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SanRen

Chapter Text

Notes: Please don’t ask me about the characterization or timelines. Both do not exist. Short chapter, since this is basically the prologue.

~.~.~

Chapter 1: Journeying

It was hard to believe anyone had ever lived in that room. Everything had been packed or given away, and every surface was meticulously clean. The only sign of its occupant were the stick figure doodles on the board above the bed.

And, of course, the occupant himself — or was it already “former” occupant? — running his hand over them thoughtfully.

Wei WuXian hummed distractedly as his fingers pressed against the rough lines. He should clean them up to, he thought. He had wanted to leave everything perfect, for... a lot of reasons. To spare anyone from having to clean up for him, to make the separation as clean and easy as possible, maybe to stick his nose up at Madame Yu a little...

He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t. He wasn’t even hurt, really. He didn’t blame anyone either. But he had to admit it still left a slightly bitter taste in his mouth, despite his best efforts to ignore it.

Dragged out of his thoughts as another presence paused in the doorway, Wei Wuxian turned around and smiled as if he had no worries at all. “Uncle Jiang!” he greeted brightly. “Come to see me off?”

Jiang FengMian’s expression was quite light as well — that is to say, quite fake. “Are you all ready?” he asked, smiling the same benign smile he had always directed at Wei WuXian.

No. “Yeah,” Wei WuXian said easily. “I’m all packed.”

His gaze darted to the carvings he’d made in a bout of boredom so long ago, and with a sudden burst of rebelliousness, he decisively thought that leaving them was for the best after all. Some other disciple would be moved into the room soon enough, and inheriting the lazy scribbles of their predecessor was only natural.

And no matter what, Wei WuXian had been a disciple of YunmengJiang. That wouldn’t change, even after his departure.

“That’s good. Everything is ready from our end as well. Here is the official notice of your departure from the sect.” Jiang FengMian held out the certificate, the strokes of the script precise and formal, the red of the sect head’s stamp eye-catching. It was probably a good idea to confirm exactly what it said, but Wei WuXian couldn’t work up the will to do more than glance at it. “No one will have any right to give you trouble for heading out on your own, so...”

“Right, right! From now on, I’m a rogue cultivator!” Wei WuXian agreed, grinning. “Like Mom! You know, I was always holding back so I wouldn’t cause trouble for the sect, but now...” He trailed off, snickering.

Now, he could do anything he wanted. He could go anywhere he wanted. No more scolding from Jiang Cheng, no more being whipped by Madame Yu, no more having to kneel in the hall and “think on his behavior.” It was a nice thought — a nice way of looking at this situation. Wei WuXian preferred it this way, but Jiang FengMian’s formerly controlled expression was slowly growing troubled, as he couldn’t quite hold back his feelings anymore.

“Are you sure you’ll be alright, A-Xian?” he asked with surprising insistence. “Even with this, I can still burn it, and you can...”

“No way,” Wei WuXian said firmly. Even though he was still smiling, he turned away, just in case. “I already made up my mind! And... Uncle Jiang, I’m very grateful, to you and to YunmengJiang. I wanted to pay you back for raising me all these years by becoming a cultivator and serving the sect. But the way things are...”

It was hard not to let his voice crack, and despite his every effort, his tone went much too flat.

“I’m just making it worse. I’m making things worse just being here.”

That was the plain truth, even though they had all ignored it as hard as they could. Frankly, Wei Wuxian would have probably continued to ignore it, but...

It was the truth. The rumors and the friction between Madame Yu and Uncle Jiang, the pressure on Jiang Cheng — they were all just building and building. It wasn’t going to get better. He wasn’t helping anything by being here. He was just making it worse.

So the best thing he could do was leave.

Once he decided that, Wei WuXian had immediately felt like some invisible weight had, not lifted exactly, but settled on his shoulders in a way he could carry until it became so natural that he wouldn't even notice it anymore. Everything clicked together and started to make sense again, like coming out on the other side of the muddle his thoughts had been slowly spiralling into as he became more and more aware of the tensions prying the Jiang clan apart.

He’d become a rogue cultivator like ZangSe SanRen had been. He'd travel freely, hunt and research at his leisure, and play as he pleased. And then one day...

‘I’ll be back,’ was what he wanted to say, ‘I’ll still pay you back for all your kindness and support.’ When Jiang Cheng became the sect leader, when there was no more reason for bitterness between them, when there was no more reason for Madame Yu to doubt... But saying it be too irresponsible? Uncharacteristically, Wei WuXian wavered uncertainly. The whole point was to remove his troublesome presence. Leaving behind a promise might just cause more problems.

In the end, he remained silent.

Jiang FengMian’s expression was pained in that silence, his lips pressed tightly together to hold back the hundred things he wanted to say as well.

This awkwardness was the worst part, Wei WuXian decided. Stowing the last of his belongings in a qiankun pouch, he turned around and grinned as carelessly as he could. “Thanks for everything, Uncle Jiang,” he said firmly.

Jiang Cheng and Jiang YanLi were waiting at the gates, along with a crowd of their junior disciples. The brother’s expression was tight and complicated. It was probably the first time Wei WuXian had seen such a resemblance between him and his father. His sister only smiled gently and pulled Wei WuXian into a warm hug that he returned tightly.

‘I’ll be back,’ he again wanted to say. But he stayed silent — and promised it only in his heart.

~.~.~

To be perfectly honest, traveling around a rogue cultivator suited Wei WuXian pretty well, if he did say so himself. All the advantages he had anticipated! — And even the issue of having to manage his own finance didn’t end up much of a problem.

After all, there were many areas that didn’t fall under any cultivation sect’s control, and they were always happy to receive any help at all with their accumulated spiritual woes. He helped them, they gave him a hot meal and a place to sleep, and everyone was happy. It was a pretty good deal all around.

...Usually. At the moment, Wei WuXian was admittedly a fair distance from happy.

This little errand was undeniably a tedious one. Calling it hunting was a stretch — it was really just tracking down a few dozen moving corpses that had scattered across the valley after a merchant caravan was caught in a landslide. The bodies, falling down a gorge, couldn’t be retrieved before they transformed, and ended up wandering off individually. Even if they had all come at Wei WuXian together, their low level would have made them no challenge. One by one? There was not even a point in swinging Suibian.

It was just finding them that was taking far too long. There would have been no way to confirm if he caught all of them normally, but Wei WuXian had seen this as an excellent opportunity to test out something he had been working on — a special magic tool of his own creation, which pointed toward any malevolent beings in the vicinity.

Or at least it was supposed to, there were admittedly a few gaps in its functions. Knowing that, he made a somewhat dubious expression as he stared down at it. There were no longer any reactions, even after he crossed the valley up and down atop his sword, but did that mean he was done, or had the compass missed any of the moving corpses?

Finally, Wei WuXian shrugged carelessly, dismissing the issue from his mind. “I’ll check again tomorrow night,” he decided, “and if there’s no response again, I’ll call it done.”

Given the level of the moving corpses, even if a couple remained, they wouldn’t be a serious danger to the villagers. Of course, he’d warn them that some might still be out there too.

He had been lazily drifting along the outer edges of the valley, intending to circle back toward the village, when the compass in his hand gave a faint ping. The reaction fluttered unsurely and faded out a moment later, but it had definitely been there.

Wei WuXian huffed in annoyance. How typical. It seemed his night wasn’t over after all.

In fact, it was just beginning.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: The translations at Exiled Rebels Scanlations (thx btw) switch from ‘yao’ to ‘fay’ at some point iirc, but I think ‘fay’ sounds weird. It’s somewhat awkward that yao is the only supernatural category left in pinyin, but I think the added flavor is better than the connotations for ‘fay’ (fairy and the like).

~.~.~

Chapter 2: Crossing Paths

Over his months as a rogue cultivator, Wei WuXian had naturally run across a number of cultivators from other sects. He had mostly remained outside the areas around the major sects, but it wasn’t as if he could remember ever minor sect out there or as if the largest clans didn’t roam out of their territories at times.

So this was not even the first time he had run across the white and cloud robes of GusuLan. However, the sight still took him a little by surprise. How did they keep those mourning clothes clean, really?

The compass had been acting incredibly erratic, at times flaring up vividly, only to then dim completely the next moment. Was this evil presence close or not? Wei WuXian wondered irritably. Was there even one out there at all?

That was when he caught a flash of white among the trees, and his excitement surged, thinking he had finally caught up to his target. Tucking the compass away and grasping his sword instead, he crept stealthily toward the white figure. It had been moving but stopped before he got close enough to tell much about the quality of its motions. An opportunity, Wei WuXian thought.

An idiot, he was.

As he darted out from behind a tree, Suibian flashing, another sword — a beautiful pale blade — flashed in reply. The only good thing was that both of them realized their mistake at the same time and immediately halted their swings. Their sword blades hovered, still ringing faintly, just short of touching.

‘...How beautiful,’ Wei WuXian thought.

Not the frost-like silver sword, though that was certainly lovely too. No, his gaze was fixed solely on its wielder — who was, undeniably, the most beautiful man Wei WuXian had ever seen. The most beautiful person, maybe. Distractedly, his mind tried to summon up the ladies he’d met in the past, but their faces were blurred and distant. If only this guy’s expression wasn’t so flat...

Wait. This was not the time for that.

“Hahaha, my bad!” Wei WuXian spoke up first, not necessarily because he recovered quicker but because his mouth moved faster. Stepping back, he sheathed his sword. “I thought there was something over here. Were you chasing something? Maybe we’re after the same thing!”

There was a pause, and he shifted from foot to foot restlessly. Ah, that blank lack of expression was really a waste on such a pretty face. It also made Wei WuXian want to make that mask crack. It was like a challenge, even though it obviously wasn’t.

Finally, the GusuLan disciple nodded once.

If he had intended to explain anything further, Wei WuXian didn’t give him the chance. “Great! So there really is something! I was starting to wonder. But in that case, why don’t we team up and look for it together? It’s always better to have someone to watch your back.”

The lesson had been rather firmly drilled in at YunmengJiang, and he parroted it out of habit — not that he could reproach the other for hunting alone, given that it was now Wei WuXian’s default state as well.

Again without giving him a chance to open his mouth, Wei WuXian rushed onward. “I’m Wei WuXian,” he introduced himself, “a traveling cultivator. But don’t worry, I’m pretty good! I won’t slow you down. So how about it?”

This time, he waited for a response, grinning and nearly bouncing with anticipation.

“...Formerly of YunmengJiang,” the GusuLan disciple upended to Wei WuXian’s introduction. He must have heard of him.

Were there rumors going around? Of course there were, Wei WuXian thought a little sourly. He had been the head disciple of Lotus Pier, after all. It wasn’t a small thing for him to just take off for no clear reason. None of the other sect disciples or cultivators he ran into said anything, but maybe it hadn’t reached them yet, or maybe they hadn’t realized he was the one. Even now, was he still causing problems for YunmengJiang’s reputation?

Since Wei WuXian was momentarily lost in thought, they ended up standing in silence again, but this time the awkwardness was particularly intense.

The GusuLan disciple’s flat expression didn’t change, but he felt it too. This situation... had the impression of having talked about someone behind their back, which was one of the things forbidden by GusuLan’s infamous rules.

“Lan WangJi,” he offered his own name as compensation.

Wei WuXian perked up, immediately dismissing his worries. “Lan WangJi? The Lan Zhan from the Two Jades of Lan?” he asked with interest. “Fancy meeting someone like you out here! But aren’t pretty far from home?” The response took too long, and he skipped straight to making his own assumptions. “Did you end up chasing this thing from all the way near Gusu? It must be fast and good at hiding to give you the run around like that.”

No wonder he had been getting such a weird reaction.

“I can’t imagine a moving corpse managing that,” he went on. “And ghosts are good at hiding, but not usually at running away so far from where they died. Is it a demon? A monster? A yao? Hey, Lan WangJi—”

Fed up with his chatter, Lan WangJi had silently turned around and begun to walk away.

“Hey, wait!” Naturally Wei WuXian chased after him, easily catching up and keeping pace. “Come on, don’t be like that. At least tell me about it. What if I get ambushed all alone and off guard, with no partner or sect to support me, no information to help me... Well, of course I’ll figure it out, but that would be very rude, wouldn’t it?”

“A yao beast,” Lan WangJi replied, cutting through the nagging.

Wei WuXian hummed in thought. “A beast, huh? So some animal that gained a consciousness? How did it become tainted? Hmm, did it eat people?”

That was the most common reason. Not that eating humans had the same dark implications for animals as cannibalism did for humans, but if it went against the animal’s nature in some way, especially if it was an act tainted with malice...

“So this animal, was it by chance... a dog?” Wei WuXian ventured.

He was asking for personal reasons, but it wasn’t even farfetched. Dogs were supposed to belong to humans, so if one were to, say, devour its owner in rage, that would generate potent negative energy.

Lan WangJi didn’t answer. If anything, he just picked up his pace.

But he hadn’t broken into a run yet, so it was fine. Probably.

“Well, is it? Is it?” Wei WuXian prompted. Even though he knew he was just being ignored, there was a small shiver going down his spine in unease. “Hey, Lan WangJi! Second Brother Lan! Brother WangJi! Lan Zhan!”

Stopping so abruptly that Wei WuXian almost tripped trying to automatically copy his pace, Lan WangJi turned to him with a cold gaze.

“So is it?” Wei WuXian repeated his question insistently.

He did not receive an expression of disgust, which was what he had expected, though only because Lan WangJi’s expression did not seem capable of changing at all. “No,” he said finally. “A lion.”

A lion? “A lion? I think I’ve heard of those, but they’re not native to around here at all, are they?” Wei WuXian said. “Oh, was it an exotic pet? And it turned on its owner?”

“Worse,” Lan WangJi muttered.

It took a bit of guessing on Wei WuXian to figure out the details, since his new companion was disinclined to say more than three words in a row — at least to him. But that was fun. It was a bit amusing, even.

The full story was thus: A rich local lord had bought a lion from a group of traveling performers. The animal had already been terribly mistreated, gaunt and nearly feral. Its new owner had thrown it into a stone pit, feeding it just enough to keep it alive, and then used it to kill servants who particularly displeased him. Their resentment, combined with its own, had turned it into a yao.

And then, once its transformation was complete, it got out, devoured the owner, and took off hunting across the countryside for more prey — until it became prey itself, to the cultivator sent by the GusuLan sect.

It did manage to lead Lan WangJi on a merry chase because, as hunter itself, it was surprisingly — frustratingly — adapt at concealing its presence and tracks.

“I see, I see,” Wei WuXian nodded along wisely, once he got the picture. “Well, you’re in luck! Who knows how long you’d have to chase it around if you hadn’t run into me! I’ll help you out!”

He puffed up, putting on a particularly smug smirk. Naturally, Lan WangJi turned around and tried to walk off again.

Laughing, Wei WuXian hurried after him. They rushed for a dozen steps before slowing down back to normal pace. They had already done this several times, and it only got funnier each time, since even Lan WangJi must have realized it wasn’t going to work and yet still expressed his annoyance in such a surprisingly childish way.

“But really, I’ll help. I’ll be very helpful, you’ll see,” Wei WuXian assured him, pulling out the compass he had hidden earlier and holding it up triumphantly. The audience of one was not impressed. Still half disassembled from his tinkering and marked up haphazardly with his alterations, it didn’t look like much, but Wei WuXian maintained the confident smile of a snake-oil salesman. “You’ll see!”

~.~.~

In the end, the greater benefit was simply having a second person to cut off the yao beast’s escape route.

It wasn’t as if Lan WangJi wasn’t capable of tracking the yao on his own — he had, after all, followed it across the region. It was just that the beast was quite adept at melding into the shadows and slipping away time after time.

But not this time!

“I got it, I got it!” Wei WuXian called out energetically, dashing into the shadows at an angle from where Lan WangJi had almost caught up to the yao, only for it to seemingly vanish into a thicket. He was quite impressed with its skill, to be honest, and curious about how it worked. He’d been so curious that he’d accidentally let it slip past him a couple times already, leaving his ‘partner’ even more deeply unimpressed.

This time, he kept firm track and burst from behind a copse of trees just as the lion beast was about to make its escape. It reeled back, its shadowy form solidifying. It snarled, a growl rumbling in its chest, deeper than a normal animal could manage. But Wei WuXian’s excited grin only widened, Suibian gleaming in his hand. His blood was pumping with anticipation of a fight.

The lion bared its jaws, and its body coiled. It’s eyes glowed a malevolent, furious red. It sprang—

A white light flashed, as Bichen streaked forward, levitating with a hand seal from Lan WangJi. It scored a hit, but only a glancing one. The yao threw itself aside just in time and, instead of pressing the attack, wheeled around to run again.

It was a little sad, how desperately it wanted to be free. However, they couldn’t let it go. It had tasted human flesh, many times, and that taint would drive it to hunt again. The one time Lan WangJi had been a little slower in pursuing it, it had attacked a group of travelers already, nearly tearing a man’s arm off.

“Not so fast!” Wei WuXian called out, throwing out a few fire talismans. Activating in a flash of heat, they formed a burning net that cut off the beast’s path. It yowled furiously as it was forced to twist away.

Lan WangJi closed in, Bichen’s returning to his hand. The white sword flashed again, and the yao’s shadow-wreather form shuddered. Wei WuXian dealt the final blow.

It collapsed on the group, the malevolent darkness that had cloaked it slowly beginning to evaporate away, revealing golden fur, even without a soul-calming ceremony. All the same, Wei WuXian clasped his hands together and, lowering his head, sent a quick prayer for its soul.

“Hope you make it home safe,” he muttered.

As he raised his head again, his gaze met that of Lan WangJi, who had been watching him. That was... interesting. So he had finally caught this guy’s interest at least a little. Nothing like a hunt to bring cultivators together, Wei WuXian thought, waggling his eyebrows with a self-satisfied smirk.

Anyone else would have certainly shot him a disgusted look at that. Lan WangJi looked on the verge of turning around and walking off again. For good, this time.

“That was pretty good, right? I told you I’d be useful!” Wei WuXian said cheerfully, siddling up to him again. “We should team up again! Hunting alone is fine, but having a partner is good too. What do you say? If you’ve got another hunt after this, let’s go together. Or are you off back to Gusu?”

“Back to Cloud Recesses,” Lan WangJi confirmed.

And, to Wei Wuxian’s surprise, he looked at him again. It was impossible to tell what he was thinking, but there must have been something.

“Cloud Recesses, huh?” Wei WuXian repeated instead. “Ah, that reminds me... We were supposed to go study there for a while.”

As soon as the words were out, his stomach dropped. He pressed his lips together tightly, as if that could pull them back. This was precisely the kind of thing he didn’t want to think about, much less bring up. Frantically, he cast around for a change of subject, all while something twisted uncomfortably in his gut.

“Disciples from YunmengJiang are at Cloud Recesses,” Lan WangJi confirmed.

He was still watching Wei WuXian closely. His pale eyes were piercing and riveting, unlikely any Wei WuXian had ever seen before. But unlike the aura of frost and coldness that penetrated everything else about him, his gaze felt simply... mysterious. Distant and unfathomable, like the moon just over the horizon.

Disciples from YunmengJiang were at Cloud Recesses. Why had he said that, despite so thoroughly refusing to communicate with Wei WuXian all through the hunt, to the point of making him guess at the nature of the yao? Every word he allowed felt weighted and meaningful, so there must have been something he was trying to convey.

From YunmengJiang... Jiang Cheng must have been at Cloud Recesses too. He was the head disciple now, after all. At least a few of their junior disciples would be with him.

How were they doing? It had been so long since Wei WuXian had seen them. Ever since being rescued by Uncle Jiang, he had never been apart from the others.

He was fine alone. He was. But...

Lan WangJi was still waiting patiently, and realizing how long he’d been silent, Wei WuXian forced out a laugh. “Oh, is that so? Then maybe I’ll drop by too!” he joked. “Wouldn’t be fair for them to have all the fun without me!”

Except that Lan WangJi only nodded seriously and set off with the full expectation of being followed.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: Who loves three dozen different povs? Me. I love having different povs all the time.

~.~.~

 

Chapter 3: Family

Every time he caught sight of the rules carved into the stone wall of Cloud Recesses, Jiang Cheng thought about Wei WuXian. It was only a passing thought, but it was always there — ‘Good thing that guy isn’t here. He’d never be able to keep himself in line.’

Every time, Jiang Cheng would catch himself and sigh sharply in frustration. What was the point of thinking about Wei WuXian? He wasn’t part of their sect anymore. He wasn’t there to cause problems anymore, so there were far better things to be concerned about.

And yet.

Every time Jiang Cheng heard a diligent GusuLan disciple cite yet another rule, his mind would flash to how quickly and how often Wei WuXian would have broken it. When he saw a flash of yellow LanlingJin robes, he’d reflexively glance aside with the full intent of holding back someone who wasn’t there. Down in Gusu, he bought two jars of Empreror’s Smile without even thinking.

It had been months and months already. Why hadn’t he gotten used to it?

Even when Wei WuXian wasn’t there, he was driving Jiang Cheng crazy.

So when he thought he heard that familiar voice yelling behind him, he just sighed. ‘No raising your voice in Cloud Recesses,’ he thought of the rule with something almost like exasperated fondness. And hearing the sound of rapid footsteps, he mentally added, ‘No running.’

That was just like Wei WuXian, to break rules right away...

Wait.

Jiang Cheng stumbled as a heavy, dusty, musky weight collided with his back and a strong arm went over his shoulders. “Jiang Cheng! Hey, hey, it’s been ages! Did you miss me?” Wei WuXian exclaimed cheerfully, pressing his cheek against Jiang Cheng’s.

Wait. Wait, wait, wait.

“Wei WuXian?!” He twisted around to stare at his brother in shock. “W-wha, what? How?!”

“Surprised? Lan Zhan let me in,” Wei WuXian said. He was still beaming as he stepped back and, hands on his brother's shoulders, studied Jiang Cheng. It hadn’t been that long, there weren’t any differences to see, and somehow that was a relief.

‘Lan Zhan, as in Lan WangJi of the Two Jades? How...?’ Jiang Cheng started to wonder, only to firmly push the thought away. It wasn’t his business and he really didn’t even want to know. Not knowing was bound to be better. They had finally managed to wash their hands of Wei WuXian’s nonsense, he refused to get dragged back in.

“Why are you here?” Jiang Cheng asked instead, shaking him away and stepping back, arms crossed.

“Came to see you and the others,” Wei WuXian admitted easily. “It’s been ages. But going to Lotus Pier... it’d be like leaving was pointless. Lan Zhan mentioned you were here, so I thought it was a good opportunity.”

‘Lan Zhan’ again. Jiang Cheng ignored it more firmly. “Well, we’re fine. What, did you think we’d all go to pieces without you there? We’re just fine without the illustrious Wei WuXian.”

Wei WuXian just nodded along. “How’s Shijie?”

“Fine.”

“Uncle Jiang?”

“Fine, fine!”

“Madame Yu? Are they getting along better now?”

“They’re fine!” Jiang Cheng gritted out through clenched teeth.

He didn’t need to look at Wei WuXian to know the usual smile had dropped off his face at the sharpness of his rebuke. His gaze was heavy on Jiang Cheng. It felt frustratingly disappointed. His clothing rustled in the sudden silence between them, as Wei WuXian slowly lowered his arms. Even without looking, Jiang Cheng could imagine his shoulders slumping.

“...It didn’t get better, huh?” Wei WuXian muttered. It was hard to read the tone of his low voice, but the plaintive note in it made Jiang Cheng bite painfully at the inside of his cheek. “It's not because Uncle Jiang is still worried about me, is it? I told him I don't mind, and I've been writing to Shijie that I'm doing well... I don't want to—”

“It’s not about you,” Jiang Cheng cut him off. “It’s...”

Grimacing, he shook his head.

That was the truth. It wasn't about Wei WuXian. Indeed, he wrote to Jiang YanLi with almost uncharacteristic dedication, especially since they had no way of replying to him. His letters were uniformly lighthearted and energetic, detailing his hunts and his adventures — mishaps, most of the time — on the road. Jiang YanLi always read them out to Jiang FengMian, politely making no comment of her brother loitering in the vicinity every time.

It wasn't as if they didn't consider that Wei WuXian might conceal any difficulties he encountered, out there alone. But it all sounded genuine enough and exactly like the kind of trouble he'd spent years getting into at Yunmeng. Several times, Jiang FengMian had smiled and shaken his head, remarking how much it all reminded him of ZangSe SanRen, Wei WuXian’s rogue cultivator mother. Whatever unhappiness he still held over the situation was firmly hidden behind his usual pleasant mien.

And yet. Nothing had improved at all.

His parents were still frigid toward each other, at best. His mother still constantly gritted her teeth against the Jiang sect’s way of doing things, still constantly struggled to restrain her smoldering resentment. His father still put on a blank face as if none of it mattered, like he didn’t even care. And nothing Jiang Cheng did seemed good enough, always coming up short of some invisible standard he didn’t understand.

It had been easy to say that the standard was Wei WuXian, but... that had never really been the case, had it?

Nothing changed even without him there. That had been the most bitter, slowly-dawning realization.

“It’s... none of your concern,” Jiang Cheng said finally. “It has nothing to do with you now.”

Glancing at Wei WuXian, he caught only a glimpse of his expression before he turned away. It was enough to make leave a disgusting aftertaste in his mouth. Wei WuXian’s shoulders heaved once, as if he was swallowing down something, then he said in a cheery tone, “Right! Of course, it’s got nothing to do with an outsider like me. I didn’t come to bother you about that anyway! So instead let’s—”

“What’s with you and Lan WangJi?” Jiang Cheng cut in quickly.

There were three thousand rules in Cloud Recesses. No matter what came out of Wei WuXian’s mouth, it would involve breaking at least a dozen of them.

They would have plenty of time for trouble later, with the others. There was no way they’d let Wei WuXian leave without a wild night, curfew be damned. But for now, he could at least stall a little.

Jiang Cheng didn’t realize what he was getting himself into with that question, but as Wei WuXian spun around to face him with a wide, beaming grin, all worries and concerns forgotten, he couldn’t do anything but consider it was worth it.

“Lan Zhan? It’s great, he’s really something, right? We just ran into each other, but what a lucky meeting — let me tell you all about it...”

~.~.~

The barriers around Cloud Recesses prevented exist without a special jade token, and since Wei WuXian had just tagged along inside with Lan WangJi, he had ended up not receiving one himself. In practice, that wasn’t a big issue — he could have just had Jiang Cheng walk him out. That would have been the obvious, common sense thing.

Naturally, Wei WuXian did not do that.

If asked, he would have claimed to be driven by courtesy — lies, as Jiang Cheng would attest without hesitation, Wei WuXian wouldn’t know courtesy if it tattooed itself to the back of his eyelids — after all, wasn’t it only polite to let his new ‘friend’ and stand-in host know that his business was concluded and he was departing?

That was absolutely the only reason Wei WuXian went searching for Lan WangJi through Cloud Recesses. There were definitely no hidden motives, like wanting to needle him again or make sure Lan WangJi hadn’t put him out of his mind after arriving home.

He had already been sternly reminded that running was prohibited in Cloud Recesses seven times, shouting five times, when he caught a glimpse of that lovely profile turning down a narrow path.

“Lan Zhan! Hey, Lan Zhan!” Wei WuXian called out, waving energetically as he hurried to catch up. “You’re—”

He stopped short. As that face turned toward him, he realized that it wasn’t quite right. Almost exactly the same in the features, but more like two paintings of the same scenery, never the same. The biggest difference was the eyes — dark and deep, not unforgettably pale and piercing.

No. The biggest difference was the easy smile that softened every line of the young man’s face with the familiarity of one’s most favored expression.

Lan WangJi, Wei WuXian knew fundamentally, did not make expressions. Especially not expressions like that.

“—not Lan Zhan,” he concluded dumbly.

A shame, too. He couldn’t help trying to imagine Lan WangJi with a smile, now, and it was... He couldn’t imagine it, of course, but just trying made him press his lips together, biting back a ridiculous, quivering grin.

The lips of Lan WangJi’s doppelganger curled, his eyes crinkling in pleased amusement. “No, I am not,” he agreed. “Lan XiChen, at your service. And you are the guest WangJi brought — Young Master Wei?”

That made sense. He was the other of Lan’s Two Jades, Lan WangJi’s older brother, although seeing him now, they could have easily passed for twins. The sort of twins that were as different as night and day, given their opposite dispositions.

“That’s me!” Wei WuXian agreed. “Lan Zhan brought me, so I wanted to tell him I’m heading out. And thank him. It was great talking to everyone from Lotus Pier again.”

Now that he could clearly see that he was talking to Lan XiChen and not Lan WangJi, Wei WuXian’s stupefied shock was fading into amusement. So that dour faced guy had a brother like this... It was enough to make him swallow back a snicker. He wasn’t quite sure how, but this was definitely teasing material.

“WangJi should be in the Library Pavilion,” Lan XiChen told him agreeably, but something about his tone gave away that there was more he wanted to say. His gentle smile softened further as Wei WuXian waited. “Thank you,” he went on, slowly and carefully, “for helping my brother on the hunt. And... I hope that perhaps you might partner with him again sometime. I think it would make WangJi happy.”

Happy was not what Wei WuXian expected Lan WangJi to feel at having to interact with him again, but it was bound to be amusing and so he nodded along in agreement.

As if he could read Wei WuXian’s thoughts, Lan XiChen’s smile took on a sly edge. “I do think he’ll be happy,” he repeated. “After all, this is the first time he’s hunted with someone outside our sect. And the first time he brought home a guest too.”

Ah. Well. “I’m not really a guest, just a visitor,” Wei WuXian corrected, demuring awkwardly.

“All the same,” Lan XiChen said. “I hope you and my brother become good friends.”

‘Are, are you really sure about this, Big Brother? Are there’s some nice, rule-abiding GusuLan disciples that would be better friends? Or even some other sect’s nice, rule-abiding disciples?’ Wei WuXian thought. ‘You really think I’m the best choice here?’

He had been at Cloud Recesses for maybe a day total, and at least three dozen people had yelled at him already. His background was so scandalous that even Lan WangJi, who gave every impression of one unconcerned with worldly matters, had heard the rumors. He didn’t even know how many rules he must have broken just last night with his old friends — because he hadn’t bothered reading them to begin with.

Was Lan WangJi’s older brother just a natural airhead, Wei WuXian considered seriously.

“Of course!” he agreed without hesitation despite that. “We’re already good friends!”

(In Library Pavilion, Lan WangJi paused, brush hovering over paper. His eyes narrowed — inexplicably, he felt deeply annoyed. It was a feeling he would become very familiar with.)

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: Hm, my outline already slipped, hahaha.

~.~.~

Chapter 4: Swapping Stories

“There were so many of them! They just kept coming and coming!” a GusuLan disciple regaled with rare fervor, his ponytail and the tails of his forehead ribbon swinging wildly in excitement. He made clawing gestures at the air as if to illustrate the way the water ghouls had climbed up onto their boats. “Their pale hands were grabbing at us! Their black hair was wrapping over everything like a net!”

Next to him, another disciple in white nodded, fervently if with a tad bit more restraint. “Some of the boats capsized,” he added. “So we had to take to our swords.”

“And then? And then what?” a boy from one of the smaller sects pressed, from the other end of the loose circle they had all settled in. Wei WuXian didn’t recognize his robes, and their little group, gathered in an inn after a particularly chaotic hunt at one of the larger grounds, was not so little that he had caught everyone’s names. But the atmosphere was casual and cheerful enough that it didn’t matter too much who was who. They were all just young cultivators swapping gossip and stories.

Everyone had even forgotten about the particular source of gossip sitting among them. It was nice, not to stand out for once.

The first GusuLan disciple snorted with surprising inelegance. “Su She had tried to send his sword into the water,” he said. He took on a rather childish mocking tone, “ ‘Because Second Young Master did it.’ He’s always so—”

One of his comrades elbowed him. “Don’t talk about others behind their backs.” There were several barely suppressed snickers from around the table.

Of the GusuLan group, only two had actually been present at this particular incident. “There was something wrong. His sword didn’t return,” the other, calmer one took over. “So he couldn’t fly away and got dragged under. We were just realizing that it wasn’t just water ghouls in there. The shadow in the water had a weird shape, it was changing all the time. He went under so suddenly—”

“And then Lan WangJi dived in to get him!” the first Lan boy picked up the story with enthusiasm. The rest of the group made appreciative noises of excitement as he gesticulated broadly again. “Just like that! Before we could even try to follow, he was coming right back up. And so fast too, I think he went faster than I could, even carrying!”

Wei WuXian’s smile widened lazily as he listened. Propping an elbow on the table and his cheek on his palm, he thought, ‘Lan Zhan is impressive as always.’

It was clear everyone else agreed. Carrying a second person, at the general level of disciples their age, was no mean feat. Given Suibian’s focus on speed over power, Wei WuXian wasn’t sure he could have managed it at all, much less quickly enough to escape whatever they had been facing.

“The water was so dark... It started spinning, and a whirlpool opened up in the middle of the lake. Even when we were flying away, it kept trying to pull us in,” the second Lan went on, in a far quieter, more subdued tone. “It turned out it wasn’t just water ghouls in Biling Lake. It was a waterborne abyss.”

An ominous silence followed his words. “Oooh,” Wei WuXian winced sympathetically.

But looking at the tense-but-puzzled faces around him, it was obvious they didn’t quite understand the implications. They were just following along with the atmosphere.

“Do you know about it, Senior?” one of the YunmengJiang group sitting next to Wei WuXian asked. He had been Wei WuXian’s fifth junior disciple, which would have made him the fourth now...

Running into familiar faces from Lotus Pier had been a nice surprise, even though Wei WuXian made sure to stay only beside their purple-clad group, without getting pulled into it. They were still friends, he was glad to realize back then at Cloud Recesses, but he wasn’t one of them anymore.

“Mm, yeah,” he agreed vaguely. “Then, you guys couldn’t anything, huh?”

The two Lan disciples telling the story exchanged a grim, dissatisfied look. “We had to leave and let the elders handle it from now on,” the calmer one admitted, while his fiery partner scowled.

It wasn’t a particularly nice ending to their story, but Wei WuXian nodded in understanding. “It’s like this,” he started to explain, as the attention of the group shifted to him, “a treacherous river or lake, where enough people die, can develop a personality. Since it’s used to being fed by death, it start causing drownings and shipwrecks on its own. The whole body of water turns into a monster. That’s a waterborne abyss.”

“But how do you fight something like that?” someone burst out.

“You don’t,” Wei WuXian said wryly.

“That’s what Young Master Lan said,” the hot headed disciple muttered. “We had to just leave it.”

Everyone groaned, sharing their disappointment.

“Well, there’s no helping it. Something like a waterborne abyss is extremely hard to get rid of. You’d have to drain every drop of water in the lake and then get back all the people and goods it ate,” Wei WuXian lectured. “Then, lakebed has to be exposed to strong sunlight for a few years. Draining a lake is tough to begin with, and you said there’s a village nearby, right? The only thing left to do is suppress it.”

“But then you have to keep suppressing it forever!” someone protested indignantly.

“Why do you think the elders are always off doing rituals?” someone else shot back. “Cause there’s all this old stuff the sect’s responsible for!”

“I guess some things even cultivators can’t do...”

“Our sect got stuck with this mess, all because of those Wen—”

“Shh, don’t say anything that might cause problems...”

With a few more unhappy grumbles, the conversation drifted to other hunts and other topics.

It wasn’t like Wei WuXian didn’t share the sentiment. To have the power to destroy even a monster like the waterborne abyss would be a great thing. But purifying it would take at least the equivalent of those several years of sunlight, in other words far more qi than any mortal cultivator could possibly hold.

Gathering that much power... Wei WuXian had mused about the possibilities idly sometimes. But only idly, for now.

There was, of course, another option that he hadn’t mentioned. It was much simpler, but also morally unacceptable, no doubt especially so to the upright GusuLan sect. A waterborne abyss could be chased away, leaving to settle in another river or pond where it would trouble some other sect.

Absently, Wei WuXian tilted his cup in a slow elipse, the rice wine remaining at the bottom sloshing to and fro. Chase it away, drain the water. Chase and drain. He tilted the cup until it was nearly spilling, his thoughts on the verge of something.

A heavy slap across the back made him yelp and jump enough to splash alcohol all over his hand. “Senior, you agree, right?” the fifth or maybe fourth disciple of YunmengJiang asked, caught up in some conversation Wei WuXian hadn’t been following at all.

“Hm? Yeah, sure,” Wei WuXian said, absently shaking his hand. “What are we talking about?”

~.~.~

He would have probably forgotten all about the topic, if not for the next time he ran into Lan WangJi.

They had been on separate hunts in the same area and didn’t even cooperate, but Wei WuXian was unsurprised to find his sometimes partner sitting in the farthest corner of a restaurant in the nearest town later that evening. They ran into each other fairly often, and it had become something of a pattern, to catch up afterwards and maybe go on a hunt together, if either of them had heard of something interesting.

“Sorry to keep you waiting, Lan Zhan! Did you miss me?” Wei WuXian said cheerily, as he dropped into the seat opposite him.

The look he received was... still unreadable, but the furrowed brow was at least an expression of some sort, instead of complete blankness. “No,” Lan WangJi said with what might have passed for put upon annoyance, although it might have also been Wei WuXian projecting the emotion most commonly directed at him. It wasn’t entirely clear whether Lan WangJi meant that he hadn’t missed him, or whether he was objecting to Wei WuXian helping himself to the — bland, so very bland! but free! — food set on the table.

“You ordered for two,” he pointed out, grinning. “Don’t even try to deny it! Although,” he made a point of chewing rather obnoxiously, “can’t you get something with more flavor? I’m from Yunmeng, you know. We actually know what spices are other there.”

Oh, the brow furrow deepened!

Feeling immensely pleased with himself, Wei WuXian started piling himself food in earnest. Complaints about taste aside, it was far above anything he could usually afford and a welcome chance to fill his belly. He wasn’t going to waste it.

Obligingly, Lan WangJi quietly ordered a few more plates, and when they arrived, Wei WuXian was surprised to see that they were almost bursting with color and, more importantly, flavor — exactly as he’d demanded. This guy... he was worse than Jiang Cheng, acting all annoyed and then being so nice.

“Lan Zhan, you’re the best!” he declared happily.

And watched with interest as Lan WangJi momentarily turned to stone, completely motionless.

He resumed his absurdly graceful motions later, as if nothing had happened, but Wei WuXian had definitely seen it. That had been the largest reaction he’d gotten thus far. Meddling big brother Lan XiChen he thought, should be pleased. There was no denying they were friends now, even if silent, stolid Lan WangJi never said it. Wei WuXian was pleased too.

Well, it was only natural. Lan WangJi was without any competition the person Wei WuXian saw and interacted with the most, since becoming a rogue cultivator.

In general, it was difficult for him to regularly cross paths with anyone. He didn’t have any area he favored or any permanent residence to return to. Jiang YanLi couldn’t even send him return letters since there was no way of knowing where to deliver them. There were some faces he was slowly becoming familiar with and sometimes he ran into people he had known as YunmengJiang’s head disciple, but those instances were always months apart.

But since meeting him that first time by chance, Wei WuXian tended to see Lan WangJi every few weeks at least.

Come to think of it, wasn’t that a little strange? It couldn’t be just that their hunting patterns matched up, since they hadn’t met until almost half a year after Wei WuXian left Lotus Pier. Did something change after that?

“We keep running into each other,” he mused aloud, making Lan WangJi’s chopsticks pause almost unnoticeably. “Lan Zhan, just how much have you been hunting recently? It’s gotta be a lot, if you’re everywhere all the time like this. Make sure you relax sometimes too! Taking a break is important too, otherwise you’ll burn out.”

That had to be the explanation, after all. If he was running into Lan WangJi so much more than anyone else, it meant that Lan Zhan was out and about that much more than anyone else, so there was more opportunity for their paths to cross. And always alone too, this guy was too dedicated... No wonder his brother worried about him.

At least his usual pale complexion didn’t look any paler than normal, he decided after a bit of intense scrutiny, and there weren’t any noticeable bags under his eyes. His robes were also somehow still perfectly white and immaculate, but Wei WuXian suspected Second Brother Lan would look perfect even after wading through a swamp anyway.


Just in case, he pointedly pushed a couple of the original dishes toward Lan WangJi, as if to say, ‘here, eat more.’

Feeding them was what you did when you worried about people, right? At least, that was what Shijie had done, and Wei WuXian thought she was the smartest person he knew.

Lan WangJi’s reaction was as indecipherable as always. He stared at the food being foisted on him for a long moment but then started eating his way through it with almost violent focus. He finished well before Wei WuXian and set the dishes aside with a very final clink. Then, clasping his hands together with unsuitable demureness, proceeded to stare at him like a particularly beautiful statue.

Swirling together the last of the rice and sauce in his bowl, Wei WuXian said slowly, “You know, I don’t think I’ve heard of anything worth investigating recently. Why don’t we just go out and have some fun around town?”

He did not expect a positive response, and did not receive one. “I will head out,” Lan WangJi said without any room for compromise. Surprisingly, he volunteered a little more, “There is a haunting about a hundred li from here.”

“You always have a new hunt lined up,” Wei WuXian noted. He hadn’t considered it before, but it was true. Every time they ran into each other, if they weren’t in the middle of something and he didn’t have anything to do himself, Lan WangJi always had some lead for him to tag along on. “Is it urgent?” There was no reply, which was as good as admitting it wasn’t. “So take a break, just for today. We can get some— well, you don’t drink, but we can still go meet some pretty girls! Come on, it’ll be great!”

If anyone needed a soft, gentle touch in their life, it was Lan WangJi. Or, hm... maybe a passionate, fiery type would suit him more? Trying to imagine the kind of girl that could catch Lan WangJi’s interest momentarily distracted Wei WuXian.

However, he couldn’t miss the way his erstwhile partner’s expression darkened.

“No,” Lan WangJi said flatly.

“At least consider it!” Wei WuXian wheedled.

“No.” This time, followed by a clear motion to rise.

Was he really that much of a stick in the mud? How did he end up friends with somebody so boring? How could somebody so boring be so amusing? ...Wei WuXian knew, of course. Being the most boring, solid rock to ever exist was part of Lan WangJi’s charm.

“Okay, okay,” he said quickly. “How about a compromise? We stay in, but! We talk about hunting! Business only, no pleasure. That works, right?”

Lan WangJi stared at him stonily. “No...” he mulled over the next word, “outsiders.”

“Right, no girls, got it,” Wei WuXian sighed mournfully.

At least he had one pretty face to look at, he comforted himself as he leaned back in his chair, sulking. Absently, he cast around for a topic of conversation — a ‘business’ topic, but something that could still at least pass for fun. Also, something to make Lan WangJi have to actually talk for once...

Ah. There was that thing, wasn’t there?

“So,” he said, “I heard you ran into a waterborne abyss recently?”

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: I’m not sure what the heck is happening in this chapter. But I’m theoretically writing this for Nano, so no stopping, no slowing down, and definitely no thinking! Full steam ahead!

~.~.~

Chapter 5: Mad Plan I

“No,” Lan WangJi declared.

“Why is it always no with you? Can’t you at least hear me out all the way through?” Wei WuXian complained, waving one hand in agitation. The table between them had long since been cleared of food, but the empty cups and bottles had been arranged in a mysterious pattern over the surface. “It’s not like I’m saying we should go out and do it, I’m just theorizing!”

The look he received felt very fed up — was Lan WangJi learning to emote, was Wei WuXian learning to read him, or was he just projecting again?

Regardless, when no explicit protest followed, he took it as a go ahead to continue.

“So I was saying, if we use this spirit attracting talisman, we could...”

Somewhere along the way, rehashing the hunt that Wei WuXian had already heard about anyway turned into discussing how a waterborne abyss could be handled. Lan WangJi’s answer was predictably textbook, although he explained the suppression rituals in impressive detail for someone who had almost certainly never taken part in one. Although it was a bit shameless, Wei WuXian mentally took notes.

And then, complaining about how boring that approach was, started presenting a crazy plan he was half making up as he went along. He had mostly been fishing for a reaction, to be honest. The deepening furrow between Lan WangJi’s brows was immensely amusing somehow, especially combined with the way he clearly suspected he was being strung along but couldn’t quite figure out how.

Except that, as he kept talking, fielding Lan WangJi’s suspicious but entirely serious questions, Wei WuXian found himself getting into it. He had started out just making up nonsense, but that nonsense was beginning to almost make sense. ‘...Actually, this could even work,’ he realized. To come up with something coherent while just playing around, he really was a genius, he praised himself mentally.

And finally — sweet victory.

“....It could work,” Lan WangJi admitted. “I have a map.”

The last thing Wei WuXian had said was, ‘we’d have to find a lake or something that fits all the criteria, thought, which would be pretty tough.’ So if Lan WangJi wanted to look at an actual map, he was considering this crazy — purely theoretical — plan.

‘He’s taking so this seriously! Too seriously!’ Wei WuXian thought, grinning. ‘Don’t tell me Lan Zhan is the type to get all fired up and carried away when something catches his interest!’

That was kind of cute!

They had been talking long enough — Lan WangJi was so nitpicky about details — that staying at the restaurant had emptied and they had instead migrated to a hotel room, paid by Lan WangJi, of course. It was nice, being a rich young master, and something Wei WuXian could admit he missed at times.

The map he pulled out was even more extravagant, an impressively detailed piece of work that only the rising star of a major guild would be allowed to carry around on some unremarkable hunt where he was fundamentally unlikely to need it. Nothing but the best for one of Lan’s Two Jades.

“Okay, so Biling Lake is... here,” Wei WuXian said, as they leaned over the map between them. He tapped a finger on the small blue spot in GusuLan’s territory. “There’s these three rivers flowing in and out. Following the stream will be easier, but not exactly necessary. Hm, you take these two and I’ll take this one, how about it? ...Lan Zhan?”

Lan WangJi had stood up suddenly. Glancing down, he said, by way of explanation, “Tomorrow.”

“Is it nine already?” Wei WuXian guessed after a bit of deliberation. “You guys and your weird bedtime... Fine, fine, I’ll look by myself.” He waved a hand dismissively.

“I’ll help tomorrow,” Lan WangJi promised.

It wasn’t long before Wei WuXian’s attention drifted. He really had only come up with the idea on a whim, and without Lan WangJi’s suddenly intense focus on refining it, he couldn’t work up too much motivation. Well, that part was normal for him — leaving things half-finished, coming back to them months later, only to abandon them again after a bit of progress. Pushing the map aside, he pulled out a few blank talismans and started absently drawing the altered patterns he had been developing instead.

Yawning, he abandoned that too eventually. Maybe he’d turn in early. It was a free hotel room. It wouldn’t do not to take advantage.

And speaking of taking advantage.

“Yoo-hoo, Lan Zhan?” Wei WuXian called out in a whisper, crawling over to the occupied bed and waving a hand above Lan WangJi’s blank, sleeping face. There was no reaction. His mouth wiggled as he struggled to bite back his villainous snickering and, reaching out, lightly poked one pale cheek.

Poke, poke. It was soft and smooth. There was still a bit of roundness to Lan WangJi’s face, although his jawline already showed the beautiful man he would become in a few more years.

Wei WuXian’s shoulders were trembling with barely suppressed laughter, to the point that he was beginning to tear up. Poke, poke, poke.

That wasn’t enough, he wanted to play more. Pulling over the brush he’d been using, he held it poised over the completely vulnerable, smooth, white canvas. Now, what to write? He could think of dozens of possible messages to ink on Lan WangJi’s face, including an almost overpowering desire to put his own name, but for once Wei WuXian considered if maybe he should restrain himself a little. If his lack of social experience was on the level that his brother was trying to set him up on playdates, did Lan WangJi even know what friendly teasing was? How offended would he get?

Just waking up with black on his face would get Lan WangJi in a snit, Wei WuXian consoled himself as he doodled out just a simple cloud pattern. Actually, it looked quite nice, if he did say so himself. Very fierce, and rather than contrasting too much against the pale skin, the ink lines flowed smoothly into the black hair pooled over the bed.

However, Lan WangJi probably wouldn’t appreciate his artistic achievements. It really would be bad if he got mad for real...

‘Meddling big brother better appreciate this,’ he thought a little sulkily, and roughly drew a set of whiskers on his own face. There, that should make it clear he was just playing around, right? If Lan Zhan still got mad, it wasn’t his fault.

Unfortunately, given the nature of their sleep schedules, Lan WangJi naturally woke up several hours earlier. By the time Wei WuXian rejoined the world of the waking, the ink was gone off his face as if it had never been there. It was a little disappointing — he had half expected to get kicked out of bed when his trick was discovered, but all he received was a flat, cold look.

“Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi pronounced like a judge giving out a sentence.

He seemed to think that using his given name was a punishment, but Wei WuXian only smirked excitedly. “Yes? Yes? That’s me!” he agreed. “How was your night, Lan Zhan?”

In the ensuing stare off, he managed to hold his snickering for all of ten seconds before breaking down in laughter. Lan WangJi let out a short breath that might have been a sigh and turned away. “I found it,” he said instead.

“Found? Found what?” Wei WuXian muttered, even as his sleep-slow thoughts began to clear. “You mean, a good place? Really? Already?”

He scrambled off the bed and nearly crashed into Lan WangJi’s shoulder. One pale hand snapped up to steady him, only to pull away as if burned. Lan WangJi did not appreciate contact with others, even when he was the one initiating it.

“It’s connected to Biling Lake by water? It’s big enough?” Wei WuXian demanded, peering at the map and the place Lan WangJi was indication patiently. “It’s far from people? It’s got only one large current in or out? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. And that... it’s even got a sluice gate? And this area is not under any large clan’s influence either. Amazing! That’s really something, Lan Zhan! Who would have thought there’d actually be a match?”

But slowly his excitement gave way to a certain confusion.

“You know, Lan Zhan...” he started to say tentatively. “It’s great you were able to find it, but you didn’t really need to go that far. I mean, we’re not going to do it for real, so...”

Lan WangJi had turned to look at him with surprising intensity. His brows furrowed. “Why?” he asked shortly.

“Why... not do it? Well, I mean, it’s a crazy idea, right?” Wei WuXian fumbled a little. “I was just making stuff up, like I always do. You shouldn’t take me so seriously, no one does.”

This was the truth. Everyone at Lotus Pier had long since gotten used to Wei WuXian’s ridiculous idea, dangerous plans, and plain outrageous theories. No one really listened for more than three words before rolling their eyes, thinking, ‘there he goes again.’ That was just how it went, and it wasn’t like they were wrong. Half the time, Wei WuXian talked to get a reaction, and half the time he talked just to hear himself talk.

He just wasn’t sure how to explain that. ‘Sorry for wasting your time?’ ‘Please ignore me?’

But he didn’t want Lan Zhan to ignore him! That was the entire point! This was just too far in the other direction. Was it possible that diligent, dedicated types like him were actually Wei WuXian’s weakness...?

“Why?” Lan WangJi repeated. “It could work.”

‘After you insisted on going over every uncertain or ambiguous part! It’s because you took it seriously! You’re too serious!’ Wei WuXian thought, his mental voice tearful.

But luckily, Lan WangJi seemed to concede at least a little, turning away. “The elders may not agree to try,” he said. “We’ll tell Brother first.”

Wait. “...What.”

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: This and chapter 5 was originally one section, but it was dragging, so I split it up. Also, I’m glad everyone understands what I’m claiming these two idiots are feeling. A+ reading skills on everyone, thank you, thank you.

~.~.~

Chapter 6: Mad Plan II

Wei WuXian received a taste of his own medicine.

His head was still spinning when they arrived in Cloud Recesses. It wasn’t like Lan WangJi was dragging him along by the hand, but every time he tried to stop and break the insane tempo of the situation, Second Brother Lan would turn back and give him this particular look — and Wei WuXian would find himself following along again.

The worst part, however, was the flush that constantly threatened to climb up his neck and to his ears. Was he embarrassed? Pleased? Distressed? He didn’t even know.

Lan WangJi was basically making himself the butt of a large, stupid joke. He was definitely the sort who believed obvious lies and then got laughed at by all the other kids. Except this was on an entirely different level. Now, not only was he getting tricked into doing something stupid, but it was on a truly impressive scale. The ones laughing at him at the end wouldn’t be some snot-nosed kids his age but, at best, his esteemed older brother — at worst, the GusuLan sect elders.

‘Please, please, big brother, tell us this is the stupidest thing you’ve ever heard,’ Wei WuXian prayed desperately. ‘You wouldn’t let Lan Zhan go and get publicly humiliated like this, right?’

“So what did you want to tell me about?” Lan XiChen asked, once the greetings were out of the way.

Wei WuXian shot a glance at Lan WangJi, but despite his forceful insistence on this entire venture, he seemed uninterested in explaining it himself. However, it was too late to back out anyway.

“It’s about the waterborne abyss in Biling Lake,” Wei WuXian started. “Lan Zhan and I got to thinking about it, and we had an idea. Obviously, you can’t destroy it without draining the place it lives, and you can’t drain Biling Lake... so what if you chased it to a place you could drain instead?”

Put like that, it sounded simple and logical. Lan XiChen’s brows rose in surprise. “I assume you know why this would not be an easy matter.”

“Yeah, because normally you make it move by pushing on it, but then you can’t control where it goes,” Wei Wuxian said, “and there’s no way to know where it’ll stop either. But the idea is to pull it instead of pushing it. Basically, make it follow us — well, someone acting as a lure — down the path we want. We found a spot that’s a dead end, so we’d just need to seal the way in after it passes through.”

Lan XiChen listened with a calm, open expression that gave away about as much as his brother’s blank face, despite being much nicer to look at. “I see,” he said. “And the way to make it follow us?”

“I can draw a talisman for that.”

That drew the faintest spark of surprise. Lan XiChen glanced at his brother, but seemed willing to otherwise take Wei WuXian at his word. “That's very impressive,” he praised instead. “Then, that only leaves the question of the location.”

Taking his turn, Lan WangJi stepped forward and unrolled the map to silently show his brother the route and location they had chosen.

Lan XiChen was silent for a while.

“If it goes as you say, this is theoretically possible, and compared to indefinitely suppressing the waterborne abyss, it would be preferable,” he said. However, his tone was the sort that was followed by an unbeatable counterpoint, making Wei WuXian let out a breath of relief. “But even if the basics are possible, there is still a great deal of risk. To the common people — the final destination is isolated, but there are people living all along the way there. But also to whoever will act as the lure.”

There were other issues too, of course. Wei WuXian had somewhat tested the spirit attracting talismans, so he could say that they would work, but they weren't targeted to attract a specific spirit. Getting the waterborne abyss to follow while also not attracting some other troublesome thing would be a delicate balancing act at best.

