good for her.
And when this was all over and Wei Wuxian and Wen Qing inevitably set their minds on clever and scandalous innovations, Lan Zhan and Mianmian could entertain each other by smacking each other with swords.
Wei Wuxian was going to make this happen.
After he got Wen Qing on board with the all-important main plan, that was.
It was decided that Wei Wuxian should approach her alone, since he was the one who actually knew her. And so, a few days into lectures (which Wei Wuxian had not gotten kicked out of, having matured enough to know that antagonizing his most disapproving in-law was more fun when Lan Qiren (1) had to admit Wei Wuxian was right and (2) could not find anything to punish him for) he followed her into the black hills.
He didn’t bother to hide what he was doing, whistling Lan Zhan’s latest composition as he stepped on every twig in his path. It was not surprising in the least when Wen Qing turned, and he found one of her needles hovering at his throat. “You won’t be able to get in. The Yin Iron’s currently guarded by a Lan ancestor who sacrificed her chance at immortality to correct her mistakes. She won’t hand it over to just anyone.”
“I haven’t the faintest idea what you’re talking about.” Wen Qing lied, in that aloof way she used to persuade everyone of her indifference, even when she was unraveling on the inside.
“Sure, sure. By the way, this is for you.” He produced a bag from his sleeve, and held it out to her. It contained an assortment of dried fruits, nuts, and spices, and a bottle of Uncle Four’s fruit wine, because Popo was worried the siblings would wilt on a Lan diet. But the important detail was the bag itself. Wen Qing’s mother had made it for her, before she died. It was embroidered with Wen Qing’s name and a pattern of suns, and Wen Qing had long refused to keep it with her. “Popo says hello.”
“How did you get this?” Wen Qing snatched the bag from his hand.
“Lan Zhan and I paid Dafan Mountain a visit, your family was very welcoming.”
“What did you do to them?” The needle at his throat broke through skin. But not, notably, anywhere near his carotid or jugular.
“Nothing! I only improved their wards.” And adopted two of their children, but that seemed like news to deliver after Wen Qing accepted their story. “No one can find the village without a lodestone now. Here.”
He held out one of the keys to her village’s safety, and she took it, bewildered. “You can’t expect me to believe you’re just giving me this.”
Wei Wuxian gave her a three-fingered salute as he plucked the needle from his throat. It was getting itchy. “That’s free and clear. I hope we removed some obstacles from your path, so you might be willing to work with us. You know there’s only two ways it can go if Wen Ruohan starts the war he wants.”
“You don’t know me. What makes you think I’d be willing to betray him?”
Her disbelief was understandable. But she was wrong. Right now, Wei Wuxian knew her better than anyone else in the world. Perhaps even Wen Ning. He could and would persuade her.
“I do know you. I know there’s nothing more important to you than your brother, but your clan is your responsibility. And A-Yuan wormed his way into your heart the one time you met him, even though you don’t usually like kids much. Your theories about Golden Cores are revolutionary. The Golden Core transfer works, but I hope you never have to prove it.” Wei Wuxian met her eyes as he continued. “And I wouldn’t recommend stabbing me with those needles.”
Wen Qing froze, her hand still in her sleeve. “How did you know about the Golden Core transfer? I haven’t even shared that with A-Ning.”
“It’s a long story. Why don’t we take a seat on the rock over the waterfall?” Warily, she agreed, and Wei Wuxian began his explanation. “Once, there was a boy who was given far more chances than he deserved…”
If anything, Wen Qing was more suspicious by the time he finished his explanation. But he’d expected that.
“Time travel.” Her voice dripped with disdain.
“Yep.” Wei Wuxian confirmed cheerfully.
“Many have called me that, yes.”
Wen Qing dropped her head into her hands. “I can’t believe I believe you.”
“Great!” He chirped, and didn’t give her a chance to think about it further before launching into the planning phase. Overthinking things was bad for her, for the same reasons he could stand to do more of it. “So I think we can sneak Wen Ning to Dafan when Lan Qiren leaves for a few days for … whatever that was. Eh, Lan Zhan will know. And you can check on your clan before we come back, make sure I’m not lying. Also, Mianmian’s cute, don’t you think? I bet she could bench press you.”
“What’s your plan for the Yin Iron?” Wen Qing sadly ignored his matchmaking efforts in favor of staying on topic.
Wei Wuxian grinned. “I’m so glad you asked.”
Wei Wuxian spent all his spare time in the library with Lan Zhan and Wen Qing, searching for a way to purify the Yin Iron, once and for all.
The people least pleased about this were Jiang Cheng, and Lan Qiren. He thought Lan Qiren might actually hate him more now that he was a model student. But there was nothing he could do about it. And the Lan library, where loud voices were expressly forbidden, served as a powerful shidi repellent.
Mianmian, on the other hand, dropped in almost daily, for reasons that seemed obvious to him, but were a mystery to Wen Qing. “Wen-guniang, what do you think of narcotic herbal mixtures in comparison to acupuncture for reducing pain during medical procedures?”
Wen Qing eyed her strangely, but explained her thoughts on why acupuncture was better for symptom reduction, but a combination was often necessary.
Though Mianmian was first and foremost a sword cultivator, it seemed she had some knowledge of medicine. And had chosen to utilize it for flirting. From the way Wen Qing lit up when she saw her, leaned in while speaking, allowed casual touches to her arms and shoulders, it was working. Even if Wen Qing didn’t know it yet.
“So Wen-guniang,” Mianmian said some time later, having passed the time alternately chatting with Wei Wuxian — split attention helped him stay on topic, unlike the other two — and flipping through a novel. She rested her head on the open pages, looking up at Wen Qing through half-lowered lashes. Only when Wen Qing met her eyes, did she continue. “It’s true that ginseng is an aphrodisiac, right? How much sex do these Lans secretly have? It’s in practically every meal.”
Flushing, Wen Qing looked determinedly back at her work. “Why don’t you ask those two?”
Wei Wuxian snickered at them over the rim of a book, until Lan Zhan nudged him. His ears were bright red.
In Wei Wuxian’s defense, teasing was his love language. “I can’t speak for all Lans, but our sex life is very healthy.” He pecked his increasingly crimson husband on the cheek.
“Oh, do you suppose that’s what’s wrong with Lan-xiansheng?” Mianmian asked.
Wen Qing put down her brush, and pinched the bridge of her nose.
“The herbs and roots we use are good for strength and longevity,” Lan Zhan interrupted, before Wei Wuxian could make him combust from further public sex talk. In private, he wasn’t as prone to dirty talk as Wei Wuxian, but had no shame in expressing his ideas when he was truly inspired. In public, it was as easy to fluster him as when they were this age in spirit, as well as in body. “Some are also good for married couples, yes. My uncle is… he does not understand why others find it difficult to be abstinent.”
Wei Wuxian shifted so Lan Zhan could bury his face in his neck, and reached backwards to stroke his hair soothingly. Poor Lan Zhan. No one wanted to think about their elders’ potential sexual entanglements, or absence thereof.
“That makes even more sense! It’s making him horny, when he’d rather not be!” Mianmian declared, earning scandalized looks from a pair of Lan disciples browsing the nearby shelves.
Wen Qing wore a look he recognized as I can’t believe I’m attracted to this, because Lan Zhan had worn a less obvious version for the first several months of their acquaintance.
“Ohhhhhh,” Wei Wuxian promptly added this to his list of increasingly outrageous theories for why Lan Qiren was Like That. His favorite was still that Lan Qiren had been a perfectly normal little Lan disciple until the day his mother cut off his beard.
Despite the Mianmian interludes, he thought they were making good progress.
At the dinner bell, Shijie dropped in like clockwork, inviting them all to her courtyard. Her cooking was, as always, irresistible. Lan Zhan had even finally gotten to try a lotus-only version of her incomparable soup.
“Why did you drag Lan-er-gongzi here again?” Jiang Cheng complained each night, willfully ignoring all evidence that Lan Zhan was there by choice, and more often than not in possession Wei Wuxian’s hand, massaging out the cramps from hours of writing. “And where have you even been sleeping?”
“The Jingshi,” Wei Wuxian replied daily, only for Jiang Cheng to ask again the next day, because he didn’t want the answer to be true.
They’d finished increasing the strength of the wards after only two weeks, which left after curfew time for marital activities, whether that meant sex, or simply cuddling on the too-small bed, reading their respective books.
They weren’t bothering to hide the fact that Wei Wuxian left Lan Zhan’s house every morning. Everyone else had noticed. From Wen Qing’s eyerolls, to Nie Huaisang’s ongoing porn offerings.
(Largely unrealistic and uncreative. Assertions that his input was unnecessary did nothing to dissuade Nie Huaisang.
Wei Wuxian was resolved to purchase him some lube when he finally made a trip to Caiyi. It would be a public service.)
But Jiang Cheng wasn’t the best at picking up how others expressed their feelings. Case in point, the way he was forcing himself into a crush on Wen Qing, despite his disinterest in romance, and Wen Qing’s disinterest in men. And increasing interest in Mianmian, in particular.
Mianmian could talk about swords and twirl a strand of Wen Qing’s hair, and Wen Qing would just keep staring at her mouth until her brother called for her. It was embarrassing to watch. He hoped he and Lan Zhan didn’t look like that from the outside, but knew they did.
“You’ve barely even broken any rules. Are you sure you’re not possessed?” Jiang Cheng continued.
“Do you want me to break rules?” He was, of course. Lan Zhan simply wasn’t reporting him.
“No! I just — ugh!” Crossing his arms over his chest, Jiang Cheng pouted.
“A-Cheng,” Shijie said in warning, as she set a pot of vegetable soup down in the center of the table. She knew the truth now, because she’d made sure Wei Wuxian kept his promise. But she would have done the same thing anyway.
“But he’s lying!” Jiang Cheng slammed his fist onto the table hard enough to rattle the bowls and spoons, sending a wave of the soup Shijie had just ladled out for him over the rim.
Wei Wuxian was not, in fact, lying. There was also no point in arguing otherwise. He hooked his foot around Lan Zhan’s ankle, and dug in.
“Eat your soup,” Shijie said, skillfully directing the conversation towards an upcoming exam.
Though it was irrelevant to the fate of the world, Wei Wuxian decided the Peacock needed sorting out a bit earlier.
With Mianmian’s help, he cornered the Peacock in his own room, though she stayed outside the door to make sure no murders ensued.
(Which might have been a valid concern the first time around. But — Jin Ling. Jin Zixuan was sadly necessary to produce his beloved pouty little nephew. And he could, eventually, make Shijie happy. Wei Wuxian would therefore not feed him to the ghost of a jilted woman. No matter how much he wanted to.)
Wei Wuxian crossed his arms and tapped this foot through the Peacock’s initial how dare yous. Then, he simply stepped forward. In stepping back, Jin Zixuan fell onto his bed.
Unlike his first time at the lectures, Wei Wuxian had mastered the art of intimidation. And he intended to take full advantage. “Has it ever occurred to you that this betrothal means my shijie has to marry you?”
“I— what?” It seemed Jin Zixuan lost his arrogance when he was confused, and expected to come up with an answer. Good to know.
