“It went a little like that,” said A-Qing. “But tell me again how I looked.”
Some of the assembled disciples groaned. One or two got up to return to their erstwhile duties. But a few leaned forward with renewed interest, and Ouyang Zizhen was more than happy to oblige.
“A young girl, but steeped in the weight of all she’d experienced in life. Covered in dirt and blood, but with a strong bearing -- one could see her beauty and courage through all her hardships. Will that do, Lady Qing?”
“Lady Qing! I like that.” A-Qing clapped her hands and swung her legs in delight, as she was currently in the body of Song Lan, this was a bit of a sight in of itself. “Tell me, was I really pretty?”
“The most beautiful young woman I’d seen in my life,” swore Ouyang Zizhen. “... until I met my wife.”
“Oh, boo,” said A-Qing, pouting as prettily as Song Lan’s face could allow -- which turned out was quite a bit. “You could at least pretend to be a little unfaithful. Oh, well. Guess it’s nice to see not all gentry are complete pervs. Hey, tell me again about how Hanguang-jun cut off Xue Yang’s arm. I liked that part.”
It’d been a favorite among the rest of the disciples too. Pleased by the audience, and having forgotten entirely that this was meant to be a debriefing, Ouyang Zichen settled in to tell the story of Xue Yang’s first death all over again -- when no less than the Yiling Patriarch himself emerged from the shadows, drawn in by the sound of their voices.
“Oh, Senior Wei.” Ouyang Zizhen nearly bounced to his feet. “Will you join us? I was just telling my juniors about Yi City -- but we’d love your account. Senior Wei was the true hero, you know. It’s like they say, when you’re caught in a nasty trick -- the Yiling Patriarch is the one you want to trick your way right out! Please, we’d be honored to hear your take on it.”
He explained this, sagely, to the assembled cultivators, apparently not for the first time if their somewhat dutiful nods said anything. Wei Wuxian crooked an eyebrow and put a fist in front of his mouth to keep from laughing.
“Oh, no. I’m sure you’d tell it better,” he said. That was practically guaranteed. The Baling Ouyang Sect had become one of the most generous patrons of the arts under the current sect leader, who himself had no lack of histories published under careful, but recognizable, pseudonyms. “I need to borrow our distinguished guest. That would be…”
“Didn’t you hear?” A-Qing batted Song Lan’s lustrous eyes -- well, actually, Xiao Xingchen’s lustrous eyes, now that Wei Wuxian really thought about it. “I’m Lady Qing, now!”
“Lady Qing.” Wei Wuxian bowed as was proper to a woman of her newly promoted station. “May I speak with you?”
A-Qing tapped her bottom lip in entirely feigned consideration. “Eh, I allow it.”
She hopped to her feet.
The river bank was quieter than it ought to have been. Most of the resentful energy had been cleansed or contained, but the surviving wild life had long fled. The local watchtower would monitor the rehabilitation and dismantling of the tomb, but it would take some time for life to return properly to this region. The survivors of the fishing village would have a time of it yet. The relief efforts would be bound to keep Jin Ling and his office running around for the next few months -- but eh, that was one way to break in his new position.
Wei Wuxian stared across the too-still water. “My most honored guest cultivator,” he said, just to watch Song Lan’s body giggle, really. It was kind of adorable in a weird way. “Us full-of-ourselves gentry are greatly indebted to you. Is there anything we may do to repay the debt?”
A-Qing stuck out her hand. “Money’s good,” she said. “Daozhang never asks for anything and Master Song is just too proud. Since you’re married to that rich brother in white who kicks so much ass, you should pay us well. So!”
“Oof, you are one hard miss.” But Wei Wuxian laughed. It was nice to hear her so lively somewhere that wasn’t a memory. “I’ll ask Lan Zhan to give you something before we go. Don’t expect you’ll be going our way, after this?”
A-Qing stopped suddenly. Her hands went down to her side. She turned slowly and purposefully, the set of her jaw becoming much more stiff and severe.
“We do not require the recognition of the Great Sects. We will continue on our own path, as we have sworn to.” Song Lan frowned, slightly. “But if she is bothering you, you may say so.”
The shift was truly impressive. “It’s fine. She can be as much of an imposition as she wants. I’m the one who asked you to relive something pretty nasty, after all. Thank you, by the way.”
“Hmph. It was an account I was glad to settle.”