“It can't leave the water, so our sect can clear the way,” Lan WangJi spoke up unexpectedly. “For luring it, I can do it.”

‘You what,’ Wei WuXian thought. ‘And don’t just go volunteering your entire sect for something so messy! No, nevermind, it doesn’t matter.’ Obviously, this wouldn’t be agreed to, so they could finally drop it...

“You’re determined to do this,” Lan XiChen noted. The Two Jades exchanged a long, silent look. Then, he smiled brightly, and Wei WuXian felt his stomach drop. “Very well. I can’t promise anything, but I will speak to the elders.”

He really was an airhead! Don’t agree with this insanity!

“There’s no need for that!” Wei WuXian burst out. “Are you guys teasing me? You can stop now! I get it, I’m sorry, it was my bad! I won’t bully Lan Zhan anymore!”

This was a lie. He was a bully by nature, so there was no way he’d actually stop, but he’d at least be more discreet about it.

Lan XiChen’s eyebrows rose again, although he maintained a kind, amused smile. “I am happy to hear that, but it was not at all our intention to tease you,” he said. “Is there something we’ve misunderstood?” Lan WangJi, for his part, just shot him a glare, having been proved right in suspecting Wei WuXian of messing with him often in the past.

“But you can’t really intend to ask the elders to do this, right?” Wei WuXian insisted. “There’s no point.”

“Why?” Lan WangJi grumbled. “It could work.”

“Why are you being so pushy about it?” Wei WuXian shot back.

Reaching out, Lan XiChen lightly placed one pale hand on his brother’s shoulder before drawing away again. Big brother, it seemed, was excluded from the “no touching” rule. Was it a calming gesture? Was Lan WangJi getting agitated? Peering at him slit-eyed, Wei WuXian thought he could sense a little of something like that. That didn’t help him understand what Lan WangJi was actually thinking, however.

“There are certainly risks, and it requires an extensive effort from the sect,” Lan XiChen said slowly. “However, in the long term, it presents a more permanent solution than repressing the waterborne abyss indefinitely. It is our duty to protect common people against these matters to the utmost of our ability, so the chance to help Caiyi Town is worth the risk. It’s not just a matter of this single situation either. If it works, this method could be used in other circumstances as well... At the very least, it should be considered. Isn’t it only natural to present it to the elders?”

If that was genuinely the reasoning both of them were using, it was... kind of cute in how sincere it was. Obviously, this was two people who had never once gone against authority in their lives.

“But they’ll never go for it,” Wei WuXian said. “Listen, elders never like going against tradition or doing anything new. There’s a right way to do things, and you shouldn’t ever deviate from it, because all other ways are wrong. That’s how everyone thinks. If you go and tell your sect you want to do this crazy plan, they’ll laugh at you. Or chew you out, that’s probably more GusuLan’s way. Trust me, I’ve gotten plenty of both.”

Maybe his loud, troublemaking nature had contributed to it, but his teachers and the YunmengJiang elders had never even slightly entertained his crazy ideas.

It wasn’t like it upset him or anything. Spouting off something was a convenient way for getting out of class, if nothing else.

Except that now, the one “getting kicked out of class” would be Lan WangJi, who had probably never broken a rule in his entire life and didn’t understand what sort of cold, disgusted looks he was setting himself up for. Wei WuXian didn’t exactly consider him to be the delicately-hearted sort, but he didn’t think Lan WangJi would be able to shrug it off easily either.

“I get that you’re trying to do the best, righteous thing, but there’s no way your sect’ll agree,” Wei WuXian went on. “It’s not that big a deal. I was just messing around when I suggested it, really.”

Lan XiChen glanced at his brother, then back to Wei WuXian. He hesitated, on the verge of saying something, only to stop and reconsider his words.

Finally, he said, “If the elders judge the idea to be too risky, we will of course obey. But there’s no harm in trying.”

“Well, I warned you,” Wei WuXian sighed, “do as you want.”

...Why was he so set against it anyway? It was none of his business, in the end. Lan WangJi was the one who had gotten too carried away, and it wasn’t like a bit of disappointment or even a scolding would kill him.

‘Don’t blame me, it’s not my fault if it goes badly,’ he thought mulishly — and that was really it. He just didn’t want to get blamed.

He didn’t want to cause tensions or a bad reputation or rumors for someone else. Not like at Lotus Pier, with the Jiang family...

What if the GusuLan elders thought he was a bad influence and told Lan WangJi to stay away from him? Even if Lan WangJi didn’t obey — already unlikely — he would still feel some resentment toward Wei WuXian for putting him in that position. Their friendship would be strained, and eventually... That was just how it worked.

He really should have just kept his mouth shut.

‘Don’t blame me,’ Wei WuXian repeated mentally, with a rare, bitter feeling.

Lost in thought, he was surprised to realize that Lan XiChen was watching him closely. Before he could wonder about the meaning of that strangely intent look, the older Lan brother smiled.

“You should have more belief in yourself and your thoughts, Young Master Wei,” he said. “I’m sure the elders will agree they are worth hearing.”

Wei WuXian couldn’t imagine any elders agreeing with that, but all he could was sigh and look away.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: Let me just say that I will never be over the fact that they surfboard on their swords and this is, like, genre convention. I die a little every time I think about it.

~.~.~

Chapter 7: Dark Water I

The elders agreed.

Somehow. Wei WuXian had no idea what went down in that meeting since, as an outsider, he naturally did not attend. In fact, he had cleared the premises of Cloud Recesses entirely, intending to at least give Lan WangJi some time and space to cool off afterwards.

Except that, somehow, it worked.

Just how persuasive was Eldest Brother Lan?!

Even for the two rising stars of the sect, wasn’t getting their way like this too much? Did they grovel so much there was no option except to let them do as they pleased? Or... was GusuLan that desperate for some way to deal with the waterborne abyss?

It must have been a very large headache for them, and this plan was, admittedly, not one of Wei WuXian’s more outrageous ones. After all, he hadn’t suggested they destroy the waterborne abyss in one fell swoop — by harnessing the necessary power from malevolent energy. While the looks he received for saying that had always been amusing, he hadn’t wanted to anger Lan WangJi that much, so he’d held back.

Maybe this really was workable?

...It better be, since they were really doing this, and it wasn’t just his own skin on the line this time.

“Are you sure you want to be the one luring it?” Wei WuXian asked. “I’m going to be flying with you all the way anyway, you know, to monitor how the spirit attraction talisman works, so why not just let me lead it while I’m at it? I can do it. Pretty sure my Suibian is faster too.”

Lan WangJi didn’t respond, although his face twisted just a little at hearing the sword’s name again.

Around them, Caiyi Town stood empty of people. Everyone had been evacuated in preparation, in case the waterborne abyss went out of control instead of being lured as intended. The rivers they intended to use as a path were being similarly cleared. It was a little hard for Wei WuXian to wrap his head around the scale of the logistical work GusuLan had undertaken for this. When he thought this up, it had been more like an afterthought.

The operation was to take place at night, on a new moon. Already, the sun was sinking below the mountains around Biling Lake, the cold wind picking up across the deceptively calm surface of the water expanse.

Impatiently, Wei WuXian shifted from foot to foot. “Got all your talismans ready?” he asked abruptly, turning to Lan WangJi.

He fully expected to get rebuffed coldly at because this kind of nagging was both annoying and pointless, and for a moment, Lan WangJi looked about to bite out something sharp. But instead, he simply closed his eyes and nodded slowly. It seemed he was doing his best to be patient, if only because they didn’t have time for an argument, which generally dissolved into one of them storming off.

“Me too, me too,” Wei WuXian agreed, mostly to himself, and patted the places on his robe where the talismans were folded away. Once again, he was talking just to talk. “Got the route memorized? What about the detours if you miss a turn? Better not to miss any, though, we’ll really be up a creek then.”

Lan WangJi ignored him with an air of longsuffering.

“Remember, the spirit attraction talisman isn’t precise. It’ll attract any old supernatural thing that’s close enough,” Wei WuXian switched to repeating something he had already explained several times — which was obvious to someone like Lan WangJi to begin with, no less. “So after the waterborne abyss focuses on you, burn the talisman. There shouldn’t be anything else close to enough to get pulled over the lake, but if we catch something along the way, it’ll be messy. Once the waterborne abyss decides to hunt you, it’s probably not going to stop, but if it happens, you can activate a second talisman. You remember how to make the last strokes on them?”

Fortunately, the waterborne abyss was not particularly intelligent. It wouldn’t be able to realize it was being tricked, or even feel an emotional like frustration strongly enough to abandon the chase.

...Probably.

“You’re always so calm, Lan Zhan,” Wei WuXian sighed, dropping into a crouch on the wooden pier. “Aren’t you even a little nervous?”

“No,” Lan WangJi said. After a moment, he added, “No reason.”

“Yeah, I get that. I don’t usually get nervous either. But it’s usually just me. This is... If something goes wrong, it’s going to be a huge mess, and I don’t even know how we’ll clean it up,” Wei WuXian muttered.

It was pressure. That was the reason he was so much more nervous — the pressure of others’ expectations.

“We will,” Lan WangJi said indifferently. They would definitely clean it up somehow, he judged.

Wei WuXian had to laugh at that. The most boring, solid rock in existence, that was Lan WangJi. “Guess so,” he agreed. Straightening again, he stretched his arms over his head. “Agh, waiting is the worst! And with everyone gone, there’s nothing do either. I wish I could have at least chatted with the lovely sisters from Caiyi. Their accent is so pretty! I could listen to it all day. Come to think of it, Lan Zhan—”

“Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi cut him off in that particular tone he used sometimes to say his name. Wei WuXian was still not entirely sure what it meant, except that the current topic of conversation was being rejected.

Of course, that just made him want to prod at it even more.

However, Lan WangJi was spared his teasing this time, as a small light suddenly flickered into existence on the opposite shore of the lake. Seeing it, Wei WuXian’s expression smoothed out into something calm and controlled, and his entire stance shifted. It was time to get serious.

There was a lantern by his feet, and he lit a small flame within with a flick of his wrist. Picking it up, he unsheathed Suibian at the same time.

Next to him, Lan WangJi had drawn Bichen as well. They mounted their swords simultaneously and silently skimmed just above the black waters toward the center of the lake. The last of the dusk colors had faded from the sky, and the stars were only distant pinpricks of pale white. The flickering circle of light cast by the lantern in Wei WuXian’s hand felt like a barrier, and he subconsciously drifted closer to Lan WangJi as they flew.

They came to a stop together roughly in the middle of the lake, though all shores were barely visible now. Reaching into his robes, Lan WangJi pulled out a single yellow talisman.

He lightly ran his finger along one edge of the paper, and when he pulled it away, a drop of blood welled up at the tip. The talisman was only missing a single stroke, which Lan WangJi added decisively. Watching him closely, Wei WuXian could feel the moment the talisman activated.

It wasn’t the kind of thing that worked instantly, of course, but it wouldn’t be long before the thing beneath them began to stir.

Tucking the talisman into his robes for the moment, Lan WangJi held up his hand and momentarily regard that same fingertip, another drop of blood already gathering at the tip. Lightly, he flicked his hand, and the drop of blood felt into the water below.

That was enough. The dark water stilled, no longer catching light between the ripples, then began to writhe. Even if it could not read their plan, the waterborne abyss was doubtlessly aware of their movements along the shores of its territory. It had been waiting.

Lan WangJi and Wei WuXian had already begun to ascend, though only slowly. After all, the goal was to make it follow, and for that, the bait needed to remain just within reach.

The first attack struck quickly, a black wave that crested toward Lan WangJi. “Careful!” Wei WuXian called out, even as the other was already gracefully banking aside.

“Go observe!” Lan WangJi ordered back.

‘Go do your own job,’ was what he meant. And Wei WuXian’s job was to fall back and observe, acting as a spotter. Hanging too close to him and the waterborne abyss would only be detrimental to that, so he had no choice but to obey, rising higher and faster and beginning to pull toward the single lantern light on the far shore — or, rather, at the mouth of the river that was the first leg of their route.

Lan WangJi followed at a much slower pace. From up above, his pale figure could be seen weaving to and fro in the center of the growing maelstrom. Like dark fingers, the water stretched toward him but he was always just barely evading its grasp. Lan WangJi stared down into the center of the whirlpool that resembled a hungering maw with a cold, calculating expression.

Even though he couldn’t help glancing back every other second, Wei WuXian almost missed the instance when the chase began in earnest. The grasping waves slammed together, splashing upward toward the night sky, but Lan WangJi’s pure white figure flashed free and took off like a shot after Wei WuXian. A dark wave rose up, following him.

“Alright! Let’s go!” Wei WuXian cheered to himself, racing onward as well to maintain his lead. After all, he was lighting the way.

~.~.~

Unfortunately, the path they decided to follow was a convoluted one, involving five different rivers that zigzagged across the country side. The first one was the easiest — heading downstream along one of the two waterways flowing out of Biling Lake.

They passed the boundary between the river and the lake with barely a stutter. Waves crashed angrily against the shores of the river, sending the lantern-bearing GusuLan cultivator waiting there fluttering away, but the main body of waterborne abyss, formless and massive, followed after Lan WangJi unerringly.

Slowing enough that it was almost on him, he pulled out the spirit attracting talisman and disintegrated in a flash of bright flame, as they had planned. From up ahead, Wei WuXian watched closely for the reaction.

But deep in the throes of hunting bloodlust, the waterborne abyss did not even seem to register the difference.

‘Good, good,’ Wei WuXian thought. Scanning the quiet countryside ahead, he could see the next lantern bobbing up faintly further down the riverstream, marking the way. He headed toward it, alternating between keeping an eye on the way forward and glancing back to check on Lan WangJi.

The real danger would be in the second half of the race, when even his impressive stamina would begin to run out and the mental fatigue began to set in. No one, not even Lan WangJi, could easily keep up a state of constant vigilance for hours on end, and a mistake was bound to occur at some point.

That would be when Wei WuXian would most need to support him. So for now, he forced himself to look only ahead and conserve his strength.

They had a long night ahead of them.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: I already broke this chapter off from the previous one, but it still ended up being this stupidly long... this is the power of an action scene. Which no one asked for, but you’ll get some of that tooth rotting fluff at the end, so it’s all good.

~.~.~

Chapter 8: Dark Water II

The most precarious part of the route was, without a doubt, the transition onto the last leg. A sharp hook that was nearly a u-turn, it was also the place where they would begin to go upstream, against the flow of the current.

Arriving at that juncture, Wei WuXian broke off from his previous method of going on ahead and leading the way. Instead, he rose higher, observing the area, his eyes following the white figure approaching swiftly.

It was already closer to dawn than dusk, and just flying that long was enough to exhaust the average cultivator. The fact that Lan WangJi was continuing on without showing any signs of flagging, even while playing a constant game of keep away, was a testament to his absurd strength.

Mentally, Wei WuXian applauded him a little. ‘Lan Zhan, you’re really something...’

Lan WangJi was well aware of the course they were following, and he had already considered his approach. Thus, reaching the place where two rivers merged into one, he slowed and hovered over the fork.

He barely ducked under several dark feelers that shot up, taking advantage of the opening he had provided. Already, the water beneath him was swirling in a violent maelstrom, while the boundary rose up like an encircling wall. But despite the looming danger, Lan WangJi only considered the situation coolly.

It would be difficult to use his sword to attack or defend without compromising speed, so he would have to rely on talismans. Cultivators generally favored fire, but in this situation, it would not have been effective, so they had prepared wind and lightning talismans instead. Wind had a wider but weaker effect, while lightning dealt powerful piercing attacks with a limited area of effect, he knew this in a broad sense.

Based on that... he would break a path through using lightning, Lan WangJi decided. Mentally calculating the direction of the final river path, he turned in midair.

A blinding flash, accompanied by a sharp crack, cut through the night gloom. Lightning streaked out from the yellow talisman like a beam of pure white, bursting through the dark wave rising up in front of him and leaving behind a clean, circular opening. It began to close almost as soon as it was formed, but Lan WangJi was already moving.

Unfortunately, even his skill and strength had limits.

He had never actually used a lightning talisman before, not on a real hunt and certainly not against a creature of water. He couldn’t have predicted the exact amount of damage it would do and the time it would buy him, and his estimate ended up off — too generous. His eyes narrowed in the split second he realized he wouldn’t make it, his lips thinning, but he didn’t falter.

The waterborne abyss crashed down over him, pulling him under.

“Lan Zhan!”

Compared to Lan WangJi, Wei WuXian had a somewhat broader experience with talismans in general, having at least tested out a variety of them as well as developing his own variations. He realized a moment earlier that it wouldn’t be enough — and burst into motion. The distance between them was too large even for Suibian to close easily, but he broke the still undulating surface of the water the instance after Lan WangJi was dragged below.

Bless GusuLan’s mourning clothes, still so easy to spot in the murky dark water. Bichen had been knocked away in the confusion, but Wei WuXian didn’t waste time looking for it. Darting forward, he grabbed Lan WangJi’s hand. Their eyes met.

Even in this situation, Wei WuXian couldn’t stop the smile tugging at his lips at Lan WangJi’s blank, unimpressed expression. ‘Why are you here? Who asked you to help?’ it seemed to say.

‘Don’t be like that, Lan Zhan!’ he cajoled mentally. ‘I was just worried!’

And not without reason. Already, black tendrils were wrapping around Lan WangJi’s limbs, and something far worse, formless and hungering, was rising up from below. The water was numbingly cold around them, leaching life from their limbs.

With his free hand, Wei WuXian pulled out a fistful of wind talismans.

The water was ripped apart as a tornado sprang up around them, a wall off wind momentarily pushing back the river. However, the blunt, wide force of it wasn’t enough to tear the black hair tangled all across Lan WangJi’s body, and the twisting ropes leading back into the water kept them pinned in place.

Bichen’s pure white blade flashed, slicing apart all in its way as it was summoned back to its master’s side.

There was no time for Lan WangJi to mount it. Wei WuXian hadn’t let up on pulling him, and the moment that the waterborne abyss’s grasp loosened, they were off like a shot toward the sky.

It was lucky that Lan WangJi had somehow managed to maneuver himself to stand on Suibian with Wei WuXian. Otherwise, he wasn’t sure he would have been able to carry them both. “That way,” Lan WangJi ordered with almost unsuitable calm, nudging Wei WuXian toward the bobbing lanterns that marked the way in the distance.

“Right, right,” Wei WuXian muttered, his focus taken up by controlling Suibian. “Hold on!”

The waterborne abyss reached for them again, but Bichen sliced through the dark waves rising up before they could come close. The pair shot full tilt onto the left hand fork, along the path of the river flowing down from the mountains, and it was only then that Wei WuXian remembered to check whether they were still being followed.

He glanced back over his shoulder — and stared. “Um... Hey, Lan Zhan,” he said, brows furrowing. “Does it look a little too aggressive to you?”

The words were punctuated by a sharp swerve to one side to avoid what was closer to a stab than a grab. Behind them, what could only be called a tsunami was surging up the riverstream that wound its way across the increasingly steep mountain side.

“It wasn’t like that before,” he added. Actually, that was... pretty worrying. He wasn’t sure he’d ever heard of a waterborne abyss acting with that much force.

If he hadn’t predicted this, then what else had his plan overlooked? Maybe this really had been—

Lan WangJi made a sound that might have been acknowledgement, or just general disinterest. In the next free moment, he lightly jumped onto his own sword, separating from Wei WuXian. The place along his back where they had been pressed together to fit on Suibian was immediately cold, making his skin prickle beneath his went clothes.

“Go on ahead,” Lan WangJi ordered.

“Haha, no.” They dodged aside in sync, but the follow up attack was interrupted by a lightning talisman from Wei WuXian. With his greater experience, he could even pull a trick like making the beam turn in the split moment it flashed through the air, cutting instead of just piercing. His eyes barely flicked to the formless beast following them. “You’re acting tough, but you’re almost at your limit, aren’t you? Can you really handle this alone?”

Stubbornly, Lan WangJi glared back. Now that Wei WuXian looked at him closely, the difference from his usual pristine appearance was stark. Soaked to the bone, robes clinging to him and torn in places, his hair in disarray... Wei WuXian’s eyes narrowed, as he tried to pin down what else it was that added to the sense of wrongness.

“I’m staying right here to help,” he concluded instead. “We’re almost there anyway.”

It would have been best if they could keep flying on one sword, leaving the other free to attack and defend, he thought, but unfortunately neither of them had the strength for that at the moment.

Ah, well. He’d find some excuses to make Lan WangJi ferry him around for practice later, and vice versa. Flying purposefully crooked to make Lan WangJi hang on to him tighter, that would be pretty fun. ...Even in the middle of danger, Wei WuXian’s mind still turned to making up nonsense mischief.

Using Lan WangJi’s favorite trick, he pointed turned away as if to ignore any further attempts at conversation. Instead, he pulled out a talisman, one of the few fire ones he’d brought, and flicked it toward the sky. Turning into a small will-o-wisp, it hovered over their heads to mark their position for the rest of the GusuLan cultivators playing support on this crazy plan.

Quietly, Lan WangJi huffed, and the pressure on Wei WuXian’s back eased as he looked away as well.

Up ahead, the light of solitary lanterns dotting the mountain side marked their path, and at the end — two at the sluice gate, their destination.

Now they just had to make it there. There was no longer any holding back or taking slow to make sure they didn’t lose their tail. Even speeding ahead so their hair and robes whipped in the wind, they were only barely keeping ahead of the towering dark wave racing after them, and Wei WuXian didn’t hesitate to shoot back lighting and wind to keep its piercing attacks from reaching them. He could barely keep track of where they were headed, relying only on his sense of Lan WangJi’s presence to stay on course.

“Turn,” Lan WangJi called out, and Wei WuXian aborted his next attack to swerve sharply with him. The waterborne abyss crashed against the opposite shore, leveling the forest growing along the cliff riverbank.

He glanced back, checking to make sure it would still follow. If it gave up here and got washed downstream, it would become quite a problem.

The waterborne abyss did not give up. A swirling waterspout rose up, like the uncoiling neck of a dragon. ‘It’s getting even madder? Is that even possible?’ Wei WuXian thought with some disbelief. It was a powerful sort of monster, but it was a barely sentient one.

Was their interference making its nature change at an accelerated rate...?

“Dodge, dodge!” he warned Lan WangJi as the waterspout struck toward them like a snake.

“Turn!” Lan WangJi shot back.

This one was in the opposite direction and somewhat less sharp, but it provided the opening they needed to gain back a little distance. The waterborne abyss plowed into the mountainside again, this time with enough force to send branches and even tree trunks flying. The lantern-bearing cultivator who had been hovering just out of reach to mark the turn fluttered away erratically, and Wei WuXian spared a quick thought hoping he hadn’t been injured in the commotion.

It was hard to see anything flashing by in the darkness, but Wei WuXian realized suddenly that the riverbed below them was almost dry. The water that should have been running downstream had been pulled into the waterborne abyss’s swirling, snake-like body, which reared up again, even thicker and longer.

“How much further? It’s really mad!” he called out, mostly because his mouth tended to start running wild under pressure. “This is kind of bad! Actually, really bad!”

“Last uphill,” Lan WangJi replied.

For the first time, even his tone was tense. When Wei WuXian glanced at him, even though his expression was blank as ever, he was breathing heavily and there was a faint tremor in his shoulders.

If they were on the last stretch... Wei WuXian remembered that it was a particularly steep incline. Attacking now was too much of a risk. It was best to just race through. Gritting his teeth, he grabbed Lan WangJi’s hand and dragged him along with a final burst of speed.

Cresting the slope, they were greeted by the still, dark surface of a small mountain lake, stretched out in front of them like a mirror to the slowly lightening sky. Behind them, the waterborne abyss crashed into the lake — but unexpectedly created only a single ripple across the surface. The pressure behind them vanished like it had never been there, and when Wei WuXian looked back frantically, he could see nothing except the peaceful mountain scenery.

It had gone back underwater, now that it had reached a reservoir large enough to house its massive true body. They had to keep going, just in case, and make sure to drag it in completely. This waterborne abyss was not a small one, and if it spread out, it could still pollute the river — and later escape.

Subconsciously, Wei WuXian had started to slow down, and only the sharp tightening of Lan WangJi’s hand around his snapped him back to his senses.

‘Right. Keep it together,’ Wei WuXian scolded himself, arranging his features into a sharp, focused look, ‘it could surface any moment...’

Urgh, he was so tired. It had been a such long night. The water beneath them was still and dark, and the night air was silent. Up ahead, he could just barely make out the paler facade of the abandoned castle they were aiming for, set in the cliffside. Looking at Lan WangJi, who had pulled up to fly steadily beside him, dark hair and pale robes fluttering in the wind, Wei Wuxian realized suddenly what had been missing.

Behind them, a bright light soared up into the sky and burst into a shining, cloud-shaped display. It was the GusuLan signal flare.

“They sealed the sluice gate,” Wei WuXian noted needlessly. With the barrier seals set there, the waterborne abyss would no longer be able to return the way it had come, and there was only that one river flowing in or out of the mountain lake. It was trapped, in this remote place where it could be dealt with at leisure.

“Mm,” Lan WangJi agreed, although nothing in his expression eased — not yet.

Where was the center of the lake? Where was the deepest part? Which one would the waterborne abyss choose to make its last attack? Of all the things to forget to check... Wei WuXian struggled to recall. Making his best guess, he twisted Suibian around sharply to come to a complete stop.

“Wei Ying!” Lan WangJi reacted immediately.

“Keep going! I’ll catch up in a minute!” Wei WuXian yelled back. “Trust me, go!”

He wasn’t the one the waterborne abyss had been aiming after, and always keeping so close to its target, he had almost entirely slipped its notice. His sudden maneuver confused it, making the still lake surface churn as it simultaneously tried to continue its pursuit and follow this new prey-intruder.

Throwing a handful of talismans into the air, he aimed Suibian downward and plunged into the lake.

“Wei Ying! Wei Ying!” Lan WangJi shouted after him, but he had no chance to follow, as dark water surged up toward him, the waterborne abyss mounting a distracted, confused attack. He batted it aside easily enough, but another wave followed, keeping him occupied.

For the first moment beneath the water, it was strangely peaceful. Cold and silent, but also very clear. It felt like entering another world.

Wei WuXian looked around quickly, mouth slightly pursed as he held his breath. There — the main body of the waterborne abyss had already moved to the bottom of the lake, but part of it rose up to reach for Lan WangJi. The black strands of its tendrils twisted together, and it spread through the water like a massive, unnatural tree.

And... there. A flash of white, caught within its ‘branches.’ Eyes locked to his target, Wei WuXian turned Suibian and propelled himself toward it.

His presence hadn’t gone unnoticed, of course. The ones behind him, he could outrun long enough to finish what he came for, but the ones ahead — making a hand seal, Wei WuXian activated one of the talismans he’d sent into the air before diving.

The aim was a little off, and the way the beam of lightning from above swept through the tendrils coming toward him didn’t get all of them, but at least it hadn’t hit him, and that was good enough in this situation. Twisting aside to dodge the remaining ones, he triggered another talisman, with slightly better aim this time. The entire limb of the waterborne abyss shuddered, reeling back a little.

Grabbing the white thing tightly, Wei WuXian threw out the last of his wind talismans haphazardly.

There was no way to avoid getting buffered violently by the tornado that burst forth, and Wei WuXian didn’t try, letting it throw him up and clear of the water. He spun around in the air, momentarily disoriented and trying to catch his breath.

A hand wrapped around his collar, hauling him away. Coughing and just barely managing to remain alight on his sword, Wei WuXian caught a glimpse of Lan WangJi’s forbidding expression as the two of them dashed the last stretch to the old castle in the cliff, clearing the walls just before the waterborne abyss smashed into them and fell away.

They had crashed rather unceremoniously onto the cracked stone of the upper terrace, even Lan WangJi stumbling down without his usual grace.

He immediately whirled around, pinning Wei WuXian with a truly terrifying look.

“Why did you turn back?” he demanded. “Foolish!”

Wei WuXian coughed, clearing his throat and wrinkling his nose unhappily, before answering with perhaps more leisure than was wise. “That broke its momentum, didn’t it? Otherwise, it would have attacked much more seriously, if we let it move along at its own pace. You need to take the initiative in battle, that’s a basic rule!”

‘That was pretty crazy, we really need to plan an escape strategy next time,’ he thought privately. ‘I can’t believe I forgot about actually getting away from this thing in the last stretch...’

None of this reasonableness showed on his face, making Lan WangJi’s expression darken even further. Wei WuXian was surprised to realize his erstwhile partner was actually grinding his teeth, his iron self control struggling with his anger. Suddenly, he felt a bit embarrassed about trying to play it off.

“Well, that, and there was something I wanted to get back,” he admitted, clearing his throat and almost mumbling as he looked away awkwardly. “Here.”

He thrust out his arm.

It took a moment before Lan WangJi could stand to look at him again, and Wei WuXian could only wait patiently, still holding out his arm — and the strip of white cloth in his hand.

“That’s...” Lan WangJi’s posture, coiled like a spring, abruptly eased with confusion, and his fingers darted up to feel his bare forehead.

“It came off when you got pulled under. That must be why the waterborne abyss got so much more bloodthirsty. Something like has a lot of connection to you, it’s like getting a taste,” Wei WuXian explained. He cleared his throat again. “Since I was down there anyway, I thought I’d grab. It’s important, right? You wouldn’t even let me touch it.”

The last part was added in a rather petulant, almost reprimanding tone.

There had indeed been an incident like that, where Wei WuXian got scolded for trying to grab the tail ends of this same Lan sect ribbon. It had been fluttering right there in front of him! How could he not be tempted?

He had absolutely no idea how to interpret the strange spasm that passed through Lan WangJi’s expression as he stared at him. Mad? Furious?? Done with him?

Snatching back his ribbon, Lan WangJi started to turn away, only to jerk himself back around toward Wei WuXian. His lips, pressed into a thin line, were trembling, and the tips of his ears were bright red. He was clearly and absolutely at a loss for words.

Wei WuXian’s expression softened as he watched him struggle.

It was already almost dawn, and the sky in the east was beginning to lighten. This had, without a single doubt or any competition, been the longest night of his sixteen years, and he couldn’t wait to just fall asleep. He didn’t even care where. This cold, wet stone battlement would do.

Thankfully, everything after this — draining the water, retrieving the remnants of all the waterborne abyss had devoured, setting the souls to rest — would be GusuLan’s problem.

‘Maybe I really will just sleep right here,’ Wei WuXian thought.

“...you.”

The fainted whisper reached him, barely audibly.

“Hm?”

“...Thank you.”

“Ah... mm,” Wei WuXian made a vague sound of acknowledgement.

He had turned to look at Lan WangJi, but whatever he had planned to say died on his tongue. Even wet, dishevelled, completely exhausted, Lan Zhan looked particularly beautiful in the soft pre-dawn light. Or was it the small, almost unnoticeable change in his usually rigid expression, eyes averted in embarrassment and lips just slightly curved?

His blank, stunned staring went thankfully unnoticed as Lan WangJi ducked his head, dark hair sliding over his shoulder, and carefully re-tied his forehead ribbon in place. It gave Wei WuXian enough time to swallow dryly and ignore the way his heart was suddenly pounding in his ears.

When Lan WangJi turned to meet his gaze, he managed to paste on a particularly infuriating grin.

“Hey, Lan Zhan,” he said, not even trying to sound sincere, “your ribbon’s crooked.”

Huffing, Lan WangJi shot him a look that felt exasperated but distinctly fond. Or was that just him projecting again? Either way, the important part was that the strange moment had passed.

...Lan Zhan was really dangerous. Wei WuXian wasn’t sure in what way, but his instincts were absolutely clear on that. Lan Zhan was the most dangerous of all.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: This was not at all what I intended to write in the YunmengJiang section...? Why did the conversation go in this direction. It kinda messed up the thematic flow for this chapter, but whatever. The outline has been a mess for a while. Minor point: it’s mentioned in some extra comments from the original author that Wei WuXian’s mom once shaved Lan QiRen’s beard.

Also, I had a lot of headache thinking about how to punctuate “ZangSe SanRen.” The novel translations do it like that, but I feel that’s misleading because it makes SanRen look like a name. And it’s not, right?

I mean, compare ZangSe SanRen, BaoShan SanRen and the other student, YanLing DaoRen. Daoren is an actual honorific meaning “Daoist devotee.” And I doubt it’s supposed to be that ZangSe and BaoShan share the same given name. Rather, Sanren is also being treated as an honorific, right? It’s literal meaning is “person of leisure.”

~.~.~

Chapter 9: Back Home

As she put down Wei WuXian’s latest letter, Jiang YanLi’s expression made it clear she was trying very hard not to laugh. It was not entirely working.

Jiang Cheng stared back at her blankly.

Their father was away on business, so it was just them this time, although he was sure YanLi would find time to share it with Jiang FengMian later as well. That thought was painful. Because this letter... this letter...

There were a lot of things written in that letter, and he didn’t even know where to start sorting out all his thoughts and feelings. He did know which part was causing his sister such amusement, however. Sighing, he reached up to massage the bridge of his nose. Wei WuXian wasn’t even here, and he was still giving him a headache.

Jiang YanLi lost her battle and began to quietly giggle behind one delicate hand.

“It’s all... for three pages...” she managed between laughter, “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan!”

All Jiang Cheng could do was to sigh again. The middle — more than half total — of Wei WuXian’s overly long missive was pretty much entirely about Lan WangJi. In itself, that was understandable. They had worked together on a hunt that was quite impressive even for full-fledged cultivators, much less disciples, and Lan WangJi had taken the lead in it, at various stages.

But those... frankly... gushing expressions? Even when Wei WuXian complained — “Lan Zhan is too serious! I was just messing around, but he made it into this entire thing!” — the tone of it was obviously pleased.

When they spoke at Cloud Recesses, it had been immediately after the first time Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi ran into each other for the first time, but looking back, Jiang Cheng thought he could already hear the same sort of inflection in Wei WuXian’s descriptions of that meeting. He didn’t have words to describe it. A moth to a flame? A wolf howling at the moon? There were a few other phrases that came to mind, each more uncomplimentary than the last.

He did, however, know exactly which word Jiang YanLi was thinking of.

“It’s so cute,” she cooed, still covering her grin with one hand. Her eyes were sparkling with rare excitement. “A-Xian has a crush!”

Jiang Cheng groaned. “Don’t call it that!” he protested.

“What would you call it, then?” YanLi asked, genuinely.

There was no way to answer that. The cheerful whining about Lan WangJi’s “boring” and stuffy personality and the desire to needle him until he reacted was exactly the sort of pigtail-pulling Wei WuXian had been fond of with the girls at Lotus Pier. And the excessive descriptions of Lan WangJi’s supposedly gorgeous face (“So beautiful, Shijie! He’s so pretty! It’s unfair! He’d be even prettier if he ever made some actual expressions, but maybe it’s for the best, ‘cause if he smiled, I think I’d just die right there!”)... well, that spoke for itself. This level of gushing could not be explained as just casually noticing what was in front of your face.

Wei WuXian thought Lan WangJi was fascinating, at the very least, and very attractive. If his next letter said he’d gotten him drunk and tried to kiss him, no one would be surprised at all.

Jiang Cheng did not reply, which was as good as surrender.

“What is he like? Lan WangJi, I mean. You met him at Cloud Recesses, right?” YanLi asked. Folding the letter along the creases, she ran her fingers over the cheap paper.

“A stick in the mud,” Jiang Cheng said honestly. “If you had asked me before this, I would have expected him to not even be able to tolerate Wei WuXian. I have no idea how they manage to get along... if they do, and it’s not just that idiot doing whatever he pleases as usual. They’re complete opposites.”

His sister listened attentively, her expression mild as usual, but after a moment it occurred to Jiang Cheng that this was probably not what she had been asking at all.

The reason she had asked him about Lan WangJi was probably because she was worried for Wei WuXian.

It was easy for Jiang Cheng to think of Wei WuXian as a person who wouldn’t die even if you threw him off a cliff. He was like a cat, always landing on his feet in any situation, and nothing ever phased him. Of course he would be fine out there. But for YanLi, it was different. To her, Wei WuXian was her younger brother, whom she had once protected from nightmares, harsh whispers of the servants, and dogs, no matter how big or small. He was out there alone, with no one to turn to.

What she wanted to know was whether Lan WangJi would be kind to him when it counted.

Jiang Cheng had no idea how to answer that. He didn’t think they had ever even spoken to each other, although toward the end of his stay of Cloud Recesses, he had sometimes noticed Lan WangJi glancing at him from across the classroom or the street, as if preparing to approach him. However, he never did.

Had he also wanted to ask about Wei WuXian back then?

Turning the folded pages over in her hands, Jiang YanLi smiled oddly. “Do you think... A-Xian will ever come to visit?” Her mouth pinched uncertainly, but with the just the two of them, she pressed on. “It would be nice to see him again.”

When Jiang Cheng returned from Cloud Recesses, YanLi had asked him about We WuXian, with far more insistence than he was used to from his gentle, biddable sister. He’d been annoyed then, but what else could YanLi do? She rarely left Lotus Pier, and even then only to visit their mother’s relatives in Meishan. She couldn't arrange a meeting elsewhere, or even hope to run into him on a night hunt. When she married into LanlingJin... Wei WuXian and Jin ZiXuan were notoriously unable to even breath the same air.

The way things were, she could very well never see her second younger brother again.

Come to think of it, it had already been more than a year since Wei WuXian formerly left the YunmengJiang sect, and almost as long since Jiang Chen saw him Cloud Recesses. For a cultivator, that should be nothing more than the blink of an eye. But to them, it was already a tenth of the time they had known him.

How was he doing? Had he gotten any taller? Had his cultivation progressed? Was he really happy with his life? Was he lonely?

Thinking about it like that made something in Jiang Cheng’s chest squeeze painfully.

For the first time... he thought he might resent his parents, for creating this unresolvable situation. And now, there wasn't even any going back. Wei WuXian’s room had already been given to other disciples. The sect roster had been rearranged. He’d probably gotten so used to running wild in the countryside that he’d be completely useless under a sect’s rules.

Leaning over to press his shoulder against YanLi’s, Jiang Cheng laid his hand over hers and squeezed lightly.

“When I'm the sect leader,” he said without looking at her, “I'll invite him over. Let's see him refuse, I'll drag him over myself.”

Neither of them said what they felt deep in their hearts—

That it would come much too late.

~.~.~

The wall of rules at Cloud Recesses had somehow become even more impressive and imposing than before.

Perhaps this was because, last time, Wei WuXian had barely paid it any mind. He had been just a visitor, only dropping by for a day, and if he caused trouble, what would it matter? It couldn’t be blamed on YunmengJiang anymore, and he didn’t care about his own reputation to begin with. Since rogue cultivators were so comparatively rare, the question of how to even doll out any punishments he earned was an unclear one anyway.

This time was different. It had nothing to do with YunmengJiang, but with GusuLan itself. They had put their trust in him — well, more like in Lan XiChen’s unsettlingly high persuasive skills, but still — and invited him back home with them in the spirit of gratitude and comradery. Even Wei WuXian had enough sense of shame to know this was not the time to cause trouble.

Except that trouble came naturally to him. And anyway, could any human being actually follow all those rules without ascending to heaven?

Even more impressive and imposing was the man who arrived to greet them — Wei WuXian, Lan WangJi and Lan XiChen — at their arrival. This was Lan QiRen, the Two Jades’ uncle and the acting head of GusuLan. And it was immediately obvious that he knew exactly the kind of troublemaker his precious nephews had fallen in with.

‘Oooh, it’s been a while since I’ve gotten such a cold look,’ Wei WuXian thought, keeping a bland smile on his face despite the cold sweat rolling down his back. He hadn’t even done anything yet! ...This time! Surely they didn’t still remember all the yelling and shouting and, uh, alcohol from last time?

“So,” Lan QiRen stated, his eyes narrowing as he stroked his beard, “you are ZangSe SanRen’s son.”

That was not an encouraging phrase. The tone of it was not the same as Madam Yu’s whenever she brought up Wei WuXian’s parentage, but it was not a welcoming tone either.

“That’s me!” Wei WuXian agreed brightly on reflex, and immediately winced internally.

Lan QiRen harrumphed. For some reason, he tugged at his beard even harder. “I will leave him for you to deal with,” he said to Lan XiChen, which... was probably a good choice for everyone involved. Pausing, Lan QiRen added, “Good work, both of you.”

His nephews bowed, accepting the praise, as he departed. Beaming, Lan XiChen patted Wei WuXian on the shoulder. “Good work,” he passed on.

Wei WuXian couldn’t help grinning ruefully at that. He wasn’t a little kid who’d get worked up about being left out. But it was cute how closely Lan WangJi observed the short interaction, eyes narrowing and then glancing down at his own hand, as if contemplating copying his brother’s actions.

To his surprise, Lan XiChen didn’t pull away immediately. “Truly, this wouldn’t have been possible without you, Young Master Wei,” he insisted. “We’ll be able to deal with the waterborne abyss at our leisure now, without endangering anyone. It’s a great accomplishment, especially for someone of your age.”

“Lan Zhan did the most,” Wei WuXian pointed out, a little uncomfortable with such sincere praise. “He was the one who found the right place to put it, and he was the one who lured it all the way. I don’t think I could have done it, to be honest.”

It wasn’t like he didn’t enjoy being appreciated, but this was somehow... embarrassing.

Lan WangJi huffed, and Wei WuXian could just see the resemblance to his uncle. All that was missing was the beard stroking. “What I did, what you did,” he said, “is unrelated.”

“That’s right. Both of you did well,” Lan XiChen agreed. “It was already decided that GusuLan should offer a reward for all your help. This was, after all, something that was not your duty but ours. The elders have agreed to give you access to the non-restricted sections of the Library Pavilion, so that you can copy one book of your choice.”

It sounds rather simple, but the full implications behind it made Wei WuXian’s eyebrows slowly climb higher and higher.

Even in the non-restricted sections, there were bound to be texts that belonged only to GusuLan, containing information that even other clans did not have — cultivation techniques, spells, bestiaries. The fact that visiting students were able to read those texts was part of the importance of the study exchange gesture.

To offer that to a rogue cultivator was that much heavier because of both his lack of background and his inherent lack of support. The level of trust and the significance to him were that much higher. And the book he copied... it would be just his, not any sect’s or clan’s. Even Uncle Jiang hadn’t let Wei WuXian take any texts with him when he left YunmengJiang. You didn’t just... give away cultivation manuals!

But also — how like GusuLan to pick something so boring yet symbolic. Copying a text? It was a reward that felt like a punishment.

Wei WuXian beamed irreverently, because what else could he do? “Don’t mind if I do,” he said brightly.

However, he couldn’t quite fight down the faint unease churning in his gut.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: A short chapter this time. It looks like everyone was reading into the “foreshadowing” last time... sorry about getting everyone worked up, that “unease” was purely due to WWX's personal issues, nothing dramatic. I am a weak person, so it’s not possible for me to write tragedy. We have canon for that (thanks, chapter 78 :’))

~.~.~

Chapter 10: Making Trouble

In the past, Cloud Recesses had been compared to the gates of heaven. If there was any place on earth that could lead to the higher realm, it would most certainly be this dream-like, misty mountain that embodied serenity and grace.

Cloud Recesses was a hell, as far as Wei WuXian was concerned. It was pure torture.

How many rules could people have? No running, no talking, no laughing, no smiling, no joking, no alcohol, no flirting, no pets, no food with actual taste, no anything! He might as well have died already, because this couldn’t be called living.

Suddenly, Lan WangJi’s... everything made so much more sense.

Since he wasn’t studying under direction anymore, he could look at whatever he wanted in the Library Pavilion, and throwing himself into whatever text caught his attention helped a little. Lan XiChen also dropped by once in a while, which helped as well.

His pretext had been wanting to know more about the spirit attracting talismans Wei WuXian had drawn for the waterborne abyss, and Lan XiChen shot him a slightly odd look when he explained frankly that they were just spirit repelling talismans reversed.

“It sounds simple when explained like that,” Lan XiChen said, “but I wouldn’t have thought of trying such a thing. Nor would I have received the same result, I think.”

Wei WuXian shrugged. “It’s not a big deal,” he said, waving one hand. “Here, I’ll show you how to do it. I think I worked out how to change the range and intensity, but I still haven’t figured out how to attract just one thing though.” He rubbed the back of his neck a little awkwardly. “Just be careful when you use them in the beginning. If I missed something, I don’t want you guys to get hurt because of it.”

Not only did Elder Brother Lan listen with a careful attentiveness no one had ever directed at Wei WuXian, he even took neat, thorough notes. Since Wei WuXian had barely bothered writing down any of his thought process, seeing it all compiled in one place filled him with an unfamiliar sense of pride. He had made plenty of things, but this was different. This wasn’t some one-time improvisation. This was something anyone could learn to use, if they wanted to.

It had a sense of permanence that made him understand a little, for the first time, why people dedicated themselves to sects — not just their families or comrades, but the enduring structures that would pass down through generations.

However, in the end, Lan XiChen had looked down at the book of notes — a new cultivation manual, in a way — with a slightly odd expression. “This is...” He paused, pursing his lips. “Are you sure it’s alright for us, the sect, to have this?”

“Why not?” Wei WuXian shrugged. “Go ahead. Anyone who wants to can use it, I don’t mind.”

Lan XiChen shook his head, smiling. “Young Master Wei, you really are very kind.”

“Um...”

Somehow, Lan XiChen didn’t look entirely happy to be giving him that compliment. If anything, his expression was... concerned.

The next time he visited, he presented Wei WuXian with a barrier token.

Wei WuXian looked between it and him dubiously. ‘What kind of pitched battle did you fight with your elders to get this?’ he wanted to ask. ‘Are you sure you’re not getting carried away, big brother? This isn’t just inviting your little brother’s friend for a sleepover, you know! This is serious! How do you expect me to obey curfew when I have this?’

“You are WangJi’s dear friend, after all,” Lan XiChen beamed, and Wei WuXian really didn’t know what to say in the face of that sunny smile.

“Okay,” he finally managed. “Thanks.” So he had been promoted from ‘good friend’ to ‘dear friend,’ was that it?

He received... a pat on the head. Eldest Brother Lan really was a bit of an airhead.

Lan WangJi himself also visited often. Well, ‘visited’ — this was his own sect, after all. But despite the legitimate copying he did every time he came to the Library Pavilion, his goal must have been to keep Wei WuXian company. ...Right?

In reality, Wei WuXian couldn’t tell one way or another. It wasn’t like Lan WangJi ever spared him a glance or any semblance of conversation. This guy, it was as if he’d reverted back to the stiff model disciple Wei WuXian had first met a year ago. No, this was worse. Even back then, Lan WangJi had at least paid him attention.

‘Too serious!’ Wei WuXian complained mentally. ‘Lan Zhan, you’re too serious! Let’s take a break! Talk to meeee!’

Even though the books spread out around him were all things he had picked out himself and which he was genuinely interested in, Wei WuXian could only groan and let his forehead meet the wooden surface with a dull thunk. He just wasn’t cut out for extended bookwork. Day in and day out, always stuck here from morning to night! It was too much.

Lan WangJi glanced at him, but his brush didn’t pause even for a moment.

...But the one confining Wei WuXian to the Library Pavilion, driving him up the walls with cabin fever... was himself.

No one told him he wasn’t allowed out. Even if Cloud Recesses itself was the model of boring austerity, he could have still gone out to play in the woods behind the mountain or headed down into the civilian town. No one had forbidden him from going out and about.

Except that Wei WuXian knew himself. If he went out, he’d cause trouble. Not even on purpose, but no matter how much he tried to control himself, he’d stop paying attention at some point and — bam, there it would be, trouble. Rule breaking of every sort. Horrified innocent little Lan disciples. Lan QiRen glaring down at him, stroking his beard.

And, worse, it wasn’t like they could punish him or kick him out, not when he was a guest they invited themselves. He wasn’t a student entrusted to them by another sect, he wasn’t a representative with a leader they could lodge a complaint to. With the way things were, all the Lan sect would be able to do was stew in their outrage.

Silent and seething, like Madam Yu.

Elder Brother Lan was very kind, just like Uncle Jiang. The last thing Wei WuXian wanted was to put him in that kind of position.

He and GusuLan just weren’t a good match, no matter how fun it was to mess with Lan WangJi when it was just them out on a hunt. Better to finish and depart, while they were all still on good terms.

‘So I better get to it,’ Wei WuXian told himself. ‘Get to it already!’

When he raised his head, it was to find Lan WangJi looking at him with what had to be annoyance. It seemed he had been watching Wei WuXian groan and writhe over the table for a while, too. Confirming that he had his attention, Lan WangJi pronounced with great care, “Pathetic.”

Nothing else followed.

“Okay,” Wei WuXian sighed finally. “I’ll give you that. I’m pathetic right now.”

“Very pathetic,” Lan WangJi corrected.

“Yes, yes. Very pathetic, that’s me.”

This was not the response Lan WangJi wanted, and he continued to stare at Wei WuXian, lips pursed. Unfortunately, Wei WuXian had no idea what he did want, and he couldn’t really work up the energy to figure it out.

Surprisingly, it was Lan WangJi who broke off their unhappy stare down. Letting out a sharp, heavy breath, he set aside his brush and the book he had been copying.

Then, he pointedly turned around without rising — and remained there, with his back to Wei WuXian.

‘...What,’ Wei WuXian thought.

What was even the point of that? Why turn around and not walk off? It was like telling someone, ‘I’m ignoring you,’ because you really want them to know you’re mad!

Was Lan WangJi angry? But no, Wei WuXian had seen him angry. Aside from the few times he’d been provoked into explosive temper, he became cold and cutting. He didn’t act like a kid pouting, which was what this looked like. He had to know that this was just going to make Wei WuXian want to tease him—

Oh.

‘Oh,’ Wei WuXian thought. ‘Ooooh.’

After another stretch of silence, Lan WangJi glanced back as if to ask what the delay was. Wasn’t he going to get teased like usual?

But Wei WuXian was only watching him with a smile, wide and fond, cheek propped up on one hand. That was all he could do, now that he understood. “Lan Zhan, you’re pretty great, you know?” he said. Thinking for a moment, he corrected, “Just great.” And again, “Really great.”

Lan WangJi froze. Then, with each additional compliment, a shudder seemed to go through his frame, and he puffed up more and more, like a scalded cat, until his hair was all but standing on end. His expression was completely stiff, and his shoulders were trembling.

“Lan Zhan, you’re really great,” Wei WuXian repeated.

His tone was earnest despite the increasingly shit-eating grin on his face. He meant it too.

Big brother was right. This person in front of him was a ‘dear friend.’

Having been teased far past his limit, Lan WangJi finally snapped for real and spun around away from Wei WuXian. The tips of his ears were crimson with embarrassment. With a rare show of mercy, Wei WuXian let him be, turning instead back to his own work.

Somehow, he felt quite motivated again. Under his breath, he hummed a cheerful tune — and if he ever got tired, well, there was Lan Zhan to play with again, like always.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: How can we have a WangXian fic without drunk hijinks. 

~.~.~

Chapter 11: As You Are

“Done! Finally!!”

Letting out a victory cheer, Wei WuXian leaned back until he fell over, then let out a long, relieved sigh. At long last, he had finished copying the cultivation manual he wanted. Having dropped out of formal classes so long ago, he’d become completely out of practice with so much long, boring sitting and writing. His right hand felt like it would fall off.

Glancing at him, Lan WangJi carefully set aside his own work and said, without any particular intonation, “Good.”

There was a pause, and Wei WuXian sat up, waiting. At this point, he could at least tell when there was something more coming.

“Will you leave now?” Lan WangJi added slowly, as if struggling with each word.

Well, obviously. But because it was so obvious, there had to be a reason he asked. Lan WangJi wasn’t someone who used a single word needlessly — frankly, he didn’t use enough words even when needed.

“Why? Are you gonna miss me?” Wei WuXian leered. “Don’t worry, Lan Zhan! We’ll see each other again soon! We’re always running into each other, aren’t we?”

Lan WangJi didn’t respond. His face was still expressionless too, but Wei WuXian could faintly get the impression that he wasn’t satisfied with that. Dejected Lan Zhan — it made him itch to tease, but also comfort a little. Making fun of someone’s honest feelings was too harsh for Wei WuXian to feel at ease with.

Tidying up the things he’d left strew around his work area, he picked up one of the loose papers he had absently doodled on — and flicked it into the air. Instead of simply floating it down, it twisted and folded seemingly of its own volition, until its shape resembled a small man. Landing on the table, it stood on its two legs and waved its arms.

Glancing at it, Lan WangJi narrowed his eyes suspiciously.

He was already very familiar with this particular trick of binding a spirit to a piece of paper and letting it run around. Wei WuXian had used it quite a few times now when he got bored, since there was plenty of paper around for him to use as makeshift talismans. Mostly, he’d used them to try and distract Lan WangJi when he himself got tired of working and distracted.

In one particular case, he’d managed to make an entire parade of little paper men, which he was a little proud of.

Lan WangJi had not been all that impressed, and several stacks of used paper dolls had accumulated beneath the various things he used to pin them down to keep them from mischief.

In fact, his hand was already reaching for something to trap this newest pest.

“We’ll figure something out,” Wei WuXian assured him again, while the paper doll swayed cutely. “After all, I’ll miss Lan Zhan too!” He clasped his hands together as if in prayer, and the doll mimicked him. Lan WangJi’s stiff look just made him grin wider. “But! For now, how about we have a good time before I head out? Let’s take the night off, what do you say, Lan Zhan? Let’s go and party!”

Since he was sitting down at the writing table, Wei WuXian could only sway in a circle, but the paper doll did the full twirl he was thinking of in his heart.

Heartlessly, Lan WangJi swatted it down with a thick book. “Party,” he repeated, looking back at Wei WuXian.

“Right, let’s party down in town! You know, alcohol, g—” girls, he was going to say, but Lan WangJi always got annoyed at that, so he improvised, “good times, that sort of thing! I went down with the others last time I was here, and your Emperor’s Smile is really something!”

For some reason, Lan WangJi’s eyes narrowed, but his only response was a curt, “Fine.” Before Wei WuXian could get too excited, he added, “Until curfew.”

Ignoring Wei WuXian’s theatrical groaning, he began to clean up the books scattered around their work area. A moment later, Wei WuXian joined him.

~.~.~

Lan WangJi was not suited for ‘partying’ of any sort. It was a good thing Wei WuXian hadn’t tried to drag him along the first time he visited Cloud Recesses, because no one would have enjoyed that, not Lan WangJi, not his friends from Lotus Pier.

