Jiang Cheng gives up on Zidian - he's not sure how that little shit managed to ward against it, but he did, and Jiang Cheng is going to beat answers out of him later - and switches to his sword, slamming Sandu hard into the doors. He can't believe Wei fucking Wuxian is doing this - at all, or here, in Lotus Pier.
"Wei Wuxian!" he shouts. "If your plan fails it will kill you. If you don't open this door right now, I will kill you myself!"
Lan Wangji arrives at speed, adding his force to Jiang Cheng's on the door.
"Wei Ying!" he shouts, and Jiang Cheng tries not to think about how he's heard that note of desperation before.
He can hear the notes of a flute on the other side of the door, they're going to be too late, he should have known Wei fucking Wuxian was planning something when he turned up without his asshole husband -
The door shatters.
- and now the room is empty, just an array on the floor, the glow fading.
He and Lan Wangji move in unison, jump into the array in unison, and Jiang Cheng tries not to think about how the only times the two of them have ever done anything together they were chasing after Wei fucking Wuxian.
Scowling, Jiang Cheng crouches, sets Zidian sparking and touches it to the array, have some fucking power again -
- and then the power comes up through his feet.
It feels like dying.
It feels like inevitability. Wei Wuxian was always going to be the death of him, he thinks.
He meets Lan Wangji's eyes, because that's something they have in common.
And then it's dark.
It's warm and dark, and things are hazy, but he's vaguely aware that he's not dead. There's a crushing pressure, a cold shock, and sudden, blinding light.
Jiang Cheng's consciousness floats. Things are happening to his body, he's being washed and wrapped in a blanket, someone's holding him.
Awareness of the world around him comes slowly, gradually. It's difficult. His muscles are weak, he can't seem to control his body at all, but he can be patient. His mind is fuzzy, but he has it, and he doesn't need to be able to move to try and meditate.
He doesn't manage very much of it, but it's a start.
He can't form the words to speak, but that might be for the best when he feels someone holding him, and he looks up and sees a little girl smiling down at him.
He knows her.
Plucking words from the stream of sounds around him is also something he's still learning how to do again, but he hears A-Cheng.
He cries, and his sister cuddles him close and says things in a soothing tone.
His mind is still hazy. He can't remember, exactly, how long he's been aching for his sister to comfort his tears, but it's far, far too long.
Time drifts past him. He's getting bigger, and stronger. He learns to sit up on his own, learns to follow the speech of the people around him better. He smiles at his sister, who dotes on him, and smiles at his mother, who... doesn't, as much, but he's just so happy to see her again.
He's honestly surprised when his father picks him up, even as it turns out that it's for swimming lessons. His father carries him into the water, and gives encouragement as Jiang Cheng begins to relearn muscle memory he doesn't ever remember not having, before.
He learns quickly.
When Jiang Cheng can swim on his own, his father stops paying attention.
Jiang Cheng is not surprised.
He learns to walk, and finally he manages to force the babbling sounds he can produce into some semblance of coherence.
"Jiejie," he manages, and his sister hugs him in delight.
He's so little. It's frustrating.
There's only so much he can do without getting tired, even with his golden core already formed. And no-one will let him go anywhere without picking him up and saying things like, "Now now, young master, where are you supposed to be?" and carrying him back.
They let his sister take him places.
He's going to need her help.
He tells his sister, "There's a little boy in Yiling with no parents and he's in trouble. We have to go and find him."
His sister smiles and says, "This is a good story, A-Cheng. Tell me more."
"It's not a story," he says. He's frustrated by his own childish petulance, but he can't seem to stop it. "I'm from the future. I know."
His sister laughs, and he glares, and then she clears her throat and stops laughing, but still has a small, indulgent smile. "Of course, A-Cheng," she says. "And what's this little boy's name?"
"Wei Ying," he says, and his sister's smile freezes. "His name is Wei Ying, and his parents are Zangse Sanren and Wei Changze, and something bad has happened to them. Wei Ying is alone in Yiling and he needs help," he insists.
"A-Cheng," his sister says, and then she looks... thoughtful. Determined. Like herself, not a child.
"Why do you believe me now?" he asks curiously.
"Zangse Sanren and Wei Changze are friends of our parents," she says. "And Wei Ying is their baby. But they haven't been here since before you were born. I remember them because Auntie let me hold Wei Ying. I asked Mother for a brother to keep and then she gave me you," she says, and plants kisses on his face, because she does that, and he can't even make himself object. "I will make a plan, A-Cheng. It's time for your nap soon."
A-Jie hushes him every time he tries to talk to her about it for the next couple of days. Then their mother departs to go night-hunting, and the day after that, at breakfast, she smiles brightly at their father. "Daddy," she says sweetly, "can I take A-Cheng into town all by myself today?"
Jiang Fengmian blinks at her, looking up from the correspondence he's reading. "Hm? Yes, of course." He smiles vaguely. "Have fun."
"Thank you, Daddy!" she says, still sweet.
After breakfast, she holds his hand tightly in hers as they walk out of Lotus Pier. "Do you know the way?" she whispers, and Jiang Cheng frowns.
"I think so," he says. "I - I usually flew on my sword. It's up the river."
A-Jie laughs. "Well. We'll have to manage something," she says.
They get food for the journey in Lotus Cove, because his sister stole a qiankun pouch to carry it in and they can take whatever they want from the vendors, who recognise them and will bill their father for it afterwards. A-Jie stole money, too, but it's best not to waste it, and it would draw a lot of attention for them to actually use the money in Lotus Cove when everyone knows who they are.
They're going to be in so much trouble later, Jiang Cheng thinks vaguely, but it doesn't really seem important.
The problem with everyone knowing who they are here is that, well. Everyone knows who they are. They are noticed. They need an excuse to get away from all the eyes that follow them as they walk around.
"Can we take a boat for a while, A-Jie?" he says. "I'm tired."
"Of course, A-Cheng," she says, smiling. They find an available boat, and his sister puts a propelling talisman on it.
It's not very good. Jiang Cheng frowns at it as they drift upriver. Talismans don't take strong cultivation, usually. His sister is young, but his were much better than this, by her age.
Their parents don't spend enough time with her, he thinks. He's going to start helping her. Even if her cultivation isn't too strong, she could be better than this. Maybe Wei Wuxian can teach her some of his talismans, too. He's really good at them.
They load up on more supplies as they pass the stalls of the riverside sellers. It's a long way to Yiling.
Jiang Cheng dozes for a bit, leaning against his sister's side, and when he wakes up, they're passing beyond the outskirts of Lotus Cove.
"I'm sorry, A-Jie," he says, taking her talisman off the boat. He makes a couple of adjustments, then puts it back.
The boat starts moving much faster.
His sister is staring at him in awe. "Why are you sorry? A-Cheng, you're amazing," she says, and her smile is radiant. She's proud of him. Proud of her three-year-old brother for doing something better than she did.
Jiang Cheng finds that he's angry.
His sister deserves better. And this time he and Wei Wuxian will see that she gets it, he's decided.
They stop at a small village along the river. A-Jie buys less distinctively Jiang outer robes to put over the ones they're wearing. And then she looks closely at the altered propelling talisman, nods, and puts it back on the boat.
It heads up-river even faster.
Jiang Cheng claps for her, but inside, he's outraged.
He didn't know, the first time, but his sister has potential, he's sure of it.
They travel through the night, sleeping huddled together in the boat.
Undoubtedly Lotus Pier is searching for them by now, but they'll be starting closer, with no idea that they could already be so far from home.
Jiang Cheng knows they're getting close when the water starts to seem faintly oily and there's an acrid tinge to the air.
They clutch each other's hands as they walk towards the markets, because they're as good a place to start as any.
"A-Cheng," his sister whispers. "It's so awful."
"I know," he mutters. "Let's just find him." They're both too young and small to do anything, here, but maybe when they're older they can try.
The markets of Yiling are as depressing as the rest of it.
Jiang Cheng finds himself leaning against his sister as he looks around.
Where is he?
Maybe a signal?
He thinks about it. After a couple of false starts, he manages a passable imitation of one of the whistle calls they used during the Sunshot Campaign.
But then he spots a small, grubby figure examining a scrapheap of rotten vegetables, picking over it in apparent hopes of finding something edible.
Jiang Cheng feels sick.
Wei Wuxian always laughed off any mention of his time in Yiling. Somehow, Jiang Cheng had the vague sense that it wasn't this bad, that it was just... just the dogs.
Tugging his sister along, Jiang Cheng hurries over to the little boy.
"Wei - Wei Ying?" he says, because they're too young for courtesy names.
The little boy looks up. "Hello?"
He's too thin, and Jiang Cheng can see scabbed-over wounds through the tears in his filthy, too-small clothes, and yet despite the livid bruise on his cheek the boy smiles the smile that has been etched on Jiang Cheng's heart in love and acid for as long as he remembers.
"It's me," Jiang Cheng says. "It's Jiang Cheng."
"Nice to meet you," Wei Ying says. He picks a watermelon rind out of the rubbish and looks pleased by the grimy dregs of fruit clinging to it. Jiang Cheng jerks forward as he starts to lift it towards his mouth, slapping it out of his hands before he can even think about it.
"Hey!" Wei Ying looks caught between anger and tears. "What was that for?" He goes to scrabble for it again, and Jiang Cheng can't stand it, he can't, he grabs him and pulls him back.
"We have food!" he says. "A-Jie -"
His sister steps forward, pulling a mantou out of her pouch. It's cold, but no worse than that, and she hands it to Wei Ying. There are tears in her eyes.
"Oh," Wei Ying breathes. "Are - are you saying I can have this?" he asks, reaching out but not quite touching.
"Yes. Yes, please eat it," A-Jie says, gently placing it into his dirty hand.
Wei Ying bites into it with relish. "This is amazing," he says, mouth full. He chews too fast and swallows before he's chewed enough. "What did you say your name was, again?" He takes another bite.
Jiang Cheng's stomach drops. "Jiang Cheng," he says, enunciating carefully. "This is my sister Jiang Yanli."
Wei Ying nods. "Jiang Cheng and Jiang Yanli," he repeats. "I'm very pleased to meet you! My name is Wei Ying. But you knew that. How did you know that?"
For once Jiang Cheng doesn't mind the ways that being three overrides his self-control and discipline so much, because bursting into tears seems like as good a reaction as any to the sudden shock of horror and loss.
Wei Wuxian isn't here.
However this happened...
Wei Wuxian isn't here.
This isn't him.
Jiang Cheng wants to stomp like a grumpy child back to the boat. He should get to stomp like a grumpy child. He is a grumpy child.
But Wei Ying is nervous to the point of panic when he grumps, trying desperately to cheer him up or work out what he did wrong and apologise for it, and Jiang Cheng hates that, so he sighs and tells Wei Ying that it's fine, he's just tired, and Wei Ying relaxes to a cautious friendliness.
They get to the boat and set off back downriver.
A-Jie examines Wei Ying's wounds, and says fretfully that they'll have to take him to the healer when they get home. They're dog bites, like Jiang Cheng figured they'd be, and he's not really sorry to realise that he's still not going to have dogs of his own, in this life; he wasn't planning on it, he's long since lost his love for them.
Last time he was a kid, they were the enemy. Seeing a dog meant alarm, meant trying to keep Wei Wuxian and the dog apart.
And then everyone Jiang Cheng loved died except his nephew, including Wei Wuxian, and every time Jiang Cheng saw a dog he had the same thought - where's Wei Wuxian? Got to keep the dog away from him - and then the shock of grief and rage.
The only dog he ever permitted at Lotus Pier was Fairy. He couldn't let other dogs be around the place. Wei Wuxian would return - somehow, that was a certainty of his life - and if there were dogs at Lotus Pier, then he couldn't come home.
Jiang Cheng could sometimes convince himself he didn't want Wei Wuxian to come home, but he could never have convinced himself that his sister wouldn't want him to. If he'd had dogs there...
She'd have been so disappointed in him.
Trying to think about the past gives him a headache, like the thoughts are too big for his brain. Jiang Cheng watches his sister fuss over Wei Ying, giving him measured amounts of food from the pouch and smiling. (His sister is so brilliantly caring and careful. If Wei Ying has too much food at once he'll be sick.) He watches Wei Ying, inevitably, fall utterly in love with his sister.
She would have wanted Jiang Cheng to find him when he came back like he inevitably would, and he tried. He tried so hard, for so long, and he never managed it. Lan Wangji found him first.
They were both in the array.
Is Lan Wangji here too?
He'll have to deal with that thought later, because it's then that he sees a violet sword glare, moving fast, sweeping low over the landscape - and the sword's occupant spots the boat, apparently, because it veers sharply towards them.
As the rider gets closer, Jiang Cheng sees that it's his mother.
They pull over to the riverbank and get out of the boat.
His mother is angry. Jiang Cheng understands. He tries not to think about Jin Ling, about worrying and the fury when he found the kid was fine. It makes his head hurt worse, and Jin Ling is -
Mother is shouting, and it makes Jiang Cheng's head hurt worse too. Mother got a message that they were missing, and she's been sweeping the river all night, and -
She breaks off. "Who's this?" she demands, and Jiang Cheng wants to throw up. It might be the headache. It might be the snap in her voice, the one that hadn't been there yet, this time.
A-Jie lifts her chin. "This is Wei Ying," she says. Wei Ying is clutching her hand and looks like he's trying to hide behind her. "We wanted to go up the river but we fell asleep and then we were in the wrong place but we found Wei Ying and we're going to keep him because he doesn't have anyone else," she adds, defiant. A-Jie had a lie prepared. It's exactly the kind of stupid story children always tell.
Jiang Cheng expects his mother to be angrier still at the presence of the child she always hated, but her fury drains away and she looks shocked. She takes a hesitant step towards Wei Ying and falls to her knees in the mud, like she doesn't even care that her robes will be ruined.
"Wei Ying," she says. Her voice is soft and shaking. "Wei Ying, where is your mother?"
"She went... away," he says, in a small voice. "She didn't come back."
Deathly pale, Mother reaches out and cups Wei Ying's cheek. "Have you been alone?"
Wei Ying nods. Mother closes her eyes for long moments. Jiang Cheng can see tears.
Jinzhu and Yinzhu are coming in to land.
"Take A-Li and A-Cheng," his mother tells them. She holds out her hands to Wei Ying. "Come, Wei Ying," she says, more gently than Jiang Cheng expects. "We're going to fly home, now."
Jiang Cheng watches his mother lift Wei Ying into her arms and step onto her sword, watches Wei Ying's wide-eyed awe as they lift from the ground.
He's too tired to try to understand the way his mother holds him as if he's precious.
What matters is that he's coming home.
Jiang Cheng's crying again, he realises.
They're going to be together again. All three of them.
It doesn't matter if it's not the Wei Wuxian from before, he decides.
Wei Ying is Wei Ying.
Thank you all for the wonderful response to chapter one! I hope this story continues to live up to your expectations.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Lan Zhan is kneeling in the ancestral hall. He's meditating, because it's a better way to pass the time than most when he's being disciplined. It's good for his golden core.
His golden core is coming along very nicely.
His ordered punishment complete, he rises and leaves the hall. His uncle is waiting for him. He always is. Uncle waits for him and takes him back to his jingshi and gives him a meal, because Lan Zhan can never attend the evening meal with everyone else. He's always at the ancestral hall, meditating through his punishment.
In theory, his punishment should include not getting to eat the evening meal. Lan Zhan has not yet asked why Uncle makes sure he still gets food, or why Uncle has never even once told Lan Zhan not to be disobedient.
If he asks why, Uncle might have to stop granting such indulgence. The way of the Lan Sect is to permit hypocrisy so long as it is not acknowledged.
Lan Zhan eats his meal in silence, of course. Afterwards he expects Uncle to dismiss him.
Tonight, Uncle does not. Instead, he takes out a folded piece of paper.
"A-Zhan," he says. "A letter came today. It was addressed to you."
Lan Zhan blinks. "To me?"
"Yes." Uncle hands it across. "I am curious to know what it says."
Uncle has not read his letter. That is... thoughtful. Lan Zhan opens it immediately.
My name is Jiang Yanli. We met once at a Discussion Conference, but you might not remember me! You were really little!
I have been learning to write letters and I wanted to write a letter to someone who doesn't live here. I don't know many people who don't live here so I thought I would write a letter to you. It was my brother's idea!
I live at Lotus Pier. My father is Sect Leader Jiang. My mother is Madam Yu. I have two brothers. My brother Jiang Cheng is three he has been my brother since he was a baby but I have a new one as well. My new brother's name is Wei Ying he is four. We just got him! He doesn't know what it's like to live somewhere like Lotus Pier we are having fun showing him.
A-Cheng and I went to Yiling and we found him and brought him home.
Lan Zhan's hand is shaking.
Lan Zhan gets punished every day. Some days it is because he tried to run away from the Cloud Recesses to try and reach Yiling and Wei Ying. He keeps getting caught, because Yiling is a very long way from Gusu, and Lan Zhan is very small.
Wei Ying is safe.
But if Wei Ying doesn't remember what it's like to live somewhere like Lotus Pier...
The letter, he thinks, is deliberate kindness, and informative.
Jiang Wanyin is here too. He and Jiang Yanli did get to Wei Ying, and took him back to Lotus Pier.
But Wei Ying, it seems, does not remember like Lan Zhan does, and like Jiang Wanyin must.
Wei Ying - his Wei Ying - isn't here.
"A-Zhan," Uncle says, "is the letter difficult?"
"No," he manages. "I can read it."
"Very good, A-Zhan." Uncle's look is approving. "What does it say?"
Lan Zhan cannot say it, and the letter, on the face of it, is innocent. He hands it across.
Uncle reads the letter, and his eyebrows raise. "Wei Ying? That must be -" He stops. "The Jiang family are respectable. You may write a reply to her if you wish." Uncle seems troubled. "It would be courteous for you to do so, in fact. When you have written your letter, give it to me, and I will deliver it to Lotus Pier myself."
Lan Zhan obeys, as he obeys all instructions to which he does not object. (It is an instruction. Things that are courteous are things Lan Zhan will be expected to do.)
Thank you for your letter. Please thank your brother Jiang Cheng for thinking of me. That was very kind.
Congratulations on your new brother Wei Ying. I hope he is well. I hope I can meet him one day.
Lan Zhan can't sleep that night. It's probably around midnight when he gives up.
It's good to vary his approach sometimes. The guards are less wary when he is not yet expected.
They're a minor concern, anyway. He is unsure whether they lack creativity, or just underestimate his own.
First, he pries up the loose floorboard in his room and pulls out the dark-coloured blanket he hides there. He needs a better hiding place - this one is noisy, and wakes his brother.
"Lan Zhan," his brother whispers. "You know we're not allowed." He says it resignedly, as if he knows it will make no difference. (He is correct.)
Lan Zhan does not answer, but bundles the blanket around him to conceal his white clothing and climbs out through the window of their room. There is a guard outside the door, but they have not yet taken to guarding the windows. (When they do, he has a plan for that.)
He leaps from rooftop to rooftop, gliding on spiritual power. In fairness to the lack of creativity the guards show, it would be ridiculous to expect that a four-year-old could do this. (It's tiring, still, but it's getting easier every day.)
There's a long gap between buildings before he reaches his destination, but a few running steps, pine needles crunching beneath his feet, gives him a moment of respite before his next leap and creates a distraction for the guards.
There are a lot of guards. There are more every day, but it's only a matter of time, he thinks, before they're forced to concede the waste of manpower.
Lan Zhan lands lightly on the roof. He can find the tile he needs by starlight; he lifts it aside and slides in, landing neatly on a beam in the darkness and pulling the tile back behind him. He keeps it greased. It moves silently.
A candle flares. He looks down.
"It's the middle of the night," his mother says, smiling. She's wearing her sleeping clothes. She reaches up, and he drops carefully into her arms.
"I was sad," he says, leaning against her shoulder. She tugs off his shoes and puts them by the door, then carries him back with her to her bedroom. "I wanted you."
"Want to talk about it?" she asks. He shakes his head. "That's all right. Mother is always here for you."
"Good," he mumbles, snuggling close. He feels her kiss against his hair.
"Sleep now," she murmurs, and he does.
In the morning, Uncle brings breakfast enough for two - a whole day's food for two, in fact. More than that.
"I am going on a trip to Lotus Pier," Uncle says, looking at Mother. He does not acknowledge Lan Zhan behind her. "I will be unable to see to it that food will be provided in my absence. It is the boys' appointed day to visit, so they do not have classes. Lan Huan will be here on time, I am sure. Lan Zhan's visitations have been withheld by the Elders for disobedience, so he will have to remain where he is." He still doesn't look at Lan Zhan, even though Lan Zhan isn't hiding.
"I understand," Mother says, a smile in her voice, taking the food from Uncle.
Uncle clears his throat. "I believe you knew Zangse Sanren," he says in a low tone he undoubtedly does not intend Lan Zhan to hear, but Lan Zhan's hearing is very good. "You were friends, were you not?"
"We were," Mother replies in a whisper.
"Her son Wei Ying has been taken to Lotus Pier. It seems the Jiang children now view him as a brother, which suggests they expect it to be permanent. I will ask Jiang Fengmian what he knows, but I fear the worst for her."
"Oh," Mother says. "Oh no. That would be awful. I know she was your - your friend, too. I'm sorry, Lan Qiren."
"We can hope that I have misread the situation," Uncle says, sounding... unhopeful.
And then he bows, and leaves.
Mother hugs Lan Zhan very tightly before she makes breakfast for them both.
Afterwards, Brother does arrive on time.
Lan Zhan will have to wait to see what has become of Wei Ying, when the Wei Ying he knew is not here.
Today he will spend the day with his mother, and his brother. When he leaves the cottage - after the evening meal, or even tomorrow - he will be disciplined by the Elders for coming here, and return to the comfort of his usual routine.
The Elders used to try and retrieve Lan Zhan from his unauthorised visits. They have given up. Lan Zhan gave his mother new locking talismans for the entrances to her home. (He told her he found them in a book.)
It's the same every day. He rises, and dresses, and has breakfast, and then he visits his mother. After that there are classes, and lunch, and classes, and then he is disciplined for visiting his mother, has his evening meal with Uncle, and goes to bed. On days without classes, he spends more time with his mother.
Brother worries. One day, perhaps, Lan Zhan will be able to explain it to him; the joy of the narrow bridge, of the freedom that comes with accepting the consequences.
The wealth beyond words that is their mother's smile, each and every day.
When he is seven, the Lan Sect host the annual Discussion Conference.
Lan Zhan is amused to realise that, for the duration, he will not be punished for his daily disobedience. It would be embarrassing for the Sect if their guests heard of such a thing; the Lan would have to explain it. His behaviour in public is always so utterly beyond reproach.
He is... conflicted to learn that Sect Leader Jiang has brought his family with him. He both wants and dreads to see Wei Ying.
What if whatever magic made Wei Ying like him so much doesn't work this time?
"Sect Leader Jiang has two children," Brother reminds him. "The eldest is his daughter, Jiang Yanli. He also has a son, Jiang Cheng. People say he is very promising. But there is another one who is coming. He's a disciple now, but several years ago Sect Leader Jiang's wife, Madam Yu, brought back an orphan who is the son of a friend of hers who died night-hunting. Sect Leader Jiang agreed to take him in."
The rumours are very different, it seems.
"Could I meet them?" he asks. Brother blinks in surprise, and then smiles brightly. Lan Zhan supposes he has never shown an interest in interactions with anyone else his own age before.
Brother arranges to introduce them.
Jiang Yanli smiles very warmly at him. He remembers her... vaguely. Wei Ying loved her.
Jiang Wanyin - Jiang Cheng, still - bows. "It's nice to meet you," he says, undoubtedly for the benefit of any watching adults. "I'm Jiang Cheng. And this -" he reaches without looking, and tugs - "is my shidi, Wei Ying."
Wei Ying emerges from behind the skirts of Madam Yu. (Above their heads a conversation between adults is happening.) He's still looking off at something else, but then Jiang Cheng nudges him and he looks around and smiles.
Lan Zhan can't look away.
"I'm older than him," Wei Ying says, with a little laugh. "But he's my shixiong anyway." He bows. "It's good to meet you!"
During the Conference, the children are permitted to play together. Lan Zhan finds himself standing next to Jiang Wan- Jiang Cheng, watching Wei Ying talk excitedly with a child Lan Zhan is reasonably confident will, one day, grow up to be Nie Huaisang. Jiang Yanli is having what looks like a painfully awkward conversation with Jin Zixuan.
"He looks... well," Lan Zhan says.
"He is. He's healthy, and he's happy, I think," Jiang Cheng says. "He really loves A-Jie. And my mother is - nicer. I think - my father didn't bring him back, this time. And I'm stronger than he is." His wry smile looks out of place on the face of a child. "I have an advantage. But she doesn't know."
Lan Zhan nods. "Thank you. I tried, but I couldn't get away."
Jiang Cheng looks, for a moment, as if he is outraged, but then he relaxes. "I guess you would have. We were closer, and I had A-Jie."
Lan Zhan watches as Wei Ying turns to Jiang Yanli, radiant, calling for her attention, and the way she smiles at him. "I miss him," he says quietly, "but it is probably best he is with you. He has her." He swallows. "And you."
Jiang Cheng nods. "We'll take care of him." His look is fierce and fond, and Lan Zhan sees echoes of Jiang Wanyin... before. He wonders if Jiang Wanyin was always fond, and they just didn't see it.
As time passes it gets easier to remember the life he lived before. He'd had the sense, towards the end, that Jiang Wanyin was trying to rebuild his relationship with Wei Ying. That was why he'd let Wei Ying go to Lotus Pier alone.
He does not know if he regrets that, now. It is too soon to tell, when he can't know what Wei Ying will become, what he and Wei Ying will become, but he sees his mother every day. When he is seven, now, and his mother is alive.
He can wait for Wei Ying. He will always wait for Wei Ying.
On the way home from Gusu Wei Ying babbles excitedly about all the people he met. Jiang Cheng lets the chatter wash over him until he hears, "- and A-Cheng made a friend, too!"
"What?" he asks, genuinely confused.
Wei Ying beams at him. "I saw you talking to the pretty Lan boy!" he says happily.
Jiang Cheng stares. "You mean Lan Zhan?"
Jiang Cheng shakes his head and returns his attention to the scenery outside the carriage window.
He'll allow that Lan Wangji had been... polite. They'd had a perfectly civil conversation. Lan Wangji had even acknowledged that it was better for Wei Ying to be growing up with Jiang Cheng and A-Jie like he's supposed to. (He can forgive Lan Wangji for trying to go after Wei Ying himself; Jiang Cheng wasn't even sure himself that they'd both come back like this until Lan Wangji replied to A-Jie's letter, and if Jiang Cheng hadn't come back, Lan Wangji collecting Wei Ying would be preferable to leaving him on the streets of Yiling.)
But friend? Unthinkable.
The years of their childhood drift past.
Jiang Cheng works hard, just as much as he did in his previous life or more, but with more success, because he knows what he's doing without waiting to be taught. His golden core is coming along. He excels in his training, which really isn't a surprise, and then he spends time practising with his sister, because his parents don't.
It's strange, watching his parents from the perspective of one who has been an adult, and who has had the care of a child.
He remembers, in his first childhood, that he yearned for his father's approval and affection. In this one, he just can't bring himself to care. He's not sure he was a particularly good parent to Jin Ling, but he did better than this despite being alone in his grief with a sect to rebuild from the ashes.
But he did rebuild his sect from the ashes. All alone, and with a baby to care for, because the fucking Jin couldn't keep their own under control enough to keep Jin Ling's father from getting killed, he wasn't trusting them with A-Jie's son. It should have been impossible, and he did it anyway; he doesn't need his father to tell him he's a true Jiang, any more.
His mother still has her waspish moods, some days, but Jiang Cheng doesn't have to live with the humiliation of her comparisons between him and Wei Ying, because he's better. Wei Ying is still gifted, brilliant and naturally talented, but Jiang Cheng has the edge of long experience and keeps ahead of him, even though Wei Ying works much harder than Jiang Cheng remembers him doing before.
Last time, Wei Wuxian effortlessly exceeded everyone else around them; this time, Jiang Cheng can defeat him, and Wei Ying puts actual work into his training to try and catch up.
When Jiang Cheng is eleven, Lotus Pier receives the announcement of the death of Qingheng-Jun, the Lan Sect Leader. Jiang Cheng is pretty sure that's years ahead of schedule.
He sends a letter. He and Lan Wangji have done little more than exchange nods at Discussion Conferences in the past five years, but it seems like he really should.
He still has a mind for the risk of interception.
I was grieved to hear of the death of your esteemed father. I send you my condolences. I hope that nothing further is untoward in Gusu.
Lan Zhan receives the letter from Jiang Wanyin with only mild surprise. His father's death was untimely - at least by comparison with their prior lives.
He sends a prompt reply.
Qingheng-Jun's death was an unfortunate accident. He was unfamiliar with the locking talismans in use on a building to which he wished to gain entry. He attempted to force his way past, and triggered a backlash reaction which resulted in his death.
Your concern is appreciated.
Jiang Wanyin will undoubtedly perceive more in that than others; not least that, although Lan Zhan told his mother when he gave her the talismans that he found the design in a book and it was not strictly speaking a lie, the book in which he found it was not a library text. It was a compilation of notes and sketches by Wei Ying, and the vengeful lock talisman was his particular invention.
Brother is upset by the death of Qingheng-Jun.
Lan Zhan is not. There are things Brother doesn't know. That Uncle will not willingly tell them for many decades yet. Lan Zhan is not wholly shocked that Uncle, too, does not seem particularly grieved by their loss. Lan Zhan knows Uncle defends his mother to the Elders, pointing out that regardless of the nature of the locks she had placed on her cottage, no harm would have come to Qingheng-Jun had he not been attempting to force his way past them.
At almost midnight.
Quite violently. The talismans return only as much power as is used to attempt to break them, and the effect builds gradually.
Brother is now, officially, the Sect Leader. In reality, Uncle is continuing in the role.
The only real difference it makes to life in the Cloud Recesses is that Brother and Uncle between them declare that Lan Zhan will no longer be punished for visiting his mother. (The Elders watch him for any other signs of disobedience they can punish him for, but he does not provide the opportunity.)
Their mother is not freed, and Lan Zhan's plans for the future are starting to solidify, even as his bruises - renewed every evening for two years, now - finally begin to heal.
Lan Zhan is sixteen, and the newest class of guest disciples is due to arrive soon. Lan Zhan is expected to sit in on Uncle's classes, and only his long-standing discipline is keeping him from showing his anticipation.
His composure almost cracks when his brother says, "I expect you are very eager for the arrival of the guest disciples."
Lan Zhan looks at him in confusion. Brother smiles.
"I should say, perhaps, the Yunmeng delegation in particular?" Brother gives him a knowing look. "You and Jiang-gongzi seem to have got on well since you were children. You always seem to seek each other out at Discussion Conferences."
Lan Zhan does not dignify that with an answer.
He and Jiang Wanyin do, it's true, speak briefly together when the opportunity presents itself, in recent years. Jiang Wanyin assures Lan Zhan of Wei Ying's health and wellbeing; it is a comfort.
They have also, once or twice, shared a moment of fellow feeling. At the last conference, Lan Zhan looked away in disgust while Jin Guangshan was speaking, and found himself catching Jiang Wanyin's eye as he did the same thing.
It turns out they share more opinions than just concern for Wei Ying.
Lan Zhan does not wait to greet the disciples on their arrival. It would not do to seem too uncharacteristically eager, especially when Brother has already formed... ideas.
Still, he has trouble sleeping, and eventually gives in and decides to get some fresh air. The first time, this was the night he met Wei Ying when he climbed over the walls carrying alcohol -
- exactly like he is doing now.
Ruthlessly suppressing his amusement, Lan Zhan leaps lightly up to the wall. "What do you have in your hands?" he asks.
Wei Ying is startled, then smiles. "It's Emperor's Smile! If I share a jar with you, can you pretend that you never saw me?"
Lan Zhan attempts to sound stern. "Alcohol is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses."
Wei Ying pouts. "Why don't you tell me what is not forbidden in your sect?"
Lan Zhan looks at him.
He's so beautiful, young and innocent and achingly pretty. Lan Zhan wants to kiss him, bite him and mark him and ruin him so no-one can ever even look at him without knowing that Wei Ying is his.
He wants to protect him, keep him sweet and unhurt, safe from all the scars he had before, both body and soul, safe from anyone who might corrupt such purity, including himself.
There's no point showing him the Wall of Disciplines; he won't read it. Lan Zhan moves, swift and sure, and plucks the jars of wine from his hands.
"Hey!" Wei Ying tries to snatch them back. Lan Zhan evades him until Wei Ying is starting to laugh, even as he darts towards him, trying again and again.
"All right, all right, I give up," Wei Ying finally says. Lan Zhan also evades the attempted grab that follows this claim. "Who even are you?"
It stings. "Lan Zhan, courtesy name Wangji," he says.
"Oh!" Wei Ying smiles brightly. "Jiang Cheng's friend!"
"I guess you can have my wine if you're Jiang Cheng's friend," Wei Ying says cheerfully. "Are you going to drink it?"
"I am not," Lan Zhan says truthfully. He knows better. He's going to give to his mother. She drinks - not often, but occasionally.
"It seems like a waste," Wei Ying sighs. "I'll see you around, Lan Wangji."
That he cannot tolerate. "Lan Zhan," he says, before he can think about it. "Call me Lan Zhan."
Wei Ying smiles. "Okay, Lan Zhan. I'm Wei Ying."
Lan Zhan does not tell him that he knows.
"You should return to the dormitories," he says. "It is past curfew."
Jiang Cheng is Wei Ying's shixiong anyway because his organisational seniority (i.e. he has been a member of the Jiang Sect longer) is remaining intact due to his status as a superior cultivator.
The logical contortions Lan Qiren has undergone to salve his conscience are significant, but he's doing his best.
He may get a side-fic again.
I love you all and appreciate your comments so much. Thank you.
This chapter contains blunt but non-graphic references to the personal history of Lan Wangji's mother, and to how she died in the previous timeline.
Wei Ying's flirting hurts less this time, knowing Wei Ying doesn't know he means it and isn't intending to be cruel.
Lan Zhan knows that it is almost certain that Wei Ying, whether he realises it or not, is at present driven to seek his attention. Wei Ying does know he wants to get a reaction out of him. For himself, Lan Zhan now also wants Wei Ying's attention on him. He suspects Wei Ying might lose interest if the reaction he gets is too easily won.
In some ways, it's all very similar to the first time. In other ways it's very different; Lan Zhan is not overcome with frustration and uncertainty and turbulent fury. Instead, it is almost a game he is playing with himself, forcing himself to maintain his outward composure and keep from looking at Wei Ying for as long as he can stand it.
If he let himself, he would gaze constantly at Wei Ying, drinking in the sight of his beloved. It has been sixteen years of this life almost wholly without sight of Wei Ying; it has been much, much longer since he could look at this Wei Ying, in his own body, with his own face and voice.
Once, Wei Ying would have known his heated gazes for what they are: barely restrained desire.
Now, Wei Ying still seems to perceive them as anger.
It's probably for the best. Lan Zhan does want him so very, very much, and as yet, he cannot have him.
Meanwhile Wei Ying still attracts Uncle's ire every day. Lan Zhan makes very little effort to discourage him, when Wei Ying's misbehaviour can instead result in hours together in the library.
When Wei Ying presents him with a portrait of himself, Lan Zhan knows what he's planning next; when he looks back at his book and sees pornography, this time he does not destroy it. He allows his gaze to travel slowly across the image, lingering on each detail.
The artistic quality is high. The image is...
He looks up at Wei Ying.
"Intriguing," he says, voice low.
Wei Ying is wide-eyed. "I, ah, thought you might have more of a reaction, Lan-er-gege," he says hoarsely.
"What reaction were you seeking, Wei Ying?" Lan Zhan asks, tone silken.
Wei Ying swallows convulsively. "I have to go," he says. He flees.
Lan Zhan tucks the book in his sleeve.
Wei Ying has to apologise to Nie Huaisang after he realises he left his friend's pornography behind, because he is not going to ask Lan Zhan to give it back.
He's never felt so embarrassed! His heart is pounding and he can feel that his skin is flushed. As it turns out, he miscalculated his play there badly.
Is it so wrong to want to provoke a reaction from Lan Zhan? It's a fun game. Lan Zhan is such a fuddy-duddy!
Except, it turns out, when you show him pornography. It was even two men. (Lan Zhan is so hard to fluster sometimes! He thought that was sure to work!) He could almost suspect that Lan Zhan might be a cutsleeve.
He won't say anything. If that's how Lan Zhan is, that's - that's fine, Wei Ying thinks.
He can't bring himself to tease Lan Zhan again for several days, though. He even tries to keep quiet in class to keep from ending up sent to the library with him.
But Lan Zhan's perfect composure itches at him, somehow, and Wei Ying misses his reactions. There's something very... satisfying about it when Lan Zhan turns to glare at him with that intense gaze of his.
And in any case he's not very good at keeping from annoying Lan Qiren.
Three days later he's back in the library, trying to do his copies obediently and for once avoid Lan Zhan's attention.
It seems very unfair when, this time, Lan Zhan breaks the silence to talk to him.
Wei Ying bolts upright. He was slouching! Lan Zhan will be sure to be annoyed and tell him off for it. His heart is pounding with nervous worry at the very thought, and he can feel himself turning pink again.
This is ridiculous. Could he be getting sick?
Lan Zhan spoke to him. He should reply. "Yes, Lan Zhan?" he says, and resists the urge to cringe when his voice comes out more high-pitched than he intended it to.
Lan Zhan's face does a... thing Wei Ying can't identify. It's not a glare. He doesn't know what it is. It almost looks like it could be a tiny something that wants to be a smile when it grows up.
"Discipline ends early tonight," Lan Zhan says. "I must leave."
"Hah," Wei Ying says. "Leaving early? Going to... see someone, I suppose?" He was going to ask if Lan Zhan was courting a pretty girl, but Lan Zhan might not like girls.
"Yes," Lan Zhan says, astonishingly. "I am going to see someone."
He rises gracefully and leaves.
Wei Ying flops onto the floor for a moment until his racing pulse slows and his burning cheeks cool. He might definitely be getting sick.
When he's calmer, he slinks back to the dormitories. He wants to collapse next to Jiang Cheng and whimper about how terrible Lan Zhan is, and have Jiang Cheng roll his eyes and huff at him and shove him away but still have that little smile Jiang Cheng always gives him.
But Jiang Cheng isn't there.
Wei Ying has a terrible sinking feeling.
He's restless all evening, fretting and unable to settle until Jiang Cheng comes back to their room.
"Jiang Cheng! Jiang Cheng, where were you?" Wei Ying says, uncomfortably aware that he's whining.
Jiang Cheng frowns at him. "What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing! Where were you?"
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. "I was talking to Lan Wangji," he says. "It's late, Wei Ying. Go to bed." His eyes narrow. "Don't sneak out again."
Wei Ying bites his lip. What if Jiang Cheng doesn't know? What if - what if he's leading Lan Zhan on, or something? If Lan Zhan thinks Jiang Cheng might be interested in him...
Jiang Cheng wouldn't be, would he?
"Jiang Cheng," he whispers, "I think Lan Zhan might be a cutsleeve."
Jiang Cheng stares at him.
"Yes, Wei Ying, obviously," he says through gritted teeth.
Oh. Jiang Cheng already knows.
So, uh. That's a thing.
Jiang Cheng is finding this time around at the Lan Sect lectures overall far less stressful, and a lot more entertaining. (Apart from the first night, when Wei Ying decided it was a good idea to sneak out and go to town, but Jiang Cheng has expressed his displeasure about that.)
After decades getting used to Wei Wuxian's appalling behaviour with Hanguang-Jun, watching Wei Ying's disastrous flailing towards Lan Wangji is actually hilarious.
Lan Wangji has assured Jiang Cheng that he's not going to be taking advantage of Wei Ying, and Jiang Cheng has no difficulty believing him, because he's well aware that Wei Ying, at this time, has absolutely no understanding of what's happening, or even his own motivations.
Jiang Cheng also has the advantage of what might be called perspective when it comes to worrying about Wei Ying's behaviour. He has an understanding of sect politics that is more than sufficient to realise that honestly, no-one, no-one at all will truly care if a Jiang disciple is flirting with the Second Jade of Lan and misbehaving in class. He's not even the senior disciple - Jiang Cheng has been sufficiently ahead of Wei Ying in his cultivation that even his father couldn't show such preference when Wei Ying is slightly older than Jiang Cheng, chronologically, but he joined the Jiang Sect later.