“And, ah, my sect uncle?”
Song Lan hesitated. When he turned back, his eyes had gone a shade darker. “It was a long time coming,” murmured Xiao Xingchen, his voice came out a little thicker, as though holding back a great well of feeling. “I hope you will forgive my lateness, Young Master Wei. But I thank you for seeking me out. Xue Yang was... complicated, to the very end. But I think I am glad to have been there, nonetheless.”
Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but ease back in relief. “Still here, then.”
“In this world, you mean?” Xiao Xingchen’s lips curved faintly. Even touched by sadness, Wei Wuxian understood at once why that was the kind of smile that could knock even someone like Xue Yang for a loop. “I have reason to remain a little longer. Our dreams -- mine and Zichen's -- remain unfulfilled. I’d like to stay by his side a little longer. He waited so patiently by mine while I slept.”
A Fierce Corpse couldn’t exactly flush, but Wei Wuxian thought the slight twitch in his hand might have been Song Lan’s response to this particular declaration. Good. Wei Wuxian couldn’t help but grin a little stupidly. It’s not like it was his conflict to work out but still, it made him feel light to know they had that, at least.
“I think you’re a little closer than next to him now,” he said. “You know, there might be something for that. It is possible to transfer a soul into a puppet. If you think you might want to live separately for awhile--”
But Song Lan returned to the surface with a shake of his head.
“That will not be necessary,” he said, firmly. “Xingchen gave me his eyes, all those years ago. I paid him much too coldly, then. My body is the least he can have in return, now.”
“Besides have you seen how tall I am now?” added A-Qing, with her own eyebrow quirk. “I’d like to see some spoiled fuck try to grab my ass now.”
Which was so amazing to hear coming out of Song Lan, Wei Wuxian could no longer hold back a laugh. “All right, all right. That’s fair, I guess. Though speaking of … if I might be so impertinent as to ask one more thing -- of my sect uncle, that is?”
Xiao Xingchen had had the same master as his mother, after all.
Song Lan's features softened into Xiao Xingchen's mildly curious expression. “Yes, Young Master Wei?”
“If it’s not too personal.” Here, Wei Wuxian found himself growing almost oddly shy. “...what called you back? I didn’t lie to Xue Yang when I told him it would be nearly impossible to bring a soul back in that condition. It’d been nearly impossible to bring me back, after all.”
And plenty had tried, in the intervening years. Some of them had been demonic cultivators, eager for some unearthly help. Some of them had been members of the Great Sects, looking to do away with him for good. One of them had been Lan Wangji, who’d loved him more dearly than Wei Wuxian could have ever guessed in his last life. But none of them had succeeded. In the end, it had taken circumstances so convoluted and beyond anything anyone could have predicted, Wei Wuxian was still a little amazed to think about it.
But none of it had been through his own choosing. Wei Wuxian had fallen to pieces long before they’d cut his body up. He hadn’t answered any calls. He hadn’t wanted to. Of course, it’d taken the darkest of rites, to drag him back.
As for Xiao Xingchen…
“I’m not very good with stories,” he said, a little bashfully. This Wei Wuxian already knew, but he didn’t dare interrupt. “But I will try. Zichen carried us with him for some time. He traveled the world. He fought evil. He asked for nothing in return. But he spoke to us, nonetheless. Sometimes, he told us of his regrets. Sometimes, he told us of the people he’d met while searching for me. What he saw, that I could not. Until one day, he did something he had never done before. Something he had never once thought to even try…”
Xiao Xingchen lit up with a smile. A full one this time. It was like the moon emerging over the dark shadow of a mountain. Oh, yes, there was an ache in it. His lips were the bloodless grey of a Fierce Corpse. And the marks of everything he’d suffered in life and in death were clear in the creases that formed around his eyes, but still he lifted his chin without a small amount of pride. This, truly, was a memory he could cherish, and would continue to cherish, despite all the pain that had brought him to it.
“...he made me laugh.”
Feeling heart-heavy and free at the same time, Wei Wuxian picked his way back to town. He found Lan Wangji holding court with Lan Sizhui near the docks. He must’ve just woken up. There were dark bruises under his eyes. Wei Wuxian shrugged out of his overobe and laid it over Lan Sizhui as he passed him, choosing a spot along the fishing shack to lean most artfully. It gave some illusion of privacy.