“This betrothal wasn’t her choice either.” He enunciated each word, so Jin Zixuan couldn’t claim not to have heard him.
Jin Zixuan tried to stand, but Wei Wuxian stepped on his robe and he fell back onto the bed. Tugging his now dirt-stained robe free, he snapped, “I know that.”
“So why are you treating her like it’s her fault? If you actually don’t like her, talk to her so she can ask Jiang-shushu to let her out of the engagement.”
“He’d let her do that?” Jin Zixuan blinked up at him stupidly.
“Obviously!” No matter how much Madame Yu wanted the marriage, she wouldn’t protest if unrequited feelings were the reason for breaking the betrothal. That was what she thought was wrong with her marriage, after all. When really it was just their incompatible and outright unhealthy communication skills.
(The Lan had this guy who specialized in healing minds by talking it out. Wei Wuxian had wondered why they never shared this knowledge with the rest of the cultivation world, until he realized most of them thought meditation worked just as well. Lan Zhan included. He’d been working on getting him to try it with Sizhui and Jingyi’s help, when, well. Resentful energy volcano.)
“Oh.” Jin Zixuan said softly. With what seemed like genuine surprise.
It was Wei Wuxian’s turn to blink. “Wait, would your parents not?”
He shook his head.
“Hmm. Well. Go talk to Wen Ning before you talk to Shijie. He’s good at putting people’s heads on straight.” Wen Ning might not have started learning from the Lan healer yet, but he was still had that way of making it feel like everything was going to be okay. “And stop assuming that just because Shijie’s soft spoken and can’t develop her cultivation, she’s not worth knowing. She speaks out when it matters, can calm a room full of hot tempers, and for some reason, she likes you. Ask her about cooking, and she’ll carry the conversation until you’re capable of beings something other than a useless lump.
Jin Zixuan nodded dazedly.
Mianmian tagged along as he walked away from her mildly traumatized best friend. “I’ve been trying to get that into his thick skull for ages. Let’s hope it sticks. He secretly thinks she’s the prettiest girl he’s ever seen, you know.”
“Good. She is. So long as he learns to appreciate her more.” His shijie was far more than just a pretty face, or the best cook in the world. She had been trained, extensively, to take her place as Jin-furen. If anyone could make something worthwhile out of the cesspool that was the Lanling Jin, it was her. But had his intervention been enough? Jin Zixuan’s social skills were worse than Lan Zhan’s at nineteen. And Lan Zhan had thought that confessing while Wei Wuxian was delirious with fever counted. “Maybe I should have fed him a more specific question.”
“Nah, he’ll go. ‘So, cooking,’ and turn bright red, and she’ll realize he’s just a dork, and stop being so nervous.” Mianmian said. “It’ll be better if she starts flirting obviously. Sadly, most boys don’t get their feelings in order as quickly as you and Lan Wangji.”
“It took us longer than you’d think.” Two years of mutual pining, sixteen with one of them dead, and a few weeks of dancing around each other before Zewu-jun gave him a kick in the ass — first times while recently stabbed were not something he’d recommend —was not what Wei Wuxian would call ‘quick.’
But Mianmian did not know the whole story, and therefore assumed longer meant nothing more than a brief misunderstanding. Something on the level of Wei Wuxian’s assumption that Lan Zhan’s lack of response to his flirting meant he was uninterested, and might have a crush on Mianmian herself. And not lying about the state of his golden core, pushing Lan Zhan away, becoming the scourge of the cultivation world, and dying.
“So if you’re such an expert on love, how do I get Wen Qing to admit she wants to make out with me?” She asked, swinging around a tree and back onto the path.
“I’ve been thinking about that.” Wei Wuxian said, instead of explaining all the reasons why he was the second (the Peacock, obviously)— no, third (sorry, Lan Zhan), no fourth, (he’d forgotten Jiang Cheng) — worst person she could possibly ask for romantic advice. “What if we arrange for her to walk by while you’re sparring in your inner robes? Show off those impressive biceps of yours so she has to jump you.”
She pulled a sleeve up and flexed, wiggling her eyebrows. “Thank you, I worked hard on them.”
A few days later, Wei Wuxian spotted his sister and Jin Zixuan walking in the garden on his way to the library. He was blushing, and she was smiling.
On the day Lan Qiren left for the cultivation conference, Lan Zhan told his brother he was taking his friends to Caiyi Town for the break, and was immediately handed several heavy purses full of silver because Lan Xichen was just So Excited that His Baby Brother had Friends.
Thinly veiled excuse in place, they and the Wen siblings left for Dafan Mountain.
When Wen Qing was able to use the lodestone to find her way without their intervention, and A-Yuan and A-Wu greeted Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji with just as much excitement as their cousins, her last doubts were dispelled.
He hadn’t known just how much he needed this, until he was defining words A-Wu didn’t understand in a book he’d brought her, while A-Yuan napped in his lap. Until he was watching Lan Zhan get increasingly disheveled as he provided piggyback rides on demand. Until Wen Qing was lecturing them about mud and the laundry, and Wen Ning came up behind her and smashed a mud pie against her cheek, dragging her into the chaos.
It was even harder to tear himself away the second time.
When the three of them returned, sans Wen Ning, they were greeted with the news that one Su Minshan had perished in attempting to vanquish the Waterborne Abyss.
The matter of Lan Yi’s piece of Yin Iron became more pressing as the lectures began to wind to an end. Wei Wuxian wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of figuring out the exact date. But Lan Zhan had spent so long committing every detail of him to memory, that he remembered.
“You don’t actually have to do this. We could just skip class and go to the cold springs.” Wei Wuxian reminded him, eyeing the bottles of Emperor’s Smile dubiously.
(Lan Zhan had picked them up. It was nice not to be expected to have anything that resembled a task-oriented memory, when his husband was happy to double as a calendar. Apparently, he found it relaxing.)
“I want to.” Lan Zhan had that furrow in his eyebrows that said he would not be persuaded otherwise, so Wei Wuxian didn’t try to argue further. He hadn’t gotten to witness the pure adorableness that was drunk Lan Zhan since they returned to their youths anyways.
He might have forgotten to factor in how petty his husband could be, however.
Lan Zhan insisted he invite his friends for the evening, to the room Wei Wuxian supposedly shared with his brother. And this time, Wen Qing, Mianmian, and for unknown reasons Jin Zixuan, were there too.
(He suspected it had something to do with the fact that Mianmian was the boy’s only real friend.)
Only when Jiang Cheng and Nie Huaisang had run out to throw up in the bushes, Jin Zixuan passed out on the table, and Mianmian was busy flirting more obviously than ever with Wen Qing (who knew what was happening, but was thoroughly distracted anyway) did Lan Zhan take a single sip.
They had found that if Lan Zhan took only a sip, rather than a full cup, he would only get tipsy, rather than black out drunk. His inhibitions, however, still evaporated entirely.
Lan Zhan dragged him to the shed where the punishment tools were kept, and used Wei Wuxian’s talismans to systematically burn each and every bamboo cane and board and whip with a vindictive fire in his eyes.
Wei Wuxian gave up, then and there, of ever duping Lan Qiren into approving of him.
He had a sneaking suspicion Lan Zhan had planned his rampage, though he couldn’t be certain. Because this was exactly the sort of thing tipsy Lan Zhan would do.
Back in the Jingshi, they curled up together, reading each other bad erotic poetry and giggling like the pair of carefree teenagers neither of them had ever gotten to be (no matter how good of an act Wei Wuxian had put on.)
The next morning, Wei Wuxian lay in bed, cuddling his sleeping husband, until the guards came looking, after finding a trio of drunken idiots in the bushes.
(The girls didn’t get caught, because of course they didn’t. Wen Qing’s tolerance was a match for his, and she wouldn’t let her future wife get caught. Even if she was still in denial about her inevitable marriage.)
“Hasn’t this rebellion gone far enough, Wangji?” Lan Qiren demanded, pacing back and forth with pent up energy.
Wei Wuxian used the Lan silence spell to prevent his husband from saying that no, he could and would go farther.
“It’s my fault, Lan-xiansheng. I offered him a cup, and — well, I didn’t think this would happen.” The latter part might have been true, but it was not, in fact, his fault this time.
Lan Zhan had taught him how to break the silence spell, so it was not an impediment for long. “I made my choice, Shufu.”
He could see the vein in Lan Qiren’s forehead pulse threateningly.
“Three hundred strikes with the board, for both of you. And fifty, each, for these three. I will be writing to your families.” Lan Qiren waved for a disciple to go grab the relevant tools, and remained smug in his adherence to his overblown rules until the disciple returned with the news.
The brief glimpse of Lan Qiren’s scarlet face when he found out about the punishment tools before he and Lan Zhan snuck away to the Cold Springs was more than worth how much trouble they’d be in later.
Wei Wuxian was badgering Lan Zhan to admit he’d planned his destruction spree when the stream sucked them down.
As Lan Zhan was much faster in wrapping his forehead ribbon around their wrists this time, Wei Wuxian could still sort of feel his toes and fingers when Lan Yi appeared. He couldn’t say the freezing pain was an improvement.
When Lan Yi emerged, they both bowed, and greeted her by title and name. Wei Wuxian was now almost as much of a fan of his husband’s ancestor as Lan Zhan himself. But not quite.
Lan Zhan lit up and spoke in actual paragraphs when discussing her. It was adorable. The first time it happened, Wei Wuxian had propped his head up on his hand and understood for the first time how Lan Zhan could claim he liked when Wei Wuxian started talking and found himself unable to shut up. It was nice, to see him so passionate about something.
(Not that passion was something they were short on. But this sort of innocent excitement was far too rare for Lan Zhan.)
When she picked up the rabbit, Wei Wuxian jumped right into the heart of the matter. Lan Yi’s time was limited, and details had been excised from her writings on the Yin Iron. “We already know about the Yin Iron. But we have some other questions for you, if you don’t mind.”
Lan Yi squinted at each of them in turn for a long time. Only the fact that Wei Wuxian was already shivering violently kept him from squirming under her inspection.
Lan Zhan, of course, was perfectly fine.
“You know of the piece someone has begun to use?” She continued after they nodded in confirmation. “No. There’s something else. The Lan elders would never allow even a direct descendant to access the forbidden texts so young. You aren’t as young as you look, are you?”
“Ah. It’s a long, not very funny story.” Wei Wuxian flapped his hand dismissively, attempting to move the conversation along before Lan Yi dissolved into nothingness.
Lan Zhan nudged his shoulder, disappointed. As though Wei Wuxian was downplaying his achievements for no reason again and not rapidly approaching a time limit. “Your writings were indispensable to Wei Ying in developing a method to send us back through time to prevent catastrophe.”
As always, Lan Zhan was better at summarizing.
“Or we could just put it like that. Someone dropped some of the Yin Iron in a volcano. This was the worst idea anyone’s had, ever.” And Wei Wuxian had thought it was a good idea to take a fierce corpse to a banquet, forgetting that if he’d stolen control of the Yin Iron from Wen Ruohan, whoever held the final piece could steal it from him. But Lan Yi didn’t need to know about that.