The necessity of meeting privately with Lan Wangji regularly might have seemed like an appalling burden, once, but Lan Wangji is even being polite to him.
It makes sense, under the circumstances - they might never have chosen one another as allies, in their previous lives, but in this one, they're agreed that Wei Wuxian's array seems to have sent them back in time to the beginnings of their lives, it's probably permanent, and they're determined to work together to achieve better outcomes this time around.
Jiang Cheng is so tired of being miserable, and so tired of being angry. He just wants things to be better, and would work with far more unpleasant people than Lan Wangji if it would give him a chance at that.
They've agreed on the first step, and their plan goes into action when the time comes for the Nie Sect Discussion Conference. Jiang Cheng suggests that Wei Ying and Nie Huaisang go to town for the day without him.
Wei Ying looks at him for a moment, wide-eyed. "You don't want to come with us?" he asks, seeming slightly nervous.
Jiang Cheng gives him a half-smile. "Not today. I have a few things to do here."
Wei Ying nods slowly. "Are you going to be seeing Lan Zhan?"
Jiang Cheng blinks. "Maybe?" Definitely yes, actually, but Wei Ying doesn't need to know that. He'd probably insist on coming with him, and that cannot be allowed to happen today.
Wei Ying nods and leaves quickly without another word.
Jiang Cheng stares after him for a moment, and then shakes his head and gets his sword. Obsessed.
He meets Lan Wangji and Lan Xichen on their way out of the Cloud Recesses and pretends it's accidental.
"Brother," Lan Wangji says. "The Yunmeng Jiang disciples have experience in catching water ghouls. We are short-handed. We should ask Jiang Wanyin to assist us."
Lan Xichen smiles widely. "Would you do us that honour, Jiang-gongzi?"
"Of course, Zewu-Jun," Jiang Cheng says, bowing.
It begins like it did before, more or less.
Lan Wangji flicks Bichen out to slice through the water at the dark mass of shadow. Jiang Cheng sends Sandu out, too, and his sword returns to his hand ice cold.
Su She follows their lead and sends his sword out too, but his does not return.
An older disciple chides him. "Su She, right now, we still haven’t determined what the thing inside the water is. Why did you act on your own and make your sword go underwater?"
"I saw Lan-er-gongzi - and Jiang-gongzi..." He falls silent.
Jiang Cheng shares a glance with Lan Wangji as their boats drift into the centre of Biling Lake.
Any moment now...
"Go back immediately," Lan Wangji says crisply.
"Why?" Lan Xichen asks.
"The underwater beings led the boats to the centre of the lake on purpose," Lan Wangji answers.
It's at that moment that the boats start sinking.
Jiang Cheng leaps onto Sandu and takes to the air, only to look down and curse.
That the swordless Su She is already knee-deep in the water, frozen in panic, he expected.
That Lan Xichen's boat would have been caught in the whirlpool first he did not. Lan Xichen's expression is tense as he tries to pull himself free, but his legs seem firmly caught and he can't get a proper mount on his sword.
Jiang Cheng drops towards him. Lan Wangji has clearly seen his brother's difficulty too - they each grab one of Lan Xichen's arms in unison and pull.
The waterborne abyss is clinging to him hard, but between the two of them they lift him free of the water quickly. Lan Xichen mounts his own sword and looks down.
"Oh, no," he says. He starts to drop down again, but Lan Wangji grabs him by the collar and yanks him back. "Wangji! Su She!"
"It is too late," Lan Wangji says, as below them, Su She's head slips below the water. Jiang Cheng is glad he said it; Lan Wangji's customary flat tones are not suspicious, whereas he's not sure he himself would even be able to pretend to care. "The waterborne abyss has him."
"If one of you had -" Lan Xichen starts, and then falls silent. "I apologise. Thank you both for saving me."
Jiang Cheng can easily guess what he was going to say - if one of you had gone for him instead, you could have saved us both. Lan Xichen undoubtedly stopped himself because he would not want either of them to blame themselves for Su She's death.
Jiang Cheng won't tell him in so many words not to worry. If Lan Xichen knew that neither of them will blame themselves for Su She's death because permitting Su She to die if the opportunity presented itself was a choice they agreed upon weeks ago, he would only be more upset.
Lan Xichen departs that afternoon for Qinghe. Apparently his departure was delayed in the expectation that he could resolve the issue of the water ghoul, but as the Sect Leader he does need to attend the Discussion Conference.
Jiang Cheng is sympathetic; the responsibilities of a sect leader are often burdensome and time-consuming.
Wei Ying returns late in the afternoon with Nie Huaisang and is outraged to learn that they went without him.
"You can't hunt without me!" he complains. "What if something happened to you and I could have prevented it? It would be the end of the world!'
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. "What, like you couldn't live without me?"
"Of course not," Wei Ying says, pouting. "Even if I pretended I could I'd miss you every day. If you sent me away, you'd see me sometimes and I'd say, oh, ha, Jiang Cheng, who's that? We barely know each other! And you'd think I wouldn't even care but I'd go home and cry." He stops. "Jiang Cheng?"
Jiang Cheng swallows down the words on his tongue and the feeling like someone just ripped his heart out of his body.
No, not his heart.
His golden core.
"Sometimes I forget what a baby you are," he says, trying for a teasing tone.
"I'm not a baby," Wei Ying says, and then, after a beat: "Xianxian is already three."
Jiang Cheng smiles, just a little. "My mistake."
The weeks pass. Wei Ying flirts ridiculously with Lan Wangji then catches himself and stares in horror at Jiang Cheng, which feels unfair because Jiang Cheng hasn't registered any actual objections, this time, and last time he did and Wei Wuxian ignored him. Contrary little shit.
Lan Wangji looks at Wei Ying like he wants to... do things Jiang Cheng has never wanted to think about, but that's not exactly unfamiliar, and for the time being Lan Wangji isn't actually doing those things (he's confident; Wei Ying would not be able to hide it) so Jiang Cheng doesn't make an issue of it, and Lan Wangji does continue to be carefully polite to Jiang Cheng himself.
Lan Wangji is a lot more expressive than Jiang Cheng remembers thinking he was last time. He hadn't realised how much the man had changed, over the years; seeing him here, now, still looking like a teenager and in the Cloud Recesses, throws it into sharp relief.
Jiang Cheng wonders what Lan Wangji sees when he looks at him. Definitely not what he saw before, because Lan Wangji doesn't look at him like he's shit on his shoe.
Maybe Lan Wangji wants to leave the past behind as much as Jiang Cheng does.
If, somewhere, somehow, Jin Ling and his disciples still exist at all, he knows they'll manage without him. He trained them himself specifically so that they could.
He misses them, but it's nothing when he's not missing Wei Ying and his sister and the shidis he grew up with. When maybe he can still find those people again, but here and now he can have the chance to save his family. His sister will almost certainly marry into the Jin, and Wei Ying will probably marry into the Lan, but at least they'll be alive.
It's still a surprise when Lan Wangji arrives for one of their discussions - they meet privately to compare notes about what they remember of the next few years and their ideas for how to prevent those things from happening again - looking extremely tense. His grip on Bichen is white-knuckled, and he's hesitant about speaking in a way Jiang Cheng hasn't seen him be in decades.
He's used to Hanguang-Jun just choosing not to speak, but when he has something to say, he says it.
"Just spit it out," Jiang Cheng says. "I promise to argue with you instead of storming off if you offend me." He has grown as a person.
Lan Wangji huffs, and then straightens. He looks past Jiang Cheng's shoulder, and then visibly catches himself and makes eye contact before lowering his eyes as he bows and holds the position.
"Jiang Wanyin," Lan Wangji says, in formal tones. "I want to ask your help to take someone back to Lotus Pier."
Jiang Cheng blinks. "Take someone back to Lotus Pier?"
Lan Wangji nods. "Take someone back... and hide them." He swallows. "It is not my sole request. I would like to ask for your recommendation to Sect Leader Jiang."
"What do you want me to recommend?"
"Me." Lan Wangji hasn't even twitched from his pose of formal supplication. "As a disciple to the Jiang Sect."
Jiang Cheng stares. "Sit down and - and fucking talk to me. Tell me what this is about."
They sit. Lan Wangji still sits very stiffly even by his own rigid standards, staring at his teacup.
"Is this about Wei Ying?" Jiang Cheng asks, because it's the only explanation he can think of.
"No." Lan Wangji takes a slow, measured breath. "You are not wrong that I hope again to marry him. If he does not share my feelings, in the end, that does not change my request." He looks up again, meets Jiang Cheng's eyes. "What I will tell you now is..." He swallows. "Secret. Private."
It's a good thing they always put up silencing talismans, apparently. "I'm listening," Jiang Cheng says.
Lan Wangji nods. "Qingheng-Jun died in an attempt to force his way into my mother's prison," he says, and Jiang Cheng burns his tongue taking an unwisely large gulp of his tea to keep from saying anything in response. "In our prior lifetimes, my brother and I saw her only once each month until her death at her own hand, which occurred when I was six. She is imprisoned here because she killed a man in self-defence. She did not tell me this. My uncle confessed it to me prior to his death. In this lifetime, I have visited her daily. I was punished for this until my brother became the Sect Leader. I am no longer punished, but my mother is still imprisoned."
Jiang Cheng has the creeping realisation that it's entirely possible that Lan Wangji's first childhood was worse than Jiang Cheng's. He'd take his parents' fighting and being compared unfavourably to Wei Wuxian over this.
It... explains some things.
"You want Lotus Pier to hide your mother," he guesses, and Lan Wangji nods.
"And I wish to join her there, as a Jiang Sect disciple," he says. "I promise - sincere attachment to the Jiang Sect, and to be obedient to your authority."
It's odd phrasing, and Jiang Cheng feels... something, strange and awkward and warm, when he realises that Lan Wangji is carefully avoiding words like loyal and subordinate, because he was at the Guanyin temple too.
"I never would have thought you'd want to leave the Lan Sect," he says, mostly for something to say while he thinks, and he's honestly shocked by the look of disgust that crosses Lan Wangji's face.
"The Lan Sect imprisoned my mother and permitted her to see her children only once each month," Lan Wangji says, and it's almost a snarl. "The Lan Sect objected to the death of her first rapist, and allowed her second to live. She never liked Qingheng-Jun. I was not born of consent. When I tried to protect Wei Ying, at the end, they fought me to try and destroy him. Upon my return to Gusu, I was struck with the discipline whip thirty-three times for wounding the Elders who attacked me." He's breathing hard. "Who's just, and who's evil? Who's wrong, and who's right? The Lan Sect stood by and allowed the murder of civilians. Of the elderly, and of children."
Jiang Cheng swallows. "So did we," he says softly. "You and I. We didn't stand by him either."
Lan Wangji looks up and meets his eyes.
Jiang Cheng doesn't flinch, but only because he learned not to flinch from anything somewhere in the time after he lost everything that mattered to him save for a single baby. But Lan Wangji's look is... intense.
"I was wrong. I should have. If I had stood by him sooner, you would not have been left with no choice but to abandon him. You had no support. Your duty was to the Jiang Sect." He takes a breath. "I should have told you that long ago, but I was... ashamed."
Now Jiang Cheng is reeling. "You don't mean that," he says. He intends to say more but doesn't get the chance, because he pauses a moment too long finding the words.
"I do." Lan Wangji cuts him off, relentless. Is he always like this? How did Wei Wuxian live with him? He's still talking, Jiang Cheng misses when he thought Lan Wangji didn't know how. "We should have offered support. We did not. I did not. I attempted to assist Wei Ying. He rejected my assistance. I should have offered it to you. You should not have had to do what you did alone. You did all that could be done. Together we could have done more."
Twenty years ago, the only thing that would have seemed more ludicrous than Hanguang-Jun offering him absolution would have been the idea that Jiang Cheng would want it.
But he does.
"Do you actually believe that? Or are you just saying this so I'll take your side with my father, because you don't have to do that."
"I believe it." Lan Wangji, Jiang Cheng remembers, doesn't ever lie outright. He'll lie by omission, but he won't say things he doesn't believe.
Lan Wangji is the only other person who remembers what happened at all, and Lan Wangji doesn't blame him for it.
He meant every word about the Lan, too.
"You hate these people," Jiang Cheng says, almost breathless with the realisation. "I thought you hated me."
"No," Lan Wangji says flatly. "I did not like you. I resented you. I was angry with you for the way you spoke to Wei Ying. I did not hate you."
Jiang Cheng believes him, because he's starting to realise that if Lan Wangji had hated him, he would probably have been far more polite to him. Lan Wangji at least respected him enough to be honest about his dislike.
The Lan Sect still fete Lan Wangji as their precious Second Jade. They don't even know.
"I'm getting that. Really, it seems like you wouldn't have had time. Hating your entire sect would keep you busy."
A twitch of the lips that might be amusement. "I do not hate my entire sect. I am very fond of Nainai, who runs the kitchens. And I do not hate my brother or uncle." A pause. "I was also fond of the junior disciples."
Just everyone else, then. "Okay. Let me think for a second."
Now that he considers it, Lan Wangji joining the Jiang Sect is an idea with real merits. He is, of course, extremely gifted. He has the same advantages that Jiang Cheng has, now, and in their first lives Lan Wangji was generally the more accomplished of the two of them. He'll likely be a credit to their sect, so long as his defection from the Lan doesn't start a war.
And if he's a Jiang disciple, and marries Wei Ying, they'll both still be Jiang, and Jiang Cheng can keep Wei Ying for always after all. Two heroes of Yunmeng... or maybe even three.
All while he and Lan Wangji can keep working together to avert catastrophe.
"Will the Lan Sect want a war over this?"
"No," Lan Wangji says confidently. "My brother will never agree to that."
"Wow." That means they absolutely will want to, just Zewu-Jun won't let them. But that could still be enough. "Okay. I'll make your case with my father. If he says no, you and your mother can still stay at Lotus Pier as my guests while we figure out a plan."
It'll still be a we, Jiang Cheng thinks, because Lan Wangji is still in love with Wei Ying, and Wei Ying is probably getting there. Jiang Cheng has a chance of keeping Wei Ying, this time, which means he's going to have to accept that he's keeping Lan Wangji too.
"What about when the Wen attack here? Do you..."
Want to try and prevent that? Care even a little bit if the Cloud Recesses burn?
Lan Wangji's expression regains its composure. "I have endeavoured for several years to persuade the Lan to fortify their defences and ward better against fire. They have dismissed my concerns. If Sect Leader Jiang accepts this disciple, and thereafter if Sect Leader Jiang permits, this disciple will return to render assistance to the Lan, should they need it."
Jiang Cheng nods slowly. "I will talk to my father," he says. "How are we getting your mother away from here?"
Lan Wangji untenses, if such a thing can be said about a person who is still extremely rigid at all times. "I have a plan," he says.
So there's a thing happening in fandom I just want to mention:
Apparently people who write non-wangxian ships are getting a lot of hate lately from antis.
If you've been participating in that: can you not?
If you don't like a ship: don't read it.
If you don't like a story, hit the back button and don't read it.
A reminder that all references to Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng being brothers in my work is not literal - they are not actually related in any way - and as an expression of emotional attachment, it's absolutely not the only possible interpretation of canon.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
On the day the guest disciples leave, Wei Ying approaches Lan Zhan. "So, ah, we're leaving," Wei Ying says nervously. "It has been, ah, very good getting to know you, Lan Zhan!"
Lan Zhan is suffused with overwhelming fondness as he looks at him. "We will see one another again, Wei Ying," he says.
Wei Ying nods jerkily. "I'm sure we will! Because... obviously, haha!" His smile is anxious. "I mean, we'll see you at Lotus Pier, right?"
"Of course," Lan Zhan says, lowering his voice. He thought Jiang Wanyin wasn't going to tell Wei Ying about the plan until later. Wei Ying is not always very good at being discreet, as he is right now demonstrating.
"Great!" Wei Ying says, smiling brightly. "Jiang Cheng will be pleased, I'm sure." He turns and walks away. Lan Zhan watches him go, because he will never, ever tire of looking at Wei Ying.
He supposes that it's a good thing if Jiang Wanyin is actively well-disposed towards his arrival, at least.
The day the guest disciples depart is always chaotic, by the ordered standards of the Cloud Recesses. Lan Zhan intends to take advantage of that, but he is not inclined to be cruel.
He must speak to his brother. He finds him supervising the departures.
"Brother," Lan Zhan says. "May I speak with you privately?"
"Of course, Wangji," Brother says, smiling.
They go to Brother's office. Lan Zhan braces himself for the things he has to say, because he does not wish to hurt his brother more than he has to.
That this will hurt him is guaranteed, and somewhat inevitable. Lan Zhan's conscience is not actually troubled by that. Brother will be left to be the Sect Leader without him, when he undoubtedly has been expecting to have Lan Zhan to rely on.
Lan Zhan also thought he would have his brother to rely on when his uncle's health began to fail, in his previous life, and Lan Zhan himself was left with the responsibilities of both Sect Leader and Chief Cultivator, and yet his brother did not emerge from seclusion.
He is aware that Lan Xichen's sworn brother had died in disgrace, and that all the cultivation world was united in their disgust for the friend in question.
He is also aware that when one Lan Zhan loved died in disgrace, and the cultivation world was united in their disgust for him, Lan Zhan kept working, and trying to help people - including his brother - just as soon as he healed from the near-fatal wounds his brother permitted their sect to inflict upon him.
It rather limits his sympathy.
"What did you wish to talk about?" Brother asks, warm and pleasant.
Lan Zhan takes a deep breath. "I must inform you that it is my intention to leave."
"Oh? Where are you going?" Brother asks. His smile widens. "Are you going to visit Lotus Pier, perhaps?"
"Not on a journey," Lan Zhan says. "I will be leaving the Lan Sect. Permanently." He reaches up and carefully unties his ribbon. He feels a strange elation at the action. "I will also be leaving Gusu. I will not return if I am unwelcome."
His brother has paled. "You will always be welcome," he says, intent. "Wangji, are you sure?"
"I am sure," Lan Zhan says. He folds the ribbon and reaches across to press it into his brother's palm. Brother's hand twitches, as if he wants to jerk it away; siblings are neither parents nor children, and Brother would not be permitted to touch Wangji's ribbon... if it were still his ribbon. If Wangji were still intending to remain a member of the sect.
Brother swallows hard. "Where will you go?"
"That is not yet determined," Lan Zhan says.
His brother closes his eyes for a long moment, fist clenching around the ribbon. "I imagine that it is too late to persuade you to stay," he says, voice leaden.
"Yes," Lan Zhan replies.
Brother nods, and then he hurls the ribbon back. It bounces off Lan Zhan's chest and unspools messily across his knees. "Put that back on," he bites out. "If you are seen in the Cloud Recesses without it there will be questions." He stands.
Lan Zhan has never seen his brother look so... emotional.
He reties the ribbon with practised ease.
"Come with me," his brother snaps, and stalks out.
Lan Zhan follows warily, hand tight on Bichen. He will not accept being imprisoned, if that is his brother's notion.
It is not.
Brother takes him to the treasury, where he fills a qiankun pouch with money in silence.
And then he starts on another.
"Brother, I do not need -"
"Be quiet," his brother growls. He places a fortune into the second pouch. It is more money than Lan Zhan will spend in a decade.
He watches in silence as his brother loads four pouches, one after another. The wealth of the Lan Sect is significant, and so is the dent the sect's leader is making in it.
"Brother," he tries again, as his brother scoops more into a fifth pouch.
Brother throws it against the wall. Coins and precious metal spill across the floor.
"What am I supposed to do?" he demands, breathing hard. "If you're leaving the sect, I can't take care of you. I won't be able to protect you. I can't keep you safe if you're not a Lan disciple."
You didn't keep me safe when I was a Lan disciple, Lan Zhan thinks, but does not say.
"Promise me..." Brother swallows. "Promise me that if you need me. If I can help you. You'll call for me." There are tears in his eyes, slipping down his cheeks. "I'm still..." He looks at Lan Zhan, imploring.
He's so young.
"You are still my brother." Lan Zhan takes the pouch from the floor. It still contains some money, an amount not unreasonable for a clan member to claim, and it will probably make his brother feel better. And then he unties his ribbon again, and places it on the shelf his brother has emptied. "We will meet again."
"Keep your pass token for the wards," Brother says. "I mean it. You will always be welcome, A-Zhan."
Several people stare as he walks through the Cloud Recesses to his room. Lan Zhan pays them no heed.
He can feel the breeze on his skin, brushing across his bare forehead, his temples.
It feels like freedom.
He packs very little - not even his Lan Sect robes. He has new ones - he bought them in Caiyi weeks ago. He went with Wei Ying and Jiang Wanyin; Jiang Wanyin saw him hesitate when he saw the robes in the market, and had rolled his eyes and said, "Just buy them, already."
"They will not be a problem for you?" Lan Zhan had asked.
Jiang Wanyin had glared, and Wei Ying had seen what he was looking at and said, "Ha, Jiang Cheng, are you sure? Won't Lan Zhan be too beautiful for anyone in those clothes?"
Jiang Wanyin had huffed and walked away.
Lan Zhan bought the robes.
And now he can wear them. Temporarily, if he is accepted by Sect Leader Jiang; if not, he might keep wearing them.
The vibrant red inner robe.
Under layers of black.
He has never worn any colours but white and the palest of blues, before. (And red, exactly once.)
He thinks it suits him.
Over that, he places another robe, this one in green.
He ignores the stares - from everyone, now - as he walks out of the Cloud Recesses and down the mountain. Many parents and families come to Gusu to collect their children after the lectures. Lan Wangji slips into a crowd, matches his pace to theirs. He allows his shoulders to drop and his posture to slouch.
Anyone attempting to follow him at distance will watch for his height and bearing.
They will also watch for a green outer robe. He slips that from his shoulders in the midst of the crowd and tucks it away in his qiankun sleeve, along with Bichen. Ducks low and pulls his headpiece from his hair, tucks that away too and hurriedly reties his hair with a red ribbon.
He walks among strangers, who give him sideways glances but raise no commotion. When the group passes the place where the road bends sharply around an outcropping of rock, Lan Zhan parts from them and breaks into a jog, and then a run, until he is well out of sight in the pine forest.
And then he waits until nightfall, and doubles back.
He leaves his pass in a qiankun pouch marked with talismans that should render the token wholly ineffective.
If anyone is paying attention - and they might be - using it to enter could alert them that his pass token has been used, which he definitely does not want.
Instead, he marks a sigil in the air and flicks it forward.
A man-sized area of the wards shimmers, tears open, and he steps through before the gap can close again.
The security of the Cloud Recesses is weak. He did try to tell them. If they'd listened, he might even have considered staying, but in this life he will not accept the possibility of losing a parent who is trapped at home when the Wen attack.
Between its isolation amid the forests and Lan Zhan's detailed knowledge of the patrol schedule, it is trivial to reach his mother's cottage undetected. He listens carefully at the window before he leaps to the roof.
He no longer fits through the tile he used when he was small. He spreads the green outer robes to block escaping light and moves several carefully aside; he intends to leave the same way, tonight. Discovery will be delayed if the doors are still locked and sealed.
His mother looks up from her book as he drops down into the room, eyebrows raised. "You look very handsome, A-Zhan," she says quietly. "Very dramatic." Even now they never speak loudly when he visits her late and it is time for Lan disciples to be in bed.
Lan Zhan feels the smile that comes to his face, small and soft, and pulls qiankun pouches from his sleeve. "Pack what you do not wish to leave behind," he says. "We are leaving."
His mother drops her book. "What? Where - did Lan Huan -"
He kneels and cups her cheek. "He did not," he says. "I have left the Lan Sect. I want you to come with me."
She grasps his wrist. Her hand is shaking. "Where will we go?" she whispers. "They'll chase us. We'll have to run forever."
He shakes his head. "The son of the Jiang Sect Leader has promised us sanctuary," he tells her. "Brother will not go to war to destroy you."
"A-Zhan, you can't -" She leans forward, presses her forehead to his. "You can't throw away your life, your home, not like this. Not for me."
"I am not," he says. "My home is on its way to Lotus Pier."
"Ahh," she replies, the teasing lilt returning to her voice. "The boy you like. Wei Ying?"
He nods. She takes a deep breath. "Then I shall pack everything in Gusu that I cannot live without." She stands and takes his hand. "That's all of it, I think. Shall we go?"
His heart feels too full.
She changes into the dark, nondescript clothing he brought for her, and then allows him to lift her to climb out through the roof. She has been confined for many years; her strength has faded. He extinguishes the lanterns before leaping out himself, then replaces the tiles. He wraps the outer robe carefully around Bichen to disguise its glare before he withdraws the sheath from within the bundle, and then they can mount and fly silently through the forest.
His arms are around his mother, securing her in place, and she is gripping his wrists tightly. He has to pull one hand free with gentle insistence to be able to cast the sigil that will pierce the wards.
Once they are through the wards and picking up speed into the night, he feels her beginning to shake, then the sob that escapes her.
"Mother?" He slows, begins to descend, but she shakes her head sharply.
"Don't stop. Don't stop, A-Zhan." She takes a hitching breath. "Please, don't stop until we're far, far away from there." She leans her head back against him. "I'm all right. It's just." Another breath. "I'm free. It's so - so beautiful."
He smiles, accelerating hard. "You are free," he agrees. "I won't let them hurt you again."
It is late, and his mother was not expecting a journey, or the shock of sudden freedom. He doesn't want to overtax her, and he does want to confuse any pursuit, so he does not head towards Yunmeng; he lands in Yuhuatai, a large town on the border between Lanling and Gusu, and takes her to an inn.
He pays for one room. His mother can sleep; Lan Zhan will keep watch, sword in hand. They are not safe yet.
In the morning he does not disguise Bichen. If anything he wants to be identified here. At his suggestion, his mother addresses him loudly as Lan Zhan while they eat breakfast, and then they go to the markets, where Lan Zhan buys warm furs for her.
"Is this really necessary?" his mother asks, and he nods.
"The barbarian lands to the north get very cold," he says seriously. Lanling is filled with gossiping busybodies; word of the young cultivator who planned to take a woman to the barbarian lands will unquestionably spread.
They lift off in front of onlookers, Bichen undisguised, and head due north.
Only when Yuhuatai has faded into the distance and they are flying too high to be easily discerned from the ground does Lan Zhan wheel and turn towards Lotus Pier.
They fly for hours. His mother is used to his silences, and seems to be enjoying the view very much. The landscape passing below them is beautiful, undoubtedly even more so for one who has been confined for so long to a single cottage.
They stop briefly every few hours in the most isolated places he can find; for comfort, and to eat the rations Lan Zhan brought, and for him to regain his energy. His golden core is improbably strong for his age, but still weaker than it was before they stepped into the array, and he is flying high and far and fast after missing a night of sleep.
It is tiring, but he has been preparing for this for years. He will not falter.
It is nearing sunset when they reach the vicinity of Lotus Pier. Lan Zhan flies around and past and makes his approach from a careful angle, the sun at his back so that he will be difficult to see without looking directly into the sun. They land beyond the outskirts of the town and enter on foot, Bichen tucked away.
He will commission a new sheath, he thinks. This one is so very Lan, by nature, and that is no longer true of Lan Zhan.
He wonders if he wants to change his name. It would be strange to answer to a new one, after all this time, but if he is leaving the Lan behind...
Jiang Wanyin meets them at the gates of Lotus Pier. He nods to Lan Zhan, and bows respectfully to his mother.
"Welcome," he says.
Jiang Cheng is more disconcerted than he thought he would be by the sight of Lan Wangji in the colours of the Yiling Patriarch, but he can't deny it suits him. His expression is... soft. Happy.
But that could very well be because of the woman at his side. She can only be his mother - she's a more feminine version of the Twin Jades of Lan, disconcertingly beautiful and looking around Lotus Pier with wide eyes.
"Mother, this is Jiang Cheng, courtesy name Wanyin," Lan Wangji says. "Jiang Wanyin, this is my mother, Tang Lijuan."
"It is my honour, Madam Tang," Jiang Cheng says, because even if it were anything but a terrible idea to throw the name Madam Lan around, she probably wants to leave it behind. He escorts them into Lotus Pier.
His plan is to install Tang Lijuan in guest quarters and then take Lan Wangji to see his father.
It fails immediately, because his mother emerges from her wing of Lotus Pier and sees them.
Maybe he'll get lucky. She seemed to be in a good mood today.
Maybe he won't, because she's frowning.
She strides towards them, her maids at her flanks, and then as she gets closer her step falters, and then she walks even faster.
"Tang Lijuan? Is that you?" she says incredulously. "I thought you were dead. We heard that -" she stops.
"I imagine you heard correctly," Tang Lijuan says, in a bitter tone. "Except that I was not executed. Qingheng-Jun married me and locked me up." She takes a breath. "This is my younger son, Lan Zhan, courtesy name Wangji."
"I should have known," Mother murmurs. "Lan Xichen is yours too, isn't he?"
Tang Lijuan nods.
Mother looks at her, then eyes Lan Wangji and his extremely different outfit.
"Inside," she says, and turns immediately to the main hall.
"I could guess what is happening here," Mother says when they're seated, "but why don't you explain it to me?"
Jiang Cheng straightens. "Lan Wangji has left the Lan Sect. I gave him permission to come to Lotus Pier as my guest, and to bring Madam Tang." He says it confidently. Even if his mother disapproves of his choices, she would disapprove more if he were hesitant to stand by them.
"To what end?" she asks, eyes on Jiang Cheng. He meets her gaze. She has a slight smile that is extremely promising.
"I have offered my protection to Tang Lijuan. Lan Wangji indicated his wish to join the Jiang Sect, but of course, I could not promise him acceptance."
"I see." Mother looks at his guests. "Would you agree with that summary?"
"Yes," Lan Wangji is definite yet deferent. "It is this unworthy supplicant's earnest wish that he will be acceptable to the Jiang Sect, and that Jiang Wanyin's protection can secure the future of his mother."
Mother nods. "Lotus Pier is my territory," she says, a dangerous light in her eyes as she looks at Tang Lijuan. "My son's good intentions notwithstanding, Tang Lijuan is under my protection now. I only regret that it is so many years too late." She turns to Lan Wangji. "Lan Zhan, I think, will also be welcome, but Jiang Fengmian must also give his opinion." She looks back at Jiang Cheng. "Show Lan Zhan to a guest room. I think it will be safest if Tang Lijuan stays in my wing." Her gaze returns to Tang Lijuan. "No-one but my people is permitted to enter that part of Lotus Pier uninvited. You may of course come and go as you please. You are not a prisoner. And you may have visitors there."
Tang Lijuan has tears in her eyes. "Thank you," she says softly.
Mother dismisses the boys. Jiang Cheng shows Lan Wangji to a guest room, as instructed. "Welcome to Lotus Pier, Lan Wangji," he says, aware of the irony; that is a sentence he has never willingly uttered before, he's pretty sure.
"Please call me Wangji," Lan Wangji says, not meeting his eyes. "I appreciate your kindness, Jiang Wanyin."
"Wanyin, then," Jiang Cheng says. "It's a new beginning for both of us."
Wangji looks up with the slightest curl to his mouth, suggestive of a smile, and Jiang Cheng realises he's smiling too. Maybe it really can be this easy; maybe they can just leave decades of hostility behind them.
"Jiang Cheng!" Wei Ying shouts from outside, and Jiang Cheng suppresses a groan. He'd sent Wei Ying out with A-Jie and some of their shidis. At least they'd got through Wangji's arrival. "Jiang Ch-"
Wei Ying comes through the doorway and stops dead when he sees Wangji.
"Wei Ying," Wangji says.
Wei Ying is staring. He's starting to turn pink.
Jiang Cheng is prepared to be a lot more forgiving and generally indulgent about this shit than before, but he has his limits, and this is rapidly approaching one of them. Wei Ying's jaw is hanging open and it's only a matter of time before he is literally drooling.
"Wei Ying. Finish your sentence," he snaps.
"Sixth shidi said he saw you come in here," Wei Ying whispers. "Hello Lan Zhan." He swallows. "Okay Jiang Cheng I see you're busy I'll just go help shijie do something," he says, all in a rush, and bolts.
In case anyone's confused, Lan Wangji becoming the Chief Cultivator is a CQL thing, not book.
Jiang Cheng's father agrees to take Wangji as a disciple. Possibly after he sees how Wei Ying looks at him, possibly because Wangji genuinely will be a credit to the sect. The only area in which his skills have any real chance of being lacking is swimming, which Jiang Cheng sets out to rectify immediately, despite the fact that it's cold. Because they're cultivators and they can cope, and because maybe if he forces Wei Ying to see Wangji shirtless and wet enough, Wei Ying will actually, at some point, notice that he is attracted to him.
It's honestly unbelievable that Wei Ying genuinely does not appear to have realised that, and Jiang Cheng is starting to think that his own patience is going to run out before Wangji's. He didn't realise, before, that his sort-of-nemesis had quite so much restraint.
But then, he didn't realise Wangji held the entire cultivation world in absolute fucking contempt, either, and their discussions of what to do about the next few years of history that are bearing down on them have begun to make it clear that he very much did.
He wishes he'd known. It would have been nice to have had someone to share that with.
Apparently, A-Jie is also teaching Tang Lijuan to swim, in another place where they will be secluded from the eyes of strangers in general and men in particular. (Probably best, for a range of reasons.) They could have waited until the weather warmed, but Tang Lijuan insisted; apparently they thought it could be helpful for her in regaining her strength after years of confinement.
So far Jiang Cheng hasn't seen Tang Lijuan since her arrival, but he knows that his mother and A-Jie and Yinzhu and Jinzhu see her, and Wangji still spends hours with her every day.
He imagines that after spending twenty years in a single cottage, seeing almost no-one, a change of scenery to Lotus Pier and the company of a few other women would already seem like a lot. If she feels safer staying in Mother's wing, then... she's probably not even wrong, at this point. For the moment, they're still pretending she isn't there. The servants know Madam Yu has a guest who is an old friend, and that is all.
There's going to be some kind of reaction to her disappearance from the Lan Sect, and Wangji and Mother seem agreed it would be best to let that blow past before allowing Tang Lijuan to return openly to society. (Jiang Cheng presumes that Tang Lijuan has also been consulted.) If it seems like there would be a risk of her recapture, Mother has declared an intention to take her to Meishan and place her under Popo's protection for as long as necessary, but until then, Tang Lijuan will stay here, where there are more people, including her son.
Wangji really does seem devoted to her.
Jiang Cheng is in no position to judge. He spends a lot of his free time thinking about contingency plans for how he's going to make sure that anyone who might, hypothetically, potentially kill his sister even by accident intending to kill someone else dies before they have that chance.
In his previous life, Jiang Cheng had eventually figured out that his list of requirements for his hypothetical wife amounted to a description of his sister. By then he knew himself enough to understand why; he's just not built for attraction or anything like it, and so if he had to spend his life with a woman, he'd want her to be just like the woman he already loved most. He'd have been happy if she could have stayed, but she is capable of another kind of love, and she wanted it.
As far as Jiang Cheng knows she likes the stupid peacock again, this time, but Jiang Cheng made a point of threatening Jin Zixuan about hurting her feelings at every discussion conference he was taken to ages six to fourteen and also again at the Cloud Recesses, so he's at least consistently civil to her.
Jiang Cheng is drawn from his pensive thoughts by a loud splash and a shriek of Lan Zhan!
The last time he looked, Wei Ying and Wangji were standing on the pier, and Wei Ying was teasing Wangji about what a tragic loss to the world it would be if a beauty like his drowned because he didn't learn to dive properly, because he is a ridiculous person. Jiang Cheng had tuned it out.
Now Wei Ying is spluttering from the lake, and Wangji is standing on the pier smirking down at him with his arms crossed over his bare chest. Jiang Cheng isn't going to say anything because there's only so much of this shit he will willingly get involved in, but he can absolutely see that Wangji is tensing all his muscles to make sure they're nice and visible and defined, because he is fucking shameless.
"Jiang Cheng! I'm being bullied!" Wei Ying complains, and Jiang Cheng sighs and gets up.
This is supposed to be swimming lessons for Wangji, after all, so he goes over and pushes Wangji into the lake.
Wangji lets him, because Jiang Cheng pushes him towards Wei Ying, which means Wangji can oh so accidentally fall into the water very close to him, probably brush against him as he surfaces but "brushing" is allowed, and then look into Wei Ying's eyes from extremely close range and smirk at him some more.
It's fucking weird, actually, because since when does Wangji have actual expressions?
The shit Jiang Cheng puts up with.
Wei Ying just can't believe how awful Lan Zhan is.
Turning up at Lotus Pier wearing black and red and now he's wearing Jiang purple and it really suits him. Wei Ying never looks that good in their uniforms. It's unfair.
And then he spent hours all shirtless and wet while they taught him to swim, and Wei Ying had to awkwardly watch him flaunt his flawless body at Jiang Cheng. (His shixiong has so much restraint. Jiang Cheng acted like he hardly even noticed the way droplets of water would drip from Lan Zhan's thick, silky-looking hair down the elegant lines of his neck to run down his perfectly-proportioned body, rolling over each well-defined muscle like a caress.)
Wei Ying's chest keeps constricting from the embarrassment. So shameless!
He wishes Jiang Cheng wouldn't keep bringing Wei Ying along. Lan Zhan keeps staring at him. It's clear he wishes Wei Ying wasn't there so he could be alone with Jiang Cheng. He's tried telling Jiang Cheng that he'll be good and stay in Lotus Pier - Jiang Cheng worries if he doesn't know where Wei Ying is at all times, he's so caring - but Jiang Cheng still insists. (It's probably because of that time Wei Ying snuck out the first night in Cloud Recesses.)
In most other ways, Lan Zhan's a pretty great sect-brother. He's strong and skilled, and patient with the little kids. And he's clearly taking his courtship with Jiang Cheng very seriously. Only a few days after he arrived, Lan Zhan started taking Wei Ying to visit his mother with him sometimes, and she's wonderful - so warm and loving.
She even sends Lan Zhan away to talk to Wei Ying alone. She really seems to want to get to know him. The first time Lan Zhan took him to see her, she said, "Ah, at last I meet my future son-in-law!" and Lan Zhan's ears turned pink. It was adorable, but Wei Ying thinks it's really incredibly sweet that Lan Zhan's mother would think of her son-in-law's brother as her son-in-law too. Maybe she's taking pity on him because she knows he's an orphan, but it's so kind.
"Did you know I knew your mother, Wei Ying?" she asks on one of his first visits, and Wei Ying instantly tears his gaze away from the soft, sweet way Lan Zhan is looking at them. The way he's smiling - really smiling. It lights up his whole perfect face.
"Really?" he asks, and she nods. "Could you - could you tell me what she was like?" he asks hopefully, and she smiles.
"She was beautiful, and clever, and very kind. I think you and she are very similar," she says. "She was also very brave, but sometimes reckless. I hope you will be careful to remember that you are loved, Wei Ying, and try to be safe."
"Eheh," Wei Ying says awkwardly. "I probably will, I think. Jiang Cheng doesn't let me do anything too dangerous, really. He's very responsible! He's going to be a great sect leader one day! And Lan Zhan and I will be with him. I'm going to be his loyal subordinate and I'll support him and Lan Zhan forever, I really will!"
"I'm sure," she says warmly. "Would you like to hear about the time your mother and Yu Ziyuan and I night-hunted together?"
"Yes, please!" He has never wanted to hear anything more in his life.
Lan Zhan is unsure if anything has ever filled his heart with quite as much pure happiness as watching Wei Ying and his mother in conversation, laughing and smiling.
The two people he loves most in all the world, together and safe and learning to love one another too.
If Sizhui were here too, it might almost be too much happiness to endure. (But their son has not yet even been born, and when he is... well. Lan Zhan hopes that he will be healthy and loved.)
Life at Lotus Pier is good. Events are bearing down on them, he knows, but he and Wanyin have discussed them and planned as best they can, and there is nothing, for the moment, to be done.
They can have this time, in which they train together, and study together, and go swimming. Lan Zhan enjoys swimming a great deal. He enjoys the opportunity to allow his eyes to linger on Wei Ying's lithe body and bare skin. (Unbranded. Few scars.) He enjoys too the opportunity to bare his own and see the way Wei Ying stares helplessly at him.
He has always felt beautiful under Wei Ying's gaze.