“...then I was right about that,” said Lan Sizhui, picking up from wherever he’d left off, before Wei Wuxian had shown up. He pulled the robe tighter over his shoulders, drawing visible comfort from its warmth. “Liberation was an option.”
The sun had long vanished under the trees. The evening was cool in that prickly way that only happened after a long rain -- but at least it was still.
“Wei Ying thought so,” said Lan Wangji. He sat across from Sizhui, plucking at his guqin. He’d been playing cleansing songs for several hours now. He cast a glance at his husband. Wei Wuxian, contrary to the normal set of this sort of interrogation, did his best to affect a certain nondescript silence. Don’t mind me, he told his husband in little more than a quiet nod. I’ll let you take this one.
“That’s why you took the time to find Song Zichen…”
“Mm.” Lan Wangji waited, patiently. He’d always been a firm, but patient instructor. “Why did you think that it would work?"
Lan Sizhui smiled weakly. He drew himself up like he was in class. “His hatred was indeed quite strong,” he said, measured and clean. Lan Wangji’s brow twitched in faint approval. “...but resentment, while powerful, is hard to control. Without a Stygian Tiger Seal. Which was destroyed…. Um, right, Senior Wei?”
“It would be news if it wasn’t,” said Wei Wuxian. Lan Wangji and Lan Sizhui looked at him. “Oh, it’s gone. Continue.”
He lapsed back into that uncharacteristic silence, but he watched them carefully, hand flicking at his nose in thought.
“There is one emotion that is more reliable than hatred,” said Lan Sizhui. “More encompassing. More fortifying. More able to creep into you unawares. But seldom embodied in spirits.”
“Which is?” It was clear from Lan Wangji’s expectant gaze he already knew the answer, but he wanted to hear it from his best student.
Lan Sizhui felt his ears color. “Why, it would be love, of course.” His hands tugged tighter on Wei Wuxian’s overrobe.
“Why do you think it is so rare?” asked Lan Wangji.
“By the nature of spirits themselves. They are typically formed by resentment. To be able to embody both love and hate in equal measure. To such a destructive but passionate effect. It could only take someone like Xue Yang. I thought, ‘Ah, he must have felt something for Xiao Xingchen. He must be willing to make the world rot if he could just wake him up.’ But by the nature of his life and death, that could only ever be expressed through destruction. Still…”
Lan Wangji waited. Wei Wuxian raised his eyebrows.
“Still…it’s an awful lot to do, to want to see someone again. So, I thought, perhaps, if I performed Empathy there would be a chance to resolve what was holding him here -- but then, I think maybe, he saw that chance in me instead.”
And all at once, Lan Sizhui’s head came down. He bowed deep and low.
“Hanguang-jun, I made a terrible mistake,” he said. “My actions endangered our people and wounded the Chief Cultivator. And what’s more, for you and Senior Wen to have to come to blows -- there is no excuse for my reckless action.”
He stayed there, despite the ache from his newly cleansed body. He could feel Lan Wangji’s gaze on him. He could hear the faint stirring of his cloth as he nodded.
“A rare misstep coming from you,” murmured the man who was his oldest, dearest teacher, second only to the other man beside him. “Why do you think that it occurred?”
“My own weakness. I thought my will alone was strong enough to resist a spirit like that.”
“My will,” said Lan Sizhui. “But not my heart. I overestimated my capabilities. I’m sorry, seniors.”
Wei Wuxian shifted uncomfortably, but he said nothing. Lan Sizhui picked himself up off the ground, returning to his seated position, his gaze clear despite the redness in his cheeks.
“Of course I accept full responsibility.” His voice and bearing matched his age and rank, but rumpled and bandaged as he was, with his hair only hastily retied -- his look painfully echoed a little boy who once played in grave dirt. “I will face whatever judgment the sect makes on my actions.”
Lan Wangji raised his fingers. That was enough. Lan Sizhui fell silent. “We shall await a full report,” said Lan Wangji. “But how might you judge such a case?”
“How might I --” Lan Sizhui blinked. “If it were a junior disciple, you mean?”
“If it were anyone at all.”
“I suppose….I would feel some concern for them,” admitted Lan Sizhui. He seemed startled by the thought. “But I would recommend recommitting to their studies for at least six months before returning to active night hunts. And a week of contemplation, at the very least. Perhaps a few courses in musical composition in the clarity school, to encourage stronger discipline in the future.”