Even in what must have been a tolerant mood, Lan WangJi was barely willing to talk and continued to look personally offended by the noise level of the tavern Wei WuXian had pulled him into. That was fine, of course. Wei WuXian was more than capable of carrying on a conversation basically alone, especially with a patiently willing listener — and this was indeed Lan WangJi being very patient.

But still, he wanted to have a little more fun.

“Come on, just one cup!” he cajoled. “We’re not in Cloud Recesses, so it’s not against the rules, right? Come on, come on!”

Ignoring the alcohol being thrust in his face, Lan WangJi shot him a flat look. “Why?”

“Why? Because! Why not? It’ll be fun,” Wei WuXian persisted. “Come on, I want to see what you’re like with a drink or two in you, Lan Zhan. You’re always so serious! It’s my goodbye party, so loose up a little!”

Hm. Something about that clearly hit some mark, though he wasn’t entirely sure how or in what way. Nonetheless, Lan WangJi’s eyes narrowed, and he finally snatched the cut from Wei WuXian’s hand. Staring down into it dubiously, he pursed his lips.

“You want me to do this?” he asked.

“Yes! Please, Lan Zhan! Do it for me!” Wei WuXian begged without shame.

Expressionless or not, that was the face of a man regretting many things. Yet, Lan WangJi did not protest further and simply tipped the cup back, downing the wine in one gulp. As Wei WuXian clapped, cheering, he blinked and shook his head slightly.

“So? So? How was it?” Wei WuXian demanded excitedly.

“Hmm,” Lan WangJi made a vague sound and leaned over slightly to prop his head up with one hand. He closed his eyes, like a long blink — and drifted straight off to sleep.

Sleep?

He was really sleeping.

Wei WuXian spluttered uselessly. “Hey! Lan Zhan! That’s not fair,” he protested, waving a hand in front of Lan WangJi’s face but receiving no response at all, except his friend’s faint, warm breath across his palm.

Sitting back, he absently poured himself another cup and took a drink. “Well, I didn’t expect that,” Wei WuXian admitted out loud. “I figured you’d be weak to alcohol, since I can’t imagine you had any before. But this weak? I’ve seen instant-acting poisons that take longer to kick in. Let me tell you, this is the first time you’ve truly disappointed me, Lan Zhan.”

There was no response. He had been getting almost no response all evening, but this wasn’t the same. Lan WangJi wasn’t even listening, and the difference was surprisingly telling.

Wei WuXian sighed. “Okay, I’ll forgive you this time,” he decided.

It was already getting close to nine, so he doubted Lan WangJi would wake up until morning, and he didn’t feel like partying alone either. By himself, he would have found a place in town to stay until the next day, but a stuffy rule abiding type like Lan WangJi wouldn’t like having broken curfew. In the worst case, given his character, he might even feel the need to report himself in for punishment...

‘Since it’s my fault he was like this, I should take responsibility,’ Wei WuXian thought.

...That was a strange thought, for him. But taking responsibility for the trouble he caused — he was getting used to that. No, this time, he was taking responsibility to avoid causing trouble in the first place... too much trouble, anyway. Did that mean he had grown up a little?

It was with an amused grin that Wei WuXian pulled Lan WangJi’s unconscious body onto his back. They were about the same height, so it was fortunately not too difficult to carry him — given that they would be sneaking in over the wall. Although curfew hadn’t passed yet, Lan WangJi would probably die of mortification if he was carried into Cloud Recesses drunk in plain sight. So a sneaky method was required.

Wei WuXian was great at sneaking. And he had, mostly out of habit, checked how to sneak in and out of Cloud Recesses long ago. Thus, they returned to Lan WangJi’s room without any mishaps — to even Wei WuXian’s surprise.

“Alright, let’s get you into bed,” Wei WuXian told his unconscious friend, pushing the sheets aside and carefully lowering him next to the bunched up pile. Boots, outer rober... pulling them off, Wei WuXian turned to put them away.

“Gyah!”

He was brought up short, giving a startled yelp, as something pulled sharply on his hair.

Twisting his head around to look over his shoulder, he was shocked to see an awake Lan WangJi... holding the end of his ponytail in one hand.

“Lan Zhan...?”

“Don’t leave,” Lan WangJi said flatly. There was nothing off about his pronunciation, no slur or any hint of intoxication. His expression was also completely composed like usual. And yet, sober him would have never gone for ponytail-grabbing. That was more Wei WuXian’s domain, in a pinch.

“Okay, but can you let me go? I promise I won’t go anywhere,” he said.

Lan WangJi’s brows furrowed faintly. “Cannot.”

“Please?”

“No.”

Wow, it was even more like dealing with a wall than normal. Wei WuXian switched tactics. Turning carefully until he could kneel on the bed in front of Lan WangJi, he said, “Well, if you’re going to pull on my hair, I’m going to pull on your forehead ribbon.” To illustrate his point, he made grabbing motions in the air.

Lan WangJi stared back stonily, but this time Wei WuXian refused to back down. He knew that ribbon was important somehow, and he was counting on the regulations of the Lan sect going deeper than even alcohol.

The reaction he got was not what he expected. Lips thinning, Lan WangJi jerked his chin up and nodded once, then turned around, showing Wei WuXian his back — and the two ribbon tails trailing down over his ink black hair.

This was just like in the Library Pavilion, Lan WangJi’s way of telling Wei WuXian to do as he pleased.

Well, well, well. How could he resist an offer like that—?

Except that... something was wrong.


Looking closely at that back, clad in only a thin white inner robe, Wei WuXian felt a thread of unhappy uncertainty. His hands lowered, the devious grin slipping off his face.

It was almost unnoticeable, but Lan WangJi’s shoulders were shaking, and his spine was painfully stiff with tension. When he turned to look back at Wei WuXian over his shoulder, as if to ask what was taking so long, even his expression carried the faint trace of something like anxiety.

This was...

Not the time to tease, at all. This would be nothing short of bullying.

To keep from having to crane his neck, since his hair was still in Lan WangJi’s hold, Wei WuXian had settled down rather close to him. Leaning in until his bangs brushed the other’s cheek, he looked Lan WangJi in the eye, his expression soft.

“Hey,” he called out gently. “Hey, Lan Zhan, it’s okay. I won’t touch your ribbon if you don’t want me to. You don’t have to let me.”

Lan WangJi looked away, his pale eyes dropping to his lap. His hands played idly with the choppy ends of Wei WuXian’s ponytail as if it was some small animal’s fur.

“I don’t... not want,” Lan WangJi muttered.

Wei WuXian really, really wondered what the Lan ribbon actually meant. But no matter what, this was definitely a sign of how much Lan WangJi had accepted him already.

However, not hating the idea of something wasn’t the same as liking it, and as the sober one here, Wei WuXian had to be responsible.

...Jiang Cheng would have never believed that word could be used to describe him. He really had changed a bit, hadn’t he?

And it wasn’t just him.

“You’ve been pushing yourself a lot for me, huh?” Wei WuXian realized. “Hanging out with a loud guy like me, going to party out on the town, even drinking... You don’t have to try so hard, Lan Zhan.”

“Don’t leave,” Lan WangJi insisted.

Why bring that up again? Wei WuXian turned it over in his mind. “You think I’ll leave if you don’t do things I like?” he guessed. “Lan Zhan, that’s not true! Yeah, we’re different... really different. But I like you as you are! I won’t leave even if you don’t do that stuff. I’ll always be your friend.”

It was true. He had liked Lan WangJi from the moment they met, even with his cold, haughty demeanor — though, mostly because he was so fun to tease. Privately, he did think it was good for Lan WangJi to lighten up a little. And he hadn’t looked unhappy silently inviting Wei WuXian to play with him in the Library Pavilion, or going along with him when they hunted together.

There was nothing wrong with changing, shifting a little to fit better with someone you liked.

But going this far was too much. Making yourself miserable for someone else’s sake — everyone would just end up miserable in the end.

Lan WangJi was watching him intensely, as if meticulously absorbing every word of his promise. But the alcohol seemed to have blunted the sense of embarrassment he would have normally displayed, and instead his expression darkened faintly into a sulky look. “You too,” he declared. His golden gaze bore into Wei WuXian fiercely. “Don’t try too hard too. I like you as you are.”

Trying too hard... Was he?

He was.

“Aaah... I’ve been pretty dumb, huh?” Wei WuXian murmured, understanding dawning.

Trying too hard not to break any rules or make any trouble, as if Lan WangJi and his brother expected him to be anyone except himself. Making himself miserable for the sake of something no one ever asked of him. It was so ridiculous. If he saw someone else doing it, Wei WuXian would’ve never let them carry on like that.

“Mm,” Lan WangJi made a sound of agreement. “Pathetic. Very pathetic.”

His Lan Zhan had learned to tease. Wei WuXian was proud.

...“Ow, ow! Don’t pull! Don’t pull! Lan Zhan, that’s too much teasing!” he protested as there was another, sudden tug on his hair. “What are you doing?”

Squinting out of the corner of his eye while blinking back reflexive tears, Wei WuXian saw that Lan WangJi appeared to be... lying down and pulling the covers over himself. It must have been nine already, he realized, bedtime for good little GusuLan cultivators.

“That’s fine for you, but I’m not sleeping at nine! I refuse!” Wei WuXian protested. “I won’t leave, I’ll give you my hand, just let go of my hair!”

~.~.~

In the morning, Lan WangJi didn’t remember a thing.

Wei WuXian felt vaguely cheated, and he wasn’t even sure why.

‘I like you.’ He wondered if Lan WangJi would ever say that to him sober.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: This chapter feels deeply OOC. But I couldn’t get them to do anything else aside from this... slapfight??

Fun fact: my outline originally ended here, but I realized it wouldn’t be satisfying enough (I mean, only one action scene?? from me?? never), so I’ve sketched out a few more arcs and a conclusion for this story. We will (sigh) address The Wen Problem.

(Also, I still can’t get over how awkward it is to write for a Chinese setting? I spent like half an hour trying to figure out how rude/unnatural it would be for one character to point at another character. I don’t have these problems with anime!! Not to mention that I can bullshit OC names for Japanese if I have to, but Chinese?? lmao no)

~.~.~

Chapter 12: Conference

One benefit of being a rogue cultivator was being exempt from tedious events like the Discussion Conference. Since Wei WuXian had no sect to represent or even to receive the invitation in the first place, there was no need for him to attend.

Lucky him. He was probably off somewhere causing trouble and having the time of his life, while Jiang Cheng was stuck keeping a good face for YunmengJiang in front of the Wen.

The ceremonies and posturing seemed to drag on endlessly. The only thing Jiang Cheng could do was stare straight ahead — and occassionally catch Jin ZiXuan’s eye to send him a sneer that was always reciprocated and then some. Normally, Wei WuXian would trash him in the competition, putting the peacock back in his place. But this year, it would be up to Jiang Cheng to remind him not to take Lotus Pier lightly.

It was... a bit of a daunting thought.

The back of Jiang Cheng’s neck prickled, as if he was being watched, and he turned quickly to shoot another glare at Jin ZiXuan. But his sister’s fiance was not looking at him, instead staring fixedly ahead with a bored expression.

‘Did I imagine it?’ Jiang Cheng thought. No, he was confident he could feel someone’s gaze on him. Surreptitiously, he glanced around at the other disciples lined up across the courtyard.

There. There was indeed one watching him with sharp gold eyes.

Seeing that he had been noticed, Lan WangJi looked away again, his expression not changing even once. After a moment, Jiang Cheng did the same, but his own expression was twisted in confusion. What was that all about?

~.~.~

Since he wasn’t a feral cat pretending to be a cultivator unlike some people, Jiang Cheng went through the motions of polite greetings, when he quickly made his way over to the GusuLan disciples after the ceremonies were finally finished and everyone began to move toward the trial area.

With a beatific smile, Lan XiChen politely inquired, “Was there a reason you came over, Young Master Jiang?”

In contrast, Lan WangJi was staring at him blankly again. What did that look even mean? Was he picking a fight? Did he want something? Jiang Cheng itched to ask, but he couldn’t figure out a socially acceptable way of phrasing that.

Instead, he switched to the real reason he had sought them out. “Yes,” he said. “It’s about Wei WuXian.”

Maybe it was from the memory of YanLi’s question and worries, but Jiang Cheng paused there and carefully watched the reaction to that namedrop.

Lan WangJi... was unreadable, but Lan XiChen’s mild expression shifted slightly, something in his gaze sharpening. “Young Master Wei?” he asked. “Is he in trouble of some sort? WangJi saw him recently, and he didn’t seem any different than usual.” He glanced quickly at his younger brother for confirmation.

So their first instinct was to worry. Well. That was good, Jiang Cheng supposed.

“Nothing like that,” he said, his tone and face easing now that he was satisfied. “It’s the opposite. My sister and I have a request for you. Since you see him most regularly, we were hoping you would able to pass something on to him.”

He said ‘we,’ but the care package was all from YanLi.

Just from speaking with them and seeing their reaction to his request — well, speaking to Lan XiChen and seeing his reaction — Jiang Cheng could tell they would have no objection. Pulling out the small qiankun pouch YanLi had given him, he held it out. To his surprise, it was Lan WangJi who reached out to accept it careful motions.

“I will deliver it,” he promised seriously.

“Good,” Jiang Cheng replied automatically. “I mean... thank you. We appreciate your assistance in this matter.”

But when he put it like that, it sounded like Lan WangJi intended to give it to Wei WuXian personally, instead of just keeping it at Cloud Recesses and asking him to come by and pick it up or something. Since there wasn’t any way to know where Wei WuXian was going to pop up, was he planning to carry it with him all the time until they ran into each other?

Put like that, wasn’t GusuLan’s second young master going to be playing delivery boy to a rogue cultivator? Privately, Jiang Cheng determined to never let his mother find out. She would doubtlessly be furious.

“We’re happy to help,” Lan XiChen replied.

But there was something else — his lips pressed together as if he was holding back what he wanted to say. Jiang Cheng eyed him, waiting to see what the ever-polite Young Master Lan could be mulling over. For him to be that awkward about it... The realization hit him suddenly.

It was about Wei WuXian, of course. And for Lan XiChen to still be deliberating over saying anything, it must have been the sort of thing that was treated as taboo. In other words, the question in everyone’s eyes for months after Jiang Cheng became the head disciple—

Why had Wei WuXian left YunmengJiang?

Lan XiChen wouldn’t consider asking out of just curiosity. GusuLan probably had a rule against nosiness, even. So this must have been for the same reason as Jiang Cheng tested their reaction earlier. Was that also why Lan WangJi had been staring at him?

‘I guess it’s not all one-sided, huh?’ he thought, lips curling up in a faint smile.

“We’ll be counting on you,” Jiang Cheng said, meaning far more than just that single pouch. “Good luck in the competition.”

~.~.~

In the archery competition, it was neck and neck — for third place. Pampered princess he might have been, but Jin ZiXuan had skill worthy of LanlingJin’s successor and he was determined not to lose. Unfortunately for him, Jiang Cheng was even more determined. With YunmengJiang’s and his sister’s pride on the line, he managed to squeeze out a narrow victory. He was pretty sure the difference was only one or two targets.

Of course, Lan’s Two Jade soared far above them both. Even Wei WuXian would have probably...

Shaking his head, Jiang Cheng tried not to think about it. Instead, he focused on the smile his father sent him when the results were announced. He had upheld their sect’s position, and that was something to be proud of.

What he didn’t expect was for Lan WangJi to approach him afterwards, his expression giving away nothing as usual. But there was only one topic he could want to discuss.

He didn’t beat around the bush. “What is Wei Ying to you?”

Jiang Cheng’s eyebrows climbed toward his hairline. Not so much because of how blunt the question was — it fit his image of Lan WangJi, frankly — but because of ‘Wei Ying.’ Wei WuXian skipping all propriety to go ‘Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan’ was one thing, but Lan WangJi doing the same in return felt like an implication, though of what he couldn’t be sure.

‘He’s my brother,’ Jiang Cheng almost answered.

YanLi, he thought, wouldn’t have hesitated. Maybe even the him of two years ago wouldn’t have either. But... were those words still true, now?

Wei WuXian had left YunmengJiang. The sect, the clan, all of it no longer had any ties to him, officially speaking.

More than his official standing, Wei WuXian couldn’t even return to Lotus Pier. They hadn’t seen each other in so long, and they might not see each other again for years. Looking at the situation, even if they shared ties of blood, wouldn’t this make him basically disowned?

Wasn’t that what everyone decided? That YunmengJiang and Wei WuXian should part ways?

It was different for YanLi. The bond with her was the one thing Wei WuXian maintained. But Jiang Cheng was the next sect leader. He couldn’t make careless statements.

“He’s... We grew up together as family,” he said, unable to meet Lan WangJi’s piercing gaze.

But now they were...

The feeling of being cornered was infuriating. Pressing his lips together, Jiang Cheng glared at Lan WangJi and his heavy stare. “And? What about you?” he shot back. “What is Wei WuXian to you?”

No reaction. But no answer either. It wasn’t so comfortable to be on the other end of that blunt question, was it?

“Wei Ying is...” Lan WangJi started, only to stumble just like Jiang Cheng had. The two of them glared at each other, equally ruffled and uncomfortable. This was truly a situation worthy of Wei WuXian, damn him. Lan WangJi’s glare sharpened, and he drew himself up. “I,” he declared, “won’t let go.”

...Of?

Of Wei WuXian? Who was asking him to? Who’d compete for that— that walking disaster!

Jiang Cheng’s eyes narrowed. No... The implication of his words was different. It wasn’t, “I won’t lose to you.” It was, “unlike you.”

Who let go?! Of what?

Lan WangJi glared down at him icily. “Even not in the same sect, I...” He cut himself off, unable to get out the words he intended, and substituted again, “won’t let go.”

“You... you’re saying it’s my fault! That we’re...” Jiang Cheng forgot about manners and propriety, gesturing furiously. “Things changed! Of course we couldn’t stay the same way we were as kids!”

Lan WangJi didn’t say anything else, but now that he’d started, Jiang Cheng couldn’t stop all the frustration he’d been ignoring from pouring out. He shouted the things he hadn’t even admitted to himself that he was feeling.

“I didn’t want him to leave!” Didn’t he? “I didn’t ask him to! And I didn’t ask him to— to never come back!” Except, how exactly was Wei WuXian supposed to do that, when he had been practically kicked out? “It’s not our fault we can’t even meet up with him, when he’s always running around who knows where!” But Lan WangJi managed to keep meeting him somehow, did he? “It’s not like I don’t want to see him again! I do! I just... I...”

He just hadn’t tried to do anything to fix this.

YanLi was trying, in the small ways she could. The reason Lan WangJi appeared in Wei WuXian’s letters so often wasn’t happenstance either, but what have been a great effort on his part. And even Wei WuXian had gone to meet Jiang Cheng at Cloud Recesses back then, when he had the opportunity.

Jiang Cheng was the one who just sulked around, unhappy and yet always letting others decide everything.

What duties? What next sect leader? Wasn’t he the one who declared that Wei WuXian no longer had anything to do with YunmengJiang? Then how could the sect determine anything Jiang Cheng did in regard to him?

What a pathetic excuse. It was always like that. It was always because of his mother, his father, because of Wei WuXian, because of someone else.

But even when there was no one putting pressure on him — when Wei WuXian was no longer there to be compared to, when his mother and father never even mentioned how to treat him — Jiang Cheng still didn’t make his own choices. Who did he have to blame for that?

How long was he going to keep blaming others?

He sighed, his shoulders slumping, and finally looked up from glaring mutinously at the flagstones. They had been standing in excruciating silence for a good while now, but Lan WangJi was still watching him. His expression once more smoothed out into blankness, but his discomfort was very obvious. He looked half a step away from outright fleeing in the face of an emotional confrontation he probably hadn’t intended.

Or maybe he had intended it, steeling himself in order to scold Jiang Cheng for Wei WuXian’s sake.

‘What is Lan WangJi like?’ YanLi had asked. Finally, Jiang Cheng felt like he could assuage her fears when he returned.

Bullheaded and stubborn, and also very dedicated. And also, incredibly awkward.

“Lan WangJi!” Even Lan WangJi couldn’t stop his face from twitching at being called out so suddenly. He tensed, staring back at Jiang Cheng, who only huffed and ordered, “Wait right there!”

Without waiting for a response, he spun around and started digging through everything he had brought on his person. Ink, brush, he had those for talisman writing, so at least he wouldn’t need to do something ridiculous like use his own blood. But paper, paper... He didn’t really bring any, except the blank yellow talisman slips.

In the end, he had to use one of those.

Catching himself chewing furiously on the end of his brush as he tried to find just the right words, Jiang Cheng instead forcefully scribbled out the simplest phrase he could and, after waving the talisman paper to dry the ink, folded it three times.

Wei WuXian had known him since they were children. There was probably no one in the world who understood him better. So this... should be enough, for a start.

“Here.” Stalking back to where Lan WangJi had waited as requested, Jiang Cheng thrust out the message paper. “Take this too. ...Please.”

He waited.

And waited.

‘Are you going to take it or not?!’ Just as he was about to demand any response at all, Lan WangJi finally reached out and accepted the message paper. With one last freezing look, he nodded — but his entire stance radiated displeasure.

Jiang Cheng just glared back. “I won’t let go either,” he snapped impulsively. “I won’t let go of my family that easily.”

Lan WangJi’s lips pursed. “Good,” he shot back, before turning away and striding off.

“Well... good!”

Left standing alone, Jiang Cheng let out a huge gasp. He suddenly felt incredibly exhausted, and a headache was building behind his eyes. That was the single most uncomfortable encounter of his life. Just how did Wei WuXian manage to be friends with this guy?

Opposites attract indeed... But at least it seemed it really was mutual. YanLi would be pleased.

Staunchly, he ignored the relieved, fond smile tugging at the corner of his lips.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: I don’t have this “arc” outlined at all :) It’s just a bunch of disconnected scenes lol. Time to die.

~.~.~

Chapter 13: Gifts

‘Lan Zhan’s in a bad mood,’ Wei WuXian thought, and then blinked at himself in surprise.

He couldn’t quite explain why he thought that, but he was certain of it. Did this mean he had finally started being able to read Lan WangJi a little? Or were his negative feelings just so strong that they were leaking through until even Wei WuXian could tell?

Either way, he still had no idea why Lan WangJi was so displeased.

He really wanted to find out.

Sidling up to his friend, he asked head on, “Lan Zhan, what’s got you all worked up? Hunt go badly? Too much rule breaking? Got a stain on your robes?”

It really was a bad mood. Lan WangJi didn’t even react to his guesses, instead stoically continuing on with what he was doing — reaching into his sleeve to pull out several items.

He handed over the first. It was a book. “It’s a book,” Wei WuXian noted needlessly, turning it over in his hands. “Oh, this is your handwriting, Lan Zhan! It’s really like you, so strong and serious, but very pretty too...” But looking at the title, he felt the very faint stirring of memory. “I think I read this one before. I did! At Cloud Recesses, after the waterborne abyss! It was really interesting, so I was thinking of copying it.”

Proud of himself for remembering, Wei WuXian beamed. In the end, he had chosen another book, but it had come down to a close tie between those two.

It couldn’t be a coincidence. Lan WangJi, who had far better memory than Wei WuXian’s sieve, wouldn’t have chosen to copy this book at random, and he certainly didn’t give it to him at random.

Tapping the book against his lips, Wei WuXian asked finally, “Lan Zhan, did you copy this for me? Because I was considering it before?” ‘You paid that much attention back then? And you spent this much time for me?’ It was enough to make Wei WuXian shake his head in disbelief, and also to make something warm glow in his chest.

Mutinously, Lan WangJi nodded once.

“Is this okay with your sect though? Did you at least check with your brother?”

Another nod.

There was an instinctive flash of unease at the thought of their sect elders’ reaction to all this — He was specifically supposed to get only one book out of that, wasn’t this basically cheating? They must have already been so tired of hearing his name... — but Wei WuXian pushed it down firmly. This was what Lan WangJi and his brother had chosen to do of their own volition. They didn’t need Wei WuXian to decide for them whether they could accept whatever happened afterwards.

It would be alright. Probably. He hoped.

“Then I gratefully accept,” he said in a bright, lilting tone, his smile wide and teasing. “Thank you, Second Brother Lan!”

Nod and... why did his mood seem to darken a little?

Lan WangJi held out something else. This time, it was a small qiankun pouch with surprisingly lovely embroidery on the outside. Since they were rather functional, practical tools, it wasn’t too common for qiankun pouches to be decorated much, not like perfume sachets. It didn’t look like something you would just buy either.

“At Discussion Conference,” Lan WangJi explained, “from YunmengJiang.”

The pouch dropped into his outstretched hand, but Wei WuXian could only stare at it blankly. The explanation was clear enough, but it refused to make sense. He knew about the Discussion Conference in Qishan, of course, even if he’d mostly forgotten about it. He could guess the sequence of events that led to Lan WangJi passing this on to him. But this meant, this meant...

“From, from Shijie?” he finally managed. His hand closed around the precious gift and pressed it against his chest. Blinking rapidly, he couldn’t help the smile tugging at his lips.

He’d written more letters than he could count, but this was the first time he had ever received a response.

Lan WangJi let out a huff that was still tinged with unhappiness, but his foul mood seemed to have softened. He held out the last thing in his hands — a yellow paper, like that of a talisman, folded so the writing inside couldn’t be seen.

Pouch in one hand, book tucked under his arm, Wei WuXian accepted the paper with his remaining free hand. Standing like that, he was suddenly aware that he had received a lot. Too much. It was definitely too much for his heart to take, and a pleased, embarrassed flush climbed up his neck in response. Was this what it felt like to get spoiled? No wonder that Jin ZiXuan was always strutting around like a peacock...

Lan WangJi offered no further explanations about this third item. ‘So it’s from YunmengJiang too?’ Wei WuXian guessed. But if the pouch was from YanLi, then this paper could only be from Jiang Cheng.

Prying it open one-handedly with a sudden sense of urgency, Wei WuXian smoothed it enough to read and stared at the few words inked rather forcefully there.

His brow furrowed for a moment, then his expression smoothed out except for a slowly growing smile.

“Hey, Lan Zhan,” he said, “are you going to the hunting competition next month?”

~.~.~

‘See you at Phoenix Mountain.’

That was all it said. But Wei WuXian understood immediately everything that Jiang Cheng had meant.

Phoenix Mountain was one of the three most well-known hunting grounds, and it was, in particular, often used to host large hunting competitions. Without a doubt, the upcoming one was what Jiang Cheng had been referring to.

There was nothing strange about a rogue cultivator attending, for once. Events like that were a rare chance for those who did not belong to large sects, or any sect at all, to make themselves known or even be recruited. Frankly, Wei WuXian would have probably gone no matter what, to show off and have some fun.

But saying, ‘See you there,’ was like saying, ‘Drop by when you get there,’ and this wasn’t the same as sneaking off for a night on the neutral ground of Cloud Recesses. Jiang Cheng would be with the YunmengJiang delegation, always on display and in everyone’s sight. Going up to say hi to him would mean going up to the entire Jiang sect, in full view of the entire cultivation world.

Wasn’t the whole point for them to cut ties? How could they just casually act all buddy-buddy again?

Madame Yu would strangle Wei WuXian for daring such a thing. Just when she’d gotten rid of him, he came crawling back? He’d die.

He’d die, but if Jiang Cheng invited him, he was absolutely going.

...Having decided thus, Wei WuXian proceeded to uncharacteristically meander in the trees near where the YunmengJiang riding formation was lining up. He was a bit annoyed at himself about this, but he couldn’t help it. It had been two years. Seeing Jiang Cheng and Uncle Jiang again, and so many of his former seniors and junior disciples — it made even the shameless Wei WuXian a little tongue-tied.

Jiang Cheng swept his gaze over the surrounding area, searchingly, as he had done several times previously.

This time, steeling himself, Wei WuXian didn’t quickly duck into hiding. When their eyes met, he tilted his head up and grinned. Jiang Cheng glared back. ‘What are you waiting for?’ he conveyed with his narrowed gaze. ‘Get over here!’

It was really Jiang Cheng, through and through, and Wei WuXian’s smile widened, easing into something more honest and sure.

“Hey, everyone! Long time no see!” he called out, stepping out into the open and waving to the assembled group in violet.

The reaction was immediate. A hush fell over the previously chattering sect, and everyone turned to look at him, as if holding their breath. “Shixiong! Wei-shixiong!” someone called out. “You’re here!” And like a damn breaking, they rushed toward him, pulling him into one hug after another.

It's been so long! How have you been? What have you been up to? I heard about that hunt you did! Did you hear, we were third in the archery contest at the Conference! We missed you! We can finally have an actual competition in shooting kites without you hogging first place! It's so good to see you!

The air was filled with questions, joyful exclamations, and friendly ribbing. Even normally outgoing Wei WuXian felt off kilter from the attention. Someone patted him on the back hard enough to make him stumble, someone threw an arm over his shoulders, someone even ruffled his hair. Jostled this way and that, Wei WuXian could only grin and laugh helplessly.

The crowd only parted when a mounted rider approached. And not just any rider — their sect leader.

“Don’t cling to him so much. At least let him breathe,” Jiang FengMian chided his disciples and subordinates. As he dismounted, the crowd naturally cleared the way for him, and he approached Wei WuXian with a smile. “It’s good to see you, A-Xian.”

Cupping his hands and ducking his head in a more respectful bow than he had managed in his entire time as a disciple of the sect, Wei WuXian murmured, “You too, Uncle Jiang.”

He almost expected Jiang FengMian to pat him on the head the way he used to when Wei WuXian was still a child, but those large, warm hands rested on his shoulders instead. Raising his head in surprise, he realized that they were almost eye to eye now. A few more years, and they just might be the same height.

When had he gotten this tall? Jiang FengMian’s smile was a little wry, as if he was thinking the same thing.

“I’m glad you’ve been doing well,” he said. He chuckled. “More than well, I hear. You’ve really spread your wings, inventing such interesting things.”

Wei WuXian cleared his throat awkwardly. Lan WangJi’s brother was just too upright and honest. Being told, ‘Anyone who wants to can use it,’ he made the entirety of the text he had put together about Wei WuXian’s spirit attracting talismans available to all sects, instead of just GusuLan. It seemed he had felt it was unrighteous of them to monopolize cultivation techniques from someone who was not a member of their sect.

Since it was rare for new cultivation techniques to be developed, and between that and the ghost compasses Wei WuXian had taken to sometimes selling when he was short on money, it could be said he was starting to make a bit of a name for himself.

It was only natural that Jiang FengMian was aware as well.

Clearing his throat, Wei WuXian puffed up proudly. “Pretty good, right? I’m a genius!”

Jiang FengMian chuckled, indulgent as always. “We need to prepare to our riding formation, but let’s talk more later. I want to hear about your adventures, A-Xian,” he said, stepping back.

Later, Madam Yu might be around, instead of being sequestered in the observation towers... But Wei WuXian smiled and nodded. However, as Jiang FengMian turned away and mounted his horse again, Wei WuXian struggled not to frown, glancing around quickly.

That kind of scene, of him getting praised, was exactly the kind of thing that had always raised tensions, back in Lotus Pier. Had Jiang Cheng...

“Hey.” Another hand clapped on his shoulder, and Wei WuXian turned to see the calm face of his adopted brother.

“Jiang Cheng!” he exclaimed, then babbled onward nervously, “I got your message! Making Lan Zhan run around like that, how high handed of you! He was in a pretty bad mood, did you say something to him? And thanks for passing on Shijie’s gift too. I heard you did well at the Conference. Third, right? Congratulations!”

“What are you blathering on for, you idiot?” Jiang Cheng huffed, wearing that particular expression of longsuffering that he had always saved for Wei WuXian.

In truth, he had watched the entire scene before and felt exactly what Wei WuXian feared. But immediately after, he firmly stamped it down. Was he really going to get angry because his father doted on Wei WuXian a bit when they saw each other for the first time in two years? How petty was he, exactly? It was embarrassing to even consider acting out on those feelings.

This was a special occasion, so it was only natural for him to take second place. And as for his relationship with his father as a whole... that had nothing to do with Wei WuXian anymore. Whether he was acknowledged, whether he was praised, that was all on him now.

He steeled himself with that thought.

“Listen, Sis is here too,” he said, shoving it all down. “Hurry up and go see her.” Wei WuXian brightened, then immediately made a face, but Jiang Cheng interrupted before he could protest or make excuses. “She’s sitting with Madam Jin, so don’t worry about Mom. You don’t have to do the riding and showing off, so catch up to her while you can. We’ll talk later.”

“Shijie is here...”

Wei WuXian’s attention was already drifting to the ten watching towers set around the vast square of Phoenix Mountain — specifically, the yellow-decked LanlingJin section of the viewing seats.

Jiang Cheng sighed again. “Go, go,” he pushed him along with a frown that would probably be etched on his face within a couple more decades.

Grinning, Wei WuXian obeyed. But as he brushed past, he said, quietly, “Thanks. I mean it.”

Unnoticed by anyone, Jiang Cheng smiled.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: I don’t have anything particular to say, so let me just mention how amazed and grateful I am for all the feedback about this fic. tbh I’ve always thought of AO3 as just posting into the void, with like 1-2 people who drop one line per chapter, so getting 20 odd reviews a chapter is just... way beyond my expectations. I guess that’s the power of writing for the canon OTP, hahaha?

~.~.~

Chapter 14: Sister

With his cultivation, it was easy for Wei WuXian to jump up to the top of the observation tower. Landing on the railing, he grinned and waved shamelessly to the LanlingJin guests who turned to stare at him with varying degrees of surprise and censure.

“Hello, hello!” he greeted them easily. “Just dropping by, pay me no mind!”

“A-Xian!”

Before anyone could protest or demand what he had come for, Jiang YanLi was on her feet. Her usually mild face glowed with the joy of her smile as she rushed to him, reaching out to grasp his hands in hers. The strength of her grip was so much more than he expected, and it made Wei WuXian’s heart squeeze as well.

“Shijie... I’m so glad to see you,” he said helplessly. “I’m so glad...”

“Mm, me too,” Jiang YanLi agreed, tears prickling at the corner of her eyes. “Thank you for all your letters, A-Xian. I read each of them so many times. But,” she laughed, “it’s just not the same as seeing you.”

Over her shoulder, Madam Jin smiled indulgently and waved away the rest of the LanlingJin entourage, who had half risen, glaring at the intruder. Her temperament was famously much like her old friend Madam Yu, but her strongest impression of Wei WuXian came from Jiang YanLi’s bashful but glowing reminiscence about her two younger brothers. She could hardly begrudge her future daughter-in-law a happy reunion.

“It’s not the same at all,” Wei WuXian agreed. “You’ve gotten even more beautiful when I wasn’t looking! How’s that peacock going to match up to you now?”

Jiang YanLi ducked her head, her smile becoming abashed. “The sect riding formations will pass through soon,” she changed the subject. “The hunt will be starting. Will you head down too?”

“The hunt? I don’t really care that much,” Wei WuXian said. Normally, he liked to show off a bit when many cultivators gathered, but it wasn’t as if he had any particular goal to achieve. This time, he had something far more important to do. “Maybe I’ll stay here and watch with you,” he grinned. “How about it, Shijie?”

“You’ll get bored and cause a fuss,” Jiang YanLi chided, leading him back to her seat all the same. She had left the flowers prepared for the riders there, and she picked up now.

“This is true,” Wei WuXian agreed. Tapping a finger against his lips, he hummed in thought as he turned the problem over in his mind.

Down below, the first major sect riding in was YunmengJiang. Nudging him lightly, YanLi passed Wei WuXian a couple of flowers from her bundle. They shared a smile and approached the front of the platform. Flowers were already raining down on the violet-clad cultivators riding gallantly to the hunting grounds, most especially on the sect leader and his brother at the head. Jiang Cheng bore it with the same supposedly neutral but somehow still disgruntled look Wei WuXian had endlessly teased him about, the one that conveyed the opposite of how pleased he felt, while Jiang FengMian only smiled pleasantly.

However, there was one flower that the YunmengJiang sect leader reached out to catch and raised gently as a salute — the one that had come from his wife’s hands.

Madam Yu’s expression was severe as always while she watched the acceptance of her small gift. Her gaze turned abruptly to Wei WuXian, piercing across the distance between the observation towers they were on. She looked mad, like always where he was involved, and a shiver went down his spine instinctively.

‘I’m dead,’ he thought, smiling fixedly into the middle distance. Then, with optimism, he corrected, ‘It’ll be fine if I just run away before she can get to me!’ He could do that now, just run without looking back.

That sounded like a plan.

Jiang YanLi nudged him lightly, pulling him out of his thoughts and reminding him of the flowers in his hands. “One, two...” she chanted quietly.

“Three!”

Three flowers soared through the air, one into Jiang FengMian’s hands, who smiled, two into Jiang Cheng’s, who huffed but softened his glare for his sister’s sake.

“You’re not going to throw one for Father?” YanLi asked, glancing down at the second blossom she had given him, still in Wei WuXian’s grip.

“Er, was that what I was supposed to do with it?” he wondered. “Come on, I’m not a kid anymore. Jiang Cheng wouldn’t do it either.” Of course, Jiang Cheng wouldn’t have thrown one to Wei WuXian, if their positions were reversed... “Anyway, I’ve got another plan for this one.”

He twirled the stem of the flower between his fingers, a troublemaking grin spreading over his face. Hiding a smile behind one hand, Jiang YanLi let him be.

She didn’t have to wait long to find out what mischief he was planning. The next sect to parade in proudly was GusuLan, their pure white robes unmistakable. And at the head of their riding formation were their Two Jades. For the first time, Wei WuXian thought the situation was strange, looking at it from a distance. The sect leader was always in seclusion, and Lan QiRen, the acting head, often seemed to step back from non-administrative matters, letting Lan XiChen take the lead instead. There was a reason he had so much weight with the elders, despite being only a few years older than Jiang Cheng.

Every sect and clan had their own complicated circumstances. But it wasn’t up to an outsider like Wei WuXian to ask.

Unexpectedly, that nagged a little at his heart.

“Lan Zhan! Hey, Lan Zhan!” Wei WuXian called out loudly, waving his hands just in case he somehow was not noticeable enough. When Lan WangJi’s eyes met his, he grinned and threw the last flower in his hands. “Catch! It’s for you!”

Lan WangJi caught it smoothly at the end of its twirling arc. Even the way he cupped a flower with one hand was graceful and beautiful. It was no wonder that the towers had exploded with cheers and waving handkerchiefs. Wei WuXian continued to wave too, beaming, as he held Lan WangJi’s gaze for a moment longer. When GusuLan’s riding formation was finally too far past, he turned back to Jiang YanLi — and froze.

“What?” he demanded, instinctively cringing away from the amused look she was aiming at him.

“Good luck, A-Xian,” she replied very seriously, laying a gentle, supportive hand on his shoulder.

‘...With what?’

When it was time for LanlingJin to make their entrance, Madam Jin joined them at the railing. Wei WuXian looked away, not wanting to even chance doing something to stir up trouble for Jiang YanLi’s engagement. It was probably for the best. The flowers raining down on Jin ZiXuan were so numerous that he didn’t even attempt to pick out the ones from his fiancee or his mother, which would have doubtlessly sent Wei WuXian’s blood boiling all the same.

Afterwards, they returned to Jiang YanLi’s seat, Wei WuXian dropping crosslegged onto the floor next to her chair. Down below, the QingheNie sect paraded past, then the smaller sects followed, the fanfare appropriately calming.

Wei WuXian frowned faintly. “The Wen aren’t coming, huh?”

“I heard they rejected the invitation,” Jiang YanLi confirmed.

“Did want to get embarrassed again, I guess. For the strongest clan, they really don’t have any good talents in our generation,” he mused. After all, QishanWen hadn’t managed to place anywhere in the top of the competition at the Discussion Conference, and the list of young masters was similarly filled with the other clans — and now, even a rogue cultivator like him.

“Have they given you any trouble, A-Xian?” Jiang YanLi asked, glancing at him with some worry. “It sounds like they’ve been tightening their hold on everything more and more recently.”

Wei WuXian thought about it.

It was almost certain that the waterborne abyss from back then had been driven to Biling Lake by the Wen sect. There had been other similar incidents as well, of hunts handled sloppily or pushed onto other sects. There might have also been some other unfortunate events where he ran into those red-patterned robes in towns and got into a few fights when they tried to throw their weight around.

None of it particularly stuck out in his memory, however, so Wei WuXian just shrugged and said, “Not really.”

“That’s good,” Jiang YanLi said. It was unclear whether she believed him — anyone familiar with both the current sect politics and Wei WuXian’s character would not. “Be careful, okay? If you get in trouble, please tell us — or Second Master Lan. We’ll always help you.”

“It’s fine, I can handle it by myself,” Wei WuXian insisted.

Whether she agreed or not, Jiang YanLi let it go. “It looks like they’re about to start the competition,” she said instead. “You don’t have to stay with me. Go and have fun, A-Xian. I’ll watch over you from here.”

“I can hunt any time. I want to talk to you more,” Wei WuXian waved away her well-meaning concern. Admittedly, her earlier worries were for a reason. Sitting still and not causing trouble was not his forte by a long shot. “I know! Why don’t we go for a walk together? Don’t worry, I’ll protect you. Nothing around here will get past me.”

A trace of excitement sparked in Jiang YanLi’s eyes, but it was banked just as quickly, and Wei WuXian could tell even before she spoke that she would refuse. It made him all the more determined not to accept her polite, considerate answer.

“It would be better... if I stay here,” she demurred, smiling awkwardly. “The truth is, I told mother I wanted to see Jin ZiXuan very much, and that is why she allowed me to come and... wait here, instead of with YunmengJiang. If I just left, I think Madam Jin might understand, but it would look poorly. I don’t want to cause any trouble. It’s fine, really.”

Wei WuXian understood. Far more than he could explain, he understood her feelings and thoughts. And more than he realized... seeing it from the outside was painful and frustrating. This kind of self-sacrificing, it really did just make everyone miserable.

Why did YanLi have to stay there be unhappy? Was it really helping anyone?

“Do you really think he’ll even come by?” he blurted out, then winced immediately. Even if he didn’t know what she saw in him, he knew Jiang YanLi loved her fiance.

His sister was still smiling, but he couldn’t read the emotion behind it at all. “No,” she admitted in a painfully calm tone. “I don’t think he will, not for more than a few words if he does. He doesn’t... care for me much.”

Rising to his feet with a sharp sigh, Wei WuXian tilted his head back and stared up at the sky. His foot tapped as he thought.

“Okay, I’ve got an idea,” he said suddenly after a long silence. His face was full of determination as he turned back to Jiang YanLi and... dug through his sleeves, pulling out a brush and a large talisman, along with a book to serve as an impromptu writing board.

“A-Xian...”

“Don’t move, just look out over there,” Wei WuXian instructed.

His eyes darted up to her, before returning to the paper, but his attention wasn’t the sort given to a conversation partner. His expression was smooth and set with concentration, and it was pretty clear that anything she said would go over his head. Smiling indulgently, Jiang YanLi settled back in her seat, hands folded in her lap, and let him do as he wished.

He paused between each stroke of his brush, giving each a particular weight. It was rare to see him so calm and focused, and Jiang YanLi couldn’t stop herself from glancing at him from the corner of her eye.

Whatever Wei WuXian was doing, he didn’t take long. Checking one last time that everything was as he wanted, he tucked his brush away and grinned. “Done! Come on, Shijie, come with me!”

Grabbing her hand, he pulled her along before she could protest.

They didn’t go far, just to opposite corner of the observation tower, away from the viewing seats. There was no one else around — which was exactly Wei WuXian’s aim. “Okay, let’s do this,” he declared, taking the paper in his hand. “I came up with this when I was messing around with Lan Zhan, mostly to... mess around with Lan Zhan some more, honestly. But it should work for this! Watch!”

The paper he had been drawing on so intently was yellow, like a talisman, but the shape was a little different. Now that he held it up, Jiang YanLi could see that there was indeed an array of some sort written meticulously on one side, which Wei WuXian completed with a quick drop of blood. And on the other side... was a painting of her, seated in her chair, the stokes simple but unmistakable.

“A-Xian, this is...”

It hovered in the air as Wei WuXian made a hand seal and activated it. But instead of bursting into flame or any of the other things talismans normally did, it instead began to fold itself and separate along even lines.

The final shape was of a woman with long sleeves and a skirt. The paper doll twirled in midair, waving its ‘robes’ — and something else appeared in its place.

It was a spirit, bound to the talisman, but its appearance was that of Jiang YanLi herself, just like the picture. It was easy to imagine just what kind of mischief Wei WuXian had been planning to cause with this technique.

Jiang YanLi gasped, staring at it in surprise.

The spirit double mimicked her, clapping its hands to its mouth and taking half a step back in the same way. However, its expression was incongruously amused, the same fox grin as Wei WuXian himself was wearing. Curiously, Jiang YanLi reached out to touch it, and the spirit reached back. The fingertips against her own gave away its nature — cool, leaving behind a tingling feeling, and with just a little too much give, like it would burst if she pressed too hard.

“Touching is bit... not complete yet,” Wei WuXian admitted. “And they can’t talk either. But just sitting there, looking stunningly beautiful, and nodding strategically should work! And meanwhile, we can go and have some fun! What do you think?”

It was irresponsible, foolhardy and dangerous. Her mother would never approve. Her brother wouldn’t approve either. Even her father wouldn’t agree with this, most likely. It was her duty and her responsibility to refuse. It wasn’t even worth considering.

Jiang YanLi hesitated.

The truth was, she didn’t think anyone would miss her or notice the difference. Just sit there and nod sometimes — Wei WuXian didn’t mean any cruelty by it, but that was exactly her role.

This was a chance she likely would never have again. What would it hurt, to do what she wanted for once? She had missed her second brother so much. Couldn’t she act out, just this time? Wei WuXian was still looking at her, a hint of plea in his gaze. Between being with the person who wanted to see her so much and waiting uselessly for the one who didn’t want her at all, why was it even a choice?

Even if they were angry, her parents would forgive her, just this once.

“Let’s...” she sighed, “leave a note, at least. It can hold one, right?”

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: All I know about Chinese weddings comes from MDZS fic and headcanons. Plz forgive me. Also, is this OOC? It’s probably OOC, yeah. But I’m just... no good with meek characters. Sorry, guys.

~.~.~

Chapter 15: On the Mountain I

“—and he jumped straight off the pier!” Jiang YanLi related, an unusual glow lighting up her features.

“Pfft! That wimpy kid?” Wei WuXian snorted. “Is that really my old sixth shidi? I can’t believe it!”

“It’s true!”

Together, they laughed. To avoid being spotted by someone who might recognize Jiang YanLi and report her truancy, they had stealthily flown to the outer edges of Phoenix Mountain, where both the prey and the hunters were few. The forest around them was quiet and peaceful, a world away from the fierce, monster-infested hunting ground it was meant to be.

Nonetheless, Wei WuXian’s attention was always on their surroundings, keeping careful track of anything that entered his range.

It felt so comfortable talking to his sister again. Her presence, so soothing and unassuming, was always like a warm bowl of soup on a dark night. Wherever he was, whatever he had gone through, it would always bring him comfort and a sense that everything would be alright.

So without thinking, he blurted out, “I missed a lot, huh?”

On the surface, that seemed a natural thing to say. He had been gone for two years, and only met with those from YunmengJiang rarely. But the implication of saying something like that was that the time of missing things was over — that he could come home and never miss anything again. And that was simply not possible.

“I mean...” he hurried to correct, but he wasn’t sure what to say, trailing off awkwardly.

Gently, Jiang YanLi laid a hand on his arm, whether stopping him or supporting him. “I wish I could tell you everything. I know it’s a lot to ask, but isn’t there some way I could write back to you?” she asked, turning the flow of the conversation.

Wei WuXian grasped the subject change eagerly, already turning the problem over in his mind. “Well, making Lan Zhan play courier pigeon is a bit much even for me... But you could send them to Cloud Recesses?” he suggested. “Lan Zhan’ll tell me when we meet up, and I’ll pick them up later.”

He had another idea too, but he didn’t want to say anything until he was sure. And anyway, wouldn’t a surprise be even more fun?

“Cloud Recesses... I’ll do that,” Jiang YanLi agreed, smiling. But after a moment of pure happiness, that smile turned a little sly. It was only with this troublemaker little brother that this part of her drifted to the surface — or maybe it was because of this troublemaker that this part had been born. “You’re such good friends with Lan WangJi, A-Xian,” she drew out. “Big sis is happy for you.”

“Yeah, Lan Zhan is great, isn’t he? Who would have thought, he act like such a block of ice, but he’s actually really... nice,” Wei WuXian agreed, blissfully unaware. His own expression gentled as he recalled the image of Lan WangJi’s white-clad back, both firmly supporting on all their hunts together and tolerantly enduring, even inviting, during the times between.

Lan Zhan wasn’t just great, he was amazing. Wei WuXian couldn’t be lonely, standing next to his beloved sister, but all the same, the feeling of ‘I want to see him’ was always there. It would be great, if he was here, he couldn’t help thinking.

Watching him, Jiang YanLi had to cover her mouth daintily with one hand to hide her frankly unfeminine grin and hold back her laughter.

“But I’m a little sad too,” she murmured, looking away as Wei WuXian glanced at her in confusion. “It seems my younger brother will marry before I do.”

“M-m-marry?! Who’s marrying?!” Wei WuXian blurted out. “Who’s marrying, Shijie?!”

Struggling to contain herself so hard that her sides trembled, she laid both hands on Wei WuXian’s shoulders, looked him straight in the eye, and said gravely, “It’s okay, A-Xian. Big sis will find a way to come to Cloud Recesses, so you won’t have to walk alone on your wedding day.”

His expression, his expression—!

“I heard the Lan founder was quite a romantic, so I’m sure they’ll,” she cracked a little, snickering, despite all her efforts, “they’ll accept you as Second Master Lan’s beloved b-bride—”

She couldn’t hold it. Bursting into laughter, Jiang YanLi had to turn away and hide her face in her sleeves. Even though her voice was still quiet, her shoulders shook violently. “Shijie! Shijie, how could you?!” Wei WuXian’s wounded protests only amused her further.

With a huff, he crossed his arms and rocked back on his heels, letting her have her fun.

“I, I’m sorry, A-Xian!” Jiang YanLi gasped out, finally starting to get herself under control. Reaching up, she wiped a stray tear from the corner of her eye. “It’s just, you talk about him so much! Are you sure it’s not like that? Please don’t worry, I’ll support you no matter what.”

Even though she meant the last part, it was still said in the lilting tone of more teasing.

“Like that? With Lan Zhan? C-come on, Shijie, don’t joke,” Wei WuXian protested. He wasn’t sure why, but he felt entirely too flustered by the idea. A hot flush was climbing up his neck, across his cheeks and ears. It felt like his entire face was burning. For someone who flirted with every pretty girl he met, this was really just silly. But— “It’s Lan Zhan! And he’s...”

Helplessly, he waved his hands as if to present the shape of Second Brother Lan — tall, upright, stunning beautiful, amazing.

Lips pressed tightly together to contain her smile, Jiang YanLi nodded along seriously.

But before she could either continue or let the matter rest, Wei WuXian’s expression smoothed out and he held up a hand. The lightness of the moment prior was washed away as if by cold water.

Jiang YanLi knew what that meant — there was something approaching them. Obediently, she drew closer to him, while Suibian silently rose out of its sheath and turned in the air to point somewhere into the woods. They had encountered a few monsters and ghosts up to that point, and Wei WuXian had always dealt with them swiftly and easily while keeping them at a careful distance. With his strength, in most cases, just one strike from Suibian had been enough.

But this time, his brows furrowed, and he silently pulled out several talismans as well.

“A-Xian?” Jiang YanLi asked quietly.

Her own cultivation was too low to ever risk participating in a night hunt, and, to put it bluntly, she had no desire to do so. The danger, the blood, it repulsed her, no matter how righteous and necessary the cause.

But she was still the daughter of a sect leader, and she knew not to lose her head.

“It’s fine. There’s just a group of them this time,” Wei WuXian explained. His tone was calm and unconcerned, simply serious. He wouldn’t risk his sister’s life by acting frivolous.

Twigs crunched under heavy feet in the shadow beneath the trees nearby, and Suibian shot off like a flash. Flicking the talismans in the air, Wei WuXian gestured to send the wheel of flame that was created after his sword.

The group of moving corpses that had approached groaned and tried to scatter, flailing uselessly. Suibian struck again, cutting down another and another, while the spinning flames encircled and trapped them in place. Standing behind Wei WuXian’s back, Jiang YanLi lowered her head and closed her eyes. It was alright, she trusted him.

Just as the battle seemed almost over, a sudden, reverberating roar startled them both. It hadn’t come from the direction of the flames and the last few moving corpses, but rather from the side.

“A fierce corpse?” Wei WuXian cursed under his breath, spinning around to face the new threat.

It burst from the woods at a sprint, clawed hands already reaching for them. Wei WuXian’s eyes narrowed, still controlled and calculating. Instead of recalling Suibian, he held up another talisman. A flash of lightning split the clearing — the same beam of light that he had used against the waterborne abyss back then shooting straight through the corpse’s roaring face.

The force of the blast made it reel in place, momentum lost as it was destroyed. However, the lighting talisman was not the only thing that had struck the fierce corpse.

With the threat eliminated, a pure white sword pulled out of the body’s neck, and the corpse finally collapsed, motionless.

Wei WuXian’s eyebrows rose and a smile tugged at his lips, even as he gestured with one hand to finish dealing with the remaining moving corpses among the flames. “You didn’t have to step in, Lan Zhan,” he commented, turning to the white figure that emerged soundlessly from the trees. “I had it under control.”

The white sword that flew back to its own was indeed Bichen.

Lan WangJi nodded, his eyes drifting to Jiang YanLi, who stepped out from behind Wei WuXian to look at him with interest. Simultaneously, they respectfully nodded to each other in greeting and acknowledgement.

They had heard so much about the other that it barely felt like a first meeting. There wasn’t even a need for introductions.

“Ah, this is... um, could you keep it between us?” Wei WuXian spoke up, remembering suddenly the situation. “You... you can tell how it is, right? We just wanted to talk for a bit.”

“You should head back,” Lan WangJi said. When Wei WuXian grimaced, caught between protesting and accepting what he read as an unstated reprimand, Lan WangJi shook his head and added, “Something is wrong.”

Wei WuXian frowned, the corner of his lips tugging down. “You think so too?”

“What is it?” Jiang YanLi asked, looking between them.

Satisfied that his point had been carried across, Lan WangJi let Wei WuXian explain. “It wasn’t much of a difference at first, but there’s too many monsters,” Wei WuXian said. “There’s less prey than there are hunters to begin with. Out here on the edge of the grounds? There shouldn’t be any prey at all, really. But we keep running into things. A big group like that? And a fierce corpse? They should’ve all been herded toward the center before the start and picked off already.” To Lan WangJi, “Is it worse deeper in?”