Mother called Wei Ying her future son-in-law and Wei Ying looked at Lan Zhan and smiled. This is going very well indeed. Lan Zhan is aware that there is a... certain imbalance, in their relationship, and that Wei Ying undoubtedly is not ready to progress it any further than they have, yet. He does not wish to ruin this. He will continue to wait.
But he is enjoying the chance to flirt openly, and to court Wei Ying properly, as Wei Ying deserves.
One day Wei Ying comes in for lunch, and there's pork and lotus soup. It's delicious as always.
"Thank you for the soup, shijie!" he says as he digs in.
"Actually, I didn't make this!" shijie says. "Wangji made it. He asked me to teach him how."
Lan Zhan's ears are pink again. Wei Ying realises he is tearing up.
Lan Zhan learned how to make Jiang Cheng's favourite soup. That's so sweet.
Lan Zhan is not anxious about the Discussion Conference at Qishan.
Perhaps he is very slightly tense. That is all.
Bichen's new scabbard feels strange in his hand; he has known the original's contours so long it was like an extension of his hand itself. It feels like a metaphor for his new existence as a Jiang disciple, free of the Lan after so very, very long. He will learn this as he learned the first.
He clenches his hand around it now, feels the imprint of it against his skin. It's real, tangible.
He's consciously aware of the bareness of his forehead for the first time in weeks. Longer perhaps.
Jiang-shushu - the informality of it, but it would be rude to refuse when he has been instructed - is leading the Jiang delegation. Wanyin is a step behind, and Lan Zhan and Wei Ying are at Wanyin's flanks.
Lan Zhan walks beside Wei Ying again. If it were all he gained from his defection from the Lan Sect, it would be enough.
Lan Zhan looks into the distance, eyes straight ahead, as Jiang-shushu exchanges greetings with his fellow sect leaders.
Many people are looking at him.
At the one who was once the Second Jade of Lan, dressed in Jiang purple and ribbonless.
"I see you have a new disciple, Sect Leader Jiang," Wen Ruohan says, in a jovial tone. "I'm sure we all congratulate him, don't we, Sect Leader Lan?"
Lan Zhan saw him dead, once, and fully intends to do so again.
"Naturally," Brother says. "But we all accept new disciples regularly, do we not? It would be time-consuming to discuss them one at a time."
"True, true," Wen Ruohan says. "And we have many entertaining tests of skill prepared! I'm sure Sect Leader Jiang's disciple will be a credit to the Jiang Sect."
Possibly, this time, his death should be slower.
It isn't until the third day that his brother is able to escape the various ceremonies and formalities and come to find him in the evening. Lan Zhan is with Wei Ying and Wanyin, watching them play a game. It is played with a xiangqi board and pieces, but they appear to have a number of variant rules that seem to result in many arguments.
Having gained familiarity with the relationship between Wei Ying and Wanyin in its natural state, Lan Zhan assumes that to be the point.
And then there is a knock at the door. He answers it to find his brother.
"Wangji," Lan Xichen says. He seems... tired. Drawn. "Could I speak to you alone?"
Wanyin and Wei Ying do not say anything that Lan Zhan can hear, but they rise together and come to the door.
"We'll leave you the room," Wanyin says. "Send us a message when you're done."
They file out without another word. It is not lost on Lan Zhan that their immediate courtesy ensures that the leader of the Lan Sect has no reason to take Lan Zhan away from the rooms assigned to the Jiang.
It is probably also not lost on Lan Xichen.
He enters and closes the door. "I did not realise you had gone to Yunmeng and the Jiang. The last sign we could find of you, you were headed north."
"I had to ensure Mother's safety," Lan Zhan replies.
Lan Xichen closes his eyes, just for a moment. "Mother was safe at the Cloud Recesses," he says tightly.
"Mother was a prisoner in the Cloud Recesses," Lan Zhan replies.
"Our mother is a murderer, Wangji."
Lan Zhan says nothing.
"The northern barbarian lands?"
It is disappointing that he would expect an answer to that, Lan Zhan thinks. He knows better than to acknowledge the things that should go unsaid.
The silence wears on.
Finally, Lan Xichen sighs.
"What did I do wrong?" he asks. "I didn't realise anything had gone amiss between us until you told me you were leaving."
Lan Zhan considers that. He supposes there was no sign for his brother to detect, because Lan Zhan himself never changed his reactions at all. There were opportunities for Lan Xichen to take actions that might have averted this course, but they were opportunities to change Lan Zhan's mind, and they were not taken. Lan Zhan's intent had been to leave since he regained the capacity for clear, conscious thought.
"You never questioned the story we were told," he finally says. "You never asked why our mother might have killed a man. You never asked how we came to be born, when we know she did not like Qingheng-Jun. You never asked if the parent who loved us should matter more than the one who did not." He meets his brother's eyes.
Lan Xichen has paled. "What are you implying?" he asks, tone harsh.
"That you should have," Lan Zhan replies.
Lan Xichen's jaw clenches. "Are you really trying to tell me this isn't about Jiang Wanyin?" he grits out.
Lan Zhan blinks, confused.
"I see," his brother says. "Thank you for your time." He rises to leave. "I will inform your bodyguards that they can return," he says bitterly. "No doubt they are waiting nearby in case I attempt to abduct you and lock you in a cottage."
Lan Zhan says nothing. He may not be wrong. They may not be unjustified.
On their return, Wanyin falsely accuses Wei Ying of cheating by shifting one of the pieces, just to start an argument that Lan Zhan is fairly sure is intended for Lan Zhan's entertainment.
Or perhaps it is for both of them. Wei Ying is adorable when he's outraged, and Wanyin's mouth curls in amusement at it.
Wei Ying is a little worried about Lan Zhan after the confrontation with Lan Xichen. He tries to clear away and give him and Jiang Cheng space. Shijie is visiting with her Discussion Conference Friend, Wen Qing (shijie always goes to talk to her when Wen Qing isn't attending Wen Ruohan), but Wei Ying has his own Discussion Conference Friend - Wen Qing's little brother, Wen Ning.
But this time, he hardly gets the chance. Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan keep coming after him and keeping him with them.
Maybe they need the chaperone, he decides. Lan Zhan looks painfully attractive in his new formal Jiang robes. No doubt Jiang Cheng can hardly stand to keep his hands off him. Wei Ying is quite certain Jiang Cheng's hands must itch to touch the strong, elegant planes of Lan Zhan's body, maybe even peel those formal robes off to reveal that perfect physique.
Definitely worth having a chaperone, under the circumstances, but it's a bit difficult for Wei Ying.
It should be a relief when they get back to Lotus Pier, but not long after that the Wen forbid all the other sects to night-hunt.
Wei Ying is going to lose his mind. It's boring when Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan go off together to "shore up the defences", and awkward when they come back. Because they both come back and pay attention to Wei Ying again. Surely they must be forcing themselves, at this point, when they'd rather be with each other, but they just refuse to take no for an answer.
And Jiang Cheng leaves Wei Ying alone with Lan Zhan sometimes when he goes to talk to shijie or his parents or their shidis, and that's difficult too.
Wei Ying probably shouldn't, but he can't seem to stop himself from trying to tease Lan Zhan all the time. Lan Zhan is so stoic and calm, but if Wei Ying annoys him enough, Lan Zhan will give him these intense stares that he just... likes getting.
And if Lan Zhan is going to marry Jiang Cheng, then he's going to have to get used to having Wei Ying around! Wei Ying was here first. And shijie said they were keeping him. Wei Ying intends to be kept. So maybe it's okay, actually!
As the months at Lotus Pier pass, though, Lan Zhan gets harder and harder to provoke. Especially when the weather really warms up. Lan Zhan isn't used to Yunmeng's hot, sticky summers. When the boys all go out in boats to lounge around a lake with their shirts off Lan Zhan is - something. Wei Ying's not entirely sure. He's constantly distracted by the sight of Lan Zhan's chest. It really is unfair - no-one should look that good. How are the rest of them supposed to compete?
Jiang Cheng must be so disappointed when the weather cools off again.
Word reaches them that the Wen have attacked and burned the Cloud Recesses.
Sect Leader Lan is missing.
"I'm sure he's fine," Wei Ying says. "Zewu-Jun is very strong, right, Jiang Cheng?" Wei Ying says.
"Right," Jiang Cheng says.
Wangji nods. "We should go and train with our shidis," he says. "They are restless since we confined them inside the walls."
The Wen summon disciples to Qishan. Jiang Cheng, Wangji and Wei Ying are mentioned by name.
"I don't trust the Wen," Jiang Cheng tells Wei Ying. "So we're taking these."
Wei Ying looks at it wide-eyed. "You really don't trust the Wen," he says, accepting the fake sword that looks just like Suibian. He looks up. He's wearing his serious expression, the one Jiang Cheng hates, but also needs, right now. "Okay, Jiang Cheng," Wei Ying says. "I'll be good."
Sometimes Jiang Cheng thinks about how much time he spent in his previous life trying to keep Wei Wuxian under control by shouting and threats and every blandishment he could think of, and how it never worked and everything went to shit.
It turns out what actually works for keeping Wei Ying somewhat contained is being protective and treating him like a fucking baby in ways that Jiang Cheng would murder someone for even attempting if they did it to him, and it's sort of annoying because of course it fucking is. He should have known - the only people who could ever keep a leash on Wei Wuxian were A-Jie, who doted on him and treated him like a baby, and Hanguang-Jun, who doted on him and pampered him and Jiang Cheng honestly can't believe that somehow he still loves the little shit.
It also helps if you have a rotation of people to pay attention to him, because if he spends too much time with no-one paying attention to him, he starts to get anxious and then he gets annoying or worse. Wangji's arrival makes that easier. Wangji is always ready to pay attention to Wei Ying.
"I know, Wei Ying," Jiang Cheng says aloud, slinging his arm around Wei Ying's shoulders. "You're always good."
Jiang Cheng has come to terms with Wei Ying's inability to stand people not paying attention to him. There was a time, many years ago (and many years in the future, but this time Jiang Cheng's not going to let it happen) when some Elders from the Jin Sect decided they were dissatisfied with their young Sect Leader and tried to poison Jin Ling. Their plan had been to replace him with a cousin of his.
Wei Ying had found out about it first, and had decided to deal with it by breaking into the banquet hall, snatching Jin Ling's poisoned cup out of his hand and drinking it. He'd nearly died, and he'd been badly sick for days, and Jiang Cheng had nearly killed him himself.
But when he'd asked the idiot why he didn't just tell them someone was trying to poison Jin Ling, Wei Wuxian had looked at him, deathly pale and dripping sweat, and asked, "Even if anyone believed me, wouldn't they think I did it?"
And after that it got worse before it got better, until Wei Wuxian was delirious, and at the time Jiang Cheng couldn't have explained why he stayed, through that, why he watched Wei Wuxian writhe and scream and plead, or why Hanguang-Jun let him - at least until Hanguang-Jun had said, "I need to fetch more medicine. Stay with him. Do not leave him alone."
Jiang Cheng had stayed. Hanguang-Jun was the Chief Cultivator by then. And Wei Wuxian looked...
When Hanguang-Jun left the room, Jiang Cheng had hesitated before he took the seat by Wei Ying's bedside.
And then Wei Ying had started to whisper to himself, and it sounded a lot like he'll come back, he'll come back, he'll come back.
That was when Jiang Cheng had moved to sit beside him on the bed itself, had grasped his arm and said, "Wei Wuxian!" and felt his heart do something strange when Wei Wuxian had looked at him and whispered Jiang Cheng, because by then Wei Wuxian had been politely calling him Sect Leader Jiang for years.
"Of course he's coming back," Jiang Cheng had told him gruffly. "He's just getting medicine."
Wei Wuxian had nodded frantically, and clutched weakly at Jiang Cheng's hand. "Lan Zhan always comes back," he'd whispered. "He didn't forget me. He'll come back for me. He will." He'd looked at the door, and back at Jiang Cheng. "Do you think there'll be food?"
"There's food here already," Jiang Cheng had snapped. "Here." And he'd picked up a slice of fruit and held it out.
Wei Wuxian had blinked, and stared. "Are you saying I can have this?" he'd asked.
He'd said the same thing to A-Jie when they found him in Yiling, this time.
When they brought him to Lotus Pier, Jiang Cheng noticed the way that it took weeks before Wei Ying ever ate something without waiting to be told to, and months before Wei Ying stopped flinching if someone said his name at mealtimes. Years before he stopped flinching around food in general.
Jiang Cheng can no longer be upset by Wei Ying's desperate need for attention, because he's come to realise it's an actual need. Wei Ying needs constant reminders that he matters, that no-one has forgotten about him, and it's really not that difficult to give him that. Jiang Cheng doesn't mind paying attention to Wei Ying, making sure Wei Ying knows that someone always cares what Wei Ying is doing. Jiang Cheng makes sure he always knows where Wei Ying is, always, and shouts at him when Wei Ying slips away without telling him where he's going so Wei Ying always knows that he noticed.
The thing Jiang Cheng actually, really, still genuinely hates is that even after all these years, on the maybe-rarer-than-they-should-be occasions when he gives Wei Ying any kind of praise he smiles like he's pleased to hear it, but never like he actually believes it.
At Qishan, they hand over the replica swords they brought. They wait while Wen Chao sneers at them, endure all of his idiotic speeches and put up with his appalling behaviour on night-hunts. Jiang Cheng concentrates on looking calm and not charging to kill Wen Zhuliu where he stands.
"This guy is really terrible," Wei Ying whispers at night in the pitch darkness of the room the three of them share. "Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng, are you sure I can't -"
"Don't," Jiang Cheng and Wangji say simultaneously. Wei Ying sighs. His pout is audible.
"Wei Ying," Wangji says. "Be patient. The situation is dangerous. If you upset Wen Chao further, there will be consequences." His voice goes silken in a way Jiang Cheng does not want to hear. "If you continue to avoid attracting his attention any further, when we return to Lotus Pier, you may make a wish."
"A wish?" Wei Ying sounds interested.
"A wish. You may ask me to do something. Anything you like. And if it is within my capacity, I will fulfill your request." His voice drops lower. Jiang Cheng wishes he could close his ears. "Perhaps you can distract yourself by thinking about what your wish will be."
"I. Um. Okay," Wei Ying says, and at least then there's blissful silence.
Finally they're herded towards Dusk-Creek Mountain.
The Jiang disciples are walking along a short way behind some of the women. Jiang Cheng can hear laughter, and then a girl's voice.
"MianMian, your perfume sachet truly is something special. After I wore it, bugs really did stop coming over. The scent is nice too. I seem to feel much more awake after I smell it."
Jiang Cheng recognises Luo-guniang when she replies. "Inside of the sachet is filled with minced medicinal plants. It can be useful in quite a lot of ways. I’ve still got a few here. Do any of you want one?"
And then Wei Ying runs over, right in front of Wangji.
"MianMian, save me one too!"
Luo-guniang turns. "Who are you? Why do you call me MianMian as well?"
Wei Ying grins, the little shit. "I heard them call you MianMian, so I thought it was your name. Isn't it?"
Jiang Cheng risks a glance at Wangji. He looks... displeased.
Luo-guniang is blushing slightly. "You can't call me that!"
"Why not?" Wei Ying asks. "How about..." He falters, just for a moment. "How about you tell me your name, and then I can stop calling you that."
"Why do I have to tell you just because you asked? Before you ask for somebody else’s name, you should tell them your name first, shouldn’t you?"
"Sure," Wei Ying says. He swallows. "My name is Wei Ying, courtesy name Wuxian."
Luo-guniang narrows her eyes at him. "Luo Qingyang," she says. "Fine." She tosses one of her sachets at him, and Wei Ying bows and returns to Jiang Cheng and Wangji.
"What was that about?" Jiang Cheng hisses.
Wei Ying looks... rueful, for a moment, and then he grins. "You never know, Jiang Cheng," he says. "It could be useful. I wonder what's ahead of us?" He picks up his pace.
Luo Qingyang's perfume sachet smells lovely.
Wei Ying wonders if it has medicine to cure the pain you feel when you realise you can't even flirt with a pretty girl because you're maybe in love with someone, but you know that someone is already in love with your brother.
He can't even be angry at Jiang Cheng. Who wouldn't fall in love with Lan Zhan? Who would even think of choosing Wei Ying over Jiang Cheng, when Jiang Cheng is just... better?
Jiang Cheng is worried about Wei Ying, who has been far too quiet for far too long for him not to worry. But he can't really deal with that, right now, because the cave has been found and they're descending into the lair of the Xuanwu of Slaughter.
They have a plan. Wangji doesn't love it, but they couldn't think of a better one.
The thing is this.
Jiang Cheng collected what remnants he could of Wei Wuxian's belongings after his death. He was later than would have been ideal, but he got some things, including some of his notes, and he studied them. Usually at night, when he was too tired for real work but he couldn't sleep because Jin Ling was crying.
And then he spent thirteen years hunting demonic cultivators. Chasing down every rumour, dragging them home. Killing some. Recruiting others. After the death of Jin Guangyao, he helped Jin Ling go through the hoard of material the Jin had amassed - some of it Wei Wuxian's, some of it Xue Yang's.
Jiang Cheng knows that demonic cultivation is a path that a person can touch, and still turn away from.
He also, it's pretty near certain, knows more about it than anyone has ever known who isn't Wei Wuxian, in their previous lives.
He knows how to do quite a lot of things that should not be done. He's just in the habit of choosing not to.
So when they get to the bottom of the cave, Jiang Cheng leans close to Wangji as if to speak to him privately, and forms a sigil in the air, shielded between their bodies.
"They've brought us all this way for a dead end," he says aloud, to cover the hiss of the sigil going into the water.
The weapons of the dead stir, and then rise, flinging themselves upwards. Some crash against the ceiling; others slam hard into the rock-like thing that is the shell of the Xuanwu of Slaughter.
And wake it up.
After that, it's chaos.
They make it through the brief melee until the Wen lead the retreat. They still cut the rope and then start blocking the entrance behind them, of course, but this time Jiang Cheng is really pretty calm about it.
"There may be another way out," he says. "There were maple leaves on the water."
They troop carefully back down. The creature is eating the corpses on the shore.
"I'll distract it," he says. "Wei Ying, swim down and see if you can find the hole. Maybe it will be big enough to pass through."
"Jiang Cheng, what about -" Wei Ying whispers.
"Later," Jiang Cheng cuts him off. Wei Ying frowns, but nods.
Jiang Cheng throws a torch into the corner. The beast distracted, Wei Ying dives soundlessly into the water, disappearing without a ripple.
They wait tensely.
The beast moves close to the torch, then jerks back when it singes it, just as Wei Ying surfaces behind it. Jiang Cheng slaps a fire sigil onto the ground as Wei Ying climbs out of the water and hurries over.
"There's a tunnel," he says breathlessly. "Big enough for a few people at a time."
Jiang Cheng nods. "Everyone group up. Follow Wei Ying into the hole. Anyone who can swim unassisted, help the people who can't." He sets another, further fire talisman, luring the Xuanwu of Slaughter further away from the hole. "Go!"
"Jiang Cheng, Jiang Cheng, what about you?" Wei Ying says worriedly.
"I'll follow," he says, knowing it's a lie. "Don't wait. Go back to Lotus Pier., I'll catch up." In theory they could immediately follow the group out - Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-Jun only got trapped because of Su She-initiated disaster - but the problem is that Jiang Cheng and Wangji are firmly agreed that the Stygian sword they know is in the beast cannot be left to be found, and they have to retrieve that first.
Wei Ying stares at him for a moment. "You'd better," he says intently.
"I won't be long." Jiang Cheng keeps the Xuanwu distracted. Wangji is waiting by the edge of the pool, supervising the line of disciples preparing to follow Wei Ying out.
They're down to the last couple of disciples when the beast tosses its head, snorting, and one of the disciples screams.
Which gets its attention.
Jiang Cheng looks over and swears, because he recognises him. He recognises both of them - hard not to remember the face of the idiot who shot Wei Wuxian, and his brother who took such offense when Wei Wuxian threw the arrow back that he charged forward and killed Jiang Cheng's sister.
He tries to save their lives anyway, but he can't get there in time, and despite his best efforts Wangji has to leap away without retrieving either of them. The Xuanwu of Slaughter is thrashing around where the hole is, and it's going to be a while before he can hope to check if the hole is still there.
The Wen are going to be guarding the cave entrance.
It's a good thing Wei Ying has his sword and will be able to go for help.
In the meantime, it's just Jiang Cheng, Wangji, some dead bodies and the Xuanwu of Slaughter.
They wait until the beast is asleep again, and then they set to work.
Jiang Cheng tears open a seam in his sleeve to get at the qiankun pouch concealed behind it and draws out Sandu. Lan Wangji has Bichen and a long, strong cord.
They also tie bundles of arrows left behind by the Wen together with their bowstrings.
In their previous lives, Jiang Cheng is pretty sure he was giving up on being able to open the underwater passage again around now. Wei Ying's probably doing the same.
He wonders how long they'll have to wait for rescue. Wei Ying has Suibian, but it's still going to take time for him to get back to Lotus Pier and return with help, and he might have to wait for the Wen to stop guarding the entrance.
Jiang Cheng desperately hopes he'll wait, and not fight them.
Consider that later.
The interior of the shell of the Xuanwu of Slaughter is revolting.
Wading into the sludge is worse.
He finds the Stygian sword that Wei Wuxian recast into that fucking Tiger Seal and slides a qiankun pouch over it without touching it.
This thing can't be left in the world.
And then the area around him lights up, and Jiang Cheng spins to find the eyes of the beast are on him.
Jiang Cheng slashes with Sandu, and the roar becomes a scream as the blade cuts across its eye. It lunges for him, and Jiang Cheng jabs up into its open mouth with his sword, even as the beast's jaws close over him. He gets it right in a soft part, upright so the thing can't actually close its jaws without driving Sandu deeper into its own flesh.
Jiang Cheng grips his sword tightly, because the Xuanwu is swallowing a flood of the nauseating slurry and he does not dare let himself go with it.
Jiang Cheng is, in this life, chronologically only seventeen.
But he came into it with the experience of a cultivator much, much older, and he knew that serious events would come upon him all too soon. He has applied every tiniest scrap and shred of knowledge and discipline he had learned in his previous life - in which he rebuilt the Jiang Sect from nothing back to strength, in which he taught hundreds of disciples, beginning when he was barely older than this - into developing himself as hard and as fast as he could. His sword is more powerful already than many cultivators will achieve in a lifetime.
Sandu bites deep.
The Xuanwu of Slaughter screams and thrashes, mad with pain.
Jiang Cheng is pulled free from the sludge to slam into the rocky wall. He'd have to let go of Sandu to avoid being crushed between the head of the Xuanwu of Slaughter and the wall. He holds on, one arm sticking awkwardly into the thing's mouth, but his own head is caught between its face and the rocky shell.
The pressure is immense. He can't decide whether he's going to asphyxiate first or his skull will crack. He can feel something disgusting oozing from the creature's wounded eye into his hair.
He manages to twist his wrist, grinding Sandu in the wound.
The Xuanwu recoils and jerks away from the pain, shooting out of its shell and carrying Jiang Cheng with it.
Wangji catches the vulnerable place on its neck in the cord, and the fight begins in earnest.
Jiang Cheng only remembers the barest flashes of it, later, because he can't see properly anyway what with the blood dripping into his eyes from the head wound it turns out he got, but at some indeterminate point later he's splashing into the horrendously tainted water alongside its nearly-severed head, and then he's dragging himself ashore. His sword falls from his grip as he all but falls over by the wall.
Wangji staggers over and collapses next to him.
Jiang Cheng squints. The torches have all gone out. The only light is Sandu's glare.
"Hey," he says, offended. "You're bleeding." Wangji is definitely bleeding. The darker Jiang robes hide it more than his Lan robes would have, but Jiang Cheng can totally tell despite this very clear effort Wangji has made to hide it by joining Jiang Cheng's sect.
There's probably a flaw in that logic, but his head really hurts.
"When the... person screamed. And the beast attacked. I was too slow," Wangji replies. He sounds grumpy. Maybe. It's hard to tell sometimes.
Jiang Cheng will be magnanimous, because Wangji is his now. "It happens," he says. "I hit my head. Like... really hard." He sighs. "I'm going to have a nap, I think." He flops over.
"No," Wangji says. "You should stay awake." He drags Jiang Cheng upright.
"You're an asshole," Jiang Cheng complains.
Wangji is silent for a moment. "Sometimes," he says with a sigh.
Jiang Cheng frowns. "No," he says. "No, that's not allowed."
Wangji stares at him. "Not allowed," he repeats.
"Right." Jiang Cheng starts to scowl, but it makes his head hurt worse, so he stops. "You're, you're, a Jiang disciple now," he says. "Which means you're mine. So I can call you an asshole. But nobody else can. Including you. So you can't agree with me." He points at Wangji for emphasis because he can't scowl properly. "I call you an asshole. And you laugh at me. But not out loud. You're good at that. You should get this."
"I will remember," Wangji says.
"Good," Jiang Cheng says, and closes his eyes. Wangji pokes him, because he is an asshole. "What?"
"Stay awake," Wangji says.
"Asshole." Jiang Cheng huffs. "Keep me awake. Tell me a story."
"A story," Wangji repeats, sounding incredulous.
"Yeah. Tell me... what it was like to be the one Wei Wuxian chose."
Silence. Then, "The one he chose."
"This time he's not gonna choose," Jiang Cheng says. "We're all gonna be Jiang and you can have him and he'll still be mine because you're mine too. But when he did. What's it like?"
"I would have asked you the same thing," Wangji says, voice very even. "He chose you, before he chose the Wen. He never chose me when he had a choice at all."
"He married you."
"When he returned, no-one else stood by him. No-one. He had no alternatives but me."
"He loved you."
"You also." He hears Wangji take a breath. "He gave you his golden core."
"I didn't ask him to," Jiang Cheng snaps. "He shouldn't have done that. I lost it trying to save him. What was the point of that if I was going to lose him anyway?"
There is a very long silence.
"I thought you were captured attempting to retrieve the bodies of your parents."
"Nah." Some tiny part of him is screaming, but he ignores it. "I was in the street. There were soldiers. They were going to catch him. Couldn't let them. Not... not him, you know? They'd kill him. So I let them have me." He drifts for a moment, contemplating. "Why would anyone want to live if he didn't, you know? What would be the point?"
"To do the best one can," Wangji says softly. "To protect the weak. To stand with justice."
"Pfft," Jiang Cheng says. "You don't get to do that when you're a sect leader but your whole sect is dead." He sighs. "Do you. Do you know how hard it is to convince people that demonic cultivation is bad when they think they're good at it?"
Another long silence. "Yes," Wangji says.
"They make pretty good disciples if you can do it. But if you can't you have to kill them. It's not... not good."
This silence is long enough that Jiang Cheng almost gets to sleep. "It was believed you killed them all," Wangji says.
"I know." Jiang Cheng sighs. "It was better that way. No-one looked for them. And the new ones believed. That I really would kill them when I offered them the choice." He touches his head gingerly. The blood has gone sticky. That's probably good. Means it's not still bleeding as much, probably. "I couldn't let them live if they kept doing it, could I? If Wei Wuxian couldn't handle it, no-one could handle it." He slumps to the ground. Wangji huffs and drags him up again. "Stop that. It's too hard."
Wangji seems to hesitate a moment, and then tugs again, pulling Jiang Cheng so that he's leaning propped against the wall and Wangji's own shoulder. He can slump and still be more-or-less upright this way.
"You're very warm," Jiang Cheng says. It's nice, because Jiang Cheng is wet and it's clammy and cold, but probably not good. "Why? Stop doing that."
Wangji doesn't make a sound, but Jiang Cheng can feel his body move when he inhales, exhales. It's probably a sigh. "I have been fighting for hours with an uncleaned wound. I have a fever. It will pass."
"Get better," Jiang Cheng says vaguely. "That's an order."
"Of course, shixiong," Wangji says, tone bone-dry.
Jiang Cheng drifts for a while, thinking about Wei Wuxian. Wangji really did stand by him when he came back, didn't he? Right from the start.
"How did you know it was him?" he asks aloud, and feels Wangji tense, for a moment.
"When he came back?" he asks.
"Yeah. Then. You knew right away." Hanguang-Jun hadn't been examining every demonic cultivator on suspicion of Being Wei Wuxian like Jiang Cheng had. But that time. He'd just... immediately.
"He played a song on Dafan Mountain," Wangji says slowly. "No-one else could have played it. No-one else would have known it."
Jiang Cheng lets his head fall back onto Wangji's shoulder. "How come?"
"I wrote it." He hesitates for a moment. "When we were trapped here, I sang it for him then."
"Oh." That's nice. "That's nice. How does it go?"
He has a nice voice, Jiang Cheng thinks, and it's a beautiful song. All... yearning. Wistful. Shit like that. He wrote this when he was a kid?
"What's it called?" he asks, when it's done.
Wangji is silent.
"Tell me," Jiang Cheng insists.
"Wangxian," Wangji mutters.
"What the fuck," Jiang Cheng says reverently. He can't decide whether that's adorable or nauseating. It's hard to tell. He already has nausea from the head injury. "You were. You are. You. So in love with him."
"You know he's an idiot, right? I mean. He's a genius. But he's a moron."
Wangji sighs audibly this time. "I know."
Jiang Cheng wants to pat him on the shoulder, but he's leaning against Wangji's shoulder. He can't really reach. So he waves his hand comfortingly in the air where Wangji's shoulder would be if it was over there instead. "It's okay," he says. "He's our idiot moron. You're gonna marry him and we'll take care of him. You're good for him."
A pause. "You think so?"
"Yeah." Jiang Cheng sighs. "You are. I was so jealous." He smiles, just a little. Too much makes his head hurt. Well, more. "If you weren't I would have taken him away from you. But you were. So I didn't. It's okay. This time we'll share."
Wangji shifts, moves Jiang Cheng to a slightly more comfortable position. "Yes," he says.
Eventually Wangji passes out, so Jiang Cheng gets to sleep too.
He wakes up at the sound of an almighty crash.
He realises a few things in quick succession:
He has a splitting headache.
His mind is clearer.
He said a lot of things under the effects of his head injury that he already regrets and he's going to make it clear to Wangji that they are absolutely not going to talk about any of it.
And there's movement in the cave.
People are emerging from the water. A light talisman flares bright, stabbing straight to the back of his skull.
Footsteps hurry to where he and Wangji are slumped together against the cave wall, and now there are voices. Jiang Cheng can't quite pick words out of them until someone is lifting him away from Wangji, and he makes out the face of his mother.
"A-Cheng," she says. "A-Cheng, can you speak?"
"Mother," he says. "How?"
"Wei Ying told us about the rockfall. Did you think I wouldn't come to get you?" She cups his cheek. "Foolish boy."
There are people around Wangji, having some kind of urgent discussion. Something about wounds, about breathing...
"He's not breathing?" Jiang Cheng sits bolt upright, and then sways for a moment when the pain hits.
"Be still," his mother snaps.
Wei Ying appears from... somewhere. "He's breathing, Jiang Cheng, he's just not waking up and we need to get him through the water. The Wen are still guarding the cave entrance." Wei Ying looks anxious and tired, but he smiles. "He's going to be okay. Don't worry. We'll work this out."
The nice thing about being a kid again and having his family back is that not every problem is Jiang Cheng's to solve any more.
And his head still really hurts, so he lets himself lean back against the nice cool stone while other people handle it.
Later he will learn that Wei Ying went straight to his mother and told her that her son was in danger.
That his mother immediately made all haste to Dusk-Creek Mountain.
That Wei Ying explained the collapsed tunnel and the giant, monstrous turtle that could be waiting on the other side.
And that his mother had left everyone but Jinzhu and Yinzhu waiting on the riverbanks while she blasted the blockage away with Zidian, ready to fight the Xuanwu of Slaughter herself to save him.
Later, he might cry, just a little bit.
Somehow an answer is found as to how to keep Wangji from drowning (later, he will also learn that Wei Ying invented a new application for the Jiang Sect's techniques of water manipulation, to create a moving bubble of breathable air), and then they make their way back to Lotus Pier.
Jiang Cheng is placed on bed rest. Wangji is in the care of the healers. Wei Ying promises Jiang Cheng he'll take care of Wangji while Jiang Cheng is recovering.
Obviously, Jiang Cheng thinks, and then he sleeps, because he's tired and his head hurts and he's finally home in his own bed.
This isn't actually meant to be a cliffhanger, so I'll just tell you now that Lan Wangji will be fine.
Wei Ying and his shijie agreed that Lan Zhan and Jiang Cheng really should be fussed over properly on their return. He'd suggested that he could look after Jiang Cheng while she and Madam Tang took care of Lan Zhan, but she gave him a look and said she and her mother could take care of her baby brother, and Wei Ying could take care of Lan Zhan with his mother.
Thinking about it, Wei Ying supposes that since it's not widely-known that Lan Zhan is a cutsleeve, people might think it's inappropriate for shijie to be spending time around his bedroom like that.
So he sits by Lan Zhan's bedside and wipes his fevered brow and thinks about how unfair it is that Lan Zhan is beautiful even in this state. When Lan Zhan comes to again, Wei Ying fetches him soup and helps him eat it, and Lan Zhan gazes at him all softly and Wei Ying can't stand it but he does his best to work through it, even though he's practically vibrating with nervous energy and it only gets worse when Lan Zhan is properly awake and glaring intently at him again. The only breaks Wei Ying gets are when Lan Zhan's mother comes to fuss over him herself, but then she keeps smiling fondly at Wei Ying and talking about how lovely it is that Wei Ying is so attentive and takes such good care of her son.
It gets worse than that when the healers rule that his wound is healing well and Wei Ying can change the dressing instead of calling for them now.
Which is how he finds himself sitting on the edge of Lan Zhan's bed with Lan Zhan propped up against the pillows, helping him take off his shirt and trying not to look at the expanse of smooth skin it reveals.
The wound has healed a lot since Wei Ying first saw it in the cave. Lan Zhan is a strong cultivator. It's impressive.
He tries to think about that as Lan Zhan sits up properly and Wei Ying unwinds the bandage. He has to lean close and reach around him to do it, trying desperately not to let his fingers brush against Lan Zhan's fever-warm skin.
With horror, he realises he was concentrating so much on that he wasn't paying attention to the rest of his body, and his face is almost touching Lan Zhan's bare chest. He's breathing through his mouth because he was trying not to notice just how good Lan Zhan smells and he's basically just been breathing on Lan Zhan's nipple this whole time.
It's all tightened up, too. It's not that cold in the room, but it probably feels cold to Lan Zhan. He's radiating so much heat it's like sitting next to the sun. It's a bit worrying - Wei Ying had thought Lan Zhan's fever was mostly gone.
Wei Ying risks a glance up at his face. Lan Zhan's gaze is heavy-lidded. Maybe he's too sleepy to really notice.
The wound doesn't look... too bad. Mostly closed. Still a little red and inflamed, but better. Wei Ying applies the new dressing, exactly like the healers showed him, and begins wrapping a new bandage to secure it in place.
His own breath seems very loud.
Finally he's tying it off, and then Lan Zhan speaks, which Wei Ying is pretty sure he shouldn't be allowed to do right now.
"Wei Ying," he says, low and intent.
"Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying answers weakly. He fiddles with the knot on the bandage. He has to make sure it's just right. Lan Zhan waits until he looks up to speak again.
"Have you decided on your wish?" Lan Zhan asks, gazing into his eyes.
I wish you would kiss me, Wei Ying thinks, and then realises he said it aloud when Lan Zhan does.
It's soft, and then it's not. Lan Zhan kisses him with intent, licks into his mouth like he's desperate, bites at Wei Ying's lip like he's hungry for him...
... or like he's angry, because Wei Ying just took unforgivable advantage of Lan Zhan's good nature and the promise he made in Qishan.
Wei Ying jerks away. He can't look at Lan Zhan, he can't.
"I'm sorry," he whispers, and bolts. Lan Zhan calls his name, but he doesn't stop.
Shijie finds him, hunched miserably in a boat tied up at the most distant pier they have, because he's not actually allowed to leave Lotus Pier and this is the best he could do.
"A-Xian," she says, stepping onto the boat and sitting next to him. "What's wrong? Wangji is very worried about you."
Wei Ying groans and slumps over into her lap. "I'm an awful person, shijie," he whimpers. "I think I'm going to run away and become a rogue cultivator."
She laughs. "No you're not," she says. "Xianxian is too little to run away."
He smiles, just a tiny bit, but he still feels wretched. "I did a terrible thing."
She strokes his hair. "Tell me," she says, and he does. How Lan Zhan made him a promise in Qishan. How Wei Ying realised he was in love with him, and how he then took advantage of him.
Shijie goes very still. "You took advantage of him... by asking him to kiss you?"
"Yeah," he whimpers. "Jiang Cheng's going to kill me."
"Why do you think that?" she asks, in a very careful tone.
"Because he and Lan Zhan are going to get married, obviously!" Wei Ying says. Why else? He rolls his head to look up at her, exasperated.
Shijie is staring at him with an expression he's never seen before.
"Get up," she says. "Right now."
Even shijie's upset with him, now. He thinks he might be going to cry even as he sits up, and apparently it shows, because she sighs. "I'm not angry with you, A-Xian," she says, standing. "But you're coming with me."
And then she takes his sleeve and drags him right to Jiang Cheng's room.
Lan Zhan is there too, even though he's not supposed to be out of bed yet. He looks upset, and Jiang Cheng is frowning.
Wei Ying is going to die.
"I don't get it," Jiang Cheng says. "Why would he run away?"
Wangji just stares at the floor, looking tragic. Jiang Cheng actually feels bad for him. It's been eighteen years for him in this life, and over two years of their weird courtship, and Wei Ying finally worked this out and asked Wangji to kiss him and now it's a mess?
What the fuck.
A-Jie went to look for their dumbass brother immediately, and now she comes back pulling him by the sleeve and looking caught between bewilderment, amusement, and exasperation.
"I'm sorry, Jiang Cheng," Wei Ying says. He sounds miserable.
"What?" Jiang Cheng is deeply confused. "What for?"
Wei Ying seems to shrink. "I took advantage of Lan Zhan's promise in Qishan and forced him to kiss me. I shouldn't have done that. I won't - it won't happen again."
Jiang Cheng stares. "Even if that were true, why would you apologise to me?"
"Because you and he were courting first," Wei Ying says like that's obvious, and Jiang Cheng is, for the first time in a while, utterly lost for words.
"A-Xian," A-Jie says, "what gave you that idea?"
"They were pretty obvious in Gusu," Wei Ying says, and sniffles. "They kept going off alone together. And when I told Jiang Cheng I thought Lan Zhan might be a cutsleeve he said yes, obviously, so he already knew. They still talk alone a lot. And Lan Zhan came here to be with Jiang Cheng, and Madam Tang even talks like we're going to be her in-laws."
"She called you her future son-in-law," Wangji bites out. "She was teasing me. I have told her about you. That I have been courting you."
"I don't even see her except when she comes to meals in the main hall," Jiang Cheng points out. "Which isn't often." It really isn't. It's more than it used to be, and she's even gone into town with Mother and her maids a few times, but Tang Lijuan is understandably still nervous about being found by the Lan, and after so long in such isolation is apparently content with a gradual readjustment to society.
"But when we found you in the cave you were all... together," Wei Ying says weakly.
"He was helping me stay upright because I had a head wound," Jiang Cheng snaps. He cannot believe that this absolute moron invented an entire branch of cultivation.
"You think Lan Zhan was courting me?" Wei Ying is turning slightly pink.
"Yes," Wangji says. "Always."
"I really, truly thought I understood the limits of your stupidity," Jiang Cheng says. "I have had to watch you fucking flirting with him for more than two years, and this whole time you thought he and I were courting. I was wrong. You are achieving new heights of idiocy I did not think were possible."
"A-Cheng," his sister says, but there's no real censure in it, because even she appears to be in disbelief.
"But why would anyone choose me over you?" Wei Ying asks, like he's honestly confused.
"Oh, A-Xian," A-Jie says.
"Wei Ying," Wangji says, but Jiang Cheng holds up a hand, because they can have that discussion when he's not in the room, thanks.
"Because he likes you. He and I have mutual interests. One of them is you, because we both," he swallows, grits his teeth, "love you. In very different ways. He and I are just..." He hesitates. "Friends? Are we even friends?"
Wangji eyes him. "We could be friends," he says cautiously.
"Okay. Let's say friends," Jiang Cheng says. "I can promise you that I am very, very certain that he has never been interested in me even a little bit."
Wangji nods, which would be hurtful, if not for the fact that Jiang Cheng already knew and also definitely never wanted him to be.
