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Out of Mud

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Ouyang Zizhen had never personally experienced Sect Leader Jiang threatening to break his legs before this, and he couldn’t say it was an experience he was eager to repeat. From Lan Jingyi’s terrified squawk and even Lan Sizhui’s pale face, he rather thought the others agreed. 

Jin Ling assured them that it meant his uncle was happy to have them at Lotus Pier, but Jin Ling wasn’t always reliable when it came to self-preservation. Ouyang Zizhen had heard him mutter “If I die, I die” too many times to be strictly comfortable trusting his ability to judge what was or wasn’t dangerous.

Especially when the “what” in question was Sect Leader Jiang.

It was just like Jin Ling to invite his friends on a “diplomatic bonding experience” in order to get away from the machinations of his sect elders, only to drag them directly into the lair of a very different but equally terrifying beast. The swiftly falling dark and a small army of menacingly glowing lotus-shaped lanterns only served to increase Sect Leader Jiang’s intimidation factor.

Personally, in Jin Ling’s place, Ouyang Zizhen wouldn’t have greeted the Sandu Shengshou with, “Hi jiujiu the elders were giving me a headache so we’re going to hang out here for a bit don’t worry about us we’ll stay out of your way also if anyone shows up looking for me please pretend you’ve never seen me before thanks!”

But he had to concede that perhaps Jin Ling did understand his uncle’s moods after all. Sect Leader Jiang only threatened their legs once with surprisingly little malice, almost as if out of habit, and then he responded to Jin Ling’s verbal vomit with a heavy sigh and resigned grumbling that Jin Ling knew when meals were served and it wouldn’t be his fault if they went hungry because they missed the window.

Jin Ling opened his mouth again, and Sect Leader Jiang rolled his eyes. “Your room is where it’s always been. Your friends can all pile into your bed or you can ask Jiang Shanyu to have the servants set up some of the empty rooms if that's not fancy enough for your diplomatic guests.”

Ouyang Zizhen looked between uncle and nephew and wondered if the late Jiang Yanli had shared the same grumpy manner of showing affection, or if Jin Ling had picked that up directly from the man who had raised him.

Jin Ling flushed and crossed his arms. He looked to be about five seconds away from stomping his foot like a child. “Who would want to share a bed with these idiots!” he snapped, and then flounced away in a swirl of glittering gold silks.

Lan Jingyi chased after him, whining, “How cruel, Young Mistress! After Sizhui and I fled our home to answer your desperate plea for rescue, and Ouyang-xiong worked so hard to escape from under his father’s nose, you don’t consider us close enough to bed down with?”

As Lan Sizhui started to follow the two loudmouths at a more sedate pace, Jin Ling’s retort drifted back to where Ouyang Zizhen was still standing, frozen, in front of Sect Leader Jiang: “Who asked to be rescued?!”

Sect Leader Jiang snorted, his arms crossed in front of him. His eyes were fixed on the two gold and white shapes in the distance, and his right hand loosened and then re-clenched around his left bicep in a strange, aborted twitch.

That dark gaze shifted onto Ouyang Zizhen’s face, as if Sect Leader Jiang could sense that he was being watched. He lifted one of those strong eyebrows in a silent question.

“Thank you for your hospitality, Sect Leader Jiang!” Ouyang Zizhen squeaked, hastily bringing his arms up in a salute. “We’ll do our best to stay out of your way!”

If he almost tripped over himself trying to turn and run at the same time, Lan Sizhui, who had lingered at a short distance to wait for him, was too kind to mention it.


Ouyang Zizhen took it all back. He was never trusting Jin Ling to know anything ever again.

“I’m fine!” Jin Ling argued, swinging his feet over the edge of his bed. Ouyang Zizhen watched in horrified fascination as his face went white and then green, and then the youngest sect leader blinked like he was trying to push his own eyeballs out the back of his skull.

His hands were clenched into such tight fists that his knuckles had turned a bloodless white. Ouyang Zizhen could tell when the newest bout of pain faded because Jin Ling’s grip relaxed and red flowers bloomed across the backs of his hands as blood rushed back into his extremities.

“You’re not fine,” Lan Jingyi said firmly, struggling to shove Jin Ling back into a reclining position. “Look at you, you can’t even stand up without wobbling!”

Lan Sizhui sighed almost inaudibly. “Don’t tell him that, Jingyi, he’s going to take it as a challenge,” he chided, but it was too late.

“What did you say to me?!” Jin Ling shot upright, only to bounce right back down onto the mattress as his face scrunched up once more in pain.

“Jin Ling, we can just take it easy for today,” Lan Sizhui said soothingly. “You don’t have to worry about entertaining us. We’ll be here for a few more days, after all.”

Jin Ling grit his teeth. “This has been happening every morning for the past week. It’s fine. Just… just give me a few minutes to make this headache go away and I’ll take you to the market.”

Lan Jingyi’s voice rose in alarm. “The only place you’re taking us is the healers’ wing!”

“Sh-shut up--”

Just what is going on in here?!

The boys fell silent as the door to Jin Ling’s room slammed open. Sect Leader Jiang stepped through, eyes immediately homing in on his nephew’s face. Lan Jingyi scrambled out of the way as Sect Leader Jiang strode to the side of Jin Ling’s bed, barely sparing the others a glance as he went.

“Why are you in pain? Are you sick?” He smacked Jin Ling’s shoulder when the boy tried to push himself up into a sitting position, laying the back of his hand against Jin Ling’s forehead.

“I’m fine, jiuiju!” Jin Ling tried to protest. “I’ve just-- The sect elders have been a pain in the ass these past few weeks, and it makes my head ring first thing in the morning, but it goes away--”

Sect Leader Jiang scowled, a fierce expression that was totally at odds with how gently he tilted Jin Ling’s head back and forced his nephew’s mouth open so he could inspect the inside of Jin Ling’s throat.

Lan Sizhui coughed lightly and politely turned his back on the red-faced Jin Ling and his uncle. “Jingyi, Ouyang-xiong, let’s wait outside.”

Not that it made much of a difference, anyway. From outside the room they could still hear the plaintive, “Jiujiu, I’m fine,” and Sect Leader Jiang’s curt, “You’re an idiot, is what you are. You have a fever, dumbass.” Then, without warning, a heart-stoppingly loud roar of “Jiang Shanyu!

A round-faced young woman who wore an aura of competence like a cloak appeared from behind Ouyang Zizhen without a sound, knocking politely on the door before sliding it open. “Sect Leader?”

Ouyang Zizhen clutched a hand to his chest, willing his heartbeat back to normal as Sect Leader Jiang continued at a more normal volume, “Send one of the healers to check on Jin Ling as soon as possible. He’s not to leave his room until someone has seen him, and he’s to follow the healer’s instructions afterward.”

“Jiujiu--!”

Jiang Shanyu bowed. “Yes, Sect Leader.” She straightened up and addressed Jin Ling directly. “Jin Rulan, would you like pork congee or chicken congee for your meals today?” Her tone made it very clear that those were his only two options.

“Stop treating me like I’m sick,” Jin Ling complained. “I can take care of myself. I’m a sect leader, you know.” Then, after a pause: “Chicken, please.”

Jiang Shanyu nodded and withdrew from the room. Ouyang Zizhen stared after her as she strode down the hall, presumably headed for the healers’ wing. What a capable, authoritative young woman! No wonder Sect Leader Jiang had called for her in his--or rather, Jin Ling’s--hour of need!

Back inside Jin Ling’s room, Sect Leader Jiang snorted. “You don’t get treated like a sect leader when you run away from your own elders to take refuge in my house.” His voice grew more threatening as he stood up from the bed. “All of my disciples know it, too, so don’t think you’ll be able to bully anyone into letting you leave before a healer sees you. And you’d better finish all of your food, or Jiang Shanyu will let me know.”

Ouyang Zizhen heard a noise that sounded like Jin Ling was screaming into his pillow. “Just go away, jiujiu!”

Sect Leader Jiang huffed. “I’m going, I’m going. Brat.”

Ouyang Zizhen and Lan Jingyi leapt to their feet as he slid the door closed behind him. Lan Sizhui, ever well-mannered, had been standing the entire time and was predictably the first to react with a bow. Sect Leader Jiang returned the greeting with a nod of his head and rubbed his forehead as he surveyed them.

“What happened to staying out of my way,” he grumbled to himself. “Now I’ve got to entertain your guests because you don’t know how to take care of yourself?”

Lan Sizhui hurried to say, “Sect Leader Jiang doesn’t need to bother himself on our behalf; we can just--”

His polite words faltered upon contact with Sect Leader Jiang’s venomous glare.

“Jin Ling promised to take you to see the market, didn’t he? We’re not such poor hosts that we’d leave our guests wandering about aimlessly.” One corner of his lip quirked up almost imperceptibly into the ghost of a smirk. “Especially not when they’re diplomatic guests.”

Lan Jingyi groaned, with a muttered, “I knew letting the Young Mistress come up with the cover story was going to come back to bite us.” But he perked up at the promise of entertainment.

Ouyang Zizhen swallowed nervously. “We would be honored to be shown around by Sect Leader Jiang.”

If Sect Leader Jiang was treating them as diplomatic guests, then he probably wouldn’t break their legs. Right? Right?

“Besides, I can’t let everyone think Jin Ling only has one fun uncle,” Sect Leader Jiang said under his breath, and Ouyang Zizhen swallowed hard, terrified for his life because he was certain he hadn't been meant to hear that.

Sect Leader Jiang seemed to be thinking, one finger tapping against his thigh as he stared off into the distance. “All right,” he said finally. “I have a meeting in an hour. I should be finished by lunchtime.” His eyes narrowed. “I’d better be finished by lunchtime, or those old bastards will regret ever coming here.”

Ouyang Zizhen’s eyebrows flew up toward his hairline. Those were very strong words to say in front of any visitors, diplomatic or not.

Sect Leader Jiang looked unabashed at his own language. “I’ll have lunch sent to your rooms when they bring Jin Ling’s congee. After lunch, I’ll come fetch you and we’ll go to the market.” His scowl darkened. “If anyone tries to slip Jin Ling their own food, I’ll break their legs.”

Without waiting for confirmation, he spun on his heel and was turning the corner before any of the boys had recovered enough to speak.

Lan Sizhui let his shoulders fall in resignation, and Lan Jingyi opened and closed his mouth as he stared in the direction in which Sect Leader Jiang had disappeared.

“He and Jin Ling really are very much alike, aren’t they?” Lan Sizhui said weakly. 

“I feel like I’ve been trampled for my own good, and I hate how effective it is,” Lan Jingyi said. “I kind of wish I knew how to do that.”

Ouyang Zizhen nodded faintly.


Ouyang Zizhen had to admit that the market was a lot of fun. He even enjoyed the mild fear factor of being in close proximity to the living personification of the threat of broken legs as Sect Leader Jiang led them along the noisy street. 

Walking beside Sect Leader Jiang, Ouyang Zizhen realized that Jin Ling and his uncle were actually close to the same height, but Sect Leader Jiang was broader across the shoulders and chest and so felt taller than Jin Ling. He thought the span of their waists might be about the same, but he wasn’t suicidal enough to spend more than a quick second looking.

Both Jin Ling and Sect Leader Jiang walked with their shoulders tucked back and their chins lifted, but when Jin Ling did it he looked like a teenager with something to prove, whereas on Sect Leader Jiang it just looked natural. Ouyang Zizhen took mental notes, wondering if he could incorporate some of that into his own posture without looking like a peacock.

Ahead of them, Lan Jingyi had already pulled out his coin pouch. He had started out on his best behavior, conscious that they were in the presence of the leader of the one of the Four Great Sects--Jin Ling didn’t count, okay, he was just Jin Ling--but in short order, he was bouncing from stall to stall with stars in his eyes.

The sunlight reflected off the surface of the nearby river and danced across the faces of the market-goers. Ouyang Zizhen listened to the sloshing of the water against the docks and the frantic chatter of the street and felt it settle in his soul.

Lan Sizhui was just as awestruck as Lan Jingyi, only a bit quieter. Ouyang Zizhen watched his eyes dart here and there, always coming back to rest on the stalls selling paper lanterns. 

“You’re interested in lanterns?” Sect Leader Jiang asked without warning. Lan Sizhui swallowed and murmured an affirmative. A muscle in Sect Leader Jiang’s jaw relaxed, and he beckoned them all over to a stall draped in red cotton, strung up with a number of delicate paper lanterns.

The stall owner, a lovely young woman with a baby in her arms, smiled at them as they approached. Ouyang Zizhen watched in surprise as Sect Leader Jiang bowed to her, addressing her by name.

“Madam Liu, you’re looking well today. And A-Pang looks happy. How has business been today?”

Madam Liu’s cheerful smile widened as she bounced the baby. “Sect Leader! We’re doing well, thank you! Business has been slow so far, but I expect it will pick up this evening, once it gets dark.” She turned to the others. “Please feel free to take a look at my wares, young masters.”

“Madam Liu’s paper is so thin you can almost see through it,” Sect Leader Jiang said gruffly. “Her husband and her mother make the frames from a very light wood, so they’re not heavy at all. Jin Ling used to carry one in each hand when he was little.”

He gestured briefly to one side of his knee, and Ouyang Zizhen’s heart melted at the thought of a tiny Jin Ling toddling after his uncle. Or maybe toddling in front of his uncle; Sect Leader Jiang didn’t seem like the kind of caretaker who would let a child out of his sight in such a crowded place for even a moment.

The lantern-maker nodded as Sect Leader Jiang spoke, tapping the side of one lantern to show how thin the paper was. Lan Sizhui drifted closer, looking intrigued. Ouyang Zizhen was content to watch from further back, more interested in the emotions on Lan Sizhui’s face than the actual construction of the lanterns, exquisite as they were.

“There’s a metalworker further down the street who does the most delicate filigree lamps I’ve ever seen,” Sect Leader Jiang said quietly when Madam Liu disappeared to the back of her stall for a moment. “I don’t see him yet, but he usually shows up once it’s dark out. I’ll point him out later.”

When Madam Liu ducked back out to the front of the stall, he cleared his throat. “Do you have any lanterns that you’re working on at the moment? If you don’t mind, I think Lan-gongzi would find the process interesting.”

Lan Sizhui’s eyes widened, and he looked hopefully at Madam Liu.

She chuckled, a low, soothing sound that Ouyang Zizhen could have listened to forever. He listened with half an ear to her response, thoroughly distracted by that lingering laugh, but when the words registered in his brain he was jolted out of his daydream.

“Certainly, Sect Leader. But as you can see, I don’t have any free hands right now. You’ll have to take A-Pang while I show the young master our lantern-making process.”

Lan Jingyi choked on his own spit and Lan Sizhui’s face fell in disappointment, but Sect Leader Jiang just shrugged and reached out for the baby.

Ouyang Zizhen watched with bated breath as Madam Liu handed A-Pang over, apparently without any qualms. Even the baby seemed perfectly comfortable with the transfer, babbling and squealing as his tiny hands flailed up at Sect Leader Jiang’s severe face.

And that stony face softened as Sect Leader Jiang cradled the baby to his chest, rocking the warm little body with astounding confidence.

“Come around here, Lan-gongzi, and I’ll show you the two lanterns I started this morning,” Madam Liu said, and Lan Sizhui startled. He hurried to follow the lantern-maker’s instructions, shooting glances over his shoulder to where the other two were still spellstruck at the sight of Sect Leader Jiang--not smiling, but not frowning either--as he soothed the baby in his arms.

“Sect Leader Jiang is good with children,” Ouyang Zizhen managed after a moment. “I suppose it makes sense, since you raised Jin Ling.”

Sect Leader Jiang shook his head, placing a gentle kiss on the baby’s forehead before looking up at Ouyang Zizhen. “It’s not just because of Jin Ling. I mean, of course he gave me a lot of practice--that brat could never fall asleep unless I was holding him--but. When we rebuilt the sect.” He huffed, frowning as if frustrated that he couldn’t find the words he wanted.

“The orphans,” Lan Jingyi spoke up, strangely subdued. “From the Sunshot Campaign.”

Sect Leader Jiang nodded curtly, catching A-Pang’s hand as it swiped at his nose. He shook the tiny limb very softly and watched as the baby burst into pealing giggles. 

“We recruited as many adults as we could. We kept an eye out for people who had experience with being parents and grandparents. Promised them a home if they would help care for the children.” His lips tightened as he remembered. “But even then, we all had to help out with feeding the littlest ones and putting them to sleep.”

He snorted wryly. “It’s ironic. We were so busy begging the children to sleep through the night that we barely got any sleep ourselves.”

Lan Jingyi shuffled his feet. “Did you consider not taking them in? You were at war. You could have left the orphans to be raised by civilians.”

Sect Leader Jiang shrugged. “I considered it. Every time I had babysitting duty, I considered it.” He sucked in a breath and held it for a moment, then blew it back out. “But that would have been short-sighted of me. A sect is more than just an army.”

He paused thoughtfully. “If I’d just been trying to build an army, I would have gone about things very differently. Would have gotten to sleep a lot more, too.”

In front of them, Madam Liu was straightening up as Lan Sizhui bowed to her in thanks. Ouyang Zizhen was vaguely aware that he had missed the entire demonstration.

Sect Leader Jiang watched the two finish up their conversation, clearly in no hurry to give the baby back to his mother. “Madam Liu’s husband was only four when he came to us, you know,” he said offhandedly. “Never met a vegetable he liked.”

“It’s forbidden to talk about people behind their backs,” Lan Jingyi said reflexively, then went red.