Receiving a nod, Wei WuXian thought for a moment.

He sighed. “I suppose there’s no choice. Let’s head back,” he decided. His expression was of a man heading to his execution. “Hey, Lan Zhan? Can I hide behind you...?”

“Mm,” Lan WangJi agreed mildly.

“Then we might as well fly back,” Wei WuXian said, Suibian already back at his side and lowering itself to be mounted. “Shijie, ready?”

“Yes, I—”

The sharp crack of an emergency flare echoed over the treetops, and the pale gold flower shape of LanlingJin’s crest illuminated the sky. The three of them turned toward the flare, surprise at someone using one turning to uncertainty as, a moment later, it was followed by a dull, booming sound, like far off thunder. In the distance, a flock of birds took to the skies, shrieking as they circled a rising cloud of dust.

“That came from where the observation towers are,” Wei WuXian voiced everyone’s thoughts. His lips pursed unhappily. “Come on, we really need to get back now.”

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: Back to the action scenes we go. This one is actually not too good even by my standards because it’s just... a disaster. (It also did not go the direction I originally outlined?? This time, I’m a bit mad about it tbh)

~.~.~

Chapter 16: On the Mountain II

The low buzz of many quiet conversations filled the gold-flagged LanlingJin tower. Although everyone had someone they were keeping an eye on, they had reached the middle stretch of the hunting competition, when the pace of the action had fallen into a steady rhythm, and the audience instead took the chance to socialize.

Catching up with old acquaintances, chatting with friends, even angling for a new alliance, all of those took place behind the splendor and pomp of hunting competitions.

As the wife of the sect head, Madam Jin was more busy than anyone with such matters. Even with her outgoing and forceful personality, there was a moment when she needed to step back and take a deep breath. Naturally, her attention drifted over to the quietest, calmest corner of the tower.

No, it would be more correct to call that corner forgotten. Everyone had forgotten about it, putting it out of their minds, along with the young woman sitting there alone.

With her quiet disposition and lack of presence, Jiang YanLi was all too easily thrust into the background, which was a shame. She was a sweet girl, with an inner strength that did not give in even under pressure. What was even more shameful was that Madam Jin’s fool brat of a son let himself get blinded in the same way. How could he hope to become a strong sect leader if he couldn’t even judge the character of his own future bride?

“YanLi, dear,” Madam Jin called out, heading over to the girl. “How are you? Do you need anything?”

Jiang YanLi turned to her and smiled, soft and pretty if far from a stunning beauty. The way she tilted her head said everything already — she was long used to being left alone and forgotten, to the point that it didn’t even like enduring so much as simply her natural state.

“And that brat hasn’t come by yet? Hmph,” Madam Jin huffed. “Even though you came specifically to see him!” She sighed heavily, her fiery anger immediately softening for future her daughter-in-law’s sake. “If he’s going to be like that, there’s no need for you to stay here. Why don’t you go with your family, or even catch up with that Wei WuXian?”

The offer took Jiang YanLi by surprise, her eyes widening before she raised one sleeve to hide her uncertainty. In the end, she settled for smiling awkwardly up at Madam Jin again.

“You’ll stay here all the same?” the woman surmised. “You’re such a good girl, YanLi... I’ll give that son of mind a good thrashing for making you wait like this.” The last part was added under her breath.

Madam Jin and Madam Yu had been friends since childhood, and their similar natures were well known — fierce, direct, unyielding. Once her mind was made up, what was the point of waiting? Moving with such obvious purpose that her sect members scattered before her, Madam Jin headed toward the ones charged with managing the event this time around.

There was a small group stationed at every observation tower, communicating with each other and keeping a careful eye on the proceedings. Seeing her approach, they broke off from their tasks and bowed quickly.

Madam Jin paused for a moment, eyeing them.

She did not generally concern herself with managing events on this level, so she did not have a precise basis to judge — but their behavior did not seem quite right to her. Too anxious and hurried as they scurried around, as if they were short-handed or on the verge of being overwhelmed.

“What’s going on?” she asked instead of the order to hail her son that she had intended.

“M-Madam Jin!” one of them stammered. “Please do not be concerned. There is simply... more prey than we had counted. It will not interfere with the success of the competition!”

More prey didn’t sound like an issue, she supposed. For now, she would let the matter go. “It better not,” she warned. “Now, call for my son. I have something—”

She didn’t get the chance to finish.

A violent roar split the air, far closer than anything should have come to the observation tower. It was echoed by another and another, one after another, until the air was filled with deafening noise. Most of those present did not hunt actively, and some did not even cultivate actively anymore, leaving many of them paralyzed with fear at the sudden change in circumstances.

Someone tried to yell over the reverberating roars, but their voice was lost in the chaos.

The ground around the observation was swarming with moving corpses — many fierce corpses among them. They were the ones letting out their battle cries, attracting more and more of their brethren.

Someone tried to scream, scrambling in fear away from the edges of the observation platform.

The noise cut out as abruptly as it had begun, leaving everyone’s ears ringing. But there was no time to recover. As one, the mass of moving corpses rushed the walls of the tower. The building was of course strongly reinforced to withstand attack, and individually the ghouls wouldn’t have been able to achieve anything no matter how many times they threw themselves against the tower.

However, the combined force of their ramming charge made the entire building shudder. The wall cracked under the fists of the fierce corpses, and as they hit again and again, relentlessly, thick cracks began to climb up the length of the entire tower.

“What’s happening?!”

“Run! Run!!”

Those who could took to the sky on their swords. But many had come unarmed, or had not been strong enough to use high grade swords to begin with. All they could do was cling to the floor and call for help.

“Guards! Line up and set up arrays!” Madam Jin shouted over the chaos. “Get the emergency flare! Move!”

The small force of LanlingJin cultivators assigned to the tower scrambled to obey. The guards lined against the railing above the attacking ghouls and held out their hands. Glowing arrays formed in a row and unleashed a wall of flame. Down below, the moving corpses groaned and shrieked.

But they didn’t relent. The tower shook again as something inside began to crumble from the damage to the structure.

“Get back! That side is going to give out!” Madam Jin ordered. “Everyone, get back!”

On her command, guards and spectators alike scurried to the opposite of the tower. It was not a moment too soon. Part of the outer wall was already collapsing onto the heads of the ghouls below, and a section of the observation platform slid out from under the feet of the stranglers. Bringing up in the rear were the cultivator guards, dragging and even shoving along the guests who couldn’t run fast enough. Their ragged line, like a buffer between the guests and the fall down the crumbling side of the tower, pressed everyone tightly onto the remaining space.

Almost lost in the confusion was Jiang YanLi, her violet robes distinct among the rippling sea of white and yellow. “A-Li!” Madam Jin called out, turning against the flow of bodies and reaching out her hand to the girl.

Jiang YanLi reached back, and their hands closed around each other. But only for a moment.

From the moment her fingers closed around Jiang YanLi’s, Madam Jin was dimly aware that something felt off. Too cool, slippery, and so soft it gave completely under her touch, the thing she was holding simply could not be human flesh. And it wasn’t.

Lifting its head to meet her gaze, the spirit posing as Jiang YanLi smiled awkwardly — and burst apart in a flash of light, leaving behind only the paper doll that had been ripped in two and a neatly folded letter.

Instinctively, Madam Jin grasped the pieces of paper tightly in her hand.

There was no time to consider what had just happened; her surroundings were still in chaos. For the moment, the remaining sections of the observation tower seemed to be stable, and the leading force of the ghoul horde had been buried in the rubble, but more walking corpses were still emerging from the woods, and other kinds of monsters were beginning to join their ranks. They climbed over the rubble, fixated on the humans above.

“Line up and set arrays again!” Madam Jin shouted. The emergency flare was already blazing in the sky above, so they just needed to hold off the ghouls and monsters for a while longer before help arrived.

But in the confusion, the LanlingJin guards were slower to respond a second time. Their line was riddled with empty spaces, and although the wall of fire from their formations devoured the foremost of the ghoul horde, more simply broke through, scaling the steep slope of the collapsed wall.

The first corpse to reach the top of the tower wrapped its cold, grey hand around the ankle of a guard and yanked him off his feet. He screamed, hands scrambling for purchase—

A sword gleam sliced straight through the ghoul’s wrist. The same blade flashed through the throats of leading corpses, driving them back single-handedly. Flipping gracefully through the air, its master landed on the crumbling edge of the observation platform and straightened, his gold uniform shining like a beacon of hope to the guests and guards alike.

“Mother! Are you alright?” Jin ZiXuan called out, his gaze sweeping the crowd.

He rushed over as soon as he saw the emergency flare, and he hadn’t come alone, although the rest of his hunting party had fallen behind their young master’s speed and urgency.

With their arrival, the tide of the sudden battle turned swiftly.

Although the ghouls and monsters were numerous, they were not individually that strong, and the disciples accompanying Jin ZiXuan, to say nothing of the young master himself, were able to dispatch most of them and drive the rest back.

In the small respite as their reinforcements took control of the battle, Madam Jin scrambled to look at the mysterious pieces of paper that ‘Jiang YanLi’ had left behind.

The paper doll had been torn in two, and the paper itself was worn and crumbling as if it had been left out in the elements. Even so, Madam Jin could recognize that it had once been some kind of talisman. Confusion filling her heart to bursting, she quickly unfolded the note that the spirit had kept hidden in its sleeve.

It was short and hastily written, as Jiang YanLi hadn’t wanted to give herself time to doubt her small rebellion. It could be summed up thus:

‘I’ve gone for a walk with A-Xian. I’ll be back soon.’

She had almost added an apology, but if anyone had cause to read her note, she would be apologizing in person anyway.

Madam Jin blanked only for a moment, then narrowed her eyes. “ZiXuan,” she called out, ignoring her son’s worried questions, “go look for A-Li! She’s off with that rogue cultivator somewhere!”

“Jiang YanLi?” Jin ZiXuan repeated in confusion. He hadn’t even noticed she was missing, having not looked for her in the first place. “Mother! Is there really time for that?”

He wasn’t entirely wrong. The situation was chaotic and required urgent action. They needed to clear the area, protect and evacuate the spectators, find out what was happening elsewhere in the hunting grounds, and figure out what had gone wrong... Although he hadn’t particularly wanted to, with the YunmengJiang and QingheNie sect leaders taking the field, Jin GuangShan had seen no choice but to participate as well. He had most likely just wandered off somewhere for a leisurely stroll out of sight, but there was little chance of him rushing to help control the situation. So it was up to his wife and heir to take charge.

Compared to that, the fiance Jin ZiXuan tried to forget he had was a minor concern, if one at all.

“She’s got that Wei WuXian with her, doesn’t she? She’ll be fine,” he pointed out, scowling.

Madam Jin wavered, but then her expression hardened. “ZiXuan!” she began to scold. “You can’t just—”

“Why not?!”

But before the argument could either escalate or fizzle out under the urgency of the current circumstances, the arrival of two more swords and three people rendered the issue moot. Rushing off at a speed only slightly less than Jin ZiXuan’s, it was no surprise that they would arrive only slightly after him.

Coming to a sharp stop next to the observation tower, Lan WangJi showed no expression, but Wei Wuxian couldn’t help cringing a little, while Jiang YanLi’s grip on him tightened. The adopted siblings shared a startlingly similar thought, as they noticed Jin ZiXuan’s presence, though in vastly different mental tones. 

‘Why did he have to be here?’

“So,” Wei WuXian said brightly, as if the chaos and the impending reprimands had nothing to do with him, “what did we miss?”

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: .....Definitely OOC. Honestly, this chapter is a mess. You’d think I would get more writing done over the long Thanksgiving weekend, but instead I couldn’t concentrate at all. But this is (was) Nano! We don’t slow down for things like ‘editing’!!

~.~.~

Chapter 17: On the Mountain III 

There was no time to chew them out just then, so Jin ZiXuan had turned his attention to settling the situation after only shooting them a sharp, furious sneer. Holding on to Wei WuXian as they both rode Suibian, Jiang YanLi closed her eyes for a moment and struggled not to show anything on her face.

Wei WuXian’s grip on her waist tightened imperceptibly, both in agitation and in an attempt to comfort.

They had really caused a mess, hadn’t they? No, he’d caused a mess, like usual.

Why had he decided that sneaking off was a good idea, of all things? For his Shijie at that? His instinct to disregard rules was just too ingrained, so as soon as he started relaxing a bit, he went right back to his stupid ways...

Having reined in her emotions, Jiang YanLi patted his arm lightly. “It’s okay, A-Xian,” she said. “Don’t worry about it. Let me down now, okay?”

“Here?” Wei WuXian glanced at the damage watching tower dubiously.

“Mm. I will evacuate with the others,” she said. “For now, go help deal with the monsters.”

Uncertain, Wei WuXian instinctively glanced at Lan WangJi. He didn’t receive any advice, only a calm look. Then, turning away, Second Master Lan stepped off his sword casually and joined the fray down below.

Right. Wei WuXian let out a steadying breath and moved to let her off. Madam Jin rushed over immediately, sweeping up Jiang YanLi almost before her feet touched the flagstones.

“A-Li, are you alright?” she fussed. “Oh, you silly girl, there was no need to sneak off like that, you could have just told me!”

Her tone was... not even truly angry. Sharp, yes, but it was all clearly in worry, burning bright but surely fading out into calm again soon after. She didn’t even glance at Wei WuXian — perhaps because she hadn’t expected any better than trouble from him, perhaps because she really didn’t care about what they had done. It was just foolishness that was only a problem because of the circumstances.

Sensing the same things, Jiang YanLi’s tense air eased as well, and she smiled a little. “I’m sorry to have worried you, Madam,” she said. “I’ll kneel in the ancestor hall and meditate when we get back.”

“No need, no need,” Madam Jin laughed. “It was nothing.”

“Auntie! How can you say that?!”

Suddenly, one of the disciples that had arrived with Jin ZiXuan interrupted their conversation. It was his cousin, Jin ZiXun, though Wei WuXian didn’t feel even a faint sense of recognition toward him. The ugly glare he received only made his eyebrows climb in amusement, since he had no idea who this person was or why they were so furious with him already.

“It’s not nothing!” Jin ZiXun went on. “How can we tolerate the fiancee of our sect’s heir just sneaking off like a thief, and with another man at that! A servant, no less!”

...To be frank, Wei WuXian’s perception of Jiang YanLi as his sister ran so deep that he hadn’t even considered the possibility of someone seeing them spending time together alone as improper. That angle had simply not occurred to him.

But where did this guy get off, treating Jiang YanLi like that? Wei WuXian’s expression darkened.

“Hey,” he said sharply, “watch what you say. That’s really how you’re going to talk to the YunmengJiang sect leader’s daughter?”

Madam Jin darted a sharp glance toward him, finally acknowledging his presence — and surprisingly, tacitly agreed. “ZiXun, you know what the circumstances are like,” she said. “Don’t make a fuss over this. Apologize to A-Li.”

Although he had only sneered at Wei WuXian’s threatening words, Madam Jin’s order made Jin ZiXun’s face rapidly change color, cycling between white and red in fury.

But before he could blurt out anything to make the situation worse, Jiang YanLi spoke up. “It’s alright, Madam, A-Xian,” she said. “He’s right, I acted foolishly. I chose to disregard my responsibilities to both YunmengJiang and LanlingJin. Acting that way was unworthy of my sect. I apologize.”

Her expression was so calm that is almost looked bland, but her tone was earnest, and she meant every word.

“Shijie—”

Jiang YanLi ignored Wei WuXian’s protests, looking instead at Jin ZiXun, who had begun to smirk.

“However,” she went on, unexpectedly, in the exact same even tone, “you are wrong about the rest, so please take it back.”

Silence, then Jin ZiXun spluttered furiously. “Where was I wrong?!”

“First, A-Xian is no one’s servant,” Jiang YanLi explained. “He’s a free cultivator. Second,” and here her gaze sharpened just a bit, almost imperceptible but astonishing enough to make Wei WuXian stare, “he’s not ‘another man,’ he is my brother. So there is no issue for me to be alone with him.”

This time, she didn’t wait for Jin ZiXun or anyone else to protest. These thoughts were something she had been holding in her heart, and when she spoke, it was not because this situation required it, but because she wanted to give voice to what she had been thinking for so long. Suddenly, it felt like this needed to be said. Although she was still looking toward Jin ZiXun, her gaze was on something else entirely, and her expression gradually became pensive.

“Someday, I will leave YunmengJiang. But my mother will still be my mother, and my father will still be my father,” she said. “It’s the same. Even if A-Xian is no longer at Lotus Pier, he is still my brother. He will always be my brother. So I... I won’t let him be treated otherwise.”

She nodded, to herself, and tilted her chin up.

Her gaze swept over everyone — Jin ZiXun, who was glaring at her uncertainly, Madam Jin, who had pursed her lips but remained silent, Wei WuXian, who could feel his ears burning and firmly ignored the faint stinging at the corner of his eyes... and even Jin ZiXuan, who had turned to listen from where he had been directing the LanlingJin cultivators.

‘I really said it,’ Jiang YanLi thought, half-stunned herself. ‘Aaah, I really said it!’

She wouldn't take it back, no matter how displeased her mother would be.

But with the declaration made, her courage seemed to desert her. Suddenly, she could feel the cold sweat across her back. Ducking her head, she clenched her hands into trembling fists, hidden by the sleeves of her robe.

Noticing her discomfort, Wei WuXian opened his mouth to boldly insert himself into the conversation, and completely derail it as per usual. However, someone else broke the tense silence first.

“What are you standing around for?” Jin ZiXuan barked, stalking up to them and glaring at his cousin. “Don’t you see the situation? Take a team and check on the other towers! Move!”

His prissy expression both suited his fine features and wasted the prettiness of his face. Scowling at everything in sight, he turned away to issue more orders. But his eyes darted to Jiang YanLi, just once, before snapping away. The expression in his gaze had been...

Well. Hm.

Wei WuXian’s mouth shut with a click. ‘I think... I’ll go help Lan Zhan,’ he decided. As Suibian shot off, he rubbed the back of his neck, still burning with pleased, warm embarrassment. Shijie... really was the best.

~.~.~

It could be said that the watching tower suffered such heavy damage only because they were taken off guard, so without that element of surprise, once they organized their efforts, it wasn't difficult for the gathered cultivators to clean up the teeming monsters. That wasn't inaccurate.

However, it wasn't precisely easy either.

There was no enemy that actually caused him trouble, but Wei WuXian was getting tired by the time the surrounding woods could be considered safe. A fine sheen of sweat clung to his forehead and the back of his neck, and his breathing was deep and only still even because he controlled it. It wasn't the longest or hardest hunt of his life, but it wasn't easy at all.

Straightening and rolling his shoulders, Wei WuXian took stock of the situation. There was barely anyone in his range of perception. Lan WangJi had left to check on his own sect a while back, and most of the others had long since exhausted themselves. After all, Wei WuXian was near the top of his generation in both depth of cultivation and skill. If even he was tired, most must have been completely at their limit.

‘This...’ he thought, pursing his lips, ‘was actually really dangerous.’

From just the murmuring of the other disciples working near him through the cleanup, he knew that the monster population had surged all across Phoenix Mountain. The other observation towers had been swarmed as well, although only one other had been damaged. As for the individual cultivators out hunting at the time...

There was no doubt that someone had gotten hurt out there, cornered and overwhelmed. Some may have even died, trying to brave it out and refusing to set off an emergency flare during a competition. He just hoped it hadn't been anyone from YunmengJiang, or Lan WangJi’s GusuLan.

He’d have to ask someone, or he’d only find out through gossip much later.

Shaking his head, Wei WuXian considered, ‘Should I head back?’ The area had been cleared out, but he could circle the mountain and check other locations...

Ultimately, the decision was made for him.

He looked up as he sensed someone rapidly approaching and waited until they were in sight. Well, even before then, he had a feeling that he knew who it was — he didn’t know which sense of his had become so familiar with this person, but the sight of those white mourning clothes was exactly what he expected.

“Lan Zhan—” he started to greet cheerfully as Bichen came to a stop above him.

The tone of Lan WangJi’s voice when he spoke made Wei WuXian fall silent and swallow heavily. “Wei Ying. Come,” he said shortly. His lips thinning and his brows furrowing, he added, “Quickly. The sect heads are waiting.”

“Waiting? ...For me?” Wei WuXian parroted. “B-but why? I didn’t do anything!”

Lan WangJi nodded sharply. “I know,” he said, in what was probably meant to be a reassurance.

...It was still a bit reassuring, even though Wei WuXian’s mind was churning with possible nightmare scenarios. No matter what was happening, if nothing else, Lan WangJi would be on his side.

‘It would be nice if he explained a little more though! What am I walking into here?’ Wei WuXian complained mentally — not that there was much time for explanations at the speed they traveled. All too quickly, and yet too long for Wei WuXian’s unsteady nerves, they arrived back to the broken watching tower.

The rubble had been partially cleared away, revealing the inside of it where the outer wall had come down. There was no one on the observation platform on top, nor in the inner sections. Instead, familiar and unfamiliar figures were gathered at the foot of the tower. They were all sect leaders and their closest disciples. Uncle Jiang with Jiang Cheng, Lan XiChen with his uncle, Jin GuangShan with his son and nephew, the glowering Nie MingJue, and an array of smaller sect heads all broke off their tense, murmured conversations and turned to look at Wei WuXian as he dismounted his sword.

Facing down displeased authority figures was nothing new to him, but even Wei WuXian felt the pressure of their combined gazes. All of them together, as a sea of myriad colors, and him alone... for the first time, he felt down to his bones the weight of being a rogue cultivator without a sect or a clan.

But at least Lan WangJi remained beside him silently.

Even though his refusal to join his sect members drew calculating or even reprimanding looks, when Lan XiChen only nodded subtly in acknowledgement of his brother’s decision, no one else dared to comment.

It was a little selfish, but Wei WuXian was glad. Lan Zhan... really was the best.

Feeling a renewed sense of confidence, he plastered on a smirk and spoke up before anyone else could. “So?” Wei WuXian drew out. “What could the esteemed sect leaders want with a simple rogue cultivator like me? I’m really curious.”

There was a ripple through the group at his irreverent tone. Clearing his throat, Jiang FengMian said in his usual gentle way, “We just wanted you to take a look at something, A-Xian. It’s...”

“That!” Jin GuangShan snapped, jabbing his folded fan toward the damaged tower. “Explain that, Wei WuXian!”

“What about it?” Wei WuXian wondered, just honestly perplexed as he turned to follow the line of the Jin sect head’s arm with his eyes. “It was broken by ghouls, right? I wasn’t even here.”

“Inside,” Nie MingJue’s calm, sharp voice cut in. “That’s one of yours, isn’t it?”

Inside?

It was long past dark, but the area around the tower was amply illuminated by a circle of torches. More had been lit inside the tower too, the light spilling out of the gap in the outer wall that stretched over several floors. Puzzled, Wei WuXian peered inside.

His brow furrowed as he finally noticed it — the dark lines painted over the inner walls. The pattern on every individual floor didn’t amount to anything, as spread out as it was. But standing back, he could see now... from a certain angle, it was a massive array.

Specifically, it was a modified design from a certain talisman, one that he knew particularly well. After all, he had created it.

“...Yeah,” Wei WuXina admitted distantly, his throat suddenly dry, “that’s one of mine.”

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: I actually wanted to do a bunch more cute, flirty scenes this arc! But outlines completely collapse when you have plot and tons of people to move around. Fortunately, there shouldn’t be too many other situations where we have more than 3-4 people around at the same time, in the same general area, so the logistics will be more forgiving to me.

Also, I wrote QishanWei at one point lmao. Fandom, where is my “Wei WuXian is picked up from Yiling by the Wen sect (instead of Uncle Jiang)” AU??

Also also, how do Chinese honorifics work... I remember none of them, understand even less......

~.~.~

Chapter 18: Fallout

“See? See! He admits it!” Jin GuangShan exclaimed, toward Jiang FengMian and Lan XiChen — who had spoken up again his conclusions before Wei WuXian was summoned.

“W-wait a moment! I didn’t have anything to do with this!” Wei WuXian protested, dragged out of his stunned thoughts.

The sequence of events was obvious now, with this. Each watching tower had been painted with a massive spirit attracting array, in a way that went unnoticed by those gathered to watch the hunting competition. As the array slowly activated, more and more monsters were pulled in, until they swarmed the grounds and especially the towers. When the rubble had been cleared away here, the array was found, and the sect leaders ordered him summoned because he was the inventor of the spirit attracting talismans. But...

“I didn’t do this!” Wei WuXian repeated.

“Of course not. There’s no reason for A-Xian to have done something like this,” Jiang FengMian agreed immediately. When Wei WuXian glanced at him, it was Jiang Cheng who met his gaze, brow furrowed and mouth pinched in irritation. And yet, he nodded sharply to Wei WuXian, supporting his father’s words.

Naturally and without any hesitation, YunmengJiang would stand with him.

“Who else could have done it?” Jin ZiXun agreed with his uncle. “And isn’t it suspicious that he would just so happen to make sure your daughter wasn’t around when it happened, Sect Leader Jiang?”

Jiang FengMian’s mild expression darkened, but it was his son who replied, quickly. “That was my sister’s idea,” Jiang Cheng said, his scowl unwavering despite his blatant lie.

“You’re just covering for him!” Jin ZiXun shouted, red-faced.

Having been there when the matter came to light, he knew that Jiang YanLi had apologized and taken responsibility, but she hasn't gone so far as to claim it had been her idea. Given the disparity between her gentle temperament and Wei WuXian’s well-known reputation, it was impossible to believe anyway.

“Do you want to go get my sister and ask her? She'll tell you the same thing,” Jiang Cheng shot back.

Even without consulting YanLi, he knew she would gladly accept the blame to relieve the suspicion on Wei WuXian. He didn't notice the odd, pensive look Jin ZiXuan shot him, before turning away quickly and remaining silent.

“Accusing Young Master Wei is premature,” Lan XiChen cut in before the argument could escalate. “He has no motive, and I do not believe he would endanger so many people.” His lips thinned, and he looked down, a rare expression of vexation on his pleasant features. “He may have been the one who designed the premise behind this array, but anyone could learn to use it now. He told me so himself back when I put together the manual for it.”

Ah. That pained note in his voice... was self-recrimination.

“What else would you expect from something a sect-less cultivator created,” someone in the crowd muttered. “Who knows what kind of crooked path he’s following...”

Wei WuXian bristled, glaring at the lot of them as he tried to find who had spoken. That was completely unfair — there was nothing crooked about what he’d shown Lan XiChen back then! He wouldn’t have endangered the Lan sect like that, not after their faith in him.

He wasn’t alone in that reaction. “Any method is dangerous when used incorrectly,” Jiang FengMian raised his voice, though he pointedly did not turn to look behind him at the minor sects, as if it wasn’t worth his effort to acknowledge them. His hand clamped firmly on Jiang Cheng’s shoulder to keep him from objecting far more loudly and viciously.

“Indeed,” Lan QiRen surprisingly agreed. “This method can be used to righteously, or in this foul manner, depending on the wielder.”

He didn’t need to say anything else, or give voice to all the other implications — that the Lan sect had been the ones to publicize Wei WuXian’s research, so they vouched for it; that they were the sect most known to “be righteous,” so questioning it was indirectly questioning their word; that they themselves had used spirit attraction talismans in their hunts without any ill effect; that one of their past leaders had created a method called “assassination” that no one dared to call crooked.

Wei WuXian shot him a puzzled look, not expecting help from this quarter, but it made sense after a moment. It was not, after all, for his sake, but rather for the sake of the Lan sect and his nephews.

No one else dared to even mutter a complaint, only shifting unhappily in silence.

Nie MingJue snorted. “If we’re going to talk about those who were conveniently absent,” he said, his voice uncompromisingly loud and steady, “the entire Wen sect didn’t attend.”

‘He said it,’ Wei WuXian thought in something just short of stunned disbelief.

He himself was a master of saying things that absolutely should not be said at that time and in that place, but even he had the situational awareness to know that just the implication of QishanWen’s involvement would have been taboo — much less using their name.

A shudder went through the group.

“Sect Leader Nie!” Jin GuangShan protested, snapping open his fan as if to hide behind it. Unruffled, Nie MingJue only sneered at him.

“Accusing the strongest sect isn’t something to be done lightly. Be careful with your words,” Jiang FengMian warned. However, it was clear he didn’t disagree with the assertion.

No one disagreed, really. And yet, what could they do, if it was so?

~.~.~

In the end, no one had anything else to say to Wei WuXian.

Not that he had been able to leave either, as the sect heads continued to argue and uselessly circle over the same subjects. Drawing attention back to himself hadn’t been something Wei WuXian was willing to risk, so he had no choice but to stand by silently as the night wore on, exhausting and meaningless.

He’d always done the bare minimum possible of his duties as YunmengJiang’s head disciple, so he hadn’t realized what the inter-sect politics were really like. Was this what Uncle Jiang had been putting up with all this time?

It was only as daybreak began to light the sky in the distance that the pointless deadlock was broken and the sect leaders dispersed, having accomplished nothing.

No one doubted it had been the Wen sect, if only because of the deep enmity they held toward the overpowering “sun” of the cultivation world. And yet, what could they do? Especially with no evidence? Nothing but clench their teeth and curse privately, it seemed.

But as Lan XiChen made his way over, his stone-faced uncle in tow, Wei WuXian forced on a grin. “Thanks for lending me your brother,” he joked. “If I’ve got Lan Zhan at my back, I’m not afraid of anything!”

Lan XiChen’s answering smile was rather wan and faded quickly. “I’m sorry,” he said. “This was because I did something unnecessary. And now...”

“It’s fine. You didn’t do anything wrong,” Wei WuXian said firmly, his own expression darkening.

Moving to rejoin his family, Lan WangJi nodded in agreement — and, to everyone’s surprise, reached out to awkwardly pat his brother’s shoulder. It wasn’t necessary, of course. Lan XiChen could read his younger brother’s support for him without any action or change of expression on his part. But even so, there was a special warmth in receiving such an effort from Lan WangJi. Beaming, he couldn’t help reaching back to rest a hand on Lan WangJi’s back, for a moment.

“Thank you,” Lan XiChen said sincerely. “But even so, Young Master Wei, be careful. This means that QishanWen has noticed you. If anything happens, please remember — you are always welcome at Cloud Recesses.”

Wei WuXian laughed. “What are you expecting to happen? I’m just a rogue cultivator, what could the Wen sect want from me? Don’t worry, Big Brother!” Catching himself, he corrected quickly, “Erm, Eldest Brother Lan.”

He couldn’t help it! He always thought of him as ‘Lan Zhan’s Big Brother,’ of course it was going to come out like that!

Hovering at the very edge of their little group, Lan QiRen looked increasingly constipated but strangely didn’t comment aside from harrumphing in disapproval. For his part, Lan XiChen only chuckled. “I don’t mind,” he said, “if you call me Big Brother.”

...Yes, but this might be a level of shamelessness even Wei WuXian couldn’t breach. Big Brother was so nice that taking liberties with him was simply painful. It would be worse than if he just started called Shijie “Sis” all of a sudden. It was impolite, wasn’t it? It was definitely rude! Lan XiChen deserved better than that. Wei WuXian didn’t think even his own brother addressed him so casually. Unsure what to do, he glanced at Lan WangJi.

Except that even his closest ally had unexpectedly abandoned him, staring instead off to the side and obviously ignoring Wei WuXian’s plight.

With no other recourse, Wei WuXian turned to an authority figure for help. Lan QiRen stared back, clearly displeased and yet for some reason keeping his silence. ‘I’m begging you, chew me out!’ Wei WuXian thought, pleading with his gaze.

Finally, Lan QiRen closed his eyes and made a sound of disapproval. “Completely improper,” he declared into the air. Just then, he greatly resembled his nephew, when Lan WangJi turned his back and pointedly told Wei WuXian, ‘Pathetic. Very pathetic,’ as an opening.

“Right!” Wei WuXian agreed quickly. “Totally improper! Eldest Brother Lan is Eldest Brother Lan!”

For some reason, Lan XiChen’s smile widened. “That’s fine,” he said. “But please remember what I said.”

As they departed, it seemed the night was finally coming to an end. Reaching for Suibian, Wei WuXian let out a sigh of relief. ‘Ah, I just want to collapse somewhere,’ he thought. ‘Anywhere is fine...’

And yet, before he could make a break for it, he was ambushed.

“Hey,” Jiang Cheng said, scowling. “Come with me.”

~.~.~

“Jiang Cheng! I’m tired! I was up all night! Fighting! Listening to old farts drone on! Just let me sleep!” Wei WuXian whined as they flew down the mountain, the pale dawn lightening the sky overhead. “Or at least carry me!”

“Carry you? Are you joking?” Jiang Cheng said flatly.

“Lan Zhan could do it! We carry each other all the time,” Wei WuXian boasted smugly. In fact, they took turns when hunting together, as practice. It had been frustratingly difficult for Wei WuXian at first, compared to Lan WangJi, but that was precisely why he had insisted on making sure he could do it now. “I could carry you if I wanted to. I carried Shijie no problem!”

However, this did not produce the annoyed glower he expected. Instead, Jiang Cheng... rolled his eyes. “Then get your Lan Zhan to carry you later,” he said. “Honestly! Do you even hear yourself talk?”

“What’s wrong with the way I talk?”

Jiang Cheng sighed. “Nothing, nothing,” he waved the matter away. “It’s... good that you’re close to Lan WangJi. He really supports you, huh? Even in front of everyone...”

“Mm,” Wei WuXian agreed, uncharacteristically lacking for words. A pleasant heat rose in his chest, pushing away his exhaustion, and rose to his cheeks. He could feel himself smiling dopily. “Lan Zhan is the best.”

In fact, Jiang Cheng had wanted to volunteer to be the one to bring Wei WuXian over when the sect leaders summoned him — to provide at least some measure of reassurance to his brother before he had to face down the inquisition. But Lan WangJi had taken off before he could even say anything.

He wondered if he could have done what Lan WangJi did, standing with Wei WuXian like that. Brutally honest, he admitted to himself — the answer was no. He would have returned to his father’s side because that was his duty. He was the next Jiang clan head, and he took pride in that. It was the core of his sense of self.

He would have supported Wei WuXian, just like his father did. He had supported him, in fact. It was no small thing, and his feelings were not meaningless. But...

It wasn’t just his feelings, not just Jiang FengMian’s and YanLi’s feelings that Wei WuXian had now, not just their support he received. Jiang Cheng wasn’t sure how to feel about that. No matter how easily he could chat and make friends with anyone, Wei WuXian had always been entirely devoted to Lotus Pier, and then he had been alone.

The fact that it changed wasn’t a bad thing. But the emotion he felt when acknowledging that was complicated.

There was more that Jiang Cheng wanted to say, and he hesitated several times, opening and closing his mouth. In the end, he just sighed again. “Okay,” he said simply.

It sounded like he was agreeing to far more than just Wei WuXian’s glowing assessment of Lan WangJi.

“Okay,” Jiang Cheng repeated. “I’m... happy for you. You two, look after each other.”

Wei WuXian’s eyebrows rose in confusion, but he didn’t have a chance to ask what Jiang Cheng meant. They had arrived.

Their destination was the evacuation point out past the hunting grounds. It was where the spectators and the competitors who had become too tired in the clean up went, before heading back to their sects — in theory. In practice, although there was nothing much left for most of them to do, they continued to mill around in hopes of catching some hint of gossip about what had happened, so the area was still teeming with people.

Touching down, Jiang Cheng quickly led the way off to the edge of the gathering point. Several tents had been set up, and he ducked behind one, Wei WuXian in tow.

And then he stopped, eyes narrowing.

“What? What is it?” Wei WuXian wondered, his voice lowering instinctively in reaction to Jiang Cheng’s tense stance.

“Shush!” He was silenced summarily, and dragged into a hiding spot between two tents.

Together, the past and present head disciples of YunmengJiang peered out. There were two figures standing behind the tent, one in gold, one in violet. It was Jin ZiXuan and Jiang YanLi. Now, Wei WuXian could guess what had happened — Jiang Cheng had fetched him to say goodbye to YanLi, but Jin ZiXuan had come across her — come looking for her? — first.

YanLi’s posture was demure, her head bowed and hands hidden in the folds of her robe. It was normal for her, since she was a quiet person who did not like to draw attention or act out, but standing beside the looming, flashy peacock, she looked almost like she was huddling in on herself or cringing away.

Jiang Cheng and Wei WuXian fought the exact same impulse to rush in and break up the clearly uncomfortable moment between the two.

“—said that it was your idea,” Jin ZuXian was saying, his tone sharp as usual, but somehow a little off, “going off with Wei WuXian like that. Is that true?”

Ah, this was about Jiang Cheng’s lie.

Slowly, YanLi nodded. Unfortunately, Jiang Cheng hadn’t had time to warn her about what he’d gotten up to in her name.

Jin ZiXuan’s expression darkened. “You came here to meet your fiance, and instead you go off with another... another person? It’s good to know what your priorities are, Maiden Jiang.”

Snarling under his breath, Wei WuXian tried to dart out and punch his face in — only to be dragged back by Jiang Cheng. The two glared at each other, both equally unhappy. ‘If you don’t like it either, then let me go beat him up!’ Wei WuXian thought.

‘No, just watch a little longer,’ Jiang Cheng communicated back with his narrowed eyes.

YanLi’s figure seemed to shrink in on itself, but she still replied. “I will surely see my fiance many times in the future,” she said in a reedy voice that they could barely hear from their hiding spot. Unseen, her hands had clenched tightly around the fabric of her sleeves. “But I don’t know when I will see A-Xian again. So I pray for my fiance’s understanding.”

“And if I’m not understanding?” Jin ZiXuan snorted.

Raising her head, YanLi gave him a look that made his face blanch, though her brothers couldn’t see exactly what it was. “Then,” she said quietly, “we will have many misunderstandings in the future. It’s a very sad way to live, isn’t it?”

Whether her parents or his, they were both familiar with that kind of life filled with a lack of understanding. Lips thinning, Jin ZiXuan looked away.

“I...” he cleared his throat, “I’ll be understanding. This time! If he punches me again...”

“I’ll scold A-Xian properly,” YanLi assured him. She smiled. “Thank you.”

Jin ZiXuan harrumphed. But before stalking off, he shot her one last, unreadable glance. Unnoticed, YanLi stared after him for a long time, her lips curved faintly in a hopeful smile.

In their hiding place, Wei WuXian and Jiang Cheng exchanged a look. Didn't it seem like their sister and the peacock had finally managed to become closer?

...Urgh. Together, they grimaced.

~.~.~

After seeing off Jiang Cheng and YanLi, Wei WuXian just looked for a place to sleep. A tent had been set up, with mismatched rows of bedding, for those like him who had worn themselves out cleaning up the hunting grounds. Wei WuXian was the last to drop there to sleep, long after the sky was already light.

Listening to the snores around him and staring up at the cloth stretched over their heads, he tried to clear his mind of everything that had happened, tucking away each stray thought.

It was only as he was finally drifting off to sleep that he realized, distantly — Jiang Cheng’s “Okay. You two, take care of each other,” sounded a lot like YanLi’s “Big sis is happy for you,” and “I’m sure they’ll accept you as Second Master Lan’s beloved bride.”

That Jiang Cheng! When did he learn how to make fun of people?

He had gotten teased twice, in the exact same way. That... Did that mean he was leaving himself open to it? Just because he talked about Lan Zhan a bit?

“So what?! Just because I like Lan Zhan! What’s wrong with liking Lan Zhan anyway!” Wei WuXian burst out, shooting upright on his bedroll.

A chorus of groans and protests filled the tent, and half a dozen pillows were flung at his glowering face.

So close, yet so far...

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: It’s interesting that in ch59, Wen Ning (re)introduces himself to Wei WuXian using his given name, not his courtesy name. It’s not even because Wei WuXian has any reason to recognize it. It’s actually the opposite, since at the Discussion Conference, Wen Ning was addressed by his courtesy name, so Wei WuXian wouldn’t even know his given name anyway.

I have no idea what the implication might be, I’m just copying that. (I’ve spent so much time looking up how people address each other, it’s the worst.)

~.~.~

Chapter 19: Labyrinth I

He hadn’t seen Lan Zhan in weeks.

This thought had been looping around in Wei WuXian’s mind for a while. It had started as something like an itch, an uncomfortable feeling of restlessness that he couldn’t pin down. Only when he thought to himself casually, ‘I can’t wait to tell Lan Zhan about this!’ did he understand what had caused the sense of absence that dogged him.

It was hard to believe, but he had already known Lan WangJi for two years, and they had never spent this long without seeing each other in that time.

Lan WangJi had always been the one to come find Wei WuXian. So the current state of affairs — his absence — was the simple result of him not showing up, leaving Wei WuXian watching empty doorways and roads longingly.

Thinking back on it, that was kind of ridiculous, even for the usually thick-skinned Wei WuXian.

But why hadn’t Lan WangJi come like usual? Had something come up with his sect, or on a hunt? Had he gotten hurt and needed time to recover? Wei WuXian was always eager to ask about Lan WangJi when he came across other cultivators, but recently... he hadn’t really seen anyone around, had he?

It was just his instinct, but suddenly, he thought that something must have happened indeed. Not just with Lan WangJi or GusuLan, but with sects in general.

Wei WuXian sighed, feeling frustrated with himself.

Why did he wait so long without just going to Cloud Recesses to check? Lan XiChen had even told him it was fine to come by, more than once. Had he just gotten that used to letting Lan WangJi do all the work? ‘After this, I’m going to find Lan Zhan! And I’ll go look for him whenever I want to from now on!’ Wei WuXian thought rebelliously.

There was just one thing — “after this.”

This being the situation he found himself in, which gave him so much time to ruminate on his feelings. Finally coming to a stop in his monotonous, directionless walking, Wei WuXian looked around and made a face.

In every direction, the path looked exactly the same — gloomy and overgrown, withering and lifeless. The trees barely had leaves on them, despite the deep, persistent shadows they cast. The thick bushes and hedges were just as dry and bare-branched, but formed sharp, painful walls between the tree trunks. It was cold and shaded, and the branches crisscrossing overhead seemed to form a cage between him and the distant, pale sky.

A dead forest that was alive and watching.

Wei WuXian had already been wandering in circles for hours, so he was well-aware of this forest’s true nature. The entire mountainside had become one sprawling entity, creating something like a maze array that trapped people within it and eventually devoured them.

And of course, he’d gotten stuck in it, like an idiot. It was more frustrating than anything, but in truth, he still hadn’t thought of a way out.

Fighting it was the absolute last resort. Whether cutting it with his sword or trying to set it on fire, once the battle began, it would be to the death, and while a man-eating forest wasn’t as powerful as a waterborne abyss, Wei WuXian could honestly judge that it was likely beyond his power to defeat alone.

Sending out spirits bound to talismans didn’t accomplish anything. Flying away wasn’t possible either. When he’d tried, the branches had closed together, swatting him back to the ground harshly. Persisting in attempting that would likely rouse the man-eating forest into battle, so another last resort.

Although the effect of the forest was like a confounding formation, it wasn’t actually one, so he couldn’t unravel it. Walking out was, of course, impossible. So...

“So what am I supposed to do?!” Wei WuXian burst out, making furious clawing motions at thin air.

The fight went out of him almost immediately, and he slumped over, groaning, in the next moment. Shouting and getting angry wasn’t going to help. He needed to think — think harder, or at least smarter. It was too early to worry about food or water, but he had a feeling that trying to sleep here would be the last thing he did, so in practice, Wei WuXian was on a rather tight time limit. He needed to...

He blinked, pulled out of his thoughts.

It was very faint and distant, but he thought he’d heard a voice.

“...H-hello? Is someone there...?”

Yes, it was a voice. Faking calls of distress was the oldest trick in the monster handbook, so logically speaking, it was probably not a real human, but just another aspect of the man-eating forest... But the note of pathetic pleading sounded far too authentic for a trick.

“...Hello?...”

Only an idiot would fall for something like this.

“...Please help!”

‘Looks like I’m really an idiot after all,’ Wei WuXian thought, sighing at himself.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m coming!” he yelled back.

There was a pause. “O-oh! Oh! Thank you, thank you so much!” the voice was thick with tears of gratitude.

“Keep talking!” Wei WuXian called out, orienting himself to the direction it was coming from and plunging into the thick underbrush. The sharp, bare branches scratched at his clothes and tangled over his limbs, but seemed disinclined to do anything further for now.

“Okay! W-what should I say?”

It was a young man, maybe about Wei WuXian’s age, he calculated as he swatted aside a particularly clinging branch. Kinda wimpy. He paused, and mentally corrected — very wimpy.

“Are you alone?” Wei WuXian asked.

“Y-yes! I was just patrolling alone...”

And while wandering around alone, he stumbled on the man-eating forest and got stuck, like Wei WuXian. “And your name?”

“I... I’m W-Wen Ning!”

The source of the voice was right up ahead. Lifting his arms up to shield his face, Wei WuXian shoved his way through the last row of hedges and stumbled out into a small clearing in front of a large, gnarled tree.

Hanging upside down among the branches was indeed a young man his age, clad in the eye-catching white and red robes of the QishanWen sect, though this particular set had seen far better days — smeared in dirt, torn all over, and with partially drying blood stains on the pants where the branches of the tree had pierced through cloth and skin.

“And I’m Wei WuXian,” the rogue cultivator greeted, grinning. “Good to meet you! For you especially, I think.”

Wen Ning’s face cycled through a gamut of emotions and colors, while Wei WuXian watched with interest. Surprise, elation, confusion, and finally — oddly — concern. “You shouldn’t be here!” he blurted out, of all things. “You’re the rogue cultivator from YunmengJiang! But this hunting ground is off limits to everyone except the Wen sect!”

“First time I’m hearing about this,” Wei WuXian admitted, his eyebrows rising — in scorn.

This was a small, rarely used hunting ground that wasn’t close to any sect’s territory, which was why it had become occupied by the man-eating forest after too many years without being cleansed thoroughly. They weren’t particularly close to Qishan either. How could the Wen sect just claim it for themselves?

Normally, he would have been surprised at the gall of “claiming” a hunting ground to begin with. But after the suspicions of what occurred on Phoenix Mountain, it was just another sign of how highly QishanWen had begun to consider themselves. Rather than the strongest sect, it seemed they believed themselves to be entirely separate from all others, above and far beyond and absolute in their authority.

He sneered. “Should I just go then?”

“No! Please, please don’t!” Wen Ning protested. “I’m, I’m really thankful! I just... wanted to tell you... If someone else sees you...”

There weren’t tears in his eyes, but his appearance was so haggard he looked incredibly pathetic. It was obvious that he had been stuck in the man-eating forest for longer than Wei WuXian, and he had probably been caught when he inadvertently fell asleep. Now, with the trees slowly draining his blood, he must have struggled to remain awake, lest he get completely devoured...

Wei WuXian sighed, feeling a little bad about bullying someone in a life or death situation.

Without further commentary, he moved toward where Wen Ning was hanging and carefully climbed onto the trunk of the large tree. It didn’t move, but he could swear he felt it writhing under his hands and the soles of his feet. Probably, remaining on it for long would be a bad idea.

“You couldn’t free yourself?” Wei WuXian asked, as he tugged experimentally at the dark branches that had wrapped themselves around Wen Ning’s legs.

“My sword... the tree pulled it into itself,” Wen Ning admitted. And he probably didn’t carry anything except the standard fire talismans. Controlling the fire precisely was a very high-level skill, so he couldn’t free himself with those directly without burning his legs off too. Attacking the tree’s body would be risky too, since it would go berserk.

Of course, just pulling himself loose was completely impossible, since even Wei WuXian, standing next to him, couldn’t find any give in the tree’s grip.

“Okay, that’s going to be a problem,” Wei WuXian muttered. Should he try to cut it? But it’ll attack in return, and they still had no way to escape...

“I’m sorry,” Wen Ning murmured, hanging his head.

Wei WuXian patted his leg — the closest body part to him — comfortingly, only to make Wen Ning wince from having his wounds jostled. Mouthing an apology and quickly pulling his hand away, he focused on the issue instead.

How could he get Wen Ning loose without putting them both in more danger? He had to make the man-eating tree voluntarily release its prey somehow.

....And quickly. The tree was slowly becoming agitated just from having him stand on it, moving more and more obviously under his hands and feet. Without thinking much, Wei WuXian tapped it with one foot, as if to tell it to quiet down.

The tree trunk shuddered, growing still — if only the way a predator stilled when observing prey.

‘Now there’s an idea,’ Wei WuXian thought, a troublemaker’s grin tugging at his lips.

Jumping off, he backed away and, with a deep breath, let out a sharp whistle. The tree rustled, as if shuddering. Wen Ning winced as he was jostled with it, but he didn’t protest, only watching Wei WuXian with wide, worried eyes.

Wei WuXian shot him a reassuring smile, then concentrated on the half-baked idea of a plan that was beginning to form in his head.

Tapping his foot, he whistled again. In response, the skeletal branches stretching out overhead waved as if in a strong wind. He continued, whistling out a rough melody and swaying from side to side — baiting it. And the giant tree responded, slowly but obviously bending and stretching toward him.

His throat was getting dry. ‘This would be easier with a flute,’ Wei WuXian thought. Maybe he should look into getting one. GusuLan used a lot of music-based techniques, so maybe he could pick up some of those too. He had a feeling Lan WangJi wouldn’t mind teaching him a couple. They could even play together for fun in between.

Even as he continued on his luring, Wei WuXian smiled at the thought.

When he had no choice but to swallow to wet his throat, he covered the break in the tune by clapping. The woods were groaning now, not even trying to hide the way branches reached for him.

As intended, Wen Ning had been moved along with them.

Grabbing hold of his clothes with both hands, Wei WuXian resumed his whistling and began to tug forcefully. Wen Ning’s stifled whimper couldn’t quite cover the wet, gross sound of the man-eating forest’s claws being pulled free where they had ground into his legs. Once loose, Wen Ning tumbled to the ground with a pained grunt, but he scrambled to his feet immediately, limping.

Wei WuXian pushed him along, also backing away quickly now. “Run, run, run!” he urged.

The man-eating forest was a single entity, so it wasn’t like they could escape — but they could make themselves too “lively” to be worth pursuing just yet. After all, the forest preferred prey that was too tired to struggle.

They ran.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: When I revised the full outline, I kinda imagined the story would be about 30 chapters. I wonder if that’s still going to be possible. The last arc fills me with dread... -__- (Update from the me that’s actually writing the final arc: 30 chapters is not possible, and I should have never attempted a plot.)

~.~.~

Chapter 20: Labyrinth II

They managed to run away without too much trouble, the man-eating forest giving up pursuit in favor of letting them wear themselves down more, but the problem was that they didn’t actually escape. They were back where they had been all along, wandering the maze of dead, hungry trees, except that now their party size was two.

“Th, thank you! Thank you so much, Young Master Wei!” Wen Ning enthused, even his grateful smile a little pitiful. It was in the furrow between his eyebrows and the tension at the corners of his eyes — the look of someone always expecting a reprimand, if not a blow.

“Don’t mention it,” Wei WuXian waved him off awkwardly. “We still don’t have a way out... You’ve been here for a long while, right? Do you need to rest? I can stand watch.”

His face was pale and there were dark bags under his eyes, but Wen Ning shook his head. “It’s alright, I have some invigorating pills,” he said. “I can keep going. A-and I can treat your wounds! If you don’t mind...”

Wei WuXian glanced down at the admittedly impressive scratches he had been dealt when they ran recklessly through the brush to escape. This outfit was basically a write off, he realized with a sigh. The strips of cloth were sticking uncomfortably to his bloody skin, and it was a good idea to deal with that before they dried in place.

He shook his head. “Look after yourself first. This much, I can handle myself.”

“Oh. Alright...” Wen Ning drooped at the refusal. “B-but at least please use this!” Digging through his pouch, he held out a small jar of balm and clean bandages. “My sister made this,” Wen Ning explained with an odd, bashful smile. “So it’s very good.”

“Okay, okay. Thanks!” Wei WuXian agreed, half out of cheapness for free supplies, and half to keep him from bursting into tears or something. “Sisters make good stuff, I know.”

That wasn’t what Wen Ning had meant, but he didn’t have to courage to try and explain. Why would an outsider be impressed by the accomplishments of anyone from the Wen clan? He knew that current sentiment toward his sect was very low, and he didn’t want to get left behind.

The two of them bandaged their wounds in silence, one nervous, one lost in thought.

Although Wen Ning’s wounds were more extensive, he still finished first and quickly downed a handful of pills — to help with the blood loss and to keep himself awake. Once that was done, he could only sit in silence, glancing at Wei WuXian and fidgeting.

Wei WuXian let out a heavy sigh. He had also finished bandaging himself, but it wasn’t related to that. “I’ve got nothing,” he admitted. “How about you? Any ideas? Or... if we’re going to try and fight, what weapons have you got?”

“Weapons?” Wen Ning started, his hands darting around uselessly. “Um... none. I dropped my sword and my bow... and all my arrows... I don’t have any ideas either. I’m sorry.... I’m really sorry.”

“Don’t worry about it, I’ll think of something,” Wei WuXian waved away his apologies.

He didn’t say anything else, sinking back into his own thoughts.

Although the traditional image of someone lost in thought was of sitting still like a stone, Wei WuXian was the opposite. At times, he would mutter to himself, or get up and pace around, kicking at loose stones or broken twigs. Once or twice, he crouched and started to scribble something in the dirt, only to quickly erase it and pace again.

Wen Ning’s eyes strayed toward him constantly, before he forced himself to go back to watching their surroundings for any movement from the man-eating forest.

So this was the famous rogue cultivator...

Because QishanWen held themselves apart from other sects, their disciples were the only ones that Wei WuXian had never hunted or spent time with, even after years on the road and wiggling his way into every hunting party he came across. However, even so, Wen disciples knew of him just like every other sect.

The son of the immortal BaoShan SanRen’s student, ZangSe SanRen. The former head disciple of YunmengJiang. The third on the list of young masters.

There were rumors and the certainty of a scandal, even if no one could agree what it had been. But undeniably, Wei WuXian was someone who had the courage to strike out on his own, leaving his sect, and the strength to not only survive, but to prosper.

Sects, clans were everything. And yet, he stood alone without fear, letting everyone know his name.

‘This kind of person...’ Wen Ning’s eyes strayed toward him before he quickly dragged them away again.

He wanted to say something, but he couldn’t find the words or the courage to try. Instead, he just looked up toward the sky.