"Oh," Wei Ying says, getting pinker.
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. "Wangji isn't even supposed to be out of bed yet. How about you take him back and then he can tell you all his reasons why he likes you, because it definitely makes no sense to me." He stands up and crosses the room to punch Wei Ying lightly in the shoulder. "Worst shidi."
Wei Ying smiles. There are tears in his eyes. "Best shixiong," he replies, and then he goes and helps Wangji stand. Jiang Cheng's pretty sure Wangji's letting him. He did make it here on his own, and also he fought for hours and nearly decapitated the Xuanwu of Slaughter when the massive gash across his abdomen was still brand new and Jiang Cheng isn't completely certain he hadn't had to adjust his sash to hold his internal organs in place.
Lan Zhan clearly doesn't need to lean on Wei Ying on the way back to his room, but he does keep his arm around him.
He gets Lan Zhan settled back in his bed, and then Lan Zhan catches his hand and pulls him down to sit on it again, draws him in close.
"Wei Ying," he says. Wei Ying can feel the rumble of his voice in his chest.
"Lan Zhan," he whispers. Lan Zhan cups his face in one hand. His thumb brushes lightly over Wei Ying's lips. Wei Ying wants to be kissed again.
"You are good, and kind, and brilliant," Lan Zhan says, and Wei Ying wants to recoil, back away but Lan Zhan's other arm is wrapped around his waist and holding him in place. "I want to be with you all the time. I don't want anyone but you. It could never be anyone but you."
Wei Ying needs him to stop talking right now, and there's one option for shutting him up that's apparently available to him now, so he kisses him.
He's not quite sure what he's doing, but apparently he doesn't need to be, because Lan Zhan definitely does. This is only Wei Ying's second kiss. Lan Zhan kisses him like an expert.
Wei Ying pulls back. "Lan Zhan," he says breathlessly. "Who else have you been doing this with before now?"
Lan Zhan smiles, just a little. "Only Wei Ying," he says, and pulls Wei Ying gently into another kiss.
The thing is, Lan Zhan doesn't lie.
He clearly just has an amazing natural talent for this.
Wei Ying is going to need to practise if he wants to catch up, clearly, and what better time to do that than now?
Which is how it is that he's shifted so that he's sitting half in Lan Zhan's lap, with his robes slightly loosened, whimpering as Lan Zhan's teeth scrape lightly across his collarbone and Lan Zhan's hand maps the shape of his rear when Madam Tang walks in.
"Ah," she says, amusement in her voice. "I see you're feeling better, A-Zhan."
They both freeze.
Lan Zhan has miscalculated.
For one thing, he had not intended to allow any physical intimacy to progress this far, this quickly. Wei Ying is young in ways that Lan Zhan is not, and Lan Zhan does not wish to take advantage of him.
(He cannot tell Wei Ying the truth about his previous life. He and Wanyin have discussed it, and agreed that such knowledge would be... dangerous, for one as brilliant, as curious, and as reckless as Wei Ying.)
For another, he is not quite healed, and his wound is reminding him of that now, but it is a minor concern.
For a third, his mother has visited him several times each day throughout his recovery, and her arrival is not unexpected.
He had not anticipated how overwhelming it would be to have Wei Ying in his arms again. To be able to kiss him, this him, as he had only once before when he should not have. To touch him as he never had, while Wei Ying was in his own body.
Wei Ying goes to move away, but Lan Zhan holds him in place. If Wei Ying moves, there will be nothing to keep his mother from seeing just how much he has been enjoying this experience. The problem will be gone soon enough, with his mother standing in the doorway watching him with laughter in her eyes, but he still needs a moment.
In some ways, this is a good problem to have. For his mother to walk in on him kissing Wei Ying, two things must be true: that he is kissing Wei Ying, and that his mother is alive and possessed of her freedom.
In other ways, this is mortifying. He tries to focus on the positives, but his ears are burning.
"Um," Wei Ying says. "Hello, Madam Tang."
"Hello, Wei Ying," she replies. "I hope you are well?"
"I'm very well, thank you," Wei Ying says, surreptitiously trying to tug his robes back into place.
"I'm very pleased," Mother says. "You know, I find that I have forgotten some small but important object in my rooms. Perhaps I should go back and fetch it."
"That sounds like a good idea, Madam Tang!"
Mother leaves again, closing the door. Lan Zhan can hear her laughter as she walks away.
It's a good sound.
Wei Ying is suddenly tense in his arms.
"Lan Zhan," he whispers. "I just realised."
"What?" Wei Ying sounds very concerned.
"What if your mother doesn't like me?"
Lan Zhan lets his head fall against Wei Ying's shoulder. "My mother loves you, Wei Ying," he says patiently. "You are charming and engaging. She enjoys talking to you very much. She has rarely had the opportunity to converse with someone like you. For most of the last twenty years, the only regular conversational partner she has had is me."
Lan Zhan did his best, and he is thankful that it was enough. His company was sufficient to sustain her. But he has never had the way of easy speech, and he is thankful that she has more, now. She and Madam Yu have renewed their acquaintance into a genuine friendship. She enjoys the company of Jiang Yanli and other women of Lotus Pier.
And she enjoys the company of Wei Ying. In his previous life, he had held the conviction that his mother would have loved Wei Ying.
It is a source of true joy to be proven correct.
The next few weeks pass quickly. Lan Zhan spends much of the last days of his recovery kissing Wei Ying and telling Wei Ying all the reasons why Lan Zhan loves him - or at least, all the reasons relevant to this lifetime - and watching the way it makes him squirm, and then fulfilling his demands to be kissed again.
When he is healed, he resumes working with the younger disciples, and he and Wanyin continue to do what they can to keep Lotus Pier's defences as strong as they can be. Some of what they set up is derived from Wei Ying's work, in their previous lives; they allow Madam Yu and Jiang-shushu to believe that these too are techniques Lan Zhan learned from books in the Cloud Recesses Library, though Lan Zhan assures them both truthfully that these are not the secrets of the Lan Sect.
There is only one technique that is actually from the Cloud Recesses Library Lan Zhan intends to employ, and it is also not one of the secrets of the Lan Sect. To the best of his almost certain knowledge, it is something to which the Lan Sect at large no longer has access at all.
He has reason to know that they cannot be trusted to keep it secure.
In this time he also, of course, finds time to keep kissing Wei Ying. Lan Zhan's shijie Jiang Yanli and Wanyin even provide cover for them to find some time to be alone for the purpose.
It is enjoyable. And different. In his previous life, they never had reason or inclination to spend so much time on such constrained physical intimacy; there was no reason to suppress the urge to take it further.
In this one, Lan Zhan can spend leisurely hours with his beloved, lost in touch and taste but still fully-clothed.
Sect Leader Yao comes to Lotus Pier, badly wounded, and Jiang-shushu departs with him to go to Jinlintai.
They pass several tense days after that.
And then the Wen arrive.
Lan Zhan and Wei Ying take their places beside Wanyin.
Contains some dialogue ripped from the novel.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Jiang Cheng concentrates on maintaining his outward composure. Wangji is poised beside him, but Wangji wasn't here, the first time, doesn't know what it was like, even if he knows that this is when everything truly went wrong for Jiang Cheng, Wei Wuxian, and their sister.
He's had the shidis set to watch from the walls, and is alerted as soon as the Wen are approaching. Jiang Cheng goes out to meet them. Wangji and Wei Ying fall into place at his shoulders.
Wang Lingjiao walks through the gates of Lotus Pier like she has the right and begins walking towards the shidis on the training fields. Jiang Cheng intercepts her.
"What brings you to Lotus Pier?" he asks, tone carefully even. It's not Wei Ying this time, is the thing. They must have a different excuse.
She narrows her eyes at him. "That's a long story," she says. "Why don't we talk about it after we sit down inside? Where is Madam Yu?"
"I'm here," his mother says, emerging from inside. Jinzhu and Yinzhu are with her as always.
Wang Lingjaio smiles. "Madam Yu, I'm here again. Shall we go inside?"
Yinzhu and Jinzhu look offended. "Of course," his mother says, tone dripping with sarcasm. "Why don't you go inside?"
And then Wang Lingjiao does exactly that.
She wanders around Lotus Pier, first, insulting Jiang Cheng's home and his mother's housekeeping, and then enters the hall and seats herself uninvited at the main table.
Silence, and then she slams her fists on the table. "Where's the tea?"
Mother takes a seat at the table as well. Her elegance only makes Wang Lingjiao look more ridiculous, Jiang Cheng thinks.
Yinzhu replies, "There is no tea. Get it yourself."
Wang Lingjiao's eyes widen. "Don't the Jiang Sect's servants ever do anything?"
Jinzhu sneers. "The Jiang Sect's servants have more important things to do. No-one ever needs others to do things like pouring tea. They're not crippled."
While Jiang Cheng was recovering from his head wound, Jinzhu personally poured tea for him on a number of occasions, even after he could perfectly well have managed it himself.
Wang Lingjiao is looking at them. "Who are you?"
His mother replies, "My personal maids."
Jiang Cheng allows himself to look at Wangji, just to remind himself that this is here, and now, and real, because he's watched this happen in his nightmares, over and over again, and he needs to stay grounded, and even in his strangest, worst nightmares, Lan Wangji in Jiang Sect robes would never have made an appearance.
"Madam Yu," Wang Lingjiao says, "the Jiang Sect really is outrageous. Even maids dare to interrupt a conversation in the main hall. Servants like this have their faces slapped in the Wen Sect."
"Jinzhu and Yinzhu aren't the usual servants. They’ve been staying with me ever since I was young. They’ve never served for anyone aside from me, and there hasn’t been anyone who can slap them. They can’t, and they don’t dare to."
Wang Lingjiao shakes her head. It looks like she's trying to seem saddened, but her smirk belies it. "If these are the lax standards Jiang Fengmian allowed, it's no wonder the Jiang Sect became reduced to harbouring criminals," she says, and Jiang Cheng's blood runs cold, because that's not what she's supposed to say next. "It is good that the Wen will be establishing a supervisory office here. Sect Leader Jiang is too young for such responsibility alone."
And then she looks at Jiang Cheng.
His mother speaks, her tone very even. "My son is not yet the Jiang Sect Leader," she says.
"Oh?" Wang Lingjiao affects an expression of mock-surprise. "Is it going to be someone else first?"
"What are you talking about? Jiang Fengmian -" Wei Ying bursts out, before Wangji reaches across and grips his shoulder and he stops.
"Jiang Fengmian," Wang Lingjiao says, slowly, like she's savouring it, "was found escorting a fugitive. He and the former Yao Sect Leader have both been executed for their crimes."
Jiang Cheng reaches back without looking and finds Wei Ying's hand, squeezes. Jiang Cheng grieved for Jiang Fengmian a long, long time ago, but Wei Ying has still loved him as the closest thing to a father he remembers.
Mother has paled, slightly, but her eyes are locked on Wang Lingjiao. "Jinzhu, Yinzhu, go close the doors."
They do so.
"What are you doing?" Wang Lingjiao complains.
And then Mother slaps her hard enough to send her tumbling. Blood gushes from her nose when she picks herself up.
The Wen disciples go for their swords, but Mother and her maids are far too fast and deadly for them. And then when they are dead, Mother turns back to Wang Lingjiao.
"How dare you?" she snaps. She advances on Wang Lingjiao, who starts to scream until she's cut off by another slap. "You come into my sect and speak so disrespectfully of my husband? What a thing you are! Have you no notion of decency?"
She throws her aside and wipes her hands on a handkerchief like touching Wang Lingjiao had sullied them.
"How... how dare you do something like this?" Wang Lingjiao sobs. "Neither the Qishan Wen nor the Yingchuan Wang Sect will let you go!"
Mother kicks her over. "Silence," she snaps. "The Yu have roamed Meishan for hundreds of years. I have never heard of Yingchuan Wang Sect. Are they gutter scum like you? You think I fear your kind?"
"Young Master Wen knows I'm here," Wang Lingjiao wails. "If you do anything to me, he'll -"
Mother slaps her hard again.
"He'll what? He'll kill my husband? Attack Lotus Pier and build a supervisory office? Do you think there will be anything but war, after this?"
Wang Lingjiao screams. "Help! Somebody! Wen Zhuliu! Help me!"
And this is the moment that has truly haunted Jiang Cheng's nightmares. He feels the hot surge of rage, but contains it; he hasn't lost his temper in decades, and the impetuousness of his regained youth will not rule him.
His hand aches for Zidian.
And then there's a flash of purple light in the hall as Zidian crackles into life, transforming into a serpent of lightning that arcs across the room from his mother's hand to his.
His shock is mirrored in his mother's expression, but then the doors of the hall burst open, and there's no time to consider what just happened.
Jiang Cheng spent more time wielding Zidian than his mother has been alive, and he remembers all too vividly how his mother's fight with Wen Zhuliu went.
So when he flicks Zidian towards Wen Zhuliu and sees him raise his hand to catch it, Jiang Cheng doesn't let it get close enough for him to touch; he draws back the whip before it makes contact, but follows the distraction with Sandu.
"Help Mother," he snaps at Wei Ying, because Wangji is drawing Bichen and coming towards the fight, and Jiang Cheng doesn't want Wei Ying anywhere near the Core-Melting Hand.
Wen Zhuliu is very, very skilled, and both Jiang Cheng and Wangji know better than to get in reach of his hands, but they are both also very skilled, and they outnumber him. They drive him back and out into the courtyard, where they circle, probing to get past his defences. Jiang Cheng lands several strikes of Zidian when he is distracted avoiding their swords, and doesn't allow Wen Zhuliu to catch it.
And then Wen Zhuliu spins to block Bichen, and ducks to avoid Zidian as Sandu clangs on his scabbard, and an arrow pierces his wrist. His sword falls from his hand.
Jiang Cheng doesn't look around, pressing the sudden advantage. A flick of Zidian sends Wen Zhuliu's sword skidding away across the ground, and with one arm impaired and his sword lost, Wen Zhuliu struggles to hold off both Jiang Cheng and Wangji. A clear gap opens, and Wangji strikes, severing Wen Zhuliu's other arm above the elbow. His scabbard clatters across the courtyard.
Wangji holds back, Bichen at the ready.
"Wanyin," he says, and Jiang Cheng appreciates his thoughtfulness as he raises Sandu and swings, because killing Wen Zhuliu once just wasn't enough.
Wen Zhuliu's head rolls across the ground as his body slumps in the spreading pool of blood.
Now Jiang Cheng looks around.
Wei Ying is standing in the entrance of the hall, his bow in his hands. There are tears streaking down his cheeks, but he has a fresh arrow nocked and his hands are steady.
Jiang Cheng wipes Sandu on Wen Zhuliu's body and sheathes it. Wangji is doing the same with Bichen, and then they go to Wei Ying together.
"It's true, isn't it," Wei Ying says, voice shaking. "Uncle Jiang is dead."
Jiang Cheng nods. "Probably," he says. It was never about Wei Wuxian. He was a convenient excuse. Having been denied it, this time... the Wen just found another.
Wei Ying is silent, chest heaving. Jiang Cheng looks at Wangji and jerks his chin towards Wei Ying, then goes past them back into the hall. He hears Wei Ying sob, and then the sound of his weeping is muffled. Wangji will comfort him; Jiang Cheng has work to do.
His mother is standing by the body of Wang Lingjiao.
"They came prepared," she says. "Soon there'll be herds of them. Leave first," she says.
"No. We'll defend Lotus Pier."
Her eyes flick to Zidian, and to the array key that was already marked under the table, and she nods. "Afterwards, you will explain."
"Yes." He sends a thought, and Zidian leaps back to her hand.
His mother takes a deep breath, closing her eyes for the briefest moment. "What do you want to do?"
"Call everyone to arms," he says. And then he goes to the main table and flips it over, slides it into the exact right place, and slaps his hand down into the array marked on the underside, which flares painfully bright before dimming to a dull glow. Jiang Cheng stays at it, feeding it power. "Assemble the fighters near the main gates. Have the servants prepare a bucket chain in case of fire."
"What about the other walls?"
Jiang Cheng shakes his head. "They won't get close."
"It will be as you ordered, Sect Leader Jiang," his mother says, and leaves the hall, walking briskly, her maids with her.
Sect Leader Jiang.
For most of the last seventeen years, Jiang Cheng has been stopping himself from responding to that title.
He hadn't intended to reclaim it, yet, but apparently this is the day it is destined to be his, and it feels like an important part of himself is slotting back into place.
The central key is thrumming steadily with power, now.
He and Wangji have constructed the most intricate, fearsome, and possibly excessive web of maze arrays and disorientation nets they could assemble, woven with some of the most vicious traps Wei Wuxian ever conceived of, linked to this one point of activation.
It's currently impossible to approach Lotus Pier from any direction but the front. They left one direction open, because one way or another the Wen will come, and this way they can funnel them to a point.
Jiang Cheng straightens, allows himself to settle into the posture that feels natural - shoulders back, head high, the bearing of a leader.
He's Sect Leader Jiang again.
He's him again.
And there's a battle coming.
The Wen assault is slightly erratic. It's clear the defensive arrays have confused them, and also that they were expecting Lotus Pier to be disorganised and reeling, not ready and prepared.
Wei Ying and the best archers among their shidis range along the walls with bows. The smallest shidis are tasked to run them more arrows from the stores. Jiang Cheng and his mother lead the adult cultivators into battle, and Wangji follows behind with his guqin.
In his previous life, Jiang Cheng's sect fell because the Core-Melting Hand was present to deprive their best fighters of their spiritual power.
In this one, the Wen falter and fall deprived of their own.
The Lan Sect had a book called The Book of Turmoil containing music with the power to suppress spiritual energy.
They have it no longer, because Wangji stole it. He explained to Jiang Cheng that since, in their previous lives, the Lan Sect's precautions had been inadequate to keep Meng Yao - who was not even a Lan disciple - from trawling through the secrets of the Forbidden Collection and using them for great harm, Wangji had decided they could no longer be trusted with the truly dangerous books.
It was a curious sort of quandary, Jiang Cheng realised; on the one hand, Lan Wangji was only a junior disciple when he defected from the sect entirely. On the other, Hanguang-Jun had been the sect's leader in all but name for many years. Jiang Cheng can't quite decide where he stands on Wangji's moral authority to make such decisions...
... but he's pragmatic enough to appreciate both the advantage in this battle and the irony of it, as well as to acknowledge the clear inadequacy of the Lan Sect's security measures. After all, a junior disciple was able to steal books from the Forbidden Collection without getting caught at all.
And no-one will know, from this, that he did it.
There are maze arrays to keep the Wen from successfully retreating.
There are no survivors.
"This is amazing," Wei Ying says when he comes back from examining the now-deactivated web of arrays and traps. His eyes are bright. "I think it could be even better. I have some ideas!"
It was only a matter of time, Jiang Cheng thinks; so long as he doesn't move on to demonic cultivation, this is fine.
By the time the battle is over, it's almost dark. Jiang Cheng lets Wei Ying go look at the arrays, because he'll either do it anyway or whine if Jiang Cheng says no, and then they start clearing away the bodies and send messages to other sects.
They work late into the night.
In the morning, the work resumes with some of the townsfolk coming to help them, but there is one other thing the members of the Jiang Sect must do.
Jiang Cheng finds Wei Ying in front of Lotus Pier.
Wei Ying stares when Jiang Cheng holds out the white sash for him to wear.
"What if she was lying?" he asks, his tone desperate. "Maybe we should wait for shijie to get back?"
"Wei Ying," Wangji says, coming over to him.
"Maybe he's not dead!" Wei Ying all but shouts. There are tears in his eyes.
"I regret to inform you that Jiang Fengmian is dead," says a new voice, and Jiang Cheng looks around. Even with her wearing peasant robes, he recognises Wen Qing. She holds her hands up, spread wide. "I am not here to threaten you."
Wei Ying breaks away from Jiang Cheng and Wangji and gets in her face. "How dare you say that? How would you even know?" His hand goes to his sword.
Wen Qing looks at him calmly. There might even be sympathy in her gaze. "Because my brother and I stole his body and have brought it to return to his family," she says.
Wei Ying staggers back.
"Wangji, take him inside," Jiang Cheng orders. Wangji nods and escorts Wei Ying away.
Wei Ying will undoubtedly take Jiang Fengmian's death harder than anyone other than possibly A-Jie. Jiang Cheng is actually glad that Wangji is here for Wei Ying, because he himself isn't really good at being comforting anyway, but he just isn't going to have the time.
He turns to Wen Qing. "Why?" he asks bluntly.
She meets his gaze evenly. "Wen Ruohan is taking a disastrous course that will plunge us all into a war, and the world will be better if the Wen lose it. No-one, including most of the Wen, can live properly under his control." She is very composed. "I consider Jiang Yanli to be my only friend. I have brought the body of her father as an act of friendship, and intend to place my life in her hands."
Jiang Cheng blinks. He encouraged his sister years before to befriend Wen Qing. This was not the intended or expected outcome.
"My sister is away," he says. "You and your brother may wait here for her return."
She bows. "Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang," she replies, formal. "This one's brother is waiting in town. She will bring him... and your father."
Jiang Cheng has so much to do.
His sister returns from Meishan that afternoon. She greets Wen Qing with warmth, and the news of their father's death with sorrow.
In the next few days Wei Ying spends much of his free time with Wangji and Madam Tang being swaddled in concern and affection. A-Jie sometimes joins them; periodically Wei Ying emerges to fret over both Jiang Cheng and A-Jie.
It's slightly annoying, because Jiang Cheng is actually fine, but the more he tells Wei Ying that, the more Wei Ying worries that he's just being brave now that he has all this new responsibility he's not ready for.
It's sort of sweet, but still annoying.
The leaders of other sects visit, for his father's funeral and for meetings. Discussions of what will become the Sunshot Campaign begin; there is tension across the cultivation world, but no-one is quite ready to make another overt move.
The Wen, it seems, are hesitating after the unexpected annihilation of the force sent to attack Lotus Pier. (The Jiang Sect's casualties were mostly wounded, not killed, and the arrival of Wen Qing in particular means they are all recovering well.)
The smaller sects are unwilling to move until the major sects do. Lan Qiren makes his way to Lotus Pier for discussions, but Lan Xichen is still missing and the Lan can do nothing until Gusu is retaken. Nie Mingjue is willing to act as soon as everyone else is ready, but he and Jiang Cheng are agreed that concerted action would be better, and Jin Guangshan refuses even to leave Jinlintai, or to host the rest.
And Jiang Cheng finally finds time for a significant private discussion with his mother, which means he can no longer avoid it.
Yu Ziyuan has been patient, because in the aftermath of the Wen attack, there has been a great deal to do. Cleanup and a funeral and discussions about what happens next, the reorganisation of the Jiang Sect under its new leader, the preparation for war.
But she needs answers.
She's certain A-Cheng is not possessed, even if he is suddenly not quite behaving like the son she thought she knew; if that were the case Zidian would never have answered his call.
A-Cheng is her son, and truly a Yu by nature, and no doubt Zidian knows that she would be willing for him to wield it, but until the day the Wen attacked, he never had, and she never told him he could. There is no reason for Zidian to know him enough to answer him, nor for him to wield it so expertly.
"Tell me," she says, when they are finally alone with leisure to speak. Her son sits across the table from her.
A-Cheng looks at her seriously. Still now with the bearing of a man, not a boy, looking older than his years.
"Many years ago, and many years from now, I activated an array that sent me back in time to the beginning of my life," he says.
She has many questions.
He hesitates, just for a moment. "I did not actually know what it would do," he admits. "It was constructed by... someone else. We broke through the doors too late to stop him from activating it, and the room was empty. I think I thought it must be a teleportation array."
She narrows her eyes. "We?"
"Me and Wangji. He remembers our previous lives too." That would explain a lot; her son and Lan Zhan are so very different, and have always seemed to have little in common nor much affection for one another, and yet they have always seemed to seek each other out.
"Who built it?" It has not escaped her notice at all that he was very vague about that.
A long hesitation. "Wei Wuxian."
Wei Ying created a time travel array? The boy is talented, but - "Why?"
Her son looks away. "I'm... not sure," he says. "There were many reasons to be unhappy with how things turned out for us." He swallows. "When the Wen attacked, only Wei Wuxian, A-Jie and I survived. And then things got worse." Tension in every line of his body. "I lost my golden core. He gave me his, but he didn't - didn't tell me, I didn't know, not for years. He... left. And then he and A-Jie died."
Lost his golden core. Little wonder he seemed so prepared for the Core-Melting Hand. "I thought you said he constructed the array?" He doesn't seem like he's lying, at all, and yet.
"He did. He came back thirteen years after he died. There was a young man - there's an ancient technique to summon the soul of a dead person at the cost of your own, and he used it."
Yu Ziyuan taps her fingers on the table. There is, she is certain, a great deal that A-Cheng is leaving out of this. "Why? What was in it for him?"
A-Cheng doesn't meet her eyes. "Revenge, I think. Wei Wuxian had a... reputation. He is brilliant, and he was powerful, and people thought he was... different. Mo Xuanyu had been badly mistreated."
"I'm surprised you haven't gone and brought him back here too," she says, aware of a touch of acid in her voice, but she's remembering her fear when her children ran away and found Wei Ying - she always wondered why, how they could possibly have gone as far as Yiling by accident. The children's explanations had been terrible, but she'd just been so grateful to find them unharmed. Somewhere in the night she spent desperately searching for them she realised how very much they meant to her, and then she found them with Zangse Sanren's filthy, half-starved child.
(Wei Ying was different. Different how? Wei Ying is a sweet child, all too like his mother. Less gifted than Yu Ziyuan's own utterly brilliant son, but perhaps they would be closer to equals if Jiang Cheng had not lived a life before.)
"Too young," Jiang Cheng says wryly. "Not me, I mean. Or not just me. Him and his mother. They're both too young for me to go pull them away from her family... at least until now. I might be able to do it as a Sect Leader."
Yu Ziyuan stills. "How old are they?"
"I think the child is... a year, maybe? Something like that. I think his mother is my age."
"A-Cheng, you are seventeen." Too young to be a sect leader, but some things can't be helped. Far too young to be a father.
"I know." He clears his throat. "Jin Guangshan."
"I see." She has wanted Duan Ai to rid herself of her odious husband for far too long already, but perhaps it is time to move beyond mere encouragement.
"A-Cheng," she says. "I am aware that there are many things you are not telling me."
He sighs. "There are. I think that it might be best this way. Wangji and I have plans, but I can't predict your role in the events to come because last time -"
"I was dead."
"Yes." There are tears in his eyes. "I missed you. We all did."
She had died, and only her children survived.
Yu Ziyuan looks at her son - not really a boy, probably older in a real sense than she is herself, but still, always her son.
He has always been so strong, so brilliant - she's been so very proud of him.
If it is by his courage and care that she lives at all, she will undoubtedly be well-served to allow him to continue as he has. He is now her sect leader, in any case.
"I will trust in your leadership, Sect Leader Jiang," she says, with a shaky smile, and then sends a command and a farewell. Zidian, ever-obedient, leaps from her hand to his. He looks startled, but his hand flexes in a way that speaks of familiarity. A certain kind of tension unwinds from him, and his surprise is giving way to relief. "You will need all your strength, I think," she says, and stands, crosses to him and kisses his temple. "Tell me, A-Cheng. Does Jin Guangshan have an important role to play in future events?"
He looks up at her, an eyebrow raised. "Not a positive one," he says. "Much that went badly did so at his instigation."
She nods. "Then by your leave, Sect Leader Jiang, I might visit my friend in Jinlintai."
A-Cheng, it is clear, has many plans to save the future, but there are things he might not do, has not been taught to do, and will not have time to do. She can leave Lotus Pier in the hands of its new master, and take some steps of her own.
Literally all of my research suggests that the proper and customary garment with which to indicate that one is in mourning is a white armband, not a sash, but CQL had sashes so I'm going with that.
Wei Ying isn't sure he wants to know what would cause Jiang Cheng to call him and Lan Zhan to his office.
Jiang Cheng is blossoming in his new role as their sect leader. He's confident and commanding and handling everything brilliantly. Wei Ying worries he's not doing enough to support him, but when he asks if there's anything he can do to help Jiang Cheng gives him this odd, wistful smile and tells him no, he has it all under control.
So Wei Ying trains with the shidis as usual - the sect is in mourning and they shouldn't, but there's a war coming, so they do - and studies the new kinds of talisman Lan Zhan found somewhere and has written out for him - they're brilliant and amazing, and Wei Ying is inspired - and visits with Madam Tang and shijie.
He's sad a lot.
Uncle Jiang is dead.
Madam Tang says it will get easier, in time, but it hurts.
Everyone's being so nice to him - even Madam Yu hasn't shouted at him for anything since Uncle Jiang died. He almost wishes she would, so things could feel like they were normal again, but when he starts behaving in a more and more ridiculous manner to try and convince himself they are, Lan Zhan just says Wei Ying in that soft, careful way and escorts him to his room for insistent snuggling, or to Madam Tang's rooms so he can talk to her about it, or to shijie so they can cry together.
It is getting easier, and he wishes it wasn't, because it feels like he's being... ungrateful, or something like that.
This - that it's getting easier - turns out to be a good thing.
Jiang Cheng has paperwork on his desk and maps on a table and he looks years older than he did a few weeks ago.
"I have a political problem," he says, when Wei Ying and Lan Zhan get to his office. "A few different sect leaders have heavily implied that they think the Jiang Sect is going to be a liability because I take in too many people of 'questionable loyalty'." He rolls his eyes.
"Like wh-" Wei Ying starts to say, and then he realises.
Jiang Cheng nods. "Like Wangji and the Wen."
The thing is, Wei Ying thinks, it sort of makes sense, if you don't know that Lan Zhan is the best, most wonderful person in the world (who left his sect to save his mother), and that Wen Qing is shijie's friend (shijie is an excellent judge of character, if you don't include Jin Zixuan), and Wen Ning is just sweet and lovely in every possible way.
"What do we do?" Wei Ying asks.
Jiang Cheng half-smiles. "We establish bonds that make their loyalty more difficult to question. Wen Qing and I have agreed to a betrothal. I can't marry until my mourning period is over, so no-one will think it strange if we aren't planning a wedding yet, and we can end the engagement later if we want to." He pauses. "And unless either of you objects, I'm going to have Wangji marry the senior disciple of the Jiang Sect."
Wei Ying wants to protest, for a moment, but then he realises - that's him. He's still not used to that.
"I. Um. Lan Zhan?" Wei Ying can't look at him.
"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says. "Do you object?"
"I was asking if you did!" Wei Ying protests. He risks a tiny glance, and looks away immediately, because Lan Zhan is looking at him with that soft expression Wei Ying keeps telling him he's supposed to warn Wei Ying before he uses.
"I do not object," Lan Zhan says. "I wish to marry Wei Ying."
"Oh." Wei Ying's cheeks are burning. "Okay. I, um. I don't object either," he says.
"Good," Jiang Cheng says. "I'll announce it tomorrow." He clears his throat. "Wei Ying, I thought that perhaps A-Jie and I could stand with you in place of your parents."
Wei Ying swallows. "I'd like that," he says, in a small voice. "Best shixiong."
Jiang Cheng glances up at him and smiles and looks like him again - like Jiang Cheng, not Sect Leader Jiang. "Best shidi," he says.
Lan Zhan squeezes Wei Ying's hand.
Lan Zhan's mother greets the announcement of his wedding with delight.
"A-Zhan, that's so wonderful," she says. She's smiling hugely and there are tears in her eyes, and Lan Zhan thinks that having his mother in attendance at his wedding to Wei Ying will be another new peak in his joy.
But then he realises it will be more complicated than that.
Because Uncle is now also staying at Lotus Pier. He is participating in the early stages of preparation for the Sunshot Campaign, planning the liberation of Gusu with Wanyin and Nie Mingjue.
Uncle will also, naturally, expect to be in attendance at his wedding.
Lan Zhan will have to talk to him. So far, since Uncle's arrival, they have not really spoken at all; Lan Zhan has been attending many of the meetings, but he does so as Wanyin's second, and does not speak at them. (They agreed - to Wei Ying's evident relief - that it would be preferable for Lan Zhan to be the one who attends meetings with Wanyin, because Wei Ying finds them painfully boring in ways that occasionally cause diplomatic awkwardness.)
Now he must seek him out.
He finds his uncle in the guest room he has been assigned, poring over a map of Gusu.
"Lan Zhan," he says, rising. His look is intent, searching; whatever he sees seems to please him. "You look well."
The same cannot be said for Uncle. He looks exhausted.
"I regret that I could not say goodbye to you before I left. It is good to know you are safe," Lan Zhan replies, because it's true. He couldn't say goodbye, because his uncle might have felt obliged to stop him, and he does in fact regret that. He is also relieved to know that Uncle is safe, because he knew all along he was leaving him to face terrible danger.
Uncle invites him to sit.
He's not sure where to begin.
Uncle watches him for a moment, and his lips twitch. "Whatever it is that you wish to say," he says, "I imagine it will be easier for you to find the words you require if I tell you I am already aware that your mother is here at Lotus Pier."
Lan Zhan meets his eyes, startled. "How long -" He stops.
"I have known for certain since you reacted as you did," Uncle says. He's amused, Lan Zhan realises. "But I have presumed it to be true since you left Gusu, and she was discovered to be missing. You have always refused to be parted from her, Lan Zhan. If you were at Lotus Pier, I knew that Tang Lijuan must be here also."
"Then why have the Lan not come for her?"
Uncle meets his gaze evenly. "Supposition is not fact, Lan Zhan. I could hardly act on a theory when I had no proof. Nor could I mention it to others. Gossip is forbidden. And then the Cloud Recesses were attacked. We have more important matters to concern us. And besides," he adds, "the woman Tang Lijuan is no longer a concern of the Lan Sect."
Lan Zhan blinks. "Is she not?"
"Since the Cloud Recesses was attacked, I have been conducting an audit of our records on the orders of the Gusu Supervisory Office." Uncle's lip curls. "Many of our records were destroyed in the attack itself, you understand, and I have found that we appear to retain no records of Tang Lijuan's existence at all outside of your birth record. From this we can perhaps deduce that she is also the mother of Lan Huan, but the records are incomplete. When the matter came to light, several of the Elders suggested that perhaps I myself had been a witness to adverse occurrences in which she was involved, but I informed them I have no recollection of such a thing."
Lan Zhan can feel the curl to his own lips, but his is pleasure and not disgust. "Uncle," he says, and his uncle smiles, just a little bit.
"You did the right thing, A-Zhan. I was proud of you. I am proud of you. You were conscious of your filial duty, and acted to address a wrong." He looks away, the smile still playing at his lips. "It is unfortunate that records of the reasons for her incarceration were destroyed. I blame myself, of course. I took efforts to preserve essential records at the time, but if there were any pertaining to Tang Lijuan, it seems I unaccountably may have neglected to include them."
In Lan Zhan's previous life, Uncle confessed the truth of his mother's situation near to his deathbed. It had confirmed Lan Zhan's many suspicions. Uncle had carried remorse for his choices as a burden; he had believed she had been mistreated.
It seems that understanding was not necessarily one that came to him in old age.
"Uncle," he says, "There are some who question my loyalty to the Jiang Sect. Sect Leader Jiang has decided that these questions should be put to rest. I will marry the senior disciple of the Jiang Sect immediately upon the conclusion of the disciples' mourning period for Sect Leader Jiang's predecessor."
Uncle blinks. "You and Wei Ying?" He narrows his eyes. "I assume you are not displeased by this."
Lan Zhan permits himself to smile. "I am not," he says softly, and then takes a breath. "This nephew would be honoured and grateful if his shufu is willing to stand with him at his wedding beside his mother."
Uncle smiles, misty-eyed. "It would be my greatest joy," he replies. "The Elders will be relieved, when they learn of it. I think you will be welcome when the opportunity arises for you to visit the Cloud Recesses again."
Lan Zhan blinks.
"I have allowed the Elders to believe that you left us because you were in love with a Jiang disciple," Uncle explains. "They are not... pleased. But it has long been the way of our clan to pursue our heart's desire beyond all reason, when we find it."
The meetings in preparation for the Sunshot Campaign are intensifying, and occupying more and more of Lan Zhan's days. He is grateful that his mother and shijie are there to support Wei Ying - and to take over the preparations for the wedding. Lan Zhan is occupied with meetings, and Wei Ying is applying new dedication to training the shidis who will be left to defend Lotus Pier.
Lan Zhan had almost forgotten the intensity of Wei Ying's focus when he truly brings it to bear.
He is conflicted about whether he wishes he could be present for more of it. On the one hand, it is extremely attractive. On the other, it is extremely attractive, and they are not yet married. Lan Zhan takes pride in his self-discipline but there are limits.
Instead he is spending his time at discussions of strategy between men whose grasp of it is poor.
After days of this, he and Wanyin share a glance, and then Wanyin stands and explains clearly that the suggestions that have been made are bad before outlining preferable alternatives. (He neglects to mention two idiotic suggestions. It is possibly deliberate, as a means to avoid excessive ostentation. Lan Zhan deferentially prompts him.)
It starts to become enjoyable. It is almost like a game; Wanyin's clear demonstration of his superior tactical and strategic understanding, Lan Zhan's near-silent support. (He does not need to speak as to strategy; they have that conversation in private. Lan Zhan, who is the disciple of a teenage sect leader, and who is known to have defected from one sect to another, addressing such a gathering directly would be unwelcome.)
Finally, one of the minor sect leaders protests. "Isn't it presumptuous of Jiang Wanyin to speak to us like this? He -"
"Be quiet," Nie Mingjue says crisply. "He was speaking. Please continue to give us your insight, Sect Leader Jiang."
That resolves that.
There are distant skirmishes already happening, but they still have time to plan, so Wanyin raises the question that has so far gone unaddressed.
"We must discuss the issue of the innocents among the Wen."
"There are no innocents among the Wen!" Sect Leader Ouyang exclaims, and then quiets when Wanyin glares at him - perhaps remembering that the territory of the Baling Ouyang lies very near to Yunmeng, and the youth and inexperience of the leader of the Yunmeng Jiang could well make the risk of offending him greater, not less.
"I disagree. I beg the council's indulgence as your host," Wanyin says, in a tone that suggests he most assuredly is not begging, "to bring a witness."
At Wanyin's nod, Lan Zhan stands. He stops by the seats of the Nie. "Sect Leader Nie," he says quietly, "if the Jiang Sect may beg your indulgence. Might we ask your brother's assistance with a minor matter outside?"
He meets Nie Mingjue's gaze. Nie Mingjue's eyes narrow, and then he nods shortly. Nie Huaisang rises without complaint and accompanies Lan Zhan to the doors of the hall. Lan Zhan closes them behind him.
"Neither you nor Sect Leader Nie would thank us for keeping you in the room," he explains to Nie Huaisang. "Wei Ying is at the training fields, if you wish to see him." And then he leaves him there to escort Wen Qing into the hall.
Lan Zhan is wary of Nie Huaisang, but it would endear no-one to Nie Mingjue to cause his younger brother great distress, and Wei Ying likes him.
With absolute poise and calm, unruffled demeanour, Wen Qing speaks at length about the indignities and abuses suffered by the lesser branches of the Wen and Qishan's affiliated sects. When she reaches the subject of the Fire Palace of Wen Ruohan, and the things that happen within it, her voice still does not shake; she continues steadily even as some of those present whimper, and sob, and does not pause until someone vomits, at which point Wanyin raises a hand.
Wen Qing waits impassively on the dais beside the lotus throne while Wanyin summons servants to clean up the mess.
Lan Zhan stands in front of the dais and watches the room. Most of its occupants are in visible distress, in one form or another; he is prepared for the possibility that one or more among them will decide to respond in a violent fashion, and is prepared to defend Wen Qing or Wanyin as necessary.
He thinks one or two consider it, but when they look towards Wen Qing with expressions of fury they meet Lan Zhan's gaze first and lower their eyes.
Once the servants leave again with their buckets and brooms, Wanyin returns to his seat.
"Need I ask my betrothed to continue, or does the council find her testimony sufficient?" he asks. A deliberate reminder that Wen Qing's status in Lotus Pier is protected.
Uncle stands. "That is sufficient, I think. I propose the council give thanks to Wen-guniang for her contribution, and commend her for her courage and fortitude."
Nie Mingjue speaks. "Agreed." He is pale, but his voice is steady.
At the murmur of general assent, Lan Zhan escorts Wen Qing back to the doors. He opens them to find new arrivals in the courtyard beyond: Jin Zixuan, a retinue of Jin behind him. He sees Lan Zhan and bows.