Madam Liu laughed, taking A-Pang back with a nod of thanks at Sect Leader Jiang. “It’s common knowledge,” she waved the objection away. “Thankfully, he grew out of it before I met him. Can you imagine, trying to cook for a man who won’t eat vegetables unless you hide them in his food?”

“Did Madam Liu also grow up in Yunmeng?” Lan Sizhui asked, waving cheerfully at A-Pang and looking like his entire evening had been made when the baby waved back.

Madam Liu hid a smile behind her hand. “No, I’m originally from Qinghe.”

Sect Leader Jiang’s shoulders went back in a way that reminded Ouyang Zizhen of Jin Ling whenever he was particularly proud of himself. “Sect Leader Nie has never forgiven me for bringing Jiang Haian with me to Qinghe that time.”

“Sect Leader Nie called it poaching,” Madam Liu said conspiratorially to Lan Sizhui. “He thought Sect Leader Jiang introduced us with the intention that I would move to Yunmeng to be with my new husband.”

“Of course,” Ouyang Zizhen said, moved. Tears pricked at the corners of his eyes. “Naturally a young woman in the flushes of romance would want to follow where her lover went!”

Madam Liu looked at him with amusement. “Oh, he was absolutely ready to stay in Qinghe with me. But Sect Leader Jiang offered me my own stall and a tax deal for the first two years, so I packed up with my mother and we moved our shop here.”

Ouyang Zizhen deflated, a little disappointed at the lack of romance, but Lan Jingyi laughed. “...That is poaching, then, isn’t it?”

Madam Liu winked at him and bustled off to take care of another customer, but neither she nor Sect Leader Jiang disagreed with his assessment.

“Don’t tell Nie Huaisang any of that,” Sect Leader Jiang said as he led them away from the lantern stall. “He’ll whine at me even worse than he already did when she first announced she was moving. Besides, her mother is originally from this area anyways, so really I was just returning a favor.”

“We Lans don’t gossip!” Lan Jingyi said, feigning offense. “Sect Leader Jiang, how could you--”

Sect Leader Jiang patted his shoulder in a way that Ouyang Zizhen had only ever seen him do to Jin Ling, and Lan Jingyi’s jaw snapped closed.

“Don’t try to pull that bullshit on me, Lan Jingyi,” Sect Leader Jiang told him. “I’ve met your clan, you know.”

Ouyang Zizhen, who had also met most of the Gusu Lan sect, winced. It wasn’t like Sect Leader Jiang was wrong

“I’ve also met your Wei-qianbei,” Sect Leader Jiang continued under his breath. “His mouth is big enough on its own.” Then, as if he regretted having said anything, he immediately pointed them toward a stall full of games. “Here’s some pocket money. Go play some games. Whatever.”

When they tried to politely refuse the coins, he crossed his arms. “It’s either you take the money, or I tell the stall owner to charge everything to my account anyways. Jin Ling will yell at me if I make his guests pay for their own entertainment when he’s supposed to be hosting them.” He grinned viciously. “Don’t worry, I’ll take it out of his hide.”

Ouyang Zizhen prayed for his friend’s safety.

Lan Jingyi accepted the money with the kind of thick face that so often led people to wonder if it wasn’t perhaps him who was Wei-qianbei’s adopted son, instead of Lan Sizhui. Reluctantly, Ouyang Zizhen and Lan Sizhui followed suit.

“Thanks, Sect Leader Jiang!” Lan Jingyi exclaimed. “Do you have any recommendations?”

Lan Sizhui’s eyes widened at the audacity of asking a sect leader about something as trivial as street games, but Sect Leader Jiang gave it some serious thought.

“There’s a fishing game over on the right there. My--Jin Ling’s mother used to enjoy those kinds of games.” He scratched the back of his neck. “But neither Jin Ling nor I ever had the patience for them.”

“Maybe we can catch something for him,” Lan Sizhui suggested, gently herding the others in the direction of the game that Sect Leader Jiang had indicated. "Does Jin Ling like fish?"

Sect Leader Jiang inclined his head. “You should have seen him the one and only time we managed to catch one here. Big eyes, loud mouth. Lots of bouncing all over the place. You’d think he’d never seen a fish before. As if they don’t just catch the prize fish from the docks over there.”

Ouyang Zizhen looked over at Lan Jingyi and--yes, clearly these childhood memories were going to be held over Jin Ling’s head forever. It seemed there were advantages to hanging out with Sect Leader Jiang after all.

He wondered if Sect Leader Jiang had any portraits of Jin Ling at that age. If he managed to get his hands on one, he might actually die on the spot.

Lan Sizhui bowed to Sect Leader Jiang. “We’ll be right back, Sect Leader Jiang. Please excuse us!”

“Take your time,” Sect Leader Jiang said. “By the time you’re done, the other lamp-maker will be open. Jin Ling gave me a list of food stalls that you apparently must try, but they’re all on the way to the lamp stall, so it works out.”

He stood at a distance as they huddled around the fishing pond, and occasionally Ouyang Zizhen saw him hail this vendor or that one and sink into a conversation for several minutes before moving on to the next person.

“Do you think Sect Leader Jiang knows every single person on this street?” he muttered to Lan Sizhui as they watched Lan Jingyi wrestle desperately with a fish the size of his pinky finger.

Lan Sizhui smiled softly. “It certainly seems that way, doesn’t it?” His smile faltered as he saw the tension in Ouyang Zizhen’s shoulders. “What’s wrong, Ouyang-xiong?”

Ouyang Zizhen wasn’t sure how to explain. “It seems like a lot to keep track of, doesn’t it? Sect Leader Jiang probably knows the history of every single stall here. Hell, he probably helped strike the business deals to establish half of them.” He bit his lip. “...Do you think all sect leaders are supposed to know that much about their people? Even the ones who aren’t cultivators? How often do you think he comes out here and talks to everyone? Why does he do it, do you think?”

“Oh, Ouyang-xiong.” Lan Sizhui patted his shoulder comfortingly. “Are you worrying about the future again? You told us your father started having you sit in on his public audiences and help with his paperwork. Can you talk to him about it?”

Ouyang Zizhen blew a strand of hair out of his face. “He’ll laugh at me if I ask something this stupid,” he grumbled. “And I don’t want him to think I can’t handle the responsibilities, or that I haven’t been paying attention.”

“I almost had it that time!” Lan Jingyi cried, wiping sweat and pond water off his face. “Sizhui, you’re patient. Sect Leader Jiang said patience was important, so you should try next!”

Lan Sizhui squeezed Ouyang Zizhen’s shoulder and stood up, taking Lan Jingyi’s place at the side of the pond. He eyed the fish consideringly and pulled his sleeves out of the way before lowering the net into the water.

“You know,” Lan Jingyi said as he settled down next to Ouyang Zizhen, voice pitched low so as not to break Lan Sizhui’s concentration, “you could always ask Sect Leader Jiang. Who would know better why or how often he does something than the man himself?”

“Jingyi has a good point,” Lan Sizhui said softly, his hand steady above the surface of the water. Lan Jingyi vibrated with excitement as they watched several gold and black fish approach the net.

Ouyang Zizhen huffed. “Easy for you two to say,” he retorted. “You’re not the ones who would be risking broken legs to interrogate Sect Leader Jiang about his-- his sect-leading practices.”

Lan Jingyi snickered, offering, “Well, you could ask the Young Mistress. But you’d still be risking broken legs.”

Ouyang Zizhen’s (well thought-out and very savage) response was drowned by the whoop that Lan Jingyi let out when Lan Sizhui lifted the net with a small, wiggling fish on top of it.

Sect Leader Jiang offered them an unsmiling “Congratulations” that actually sounded pretty sincere to Ouyang Zizhen’s ear. He looked at the fish and then at Lan Sizhui’s bashful smile, and his face softened. 

“It’s always the patient ones who get the job done,” he said, and Lan Sizhui ducked his head as if Sect Leader Jiang had just showered him with profuse praise.

“Jin Ling might not want to carry a fish all the way back to Carp Tower,” he worried, biting his lip, but Sect Leader Jiang shrugged.

“Then you can put it in the water anywhere in Lotus Pier. It’s not the fish that matters, anyway. Jin Ling will still be happy that you brought him something.” He rolled his eyes. “Heaven knows he brought me enough bugs and fish when he was a child, and I had to coo and pat him on the head every time.”

Ouyang Zizhen’s brain ticked to a stop at the image of the dour Sect Leader Jiang cooing over anything. Beside him, Lan Jingyi seemed to be going through a similar emotional journey.

Lan Sizhui said, very faintly, “Ah, is that so…?”

Sect Leader Jiang sighed. “I don’t know how my sister did it with two of us bringing her the stupidest shit. Worms, eels, one time we brought her a baby bird and she climbed a tree to put it back in the nest. And then she made soup to thank us for our hard work.”

Ouyang Zizhen wondered if Jin Ling had heard this story about his mother, and felt vaguely guilty to be hearing it without him.

Then Sect Leader Jiang said, “And when Jin Ling heard that story, he wanted me to make him soup every time he brought me something. Demanding little brat.”

“That sounds very much like him,” Lan Jingyi snickered.

Sect Leader Jiang turned his head sharply and looked at Lan Jingyi for a long moment before exhaling with an exasperation that Ouyang Zizhen could feel in his bones. “He may not seem like it sometimes, but he’s matured a lot since then.”

“Sect Leader Jin has grown into a fine young man,” Lan Sizhui agreed, smiling peaceably. “Clearly he’s learned a lot from Sect Leader Jiang.”

Sect Leader Jiang flushed and lifted his chin. “He’s not done growing yet,” he growled. Then, turning around and starting to walk off, he added, “I guess he could have worse friends to take as examples.”

Ouyang Zizhen felt like he could float right off the street, with how empty his head was and how light his heart was. To top it off, that was when Sect Leader Jiang handed them each a stick of tanghulu.


“Nice of you to remember I exist,” Jin Ling said sourly as they piled into his room, smelling of sweat and smoke and sugar.

“Don’t be like that, Young Mistress!” Lan Jingyi chided, tumbling onto the edge of Jin Ling’s bed. “Look, we brought something back for you!”

Lan Sizhui bashfully presented the fish to the bed-bound sect leader, who puffed out his cheeks at the sight of it.

“That-- what-- What am I supposed to do with a fish?” Jin Ling demanded, but he reached out to take the little container anyways. 

Lan Jingyi nudged Jin Ling’s shoulder. “Don’t be rude.”

Jin Ling brought the fish to eye level in an effort to avoid having to make eye contact with any of them. “It’s kind of pretty. It’s gold, so it’s appropriate, at least.” His cheeks heated up. “Thanks. I guess.” Then, after a moment: “Can I eat it? The only thing I’ve had all day is congee and more congee.”

Ouyang Zizhen groaned good-naturedly, producing a stick of tanghulu from his sleeves. “I knew you’d complain about that. Here. When Sect Leader Jiang breaks my legs, I command you to avenge me.”

Jin Ling took the candy with wide eyes, shoving it into his mouth as if convinced that someone would take it away from him if he didn’t eat it fast enough.

“Slow down,” Lan Sizhui interjected, wincing as the hard sugar clacked against Jin Ling’s teeth. “It’s all yours, we had plenty while we were out.”

Lan Jingyi groaned, throwing himself backwards against Jin Ling’s torso. Jin Ling let out an oomph, nearly choking on his candy. 

“Did you really have to give your uncle such a long list of food stalls we had to visit? It was all sooo good but I’m about to burst out of my robes!”

Ouyang Zizhen scoffed. “Don’t listen to him, Jin-xiong. That’s because he insisted on eating his share and then finishing what the rest of us couldn’t eat.”

“It was all very good, though,” Lan Sizhui added. “I’m glad you invited us here.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Lan Jingyi nodded vigorously. “Your uncle is actually pretty cool, you know.”

“Only ‘pretty cool’?” Jin Ling demanded, sitting upright. “You shut up, my jiujiu is the coolest.”

Lan Jingyi flopped over to eye Jin Ling skeptically. “Isn’t your other uncle the Yiling Patriarch?”

Jin Ling scowled. “I said what I said!”

Lan Jingyi gave this some thought and then nodded slowly. “Well, Wei-qianbei is also pretty cool, and he did save our lives and all, but… Sect Leader Jiang didn’t play a single prank on us this whole day. Can you imagine Sandu Shengshou pulling pranks?”

Ouyang Zizhen waited. “...And?”

“And what?”

“Clearly there’s something else you want to say,” Lan Sizhui agreed. “What is it, Jingyi?”

Lan Jingyi sank back into Jin Ling’s sheets with a pained expression. “Well,” he mumbled, “I slept so well last night. And I’ll probably sleep really well again tonight! Because no one is having-- having-- No one is being loud at night. And forgetting to use silencing talismans.”

The four of them considered this, cheeks red from various memories of sleepless nights in the Cloud Recesses.

“Ha, so there,” Jin Ling said, but he looked like he regretted winning the argument.

Chapter Text

Lan Sizhui was impressed by the hardiness of Yunmeng-raised cultivators, or maybe it was just Jin Ling’s inherent stubbornness. The young sect leader had allowed his uncle to bully him into bed rest while the rest of them explored the market, but the very next day he was racing about Lotus Pier as if he had never been anything other than healthy.

“It’s lotus season, jiujiu!” Jin Ling looked expectantly at his uncle, who put down the scroll he had been reading and raised an eyebrow at the young men huddled together behind Jin Ling in the doorway to his office.

“And?” Sect Leader Jiang said. “What would you like me to do about it?”

“Jiujiu!” Jin Ling whined, reaching blindly behind himself when Jingyi snickered and flailing his hand in the air in hopes of smacking Jingyi.

Jin Ling.”

Jin Ling looked at Sect Leader Jiang’s unamused expression and pouted. “Take us to pick lotus pods, jiujiu. Now’s when they’re sweetest.”

Lan Sizhui remembered that Jin Ling had mentioned lotus-picking before, when they had been reminiscing about their childhoods. They had all agreed that it sounded like fun, and Jin Ling, true to form, had puffed up and promised to take them sometime. It seemed that he intended to keep his promise now.

It might have been better, Lan Sizhui reflected ruefully, if he had run the plan by his uncle first, before volunteering the poor man to babysit again.

“Why do I have to take you, hah?” Sect Leader Jiang demanded, clearly thinking along the same lines. “Aren’t you adults now? Aren’t you a sect leader now? Just ask Jiang Roumei for a boat. You know the best places to pick lotus pods. What do you need me for?”

Jin Ling scowled. “It’s nice out! Why are you stuck in here doing paperwork? Your eyes will go bad if you do everything in the dark!” He crossed his arms, sticking his nose up in the air. “B-besides, I like picking lotus pods with you. It’s just-- It’s easier to boss people around when you’re there!”

“Who’s the uncle here, huh? You think you get to scold me about ruining my eyes?” Sect Leader Jiang snapped. “And who said you get to boss my people around? This isn’t Lanling, you know!”

Jingyi sidled up to Lan Sizhui as they watched uncle and nephew bicker, faces red from the shouting. “Fascinating,” the other Lan said, grinning. “There’s two of them.”

Ouyang Zizhen tugged fitfully at Jingyi’s sleeve. “Jingyi-xiong,” he whispered plaintively, “please don’t say that loud enough for them to hear!”

Lan Sizhui patted Ouyang Zizhen’s hand comfortingly. “It looks like they’re almost done, Ouyang-xiong.”

Sure enough, Sect Leader Jiang was making one last ditch effort to dissuade Jin Ling.

“Doesn’t Lan Sizhui get seasick? What kind of person makes their seasick friend go on the water for hours just to pick some lotus pods?”

Lan Sizhui whipped around to face the two fuming sect leaders, not having expected to be dragged into the argument all of a sudden.

“Ah…” he said, at a loss for words. “Um, actually, Sect Leader Jiang… I’ve gotten better at being on the water.”

Should he go for it?

He went for it.

“I do have to admit, Jin Ling has told us a lot about his memories of picking lotus pods with you as a child, so it would be exciting to be able to experience it for ourselves. If it isn’t too much of an imposition on you.”

“Lan Sizhui!” Jin Ling shrieked, his face going crimson. “You shut your mouth!” He darted a panicked glance at his uncle, but Sect Leader Jiang paid him no attention. Instead, the older sect leader looked like he had been smacked in the face with a wooden plank, or maybe a fish.

Lan Sizhui shrugged apologetically at his friend. “I’m sorry if I’ve embarrassed you by speaking the truth, Jin Ling.”

Behind him, Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen snickered.

Jin Ling started towards them. “You--!”

“Jin Ling.” Sect Leader Jiang pinched the bridge of his nose.

Jin Ling paused, looking over his shoulder with eyes shining hopefully. “Jiujiu?”

“Fine,” Sect Leader Jiang growled. “Go find Jiang Roumei and tell her we need a boat. Come back in half an hour. I’ll take care of the most urgent paperwork, and then I’ll take you to pick lotus pods.”

As soon as they were out of earshot of Sect Leader Jiang’s office, Jingyi let out a whoop of excitement. Lan Sizhui, who was vibrating with anticipation, didn’t have the heart to reprimand him for making noise.

 


 

Jiang Roumei was a woman with laugh lines on her face and an expression that said she would kick you in the neck if you stepped one toe out of line. Despite being a full head taller, when Jin Ling spoke to her to request the use of a boat, there was a note of cautious respect in his voice that Lan Sizhui had very rarely heard.

“There’s a couple of the little boats tied up at the dock from the last set of kids who went out fishing,” she said. “The poles should be with them.”