“Unfortunately, your writings were not consulted.” Lan Zhan was, as always, furious that Lan Yi’s discoveries had been buried. “It is unfortunate, that disciples are permitted to learn only your contributions to musical cultivation.”
(“If they were truly wrong,” he had explained on one occasion, “it would be beneficial for our disciples to debate the reasons why. But she was not. That made it worse.”
Wei Wuxian agreed. But there were few things he enjoyed more than his husband laying out a passionate argument.)
“Lan Zhan favors your guqin techniques!” Wei Wuxian chimed in. “But also, real questions: we want to drain the Yin Iron completely, and I think we’ve found a promising lead, but there’s something I’m missing. You, Baoshan Sanren, Wen Mao, and the Jiang, Nie, and Jin sect leaders tried to drain the pieces with an array, right? What went wrong?”
Lan Yi’s expression shifted, from an amused twist of her mouth — so similar to Lan Zhan’s, though more pronounced — to a sober neutrality. “The resentful energy contained in the Yin Iron needed a place to go, but nothing we found could hold enough.’
“Hmm, I see.” Wei Wuxian wasn’t so sure. “Did you try dispersing it in the air? Or to be burnt out by the cores dozens of cultivators?”
“If Baoshan Sanren could not purify the Yin Iron with her core, no one could. But —" She raised an eyebrow ever so slightly. It had never been more obvious that Lan Zhan was her descendant, if only by Lan Yi’s adopted child marrying her cousin. “Air?”
“Exactly! That helps a lot, thank you!” He turned to Lan Zhan excitedly, squeezing his hand with painfully numb fingers. “See, the resentment will drain from the iron, and into the air and be replaced by more air! And it won’t just be me you have to worry about. It’ll be everyone for about five minutes. We could use talismans to scatter it more quickly, maybe.”
Lan Zhan nodded, before turning back to Lan Yi. So supportive, his husband, even when he only understood portions of Wei Wuxian’s ramblings. He’d asked questions when Wei Wuxian first proposed his theory, but though Lan Zhan was a musical genius, a dedicated student of literature, and an unparalleled cultivator, he was not a scientist. He usually understood when Wei Wuxian was able to give a preliminary demonstration to connect the seemingly wild leaps in logic. But thus far, all he had were concepts he was beginning to peace together.
“You want to spread the resentment thinly, so there’s a negligible overall increase in resentment? What a daring plan.” Lan Yi seemed pleased as she stroked her rabbit.
“Exactly! The Yin Iron doesn’t contain enough resentment to pollute the air to dangerous levels.” At least, not yet.
“Perhaps you will be successful. I believe I can entrust the Yin Iron to you safely.” Lan Yi played the necessary chords to conjure the Yin Iron, and their time began to run short.
“Do you know the location of Baoshan Sanren’s mountain?” Lan Zhan asked, unexpectedly.
“I know where she planned to retire, yes.” She said slowly. “Why do you wish to know?”
“Wei Ying’s mother was Baoshan Sanren’s disciple. I believe he would benefit from hearing of her from someone who truly knew him.” As Lan Zhan spoke, Wei Wuxian made an incoherent noise and barely restrained himself from throwing his arms around Lan Zhan in front of his illustrious ancestor.
He was going to melt despite the frigid temperature of the water.
Lan Yi nodded. “There is a mountain at the border of Yunmeng and Qishan. If you approach from the west at sunset on a new moon, a path will reveal itself.” She looked wistfully off to the side, and her rabbit jumped from her arms. “But I cannot say for certain. She wished for me to finish cultivating to immortality and join her, but I chose the cultivation world — and the Yin Iron.”
“I made the same choice, once.” He raised Lan Zhan’s hand to his lips and kissed the near-frozen fingers, maintaining eye contact with him as he did so. Lan Zhan stared at him, as inexplicably fond as ever. “But Lan Zhan gave me another chance, and I like to think I haven’t wasted it. Perhaps…”
Surely Lan Yi, if anyone, could figure out a way. He’d help, if she let him. It was the least he could do, after her writings gave him a chance to save the world.
But Lan Yi shook her head. “I made my choice, and she made hers.”
“Even so, I’m sorry you can’t see her again.” He and Lan Zhan had gotten a second chance. And now, a third, even more improbable one. Yet even now, they couldn’t fix everything.
“Baoshan Sanren is immortal.” Lan Yi began to fade as she spoke. “One day, she will come down from her mountain, and my reincarnation will be waiting. Or perhaps I’ll find my way there on my own. And she will be annoyed, at first, but unable to resist me, and not realize it’s my spirit in a new form until she’s irrevocably in love.”
“We’ll take care of your rabbits!” He promised, and Lan Zhan nodded his agreement.
Lan Yi smiled, and vanished.
Wei Wuxian fell out of the Cold Pond Cave on top of his husband. Neither made much of an effort to extract themselves. The sun beat down on his back, and Lan Zhan was a furnace beneath him. From body heat, and the incinerating way he was looking up at Wei Wuxian from under his lashes.
Unacceptable. Or so Lan Zhan would say, if he looked at him like that.
Wei Wuxian leaned down to whisper in his ear. “Last time this happened, I wanted to kiss you.”
Lan Zhan lay back with his wet hair fanning out beneath him in the dirt, his pinned arms relaxed and unresisting, a slight, challenging twist to his mouth. “Do something about it.”
Wei Wuxian did, losing himself in the slide of Lan Zhan’s tongue against his own.
He moved, at some point, from Lan Zhan’s lips, to his neck, sucking a love bite into the spot that always made him squirm. There was a reason he wasn’t supposed to be leaving marks, but at the moment he couldn’t remember it. He felt nineteen again, pressed up against his zhiji’s body and getting to touch as much as he wanted.
“Are you taking advantage of the Second Jade of Lan?!!” Jiang Cheng shouted so loudly he startled the birds from a nearby tree.
Jolting upright, Wei Wuxian was trapped straddling his husband by their bound hands, a very interested piece of anatomy pressing into his ass. Which was not a better position. He made a distressed sound, but Lan Zhan looked perfectly content. He wasn’t an exhibitionist, but so long as they were mostly clothed, Lan Zhan was shameless.
Wen Qing, a few steps behind him, rolled her eyes. Mianmian — funny, he didn’t remember her being there, last time — snickered as she propped her chin on Wen Qing’s shoulder.
Oh, so that had finally happened. Nice.
“Well, are you?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
“What? No!” He began to defend himself, only for Lan Zhan to use his now-free hand to yank him back down. Well if that was how Lan Zhan wanted to play it, far be it from Wei Wuxian to protest. Lan Zhan’s fingers tangled in his melting hair as he demonstrated exactly how mutual this (supposed) dishonoring was.
After all these years, Lan Zhan could still make his head spin just by nipping his lip in exactly the right way.
In the time it took to drag them in front of Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren, Jiang Cheng had changed his tune, deciding it was Lan Zhan who had stolen his innocent (older) brother’s (nonexistent) purity. Predictably, he ignored all of Wei Wuxian’s attempts to correct him.
Wen Qing and Mianmian were no help. They’d left them giggling outside Lan Qiren’s office.
Lan Zhan insisted on keeping his ribbon wrapped around both their wrists so his uncle could not pretend nothing had happened, keeping their hands clasped tight together.
Lan Qiren was irate, and for once, it was not Wei Wuxian’s fault. No matter how much Lan Qiren assumed it was. “The burning of the punishment tools could only have been you. Those were clan heirlooms! Do you understand how much history you’ve erased? Wei Wuxian, you will never set foot —”
Lan Zhan raised their clasped hands, so Lan Qiren had no choice but to notice the ribbon. The set of his mouth was smug, and furious, which was not at all how Wei Wuxian had hoped to announce their engagement this time around, when Wei Wuxian was only the son of Lan Qiren’s archnemesis, and not that of the entire cultivation world.
He leaned over to press a kiss to the corner of Lan Zhan’s mouth. Instantly calmer, Lan Zhan returned his gaze where it belonged: on him.
Lan Qiren’s mouth hung open, as he seemed to forget all their previous crimes mid-sentence.
“Shufu, Xiongzhang, we are engaged.” Lan Zhan announced, raising his chin imperiously. “Also, I burned the punishment tools. They are unnecessary and damaging to our children.”
Wei Wuxian had once told him the mind healer said that. Apparently, Lan Zhan had taken in more from those sessions than he’d thought second-hand. He was so proud and inappropriately horny.
Lan Xichen, who had never liked corporeal punishment in the first place, gave a brilliant smile. “That’s wonderful, Wangji. We will send an official betrothal offer immediately.”
Lan Qiren took out a handkerchief, and spat blood into it.
“I will write to Jiang-zongzhu. As soon as I take a calming tonic from the infirmary.” He said, a missed spot of crimson hanging from his lower lip. “Jiang Wanyin, come with me. You should write as well.”
After the two of them left, they told Lan Xichen about Lan Yi’s piece of Yin Iron. They did still need to find Xue Yang’s piece, and he could be expected in Yueyang soon. A quest was still in order.
If there was one thing Jiang Fengmian could be counted on to do, it was to take the path of least resistance. With his son insisting and his wife no doubt threatening castration if he messed up her chance to get rid of Wei Wuxian and gain an alliance with the Lan, the word yes was barely out of Wei Wuxian’s mouth before he and Lan Zhan were kicked out of the betrothal negotiations.
That was perfectly all right with him. Jiang Cheng had taken to keeping a vigil to prevent him sneaking out, no matter how many times Wei Wuxian told him that ship had long since sailed. In every sense possible.
His vigil wasn’t very effective — Jiang Cheng nodded off every time — but Wei Wuxian’s sleep and sex life had suffered. Which he assumed was the point.
He and Lan Zhan took full advantage of Jiang Cheng’s distraction.
They took a sorely needed nap together.
Wen Qing had left after they set off the lanterns, and they were fairly certain they’d come up with a workable solution for the Yin Iron, so there was nothing much else they were supposed to be doing.
Except keeping their hands of each other until the wedding, which was obviously not going to happen.
Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan hadn’t made it more than a day out of Gusu before Jiang Cheng, Mianmian, and Nie Huaisang caught up to them.
Separately, and in reserve order.
At this rate, Lan Zhan might reconsider that whole ‘becoming the scourge of the cultivation world’ thing before he did.
Lan Zhan liked Mianmian and respected her goal of “finding my girlfriend and getting her out of whatever trouble she’s found herself in.”
The other two, not so much.
Staking out the Chang compound with two cultivators would have been reasonable. With five, including Jiang Cheng? Not so much. They ultimately set up Nie Huaisang up with a signal talisman, and dragged Jiang Cheng around town while they waited, so as not to let Xue Yang know they were onto him.
Nie Huaisang set off the talisman as Mianmian was in the process of convincing Jiang Cheng that the Yin Iron was hidden in a wind chime.
Lan Zhan pulled him onto Bichen — though Wei Wuxian was perfectly capable of flying himself now, thanks — and sped back.