"I was preparing to wait," he says. "Lan Wangji. I would be grateful if you could inform Sect Leader Jiang and the council that Sect Leader Jin has arrived to join the council of war, if he is welcome."
Jin Guangshan is not in evidence.
Jin Zixuan is wearing a white sash.
"I will tell them," Lan Zhan replies, and goes back into the hall. Wanyin gives him a questioning look. "Sect Leader Jin has arrived to join the council of war, if he is welcome," Lan Zhan says.
"I didn't see Jin Guangshan," someone near the doors says. "Wasn't that his son out there?"
"Yes," Lan Zhan says. "It was."
Wanyin nods slowly. "Ask Sect Leader Jin to join us, then," he says, and Lan Zhan turns back to the doors.
Jiang Cheng watches Jin Zixuan enter, accompanied by Luo Qingyang. He leaves most of his retinue outside and bows to the assembled sect leaders. The sword in his hand is still not Suihua; the swords confiscated by the Wen have not yet been recovered.
"Sect Leader Jin," he says, standing to return the bow.
Jin Zixuan doesn't quite look at anyone. "There was an accident at Jinlintai that claimed my father's life," he says woodenly. "It is the intent of the Jin Sect to commit to the joint endeavour wholeheartedly."
"I'm sorry for your loss," Jiang Cheng says, and tries to sound like he means it. A son will grieve even an unworthy father, after all. There is a murmur of agreement.
Jin Zixuan nods curtly and finds a seat among the sect leaders.
The discussion resumes.
Over the next few days, it becomes clear that the skirmishes between Wen and other sects are increasing, and the Wen are winning more than they're losing.
The allied sects have to get into the field.
And Jiang Cheng needs Wei Ying to be married first, because no matter his other flaws, Wei Ying is nothing if not determined when it comes to holding on to his family ties so long as they're official. (Wei Ying's dedication to unofficial family ties is manifest, but potentially inconstant. He might, for example, sacrifice his golden core for someone without ever admitting he loves them, and not even tell them, and end up letting them think he doesn't even care any more for years and years and then just when they start to think maybe he does still love them, it will turn out he's using their house to try and travel through time. Hypothetically. But those are old hurts, and Jiang Cheng just has to believe that somehow, Wei Wuxian survived his array too, and there's another timeline out there where things are... better, for him. Not the point.)
There are only days remaining until they'll set out.
Time for a wedding.
He lets them know. The schedule is getting tight. They have a day free of meetings, at last, while forces marshal for the march, and then the wedding, and then the day after that, they're almost certainly going to war.
Jiang Cheng has been needing a free day for some time now.
First thing in the morning, he sets out for Meishan.
He lands outside Popo's house and she emerges to meet him with a smile.
"Xiao-Cheng!" she calls. "Always the sight of my beloved grandson will brighten the darkness of my lonely days."
"Popo," he says, bowing to her. "Always this grandson is honoured to see his ancestor."
She tilts her head and looks at him speculatively. "Come in, and tell me what troubles you."
Popo takes him inside. "It's this," Jiang Cheng says, and carefully peels the pouch back to show the Stygian sword without actually touching it.
"Eyes," Popo snaps immediately, and he meets her gaze. He knows how this works, if not how to do it; he doesn't resist as memory surfaces. The memory of finding the sword, he knows, is not enough; he deliberately connects it to the memory of Wei Wuxian and the Stygian Tiger Seal and all the terrors that came of it.
Popo is silent for long moments.
"Xiao-Cheng," she says, gently sorrowful. "Poor, sweet child, you suffered so greatly." She touches his hand. "Did you even visit me, then?"
"No," he admits. "I thought -"
That she'd be disappointed in him. That somehow disaster would befall her too if he went near her.
"I'm sorry for that," she says. "I would still have been proud of you. I am proud of you." She smiles gently. "But you did not come to see me on the eve of war so I could tell you that, or simply to show me your new toy. What do you seek?"
Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath. "I thought you might be able to find a way to destroy it. Failing that, to ensure that no-one else ever finds it. It's too dangerous."
"It's a source of great power, and such things are always dangerous," Popo says. "This would accept no touch, I think, save perhaps that of xiao-Ying, but there would be great danger in it even for him." She looks at it, and sighs. "I will study it, and see what can be done."
"Why Wei Ying?" he asks. He knows it did, but -
Popo looks at him for long moments.
"Perhaps this is a thing you should know." She tugs the qiankun pouch back to cover the sword again. "Xiao-Ying is marked by the darkness. He felt death's touch before he was born, and it knows him as its own. It calls to him, and will heed his call in return." She smiles, very faintly. "He is still your brother, and his heart is good, xiao-Cheng. Keep it safe. See that he is loved."
"Yes, Popo." He's definitely on top of that.
E: "marked by the darkness" is a reference to the circumstances of his birth. It's explored in detail in "Be Not Gone".
Lan Zhan's wedding day dawns bright and clear.
At her request, he has breakfast with his mother.
"A-Zhan," she says warmly. "You have always been a determined boy. Even when you were small, no matter what I or anyone else said to discourage you, you insisted on coming to see me every single day. I don't even know how you did it, sometimes, but I was thankful for it. I am thankful for it. I know you were punished for it."
"It was worth it," Lan Zhan says, definite and intent. "Always." He doesn't know how to tell her he would have endured worse without hesitation, for fear it will give too much away. Time travel is unlikely to be her first thought, but if she thinks something is amiss she will ask, and he knows he will be unable to deny her. He will tell her, and she will without question be distressed by it.
His mother smiles. She is here, and alive. Today she will attend his wedding to Wei Ying.
"I hope you will be as dedicated to Wei Ying's happiness as you have been to mine," she says. "While still, of course, being my wonderful son. I expect to gain another son, not to lose the one I have."
"I will," he tells her confidently. "You will."
Her smile widens, and he feels a hint of alarm - a happy sort of alarm, but alarm nonetheless. His mother is going to tease him.
"Excellent," she says. "Towards that end, it's time we talk about sex."
Lan Zhan freezes.
"The Lan Sect like to pretend that the entire subject doesn't exist, or at least that everyone should somehow behave as if it doesn't," she continues relentlessly. "Fortunately, I did not always live among the Lan."
Lan Zhan tries to think of a way to escape this. Wei Ying was always the one who could have these conversations with others. Lan Zhan did not.
But he cannot tell his mother he remembers spending many years being sexually active. It would give away everything he does not wish to tell her.
He is going to have to have a conversation with his mother about sex.
He is also, he discovers, going to learn that despite the many years he and Wei Ying spent happily occupied, there are things he did not know that are possibly quite important.
Ears burning, he pays attention.
It's possible he's still reeling for a while after that discussion is complete. The day passes in a blur. Somehow he gets dressed. Somehow he finds himself wearing red and gold and bowing to the heavens and the earth in front of all of the notable people present at Lotus Pier.
He pays most of them no mind. He cares only for a few.
There is his Uncle, looking proud, and perhaps defiant. (The Elders will not be pleased if they learn of this, Lan Zhan supposes.) There is Jiang Yanli, Lan Zhan and Wei Ying's shijie, teary-eyed and joyful. There is Wanyin, standing proud in the place of family, even smiling as he watches.
There is his mother, alive and radiant at his wedding as his bows to her.
And there is Wei Ying, young and beautiful and whole, wholly himself as they bow to one another.
He is not the same Wei Ying Lan Zhan remembers being married to before, but he is still Wei Ying, and this time, no-one will ever doubt Lan Zhan's right to stand by him, to protect him, and to love him.
They are married.
Wei Ying is married.
He's not entirely sure how it happened, but Lan Zhan promises he's sure that he definitely wants to marry Wei Ying and he really won't regret it, and when Wei Ying told Jiang Cheng he should tell Lan Zhan that he, Jiang Cheng, definitely wouldn't kick Lan Zhan out of the Jiang Sect if he didn't marry Wei Ying, Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes at him and said that they'd already established that, and if Wei Ying didn't want to get married then the wedding was cancelled but otherwise shut up.
Wei Ying shut up, because of course he wants to marry Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan is one of the three best people he's ever met (along with Jiang Cheng and shijie) and he's beautiful and perfect and he kisses Wei Ying like he's precious but also wanted.
And now they're married, and they're probably not going to stop at kissing any more.
But first there's a banquet, and so many people to talk to and so many toasts to drink. (Or have drunk for them, because Lan Zhan doesn't drink alcohol and Wei Ying doesn't want to be drunk today.)
Wei Ying realises that he hadn't quite thought through the implications of getting married when he goes to serve tea to Lan Zhan's mother. He starts to address her as Madam Tang and realises that that isn't right any more.
"Should I -" he asks, wide-eyed.
"Yes, call me Mother," she says, warm, and then she and Lan Zhan both comfort him when he bursts into tears, because they understand; they know what he has lost.
He doesn't remember his own mother, not really. He wishes he did; most of what he knows about her now he learned from Tang Lijuan. He'll never have a mother again, but he can and will love his mother-in-law.
Eventually they're escorted to their new, shared rooms. They're in the part of Lotus Pier reserved for the sect leader's family, where Wei Ying has always inexplicably lived, but until now, Lan Zhan did not.
The door closes behind them.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says. He's slightly breathless, for no reason he can think of except that they're alone now and they're married.
"Wei Ying." Lan Zhan looks stunning in red and gold, but Wei Ying wants to see him out of it, now. He kisses him, because he can, Lan Zhan is his husband.
"We're married," Wei Ying says against his lips. "Husband," he adds, and feels the way Lan Zhan's hands tighten, just for a moment, on his waist. He likes that.
"Husband," Lan Zhan replies, and nips at Wei Ying's lip.
"Considering why we got married," Wei Ying says, hands going to Lan Zhan's belt, "I really think it's time now for you to prove your loyalty to the Jiang Sect."
"I see." Lan Zhan presses an open-mouthed kiss to Wei Ying's neck. "Does my shixiong have a suggestion as to the form of this demonstration?"
Wei Ying shivers. "Why don't we see what you can think of on your own, and work from there?"
Lan Zhan pulls back to look at him, eyes dark. "Mark your words."
Lan Zhan is a powerful cultivator in the body of a teenage boy, and tomorrow, they will depart for war. If this is the only time they will have together for the foreseeable future, he intends to make the most of it.
He does not sleep that night. Sleep has no appeal when he can instead spend hours relearning how to touch Wei Ying, exulting in every sound he can wring from him, discovering the ways in which Wei Ying's pleasure is different in his own body.
His mother's advice, it turns out, is valuable. Lan Zhan tries not to think about the source of his new knowledge, but takes full advantage of it.
The dawn is filtering through the windows when Wei Ying succumbs to sleep. Lan Zhan still does not. He does not know when he will next have the chance for this; Wei Ying naked in his arms, pliant and loved into stillness.
It's not enough. It will never be enough.
For now, it's all they will get.
In the morning, they join the ranks of the Jiang disciples and march away to war.
Jiang Cheng wouldn't say that going to war against the Wen is easy.
But going to war against the Wen with his sect behind him, Wei Ying at his side, and Sandu in his hand is a lot easier than going to war with his sect murdered, Wei Wuxian missing and Sandu in the possession of the Wen.
Wei Ying and Wangji don't stay by his side. It would be a waste of finite resources. They're too skilled, too strong; Jiang Cheng sends them to turn the battle where the allies' prospects are darkest and trusts them to keep each other alive.
It wouldn't be his choice if he had one.
Between them Wei Ying and Wangji can turn even the direst situation in favour of the allies. Wangji's guqin weakens their opponents and can flatten waves of Wen cultivators at a time; Wei Ying's gifts as a swordsman are prodigious, and he has already developed new applications of the vicious trap talismans he doesn't know he himself invented that turn them into offensive weapons.
Jiang Cheng's not surprised when Lan Xichen emerges after the liberation of Gusu. He's mildly surprised when Lan Xichen begins delivering his updates on Wen movements and dispositions to him. He'd like to think that he's getting such information now where he didn't before because the Jiang Sect are stronger, more important to the war effort than they were, or because Lan Xichen has heard that many of the strategies the allies were using were Jiang Cheng's contribution in the planning stages.
He strongly suspects that it actually has more to do with the way Lan Xichen always looks searchingly at the ranks of Jiang disciples when he finds the Jiang lines and encampment. Jiang Cheng doesn't have to ask who he's looking for.
He doesn't say anything. If Lan Xichen wants to know where his brother is, he can ask. In his previous life, Lan Xichen never offered Jiang Cheng a fucking thing - just tied the other elite sects together with bonds of sworn brotherhood that excluded only the Jiang.
Jiang Cheng had no interest in uniting in allegiance with the sects who had celebrated the death of his last remaining family, but they could have asked.
The only one who ever actually did help Jiang Cheng with anything was Hanguang-Jun. At least he hadn't had to search for Wei Wuxian alone.
The war trudges on.
Sometimes Wei Ying and Wangji are able to rejoin the ranks of the Jiang. Jiang Cheng's heart aches to see Wei Ying; he's not the strange, cold person he became after the Burial Mounds, but Jiang Cheng is realising that he hates to see Wei Ying being serious at all. Wei Ying being serious holds no good memories for him.
When the war is over Jiang Cheng looks forward to learning all of the things Wei Ying has come up with, because Wei Wuxian in Jiang Cheng's previous life stood alone against thousands with the aid of his army of the dead, and in this one Wei Ying with his husband at his side achieves very nearly as much.
Three times - months apart - Lan Xichen visits the Jiang encampment on nights when Wei Ying and Wangji are there.
He does not see them; when they're going to have time in the camp, Jiang Cheng sends them both to his tent to rest. (They leave no evidence, at least, that they do anything there but sleep, but no-one sleeps enough. Jiang Cheng has one of the least-shit beds around. It's ridiculously small for two people to share, but Jiang Cheng doesn't get the sense that that bothers them.)
The war trudges on.
The allies are pressing closer to the Nightless City. Jiang Cheng's confident of victory. Casualties have been heavy on both sides - less so for the Jiang, but they've still had some - and Jiang Cheng has no idea how the evacuation points can possibly be managing the flood of refugees and dispossessed at this point, but that isn't his responsibility. His sister is managing it near to the front, organising and dispersing people to temporary encampments in Qinghe and Yunmeng.
And then the Jin line buckles, and a section of the Nie are encircled, and Nie Mingjue is captured.
The Wen overreach to do it. The Jiang make a counter-assault that crushes the Wen vanguard against the rump of the Nie forces and throws the rest into disarray.
The Nie place themselves under Jiang Cheng's command. Wei Ying and Wangji return from where Jiang Cheng sent them to take the Jiang reserves and keep the Wen from encircling the weakened force left; they held the line while Jiang Cheng led his counter-attack, and Jiang Cheng realises that opportunity is there if they strike now.
He turns his forces towards the Nightless City, and advances.
Wei Ying stamps his foot. A line of dust kicks up from him to the gates of the Nightless City, which explode into fragments.
The organisation of the Wen collapses, and the last resistance falters. By the time the allies are approaching the Sun Palace, the leaders of many sects are trailing behind the Jiang, who are still in the lead.
Knowing how close it was for Nie Mingjue before, Jiang Cheng and Wangji are leading at a run. The Wen are scattering - he suspects they know defeat is inevitable, and their best fighters have not been here for some time now.
The Lan catch up to them in the courtyard outside the Sun Palace, and Jiang Cheng sees Lan Xichen almost drop his sword when he looks at Wangji.
"Wangji?" Lan Xichen says, hoarse.
Wangji and Jiang Cheng share a glance. Wangji raises an eyebrow, very faintly. Jiang Cheng nods.
"Brother," Wangji says, and stops, turns to Lan Xichen. Jiang Cheng runs on.
The allied cultivators are pressing forward. There's commotion at the doors to the Sun Palace as they attempt to break down the doors.
Brother is staring intently at Lan Zhan. Lan Zhan looks back.
Wei Ying stopped when Lan Zhan did. "Ahah," he says. "Zewu-Jun. It's been a long time. We'd heard you were back. That's good. It's very good! Congratulations on not being dead."
Brother blinks, finally. "Wei Wuxian. Hello." His mouth twists. "Still your bodyguard, Wangji? Does the Jiang Sect expect I will attempt to make off with you even here and now? I haven't even seen you in more than three years. I can hardly be accused of -" His mouth snaps shut.
There is a crackle and a thundering crash as Wanyin unseals the palace doors with Zidian.
"No-one is accusing you, Brother," Lan Zhan says. He keeps his tone neutral.
"Of course not. Jiang Wanyin merely assigns his senior disciple to chaperone us, lest your manifest joy at seeing me again embarrass his sect with its exuberance." Brother smiles thinly.
"What?" Wei Ying exclaims. "Jiang Cheng didn't assign -" He stops. "It's not like that," he says, softer.
"Wei Ying remains by my side because he is my husband," Lan Zhan says, taking Wei Ying's hand, and Brother visibly pales.
"But I thought -" He swallows. "I thought Jiang Wanyin -"
"See?" Wei Wuxian says. "I told you that -"
From inside the hall, Nie Mingjue's voice can be heard, raised to a rage-filled bellow. "Meng Yao!"
"Oh, no," Brother says, and runs towards the palace.
His progress is slowed by the milling crowd of cultivators in the way. Part of why they had leisure to stop and speak together is that the allied forces now significantly exceed their needs.
Lan Wangji follows behind. The crowd parts for him, as crowds generally do.
Brother is too late.
Nie Mingjue stands over the bloody corpse of Meng Yao.
Messengers go out to spread the word that the war is finally over. Lan Zhan and Wei Ying take flight and head to the field hospital where their shijie and Wen Qing have been working.
It's crowded, overrun with wounded and refugees. It takes some time for them to track either of the women down. They finally find them both, kneeling over an unconscious man stretched out across a pallet.
Their shijie sees them first; she looks up as she stands, their discussion apparently complete. "A-Xian! Wangji!" She smiles warmly. "Is everything all right?"
"As much as it can be," Wei Ying says cheerfully. "The war is over. Wen Ruohan is dead."
Wen Qing's shoulders drop, as if some tension long-held has gone out of her. "I should probably go to Wanyin," she says. "Someone will have to speak for the Wen now."
"I suppose that -" Wei Ying freezes, and looks down. Lan Zhan follows his gaze and feels his heart lurch in his chest.
A toddler is sitting on Wei Ying's foot, his little arms and legs wrapped around Wei Ying's calf.
The child looks up and smiles.
It has been a long time since Lan Zhan saw that face; much longer since he saw it so small.
Shijie is laughing lightly. "A-Yuan! What have we told you about grabbing at strangers?"
Wen Qing is moving towards the child, but Lan Zhan is faster. He's moving without any conscious thought, crouching to gather him into his arms. "How -" He stops, swallows. "How does he come to be here?"
Shijie has stopped laughing, and Wen Qing's expression is unreadable. "He's a war orphan," Wen Qing says. "There are many of them, at the moment, and this one is my distant cousin, so we've been keeping him here until we can find a family to take him after the war."
A-Yuan is in his arms again, smiling brightly. "Gege!" he says happily.
"Lan Zhan," Wei Ying says. He places his hand on Lan Zhan's forearm.
"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan says. He tears his eyes away from A-Yuan, forces himself to look at Wei Ying.
His husband is smiling. There are tears in his eyes.
"Wen-guniang," Wei Ying says, eyes on Lan Zhan. "What sort of family were you looking for?"
"Wei Wuxian," she says, tone crisp. "He's a child, not a cricket. You need to think about this properly."
"She's right," their shijie says. She comes across and takes A-Yuan from Lan Zhan's arms, and Lan Zhan has to quell the urge to stop her - by violence, if necessary. "At least go and have a conversation about it."
Wei Ying frowns at her. "We just did," he says, in a reasonable tone. "It's not our fault you can't keep up with it. Give us back our son, please."
Shijie and Wen Qing look at each other for a long moment, some silent communication passing between them, and then shijie smiles, and Wen Qing sighs.
"I suppose you won't be the first couple to have a child by accident and with insufficient forethought," Wen Qing says.
Shijie returns A-Yuan to Lan Zhan, and he is relieved; he no longer felt whole without him. "Take him home immediately," she instructs firmly. "At least at Lotus Pier he'll have his grandmothers, too."
"He'll be fine with us," Wei Ying says, placing his hand gently on A-Yuan's back.
"A-Xian, you have no experience with small children. None. Xianxian being three does not count. Take him back to Lotus Pier immediately," their shijie orders, and Wei Ying sighs.
"Yes, shijie," he says.
They relinquish A-Yuan long enough for Wen Qing and shijie to hold him and say goodbye.
"They're going to be your fathers now," Wen Qing says gently as she passes him to Wei Ying. "Your new family."
A-Yuan looks up at Wei Ying. "New gege?"
"Something like that," Wei Ying says, smiling. "Lan Zhan, I'm suddenly terrified of getting this wrong," he adds. Lan Zhan cannot answer. Wei Ying is holding their son.
"There may be some hope for you," Wen Qing says pleasantly. "A-Yuan, they're going to take you to your new home."
"Auntie too?" A-Yuan asks hopefully.
"Yes, actually," Wei Ying says quickly, before Wen Qing can answer. "I was going to tell you before I got distracted. The sect leaders are meeting at Lotus Pier."
"Really?" shijie asks.
Wei Ying nods, jogging A-Yuan in his arms. "The Unclean Realm is full of wounded and refugees. Qishan is..." He makes a face. "The Cloud Recesses aren't repaired yet, and also everyone wants a drink. Jinlintai has been managing the overflow of wounded and refugees, they're a bit stretched right now... and Lotus Pier isn't. Something about the weather, I think."
"Yunmeng is too warm and humid for a hospital, yes," Wen Qing says. "Very well."
"You'll see your aunties soon, A-Yuan," Wei Ying says, in a soothing tone. "Oh, wait. What is his family name?" He looks up at Wen Qing. "Is he a Wen, or -"
Wen Qing cuts him off with a raised eyebrow, which is genuinely impressive. "I imagine it is either Wei or Lan," she says. "You are his parents, now." She glances around. "And I expect it will be some time before it is particularly easy to carry the name of Wen again."
Lan Zhan carries their son to Lotus Pier. Wei Ying flies close, watching them together and smiling, except when he runs ahead slightly and does loops and spins in the air that make A-Yuan giggle.
In Lan Zhan's previous life, though Lan Zhan did not then know it, Wei Ying at this time had lost his golden core. Before that he had been something of a prodigy, able to fight Lan Zhan to a standstill without any real apparent effort.
In this life, Lan Zhan has had the advantage of his past knowledge and experience to draw upon. So has Wanyin. They are both stronger cultivators than Wei Ying.
The margin is narrower than even Lan Zhan would have expected.
Wei Ying never ceases to amaze him.
They land at Lotus Pier, and even Lan Zhan feels something soul-deep in him untense. Lotus Pier has become home, and Lotus Pier has been less ravaged by war than almost anywhere else.
One of their smallest shidis, seeing them approach, goes running inside. Moments later, Madam Yu and Lan Zhan's mother emerge, and an anxiety Lan Zhan had not even been aware of eases. They have been unable to return for a very long time, and in this life, it was the second time since his earliest childhood that Lan Zhan had ever been parted from his mother for more than a few days. Even the Qishan indoctrination was only a couple of months.
"What news?" Madam Yu asks. He sees her eyes scan them each in turn, and then lock onto the child in Lan Zhan's arms. (A-Yuan is now drowsing against Lan Zhan's shoulder.)
"The war is over and we are victorious," Wei Ying says in formal tones, sheathing Suibian and bowing. "I am pleased to assure you that all of your children live and will be here very soon. The leaders of many sects will be coming to Lotus Pier to discuss what happens next."
"Of course they will," Madam Yu says. "We must prepare, I suppose. Lijuan, I'll leave these two to you?"
"Of course," Mother says, tone warm. Madam Yu walks briskly away, and Mother comes over to Lan Zhan. "A-Zhan, I'm so happy to see you, of course. Who is this?"
He swallows past the lump in his throat. "Mother, this is your grandson, Wei Yuan," he says. He sees Wei Ying's head snap around, his lips moving, but Lan Zhan is realising, suddenly, that in this life his child's name must be Wei. He will not be the same child, not growing up here, in Lotus Pier, with both of them, and he absolutely will not be a Lan.
"How wonderful," his mother says, soft, and Lan Zhan can't help but agree.
FOREWARNING: probably next weekend I'll be skipping one update day due to family obligations.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"What do you mean, Wei Yuan?" Wei Ying asks, later. He's lying back with his head over a basin. A-Yuan is napping under Mother's watchful eye, and the two of them have been sent to wash away the residue of battlefields.
Lan Zhan spent a lot of time fighting with his guqin, usually from a distance. Wei Ying fought much more with his sword, at closer range.
Before they get in the bath - a real, proper bath - they are washing his hair, because it's been weeks since they last had the chance to bathe at all and neither of them wants to sit in bathwater tainted with quite this much mud and blood.
Lan Zhan combs more water through his husband's hair. The water is not yet running clear.
"He will not be a Lan," he says finally. "He will be of the Jiang Sect. He should have the name of the Jiang Sect's senior disciple, not of the rogue cultivator he married."
Wei Ying stares up at him, open-mouthed. "Well," he says weakly. "I suppose that's one way to look at it. You're sure?"
"Certain," Lan Zhan says firmly.
"Okay then." Wei Ying smiles. "Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, can you believe we have a son now? Isn't he perfect? I wouldn't have thought you'd fall in love as quickly as that, but I could tell you just wouldn't bear to be apart from him. I can't wait to get to know him. Do you think he'll like me? He didn't seem to hate it when I held him. He's so cute, isn't he?"
Lan Zhan smiles. "You only think I would not fall in love so quickly because you thought I was in love with Wanyin," he points out. "I fell in love with Wei Ying just as quickly." He pours the water again. It's almost clear.
"Ah! Lan Zhan!" Wei Ying covers his face with his hands. "There's a rule, Lan Zhan. You're supposed to follow the rules!"
"I am no longer a member of the Lan Sect," Lan Zhan replies, pouring. "The Jiang are supposed to live more freely. We also attempt the impossible, and I will endeavour to love Wei Ying as much as Wei Ying deserves to be loved. I have no doubt that A-Yuan will also love you."
There is a moment of silence. Wei Ying does not remove his hands. "Is my hair clean enough yet?" he asks, slightly muffled. "Because I really need you naked right now."
"It is sufficient," Lan Zhan allows.
An actual bathtub, hot water and bath beans and actually feeling clean again - it's the purest of luxuries. Even more so is time and safety for slow kisses and gentle, teasing touches. Lan Zhan had fantasies about hot baths, going days without bathing on muddy battlefields or washing himself in unpleasantly cold streams.
But soon enough they are both properly clean, and he is more than eager to get out again, because he has missed even more the freedom to touch Wei Ying however it pleases him, and they dare not let this get out of hand in the bathtub.
Lan Zhan remembers doing just that, in his previous life, but there is a vast chasm between breaking a bathtub in an inn, run by strangers, where you can pay for the damages, and doing so in Lotus Pier where your mother and Madam Yu will find out.
They move to the bed.
They cannot spend too long in their rooms. There is work to do, and A-Yuan will need their time and attention if he is to come to understand that they are a family, now. They emerge to find A-Yuan has apparently been bathed and dressed in the clothing of a Jiang child, and is now at a table, eating under Mother's watchful eye.
"Look, A-Yuan," Mother says. "It's your parents."
A-Yuan looks up and beams. Wei Ying hurries to the table, smiling. "Did Nainai give you tasty food?" he asks, and A-Yuan nods emphatically.
Lan Zhan looks at them together - his mother, Wei Ying, and his son - and finds that he is smiling, and cannot muster the will to stop. (He is no longer a Lan; he doesn't have to.)
His mother looks up at him as he joins them at the table. "Oh, A-Zhan," she says, soft. "There's food coming for you two as well," she adds in more normal tones, smiling. "You're both far too thin."
Lan Zhan eats. He still tends to eat in silence; he is not a talkative person by nature, and he spent his second childhood taking care to obey the rules perfectly unless he had a reason to break them.
On this occasion, he could not speak if he wanted to. He is too overwhelmed by the moment, too full of feelings he couldn't possibly give voice to no matter how he tried.
They have their son. Both of them, together; Lan Zhan will not be forced to walk away and leave Wei Ying, A-Yuan and his heart behind him, all at the same time. They will stay together - Wei Ying will not die under siege. Lan Zhan will not try and fail to save him, will not be attacked by his own sect for making the attempt, will not be whipped almost to the point of death for refusing to stand by and allow them to murder a man who never sought to cause harm to anyone, only to protect the innocent from injustice. He will not spend his first three years of fatherhood in "seclusion".
Wei Yuan will have both of the fathers he deserves. He will have a stable home, and a family. He will have the freedom of a child of the Jiang Sect, and he will even have his grandmother.
And Lan Zhan, it turns out, will have everything he's ever truly wanted.
While they are eating, Wanyin returns. He pokes his head into the hall just as Madam Yu is - personally - bringing a tray loaded with more dishes.
"All the servants are busy preparing for the arrival of guests and the return of our own people, and you -" She stops as the door opens. "A-Cheng," she whispers.
"Mother." He smiles. "I was just checking these two made it home, and -" He stops as his eyes fall on A-Yuan. "I see they did. I'll just -"
"Just what? Do you think you need to see to preparations for guests? Do you imagine your own mother is incompetent to manage your household, Sect Leader Jiang? Come inside! Sit! Eat!"
Wanyin enters without more than a token huff of protest, smile still playing at his lips. Lan Zhan understands completely. His own mother is, at that moment, placing food in his bowl, and his heart thrills at it.
Lan Zhan lived most of his first life without his mother. Wanyin had his longer, before, but he returned from war to the shattered remains of a murdered sect, not to Lotus Pier bustling with servants hurrying to air out long-sealed rooms and air rich with the scent of cooking, and not to his mother.
Last time his mother did not summon him to eat immediately and then stop him on the way to examine him for injury, did not tug him down to kiss his forehead and whisper her relief and joy to see his return, did not then berate him for not eating yet when had she not given him instructions? Did he think that because he was a sect leader he had no more reason to listen to his mother?
"Jiang Cheng!" Wei Ying says. "Jiang Cheng, look, Lan Zhan and I have a son now," he says proudly. "This is Wei Yuan."
"Congratulations." Wanyin looks at A-Yuan. "Welcome to the Jiang Sect, young master," he says seriously. "I am Sect Leader Jiang, but you may call me shufu."
"Shu-fu," A-Yuan repeats.
Wei Ying smiles. "Lan Zhan, we should ask Jiang Cheng to pick his courtesy name, what do you think?"
Lan Zhan freezes. Under the circumstances - Wanyin's kindness, his ongoing position in their lives - Wei Ying is correct, but -
"How about Sizhui?" Wanyin says. "If you don't like it I can pick something else, of course, but that's my first thought."
"An excellent name," Lan Zhan says, breathing again. He is not sure he could... adjust, if his son were not Sizhui. He meets Wanyin's eyes.
"I met the kid once before," Wanyin says, and he's clearly not talking about this lifetime. "I recognised him."
"Thank you," Lan Zhan says, and Wanyin smiles in a way that suggests he understands that Lan Zhan means for all of it - for this, for giving him the name of his own son again, and for never having told anyone that Sizhui was a Wen before.
He'd never really thought about the possibility that Jiang Wanyin might have met Wen Yuan when he went to Wei Ying in Yiling. Of course he must have, and of course he kept the secret, despite all the tension and near-enmity between them. To expose Lan Zhan for harbouring the last living Wen would be to invite disaster for the child, and Jiang Wanyin never sought to persecute the Wen - despite possessing more justification than most - and would never seek to harm a child.
Lan Zhan wonders how different things might have been if he and Wanyin had understood the degree to which they held their concern for Wei Ying in common. Perhaps if, when they found him and Wei Ying sent him away, Lan Zhan had appealed to Wanyin -
Best not to think about it. The lives they had cannot be changed; the lives they have already have been.
The morning after his return to Lotus Pier, Jiang Cheng sleeps later than he normally would - he's been exhausted for more than two years - and fetches breakfast from the kitchens to eat in his rooms. He props the door open for fresh air and sunlight, and begins properly cleaning Sandu, its scabbard, and his other equipment.
Many people will be coming to Lotus Pier. There is power in presentation, and besides, he'll feel better for it, and it's a peaceful way to start what might be a long and difficult day.
The rooms of the Sect Leader overlook the courtyard around which the family quarters are mostly arranged. The lotus gardens are doing well this year. It's beautiful.
He hears a child's shriek of laughter, and A-Yuan dashes across the courtyard. Tang Lijuan comes into view in pursuit, and scoops him up into her arms, laughing, just before he tumbles into the water of a garden.
Jiang Cheng smiles. He remembers doing the same with Jin Ling. His nephew could swim, of course, he wasn't in danger, but it was hard enough to keep the kid in clean clothes as it was without him covering them in mud.
"He'll have to learn to swim," he hears his mother's voice say, and nods without thinking as he glides an oiled cloth along Sandu's blade. If his new nephew can't swim they won't be able to take their eyes off him for a moment.
His mother comes into view and joins Tang Lijuan and A-Yuan by the garden. "I'm sure the boys will teach him," Tang Lijuan says. "I sent them back to bed this morning. They're still so tired. They need more rest."
"You think they'll rest?" his mother asks, tone arch, and Jiang Cheng makes a face at Sandu. Horrifying.
"Eventually," Tang Lijuan says, laughing.
"Such a precious boy, this one," Mother says. Jiang Cheng looks up. Mother is smiling at the child, warmer and softer than he's ever seen her.
He always wondered what she would have been like with Jin Ling.
"I never thought I'd have a grandchild," Tang Lijuan says. "Certainly not that I'd get to meet."
"I know." Jiang Cheng is taken aback when his mother leans in and puts her arm around Tang Lijuan. "Do you think it would be all right if I - if he -"
Tang Lijuan turns to Mother. "Ziyuan," she says. "You raised Wei Ying."
"Zangse Sanren is his mother," Mother says. "And she -"
"And you and Zangse Sanren can both be A-Yuan's grandmother," Tang Lijuan says.
Mother looks like she's going to cry, and Jiang Cheng is now paralysed by the feeling that he should not be hearing this conversation, but if he does anything to try and get away from it, they might realise he's been there the whole time.
"Our grandson," Mother says.
"Yours, mine, and hers," Tang Lijuan tells her. "You know I'm not jealous, Ziyuan."
"I know." Mother leans in, and then they share a kiss. "Are you going to be all right with him? I think we're expecting the arrivals to start today."
"Of course," Tang Lijuan says with a smile. "He's a lot more... active than mine were, but I think that's a good thing."
They share another kiss and then Mother moves on, walking briskly.
"Stay out of the water," Tang Lijuan tells A-Yuan seriously. "You can look at the lotus, but you have to be careful." She kneels and sets him on the ground, but keeps a light grip on the back of his little jacket as he leans to examine them.
"Lotus!" A-Yuan says. He points at the plants, and then up at the decorative woodwork around the buildings. "Lotus?"
"Yes," Tang Lijuan says, laughing. "Those are lotus too. This is Lotus Pier. It's your home now."
"Lotus home," A-Yuan agrees.
It's a touching, heartwarming scene, and Jiang Cheng would really be appreciating that if he weren't still stuck on what the fuck, his mother kissed Tang Lijuan.
Right in front of his nephew, that's - is this just a thing? That's not even hiding it!
What the fuck.
By the time Wei Ying and Wangji emerge he's almost convinced himself he imagined it, but he's not entirely in the best mood.
Wei Ying looks less tired than he has in a while - Wangji just looks like Wangji, always does, fucker - but Jiang Cheng can also definitely see the edge of a bite mark just visible under the collar of Wei Ying's robe, and he just cannot, today, so he glares at Wei Ying and adjusts his collar to cover it and glares at Wangji for good measure.
Wangji doesn't even have the grace to look embarrassed about it, but Jiang Cheng supposes that maybe he can live with that, since it's at that moment that Tang Lijuan comes into view, A-Yuan sleepy in her arms, and Wangji is looking at them now with a real, actual smile.
Towards what turned out to be the end of his previous life, Jiang Cheng had started to see Hanguang-Jun be... softer, on occasion. Mostly something about the eyes, he didn't really move his face much even then. Wei Wuxian would go all soppy at it. Jiang Cheng made sarcastic remarks a few times about it, but he stopped because Wei Wuxian never argued with him about it or even defended his husband, he'd just look at Jiang Cheng sadly, and Jiang Cheng hated that.
Better to stick to safer topics. If he shouted at Wei Wuxian for being shameless, at least Wei Wuxian would argue back at him, and he could pretend things were almost normal. Pretend he had his brother back.
Pretend he wasn't desperately, desperately alone.
He can't bring himself to shout at Wei Ying even if he's flashing his bite marks at Lotus Pier, somehow. On some soul-deep level he's just so tired of being angry with him. Somewhere between their first childhood accord when Jiang Cheng promised to protect him from dogs and Wei Wuxian forgave him for being a bratty little shit and the point where it all fell apart, they stopped being able to talk to each other and nothing good ever came of it.
Wei Ying still looks at Jiang Cheng like he did when they were children. Like he's still happy to see him, like the mischief he's thinking of planning is something for both of them to share.
Jiang Cheng doesn't know, now, whose fault it was that that changed, the first time. Everyone's, probably - his parents, and Jiang Cheng, and Wei Wuxian himself. (Nearly everyone. A-Jie always loved them both and tried to convince them to be kinder to one another.)
He also doesn't care. He's old enough to know better, to take a longer view, and when Wei Ying says or does things that might once have irritated or infuriated him, it's hard to think it matters when viewed on scale that includes lied to me about giving me his golden core, or left me to rebuild my sect alone because he couldn't tell me the reason he was incapable of helping was that he didn't have a golden core, because then he'd have to stop lying to me about giving me his golden core.
Wei Ying is still so young in a way that Jiang Cheng hasn't been in a very, very long time. Jiang Cheng can be the adult in their relationship this time without it feeling unfair.
And Wei Ying is still a little shit, but he's Jiang Cheng's little shit. Jiang Cheng has his brother back, and so much more besides - his sister, his mother, his sect, and now too a brother-in-law and a nephew.
Wealth beyond his wildest dreams.
Tang Lijuan - and Jiang Cheng has no idea, really, where she fits into his family, now, because he has a horrifying feeling that Wei Ying's mother-in-law is no longer the whole of it - comes over to them.
"Good timing!" she says. "I think he's ready for a nap. Perhaps his parents can tuck him in?"
Wei Ying looks alarmed. "Is - is that a thing?" he asks, and then: "What?" when all three of them look at him in horror.
"We never -" Jiang Cheng swallows. "Even after you came here, no-one ever did that, did they."
"I didn't have naps," Wei Ying says, in apparently honest confusion.
Jiang Cheng sighs, remembering. "And we shared a room, and when Mother told us to get ready for bed, back then you used to race to get under the covers before she came in."
"Wasn't I supposed to? I didn't want to be a bother, and she'd come in and you'd be sitting up and she'd say A-Cheng, it's time to sleep now, and then she'd go over to you. I didn't want to get in trouble too."
"I wasn't in trouble, I -" Jiang Cheng stops, takes a breath. "She was tucking me in. It's. Nice." Even his mother had done that.
"When I was small, I still took naps sometimes at Mother's cottage," Wangji says softly. "She -" He stops.
"Wei Ying," Tang Lijuan says gently, "would you like me to come with you now and show you?" She smiles. "Perhaps even tuck you in, too, later. Just so you know what it's like."
Wei Ying's eyes are very large. "I. That might be nice, maybe."
"We will return shortly," Wangji says to Jiang Cheng, and the four of them go back inside.
In lieu of finding somewhere to sit down and cry about Wei Ying's low fucking expectations that Jiang Cheng's family apparently met, Jiang Cheng goes to find something productive to do.
Greeting his smallest disciples, the ones he managed not to have to call away to war, is a deeply rewarding way to start his day. He didn't get the chance yesterday evening. They're mostly quite delighted to see him.
Some of them aren't really old enough to remember him, and clearly formed their impressions of him from the garbled stories told by the ones who just barely can, and the ones who just barely remember him have apparently convinced themselves of the stories they've been telling.
So his youngest disciples are slightly disappointed to find that he's not actually taller than a house, he doesn't eat three whole pigs for lunch, and a thunderstorm doesn't follow him everywhere he goes. (He's glad it doesn't. Imagine the noise.)
No doubt given time they will learn to live with the disappointing reality that is Jiang Cheng, who is absolutely not going to feel bad about being a person.