Jin Ling frowned. “Will the little boats be able to hold the four of us and jiujiu at the same time?”

Jiang Roumei threw up her hands in exasperation. “If you wanted a boat big enough to fit five people you should have started with that!”

Jin Ling ducked his head and mumbled an apology.

“If you want a bigger boat it’ll take a couple of hours to have one brought around. Everyone I trust to steer one is busy right now. If you want to be gone soon, I’ll have Luo Nan fetch some cushions for the little boats and you can just take two of them.”

The little boy who had been following her around bowed silently and slipped out of the room.

Jin Ling frowned but nodded. “The little boats will have to do.”

“Don’t make that kind of face,” she scolded. “They’re perfectly comfortable, and faster than the big boats besides.”

Jin Ling sighed. Lan Sizhui saw his throat work, but suspected that Jin Ling didn’t think he could complain without sounding like a spoiled brat. He wasn’t wrong.

“If there’s nothing else, I’ve got some apprentices to oversee,” Jiang Roumei said, already walking away. “Heaven knows what they’ll do if I look away for too long. Forge their own fingers into the swords they’re smithing, maybe. Weaken the damn iron.”

“Thank you!” Lan Sizhui called after her. He was gratified to see her flap a hand at him in response.

Ouyang Zizhen looked thoughtful. “What must it be like to apprentice under such a teacher?” he mused.

Jin Ling rolled his eyes. “They’re not even her apprentices,” he said. “As if she has time to actually do any smithing when she’s so busy being the armsmaster and the secondary combat teacher and like fifteen other positions.”

“...Does she just pick random apprentices to loom over?” Jingyi asked apprehensively.

“It wouldn’t be out of character, but no.” Jin Ling made a face. “Her brother and sister forge most of Yunmeng Jiang’s weapons. She was also trained for the family business, so she helps out when she has time.”

“And sometimes when she doesn’t, too,” Sect Leader Jiang growled from behind Jingyi. Lan Sizhui watched with interest as Jingyi jumped straight up into the air. For someone from a clan renowned for its upper body strength, that was some impressive legwork.

“Jiujiu, you’re done early!”

Sect Leader Jiang sighed deeply, tucking a thick sheaf of papers under his arm. With his other hand, he thrust a wicker basket into Jin Ling’s chest, letting go of the handle as soon as Jin Ling’s hands closed around it.

“The kitchen worked faster than I expected,” he said, heading for the water. “I guess there’s a lot of people requesting meals like that.”

Lan Sizhui peeked over Jin Ling’s shoulder as Jin Ling lifted the lid of the basket. Steamy buns nestled together next to a carefully padded jug of what sounded like soup. Underneath the buns, a corner of fabric flipped up to reveal a layer of fruit.

“Picnic food!” Jin Ling exclaimed in delight.

Sect Leader Jiang grunted uncomfortably. “You said your friends wanted to pick lotus pods like when you were a child. You think I ever took you out without packing food in case you started whining at me?”

Lan Sizhui hurried to thank him over Jin Ling’s indignant response. Then, when Jingyi started to needle Jin Ling for being a spoiled child, he interjected, “Jingyi, you of all people don’t get to tease someone for being loud when he’s hungry.”

Sect Leader Jiang barked out a laugh as Jingyi flushed and went quiet.

“Somehow the nice ones are the meanest when it comes to ending arguments,” he said in amusement. Then, softly: "My jie was like that when she got really angry."

It was Lan Sizhui’s turn to turn a dull red, at a loss for words.

After a moment, Sect Leader Jiang shook himself sharply. “You heard the woman. The boats won’t carry all of us at once. Split yourselves up however. Jin Ling, you and I will have to be one to a boat to steer.”

Lan Sizhui eyed Ouyang Zizhen consideringly and then grabbed Jingyi by the arm. “We’ll ride with Jin Ling,” he volunteered, shepherding his cousin over to where Jin Ling stood with a pole in hand. “Ouyang-xiong, you can go with Sect Leader Jiang.”

Ouyang Zizhen’s mouth flapped soundlessly as he gave them an utterly betrayed look, but when Sect Leader Jiang raised an eyebrow he quickly snapped back to attention and stepped into the boat without making a fuss.

Sect Leader Jiang pointed at a bench and Ouyang Zizhen sat obediently, but as they pushed off from the dock Lan Sizhui could see him leaning further and further forward, intrigued by what Sect Leader Jiang was doing as he steered.

“Damn, Sizhui, that was cold,” Jingyi laughed from where he was sprawled out on the floor of the boat. He yelped as a spray of cool water splashed over the side of the boat and onto his face.

“It’s for his own good,” Lan Sizhui said primly. “Now he has a good excuse to strike up a conversation with Sect Leader Jiang. I think it will be a good learning experience for him.”

Jin Ling snorted. “Well, my uncle knows better than to drown a visiting sect heir. And unlike some people, Ouyang Zizhen knows when to keep his mouth shut.” He glared at Jingyi without much heat.

Jingyi whined, hauling himself up onto the bench cushions. “Why do you always have to pick on me?”

“You make it so easy,” Jin Ling shot back.

Lan Sizhui tried to focus on their interaction instead of the water. It helped that Jin Ling was doing his best to keep them from rocking, steering them carefully away from the most turbulent currents and turning the boat now and again so that they would meet any waves head-on instead of from the side. Lan Sizhui’s heart warmed at the considerate gesture.

He would have thanked Jin Ling, but he didn’t think the other boy would appreciate hearing the words out loud. 

Typical Jin Ling.

Instead, he brushed a hand over his friend’s knee and let his smile speak for him. Jin Ling nodded in acknowledgement, pink spreading across the bridge of his nose.

“Do you know where we’re going?” Jingyi asked, yawning. He blinked in the sunlight, trailing a hand in the water and looking for all the world like Fairy after a large meal.

Jin Ling squinted at the figures of his uncle and Ouyang Zizhen in the boat in front of them. “I think jiujiu is taking us to one of the coves over there. There’s a picnic area right next to the water where the lotuses are, so Lan Sizhui can hang out on the land while we pick lotus pods from the boats.”

“I think I’ll be okay,” Lan Sizhui tried to protest.

Jin Ling pointed out, “We’ll be out here for a couple of hours. And with everybody leaning over the sides of the boat to pick lotus pods, it won’t be as steady as it is now.” 

Lan Sizhui tried to imagine it, and fought back a wave of bile. “No, you’re right,” he said weakly.

Jin Ling shrugged. “Normally we would just swim out to where the lotuses are, but I’m not sure you’re strong enough swimmers for that.”

Jingyi’s eyes went wide as he remembered something. “Wait, so are they true-- Wei-qianbei’s stories about Yunmeng Jiang disciples diving into the water to catch water ghouls?”

“They are,” Sect Leader Jiang said from the bank as Jin Ling bumped the front of the boat against the edge. He caught the rope that Jin Ling tossed to him, bracing against the ground to hold the boat steady while Lan Sizhui disembarked.

“Only the strongest and most experienced swimmers do it, unless they have a death wish,” he continued, fetching his paperwork from the other boat, which was neatly tied up. “But it’s easier and faster than using nets.”

Jingyi shuddered. “Better them than me.” He scooted over to make room for Ouyang Zizhen in the boat, and then Jin Ling pushed them back off, toward a thick clump of lotus leaves. “Careful, Jin Ling! Just so you know, I melt in water.”

“It’s fine-- if anything happens, that’s why jiujiu’s here.”

Ah?” Sect Leader Jiang said loudly from the shore. “Is that all I’m good for, Jin Ling?” Without waiting for an answer, he set his paperwork down and spread out a soft lilac-colored blanket on the ground. “Go ahead and sit,” he told Lan Sizhui, suiting actions to words. “Bring the basket with you.”

Lan Sizhui folded himself carefully to the ground across from Sect Leader Jiang, positioning himself so he could politely face his host and keep an eye on his friends at the same time.

“Who would you consider to be the strongest swimmer in the Yunmeng Jiang sect?” he asked curiously.

Sect Leader Jiang snorted. “Me,” he said, and it didn’t sound like empty boasting. “I’ve been swimming in these waters longer than many of my disciples have been alive… Although back then, We-- your Wei-qianbei was a close second.”

His face shuttered and he bent over his paperwork, scratching lines out with sharp, jerky movements. Lan Sizhui folded his hands in his lap, feeling like he’d stepped on an explosion talisman without realizing, and watched Jingyi try and fail at peeling a fresh lotus seed.

“Lan Sizhui! Catch!” Jin Ling hollered, and an entire lotus pod came hurtling at Lan Sizhui’s head. Lan Sizhui lunged forward and just barely managed to catch it at the edge of the bank.

“Thank you!” he called back, for once glad they weren’t in the Cloud Recesses. In the wide, open space of the cove, he didn’t feel like he was disturbing anyone by raising his voice.

Freshly-picked lotus seeds truly were superior to the ones bought at the market, he discovered as he peeled them meticulously, letting the skins fall into his lap. He popped the first seed into his mouth, humming in delight, and offered the next to Sect Leader Jiang, more out of politeness than anything.

To his surprise, Sect Leader Jiang accepted after a moment of hesitation. But perhaps it was for good manners’ sake, because he declined the next offered seed, saying, “You don’t need to worry about me. It’s not like I’ve never had them before.”

His face had lightened up again from its earlier dark mood, and maybe that was how Lan Sizhui gathered up the courage to counter, “Perhaps they taste better when shared.”

Then he pulled his hand back, afraid he had overstepped. But Sect Leader Jiang looked him in the eye for a long moment, as if searching for something, and sighed.

“You’re not wrong,” he grumbled, holding his palm flat so Lan Sizhui could drop the seed into it. He crunched on it as he reached for the next report.

Lan Sizhui watched him out of the corner of his eye, studying the scoffs and scowls that the sect leader directed at his paperwork and noticing how his gaze flickered up every so often as if to make sure that Jin Ling and the others were still there on the boat.

After some thought, Lan Sizhui inched forward to the water’s edge and shed his boots and socks so he could put his feet in the water. It felt like warm silk against his skin, lapping gently at his shins. From behind him came the soft rustling of paper and swishing of a brush.

Lan Sizhui wondered how many poems Ouyang Zizhen had already come up with today.

Ouyang Zizhen yelped in the distance. “Jingyi, sit still! You’re leaning too far over--”

“Just… just a little bit-- further!” Jingyi panted, and then three shouts tore through the air as the entire boat flipped over.

Lan Sizhui bolted upright and just managed to catch himself from slipping into the water too. “Jingyi!”

“Don’t you dare move, Lan Sizhui!” Dark purple outer robes landed in a pile at Lan Sizhui’s side as Sect Leader Jiang launched himself into a dive, all of his paperwork sent flying by the speed at which he propelled himself into the water.

Lan Sizhui watched with his heart in his throat as Sect Leader Jiang surfaced some distance away and began to swim out to the capsized boat with powerful strokes. He’d heard of people drowning after they hit their heads, and he was terrified that he hadn’t seen Jingyi’s head come back up yet.

Not that Jingyi knew how to swim, but surely he would be splashing around in the water if he were okay?

“Lan Jingyi! Ouyang Zizhen!” Jin Ling called frantically, treading water next to the boat. 

He took a deep breath, as if to duck back under the surface of the water to search, but before he could move any further, Sect Leader Jiang roared, “Jin Ling! Right the boat!

Jin Ling hurried to obey, flipping the boat with practiced ease, and Sect Leader Jiang hauled first Jingyi and then Ouyang Zizhen’s limp forms aboard. Ouyang Zizhen was coughing thinly, and when Jin Ling swam over to his side, he muttered something that had Jin Ling relaxing a little.

Jingyi, however, was frighteningly still. Sect Leader Jiang wrestled him onto his side and pounded his back as Jin Ling pushed the boat toward the shore.

Just as Lan Sizhui was beginning to panic for real, Jingyi choked up a stomachful of water and his eyes flew open. Sect Leader Jiang placed a steady hand on his back as he retched until nothing was left in his stomach.

“Don’t force it,” Lan Sizhui heard the sect leader tell Jingyi as Jin Ling scurried to tie the boat down. “You’re all right now, Lan Jingyi. Deep breaths if you can.”

“That wasn’t very much fun,” Jingyi said weakly.

Sect Leader Jiang snorted, pulling his hand away once it was clear that Jingyi could breathe again. “I’ll say. Did you hit your head when you went down?” He ran perfunctory fingers over Jingyi’s scalp and seemed satisfied when Jingyi didn’t react to the pressure he applied at various points.

“No,” Jingyi said in disgust. “I just can’t swim.”

Jin Ling made a shocked noise. "You weren’t joking about that?"

Sect Leader Jiang sat back heavily, nostrils flaring. “Are you fucking kidding me?! Isn’t Gusu full of rivers? I went water ghoul hunting with your Zewu-jun once, I know you go out on boats. What do you do during those hunts?!”

Jingyi wiped his nose with his sleeve. “Usually if the boat flips I’m already holding onto my sword. But who goes around armed when they’re picking lotus pods?”

Sect Leader Jiang closed his eyes and tilted his head up to the sky, as if asking for patience. “So you’re only in danger when you’re on the water for recreational purposes. Incredible.” He sighed and got to his feet, dripping everywhere.

Ouyang Zizhen shrank back a little as Sect Leader Jiang approached him, but he didn’t put up a struggle when Sect Leader Jiang grabbed his head and began to check for bumps the same way he had done for Jingyi.

“Ouch,” Ouyang Zizhen winced. When Sect Leader Jiang’s brow furrowed, he hurried to reassure the older man, “It’s all right, Sect Leader Jiang, I just bumped my head a little when I fell down, before the boat capsized.” He widened his eyes. “I promise I do know how to swim. I was just about to kick up to the surface when you grabbed me.”

Sect Leader Jiang took a careful look at his pupils before releasing him, seeming satisfied. “If you didn’t know how to swim, Baling Ouyang wouldn’t deserve to be associated with Yunmeng Jiang,” he said, and Lan Sizhui wasn’t sure if he was joking. But Ouyang Zizhen seemed to take it in stride, sitting up and patting a worried-looking Jin Ling on the shoulder.

“Everybody sit and eat while you dry off,” Sect Leader Jiang ordered, sucking in an irritated breath when he realized what a mess he’d made of his paperwork. “After you’ve recovered, Jin Ling and Ouyang-gongzi can go diving for your swords. Maybe that will teach you not to bring your friends out on the water to horse around when they don’t know how to swim. A sect leader who doesn’t think about what his people do or don’t know is a dangerous sect leader.”

Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen nodded in acceptance, looking ashamed.

Sect Leader Jiang turned his steely gaze onto the two Lan disciples. “And I’ll teach you two how to swim. At least enough to make sure you won’t drown before your visit is over.”

He cursed, running a hand through his hair. “Jiang Shanyu is going to kill me for losing those inventory reports…”

Lan Sizhui leapt to his feet and did his best to help collect what pages he could. Some of the pages had blown quite far away, thankfully all inland instead of ending up in the water. Sect Leader Jiang nodded at him in thanks once they had reassembled the stack of reports into some semblance of order.

The sect leader tied a cord around the sheaf of papers and tucked it into a waterproof bag before joining the rest of them on the picnic blanket, apparently having given up on getting any more work done. Jin Ling had already begun plumbing the depths of the basket, distributing buns at random.

The soup was a clear winter melon and lotus seed soup, with tiny red flecks that gave Lan Sizhui pause. But the surface of the soup didn’t have the red sheen that was so characteristic of Wei-qianbei’s cooking, and when he took a cautious spoonful the burn was pleasant but not unbearable. Jingyi appeared to have forgotten all about his near drowning and did not hesitate for a moment before slurping down his entire bowl of soup. Ouyang Zizhen was a little more restrained, but only because he had table manners, and Jin Ling nodded in approval as he drank his own soup.

Lan Sizhui had almost finished his soup before he realized that the kitchen staff had only packed four bowls. Jin Ling had left a bowl’s worth of soup at the bottom of the pot, but Sect Leader Jiang could hardly eat it out of the serving dish.

Sect Leader Jiang caught his worried look and waved him off. “You four finish the soup.”

An empty bowl thumped against his chest, the spoon clattering against the side. Jin Ling frowned at his uncle, letting go so that Sect Leader Jiang was forced to catch the dishes before they hit the ground.

“We can share,” Jin Ling said. “It’s not like I haven’t eaten off your plate loads of times.”

Sect Leader Jiang wiped his hand on the grass and turned the bowl right-side up. “Did it occur to you that maybe I was relieved when you got old enough that I never had to eat off a spoon you’d slobbered all over again?”

Despite his words, he ladled the last of the soup into the bowl.

After a short pause for digestion, Jin Ling busied himself picking the nicest peach from the basket, carefully inspected it for bruises, and bit into it. Peach nectar dripped down the side of his face and sank into the gold of his robes.

Lan Sizhui made a disapproving noise before he could stop himself.

Jin Ling rolled his eyes. “They’re already dirty from being in the water,” he defended himself. “Why do you think I told you not to dress too nicely for this trip?”

Jingyi raised an eyebrow from the grass where he had been lightly dozing, hand on his stomach. “Lanling Jin sure is something, if those aren’t nice clothes.”

Sect Leader Jiang placed his empty bowl next to the others and heaved himself to his feet. “If you have the energy to be mouthy, you have the energy to learn how to swim.”

Jingyi sat up reluctantly. “Can you really teach us how to swim in a few hours?”

“I’m just going to teach you enough to be sure you won’t drown yourselves the moment I turn my back,” Sect Leader Jiang answered, folding the outer robes he had discarded earlier and setting them next to his paperwork.