“Young Master Wei,” Wen Ning called out suddenly, “there’s something coming.”

“What? Where?” Wei WuXian’s head snapped up, but it took a few moments for him to spot what Wen Ning had seen.

It was just a speck of white, flashing in and out of sight behind the dark, bare branches. As it approached, slowly circling toward their location, its shape became clearer — a bird, but... not a real one. When it finally dived between the trees toward them, they could see that it was just a paper doll folded into a bird-like shape, markings like a talisman on its belly and wings.

“Oh! This is... from Shijie!” Wei WuXian realized, reaching out to catch the paper bird as it glided toward him.

Once in his hands, it flapped its wings twice and unfurled into several sheets of paper, all lined with Jiang YanLi’s neat, even handwriting.

After their meeting at Phoenix Mountain, Wei WuXian had thought long and hard about how to let Jiang YanLi send him letters in return. Although he had originally suggested addressing them care of Cloud Recesses, he had vaguely been aware that Lan WangJi would take it upon himself to bring them to Wei WuXian, and letting his friend play errand boy just didn’t sit right with him.

Instead, he had another idea.

“A spirit bound to a talisman?” Wen Ning guessed, peering at the papers with interest.

“That’s right! I taught my shijie how to do it, so she could write to me whenever, wherever!” Wei WuXian explained proudly. Fortunately, Jiang YanLi already knew the basics of talismans and cultivation in general, so she had been able to follow the instructions he sent her — after testing them extensively, of course.

Habitually, he smoothed out the folded sheets, before realizing this was not the time or place to read Jiang YanLi’s letter.

On the other hand, it wasn’t like he was making any progress in getting them out either.

“How did you do it? How did you leave your sect?”

Wen Ning’s eyes widened as soon as he blurted out the question, and he cringed at his own recklessness. But Wei WuXian only blinked in surprise, turning slowly to look at him with an unreadable expression.

They both knew what he meant. Not the literal how — the permission Jiang FengMian had given him — but rather...

“How... how could you do it? Weren’t you... afraid?” Wen Ning wondered, looking down at the ground. “Isn’t it too much, to leave everything behind?”

Wei WuXian sighed and reached up to rub the back of his neck. “Funny, you know that’s the first time anyone asked me?” he chuckled weakly. Being asked such a thing, in a place like this, he had been taken completely off guard, and the surprise left him feeling a little disconnected. It felt like his limbs had unexpectedly gone numb.

He could just not answer, or joke and brush it off, he supposed. Sparing a glance at Wen Ning, he thought he wouldn’t push.

And yet...

Wen Ning must have been missing for a while, but he didn’t even bring up the possibility of someone coming to look for him. It was one thing for Wei WuXian, who had no sect or clan. But for QishanWen to not even notice if one of their disciples disappeared for too long, it said something about the disciple’s standing in the sect. It said something about the people around him.

Even Wei WuXian had people who would worry about him, he thought, running his thumb over the letter’s smooth pages.

He could just not answer, but did answering really cost him anything? And if he said something Wen Ning needed to hear... There were many things Wei WuXian had been glad to be told or wished he could have heard, from many people. A chance not taken was a chance lost.

“It’s not like I wanted to leave,” Wei WuXian said. It was the first time he admitted it out loud. “I didn’t. It was just that I couldn’t stay either. The truth is... I was scared too, and angry. I might have been the one who brought it up, but it was only because I kept hearing how I shouldn’t be there. The truth is I didn’t want to leave at all...”

Although he had just meant to offer some advice, the old bitterness that he had tried to suppress for so long welled up in his voice. His hands clenched, and his expression furrowed.

“But you still did,” Wen Ning said quietly. “I couldn’t do that.”

“It’s not as hard as it sounds,” Wei WuXian shrugged. “Just blurt out once, ‘Then I’ll leave!’ — and you realize it’s the only thing left to do. Being there just makes things worse, you can’t fix it, so all you can do is leave.”

He let out a slow, heavy breath — and smiled ruefully. “It’s just another choice. Because I chose to go, I can’t live the life I thought I’d have now. I miss everyone, I can’t become Jiang Cheng’s right hand man when he’s sect leader... It’s scary, and it hurts, leaving all that behind.

“But,” he said, “I like this life too. There’s nothing to say I would have been happier if I stayed. I don’t regret choosing this.”

‘I really don’t regret it,’ Wei WuXian realized, making his smile widen with pleased surprise. ‘I don’t regret this at all.’

He would always miss the childhood closeness he’d had with Jiang Cheng and YanLi and the other disciples at Lotus Pier. But their bonds hadn’t been broken at all, and they would always remain in each other’s hearts. There were so many other things that he had gained too — so many things he got to do, so many people he met...

Somewhere along the way, the hurt and anger he’d felt had faded away, little by little, and now he could say it confidently — he didn’t regret choosing this life.

He was happy being a rogue cultivator. He was happy like this.

“...Oh,” Wen Ning murmured quietly. “A choice that you don’t regret, huh...”

Wei WuXian laughed and slapped him across the back. “It’s okay! You’ll figure it out!” he assured Wen Ning. “But for now... I have an idea how to get out of here!”

“You, you do?” The sudden change in topic left Wen Ning reeling — as did the overly strong friendly blow.

“Yup! It’s simple!” Wei WuXian beamed. “We’re going to ask for help!”

After all, he had a person who would miss him and search for him. He had a partner he could always count on.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: Fun fact, my original outline had first two, then one OC from the Lan sect here, for bonus Jealousy Points. But I don’t really like using OCs, so I eventually cut them, since I don’t think their presence really added much in the end.

Also, I managed to use the flirting I planned for Phoenix Mountain here instead! Enjoy this because it’s probably going to be the last fluffy flirting we get for a long while. Next chapter, we head into the main plot arc. (It’s nothing on canon, of course, just a bit more serious than the story so far.)

~.~.~

Chapter 21: Labyrinth III

Wei WuXian’s so-called plan was exceedingly simple.

The premise was this: The man-eating forest hadn’t reacted to Jiang YanLi’s messenger bird at all. When he had first found himself lost, Wei WuXian had tried sending out a few spirit-bound talismans to look for a way out, and the result had been similar. It was just that he hadn’t been able to actually follow them, so he had dismissed them at the time.

Since it could only feed on the blood and flesh of the living, the forest had no interest in talisman spirits.

So there was nothing stopping Wei WuXian from sending a letter asking for help.

If they couldn’t break out on their own, they just needed to ask someone to come get them!

Simple or not, Wei WuXian felt inordinately pleased with this method. In his mind, there was no doubt “that person” would come or that he would be able to get them out. After all, it was the ever-reliable Lan WangJi, who had never once given Wei WuXian reason to doubt him.

But even Lan WangJi would need some time to arrive, so he and Wen Ning had settled on a rotation — one to meditate, one to keep watch. If they stayed still too long, the man-eating forest always began to creep toward them, testing whether the prey was too tired to resist, so they had no choice but to keep moving around.

It was Wei WuXian’s turn to on watch when he heard it.

Quickly, he moved to shake Wen Ning awake. “He’s here,” he said shortly. “Come on, come on, get ready!”

“Wh-what are we going to do?” Wen Ning wondered, stumbling to his feet.

Wei WuXian thought for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t really know. Lan Zhan can be pretty unpredictable sometimes! But if I had to guess... he’s going to attack, and we’re going to run!”

That sounded right, so he nodded to himself. That kind of straightforward method suited Lan WangJi, and the principle was the same as the way he had gotten Wen Ning free in the first place — a lure and a distraction. Just... more violent.

“Th-that... is that really okay?” Wen Ning stammered.

“Sure, sure! Now come on, hang on to me!”

Suibian unsheathed itself, hovering down obediently for the two of them to board. Wen Ning yelped in protest as Wei WuXian pulled him up, his entire body going stiff as a board as he tried to figure out where to put his hands. Riding two people on a single sword was not just a matter of being able to lift two — there really wasn’t much room.

They hovered in place, slowly drifting upward, until it came again, the sound Wei WuXian had heard. It was just a single note, a one-string call from a guqin that echoed across the forest.

It was the last warning, before a far stronger, harsher melody rolled over the mountainside. Although the music must have been objectively quite lovely, the spiritual pressure it produced was enough to make Wei WuXian and Wen Ning both cringe. The man-eating forest shuddered — and screeched in fury and pain.

The trees flailed wildly, shaking with every subsequent note that drove them further into blind rampage.

“Woah! Hold on tight!” Wei WuXian barely dodged the swinging branches, sending Suibian shooting toward the sky. On the plus side, the man-eating forest was in no state to pay attention to them or intentionally hinder their escape anymore. On the minus side...

‘Lan Zhan, that’s really too much! We might get killed just by accident!’ Even if the trees no longer tried to impede them, with their unreasoning flailing, it was hard to dodge. As they rose, several more shallow scratches were added onto their previous wounds.

But it was funny. Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi had almost the same thought about how to distract the man-eating forest...

Wen Ning’s arms tightening suddenly around his waist was the only warning he got before several thick branches speared through the place they had been — Suibian swerving aside just in time.

‘Right, concentrate,’ Wei WuXian thought. They were almost through.

The final layer of branches, thick and intertwined like a net, gave way as they smashed through it at full speed, leaving behind a final set of red scratched. And beyond... the clear sky.

Groaning, the man-eating forest tried to reach for them and keep them in its grasp, but another overpowering chord from the guqin paralyzed it long enough for Suibian and its two passengers to rise out of its grasp. Leveling out far above the treeline, Wei WuXian finally allowed himself to breathe a sigh of relief and look around.

There, drifting gracefully toward them, was the familiar figure in white. Guqin in one hand, still strumming it with the other, Lan WangJi controlled the situation seemingly effortlessly even as he darted a glance toward Wei WuXian and his passenger.

His eyes narrowed.

‘Huh? He’s mad?’ Wei WuXian thought.

Why? ...Well, he’d dragged Lan WangJi out to help him out of his own carelessness, after not doing anything to come see him for weeks. It wasn’t exactly nice, when you looked at it that way.

Having Lan WangJi be angry with him made something in Wei WuXian’s stomach turn uncomfortably. ‘I’ll make it up to him,’ he decided firmly and perhaps a little desperately.

“Lan Zhan!” he called out, waving. “Over here, Lan Zhan! Thank you so much! I’m so glad to see you! You’re amazing as always!”

Slowly easing off his controlling song and slinging his guqin over his back, Lan WangJi finally turned to them. His demeanor was still downright frosty as he said, shortly, “He is?” His eyes lingered on the red-edged sleeves around Wei WuXian’s waist and the tails of the robe fluttering in the air behind him, since was all he could see of the boy clinging to Wei WuXian.

“Oh, this? This is Wen Ning! We met down there and helped each other out a bit,” Wei WuXian explained, patting the arms wrapped around him. Shuddering a little, Wen Ning raised his head from where he’d buried his face between Wei WuXian’s shoulder blades. But catching sight of Lan WangJi’s cold expression, he immediately ducked back into hiding.

Wei WuXian laughed. “Come on, don’t be like that! Lan Zhan’s not scary, he saved us! He’s so cool, right?”

“Th-th-thank you...” Wen Ning stammered, muffled in Wei WuXian’s robe.

There was no helping it. He supposed that Lan WangJi did take some getting used to, so Wei WuXian just laughed again and turned back to his friend. “He’s right. Thank you for coming, Lan Zhan. And so fast too... Aah, I can always count on you!”

Lan WangJi didn’t reply, only turning away and beginning to head toward the edge of the man-eating forest and what Wei WuXian vaguely thought was the nearest town.

‘He’s still mad...’

So Wei WuXian needed to try harder. It was time for truly shameless measures.

As he directed Suibian to drift closer to Bichen, he patted Wen Ning’s arms again. This time, his passenger lightened his grip obediently, easing back. That was the opening Wei WuXian was looking for.

“Lan Zhan!” he called out — and, as Lan WangJi glanced at him, leaped between their swords.

Wen Ning yelped in shock and protest, suddenly finding himself alone on Suibian. He desperately pinwheeled his arms to maintain his balance and finally dropped into a crouch.

But Wei WuXian didn’t pay much attention to that, aside from making sure to keep Suibian moving even without himself on it. He landed nimbly next to Lan WangJi, Bichen only bobbing lightly to counterbalance the additional weight, and grabbed hold of the white GusuLan robes. Some of the dark mood hovering around Lan WangJi was displaced by surprise, as he instinctively shifted to accommodate Wei WuXian’s presence suddenly so close to himself.

“I’m tired. Carry me?” Wei Wuxian demanded with a shameless grin.

It worked. He had no idea why, but his friend’s demeanor finally lightened. “...Mm,” Lan WangJi agreed, one arm coming to rest behind Wei WuXian’s back.

Feeling something finally ease in his gut, Wei WuXian let himself press against his companion. They had traded off carrying each other — for practice — enough times that the feeling of Lan WangJi so close was familiar to him. His scent was the same as always, solid and comforting sandalwood. Wei WuXian’s lips stretched into a wide, soft smile. He really had missed him...

Happy and relaxed, Wei WuXian decided he wanted to play a bit.

“Such a dramatic rescue! I’m so grateful, Lan Zhan,” he said, his voice low and husky as he fluttered his eyelashes. “I should reward you properly! How about... a kiss?”

He could feel Lan WangJi tense in his arms, turning to shoot him a wide-eyed — for him — look. Grinning, Wei WuXian leaned in at the same time.

It was just a bit of teasing, so he had meant for it to be a simple peck on the cheek, the kind he had given to and received from his shijie as a child. But Lan WangJi had turned, and Wei WuXian’s lips pressed instead to the corner of his mouth.

Oh.

Um... oh.

Wei WuXian’s face flared crimson. He wasn’t alone. Wen Ning, who had been politely trying not to look at the pair, made a strangled noise and clapped his hands over his burning face. Only Lan WangJi maintained the same blank expression, but even he was stiff as a board in Wei WuXian’s hold.

“Th-th-that was...! I was just...!” ‘I didn’t mean to! Don’t be mad, Lan Zhan!’ Wei WuXian wailed mentally as his tongue refused to obey.

His mouth had gotten him into a lot of trouble in the past, but this was an entirely new kind of betrayal!

“...Mm,” Lan WangJi made a vague sound of agreement, turning to look resolutely into the distance.

‘Ah? He’s not mad this time?’

Well, that was good. That was good then. Setting out a deep breath, Wei WuXian slumped in relief. It seemed like everything had worked out — but it took a long time for the hot flush on his face to fade, and even longer for his racing heartbeat to calm.

~.~.~

Wen Ning collapsed onto the ground the moment they touched down just outside the man-eating forest’s range. The awkward atmosphere aside, he had been in the forest longer than Wei WuXian, and even with the two of them, neither had been able to rest well. Combined with his wounds, he was long since exhausted, and his complexion was miserably pale.

“You okay?” Wei WuXian asked, moving to crouch next to him and pat him on the back.

“I’ll be fine, Young Master Wei,” Wen Ning assured him with a small smile. “But what should we do now? It’s so dangerous... is there some way to deal with it?”

“Burn it,” Wei WuXian said simply.

Lan WangJi nodded, his arms crossed as he observed the other two a little more closely than necessary.

Seeing Wen Ning’s expression, Wei WuXian laughed. “I get it, we can’t do that,” he said. “But that’s the really about the only way. The entire forest needs to be burned down to get rid of the malevolence that spawned it. We’d need to ask for help to control the flames, and let the people around here know... You said your Wen sect claimed this place as their own hunting ground, right? So they’ll have to be the ones to do it.”

Wen Ning nodded slowly, but his expression gave away his thoughts — that QishanWen was unlikely to exert the effort for such an operation in such a remote location. But of course, neither would they allow any other sect to deal with it, as a matter of pride and enforcing their will and power.

It was ridiculous, but Wei WuXian could only sigh. “For now, let’s warn the local towns not to go into the forest,” he said. “We can also set up some markers around its territory, so no one stumbles in without realizing. Later, we can reuse them to limit the flames too.”

“I’ll set up,” Lan WangJi said. He said it very simply too, as if determining the limits of the man-eating forest and producing what was essentially a simplified boundary array was a routine matter.

“Then I’ll go around and warn everyone,” Wei WuXian agreed with this division of duties.

Watching them settle the matter so quickly and easily, Wen Ning felt pink creep across his cheeks again. ‘So those rumors were really true...?’ he wondered. They had to be true, given that k-k-kiss before, right? Partners in hunting, no matter how close, wouldn’t act like that, he thought. Only those kind of partners, partners in c-c-cul—

Wen Ning felt his ears burn and had to clear his throat awkwardly.

“Hm? What’s wrong?” Wei WuXian asked, glancing at him.

“N-nothing!” Wen Ning said quickly. “B-but it’s better if I’m the one who goes to warn the local people. It wouldn’t be good if the sect found out you were hunting here at all. I’ll go by myself.”

“Are you sure? You should rest up first,” Wei WuXian said.

Wen Ning shook his head, getting to his feet with a wince. “I’ll rest at the nearest town and then head to the others,” he said. Glancing between the other two, he smiled a little oddly. “It’ll be faster if you set the markers together, right?”

Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi shared a quick look. “Yeah,” Wei WuXian agreed, smiling. “Lan Zhan and me always work better together!”

More than just having two sets of hands, their combined efforts were greater than the sum of their parts. Wei WuXian wouldn’t have been able to explain it, but the sense of synergy was undeniable — and enjoyable. Even though their methods, approaches, and especially temperaments were completely different, they had become used to each other and now seemed to slot together seamlessly.

“You two... are as impressive as I heard,” Wen Ning agreed. Hesitating, he added, “I’m glad, that you met a c-companion like that. I guess it’s no wonder you don’t regret it...”

Taken off guard, Wei WuXian made a noise of surprise and gestured helplessly, but Wen Ning didn’t wait for him to reply. Turning on his heel, he hurried off — only to stop after walking a few steps and turn back to bow deeply.

“Thank you! For saving me, and for your advice! I won’t forget it!” he promised.

Too embarrassed to lift his head, he took off at a run.

“...Pfft! Hahaha!” Wei WuXian broke out into laughter. “So there’s guys like that in QishanWen. Who knew?” He shook his head, smiling. “Well, let’s get those markers set up, and then... Let’s go to Cloud Recesses together. Lan Zhan, I really missed you.”

When he turned to look at Lan WangJi, his smile widened. They were still standing so close together that Wei WuXian could see his ears turning red, even though his expression remained blank. Tentatively, Lan WangJi glanced at him and, when their eyes met, nodded slowly.

“Stay?” Lan WangJi suggested, his voice soft.

‘Lan Zhan’s acting all shy, how cute,’ Wei WuXian thought, a little dazed himself.

“Yeah,” Wei WuXian agreed. Closing the last half-step between them, he pressed up against Lan WangJi’s side. “I really, really missed you. I’m so happy to see you again... Let’s stay together for a while.”

There was something very warm welling up in his chest. This feeling... he didn’t know what it was, not just yet. But he could scarcely believe how happy it made him.

He really didn’t regret choosing this life at all.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: The Wen Problem(tm). Honestly, writing this chapter felt like whiplash, so I can’t imagine how reading it feels.

Regarding the first scene, I honestly didn’t intend to go that far, but then I thought, ‘fuck it.’ Who cares if it’s OOC. We’ve been waiting for this, right? It feels super awkward to write this tho, because I haven’t read the equivalent scenes in canon?? How many chapters are the translations still off from that...

~.~.~

Chapter 22: Point of No Return

Wei WuXian liked GusuLan. This was a surprise even to himself, since the Lan sect was undeniably stuffy, dull, pretentious, rigid, inflexible, and obsessed with rules. But at the same time, after spending time with them, he could say with certainty that they could also be resolute, giving, incredibly righteous, and surprisingly romantic. He liked them — especially Lan WangJi, Lan XiChen, and the little disciples that believed any tall tale he told them.

Well, it wasn’t like he could ever dislike Cloud Recess. Lan WangJi was there.

However.

GusuLan was still undeniably stuffy, dull, pretentious, rigid, inflexible, and obsessed with rules. And it was starting to drive Wei WuXian stir crazy.

There was nothing to do! Except meditating, reading ancient scripture and practicing music, but no matter how much Wei WuXian liked playing the flute together with Lan WangJi, he’d had his fill of all those. At least in Lotus Pier you could shoot kites, dive in the water, or hunt pheasants. On top of that, the food in Cloud Recesses was just so bland! And the sleep schedule was just intolerable!

And most of all, Lan WangJi was there.

Recently, sometimes... Wei WuXian felt a bit off around him. It wasn’t a bad sort of feeling, so he hadn’t minded at first. It wasn’t all the time, either. But seemingly out of nowhere, he would start to feel warm and bubbly, and a little lightheaded, and it was always around Lan WangJi. And it just wouldn’t go away.

He needed to clear his head. So for this purpose, and to stretch his legs, and to give the Lan elders a break from him, Wei WuXian decided to go out for a while.

Once a decision was made, he never hesitated and, in short order, he was packed and ready to go.

Since Wei WuXian had explained at least some of his reasons, Lan WangJi hadn’t offered to come with him. He understood that part of his desire to leave was wanting to be alone for a while. After all, the change from two years on his own to settling in Cloud Recesses for two months was a drastic one, and it was only natural that he needed a break. But his demeanor, as he walked Wei WuXian to the gates, was one of unwillingness.

“Don’t make that face, Lan Zhan! I’ll be back soon!” Wei WuXian declared — and even to his own surprise, there was no doubt in his mind of that.

Even if he wanted to go away for a while, he knew that he’d start missing Lan WangJi before long. And now, Wei WuXian had no intention of just sighing and waiting around for him to come. Wasn’t it so much faster to be the one who went to visit?

Especially since in the current situation, with all hunting grounds claimed by QishanWen, Lan WangJi had no reason to be wandering around to begin with.

The same thought had doubtlessly occurred to Lan WangJi, and his expression darkened unhappily. “Wei Ying, be careful,” he said.

“I will,” Wei WuXian promised, smiling.

Someone saying goodbye to him like this was entirely new. The feeling of looking forward to reuniting before even parting... it was strange and sweet. Without thinking, Wei WuXian stepped closer until their robes brushed together. He wasn’t thinking, his head empty except for that pleasant, fizzling buzz, and that was why he didn’t hesitate to lean in, one hand reaching up rest on Lan WangJi’s chest.

His lips pressed lightly to a smooth white cheek.

Wei WuXian blinked, and reason came crashing back into his empty head.

What was he doing? At the gate, in front of all these people! Shamelessly stealing a kiss (of sorts...) from Lan WangJi in broad daylight!

This! This this this...

“Aaaaaaah...” He couldn’t even form words as he lurched away. His eyes darted everywhere except Lan WangJi’s face, too embarrassed and too scared to see what expression he might have been wearing.

Desperately, he took a step back and tried to take another, but a cold hand closed around his wrist, jerking him to a stop. Swallowing heavily, Wei WuXian froze in place.

That hand was trembling.

He knew Lan WangJi now, and he could tell it wasn’t from anger. Was he... hurt? Scared? That possibility overrode Wei WuXian’s own fear and anything else with the desperate need to comfort and support.

“Lan Zhan...” he started to say, finally lifting his gaze to Lan WangJi’s impossibly beautiful face.

He didn’t get further. A tug on his wrist, pulling him forward, and Lan WangJi’s lips pressed to his own, only for a moment but unmistakable.

“Ah.” Wei WuXian’s mouth dropped open in shock, eyes wide, but Lan WangJi was already drawing back. His grip loosened, his hand slipping away — until Wei WuXian turned his wrist and caught it, fingers curling around the strong, calloused palm.

He couldn’t let go here, he knew without a doubt.

“I’ll— be back soon, Lan Zhan!” he blurted out as if continuing their goodbyes.

Lan WangJi had half turned away, as if trying to hide. The look in his eyes was soft and vulnerable, and it was clear he was completely at a loss from his own rare impulsiveness. Seeing Wei WuXian’s earnest face, he finally dared to turn back and nodded with obvious hesitation.

“I’ll... be waiting,” he said, haltingly, “Wei Ying...”

This was... this was...

Too much. Wei WuXian needed to clear his head more than ever, hardly able to tell up from down.

Nonetheless, he gently squeezed Lan WangJi’s hand before stepping back and letting it slip out of his grasp. Then, turning, he fled.

But every five steps, he couldn’t help glancing back over his shoulder, at the person still standing at the gate, seeing him off.

Lan WangJi continued to stand there long after Wei WuXian had disappeared from sight. It was hard to tell whether this was because he couldn’t bear to leave or because he just couldn’t move under the weight of his own embarrassment. Acting so boldly all of a sudden... Second Master Lan had simply reached his limit.

Without conscious thought, his hand drifted up to cover his mouth. His ears burned.

“Wei Ying. I’ll be waiting,” he repeated.

Since the Wen sect’s injunctions, there had not been many people heading in and out of Cloud Recesses. Politely, the few who happened to be passing by did not look toward him, continuing on their business. But who didn’t know about Lan WangJi’s guest, his partner the famous rogue cultivator in black? With smiles tugging at their lips, they shared a common thought — ‘Congratulations!’

~.~.~

Wei WuXian wandered around in a daze.

He had originally intended to keep an eye out for any interesting rumors and ask for any possible hauntings on the road — not hunting precisely, and certainly not on any of the hunting grounds QishanWen had claimed, but if he just happened to run into a problem and just happened to solve it, that was only self-defense, right? Who could blame him?

In all honesty, the Wen sect probably would. They were throwing their weight around, not operating on any sort of logic or reason.

But on the other hand, it wasn’t like there would be any point in making an example of Wei WuXian, right? After all, he was just a rogue cultivator. The ones QishanWen wanted to control first and foremost were the other four great sects, so for that reason, their disciples felt the restrictions most keenly. Wei WuXian had heard that any “trespassers” caught had been beaten severely, if not outright crippled in a few cases.

He had originally been willing to court danger for at least a little amusement, but his recent mood left him with no motivation to cause trouble.

Instead, he could only drift along, stopping and sighing every once in a while as he became lost in thought — of Lan WangJi, naturally.

What exactly did he feel for Lan WangJi? What did he want? ...Wei WuXian was not entirely dense. Or rather, even dense as he was, it was past the point where he could miss the obvious. Getting this worked up about a kiss, always wanting to be close, that bubbly, warm feeling, there could only be one name for it.

It was just that he didn’t want to admit it. He was afraid to admit it.

Wei WuXian was not a person who hesitated to act, once he came to a decision. So once he decided on his feelings, naturally he could act on them. He would pursue them.

Of course, Lan WangJi wasn’t a person who acted lightly, so his own feelings were obvious too. There shouldn’t have been any reason to fear. And yet...

Everything would change. It was frightening just because of that. He just needed a little bit of time to get used to it, the idea that he was—

—in love.

‘Aaaah, I said it!’ Wei WuXian buried his red face in his hands.

He was totally, completely, head over heels in love.

The warm, fizzy feeling in his chest was overflowing, making him fidget constantly in his seat. He felt like he was on pins and needles just sitting there. Just to have something to do aside from being overwhelmed with the sheer emotion in his heart, he reached for the dishes spread across the small table and started stuffing his mouth blindly.

...He had no idea what he was eating, he couldn't taste it at all. He didn't remember what he had ordered either.

‘Lan Zhan, you've made me completely useless!’ Wei WuXian bemoaned mentally. ‘Look at me, I'm a total mess! A disaster!’

He was grinning like an idiot.

The clink of his chopsticks sped up as he continued to shovel food with almost manic energy. He felt like he was about to burst from the excitement. Slamming the empty bowl down on the table, he choked for a moment and quickly groped for his cup. His throat bobbed as he washed it down, with what he had no idea.

Still buzzing with energy, Wei Wuxian jumped to his feet, the chair scraping over the floorboards loudly. Had he already paid for everything? It seemed so, given the cheerful distracted way the waiter waved at him as he moved toward the entrance.

With his head in the clouds, he didn't pay any attention to the group that had just entered the tavern. Even the distinctive white robes with red patterned hems completely failed to register. He brushed past them on the way out, knocking shoulders with the squinty-eyed man in the lead.

“Hey! Hey, you!”

It was only when a heavy hand grabbed him by the shoulder that Wei WuXian realized he was one being addressed.

“Hm?” His eyebrows rose as he finally paid attention to the situation.

The one sneering at him was a QishanWen disciple perhaps his age. Two others were trying to loom threateningly behind him. Wei WuXian didn't recognize any of them, not that it said much. But in any case, his mood was too high to be bothered by a few puffed up bullies. He couldn't quite muffle his snicker.

Hearing it, the leader went red in the face. “You! You've got some guts! This area belongs to the Wen sect!” he yelled, grabbing a fistful of Wei WuXian’s robe. “Other cultivators have no business being here! Are you going against our QishanWen’s commands?”

“Wasn’t that just for hunting? I haven’t done any of that,” Wei WuXian said — honestly, in fact, since he had been far too distracted. “Or is traveling illegal too now?”

It probably would be, before long, but for now he was right. The Wen disciples ground their teeth uselessly, glaring at him and at a loss for what to say to someone who wasn’t intimidated by the name of their sect or at being outnumbered a little.

What a bunch of dumb brats. But more than anything, Wei WuXian felt amused, and he had no interest in stirring up trouble for once.

Lightly, he pushed the leader off. “Tell you what, I’ll be more careful in the future,” he offered as a gesture of peace. “I just got some very good news, so I’m in a rush to get home. Be a friend and let me off this time! What do you say? I’ll buy you all a round of drinks as thanks.”

It was a good offer, and unusually lenient for Wei WuXian, who took a special pleasure in humiliating those he considered too arrogant or forceful. But his mood really was very good, and he didn’t want to mar it.

The leader of the little gang stared at him with narrowed eyes, as if weighing his options.

But in the end, he simply jerked his head toward the door. His lips curled in a sneer. “Just get lost,” he said. “You’re not even worth our time to discipline.”

Wei WuXian needed no further prompting. “Thanks, brother!” he called out over his shoulder, grinning.

He didn’t notice the way their eyes lingered on his back.

~.~.~

He headed back to Gusu, but only on foot. His head was still buzzing, and he wanted to think a little more. To clear his thoughts... and start planning a little. After all, he could just run into Cloud Recesses and shout from the rooftops, “Lan Zhan, I love you!!”

Or could he?

Chuckling, he imagined the scene in his mind. Without a doubt, the most vivid aspect was the chorus of complaints about the no shouting rule.

No, he couldn’t do that. Lan WangJi might combust from the embarrassment. But then, how should he say it? What should he do? He had no idea, but the nervousness in his stomach felt like a pleasant excitement, adding a spring to his step. His lips were quirked up in a grin even as he strolled distractedly down an empty road.

Was it because he was so distracted that he didn’t notice anything off?

The road had been empty, but a man appeared suddenly in front of Wei WuXian, blocking the way.

Instinctively, Wei WuXian drew to a stop. More than even the QishanWen robes he was wearing, the man’s cold, indifferent expression and the way he stood bodily in the center of the path made it clear this wasn’t a chance encounter.

He had no idea what someone from the Wen sect, much less someone with obviously high cultivation and combat skill, could want from him, but it couldn’t be anything Wei WuXian would like. With a sudden sense of chill, his light mood and his smile fell away. He couldn’t help the shiver that went up his spine — this lonely road and the danger that crackled in the air felt almost surreal.

What was happening?

‘Should I run?’ Wei WuXian considered seriously.

“Wei-sanren,” the man addressed him directly. His tone left no room for claiming a case of mistaken identity. “My master has requested your presence in the Nightless City.”

“Your master? And who might that be?” Wei WuXian asked, half stalling, half genuinely puzzled. It couldn’t possibly be...

“Sect Leader Wen RuoHan,” the man pronounced without inflection.

What was happening here, really?

Taken aback, Wei WuXian opened his mouth only to find himself at a loss for words. What could the QishanWen sect leader possibly want from him? Why send such a high-level subordinate specifically to “invite” him? After all, he was only a rogue cultivator. Even to make an example of him, this was...

His time to reply ran out. “If you will not come of your own will, you will be brought by force,” the man said. “My master’s will is absolute.”

He raised an arm, and more red-robed figures began to emerge from the surrounding area, forming a circle around him and Wei WuXian. Judging from their swords and the way they carried themselves, they were all cultivators of some skill, from a generation above Wei WuXian.

What was happening? What was this?

He genuinely did not understand. Even though he had been warned several times, by several people, to be careful, he hadn’t taken any of it seriously. He hadn’t taken seriously the sign of danger at Phoenix Mountain either — the fact that something about his technique, about him, had drawn the Wen sect’s attention. And if there was something they wanted, QishanWen would not hesitate to take it.

But even if he didn’t understand, Wei WuXian instinctively knew he couldn’t go with them.

There was someone waiting for him.

He laughed without humor. “But even so, I’m afraid I have to decline,” he said, a sharp smile on his lips. “I’ve got somewhere to be!”

Talismans appeared in his hand and shot outward, flashing and transforming into spectral soldiers that moved to intercept the encircling forces. The leader of the Wen group closed the distance directly, striking barehanded, but Suibian burst out of its scabbard to block the attack.

In the blink of an eye, the lonely road became the site of a pitched battle.

Unfortunately, it was one Wei WuXian would lose.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: :))) Writing actual plot feels weird!

As a reminder, I only know canon up to chapter 79 because that’s how far the translations had gotten at the time. Since I had to go and look this up, Wen ZhuLiu is the Core-Melting Hand guy. He was originally Zhao ZhuLiu but changed his surname for reasons. Wen Xu is Wen RuoHan’s elder son. Wen RuoHan is, of course, the Wen sect leader.

~.~.~

Chapter 23: No Choice I

Wei WuXian woke up groggy and vaguely nauseous, but most importantly, unsure of where he was.

The room around him was opulent but impersonal, and also completely unfamiliar, not just in details but in style as well. From the general layout, he could guess this was a guest room of some sort in a sect — a major one, going by the quality of the decor. And from all the red, it could only be...

Wen. His memory cleared.

He had been confronted while alone on the road and ordered to obediently come to the Nightless City. Naturally, he had fought instead. But it seemed he had lost.

Closing his eyes for a moment, Wei WuXian raised a hand to rub at his temples. The fight itself insistently remained a blur, but he thought he had given it a good shot, despite being outnumbered by opponents who were no small fry. However, that just raised more questions — why would people of that caliber be sent to apprehend just one rogue cultivator? No matter how he dug in his admittedly weak memory, Wei WuXian couldn’t remember doing anything to offend QishanWen to that extent.

Or... was it not a matter of offending them?

He was in a guest room, despite the guards he could tell waited outside the door, not a dungeon. For that matter, his injuries had been treated, even if all his belongings had been confiscated at the same time. And even during that battle, he had admittedly received an unexpected advantage — none of his opponents attempted any lethal strikes. They had certainly been ordered not to kill him or, it seemed, even harm him too greatly.

But if not to make an example of him, what could QishanWen — Wen RuoHan — want from Wei WuXian?

Well, he wouldn’t find out anything sitting around.

Now that he had been captured, the only thing he could do was proceed.

Rolling off the bed and to his feet, Wei WuXian stretched to check the state of his body. Confirming that his injuries had been treated, he strolled casually to the door. He had guessed that it was locked, so he simply knocked sharply against the wood.

“Hey! Can I get some food in here? This is really such poor service!” he called out something at random. “Is this how you treat a guest?”

There wasn’t a response, but he could hear one of the guards hurry away — to alert their superiors that he was awake, most likely.

“I expected better from the greatest sect in the cultivation world!” Wei WuXian went on, his voice carrying even as he turned away and started circling the room. Nothing useful there, naturally, but coming to a small table, he didn’t hesitate to let his sleeve brush over the vase on it, sending it smashing against the floor with a loud crash. “I can’t believe QishanWen’s hospitality amounts to just this! And the decor is terrible!”

...This was incredibly petty, maybe too petty even for Wei WuXian. Maybe.

He wasn’t going to stop, however.

For a while longer, Wei WuXian continued to make noise and a mess of the room. Almost nothing remained untouched by the time the door opened, and a middle aged cultivator in QishanWen robes stepped inside.

Behind him, Wei WuXian could see what looked like an entire squad, so rushing him and making a break for it wouldn't work.

The man’s expression twitched at the sight of Wei WuXian’s handiwork, but he only said, “Wei-sanren. Follow me, Sect Leader Wen will see you now.”

Refusing wouldn't accomplish anything, so this time, Wei WuXian followed ‘obediently.’

They were doubtlessly in the Nightless City sect headquarters, the Palace of Sun and Flames. When they passed between buildings, he could see the famous three flags and twelve ridge, eight heavenly beast roof of the main hall. Subtly, the energy of powerful large-scale arrays permeated the air. Servants and cultivator hurried about on their duties, but none dared to come close — due to the impressive security escort following Wei WuXian and his guide. And outside the compound would be the city itself and its heavy guard...

This was the very definition of ‘behind enemy lines.’

Despite his former position as YunmengJiang’s head disciple, Wei WuXian had never seen Wen RuoHan up close. However, there was no mistaking the identity of the man who sat at the head of the opulent audience room he had been lead to.

He looked young, younger than Jiang FengMian or Lan QiRen, showing the depth of his cultivation. His presence suffused the room like a physical weight.

It was no surprise that the man who had guided Wei WuXian bowed so low that he was almost bent in half and backed away as soon as he was able. Even Wei WuXian, who had genuinely intended to cause trouble to his last breath, found himself struggling to even look Wen RuoHan in the face. His golden headpiece glimmered as Wen RuoHan tilted his head and smiled.

“Welcome,” he said with obvious amusement at the fact that Wei WuXian had not come of his own will, “to my city.”

None of the scathing remarks Wei WuXian had come up with left his mouth.

With those cold eyes on him, he knew — this was nothing like facing Madam Yu, or any other figure. If he recklessly ran his mouth here, he really would die.

He didn’t want that. He didn’t want to die. He wasn’t afraid, but...

He wanted to see Lan WangJi again.

It felt like a stab with a cold blade, the sharp wish to just go back to Cloud Recesses. If there was even the slightest chance that he could run later, then surviving for now was worth it. If nothing else... if nothing else, he wouldn’t leave Lan Zhan waiting uselessly for someone who wouldn’t return!

Swallowing heavily, Wei WuXian ducked his head to hide his grimace. “It’s... a pleasure,” he managed.

Wen RuoHan laughed. The rumors described his temperament as mercurial, smiling and laughing one moment, slaughtering indiscriminately the next. He was a beast with no human heart or concept of attachment. There were whispers doubting his human blood, too.

“ZhuLiu told me you took out almost everyone in the... heh, ‘escort’ I sent,” Wen RuoHan said. “Even he struggled to bring you in. Of course, I had him hold back. It would be a shame if your core was destroyed. You are a rare talent, after all.”

...That sounded almost like...

“I have an interest in those like you,” the Wen sect leader went on, “the talented, whose strength shines through even when it has not been nurtured properly. He was like that too. Now, under me, he is the feared Core-Melting Hand. You will serve me as well, Wei WuXian.”

No.

Like hell. Never.

There was no option to refuse, of course. There was only being forced into cooperation, or death, if he proved too much trouble. How high could his value be, when he was just some clan-less rogue cultivator? But between those option... Wei WuXian thought of Lan WangJi standing at the gate, watching, waiting, and gritted his teeth.

“I’m... honored,” he forced out, “but the open road suits me more.”

“I don’t care,” Wen RuoHan said in the same amused, laughing tone. “You will work for QishanWen, if not for your own health and life, then for the sake of Lotus Pier.”

Wei WuXian’s head snapped up. “You—” He choked on his outrage and fear.

“Work hard, or all of YunmengJiang will be destroyed,” Wen RuoHan said, his smile widening.

“Impossible! YunmengJiang is one of the five great sects! Even you...” Wei WuXian started to protest, but the expression on Wen RuoHan’s face, the burning cold, unwavering air about him made the words die in his throat. Shoving away his gut-freezing terror, he pressed on, “Even QishanWen wouldn’t move against one of them—!”

Surely even the Wen sect would dare, surely—

“So you hadn’t heard.” Wen RuoHan’s eyes gleamed with sadistic enjoyment. “Cloud Recesses is already gone.”

Cloud Recesses...

“My son led our men to burn it all to the ground. There’s nothing left.”

...is already gone.

“That’s a lie!!” Wei WuXian roared.

His voice echoed in the empty chamber before fading away into silence. But inside his head was filled with incomprehensible noise. He was just being provoked and pressured, Wei WuXian tried to tell himself. This was all just a lie to force him to cooperate. Attacking a major sect was like declaring war, the others would surely retaliate. Even QishanWen wouldn’t... wouldn’t...

Cloud Recesses couldn’t be gone.

‘I’ll be waiting.’

“That’s a lie!” he repeated desperately. “You’re lying!!”

Wen RuoHan laughed at him, as if this reaction was everything he had hoped for. Reaching beside him, he held up something wrapped in dirty white cloth — a sword, judging by the shape. “Oh? So you need proof. Here,” he said, tossing it toward Wei WuXian, “Xu brought this back. It belonged to a particular little fool who tried to interfere.”

It was indeed a sword. It clanged against the floor and slid the last distance to stop at his feet. The white cloth had slipped open, trailing starkly against the black tiles. Inside was an even whiter sword.

He knew that sword. Even without seeing the inscription, he knew it.

It was Bichen.

It couldn’t be Bichen. It was impossible, it had to be a lie. But he would know this sword anywhere— Lan WangJi would never let himself be parted from it as long as he could still fight, so at the very least— It had to be a lie— It must have been true—

Wei WuXian’s legs had given out, and he dropped to his knees beside the dirty cloud-patterned cloth and the sword within. His hands were trembling as he reached out instinctively, his fingers running over the hilt and the scabbard. Even without seeing the blade, he could tell — this could only be Bichen.

It had belonged to... Had belonged...

His mind had gone blank, as if his consciousness flickered out completely for a moment.

The next thing he knew, he was on his feet. Running toward that man sitting so smugly in the jade chair, Bichen in his hands. His fingers closed around the hilt, and he pulled—

It wouldn’t draw.

He had only a split moment to be surprised. Then, a powerful force impacted against his body, sending him flying. Wen RuoHan hadn’t even moved, using only his spiritual energy to completely shut down Wei WuXian’s attack. The same power slammed into him again, hard enough that the black tiles crack under his back. Blood rose up in his chest, choking him as he struggled to hold it back.

Even when the pressure released, he could only cough and shudder.

Wen RuoHan’s voice came from somewhere far away, impossibly piercing and inescapable. He sounded like he was laughing again.

“If you make a fuss, the same thing will happen to Lotus Pier, and this time, every member of the sect will be put to the blade. Naturally, the same thing will happen if you try to escape, even through death. So think carefully and accept my offer, Wei WuXian.”

~.~.~

He was dragged away and thrown into a room — not the guest room he’d made a mess of, but a room at the top of a tower in one corner of the palace grounds, sparsely furnished and drafty. Servants followed, depositing stacks of paper on every surface, along with a supply of ink and brushes.

“Your first order is to write down all the techniques you have developed,” one of the Wen men told him, before turning away and departing. The iron doors slammed shut behind him, leaving Wei WuXian alone.

He hadn’t let go of Bichen, clutching it tightly even as his head spun and blood dribbled down his chin.

Too numb to feel, Wei WuXian could finally grasp at rational thought.

Bichen was not a legendary sword that could only be draw by its wielder. So it must have been sealed shut by the Wen sect, precisely in preparation for his reaction. From start to finish, that entire scene had been calculated.

If Wen RuoHan was truly interested in him, he must have known about Wei WuXian’s partnership with Lan WangJi. He must have known enough to expect such an explosive reaction, had baited it purposefully. All of it had been an act meant to pressure him into cooperation.

A sword was not a head. There was still a chance...

But that didn’t mean none of it wasn’t real. That threat — Lotus Pier would burn — was real.

The windows weren’t barred, letting through a brisk, cool breeze. But what did that matter? He couldn’t run, not without bringing disaster down on his family. He was trapped, and there was no longer any choice left for him to make.

Curling around the white sword, he thought, desperately like a prayer, ‘Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan...’

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: Why do I have to write Madam Yu?? (Because I made this outline for myself, there is literally no one else to blame lmao)

Also, this has come up in the comments a few times, but just to be clear, the entire subplot with the disciples being gathered up and sent to hunt the Xuanwu just doesn’t happen in this timeline. There’s no particular reason, but please assume that events shifted behind the scenes enough that it never came up.

~.~.~

Chapter 24: No Choice II

‘A QishanWen supervision office will be established in every city.’

This order was spread by the Wen sect. Considering that they had already claimed every hunting ground, this was perhaps the natural next step — to claim every city. But given that most major cities hosted a sect, and most sects kept their headquarters in a city, the true meaning of this order was to make every other sect directly subordinate to QishanWen.

There was little further pretense. In Yunmeng, Lotus Pier had been outright taken over and transformed into the Wen “supervision office.” Swarming the sect like locust, Wen troops had stripped away every carving of the nine petal lotus and every flag in their proud royal purple. Replacing them was an endless iteration of the red sun that seemed set to eclipse the entire cultivation world.

It was a step too far for QingheNie, who had rebelled against the occupation forces. Forced to abandon the Unclean Realm, they nonetheless continued to fight under Nie MingJue’s uncompromising, unwavering leadership.

Sometimes, most of the time, Jiang Cheng thought they had the right idea.

But he understood the weight of that decision. Pride and glory might be satisfied with rebellion, but how many lives would be lost? He was lucky not to be the one making that choice, so all he could do was grit his teeth and bow his head in accordance with his parents’ decision to bend their necks... for now.

He wasn’t sure how much longer Madam Yu could endure this kind of humiliation. If the forces sent that day to establish the supervision office had been any smaller, she would have almost certainly chosen to fight.

Unfortunately, the Wen troops had outnumbered them several fold, under the command of Wen Chao himself, along with his bodyguard, the Core-Melting Hand.

Even more unfortunately, they did not seem to be in any hurry to leave.

“Senior Brother! Senior Brother, please come quickly!”

Rushing at full speed, one of their disciples almost crashed into the doorway as he tried to turn into the room where Jiang Cheng had been looking over several reports. There was a deep furrow between his eyebrows when he looked up — the reports were of the casualties taken by their teams as the Wen troops forced them to act as bait and living shields on night hunts. It only deepened as he took in his junior’s harried, terrified expression.

“What is it?” Jiang Cheng asked, already rising to his feet.

“Please come quickly! It’s the fifth junior brother!” the disciple explained, in between gasping for breath. By the third word, they were already running back across the compound. “He was supposed to be serving Wen Chao today—”

He didn’t need to say anything else. It didn’t really matter what had happened — what meaningless nonsense Wen Chao had come up with as an excuse to abuse their disciples again.

To begin with, having a core disciple serving someone was already an insult. But it wasn’t enough for Wen Chao to force them into running menial errands for him. Without rhyme or reason or any purpose except his own sadistic amusement, he would eventually unavoidably cause some incident and use it as a pretext to berate or even punish the unfortunate soul serving him that day.

Their fifth junior brother was the youngest and the least able to avoid or smooth over Wen Chao’s little games.

When they arrived at the pier, the boy was already curled up on the boards, covering his head against the kicks raining down on him. Catching sight of Jiang Cheng, Wen Chao sneered. He knew his fun was over, so instead, he pulled his foot back and kicked the boy hard enough to send him tumbling into the water.

For a moment, rage choked Jiang Cheng. Desperately, he wished he was like Nie MingJue, like Wei WuXian — reckless enough to just punch Wen Chao in his smug, greasy face.

But he wasn’t. He knew his duty. He couldn’t let Lotus Pier become another Cloud Recesses.

Lips pressed together firmly, he pushed it down.

At least YunmengJiang disciples were all proficient swimmers. The fifth junior brother was safer in the water than on the pier.

“Second Master Wen,” Jiang Cheng said in a tone so even it surprised even him. He was getting used to it, he supposed. “Is something the matter?”

“Just the quality of your Jiang disciples!” Wen Chao mocked. “Too slow! You’re all completely useless! This is why we have to re-educate you all and guide you on the right path!”

The only thing they had been allowed to keep were their sect uniforms, and now, every purple-clad figure was trembling with outrage.

Jiang Cheng stared at Wen Chao with a chilly, emotionless gaze, just a touch too long to be dismissed yet not long enough to give him time to complain. Ducking his head, Jiang Cheng said, mildly, “It is the honor of these juniors to receive guidance.”

It would be. This just wasn’t guidance, it was nothing more than despotism.

Faced with that kind of passive, unassuming response, Wen Chao could do nothing but turn up his nose and strut off, his bodyguard and his mistress trailing behind him. Wang LingJiao had already latched onto his arm, murmuring something in her coquestish voice, but Wen ZhuLiu stared at Jiang Cheng for a moment longer, his cold eyes piercing and judging. In the end, he too could only depart — for now. Only then, Jiang Cheng raised his head, his expression murderous.

These were the sort of words he imagined his father using. It was his father’s unreadable, detached demeanor Jiang Cheng tried to channel just then.

But when the time came, he would strike as ruthlessly and relentlessly as his mother.

~.~.~

Every evening, if at all possible, their family gathered in YanLi’s quarters. Her new quarters — the best thing they could do to protect her was minimize the interactions she had with the Wen people, so YanLi had been relocated to a separate, nearly inaccessible courtyard and did not venture outside. For her own safety, Jiang YanLi became a princess in a tower.

She didn’t complain even once. Her smile was gentle and welcoming every evening, making something in Jiang Cheng’s gut relax just for a little while. This was the only place in Lotus Pier that still felt like home or safety.

But even so, he knew she must have hated it. For her sake too, they had to do something.

That thought lingered in his mind as the two of them waited for their parents.

For once, Jiang FengMian and Madam Yu arrived together. No... it was only that they had come into YanLi’s rooms together. Judging by their expressions — the ones that meant the aftermath of an argument — they had taken the opportunity to discuss something first. The heavy wards around YanLi’s courtyard meant it was also the most private place in Lotus Pier, the only one they could still be sure wasn’t being monitored.

Jiang Cheng wondered if they had already decided on how the sect would proceed. Or had they disagreed endlessly again? There was no way to tell, and if he had been younger, Jiang Cheng would have bowed his head and awaited their instructions.

But he wasn’t a child anymore. At this critical time, he wanted to at least do something to support them. He wanted them to count on him, at least a little. He wanted to do something, of his own power, for once.

“Are we really going to just continue like this?” he blurted out. Without realizing, he was on his feet, his fists clenched at his side. His tone was overflowing with all the frustration had had been holding back for so long.

“Fool boy! What do you think we can do?” his mother snapped at him, her expression furious and bitter. Her feelings were naturally the same as his, but there was no one else she could lash out on.

“My lady,” Jiang FengMian rebuked lightly. But even his usually patient face was slowly becoming lined with coldness and exhaustion. To Jiang Cheng, “If we act now, it’ll be nothing but a slaughter. We can only wait for an opportune moment.”

“Like what? And what’ll we do then?” Jiang Cheng said. “We should at least have a plan!”

His parents exchanged a look.

“Mother, Father...” YanLi spoke up unexpectedly, her voice speaking the same thing he was thinking, “please let us help.”

Another look as the silence stretched on.

And then, finally—

Jiang FengMian smiled. There was a strange, bittersweet tilt to it. “You’ve grown up, haven’t you? I wanted to protect you a little longer...”

“We’re not children anymore,” Jiang Cheng said. “So... please let us protect our home too.”

Slowly, his father nodded. But it was his mother’s eyes that he met. Uncharacteristically, she remained silent, her expression for once the same as her husband’s. Well, she still looked like she wanted to hit him upside the head too, Jiang Cheng thought, his lips twitching in momentary amusement.

“We are waiting until QishanWen judges us to be docile, enough to grown complacent in their monitoring,” Jiang FengMian said quietly. It sounded like something he would have come up with, and Madam Yu’s scornful sneer implied she did not like it at all. “In particular, I doubt we can act while Wen Chao and Wen ZhuLiu are here.”

“Why is he still here? Wen Chao, I mean,” Jiang Cheng wondered. “He’s the sect leader’s son. Wen Xu was sent to QingheNie, that makes sense. He’s fighting them even now... But why is Wen Chao staying here? For so long? Wouldn’t it make more sense for him to be at LanlingJin?”

Their YunmengJiang might have been one of the strongest sects, but it still came behind LanlingJin in wealth, numbers and overall power. Why had they been circled out to receive special attention from Wen RuoHan’s second son?

Jiang FengMian shot a look at his wife. There was an entire argument in that one silent glance. Angrily, Madam Yu clicked her tongue.

“It’s because of A-Xian,” YanLi said quietly. “Isn’t it?”

“What? Wei WuXian?” Jiang Cheng repeated in disbelief. He glanced between the three of them, seeing the truth of it in their expression but completely unable to understand how his brother could possibly be related to this.

“The new talismans and techniques you told me they’re using, they’re A-Xian’s,” YanLi explained. Her head was lowered, gaze on her lap, but he could see the way her expression darkened. “A-Xian wouldn’t agree to work for them... So they must have be threatening him with our safety.”

“But that’s...” It sounded ridiculous. Wei WuXian was just Wei WuXian. Sure, he was always coming up with some new thing, but all for the sake of causing trouble. Was it really something QishanWen would care about enough to go to these lengths?

...Hadn’t they already used his techniques, at the Phoenix Mountain hunt?

Jiang FengMian nodded. “Those talismans that create a spirit soldier, for example,” he said, pulling out a slip of paper. “I’m certain they’re from A-Xian.”

To everyone’s surprise, YanLi held out her hand and accepted the talisman when Jiang FengMian handed it over uncertainly. From her sleeve, she pulled out another one — over her shoulder, Jiang Cheng could tell they were very similar.

“Yes, I recognize it,” YanLi confirmed, in her quiet, soft voice. “This is A-Xian’s. But compared to what he taught me, it’s much weaker and takes much more power from the user.” Tucking her own talisman — because it must have been one she had drawn herself — back into her sleeve, she pursed her lips. “Even now, A-Xian is doing his best to fight back.”

“Taught you?” Madam Yu’s voice rose in an unhappy pitch. “A-Li, what have you been doing with that... that little ruffian?”

YanLi didn’t raise her head, but she didn’t shy away either. “At first, he just showed me how to send letter to him, but I asked to learn more,” she said quietly. “I apologize for being disloyal to the teachings of our sect and accept any punishment you see fit, Madam.”

Jiang Cheng couldn’t help the faint shudder that went down his spine at her ruthless daring. He hadn’t realized his sister had it in her to twist the situation like that. Obviously, “loyalty” to YunmengJiang’s techniques was not the issue here — the issue was that Madam Yu certainly believed anything that came from Wei WuXian to be dangerous and hated YanLi interacting with him to begin with.