Xue Yang was mid-monologue to the cornered Chang clan when they arrived, corpses dressed like Wen servants keeping them hemmed in a circle. Nie Huaisang was nowhere in sight. He, unlike their other two tagalongs, knew better than to challenge a man in possession of several dozen walking corpses on his own.
To be fair, these versions of Jiang Cheng and Mianmian hadn’t actually faced a Yin Iron-controlled corpse before.
While Lan Zhan paused above the rooftops, where they could assess the situation, the other two arrived. And jumped in among the corpses.
Wei Wuxian needed only to exchange a glance with Lan Zhan to know they understood each other.
As he jumped to the rooftop, Lan Zhan summoned his guqin and sent a blast of energy into the nearest corpses, dissolving them. Wei Wuxian kept his balance on Bichen as Lan Zhan sent it diving straight for Xue Yang.
With a yelp, Xue Yang jumped out of the way, summoning his sword into his hand. Wei Wuxian flipped off of Bichen as it drove into the pavement, bringing Suibian down to clash with Xue Yang’s two-ended destruction something-or-other.
He paid no attention to the corpses as he drove Xue Yang back with feints and quick footwork. Lan Zhan had it handled.
Wei Wuxian grazed Xue Yang’s forehead with Suibian, and he attempted to retreat. As he jumped for the rooftops, Wei Wuxian sent a binding talisman after him. It caught around his ankle, sending him crashing back to the ground.
Xue Yang had always relied on unpredictability and tricks like corpse powder and fog to gain the upper hand. Unprepared for a real challenge, it wasn’t difficult to get him trussed up and dangling from the rafters.
He turned around to find Jiang Cheng and Mianmian panting heavily, blood from the dismembered corpses surrounding them splashed against their clothes. Lan Zhan’s opponents had turned to ash, and he, as usual, had not a single hair out of place.
The Chang disciples stared at them with identical expressions of shock.
One dropped to his knees, loudly proclaiming his thanks, and the others followed after.
“Please don’t,” Wei Wuxian gripped the back of his neck. “If you want to thank us, just… go inside. We’ll deal with this asshole.”
His companions glared at the Chang disciples for emphasis. And though two of them had little idea what was going on, the combined glares of Hanguang-jun, Sandu Sengshou, and the woman who told the most powerful men in the cultivation world to fuck off were enough to send them scurrying.
“Now.” Wei Wuxian rounded on Xue Yang. “Where’s that last piece of Yin Iron?”
“Go ahead.” Xue Yang grinned through the blood dripping into his left eye and down towards his mouth. “Pat me down everywhere. You’ll never find it, but maybe we’ll both get something out of this.”
“On a scale of repulsiveness, you rank just below Jin Guangshan.” Wei Wuxian told him. “It has to be here, right Lan Zhan? He couldn’t control that many corpses without it.”
Lan Zhan retrieved one of the bags of Yin Iron from his sleeve and its consistent glow served as a confirmation.
That left one other possibility. One he would have dismissed as ridiculous if this were anyone other than Xue Yang. “You put the Yin Iron inside you, didn’t you? That wasn’t a very bright move.”
“Did I? How could I possibly have done that? You certainly couldn’t get it out, if that were true.” Xue Yang laughed with a hysterical mania.
Wei Wuxian knew he was on the right track. “It’s true that I don’t know how you did it. But, you see, I’ve invented more demonic cultivation techniques than you’ll ever learn. It’s only a question of where. And guess what? I can sense it.”
He kept his voice low, not wanting Jiang Cheng to overhear. That would raise questions he never wanted to answer.
“In your thigh, I think.” He slashed Xue Yang’s trousers to expose a patch of skin. “My fiancé will have to excuse me for this.”
“Why? He’s welcome to join us.” Xue Yang looked up through his lashes, the effect disturbing and not at all seductive.
Wei Wuxian grimaced as he sliced into Xue Yang’s thigh. Blood welled up, shot through with black streaks. Xue Yang hissed and squirmed like he was trying to get Wei Wuxian to cut the nearby artery by mistake. The Yin Iron did not make itself known, though he could still feel it there, calling to him.
“Oh, I see. You created an extra-dimensional space inside yourself for it, didn’t you? Like a qiankun bag made form skin.” He flexed his hand, preparing to summon an energy he hadn’t touched in quite some time. “Gross, but it would prevent most people from even realizing it was there. But, you see, I’m not most people.”
“Wei Ying.” Lan Zhan put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed, but did not try to stop him.
“Sorry, Lan Zhan. No other way.” Wei Wuxian called for the Yin Iron, and it responded, welcoming him like an old friend. It jumped into his hand. And it burned, for the instant before Lan Zhan took it away.
Lan Zhan was quick to secure it with the others. When it was safely stowed away, he caught Wei Wuxian’s wrist, and probed his core and meridians for any damage. There wasn’t much, considering he’d only touched it for half a second.
“Did you find it?” Mianmian asked.
“Sure did!” He replied. “Now, what do with you.”
There wasn’t really a question.
He and Lan Zhan had discussed what to do once they caught Xue Yang, and decided it was best to remove that temptation from Meng Yao’s path — and any possibility of Xue Yang’s escape. If Meng Yao took the wrong path anyway, Nie Huaisang had been wrong about him, and Wei Wuxian would cheer Lan Zhan on as he skewered him. If he remained loyal to Nie-zongzhu, Wei Wuxian would comfort his husband every time they had to interact for the rest of Meng Yao’s life.
“Would you like to bleed out, or have your head chopped off?” He asked as a courtesy.
“I’ll bleed for you, Gege.” Xue Yang sounded weirdly excited at that, and Wei Wuxian was suddenly in dire need of a bath.
Courtesy was overrated. “Ok, no. Execution it is.”
Lan Zhan retrieved Bichen from where it had lodged in the ground and prepared to do the honors.
Jiang Cheng interrupted. “Shouldn’t we take him to Nie-zongzhu? This is his territory.”
“No.” Lan Zhan said shortly.
Wei Wuxian sighed fondly, and came up with a reason Jiang Cheng would accept. “Do you want to be responsible for this guy escaping?”
“I suppose not.” He conceded, and stepped back.
“I have no objections,” Mianmian said, as she thoroughly cleaned her sword.
Lan Zhan didn’t quite sever Xue Yang’s head from his neck with a single blow, but it was a near thing.
“Oh, good! Wei-xiong, you’re alive!” Nie Huaisang had returned, with an entourage of Nie disciples, led by Meng Yao. Nie Huaisang stood directly behind like a human shield. “And Mianmian! The bloodsplatter is a good look. Jiang-xiong and Lan-er-gongzi too, I guess.”
“Wow. Thanks.” Jiang Cheng grumbled.
Mianmian beamed, and Lan Zhan did not respond as he wiped Bichen off on Xue Yang’s robes. But the look he gave Wei Wuxian was designed to pluck his heartstrings. He had some making up to do.
Meng Yao insisted they accompany him to the Unclean Realm, as Nie Mingjue would want to speak to them. Since that was in line with their plans, they went along without protest.
Nie Mingjue was a bit miffed that they had taken justice into their own hands, as Nie Huaisang put it. Meaning, yelling a lot, but not actively murderous. Once he’d burnt himself out, they were escorted to their rooms. Jiang Cheng was kept behind by Nie Huaisang, so he was able to slip into the same room at Lan Zhan.
Mianmian certainly wasn’t going to stop him. She sent him off with a knowing wink.
Lan Zhan strode to the bed and began stripping off his outer robe with harsh, angry movements. He folded it carelessly, and tossed it onto the foot of the bed before taking a seat. His gaze was determinedly on the floor.
“The Yin Iron feels awful with a Golden Core. I promise, once we get the last piece from Wen Ruohan, I’ll never touch it again.” He approached, but made sure to give Lan Zhan his space.
“I am not angry about the Yin Iron.” Lan Zhan looked up at him, torn between amusement at his misunderstanding and — pouting. Terrible, adorable, irresistible pouting. Lan Zhan knew exactly what that did to him. “You used our talisman on Xue Yang.”
“Oh?” He retrieved a binding talisman from his sleeve, and activated it, linking them together by the wrists. He began to loop the energy rope around his wrist, stepping closer until he stood between Lan Zhan’s thighs with their palms pressed together. “Is this talisman only for our use?”
Lan Zhan linked their fingers together. “Yes.”
“Hmm. Then I’ll just have to come up with something else for capturing anything that’s not my Hanguang-jun.” Wei Wuxian bent to kiss him, but barely had time to taste before the door crashed open.
“I look away for one minute.”
Wei Wuxian sighed as Lan Zhan’s expression shifted into open anger. He didn’t bother to turn around. “Jiang Cheng, please let me comfort my husband. He’s rather upset.”
“I’m upset.” Jiang Cheng grumbled, but turned on his heel and slammed the door behind him. “And he’s not your husband yet!”
Great, now Wei Wuxian was also upset. Everyone was upset. He buried his face in Lan Zhan’s neck and groaned.
“I am your husband.” Lan Zhan said, patting his back comfortingly.
“Yes,” He raised his head to meet Lan Zhan’s eyes. “You are.”
That had never been in doubt, no matter what his brother said.
“Where were we?” Lan Zhan pulled him down to pick up where they’d left off.
“What does Lan Wangji have that I don’t?” Jiang Cheng whined drunkenly. Wei Wuxian glared at Nie Huaisang, who hid behind his fan. But Wei Wuxian could not longer be fooled by his faux innocence. Mianmian — who was officially going to be his favorite in law, since of his four adoptive siblings, only Wen Qing had taste — plucked the sloshing bottle from Jiang Cheng’s hand, and handed it to him.
“Ah, Chengcheng, my poor innocent shidi. So many things.” Wei Wuxian had accepted the invitation for drinks while Lan Zhan took a nap, a decision he was rapidly coming to regret. He took a swig from the bottle. But it was a small one, since he needed to fly later,
“I’m not a child. I know that was a sex thing.” Jiang Cheng slurred. “Can’t you do sex things with one of our disciples?”
“It’s not a sex thing, actually, though the sex certainly doesn’t hurt. Lan Zhan simply stole my heart.” He pressed one hand over his heart and sighed dramatically, but Jiang Cheng merely swayed in place. “Why am I wasting this material on a drunk Jiang Cheng?” He asked the other two, who shrugged.
Jiang Cheng lurched to his feet, swaying as he began to draw Sandu. “I’ll go steal it back then.”
“Ok, that’s enough.” Wei Wuxian stood, and tapped Jiang Cheng the center of the forehead, using a burst of spiritual energy to knock him out. Thank you, Wen Qing for that trick.
He caught Jiang Cheng and lowered him carefully to the ground. He made a sleepy noise and turned onto his side, pillowing his head on his hands.
Dumbass, Wei Wuxian thought affectionately.
“You and Lan-xiong are so in-sync. However did you manage that? Please share, inquiring minds need to know.” Nie Huaisang propped his chin on his hands expectantly.
“Since when are you an inquiring mind?” Mianmian, who was understandably unaware that Nie Huaisang was the premier schemer in the cultivation world, arched a brow dubiously. “I, however, would also like to know.”
Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan had always had some element of that, a thread linking them together that was as easy to follow as breathing. But that hadn’t been enough, on its own. “We learned to be honest with each other, I guess.”
“I wish Wen Qing talked about things with me.” She sighed.
Wei Wuxian uncorked a fresh jar of wine and handed it to her. “What happened, when she left?”
Mianmian downed half the jar before answering. “Wen Qing told me she loved me, and we had a few beautiful nights together and then she was gone.”
Yeah. Wen Qing tended to do that.
Not the sex-and-dash, of course. The leaving without regard for what others wanted. He’d had that in common with her, once.
So he was perhaps the person best qualified to help Mianmian get past Wen Qing’s walls. “She’s just not used being accountable to anyone who won’t throw her to murderous zombies if she missteps. You’ll see her again, and next thing you know you’ll be deliriously happy and at risk of public indecency. Or at least Lan Zhan and I would be, I don’t know what you’re into.”
“No, that sounds right. She promised she’d let me ride her strap in as many ways as I could think of and I haven’t gotten to yet at all.” Mianmian swayed into his shoulder, and murmured. “She doesn’t seem like the type to break her promises.”
Two down, one to go. The trickiest of the lot. Yet when he looked over at Nie Huaisang, there was a calculating look in his eye. And he downed a bottle all in one go.
Wei Wuxian ran back inside their room to find his husband awake, and putting the finishing touches on his hair. “Lan Zhan! Let’s go.”
Lan Zhan nodded, but when they reached the exit of the Unclean Realm, he hesitated. “Are you sure we can’t…?
“I told Huaisang to watch out for him.” Wei Wuxian reassured him. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”
(Indeed, the next morning when Wen Chao attacked, Meng Yao had not freed a dangerous prisoner or killed Nie Mingjue’s captain. And so, when Meng Yao stepped in front of a blade for him, Nie Mingjue fretted over him incessantly, until Meng Yao kissed him just to shut him up. But Wei Wuxian learned all of that much later. If the captain mysteriously disappeared not long after, that was none of his business.)
They went first to Gusu, to ensure the wards had held. No sooner had they set foot within its borders did they learn that they had. Zewu-jun killed Wen Xu when he attempted to lay siege to the Cloud Recesses. The Lans remained safely ensconced within its walls, and there was nothing to do there, beyond dodge questions better left unanswered.
So they decided to indulge themselves, and wait out the beginning of the Indoctrination with their children. That would be the easiest time to take out Wen Chao, and coincided well with Wen Qing’s timeline for Wen Ruohan’s assassination.
A-Yuan was ecstatic to see them, and attempted to attach himself to both his and Lan Zhan’s legs at once, giggling as they tried to hobble forward. He chanted “Diedie, diedie,” over and over again, and Wei Wuxian could once again die happy.
A-Wu was less pleased, older and less inclined to forgive their long absence so easily. Unlike A-Yuan, she remembered her birth parents leaving, and not coming back. The bribes of candy and toys Lan Zhan brought her — smuggled past Wei Wuxian’s easily distracted watch — brought her around, however.
Soon enough she was cackling and chasing the chicken’s around the yard, A-Yuan toddling after.
“Hanguang-jun should be known for creating chaos by giving sugar to already hyperactive children.” Wei Wuxian scolded his unrepentant husband.
“It would not be inaccurate.” Lan Zhan pressed a hard candy between Wei Wuxian’s lips. This despite knowing Wei Wuxian didn’t much enjoy candy, unless he was tasting it on his husband’s lips. With a sigh, he gave his husband the kiss he was angling for.
He was a weak man, when it came to Lan Zhan.
They were startled apart by the flap of a chicken’s wing against his shoulder, and a pair of small bodies crashing into them, one after the other.
Their daughter had decided chickens deserved to be free, and naturally it was Wei Wuxian’s job to find them again. He carried A-Yuan on his shoulders as he searched.
Just a little longer, and they’d never have to spend so long away from their children again. At least until they were all grown up and leaving the nest. He couldn’t wait.
All too soon, it was time to leave again.
The indoctrination bureau was already empty of the other sects’ disciples, save for Nie Huaisang, who they found in the midst of sneaking out. He readily informed them that Wen Chao had taken the disciples to Muxi Mountain.
Which now held only the corpse of a monster. But of course, Wen Chao had no way of knowing that.
They found Mianmian and Jin Zixuan holding Wen Chao hostage, Wang Lingjiao dead at their feet. Jiang Cheng, a sword that was not his own at the ready, was in a standoff with Wen Zhuliao, with no concept of how terrified he should be.
Fortunately for all of them, neither Wei Wuxian nor Lan Wangji needed to get anywhere near the Core-Melting Hand to fight him.
“Where the hell have you been?” Jiang Cheng demanded, before Wen Zhuliao had even hit the ground, and crushed the breath from him with a hug.
“Rescuing you!” Wei Wuxian said, grinning mischievously, once he’d squirmed his way out of Jiang Cheng’s death grasp.
Once they had gotten all the swordless cultivators out of the cave, he told his brother. “You should go get your swords from the Indoctrination Bureau. It’s pretty much empty now.
“And what are you going to be doing?” Jiang Cheng demanded.
“Preventing a war.” Wei Wuxian winked, and hopped onto Suibian, leaving the disciples behind before they could ask any questions.
As promised, Wen Qing was waiting at the secret entrance to Nightless City.
Unfortunately, the secret entrance was a path that ran along a river of lava. Bubbling, steaming, rotten egg smelling lava. Wen Qing had failed to mention this.
“Oh, that’s where Wen Ruohan throws the bodies,” Wen Qing said, like that was in any way a normal thing to expect.
“What the fuck.” Wei Wuxian said, and with the upmost elegance, plastered himself against the wall, as far away from the lava
Lan Zhan did the same, but with genuine elegance, somehow. “I was under the impression he resurrected them as soldiers.”
“He does, mostly. But sometimes they get too damaged, so they go in the lava.” Because lava was apparently something she dealt with daily. Not just on special falling from cliffs and burning up in it days. Or on resentful energy eruption days. Wei Wuxian was fairly certain he’d been dead before he hit the lava. But now he was going to have nightmares about it anyways.
Lan Zhan already did, worse now than before his brother caused the apocalypse, and there was no way this would help.
“I’d ask if we could just throw Wen Ruohan in there, but lava and resentful energy don’t mix well.” He tilted his head back, as a worrying thought struck him. “Actually, you should probably get some Lans in here as it is. I don’t know for sure what throwing a fierce corpse in lava would do. But better safe than another apocalypse.”
Wen Qing made a noise that was half-agreement, half-annoyance. “We Wens do have cleansing techniques. Wen Mao spent the twilight years of his life developing them, because of the Burial Mounds. But he died before he saw his plans come to fruition, and his successors kept the knowledge to themselves.”
“Perhaps I might be of assistance due to my experience with cleansing.” Lan Zhan suggested.
“We both can be! I can make sure the resentment is gone, in a way others can’t. Besides, we’re practically part of the family already.” He pouted, pleading.
Wen Qing rolled her eyes, and kept walking until she reached a set of ornate doors, engraved with Wen Mao’s victory against the Yin Iron. “Wait here until this heats up.” She handed him one of her silver needles, before she vanished inside.
Wen Qing had never let him touch one before, outside of spearing him in the acupoints. And the last time she’d done that…
He stared at the cold, smooth metal in his hand, and hoped he hadn’t just gotten her killed all over again.
Lan Zhan put his hands on Wei Wuxian’s elbows from behind. “Wen Qing is skilled. She has dealt with Wen Ruohan for years. She will be fine.”
He leaned back, lolling his head back on his husband’s shoulder. “Is this how you felt, watching me throw myself into danger?”
For all it was his plan, defeating Wen Ruohan alive without an army at their backs, without the Stygian Tiger Amulet, rested primarily on Wen Qing.
Wen Ruohan wasn’t Xue Yang, wasn’t flitting around from whim to whim on a fruitless quest to satisfy his twisted sense of humor. He was unstable, yes, and not a master of demonic cultivation the way Wei Wuxian was. But had goals, had researched and practiced for years until the Yin Iron consumed whatever else he might have been.
He did not hesitate to throw everything he had behind the raw, untempered power of the Yin Iron.
It had taken the Stygian Tiger Amulet and a sword in the back to defeat him the first time. Impossible, now. Wei Wuxian had too many reasons not to throw his life away.
“Something like it, yes.” Lan Zhan pulled him closer, a comforting weight on his back. “Does this mean you will no longer do so?”
“Not unless you’re going with me.” Wei Wuxian had made that promise before, but he’d keep making it until Lan Zhan had no doubts. If Lan Zhan could trust him enough to express his feelings, Wei Wuxian could trust him to help rather than hold him back. As he’d done every day since Lan Zhan caught his arm on Dafan Mountain, and Wei Wuxian learned he was not so alone in his new life as he’d believed.
“That was not in question,” Lan Zhan huffed in amusement.
The needle in Wei Wuxian’s hand heated so quickly it scalded him, forcing him to drop it. “Ow! Fuck. That’s our cue.”
The doors let them into a servant’s passage, with a side entrance to the throne room just ahead.
It wasn’t difficult to spot Wen Qing. She stood beside the throne, her focus on needles embedded in Wen Ruohan’s right arm. A thin stream of spiritual energy flowed from her fingertips, as though she was conducting an ordinary treatment. But this was something she had never before dared.
Wen Ruohan would be dead before he realized had been done to him.
Dozens of the lava-cracked fierce corpses filled the room. Wei Wuxian had figured out how Wen Ruohan made them contagious when he was working out the kinks of Wen Ning’s partial resurrection, by convincing the resentful energy that blackened their veins to spread the comfortable body it had taken root in like a plague. He’d never figured out the rock-like skin though. Based on what he’d learned today, he suspected the method was volcano, and the reason aesthetic, with its armor effect against a cultivator’s sword merely a convenient bonus.
The corpses’ heads turned towards them, sensing life and fresh, warm blood, but they didn’t move from their positions, firmly under Wen Ruohan’s control.
Wen Ruohan shook Wen Qing’s hands off him. “What are you doing?” He demanded, the Yin Iron surging up from its holder. “That feels different — ah.”
In turning towards her, Wen Ruohan had seen them. He cackled. “A pair of boys for assassins are all the sects could send?”
He laughed again, horribly wicked and inhuman. “Dispose of the young masters.” He flicked his fingers, and the corpses began ambling towards them. Faster than he remembered, more viscerally unsettling than when Wei Wuxian had been more than half-dead himself.
He laughed anyways, as he leapt onto Suibian, directing his sword to hover far above the corpses. Below, Lan Zhan sent Bichen flying through the nearest corpses, striking the first row. “Dispose of us? An old man who’s done nothing with his centuries but ensure his lineage ends with him? Please, as if you could.”
Wei Wuxian blew a series of sharp, discordant notes into his mother-in-law’s dizi, and it responded joyfully. Lan Zhan’s mother had held nearly as much resentment as he had, during the months in which he had carved Chenqing. The dizi followed his commands as easily as if he had carved it himself, though this was by far the most resentful energy he’d funneled through it yet, its first attempt to control a piece of Yin Iron. It felt like the approval he would never get the chance to ask for.