In just his inner robes, with his hair drying against his neck and shoulders, he seemed less sharp somehow. His cheekbones and jawline, usually knife-edged under his skin, were softened by the bright sunlight and little curling tendrils of hair.

Then he turned to Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen, and his voice was just as stern as ever. “Get diving!” he commanded. “We can’t leave until you find those swords, after all.”

The two swimmers plunged back into the water, racing each other to the approximate location of the earlier incident.

With that taken care of, Sect Leader Jiang directed his attention back to Jingyi and Lan Sizhui. He seemed to see the apprehension on Lan Sizhui’s face and sighed.

“Listen,” he said gruffly, “W-- Your Wei-qianbei was a street rat when my father first brought him back to Lotus Pier. He was terrified of deep water for the first month he was here, but after that he took to it like a fish.” Under his breath, he muttered, “Not everyone can be as much of a prodigy as the great Wei Wuxian, but it’s not hard.”

Lan Sizhui held his tongue, not exactly sure how to respond to that. Hadn’t Sect Leader Jiang said just earlier today that he was the most experienced swimmer in Yunmeng Jiang? How could he say it was easy and expect them to believe him?

Sect Leader Jiang straightened his back. “I taught all of my new recruits how to swim too; you are not going to be my first failure. Now get in the water.”

For all the brusqueness of his instruction, he turned out to be a surprisingly gentle teacher. Lan Sizhui knew he had a tactical mind, had expected the kind of logical progression that took them from floating on the front to floating on the back to a simple front stroke and treading water. What he had not expected was the way Sect Leader Jiang supported them with steady hands until they were confident they could strike out on their own. The way he made sure to tell them exactly what they were doing well, albeit with curt words, the way he put himself between them and the middle of the pond so that they were never at risk of floating away by accident. The way he easily split his attention between the two of them and the celebratory hollering from the middle of the pond as Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen surfaced with the missing swords, with nothing escaping his notice.

“That’s not how you train all of your disciples to swim, is it?” Jin Ling said quietly as he and Ouyang Zizhen came to stand at Sect Leader Jiang’s side. "I remember a lot more yelling at people to stretch out their arms, are they swimmers or seaweed."

Lan Sizhui, too focused on trying to match his arm movements to his leg movements, nearly missed Sect Leader Jiang’s response.

“No,” he said, just as quietly. “That’s how you teach someone who’s afraid of the water. Someone who’s drowned before, like that boy we took in a couple of years ago, Huang Shai. That’s how my father taught--”

He cut himself off with a scowl.

Lan Sizhui switched to treading water, bobbing up and down in the water in a way that he didn’t think was, strictly speaking, ideal. But hey, his head was above water, so he’d take it!

“Is that how you taught me?” Jin Ling asked.

Sect Leader Jiang laughed, the expression lightening his entire face. “Your mother put you in the water when you were a baby and you tried to paddle away from her. Your father and I were both hyperventilating but a-jie was completely unruffled, just smiled at you and said you’d grow up to be a good swimmer.” The wide grin shifted into something smaller and more private. “Afterwards, you tried to swim every time I put you in the bathtub. So eventually I tossed you off the pier and you worked things out.”

Lan Sizhui’s arms stopped moving for a moment and he spluttered as he propelled himself back to the surface of the water. Sect Leader Jiang, tossing Jin Ling off the pier? As a baby?

“You have to be exaggerating, right?” Jingyi panted, splashing as he kicked his feet in an effort to stay up. “Right?

“Are you calling my jiujiu a liar?” Jin Ling demanded, but there was a suspicious twitch in his cheek.

And then Sect Leader Jiang clapped his hands and said that he’d done as much as he could to guard them against certain death from falling off a boat, and that Jingyi and Lan Sizhui should get out of the water before something cramped and they died an ignominious death after all that hard work.

They made their way back to Lotus Pier, Jingyi loudly pestering Jin Ling the entire way for the truth about how he had been taught to swim. 

The only answer he received was, “Do you want me to throw you off the pier?!”

 


 

They reached Lotus Pier around the same time as the local fishermen, who swarmed the docks with baskets full of flopping fish. Jin Ling wrinkled his nose as he handed the boat off to an eager junior disciple.

“I’m going to go change into clean clothes,” he began, only to be cut off by a small body slamming into his hip.

“Big brother, you’re back!”

An old woman behind the child coughed forebodingly, and the little girl subsided for a moment before bouncing back twice as enthusiastically.

“I mean, Sect Leader Jin!” Her face was chubby and there was a charming gap where one of her front teeth was missing.

Jin Ling put a hand on the girl’s head and made to push her gently away from him, although from where Lan Sizhui was standing it looked like all he was managing to do was pat her on the head a couple of times.

“Madam Lin,” Sect Leader Jiang greeted the old woman as the little girl clinging to Jin Ling’s side was joined by five other children of various ages. “Here to pick up some fish?”

Madam Lin inclined her head in Sect Leader Jiang’s direction. “Xiao Meng will be leaving the orphanage to live with some distant cousins, and the others thought it would be nice to have a goodbye feast.”

“A feast!” one of the children shrieked happily. “A feast, a feast, a feast!” The rest of the children picked up the refrain and joined hands to dance in a circle around an exasperated-looking Jin Ling.

Sect Leader Jiang crossed his arms and exhaled in amusement. “And what are you preparing for this feast?”

His question was ostensibly directed at Madam Lin, but the girl who had first accosted Jin Ling took it upon herself to answer, “Shuizhuyu!

Ouyang Zizhen smacked his lips in approval, but Lan Sizhui exchanged a confused glance with Jingyi.

“Water… boiled fish?” That sounded more like a gentle Gusu Lan dish than the kind of spicy fare that the Yunmeng area favored.

“It’s a dish that comes from west of here,” Ouyang Zizhen explained over shouted attempts by the children to explain the dish, all speaking at the same time and painting completely different pictures. “It looks like something Wei-qianbei would cook, but it actually tastes good.”

“By which he means you can actually taste anything,” Jin Ling added, pushing his way through the small crowd of children. Around them, the fishermen were taking care not to trample any little feet as they unloaded their wares.

Lan Sizhui caught sight of Jiang Shanyu giving instructions to a few of her underlings, each of them armed with a checklist.

Jingyi shuddered. “That sounds…” He glanced down and remembered the little ears that were perked and ready to catch his every word. “That sounds… delicious.”

The children grinned proudly.

“The recipe might have come from the west, but we’ve made the dish our own by now.” With a start, Lan Sizhui realized that this newest voice was Madam Lin, who was watching the children closely even though her words were aimed at him.

“Like so many other things,” Sect Leader Jiang agreed. He snagged a passing fisherwoman and spoke briefly to her. She bobbed her head and within a few minutes was presenting him with several gutted and wrapped fish.

He promptly handed the package over to Madam Lin, who took it with a nod. Then she pursed her lips and let out a whistle that had Lan Sizhui’s ears ringing long after she had stopped.

The children abandoned Jin Ling and lined up in front of Madam Lin with the kind of speed and order that even the Lan sect would have envied. Madam Lin, having counted her children and found that they were all present, prompted them to bid Sect Leader Jiang farewell and then herded them onto a boat that was waiting nearby.

Even though the fishermen were still calling out their catches of the day, it seemed very quiet without the high-pitched shrieking and giggling.

Jin Ling wiped sweat off his forehead. “I can only take those children for short periods of time.”

Sect Leader Jiang hummed his agreement.

Jingyi was still watching the little blur in the distance. “They’re too young to be orphans from the Sunshot Campaign,” he blurted out.

Sect Leader Jiang raised an eyebrow. “Orphans aren’t only made during war.” He sighed. “But it’s certainly quieter over at the orphanage now than it was ten years ago. Madam Lin continues to be worth her weight in gold, but she was truly a blessing back then.”

“This isn’t a market, though,” Ouyang Zizhen said, looking around. “These fishermen are just filling orders for the Lotus Pier kitchens. Why would Madam Lin come to buy fish here?”

“Ah.” Sect Leader Jiang began to pick his way through the crowd, heading toward his office. The tips of his ears were red. “They started coming here for fish during the war. Because the fishermen always bring their best catches here first, and I wanted the children to grow up strong.” He set the picnic basket in Jin Ling’s arms. “Here, take this back to the kitchens.”

And then he stomped off.

“The people from the orphanage are the only ones allowed to come buy fish here,” Jin Ling said in an undertone as the four of them wandered toward the kitchens. “Jiujiu has a soft spot for little kids.”

“Lucky you,” Jingyi said jokingly, but Jin Ling responded with a genuine smile. Twin dimples that Lan Sizhui had never seen before adorned his cheeks like two sesame seeds.

“Yeah,” he said softly. “Lucky me.”

Chapter Text

When they’d followed Jin Ling to Lotus Pier on a whim that first time, Ouyang Zizhen had expected a couple of days in the water under the sun, some good food, maybe an awkward meal with Jin Ling’s uncle just to be polite.

He hadn’t expected to end up actually talking to Sect Leader Jiang about serious matters-- personal matters, even. He suspected that Sect Leader Jiang had seen right through his attempt at calm, straight through to the ball of anxiety and dread that churned in his chest. Maybe Sect Leader Jiang had humored him out of pity.

He hadn’t expected to find Sect Leader Jiang’s answers to his questions insightful and thought-provoking.

He definitely hadn’t expected the conversation to continue the next time he visited Yunmeng, and the next time, and the next.

And he most certainly hadn’t expected to find himself with a standing invitation to visit Lotus Pier whenever he wanted to talk, with or without Jin Ling.

An indecipherable expression had come across Jin Ling’s face when he’d heard about this, but before Ouyang Zizhen could swear that he didn't mean to cause any awkwardness, he’d nodded and said, “Yeah, that makes sense. You should go if you think jiujiu can help you.”

Ouyang Zizhen had never heard anybody say that helping people was one of Sect Leader Jiang’s strengths, but then again he’d seen for himself how thoroughly and patiently the man had guided Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui through the basics of swimming.

So maybe Sect Leader Jiang could help him after all.

 


 

“Sorry, kid, I can’t help you there.”

Sect Leader Jiang glanced over at Ouyang Zizhen and snorted at his crestfallen face.

“My elders are pretty reasonable,” he elaborated, “but that’s mostly because I made sure they all had working brains when I hand-picked them to be my elders. You won’t really get that opportunity with a well-established sect like yours.”

Ouyang Zizhen perked up. There was a perfectly serviceable pavilion to their right, but for some reason Sect Leader Jiang had folded himself at the edge of a nearby dock. Despite the tea set arranged very properly in between the two of them, the atmosphere was informal enough that he didn’t feel guilty for dropping his composed Sect Heir Face.

“Oh, that’s right!” he said. “I don’t think I’ve met Yunmeng Jiang’s elders before.”

Sect Leader Jiang cocked his head, frowning. “Haven’t you?”

“Huh?”

“You must have.” Sect Leader Jiang started counting on his fingers. “Let’s see, you met-- well, you met Elder Liu’s daughter at the market that one time. You remember, the one who makes the lanterns Lan Sizhui’s so obsessed with? And her grandson, A-Pang, of course. She and her daughter are cut from the same cloth, so you kind of know what she’s like. She only joined the council a few years ago, but she's definitely left her mark.

“What about Madam Lin, from the orphanage? You even met some of her kids. And we can’t forget Jiang Roumei’s oldest brother. Didn’t you go to their workshop that time Jin Ling had to get a scratch sanded off Suihua’s sheathe?”

Ouyang Zizhen’s brain felt like it was trying to run through malt candy. “They’re--they’re not cultivators?” he said dumbly.

It was mind-boggling. All of the Baling Ouyang elders, even grumpy old Fourth Great-Aunt, who liked to remind Ouyang Zizhen whenever she saw him that his second sister would make a better sect leader, had wielded blade and talisman in their youth.

Sect Leader Jiang shrugged. “All of the oldest cultivators died when the Wens burned Lotus Pier down. I had a choice between cultivators who were either too young or whose loyalty would always be divided, or people who had never picked up a sword but had lived their entire lives in Yunmeng. So I chose.”

Ouyang Zizhen nodded slowly, still absorbing the information.

“My sister had a hand in picking most of them,” Sect Leader Jiang continued, as if he felt he needed to justify himself. “They haven’t failed me yet.”

Ouyang Zizhen tried to imagine the Baling Ouyang sect without the crotchety old geezers who always seemed to be arguing with his father, and found that he couldn’t. If you took the elders away from Baling Ouyang, and you took away Ouyang Zizhen’s father, and you took away Ouyang Zizhen’s sisters, the senior disciples… would whatever was left even be recognizable as Baling Ouyang anymore?

The thought chilled him to the bone.

Sect Leader Jiang chuckled humorlessly. “Isn’t that the question,” he said dryly, and oops, Ouyang Zizhen must have said that last bit out loud.

But Sect Leader Jiang didn’t strike him down for his careless words.

“So I can’t really give you any advice on what to do with an established sect,” he said, taking a sip of his tea. “If you needed to build a sect up from the ground? Sure, no problem. The rest of it… I’m making it up as I go.”

Ouyang Zizhen took a sip of his own tea in an effort to distract himself from the quiet bitterness in Sect Leader Jiang’s voice.

“I was also fighting a war while we were rebuilding,” the older man said. “Against the Wens, at first, and then later, against my-- against Wei Wuxian. So I made a lot of questionable decisions.”

Ouyang Zizhen refilled Sect Leader Jiang’s cup, and then his own. “It seems like your decisions worked out okay, with the rebuilding and all.”

“Heh. Pure luck.” Sect Leader Jiang tapped two fingers against the dock in thanks and continued, “Unlike me, you have plenty of time to plan things out. If you start thinking about the future now, you won’t be left scrambling when your father passes the seat to you.”

“It’s not the planning that scares me, so much,” Ouyang Zizhen blurted out. “It’s the weight.” He stopped speaking, unsure whether he had managed to convey his meaning.

But Sect Leader Jiang was nodding. “I remember the feeling. I imagine Jin Ling remembers it even better,” he mused, setting his tea cup down with a soft muffled sound. “Always wondering when people will stop looking at you and seeing all the ways you aren’t who they expect you to be. Feeling the weight of the sins that you inherited. The terror of knowing that so many people are depending on you to make the right decisions for them.”

Ouyang Zizhen could have cried. Sect Leader Jiang had hit the nail on the head. Had kind of hammered the nail straight through the plank, to be honest. But there was more to it, and although Ouyang Zizhen knew that Sect Leader Jiang was uniquely qualified to understand that as well, he hesitated for just a moment.

In his head, san-jie’s voice admonished him, Don’t be cruel when there is no need for it, Zhenzhen.

But Sect Leader Jiang caught the pause and said, impatiently, “Out with it.”

“I have five older sisters,” Ouyang Zizhen said, forcing himself to look up at Sect Leader Jiang.

Sect Leader Jiang nodded. “I’ve met most of them. They seem to have good heads on their shoulders, once you get past the dramatics.”

Ouyang Zizhen bit his lip. “They do. They’re all very smart, and very strong, and very kind.” He shrank into himself just a little. “Da-jie’s not going to get married until someone can beat her in a duel, and even though cultivators come from all over to test themselves against her, they all go home bleeding and disappointed. A-die gave er-jie a gold tael for her thirteenth birthday, and she invested it well enough that she’s still buying silks and rouge with the returns to this day. San-jie…”

“Ah.” Sect Leader Jiang’s lips thinned. “I get it.”

Did he? Ouyang Zizhen looked at him hopefully.

He was scowling, but… thoughtfully. “Let me guess, they’re all geniuses and people keep telling you that you’ll never measure up.” He fixed Ouyang Zizhen with a hard stare and, as Ouyang Zizhen started to nod, he added, “You’re worried that you, a single person, won’t be able to do all of the things that they, five separate people with years of experience on you, can do.”

Ouyang Zizhen flushed. “When you put it like that…” He shook himself, protesting, “But they make it look so easy! It’s like they don’t even have to try to be good at things.”

Sect Leader Jiang was unamused. “Were you around to see how much work they put into it before you were born? Jin Ling shoots like he was born with a bow in his hand now, but you would never guess how many bowstrings I had to replace when he was growing up because he insisted on practicing until his fingers bled.”

Ouyang Zizhen sipped miserably at his tea.

Sect Leader Jiang rolled his eyes. “And some people are just naturally talented, and pick things up at inhuman speeds. Not all of us can be geniuses like that, and we make up for it with elbow grease. No shame there.”

Ouyang Zizhen nodded slowly. His sisters were never far away, and if he so much as frowned someone was guaranteed to sit him down for tea and ask what was wrong. They never seemed to judge him for not knowing something.

“Your mother,” Sect Leader Jiang said, “she raised five strong-headed women, and she has a well-established family at her back. Wouldn’t she speak up if she thought her daughters were being passed over in favor of an untalented son?”

Ah, well, perhaps Sect Leader Jiang didn’t realize that not all mothers were like his own. But Ouyang Zizhen didn’t argue the point, because his sisters were perfectly capable of advocating for themselves.

Zhenzhen, da-jie had cooed as the group of them circled a young teenage Ouyang Zizhen in an out-of-the-way hallway. Xiaoyan-shimei told you she wasn’t interested, so you have to stop trying to flirt with her. Otherwise your life may be in danger.

To be clear, si-jie had added beatifically, your life will be in danger because we’ll kill you. No means no.

That was far from the only time they had set Ouyang Zizhen straight when his actions had displeased them. He was fairly certain that if any of them felt he’d unfairly stolen their inheritance from them, he would know it by now.