Personally, he didn’t doubt that Wei WuXian would have made sure anything he taught YanLi was safe, no matter how reckless he might be with his own wellbeing. But their mother...

Gritting her teeth, Madam Yu shot a cutting glare at her husband, as if it was all his fault their children had become so rebellious. Certainly, YanLi’s passive but unyielding posture, head bowed but back straight, resembled Jiang FengMian’s own distant, calm demeanor. Jiang Cheng had always known he took after their mother, but this was the first time he thought that YanLi was truly their father’s daughter, the daughter of a sect leader.

In the end, Madam Yu had no choice but to concede. Scowling, she pointedly turned away and let the matter drop.

“Then we’re at a deadlock. They will not depart at all,” Jiang FengMian said mildly, turning them back on topic.

“Our fate depending on that stupid boy...” Madam Yu ground her teeth, twisting the crackling ring on her finger. “Intolerable!”

Closing his eyes, Jiang Cheng tried to think. He felt lightheaded as the situation turned and changed in his mind, based on what he had learned. They were glorified hostages. What did that really mean? Wei WuXian was being held by the Wen sect against his will. What could they do?

They couldn’t help him. That much, Jiang Cheng had to agree with cold pragmatism. Most likely, Wei WuXian was deep in QishanWen territory, likely even at the Nightless City itself. They had no way of reaching him. So they could only wait.

“But we still need to prepare,” he thought aloud. “Even if he’s scared for us, Wei WuXian will only be able to go along with their orders for so long. Eventually, he’ll refuse to cooperate or he’ll try to fool them too much. And then, those Wen dogs will try to use us to force him into obeying. We have to be ready.”

“Ready — ready for what?” Madam Yu sneered. But the way she rubbed her thumb over Zidian made it clear she knew, and she was more than willing.

She had always hated bowing and scraping to those she saw as her inferiors.

“To fight,” Jiang FengMian said simply.

“But can we? Fight them?” YanLi wondered quietly. “Aren’t they so much stronger?”

Jiang FengMian glanced at her and, seeing her pained look, laid a hand on her shoulder. “We have to, A-Li,” he said. “There’s only two possible outcomes. We fight, or we become their slaves. There was never going to be a possibility of compromise or negotiation, once QishanWen went this far. Either we obey them until we are ground into dust, or they burn us down like Cloud Recesses. At the very least, we will not go quietly.”

“Good,” Madam Yu said, short and sharp.

“Good,” Jiang Cheng agreed, his fists clenching.

Silently, reluctantly, YanLi nodded.

So it was decided.

“We’ve already agreed to escape and join with QingheNie,” Jiang FengMian said. “A-Cheng, we’ll be counting on you to help pass evacuation orders to everyone...”

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: Originally, the first scene of this chapter was supposed to be at the end of last chapter, but I felt it fit better thematically with the and of this chapter... which ended up being a longish scene on its own....

~.~.~

Chapter 25: Alone

The Jiang family spoke late into the night, going over the details of the preparations they would make. They had to make the best use possible of the time they had before their hand was forced, and all of it had to be done covertly, without the Wen troops realizing anything was amiss. Wen Chao was arrogant and stupid, but even he and his mistress had the cunning of the greedy, and Wen ZhuLiu was genuinely dangerous.

One misstep, and Lotus Pier would pay the price.

However, none of it was for Jiang YanLi. Trapped within her tower, she couldn’t even interact with anyone else among their sect, not that she would have inspired much confidence in them even if she tried. She lacked the charisma of a leader, she knew. To the sect, she was just their leader’s meek daughter, to be protected but never relied upon.

She couldn’t do a single thing to help anyone.

A white paper bird fluttered through her open window, but Jiang YanLi knew better than to get her hopes up. Even before it was in her hands, she could tell that this was her own letter, returning to her after failing to reach its intended recipient.

All of her letters to Wei WuXian had returned since news of Cloud Recesses reached them. At least she knew it wasn’t because he was no longer among the living. Rather, it was likely due to some barrier he was locked behind.

Closing her eyes, she took a deep, steadying breath. She had to be calm.

But this, at least, was one thing she could do. The one task she had been entrusted with by her family was to send a message to the Nie sect, to coordinate their eventual alliance.

Her father had drafted the text of the message itself, but as she was the user of the technique, Jiang YanLi had to copy it out by her own hand. Her calligraphy, at least, had always been carefully trained, and her brush moved smoothly over the paper by the light of the flickering lamps.

When she was finished, she ran one finger along the length of the message talisman’s inscriptions, and the papers shivered before smoothly folding themselves into the shape of a bird. It fluttered its wings, circling, before darting out the window and into the night sky.

Jiang FengMian had mentioned potentially contacting the other sects as well — LanlingJin, first and foremost, but also the smaller ones who were wavering uncertainly between their hatred of QishanWen and their fear.

The only way they could overcome the Wen was by joining forces, he said.

The great sects... Defeating the Wen... A war.

A-Xian...

She couldn’t do anything for him at all. Her little brother, alone and caught up in this terrible struggle, nothing more than a pawn that was all too easily forgotten as everyone looked higher and higher. No matter how much her father and her brother cared for him, in the end, they had many other priorities. Wei WuXian was alone.

He was...

Suddenly, Jiang YanLi reached for her brush again, pulling out a new sheet of paper. She had remembered something very important.

In her mind, wasn’t there someone she always imagined standing beside Wei WuXian. That person...

~.~.~

When Cloud Recesses burned, many of GusuLan had scattered to the winds. Those who could not or chose not to run were herded to where the nearest supervision office was to be set up, which QishanWen declared to be the new cultivation center of the Gusu area.

They obeyed with stunned numbness. No one had expected the Wen to go this far, and now... Their home was gone. Their sect leader was gravely injured. His eldest son was missing. Lan WangJi himself was bedridden with a broken leg. Under the weight of his brother’s state and his nephew’s disappearance, Lan QiRen bent his head and submitted. Even he was only human.

The only relief was that Wen Xu had departed almost immediately along with his personal forces, believing them to be sufficiently pacified. He was not wrong. No one had the spirit or the strength to openly rebel.

That didn’t mean they were truly compliant.

Even as they bowed their heads and worked to build the supervision office and the barracks around it, they quietly diverted part of the materials back to the mountains, to that burned place. Those not on duty quietly cleared away the rubble and began to prepare the foundations.

Cloud Recesses would be rebuilt, no matter how long it took.

Those nominally wounded, like Lan WangJi, took the opportunity to over-report their injuries and claim convalescence, while sneaking off to aid in the reconstruction efforts. However, Lan WangJi’s own attempts to do the same were met with a fair amount of resistance.

“Second Master Lan... we’ll finish here,” one of the braver disciples ventured. “Perhaps you could go rest?”

The boy cowered as Lan WangJi turned a cold look toward him. The rest of their small group had been pretending to work, but they were obviously watching from the corner of their eyes. In fact, he had felt their eyes on his back the entire time he was here, since morning. It was the same every day.

Was it because he was now that much closer to the sect leader’s seat? In the past, no one had bothered with him much, focusing their attention on his older brother, aided by Lan XiChen’s far more approachable demeanor. But now, father and brother were...

“I’m fine,” Lan WangJi said stonily.

When the other disciple lingered, shooting a look full of doubt, he narrowed his eyes. And yet, even that was not enough, only making the other boy wring his hands worriedly.

Finally abandoning his pretense at working, a second disciple made his way over and stood at the other’s shoulder for support. “Second Master Lan, your leg’s trembling,” he said far more bluntly. “Please sit down. Master Lan Qiren will take it out on us if you collapse.”

In the background, the other disciples had frozen in shock at his daring, and his friend stared at him in horrified amazement.

Lan WangJi glared.

They were all covered in sweat, dirt clinging to their skin and clothes. In their current situation, no one could maintain their pristine white robes, though for some, the grass and mud stains were a welcome cover for the soot. They were right, Lan WangJi’s body was trembling with exhaustion and dull pain, and he was a far sight from the pure Two Jades of their esteemed clan.

Was that why everyone refused to back down, despite always keeping away before in the face of his frosty demeanor?

Or... it wasn’t that he didn’t believe his sect to be capable of caring. They weren’t heartless ice sculptures, full of nothing but rules and righteous judgement, no matter what others might belligerently whisper.

Was this their genuine concern?

Lan WangJi might have pressed on against common sense and logic, but he couldn’t throw those honest feelings back in their faces. Closing his eyes for a moment, he could only concede.

Worriedly, the first disciple made a motion to step forward and help him sit down, but his blunt friend pulled him back. They could at least afford Second Master Lan that much remaining dignity. Following his lead, everyone reluctantly moved back to their tasks, but they couldn’t keep from shooting worried glances at Lan WangJi’s back as he limped away.

He didn’t go far, but he wanted to be alone.

He was always alone now, of course — Father in a coma, Brother missing, Uncle worn by exhaustion and grief until he couldn’t see anything except his duties to their fragmented sect. Even in the crowded barracks, there was a distance between him and the other disciples, despite their shared pain.

Was it better or worse that Wei WuXian wasn’t here?

At least he might be safe. But with his brash, heroic character, would he really remain that way? Or would he fight somewhere, alone, and...

The uncertainty hurt. Everything hurt.

When he first caught sight of a flutter of wings in the distance, Lan WangJi thought it was his imagination — wishful thinking. Having received this kind of letter before, he recognize the shape and motions of Wei WuXian’s paper bird, different from any living one.

But the white shape didn’t disappear. It circled closer and banked down toward him.

Lan WangJi stumbled to his feet, reaching for it frantically. It unfurled in his hands.

However, even before he read a single word, he could tell the handwriting was all wrong. His heart plummeted.

‘To Second Master Lan,

‘My name is Jiang YanLi. We met once in passing. Please forgive my presumption in writing to you, but there are some matters I must relay to you.

‘Right now, Wei WuXian is being held against his will by the Wen sect and forced to work for them. I’m sure you will recognize the techniques they use as his, but please know that it is not his wish to cooperate with them. It is only for the sake of protecting us at Lotus Pier...

‘There is nothing we can do for him. It may be the same for you. But if you have the chance, please, I beg you to help him.’

The Wen forces had used nothing outside their usual techniques and their overwhelming power to destroy Cloud Recesses. But it had been weeks since then. Lan WangJi had claimed injury and had no opportunity to see QishanWen in combat. No one else had said anything either, but... Had there been something off in their expressions, in the way they treated him? Some of them had hunted with Wei WuXian in the past, and his techniques were memorable.

Had they thought Wei WuXian betrayed them? No, could it have been called them, when he was only a rogue cultivator? Rather, had they thought Wei WuXian betrayed the friendship between the two of them?

Friendship, and...

Lan WangJi bit his lip, almost hard enough to draw blood, hard enough to hurt and block out useless thoughts.

It didn’t matter. What mattered was that Wei WuXian had been taken by QishanWen. He was locked up somewhere, alone and likely hurt and scared for his family. And yet, Jiang YanLi was right — there was nothing they could do for him.

He could barely walk up the mountain, much less travel to Qishan to search for him. And his sect... his father, his brother, his uncle...

What was he supposed to do?

But the letter hadn’t ended. It looked like she had hesitated for a long time whether to continue, leaving a wide gap in the writing, but Jiang YanLi’s neat, soft calligraphy flowed on.

‘There is one more thing.

‘I know what happened at Cloud Recesses. I know that you must be suffering right now. Perhaps you even feel you are alone.

‘This may be hollow coming from someone like me, but please know that isn’t true. You are not alone.

‘Even though you are apart now, you and Wei Ying will surely meet again. My brother cares for you so deeply, he will find his way back to you. Please keep him in your heart until that day.

‘Jiang Yan—’

The last character of her name smeared as a drop of water landed on the paper. Another and another followed it, making the ink run. Quickly, Lan WangJi reached up to wipe the tears from his face, but they continued to stream down his cheeks.

There was no one of the empty mountainside to see his shoulders shake with sobs. There was no one to comfort him either.

But somehow, he felt less alone than before. Somewhere, someone is thinking of you — that would be enough for now. It would have to be enough.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: I’m not really happy with this chapter because there’s so much meandering narration, but I also don’t want to actually write out these scenes in full detail, so... ....I’m not enjoying this. Let’s get through this nasty plot stuff fast ;^;

~.~.~

Chapter 26: No Regret I

There hadn’t been much in the tower room to begin with, but Wei WuXian made sure to destroy all of it. The table, the bed, and especially the banners, he broke and tore all of it to pieces.

They had provided him with a change of clothing, but he just used up all the available ink to paint black over the red flame patterns on them.

There was no reprisal for his vandalism. More importantly, no one tried to clean it up and thus had no chance of noticing the subtle array he had set up beneath the debris. It’s only purpose was to keep messenger birds from homing in him — he absolutely couldn’t let the Wen find out he had taught Jiang YanLi some of his technique, and he was certain the guards were watching the sky for anything flying in or out.

That was fine. Wei WuXian could easily find other ways.

Before, he had always held back a little, when it came to trying out new techniques. Between Lan WangJi, who would start to look disapproving if he wasn’t careful enough, and the thought of whether he might be able to teach his shijie these things, Wei WuXian had abandoned many ideas for being too risky or too uncertain. There had been no reason to push, in the end. He hadn’t been in a hurry to accomplish anything.

It was different now. There was no reason to hold back any longer.

But even so, he still needed to buy some time. For that, he pretended to cooperated.

Not too much — no one would have believed it if he went along meekly. He would make his handwriting ineligible, he would almost finish a manual only to spill water all over it and ruin the work, he would claim to be lightheaded from the lack of sun to remember this or that technique.

Naturally, he would be punished for these things. Being denied food and water, beatings, even being whipped or worse, he didn’t care about those things. And then, when he pushed the Wen elders left in charge of overseeing him too far, they would threaten to drag someone from Lotus Pier to the Nightless City and execute them in front of him. Then, Wei WuXian would unwilling bow his head and ‘cooperate’... for a while, before starting the entire cycle again.

It was a very predictable pattern. And if you gave people what they expected, they became complacent.

When he finally produced results after being beaten down, physically and in spirit, they didn’t suspect that he had intentionally weakened the techniques, made them more unstable and harder to use. It was the only thing he could do to weaken QishanWen right now.

...The Wen elders watching didn’t suspect, but Wen RuoHan...

Wei WuXian had been summoned before him only once more so far. Wen RuoHan had said little, only studying Wei WuXian’s face as if he could read something within his stony, forcefully blank expression and continuing to smile in that laughing, arrogant way. He had gestured with one sleeve, and an invisible vice closed around Wei WuXian’s neck, choking him.

“I know you can do better than this,” Wen RuoHan said. Then, he let go.

In other words, there was a limit to how long he could continue to drag his feet before someone else was made to pay the price.

Wei WuXian could imagine the scene vividly — one day, being dragged into that black and gold chamber, only to see some familiar figure in purple being forced to kneel on the other end. Would it be one of his junior brothers? Or would they go directly for his family — YanLi? Uncle Jiang?

“You were warned,” Wen RuoHan would say, his smile widening mockingly. “You should have known better than to play games.”

The details changed each time he had this nightmare, just like the exact face that would stare back at him, pale and wide eyed with terror. Sometimes, their neck would snap with a single, brutal twist. Sometimes, their throat would be cut. Sometimes, it would take longer — screams would echo to dark ceiling far above, drowning Wei WuXian’s pleas and promises to do better.

He could image the scene vividly because it was all too possible.

In fact, Wei WuXian had no doubt that it would occur eventually. And once they reached that point, there would be nothing he could do to stop it, not with Wen RuoHan’s character.

Every time he remembered this hidden time limit, he couldn’t stop himself from breaking out in cold sweat. His hands would tremble, his breathing stuttering.

‘Before then, I will...’ he swore to himself. ‘Before then...’

The only thing that could calm him, even a little, was running his fingertips over Bichen’s pure white sheath and hilt. They were still alive, he would remind himself. His family and also Lan WangJi — the news might have been scattered and fragmented, but there were rumors enough for Wei WuXian to know that much at least.

They were still alive. And before anything could happen to them, he would destroy the Wen.

~.~.~

The servants bringing him food and more supplies were always different, perhaps in an attempt to keep him from influencing them somehow. If any of the ever rotating faces appeared a second time, Wei WuXian didn’t recognize them by that point.

But he recognized the young man who shuffled nervously into his tower room with a case of medical supplies, glancing around with tremulous fear and a surprising hint of barely repressed aversion.

“I’ve seen you before,” Wei WuXian said, propping one arm up against a tall stack of paper for lack of any surviving furniture. Even saying it aloud though, he couldn’t remember where.

The young man glanced frantically back at the thick iron door that had closed behind him and, turning back, gestured for Wei WuXian to keep silent.

“...Nevermind. All you Wen dogs look the same to me!” Wei WuXian corrected loudly. His voice was contemptuous, but his expression had shifted to an amused sort of curiosity, eyebrows arching up. The Wen disciple bobbed his head in a grateful bow, mouthing thanks as he edged toward Wei WuXian.

“Um, it’s alright, Young Master Wei...” His voice, when he spoke, was just as timid as his appearance. “I’m Wei Ning. My family specializes in medicine, I’m here to help. W-where are you hurt...?”

Lips twisting up in a humorless smirk, Wei WuXian gestured to himself. Nowadays, he always looked like a mess. What was the point of doing up his hair or even properly tying up his robes? Who was he going to impress? But now his appearance wasn’t just dishevelled. It was obvious he had been “roughed up,” his clothing torn in places, blood at the corner of his mouth, welts and bruises across his chest beneath his partly open robes.

Wen Ning paled, his mouth pressing into a thin line. He really was familiar, but from where?

“Well, this stuff’ll heal up on its own,” Wei WuXian said casually. It wasn’t like his cultivation was sealed. In the end, what kept him from trying to escape wasn’t the guards or the locked door and barred windows. He waved one hand. “And they didn’t touch my hands, since I need those to write... But it’s not like I need to be walking anywhere, so...”

He gestured to his legs.

At first glance, there was nothing wrong. The bone hadn’t broken skin, so there was no blood, and his limbs thankfully hadn’t bent in some grotesquely wrong way. But with his knowledge of anatomy, Wen Ning could easily see that the position of Wei WuXian’s legs wasn’t quite right — because he had dragged himself over a little ways after the latest beating.

“Your legs... are broken?” he asked, already knowing the answer. His gentle face twisted in anger.

“Right! Could you split them? It’d be a shame if they healed wrong,” Wei WuXian said casually, as if the matter barely concerned him. But even so, he couldn’t entirely dismiss the pain, and cold sweat dotted his forehead.

They were in the middle of another cycle of disobedience, beatings, continued refusal to obey, threats to his loved ones, and finally capitulation. This kind of treatment was to be expected, although this was the first time he had earned himself broken bones beyond just his ribs. It wasn’t even that he had been particularly recalcitrant. It was just that the Wen elders monitoring him claimed he wasn’t working fast enough.

Standing abruptly, Wen Ning rushed to the door and pounded on it until the guards outside opened up. In hushed, barely controlled tones, he demanded additional supplies.

When the door slammed shut again, footsteps outside hurrying away, he stood there a while longer, his shoulders trembling as he tried to rein in his feelings. Finally, he moved to kneel beside Wei WuXian again. With careful hands and without lifting his head, he began to treat his other injuries.

“We m-met before,” Wen Ning explained quietly. “You saved me from a man-eating forest. And... you gave me some advice.”

Wei WuXian’s expression brightened. Searching his memory, he did recall such an incident. It was just that he and Lan WangJi had helped so many people, civilians and cultivators alike, that the names and faces blurred together. “I gave you advice? It must have been good then,” he chuckled.

“It was,” Wen Ning said. “I, I’ve never forgotten it, and I’ve been thinking about it all this time.”

He didn’t continue immediately, pausing to apply a balm to the welts across Wei WuXian’s chest. It burned, making him wince, but Wen Ning’s hands were steady and surprisingly sure. He really did know medicine well. His treatments had been good in the forest too.

“You told me that making a choice is not as hard as it sounds,” Wen Ning went on finally, as he smoothly secured the bandages he’d wrapped around Wei WuXian’s torso. His hands didn’t stop or pause as he began to mix some dark, foul-smelling medicine. “That it was just a matter of having no other options left to try. You can’t stay. You can’t fix it. So the only thing left is...”

Slowly, that conversation was coming back to Wei WuXian, and he looked down at Wen Ning’s lowered head with a complicated expression.

It was easy to think of the Wen sect as nothing but enemies who threatened all he cared about. But among them there were certainly many like Wen Ning, who had never asked for or wanted what Wen RuoHan was doing. Wei WuXian had always done what he thought was right, without allowing himself hesitation or doubt, but he knew it was not a way everyone could live.

No, even for him... wasn’t he being forced into committing atrocities by proxy, through the techniques he passed to the Wen? What right did he have to judge the moral compromises of others?

Someone as gentle as Wen Ning, he supposed, could hardly endure being forced to participate in his sect’s cruel actions. But even if he left QishanWen, with the state of the world, would his lot really be improved? Or would everyone out there, filled with hatred for the Wen, turn on him?

Wei WuXian sighed. “But if you make that choice, you can’t live the life you always thought you’d have now. You’ll be separated from everyone, you’ll lose your place in the world...” he said, recalling faintly his own words back then. “It’s scary, and it hurts.”

“Yes,” Wen Ning agreed. He smiled ruefully. “I’m very scared, and just thinking about it is painful. I can’t even say whether I’ll come to regret it someday. But...” He finally looked up, meeting Wei WuXian’s gaze evenly. “I know I will regret it if I don’t make this choice.”

It wasn’t that he wanted to leave. It was just that he couldn’t stay.

Wei WuXian began to nod — only to freeze abruptly as Wen Ning went on.

“That’s why I’m going to help you escape,” he said with conviction.

Wait. ‘He wasn’t talking about leaving his sect?’ Wei WuXian realized he had misunderstood. Of course, it wasn’t like Wen Ning would be able to remain with his sect after smuggling out a prisoner, not while keeping his life, so leaving would be necessary, but... that was obviously not his main concern.

Instead, it was Wei WuXian he was doing this for. The clear concern and deep determination in his gaze as Wen Ning looked at him left Wei WuXian tongue-tied. Clearing his throat awkwardly, he rubbed the back of his neck.

“You... you don’t need to do that,” he said.

Wen Ning shook his head. “If I just leave you here, I’ll regret it for the rest of my life,” he declared with conviction.

That... unable to meet his gaze, Wei WuXian looked away. There was a pleasant heat flickering in his chest, all the more precious for how cold and alone he had felt for so long. He hadn’t dared to hope that someone would come to the rescue. He hadn’t wanted them to risk themselves, of course, but he had also not dared to believe they would choose to. It was... good, to receive someone’s kindness like that.

And yet, he knew it wasn’t possible.

“Thank you,” he said, “but I can’t.”

“Because of your legs?” Wen Ning guessed, his brows furrowing together. “I-I might not be able to carry you, that’s true... but I can get you healed quickly! And then—”

Wei WuXian shook his head. “Because of Lotus Pier,” he explained. “I’m not working for these scum because I’m afraid of what they’ll do to me. It’s because they have everyone in YunmengJiang hostage. Lotus Pier will burn like Cloud Recesses if I don’t cooperate — and obviously, if I run.”

It wasn’t that he hadn’t considered wild alternatives — like trying to send a message to the Jiang family, begging them to run. But he had no idea what the situation in Yunmeng was like. How closely were they guarded? Would they be able to escape? Would they even be willing to try? Madam Yu and even Uncle Jiang had their pride as the sect leaders. Abandoning everything on just his word...

And what of the sect’s disciples and people? How could all of them possibly escape at the same time?

The risk was just too great.

It was hard to say how much of that Wen Ning realized, but he understood the situation. Biting his lip painfully, hands clenched in his lap, he could only bow his head.

“It’s okay,” Wei WuXian said, smiling. Reaching out, he patted his trembling shoulder in a poor gesture of comfort. “It’s enough that you offered, you know? It really... means a lot to me.”

And it did, this unexpected kindness. He’d have to remember to warn him, when the time came.

Silently, Wen Ning shook his head, his ponytail swaying. His unbound hair hung loose, hiding his face, but the drops of water falling onto his hands gave away his emotions.

It wasn’t enough, not at all.

~.~.~

Long after Wen Ning had departed, in the dark after the day’s end, something wiggled up from between the floorboards of Wei WuXian’s room. Silently, it slithered up to where he lay prone among piles of sheets and paper and pressed up against his hand.

It was another paper doll, but its body had a long, serpentine shape with markings all along its crinkled tail. It had been traveling along the ground and between cracks all day, and now returned to report its findings.

The guards were certainly watching the sky and anyone going in or out, but no one ever remembered to watch their feet. Despite appearing confined, Wei WuXian was not helpless or idle.

He sat up slowly, careful of the splints Wen Ning had put in place, and reached for a clean piece of paper. His brush moved deftly across the sheet, a map taking shape, but Wei WuXian’s attention was barely on it.

This routine was something he repeated every day, so this map was long since ingrained in his memory. This was the layout of the Nightless City, the palace, the landmarks, the mountain peaks and the gorges running all through it, the largest bridges.

And once it was complete, the talisman serpent slithered off and touched the top of its head to the paper. The black ink on its body flowed off, instead becoming a different pattern across one section of the map.

“So it’s like that...” Wei WuXian murmured.

What he’d directed the paper doll to investigate, what similar dolls had studied every day, was a fraction of the arrays protecting QishanWen’s home territory. Formations for monitoring arrivals, blocking flying swords, repelling spirits, purifying resentment, restricting departures, even an ancient formation subtly influencing the weather, it was all wound together into a complex net across the Nightless city.

Pulling away the limp shedded skin of his paper doll, Wei WuXian began to write again. The rest of the array spells he had discovered thus far filled the page like mad scribbles. There was only a small section of the map still blank and unexplored.

It wouldn’t be long now.

He looked over the map one more time, committing it to memory. Then, satisfied, he set it ablaze with a small spark of qi.

It wouldn’t be long now...

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: ....Ok tbh this is really un-fun to write. I want to go back to dumb flirting ;__; So these plot sections are going to be a bit rushed. Or, alternatively, they drag on too long lmao. This chapter was a nightmare.

~.~.~

Chapter 27: No Regret II

When Wen Ning came a second time, Wei WuXian regarded him with open interest, but his tone was casually disrespectful as he called out, for the guards’ benefit, “It’s about time! The pain medicine wore off ages go! Give me some more, will you?”

“I-I can’t do that, Young Master Wei! I-it would be bad for your health...” Wen Ning stammered quite believably, picking his way through the mess while the door slammed shut behind him.

‘What happened?’ Wei WuXian held up a piece of paper with a crudely written question. Once it was read, he reduced it to ash with a flick of his hand.

Although it had been a while, he didn’t think his legs were entirely healed yet. Although he supposed that Wen Ning had somehow managed to convince his guards that he needed a checkup, there had to be a reason why he’d risk that — some change in the situation.

Since there were papers and brushes lying everywhere, Wen Ning easily acquired some for himself to reply. However, his hand hesitated over the paper. His expression was drawn with worry. Finally, he wrote out something and shifted it over toward Wei WuXian and reached for another sheet.

‘New prisoner,’ the first sheet said.

‘Gathering rebel forces,’ the second said.

‘Held here, Flame Palace,’ the third said.

By then, Wei WuXian had begun to frown as well because he could tell that Wen Ning was stalling. He twisted his torso awkwardly to peer over his shoulder. Finally, on the fourth sheet, a name was being written.

The first character made Wei WuXian’s chest tighten in fear.

‘Lan—

—XiChen’

But even if it was not the name he feared, it was horrifying in its own way.

This... he couldn’t sit by and do nothing.

~.~.~

Unlike Wei WuXian, whose ‘prison’ had started out as sparse but comfortable enough and whose situation could be mistaken for tolerable on the good days, those held in the cells below the Flame Palace were meant to spend every moment in suffering and misery and terror. Cold, harsh and echoing with screams, the dungeon was the prelude for the agony they would experience at within the palace torture chambers.

The “Flame Palace” — the hidden side of the Sun Palace that was QishanWen’s official, polished face — was Wen RuoHan’s playground. It was where he collected thousands of torture devices and where he put them to use.

Naturally, it was the destination of any rebel prisoners.

There weren’t many to begin with. They were willing to fight to the death, rather than be taken prisoner by the Wen dogs. And knowing of Wen RuoHan’s tastes, death was a better choice. Once captured, many rebels chose suicide rather than allow themselves to be taken to the Nightless City.

As one of the few leaders of the small, flickering rebel forces, Lan XiChen couldn’t afford to trade away his life so easily.

Dying with defiance might be glorious, but who would be left to struggle against the Wen? Who else could travel between the sects in secret, reasoning with them both calmly and firmly, urging them to action? Nie MingJue, who disdained those he saw as cowards? Jin GuangShan, the foremost of those cowards? The small sect leaders who had stepped forward to join their cause but lacked the power to convince others? His own family, left behind in the ruins of their home, constantly under watch?

There was still too much to be done. He couldn’t leave the world in this state.

That, and... his heart was still reeling from what had occurred, too stunned to make such a decision in time. Knocked unconscious, he had come to already chained up within the dark cell and with no choice but to await his fate.

Lowering his head and closing his eyes, Lan XiChen breathed out slowly.

The one who had treated his wounds — a member of Wen Ning’s branch family, in fact, which was how he had known so quickly — had also been ordered to block Lan XiChen’s qi circulation via acupressure points. His cultivation was only dulled until it was almost imperceptible, not gone, and it would return on its own in time, but the emptiness in his chest left him cold and more frightened than he would ever show.

His arms ached, chained in place above his head. Stripped of his outer robes along with his positions, he couldn’t help shivering, the chill from the stone having long since seeped into his numb limbs.

The scent of old blood in the air was nauseating.

He was the future leader of the GusuLan sect, and he bore that responsibility with pride. He had to be strong. But...

In the very bottom of his heart, Lan XiChen couldn’t help cry out quietly — for help, or even just the reassurance that he hadn’t made a terrible, irrevocable mistake.

He had wished desperately to return home many times, but never as desperately as then.

With his nerves twisted up with dread, it was impossible for him not to notice when someone stepped into the dark hallways and slowly approached his cell. Lan XiChen raised his head, smoothing out his expression and preparing himself to put on a strong, unshakeable front. No matter if it was a guard checking on him, some arrogant fool come to gloat, or Wen RuoHan himself come to drag him to the torture chamber, he wouldn’t show weakness, no matter what.

...It was a young man, glancing around furtively with every step.

Although he was dressed in QishanWen’s white and red robes, his entire bearing was different from every other Wen soldier Lan XiChen had seen. His eyes were soft, and his brow furrowed with distress as he took in Lan XiChen’s state.

“Th-this really is just...” he muttered, biting his lip. Sharply, he shook his head and hurried to the cell door.

However, what he pulled out was not the key — not for a lock, but for the locking array on the bars. Instead, it was a paper talisman. With careful motions, he smoothed it over the metal plate of the lock and activated the spell.

The cell door swung open, the paper talisman splitting neatly down the middle. There was no alarm, but this was clearly not the intended way of opening the cell.

‘What... what is this?’ Lan XiChen wondered.

Before he could say anything, if he could have said anything at all, the unknown young man stepped into the cell. His eyes darted to the shackles around Lan XiChen’s wrists, then up to the chains holding him place. His hands closed around the sword at his waist.

The nameless blade flashed as it was drawn.

So it was like that?

“P-please don’t move,” the young man warned Lan XiChen earnestly. His expression was still caught between distress and determination. It was an improbable thought, but Lan XiChen wondered if he was trying to be kind — granting him a quick death.

Even so, he couldn’t help pulling the chains taut, trying to escape or at least brace himself.

The sword gleamed, slicing through the air—

—and through iron chains. Even nameless, in the hands of a cultivator without any particular inclination toward the blade, it easily cleaved them apart. The heavy length and the broken links clattered to the stone floor.

Between his shock and his full weight suddenly resting on his numb legs, Lan XiChen swayed and nearly collapsed.

“C-careful!” Having sheathed his sword again, the strange Wen disciple — if he was even Wen after all — rushed forward to support him. “Ah... please excuse me,” he murmured, before his hands carefully moved along Lan XiChen’s back.

Each touch was light and impersonally efficient, professional. And with each tap, a familiar, welcome warmth returned to Lan XiChen’s body. Even as his thoughts spun in confusion, he breathed a silent sigh of relief. With his qi circulating freely again, he was able to straighten, and the unknown young man obligingly took a step back.

Instead, the strange Wen disciple turned his attention to the shackles still on Lan XiChen’s hands. Unlike the ordinary chains, they were reinforced specifically to hold even a cultivator... but it seemed the lock was just a simple one. Fishing around in his sleeves he pulled out another strange talisman, which folded itself into a needle-like shape and wedged its tip into the keyhole. A bit of wiggling, and the shackles snapped open as well.

“Okay. Okay,” the Wen disciple muttered to himself. “Then next is... here, put these on.”

From a Qiankun pouch at his waist, he pulled out a set of QishanWen outer robes and boots, holding them out to Lan XiChen.

But Lan XiChen made no move to accept them.

“...Who are you?” he finally asked what he had been wondering all along. “What are you trying to accomplish?”

The other young man blinked at him, wide-eyed.

“Oh! Oh, I’m sorry!” he exclaimed suddenly, ducking his head and flushing in embarrassment and clutching at the folded robes in his hands. “My name is Wen Ning. I’m going to help you escape!”

He said it very earnestly. In the first place, it hadn’t been his intention to act mysteriously. It was simply that they didn’t have time to loiter around, so, in a rush, he had forgotten that Lan XiChen had no way of knowing who he was or what plans had been made.

Wen...

‘If you’re with the Wen sect, why are you doing this?’ Lan XiChen wanted to ask. He couldn’t imagine an answer.

...No, he could. It was simple — a trick.

The despair that comes after hope crumbles will be that much greater. Cultivators could withstand great physical pain, but their hearts were not always as resilient. Rumors of Wen RuoHan suggested he preferred purely physical torture, the blood and the screams, but that didn’t mean he or others among the Wen leadership wouldn’t draw pleasure from crushing Lan XiChen’s spirit with false hope and betrayal.

Betrayal was truly... the most painful.

It was hard to say how much of those thoughts ‘Wen Ning’ saw on Lan XiChen’s face. His tense expression deepening, he only said, “P-please, we have to hurry! If someone find us here... Young Master Wei is waiting for us!”

Instinctively reacting to that name, Lan XiChen finally allowed himself to accept the clothing and began to dress in distracted, automatic motions.

If it was Wei WuXian, it would explain the strange talismans — the one that was a lockpick, the one that had opened the cell’s locking array, its halves neatly sealing back together as if it had never been split in two and leaving the cell locked as if it had never been opened, once they stepped out. The one Wen Ning carefully affixed to Lan XiChen’s back, supposedly to hide his presence.

If it had been Wei WuXian himself, he would have slapped it on with the most sinister grin he could manage, Lan XiChen thought suddenly.

He slapped a hand over his mouth as he almost let out a startled laugh that would have been doubtlessly tinged with hysteria. His shoulders shook, and Lan XiChen could no longer tell the reason.

Had he almost laughed from the sudden sense of relief at the familiar name?

But, did he really have a reason to be relieved to begin with?

Even if it was true, even if it was Wei WuXian, those same strange talismans... Hadn’t he seen them so many times recently, in the hands of their enemies?

Lan XiChen’s expression twisted, pained.

He really hated it... thinking, feeling like this.

~.~.~

Wei WuXian was waiting for them in the shadow of an abandoned building at the edge of the palace grounds.

He looked like he had returned to his former self, robes straightened, hair pulled up in a messy tail. The contrast made it all the more obvious how gaunt his face had become during his time in the Nightless City, how deep the bags under his eyes had grown.

But now, he didn’t look like a man who had suffered coercion, and Lan XiChen hated both thinking it in the first place and that he was unable to dismiss that thought.

“Wen Ning, Eldest Brother Lan,” Wei WuXian greeted them as they approached. His eyes darted over Lan XiChen, trying to judge his condition. “Any trouble?”

Wen Ning shook his head. “N-no, no one noticed us,” he said. “And it worked just like you said.”

“Good,” Wei WuXian nodded sharply. Turning to Lan XiChen again, he grimaced. “But getting you out of the city’s barrier formation is about all I can help with. From there, the only plan we’ve got is just fly as fast as you can, as far as you can. Something like a safe hiding place... I’m sorry, but you’ll be on your own. Can you handle it?”

Lan XiChen didn’t answer, head lowered with a complicated expression.

“Once you’re outside Qishan, look after Wen Ning, okay?” Wei WuXian went on, although his eyes lingered on Lan XiChen uneasily. “He can’t stay here after this, but there’ll be plenty of idiots who try to take out all their anger with the Wen sect on him. He’s kind of a wimp, so he’ll just take it. But if he’s with Eldest Brother Lan, I—”

At this, Wen Ning had frowned, wanting to protest. They had already argued — in silent writing that became progressively more haphazard — about whether or not Wen Ning would leave Qishan and whether or not Wei WuXian would stay.

There was no point in repeating that argument, but even so, it was hard for Wen Ning to stay quiet.

However, someone else interrupted Wei WuXian — Lan XiChen.

“Young Master Wei.” At the sound of his voice, Wei WuXian obediently fell silent, but his gaze was sharp and intent. Lan XiChen hesitated. “Do you think...” he said slowly, “that I trust too easily?”

He couldn’t ask, ‘Why should I trust you?’ He couldn’t bring himself to say it, especially not to this person. But he also couldn’t trust blindly anymore. If he did that, it would be like he had learned nothing at all. Making a mistake was one thing, but refusing to acknowledge it was the kind of willful blindness that he couldn’t allow in himself, for the future of the Lan sect... and for his own sake.

Wei WuXian’s expression flickered almost imperceptibly, as if he could guess everything from just that ambiguous question.

Maybe he could. Maybe this chain of event was obvious to everyone from the start.

“I promise,” Wei WuXian said firmly, “I would never betray Lan Zhan. That’s why I’m going to get you of here.”

It wasn’t an answer to the question Lan XiChen had asked. Instead, like always, Wei WuXian cut straight past all subtlety.

“I’m not gonna lie and say I haven’t been working for the Wen sect,” he went on. “But it’s not because I want to. I hate it. It’s just that, for now, it’s the only way I can protect Lotus Pier. The moment I can...” his eyes narrowed, an ugly snarl on his lips, “I’ll tear them apart!”

“It’s not... It’s not that I mean to doubt you,” Lan XiChen said weakly. “But I...” He closed his eyes, pained. “I’m sorry.”

Wei WuXian shook his head. “It’s fine. You didn’t do anything wrong,” he repeated what he had said at Phoenix Mountain. He hesitated, but looking at Lan XiChen’s downtrodden, exhausted figure, he knew he couldn’t just leave it like that. “If you ask me...” Wei WuXian went on awkwardly, “it’s not a bad thing to believe in people. I’m grateful that you believed in me from the start. Not a lot of people would have done that, and it meant a lot to me.”

Raising his head a little, Lan XiChen glanced at Wei WuXian. “That was just... for WangJi’s sake,” he said quietly.

Wei WuXian’s eyebrows arched up faintly, but he didn’t contradict Lan XiChen — even though both of them knew that the support he’d offered Wei WuXian had gone far beyond what could be written off so easily.

“And even then, wasn’t that what caused all of this? All my good intentions...” Lan XiChen said, his lips thinning bitterly. Wasn’t it, indirectly, even his fault that Wei WuXian was in this situation? If he hadn’t done so many unnecessary things, perhaps the Wen sect would have never taken notice of him.

Second guessing, especially in that time and in that place, was pointless. He needed to focus and act. Not just his sect, but the future of the entire cultivation world depended on his actions. And yet, now, Lan XiChen couldn’t trust his own sense of right and wrong, which had guided him for so long.

Hadn’t he made a grave mistake, leading him here?

What else had he been wrong about?

And worst of all... He had never truly doubted Wei WuXian. He did believe from the start that he had some reason for cooperating with the Wen. But hearing him confirm it, Lan XiChen couldn’t help hoping — that Meng Yao had a reason too.

A reason to sell him out to their enemies and send him to Wen RuoHan’s torture palace? How foolish was he to still hope?

Anguish creeping into his voice, Lan XiChen couldn’t help wondering, “Is it that I am too naive to be a sect leader? At this rate, will I lead the Lan sect to ruin?”

‘Big Brother...’ Wei WuXian thought helplessly, watching him.

This was Lan WangJi’s older brother. More than that, this was someone he had come to personally care about — Big Brother, who was always smiling, gentle and kind, and slightly airheaded. He had always been reliable in his own amiable way, and even when they first met, his aura had been of someone who would become a strong leader.

But like Lan Zhan, he had lost his home and his father. He had been pursued and forced into hiding, and kept fighting against an overwhelming opponent.

And now, the trust he extended so openly had been betrayed. Of course he started to doubt. Of course he was hurt.

Wei WuXian reached out instinctively, only to hesitate and draw back once he remembered his own situation.

All he could was move closer, letting Lan XiChen lean in to draw some semblance of comfort from his presence — from, at least for now, not being alone. His hand hovered over Lan XiChen’s back without coming into contact. Touching was, in the end, still ‘not complete.’

Looking away, over his shoulder, Wei WuXian said quietly, “No one would blame you, if you stopped trusting others. But if you do... it’s true that you might avoid being betrayed and maybe you’ll be able to protect your sect better that way. But instead, there’ll probably be people who end up worse off because you couldn’t give them your trust, even though they wouldn’t have betrayed it. Either way, in the end, someone will suffer. Which one is better... it’s something only you can decide. Well, that’s what I think.”

He was one of those who had benefited from Lan XiChen’s trust, back when everyone must have told him how foolish he was to believe in Wei WuXian. That why he thought it would be regrettable if Lan XiChen changed. Because, in the future, there would certainly be others like him, for whom that trust would mean so much.

But asking Lan XiChen to keep trusting even after being hurt was unfair to him. That decision could only be made by him.

Quietly, Lan XiChen drew a shuddering breath and reached up to wipe at his face. Finally glancing up to see Wei WuXian carefully not looking his way, he couldn’t help smiling wanly.

“...Oh,” Lan XiChen said softly.

It was still painful. But he could see it clearly, like that. It wasn’t that he had trusted blindly. He had just felt they needed his trust. If he had chosen not to believe in them back then, he would have regretted it. It wouldn’t have been right. That wasn’t the sort of person, the sort of leader he wanted to be.

In the end, he already knew the path he needed to take.

“...Thank you.”

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: btw dumping Wen Ning on Lan XiChen is a very important step to Best End. (lol @ two people going “this could be a good pairing.” Actually, I think so too! It’s not actually included in this fic tho.)

To be honest, I didn’t actually come up with an alternate timeline or background situation for the venerated triad. So don’t ask me what’s going on there. I don’t have the mental energy to work it out, I’m very sorry.

~.~.~

Chapter 28: The Only Way

Afterwards, they moved swiftly, though with as much caution as possible. Even with Wen robes, the “disguise” wouldn’t hold to scrutiny, and the talismans for presence concealment that Wei WuXian provided were not all-powerful, not to mention that he had only been able to test them in passing. Their main purpose was to let them slip out of the barrier formations around the city — that function he hadn’t been able to test at all, actually.

...He couldn’t help feeling that this escape plan was rather slipshod. But improvisation was the best they could do. There was no time to come with something better, not when Wen RuoHan could decide to begin his “fun” at any time.

But with Wen Ning as a guide, it went smoothly enough. He had, after all, always intended to convince Wei WuXian to escape with him, so he had begun to make his own preparations. And at this point, Wei WuXian knew the arrays of the city better than even the elders tasked with maintaining them. After an indeterminable length of time, walking briskly through the back streets and abandoned blocks, they finally reached the edge of the barrier formation.

“This is as far as I go,” Wei WuXian said, as they came to a stop at a worn, isolated bridge at the end of an abandoned section of the city. It stretched across another deep gorge that marked the boundary of the Nightless City, and on the other side was a narrow mountain path, disappearing into the night mist.

According to Wen Ning’s sympathetic branch members, this path was no longer patrolled and had been all but forgotten as a means of leaving the city. If their luck held out, they would be able to make it undetected far enough to take to the sky.

Which reminded him...

“Here,” Wei WuXian said, holding out the sword he had been carrying.

Accepting it, Lan XiChen unwound the black cloth it was wrapped in — for stealth, given how its white body would have drawn the eye in the dark. “This is...”

It was Bichen.

“Give it back to Lan Zhan, okay?” Wei WuXian said. “And tell him not to do anything reckless. I’ll see him again soon.”

Lan XiChen nodded, but he couldn’t help frowning too. “I will,” he promised. “It seems there is no use in asking about your intentions here... But even so, be careful, WuXian.”

He and Wen Ning had already started to turn away by the time Wei WuXian realized that something about his words had been off. Big Brother, using his name like that...! Wasn’t that the same way he addressed Lan WangJi? His startled, protesting squawk brought a flash of a smile to Lan XiChen’s face.

But they had not taken two steps across the bridge when another voice came from behind them.

“Wait! Please wait!”

The three of them tensed — only now realizing that they had, foolishly, let down their guard, so close to escaping — and spun around to face the approaching threat.

Lan XiChen’s hand had dropped to Bichen’s hilt.

But before he could draw the sword, thankfully long since unsealed by Wei WuXian, he froze. His eyes widened, fingers twitching over the white grip. Unlike Lan XiChen, Wen Ning and Wei WuXian only watched warily. They didn't recognize the man approaching them — short, clad in Wen robes, and most importantly, seemingly alone.

“Please wait!” he called out again, slowing as he came closer and spreading his hands in a gesture of peace. “Please, let me explain!”

Then, to their shock, he dropped to his knees and lowered his head until he was fully prostrated across the rough path. “Please, it’s not what you think! Let me explain, ZeWu-Jun!”

Suddenly, Wei WuXian thought he knew what was going on. Not particularly subtly, he moved to put himself between the two.

“Meng Yao, you...” Lan XiChen’s expression and tone were deeply conflicted, but he made no move to attack or retreat.

Meng Yao did not raise his head. “I’m so glad I caught up to you...” he went on quickly, seizing that small opening. His voice was muffled against the ground. “When I made it to the Flame Palace and you were already gone, I was so scared I wouldn’t have the chance to tell you the truth!”

There was no reply. The silence stretched on.

Glancing back at Lan XiChen, Wei WuXian was surprised when their eyes met. He wasn’t sure what to do — Smile? Nod encouragingly? But it seemed that nothing was necessary, as Lan XiChen looked away, his expression smoothing out.

“Then I’d like to hear your truth...” he said, with a complicated smile, as he slowly straightened, his hand dropping back to his side, “...A-Yao.”

Wei WuXian’s expression twitched violently. That way of addressing him, just how close were they?

And if Wei WuXian had guessed the situation right, how much would it have hurt?

...But it wasn’t like he had a right to start acting distrustful. Wasn’t he himself working for the Wen? He had “reasons,” and this Meng Yao claimed to have a “truth.” Just as long as it wasn’t buying time for reinforcements, Wei WuXian couldn’t say anything.

“Thank you, ZeWu-Jun, thank you for giving me a chance...” Meng Yao stammered. Slowly, he raised his head and sat up but didn’t stand, remaining kneeling on the ground. “I know what it looked like... But it wasn’t that I betrayed you! It was the only way to save our lives and give you a chance to escape later! That’s why... I knocked you out and pretended to defect.”

That was about what Wei WuXian had expected to explain both how Lan XiChen had ended up in Wen RuoHan’s dungeon and why he had been so shaken. From the start, it could only have been betrayal.

As for whether this “truth” was really true...

“...We were being pursued, and the rest of our group had been killed, I know that much,” Lan XiChen said. His face was startlingly neutral.

“We had already fallen into QishanWen’s trap,” Meng Yao explained. “There was a squad waiting for us at the other end of the gorge, and there was no other way out. We wouldn’t have been able to escape. That’s why...” He had bowed his head, trembling. But now he looked up, his expression begging. “But I would never leave you with them! Tonight, I was going to help you escape, but you were already gone. I’m glad...” He smiled, tearfully.

So that’s how it was.

The timing might have seemed coincidental on the surface, but it made sense, in a way. Lan XiChen hadn’t been in the Nightless City for long, so this was pretty much the first opportunity to break him out.

If there was anything suspicious, it was—

“So they just took you at your word about defecting and let you join QishanWen, just like that?” Wei WuXian pointed out, frowning. Well, this guy seemed to have quite the silver tongue, so it wasn't terribly surprising he talked his way in, but... “And let you run around as you pleased, so you could stage a jailbreak without anyone following you?”

Meng Yao smiled wryly. “Naturally, it’s a test,” he said.

Giving him enough rope to hang himself — would he betray QishanWen once he had the opportunity? Admittedly, Wen RuoHan seemed to favor that tactic. Wei WuXian had also been given a rather large degree of ‘freedom’ to act out.

But in his case, there was a powerful threat hanging over him.

“You... were you followed after all?” Wei WuXian wondered, his eyes darting over Meng Yao’s figure as if searching for some hidden tracking array.

“I can only applaud your skills in overcoming both the Flame Palace and the barrier formations around the city... But I have my own ways as well,” Meng Yao said. “The truth is, I've considered becoming a double-agent for some time now, so I made certain preparations.”

“...You’re planning to stay here,” Wei WuXian guessed.

Ignoring the two shocked looks aimed at him, Meng Yao smiled and nodded. “We need someone on the inside,” he said, his expression growing serious. “The Wen sect is just too strong. This is the best thing I can do to support our cause. And... I can’t hope to be forgiven by that person, but...”

“A-Yao...” The impartial facade Lan XiChen had tried to maintain crumbled, and he took a step toward his friend.

“Stop.” Wei WuXian held up one arm. However, realizing what it sounded like, he quickly corrected, “It’s not that. But we’re at the boundary of the arrays. If you move back and forth, I don’t know what’ll happen. To the concealment talismans, I mean.”

“Ah... yes, of course,” Lan XiChen agreed quietly, drawing back. “But, A-Yao... you don’t have to do this. I can’t even imagine how much danger you’ll be in.”

“ZeWu-Jun, please don’t worry,” Meng Yao said with a smile. “The only thing I can hope for is that I’ll be forgiven, by you and by ChiFeng-Jun.”

But at this point, was it even a possibility that Lan XiChen wouldn’t forgive him? They had been talking long enough that there was little chance of some trap. And no matter how betrayed and hurt Lan XiChen had felt, wasn’t this enough repayment and explanation, especially for someone as naturally kind as Lan WangJi’s older brother?

How could he not forgive him?

It was a good thing. But somehow it also felt a little queasy.

Lan XiChen smiled. “Of course, A-Yao,” he said.

“You should go,” Wei WuXian spoke up. His tone was firm and heavy, enough to make the others look at him with uncertainty. “You should leave right now. Otherwise, I can’t guarantee your life.”

“I appreciate your concern, Wei-sanren, but you don’t need to worry about me,” Meng Yao repeated, regaining his composure first. “I will doubtlessly be suspected, but as long as there is no direct proof and I make myself useful, Wen RuoHan will still make use of me. That’s the kind of man he is.”

Internally, Wei WuXian didn’t disagree. Wen RuoHan was very sure of his power, prioritizing his own entertainment over sound strategy and driven by his unstable emotions. He was brutally smart, no doubt about it, but he was also just brutal. He had allowed Wei WuXian the appearance of freedom purely to enjoy watching him struggle.

But at the same time, wasn’t Meng Yao glossing over things too much?

The only way he could sufficiently throw the suspicion off himself would be by throwing it on someone else. Wen RuoHan would doubtlessly enjoy watching that kind of ruthless backstabbing. In this case, Wen Ning was a convenient scapegoat, but a member of the same branch family had been the one to tell him about Lan XiChen’s presence after treating his injuries. That person would also be implicated — and likely killed, if they didn’t manage to escape in time. At least Wen Ning had warned them, but even so...

In the same vein, Wei WuXian doubted that Meng Yao’s “defection” had been as simple as handing over Lan XiChen. No matter how good his bluffing skills, he would have needed someone on the other side to vouch for his intention of changing sides, someone he had established contact with ahead of time — as he said, he had been considering this for a while.

...It was probably going too far to wonder whether the entire situation had been set up. The risk, involving Lan XiChen, was just too high to be worth it.

But even so, despite acting so soft and regretful now, this Meng Yao was already playing a deep, ugly game. He was not such a simple, righteous person.

—Not that any of this was Wei WuXian’s business, now that he was sure that Lan XiChen would be able to escape. He didn’t have the strength or the power to spend on worrying for others. The only thing left for him to say was this single warning.

“You need to leave,” Wei WuXian repeated. “Or you’ll die here, in this snake pit — along with the Wen sect.”

Wen Ning flinched, making a soft sound for the first time in this long conversation that he had silently stood apart from. His eyes were pained as he looked at Wei WuXian, but he didn’t protest. Even he couldn’t bring himself to plead clemency for his sect. All he could do was tell those closest to him to leave the Nightless City.

No one quite knew what to say to this declaration.

“You have a lot of confidence,” Meng Yao commented finally. “But even for you, this might be difficult, Wei-sanren. Do you have a way of achieving this? If so, I will do everything in my power to assist you. Wouldn’t that be the best way?”

Wei WuXian only shook his head — not in disagreement, but because he gave up.

“Do as you will,” he said, turning away. “But I won’t be responsible for your life.”

And, having said his piece, he cut the flow of qi to the talisman.

His figure wavered and melted away, leaving behind only a paper doll floating at the edge of the bridge. Even as it began to drift toward the ground, its edges curled, blackening, and it crumbled into spent ash.

Wei WuXian had never been there at all.

~.~.~

Opening his eyes, Wei WuXian stared up at the shadows across the ceiling of his tower room.

With a groan and a grimace, he reached for the bowl of water and cloth he had left nearby and sloppily started to wash off the ink drawn across his chest beneath his open robes. The technique had worked rather well, but his muscles were all sore from lying still for so long and his head felt over-sensitive.

Idly, he wondered if Lan XiChen would be able to convince Meng Yao to leave after all.

He didn’t think so, even though he couldn’t entirely explain why. There had been a certain determination there, something beyond just a nebulous forgiveness from ChiFeng-Jun Nie MingJue, beyond doing everything for the cause of defeating the Wen. Something almost desperate.

But in the end... it didn’t matter.

He wouldn’t stop now, not even if it might mean killing a friend Lan WangJi’s brother cared about so much. He wouldn’t have chosen this method to begin with, if there had been another way.