Wen Ruohan snarled as he felt the challenge to his control, pouring more of his energy into keeping the Yin Iron his. But Wei Wuxian didn’t need to win control for this to work, just make Wen Ruohan pour in everything he had.
He summoned the memories of Jiang Cheng losing his core and the pain of the transfer. Every Jiang cultivator he’d watched fall to Wen Ruohan’s puppetry. The Dafan Wen and his A-Yuan, unresponsive and grasping, eyes white and black veins crawling up their necks. Herded along like cattle. Wen Ning lying in a muddy stream of bodies. Wen Popo and Uncle Four hanging from the rafters. Wen Qing, huddled in her cell, fainting in the streets, arguing over who would give up their portion to A-Yuan. I’m sorry and thank you.
Shijie, desperate and in mourning, slumping over, a crimson stain spreading on white.
Breaking Lan Zhan’s heart with a smile.
All because Wen Ruohan wanted to rule the world.
Wen Ruohan lost ground. The Yin Iron sailed out of its circle, coming to a stop midair halfway between them.
“Wen Qing!” He snapped, searching for his erstwhile physician, who had sensibly positioned herself away from megalomaniac sect leaders and their ravening necromantic monstrosities. “Do something about him!”
“Yes, zongzhu.” She agreed. Stepping onto her own sword, she joined Wei Wuxian above the battle. “Give me some extra talismans. I’ll make sure your husband stays pretty.”
Wei Wuxian fished a stack out of his sleeve, and handed it to her quickly. Flashing her a grin, he quickly resumed his playing.
Lan Zhan danced a path through the corpses, holding them off with little apparent effort. He’d managed to dismantle more than a few enough that they couldn’t fight back. But he’d certainly appreciate the assist.
As the first talisman made a corpse rot away into a mush even as it attempted to keep swinging its sword, Wen Ruohan let out a cry of rage.
But he couldn’t divert his attention away from Wei Wuxian to do anything about it.
Wen Ruohan drew on his core, and simultaneously withdrew his hooks from some of the corpses, feeding all that energy into his invisible battle with Wei Wuxian.
And what Wen Qing had done — picking out the threads of her own work on his meridians, disrupting the flow of his qi so the resentful energy crashed against his core, sparking a battle that could have only one result — finally caught up to him.
Wen Ruohan choked, and clutched his chest. His pressure on the Yin Iron wavered, then vanished.
It came sailing towards Wei Wuxian even as he stopped playing, and he had to drop to hang from Suibian’s hilt to avoid having a hole punched through his torso.
(He could have caught it, yes, but Lan Zhan would be Displeased. Demonic cultivation: fine. Touching Yin Iron when it wasn’t absolutely necessary: sad and disappointed husband.)
By the time he’d flipped back onto his feet, Wen Ruohan was already falling to the floor.
The corpses had stopped, confused, and Lan Zhan and Wen Qing were able to pick off the rest quickly and systematically.
Wei Wuxian dropped to the ground by Lan Zhan as he cleaned black blood off Bichen using Wen Ruohan’s robes.
“Oh, I’m so out of breath.” He hadn’t played that intensely in a long time — and the last time he did, he’d passed out for three days. Thank you, golden core, for that not happening.
“Do not sit on the corpses.” Lan Zhan held Bichen up to the eery scarlet light for inspection. Spotting a smear of blood, he resumed wiping. “I will play Cleansing for you later.”
“And I will meditate and not fall asleep on you.” Wei Wuxian promised. He really could use some cleansing after all that, and without any secrets between them, he had no reason to protest.
Lan Zhan looked up to meet his eyes and smiled softly. “You may fall asleep on me after you are cleansed.”
At that, Wei Wuxian obviously kissed him on the cheek. That never failed to make Lan Zhan’s ears redden.
“Do you two ever get tired of being so sickeningly in love?” Wen Qing asked, because she missed her girlfriend and didn’t want to think about the aftermath of what they’d done.
“No,” they said, instantly and simultaneously.
She sighed, looking around at the carnage around them, and pinched her nose. “Alright, so we need take control of the city, and send for the sect leaders, and get all this cleaned up without infecting—”
The doors crashed open, and Wei Wuxian raised his sword, back to back with his husband. Only to lower it when instead of a mass of guards, one young woman stormed in.
Wen Qing went pale. “Mianmian?”
Mianmian stomped up to her, ready to lecture. Only for Wen Qing to throw her arms around her neck, and swallow her words with a kiss. “Yell at me later, ok?”
“We will have — a very mature — talk.” Mianmian said, in the breaks between kisses. Finally, she cupped the back of Wen Qing’s head, and pressed their foreheads together. “No yelling. But don’t do this again.”
“Aww.” Wei Wuxian said, leaning his head against Lan Zhan’s shoulder. “I can’t wait to help A-Ning and Popo plan their wedding.” He had a disturbing thought. “Oh, no. What if the Peacock wants to be involved?”
“We will not allow him to purchase anything gilded.” Lan Zhan promised as he rested his head against Wei Wuxian’s. “Qingyang deserves a tasteful wedding. We will make it everything the brides want.”
No stupid Peacocks who happened to be a childhood best friend allowed input. Jin Zixuan would have to be satisfied with standing in for Mianmian’s estranged family and having (unfortunately) (but also fortunately, because Jin Ling) persuaded his Shijie to marry him (again).
(What was wrong with Shijie’s taste in men, honestly.)
“I wouldn’t purchase anything gilded. I, too, am aware that my father has no taste.” The demon Peacock in question’s voice came out of nowhere.
They startled apart to find Jiang Cheng, the Peacock, and a small assortment of Jiang, Jin, and Nie junior disciples also taking in the scene. Some of them staring around at the litter of inhuman body parts, a few watching the girls make out with tears in their eyes. One intrepid Jiang disciple had climbed the dais, and was prodding Wen Ruohan’s body with her sword and a focused expression. A woman after Wei Wuxian’s own heart.
“We took care of the guards, in case you were wondering.” Jiang Cheng informed them, his arms crossed over his chest. Irritable at being left behind. He noticed the disciple by Wen Ruohan. “Hey, get away from there, dumbass, I bet he’s contaminated!”
The disciple jumped guiltily, and returned to the group.
The disciples from the indoctrination had retrieved their swords, as it turned out. Yet some of them had opted to head to Nightless City rather than going home.
Nie Huaisang, hiding half his face behind a fan, stepped out from behind one of his sect’s bulky disciples. Wei Wuxian exchanged a tired glance with Lan Zhan, no longer surprised.
The leaders of the other four great sects soon came to Nightless City. Nie Mingjue arrived first with his new betrothed, frantic over his little brother’s safety. Nie Huaisang submitted himself to his brother’s solicitous attention, and extracted promises of a mountain of art supplies. Meng Yao snickered at both of them throughout, the difference between his genuine happiness and his old faux eager-to-please attitude glaringly obvious, now that Wei Wuxian had something to compare.
Lan Xichen was not far behind, and proceeded to fuss over not only Lan Zhan but also Wei Wuxian. That, combined with his Shijie’s crushing hug, and anticipation of his children’s imminent arrival, warmed his heart enough that at first he didn’t even notice that all he got from Jiang Fengmian was a pat on the shoulder.
He noticed Jiang Cheng getting scolded, though. For events that hadn’t even remotely been in his control.
Wei Wuxian wanted to step in, but he knew that would only make it worse.
Wen Qing swept up to the embarrassingly public scolding, arm in arm with Mianmian. “Jiang-zongzhu, Madame Yu, I was hoping to compliment you on your son’s forward thinking. It was his initiative to come to Nightless City, and largely his plan of attack that took out the remaining living guards. Without his leadership of disciples from three sects, we could not have stabilized the situation so quickly.”
“Really. A-Cheng, is that true?” Madame Yu asked. And when Jiang Cheng nodded, she actually smiled.
It was terrifying.
The Jins arrived last, by several hours. And at the worst possible moment, while Jin Zixuan was in the midst of an intensely awkward but friendly conversation with his half-brother, helped along by the collective mediation powers of Shijie, Mianmian, and Lan Xichen.
Madame Jin attempted to make a beeline for her son, fury crossing her expression the second she realized who, exactly Meng Yao was. Wei Wuxian threw himself into her path.
“Madame Jin! Welcome to Nightless City!” He exclaimed loudly, resisting the urge to look over his shoulder to make sure Shijie and Lan Xichen had gotten Meng Yao out of dodge.
Madame Jin — and her husband, on her heels — looked peeved that some insignificant young disciple dared to speak to them.
Wei Wuxian played to their perception, attempting to summon the spirit of his actual nineteen-year-old self. “Sorry for the mess! We haven’t managed to finish cleaning up yet. I just wanted to inform you that you shouldn’t touch the bodies, they’re contagious!”
“We will not… touch the corpses.” Madame Jin said.
“Great, Madame Jin!” He quickly slid out of the way, letting them pass, shouting out one last warning. Jin Guangshan glared as he did so, and Madame Jin looked ever so slightly pleased. Neither of them had missed that Wei Wuxian had never so much as acknowledged Jin Guangshan’s existence.
He deflated once they were gone. That had been fucking exhausting. How had he had so much energy when he was actually this age?
The Dafan Wen wouldn’t arrive for a few more days, so Wei Wuxian was forced to go through the negotiations without an adorable child in his lap to deflect difficult questions. Worse, Lan Zhan was all the way across the room with his brother (Lan Qiren having stayed in Gusu, not quite trusting that the threat of the Wens was truly gone), while Wei Wuxian suffered under the judgmental glare of Madame Yu. She had not been pleased to learn that Wei Wuxian had helped vanquish Wen Ruohan before her son even arrived.
It was Wen Qing, though, who faced the most scrutiny.
“Wen-zongzhu attempted to use the Yin Iron to summon an army of indestructible corpses.” Wen Qing repeated her explanation for what must have been the twentieth time. “I worked with my friends Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji to counteract his demonic cultivation, and we were able to get him to overextend his limits. He qi deviated, and his heart gave out.”
“But what made you betray your sect leader, if not to take his power for yourself?” Jin Guangshan asked, not for the first time. His persistence was beginning to make even the less politically astute take notice.
Wen Qing sighed loudly. “He was killing my people — his own people, and planned to do worse to them and all of your sects. He had not been fit to rule for years, and was using me to hide it. I believed my duty required me to remove him from power. Unfortunately, it was impossible to do so without a cost. The Yin Iron corrupted him irreversibly.”
Though the others nodded along, Jin Guangshan seemed unconvinced.
“But why Wei Ying?” Jiang Fengmian asked in a puzzled and pleasantly vacant tone. “He’s a skilled cultivator for his age, to be sure. But surely an elder cultivator would have been a better choice.”
If Wei Wuxian had needed confirmation that Jiang Fengmian had never paid attention to him beyond feat of archery or swordsmanship or a reminder of long dead friends, he had it. It wasn’t like he’d ever tried to hide his talisman experiments.