Sect Leader Jiang seemed to read the answer on his face.

“Then you must not be that hopeless.” 

The words were gruff, but Ouyang Zizhen felt strangely comforted.

“Anyway,” Sect Leader Jiang said, “you can’t possibly be worse off than I was when I became sect leader. There was no time for planning, so I was just slapping together the knowledge that I had and praying it would be enough.”

“And now?” Ouyang Zizhen wanted to know. “Is there anything in particular that you wish someone had told you back then?”

Sect Leader Jiang looked at him out of the corner of his eye. “You want my advice?”

He seemed genuinely taken aback when Ouyang Zizhen nodded, clenching his hands into fists in the skirts of his robes. “I’ll take any advice you have to offer, Sect Leader Jiang.”

Sect Leader Jiang swallowed. “You must really be desperate,” he joked in a rough voice. “...Let me think for a minute.” He leaned back on his hands, staring at the sunset-pinkened sky for a long moment. 

Just when Ouyang Zizhen began to fear that he had overstepped, Sect Leader Jiang said, “The thing about people is that they almost always know what they need better than you ever will. And they’ll tell you, if you ask. So you have to remember to ask.”

Ouyang Zizhen licked his lips, mentally patting himself on the back for apparently having asked the right question. “Is that why I always see you talking to the vendors at the market?”

Sect Leader Jiang nodded. “Whenever I can. But they also know that if they bring a concern to one of my senior disciples or one of the elders, the message will reach me.” He shot Ouyang Zizhen a stern look. “Delegation is important too, so you don’t burn yourself out.”

Ouyang Zizhen tried to think who he would trust with important tasks like that. He had a few friends within the Baling Ouyang sect who were fun to hang out with, but he’d never asked them for help before. And he couldn’t rely on his sisters forever-- especially not with san-jie and si-jie getting ready to marry out.

“You don’t have to think so hard right now, I can see the smoke coming out of your ears,” Sect Leader Jiang chuckled. “But give it some thought when you get back home. Who knows, maybe someone will find you-- a couple of months after I recruited Jiang Roumei, she told me she could take over teaching the youngest disciples the basic stances and that I should go take a nap. I watched her do it a couple of times, to make sure she wasn’t making any mistakes, and then I went and took a nap. And with a little more sleep I made better decisions, killed a few more Wen-dogs, brought my people home a little faster.”

“The future is just… so much,” Ouyang Zizhen said plaintively. “We’re not even at war anymore, but I think about taking over the sect and I don’t even know where to start.” 

Sometimes, when he thought too hard about it, his heart started to race and his feet took him in endless circles without any input from his brain. Usually it went away after a short while, but the anxiety never seemed to fully die. He was continuously aware of it, hiding just out of sight.

Sect Leader Jiang snorted. “Being a sect leader during peacetime has its own challenges. People get fucking bored, and they go looking for trouble.”

“That doesn’t make me feel better,” Ouyang Zizhen admitted.

“It wasn’t supposed to,” Sect Leader Jiang said dryly. “It was a warning.” Then he glanced at Ouyang Zizhen’s face out of the corner of his eye, and whatever expression he saw must have inspired some pity because he reached out and ruffled Ouyang Zizhen’s hair.

“Sect Leader--!” Ouyang Zizhen ducked away from his hand.

“Okay, okay.” Sect Leader Jiang snorted, letting his hand drop back to his side. “Look, when things have to get done, sometimes you have to just… do them.”

Ouyang Zizhen groaned. “How do you convince yourself to start? Or have time to sleep? Or breathe?”

Sect Leader Jiang’s brow furrowed. “Trying to do the impossible doesn’t mean you have to be stupid about how you do it.”

Ouyang Zizhen frowned. He understood in theory, but what did that mean for his own situation?

Sect Leader Jiang scowled. “Why does talking require words, I hate this shit. Listen, if someone dares you to eat an entire watermelon in one go, either you grow a bigger mouth, or you cut it up into bite-sized pieces.” As understanding dawned on Ouyang Zizhen’s face, he added, “It’s completely doable, by the way, but it’s killer on the stomach the next day.”

Ouyang Zizhen had once watched Wei-qianbei goad Jin Ling into a drinking contest with such a deft combination of flattery and insults to his pride that Ouyang Zizhen had wondered out loud to Lan Sizhui where Wei-qianbei had gotten so much practice doing this kind of thing that Jin Ling didn’t even realize what had happened until he was halfway through his third jug of liquor.

“He’s always been too good at talking for his own good, and he drags people into trouble with him.” Then, as if he hadn’t said the previous sentence: “So when I rebuilt Lotus Pier, I told myself-- today I’m going to figure out where we’re getting the wood to rebuild the docks. Today I’m going to find the money for ten sets of disciple’s robes. Of course we had five times that number of new disciples, but if I tried to think about scrounging up that much money, I ended up staring at the wall and getting nothing done. So I did ten, and then when I was done with that, I did ten more.”

Ouyang Zizhen looked at the wooden slats of the docks that surrounded them, and from his seat on the ground they seemed to stretch on endlessly. “How much of these docks did you have to rebuild?”

For a long moment he thought Sect Leader Jiang wasn’t going to answer. Then, “All of it, except the section in the old servant quarters. Anything that wasn’t turned to charcoal was soaked with blood and we didn’t have the time or resources to wash it out.” The older man also stared at the wooden dock. “That took a hundred steps too... Not that I knew what I was getting myself into at the beginning. Thank the gods for Elder Zhang-- I don’t think you’ve met him, but he’s a carpenter. Without him we would have been lost. And much deeper in debt.” 

Sect Leader Jiang ran his fingers over the wood, which had been worn smooth by foot traffic over the years. “I don’t know how many times I hammered my own thumb before I finally got the hang of it. Jiang Roumei’s brother showed me how to hold the nail so my fingers were out of the way. That’s why he’s the one who’s a sect elder; she just laughed at me whenever it happened.” He sounded like he was only half joking.

Ouyang Zizhen hadn’t realized that Sect Leader Jiang had personally gotten down on his knees and helped to replace the burnt-down docks. His father would probably be horrified at the idea of a sect leader doing such manual work, but the more he thought about it, the more it made sense. What was the point of holding yourself aloof when your people needed you? Wu-jie, who had clever hands and biceps the width of Ouyang Zizhen’s thighs, would approve.

“How did you know what to do first?”

“Not first so much as…” Sect Leader Jiang shrugged. “Have you ever tried juggling? It’s kind of like that. If one step takes longer than you expected, there’s always something else to do.”

Ouyang Zizhen looked at him questioningly. “But you can’t rip up the old planks until you have the new ones, right?”

Sect Leader Jiang huffed. “Can you imagine, trying to run around on docks with boards missing everywhere? No, but you can switch tracks entirely. Wood delivery got delayed? Just meant I went to Meishan instead, to convince my grandmother’s family to let us take some of their lotus plants.”

“They didn’t want to give them to you?”

“Hell no,” Sect Leader Jiang snorted. “Stingy bastards. They said they’d spent decades cultivating the sweetest seeds and the largest flowers, and why should they share the fruits of their labor for free? Never mind that Yunmeng Jiang had gifted those lotuses to them in the first place. We had to wrestle a whole town back from the Wens to trade for those first few plants, but how could I call this Lotus Pier if the water was empty?”

Zidian crackled on his knuckle, as if reacting to the memory. 

Ouyang Zizhen supposed he might feel the same way, if he’d had to grovel to his distant relatives for something that was essentially his birthright. If someone had held the bones of his family over his head to force him to do battle on their behalf.

He thought of the cousins on his mother’s side whom his sisters disdainfully called “the vultures,” and tried to imagine what it would be like if they were the only family he had left.

He shivered and quickly cast the thought away, resolving to give his parents and sisters a hug as soon as he returned to Baling.

He probably wouldn’t thank them for being alive, not if he wanted to avoid alarming them, but he would think it very loudly.

For all his faults, his father had always tried to be supportive. He listened to Ouyang Zizhen’s opinions, even when they were in direct opposition to the opinions of more experienced cultivators like Sect Leader Yao. He didn’t usually follow Ouyang Zizhen’s suggestions, but at least he listened.

Speaking of listening...

“You depended on your sect elders a lot,” Ouyang Zizhen observed. What did the Baling Ouyang sect elders even do, besides arguing with everyone (and each other)?

Sect Leader Jiang raised an eyebrow. “That’s what we have them for,” he said. “To guide the sect with their wisdom and experience.”

Wisdom? Experience? Baling Ouyang’s sect elders were old, sure, but Ouyang Zizhen wasn’t sure what experience they had.

He said as much to Sect Leader Jiang, whose other eyebrow winged up to join its twin. “That sounds like a problem you can solve very easily,” Sect Leader Jiang said. “That thing I said earlier, about asking people things? Your sect elders are people too.”

“Do I really have to talk to Fourth Great-Aunt?” Ouyang Zizhen grumbled. “I’ve never had a conversation with her that didn’t end with her reminding me that she thinks er-jie should be a-die’s heir instead.”

Sect Leader Jiang scowled, but all he said was, “Do you know why?”

“What do you mean?”

Sect Leader Jiang refilled their cups with an uncharacteristic carelessness, splashing tea all over the wooden dock. “It could be that she just likes your sister better for no reason you can change… But maybe she thinks your sister has skills that are important for leading a sect. Skills that you can learn.”

Ouyang Zizhen rubbed his forehead. If that was true, he was going to have to brush up on his accounting lessons.

“Or maybe,” Sect Leader Jiang continued, “she thinks your clan needs more women in charge. That’s also something you can address as sect leader.” He waved his hand vaguely in the direction of the main compound, where Jiang Roumei and another female senior disciple were leading drills in the courtyard. “Just because your father decided to wait for a son doesn’t mean you have to do the same.”

“But I have to talk to her to find out what exactly her problem is.” Ouyang Zizhen sighed.

Sect Leader Jiang patted him on the shoulder. “Sometimes people are assholes because they have nothing better to do, and talking won’t solve any problems,” he said, and he made a face that Ouyang Zizhen had seen many times on Jin Ling when he talked about the Lanling Jin sect elders. “But at least you’ll know what to expect from them.” He smirked crookedly. “Bet you never expected to get lectured by Sandu Shengshou about good communication.”

He actually laughed at Ouyang Zizhen’s trapped expression. “You don’t have to answer that. I know what they say about me. It’s not like they’re wrong.” Then, abruptly, he sobered. “One last thing. This is the one that took me the longest time to figure out.”

Ouyang Zizhen sat up straighter to show that he was listening attentively. In contrast, Sect Leader Jiang let his shoulders slump forward, staring into the water as if searching for the right words among the silt and the lotus roots.

“Sometimes,” Sect Leader Jiang began slowly, “your best is all you can do. And fuck the rest of the world if they don’t think it’s good enough. Look at Sect Leader Nie.”

There had been an uproar in the cultivation world, Ouyang Zizhen remembered, when Sect Leader Nie had made sweeping changes to his sect’s cultivation practices. All of the Nie sect disciples had been called back to the Unclean Realm and nobody had seen a single green-and-grey robe for almost an entire year.

Nobody that Ouyang Zizhen had met could explain exactly how the Nie sect’s cultivation methods were different now, but many cultivators had raised their voices in outrage, accusing Sect Leader Nie of abandoning his ancestors and dishonoring the memory of his brother, the previous sect leader.

Sect Leader Nie had listened to the accusations without a word, waiting them out with the quiet patience that had become his signature ever since Jin Guangyao had been exposed in Yunping City. More significantly, not a single Nie disciple had gotten into so much as a fistfight over the slandering of their sect leader’s name.

As time passed, people started to murmur that the Qinghe Nie sect hadn’t lost so much as a single disciple to qi deviation since the doors to the Unclean Realm had reopened. People who were friends of friends of the Nie sect’s servants whispered that the disciples gathered for group meditation twice a day, that each disciple had a standing appointment once a month with a special doctor appointed by Sect Leader Nie, that it was working.

But Qinghe Nie had never again produced a swordsman as strong as its previous sect leaders had been, and even Sect Leader Nie seemed resigned to the diminished power of his sect.

Sect Leader Jiang rubbed at his forehead, as if warding off a headache. “Best not to think too hard about anything Sect Leader Nie does,” he advised. “Anyways, the point is, sect leaders aren’t miracle workers.”

Ouyang Zizhen had learned that about his father years ago, but it was hard to remember that it also applied to himself.

“Just because we’re not perfect doesn’t mean we’re utter failures,” he said experimentally. 

One corner of Sect Leader Jiang’s mouth quirked up. “That’s another way to put it,” he agreed. “The Lan sect took years to rebuild the Cloud Recesses back to its former glory, with so many survivors to draw memories from, and there are still areas that don’t look anything like they did when I studied there as a boy. For my sect... If my father were to come back to life this instant, I doubt he’d recognize this Lotus Pier. Some days I wake up missing the place where I grew up.”

He pointed carelessly at one of the carvings on the side of the main hall that was facing them. “That used to be a bird of some kind, where that lotus is now. But I couldn’t describe it to the sculptor, and the more I tried the angrier it made me, so in the end I told him to carve a lotus.” 

Ouyang Zizhen wasn’t sure what to say to that, couldn’t imagine having an image in his heart but not being able to find the words to share it with the rest of the world. “It looks good as a lotus,” he tried.

Sect Leader Jiang breathed out. “It does,” he said. “For a long time, it bothered me. Every time I walked past something that I knew wasn’t how it should be, wasn’t how it used to be, I’d have to throw myself into the water so I didn’t punch something. But now… I’m too tired to be angry.” He snorted. “About that, at least.”

He stood, gathering up the tea set that had been sitting abandoned between them. “It looks good, and I did my best to rebuild Lotus Pier. And being constantly angry that I wasn’t able to recreate it perfectly was just exhausting.”

Then he sighed. “Sometimes your best isn’t good enough, but it’s all you have.”

 


 

“Sect Leader Jiang,” Ouyang Zizhen asked on a separate occasion, “what’s the difference between a night hunt expense report and an invoice, and why do we have to record each entry twice in the accounting books? Surely once is enough!”

Sect Leader Jiang turned and stared at him incredulously. “Isn’t that a question for your father?” he sputtered. “You think I want Sect Leader Ouyang accusing me of overstepping myself?”

“I’ve asked him!” Ouyang Zizhen exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air. “I’ve also asked all of the elders, and the sect accountant, and my er-jie, and every single one of them started talking and it was like half of what they said wasn’t even real words.”

Er-jie especially was very good at numbers, but she got frustrated extremely easily if you didn’t immediately understand what she was explaining. A-die and the accountant had had considerably more patience, but even they had given up before enlightenment could dawn on Ouyang Zizhen.

He crossed his arms grumpily, a habit that he had perhaps picked up since Jin Ling had brought them to Lotus Pier that first time. “I also asked Jin Ling, but he said he’d just be trying to remember what you told him so I might as well come here in the first place.”

He watched, feeling a little guilty, as Sect Leader Jiang tipped his head back and massaged his temples, growling his nephew’s name.

By now, Ouyang Zizhen had learned that Sect Leader Jiang’s irritation was quick to flare into anger but just as fast to fall back to its baseline state, so he gave the older man a few minutes and hoped for the best.

Sure enough, once Sect Leader Jiang had finished snarling inarticulate insults in Jin Ling’s direction, he grabbed Ouyang Zizhen’s elbow and steered him toward his office. He pointed Ouyang Zizhen to a cushion in front of his desk and spun in a swirl of purple fabric to dig through his cabinets for a thick folder.

He set the whole thing down in front of Ouyang Zizhen, glowering impressively. “You’ll keep these numbers to yourself,” he demanded.

Ouyang Zizhen nodded eagerly. “Yes, of course! Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang!”

Sect Leader Jiang colored and coughed. “Yes, well, it’ll be easier on me if my future colleagues aren’t complete idiots.” He flipped the folder open and started sorting the reports by some system that Ouyang Zizhen couldn’t see. “This is an expense report. These are invoices. These are old books. Listen up, I’m only going to say this once.”

Ouyang Zizhen did his best to absorb the explanation, examining the reports that Sect Leader Jiang shoved at him with a dedication that would have shocked his past self even just three months ago, but in the end Sect Leader Jiang had to rephrase his explanation three different ways before something clicked.

“I think I get it!” Ouyang Zizhen exclaimed. “Oh, that’s way more clear-cut than I thought it was.” He snapped his mouth shut and shrank back, embarrassed that he’d taken so long to understand such a simple concept, but Sect Leader Jiang’s face only displaced an impatient satisfaction.

Ouyang Zizhen sent silent thanks to Jin Ling for insisting that he get an explanation directly from his uncle. He didn’t think his friend would have been so willing to repeat himself after the first try failed.

“Jiujiu is like a hunting dog,” the young sect leader had said when he’d kicked Ouyang Zizhen out of Carp Tower. “Once you give him a goal, he’ll keep chasing it until he achieves it. Even something as stupid as explaining paperwork to you. Attempting the impossible, and all that.”

Maybe Jin Ling hadn’t deserved the smack that Ouyang Zizhen had aimed at him for the slight.

As Sect Leader Jiang re-filed the reports that he had been using as examples, Ouyang Zizhen looked at the rest of the contents of the desk and wondered where Sect Leader Jiang kept his personal correspondence. Everything looked so business-like.

“Sect Leader Jiang?”

Sect Leader Jiang responded with a questioning grunt, rejoining him at the desk.