“Fair but not unduly harsh.” Lan Wangji nodded. “I shall advise Zewu-jun thus. Three months is the more likely course.”
“Take this lesson from the ghost you’ve faced,” said Lan Wangji. “Love will never make you weak. But willful blindness ruins all.”
It was true for more than one man in their family. Lan Sizhui went very quiet, and slowly composed himself. “I will consider Hanguang-jun’s words very carefully.”
“You always have.” The corners of Lan Wangji’s mouth shivered in the phantom of a smile. Lan Sizhui couldn’t help but offer his own in return. “Now rest, Sizhui.”
Carefully, still mindful of his bruises and bandages, Lan Sizhui stood, bowed, and took his leave. He moved across the docks, where Wen Ning waited for him, watching the water. Silhouetted in the lights from the Jiang boats, he sat down beside his cousin, exchanged a few words. After a moment, Lan Sizhui leaned their shoulders together. Wen Ning put a ragged arm around him. It seemed to set them both at ease.
“So, that’s what it’s like,” said Wei Wuxian, watching this play out.
The rest of the camp had given them their privacy. Most of them attended Jin Ling -- who still insisted on organizing the clean-up, even bandaged like a rice ball and hopped up on pain medication. He barked orders from his bed mat like the informed little lord he was, Fairy draped behind him like a big fuzzy throw pillow.
At the image of the massive, bristling spirit dog, Wei Wuxian decided then and there he was done with that thought. He gave up on looking cool and aloof, abandoning the fishing shack in favor of his husband’s arm. He didn’t quite press in just yet, just laid his hands over his sleeve, watching the river, and Wen Ning and Lan Sizhui.
“That boy,” said Wei Wuxian. His eyes glittered in the firelight. He wrinkled his nose and scrubbed at his face. “Why does he take all the worst lessons from me? His heart is too big. He’ll hurt himself running around so much. You should tell Zewu-jun to stick him in the gardening shed. Let him nest in with the seedlings until spring.”
“That boy will accept no true restraint. Nor do you.”
“I’m a real pain, aren’t I?”
“Yes. The worst.”
“Ah, Lan Zhan! You weren’t supposed to agree--!”
But Lan Wangji’s eyes warmed. “And the best, as well.”
Lan Sizhui returned to the makeshift medical pavilion with a new remedy recipe from Wen Ning and a lot on his mind.
Jin Ling had long finished up holding his impromptu court. He lay on his back, eyes screwed shut, as though sleep had had to fight him to finally drag him down. Lan Yan had just finished playing another healing song. She started as Lan Sizhui came in. At Jin Ling’s feet, Fairy snorted, opened an eye, saw Sizhui, and let her tail thump quietly against the bed mat.
“Senior. Is there anything I can--”
“It’s fine. I can take it from here.”
“But what about you?”
Lan Sizhui paused, touched by her thoughtfulness. “Hanguang-jun has already tended to me. You needn’t worry. Please, you need rest, too.”
“Thank you, senior.” She left. Lan Sizhui wondered what he’d done of late to deserve such respect. Certainly none of his conduct in the past day or so was the mark of a professional.
He knelt beside Jin Ling. The Chief Cultivator lay in his overrobe, though his undershirt had been stripped off to allow his dressings room to breathe. Lan Yan knew her work. The poulstices were correctly applied, the dressing well-layered. Jin Ling’s nose wrinkled. He turned his head,
blearily, to blink up at Lan Sizhui with unfocused eyes.
“Chief Cultivator,” said Lan Sizhui.
“None of that,” bit out Jin Ling, in a voice slurred by exhaustion and pain medication. “Been hearing that all day. Don’t need to hear it from you. The boats repaired?”
“I have no idea,” said Lan Sizhui. “Would you like me to check?”
“Hell no. You should be sleeping.”
“So should you.”
“I’ll sleep when you sleep.”
A soft laugh caught in Lan Sizhui’s throat. His eyes stung. “Sorry,” he swallowed. “I’m being very silly-- this is my--”
Jin Ling’s hand shot out to grip his wrist. He couldn’t hold it very hard. He’d taken a lot of drugs after all.