Madame Yu, who had punished him more than once for accidental explosions, was looking at her husband like she’d just realized something earthshattering. And also like he had the brainpower of week-old congee.
He couldn’t see how Wen Qing could explain without revealing certain secrets better left buried, but from the way her jaw set and her brow narrowed, he knew she would defend him anyways. Damn that older sibling instinct. He liked when the older Jiang generation underestimated him; it meant they left him alone. “Wei Wuxian approached me, when he figured out why Wen Ruohan sent me to the Cloud Recesses. He did the bulk of the research that enabled us to peace together a method to oppose him. What would have been a sect leader’s reaction to my information, Jiang-zongzhu? An army that would have no hope of getting close if you believed me, and condemnation as a traitor if you did not. Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji believed me, did the slow, necessary work to create a solution, and kept the secret close enough that it actually worked. Tell me, which of you believe you’re capable of creating a method to purify the Yin Iron?”
Silence reigned. Eyes turned to him.
Wei Wuxian laughed nervously.
It took hours to satisfy the assembled sect leaders with his plan, but finally the discussion turned to the fate of the Wen Sect, and Wen Qing’s ascension as sect leader. Wei Wuxian was able to slip away, though his husband remained — Lan Zhan had begun meditating as soon as he was assured that no one would be creating an angry mob to persecute Wei Wuxian anytime soon.
Which had been achieved when the sect leaders were informed Lan Zhan was in possession of the Yin Iron, and Wei Wuxian had not used it. A bit of a white lie, but Lan Zhan had come around on the idea that lies could be useful, on occasion.
He found Nie Huaisang standing in the shade on a porch overlooking the volcano, and presented him with a bottle of local wine.
Sometime later, when it seemed natural to do so, he asked, “Do you ever worry what would happen if Jin-zongzhu realized how talented Meng Yao is?”
“Less than I used to, Wei-xiong.” Nie Huaisang smiled coyly. “Have you seen how smitten he looks? He walked into a statue yesterday because he was too busy staring at Dage. Yao-ge has never forgotten to pay attention to his surroundings before in his life. Dage’s spiritual energy flow is even bordering normal!”
“All that honeymoon period dual cultivation must be doing him some good.” Wei Wuxian said teasingly.
“Wei-xiong!” Nie Huaisang gasped. “Don’t you dare imply that Dage has a sex life. My poor virginal ears!”
“Yes, your porn collection has left you so very innocent.” Wei Wuxian said.
“Wei-xiong.” Nie Huaisang smacked his shoulder.
That wasn’t a very good segue to the point of the conversation, but Nie Huaisang would probably take his warning more seriously if he was awkward in the delivery. “Hey Nie-xiong, did you know? Jin Guangshan is truly shameless. Even the wives of his subordinates…”
“Truly? Well. That’s a very juicy piece of gossip. Any accidental children involved? Yes? I see!” Though Nie Huaisang’s tone remained light, his expression went darkly serious. “No, don’t give me any more details. Let me dig up something on my own! I have servants to ply for information with fine wines and the chance to screw over the biggest ass in the Cultivation World.”
“Don’t insult donkeys like that! They’re trying their best.” Oh, how he missed playing apple-fishing with Little Apple.
“Sure, Wei-xiong. Just tell Dage I went home to the Unclean Realm!” Nie Huaisang waved over his shoulder. “Oh, and I’m going to convince A-Ning to marry me!”
“What?” Wei Wuxian’s head spun. “Wen Ning? My Wen Ning? When did you even — when did you even talk? Nie Huaisang get back here and explain to me exactly what you’re doing with my baby brother!” Wen Ning had been in Dafan for months, how even —
Wei Wuxian resigned himself to considering Nie Huaisang his brother-in-law. When Nie Huaisang wanted something, he invariably got it. And that extended to people.
So yes, it was official that Wen Qing was his only sibling with taste. Hell, Nie Huaisang might just have unseated the Peacock for the position of worst in-law.
And oh fuck, Nie Mingjue was going to kill him.
The Dafan Wen arrived in Nightless City just in time for Wen Qing’s official investiture as Sect Leader of the Qishan Wen. Its power would be greatly diminished, but the dent in its numbers was almost exclusively self-inflicted.
The survivors would never set foot in a Jin prison camp. Wei Wuxian clutched his son to his chest, while he studiously ignored Jiang Cheng’s demands as to how he’d managed to acquire two children before he was even married. Lan Zhan, meanwhile, exchanged a pleasant conversation with Shijie about their plans for their children’s education, with A-Wu holding his hand. Their daughter had tried to act aloof, but clung to Lan Zhan’s hand when it was offered.
They had a more official conversation on the subject with Wen Qing, before the ceremony. “A-Wu must be trained fully in the Wen style. I intend to marry Qingyang, so A-Wu will be my heir. A-Yuan, you may educate in your styles as well as ours. But no demonic cultivation.”
“I would never,” He assured her. “Besides, A-Yuan will probably prefer the guqin.”
“A-Yuan will be well-rounded in the Lan, Wen, and Jiang styles,” Lan Zhan said, “Our duties and A-Wu’s training will take us frequently between the three sects. I believe he would benefit from the unusual education.”
Wei Wuxian could think of far worse ways to spend the next few decades of his life than traveling between Qishan and Yunmeng and Gusu with his husband, raising their children and improving the cultivation world.
He’d gotten rather good at diplomacy, in the years where he was often the only thing standing between Lan Zhan and a diplomatic disaster. Ironic though that was. Ideas, too, were his strong suit, while Lan Zhan excelled at figuring out how to make them feasible, however radical they sounded when Wei Wuxian first dreamed them up.
Thankfully, though, they were no longer the ones who had to implement their plans. Being related to the leaders (or soon to be leader, in the case of the Jin) of four of the five major sects by blood, adoption, or marriage had its perks.
They planned, first, to seek out Baoshan Sanren based on Lan Yi’s directions. But there would be plenty of time for the rest.
The new Chief Cultivator, however, was not to be approached directly.
Wei Wuxian had no doubt Yu Ziyuan would prove very effective in the position.
He hadn’t expected her name to be put forward, and certainly hadn’t expected the sect leaders to agree. But somehow, it made perfect sense. Perhaps what made her a terrible mother and aunt would help to keep the clans in line.
Nevertheless, Madame Jin had definitely done something to get her power hungry, bastard-producing rapist of a husband to agree.
Maybe Jiang Cheng would finally get the room to breathe.
Or not, as Jiang Fengmian announced his sudden retirement to become the Chief Cultivator’s trophy husband. Their relationship had never been better. But that didn’t exactly make things easier for Jiang Cheng.
Nevertheless, Wei Wuxian intended to stay far, far away from Madame Yu from the moment Shijie’s wedding came to an end.
The purification of the Yin Iron was planned for the day after Shijie’s wedding. Jin Guangshan had suggested it as a time when much of the cultivation world would be assembled, and no one had protested. It wasn’t like Jin Guangshan was winning anything else.
And so he and Lan Zhan, and their children spent a month in Gusu, and would spend the next in Yunmeng to help with wedding arrangements.
If Wei Wuxian had known the Nie Sect had arrived for a visit, he would have knocked on the Hanshi’s door, rather than opening it without warning with Lan Zhan at his side.
Seating arrangements for the purification ceremony in contrast to the wedding banquet promptly fled his mind.
Lan Xichen was seated on Nie Mingjue’s lap, and leaning up to kiss a kneeling Meng Yao. Wei Wuxian slid the door shut. “And our questions can wait, I think.”
He took Lan Zhan’s hand, and tried to drag him away. But Lan Zhan merely swayed at the gentle tug, anchored in place as he stared at the closed door, shock rapidly transitioning to fury. He tried to reach for Bichen’s hilt, but his sword hand was trapped in Wei Wuxian’s.
Wei Wuxian had known this was likely to happen. And subconsciously, Lan Zhan had as well. Hence all his suggestions of murder, which Lan Zhan would ordinarily never condone.
“Let’s go play with the bunnies, Lan Zhan. A-Yuan and A-Wu and little baby Jingyi should already be there.” A not insignificant amount of pushing was required to get Lan Zhan to move. But piling children and rabbits onto him had the intended effect.
Later, when Lan Zhan was in a calmer frame of mind, Wei Wuxian could safely remind him that Meng Yao had not, in fact, done anything wrong yet. Lan Zhan could stab him if he hurt his brother, and not a moment before. And Nie Huaisang would let him know if Meng Yao so much as tripped Lan Xichen by mistake.
Wei Wuxian got his own share of unwanted information while helping Shijie pack her belongings.
“Zixuan wants to find out if he has any other siblings, now that he’s met Meng Yao.” Shijie said, as she piled robes in shades of lilac and cream into a trunk. She’d put her foot down on the amount of gold she was expected to wear on a daily basis. Simple jewelry only, unless it was a special occasion. “He can’t legitimize them, while his father’s still alive, but if any are in situations like Meng Yao was, he can help. Besides, I think he’s spent so long being lonely, he wants as much family around as possible.”
(Wei Wuxian had reason to hope Jin Guangshan would not be around to protest for much longer, but he did not mention this.)
“You’re sure you want to get married this early?” Wei Wuxian asked.
“I’m already pregnant.” Shijie admitted, leaving him reeling.
No, actually. He thought he might faint. He hadn’t fainted since he was newly resurrected, but this — this would do him in.
“You’re not allowed to kill him. If anything, I seduced him.” Shijie took his shock for murderous intent. “I thought he might like a certain… attitude from me, and he really, really did.”
“If you didn’t want —” Thinking continuing to pack might help him deal with the crisis, Wei Wuxian opened the next drawer. And had his half-spoken question answered in the worst way possible. That was a set of ropes. And a harness. There was definitely a dildo buried somewhere in there. Thankfully, currently out of sight.
Shijie slammed the drawer shut. “Please erase this from your memory immediately.
“Shijie, I didn’t need to know that.” He whined, rubbing his eyes in a futile attempt to do as she asked.
“I assure you, everything has been entirely consensual.” She repeated.
“I got that now, thanks.” Wei Wuxian grimaced. Lan Zhan was going to find this hilarious.
“My poor Xianxian.” She patted his head. Still comforting, despite the source of his disgruntlement. Thankfully, she also changed the subject. “You know, A-Niang might be Chief Cultivator now, but I’m about to become Jin-furen.”
“Call me A-Jie, not Shijie.” Her smile held a hint of mischievousness, and a lot of pent up emotion.
In a former life, Wei Wuxian might have argued. But a mind healer had set him straight, so now he simply threw himself into his sister’s arms. “A-Jie!”
They held each other tightly, tears streaming silently down both their faces, until Wei Wuxian realized what else she’d said. He pulled back, holding her by the shoulders at arms length.
“Wait, Jin-furen? Don’t you mean Jin-shao-furen?” If Nie Huaisang had involved her in whatever he was planning —
“I don’t.” She bit her lip, and whispered, “You have to keep this a secret, okay? Jin Guangshan was poisoned last week. His mind is already gone, but the healers are keeping him breathing just through the wedding. To secure A-Xuan’s position, and because we need to be married now, not after the appropriate mourning period.” She pressed both her hands over her belly.