“How often do you write to other sect leaders? How do you find time to visit them? Your friends, I mean. It’s hard enough to squirm into Jin Ling’s schedule now, and it’s only going to get worse when I take over for my father. And Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi will have their own duties…”

Sect Leader Jiang was silent for so long that Ouyang Zizhen was just about to apologize and retract his question when he finally spoke.

“I don’t.”

Ouyang Zizhen stared. “You don’t…?”

“Have friends.” Sect Leader Jiang refused to meet his eyes. “Allies, of course. Friendly acquaintances. And I have Jin Ling. But he’s my-- He’s family, not a friend.”

Ouyang Zizhen’s heart clenched. He’d grown up spoiled by his sisters and couldn’t swing his sword in Baling without hitting a distant cousin, but he couldn’t imagine never spending time with anyone else.

“I thought for the longest time that he was going to end up like me.” Sect Leader Jiang’s gaze was focused off in the distance. “Every year I saw less of my sister in him and more of myself.” He let out a humorless chuckle. “Not a fate I’d wish on anybody.”

Ouyang Zizhen bit his lip.

“Sect Leader.” There was a curt knock at the door. “An urgent letter from Qinghe, regarding the dam repairs we discussed earlier this week. The messenger is waiting for a response.”

Sect Leader Jiang called, “Come in.”

To Ouyang Zizhen’s surprise, it was Jiang Tanhua, Sect Leader Jiang’s second-in-command, who stepped through the doorway. She was a tall young woman with hawk eyes and a beak of a nose. Despite her stern face, Ouyang Zizhen had seen her covered in squirming children and knew she was willing to tolerate an astounding amount of shenanigans from her students so long as they met her exacting standards during lesson time. 

“Ah, perfect,” Sect Leader Jiang said, already reaching out for the letter. “Ouyang-gongzi, I’m afraid I won’t be able to see you off today. Jiang Tanhua can take you directly to the front gates if you wish to leave immediately. Otherwise, you might want to talk to her about the kind of paperwork a sect heir should be familiar with. She’s better with words than I am.”

“This way, please, Ouyang-gongzi,” Jiang Tanhua said, motioning with the same warm smile that he had seen her direct at the youngest disciples. “I’ll send for tea.”

He thought that maybe he ought to be offended at being handed off like a child, but the chance to chat with a beautiful woman--a beautiful woman who was willing to explain forms and reports to him, no less--was too tempting to pass up.

 


 

“Jin-xiong, Jin-xiong! Did you know that your uncle doesn’t have any friends?!”

“Do you have to say it like that?” Jin Ling snapped.

Ouyang Zizhen pouted. “He’s the one who said it like that first,” he protested. “Anyways, don’t you think that’s just terrible?”

“Leave jiujiu alone!” Jin Ling demanded. “He doesn’t need friends!” But he didn’t sound very sure of himself.

Lan Jingyi let out an incredulous noise from where he was lounging on Jin Ling’s bed. “Uh, he kind of does,” he pointed out. “Everyone thinks he’s an asshole, and then he gets grumpy because he’s lonely, and then he kinda does act like an asshole, and then everyone thinks they were right all along.”

“How do you know he’s lonely, huh?!”

Lan Sizhui placed his hand gently over Lan Jingyi’s mouth. “It’s quite obvious, Jin Ling,” he said kindly. “His face lights up whenever he sees that you’ve come to visit.”

“His face does that whenever any of us come to visit,” said Ouyang Zizhen, who had been keeping track. “He tries to hide it, but Jiang Tanhua told me that he frowns less these days. Which is good! It means it’s not just Jin-xiong, because we can’t make more of Jin-xiong, but we can hook Sect Leader Jiang up with more friends.”

Jin Ling eyed them warily. “Whatever you’re planning, leave me out of it.”

“Aww, Young Mistress, you don’t really mean that,” Lan Jingyi grinned, having squirmed out of Lan Sizhui’s grasp. “You can’t stand to be left out of anything.”

And sure enough, when Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi extended an invitation on behalf of Zewu-jun for Sect Leader Jiang to visit the Cloud Recesses, with a special note that this was to be a friendly visit and not at all business related, Jin Ling insisted on tagging along.

Chapter Text

With some amusement, Lan Xichen observed the group of teenagers who had taken it upon themselves to accompany Jiang Wanyin to the Cloud Recesses: one sect leader, one sect heir, and two of Cloud Recesses’ most impressive disciples.

Not bad for a man who was often regarded as the cultivation world’s most unlikeable sect leader.

“It’s good to see you, Sect Leader Jiang,” he said warmly.

Jiang Wanyin returned his bow. “Zewu-jun. It’s been a while since I’ve visited the Cloud Recesses.”

And it had been even longer since the two of them had seen each other in person. The last few times Jiang Wanyin had been called to the Cloud Recesses, Lan Xichen had still been in seclusion.

Jiang Wanyin very kindly did not mention this fact. Instead, he said gruffly, “Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi passed along your invitation.”

Lan Xichen smiled. “Yes, I wanted to thank you in person for taking care of Jingyi and Sizhui whenever they’re at Lotus Pier. From what I hear, they’ve been imposing on you quite often.”

Jingyi opened his mouth to protest, but out of the corner of his eye Lan Xichen saw Sizhui and Jin Rulan cut him off with a hand on the shoulder and a kick to the shin, respectively. Ah, friendship.

Jiang Wanyin shrugged. “As if Gusu Lan doesn’t return the favor just as often. Between Jin Ling and Wei Wuxian, I'm surprised you ever have any peace.”

Jin Rulan’s eyes snapped to his uncle’s face, but Jiang Wanyin continued to grumble as if unaware he had said anything out of the ordinary.

Lan Xichen, who had never met a little brother he didn’t like, felt his smile widen. “Unfortunately you’ve just missed Wangji and Wei-gongzi.”

Jiang Wanyin immediately scowled. “Good!” he snapped, crossing his arms. “Maybe I can have a nice, uneventful visit for once.”

Jin Rulan rolled his eyes but didn’t comment.

Jingyi stepped forward and bowed, first to Lan Xichen and then to Jiang Wanyin. “Now that we’ve delivered Sect Leader Jiang safe and sound--”

“Who needs delivering?!” Jiang Wanyin objected.

“--we’ll get out of your way, Zewu-jun. Sect Leader Jiang, see you around!”

“What,” Jiang Wanyin said dryly, “you’re not going to make sure I get delivered back home in one piece?”

His tone was fonder than Lan Xichen expected, and Jingyi grinned as if the two of them were sharing a joke. Perhaps, Lan Xichen thought, looking between them and the utter lack of surprise on the other juniors’ faces, that was exactly the case.

“What,” Jingyi shot back in the same tone of voice, “you don’t trust Zewu-jun to take good care of you?”

Lan Xichen had not expected to be drawn into the conversation, but he found that he had missed the feeling of being included in gentle teasing.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” he said solemnly, “I promise that we will return you to your home in perfect condition.”

Jiang Wanyin looked surprised for a moment. Then, realizing that Lan Xichen was playing along with Jingyi’s ridiculous supposition, he harrumphed without any real force.

“See that you do,” he said with his nose in the air. The exaggerated position made him look even more like his nephew-- though Lan Xichen would never say so out loud.

More seriously, Jiang Wanyin added, “Don’t go to too much trouble trying to keep me entertained. It’s not like I’ve never been here before.”

Unacceptable. 

“I must insist,” Lan Xichen said, pride a little stung. He’d only come out of seclusion a few months ago, but he didn’t think he was so fragile that he couldn’t entertain a guest for a few days!

“I don’t want to cause you any unnecessary burden,” Jiang Wanyin said stubbornly. “This isn’t a diplomatic visit; I don’t need the head of the sect to personally wait on me.”

Jingyi gasped, sounding scandalized. “Sect Leader Jiang! Didn’t you personally show us around Lotus Pier that time the Young-- Sect Leader Jin got sick? And then didn’t you personally take us out to pick lotus pods the next day? Are you saying we were a burden?”

Without missing a beat, Jiang Wanyin said, “As I recall it, that was a diplomatic visit." When all four of the young men groaned in protest, he rolled his eyes. "Truly, I've never met anyone who was more of a pain in my ass than you lot are.” But his stern expression softened and he gestured for Lan Xichen to lead him away.

Thank goodness for Jingyi’s big mouth.

 


 

Even after over a decade and a half, the bones of the Cloud Recesses still bore traces of the fire and destruction it had suffered at the hands of the Qishan Wen sect. 

Most of the wooden structures had caught fire and turned to ash so quickly that they had needed to be reconstructed entirely, but much of the stone had been recovered. At the time, Lan Xichen and the elders had decided that they could not justify spending the money to replace stone ornaments and decorations when so many of them were still perfectly serviceable, if a little darkened by the fire. Not when Gusu Lan had also needed to feed its people and outfit itself for war.

The junior disciples who could be spared had been put to work scrubbing and polishing until the various stone fixtures around the Cloud Recesses had almost regained their previous luster. But to the discerning eye, the fire damage was still visible.

There was a particular carving on the door to the library pavilion that Lan Xichen had seen almost every day of his life. It was a dark green piece of jade in the shape of a cloud that shone almost as brightly as it had in his and Wangji's childhood; but if he looked closely, he could see the curls of smoke captured in the surface of the stone as flames licked greedily at the books he couldn’t save, could feel the rust-brown stain from the blood of the disciples who had died vainly defending their home, could hear the screams echoing as his heart pounded in his mouth, could feel the strain in his legs as he forced himself to run from the slaughter, an ache that was echoed in his chest--

“--wu-jun!” Someone grabbed his shoulders and shook him roughly.

He came back to himself to find that he had crumpled to the floor in the middle of the hallway. Jiang Wanyin was crouched over him, looking worried even as he shouted his name.

“I’m all right.” Lan Xichen’s fingers curled against the wooden slats underneath him as he fought for clarity. 

The screaming that had been ringing in his ears faded into the habitual tranquility of the Cloud Recesses. The smoke dissipated and in its place Lan Xichen could smell warm mountain air and, unexpectedly, the scent of dark tea wafting off of the man at his side.

“Jiang Wanyin,” he said, because it was important for him to remember. The sect leader squatting beside him was Jiang Wanyin, not Jiang Fengmian. Time had passed. They had rebuilt the Cloud Recesses. They had survived.

Jiang Wanyin repeated, “Zewu-jun.” His eyes followed Lan Xichen’s carefully, watching for any sign of a backslide, but Lan Xichen was back in control of himself.

He declined Jiang Wanyin’s offered arm as he pushed himself to his feet, though he had no doubt the other man would be just as solid and unyielding as the ground against which he braced himself.

But he was already flushing from the wave of shame that swept over him at having broken down--at the sight of a door, no less!--in front of a fellow sect leader. There was no way he was going to make things worse by leaning on Jiang Wanyin for support.

Jiang Wanyin did not comment on his moment of weakness as he had half-dreaded. Instead, he seemed to be studying the door in question.

When he spoke, his voice was just as brusque as ever, but Lan Xichen could tell his words had been painstakingly chosen.

“There’s an old man in Yunmeng who can work magic with a chisel and some stone,” he said offhandedly, eyes fixed on the carving as Lan Xichen dusted his robes off. “I don’t know how he does it, but he can take one look at a chipped or broken statue and somehow a few weeks later he’s got a replacement for whatever is missing. And he matches the color and the texture of the stone and everything. His work is all over Lotus Pier and even I can barely tell which pieces are originals and which ones are new.”

Finally, his gaze swept back over to where Lan Xichen was standing. “If you’d like, I could probably convince him to take on some work for you.” When Lan Xichen opened his mouth, he hurriedly added, “He’s also very good at making entirely new pieces from less-than-stellar descriptions. He managed to carve exact replacements for the decorations on my mother’s favorite pavilion without ever having seen them.”

Oh

Lan Xichen felt the breath leave him as he remembered that Jiang Wanyin, too, had lost everything to the blazing heat of nine extra suns, and afterwards had found the strength to rebuild and continue living on land that had been soaked in his family’s blood. Swimming in waters that had been choked with the corpses of his fellow sect members.

He inclined his head and met Jiang Wanyin’s gaze, which was fierce as a hawk’s despite the hesitancy with which he had spoken. There was an invitation hidden in those words, if he cared to listen for it.

“If Sect Leader Jiang is amenable,” Lan Xichen said, making a decision on the spot, “I would very much like to visit Yunmeng and speak to this venerable sculptor in person.”

Jiang Wanyin made a show of humming and considering his words. Lan Xichen waited patiently, his customary smile fixed on his face, and eventually Jiang Wanyin conceded, “Well, Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi are over all the time anyways. What’s one more person?” He smoothed a crease out of the front of his robes. “I suppose I should also give you a tour of Lotus Pier, so that you can see some examples of Master Guo’s work.”

Lan Xichen thanked him with much more calm than he felt. “I look forward to it. And I think I can safely promise that I will be a much easier guest to host than Sizhui and Jingyi.”

Jiang Wanyin eyed him dubiously. “Somehow,” he said slowly, “I feel like I should be worried.”

Lan Xichen’s smile broadened. “I suppose you’ll just have to find out.” A servant peeked around the corner of the hall and caught his eye, and he nodded in thanks. “Ah, perfect, the tea is ready. Come, I’ve had the table set up so we’ll have a good view of Wangji’s rabbits.”

 


 

Jiang Wanyin tried to deny understanding the draw of the rabbits, but Lan Xichen caught him multiple times with his head turned toward the fluffy white balls of fur.

Recalling several occasions on which he had seen his fellow sect leader with his hand buried deep in the ruff of Jin Rulan’s dog, he ventured, “Sect Leader Jiang, could it be that you’re fond of animals?”

Jiang Wanyin’s eyes snapped away from the rabbits to Lan Xichen’s face. “What? No.” His cheeks reddened and he took a hasty sip of his tea. “I don’t mind them, I guess.” Lan Xichen only nodded indulgently and waited, and sure enough Jiang Wanyin looked away, mumbling, “I have… good memories of coming here and playing with the rabbits.”

“Oh?”

The gentle glow of pink on Jiang Wanyin’s cheeks disappeared as the rest of his face flushed. “...You wouldn’t dare assign a sect leader to writing lines in the library for something he did years ago, would you?”

Lan Xichen covered a smile with his sleeve. “I think I can make an exception, just this once.”

Jiang Wanyin scowled at his teasing tone but confessed, “Well, there were less of them back then, but I used to sneak out here and play with them whenever I got too worked up because-- people… were being stupid.” Lan Xichen was still trying to figure out how to respond to that without bringing up the black-and-red elephant in the room when Jiang Wanyin rolled his eyes and seemed to give up tiptoeing around the subject. “Not like it ever helped, because two minutes later he’d get bored on his own and come barreling back here and scare all the rabbits away.”

Lan Xichen chuckled. “He still does that. Although usually Wangji can convince him to settle down after a bit.” He didn’t think that Wangji would for a moment trade Wei Wuxian’s presence for the rabbits, but his brother was never as happy as when he had both at the same time.

“Talk about attempting the impossible,” Jiang Wanyin snorted. His face was still turned toward the rabbits, but his gaze slid sideways to Lan Xichen. “I bet he still makes jokes about stewing the rabbits right in front of them, too.”

“He does,” Lan Xichen acknowledged, “but only when Wangji can hear him.”

A short bark of laughter left Jiang Wanyin’s lips, and the expression on his face made Lan Xichen suspect that it had done so without Jiang Wanyin’s permission. Sensing an imminent drop into melancholy--or maybe anger, but he didn’t think so--he cast about for a change in subject.

“Do you know,” he said, already wincing at what he was about to reveal, “that I’ve received no less than three proposals of marriage this week?”

He felt a little better about the sacrifice when his words stopped Jiang Wanyin in his tracks. The younger man actually whipped his entire torso around to stare at Lan Xichen.

“We’re only four days into the week!” he exclaimed.

Lan Xichen smiled weakly. “Yes.”

Why?

“I am told that the elders have wanted me to get married and produce an heir for a long time, but given that everything with… given that everything happened so quickly, and then with my going into seclusion soon after… they didn’t wish to push.”

Jiang Wanyin’s lips pressed together in understanding. “But now that you’ve come out of seclusion, they think they have free rein to hound you.”

Lan Xichen inclined his head. “I do appreciate their discretion at a very difficult time, of course, but I have to admit it’s a little overwhelming. Wangji has been perfectly capable in the past, when he was called upon to act as sect leader in mine and shufu’s absence. In fact, he’s been attending the Discussion Conferences in shufu’s place.” Learning that Wangji had cut his adventures with Wei Wuxian short on his behalf had sent him into a two-day-long spiral, but shufu had made it very clear that it had been Wangji’s choice. “And young Sizhui is the very spitting image of the man who raised him.”

“Depending on which one you’re talking about, that might not be a selling point,” Jiang Wanyin muttered.

Lan Xichen neither agreed nor disagreed with him, instead continuing, “Some of the elders made a fuss about blood relationship, so I simply reminded them that Lan Jingyi is perfectly qualified to succeed me, by those terms.”

“Hah!” Jiang Wanyin grinned. “Wish I could’ve seen their faces.”

“Jingyi would make a fine sect leader,” Lan Xichen said firmly. “I only said it to make a point.”

Jiang Wanyin looked mildly taken aback by the heat in Lan Xichen’s voice, and then he shrugged. “I’d give it five or ten years, is all,” he said. “He runs around too much for me to think that he’d enjoy sitting in front of paperwork all day.”

“The same could be said for Sizhui, as well,” Lan Xichen pointed out.