“Say it’s your fault and I’ll break your legs,” he said. Then, a little sheepishly: “....I mean, not really, but…”
“All right. I won’t,” said Lan Sizhui. He’d still feel it though, just for a little while longer. “In which case, may I make a very selfish request?”
Lan Sizhui swallowed, hard. “Can I rest here with you? I don’t want to be alone.”
Jin Ling stared up at him with glassy eyes. Then, after a moment of attempting to fight out a response through a too slack jaw, he pulled at Lan Sizhui’s wrist, tugging him down to him.
“So stay,” he grunted. “Don’t go anywhere else.”
“Alright,” said Lan Sizhui. He settled carefully next to him, nestled his face against his neck, and fell into a restless slumber.
He dreamt of a narrow dirt road, of returning from a night hunt, of toying with the strings of his companion’s bamboo hat.
He dreamt lying in the half-light of dawn, hearing a weight on his bed. He saw a long white hand place a little candy next to his head. He pretended to shift in his sleep, so his lips brushed the man’s knuckles. He mouthed them, barely masking his smirk, savoring the soft inhalation that was somehow just as sweet as the candy next to him.
He dreamt of opening the doors to an inn, and finding every surface covered in white rabbits. He had to step carefully among them. His father was seated among them in front of the open window, wearing the light whites he’d worn during his time in seclusion. He picked up the largest, and fattest, most lordly rabbit and said, “I leave this one to you.”
And, cradling that fat old rabbit close to his chest, Lan Sizhui walked out of the room, and back into a mind that was his, and his alone.
Jin Rulan’s eyes shot open. He knew he was back at the Cloud Recesses from the smell. That particular mix of sandalwood and medical herbs. He heard someone chewing messily, just crunching away like a rabbit with a root. Jin Rulan opened his eyes and glared.
“Can you not?” he growled. “That’s right next to my ear.”
Slumped over the table next to the daybed, Lan Jingyi straightened up with an imperious air he immediately ruined when he took one more bite of his cracker and wrinkled his nose. “So, the young mistress awakens. About time.”
“Where am I?” Jin Rulan got up on his elbows to look around. The answering ache in his injured side made him swear under his breath. Jingyi watched him without sympathy, taking another bite of his cracker, munching heartily.
“The Cloud Recesses,” he said, without blinking. “Hanguang-jun and Wei Wuxian brought you in this morning.”
“I know that,” snapped Jin Rulan. The doors were open to let in the breeze, but the make-up of the room was unfamiliar to him. No rabbit lanterns, for one. “I mean, where in the Cloud Recesses?”
“The guest apartments,” said Jingyi. “Zewu-jun said you should have your privacy. These are for you, by the way. I’m supposed to make sure you eat them.”
He picked up a dish off the table and shoved it in Jin Rulan’s face. Jin Rulan nearly rolled to keep from getting conked in the nose. The sweet smell was strangely familiar.
“Haw flakes? Really?” Jin Rulan picked one up and gave it a tentative nibble. The sweetness that filled his senses was achingly familiar. His healing body remembered it was desperately hungry. He shoved the rest of it in his mouth with minimal bites, and then coughed until Jingyi finally, finally, handed him some tea to chase it down. “Where’d these come from?”
“Nie Minglin brought them by a few hours ago,” said Jingyi. “I thought she was going to give me one of her lists, but she just gave me this dish. Said you’d be less likely to be fussy about them, since they were your favorites.”
“Nie Minglin said that?”
“What the fuck.”
“I know, right? She’s really weird. Do you think she’s got a thing for you? Because everyone’s trying to figure out if she’s after you or Zewu-jun--”
“What? Ew. No. She’s, like, twelve. I meant these are from Lanling,” said Jin Rulan. “Where the hell did she find them in the Cloud Recesses?”
“Why would I know? How’s your wound?”
“Eh?” Jin Rulan looked down. He touched his hand carefully to the nest of bandages. It felt sore, like he’d bruised it badly, but it didn’t twinge or spark. “Better. What, afraid I was going to die on your watch?”
“No,” said Lan Jingyi. He put down the plate. Stood up and rolled up his sleeves. “I was worried I wouldn’t be able to do this.”
Then he picked up one of the cushions and began to beat Jin Rulan over the head with it.
It didn’t hurt, but it made him shout.
“Hey.” Jin Rulan seized the cushion. Jingyi substituted it with his sleeves instead, twisting them up and whipping at him like a particularly irate octopus. “Hey! What! The hell! Is this!”