He has almost an hour to spend with his small, adorable disciples and their charmingly conflicted feelings about him before people start to arrive. Lan Xichen and Lan Qiren are followed by his sister and Wen Qing, and then the Nie.
Fortunately for Jiang Cheng, Wei Ying and Wangji emerge from their rooms around then. Wei Ying looks like he may possibly have been crying, but Wangji isn't quite in his most protective mode of hovering. Whatever feelings Wei Ying is having about fatherhood and his own neglected childhood appear to be under control. (Jiang Cheng tells himself he did his best to give Wei Ying a better childhood, this is not his fault, he was bound by the limitations of also being a child.)
Consequently Jiang Cheng can send Wangji and Wei Ying to the gates to greet the arriving sect leaders and grant them passage through the wards. He looks forward to when the main body of Jiang disciples make it home. Currently he's desperately short of people who would even be capable of gate duty, and the system that has apparently been in operation during the war - children playing near the gates and tasked to run and fetch an adult if anyone approaches seeking entry - is not a good look for hosting this many people who think so highly of themselves.
Since he's not going to have his mother or his sister do it, his only options are Wei Ying and Wangji. He can't keep doing it himself if he's going to go and be a good host. (He's not sure it isn't for the best, though, that the Lan arrived while he was still there instead of Wangji.)
And all of it still feels like a luxury of ease and convenience when he remembers awkward and dangerously oppressive meetings hosted by Jin Guangshan.
Just in case, Jiang Cheng stops by the family residence wing, where Tang Lijuan is reading a book outside Wei Ying and Wangji's rooms while A-Yuan naps within. "Lan Qiren and Lan Xichen are here," he tells her quietly. "If you want to avoid them, they will have no reason to enter the family areas. If you wish to see them now, I can send Wei Ying back to look after A-Yuan."
She looks wide-eyed for a moment, then takes a deep breath and smiles. "I know there is a lot for everyone to do," she says. "Perhaps I will see Lan Huan later. Minding my grandson is surely the best use of my time, right now."
Jiang Cheng nods, and bows, and leaves her there; she's old enough to know her own mind, he's sure, and it is true that A-Yuan needs constant supervision like no other child at Lotus Pier at the moment, because he doesn't really know the people or the place and he can't swim.
And if Tang Lijuan needs time to decide whether she wants to see her elder son, that's entirely reasonable.
Tang Lijuan loves her elder son very much, but she's been avoiding the Lan for years now and seeing them is somewhat stressful.
Reminder (because I want people to have warning) that one chapter update will likely be delayed this weekend due to family obligations.
Warning: This is not a fun chapter for Lan Xichen.
It is all going to be okay, I promise, but he's going to have a journey to get there.
I'd encourage everyone to be a little sympathetic to him. He's been going through a lot, and Lan Wangji is not always a good communicator.
Mingling with the other sect leaders as their host is technically less unpleasant than being at war, but only because it doesn't smell quite so bad and he got to sleep in his own bed last night.
He evades the attempts of the leaders of seven different minor sects to probe his opinions on the redistribution of territory formerly held by the Wen, responds politely to the extravagant compliments of four more that are all undoubtedly intended to flatter him into supporting them with regards to the same issue, and makes a beeline for Nie Mingjue for a moment of respite, because no-one attempts to play stupid political games around his new sworn brother.
"A-Cheng," Nie Mingjue says warmly.
"Da-ge," Jiang Cheng replies. "Nie-xiong," he adds, to Nie Huaisang.
"Thank you for your hospitality, er-ge," Nie Huaisang says.
"You are both always welcome, of course," Jiang Cheng replies.
They talk for as long as politeness permits Jiang Cheng to avoid going on to greet more people, which isn't long enough.
In his previous life, Jiang Cheng didn't really know Nie Mingjue very well. He had the impression of a blunt, straightforward sort of man, one who seemed caught under the joint influences of Jin Guangyao and Lan Xichen.
At the least, he knows him to be an honourable man, and Jiang Cheng's general distaste for the cultivation world at large is not sufficient reason to isolate the Jiang Sect without allies.
So when Nie Mingjue - fulsome in his praise for Jiang Cheng's strategic brilliance and the valiant efforts of the Jiang Sect throughout the war - suggested brotherhood, he accepted.
It is nice to know, going into the discussions ahead, that he has at least one ally in the room.
Not for the first time, Jiang Cheng reflects on the value of perspective. All of this is easier to handle than the aftermath of the Sunshot Campaign in his first life, after all.
He keeps that in mind as he turns to greet Sect Leader Zhou.
His mother is an impressive hostess. Only a day after she became aware that Lotus Pier would host the conference that followed the war, the sect leaders are able to sit to a banquet at which she plays the part of the mistress of Lotus Pier with the elegance of an empress, as if she hasn't spent the day working non-stop.
Jiang Cheng smiles when Nie Mingjue toasts the bravery of the three heroes of Yunmeng, and makes a point of draining his glass.
Jinzhu and Yinzhu are among the servants circling the room, keeping drinks well-supplied, and Jiang Cheng would be willing to bet that they have observed very carefully who did and did not drink fully to that toast.
Tonight it's just a banquet, in celebration of the end of the war. (Wen Qing and her brother did not attend.) Tomorrow the real tedium will begin; for now, he can try to enjoy himself.
But not too much. It's good to have his people around him, but he cannot dare look at Wei Ying when any of the guests are making ridiculous speeches. Wei Ying will be sitting there looking almost composed. If Jiang Cheng meets Wei Ying's eyes they'll both laugh, and it will cause great offense.
There are both benefits and drawbacks to having his brother around, but overall, it's definitely worth it.
Finally it's over, and the guests begin stagger off to their rooms. Jiang Cheng himself isn't drunk, but it's a matter of conscious choice and careful exercise of his golden core, and the net result of that is still that the hangover just hits faster, so he's looking forward to his bed.
"We've hardly seen him today," Wei Ying is saying morosely as the four of them - Wei Ying, Wangji, A-Jie and Jiang Cheng - walk towards the family wing. "He's not even going to know that -" He stops, and Jiang Cheng looks up.
Lan Xichen is standing outside the doors to the residence. He bows.
"My apologies for the lateness of the hour," he says. "I was hoping to speak to my brother. Our conversation was interrupted in the Nightless City."
There is a moment of silence in which everyone looks at Wangji.
"Should I stay?" Wei Ying asks.
"My brother may wish to speak privately," Wangji replies. "And it is already late."
Wei Ying nods. "I'll go to him. You'll come join us soon, won't you?"
Wangji smiles. "Of course."
Jiang Cheng does not miss the look of shock that passes across Lan Xichen's face when Wangji smiles.
Lan Zhan leads his brother to a pier that juts out into a lake. It's quiet here, and unlikely to disturb anyone who is trying to sleep.
"I see you know Lotus Pier well now," his brother says, in a neutral tone.
Lan Zhan doesn't answer. Lotus Pier has not changed in any substantial way since they left it, and he lived here for two years before that. It would suggest inadequacy on his part if he did not know Lotus Pier well.
Brother sighs. "I have wanted to speak to you for a long time now," he says. "Since before the war began."
He falls silent again, and Lan Zhan wonders what his brother expects him to say, or even wants him to say. He can think of nothing that needs to be said.
"I understand you are married now," Brother says at last.
"To Wei Wuxian."
"I thought you were... attached... to Jiang Wanyin."
"Never? At all?"
"When did you marry?"
"Before the war."
"You didn't invite me."
"You were missing. We could not."
"Then? While I was - that was after - have you seen what the Wen did to your home?" Brother asks, and Lan Zhan blinks, looking around.
"The damage was minimal, and has long been repaired," he says, and - his brother is angry, now.
"I meant," he says tightly, "the Cloud Recesses."
Lan Zhan looks at him. "I participated in the liberation of Gusu. I have seen the condition of the Cloud Recesses. The damage there was substantial."
"And that doesn't bother you?"
Lan Zhan knows his expression does not waver. "I told you that the defences were inadequate," he says evenly.
"I suppose you did," Brother says. "And since we didn't listen, I suppose too that the destruction of the place that sheltered you throughout your childhood is no longer your concern."
"I was beaten daily from the age of ten," Lan Zhan replies. Shelter implies safety.
There is a muscle jumping in Brother's jaw. Lan Zhan suspects that his brother is confused, and that that is making him angry, but he is unsure how to correct that confusion. He has tried many times to tell Brother the things that would allow him to understand, but he does not seem ever to have succeeded. Lan Zhan does not know what the source of his brother's confusion actually is.
"You were beaten because you refused to stop breaking the rules," his brother says bitterly. "You chose that, Wangji, it didn't just happen to you."
"Be a filial child. Morality is the priority. Love all beings. Do not hold grudges. Uphold the value of justice. Shoulder the weight of morality. These are the Disciplines of the Lan Sect. They are carved into the mountain. My choices were to be righteous or obedient, and I chose to be righteous. Years ago, Brother, I asked you. Who is just, and who is evil? Who is wrong, and who is right? Do you know even now?"
Brother, he observes, is shaking.
"Did Mother tell you she was innocent?" he asks tightly.
"Then how did you get that idea?" Brother demands. "Did you know she killed our father?"
Lan Zhan stares at him. "Mother did not kill Qingheng-Jun."
"She used locking talismans that can kill."
"She did not know they could do that when I gave them to her," Lan Zhan says, and Brother pales. "Those talismans will cause injury only to one who attempts beyond all reason to force them open. They are sturdy seals, and they give warnings. The first backlash is weak. Minor. They are designed to be strong protection. They are not a weapon. The power they return does not exceed that used in the attempt to break them. Have you even asked why Qingheng-Jun was attempting to force his way into her cottage, late in the night?"
"Brother," Lan Zhan cuts him off, tone cold. "Choose your words with care. I asked you long ago why the parent who loved us should not matter more than the one who did not. If you have not yet given true consideration to the crimes of Qingheng-Jun, I would urge you to do so before you speak of Tang Lijuan."
"She's my mother too."
"I am aware."
"Even if she was a prisoner, at least she was safe," Brother says through gritted teeth.
"She was not safe. The defences of the Cloud Recesses were inadequate," Lan Zhan replies calmly. "Now she is safe."
"How can you know that? You took her to the barbarian lands. How can you possibly know that she's safe when you're here?"
Lan Zhan blinks at him. "I did not take her to the barbarian lands. That was a deception for the benefit of the Lan Sect Elders." He is honestly surprised his brother was fully deceived.
"What?" Brother whispers. "You didn't - where is she?" He reaches for Lan Zhan as if to grab him, but Lan Zhan evades him. "Wangji!"
"Lan Huan," Mother says, from the shadows. "Don't attack your brother."
Brother freezes. Lan Zhan adjusts his position, stands not quite between them, watchful.
"All this time?" Brother whispers.
"You know he has never accepted being kept from me." Mother steps from the shadows, beautiful and ethereal in the moonlight.
"The Jiang Sect harboured a fugitive from the Lan." Lan Xichen's tone is dangerously flat, and Lan Zhan adjusts his grip on his sword. "We may have a grievance to express with Sect Leader Jiang."
"It was never the decision of the leader of the Jiang Sect." Mother is calm. "At first I remained here under the personal protection of one who was my friend before I married. Yu Ziyuan was pleased to learn I still lived."
"And now? Do you suggest that Jiang Wanyin does not know that you are here?"
"Now she is no longer a fugitive," Lan Zhan tells him. "There are no records of her having any tie to the Lan Sect, voluntary or involuntary. Her name appears in the archives only on my birth record, and I am no longer a member of the Lan Sect."
"You damaged the archives?"
"Of course not. The Wen did." Lan Zhan looks at him, suddenly almost too tired to stand, and represses a sigh. His brother is still so young. "Brother. Please. Speak to Uncle." He clearly has not done so, even now, and there are things that he will not understand, will not hear if Lan Zhan is the one who attempts to tell him.
"Fine." Lan Xichen almost spits the word. "Lan Wangji." He bows precisely enough for it to be, at best, deliberately passive-aggressive, and Lan Zhan returns the gesture with equal precision.
"Zewu-Jun," he replies.
"Lan Huan," Mother says, before he can do it to her. "Come here."
He hesitates, but he obeys, and Mother tugs on his robes until he bends far enough for her to kiss his forehead, then straightens his ribbon - it was already straight, but it's a deliberate and emphatic gesture, the reminder that she can.
"Lan Huan," Mother says gently. "Things have been very difficult. Please be gentle with yourself. I know you are doing your best."
"You wouldn't come back to Gusu if I asked, would you," he doesn't quite ask.
Mother smiles sadly. "No. Never."
Brother closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. "Very well," he says quietly. "I can find my own way back to my room."
Lan Zhan watches his brother walk away.
His mother rests her hand on his shoulder. "He is trying. We left him behind, A-Zhan," she says softly.
"He wouldn't have been willing to come with us."
"No, he wouldn't." She squeezes. "So he must walk his own path to reach us again."
"Do you think he will?" He misses his brother. He has missed him for much, much more than a lifetime.
"I do." She tugs him around, pulls him down to kiss his cheek. "Go to bed, my A-Zhan."
He smiles, just a little. "Yes, Mother. Goodnight."
Lan Zhan walks back towards the residence of the family of the Jiang Sect Leader, where his husband and son await. He hears his mother's voice again, but she is not speaking to him; she speaks very softly, but his hearing is very, very good, and sound carries well near water. He walks slightly faster.
"Lan Huan always adored his little brother. I fear this is my fault," his mother says.
"I think Lan Zhan knows his own mind best, and his choices are deliberate," comes a reply, and Lan Zhan identifies the voice of Madam Yu. "You did well with him."
"Lan Qiren raised him at least as much as I did." His mother sounds like she's smiling.
"No doubt, but I am ever unwilling to grant that man credit for anything." Madam Yu sounds amused. "Come to bed."
Lan Zhan, halfway around the corner to turn around the walls, freezes, just for a moment, at her wording.
As if he is being controlled by some outside force, he finds his head turning to look back.
His mother is standing where he left her. Madam Yu has indeed joined her there. He suspects that she was waiting in the shadows - after all, she said years before that Mother was under her protection, and there are Lan in Lotus Pier.
His mother and Wanyin's mother are standing together in the moonlight. The scene is breathtaking; the pier that stands out into a lake filled with lotus blossoms, two women, both beautiful and elegant in dress and pose. Grace and tenderness in the way they lean together, in the way they kiss.
And Madam Yu.
Lan Zhan forces himself to walk on.
Wei Ying is in bed, but waiting for him. Their son is asleep in the next room. Lan Zhan allows himself to set aside his concerns and his shock, to lose himself in Wei Ying, in the joy and satisfaction of wringing Wei Ying's pleasure from him, of thereby taking his own.
But afterwards, he lies awake for some time, even when Wei Ying is sleeping soundly in his arms.
His mother and Madam Yu.
The next morning he is woken by a small voice and the sensation of someone tugging on the blanket that covers them.
Wei Ying is stirring.
Lan Zhan is rapidly realising that some changes to their habits will be required.
"Go back into your room for a moment, please, A-Yuan," Lan Zhan says quietly, though he has little hope that he can keep Wei Ying from waking.
"Baba-gege, A-Yuan hungry," their son says plaintively.
"I will come and get you breakfast," Lan Zhan assures him. "Go into the next room, please."
"Next room," A-Yuan says sadly, but he toddles out.
"Wen Qing tried to warn us," Wei Ying says sleepily as Lan Zhan extricates himself from the bed.
"Go back to sleep," Lan Zhan tells him, hastily pulling on clothes.
"No, I'll get up," Wei Ying says. "He needs to see us to understand that we're a family now."
Lan Zhan considers that, then nods and passes him his clothes.
"Baba-gege!" A-Yuan exclaims when they emerge from the bedroom.
"Close, but not quite," Wei Ying says, smiling and picking him up. "Baba is not gege. I'll take him to wash and so on, Lan Zhan."
Lan Zhan goes into the box of supplies for him that appeared from... somewhere. Presumably his mother or Madam Yu was involved. (Or both of them, he thinks. Did he imagine it?)
By the time Wei Ying returns, Lan Zhan has assembled a complete and appropriate outfit for the day, and they endeavour jointly to get A-Yuan dressed in it. It is a moderate challenge; he is squirmy and easily distracted.
"Baba-gege no!" he giggles, when Wei Ying, smiling, tickles his feet instead of just pulling his little shoes on.
"Baba is not gege," Wei Ying repeats, and A-Yuan frowns at that.
"Just baba." A-Yuan is dressed, and Wei Ying picks him up again. "Baba," he says, pointing to himself. "Fuqin," he adds, pointing to Lan Zhan.
A-Yuan blinks at them. "Baba," he says doubtfully. "Fu - fuqin."
"Brilliant." Wei Ying smiles radiantly. "Lan Zhan, our son is so clever, don't you think?"
"Yes." Lan Zhan's cheeks ache from smiling.
In the kitchens, preparations for serving breakfast to the sect and guests are at quite an early stage, but Auntie Four, who runs the morning kitchen, sees them and smiles.
"Ah, the handsome young master," she says. "We've missed you, these long years of war. And who's this?" she asks, tone arch, looking at Wei Ying. "I'm sure it can't be little Wei Ying, who has not been seen this early in the morning since he was tall enough to see over the counters."
Wei Ying laughs. "Hello, Auntie Four," he says, with the best approximation of a bow he can make with their son in his arms. "This unworthy disciple is most apologetic for his long absence, but returns to plead for food for his child."
Auntie Four's eyes narrow. "I hope you don't think that you'll leave here without eating yourself, do you? You're far too thin, Wei Ying, if you turned sideways I wouldn't see you at all. Sit. Eat."
"Lan Zhan and I will be expected at breakfast!"
"And you can eat at that too," Auntie Four says implacably. "It will do you good."
A space is cleared for them at one of the long work-tables, and there is food; still-warm remnants from the breakfast of the aunties and servants, and then some of the first servings of the dishes being prepared for breakfast in the main dining hall.
Lan Zhan eats lightly in between assisting A-Yuan to eat. Auntie Four will disapprove if he does not eat at all, but he will have to eat at the formal breakfast; people will be watching him, because he is still a curiosity. The younger brother of Sect Leader Lan, who takes his place beside Sect Leader Jiang.
The day will be tedious, but there is a comfort for Lan Zhan in knowing that the weeks and months ahead will still be better than they were in his previous life.
Most of all, in knowing that Wei Ying is here, and he is safe.
Wei Ying considers himself highly fortunate: Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan are attending the meetings to represent the Jiang Sect, and Wei Ying, it has been decided, does not have to.
Today he will spend the day with his son, doing... father things.
It is possible that somewhere in between Lan Zhan would be a such a good father and wouldn't it be wonderful to have a little one what he failed to consider was would I be a good father or do I have the faintest idea what to do with a child?
The idea that he is being left with responsibility for this child really seems like someone must have made a mistake.
Fortunately, he has several advantages.
One is that he is a cultivator and quite a good one, so when he's walking along the pier with A-Yuan, and A-Yuan sees ducks landing on the water and suddenly breaks away to run towards them, Wei Ying is fast enough to catch him before he pitches over the edge.
No-one saw anything, it's fine.
(A-Yuan needs to learn to swim, but Wei Ying can't possibly teach him alone. What if Wei Ying himself slips and hits his head and loses consciousness and A-Yuan drowns? What if Wei Ying suddenly forgets how to swim and A-Yuan drowns? Swimming alone is not advisable. He might consider it if it was just him, but A-Yuan - no risks can be taken.)
Another is that he has people around to help him know what to do. His mother-in-law has explained Tucking In For Sleep, for example, and has told him that he can call on her any time if he needs a break.
Not that he's going to need a break. He's a father now, he's going to be very responsible and do father things.
Today he's going to address their lack of adequate parenting supplies. A little bed and children's clothes appeared magically in the outer room of their quarters courtesy of the Jiang Sect's stores - they're probably going to move to different quarters, but everyone has other priorities right now - but they don't, for example, have toys yet.
So after his morning nap Wei Ying takes A-Yuan to town to buy some.
They pick out grass butterflies and toy swords (two, so they can fight, obviously), and then A-Yuan looks thoughtfully at the sword and says, "Baba fly?"
"Well," Wei Ying says. "Not with that one."
But it's not like he left Suibian behind.
And A-Yuan screams with delight in his arms when Wei Ying turns loops in the sky and then crouches to do barrel-rolls and skims so low over the river that Suibian is brushing the surface of the water and the water arcs impressively behind them.
After all, what's the point of working on your cultivation skills your whole life if you're not going to use them? Wei Ying is doing great at fatherhood.
He's confident of that right up until they go home for lunch, and A-Yuan's incoherently enthusiastic recounting of their day so far - it has words here and there, but it's mostly excited noises and running around using his toy sword to demonstrate - results in identical appalled stares from his mother-in-law and Madam Yu.
Madam Yu draws a deep breath like she's going to start shouting at him, but then snaps her mouth closed with a glance at A-Yuan.
Mother pats her hand. "I'll talk to him," she says. "When A-Yuan has his afternoon nap."
Apparently you're not supposed to do things that could hypothetically be very dangerous with your kids, which... doesn't entirely make sense, Wei Ying thinks, because he's pretty sure his parents were taking him on night-hunts when he was A-Yuan's age. Not all of them, of course, but some of them, and even the tamest night-hunt is more dangerous than that flight was.
But when he says as much, his mother-in-law looks sort of upset.
"Wei Ying," she says gently. "Your parents shouldn't have taken you night-hunting. They also shouldn't have left you behind with no-one to take care of you."
Wei Ying smiles. "I was fine, though."
"No, Wei Ying, you weren't," she says, with a gentle sincerity that hurts. "What would have happened if the Jiangs hadn't found you?"
"I would have -" been okay, he wants to say, but he can't, in the face of her sad, steady gaze.
He kind of wants to cry, actually.
"What do I do?" he asks.
She cups his cheek. "Take care of your son and keep him safe. Allow A-Zhan to do the same for both of you."
"Lan Zhan has much more important things to do than look after me," Wei Ying says, with a half-hearted laugh.
"No, Wei Ying. He doesn't."
That evening Jiang Cheng comes back to their rooms with Lan Zhan. Wei Ying asks how the day went; Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes and Lan Zhan presses his lips together like he's consciously not saying anything.
"Put it this way," Jiang Cheng says. "I'm considering running away to become a rogue cultivator and naming Wei Yuan as the heir to the Jiang Sect."
A-Yuan looks up from his sword battle with Lan Zhan. (Lan Zhan is sitting on the floor, fending off A-Yuan's wild, flailing attacks with an utterly serious expression that is too cute for Wei Ying to look at for too long at a time without some important organ melting. It's bad enough that Lan Zhan has been smiling so much lately. Wei Ying is in real danger.)
"Shufu not run," A-Yuan says, frowning. "No running near water."
Jiang Cheng smiles. "Well then I guess I'm staying."
The next day of discussions begin, and Jiang Cheng looks forward to accomplishing exactly fucking nothing again, but it turns out he's wrong.
Nie Mingjue stands to speak.
"Yesterday's meetings were a waste of everyone's time," he says flatly. "Nothing was decided, and nothing was accomplished. It was pointed out to me that this council lacks direction because it lacks leadership. I think that the first order of business must be the selection of a new Chief Cultivator who can provide proper guidance. Does anyone disagree?" He looks around the room dourly. "It is of course a weighty responsibility. A challenging role, in such a difficult time. The selection should be considered carefully. We require a candidate with energy. Vision. One who can see the whole battlefield, not merely what lies before him. One who has demonstrated the capacity to rise to unexpected burdens of responsibility."
He sits again. Jiang Cheng thinks to himself that Nie Mingjue is not wrong, exactly, but he's not looking forward to dealing with some of the more unpleasant sect leaders as Chief Cultivator, either.
Sect Leader Chang stands and glances around. "It is a strange time in our world," he says. "There were so many casualties among our number in the war. There are few who remain who retain the wisdom of age and experience. Should this not be a factor in our consideration?"
As he resumes his seat, Jiang Cheng suspects it is lost on no-one that Sect Leader Chang, odious little man that he might be, is one of the oldest sect leaders present.
There is a long silence, and then Lan Qiren stands. (Lan Xichen is there, but both yesterday and today he has sat in silence, making eye contact with no-one.)
"Sect Leader Nie is very wise," he says, and makes absolutely no comment about Sect Leader Chang. "I think perhaps it would be appropriate, at this time, to acknowledge that almost every man here, save only a very few, has been my student, to a greater or lesser degree of diligence." He casts a teacher's eye around the room, and even now, several sect leaders avert their gaze. "I assure you that even some among the youngest now here were among the most exemplary of my students. It seems that the youngest can still be disciplined and attentive, and display a breadth of understanding well suited to the guidance of our whole efforts."
Jiang Cheng ruthlessly suppresses a smile, because that seems extremely pointed, and he's starting to wonder if, once again, the position is going to fall to Wangji.
In their previous lives, Hanguang-Jun did, Jiang Cheng will admit, make a pretty good Chief Cultivator. He tolerated absolutely no nonsense, and demanded that the sects behave as righteously as they were capable of. He knows the man never wanted the job, but there weren't really other candidates. Lan Xichen was in seclusion, Nie Huaisang was the Head-Shaker, Jin Ling was too young and too hot-tempered (probably Jiang Cheng's fault), Jiang Cheng was too angry and also, it was widely believed, inclined to kidnap and torture people. The leaders of the minor sects would not accept the elevation of one of their number unless it was themselves, and it couldn't be all of them. Lan Qiren held the position for some years, but eventually his health failed, and then it had been Hanguang-Jun almost by default.
Jiang Cheng should probably intervene - as his sect leader - if someone actually mentions Wangji's name. He is absolutely certain that what Wangji actually wants for the next few years is entirely Wei-related; raising Wei Yuan, and doing unspeakable things Jiang Cheng doesn't want to know about to Wei Ying.
Sect Leader Ouyang rises next. "I propose the nomination of Sect Leader Jiang," he says, and Jiang Cheng almost chokes on air. "Those of us who have held our positions since before the outbreak of war undoubtedly remember his invaluable guidance and insight. It would be fortunate indeed if we were blessed with his wisdom and leadership now as we look to move past this turbulent time. He was raised to the leadership of the eminent Jiang Sect most unexpectedly, yet assumed his duties without hesitation or error."
Nie Mingjue stands again, and Jiang Cheng expects him to restore the room to sanity.
"With the greatest respect," he says, "perhaps Sect Leader Jiang and his deputy should leave the room, in order that all others present may speak freely, without fear of giving offence to our hosts."
Jiang Cheng will also accept the restoration of sanity without him being in the room in case he is offended. He knows this is a terrible idea, but he doesn't really feel the need to sit there while people gently explain why to poor Sect Leader Ouyang, whose Baling home is close enough to Yunmeng that he undoubtedly felt wholly obligated to nominate Jiang Cheng.
Even though Jiang Cheng is barely an adult in the eyes of others.
He and Wangji go outside.
"What did you think when you got elected?" he asks curiously (and very quietly), because suddenly he's wondering.
Wangji purses his lips slightly. "I found it wholly unsurprising that they would hound my zhiyin to his death, blame him for the crimes of others, repeat the attempt even after he saved their lives, harangue my uncle into an early grave and then ask me to clean up their mess."
Jiang Cheng blinks. That's one way to look at it, he supposes. "Zhiyin?"
Wangji glances at him. "Yes."
"He really was, wasn't he." Jiang Cheng has an ache in his chest that might be envy and might be guilt or might just be sympathy.
"He still is."
A long silence.
"They said you killed him personally," Wangji says, almost inaudibly, and Jiang Cheng feels ice run down his spine. "You should know that I never believed it."
Jiang Cheng remembers finding Wei Wuxian at the Burial Mounds. Jiang Cheng expected... something other than what he found, because what he found was Wei Wuxian sitting outside his cave, staring at the Stygian Tiger Seal, already corpse-pale. Up on the plateau, it was quiet, but Jiang Cheng knew it wouldn't last.
"Wei Wuxian!" he'd shouted. He'd been so angry, so filled with grief and rage and loss, layered on top of burning shame. He'd gone to the pledge conference because he didn't dare oppose the united will of the Jin, Lan and Nie when his sect was still so weak. He hadn't expected that Wei Wuxian would be there, or that his sister would.
He'd just wanted to get through it. To stay afloat in the raging flood that had become his life, not watch it wash his family away.
Bad enough to shame himself so, worse for the two people who actually mattered to see him do it. Catastrophic that his sister had paid the price for the recklessness of others.
"Get lost," Wei Wuxian had said.
"Fuck you," Jiang Cheng had snarled. "Do you want to die?" The other sects were coming. Jiang Cheng got there first, the benefit of having been there before, but there were thousands of people fighting their way through the endless corpses below.
And then Wei Wuxian had laughed, an awful, cracking sound. "Yes," he'd said. "But I want you to live. This has to end. So stay back. Goodbye, Jiang Cheng."
He'd blown notes on that fucking flute, till the ground had surged, a wave of corpses rising beneath Jiang Cheng's feet - that didn't attack him, that just forced him back and away, and no matter how hard he fought to cut them down there were always more.
Still he'd fought, with desperate strength. He didn't see what happened ahead of him, but there was an awful noise, an explosion, and then a shudder rippled across the horde of corpses and they'd turned.
Jiang Cheng had fought, and fought, and fought. He heard that damn flute and then it stopped, and he'd almost had hope, because Wei Wuxian didn't make another sound, he didn't scream... but by the time Jiang Cheng reached where he'd been, he knew Wei Wuxian was dead. The corpses had turned on Jiang Cheng too.
He'd knocked them back with Zidian - too exhausted to destroy them at a strike like he should have - and reached down with a shaking hand to pick up that fucking flute. Fresh blood on his fingers, blood on the flute, scraps of cloth and the torn fragments of the second-last member of his family.
And then walked out, past the crowds of cultivators who'd come there to kill, and he'd gone to Jinlintai and taken his nephew home. Chenqing in his belt, leaving streaks of his brother's blood on his robes. Everyone who saw him looked at that, and at his face, and no-one dared to refuse him.
"Thank you," he says now. "You were right. I didn't."
After a while Nie Huaisang emerges to invite Jiang Cheng back into his own hall.
"We have reached agreement, Your Excellency," Jin Zixuan says, and Jiang Cheng wonders if this is what qi deviation actually feels like.
Lan Zhan steps forward as Wanyin freezes. "Sect Leader Jiang is flattered by your confidence," he says, smoothly deferential. "If this humble disciple may be permitted to make a suggestion, perhaps the council should recess early, and resume its deliberations after lunch. To do so would afford Sect Leader Jiang the opportunity to give true and serious consideration to the great honour and obligation that is presented."
"Of course," Nie Mingjue says, before anyone else can react. "Quite reasonable," he adds, and glares at the room, which prompts a murmur of assent.
The sect leaders file out, through the main doors, and Lan Zhan hustles Wanyin as unobtrusively as he can through the concealed doors behind the lotus throne. There are passages the servants use by which he can get his sect leader back to the family residence wing without having to pass or be seen by outsiders, and right now that seems like a good idea.
"What the fuck," Wanyin bites out as soon as they're far enough away to be confident they won't be overheard.
"It is rather like that," Lan Zhan says sympathetically.
"No, seriously, what the fuck," Jiang Cheng says as they emerge into sunlight.
"A-Cheng!" Madam Yu snaps, because apparently she was in the courtyard - with her maids, and Mother, and Wei Ying, and A-Yuan.
"Sorry, Mother," Wanyin says automatically.
"What the fuck?" A-Yuan queries, and Lan Zhan catches Wanyin's wrist before his hand hits his face.
Too strong a reaction to such language from a child, Lan Zhan is aware, will only encourage him. "Your shufu has received a great shock," he tells A-Yuan seriously. "Those words are only to be used in extremity."
"Extremity," A-Yuan repeats. "What extremity?"
It is, perhaps, cruel of Lan Zhan to elaborate in front of Wanyin's mother, since his hopes of evading such a burdensome position will be destroyed, but Lan Zhan has every intention of assisting him, and there is no other candidate he would prefer to trust with the role. "Your shufu has been offered the position of Chief Cultivator," Lan Zhan explains to his son. "It is very important."
Madam Yu gasps. "A-Cheng. Have you really?" she says.
"Jiang Cheng, that's great!" Wei Ying exclaims. "Wow! Uncle Jiang would be so proud of you," he says, smiling but teary-eyed, and Wanyin sighs.
"I am proud of you," Madam Yu says fiercely, and crosses to embrace him tightly.
Wanyin glares at Lan Zhan over her shoulder.
"I will do all that I can to assist you," Lan Zhan promises.
He learned so much the hard way; his plans are already forming.
When they resume that afternoon, Jiang Cheng has a paperman talisman tucked invisibly into the collar of his robe.
Because apparently now he wants Lan Wangji to be able to talk to him without anyone being aware of it, which somehow seems even more improbable than that they began their lives over again in the first place.
Let them argue for a time, Wangji whispers, as four different minor sect leaders whose borders are near to Qishan disagree at increasing volume about territorial adjustments for the Wen. Wen Qing watches impassively; her brother looks pale and nervous.
Observe, Wangji continues. Lan Xichen winces when they shout. Nie Mingjue is growing more impatient. Lan Qiren disapproves of their behaviour. The leaders of sects whose borders are not near theirs wish this discussion to end. The leaders of sects whose borders are close are becoming alarmed by their greed. When the others have tired of them enough, every one of them will be grateful for it when you silence them and give a firm ruling. None will dare to argue.
Jiang Cheng remembers waiting through tiresome disagreements at Discussion Conferences while Hanguang-Jun, seemingly unperturbed, just sat there.
He was relieved when Hanguang-Jun would make a decision and end the debate. If it didn't affect the Jiang or Jin or their territories he didn't always pay attention to what the decision even was. He just assumed that the great Hanguang-Jun had listened attentively to the arguments for either side and made his decision accordingly.
Jiang Cheng glances sideways.
Wangji appears to be paying attention to the speakers, but his gaze flickers subtly around the room.
Now, Wangji whispers, just as Nie Huaisang sighs audibly.
"Enough," Jiang Cheng says. "The disputed territory fell within the purview of the Niu clan until it was annexed by Wen Ruohan. While it is true that the Niu are in a diminished state, it is my view that this council should permit them the opportunity to re-establish themselves, and intervene to redraw boundaries only if they are unable to provide appropriate protection to the people resident there."
"Agreed," Nie Mingjue says instantly. "Does anyone object?"
No-one, it seems, objects.
Wangji consults the papers in front of him. (Jiang Cheng is absolutely certain he did not need to.) "Next is the matter of the region formerly protected by the Yao Sect."
As the day progresses and they become tired and hungry, you can go faster.
This might not actually be as bad as Jiang Cheng feared.
Throughout the afternoon, Wangji whispers his guidance. He never tells Jiang Cheng what his decisions should be, but he gives his recommendations as to how Jiang Cheng should manage the meeting itself, and draws his attention to signs to look for in the behaviour of the various sect leaders.
When the meeting disperses to prepare for the evening meal, Jiang Cheng's curiosity overwhelms him; he pulls Wangji aside into the first available room and puts up a silencing talisman.
"I have to know," he says. "How did you learn how to do all that?"
Wangji has a tiny smile, soft and warm. "Wei Ying taught me," he says. "He would do the same for me, with the talisman."
Jiang Cheng can feel his jaw drop. "He - him? We all thought he was just - just hanging off you flaunting that -" He stops. Wangji's tiny smile has become a smirk.
"Yes," he says. "You did. And they will believe that I am merely your adjutant, keeping notes for you and assisting you with the schedule. If you wish it, I will manage your appointments. If permitted unfettered access to the Chief Cultivator, unworthy petitioners will waste a great deal of your time."
"Manage them how?"
Wangji straightens, assembles the image of perfect, disinterested composure that so infuriated Jiang Cheng every time he encountered Hanguang-Jun for years. "Those who wish to speak to His Excellency must provide a reason," he says in the flattest of tones.
Jiang Cheng blinks.
He imagines trying to explain himself to Hanguang-Jun at his most offensively disengaged. Hanguang-Jun was all attention to those he considered worthy, but when Jiang Cheng wasn't on that list (and he usually wasn't), even speaking to that asshole was intolerable.
He can feel the smile that's starting to spread on his own face.
When he chooses to be, Lan Wangji is the single most obnoxious person Jiang Cheng has ever met, and he grew up with Wei Wuxian. He interacted with Jin Guangshan and Wen Chao.
Jiang Cheng could really get to like having that power on his side.
I saw that some people have apparently claimed that Lan Wangji is neither rude nor petty and those people can fight me.
Word meaning note: zhiyin (知音) is a word similar to zhiji (知己), and apparently used quite interchangeably with it, but it is a bit more literary/artistic, and where zhiji is often translated as "soulmate" but is actually more than that, zhiyin is just as meaningful, but in a literary/artistic and musical way.
There's a real analysis of these words here that I recommend, but the short version is that where zhiji is the one who knows me, zhiyin might be expressed as the one who knows the melody of my heart.
Only still, like... more meaningful than that. These are not terms that translate to English, which is why I'm using the Chinese, because an eternal frustration of trying to write love in English is that English is not actually very well-suited to it. English is excellent for nuance and precision, it is quite terrible for expressing powerful feelings. It's a scalpel of a language, which is a problem when what you want is heavy artillery.
It still takes time to get through it all, but the issues start getting resolved.
The minor sects in the vicinity of Qishan will be permitted to re-establish themselves. The Wen themselves, their territory reduced and their influence limited, will reform under their new leader, Wen Qing. (She argued that male succession was the custom of the Wen; Jiang Cheng pointed out that her brother was unlikely to display the force of will the Wen would need in the immediate future. Wen Qing replied that she had work to do. Jiang Cheng suggested that when Wen Qionglin was ready, or at least the position of the Wen was more secure, she could pass her responsibilities to him. Neither mentions that they are themselves still betrothed.)
Various minor disputes are settled. The issue of financial reparations is raised; Jiang Cheng successfully pushes back the issue of the Wen paying the other sects and gets agreement upon the cultivation sects, collectively (including the Wen), making contributions to the repair of the agricultural interests in the region devastated by war and the return of its population to their homes, because he's aware, at least, that things are going to be a little lean around the country as it is, for a little while, and mass starvation will not make anything better for anyone.
Along the way he pledges the aid of the Yunmeng Jiang Sect in the reconstruction of the Cloud Recesses as a means of derailing the argument about damages inflicted by the Wen, but that's fine. (His mother isn't particularly pleased by that, but she recognises the political purpose, and overall his mother is very happy indeed. He is the Chief Cultivator, still betrothed to Wen Qing, whom his mother seems to adore, and his mother is still smiling fondly at Tang Lijuan in ways he doesn't dare ask about.)
The cultivators and disciples of the Jiang Sect have also begun to arrive back at Lotus Pier. His third and fifth shishus have been marshalling the main host of the Jiang forces home; the older cultivators could have been expected to fly back in short order, but the younger ones are not yet capable of such a journey.
Having seniors he can trust feels like an unimaginable luxury. Having Elders of his own sect is strange and could, in theory, be troublesome, but his mother represents an as-yet impassable barrier between any complaints they might have and Jiang Cheng himself. (Having his mother is also an unimaginable luxury - for many reasons, among them that the duties of the mistress of Lotus Pier remain hers, where once he had to do everything himself.)
He will accept criticism or censure from his mother, because she is his mother; she has little of it anyway, these days. She wants him to be strong, and he is. She wants him to be a leader, and he is. The Jiang Sect have emerged from the Sunshot Campaign in a powerful position, because Jiang Cheng learned warfare the hard way last time.
This time he remembered that the war was one of painful attrition, that mobilisation ended up so total that children took to the battlefields. In the early stages of the conflict Jiang Cheng was circumspect, tactically cautious, always at the front to take full advantage of his own skill with both Sandu and Zidian. The Jiang Sect took far fewer casualties than other allied sects; their progress was slower, at first, but he kept his people alive.
After a time, he was able to be more aggressive, because the preservation of his forces of senior cultivators meant the Jiang had the significant and growing advantage: skilled, experienced cultivators against youths who lacked their edge.
By the end of the war, the Jiang Sect were without question pre-eminent in force, power, and effectiveness. They were the vanguard of the main battlefront, and it was Jiang disciples - Wangji and Wei Ying - who so often went to the places where the battle was most dire and turned the tide in favour of the allies.