“Yes.” Jiang Wanyin looked at him with an eyebrow raised. “Nobody should become a sect leader in their teens, Zewu-jun. It sucks. You know that.” He searched Lan Xichen’s face and, apparently reading something in his expression, added in lighter tones, “Hopefully you plan to stick around for a while longer. They’re both good kids but training one new sect leader at a time is more than enough work.”

Lan Xichen forced himself to shake the tension out of his shoulders. He’d just misunderstood Jiang Wanyin’s words. No insult had been intended.

“In all likelihood it would be Wangji you’d be dealing with,” he said with as much of a teasing tone as he could muster. 

Sure enough, Jiang Wanyin scowled. But when he spoke, his words were something of a surprise.

“Would you really expect him to come back and take up the mantle of sect leader full-time? If something happened to you.”

It was something Lan Xichen had asked himself many times. 

“I suspect Sizhui and Jingyi would both try to grow up in a hurry,” he said truthfully. “But if shufu wasn't here, Wangji would be the best choice until one of them was ready, and he would do it. I’ve tried to give him as much freedom as I can, but he understands that Gusu Lan needs a strong leader.”

Jiang Wanyin’s lips thinned and looked away. “What a dutiful brother.”

“Only,” Lan Xichen said as gently as he could, “because Wei-gongzi would follow him back here.”

Jiang Wanyin let out an explosive breath, shoving a hand through his hair. “All that talk about blood mattering is bullshit, anyways. If you don’t want to get married, don’t get married.”

“Oh? Why do I get the feeling that you’re speaking from experience, Sect Leader Jiang?”

Lan Xichen had meant it in jest, but Jiang Wanyin’s eyes narrowed at him with enough suspicion that he thought he might have missed something. Those piercing eyes speared him for a long moment before relenting.

“You remember Jiang Tanhua, right?” It wasn’t really a question.

Lan Xichen nodded anyway. He’d seen Jiang Wanyin’s second-in-command fighting at his side during the Sunshot Campaign, had seen the swift transition from her self-taught fighting style to the distinctive Yunmeng Jiang style, supplemented liberally with street tricks. He remembered her being a succinct, no-nonsense young woman who had kept herself almost as busy as her new sect leader.

However, at that time she hadn’t been Jiang Tanhua.

“She took your name?”

The corners of Jiang Wanyin’s lips quirked up. “The gods know we’ve bled on each other enough that she might as well be family.”

The family trees of the cultivation world must be quite tangled, by that reckoning. Lan Xichen remembered the warm spill of Nie Mingjue’s blood across his skin, the sight of Jin Zixuan and Luo Qingyang supporting each other as they stumbled off the battlefield, of a hundred patients bleeding out in the shaking hands of the healers, of Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian pressed together, bloody back to bloody back as they exacted payment for each of the wounds on their own bodies from the approaching Wen soldiers, tenfold…

But Lan Xichen thought he saw where Jiang Wanyin was going with this. “She’s your heir? Officially?”

Jiang Wanyin nodded. “Who can claim to care for Yunmeng Jiang more than someone who helped to raise it from its ashes and build it from the ground up? She’s been in charge of teaching swordwork for years; at this point, she’s basically created the sect’s fighting style.”

Lan Xichen, who had heard stories from Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui about the hellish training sessions that Sect Leader Jiang put his oldest disciples through at least once a week, took that with a grain of salt.

“And your elders, what do they have to say on the subject?” Lan Xichen had heard the scandalized whispers about Yunmeng Jiang’s sect elders, the muttered questions about how non-cultivators could be expected to understand the trials and tribulations of a cultivation sect.

Jiang Wanyin laughed. “They have too much common sense to argue with me,” he said. “And their own businesses keep them too busy to meddle needlessly.”

His mirth tapered off as he realized what his words implied about Lan Xichen’s own elders, and he flushed. Lan Xichen shot him a smile to show that he didn’t take offense.

“My father’s elders,” Jiang Wanyin said, craning his neck back to survey the clouds, “they would have thrown a fit. And my parents would be disappointed in me for not taking a wife and having children of my own. For letting the Jiang bloodline die with me.”

He rolled his eyes. “As if their blood doesn’t flow through Jin Ling’s veins as much as it would any child of mine.”

“Sect Leader Jiang, forgive me if I am overstepping, but…” Lan Xichen hesitated. “Have you really never considered having children? Not even once?”

Jiang Wanyin was silent for a long moment, eyes darting across the sky as if searching for the right words.

“Sometimes when I haven’t seen Jin Ling for a long time I think about it,” he said quietly. “Sometimes I miss having a warm little body toddling after me.”

His hand clenched into a fist and he joked in a rough voice, “But as soon as I see Jin Ling again the notion disappears.”

“Truly?” Lan Xichen asked, and Jiang Wanyin sighed.

“No,” he admitted. “But for all his horrific deeds, Jin Guangyao had a point about how society treats bastards. And entering into a loveless marriage just to have a child… I couldn’t do it.”

To himself? Lan Xichen wondered silently. Or to the child?

“So that’s it.” Jiang Wanyin shrugged. “Jiang Tanhua is a good choice. And everyone has had a long time to accept that my successor won’t be a Jiang by blood.” He caught Lan Xichen’s jolt of surprise and smiled grimly. “Any time I left for the battlefield during the war, I had no way of knowing whether I would be coming back. So I told my people that if anything happened to me, Wei Wuxian would take care of them.”

Lan Xichen’s chest ached as Jiang Wanyin tried to distract himself by taking a gulp of his tea, only to realize that his cup was empty. 

“Let me,” he said hastily, and poured more tea for both of them.

Jiang Wanyin was too desperate to care that the tea had gone cold. “Thanks,” he said, and drained the cup. He stared at the little flecks of tea leaves at the bottom, speaking as if without realizing. “Not anymore, of course. Now I know that I can’t put that kind of-- I know that I can’t trust him with that kind of responsibility. Better for everyone that it’s Jiang Tanhua.”

Lan Xichen inhaled shakily. He felt like he’d been afforded a rare glimpse beneath Jiang Wanyin’s prickly surface, and something inside him urged him to return the favor. As it was, he wasn’t quite sure if he was granting Jiang Wanyin access to a secret, or burdening him with unsolicited knowledge.

But Jiang Wanyin didn’t tell him to stop talking, and Lan Xichen hadn’t been able to speak these words to anyone for over a decade.

“I wouldn’t have included Wangji in the list of possible successors sixteen years ago,” he whispered. “Or…” he reconsidered. As a young, freshly-appointed sect leader, he’d been desperate for support and familiarity where he could find it. “Maybe I would have. I would have trusted him to put the good of the sect above all else. And I would have been wrong.”

“Wrong? About Hanguang-jun?” Jiang Wanyin was skeptical, but he didn’t know what Wangji had done after the confrontation at the Nightless City. He didn’t know why Wangji had gone into seclusion for three years after Wei Wuxian’s death.

But Lan Xichen, in a sudden furious whirlwind of emotion, thought that he had a right to know. Even he could tell that Jiang Wanyin’s relationship with Wei Wuxian was riddled with pockets of missing or withheld information.

So he spoke, eyes fixed on Jiang Wanyin’s. About the devastation that had crumpled Wangji’s face as he cradled Wei Wuxian’s limp body to his chest. About the terrible, cold determination that had shone in his every movement as he placed himself in front of the entrance to the cave in the Mass Graves two days later, Wei Wuxian tenderly arranged on a rock behind him. About the sudden silence that had muffled Lan Xichen’s ears as the knowledge had settled into his heart: he could not save his brother.

About how the discipline whip had whistled as it was snapped through the air, again and again and again. About the wet smack it had made against the ruin of Wangji’s back, the almost imperceptible shush of his blood flying off the braided leather and hitting the stones that covered the courtyard, the grit of Wangji’s teeth choking off into groans and muffled sobs as he tipped over the edge of consciousness.

About the way Lan Xichen had almost slipped in the puddles of Wangji’s blood when he had bent to carry his brother away.

When he was finished, he studied Jiang Wanyin’s face and wondered if he had made a mistake.

“...Strange,” Jiang Wanyin said at last, the faintest tremor in his voice, “that someone so willing to throw everything away to help a handful of Wens would inspire that same kind of devotion from the Second Jade of Lan.”

Lan Xichen, whose thoughts had echoed Jiang Wanyin’s words more often than he liked to admit, said nothing. Instead, he reached out to rest two fingers against the side of Jiang Wanyin’s hand and wished he had some comfort to offer.

Without warning, Jiang Wanyin burst out, “Did Hanguang-jun ever come to visit you while you were in seclusion? Or did he just fly in to attend the Discussion Conferences and then swan off again to have his honeymoon and his happy ending?”

Lan Xichen had not expected Jiang Wanyin’s indignation on his behalf, though he appreciated the sentiment. “That’s not exactly how seclusion works,” he said.

Jiang Wanyin subsided with a grumble, eyeing the teapot as if wishing it hadn’t run out.

“And,” Lan Xichen added gently, “I can’t begrudge Wangji his happiness. He’s suffered so much, and any little bit of happiness in this world should be cherished while it can be had.”

“Still,” Jiang Wanyin muttered, crossing his arms. “When you were at your lowest, that’s when you needed comfort the most. He should have thought of you. Should have known that it was impossible to reach you, and still tried."

“Ah, but that’s the Yunmeng Jiang motto, not Gusu Lan’s,” Lan Xichen said, watching him carefully. “We are speaking of Wangji, are we not?”

Jiang Wanyin straightened, as if struck, and clamped his lips into a thin line. His brows knit together and he blinked rapidly.

After a moment, Lan Xichen took pity on him. “I’ve learned that I can’t depend on Wangji for my happiness, even though I may have done so in the past,” he said, running a fingertip along the rim of his teacup. “I have to make my own way.”

He looked intently at Jiang Wanyin, waiting until the other man registered his gaze and met it with his own. Then he smiled, a little proudly. “I brought myself out of seclusion. I am standing here of my own power."

He had collapsed under the weight of his memories earlier, but even that was only a temporary setback. He had only taken a moment to find his feet again.

Jiang Wanyin inclined his head, and his expression was one of acknowledgement. He, of all people, understood how much it cost to drag yourself out of the clutches of despair.

A weight that Lan Xichen hadn't known he was carrying fell from his shoulders. He hadn't planned to speak of such heavy topics today, but having spoken he was glad to have done so.

"That's why I invited you to visit," he continued tentatively. "We haven’t spoken much in the past, but I would like to change that.”

Jiang Wanyin took a deep breath and let it out slowly, eyes still fixed on Lan Xichen.

“I think I’d like that too,” he said finally. His shoulders went back and he sat up a little straighter. “Jin Ling’s friends aren’t bad company… And I guess you’re tolerable.”

“High praise indeed,” Lan Xichen murmured, but his words were drowned out by a loud shout from behind him.

“We love you too, Sect Leader Jiang!” Jingyi called as he came tripping down the path, a basket of carrots and assorted leafy greens dangling from his elbow.

Jiang Wanyin’s face went a deep red and he leapt to his feet as his nephew, Sizhui, and Ouyang Zizhen came hurrying along after Jingyi.

“I’m going to break your legs!” he bellowed, gesturing violently.

Jingyi yelped, flinching back exaggeratedly. “You can’t do that in someone else’s home!” he protested. “Zewu-jun, save me!”

Jiang Wanyin growled, but Lan Xichen fixed Jingyi with a beatific smile.

“Eavesdropping on private conversations is forbidden,” he said pleasantly. “As is running, and shouting.” Then, after letting Jingyi sweat for a few moments longer than was strictly necessary, he relented. “Perhaps if you ask very nicely, Sect Leader Jiang will let you off with copying the rules a few hundred times.”

"In a handstand," Jiang Wanyin insisted.

Jingyi whined. “We should never have let the two of you become friends!”

Chapter Text

Lan Jingyi knew he wasn’t imagining it. Sect Leader Jiang watched him more carefully than he did any of the others. 

At first he had assumed it was the usual—the why is this kid so loud and unruly, is he really a Lan kind of muttering that he’d heard since he was old enough to have a personality. And he was a little disappointed, because sometimes it was hard to stand next to Sizhui knowing that the juxtaposition only magnified all of his own flaws. 

Lan Sizhui is younger, but he’s so much more mature. 

Well, it wasn’t anything he hadn’t been told before: by Jin Ling, by Lan Qiren and assorted sect elders, and even, on occasion, by Wei-qianbei. So he did his best impression of Zewu-jun and tried to let the twinge of upset go.

That lasted until Jin Ling, angrily brushing mud out of his hair after they had been scolded for a particularly successful prank, glared at Lan Jingyi and exclaimed grumpily, “I don’t understand why jiujiu lets you get away with so much.”

Lan Jingyi, who’d almost perished on the spot from a heart attack when Sect Leader Jiang had come down to the docks to personally rake them over the coals for getting mud everywhere and then sentenced them to scrubbing the docks until it was time for dinner, repeated after him incredulously. “Get away with so much?!”

“Yes,” Jin Ling insisted. “If I had been the one dumping mud all over people on the docks where we welcome guests, jiujiu would have made me clean right through dinner and then go to bed hungry!”

“Isn’t the kitchen always open for snacking?”

Jin Ling scowled. “It’s the principle of the thing.”

Sizhui, who had escaped the brunt of the splatter and thus had volunteered to take the last bath, emerged from behind the privacy screen, damp hair carefully twisted over his shoulder to avoid dripping on the floor.

“Of course Sect Leader Jiang is harder on you, Jin Ling,” he said logically. “You’re his responsibility, and Jingyi is not.”

“And you said he’s yelled at Hanguang-jun for disciplining you before, Jin-xiong,” Ouyang Zizhen pointed out from where he was lounging across Jin Ling’s bedcovers. “It stands to reason he’d exercise the same restraint when it comes to someone else’s disciple.”

Jin Ling subsided with a grumble, but some of the displeasure melted from his shoulders. Lan Jingyi rolled his eyes. He was like a three-year-old, possessively insisting that Sect Leader Jiang was his uncle and no one else’s.

His moods changed as quickly as a three-year-old’s, too. Not five minutes later, Jin Ling grinned at them with sparkling eyes. “Jiujiu thought it was funny too! Did you see the way his shoulders were shaking when he walked off?” He puffed out his chest, apparently considering the whole affair a resounding success despite having been caught red-handed.

Lan Jingyi had not seen it at all, in fact. He had been too busy worrying that this was the step over the line that would get him kicked out of Lotus Pier. Luckily, it seemed he’d worried needlessly.

But if Sect Leader Jiang wasn’t keeping a close eye on him because he expected Lan Jingyi to make trouble, then why?

 


 

“Oh! Sect Leader Jiang!” Lan Jingyi hurried to catch up with the older man’s swift strides before he could turn the corner.

Sect Leader Jiang handed off a thin folder to Jiang Tanhua, who bowed and continued on in the direction they had been going. Then he turned and raised an eyebrow at Lan Jingyi.

“It’s about the celebration for Jiang Shanyu’s birthday next month,” Lan Jingyi blurted out, arms windmilling wildly as he skidded to a stop just in time. From experience, he knew that unless he was at risk of falling into deep water or onto a sword, Sect Leader Jiang would just watch in amusement as he fell over onto his face.

“Jin Ling passed on the invitation, then?”

Lan Jingyi nodded, straightening up. “Yes. I wanted to thank you in person, on behalf of myself and Sizhui. And to apologize, since we won’t be able to make it.” The last few words wavered as they came out of his mouth, and he clenched his hands into fists, hoping that Sect Leader Jiang wouldn’t demand an explanation.

Sect Leader Jiang studied him for a long moment. When he spoke, his voice was softer than Lan Jingyi had ever heard it. “The twenty-first anniversary is two weeks from now, isn’t it?”

And even if he hadn’t done it on purpose, Lan Jingyi was so, so grateful to Sect Leader Jiang for wording the question like that. So close to that horrible date, the more times he had to hear the phrase “the burning of the Cloud Recesses,” the closer he came to screaming until there was no more breath left in his lungs.

“Burning” and “Cloud Recesses,” as if the buildings were the only losses Gusu Lan had sustained. As if Lan Jingyi’s parents and so many other Lan disciples hadn’t been deliberately murdered with swords and arrows before the Cloud Recesses had been set ablaze.

As if, just because they’d been able to rebuild identical walls and doorways and statues, the pain didn’t linger.

Sect Leader Jiang didn’t seem to expect a real answer, so Lan Jingyi only said, “I’m not a lot of fun to be around, so I usually hide out in the Cloud Recesses for a few days.”

The depth of understanding in Sect Leader Jiang’s eyes startled him, but thinking about it again, this was the man who had rebuilt Lotus Pier atop the memories of his slaughtered sect. And then later, he’d been forced to step into the empty spaces left by Jin Ling’s parents to raise him. If there was anyone who might understand that sometimes you just had to return to the site of your suffering to confront the pain of what you’d lost, that it was possible for your heart to physically ache from missing parents who had been dead for longer than they’d been your parents, Sect Leader Jiang was high on the list.

For a fleeting moment, he wondered whether Jin Ling kept his uncle company on the anniversary of the Yunmeng Jiang massacre, despite now being the leader of a foreign sect, or if Sect Leader Jiang mourned alone.

It wasn’t a subject he would ever dare to broach, but from the way Sect Leader Jiang didn’t ask about Sizhui, who was too young to even have been born when the Cloud Recesses had been attacked, he thought he had a good guess.

As they were bidding Jin Ling farewell, Sect Leader Jiang quietly pressed a bag of fragrant lotus tea and some of Lan Jingyi’s favorite local snacks into his hand.