“This is for being a GIANT IDIOT!” cried Jingyi, the picture of vengeance, if vengeance wore white and blue and was covered with haw flake crumbs. “The biggest! And also the worst! What did I say before you left? What did I say?!”
“You say a lot of things!”
“Treat! Sizhui! With! Respect!” When Jin Rulan grabbed his sleeves, Jingyi resorted to poking. He got the Chief Cultivator in the forehead at least twice before he managed to grab his wrists. Jin Rulan was pretty sure this constituted some kind of treason.
“How the hell does that have anything to do with--”
“You got him possessed!
“Xue Yang got him possessed!”
“No, he performed Empathy and the ghost overtook him!”
“Which was stupid, I agree!”
“You’re not allowed to call A-Yuan stupid!” cried Jingyi, his face now flushed with feeling. “He’s been stupid because of you. He cares so much about you. He always has. He does everything your way, thinking about your feelings, and because of you some lonely ghost was able to take advantage of his heart. Which was weak. Because of you!”
“What?” Jin Rulan stopped fighting and stared, bewildered. It was the first time he’d heard it spelled out quite like that. “Did he tell you that?”
This time, when Jingyi came for him with his sleeves, Jin Rulan let him thwack him across the nose uncontested. “You think he likes being all secretive about this kind of thing? He loves you! Like, a lot! And he likes being open and close with people he loves! He hates that he can only be with you here or behind like five locked doors in Carp Tower. He hates that he has to stand apart from you in night hunts. He hates that he has to wait for you to marry someone else. And he doesn’t have to tell me for me to see it. He shouldn’t have to tell you, either. Think about what kind of person he is! Just think!”
...it was true. There was no one Jin Rulan knew as warm or as loving as Lan Sizhui. There was no one as gentle and patient. There was no one as able to make a light scolding still feel like an endearment, even while Jin Rulan blushed. Jin Rulan wanted to protest. Wanted to say, ‘But I let him know my feelings all the time!’ But it occurred to him: it was always at the Cloud Recesses. It was always behind three -- not five, Jingyi! -- locked doors in his private suite in the Carp Tower. It was always a quick, secret kiss when no one was around. It was always--
“Does he really think I’ll marry someone else?” asked Jin Rulan, wonderingly.
Jingyi glared. “Why else haven’t you married him?”
“Because--” Actually, Jin Rulan didn’t have an answer for that. He stared ahead blankly. Jingyi stopped smacking him when he noticed he’d stopped reacting to it. “Was he ever going to say anything?”
“Of course not. He was going to keep it a secret until he died. Beautifully and for the one he loves. It doesn’t matter if they know or not! That’s not what’s important!”
“But that’s stupid.”
“Yeah, but we’re Lan,” screeched Jingyi. His voice hit a near operatic pitch. “It’s what we do.”
“Jingyi,” asked Jin Rulan, between his teeth. The world had gotten Very Quiet and Very Calm and he had a Very Important Question that needed to be answered Right The Hell Now. “Where is Sizhui now?”
“In his disciplinary hearing with Zewu-jun,” said Jingyi, sniffing. “Because of you.”
“Right.” Jin Rulan gripped the edge of the daybed as he pulled himself up. “Got it.”
And, ignoring the ache in his side, Jin Rulan threw off his blanket and swung to his feet.
“Hey,” cried Lan Jingyi, as Jin Rulan stomped past him. “Coward! How dare you run from me! I’m not done!”
Jin Rulan threw the doors open and plunged into the courtyard. The two Jiang disciples on duty, Guo and Li, jolted after him. Fairy, who’d been having a designated sniff break in the courtyard, pricked her ears. Realizing it was Running Time Which Was Therefore The Best Time, she barked and galloped after him, tail swishing like an oar.
Running was forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, but Jin Rulan was Chief Cultivator. What were they going to do? Make him do handstands? He must have torn through at least four courtyards and two contemplation gardens, and startled the ever living hell out of at least six initiates, before he finally found the administrative buildings in relation to the guest pavilion. He shoved open the doors and strutted in. He was still in his underclothes. Who cared. He was a Sect Leader. He was Chief Cultivator. He was the Golden Prince of Lanling. He was--
He was just Jin Ling, and he was staring down the startled faces of Wei Wuxian, Hanguang-jun, Zewu-jun, Nie Minglin, Lan Qiren, and several other assorted Lan seniors.