Sitting up, he absently scrounged up a blank piece of paper and a brush. His hand moved without any conscious thought, forming the map and the barrier arrays that were now burned into his memory. He hadn’t found out anything new this night, but it didn’t matter. There was only a small sliver of blank space left.

And then... biting his finger, Wei WuXian added an extra crimson mark onto the array, then another and another. Then, he stared at his handiwork, judging his alterations with narrowed eyes. Not quite there yet, but this too was almost complete.

Only a little longer, and then — the Nightless City would never see another day again.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: OK, finally proper action! We’re on the road to climax finally!! (Kinda, anyway at least there’s something other than boring plot and suffering now. Readers in the future, if you lasted this long, I applaud you.)

Also, lmao I keep forgetting that transportation talismans are a thing. So that's why they're omitted, if anyone wondered. 

~.~.~

Chapter 29: ‘Impossible’

Jiang Cheng’s heart was pounding. It had been pounding non-stop, blood rushing in his veins and in his ears, since that night.

His father had sat stone-faced and completely still for a long time, before he finally opened his eyes and said, “Enough. It’s time.”

His mother had clicked her tongue, narrowing her eyes. But she held back what she wanted to say — that always with him, it came down to Wei WuXian. The person sitting across from YanLi, who had given them the news that served as the impetus, might have been Lan XiChen, but it always came down to Wei WuXian in the end.

“Then—? We’re finally going to do it?” Jiang Cheng had demanded impatiently.

Jiang FengMian didn’t smile. His expression was completely controlled, hard and unreadable, as he nodded. It was the face of an unshakable leader. Beside him, Madam Yu looked even more fiery than usual by contrast. “It’s about time!” she snapped, sneering. “We’ve bowed to those Wen dogs long enough!”

“Then I will liaison with the other forces,” Lan XiChen said. “It will be an honor to fight with YunmengJiang.”

There was a lot more Jiang Cheng wanted to ask him — about Wei WuXian, yes.

But in the end, Lan XiChen had already told them what little he knew, and the window for him to leave Lotus Pier undetected was small. There was no point in wasting it on asking him whether their brother was alright. Of course he wasn’t. How could he be?

The best thing they could do was put an end to this farce.

Jiang Cheng’s heart had been pounding in anticipation since then, since he led Lan XiChen out of the town again, since he saw the cold determination on his father’s face, even as he maintained his usual carefully blank mask around the Wen forces and even their own Jiang sect disciples.

After so many months of docile cooperation from YunmengJiang, the Wen troops had long since lowered their guard. They took no notice of the purple-clad disciples moving in twos and threes to their assigned roles. Slowly, the sun descended, dying the sky in vivid orange, red, violet.

The first scream pierced the tense, thick atmosphere.

“Fire! FIRE!!”

A dark column of smoke was already rising toward the sky.

It wasn’t a natural fire. There was no explosion, but within moments an entire row of buildings was engulfed, and it only continued to spread from there.

“What should we do?” the Wen disciples turned to their squad leader. But the man only turned up his nose and gestured sharply with his sleeves, one hand lifting to cover his nose and mouth.

“Why should we do anything? Leave it to that worthless trash to deal with,” he snapped. “We’re returning to the supervision office, it’s the only thing we need to care about.”

All across Lotus Pier, other Wen troops were doing the same. Their white-robed figures cut through the stream of YunmengJiang disciples rushing in the opposite direction, urgently and earnestly evacuating the civilians and forming bucket chains to the piers. The fires had broken out downwind, and it wasn’t long before the entire city was covered in dense, dark smoke. As the last of the daylight faded, visibility was all but gone, leaving only chaos and voices shouting in the flickering shadows.

Safe in the section of the sect compound that served as the supervision office, Wen Chao coughed and, wrinkling his nose, sneered at Jiang FengMian.

“How much longer will it take to deal with a simple fire?” he complained. Beside him, his mistress sniffled pathetically, making a big show of coughing into her sleeves. “I can’t sleep like this! Is this really the best your Jiang sect can do?”

Jiang FengMian’s expression didn’t waver under his jabs. “My apologies,” he said simply. “If Young Master Wen is concerned, we could activate the barriers around the sect hall. It may keep the smoke out as well.”

“Oh? Then do it!” Wen Chao ordered.

Turning around to call to relay the order, only to realize that there were no longer any YunmengJiang people in vicinity, Jiang FengMian frowned faintly. “Ah. Unfortunately, I don’t think we have the people to man the barrier array,” he said. “Everyone has been tasked with putting out the fire. Even my wife and children are down in the town.”

He paused, waiting, and for once Wen Chao did not disappoint.

“Then my Wen disciples can do it!” he snapped. Indeed, YunmengJiang had long since been forced to show the Wen ‘supervision’ forces how to operate their barrier formations. “You, over there! Go activate the barrier around this place!”

“If there is nothing else, I will take my leave. Even one more set of hands will help,” Jiang FengMian said, with a half-bow that carried no deference.

Wen Chao scoffed and waved at him to go. “A sect leader, mucking around in the ash and grime? Pathetic,” he muttered.

Only Wen ZhuLiu watched the Jiang sect leader depart with sharp, suspicious eyes. “Sir,” he addressed Wen Chao, “we need to monitor them more closely. Too many of our forces are here—”

“I don’t care. What are they going to do?” Wen Chao cut him off impatiently. “Burn down their own sect? It won’t work with the barrier up anyway. Attack us? As if they could! It’s impossible for those worthless weaklings to do anything to our Wen sect!” He sneered. “But if you’re so anxious, then go follow them! You’ll be more use than you are here. I’m tired of looking at your ugly face!”

Wen ZhuLiu gave no reaction to his scorn. This treatment, after all, did not matter, as long as he could carry out his orders. Taking this as permission to act on his own, he stepped back as well and headed out of the sect compound, swift and silent.

~.~.~

Jiang Cheng’s most important duty during their sect’s exodus was to accompany and protect his sister. This wasn’t just his opinion. His parents had said the same thing — although he was aware that, in their own way, that had been just a way of trying to protect them both. That if anything happened, went wrong in their plans, at least this way the siblings would have a chance to escape together.

He was old enough now to understand that his parents were not all powerful or infallible, and Jiang Cheng could only grit his teeth and order himself to focus, pushing away his fears.

The future of YunmengJiang and his sister’s safety were in his hands.

...But even so, he had refused to take Zidian.

When his mother placed it in his palm, Jiang Cheng had felt an indescribable chill, truly like someone had walked over his grave. Whether it was a premonition, superstition or instinct, he knew without a doubt that he could not accept it.

“You fool boy!” Madam Yu had cursed him as he forced Zidian back into her hands. “Do you not understand? If it is lost here—”

“I will find it and take it back,” he promised, his expression just as harshly determined. In fact, more than ever, mother and son looked like mirrors of each other. “If that happens. But until then, use it to protect Dad. For YunmengJiang. For us. We still need you, both of you.”

Madam Yu’s lips twitched. “Not as much as you think,” she said. With a rare gentleness, she brushed a few strands of hair from his face. “Even now, you're ready. You could lead YunmengJiang. But... not yet.” Smiling, she patted his cheek. “Protect your sister. And I will protect your fool of a father.”

Jiang Cheng smiled.

But the current him was grim-faced, as he and YanLi moved quickly through the smoke-filled dark streets.

The fire had already formed a wall cutting Lotus Pier in two, and they had to travel a long way around to get to the other side — to put it between them and the sect compound. It had been easier earlier on, before the fire spread, but there had been a special task that had taken them a while to complete.

Hidden under YanLi’s flowing robes were several particularly large Qiankun pouches... containing almost the entire sect treasury.

They wouldn’t leave the Wen a single thing. Not one disciple, not one treasure, not Lotus Pier.

The streets were largely empty, the townspeople long since evacuated in every direction, the Jiang disciples supposedly by the water fighting the flames, most of the Wen forces retreating back into the sect compound. But unfortunately, not entirely empty — there were no people, but there was something else.

A trio of ghostly soldiers rounded the corner up ahead, their flat, mask-like faces and empty eye sockets eerie in the smoky gloom.

“They sent so many of those things alone...?” YanLi muttered, her tense expression darkening.

Rushing through the abandoned city, they had seen several other such patrolling groups pass by. Not one them had included a human.

Although the spirit soldiers summoned by Wei WuXian’s technique were somewhat autonomous and capable of distinguishing friend from foe, YanLi was well aware how limited their intelligence really was. They were never meant to act alone, without supervision.

The reason why became easily obvious as the spirit soldiers spotted them. All three froze for a moment, ‘staring’ with their empty eyes. Their forms shuddered — and they drew their swords to attack.

There was no way to talk to these things, or to plead mercy. If the ones who had run into them were civilians, they would have certainly been killed. Even other Jiang disciples might have been injured. Sending the spirit soldiers out on patrol alone was simply laziness and a lack of basic regard for life on the part of the Wen sect.

Sneering, Jiang Cheng moved to draw Sandu, but YanLi was faster. A talisman darted out of her hand.

One hand sign, and another spectral soldier smashed into the trio of attackers.

Even to Jiang Cheng’s eyes, the difference between the two versions of the same technique was obvious. Not only was its form somehow sharper and more distinct, but YanLi’s single soldier dominated its three opponents within moments. She dismissed it with another flick of her hand, barely breaking stride.

Her expression was cold and ominous. “Using A-Xian’s techniques like that,” she said as if to herself, “I won’t allow it.”

Jiang Cheng hurried to keep pace with her. “Are you going to be okay? Your cultivation, I mean.”

He was worried about her in other ways too. His sister hated conflict, after all. Even night hunts made her uneasy. Maybe smashing through these toy soldiers was alright, he supposed. But if they came across a human enemy... Sandu would be faster, Jiang Cheng swore to himself.

“It’s not a problem,” YanLi said. “These things... Once the talisman is complete, they don’t need anything else. Not for the real, proper technique.” Seeing his surprise out of the corner of her eye, she smiled. “A-Xian created some amazing things. That’s why...”

That’s why she couldn’t stand seeing them in the hands of the Wen sect.

That’s why they would take back everything. Their pride, their freedom. Lotus Pier, even if they had to leave it behind now. And most especially, their brother.

~.~.~

Despite what he had told Wen Chao, Jiang FengMian didn’t head toward the fire or toward his people at all. Hands folded behind his back, he strolled calmly through the smoke-filled compound and out into the desolate town.

He didn’t even glance back as the light of the barrier formation activated behind him, engulfing the sect buildings.

Following after him, Wen ZhuLiu frowned in mounting confusion — and a sense that something was happening.

It was obvious, of course. This was no ordinary fire, to spread so quickly and in such a strange way. The entire Jiang sect was hardly necessary to fight it. The streets were just too empty. It was all wrong, and all purposeful. Without a doubt, something was happening.

But Wen ZhuLiu was uncertain just what they had planned, and even if he knew, Wen Chao would not have listened to him.

In the end, it didn’t matter. His only duty was to protect Wen Chao, safe within the barrier with only Wen troops around him. His only goal in following Sect Leader Jiang was to scope out a potential threat.

So, silently, he followed — two men moving through an empty scene of ash and smoke like ghosts.

Only pure instinct saved Wen ZhuLiu.

There was no sound or flash of movement, or even trace of presence. But something made him instinctively throw up his arm to block. The crackling whip that had shot out like lightning wrapped around that arm, instead of around his neck.

The one at the other end of the whip was Madam Yu. Wen ZhuLiu caught only a glance of her elaborate robes, his attention devoted to dodging Jiang FengMian’s follow up attack. The sect leader’s sword caught the red glare of the not-too-distant flames, as he struck toward Wen ZhuLiu’s neck.

Even with his limited mobility, Wen ZhuLiu managed to duck and fend him off with a sharp kick, all while twisting his arm to free it from Zidian’s grasp.

“As expected of the Core-Melting Hand,” Jiang FengMian complimented as he fell back. His placid tone, in the middle of battle, was unsettling.

Madam Yu snorted. “Otherwise, he wouldn’t be worth the effort!”

“What are you doing?” Wen ZhuLiu asked, straightforward. His expression showed no curiosity or even anger, only a blank composure. “Do you think you can win against the Wen? It is impossible for your sect.”

“The impossible has always been our YunmengJiang’s goal,” Jiang FengMian said blandly. His eyes were cold as the three of them circled like wolves, searching for an opening. “The Wen are not as all-powerful as you seem to think. You haven’t heard yet... but Nie MingJue already took Wen Xu’s head.”

Lan XiChen had brought them that news, along with the rest. Wen Chao, largely useless as he was, had not yet been informed, and thus his bodyguard had not known yet either.

Hearing it, Wen ZhuLiu’s eyes narrowed, but there was little shock and no grief.

“We can hardly do less,” Madam Yu said, her expression full of malice with all the emotion she had repressed for so long. “That second son wouldn’t prove anything. But you — your head will make a fine showing of our sect’s strength and will.”

From the start, they had always planned for him to follow Jiang FengMian and prepared to deal with him, once and for all. His power was simply too dangerous to leave in QishanWen’s hands. Two against one, the famous Purple Spider and the sect leader of Jiang, the odds would be close — but not quite in his favor.

There was no one left in the city to assist him. Even if he sent up an emergency firework, there was no guarantee that it would be seen, or that it wouldn’t be ignored with jeers for some fool who had gotten himself caught in the flames.

Zidian cracked through the air. A sword gleam followed.

No one witnessed the battle in the smoke and ash. But in the end, two were left standing... for once, leaning on each other for support without reservation.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: This story was supposed to be 30 chapters... Actually, I originally intended to write something about the Sunshot Campaign being formed, but like, I couldn’t actually think of anything useful to show? So we’re skipping straight to “meanwhile, in the Sect of Evil...”

~.~.~

Chapter 30: Last Day

To his surprise, Wei WuXian saw Meng Yao again before too long.

Neither of them gave any sign of recognition, naturally, when a group of men in Wen robes marched into Wei WuXian’s room. Meng Yao was in the lead, and he offered Wei WuXian a bland smile that looked surprisingly not false, if you didn’t know better.

“We can hardly allow an esteemed guest to continue in such disgraceful surroundings,” Meng Yao said. “Please allow us to freshen up your chambers, Wei-sanren.”

He really was at least nominally in the lead. It seemed that, just as he predicted, he was able to wiggle his way out of any immediate suspicion.

Too bad. At this rate, he really might have been useful to the rebel forces as a spy.

“How am supposed to work in this racket? And you’re messing up all my notes,” Wei WuXian complained without much fervor. He knew the real reason for this was to find evidence of any involvement he might have had in Lan XiChen’s escape, or anything else for that matter. Wen Ning’s visits wouldn’t have gone unnoticed. No, even without that, he would have been doubted and the security on him would naturally be tightened.

It didn’t matter to him, of course. They wouldn’t find anything without a far more intensive search than just clearing away all the trash that he’d spread over the floor. The only array he maintained in the tower was the one against Jiang YanLi’s letters, and even that he’d long since covertly moved to the ceiling beams.

Among the group was a medic, though not one of Wen Ning’s branch family, Wei WuXian supposed. This person checked his legs with far less careful and, in Wei WuXian’s untrained, perhaps biased opinion, far less skilled hands. He didn’t bother providing Wei WuXian with a diagnosis, but it wasn’t necessary. Wei WuXian knew he’d healed enough to stand, but only barely. Walking any distance was still out of the question.

Ideally, he would wait a couple weeks. But it was likely he wouldn’t have that much time.

Once the room was emptied of everything — broken furniture, ripped banners and sheets, even the stacks of paper — Meng Yao and the elder who had been assigned to observe Wei WuXian circled it, searching for any signs of tampering. Lan XiChen’s friend even looked up to study the ceiling, seemingly completely earnest and dedicated to his duty.

“This is pointless! Do you think we’ve been lax guarding him?” the Wen elder complained.

“It’s the sect leader’s order,” Meng Yao said with an apologetic smile, as it to say that nothing could be done. Rather than being placating, it made the elder pale and fall silent quickly — only natural, given Wen RuoHan’s character.

Nothing was brought up to replace the broken things. Once released from the medic’s attention, Wei WuXian dropped back to casually sprawl over the bare floor. “So? I can’t work like this,” he pointed out.

“Please take a break for now, Wei-sanren. You need rest. Sect Leader Wen will soon have a new assignment for you,” Meng Yao said.

Wei WuXian’s expression remained full of dull, scornful disinterest, but his heart dropped.

He really was running out of time.

But if they thought just taking away everything would stop him, they were gravely underestimating him. This close, he didn’t need to bother with the safety measures of a separate medium. Not when this entire city would soon be awash with malevolence and death.

~.~.~

As promised, his third meeting with Wen RuoHan came soon enough.

That Meng Yao was the one who appeared to ‘escort’ him. “What are you supposed to be? The new errand boy?” Wei WuXian grumbled as he gingerly followed along. The pace was just slightly faster than he could manage without pain, making his legs ache fiercely as he hurried to keep up. After all, the other option was to be dragged, as Meng Yao had informed him in far more polite and falsely considerate words.

Getting quite into character, wasn’t he?

“Oh? Well, something like that, I suppose,” Meng Yao chuckled lightly. “I am happy to do anything and everything that Sect Leader Wen desires.”

“Top-notch bootlicker, got it,” Wei WuXian said, although he could already tell that level of provocation wouldn’t have any effect. Indeed, Meng Yao’s bland smile didn’t waver in the least.

...This guy, Wei WuXian still couldn’t get a measure of him at all. Somehow, that uncertainty was worse than being surrounded by the Wen themselves.

The doors to the audience hall swung open and then shut again with an ominous, echoing thud. The golden pillars glimmered, but the black tile floor was like a void that threatened to swallow up anyone stepping upon it. At the end of the hall, Wen RuoHan sat with an expectant smile and a predatory gaze. There was no one else in the chamber, aside from the three of them.

It was a relief, compared to Wei WuXian’s worst nightmares, but he could still feel cold sweat beginning to bead across his back. His heart was pounding furiously even as he kept his expression blank.

Without sparing him a glance, Meng Yao walked without hurry to Wen RuoHan’s side and kneeled in obeisance.

Even knowing the distance meant nothing, Wei WuXian couldn’t make himself approach any closer.

“Sect Leader, Wei-sanren is here as requested,” Meng Yao said.

Wen RuoHan waved one hand dismissively, even as his gaze remained fixed on Wei WuXian. “Good. Bring what we discussed.”

What they discussed? Forcefully, Wei WuXian shoved away the horrifying possible interpretations that flashed through his mind (another keepsake of someone he loved, bloodied and ripped from their hands, a severed limb, a severed head—) and tried not to think.

Wen RuoHan’s smile was different this time. With his mercurial, maniacal character, his thoughts couldn’t be read from his face, but there was something subtly changed in the way he looked at Wei WuXian. Something colder and sharper in his gaze — as if he was no longer content to take his time just playing with a helpless small thing.

Meng Yao had bowed and moved away obediently, returning with a tray in his hands. On it was something white — several things, which he presented to Wen RuoHan.

From the opposite side of the hall where he had remained uneasily, Wei WuXian couldn’t make out what exactly those things were. But he could guess. In their haphazard rescue attempt, none of them had the leeway to recover Lan XiChen’s belongings: his sword, his flute, his robes, and everything else he had been carrying. Even from a distance, Wei WuXian thought he recognized the cloud pattern stitching of the GusuLan mourning clothes, and his hunch only intensified as Wen RuoHan picked up a white sword off the tray.

“I heard you lost the thing I gave you when you first arrived,” Wen RuoHan said. “How careless... But here, I will give you a replacement.” And with a flick of his wrist, he tossed the sword to Wei WuXian.

He meant Bichen. Naturally, after Wei WuXian’s room had been searched, its absence was noted. It was as good as proof that he had been involved in Lan XiChen’s escape in some capacity. Careless indeed. But Wei WuXian wasn’t sure he could have kept it, in that situation. There was simply too much likelihood that the sword would be irreparably lost in the chaos.

Like Suibian, which he had little hope of retrieving. Like the sword he had been thrown, which was indeed Shuoyue, the name carved into it clearly even though Wei WuXian couldn’t recognize it on sight.

“Did you have a good meeting with the Lan sect leader?” Wen RuoHan asked, his tone still unsettlingly light. He had finally turned away from Wei WuXian, looking instead at the remaining objects on the tray and running his hand lightly over them. Hooking one finger, he drew out a slim white ribbon and rubbed his thumb over it thoughtfully.

“...I’ve never met QingHeng-Jun,” Wei WuXian said honestly.

He already knew what was being implied — that Lan WangJi’s father had passed on from the wounds he received when Cloud Recesses was destroyed. But this was genuinely the first time he heard of it. He had simply never prioritised news from the outside.

He had been afraid. If something happened to Lotus Pier when he couldn’t help them... he wasn’t sure he could take it. Forging on ahead blindly was all he could do.

“And you won’t. He’s dead,” Wen RuoHan said, with a brutal lack of care. “It’s quite unfortunate that his sons are even more foolish than he was. That Nie boy is the same... This entire generation is hopelessly stupid.”

“They were given every opportunity to learn from QishanWen’s grand example,” Meng Yao agreed. “But it would seem they are unwilling.”

“We’ll have to just start over. And for that, we have to clear away the trash,” Wen RuoHan said. His eyes narrowed, the facade of carelessness that had been shaved away finally dropping completely. His expression warped into a cold sneer, nearly feral.

The white ribbon that had been twisted between his fingers caught fire, flames blackening the length of it in moments.

As the ashes scattered from his deceptively pale, elegant fingertips, Wen RuoHan turned his gaze to Wei WuXian. “I want something that can destroy a sect entirely, without leaving a single thing behind,” he said without a hint of emotion. “You have one week.”

Before he could even attempt to protest or bargain, an invisible hand closed around Wei WuXian’s throat.

He struggled. His qi flare, trying to push back the force pressing on him. His feet scraped the black tile as he was lifted slowly into the air. He couldn’t breathe, but more worrying was the sharp, nearly blinding pain as his neck was nearly crushed.

Abruptly, his body was flung away. Crashing into the doors, he skidded across the floor outside and finally came to a halt.

“If you will excuse me, Sect Leader,” Meng Yao murmured, bowing, in the ensuing silence.

Wen RuoHan didn’t spare him a glance, only waving one hand dismissively. The same flames swept over the remaining things he had presented, leaving only black ash and a few pieces of charcoal in the tray.

The white robes he had helped wash so many times. Liebing, which had played so many soothing melodies for him. It was all gone.

Meng Yao maintained a neutral smile as he made his way to Wei WuXian’s prone figure and waited without offering any assistance until he finally managed to pick himself up. He swayed on his feet, coughing and rubbing at his neck, but he was already stumbling back the way they had come — unwilling to spend more time in Wen RuoHan’s proximity than necessary.

Neither spoke on the way back to the tower that served as Wei WuXian’s ‘residence.’ The empty room had been filled with paper and ink again, but nothing else.

Wei WuXian didn’t ask what would happen in a week, and Meng Yao didn’t volunteer any of the news that might have given him insight into Wen RuoHan’s sudden change in approach — about Wen Xu’s and Wen ZhuLiu’s deaths, about the Jiang clan’s revolt, about the declaration of an alliance from the other sects, the so-called Sunshot Campaign.

There was always a chance that they were being watched.

Besides, Meng Yao had a feeling it wouldn’t change anything. They were both in too deep to stop.

It was only long after he had departed and when he was certain he was alone that he casually turned over his arm and looked at the thin ribbon like a snake that had curled around his wrist. A short message was written across its head. Once he had read it, the ribbon serpent crumbled away, leaving no sign it had ever existed.

‘You have six days.’

Six days to leave, Wei WuXian had meant. But Meng Yao had no intention of leaving without Wen RuoHan’s head. And the best time to claim it — and the renown it would bring him — would be in six days.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: OK, time to fiiiiinally end the “captive in Nightless city” fiasco. By ending the Nightless City completely :)

This damn chapter is like twice the normal length, but I didn’t want to split it for.... naming reason tbh.

~.~.~

Chapter 31: Lifeless City

6th day.

It started before dawn, but it was only after the sun passed its zenith that the quality of the air changed enough to become noticeable.

Unlike a natural disaster, it wasn’t that the animals noticed the signs first. This was, after all, a city of cultivators, and their sixth sense was just as finely tuned as the instincts of an animal. But as humans, they were accustomed to suppressing their instincts, enduring danger or even charging toward it as part of their duty.

So it was the animals that reacted first. Restless, uneasy barking and yowls would echo through the thick, tense atmosphere, as the city’s dogs and cats and other strays scurried from hiding place to hiding place futilely. Once in a while, the heavy flapping of many wings disturbed the air as another flock of birds took flight, momentarily darkening the sky like a passing cloud.

By contrast, the humans grew more and more silent, as if trying to erase their presence under the pressure they couldn’t understand.

The sky was clear and bright, but a chill lingered in the air, leaving the people of the city — civilians in the streets, cultivators in the palace alike — shivering intermittently.

Wen Chao, who had fled to the Nightless City after his failure at Lotus Pier, scowled as he shuddered again.

“Hey! Bring me a brasier!” he shouted to a servant. “Can’t you tell how cold it it? You useless trash!”

The wine cup he had been drinking out of flew after the servants who scuttled away to obey his orders, smashing against the wall. Unsatisfied, Wen Chao reached for the nearest thing — a half-empty plate of fruits — and threw it as well.

His mood had been like that, uselessly raging and violent, since he returned from Lotus Pier. On the way back, he had been silent like the grave, pale and terrified. Wen Chao was no better at predicting his father’s reactions than anyone else. There was no way to tell whether Wen RuoHan would laugh and slap him away, with no further punishment... or kill him on the spot. But given how specific their orders for YunmengJiang had been, it was obvious their sect leader assigned controlling Lotus Pier a specific importance.

And Wen Chao had failed. He had failed spectacularly.

They hadn’t even realized something was wrong until morning, when the fires finally died down, the city outside the sect’s protective barrier reduced to little more than ash and smoldering piles of burnt rubble. Among the rubble, there had been no bodies. YunmengJiang had never even tried to fight the flames, only evacuating the civilians and then running without looking back.

The entire sect was just gone. The servants, the disciples, the elders, the sect leader and his family, all gone.

No, there had been one body, hadn’t there? The Core-Melting Hand, left to burn in the streets where he had been ambushed and killed alone.

Wen Chao had always disliked him, but his value to QishanWen had been undeniable.

The severity of the situation only continued to pile on — the empty sect treasury, proving that this had all been planned, the belated news of Wen Xu’s death at the hands of Nie MingJue, the bold declaration of war by the allied sects against the Wen, YunmengJiang among them...

His only surviving son or not, Wen Chao had been trembling with well-placed fear as he presented himself to Wen RuoHan.

The Wen sect leader had no time or interest for him. The beating he received was brutal, but short, as if he wasn’t worth the effort or attention.

Even as he crawled away to lick his wounds, having received no new responsibilities, a furious, bitter scowl had begun to twist Wen Chao’s face. Since then, he had spent his time taking his fury out on anyone within reach.

With him in that mood, even his mistress Wang LingJiao hadn’t tried to approach. Folding herself into a far corner of the room, she shivered and eyed him discreetly. She knew better than to try some coy line about warming themselves together, but this atmosphere...

“Has... has Young Master heard anything? Is something happening?” she spoke up finally.

Wen Chao’s glare, when his head snapped toward her, was murderous. “Of course I haven’t heard anything! Why would anyone tell me? I’m just the next sect leader!” he roared.

There was no doubt something was happening. They had both noticed the increasingly urgent whispers of the squad leaders and elders, and the heavy, quick marching of guards as they set off to investigate. But no one had spared the time to inform the heir.

“To hell with all of them!” Wen Chao muttered.

Standing, he stormed out of his rooms, intent on finding someone to shake the answers out of.

It was half-dark outside, gloomy like the transition between day and night. But that wasn’t right. It wasn’t even close to sunset. The sun itself hung halfway down to the horizon, like a pale coin. He stared up directly at it, but his eyes barely stung. It was undeniably the sun, but it could barely be called shining.

Once, years and years back, the Nightless City had witnessed a solar eclipse. The feeling then had been the same.

But this... this didn’t feel natural. It felt like a curse.

Behind Wen Chao, Wang LingJiao suddenly yelped and leaped forward to clutch at his back. “What is it?!” he demanded, spinning around. Since she hadn’t let go, Wang LingJiao was dragged behind him, but there was no protective intent in the gesture.

“Th-there! There, a ghost!” she shrieked, jabbing one sharp-nailed finger over his shoulder.

She was pointing toward a darkened corner, where a faint stain was spread across the wall and the floor. That shouldn’t have been possible — the servants would have never been so lax as to allow a blemish to remain within the Sun Palace.

It was only the memory, of a bloodstain that had long since been vigorously scrubbed away.

But it shouldn’t have been possible. This was indeed the work of a ghost, a weak and powerless one that was even now gathering around its dying place like a translucent lump of gel. It didn’t even have a form any longer, only a vague sense of resentment that lingered.

It shouldn’t have lingered. This was the palace of a cultivation sect! How many purification ceremonies did they conduct? How many spirit warding and scattering arrays were laid into the very foundations of the Nightless City?

Something as weak as the lingering ghost in front of them was no threat even to a civilian with no spiritual power, much less a cultivator of Wen Chao’s training. But both the heir and his mistress trembled and instinctively backed away.

That lingering grudge was not alone.

All across the Sun Palace, the shadows of old blood were appearing, darkening the gloomy halls. Voices rose, furious, confused, commanding.

A terrified, piercing scream drowned out all of them.

The doors of a grand hall banged open as a guard raced in, dropping to kneel before the sect leadership gathered there. “S-sect Leader! Elders!” he gasped out. “It’s, it’s the Flame Palace! It's— overflowing with malevolence!”

Overflowing... was an accurate description. The negative energy was oozing out of the building, visible and viscous, like dark, stale water that had long since filled with rot. Out of the windows, for below the eaves, from the walls themselves, everything was saturated with the blood and suffering that had taken place there, and it was all flowing to the surface.

A dark pool was swiftly forming around the Flame Palace, spreading outward.

It wasn’t the only place experiencing this unnatural phenomenon. All across the Nightless City, malevolent energy was welling up wherever blood, suffering and death had seeped into the ground.

...In QishanWen’s capital, such places were too numerous to count. Screams of shock and terror, panicked orders and pleas, and the frantic, hoarse shouting of the cultivators who took up their swords without knowing what they were fighting filled the air.

The cacophony easily reached even Wei WuXian’s isolated tower. The guards had long since run off, to fight futilely or beg for some explanation from their superiors, so no one noticed the pieces of wood that rained down as Wei WuXian smashed through the bars on the window. He could have gone through the door, of course. Even locked, it would have been destroyed just as easily. But...

It was more satisfying, to crouch in the window and feel the weak, cold breeze that tugged at his hair and robes.

He could admit he had been curious for a long time about the view of the great city from this window. It was certainly a grand panorama, the palace and the buildings beyond, the cliffs and the bridges spread out below. Now, it was also marked by columns of malevolence rising up from the Flame Palace, the official prison, the execution square and so many other places. The cold, veiled sun was nearing the horizon, dying the pale sky an ominous red and casting slanted, orange light that left deep shadows.

Wei WuXian’s lips curled joylessly even as his jaw clenched.

His heart wasn’t so hardened that he could enjoy this kind of scene. But he couldn’t regret it either.

To protect his family and make sure the Wen no longer had the power to threaten them, what else could he do? He was just one person, and not even the strongest within this city. The only thing he could do was use the power of the arrays already in place and twist them to this despicable effect.

The signs of his tampering had probably already been discovered — although he had directed his talismans to implant the alterations underground, the lines would have surfaced once they gorged on malevolent energy. But in this chaos, who would be able to put all the signs together? And even if they did, what could they do?

By now, the civilians and servants should have run for their lives, he calculated. All that remained was the final step.

And then... he could finally run away from here. He could finally go home.

He had promised, after all. He would see Lan Zhan again soon.

Light as a shadow and unnoticed in the chaos, Wei WuXian jumped.

~.~.~

“The formations— something must be wrong with the formations!” an elder declared, shaking his head as if he couldn’t believe the words coming out of his mouth. “They must have become contaminated somehow! We—”

He didn’t get any further. With just a wave of Wen RuoHan’s hand, an invisible force slammed into him and sent him flying. It was even stronger the blow Wei WuXian had received during their last meeting, and even if the elder’s cultivation was higher, he was left in a crumpled heap on the floor after slamming into one of the golden pillars.

Normally, even the Wen sect leader held back somewhat against the elders of his sect. But what was the purpose of holding back at this point?

“That should be obvious,” Wen RuoHan said in an incongruously mild, disinterested tone.

“Then the centerpoint should be examined for abnormalities,” Meng Yao suggested, speaking up when none of the other elders and advisors did — momentarily caught off guard by the sudden violence, piled on top of the terrifying situation. “Activating the defensive formations might overpower the corrupted passive ones. But at worst, they will need to be disrupted by force...”

“How dare you! Do you have any idea what you’re suggesting?!” someone finally burst out. “If we disrupt the formations, there’s no telling if they can be reactivated again!”

The oldest, strongest of the arrays had been created even before QishanWen’s founding. No one knew how they were laid down or even the full details of how they functioned. More and more formations were constructed on top of them, in a tangled web that could not be reconstructed or replicated if it were to ever collapse.

Meng Yao’s expression still carried the undertones of yielding obedience, but there was a determined slant to his brow. “But what else can be done? The city is already in this state, there’s no time to waste.”

“This is treason! Was this your aim all along, you—”

Unexpectedly, Wen Ruohan, who seemed to have been paying no attention to the argument, laughed out loud. It was only a chuckle, but it cut through the other voices, forcing everyone into silence.

He wasn’t looking at them. “Something that can destroy a sect entirely, I said,” he murmured to himself with a strange smile. “And here it is. He’s even a day early.”

Only Meng Yao could understand what Wen RuoHan was referring to. He could guess that the sect leader’s thoughts were correct, but to make that kind of leap... Nonetheless, his expression showed the expected surprise. “Sect Leader Wen, you think this is his doing?” He appeared to gather himself. “Then shall I bring him here for questioning?”

“You think he’ll still be in that tower?” Wen RuoHan asked with a mocking quirk of his lips. “At this late stage? That little bird has certainly already taken flight.”

After all, what had kept Wei WuXian in his ‘cage’ had never been the guards or the bars. It had always been the threat to his family.

Had he somehow found out about the Jiang sect’s escape? Or had he simply decided to act while he still could? Wen RuoHan had always expected him to rebel in the end, given his personality. But this — this exceeded all expectations.

And yet, despite the dire threat to his sect, his face showed only a small, cold smile.

“For this grand show, I can only go greet him myself,” he decided.

The decision made, Wen RuoHan stood and headed out of the hall without a single glance back, as if neither the ongoing chaos nor the discussion about how to address it had anything to do with him.

“You—! At a time like this—!” One of the remaining elders burst out furiously, caught between his fury and the cold knowledge he would only end up like the one on the ground, unconscious or dead.

Another of the Wen leadership held up an arm to stop him. “Leave it,” he ordered. “We will handle it ourselves.” As they so often did, when it came to running the sect. The management of QishanWen had never interested Wen RuoHan to begin with. “Get the map of the formations—”

Meng Yao slipped away without being noticed. He was still an outsider, after all, another of Wen RuoHan’s unreasonable whims, and they had far bigger concerns.

How fortunate for him.

“Sect Leader Wen!” Meng Yao called out, hurrying to catch up with Wen RuoHan’s brisk but surprisingly unhurried pace. Even after reaching him and falling in a respectful step behind, it was hard to keep up — the sect leader was much taller. “Is it possible Wei WuXian is still in the city? He must have already fled.”

“No matter how brilliant he is, our formations are not so simple,” Wen RuoHan said with self-assurance. “And he is not that simple-minded either. It’s still possible to escape from here. It’s not over yet.”

Causing all of this, going this far, and yet leaving it possible for his enemies to escape? Who would be that weak-willed, that sloppy?

No, it just wasn’t over yet, that was all. There remained another step.

The formation to control movement in and out of the city was particularly complex. It could track individual people or even groups possessing certain characteristics. There were also several varieties of tokens tied to it, and it provided several different levels of protection for different areas. Since it was so much more refined, it was naturally kept separate from the other formations and managed on a separate system.

Unlike the other arrays, Wei WuXian couldn’t have planted a seed of disruption out of sight and let it wreak havoc while keeping his distance. This one, he would need to trigger in person — if he truly wanted to make sure that every member QishanWen within the Nightless City had no way to escape.

Wen RuoHan had no doubt that Wei WuXian would be that thorough. He was no wrong.

As they approached the separate hall that house the centerpoint of this particular array, Meng Yao could see the signs of Wei WuXian’s passing — the dead bodies of the few guards who had remained at their posts or happened to be close, the doors broken off their hinges.

But even so, Wen RuoHan did not speed up at all, moving at the same even, brisk pace that conveyed anticipation but no urgency.

It was already too late. Inside, the array had already been defiled. Gouges, deep and rough but clearly purposeful, had been carved into the anchoring pillars. The flags had been ripped and stained with what might have been blood or cinnabar. The glow of symbols in the air flickered erratically, broken up in a way that any cultivator could tell spoke of instability.

There didn’t seem to be anyone alive within the hall, even as Wen RuoHan advanced calmly without breaking stride.

Did he intend to break the arrays by force? With his power, it might have been possible, and at this stage, sacrificing the formation would at least save the Wen sect people... That would be the most beneficial outcome. Silently, Meng Yao followed, calculating the timing.

However, his thoughts were off. When had Wen RuoHan concerned himself with his sect?

He had simply been able to tell that his prey had not yet departed.

In the unsteady light of the damaged array, the small movement was almost unnoticeable, but Wen RuoHan struck out unhesitatingly at the dark figure that had been trying to creep past.

“Shit!” Wei WuXian managed to curse, even as he just barely dodged out of the way.

Regaining his feet, he simultaneously tried to run and reached into his sleeves for a handful of talismans. But before he could complete either action, an overpowering pressure slammed down on him, pinning him in place and making the talismans splutter out before they could even activate.

“You’ve exceeded my expectations,” Wen RuoHan praised. “But someone like you can’t be used. For doing such a good job, I’ll grant you a quick death.”

From him, it was a kindness indeed, but Wei WuXian only sneered, his eyes burning with all the hatred he had been suppressing. “We’ll see who dies here!” he snarled.

His movements had been jerky, pressed down by Wen RuoHan’s aura, but in a single sharp gesture, he managed to clap his hands together. The sharp sound cut through the air on a spiritual level — it was a command. And something responded.

The viscous darkness that had been bubbling up across the city and the palace burst out in a sudden flood. It moaned and screamed, gaps that might have been eyes or mouths opening, and from within it, countless arms reached out. They grasped blindly at everything within reach, the corpses on the ground outside, Meng Yao who stumbled back quickly, and naturally Wen RuoHan.

It would have been ideal if those half-formed ghosts and grudges bypassed Wei WuXian as their summoner, but that was not the case, and they reached for him too. He had half expected that, and promptly turned to run.

He could tell he had no real chance of defeating Wen RuoHan in combat, so the best thing was to leave him to die, Wei WuXian had decided.

However, he didn’t get far.

At their current strength, the wraiths seemed barely a hindrance to Wen RuoHan. A quick, sharp sweep of his hand cut the grasping arms and gaping mouths like weeds, clearing a swathe through the malevolent darkness — and clipping Wei WuXian across the back. The force of the blow sent him flying, crashing into a wall and through it, out of the hall.

Wen RuoHan followed with a tight, wild smirk, heedless of the apparitions that were already reforming. Writhing uselessly on the flagstones outside, Wei WuXian could only cough up blood, his limbs unresponsive.

“Don’t stop yet,” Wen RuoHan encouraged him. “Surely you have something more. I want to see—”

He was completely unconcerned, toying with his prey. If nothing else, Wei WuXian had managed to garner his interest and his full attention, for as long as his life held out, and for that, Wen RuoHan was willing to let him pull out every trick he possessed without interference.

The wailing ghosts, the malevolence seeping up around them, their surroundings had stopped mattering.

That was why...

It only took one clean cut, with his full power. It could have only been one cut, in the single opening he had been given.

Meng Yao had long since unsheathed his sword, and followed silently, forgotten, behind these two people whose names were known to everyone in the cultivation world. They would surely go down in history — but so would he. That was the reason he had gambled everything.

There was no trace of killing intent from his short, unassuming form, and to the last moment, he kept his gaze lowered, stepping aside the dark hands that reached for any living being.

Then, he cut once.

Wei WuXian had intended to wait for Wen RuoHan to approach. The longer he could stall, the stronger the curse on the city would grow. And while the wraiths would attack indiscriminately, the Wen sect leader would always draw the greatest hate. Keeping his head down, he watched Wen RuoHan’s ornate boots and made his preparations.

Something hit the ground with a thud and rolled a little.

Meng Yao drew a sharp, slightly shuddering breath and walked forward, no longer muffeling his footsteps. Reaching out, he picked up something off the ground.

“Young Master Wei,” he said in a light tone that sounded weak even to himself, “I trust you have a way out.”

As he looked up slowly, Wei WuXian had frozen and stared in mute shock.

Wen RuoHan — his body, still standing upright — had no head. His neck had been cut clean through, blood only just starting to flow out onto his white robes. Wei WuXian’s eyes trailed to Meng Yao’s hands, one holding a sword, and the other...

His chest spasmed, making him shudder and cough violently, and when he finally regained his breath, Wei WuXian shook his head. “Y-yeah,” he managed, “I’ve got a way. I’m not dying here.”

Ripping his robes free of the spectral hands reaching for him, he stumbled to his feet and stomped once. The dark malevolence rippled and lost shape, though it was no longer possible to control it or make it retreat. Shakily, he made his way toward Meng Yao, who released his sword to hover at his side and reached out—

A hand that hadn’t had time to go cold clamped down on his arm as he brushed past.

“What?!” Wei WuXian flinched away violently, but Wen RuoHan — Wen RuoHan’s headless corpse — maintained its crushing grip and even yanked him closer. Its other hand reached for his throat, but Wei WuXian managed to duck away... for the moment.

He cursed under his breath. How was this possible? Wen RuoHan was a cultivator. Since birth, he had to have undergone innumerable rituals to ensure he couldn’t become a moving corpse. Much less so quickly, and while in pieces!

...It must have been because of the curse on the city.

“Young Master Wei!” Meng Yao rushed forward to help, only to be swatted aside. The reanimated corpse should not have had Wen RuoHan’s full power, but it was entirely too strong already. Grabbing hold of Wei WuXian’s robes, it threw him bodily to the ground and pressed him down.

The impact knocked the breath from his lungs and jarred his bones, but the more pressing issue was the malevolent energy that eagerly crawled over his back and wound itself across his limbs.

“Get— off! Get off!” Wei WuXian protested, struggling against both the corpse and the wraiths.

He was sinking, the oozing darkness pulling him in like a swamp. The weight of Wen RuoHan’s corpse only pressed him down more.

Behind it, Meng Yao had been forced to mount his sword just to pull himself free of the quagmire. He tried to fly closer to help, but the waves of malevolent energy left him unable to approach. He hesitated, unable to help and unwilling to leave, but at this rate, he was just going to get pulled in too.

So Wei WuXian made a decision.

Levering one hand free, he pulled out Lan XiChen’s sword from where it had been hanging from his waist. If it had been Bichen... he would have might have faltered, unwilling to let it go.

But this — it was fine. It was Lan XiChen’s friend, after all. All this time, Wei Wuxian had worried about dragging him down with the Wen, but instead it worked out like this.

Shuoyue flew through the air, its path crooked in the chaos, but close enough for Meng Yao to snatch it with his free hand.

“The concealment talisman... is on it! Go!” Wei WuXian ordered. “I’ll get out on my own, just go!”

Meng Yao stared at him, his expression conflicted and unreadable.

“GO!!”

But in the end... he wanted to live. Wei WuXian was barely able to catch a glimpse of his fleeing figure, before the darkness pulled him under.

As everything faded away, his last thought was of another figure in white robes, tall and stunning. There was a bitter twist in his heart — he had really wanted to see him again. ‘Lan Zhan,’ Wei WuXian thought, ‘I’m sorry—’

There was nothing after.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: Somehow, this is like the token het pairing chapter? But take heart! After this, we’ll be headed for the reunion! It’s been 3000 years...

~.~.~

Chapter 32: What Cannot Be Accepted

In one day, the grim conflict between QishanWen and the Sunshot Campaign alliance dissolved into chaos. Neither the Wen forces nor the other sects understood what had happened, but abruptly and without warning, the head of the snake had been ripped away.

Wen RuoHan, his only remaining son, the Wen elders in their city — all of them were gone.

Some of the supervision office leaders managed to maintain something like control over their areas, but most quickly tumbled into disarray. Wild rumors swept the countryside. The Nightless City had been wiped out by an internal rebellion, factions of the sect turning on each other futilely. The Nightless City had been wiped out by Wen RuoHan, finally gone completely insane. The Nightless City had been wiped out by an experiment gone wrong, trying to create a new weapon only to be swallowed by it.

No matter what explanation people favored, in their hearts everyone felt the same — the Wen sect had been cursed by all the blood they spilled.

The news was only just reaching the Sunshot Campaign when Meng Yao stumbled into one of the camps.

In one hand, he carried Lan XiChen’s sword. In the other, Wen RuoHan’s head.

“I must speak with ZeWu-Jun,” he said, his face gaunt and pale, blood and dirt streaked across the Wen robes he hadn’t stopped to change out of. “Urgently.”

No one had the presence of mind to protest or argue.

A short while later, he made his report in front of the main leaders of the alliance against QishanWen. Despite Nie MingJue’s furious glare, no one questioned his presence past the short explanation he and Lan XiChen provided. A far more dangerous matter lay before them.

“A-Xian... did that?” Jiang FengMian wondered faintly, his expression pained and disbelieving.

There was no one who sympathized with the Wen, of course. From the start, it had been tacitly understood that their campaign would only end when that entire sect was destroyed. However, this method... Jiang FengMian was not alone in his reaction, as Lan XiChen looked equally troubled, his lips pressed together firmly as he lowered his head.

“His actions were... decisive,” Meng Yao offered in the silence. “But... necessary. I don’t think there was anything else he could have—”

“His actions? His actions?! You mean his insanity!” Jin GuangShan burst out, slapping his folded fan into his palm furiously. “He’s single-handedly destroyed a sect! He’s cursed an entire city! Can you even still call that human?”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng said flatly. Ignoring the sharp look his mother shot him, he turned instead toward Meng Yao. “You said he was still alive, right?”

Meng Yao hesitated, clasping his hands together and refusing to raise his head. “That... I couldn’t say,” he tried to temporize. “I... did not see him die. But he was pulled under. In that place...”

“Then he might still be—”

“Jiang WanYin!” Madam Yu cut him off sharply.

She knew exactly what he was thinking and about to suggest, and she could not possibly allow it. No matter how much her family loved Wei WuXian, charging in after him would be nothing but throwing away their lives. Her glare conveyed this and more, but Jiang Cheng only glared back, grinding his teeth.

He knew! He knew he had a responsibility to their sect. Especially now — when he needed to begin stepping into the role of sect leader.

But how could they just leave Wei WuXian to his fate?

The one who broke their standoff was Lan WangJi.

“I’m going,” he declared — whether to his brother and uncle, to the Jiang clan, or to the sect leaders at large. Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and strode out of the hall.

Before anyone could stop her, Jiang YanLi hurried after him.

“Ah, Wangji...” Lan XiChen called out belatedly, but after a moment, he shook his head and turned back to the other sect leaders.

“You’re not going to stop him? It’s obvious he’s going after Wei WuXian,” Jin GuangShan said, frowning. “Are we going to accept this?”

“How is it any of our business?” Nie MingJue shot back, his expression as unrelenting as always.

Jin GuangShan spluttered. “Wh... How is it not? You heard what he did! That kind of dangerous existence, how can it be permitted?”

“If he’s dead, there’s nothing to discuss,” Nie MingJue said mercilessly. He didn’t give any acknowledgement to the several people who flinched at his words. “If he’s alive... I’ll congratulate him and pour him a drink myself.”

“It might have been the Wen now, but who knows which sect might be next!” Jin GuangShan insisted.

“Sect Leader Jin, you’re going too far,” Jiang FengMian spoke up finally. “There’s no grounds to accuse A-Xian of such things.”

“His methods alone are grounds enough. What he did... it can only be a demonic path!”

Although Nie MingJue remained indifferent, and both GusuLan and YunmengJiang were clearly unwilling to concede, all of them knew that the smaller sects in the campaign alliance and their general forces would likely be of a mind with Jin GuangShan. Destroying an entire city, and in such a dark, cursed way, was simply too terrifying. Anyone who did so would naturally be branded as evil.

“Enough,” Nie MingJue said firmly. “Whatever means he used, I will not turn on those who remember where to point their swords and who to strike. Until he attacks one of our own, his actions are not for us to judge.”

As he spoke, he glanced at Meng Yao and, meeting his gaze for a moment, looked away again.

Pursing his lips, Meng Yao bowed his head.

“...Yes. What we must address now is how we will proceed against the remaining Wen forces,” Lan XiChen agreed. “Even without the leadership in Qishan, they can still pose a threat, but some of them may now be willing to break away and surrender...”

~.~.~

If Lan WangJi had been set on departing immediately, Jiang YanLi couldn’t have caught up to him. But noticing her hurrying out after him, he stopped and waited.

“Don’t go yet,” Jiang YanLi blurted out as soon as she reached him. Lan WangJi’s expression darkened, but she rushed on before he could try to protest. “You heard too — there’s a barrier, so if you go in, you won’t be able to leave.”

Lips pressed together firmly and eyebrows furrowed, Lan WangJi shot her a look that was undeniably tinged with betrayal, as if he had expected better from her. “Wei Ying...” he started to say.

“Just give me one night,” Jiang YanLi said, her voice somewhere between firm and desperate. “I’ll replicate his talisman for you.”

They had no idea what state Wei WuXian was in. They couldn’t know whether that night would be too long to wait. Lan WangJi’s expression conveyed extreme unwillingness as he stared back, but he couldn’t deny her logic either. Mouth twisting, he jerked his head once in a stiff nod.

It was only after he had walked away that Jiang YanLi allowed herself to let out a shaky breath, her shoulders slumping with relief — and fear. She had boldly asked for one night, but the truth was that she had no idea what talisman Wei WuXian had used or how he had created it.

But there was no time for doubt or hesitation.

The first thing she did was go to Lan XiChen’s temporary quarters. When Meng Yao returned Shuoyue to him, the talisman Wei WuXian gave him for passage was still on it. The two copies of concealment talismans that Lan XiChen and Wen Ning had used to escape the Nightless City undetected had also been preserved just in case.

All three of them, Jiang YanLi quickly retrieved from Wen Ning, who had continued to travel with Lan XiChen since then, if only because it was the only way he could stay safely among the many members of the Sunshot Campaign who carried deep grudges against the Wen.

“Is... is there anything else I can do to help, Maiden Jiang?” Wen Ning asked her as he passed over the three pieces of paper, all brittle and faded as if they had been left to the elements for a long time — a side effect of the power that had passed through them while they were active.

Jiang YanLi had no idea, and she stopped to think for a moment, reaching up to rub her temples. “I will let you know,” she said finally, forcing on a strained smile.

Shooting her a sympathetic look, Wen Ning didn’t press further.

It was some time after she had retreated to her quarters, bent over the writing table with singular focus, that the doors were thrown open unceremoniously and Madam Yu stormed in. Her furious expression only darkened when she took in the many incomplete talisman drafts spread out around her daughter.

“A-Li! You’re still involving yourself in that?” she demanded. “I never trusted that brat’s strange arts, and now look what they’ve done! Stop it right now! Who knows what’ll happen to you if you continue with those things!”

“Mom!” Jiang Cheng protested as he followed Madam Yu inside, Jiang FengMian bringing up last and closing the doors behind him.

“My lady, please. A-Xian would never teach A-Li something that could hurt her,” the sect leader said, more calmly. “What he did... it was intentional. A-Li couldn’t cause it by accident, so there’s no need for this.”

Madam Yu turned her glare on him. “You! You’re still defending him! Still putting him first!”

“What first?!” Jiang Cheng burst out. “Sis is fine! I’m fine! We’re all fine! Wei WuXian is the one who was taken by the Wen, and now he’s— we don’t even know! We haven’t done a single thing to help him! Who put him first, exactly?!”

Even though she wanted to argue, Madam Yu couldn’t find the words. Surrounded by her family, what more could she say? Jiang Cheng wasn’t wrong. Her husband had not sacrificed her children’s safety even once, and neither of them wanted her to fight on their behalf in this.

Gritting her teeth, she struggled to hold back her bitter frustration.

YanLi had laid down her brush, but she didn’t move away from the writing table. Meeting her mother’s gaze, she looked back unflinchingly. “I’m going to help Lan WangJi get A-Xian back,” she said. She took a deep breath. “There isn’t much time, so if there’s something you need to say, please say it quickly.”

“A-Li, you—!” Madam Yu choked on her words, hardly believing that her soft-hearted daughter would say such a thing. Spinning toward Jiang Cheng, she demanded, “What next? You’ll say you’re going too?”

Jiang Cheng snorted. “With Lan WangJi? I’d only slow him down.” But the trace of amusement that passed through his expression vanished quickly. “When have I ever not treated my duties seriously? Mom, I’m grateful that you’ve always supported me — but please trust in me a little more. I won’t disgrace our sect. But I won’t abandon him either. Our YunmengJiang isn’t so weak that we can’t protect our own!”

“Our own?” Madam Yu’s mouth twisted.

“To us, A-Xian is our brother,” YanLi confirmed. Her expression softened, pleading. “It’s alright if you can’t accept him. But please accept our feelings for him.”

Looking helplessly between her children, Madam Yu let out a harsh breath and closed her eyes. Asking her to accept a child her husband treated as a son — she couldn’t do that. But the boy her children considered their brother...

Disciples of the same master often considered themselves as close as siblings by blood. Cultivators who fought a great battle together, through life and death, would call each other sworn siblings. It was... not an unheard of thing.

...It was still...

‘He’s just a servant,’ she wanted to protest. But who considered Wei WuXian to be that? To everyone, he had long since become a genius rogue cultivator of great renown — whether fame or infamy, everyone knew his name.

‘He’ll bring calamity to us,’ she wanted to say. But when had Wei WuXian treated her children with anything but care and affection? And with his personality, she had little doubt he had only bent to cooperate with the Wen to protect them. Most likely that was also the reason he had gone so far — or else he would have simply run.

Accepting another woman’s child that her husband so clearly favored, she couldn’t.

But accepting her children’s sworn brother...