Jiang Cheng is not surprised that he has become known as Sandu Shengshou again. He's slightly surprised that Wangji is still simply Lan Wangji to the world at large, but it does make a certain kind of sense. No-one is anxious to bestow a title on the former Second Jade of Lan, who defected from his own sect to join another. The prestige of the Jiang and his heroism notwithstanding, there will be many who still view him as little better than a rogue cultivator.
And Wei Ying is still Wei Ying, still too unserious for many of the cultivation world to approve of, quite.
No matter how much of a debt they owe to him. Jiang Cheng doesn't really care any more; they won't harm him, Jiang Cheng won't let them, and Wei Ying is happy enough so long as his own people love him, and he still has Wangji, and A-Jie, and A-Yuan and Tang Lijuan and their shidis and the rest of their sect.
And Jiang Cheng.
So his lack of a title probably won't actually bother him. Jiang Cheng never got the sense he even liked his old one, and this Wei Ying doesn't know he had it.
The leaders of the other sects begin to leave. Many of them seek private appointments with him first. Very few of them manage to get them.
Jiang Cheng watches from the shadows at the back of the hall as Wangji disposes of a queue of petitioners. (He didn't intend to. He came in via the back entrance and, thankfully, realised someone else was there before he drew attention to himself.)
Wangji is kneeling at a desk with flawless posture, a brush in his hand moving smoothly across the paper. Jiang Cheng can't see his face, but he's more than familiar with the look of blank disinterest he's sure to be wearing.
"- to the Chief Cultivator," Sect Leader Cao is saying, with a pompous air. "It's very important."
"Of course. And what is it regarding?" Wangji asks in a tone that is somehow both extremely polite and wholly devoid of any suggestion that he actually cares.
"I wish to congratulate his Excellency on his ascension to his exalted role!" Sect Leader Cao says.
Wangji sets his current paper aside, pulls a new one in front of him, and writes something.
"I will convey your message," he says, still utterly polite. "Was there more?"
He looks up at Sect Leader Cao, perfectly poised and still, as if he is prepared to wait all day if necessary.
"Not... as such," Sect Leader Cao hedges.
Wangji makes another note on the paper and sets it aside, then returns to the sheet he was working on previously.
Sect Leader Cao stares at him for a time, and then walks slowly from the hall.
Three more sect leaders follow him without even bothering to speak to Wangji.
The next man in line actually kneels across from Wangji and leans forward a little.
"If you please, Lan-er-gongzi, I would like to speak to the Chief Cultivator," he says. Jiang Cheng can barely hear him.
"Of course. And what is it regarding?" Wangji asks, in the same tone as before.
The man - he's vaguely familiar, Jiang Cheng's trying to place him - looks around at the others in the hall, and swallows.
Wordlessly, Wangji passes across a fresh sheet of paper and his brush.
The man writes something, and passes both items back. Wangji glances at the page, then folds the paper crisply and tucks it in his sleeve.
"Tomorrow morning, after breakfast," Wangji says. "If you return to your rooms, one will be sent to show you to his Excellency."
"Thank you, Lan-er-gongzi," the man says, and leaves.
Another steps forward. Jiang Cheng watches, fascinated, as the man stands, clearly waiting for Wangji to acknowledge him. Wangji simply continues writing.
He gets to the end of a page, and begins another.
The thing is, Jiang Cheng realises, that to register outrage at his rudeness would be politically difficult. The status of the adjutant of the Chief Cultivator is high, and complaints might risk offending the Jiang.
But Lan Wangji in particular was brought up as a Lan, and they also might take offence.
And he is still Lan Wangji, who can be unforgivably rude to you and still somehow make you feel like the clumsy oaf who was being unconscionably ill-mannered. It's a gift of his.
And technically the man has made no overt sound or signal, and it is just barely plausible that Wangji has not realised he is there.
If you don't know him very well.
Someone near the doors snickers, and the man standing in front of Wangji starts to turn red.
Lan Wangji keeps writing.
Jiang Cheng slips from the hall. Wangji will apparently be busy for a while.
That evening, he asks if he's supposed to hide from people who want to talk to him, since he doesn't intend to stay restricted to the residence at Lotus Pier forever.
Wangji smiles faintly. "If they accost you, I would recommend that you tell them they should see me for an appointment," he says. "Before too long it should be well-established that the experience of addressing meritless claims on your time to me is unpleasant."
"I feel like I should object to the suggestion that anything about you is unpleasant," Wei Ying says. "But at the same time, of course you would be unpleasant if you chose to be. You're good at everything."
Jiang Cheng rolls his eyes. "If you want to flirt with your husband, how about you give me my nephew first. A-Yuan can eat in the hall with his shufu, and you can be disgusting all you want."
"You know, that's a great idea," Wei Ying says, with a smile about two levels wider than Jiang Cheng really wants it to be. "A-Yuan, do you want to go eat with shufu?"
"Hungry," A-Yuan says agreeably, pulling himself to his feet by Wangji's robes. He comes over to Jiang Cheng and reaches up. Jiang Cheng doesn't fight his smile as he picks the kid up and settles him on his hip.
It's good to have a nephew again.
Even better to have a nephew who still has parents of his own. He gets to give the kid back when he's cranky, and Jiang Cheng himself is not struggling with his own catastrophic feelings of grief and loss, which really does make nephew time a lot more fun.
Finally the guests have all departed. Good news: Lotus Pier can relax. Bad news: Wei Ying and Jiang Cheng can no longer sneak around the rooftops in the evenings to watch Jin Zixuan take walks along the piers with A-Jie and attempt to pay her unbelievably awkward compliments. Good news: They no longer have to watch Jin Zixuan frequently fail utterly even to force words out at all. Bad news: That was hilarious.
Jiang Cheng is a Sect Leader again, and also now the Chief Cultivator, but he has the heart of a little brother, and he knows it, and he knows that it will always belong to A-Jie.
She caught them twice, and they are both very fortunate that she still thinks they're cute.
Jiang Cheng gets the disciples back into a proper routine for training, and takes trips out to the towns and villages of Yunmeng to check in on the local leaders - many of whom he's never previously had the chance to visit, so it's long overdue - and catches up on sleep.
And then he supervises the loading of a string of barges with lumber, and supplies, and Lotus Pier's master carpenter and several of his apprentices, and sets off for Gusu.
The river is not the most direct route, but it's the easiest by a significant margin with this much materiel to shift.
Jiang Cheng is drawing more from Lotus Pier's lumber stores than he'd normally be particularly happy about, but he reminds himself just how many well-trained Jiang disciples he still has at his disposal. He'll have more than enough to dredge the riverbed properly this year through all of Yunmeng and beyond, and in his previous life this year the spring flooding wasn't too severe even though he had had to try and clear the silt buildup alone after it had been neglected throughout the war.
He'll attend to it every year, of course, as is his duty, but three, eight, and thirty-one years from now they'll want to be ready to go deeper than usual, and further along the river in both directions.
Jiang Cheng was born to be the leader of the Yunmeng Jiang, and he tracks the turning of the years by the slow beats of the river's heart.
Even with propelling talismans, it takes almost a week before they're turning up the narrow tributary that runs through the heart of Gusu. It's slower going as the waterway narrows, but with caution and careful steering they can get the barges as far as Caiyi before they have to unload them and go over land.
The Lan meet them there with wagons, but they'll have to carry it all up the steps on foot.
The Cloud Recesses are beautiful - well, they were, and they will be again - but there are ways in which they're less than practical.
It would have been helpful if he could have brought Wangji, who demonstrated his tireless strength while they were loading the barges, but politically speaking that would have been difficult. Jiang Cheng has a definite impression that Wangji, at least, does not think he would be welcome here.
In his previous life Jiang Cheng would never have considered spending this long away from Lotus Pier outside of wartime. Every so often he has a moment of anxiety about it. He has to remind himself that Lotus Pier will be fine - his mother, his sister, Wei Ying and Wangji are there, with Jiang Cheng's disciples, and some of his father's disciples, and even a few of his grandfather's disciples.
Lotus Pier is secure.
He hefts a load of lumber to his shoulder and sets off up the mountain.
It's been over two years since the liberation of Gusu.
The ash has been swept away. The forests are growing back. Much of the rubble has been cleared away, though stacks of scorched, broken wood can be seen in many places.
Many of the buildings are still ruins. During the war, there was little opportunity to rebuild.
"Your Excellency," Sect Leader Lan says, bowing. "The Gusu Lan are most thankful for your assistance."
"The damage to the Cloud Recesses was a great loss to all of us," Jiang Cheng replies, returning the bow. "The Jiang Sect is pleased to have this opportunity."
And then they set to work.
Jiang Cheng is no craftsman, but a Jiang Sect Leader does not ask his people to do anything he is unwilling to do himself, so he lifts and carries and hauls along with his disciples, healing his blisters with spiritual energy.
The Cloud Recesses begin to rise again.
They set light talismans and work into the evenings. What took centuries to build and hours to destroy will in all likelihood take years to restore completely, but over the course of weeks they make a start.
Jiang Cheng does not argue with the priorities of the Lan Sect, which apparently run to rebuilding the Library while many of the Lan cultivators are enduring the still-bitter nights on the mountain in tents.
He supposes that the argument that books are more fragile than cultivators is not wholly unreasonable.
Despite their protests, the guests from Lotus Pier are accommodated in the guest disciple dormitories, which are among the few buildings still standing.
Much work has been completed and Jiang Cheng's people are beginning to finish up their current tasks, preparing to go home, when Lan Xichen comes to see him in the evening.
"I was wondering," he says, "if I might speak to you."
Jiang Cheng supposes that Wangji's system for avoiding importunate addresses to the Chief Cultivator will not work as well if he goes to visit other sect leaders himself - but it turns out it's not about that.
"How is Wangji?" Lan Xichen asks, not quite making eye contact.
Jiang Cheng considers the question, because it has many potential answers. "Are you asking as his brother, or as the leader of the Gusu Lan Sect?"
"As his brother," Lan Xichen says quietly.
"I'm not sure how much it is right for me to tell you," Jiang Cheng says carefully. "Perhaps you could ask a more specific question."
Lan Xichen closes his eyes for a long moment. "Is he happy?"
"As far as I know, yes."
A slow nod. "His husband. Wei Wuxian."
Jiang Cheng can't help it; he tenses. "Yes?"
"Does -" Lan Xichen swallows. "Does he love my brother?"
"Yes." This one is easy. "Absolutely."
Lan Xichen is silent for long moments. "I was surprised," he says at last. "I thought Wangji cared for you."
"Wei Ying thought so too, somehow. Wangji and I are friends, nothing more. He always liked Wei Ying."
"And you were not... interested... in Wangji?"
Jiang Cheng wants to snort, but keeps it to a slight huff of air from his nose. "I mean no disrespect to your brother, Zewu-Jun, but no. Absolutely not."
"I see." There is another long pause. "How is my mother?"
His voice cracks, very slightly, and somehow it's then that Jiang Cheng truly realises.
Lan Xichen has returned from war to the ruins of his home, but he has not returned to his family, because most of his family is elsewhere. Jiang Cheng sees more of Lan Xichen's family, more often, than Lan Xichen does, or can.
He still has Lan Qiren, but Lan Qiren has made only occasional appearances while Jiang Cheng has been in Gusu. He is spending most of his time out looking for sources of construction materials and manpower, because in the aftermath of war, both are in very short supply.
Lan Xichen's position is both more and less dire than Jiang Cheng's was, in his first life; more of his sect is alive, but Jiang Cheng at least had A-Jie and Wei Wuxian at this time, even if Wei Wuxian was acting strangely and being unhelpful. They argued, but at least he was there. Lan Xichen's mother lives, but he has barely seen her in years... or ever.
Lan Xichen must be lonely, like Jiang Cheng was lonely... later.
For perhaps the first time, he finds himself feeling true sympathy for the man.
"Your mother is also well," Jiang Cheng says, and does not add and possibly sharing my mother's bed now because he doesn't know for certain and he doesn't want to think about it. "If you wish to visit her, you are welcome at Lotus Pier at any time."
Lan Xichen inhales deeply, exhales slowly. "Thank you, your Excellency," he says, in formal tones. "My duties at this time do not permit me to leave Gusu, but I will remember your kind offer for when opportunity arises."
And then he takes his leave, and Jiang Cheng wonders helplessly if there's even anything he can do to help them fix this.
Alone, probably not, he thinks, but perhaps between them Wei Ying and Tang Lijuan might have ideas.
He returns to Lotus Pier, where his concern for Lan Xichen fades behind the joy that is there for him in coming home - to his home as it should be, whole and intact and bustling with family.
He learns that while he was away Jin Zixuan paid two visits to court his sister. He was accompanied by Luo Qingyang - as either tutor or moral support, apparently it's hard to tell. A-Yuan got a tiny bit bigger and a lot more talkative, and Jiang Cheng smiles so much his face aches with it when his nephew learns of his return and comes racing to see him, pulling Wei Ying with him.
For most of his memory, Jiang Cheng's whole existence, his very identity rested on the protection of two things: the Jiang Sect, and his nephew.
Having a nephew again - a different nephew, one who's not his sole responsibility, but still his nephew - makes him feel more like he's really himself again. He's the leader of the Jiang Sect, and he has a nephew to love and protect. He's whole again.
"Shufu come home!" A-Yuan says happily, and throws his little arms around Jiang Cheng's neck when he picks him up. "Baba, it shufu!"
"Oh, is it your shufu, is it?" Wei Ying says, grinning. "It's good you're here to tell me. Otherwise I might think he was trespassing and then I would have to fight him to protect our home."
Jiang Cheng gives him a look. "Are you suggesting you think you'd win?"
Wei Ying laughs. "Of course." He pauses just long enough for Jiang Cheng to glare. "If you were really an intruder, Lan Zhan and Madam Yu would help me."
"How have things been?"
The junior disciples are coming along well, because Wei Ying is capable of doing things properly when he has actually noticed it matters. Wangji's mastery of the Jiang sword forms isn't yet at a level to teach them, but he's endlessly patient in the instruction of archery and theory. He also teaches the guqin and calligraphy - not cultivation with the guqin, of course, but Jiang disciples will not be found wanting in the matter of the gentlemanly arts.
Most of the senior disciples have gone out again, because in the aftermath of the Sunshot Campaign there is a great deal of night-hunting to be done, with no shortage of restless dead and years of unhunted monsters roaming more boldly than ever.
The river is rising, and its maintenance was neglected during the war; there is much to be done there too.
And Jiang Cheng's mother wants to talk to him.
He arrives at his mother's wing - a place he has almost never entered in those times when his mother has been alive - to find that Wei Ying, A-Jie, and Wangji are there, and so is Tang Lijuan, but A-Yuan is not - Jinzhu and Yinzhu have taken him somewhere, and Jiang Cheng has a horrible, horrible feeling about what's about to happen.
They sit for tea.
"Now that peace has returned, and events are becoming more settled," Mother says, making eye contact with no-one, "there is something you must know."
And then she stops.
Jiang Cheng consciously loosens his grip on his cup before he crushes it. Glancing around the table, he sees that Wei Ying is looking attentive but is probably not very long off getting bored of waiting and doing something that will annoy Mother, A-Jie is of course her politely composed self, and Wangji's expression is utterly blank to a degree Jiang Cheng hasn't seen in private for a while.
Tang Lijuan covers her mouth for a moment.
"Ziyuan and I have been... courting," she says, probably just before either Mother or Wei Ying explodes.
There's a brief silence.
"I'm sure we're all really happy for you!" Wei Ying says brightly. "Honestly, that's great!"
Jiang Cheng has a brief interlude to think that maybe the one person present whose own actual mother is not involved in this (or is she? He remembers Tang Lijuan reassuring mother that she's not jealous and desperately does not want to think about the implications of that) has rescued them from the awkwardness.
And then Wei Ying keeps speaking.
"Who are they? We haven't had any men visiting lately. Are they sending letters or are they from around here?"
Everyone stares at him for a moment.
"No men, A-Ying," Tang Lijuan says more gently than he deserves. "We have been courting each other."
"Ah... really?" Wei Ying blinks at her. "That's... also very great!"
A long silence. Jiang Cheng meets Wangji's eyes, and thinks please kill me as loudly as he can. Wangji's lips tighten and his eyes flick towards the Heavens for a moment, which Jiang Cheng suspects translates to: me first.
Wei Ying looks around. "It's great, right? Lan Zhan? Shijie? Jiang Cheng? You don't mind if your mothers like girls, right? And each other?" He smiles nervously. "I'm not really the one to say, haha. My mother isn't involved with anyone else's mother, after all. Haha?"
"Well," Tang Lijuan murmurs, "not any more."
Wei Ying freezes. "I thought you and my mother were just... friends?" he whispers.
"We were," Tang Lijuan says, and looks at Jiang Cheng's mother.
"It was a long time ago, of course," Mother says, eyes fixed somewhere past Jiang Cheng's shoulder. "Before we were married."
It's really unfortunate that Zidian likes him, Jiang Cheng thinks, because the fucking thing just refuses to kill him. He's silently begging and Zidian is inert, the traitor.
"Thank you for telling us," A-Jie says. "We all wish you happiness." She glances at the three of them. "Don't we?" she adds, with the sweetness that means threat, which is unnecessary.
"Of course we do," Jiang Cheng says firmly. He does want them both to be happy, he just doesn't want to think about his mother and - anyone ever at all.
"Yes," Wangji manages.
"We do!" Wei Ying says. He's looking at Mother like he's never seen her before.
Mother sighs. "Perhaps one day I will tell you more about her, Wei Ying," she says, and his smile lights up the room.
"I had no idea -" Wei Ying starts, when they leave.
"No," Jiang Cheng cuts him off. "Absolutely not. We are not talking about this."
"A-Xian," A-Jie says, "why don't A-Cheng and I find our nephew and spend the afternoon with him? You and Wangji can have some time to yourselves. You can talk about it in your rooms, perhaps. If you don't think of any other ways to pass the time."
"I, uh -" Wei Ying glances at his husband, and Jiang Cheng suppresses a scream but not his scowl and stalks away to find which of the aunties of Lotus Pier has A-Yuan, because at least the toddler won't want to talk about his mother's sex life.
It's been a while since I posted a Research Notes endnote!
For this chapter I did research into the flood patterns of the Yangtze River. They were about what I expected, except the floods can start right at the beginning of spring, which is slightly earlier than I'd figured.
I think I read some kind of story about the Yangtze River when I was a child. I don't remember any details, at all, but the name Yangtze River evokes some sense of awe and excitement in me - no words are attached to it, but the sense-memory of dusty old paper, sitting on worn hardwood floors, and the sound of rain.
Warning: this chapter contains non-explicit references to suicidal ideation.
For a few days, Jiang Cheng and A-Jie shove Wangji at Wei Ying any time he tries to raise the subject of their mothers' relationships, and eventually his ever-restless mind moves on to something new. (Jiang Cheng chooses not to think about how, exactly, Wangji distracts Wei Ying. They're considerate enough to use silencing talismans. That's enough.)
A-Yuan's existence is helpful, because Wei Ying is endlessly fascinated by his son, delighted with every new thing the boy learns, every new capacity he demonstrates.
As the weather warms, they teach him to swim, and as the weather goes from warm to hot, all of the disciples start seeking the water more just to cool off. Somewhere between taking pity on them and having no mercy, Jiang Cheng sends groups to Gusu's cooler climate to help with the reconstruction. (He doesn't go himself, because he has other things to do and he has already been.) Some of the seniors go with them, others attend to the scouring of the riverbed as the water rises alongside the temperature, and still more go night-hunting.
Jiang Cheng gets to do some night-hunting himself, and he also makes some other journeys. All of the sects are recruiting, desperate to replace the numbers lost during the Sunshot Campaign, but Jiang Cheng has the luxury of being selective, and he is.
He looks for the disciples he knew before, the ones he valued, the ones he still misses.
He exchanges letters with Wen Qing, who is reorganising and rebuilding the Wen Sect in Qishan. They are over-extended; the worst of the fighting during the war took place in Qishan, and the worst of the devastation for the lives of the peasants. The medical branch of the Wen is overworked, and the remnants of night-hunting cultivators they retain are not really keeping up.
Jiang Cheng sends assistance. What they can spare from the Jiang, but through his mother he is also able to arrange for cultivators from the Meishan Yu. (He doesn't want too many members of the other sects in this part of the cultivation world to be going into Qishan - the idea that the Wen cannot handle their own affairs will risk destabilising everything again.)
Occasionally he is called upon in his capacity as the Chief Cultivator to settle minor disputes or grant his assistance solving difficult problems. (He suspects a few of the latter are ones the people who bring them to him could possibly have solved themselves, because they're generally brought to him by people he knows are slightly dissatisfied to have such a young Chief Cultivator, and Jiang Cheng takes a quiet satisfaction in providing quick and correct solutions.)
The thing is, he's very, very busy, and could probably be forgiven for forgetting to give real consideration to the problem of the estrangement between the sons of Tang Lijuan.
And then the river begins to drop as the weather begins to cool. The Jiang Sect collectively relax again.
And Lan Xichen returns to Lotus Pier.
They sit for tea in Jiang Cheng's rooms.
"I must first express the gratitude of the Lan Sect for all of your kind assistance," Lan Xichen says. "Our people will all have homes for the winter, and we thank the Jiang Sect for that."
"We -" Jiang Cheng stops as the door crashes open, and a small child comes tearing in.
"A-Yuan, stop!" Jiang Cheng hears Wei Ying shout from somewhere in the distance.
"Shufu! Shufu!" A-Yuan calls, and then stops when he sees Jiang Cheng has a guest. "Oh no!" he exclaims, adorably. "A-Yuan sorry!"
He does a little bow, which is so cute Jiang Cheng isn't sure he's going to survive it, and runs away again.
"I apologise for -" the interruption, Jiang Cheng starts to say, turning back to Lan Xichen, but stops. Like his brother, Lan Xichen is always pale, but he now looks positively ghostly.
A small child just ran into Jiang Cheng's rooms and called him shufu.
Thinking back, Jiang Cheng definitely didn't mention that he has a nephew now, and he is starting to suspect that Wangji also might not have told his brother about that.
"No apology is necessary for a child's exuberance," Lan Xichen says tightly. "If your Excellency will forgive my impertinence, what is the boy's name?"
Jiang Cheng swallows. "Wei Yuan," he says.
Lan Xichen's teacup shatters in his grip. Tea spills across his lap and the floor, blood dripping after it and splashing vivid on his white robes.
"I see," he says. "Perhaps I should take my leave and return to Gusu." He stands, slightly unsteady.
Jiang Cheng sighs.
Ultimately, he can only truly be himself, no matter what. "Perhaps you should sit down while I call a healer to take the shards of porcelain out of your hand, and then you should stay there while I get your brother and the two of you have an actual conversation."
"That is unnecessary," Lan Xichen begins, and Jiang Cheng just... can't deal with this.
Jiang Cheng, of all people, knows just how badly people's lives can fall apart because brothers refuse to talk to one another.
"I'm the Chief Cultivator," he says aloud. "I'll decide what's necessary. And if you think I can't make you do what I tell you to do, I'm going to remind you that I have extraordinary measures at my disposal."
Lan Xichen frowns. "You would not use force to -"
"I would call your mother. Sit the fuck down."
The healer is summoned. The broken shards are extracted from Lan Xichen's hand, the wound is bandaged (several pieces went deep, and the healer insists), and fresh outer robes are supplied while Lan Xichen's own are whisked away for cleaning.
The robes are uncrested but in Jiang colours, and Jiang Cheng wonders if it will make it better or worse. Without his Sect Leader robes he looks... smaller. And younger.
And painfully, painfully fragile.
Jiang Cheng can't think of a way that the ongoing failure of these two ever to talk to each other properly could lead to massive casualties and the destruction of everything he holds dear, but he doesn't want to find out. He's the Chief Cultivator, the leader of Wangji's sect, and his mother is courting - or possibly "courting", but it works out the same - their mother, who also lives in his territory. He can and will make them talk to each other.
He summons Wangji. He also sends for Tang Lijuan, A-Jie, Wei Ying and A-Yuan.
There's a lot to get through. He knows the tactical advantage of a heavy first strike.
Once he has them all assembled at the table, Jiang Cheng glares at both Wangji and Lan Xichen.
"Wangji," he says. "Would you like to introduce someone?"
Wangji blinks. "Sect Leader Lan, this is my son, Wei Yuan. A-Yuan, this is your bobo."
A-Yuan smiles. "Bobo-gege?"
"Just Bobo. He is my older brother."
"Bobo." A-Yuan stands up in Wei Ying's lap and bows over the table, it's still ridiculously cute.
"It is good to meet you, A-Yuan," Lan Xichen says.
"Good. Wei Ying, take him away. A-Yuan can get to know his bobo later," Jiang Cheng says.
Wei Ying blinks at him. "I think maybe I should be here too," he says, and Jiang Cheng doesn't entirely disagree, but -
Wei Ying nods. "You might be right. A-Yuan, do you want to spend this afternoon with Waipo?"
"Waipo!" A-Yuan says happily as Wei Ying carries him away, because Mother is a ridiculously soft touch for him, it's unbelievably unfair.
Lan Xichen is looking thoughtful. "Is his waipo Madam Yu?" he asks cautiously.
"Yes," Wangji says. "She is not Wei Ying's mother, but she raised him for much of his life, and she cares for our son a great deal."
Lan Xichen nods slowly, and then there is silence until Wei Ying returns and takes his seat again next to Wangji.
"I looked into what I could find out," Lan Xichen finally says. "About -" He glances towards Tang Lijuan.
"You can say it," she says. "I am not keeping secrets from these people."
Lan Xichen takes a deep breath. "About Mother and Qingheng-Jun."
"And what did you learn?" Wangji asks.
His tone almost sounds neutral. Almost. Wei Ying's eyes go wide and he leans over, pressing his shoulder to Wangji's. Jiang Cheng's pretty sure they're now holding hands under the table.
He's not going to object, on this occasion, because his goals will really not be served by Wangji spitting something vicious at his brother and then stalking away in fury, and Wangji is poised on the verge of the kind of rage Jiang Cheng hasn't seen in him in this lifetime.
It's painfully familiar. He remembers what it's like when so many discussions have already gone so badly that you're angry before the other person even has the chance to upset you again, and nothing good tends to happen from there without outside intervention.
Lan Xichen bows his head. "You were right," he says quietly. "Mother should - should not have been imprisoned." His voice drops almost to a whisper. "Had she been treated justly, neither of us would live."
"Lan Huan," Tang Lijuan says sharply. "Take care to draw a distinction between cause and consequence. The circumstances of your conception are unimportant. You are my son."
"You barely know me," Lan Xichen says almost inaudibly. "I only visited you once a month, even after Qingheng-Jun died."
"You were raised to be obedient to the Elders. I never held that against you."
"I still regret it." He clenches his fists in his lap.
Tang Lijuan sighs, and stands, and comes around the table to him. She lifts his injured hand in hers and gently pries his fingers open. "Lan Huan, you were born a Lan, and raised to be the leader of your sect. The burden of your duties and your upbringing will never change my love for you."
"I failed you. I should have - asked, or - thought, or -" He looks up at her with tear-filled eyes. "I can't - be angry, any more, that Wangji brought you here. He - I - I miss you, but he deserves you more, and -" He swallows, takes a breath. "Your cottage was destroyed in the Wen attack. You would have -"
"But I didn't," she says, and leans forward to kiss his forehead. "It's not about deserves." She smiles. "It might be about needs. A-Zhan always needed me more than you did." She brushes her fingers across the bandage. "But needing me less doesn't mean you don't need me at all, I hope. I will always welcome you, Lan Huan. If Sect Leader Jiang does not wish you to come to Lotus Pier, I would come to meet you elsewhere."
"He is always welcome to visit you here, if you wish it," Jiang Cheng says, before that can become a thing. "This is your home now, and he may enter Lotus Pier as your guest at any time." He does not want to find out his mother is displeased with his treatment of Tang Lijuan.
She smiles at him as she returns to her seat.
"Wangji," his sister says. "Is there, perhaps, something you wish to say to your brother now?"
There is a long silence.
"One moment," Wei Ying says. He stands abruptly and pulls Wangji by the hand to the back of the hall and behind the screens there.
Jiang Cheng can hear the low murmur of Wei Ying's voice, a brief response from Wangji, Wei Ying again, a long silence.
Finally they come back, Wei Ying still pulling Wangji behind him. Jiang Cheng is suddenly reminded of A-Yuan in one of his rare sullen moods, trailing along behind whoever is pulling him by the hand.
They resume their seats.
"Yes," Wei Ying says brightly. "Lan Zhan does have something he would like to say."
They wait. This time it seems less like Wangji is reluctant, more that he's searching for words.
"I regret that my choices caused you pain," he says finally. "It was not my preference to hurt you, but I made my decisions knowing that that would be a consequence."
"I don't care," Lan Xichen says, at volume again and intent. "I mean I don't care that you hurt me. I have already forgiven it. I understand, Wangji. Neither I nor the Elders would listen to you. You did what you had to do."
Wangji swallows. "I miss you," he says, whisper-quiet. "I miss my xiongzhang. Once you knew me when no-one else did. Once you were the one I trusted. It never stopped hurting that it changed. That - our choices - drove us apart."
"I'm sorry," Lan Xichen says. "I should have listened to you more. Sooner." He stares at the table. "I hope you can find a way to forgive me."
Wangji takes a deep breath and straightens. "I will try," he says.
Jiang Cheng exhales.
It's a start.
Wei Ying can feel the rigid tension radiating off his husband. This is... not a wholly-solved problem, he thinks.
"How about we take a break and keep trying tomorrow?" he says with false cheer, and looks at shijie. "Can you take A-Yuan tonight, please?"
Because Mother will probably be spending the evening with Zewu-Jun, and Wei Ying and Lan Zhan are going to be occupied, if they actually want this to work.
"Of course, A-Xian," shijie says, smiling warmly, because she always understands and is actually the world's best person.
He holds on to Lan Zhan's sleeve to walk back to their rooms, because Lan Zhan is in the mood where he'll just... be still, if nothing forces him not to be, and he would resist being forced by anyone but Wei Ying.
Lan Zhan is upset.
Usually that would manifest in him becoming desperately clingy - even during the war, sometimes, things would upset him and Lan Zhan would be incapable of being parted from him, reluctant even to move outside arm's reach when they weren't in combat.
It's sort of nice. Wei Ying definitely won't complain.
Today, he can tell, is different. It's close, but it's not quite... that. Lan Zhan might go back to that mood if Wei Ying left him alone, stayed too long out of his line of sight (or, possibly, arm's reach) - but that's a different problem and they need to get to the heart of this one.
In their rooms, he puts a silencing charm in place.
Testing the waters, Wei Ying potters around the room a bit. Tidies away the sketches he was working on before Jiang Cheng called them away, picks up a few of A-Yuan's toys.
Lan Zhan just watches him. Unmoving, until Wei Ying steps out of sight for a moment behind the privacy screen, and then he takes a half-step forward, instant urgency until he can see him again.
Wei Ying can work with this.
"Lan Zhan," he says, "come here."
Lan Zhan obeys him immediately.
Wei Ying sits on the bed and beckons until Lan Zhan is standing in front of him.
"Kneel, please," Wei Ying says, and Lan Zhan does so, unhesitating, beautiful and graceful and steady if you don't know how to read the look in his eyes.
But Wei Ying does.
He takes out Lan Zhan's headpiece. Combing out his hair is slightly awkward from in front, but he knows Lan Zhan needs to be able to see him, right now.
Wei Ying suspects he's not the only one who knows that Lan Zhan keeps his pain tucked somewhere deep inside himself, vast and real.
But he is the only one Lan Zhan will ever allow to take him apart enough to bring it into the light.
Combing his hair has Lan Zhan's shoulders dropping by increments. Kissing him, slow and deep, has his spine beginning to curve again when he sways forward to chase Wei Ying's lips as he pulls back.
One step to another, careful and methodical, like untangling a knotted string. Getting them both out of their clothes, into bed.
Lan Zhan as a lover is usually demanding; selfish in the best way, greedy for Wei Ying's pleasure, luxuriating in it, smugly satisfied when he has brought Wei Ying to comprehensive ruin.
This Lan Zhan is pliant, content to let Wei Ying do anything as long as he can see him, touch him.
Wei Ying asks do you want and Lan Zhan whispers please with tears in his eyes. Wei Ying kisses him as he presses into him, maintains eye contact as his hips snap forward until Lan Zhan is shaking and gasping - reaching for him desperately, hands smoothing over his chest and cupping his face, and Wei Ying says I'm here, Lan Zhan, I'm here and Lan Zhan breaks apart with a hoarse cry.
Wei Ying finds his own release in the vision of wrecked beauty before him, and then Wei Ying kisses away his tears and catches his breath and says, "You need to tell him."
Lan Zhan blinks at him. "Tell him?" His walls are gone, and Wei Ying can see the rising alarm in his eyes, so he kisses him, slow and thorough, before he answers.
"Tell him about the future you and Jiang Cheng saw."
Lan Zhan blinks. The lassitude in his limbs is starting to dissipate rapidly.
"The -" He swallows, stops.
Wei Ying smiles gently. "The future." He kisses him again, and Lan Zhan is helpless to resist him, as always. "The two of you spent a lot of time together before you even decided you were friends," Wei Ying says, lips still brushing Lan Zhan's. "But you were never interested in each other, so it wasn't about that either." A light bite to Lan Zhan's jawline, and then he pulls back to meet his eyes. "We were called to Qishan, and you both knew the Wen would demand our swords. You both knew the Xuanwu of Slaughter would be there. The only thing that ever surprised either of you was when Jiang-shushu died, but Jiang Cheng still took over the sect like he knew what he was doing."
"Wei Ying..." He doesn't know how to follow that. How much has Wei Ying realised? Has he felt -
"I'm not angry you didn't tell me," Wei Ying says. His smile is rueful. "I know what I'm like and I know that both of you will always want to keep me safe. It's clear there's something there in the future you saw that could be... bad, and if I knew a hint of it, I wouldn't be able to stop myself from chasing it. I always want to know and understand."
He's right, is the thing - the reason they agreed not to tell him is that Wei Ying is brilliant and clever and perceptive, but so reckless and curious that -
"I think some of those talismans and flags and things you and Jiang Cheng brought in might have been things you saw me do," Wei Ying says, and Lan Zhan can't help the spike of fear. "I don't think it would be a good idea for me to know how I learned so much about controlling resentful energy." A flash of humour. "They give me ideas, but I can only go in safe directions from there, I think." He pats Lan Zhan's chest.
Probably, but Lan Zhan knows that both he and Wanyin... check.
"But I think too that something you saw hurt your relationship with your brother, and he needs to know because he doesn't understand why you're angry with him," Wei Ying finishes.
"I'm not -" angry, he wants to say, but he's suddenly realising that he is. He's so angry with his brother he can barely stand to look at him.
"Yes you are." Wei Ying kisses him again. "And you're going to have to talk to him about that." Another kiss. "This is all a lot to think about, I know." His smile is wicked, every temptation Lan Zhan has ever been unable to resist. "Do you want to get cleaned up and snuggle, or do you want to get a bit dirtier first?"
Lan Zhan can still feel the ache of the night's exertions when he goes to his mother's rooms the next morning. He could overcome it with spiritual energy if he chose, but he doesn't, because it's comforting, in its way; the reminder of Wei Ying, anchoring him in his own skin.
Mother is having breakfast with Madam Yu. Lan Zhan greets them both politely, and asks to speak to his mother alone, when she is available.
He gives them privacy while he waits.
He has to quell the impulse to kneel outside his mother's door.
"What is it, A-Zhan?"
Mother is smiling, warm and affectionate. They are alone. The rooms are silenced; privacy is assured.
Lan Zhan looks at his hands.
"Wei Ying thinks I should tell my brother the truth about something. Before I can do so, I must tell you." He takes a breath. "Wei Ying does not know. Must not know. He has realised that there is something to tell, and has not asked me to tell him. I must ask you to promise not to tell him, either."
"Of course, A-Zhan. I can't promise not to think you should tell him, but I'd only ever try to persuade you to do it yourself."
He nods slowly. "This is the second time I have lived this life." It sounds so unbelievable. "The first ended when Wanyin and I together used an array Wei Ying had built. We did not know what it did. He had used it, and we were attempting to follow him. It returned the two of us to the beginnings of our lives, with our memories intact."
He stops. The words are choking him. He can't tell her any of the details, because -
His mother looks at him for long moments.
"How old were you when I died?"
"Six," he says, and he's crying, wracking sobs that seem to overwhelm his perception of the world until he realises that somehow he's on the floor, ruining his mother's skirts with his tears as she strokes his hair.
"I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," she's murmuring. "I love you, my A-Zhan, I never would have wanted to leave you, I'm sorry." He thinks she has been repeating it.
"I don't -" He takes a shuddering breath. "I didn't blame you, I -"
"You blamed yourself." She tugs a strand of his hair. "I can tell. Silly child, it was never your fault."
"I know," he whispers. "But I still -" He turns his face into her skirt.
"I used to wonder, you know, why you were so insistent on seeing me." Her hands are gentle, carding through his hair. "My son, so perfect in every way, obedient in every way except that one. Patiently enduring every punishment, evading every obstruction placed in your way, just so you could see your lonely mother every day."
"I thought - if you still couldn't live, at least I would have known you." He rolls back, looks up at her. She smiles down at him, tears in her eyes.
"You were everything to me, you know. From when I - when I married, to when you started visiting me every day, it was so difficult. So - your uncle tried to be kind, but I - I was already thinking about -" She stops, swallows. "And then you suddenly turned up, just a week after your last visit. I don't know how you got away even then. You started to be there most days, and then it was every day, and I had my baby again. It was easier." The tears are flowing down her cheeks, now, but she pays them no heed. "So much easier. And I couldn't - I didn't want to, as much, anyway - but I couldn't when you went through so much just to be with me. I knew you needed me."
"I did," he says. "I do. Always."
"I'm here, A-Zhan. I'll always be here." She wipes his tears away. "Now tell me the rest. Because I don't think Wei Ying invented time travel just because you lost me when you were six."
"No, he didn't."
He takes a deep breath.
And then he tells her.
Warning: No. Seriously.
Warning: This chapter is the one that has the SERIOUS AND I MEAN IT References to Rape tag.
It is still non-explicit, but it implies slightly more detail than has previously been provided, and it is worse than previously suggested.
If you don't want to know but you still want to read the chapter, then when you get most of the way down the page, stop reading at, "I asked you years ago..." and search on the text "Jiang Wanyin snorts" and pick up reading from there.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
"So," Xichen says, "your explanation is time travel?"
Wangji nods. Sect Leader Jiang, beside him, is looking serious, because apparently he's in on this.
"It's not that you're better than me. You're not more intelligent and thoughtful and righteous, you just already knew these things."
Wangji nods again.
"Do you think I'm an idiot? I mean - I can see why you would, but there are limits."
"Lan Huan," his mother says. She has tears in her eyes. Apparently they only just told her, too, and maybe she's upset that their story involves her dying when they were children or maybe she even believes it or maybe she just pities Xichen as much as they do to conceive of this ridiculous story.
The four of them are the only ones in the room.
"Prove it," Xichen snarls, and Wangji's eyes go wide.
"I'm not sure that's a good idea," Sect Leader Jiang starts, and Xichen stands up.
"Then I will leave, and not bother you again," he says, because he will salvage what dregs of his pride he can.
"Fine," Wangji snaps, eyes flashing, and that hurts, but - "I assume you know Book of the Mind," he finishes, and Xichen sits again, suddenly uncertain.
"First, Wangji," Jiang Wanyin murmurs, and Wangji nods. "First you must swear on your sect, your life, your honour, your mother and absolutely everything that matters to you that you will not tell Wei Ying what you see," Jiang Wanyin says, looking intently at Xichen. "Or anyone else," he adds, almost like an afterthought.
"It is important," Wangji agrees.
"I swear," Xichen says, because he's suddenly not sure he wants to do this at all but he's not willing to back down.
Apparently it's happening.
He sees the Cloud Recesses as they used to be, the Cloud Recesses of his childhood.
He sees himself from his brother's eyes, waiting outside their mother's cottage, sees an Elder, large and looming, tell Lan Zhan that if he was ever disobedient again, he would no longer be permitted to see his mother.
Feels the spike of terror and anxiety, the way that anxiety pulses in Lan Zhan's every moment as he lives in careful obedience, yearning hidden in his heart.
Sees Lan Zhan crawl into Xichen's own bed, seeking comfort, and feels conflicted, because he can feel his brother's misery, but at the same time... it would have been nice to have felt, at least once, that Wangji needed him.