To say nothing of Lan Sizhui, who was at present kneeling in front of the desk, where Zewu-jun had been, until a moment ago, reviewing his report on the Chewang operation. Nie Minglin was taking studious notes behind him.
And just then, Jin Rulan remembered, very distinctly: ‘Oh, right. This is kind of one of my worst nightmares.’
Still, he squared his shoulders and said, in the booming voice he saved for battlefield commands. “Zewu-jun, I need to speak with Lan Sizhui.”
Zewu-jun masked his confusion quickly behind a cordial if somewhat wary smile. “Chief Cultivator,” he began, “I’m glad to see you are well. Can the matter wait? Lan Sizhui was just finishing up his report.”
“No, it can’t,” said Jin Rulan. “It’s important.”
Zewu-jun put on his famous bodhisattva face. That long measured breath he did when he was cleansing himself of earthly feelings like serious exasperation. “Then please, wait in the antechamber, Chief Cultivator. This is a private sect matter. We can speak as soon as--”
“Then I’ll say it now,” shouted Jin Rulan. He stomped over to Sizhui, not caring if he had to cut across a stunned Lan Qiren to do it. He dropped messily onto his knees, seized both his hands, and said very loudly, and very clearly: “Lan Sizhui, will you marry me?”
“...” said Lan Qiren.
“...” said Hanguang-jun.
“Lan Zhan, he does get something from me,” said Wei Wuxian.
“...” said Zewu-jun.
Nie Minglin just grabbed Zewu-jun’s sleeve and produced an extremely high-pitched squeak that only a seventeen year old girl could manage.
Zewu-jun looked at her in stunned amazement.
“Um.” Lan Sizhui blinked, staring down at their joined hands. Then he stared up into Jin Rulan’s face. “Jin...Ling?”
“I mean it,” said Jin Rulan. He was bright red and he didn’t care. He didn’t care who saw and he didn’t care what they thought. “I want to. I really want to. I’ve wanted to for a while! It’s just -- I’ve always thought of marriage as dangerous. Like when a mouse marries a cat. It’s this stupid, careful, political thing you have to do and if you put a ton of thought into it and do a lot of research and are very lucky you don’t end up miserable or dead. I didn’t want you to end up miserable and dead. You’re the last person I ever want to be miserable or dead. But I almost made you both of those things!”
“Jin Ling, it really wasn’t--”
“Don’t say it wasn’t my fault,” bawled Jin Rulan, pressing his hands to his chest. “It is! I’ve been so busy being scared of something since I was like twelve and how scared I was of having something that was just mine that I didn’t even think about your feelings at all. What kind of man have I been, letting you suffer so much in silence? And don’t tell me you haven’t. You’re a genius. There’s no way a cultivator like you could mess up a technique like that unless he was compromised in some way.
“So I’ll say it plainly: if it’s about alliances, I want to be allied with you. If it’s about politics, I want you to be my chief confidante. But if it’s about danger, we should face it together. But if it’s about being with someone who’s your companion -- someone you just want to walk with wherever they go, for me it’s you. It’s always been you. And it’s never going to be anyone else. So. Fuck it, let’s get married.”
Jin Rulan took a deep breath. That’d been a lot. The assorted faces around him had all turned various shades of red -- or in Hanguang-jun’s case, red in the ears. Wei Wuxian whistled. Nie Minglin dropped her notepad.
“I mean,” Jin Rulan added, into the hanging silence. “If you want, anyway.”
“Jin Ling.” Lan Sizhui’s eyes welled. “Oh, Jin Ling.”
For a brief, panicked moment, Jin Rulan wondered if he’d just completely ruined everything forever -- but then Lan Sizhui threw his arms around his neck, and nearly strangled him in joy, and he knew all at once, he’d finally managed to say the right thing.
The meeting broke up not long after that. It seemed the merciful thing to do. The written report was due the next day, anyway, and Lan Qiren needed to lie down for a bit. Wei Wuxian had to bodily restrain Lan Wangji from pursuing Jin Ling and Lan Sizhui as they stumbled, half laughing, half crying, out into the courtyard. Fairy danced around their legs as they went.