Right. Because Sh— A-Jie was having a baby. One who could not possibly be Jin Ling.
“Don’t call this one Jin Ling. It wouldn’t be him for about two more years.” He hadn’t told her much about her son, not wanting to influence her choices, and because he might not be born, or might turn out different with both his parents alive. Or, as a younger sibling, without the weight of an entire sect’s future on his shoulders.
“Don’t worry, A-Xian. I have a feeling this one’s a girl.” She pulled him back in for another hug. “From what you’ve told me, the boy you knew was in desperate need of an older sister.”
“He better also get to keep his parents.” He mumbled into her shoulder.
“I will do my best to make that happen.”
A-Jie rubbed his back soothingly. “If you stay off them, I will.”
“It’s a deal.”
“Are you still mad that we eloped? We are still going through with the big public ceremony planned by you.” Wei Wuxian tugged on Jiang Cheng’s sleeve. They hadn’t, actually, married again, just claimed they’d made their bows to make the adoption seem more acceptable. The “official” wedding wouldn’t be for another few months, because A-Jie, as the eldest and longest betrothed, naturally went first, even discounting other pressing matters. But the Second Jade of Lan’s wedding must also be a production. They weren’t about to let their sects treat them like they weren’t married with children.
Jiang Cheng made inarticulate mocking sounds, like a child. If nothing else, Wei Wuxian was glad he still got to have that, that almost-pleasant sibling grumpiness. A bit of childishness amongst his new responsibility. Jiang Cheng’s parents weren’t dead — were taking him seriously and handing him that responsibility.
Responsibility he’d always counted on Wei Wuxian to share. He hadn’t, once before. Couldn’t share it fully, this time. Wei Wuxian never could have been exactly what Jiang Cheng wanted him to be, always beside him with no other priorities. There had always been justice and then — Lan Zhan. His Wens.
But this time, he could do more to support him in the way Jiang Cheng wanted to be supported. And he wouldn’t need to gouge out his very core to do so.
(Also, he still needed to find those rogue cultivators, who would expand Jiang Cheng’s definition of ‘people who mattered’.)
“You know, A-Cheng. Just because I’m not just your first disciple doesn’t mean I can’t be your first disciple. If anything, spending time away will help secure your position.”
“I don’t want a first disciple! I want my brother!”
He sucked in a breath. Jiang Cheng had never called him that before.
“Oh, Chengcheng. You’ll always have me.” He paused, putting his hand on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder. “Didi.”
It felt weird, to say that out loud, in a way it hadn’t with A-Jie. Even though it was how he had secretly always thought of him.
Jiang Cheng turned to face him, squinting suspiciously like Wei Wuxian might be playing a trick.
“Ge? No, I can’t do it. I’m still calling you Wei Wuxian.” The difference between calling him his older brother and addressing him that way was too much affection for Jiang Cheng, but hearing it, even once, made Wei Wuxian tear up. “But watch out! You’re getting officially adopted! Now that A-Niang can’t make me get married, you have to provide me with an heir.”
What was it with his siblings and making their relationships official these days? First A-Jie, then he found out Wen Ning and Wen Qing added him to their family registry, now Jiang Cheng — and was it even legal to be listed on both? Wei Wuxian didn’t think he cared. He’d never needed it to be official, but if they wanted to offer, he wasn’t going to say no.
He did sniff back the threat of tears, though. Jiang Cheng wouldn’t know what to do with those.
“Now I see your ulterior motive! Ok, I’ll do it. But please don’t tell Lan Zhan that before I find a single child to adopt, or you’ll end up with five. I can’t handle seven kids at once.” He thought about it and really — he’d prefer to stick with two, until the ones he had were a bit older. Around when A-Wu received her sword and A-Yuan started forming his golden core, perhaps. “If you can wait a few years, three sounds manageable.”
Pleased, Jiang Cheng puffed up his chest. “I’m going to be the best uncle. Lan Xichen and Wen Ning can eat my dust.”
Wei Wuxian laughed a little wetly, and ruffled his hair. “Who’s the best uncle? Chengcheng’s the best uncle!”
He huffed, “Shut up! You don’t even like dogs, don’t treat me like one.”
Wei Wuxian stuck out his tongue at him before sprinting away.
They both ended up in the lotus lake.
A-Jie was radiant at her wedding, and the Peacock looked like he understood exactly how lucky and undeserving he was. He was fairly certain Mianmian was sticking close to the Peacock’s side to keep him on his feet, as A-Jie was handed over to him. The Peacock almost swooned as it was.
The ceremony was beautiful - and Wei Wuxian was even allowed to witness the bows. A-Jie had insisted.
Even Madame Yu cried, though she tried to hide it.
He made himself scarce, after, not wanting to push his luck, and joined Lan Zhan and their children for the banquet.
It was more than enough.
After the bride and groom left the wedding banquet, Mianmian moved to her betrothed’s side. Wen Qing instantly transformed from grumpy (A-Ning was being monopolized by Nie Huaisang; Qing-jie was not any happier about this than Wei Wuxian was) to glowing with happiness. Their wedding wouldn’t happen until next year, but they seemed content to wait. Mianmian wanted to help Jin Zixuan through his first challenges as sect leader, and Wen Qing wanted to stabilize Qishan more before she invited other sect leaders back in.
Though the absence of the groom’s father was noted, it was smoothed over as quietly as possible.
The Yin Iron purification ceremony was more of a trial. It was performed in the training yard at Koi Tower, and Wei Wuxian had inscribed the largest array he’d ever created in pig’s blood that morning. It was set to begin at noon, when shadows were banished.
“But how do we know this array won’t flood our cores with resentful energy?” Sect Leader Ouyang demanded, a green tinge to his complexion.
“We could all die! Or become Wen Qing’s puppets!” Sect Leader Yao wailed, which sent up a flurry of agitated murmurs from the disciples that had accompanied them, and some of the other sects. Even a few Lan disciples looked worried.
Wei Wuxian blew a sharp scale on his dizi, startling them to silence. “Esteemed Sect Leaders, need I remind you that it was not Wen-zongzhu that designed this array?”
“You’re close to the Wens,” Jin Zixun drawled — and it really, really sucked that Wei Wuxian remembered his name now. “You’re probably helping her.”
That sent up a round of yelling. Wei Wuxian sighed. These people would form an angry mob over any little thing.
Lan Zhan grabbed Bichen’s hilt threateningly.
But it was the Peacock, of all people, who put a stop to things. Without A-Jie — not present, as they weren’t sure what resentful energy would do to the baby — or Mianmian urging him on, even. “Zixun, sit down. You’re losing face with your ridiculous theories.”
Jin Zixun sat in the mud.
Huh. Marriage and a dead father suited the Peacock.
Wen Qing bowed to the assembled cultivators. “I understand it will take time to prove I have diverged from my Uncle’s unorthodox path. However, purifying the Yin Iron is necessary, and the theory behind it has been verified by skilled scholars from many plans. Please, put your faith in them, and we will rid the world of an incomprehensible evil.”
All those years of managing a murderous would-be emperor had prepared her well to be a Sect Leader.
The whisperers were not entirely silenced, but when Madame Yu got impatient and cracked Zidian, they shut their mouths. “We will begin the ritual now,” she announced.
Lan Zhan carefully removed the Yin Iron from the qiankun bags. With a talisman shielding his hand, he drove the sword point down in the center of the circle, and placed the other four pieces in the circles inscribed around it at the four cardinal points.
Wei Wuxian, Lan Zhan, Wen Qing, and Nie Mingjue took up the four corresponding points on the edge of the circle. Their strength and specialized skill sets would provide the balance necessary to properly anchor the ritual, he’d theorized.
The other cultivators filled in around them. Not even Jin Zixun or Sect Leader Yao were willing to flee and risk being seen forever as cowards.
Across from each other, Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan began to play. Nie Mingjue drew Baxia, focusing on the spirit trapped within. Wen Qing produced a bright, Wen flame, the sort she would use to cauterize a wound without harming the surrounding tissue, not to burn anything down.
Energy flooded the circle from everyone else, and the resentful energy began to rise. First in wisps, then in clouds. The occasional whine or whimper could be heard as cloud billowed too close. But in the end, it all dissipated on the wind.
The iron left behind was a silver-gray that sparkled under the sunlight. Ordinary iron, with a spiritual affinity, perfect for tempering into steel to make a cultivator’s sword.
As the power dissipated, a few of the less powerful cultivators fainted. Wei Wuxian was deeply grateful he could no longer be counted in their number.
Because Lan Zhan had crossed the circle, and was busy kissing the breath out of him.
Naturally, there was a celebratory banquet. The fact that they’d just had one —and that Jin Guangshan was still conspicuously absent — did not stop the sect leaders’ enthusiasm for more. Even and especially the ones who had been most vocally nervous, who now claimed to have been no such thing.
Wei Wuxian was, strangely, grateful for it.
The apocalypse he and Lan Zhan had come back to stop was well and truly averted. And here was everyone he loved, safe and well, all in one place.
A-Jie and the Peacock, staring at each other with the sappy smiles of newlyweds, the Peacock piling more treats on A-Jie’s plate than she could possibly eat.
Jiang Cheng, seated nearby, but not glowering, because he had insisted it was time to begin winning that number one uncle title, and had A-Yuan settled in his lap, playing with his clarity bell, while A-Wu rambled on about something. Probably lizards. He looked overwhelmed, but happy.
Nie Huaisang batted his eyelids at a furiously blushing Wen Ning, until Wen Ning said something, and Nie Huaisang turned the color of a ripe tomato.
Lan Xichen sat with his lovers, sipping tea and having what looked like a pleasant conversation with Meng Yao, as Nie Mingjue watched them fondly.
And he and Lan Zhan were wrapped in a conversation with Wen Qing and Mianmian, just like old times in the library, but with significantly lower stakes. They were in the midst of a spirited debate about how Sect Leader Ouyang had managed to reproduce — which Lan Zhan was tolerating, because at least it wasn’t about his uncle — when they were rather rudely interrupted.
Jin Zixun shoved a cup of wine under Lan Zhan’s nose. “Guests should have a drink. It’s disrespectful if you don’t.”
Lan Zhan looked at Wei Wuxian with a hint of a smile, before replying coldly. “I do not drink.”
“You just think you’re better than everyone else. Even your brother had a cup.” Jin Zixun shoved the cup forward again.
Wei Wuxian knew exactly what Lan Zhan wanted him to do. “I’ll drink for him,” he announced cheerily.
Snatching the cup from Jin Zixun’s hand, he tossed it back. Lan Zhan stared up at him with his lips parted, a look he hadn’t been able to fully appreciate the first time around.
Unable to resist, he winked.
Lan Zhan jumped to his feet, knocking into the table and rattling the dishes in his hurry. “Wei Ying. We must leave. Now.” He held out his hand imperiously.
Wei Wuxian took it, and let his husband pull him out of the banquet hall, leaving the inevitable gossip behind them.