Lan Zhan cries, and Xichen wonders what that looks like, because he has not seen his brother cry since he was an infant.
Lan Zhan draws comfort, in some small measure, from being held in Xichen's arms, and Xichen wonders what that felt like, because he has no memory of ever hugging his brother. Even as a child, Lan Zhan avoided contact with anyone but their mother.
Lan Zhan is told that he can never see their mother again, and waits every month outside her cottage anyway. There are whispers around him that the child Lan Zhan does not understand.
Xichen hears Wangji's voice. "She took her own life when the burden of isolation grew too much for her to bear."
Lan Wangji is growing up. He is lost and miserable, taking refuge in the rules.
Xichen watches himself through his brother's eyes, joking that no life could remain unfrozen within six feet of Lan Wangji, and feels the way it cuts his brother to the bone.
Xichen watches Lan Wangji fight Wei Wuxian in the moonlight, and then he watches him fall in love with the first person since their mother died to see that his brother is human. Feels his turmoil, his fury and his frustration and his want -
"Enough," Wangji says.
The Cloud Recesses are attacked. They burn, and Qingheng-Jun falls into a coma, and Lan Wangji marches away to Qishan with agony lancing through him at every step.
Lan Wangji endures the torments of Wen Chao, seethes with jealousy when Wei Wuxian flirts with a vaguely-familiar Jin girl, fights the Xuanwu of Slaughter alongside him.
Lan Wangji returns to Gusu, and hears with fear and horror that Lotus Pier has been attacked.
The fighting begins. Lan Wangji retrieves his sword, then searches for months alongside Jiang Wanyin, looking for Wei Wuxian.
They find him... changed. Thin and pale and cold in a way he never was before, with a flute instead of a sword and monstrous powers at his command.
Xichen sees his brother's desperation as he tries to call Wei Wuxian back to sanity, and fails.
There's a crowd hunt at Phoenix Mountain. Wei Wuxian asks for Lan Wangji's ribbon, and Lan Wangji refuses coldly even as his mind conjures the image of Wei Wuxian with the ribbon in his hands and he yearns. He can't stop thinking about it.
Lan Wangji finds him blindfolded on the mountainside, and -
There's a banquet at Jinlintai, and Wei Wuxian intervenes to stop a Jin man forcing Xichen's brother to drink.
Wei Wuxian demands to know what has become of a Wen cultivator, and no-one else in the room seems to care, but no-one else dares to stop him when Wei Wuxian threatens to kill a man right in front of them, and Xichen wonders that his brother can remember this man and still have married him, that even then Wangji looked at him and still wanted.
Wangji finds Wei Wuxian leading a ragtag group of refugees and lets him escape, and Wangji weeps.
The Yiling Burial Mounds. A child. A cave.
All the cultivation world is pledging to destroy the Yiling Patriarch.
Including, apparently, Xichen, who watches with growing unease as Wei Wuxian argues that he is innocent of cursing someone, as he is attacked anyway.
As Jiang Yanli dies.
As Wei Wuxian goes mad. A bloodbath ensues. Wangji is fighting the ferocious corpses, desperately trying to get to Wei Wuxian. He doesn't even hesitate when the ferocious corpses are the fallen Lan - he cuts down three cousins without blinking. There is sorrow in his heart, but no uncertainty. He fights until Wei Wuxian stumbles away, spent, and Wangji, wounded and exhausted, goes after him.
Wangji is upset, his thoughts disordered, flashing between the violence of the Yiling Patriarch and the gentle man who loved the child A-Yuan, who wanted only to protect the innocent.
He hides them both in a cave, whispers his love and his grief and his sorrow for days, tries to heal Wei Wuxian with spiritual energy even as he is met only with rejection.
Xichen feels his agony, hopes desperately that Wei Wuxian will relent, will realise the love before him, but -
Uncle arrives, with Xichen and a crowd of Elders beside him, and demands explanations.
"There is nothing to explain," Wangji says. "This is it."
Xichen feels his brother's shock, and hurt, and betrayal when the Elders decide to kill the Yiling Patriarch and be done with it, the grief and anger with which he blocks their assault, the grim determination with which he resists.
The care with which he wounds them each enough to disable them, end their assault, but does not kill.
The way he cannot raise his sword to Xichen himself, but agrees to be taken back to Gusu, if only they spare Wei Ying and allow Wangji to return him to the Burial Mounds.
He feels the slicing agony of the discipline whip, tries instinctively to recoil from the memory, but-
"You allowed this, Sect Leader Lan."
He feels each strike.
Wangji is barely alive when he hears of the death of the Yiling Patriarch.
He drags himself to Yiling, heedless of his agony, and returns with a child.
The scattered images of years passing, drifting in grief and hope and the stiffness and ache of bone-deep scars. Stretching carefully, learning to move again. Scars that tug like hooks caught in his brother's flesh, and never stop.
A new face, a new form, but the same person, and Wangji thinks Wei Ying and Xichen thinks oh or possibly oh no.
Wangji in silent yearning, silent joy, alongside this new Wei Ying, searching for answers.
Xichen sees Meng Yao, alive, with a deep pang of loss and sorrow, because if he hadn't been distracted, hadn't been too slow to stop Chifeng-Zun from striking, then Meng Yao might still -
Wei Wuxian is certain that Meng Yao is to blame, and Xichen thinks: no, impossible, Meng Yao was kind and gentle and his friend.
And then a cave full of children.
The revelation that Wei Wuxian sacrificed his golden core for Jiang Wanyin.
Wei Wuxian is proven correct when Wangji arrives at the Guanyin Temple to see Meng Yao's cord around his beloved's throat.
A confession. A confrontation. Meng Yao's guilt for all of it.
Wangji's voice. "This is not the problem, but it is where the problem began."
Xichen watches Wangji watch him go into seclusion. He remembers Wangji working and hunting despite his grief after the death of Wei Wuxian with slight discomfort.
Uncle becomes the Chief Cultivator.
Wangji goes to Xichen and tells him he plans to marry. Asks him to attend.
Xichen doesn't respond and doesn't attend, and Wangji is... resigned.
The memories skip past the wedding they must have had.
Wangji spends less time with his husband than he wants to, desperately busy trying to help Uncle with the classes and the sect and the burdens of the Chief Cultivator.
Wei Wuxian spends time away, helping to guide the juniors, but Wangji becomes increasingly anxious as he becomes certain that his husband is deliberately avoiding the Cloud Recesses.
Wangji confronts him.
"I don't want to make things more difficult for you, Lan Zhan," his husband says.
"You do not," Wangji says, confused and distraught, and Wei Ying's smile is sad.
"I know it looks bad for you having me here. It's all right."
"Why would you think that? You are my husband."
Wei Ying stares at him for a long moment and says, "There are people here who hate me and people here who fear me, and I can't - I can't blame them for that, Lan Zhan. I think the Lan will always see me as your only mistake."
Wangji goes very still, but Xichen can feel his rage.
"Who said that."
"It doesn't matter -"
"Really, Lan Zhan -"
"They weren't wrong -"
"Wei Ying. Who said that to you."
A long silence. "Zewu-Jun told me at the temple, and -"
"He was wrong," Wangji interrupts, intent and furious. "He had no right to say that to you, and it was never true."
Xichen thinks of watching his own sect's people fight and die and rise to fight their own at Nightless City, knowing that he, himself, led them there to join an alliance pledged to kill an innocent man.
Xichen thinks of watching his own sect's elders attack his brother for defying them... sitting in a cave in quiet desperation.
Xichen thinks of the discipline whip, and the way that even in these memories, so many years later, the way the scars tug and drag at Wangji's movements is ever-present.
Xichen thinks that he said that while the man he himself defended was threatening Wei Wuxian's life, and wonders how he could possibly have thought himself to be in a position to say that anyone else had ever made a mistake at all.
Wangji watches Uncle, harried and overworked, begin to decline.
Wangji attempts to visit Xichen in seclusion. He pleads outside a door that does not open.
Wangji, anxious, speaks to the servants, who assure him that his brother lives.
Wangji returns to work.
Uncle tells Wangji the painful truth about their mother. Wangji isn't surprised. He thought about the... inconsistencies of the story they were told, as Xichen never did.
Not long after that, Uncle dies.
Wangji is given the position of Chief Cultivator, even though he doesn't want it. He manages the affairs of the cultivation world at large and the Lan Sect in particular. Lan Sizhui teaches the classes that Uncle once taught. Wei Wuxian guides the juniors on their night-hunts, and sometimes returns upset.
"Jiang Cheng," he says, when Wangji asks him about it.
Xichen has the sense of years passing, but he's not sure how many. Wei Ying - Wei Wuxian - starts spending more time away again, but at least some of that time he seems to be at Lotus Pier. Wangji thinks that he and Jiang Wanyin are beginning to repair their relationship, and Wangji is... cautiously pleased. His feelings towards Jiang Wanyin are a complex tangle of envy and jealousy, pity and sympathy, resentment and gratitude, but he knows that the man is important to Wei Ying.
Wangji accompanies his husband when he can, but his relationship with Jiang Wanyin is fraught, so he waits outside the bounds of Lotus Pier more often than not.
Until he receives a message butterly from Jiang Wanyin that says: he's planning something get here hurry
Wangji rushes into Lotus Pier, into the residence of the sect leader himself, pushing past Jiang disciples who try to stop him, snapping that Sect Leader Jiang called him.
Wangji finds Jiang Wanyin trying to break through a door, and joins his efforts.
Between them they shatter the barrier. They find an empty room, an array on the floor, a fading glow. Xichen feels Wangji's terror as he leaps into the array alongside Jiang Wanyin.
Nothing happens. Jiang Wanyin kneels, Zidian sparking, and feeds power into the array again.
Xichen feels it as the power comes up through Wangji's feet.
It feels like dying.
It feels like salvation.
Wangji meets Jiang Wanyin's gaze, and thinks: perhaps it is fitting that we die for him together.
He surfaces. His throat is sore, and he's weeping. There are arms around him, holding him, stroking his hair.
"I'm sorry." The words are choking him. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," he sobs, and his mother hushes him. He feels the press of lips against his hair.
When he can open his eyes he sees that Jiang Wanyin is by the window, present but looking away. Wangji is watching him, expression unreadable - he's so fucking good at that - as Xichen weeps in their mother's arms.
Jiang Wanyin remembers his own life through those events, Xichen thinks. The annihilation of his sect, the loss of his golden core.
Wei Wuxian was at the heart of all of it, and yet here he is again with the Yunmeng Jiang.
"How did he end up here again?" Xichen asks, without thinking.
Jiang Wanyin's head snaps around, and he scowls. He looks like the older man in Wangji's memory, suddenly.
"You think I'd leave him in Yiling? Starving? Picking scraps out of middens and fighting feral dogs for food?" There's real anger there. "I know Hanguang-Jun thought I was an asshole but I suggest you take care for your words, Zewu-Jun. Wei Ying grew up with my sister and me. He is my brother in every sense that matters. In his heart he is a good man, and Wangji and I are united in our determination to keep him safe from the necessity of doing terrible things."
Xichen bows his head. "I am sorry. I spoke without thinking."
Jiang Wanyin looks at him for a moment, and huffs. "Forgiven. I imagine it is all quite a lot to accept all at once."
"Yes." Lan Xichen takes a breath, leans into his mother - his mother, she's here, she's alive, and he thinks about the punishments Wangji unflinchingly endured to be with her. To see her, every day, so she wouldn't be left to struggle with the isolation his own sect demanded.
Thinks about how he himself kept trying to tell his brother not to do that.
Wonders if those punishments left scars.
"Wangji, I -" Xichen stops, because there is a flare of heat in his brother's gaze. Swallows. Forces himself to continue. "I'm sorry. I think I - I might understand, now."
"What do you understand."
Wangji sounds like a teacher addressing his most disappointing student. Strange to think that his baby brother is really so very much the older of the two of them.
"I made many bad decisions, and -"
Wangji's eyes have narrowed.
"I told you that was not the problem," he says, ice cold.
"A-Zhan," Mother says. Always A-Zhan, Xichen thinks. He can't remember when she last called him A-Huan. He has been Lan Huan to her since he was very small. He thinks he might even have requested it, once, when he first began to understand that his mother was in disgrace among their sect. Like so many things, it seems, he has only himself to blame for that.
Only himself to blame even where he does not remember the things he did.
Wangji exhales and looks away.
"We needed you," he says, almost inaudibly. His voice is stronger when he continues. "Uncle and I needed you. I know that you were in grief, and that it was difficult for you to live with the knowledge that one you cared for was lost to you, reviled by all around you." He looks back, and Xichen flinches. "I know what that is like better than anyone else ever could. For the first years you were gone, I forgave you, because I thought you would return to us, but you did not. It was as if Meng Yao was worth more to you than we were. Than I was. I needed you and you did nothing."
"I'm sorry," Xichen whispers, knowing that it's meaningless. That Wangji is so beyond him in understanding is meaningless when Wangji has the advantage of so much hindsight, but what is painfully clear now is Xichen's fundamental weakness. Wangji is stronger than he is. He always was. Even now, Xichen is struggling with himself not to retreat. He aches to return to Gusu and pretend he never learned any of this.
He still aches for the loss of Meng Yao, and now that thought shames him.
"I asked you years ago, xiongzhang. Who is wrong, and who is right? Who is just, and who is evil? Do you yet have an answer? Speak honestly. Do not lie."
Xichen swallows. "Qingheng-Jun was wrong. An evil man." He takes a breath. "My father was equally wrong." He hears his mother gasp, and looks at her. "I don't think Uncle believes they were the same man."
She looks away. "I have no doubt he would prefer to think the best of his own brother," she says quietly. "In truth, I do not actually know."
Xichen feels sick.
"This unworthy son will always regret his father's crimes," Wangji says.
"Don't," Mother says. "It was not your choice or your fault, either of you, and you both must understand how truly I love you. I do not regret you. If this was the journey that brought me to this, here and now, I accept that. I am happy here."
"I thank you for protecting my mother, Sect Leader Jiang," Xichen says.
Jiang Wanyin snorts and returns to the table. "That part was nothing." He takes a deep breath, jaw clenched, and meets Xichen's eyes. "But if you think you owe me a debt, you can repay it by speaking honestly to each other. You've seen now how the world was almost destroyed because Wei Wuxian and I couldn't, didn't do that. I don't want to see it happen again."
Xichen nods slowly. "As your xiongzhang, I failed you," he tells Wangji. "I regret my inadequacy. But in truth, you are now much older than I am." He clears his throat. "Perhaps as your didi, I might still be sufficient, with my xiongzhang's guidance."
Wangji blinks at him, eyes wide.
"It worked for me and Wei Ying, you know," Jiang Wanyin says. "Worst shixiong. Best shidi."
"We could try," Wangji says slowly.
"Good boys," their mother says, smiling. "A-Zhan, Lan Huan, I'm proud of you."
Xichen looks at the table. "Do you think you could call me A-Huan again?"
He feels her kiss his temple, lips brushing his ribbon. "Of course, A-Huan," she says, warm, and his tears start again, but they feel now a little like healing.
When they emerge from the secured room, Wei Wuxian is outside, playing with his son (Xichen's nephew). He looks up immediately, looks searchingly at Wangji and smiles, only then turns to Xichen and looks sympathetic.
"You look rough," he says. "I -" He stops, takes a breath, smiles again. "I won't ask. I don't need to know. A-Yuan, say hello to your bobo!"
Xichen's nephew looks up, smiles, toddles over to him. "Hello! I am A-Yuan," he says seriously.
"Hello, A-Yuan," Xichen answers, just as seriously.
"This is my fuqin," A-Yuan says, gesturing towards Wangji. "And my nainai. And my shufu."
"I - yes." What does he say to that?
A-Yuan nods and wanders back to his game with Wei Wuxian, who picks him up and carries him back, passes him across to Wangji.
"But baba -" A-Yuan begins.
"I'm sorry, baobei. I need you to go with them for a bit." He looks at Xichen and smiles. "I need to have a talk with your bobo."
The thing is, Xichen can't stop thinking about the Yiling Patriarch.
This is not the same man, but he has the capacity to become him. He would burn down the world to protect those he loves.
Which is why it is somewhat concerning when Wei Wuxian gets him alone and says, "I really love your brother a lot."
He says it with a smile, and the smile has no humour in it.
"I - that's good," Xichen says cautiously.
Wei Wuxian nods. "I know, it's wonderful. He's wonderful. We're married. It's a thing, you know?" His smile is radiant. "He's such a special person. It would really be unfortunate if someone he cared about was careless with his feelings, don't you think?"
Xichen blinks as he suddenly realises what kind of conversation this is. "Aren't I supposed to say this kind of thing to you?"
"Hah, you'd think," Wei Wuxian says cheerfully. "But it turns out, no. I'd never do anything to hurt Lan Zhan, anyway."
Xichen keeps his promise. He does not tell Wei Ying anything he saw.
But for a moment, he is sorely tempted in the face of such sheer unknowing audacity that this man, who broke his brother's heart so many times, could even say that.
A note on that last line:
I cannot emphasise enough that Lan Xichen isn't actually going to do that? He made a promise and he'll keep it. That's just... he has a moment in which he is outraged and appalled by the sheer AUDACITY of WEI WUXIAN claiming he'd never do anything to hurt Lan Zhan when he has just experienced first-hand a number of the MANY times when Wei Wuxian hurt Lan Zhan really a lot.
He just experienced first hand Lan Wangji desperately trying to save Wei Wuxian's life and getting nothing but rejection in return, among other things, and that's... a lot, all by itself. Wei Wuxian broke Lan Wangji's heart. Repeatedly.
I am genuinely uncomfortable with the amount of Xichen hate in the comments, especially with how much of it was generated by that single line.
edit2: In order to prevent confusion, I should note that I have slightly edited the final line to be clearer about intent.
Over the next few weeks, Wei Ying is busy. He has his son, and the disciples, and Lan Zhan.
Strictly speaking, Wei Ying isn't bribing Lan Zhan with sex to keep working on his relationship with his brother, because Wei Ying would absolutely have sex with Lan Zhan anyway. He's just... helping Lan Zhan through an emotionally difficult period by providing him comfort and reassurance.
Mostly through sex. But Lan Zhan finds sex very comforting, Wei Ying is being a good and supportive husband.
And Lan Zhan and Zewu-Jun are speaking. After Zewu-Jun returns to Gusu, they exchange letters.
Meanwhile, the ridiculous Sect Leader Jin and the admirable Luo Qingyang return again.
This time, Wei Ying is not actually deliberately eavesdropping.
He's been very, very tired lately, is the thing. Between his son, his husband, and the juniors, he's exhausted, because all of them are very energetic, and normally so is Wei Ying but he has limits.
So when his mother-in-law found him looking listless and barely keeping up as he chased A-Yuan around the gardens, she confiscated his son and told Wei Ying to rest.
He'd intended to take an hour to enjoy the autumn sunshine. He'd found a boat no-one was using, tied up by a pier, and intended to go out into the lake for a bit and maybe pick some nice fresh lotus pods for his family to have later.
Somewhere after untying the boat, he fell asleep.
He wakes up, confused, to footsteps directly above him.
His boat has drifted under the pier.
His first thought is that this is actually going to be slightly annoying to get out again.
His second thought is that it is going to be extremely, painfully awkward if anyone realises he's there, because that's Jin Zixuan's voice above him.
His third is that he hopes they leave soon, because Jiang Cheng and Lan Zhan will both be worried and upset if they look for Wei Ying and can't find him.
"I thought perhaps - if you were willing - it might be time to speak to his Excellency about - if you're willing, you understand. Now that peace has returned, I wondered if you might - be willing."
"Willing?" That's shijie.
"To marry me."
Wei Ying blinks. Ah? Just ah? He thought she liked him.
"If you are unwilling then I will - I will leave immediately."
He'd better, Wei Ying thinks.
"It's not that I am unwilling, Sect Leader Jin," shijie says. "I am - conflicted."
Jin Zixuan better not have done anything to upset her, Wei Ying thinks.
"I see." There's a long pause, but no footsteps moving away. "Conflicted. About?"
Another long pause. "MianMian," shijie says.
Wei Ying wonders if he perhaps could have learned teleportation talismans by now if he'd tried harder. If, of course, he'd actually tried to learn them at all.
"MianMian is my shimei and friend, she and I are not -" Jin Zixuan says, but shijie must have given him a look, or something, because he falls silent.
"I know that you and she are not," shijie says. "But I am not certain whether - she and I might be."
Another long silence. "If - if it was just MianMian," Jin Zixuan says. "I mean. If you wanted, and she wanted, but you still wanted - as well? Then I could be okay with that. If you were. And she was."
"Are you certain of that?" shijie asks.
"I am. Jiang-guniang, I hope you know how great is my esteem for you. I am unworthy of you."
Beneath the pier, Wei Ying nods.
"But," Jin Zixuan continues, "I still hope to marry you, unworthy as I am. If you must choose between my dearest friend and me, when I know better than anyone that she too is brilliant and brave and kind... I am not myself convinced that you would be right, if you chose me. But I must ask you - need it be a choice? Could it not be that I could have the love of my life and my dearest friend both within my household?"
Silence. Wei Ying concentrates on continuing to breathe, silently. This is - it's not - both of them? Shijie deserves all the love in the world, and MianMian is Luo Qingyang who is actually great, but Jin Zixuan and -
"Are you sure?" shijie asks.
"I could never begrudge sharing anything with MianMian," Jin Zixuan says, and he sounds like he's smiling. "Your love is not so small a thing that I could find even a half share of it insufficient."
"Then we should talk to her," shijie says. "And if she is in agreement with you, then perhaps we should talk to my brother."
"I believe she's in her rooms," Jin Zixuan says. "Let's go, right now."
Shijie laughs. "Suddenly you are so eager?"
"If I wait too long, you might change your mind," he says. He still sounds like he's smiling. "If I can secure your promise, you are far too good to go back on your word."
Their footsteps fade away.
Wei Ying waits until there's definite silence, then sends a paperman talisman to peek over the edge of the pier.
Time to make his escape. He gets the boat out from under the pier and ties it up again.
The trouble is, he's not sure he can face anyone, yet, when now he's going to have a secret to keep and he needs to calm down about it before he sees anyone, so his best option is probably still to hide and just hope not to get shouted at too much. Because what if Jiang Cheng asks? Jiang Cheng will forgive Wei Ying anything so long as Wei Ying doesn't lie to him, this is established.
Because apparently his luck is terrible today, it's his shijie who finds him sitting under a tree outside the walls.
"A-Xian?" she says. "A-Cheng and Wangji are worried they couldn't find you."
"Oh! Hello! Shijie," he says, with a smile he's worried is a bit waxen.
She frowns at him. "A-Xian, are you all right?"
She just looks at him.
And looks at him.
"I fell asleep in the boat and woke up under the pier when you were talking to Jin Zixuan," he blurts. "I heard your whole conversation and I don't want to accidentally tell Jiang Cheng."
"Ah." She smiles and pats his arm. "Go to Wangji, A-Xian, I'm going to tell Jiang Cheng myself now he won't be distracted worrying where you've gone."
Wei Ying breathes. "Okay."
"A-Cheng, I found A-Xian," A-Jie says, and Jiang Cheng untenses.
It's not that he doesn't trust Wei Ying's intentions. He just doesn't trust the results of his good intentions, sometimes. If he doesn't know where Wei Ying is... anything could happen.
Wei Ying knowing Jiang Cheng keeps track of where he is seems to make Wei Ying feel safer, and helps Jiang Cheng feel like if Wei Ying is in trouble then Jiang Cheng will know about it and be able to help him.
It doesn't need to be exact, he just needs to know Wei Ying hasn't wandered away from Lotus Pier alone without telling him.
"What was he doing?" he asks, because they have a system. One in which Wei Ying does what he wants so long as Jiang Cheng knows what it is.
A-Jie laughs. "Hiding," she says. "He overheard my conversation with Sect Leader Jin and didn't want to have to tell you, and didn't want to hide it from you either."
Jiang Cheng frowns. "What was your conversation with Sect Leader Jin? Is that what you wanted to talk to me about?"
She smiles warmly. "It is, yes. He would have come to see you too but Wangji intercepted him and insisted he should make an appointment."
Jiang Cheng grins despite himself. "Even coming with you?"
"Yes." A-Jie's look is of reluctant amusement.
"There is a process for coming to see the Chief Cultivator," Jiang Cheng says piously. (It's possible that there is also a process for ensuring that if Jin Zixuan intends to court the sister - martial or otherwise - of the three heroes of Yunmeng, he will nonetheless be reminded of his place.)
"Of course," A-Jie says. "In any case, A-Cheng, Jin Zixuan and I have agreed to marry - with your permission, of course."
As if anyone would believe Jiang Cheng would tell her no. "Why would Wei Ying be concerned about keeping that secret?" he asks, puzzled.
"Oh, it wasn't that part," she says.
And then she explains.
Jiang Cheng did not want to know that his sister has agreed with Jin Zixuan on principles of including Luo Qingyang in their marriage. He can't remember the last time he wanted to know anything less than he wanted to know this.
So long as his sister is happy in her marriage and Jin Zixuan does nothing to embarrass or upset her ever in his entire life, Jiang Cheng will consider him... adequate.
However, he does not want details.
"Thank you for telling me," he says through gritted teeth when she's done.
After she leaves he finishes the section he was writing of his letter to Wen Qing, leaves his office and heads back towards the residence. It's almost time for lunch, and then he can check on the junior disciples, and -
- the first thing he sees on arrival at the residence - the residence of the family of the Jiang Sect leader, meaning Jiang Cheng's home - is Wangji and Wei Ying.
Wangji has Wei Ying pressed against the wall outside their rooms and appears to be doing things to his neck that are only remotely acceptable inside their rooms.
Jiang Cheng cannot deal with this today. He turns on his heel and heads towards his mother's wing - his nephew is undoubtedly with one of his grandmothers, and Jiang Cheng can have lunch with him instead.
The gate to the courtyard is open. Once his mother guarded her own part of Lotus Pier quite jealously, but that has largely stopped. First she granted access to guests of Tang Lijuan, which meant frequent visits from Wangji and Wei Ying. Then she had all of Lotus Pier to supervise throughout the war, and now, well - the Jiang Sect Leader has returned, but Yu Ziyuan has no rivalry or contention with him.
Jiang Cheng enters.
He sees his nephew, playing under the watchful eyes of Jinzhu and Yinzhu.
He sees Tang Lijuan kissing his mother against a wall. Apparently it is hereditary. Jiang Cheng regrets many of his life choices leading to this moment.
Jiang Cheng looks back at A-Yuan.
"Sect Leader Jiang," Yinzhu says politely, and Jiang Cheng does not look to see what effect that has on his mother or Tang Lijuan.
"I thought I'd take A-Yuan to lunch," he says gruffly. "Are you hungry, kid?"
A-Yuan smiles up at him, which does help Jiang Cheng feel better. "Yes please, shufu!"
Jiang Cheng scoops him up and sets him on his hip.
"You are my favourite person at Lotus Pier," he tells him as he carries him out. He intended just to have lunch with everyone else, but he can see A-Jie walking towards the hall with Jin Zixuan and Luo Qingyang, and absolutely refuses to deal with that. "Let's get lunch in town."
"Town!" A-Yuan beams.
His nephew is simply the best person currently alive.
The second-least-annoying person today is the one he meets at the main gates: Lan Xichen has apparently just arrived.
"Bobo!" A-Yuan exclaims.
"Your Excellency," Lan Xichen says, bowing. "A-Yuan."
Jiang Cheng adjusts his grip as A-Yuan nearly throws himself out of his arms attempting to return Lan Xichen's salute.
"We have lunch in town," A-Yuan tells Lan Xichen seriously. "Bobo come?"
Lan Xichen glances at Jiang Cheng.
"If you wish to join us, you would be most welcome," Jiang Cheng says, not quite reluctantly. He's not really in the mood for company less cute than his nephew's, but... A-Yuan is Lan Xichen's nephew too, and Lan Xichen rarely gets to see him. Jiang Cheng should probably be willing to share.
"It was not my intention to intrude on your time," Lan Xichen says. "I came to speak to Wangji."
Jiang Cheng winces. He's pretty sure Wangji is going to be occupied for some time yet. "You should probably come to lunch with us," he says. "A-Yuan would be so disappointed not to see his bobo."
"So dispointed," A-Yuan agrees.
"Is there a problem with my brother?" Lan Xichen asks, when the three of them are settled at Lotus Cove's nicest inn with food. Jiang Cheng ordered A-Yuan's favourites and has loaded his bowl; Lan Xichen clearly waited until their nephew was distracted by his food. He has not himself yet begun eating, presumably so he can have this conversation without breaking the weird rules of the Lan.
"Not a new one," Jiang Cheng huffs, rolling his eyes. It's not new at all. This is Jiang Cheng's second lifetime in which he is afflicted with the shamelessness of those two.
"There is a usual problem with him?"
"He's shameless," Jiang Cheng growls. "He and Wei Ying have a bedroom, you'd think they'd remember to use it, wouldn't you? And yet. I walk into my own residence and your brother is doing unforgivable things to mine against the wall and then I go to find my nephew and your mother is just as bad, so at least I know who to blame, I suppose."
Lan Xichen is staring.
"My mother is just as bad in what sense?" he asks, tension suddenly in his expression.
Jiang Cheng realises belatedly that Lan Xichen might not have known about this. At some point, Jiang Cheng is going to go to the Cloud Recesses and find exactly where on their Wall of Disciplines it is written that nobody shall ever actually talk to their family members.
He sighs, and scribbles a paperman talisman, flicks it over to land on Lan Xichen's shoulder and whisper in his ear.
Just in case. Generally the people of Lotus Cove are too loyal to the Jiang Sect to gossip, but... better to be safe.
Lan Xichen blinks.
"I see," he says.
"A-Yuan is my favourite person at Lotus Pier," Jiang Cheng tells him seriously. He pours tea for A-Yuan, blows on it to cool it, and sets it down by his nephew.
"I suppose it must be difficult to see the happiness of others when you and your betrothed are kept apart by duty," Lan Xichen says politely.
"Oh, no, nothing like that," Jiang Cheng says. He and Wen Qing are not kept apart in any way that matters - he received a letter from her just today, and is partway through one of his own to her. He values her friendship tremendously, and their betrothal remains very useful politically.
Lan Xichen looks inquisitive.
"My arrangement with Wen Qing is political," Jiang Cheng says, because at least some degree of personal confidence is required to build a relationship that has hopes of becoming less painfully formal, and this is Wei Ying's brother-in-law. "It's better this way. I'm not... interested, that way."
"In women?" Lan Xichen asks.
"In anyone," Jiang Cheng says firmly, and reaches over to wipe sauce off A-Yuan's chin.
Lan Xichen is staring at him.
"Is there a problem?" Jiang Cheng asks, aware that his tone is sharp and not particularly trying to prevent that.
"No," Lan Xichen says, with a small smile. "Not a problem at all." He takes a bite of his lunch, ending the conversation.
After lunch, the three of them take a walk through town.
Jiang Cheng clears his throat. "The damage is less extensive than it looked," he says, not meeting his mother's eyes. "Wei Ying says he knows what he did wrong, and he learned a lot."
"He and A-Yuan have both stopped throwing up," Tang Lijuan says as she comes into the room. She takes a seat next to Mother. "The healers say they'll both be fine. Wangji is with them now. A-Yuan is very cheerful about it."
"Wangji assures me he will discuss not trying to invent new things after having so much sugar with Wei Ying," Jiang Cheng mutters. His mother's gaze is burning a hole in the top of his head, he's sure of it.
"One might be compelled to wonder," Mother says, "how it is that Wei Ying and A-Yuan came to consume their own body weights in candy in the first place." There's the faintest of curls to her mouth, which could be amusement and could be imminent fury.
"A-Huan?" Tang Lijuan's tone is sweet, yet sends ice down even Jiang Cheng's spine.
"I thought perhaps I should give my nephew a gift," Lan Xichen says. "So I bought him a toy."
Jiang Cheng scowls at the thought. Buying a toy? For Jiang Cheng's nephew? In Lotus Cove? Such an outrage.
"A-Cheng?" Mother's tone is less sweet. It's equally terrifying.
"He's almost old enough to start learning the bow," Jiang Cheng mutters. "I got him a kite."
"Music is important and requires developing one's sense of rhythm," Lan Xichen says. "So I got him a drum."
And then neither of them was willing to let the other get the last present (or at least, Jiang Cheng definitely hadn't been, and Lan Xichen had matched him gift for gift), and they may have delivered their nephew back to his parents with a pile of toys and sweets taller than he is.
After they ran out of places in Lotus Cove to buy things.
And Wei Ying might have decided to "help" his son eat the candy, since there was, perhaps, arguably more of it than A-Yuan should be permitted to eat alone, or would even be capable of eating.
It's possible that it ended up with both of them making themselves sick, although only after Wei Ying blew up his workshop in a fit of sugar-rushed inspiration.
Their mothers share a look.
Jiang Cheng and Lan Xichen are both sect leaders, men of unparalleled power and prestige.
They are also sons, who are in so very much trouble with their mothers.
He shares a glance of his own with Lan Xichen, who isn't quite concealing his smile.
Jiang Cheng agrees to Jin Zixuan's request for his sister's hand in marriage, of course, and preparations begin for their wedding.
The Jiang Sect are still strong, so Jiang Cheng has more free time, and yet less to do for her, because this time, he is not serving as his sister's only family. She has Mother, who is far more suited in so many ways to this than Jiang Cheng ever was.
And at no point in the course of the preparation for her wedding is Jiang Cheng sneaking her off to Yiling to show Wei Wuxian her wedding clothes. Wei Ying is safely at Lotus Pier, dividing his time between his family and the junior disciples who adore him.
Mostly. One or two of Jiang Cheng's recruits are serious-minded boys who find Wei Ying frustratingly frivolous, but it will be good for them to learn the distinction between appearances and reality, because Wei Ying is a ridiculous person but he is still both skilled and knowledgeable. The only people who can ever stand against him when sparring are Jiang Cheng and Wangji. (It's a real effort; his shidi really is very talented, and Jiang Cheng is having to work to keep ahead of him and still win more often than he loses. It's only a matter of time before he can't, but that's okay.)
Wei Ying's family obligations include Lan Xichen, who appears to have put considerable thought into his approach to rebuilding his relationship with Wangji. As far as Jiang Cheng can tell, he has decided on a strategy that includes deliberately seeking friendship with Wei Ying, which, admittedly, is probably the best angle he could use. Wangji is standoffish by nature and has a tendency to be distinctly prickly, but Jiang Cheng has seen the fond way he watches when Wei Ying is chattering happily with Lan Xichen.
Lan Xichen and Jiang Cheng are also getting to be on friendlier terms, but Jiang Cheng likes to think that's not just because Jiang Cheng is his brother's sect leader. The Jiang have continued to assist with the reconstruction of the Cloud Recesses, and there are good reasons for the Lan to want the political connection in any case, but he thinks Lan Xichen also likes him well enough as a person, their subtle war over A-Yuan's affections notwithstanding.
(Lan Xichen at least brings his gifts from outside Yunmeng now. If A-Yuan wants anything in Yunmeng he will receive it from Jiang Cheng.)
(And Jiang Cheng is still winning, he is absolutely A-Yuan's favourite uncle and he's going to stay that way.)
The preparations for his sister's wedding are also made more ridiculous - even compared to last time, when they were ridiculous just because of the Jin being, well, the Jin - because this time Jin Zixuan is not just the heir, but the leader of the sect... and A-Jie is the sister of the Chief Cultivator.
It's a good thing that Jiang Cheng and Wen Qing have no intention of actually marrying in the foreseeable future, because their wedding would cause a degree of sheer fuss that Jiang Cheng is certain he would find intolerable.
He's glad his sister knows about his previous life. They've talked enough about how things were at this time for her to understand why he's just a little bit more quiet, more reflective than in theory he should be.
Ceremonies and processions and rituals, and now he's standing at his sister's wedding again.
Jin Zixuan has the same look of joyful adoration when he looks at his bride as he did before, which means Jiang Cheng will demonstrate the same willingness to permit him to live and to marry A-Jie.
His sister bows to the Heavens and the Earth.
All the rest is different.
Jiang Cheng is not the only member of his clan here. He's standing by his mother, and ranks of Jiang, both sect and clan, stand behind them. Never in his previous life had Jiang Cheng stood at a wedding and not stood alone.
Now Jiang Cheng can glance to the side and see Wei Ying, tears in his eyes and smile bright, in formal Jiang robes, Wangji by his side. Every purple thread a silent declaration that he is still Jiang Cheng's family. Jiang Cheng won't have to choose between his brother and his duty, this time.
His sister bows to their mother.
Jiang Cheng remembers Wei Wuxian in the Guanyin temple. It's all in the past. It's been too long. There's no reason to struggle with it any longer.
At the time, it had hurt. A crushing rejection from the only family he still had other than Jin Ling - the only person he might have been able to hope he could still depend on, because he could never let Jin Ling see him needing anything. For Jin Ling, he had to be strong.
He thinks perhaps now he might finally be able to agree with it. To let the past go, a sky lantern of his grief and pain and anger, because here and now, everything he lost has been returned to him.
His family are alive, and here, and there are no simmering tensions that threaten to engulf them all - Jiang Cheng is strong, he is powerful, he could protect all that he loves if he had to. The Jiang Sect are pre-eminent in all the world, and bound tightly to the other elite sects. He is betrothed to the leader of the Wen, the sworn brother of the leader of the Nie. His sister is marrying the leader of the Jin, and the leader of the Lan is his friend and the brother of his disciple, the brother-in-law of Wei Ying.
Wei Ying's husband is Jiang Cheng's friend, not another wall between them. Jiang Cheng attended their wedding in this life as he did before, but this time he was there as family. He was there as Wei Ying's brother, as his friend, as his sect leader, all the things they're supposed to be to one another.
Last time he was invited as the leader of the Jiang Sect, but it was a diplomatic nicety, and his attendance was if anything an act of self-sabotage. It hurt. He watched Jin Ling offer his congratulations. Watched his sister's son finding forgiveness in his heart and love for Wei Wuxian, sick with envy and fury and shame because he knew that strength wasn't one he taught the boy. It was in his blood.
She would have been so proud of him.
Jiang Cheng always thought she'd be so disappointed in him, but she'd have been so proud of her son.
Maybe by now she'd be proud of him. The sister he had, not the one he still has - he loves her, more than anything, but she's not quite the same person. She is proud of him, now, he knows that, but he still wants so much to be the man his first sister thought he could be, too.
He didn't ask for this. He didn't know what would happen when he stepped into the array Wei Wuxian left behind.
But he'd followed. He'd tried, he'd been trying, to the last, he never gave up on trying to bring their brother home no matter how many times he failed.
And then he did.
His sister bows to Jin Zixuan, radiantly beautiful with her joy and her love for him.
Jiang Cheng meets Wei Ying's eyes and they share a smile, and then, at the same moment, just the tiniest roll of their eyes, because - honestly, Jin Zixuan, he has never been worthy of her.
Luo Qingyang balances the scales, a little, but still not enough for Jiang Yanli, the most beautiful, perfect woman in the world.
His mother catches his eye, then, with a slightly raised eyebrow of reproof. Chastened, Jiang Cheng turns back to the ceremony.
They're here. Together. His family.
Wei Wuxian's greatest gifts were always the ones Jiang Cheng never asked for.
Jiang Cheng's cheeks ache from the force of his smile.
He has everything he has ever wanted. His sect, his family, their happiness.
If this is the final gift of the Wei Wuxian who was the Yiling Patriarch, who tore the world apart, whose choices cost Jiang Cheng so much, in the end...
This will be the one Jiang Cheng does not regret.
He will leave all that was in the past, because here and now, Jiang Cheng has everything he has ever needed. Everything he wants is cupped in his hands, and he has the power to keep it safe.
Thank you, Wei Wuxian, he thinks.
Later, after the banquet, he finds Wei Ying and Wangji in the dispersing crowd.
"Hey," he says, smiling bright and wide, and pulls Wei Ying into a hug.
"Are you drunk?" Wei Ying asks suspiciously, but he hugs him back.
"Nah," Jiang Cheng says. "I just wanted to say something, today." He pulls back and looks his brother in the eye. "Thank you."
"What for?" Wei Ying asks, looking confused. Beside him, Wangji is smiling.
"Everything," Jiang Cheng says, and hugs him again.
Thank you for reading!
Regular readers of my work will be unsurprised to learn that there are a couple more works in this series that will be coming along soon.