Nie Minglin made a careful exit through the side door. She snuck lightly out onto the walkway. In the courtyard across from her, the young couple were having an animated back and forth. By now, both of them were an absolute mess. They were flushed and wet-eyed, but they hadn’t let go of each other’s hands, even as they’d fled from the offices in a whirl of blue and gold.
Nie Minglin felt the air shift behind her.
Lan Xichen opened his mouth. She held out a hand to shush him. It did not much matter. Their voices were lost on the wind. Jin Ling was stomping his foot. ‘No, child,’ she thought at him, desperately. ‘Now is not the time to pout.’
“I thought your uncle might collapse,” she said, with more relish than she meant. Lan Xichen held out her notebook, his head tilted expectantly.
“You forgot your notes, Miss Lin,” he said, dutifully quiet. “They were very informative.”
Her notes were mostly ‘Xue Yang, you tacky bitch’ repeated several times, in a cypher used only by Meng Yao during the Sunshot Campaign, meant for the eyes of one man and one man alone. That man was currently smiling pointedly at her. She shut her eyes and sighed.
“Yes,” she sighed. “I know. Eavesdropping is against the rules.”
“You hardly need reminding,” murmured Lan Xichen. “But I expect, in this case, old habits are hard to break.”
“I did once make a career of it,” agreed Nie Minglin. But she hardly had to use any particular skill just then. Jin Ling had obviously started rambling nervously, and Lan Sizhui hadn’t yet realized he hadn’t, technically, formally accepted. It was clear from their faces it would take a minute more for that to happen. In the meantime, Jin Ling would start to doubt, and eventually spur himself to ask again, just to be sure...
“That boy,” murmured Nie Minglin. “Really. And all those etiquette classes. … well, there was never going to be anything for it. He never did have the best examples in such things.”
She looked up at Lan Xichen. Staring at him in the late afternoon light, she was struck, all at once, by how strongly it matched a particular memory of him. A time when he’d rushed down the walkway to catch him before he left, holding his robes, so he wouldn’t stumble --
“Zewu-jun,” she said heavily. “It seems I’ve given you even more administrative headaches to deal with.”
“Those boys are going to be married by next fall,” she said. Sure enough, Lan Sizhui had begun to cover his face, and Jin Ling was tugging at his wrists. “It will be lovely, and an event -- whether you like it or not. Jin wedding requirements are cumbersome, you know. There is a manual. Your brother will need to begin negotiating now. And I will have to contact contractors tomorrow, if you expect it all to come together by then.”
“Then I suppose it is just as well,” murmured Lan Xichen, “you have some experience in this field.”
“Oh, I’m the best at it,” agreed Nie Minglin. She was already tallying up initial costs in her head. And of course, there was the matter of the dowry -- once it was decided who would be marrying into whose household, at any rate. She smiled, very faintly. Oh, but she’d have fun making the textile houses hold a bidding war, for the privilege of providing silk for them. “I’ll make it the talk of the cultivation world. It’s the least I can do for him. I’ve troubled him greatly in two lives, now. I’d like to make one thing easier for him.”
She really was smiling now, wider than she had in some time. How peculiar. It would be a logistical mess. She’d be perfectly in her element.
Lan Sizhui was finally smiling, too. He must have remembered to say yes. Jin Ling grabbed at his hands eagerly. Fairy bumped into both of them.
“They’ve been together for some time now,” offered Lan Xichen. “Sizhui’s a fine companion for him. Intelligent. Compassionate. Patient. They balance each other well.”
Jin walked off together hand in hand. Jin gold and Lan blues and whites swayed as they rounded a corner and away. Nie Minglin didn’t dare close her eyes again. The blue and gold would still be there, but it would be someone else wearing it.
“If it had been us…” She laughed a little, despite herself. In another lifetime, it had been them -- walking down the courtyard together, at least. They’d been on their way to the offices, or to the Hanshi for late night tea. So blindingly simple. So unbearably complicated. All at the same time. “If it’d somehow been me making the fool of myself back there -- would you have married me?”
Lan Xichen looked at her.
“If you had asked?” And, then, with no hesitation at all: “In a heartbeat.”
She felt his words in her chest sure as any blade. “Oh,” she said. She held her hands together, and her breath. She didn’t even realize she’d been rubbing her thumb raw, until his hand came over hers to calm her.
It was a wild, wonderful idea. How strange, in all of Jin Guangyao’s thousand plans, that one had never occurred to him at all.