She didn’t want to. But what could she do? Her children were no longer children. She couldn’t make their choices for them, not in the end, not their entire lives.

Yu ZiYuan sighed again, her expression still dark, but something finally, finally released deep in her bones. “When did you become so unruly? Do as you please!” she groused, turning away.

Even without looking, she knew Jiang Cheng and YanLi were beaming at her, grateful and relieved.

She still had her pride. Lifting her chin, she stalked out of YanLi’s chambers without a backward look. However, she didn’t protest when Jiang FengMian followed her silently. Gradually, her steps slowed, allowing him to catch up until they walked side by side.

If it had been her, Madam Yu rather thought she would have taken the chance to say something sharp and gloating, but Jiang FengMian seemed content to just continue on beside her. His expression had the faint trace of a smile when she darted a quick look at him.

“After the Sunshot Campaign...” he began finally, his tone light as he looked into the distance, “I will pass leadership of the sect to A-Cheng. Well, that’s only natural, of course.” He chuckled, as if it was some simple thing.

It was not. Just being reminded of it, Yu ZiYuan could only grind her teeth.

Spinning around toward hin, she jabbed her finger into his chest. “Of course there’s no choice now!” she snapped. “What were you thinking back then? Taking the Core-Melting Hand for me! Don’t you understand the sect leader needs his cultivation far more than his wife?”

The two of them had defeated Wen ZhuLiu amidst the flames at Lotus pier. It had been a great and necessary victory against the Wen sect. But even with two against one, it had been very close — too close. At the very last, she had made a misstep, and he slipped past Zidian. Even as that cursed hand approached her, Madam Yu had only glared hatefully and thought that she would fight on with even just her fists, that she would never surrender to this dog.

But at the very last moment, the view of Wen ZhuLiu’s blank face was blocked — by her husband’s broad back.

He staggered under the impact, but the real damage went far deeper. And yet, just like she would have, he fought on, even if the sword in his hand had become nothing more than a slab of metal.

Then, just like now, she had turned on him once the battle was done, demanding to know what he had thought he was doing, if he understood what he had done.

With the situation as it was, Jiang FengMian provisionally remained the YunmengJiang sect leader, but it was obvious even without him saying so — this could only be a temporary measure. The leader of a cultivation sect had to be able to cultivate.

“My apologies,” Jiang FengMian replied mildly, just as he had back then. “I acted without thinking.”

That was what she couldn’t stand about him! The one clearly in the wrong was her, so why did he just bow out? This man was so frustrating, was his spine made of tofu? And yet, she knew it wasn’t. Why was he always hiding away his strength, why did he never choose to fight — not when it came to her and their children?

Except, except... then. That time, standing in front of her without hesitation.

What was she supposed to do with that...?

Unexpectedly, his larger hand covered hers, pressing it against his chest. “However,” Jiang FengMian went on, “I’m afraid I can’t say I regret it. Jiang Cheng will make a fine sect leader. And... regardless of ‘need,’ your cultivation is far more stunning than mine. My lady, you are exceptionally beautiful in the heat of battle.”

Aaah, she really wanted to slap him. This man, did he decide he no longer needed shame or decorum, now that he would set down his duties soon?

Nonetheless, Yu ZiYuan did not pull her hand away.

“We finally agree,” she muttered. “Of course A-Cheng will be a fine sect leader. What else do you expect of our son?”

“Nothing but the best,” Jiang FengMian agreed. “He is our son, after all.”

Their joined hands slid down to hang between them, but did not part. Hand in hand, they resumed their walk. It was a long time before they separated.

~.~.~

A single, sharp knock pulled Jiang YanLi out of her tunnel-like focus. It was only as she blinked, trying to clear her head, that she realized how much her eyes were burning and that her hand wielding the brush had was long since sore.

Surreptitiously rolling her joints, she turned to look at her visitor.

She had expected Jiang Cheng. He was just as worried for Wei WuXian as she was, but with even less ability to do anything to help. All he could do was leave it to her and Lan WangJi, while helping to manage the situation in the Sunshot Campaign.

And Jiang Cheng knew that better than anyone. Being able to accept that and focus on doing what you could took a strength YanLi was all too familiar with.

“He’ll be alright,” Jiang Cheng had said as he bid her goodbye earlier. His voice had been steady, despite the habitual frown twisting his face. It didn’t even sound like a hidden plea for reassurance or an attempt to convince himself. It had been simply a firm belief.

“He will,” YanLi had agreed.

It felt a little melancholy to know that her brother, with his temper and unruly streak, had grown up so much and become so reliable. She had expected, or maybe she had hoped, that he would come seeking a little more mutual support once his duties allowed him a break.

However, the next leader of YunmengJiang did not have time to spare, or maybe he had truly grown up too much for that, and he did not appear.

Well, that was alright.

Instead, it was Jin ZiXuan — standing in the doorway, tense as if ready to run at any moment. In his hands was a tray.

Seeing her attention on him, he cleared his throat. “I... brought tea,” he mumbled, thrusting out the tray and making the pot and cups on it click slightly. “For you.”

Jiang YanLi blinked — and smiled, bright and happy. “Thank you,” she said. There was a blush glowing on her cheeks as she glanced away shyly. “Will you... stay?”

His head jerked up and down woodenly, but there was a small, please curl at the edge of Jin ZiXuan’s lips. As she carefully cleared part of the writing table, he settled down next to her and began to pour the tea.

He had prepared it himself, Jiang YanLi could tell, because it was somewhat acrid and a bit oversteeped. However, she drank it all with a smile. The warmth of the cup seeped into her tired fingers, and the brisk taste cleared her mind. Half the night was gone, but there was still a long way to go.

Taking a deep breath, she let it out slowly. It was time to get back to work.

“Thank you for the tea,” she said politely. “I apologize that I can’t provide proper hospitality to you now, but...”

“I get it, it’s fine,” Jin ZiXuan said, already gathering up the tea set. His expression and tone were both just as calm and accepting as his words. Catching sight of her relieved face, he huffed. “He’s important to you, right? Your brother. I... understand.” He cleared his throat, his ears and his cheeks burning red. “You’re lucky to have such an understanding fiance, you know!”

“I am,” Jiang YanLi agreed. “I’m very lucky. Thank you... A-Xuan.”

Jin ZiXuan froze. Then, jumping to his feet as if scalded, he fled. Outside in the hall, there was a loud thud and the clinking of breaking ceramics, followed by a bit off, muffled curse.

Clapping a hand over her mouth, Jiang YanLi struggled to hold back her laughter.

She really was lucky. Somehow, she had received so much happiness and support. Maybe it was selfish, but it made her all the more unwilling to relinquish the last thing she wanted. Her family, in Yunmeng, in Lanling, and wandering out in the world — she would get the last piece back.

Flexing her hand, she picked up the brush again. There was still half a night to go. She would make it, she swore.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: Welcome to Wei WuXian’s damsel in distress hour.

You know, since I have no background for this pseudo-historical Chinese setting and no point of reference, I’ve been imagining so much of it as basically... Naruto. For example, I keep thinking of sects as Hidden Villages, with civilians mixed with the ninjas and just being normal towns with this... military garrison attached. And now I wonder if that’s maybe totally wrong...? Eh, too late to change it.

But that’s the reason some of the scenery and layout description are rather vague, because I don’t actually know what’s going on lol.

~.~.~

Chapter 33: Lifeless City, pt.2

In the predawn gloom, Lan WangJi was already waiting at the edge of the compound. He knew better than to drive himself to exhaustion, no matter how tightly his nerves were strung, but it was impossible to tell if he had actually slept or only meditated the night away.

He had been staring fixedly in the direction of Qishan, but he turned quickly as Jiang YanLi approached. His expression, which had been so cold it seemed carved from stone, shifted minutely in surprise when he realized she was not coming alone.

“Here,” YanLi said, holding out several yellow talismans. “These should let you pass the barrier array. I made a few spares just in case.” Hesitating for a moment, she added, “If they don’t work, you’ll need to destroy the barrier’s centerpoint.”

Lan WangJi already knew this, but he nodded without comment and reached out to accept the talismans.

From her sleeve, Jiang YanLi pulled out another paper — white this time, and already folded. With just one glance, Lan WangJi understood what it was, even before it reshaped itself into the form of a bird. After all, he had received such a bird twice before. Cupping her hands together, Jiang YanLi held the fluttering message in place.

“This... is all I can do,” she admitted. “I know that A-Xian is out there, waiting for you. Please, save him!”

“We’re counting on you,” Jiang Cheng said, stepping up and placing a hand on his sister’s shoulder in support.

It wasn’t just him. Their parents were behind them, and although Madam Yu’s expression was carefully neutral, her presence alone was showed a certain tacit support.

But even that wasn’t all. Beside the Jiang clan was Lan WangJi’s family as well. Meeting his gaze in turn, Lan XiChen smiled encouragingly and Lan QiRen gave a sharp nod. “WangJi, take care. We’ll be waiting,” Lan XiChen said for both of them.

Hovering nearby, Wen Ning and Meng Yao remained silent, unwilling to intrude but unable to stay away entirely. And separate from everyone, even Nie MingJue and Jin ZiXuan stood observing, whether to represent their sects or to support their friends and loved ones.

The corner Lan WangJi’s twitched as he turned back to Jiang Cheng and YanLi. He remembered the words she had written to him once, when he had felt like there was no hope left.

‘You are not alone.’

She had been right. Neither he nor Wei WuXian, neither of them were alone. They had each other, and they had many others supporting them. That was why they had made it this far, and why they still had a chance to make it right. He wouldn’t waste that chance.

“This is enough,” he told Jiang YanLi. At his side, Bichen smoothly slid out of its sheath and floated down until he mounted it in one step. “I will bring him back.”

It was a promise. Jiang YanLi smiled, faint but full of hope like the fight rays of dawn over the horizon, and opened her hands. The paper bird fluttered, shaking out its thin white wings, and took to the sky. It circled once and turned smoothly toward Qishan.

Lan WangJi’s golden eyes locked on to it unerringly, and in a flash, he followed.

~.~.~

It was clear day as he approached the valleys of the Nightless City, but the scenery inexplicably began to darken. The sky and the sun overhead dimmed, and a strange chill pervaded the air. An oppressive spiritual pressure pushed away any who approached. The shape of the city itself was indiscernible in the shadows that did not come from the sun’s increasingly faint light.

This was a cursed place, which no one should willingly enter.

Crossing over the boundary arrays was not like being doused with cold water, the way Lan WangJi had expected and braced for. It was naturally not the same sort of light static across his skin as the barriers around the sects he had visited in the past.

It was like falling. Even though Bichen was steady as ever beneath his feet, carrying him onward, Lan WangJi felt like he was plummeting, the wind rushing past his ears.

In front of him, the paper bird faltered for a moment, dropping, before flapping its wings again and stubbornly continuing onward.

The silhouettes of the Nightless City’s proud roofs finally rose out of the unnatural shadows, but each building was still covered in a dark haze, the once bold gilding worn away by something more sinister than age. The entire city was covered in twilight, and even high in the sky, the sun was only a red circle that gave no warmth or light.

And yet, in the shadows, something moved.

That flash of motion, barely visible, made Lan WangJi instinctively snap his head toward it. His eyes narrowed, trying to find what had caught his attention. Was there someone still down there? ...What would he do if there was?

Something moved. It looked almost like a person, hunched over and staggering.

But it wasn’t. As it lifted its ‘head,’ two burning, glowing holes stared out instead of eyes. Its body oozed like a moving mass of dark slime, lifting its arms toward him. Another hole opened in its ‘face’ and it let out a low, pained moan that echoed across the deserted city.

Among the buildings, more ‘things’ stirred, lifting their ‘heads.’ Their moans blended together in an almost physically crushing vibration that went down to Lan WangJi’s bones.

They couldn’t be called ghosts. They weren’t the lingering spirits of individual dead, but rather a writhing conglomeration of malevolence and pain that had coalesced into barely solid forms. Futilely, they reached their handless, dripping arms toward him, and Lan WangJi had no doubt that, if he were within their grasp, they would smother him and tear his soul apart to join theirs.

But they couldn’t reach Bichen, and Lan WangJi turned away resolutely, seeking out the small white shape of the paper bird still flying onward ahead.

The distance between it and him hadn’t increased, but it suddenly felt too far, as if he could lose that single ray of hope at any moment. Without even thinking about it, he pressed Bichen to surge forward, catching up.

That was what saved him.

Silent and unnoticed under the negative pressure that infused the entire city, something massive and heavy crashed down behind him, the air it displaced sending his hair and robes flying. Lan WangJi spun around in time to see it — a dark tsunami cresting and spilling over the buildings. Even at the height he was flying, it had passed easily over his head, but it vanished down the streets and gorges without a trace.

He had been ready for both battle and ambush from the start, but being taken so off guard sent even Lan WangJi’s heart pounding, his senses sharpening with startling abruptness. Except that... he realized now how clouded those senses really were.

The level of negative energy around him was so thick and pervasive that nothing registered. His ears were ringing from the endless wails of the wraiths. His vision was blurred by the dark haze. The scent of old blood, growing thicker and thicker, was heavy on his nose and tongue. Even his skin felt by turns numb and raw from the malevolence thick in the air.

This was... truly a cursed place, which no living thing could survive in.

Now that he was looking closely, he saw when the oozing shadows gathered again in the gaps between the buildings and rolled upward like a wave that towered over him for a single moment before coming down heavily. Lan WangJi banked sharply, letting it collapse past him and doing the same when it rose again.

The rhythm was distantly familiar.

‘It’s the same as back then,’ he thought — the same as the waterborne abyss they had kited years ago.

However, this time he was the one who would have to turn around and plunge into its maw to retrieve what had been lost. His hand reached up, fingers skimming the white ribbon across his forehead. It felt like they had come full circle. Was this... fate?

If it was with him... Lan WangJi wouldn’t mind their fates intertwining. He had slowly realized long ago, but the certainty of it was crystal clear now. If it was Wei WuXian, Lan WangJi wouldn’t hesitate to put everything on the line for him.

No matter what kind of darkness he fell into, he would dive in after him — and pull them both free.

Up ahead, the paper bird banked and began to circle downward. They had reached the center of the city, the famous Palace of Sun and Flame.

On the streets outside, the malevolence was only haze and shadows, permeating everything but lying hidden. Even when it surged up to grasp at Lan WangJi, it vanished again just as quickly, leaving the city empty but seemingly untouched.

Within the palace walls, it was different. It was flooded with a thick darkness that climbed up the walls deeper in, as if the center of the palace was sliding down a sinkhole. And in the very middle — an empty black space like the surface of a still pond, where the buildings had completely submerged.

It was that dark surface that the paper bird spiralled down to and circled over helplessly, unable to continue on.

‘Down there.’ Lan WangJi’s eyes narrowed.

Reaching over his shoulder, he pulled the zither off his back as he followed that white shape down. His fingers strummed the chords, each one resonating with power.

The dark lake below churned, first rippling, then swirling in a growing whirlpool. Its previously still surface distorted, uncertain shapes rising up. Just like the human shapes in the city, they raised their ‘heads’ and opened gaping mouths to moan in agitation. Stubby ‘arms’ reached up, only to melt away and reform over and over again.

Without allowing a single waver or pause in the melody he was playing, Lan WangJi directed Bichen sharply aside to avoid another massive cresting wave.

In the center, the whirlpool was opening, and as its eye went deeper and deeper, the white form of the paper bird circled downward, always flying toward its destination — toward Wei WuXian.

Lan WangJi followed it down.

The thick, black muck parted to form a writhing wall, going down further and further with no bottom. ‘Faces’ and ‘arms’ stretched out from every side, just barely out of reach.

Sweat beaded on Lan WangJi’s forehead. Although his playing looked effortless, he was exerting a great deal of spiritual power to part the malevolence, as overwhelmingly thick as it was. Just keeping it at bay and unable to touch him was straining even his limits.

And yet, he couldn’t stop.

‘Wei Ying,’ he thought, sharply and with increasing desperation. ‘Wei Ying, Wei Ying...’

“—Wei Ying!” That name burst out from his lips before he knew it. “Wei Ying, answer me!”

The zither cried, and...

...As the dark mud receded just a little further, the white paper bird alighted on something in the heart of the maelstrom.

Just a face and half a torso, the rest still submerged in the darkness, but it was undeniably Wei WuXian. His eyes were closed, complexion ghastly pale, and as he lay there motionless, there was no way to tell whether he was alive or dead.

No. He had to be alive, if he had no yet been devoured by the malevolence gathers here. He must have been resisting it still.

He had to still be alive.

Lan WangJi strummed the zither anew, but unlike before, the swirling sea of negative energy refused to give way. Contrary, it howled in defiance. Countless misshapen arms reached out of the muck, grasping at Wei WuXian and struggling to pull him back under. This was one thing the curse was unwilling to ever let go off.

But neither was Lan WangJi.

Slinging the zither across his back once more, he plunged Bichen into the black muck and grabbed hold of Wei WuXian with both hands.

Immediately, a searing, cold pain crawled up his limbs. No matter what it appeared as, this darkness was not water or mud. It was impossibly thick malevolence, and it ate directly at his spiritual energy and his soul. Beneath his robes, the same black veins that were visible along the edge of Wei WuXian’s jaw began to crawl across his skin. The ‘hands’ sprouting out of the muck clawed at him as well, blindly but with bruising force.

Lan WangJi gritted his teeth and single-mindedly held on. Despite the negative energy dragging it down, even submerged in the black mud, Bichen began to slowly rise, lifting two people with it.

His entire body was trembling with the strain of continually expending so much spiritual energy, and even though he would fight until his last breath, Lan WangJi’s heart couldn't help trembling in doubt.

Would it really end like this?

Unnoticed in the chaos, the paper bird on Wei WuXian’s chest fluttered its wings and, having reached the one it was intended for, unfolded into its original shape.

What Jiang YanLi had sent was not a letter. The flowing lines across that long strip of paper were of a spirit banishing talisman — a talisman within a talisman was a surprisingly complicated affair, to keep the two arrays from interfering with each other or triggering prematurely. Until the last moment, she hadn't been sure it would work, but she had gambled on it.

With a faint glow, that spirit banishing talisman activated now.

It wasn't exceptionally powerful, and its light was like a single candle that would be swallowed up all too soon. But for a moment, the glow from it made the malevolence shudder and stop. The edges of the dark muck flaked away like dirt, freeing a torso, a waist...

With a sharp jerk, Lan WangJi dragged Wei WuXian free of the darkness, and both of them shot up out of the opening that was already collapsing inward on them.

Just in time, they made it free. With a furious roar, the whirlpool’s mouth closed beneath them, darkness licking at Bichen and the edges of their robes. One final ripple of suffering ‘faces’ and reaching ‘hands’ — and the black surface went completely still again.

Lan WangJi shuddered, exhaustion pressing down on him. Wrapping one arm more securely around Wei WuXian’s waist and letting the unresponsive body slump against him, he tumbled for the talismans Jiang YanLi had given him. His hand was shaking as he pulled one out and, with a small, wry smile, pressed it to Wei WuXian’s back.

Just a little further, he thought.

It was hard to breathe, and his vision was blurring. This wasn't just exhaustion after all. This was probably... a lingering curse. But even so, he pressed onward. As long as he at least made it out of the city’s barrier...

Just a little further—

He could no longer tell where he was or how far he'd come. And eventually, everything went dark.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: Fun fact, there was supposed to be another (short) arc after the previous chapter, where the curse of the Nightless City spawned a super monster (a giant skeleton without a head lol) that the alliance had to work together to fight.

But getting to this point in actually writing, it felt like there’s no real point in it. So we’re getting off a few chapters early!

~.~.~

Chapter 34: Waiting

He drifted in and out of consciousness.

Light and shadow alternated, always terribly blurred even when he managed to open his eyes a sliver. Sometimes, there were shapes moving next to him. Sometimes, there were voices that came as if from a great distance.

“...fever... already... days...”

“...unnatural... curse?...”

“...sister... skilled...”

He thought he should recognize at least one of those voices, but his skin felt like it was burning and yet he couldn’t stop shivering. Fever... was that what it was? How rare was it for a cultivator to get ill, even in childhood?

No, it couldn’t be an illness. It wasn’t. He had been... doing something. Something important. There was a person that he needed to...

His thoughts scattering uselessly, Lan WangJi drifted back under.

~.~.~

When he woke up again, his head finally clear, it was dark. A single night pearl cast a soft glow across the tent ceiling stretched taut above him. The tent itself was well furnished, and Lan WangJi vaguely recognized it as something belonging to the Sunshot Campaign. A flap must have been left slightly open as a slightly chilled breeze occasionally blew through, freshening the air.

Taking a deep, slow breath, Lan WangJi held it for a moment and let it out again. The skin of his face felt tight and flushed, but not unbearably so. There was still a remnant of the fever, he thought. His hand shook slightly as he lifted it to rub at his eyes.

Wei Ying.

The name was like a jolt through his body, everything coming back to him, and suddenly he could no longer lie still. With only a faint wobble, he sat upright on the cot, the clean, surprisingly fresh covers pooling in his lap.

He definitely wasn’t entirely recovered yet. His bones felt hollowed out — his spiritual energy gnawed away. There was a stiffness in his muscles that made it clear he had been lying prone for far too long.

How long? How long had he been unconscious? What had happened after he’d pulled out Wei WuXian and fled the Nightless City?

Agitated and still unwell, he didn’t notice that another person had been sitting next to the cot he slept on until gentle hands pressed against his back and shoulder, supporting him.

Lan XiChen beamed at him in relief. “WangJi, you’re awake,” he said, his eyes gleaming suspiciously wet for a moment. “I’m so glad...”

He had been watching over Lan WangJi, even so late at night. Or rather, late night was the only time he could spare from his duties, to check on his brother. Naturally, Lan XiChen’s appearance remained carefully maintained — he could hardly let his feelings of unrest show, being one of the pillars of the alliance — but their ability to read each other went both ways, and Lan WangJi could see the faint signs of worry that were only now beginning to smooth away.

Hesitantly, he reached up to pat the hand on his shoulder. Thinking for a moment, he added, “I am... alright now.”

That was enough to startle a surprised chuckle out of Lan XiChen. Drawing back after confirming Lan WangJi could sit up on his own, he took a few moments to simply study his brother, as if to reassure himself. Lan WangJi patiently allowed the scrutiny despite his own worries.

Finally, Lan XiChen let out a slow breath and nodded. “You have a lot of questions,” he said. “I’ll try to answer everything.”

He doubtlessly meant that he would explain the entire situation, without any need for further prompting, but there was one question Lan WangJi considered far more pressing than all the rest. “Where is Wei Ying?” he asked directly.

Lan XiChen’s lips twitched in a faint, dull smile. Instead of answering, he simply stood and moved aside.

The tent they were in was not particularly large, but it was not small either, and it was well-maintained — as suited to its role as a private infirmary. There was only one other cot set up, parallel to Lan WangJi’s, so close that there was barely space for the seat Lan XiChen had been using between them.

On it was Wei WuXian.

Even under the faint light of the night pearl, his complexion was palid to the point of unnaturalness, and the only sign of life was the slow rise and fall of his chest.

“He hasn’t woken up yet,” Lan XiChen said quietly. He sighed. “It’s the same as you — both of you were seriously harmed by the thick malevolent energy in the Nightless City. When our forces picked up the two of you, you already had a dangerous fever that wouldn’t go down, and Young Master Wei...”

By comparison, his body temperature was only a little lower than normal, and there was no outward sign of any ailment. However, it was the same as someone so cold they stopped shivering — his condition was actually much worse.

Lan WangJi’s hands clenched tightly, almost tearing into the blankets. But his expression was only painfully blank as he stared fixedly at that unmoving form.

“WangJi... it’ll be alright,” Lan XiChen tried, but even he could tell his words sounded more tentative than comforting. “He’ll recover, like you.” He received no response. His shoulders moved with a silent sigh, and Lan XiChen could only turn away, heading toward the tent exit. “I’ll get Physician Wen, I’ll be back soon.”

It was only after he was gone that Lan WangJi finally moved. A shuddering tremor went through his body, and he bowed his head, his hair sliding loose to hide his expression.

Everything he had done, everything they had all done — it hadn’t been for nothing, right?

And yet, it seemed like he was still back where he started, unable to do anything.

~.~.~

After he returned and the physician’s examination concluded, Lan XiChen explained what had happened since Lan WangJi had departed for the Nightless City that morning.

With their sect leader, elders, and administrative center gone, QishanWen had quickly collapsed. A few of the supervision office leaders had tried to maintain their authority with the troops at their disposal, but individually they were no match against the Sunshot Campaign forces, and even the small sects that had been unable or unwilling to rebel before quickly turned around to join the few battles that flared up.

However, there had still remained much to be done — cleanup of the QishanWen remnants, of course, but also stabilizing the power vacuum that had been created, keeping order, and...

...protecting the surviving Wen clan members.

Although everyone in the Sunshot Campaign naturally bore a deep enmity against all members of QishanWen, there was nothing righteous about hunting down the disciples now fleeing their posts in terror. QishanWen deserved its end, but did every member of it deserve to die?

Asking this, Wen Ning had gotten on his knees and begged Lan XiChen to help at least mitigate the alliance’s retribution against anyone who surrendered, or those who had never been able to fight to begin with.

Lan XiChen was willing, but it was a difficult thing to do, between QingheNie’s old anger and LanlingJin’s opportunism.

That was where the political situation and Lan WangJi’s situation converged.

He had indeed made it out of the Nightless City and even managed to fly a ways out of Qishan before collapsing, still clinging to Wei WuXian. Fortunately, it was one of the Sunshot Campaign divisions that found them. But they, and Lan XiChen, once he arrived, quickly found themselves completely unable to treat them.

With his strong cultivation and lesser exposure, it was likely that Lan WangJi would have recovered on his own after a while, but Wei WuXian’s condition was more precarious.

In the cultivation world, it was — grudgingly — understood that the greatest medical talent was a woman named Wen Qing, a distant cousin on Wen RuoHan who had been appointed as the office leader at Yiling. She was also Wen Ning’s sister.

With him as a go-between, a certain deal was made.

In exchange for treating Wei WuXian and Lan WangJi, Wen Qing and her people in Yiling would be granted amnesty.

Naturally, there were fears that the Wen remnants would flock to her and that Wen Qing would revive the Wen sect. It had been a long, bitter argument between the leaders of the alliance. But Lan XiChen had been firm, driven by both his morals and his personal feelings, and YunmengJiang had been equally determined. Meanwhile, Jin GuangShan and Nie MingJue stood in opposition.

In the end, Meng Yao was the one who suggested the compromise — every Wen cultivator who wished to be given amnesty under Wen Qing and also Wen Qing herself would vow to never wield a sword again.

It was a largely symbolic matter, which Wen Qing agreed to with no hesitation. After all, she herself did not wield a sword at all, and she had no interest in shielding anyone looking for a fight. Her concern was only the children and the elderly, and the survivors of their branch who managed to escape, those like her brother who had never wanted to go to war at all.

But it was a symbolism that mattered to Nie MingJue. After all, QingheNie’s enmity toward QishanWen started with a sword — his father’s saber that Wen RuoHan had broken.

Knowing who was responsible for the compromise and yet unable to deny that it was the best solution, Nie MingJue wore a complicated, furrowed expression as he gave his agreement as well. And thus, the matter was decided, no matter how reluctant Jin GuangShan remained.

Afterwards, when Lan XiChen tried to thank him, Nie MingJue had only shaken his head with a scowl.

“If she can treat the person who ruined her sect, at the very least I...” Very reluctantly, he bit out, “I will allow it. I won’t lose to a Wen.”

That Nie MingJue didn’t call Wen Qing a ‘Wen-dog’ was already the most Lan XiChen could have hoped for.

This was about the shape of the situation, and here Lan XiChen paused, his expression uncertain. “Wen Qing is... aware of what happened in the Nightless City. We didn’t want to risk hiding anything of Young Master Wei’s condition from her, and I didn’t want to burden Wen Ning with keeping things from his sister. But otherwise, the matter has not been spread outside the leaders of the four sects. Everyone else believes that QishanWen fell under a curse of their own making. This is... to protect Young Master Wei.”

What Wei WuXian had done was no small thing. And even if, with all the hate they drew to themselves, QishanWen would not be pitied, he would still become feared for such a feat.

The Jiang family had long since made it publicly clear that Wei WuXian had been forced to work for QishanWen against his will, and it was possible that some would eventually make the connection between his unique genius and the Nightless City’s fate. But as long as nothing was confirmed, Wei WuXian might still be able to live in peace.

...Once he recovered.

Wen Qing herself had already come by to make her examination. Despite being pulled out of bed in the middle of the night, her appearance had been entirely professional and put together. With precise, brusque movements, she checked first Lan WangJi and then Wei WuXian’s unresponsive body.

For Lan WangJi, Wen Qing had quickly and simply pronounced him well on his way to fully healed. “Rest. Eat light foods. Meditate, but be careful in your cultivation. Your core is fragile right now,” she said.

Lan WangJi had nodded, expressionless. There was no reason for him to push himself, not now. His eyes never strayed from Wei WuXian.

Following his gaze, Wen Qing did not sigh, but her lips thinned. “You may not be able to see it, but he is getting better,” she had said in a tone that did not leave room for argument. “It is a matter of time.”

“I will wait,” Lan WangJi repeated his promise.

There was nothing else to do. Wen Qing’s treatments would continue, but they were aimed largely at keeping Wei WuXian stable while his own spirit recovered enough to fight off the taint. The Sunshot Campaign was slowly drawing to a close. The surviving sects would reclaim their homes and disperse.

Lotus Pier would be rebuilt. Cloud Recesses would be rebuilt.

The battles and struggles were all but over.

All that remained... was to wait.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: The last chapter. Only the epilogue left! I don’t think I ever confirm, but I generally envision Wei WuXian as being in a coma for 13 months.

~.~.~

Chapter 35: “I love you.”

“Good evening,” Jiang YanLi greeted Lan WangJi with a soft smile as she ducked into the tent. “How are you?”

As always, the tray she carried had two bowls, though neither was for her.

Accepting one of them, Lan WangJi nodded in thanks. He ate slowly, while Jiang YanLi sat on the edge of Wei WuXian’s cot. Absently, she patted her brother’s hand, still just a little too cool to the touch.

“All the preparations are complete, so we’ll be leaving for Lotus Pier tomorrow morning,” she said. “I heard the rebuilding has already started. We’ll have it back to normal in no time, so come and visit us soon, alright?”

As always, there was no response from Wei WuXian. But Jiang YanLi’s smile didn’t waver as she turned to Lan WangJi.

“We’re leaving A-Xian in your hands. Make sure he doesn’t forget,” she said.

As the Sunshot Campaign drew to a close, the temporary camp where Lan WangJi and Wei WuXian had been treated became unnecessary.

For Wei WuXian, who still hadn’t regained consciousness, that meant he needed to be moved to a more permanent location.

Lotus Pier, with YunmengJiang, seemed the obvious choice at first glance. But given the need to continue treatment with Wen Qing and her conflicting duties to the Wen survivors, in the end it was decided that Wei WuXian would be sent with her to Yiling. The one to accompany him would be Lan WangJi.

He nodded seriously. “I will,” he promised.

“Then we’ll be waiting for both of you,” Jiang YanLi said, beaming.

His own family had already departed, first Lan QiRen returning to Cloud Recesses to continue overseeing the rebuilding, then Lan XiChen to take up his duties as sect leader in full. Lan XiChen had been the same — smiling calmly, as if he didn’t have a single doubt or worry, not about Wei WuXian and not about the future of GusuLan.

With his brother, Lan WangJi had known it was only a front. It was all for his sake, to support him and tell him he didn’t need to concern himself with anything except keeping his heart strong.

With Jiang YanLi... it was the same, wasn’t it?

“Are you—” The sound of his own voice surprised Lan WangJi. He hadn’t intended to speak. But since he had begun, was there a point in stopping? “Are you... alright, leaving?”

Jiang YanLi looked at him in surprise. She wasn’t his brother, and she couldn’t understand what he meant. At least, not right away. “Do you mean... am I alright leaving A-Xian like this?” she guessed finally. Seeing him nod, she was silent for a moment. “Yes,” Jiang YanLi said finally, her voice firm and sure. “I am alright. Because I know A-Xian will have you at his side. And as long as you are with him, I don’t have to be afraid for him. And A-Cheng is the same.” She grinned, surprisingly bright and lively, and joked, “This duty, we pass on to you. From now on, A-Xian is yours!”

It was impossible to miss the way Lan WangJi froze or the way his ears began to burn. One hand lifting to cover her smile, Jiang YanLi politely looked away.

“I... will,” Lan WangJi finally repeated, just before she stepped outside.

The tent flap closed behind her, and Jiang YanLi paused to take a deep breath of the cool night air.

She hadn’t lied. Her heart was calm — far calmer than she expected, with Wei WuXian in this state, having to say goodbye to him. When she returned to Lotus Pier, she would be able to reassure her family, she thought.

Outside the tent, Jin ZiXuan had been waiting for her, as he did every evening they were in the camp together. He didn’t ask anything, and Jiang YanLi knew there was no longer a need to thank him every time. This kind of small thing, waiting for each other and walking together, was something they could now do naturally for each other.

Together they made their way through the camp, so close their hands brushed.

Her own future, Wei WuXian’s future — there was no need to worry anymore. It would be alright.

~.~.~

Unlike most supervision offices, the one in Yiling had never belonged to any other sect, so there had been no one to contest the Wen sect’s claim on it. After Wen Qing’s position was acknowledged by the alliance, no one dared to cause trouble outwardly either. Nonetheless, parts of the once beautiful residence had been damaged early on, and they were slow to be rebuilt, due to the lack of both resources and manpower.

Lan WangJi was only peripherally aware of this, having seen the damage in passing the few times he walked around the compound. Most of his time was spent in the undamaged, well if now sparsely furnished rooms that he and Wei WuXian had been provided.

That was not to say he was unaware of the world outside. Jiang YanLi wrote letters regularly, the ones to Wei WuXian remaining sealed, but the ones to Lan WangJi being diligently read. Lan XiChen naturally wrote as well, longer but less often, and if more detail.

And, tagging along often on Wen Qing’s daily treatments, Wen Ning spoke — at first haltingly but more and more freely — about the state of... YilingWen.

Though only with great reluctance, the alliance had even conceded to allowing the Wen remnants under Wen Qing to continue practicing cultivation as a sect, after she pledged change their speciality to match her own focus on medicine. With a new home, a new sect leader, and a new purpose, the Wen sect was completely changed. Its strength could no longer be counted as one of the top sects, but even just surviving was almost a miracle.

“I went on a hunt yesterday,” Wen Ning relayed, smiling. “With two others... We joined a group from YunmengJiang and a few other sects. Some of them w-weren’t very happy, but the Jiang disciples didn’t let them make any trouble. It must be because of your family.”

Naturally, the one he was speaking to was Wei WuXian. Wen Qing hadn’t been certain whether talking to him helped, just like she couldn’t confirm any effect no matter what song Lan WangJi played, but at the very least it didn’t do any harm to try.

“Actually, I was the only one to participate in the hunt itself,” Wen Ning went on, lowering his gaze bashfully. “I managed to shoot a few walking corpses. The others only helped treat injuries afterwards...”

Without looking up from what she was doing, Wen Qing huffed. “What only?” she scolded. “What part of a medic’s duty is ‘only’ to you?”

Wen Ning cringed and mumbled an apology.

“Medical skills are what our sect specializes in now,” Wen Qing went on. “Take pride in that! ...Well, I’m surprised they allowed you to treat them at all. I’ll have to step up your training, to make sure you don’t make us lose face in front of outsiders...”

At the words ‘step up your training,’ Wen Ning’s expression became incredibly pitiful, but he didn’t dare to protest.

However, he didn’t remain silent for long. Fidgeting, he started and stopped several times before finally asking the question on his mind. “Is... is there any progress? With Young Master Wei?”

Sitting silently beside Wei WuXian’s bed as always, Lan WangJi narrowed his eyes.

Wen Qing clicked her tongue irritably, but she didn’t answer immediately. Today was one of the days when she performed acupuncture on Wei WuXian, to help unravel the tangle of negative energy that had settled in his meridians and even his core. Her hands, in the far more plain white and red striped sleeves, continued to move steadily, as if she was too preoccupied to reply.

“The treatment is proceeding,” she said finally, without really saying anything. “The negative energy in his body is releasing bit by bit, I can tell that. But there’s so much of it... Trying to rip it out all at once is too risky. It’s better to let it drain slowly.”

Unfortunately, there was no telling how long that would take.

Feeling properly chastised, Wen Ning didn’t say anything further.

Instead, it was Lan WangJi who spoke up. “If... he had been pulled out sooner,” he started to say something that had been on his mind for a long while, “would he recover faster?”

Wen Qing’s hands paused, and Wen Ning darted an abortive glance in his direction.

“Who can say,” Wen Qing said, her tone disinterested as she resumed her work. “There’s no way to tell. Just like there’s no way to tell whether going after him sooner would have gotten both of you killed. Don’t think about stupid things.” She huffed. “I said I would treat him, so I will.”

Compared to her brother, she was absolutely merciless with her words and painfully blunt, apparently giving no thought to Lan WangJi’s attempts at subtlety or sparing his feelings.

But, that was fine. She was right — there was no way to tell if he could have done better, if he could have done something more.

Quietly, Lan WangJi let out a short breath and closed his eyes.

And yet, even so... he should have done something more.

~.~.~

There was no benefit to playing any of GusuLan’s melodies, whether calming spirits or expelling negative energy or soothing the heart, but Lan WangJi tried all of them all the same. Then, he began to play any song at all, just as long as it could keep his hands and his mind occupied.

Then in the end, he began to compose something new.

He didn’t pause when the door opened unexpectedly, the timing all wrong for any of their usual visitors, but he let the melody to slowly trail off and finally lifted his hands away from the strings, letting them gradually grow still.

Once the room was silent, Lan WangJi turned to look at the person who had stepped inside.

It was, of all people, Meng Yao. Or rather, he had been accepted into LanlingJin and his name was now Jin GuangYao, wasn’t it?

Lan WangJi was... surprised, he supposed, beneath a deep, increasingly pervading sense of indifference toward everything, except the one thing he could do nothing about.

He didn’t ask what official business had brought Meng Yao to Yiling, and surprisingly, Meng Yao did not explain.

“Has there been any change?” he asked instead, his eyes on the figure lying in the bed, unmoving.

Lan WangJi didn’t bother answering. Silently, he waited. And, after several long, uncomfortable moments, Meng Yao caved, smiling wryly.

“Young Master Wei saved my life,” he said, without looking at Lan WangJi. “And even before that, he tried to warn me so many times. That is a concern I have rarely... Well, it’s not important. What I want to say is that I will not forget his kindness. That’s why...”

He seemed to hesitate and finally darted a glance at Lan Wangji — only to meet a cool, unreadable golden gaze.

“That’s why I’ve been helping suppress the rumors about what happened in the Nightless City,” Meng Yao finished, swallowing back a trace of apprehension. “In particular any slip ups that might originate from LanlingJin. After all, if the truth gets out, Young Master Wei... will not be able to live in peace.”

Pausing, he glanced at Lan WangJi again, but the other’s expression gave away nothing.

“There will be those that try to control his power for themselves like QishanWen did, and at the same time, he will become widely feared,” Meng Yao went on. “That’s why every one of us who knows the truth must—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Lan WangJi cut him off.

He turned away, and it carried the full intonation of a dismissal.

“I will stand by Wei Ying always.”

A few moments later, the zither began to play again, an unknown melody filling the room.

There was nothing more to say. Understanding that — and that whatever goal he had been aiming for would not be accomplished with Lan WangJi — Meng Yao turned and headed for the door. But at the doorway, he couldn’t help pausing and glancing back once. His expression was strange and unreadable as he looked upon that scene.

“That... I truly envy,” he murmured to himself.

~.~.~

The faint music drifting everyday across the former supervision office had long since become something the people of YilingWen were accustomed to. More than a few of them had spared prayers for the two guests who occupied the isolated wing.

So when one day they were greeted with only silence, a ripple of unease passed through the sect members. Uneasy, they exchanged questioning glances as they crept about their duties.

Returning from her daily treatment, Wen Qing only pursed her lips and shook her head.

There hadn’t been any change in the patient. It was just... a difficult day. How many months had it already been? Of course it was hard. Anyone would waver sometimes.

The adults accepted that and, making an effort to keep quiet, continue on their own matters. But there was someone who did not quite understand. Creeping quietly into the guest quarters, a little boy pushed the door open a crack and slipped inside.

“No song today?” A-Yuan asked, his young voice loud in the heavy atmosphere of the room.

Lan WangJi started slightly, pulled out of his thoughts. He turned to look down at the boy and, after a moment, shook his head.

“...No point.”

Whether there was any effect or not, he would of course continue to try. Tomorrow, he would try again. But today...

“Sleeping Brother hasn’t woken up yet?” A-Yuan asked with the bluntness of a young child. Standing on his toes, he peered at Wei WuXian’s face and decided, “He must be really tired.”

He was. But so was Lan WangJi. He was tired, even if he would keep going.

Eventually, a grandmother from the Wen clan came to whisk A-Yuan away, though Lan WangJi gave no reaction to either her murmured apologies or the boy’s slightly downcast goodbyes. He had remained by Wei WuXian’s bedside for a long time now, always present like a guardian lion, but now his figure resembled nothing as much as a statue — or a mourner, in all white.

Letting out a sharp breath, he suddenly seemed to deflate and fold in on himself. His head dropped, until his forehead rested against the bed next to Wei WuXian’s motionless hand.

“Wei Ying...” Lan WangJi called out quietly.

Unlike Jiang YanLi or Wen Ning, he had never made a habit of speaking to Wei WuXian. He wasn’t good with words to begin with, so if the others hadn’t been able to receive a response, what purpose was there in trying? He would play the zither and hope that his feelings reached Wei WuXian through the gentle music instead, and he would wait as always.

But.

“Wei Ying, I’m waiting here for you,” he said, the faintest note of complaint in his voice. “Wei Ying...”

In the quiet room, the only sound was their slow, steady breathing. Like this, he could feel Wei WuXian’s warm, solid presence right next to him. With an almost inaudible sigh, Lan WangJi closed his eyes.

Without meaning to, he must have dozed off.

It was unclear how much time had passed when he was pulled back to consciousness by a soft, weak tug on... one trailing end of his forehead ribbon. Had that boy, A-Yuan, come back and decided to play? Each pull was gentle but insistent, as if quietly asking for attention. Despite the rules of his sect and the deep meaning of the forehead ribbon, Lan WangJi couldn’t bring himself to be angry.

Opening his eyes, he began to sit up carefully, already expecting that his ribbon would end up yanked otherwise.

...But there was no child next to the bed.

The hand lightly holding the tail of his forehead ribbon was much larger, pale and thin from long convalescence. The white length slipped between those fingers, and Lan WangJi instinctively caught himself on one elbow instead of straightening completely.

Slowly widening, his eyes trailed up the form on the bed and finally rested on Wei WuXian’s face. Tired gray eyes met his, and Wei WuXian smiled, weighed by fatigue but genuine — and so, so welcome.

“Sorry, Lan Zhan,” he chuckled, his voice faint and drowsy. “I just couldn’t resist!”

Lan WangJi’s breath caught.

His hand closed over Wei WuXian’s, trapping and wrinkling the ribbon he was still lightly holding. “Wei... Wei Ying,” Lan WangJi forced out shakily. “You’re awake.”

Wei WuXian drew out a lazy sound of agreement. “Mm... I thought I heard you playing a song,” he said. His words were slightly disjointed, and his attention drifted. But he was awake. He was awake. “It was nice...”

Lan WangJi’s lips trembled as he struggled to find words. In the end, he could only nod jerkily, his hand tightening around Wei WuXian’s. The fine tremors that went through his fingers didn’t go unnoticed — Wei WuXian blinked slowly, his sleepy expression growing serious.

“I really... made you wait,” he murmured unhappily. “I’m sorry, Lan Zhan. I mean it...”

Pursing his lips tightly, Lan WangJi shook his head. He didn’t mind.

“Ah, but I ended up waiting too,” Wei WuXian mused. “It was dark and... but I knew Lan Zhan would come for sure. You really are the best... I love you... so much...”

It was just a simple remark, as he already drifted off to sleep again. After all, his heart had already been decided long ago, even if he had forgotten that he hadn’t spoken it aloud yet.

“...Mm,” Lan WangJi managed finally. Lowering his head, he pressed his cheek to their clasped hands. “I love you too, Wei Ying.”

He didn’t know if Wei WuXian had heard him before drifting off. It didn’t matter.

After all, they had their entire lives ahead of them. The long lives of immortals, together.

~.~.~

Chapter Text

Notes: It’s over! There’s a few loose ends, like Jin GuangYao definitely causing shit in the future, but since I’m not too clear on what his deal is (I’ve only read up to chapter 83), I don’t want to address it. I think the situation overall is different enough that it won’t go down like canon anyway. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination!

So, here is the epilogue. Thank you so much for reading! (And let me know if you have any suggestions for extras, I'm open to ideas!)

~.~.~

Epilogue

Wei WuXian hummed to himself as he read Jiang YanLi’s latest missive. It was long, like most of his sister’s letters, and full of funny, happy stories about her married life at LanlingJin, putting a smile on his face. But one part in particular made him pause and make a thoughtful sound.

Easily reading the tone of his voice, Lan WangJi glanced at him.

“A-Ling will be one year old soon,” Wei WuXian said. “So there’s going to be a whole big thing about it... Should we go?”

Lan WangJi only tilted his head slightly. What reason was there not to go?

Both their families would be in attendance, in particular the young sect leaders of YunmengJiang and GusuLan. Perhaps some of Wei WuXian’s many friends across the sects would also be among the entourages. Even Wen Ning and his sister might be invited, given Jiang YanLi’s gentle but unwavering efforts for peace.

It would be a good chance to see everyone.

“Right! Of course we’ll go!” Wei WuXian agreed, grinning. “Gotta check what those peacocks are teaching my favorite nephew!”

At the moment, little Jin Ling was technically his only nephew. However, there was also the children at Yiling and the youngest disciples at GusuLan, and an entire little flock of small buns in what seemed like every town they visited, which Wei WuXian considered to be his in some capacity. Jin Ling could be considered very fortunate in being the great Wei WuXian’s favorite.

Conversely, once he was old enough to understand more of what was happening around him, he might come to consider it a great misfortune instead.

“Hey, you two! Want to come too?” Wei WuXian called out, twisting around to look over his shoulder.

The two boys he had addressed, both teenagers on the verge of becoming adults, lifted their heads from the diagram they had been diligently poring over.

“Go? To... the name day celebration of Young Master Jin’s son?” one of them asked. “Would that be appropriate? We haven't been invited.”

“It's fine! I'm inviting you!” Wei WuXian said.

“Even if you’re the brother of the child’s mother, that doesn’t seem appropriate at all,” the other boy said, his expression disapproving.

“Who’s going to turn away a student of BaoShan SanRen?” Wei WuXian insisted. “You should come, Xiao-shishu! It'll be... well, these things aren't really fun, but we'll make it fun for ourselves!”

Xiao XingChen’s respectfully attentive expression quavered. Technically, the way Wei WuXian addressed him was correct. He was, after all, the junior disciple of the same teacher as Wei WuXian’s mother, ZangSe SanRen.

But being called “uncle” by someone older and, in his eyes, far more accomplished than himself made Xiao XingChen's ears burn. If he could choose, he would have called Wei WuXian “Senior Wei” to begin with.

This awkward, flustered reaction was precisely why Wei WuXian, who had never stood on ceremony, called him that.

Sensing that his friend was being unjustly teased, the dour-faced Song ZiChen scowled at Wei WuXian. Of course, that reaction also only encouraged him.

His widening grin was terrifying.

In unison, the boys turned to Lan WangJi instead, as if begging for help — they had traveled with the pair long enough to know this was about the only quarter they could hope for support from, but only about half the time.

Lan WangJi let the silence stretch.

Then, having had his fun, he turned to Wei WuXian and said mildly, “The present?”

Jin Ling’s present, he meant. Wei WuXian allowed himself to be distracted. “We'll have to get something good,” he mused. “Even better than the bell! But what... Any ideas, Lan Zhan?”

“Dog collar.”

“D-dog...” Wei WuXian’s face twitched. Indeed, both Jiang Cheng and Jin ZiXuan had made noises about getting Jin Ling a puppy of his own. Jiang YanLi could likely restrain her husband, but her brother would absolutely go through with it.

“For tracking,” Lan WangJi explained.

It took a moment for Wei WuXian to understand. Then, his eyes widened in delight. “Oh! That's perfect! Wouldn't want A-Ling’a little friend to wander off and get lost after all!” That was not at all the real purpose of the gift. Rather, it was to let Wei WuXian know whenever that hell beast came close. Grinning, he nodded to himself several times. “Alright! Then let's deal with this quick! We've got a party to prepare for!”

Surging to his feet in a smooth motion, he crossed the rundown pavilion they had gathered in and skipped lightly down the steps. The air outside was heavy. They had kept clear of the boundary, but even at this distance, the effects were already pronounced. The dull, shadowed sky, the pale, heatless sun, the unnatural chill...

Wei WuXian’s lips quirked without humor. Taking a breath, he stretched — not just his muscles, but also his spiritual energy.

It had already been three years since the fall of QishanWen, and he had finally recovered completely. That was why they had decided to put into action the plan he had developed while recuperating.

To break the curse on the Nightless City.

He had originally designed the ritual to be performed by only him and Lan WangJi, but when Xiao XingChen and Song ZiChen approached them and offered their help, Wei WuXian didn't turn then down. Having four people would increase the stability and add balance, and the two of them were genuinely talented.

The principle was simple. Add another array around the city, then link it to the formations at the foundation of the curse. Use the new array to erase Wei WuXian’s original reversal and alterations, turning those formations back into spirit dispersing and purifying ones, while simultaneously using it to bolster the old formations.

Over time, the thick negative energy that had swallowed the Nightless City whole would be gradually broken up and dispersed. The land would likely never support life again, but at least it would no longer be a hell on earth either.

He had caused this. So it was Wei WuXian’s duty to resolve it as well.

“You two understand what to do?” he asked Xiao XingChen and Song ZiChen.

They replied in affirmative. With a final look, they began to roll up the diagram he had drawn — the layout of the Nightless City and its formations, which even after three years remained engraved in his mind.

Those days of helplessness and fear and rage...

Even though it was long over, Wei WuXian’s heart still trembled at just the memory of it.

Lan WangJi followed him out, gliding down the pavilion steps. The sight of his graceful movements seemed to sweep away all other thoughts. Somehow, his Lan Zhan had managed to become even more beautiful, Wei WuXian mused with a grin. When they stood shoulder to shoulder, he instinctively leaned into his companion’s steady figure.

“This will be the first step in our dream,” Xiao XingChen said as he also descended onto the barren path next to the pavilion. “Thank you for giving us this opportunity.” Smiling earnestly, he bowed to Wei WuXian. His earlier frown smoothing into a polite expression, Song ZiChen did the same.

It made Wei WuXian want to tease them more.

“A dream, huh?” he drew out. “What kind of dream? To become great heroes?”

“Well, it does involve making a name for ourselves,” Xiao XingChen admitted, embarrassed.

Even though the length if time it had existed was comparatively short, the curse on QishanWen and their Nightless City was certainly infamous among cultivators, and whoever could break it would gain a measure of renown. Since Wei WuXian hadn’t bothered being overly subtle, his intentions were well-known, and that was why these two had approached him.

...If Wei WuXian could push the matter onto them, it would suit him just as well.

Knowledge of his involvement — his responsibility — in creating the curse in the first place was restricted, but his rescue from the Nightless City by Lan WangJi, along with the subsequent long vigil at his bedside, had been... well, a popular topic. Because of that, his plans to break the curse had been given a certain overly romanticized undertone in rumors.

It was a little nauseating, how the public perceived it, frankly. This whole situation wasn't something he was proud of to begin with, so if the focus could be shifted to someone else and something good could come of it in the end, he would be glad.

None of these complicated feelings showed on his face. “Oh-ho!” Wei WuXian grinned. “Then what's next for our two young heroes? Will you purify Burial Mounds as well? Hunt down the Xuanwu of Slaughter? Brave the Endless Abyss?”

Flustered, Xiao XingChen could only wave his hands as if to deny any such lofty intentions. Which was ridiculous. He'd told Wei WuXian himself that he had come down from BaoShan’s mountain to ‘stand against evil.’ It didn’t get loftier than that.

“We will do what we must to make our names known,” Song ZiChen stepped in for his friend, “in order to found our own sect.”

“That’s right! We want to found a new sect,” Xiao XingChen rallied. “A sect which isn't based in bloodlines, which anyone can join. That's our dream. That's why we want to gain the prestige to be taken seriously.”

“A sect that isn't led by a clan... that sounds interesting,” Wei WuXian said.

Xiao XingChen hesitated. “If... if you would be interested... you could also...” he stumbled over his words.

“Of course I'll visit!” Wei WuXian ‘agreed’ loudly. “I'll be happy to! It's a great thing you're doing!” He slapped Xiao XingChen on the back hard enough to make him stagger. “But the first step is setting up this array. So let's get to it! We're going to become legends!”

Placing his hand on Xiao XingChen’s shoulder in support, Song ZiChen nodded and began to pull him away. Despite the tacit rejection, Xiao XingChen still shot Wei WuXian a parting smile before falling in step with his friend. Soon the two of them took to the sky, heading in opposite directions.

Lan WangJi needed to go further than either of them, around to the opposite side of the Nightless City. However, he hung back, studying Wei WuXian.

“I do think it's a great thing. But I'm not interested in joining,” Wei WuXian said, understanding what he wanted to ask. “It’s just like why I haven't joined YunmengJiang again or GusuLan, or any other sect. I like being everyone's weird uncle that pops up anywhere, anytime!”

“Mm,” Lan WangJi made a sound of agreement.

“It suits me, right?” Wei WuXian carried on, his grin widening. But after a moment, his excitement softened, and he gave a quiet, satisfied sigh. “It suits me. I really do... like this life.”

He tilted his head easily when a hand brushed his cheek, easily guessing what Lan WangJi was thinking. He was grinning as familiar lips pressed against his own. Closing his eyes, he leaned into the kiss.

They had already said everything to each other, so there was no need to repeat it.

Wei WuXian smiled and laughed. Even though they both knew it all already, he couldn’t help blurting it out anyway — “Lan Zhan, you’re the best! I’m so glad I met you! This life is perfect just because you’re with me! I love you! I love you so much—!”

Humming in agreement, Lan WangJi leaned in to kiss him again.

~.~.~

THE END