“To tide you over,” he explained gruffly. “So I don’t have to deal with you again until absolutely necessary.” But the care with which the snacks had clearly been selected said, So you don’t feel like you have to come back until you’re ready.

Lan Jingyi, who would normally have devoured the entire bag by the time they touched down at the front gates of the Cloud Recesses, handed it over to Sizhui for safekeeping.

 


 

By their next visit to Lotus Pier, Lan Jingyi was back to his normal boisterous self. As he pestered Jin Ling for the latest gossip and got dragged into helping with the younger disciples’ training activities, he continued to feel Sect Leader Jiang’s gaze burning into the back of his head.

“I don’t know,” Jin Ling said when pressed about why his uncle might be staring at Lan Jingyi. They were sprawled out just behind the training grounds, passing the time until the evening meal. “Probably because you’re so loud. And you stick your nose into everyone’s business.” Over the sound of Lan Jingyi’s indignant protests, he added, more thoughtfully, “But you’re still a Lan, so you, like, follow the rules. It’s weird.”

Lan Jingyi whirled around to appeal to Sizhui, who made an apologetic face as he agreed, “You do get louder and faster when you’re excited, Jingyi.”

Lan Jingyi flopped back against the grass and groaned.

“It’s not a bad thing,” Sizhui reassured him. “Your energy draws people in.”

“Yeah,” Jin Ling said in a rare moment of uncensored approval. “The little kids like shooting kites with you even though you’re shit at archery because you can keep up with them. And even though you could totally make them run and fetch your arrows since you’re both a guest and a senior, you always go out with them.”

“That’s just cleaning up after yourself,” Lan Jingyi protested, but Jin Ling shrugged.

“Jiujiu thinks like that too, but not everybody does.” He stood up and stretched. “Anyway, speaking of cleaning up after people, Ouyang Zizhen asked me for advice on some paperwork, so entertain yourselves for a bit while I go talk to him. As if I don’t come here specifically to avoid having to think about paperwork.” He scowled, but Lan Jingyi could see he was pleased that their friend had turned to him for help.

They waved him off.

“Go on, then, take care of your important sect leader business,” Lan Jingyi teased, sitting up and rifling around in his sleeves for something to occupy himself with. He laughed when Jin Ling made a rude gesture over his shoulder as he stomped off.

“You shouldn’t antagonize him like that,” Sizhui chided, gracefully settling himself on the ground at Lan Jingyi’s side.

“Yeah, yeah.”

Sizhui sighed in fond exasperation but let it go. “Is that the animation talisman that Wei-qianbei showed you last time he and Hanguang-jun came back to the Cloud Recesses?”

“Yeah!” Lan Jingyi laid out several scraps of paper, a length of white fabric, and a brush and inkstone. “And the fun explosion one.”

Sizhui squinted at the hasty scribbles on the topmost piece of paper. “Are you… trying to combine them together?”

Lan Jingyi nodded enthusiastically. “I think I almost have it! Look, you remember those little ghost dolls—”

His words cut off abruptly as a shadow fell over them, the bell at Sect Leader Jiang’s waist chiming softly. Well aware that the talismans in front of him could not be mistaken for anything other than the Yiling Patriarch’s work, he swallowed hard.

Sect Leader Jiang squatted down to get a closer look. “What, exactly, are you trying to make explode? And scream?” A slight pause, and one eyebrow lifted. “While wiggling?

Emboldened by Sect Leader Jiang’s open curiosity and lack of a meltdown, Lan Jingyi leaned forward eagerly. “I’m going to attach the combination talisman on these dolls,” he explained, dangling one of them by the string that poked out of its head. “Theoretically, I should be able to make them dance around and scream a little bit, and if you touch them, they’ll explode.”

Sect Leader Jiang waited expectantly.

“...Aaaaand, they’re filled with glitter,” Lan Jingyi admitted. “Just to liven things up! I was thinking we could use them as distractions on night hunts.”

Wait a minute.

Sensing an excellent opportunity, he looked up at Sect Leader Jiang as casually as he could. “You know, they’re basically ready to be tested.” As realization slowly dawned on Sect Leader Jiang’s face, he hastened to continue. “Of course, as a guest at Lotus Pier I would never dare to make a mess or cause a disturbance…”

Sect Leader Jiang snorted skeptically, but the mud from last month had been entirely Jin Ling’s idea and Lan Jingyi would go to his grave swearing it.

“...and the same goes for Sizhui, obviously.” He pouted exaggeratedly, waving the ghost doll back and forth playfully. “But if we were accompanied by someone from the Jiang sect, someone with the authority to approve something like this—” He paused to take in the response to his cajoling.

Sect Leader Jiang’s face could have been hewn from stone.

Lan Jingyi’s pout deepened. Maybe it would be more convincing if he provided more details?

“Here’s what I’m thinking,” he confided, pretending to himself that there was any chance in hell that Sect Leader Jiang might agree to his proposition. It was the only way he was going to be able to keep talking. “We hang a couple of these in the pavilions on the west side of Lotus Pier and then we sit nearby. When people pass by, we can watch what happens!” He coughed. “For the sake of making improvements to the talisman, of course.”

Sect Leader Jiang’s lip twitched. “Of course.”

“They won’t hurt anybody!” Lan Jingyi said hastily. “Actually, the explosion bit of the seal is modified so it just kind of pops the cloth open, and then it creates a little wind to make sure that the glitter goes everywhere.” He coughed again. “For maximum distraction. On a night hunt.”

“Of course,” Sect Leader Jiang said again.

“Think about it,” Lan Jingyi said desperately, waving his hands around in the air. The little ghost doll dangling from his finger bumped against his knuckles. “It’ll be fun! We can liven this place up!”

He fell silent and they all listened for a moment as Jiang Tanhua’s roaring voice floated across the training grounds. In the distance, water splashed and several voices shrieked in laughter.

Lan Jingyi wilted. He lowered his hands and let the ghost doll drop to the ground, resigning himself to theoretical work only.

“Never mind,” he said sadly. Beside him, Sizhui jerked in surprise at whatever he must be seeing on Sect Leader Jiang’s face, but Lan Jingyi was too disappointed to look for himself.

Why had he thought he could convince Sect Leader Jiang in the first place? Not only was he blatantly waving Wei-qianbei’s talismans around Lotus Pier, but Wei-qianbei had told them enough stories about his childhood that Lan Jingyi thought he might get his legs broken if he wasn’t careful, for reminding Sect Leader Jiang too much of Wei-qianbei.

“The glitter,” Sizhui said suddenly.

Lan Jingyi whipped his head up and over to look at his cousin, who was staring intently at Sect Leader Jiang.

“The glitter?”

Sizhui nodded, picking up the doll that Lan Jingyi had dropped. “It’s white and shaped like bunnies.”

Sect Leader Jiang rolled his eyes. “What a surprise,” he said sardonically, but he examined the doll with renewed interest.

“It’s made of rice paper,” Sizhui persisted. “It dissolves as soon as it touches water, so it’s very easy to clean up.” He held the doll out to Sect Leader Jiang. “We could make it snow at Lotus Pier in the middle of summer.”

Sect Leader Jiang paused, one hand extended to take the ghost doll. His eyes narrowed and he looked between Lan Jingyi’s face and Sizhui’s.

“I used to feel bad for you,” he said to Sizhui. “Chasing Jin Ling and this one—” he tipped his chin in Lan Jingyi’s direction “—all over the place, getting dragged into their nonsense. But it turns out you deserve each other after all.” He finally took the doll, smoothing out the little skirt with a strange expression. “Guess I forgot it wasn’t only Hanguang-jun who raised you.”

Lan Jingyi, who had been gaping at Sizhui’s open display of the mischievous side he usually reserved for his closest friends (and Wei-qianbei), scrambled to stand when Sect Leader Jiang rose to his feet and walked away without another word.

“Sect Leader—”

“Well?” Sect Leader Jiang turned back to them, beckoning impatiently with the hand that wasn’t holding the ghost doll. “Aren’t you coming? If you stand there catching flies for too long, Jiang Tanhua will end training and we’ll miss our chance.”

Even Sizhui looked shocked as they followed Sect Leader Jiang to the western docks.

“What just happened?!” Lan Jingyi hissed.

“We’re going to pull a prank on Sect Leader Jiang’s disciples, apparently,” Sizhui whispered back.

“Jin Ling’s going to be pissed that he missed this!”

It took them several tries and quite a few close calls to hang all of the ghost dolls that Lan Jingyi had brought to Sect Leader Jiang’s satisfaction. The dolls, he explained insistently, had to be close enough to the hallway to catch the attention of passersby, but far enough that they wouldn’t be set off accidentally when potential victims weren’t paying their full attention. They also had to be placed in parts of the pavilions in such a way that each explosion would be hidden so as not to spoil the surprise for the next person, but they still had to be visible from the alcove that the three of them had chosen as their hiding place.

Lan Jingyi’s eyes were wide in surprise at Sect Leader Jiang’s analysis, but now that he thought about it, a young Jiang Wanyin had been woven into the background of almost every one of Wei-qianbei’s pranking stories. Sometimes just as an angry voice once Wei-qianbei had been discovered as the culprit, but often as a co-conspirator.

The furrow between Sect Leader Jiang’s eyebrows seemed a little lighter as they settled down to wait for their first victim. Lan Jingyi thought he saw a muscle twitch in Sect Leader Jiang’s cheek, pulling back to form just the slightest hint of a dimple. 

By the time he had finished rubbing his eyes in disbelief, it had vanished.

Just their luck, the first few people to pass by the haunted pavilions were young disciples making too much noise to hear the faint moans coming from the dolls, and who would have been too short to reach the dolls at any rate.

A few minutes later, a young man with his nose in a book wandered past. He seemed oblivious to the world around him, but Lan Jingyi saw him deftly sidestep out of the way of the children who barrelled past him, and as soon as the shouting and cacophony of the miniature stampede faded into the distance, his head snapped up to stare suspiciously in the direction of the nearest doll.

When he realized that the source of the screaming was a tiny cloth doll, the alarm on his face morphed into curiosity. He tucked the book into his belt and unhooked his sword, wisely using the tip of the sheath to nudge at the doll.

Unfortunately for him, Lan Jingyi had anticipated this—it was a truly stupid cultivator who would use his hands to poke at unknown objects when he had a sword at his disposal—and he was still caught in the blast radius of the glitter bomb.

Tiny white rabbit-shaped flakes hit him in the face and covered his clothing, floating down to the floor of the pavilion until it looked like he’d been standing under a cherry tree in full bloom.

Lan Jingyi clapped a hand over his mouth as the bewildered disciple blinked once, twice, thrice, clearly trying to process what had just happened. Then, after a few moments of examining the remains of the exploded ghost doll and apparently deciding that it was harmless, he used his book as a makeshift fan to blow the glitter off his shoulders, beat little rice paper rabbits off the rest of his robes with his hands, and shrugged.

“I suppose I’ll find out if it’s cursed sooner or later,” he said to himself, and proceeded on his way.

“Yu Yizhen, at least sound a little worried,” Sect Leader Jiang groaned into his hands, but there was a waver to his voice, as if he were holding back laughter. “I have no idea how my mother’s family produced such a laid-back person.”

“Shhh,” Lan Jingyi hissed, absently whacking his sleeve against Sect Leader Jiang’s shoulder as he strained his eyes down the hall. “Someone else is coming.”

“Jingyi!” Sizhui gasped, sounding scandalized.

But Sect Leader Jiang also leaned forward in anticipation. “These three always walk around together,” he whispered. “Hopefully we can get all three of them at the same time.”

“Babao? Zhenzhu? Do you hear something?” One of the women craned her head around. The other two, who from the looks of it were twins, cocked their heads to listen.

The woman she’d called Zhenzhu stepped into the pavilion to investigate. Her twin snagged her wrist and pulled so that both of her siblings were behind her.

“Li Zhenzhu, you can’t rush into things,” she scolded. “You’re going to get yourself killed someday.”

Sect Leader Jiang was nodding in approval from his seat in the alcove.

Li Zhenzhu flicked her braid over her shoulder dismissively. “If I die, Sect Leader Jiang will avenge me.”

The oldest sister flicked her ear. “He can’t avenge you if you get killed by your own stupidity,” she retorted. “And what kind of argument is that? Even if we avenge your death, you’ll still be dead!”

“Enough!” Li Babao snapped. “Both of you are going to get yourselves killed because you aren’t paying attention, and then what will I tell our sect leader? Jiejie, you’re the eldest, please act like it!”

“Aw, Babao—”

“Aw, meimei—”

Despite their whining, the two of them stopped their shoving match and drew their swords.

Li Babao made a hand-seal and stepped cautiously into the pavilion. When she didn’t detect any resentful energy, she relaxed ever so slightly and beckoned her sisters in.

The ghost dolls screamed again.

Three blades sliced through the air, setting off every single one of the dolls that had been set up in that pavilion. The resulting storm of glitter was the most glorious thing Lan Jingyi had ever seen.

From the flabbergasted expressions on the Li sisters’ faces, they did not agree.

“Get out of the pavilion!” Li Babao snapped once she had regained her wits about her, each hand grabbing one sister’s arm so she could drag them to the relative safety of the hallway.

“It got in my mouth!” the oldest sister wailed, spitting indelicately over the side of the dock.

Sect Leader Jiang’s arm, which was pressed against Lan Jingyi’s shoulder blade, was shaking. Lan Jingyi glanced up to find Sect Leader Jiang pressing his lips together so tightly that they were turning white.

When he saw Lan Jingyi looking, he made a visible effort to calm himself and muttered, “Li Jinguang’s dramatics are distracting in the field, but at least they’re amusing.”

Li Jinguang was currently sobbing as her sister pried her mouth open to check for abnormalities. “Babao, am I going to die?” she demanded. Then she smacked her lips and said, sounding confused, “It tastes like rice paper.”

Li Babao sighed. Now that her sisters were out of immediate danger, she took another look at the aftermath of the exploding dolls and appeared to come to some kind of conclusion. “It probably is rice paper. But we should get you to the healers just to be sure. Come on.”

“That’s one pavilion down,” Sizhui murmured as they waited for their next victim. “Not bad.”

“Sect Leader Jiang, you have some really interesting characters in your sect,” Lan Jingyi commented.

Sect Leader Jiang sniffed haughtily. “Of course I do,” he said. “It would be boring otherwise.”

They managed to catch six more unsuspecting disciples—two strapping youngsters who laughed heartily as they dusted glitter out of their hair, an older servant who scowled and stormed off muttering about the audacity of today’s youth, a cheerful young woman with a tray full of food, who did some very impressive evasive maneuvers to keep the glitter out of the dishes she was carrying, a sour-faced disciple who disintegrated every speck of glitter with her whip before it could so much as brush against her clothing, and an arrogant-looking, newly recruited disciple who screamed like a child at the explosion—before doom finally descended upon them.

“Are you having fun?”

Lan Jingyi had never heard Jiang Shanyu’s voice so frigid before, and he shivered and shrank back from her piercing glare.

“J-Jiang-guniang…”

Jiang Shanyu cut off Sizhui’s attempt to explain, waving her hand at the heaps of glitter inside the pavilions. “I don’t need an explanation, I just want to know who’s going to clean this mess up.”

“Jiang Shanyu.” Sect Leader Jiang shouldered his way out of the alcove and bowed lower than a sect leader was generally required to do to his own subordinate. “It was my idea, and I will take responsibility for the cleaning. Please accept my apologies for the mess we made.”

Lan Jingyi stared at Sect Leader Jiang’s back, bent more humbly than he’d ever seen, even in front of foreign sect leaders or the Chief Cultivator. There was a quiet acceptance in every one of Sect Leader Jiang’s actions and words, not shame but… resignation.

“The servants have enough to do without you making trouble,” Jiang Shanyu said firmly. “Sect Leader, you know where the brooms are kept.”

“Yes,” Sect Leader Jiang agreed. “We’ll sweep the glitter into the water. It’s rice paper, so it will dissolve or the fish will eat it.”

Jiang Shanyu softened by just a fraction. “At least you’ve thought of that,” she said, still sounding unimpressed. “It’s ridiculous, you know, that I need to scold my sect leader for scaring his own people with pranks like he’s a boy half his age. Please think carefully before you do this kind of thing in the future.”

“Yes,” Sect Leader Jiang said again. “I apologize for the trouble. Thank you for your understanding.”

The words flowed so smoothly out of his mouth that Lan Jingyi wondered how many times he had said them before.

Regardless, Jiang Shanyu seemed placated. Lecture delivered, she nodded once to the Lan disciples and left as quietly as she had arrived.

Still uncharacteristically quiet, Sect Leader Jiang pulled open the door to a nearby storage room and pulled out two brooms. When he turned, the broom in his left hand already extended, he seemed genuinely surprised to realize that they were short a broom. Without a word, he handed off both brooms and went back into the storage room for another.

The three of them began to sweep, one pavilion at a time. In theory it was easy enough: sweep all of the glitter into a pile in the center of the pavilion, and then push it to the edge and into the water. But the glitter was so light that the slightest evening breeze undid several minutes’ worth of work, and Lan Jingyi understood why Jiang Shanyu had considered this punishment enough for the prank they had pulled.

For several long minutes, they worked without speaking. Waves lapped at the dock posts and birds called noisily to one another. Across the compound, a bell rang to signal the beginning of dinner, prompting an excited rush toward the dining hall. Disciples chattered and shouted as they poured out of their rooms.

With an exclamation of triumph, Lan Jingyi finished sweeping his corner of the pavilion and looked over to see how the other two were doing. Sect Leader Jiang was frozen in an odd position, one elbow extended and his torso twisted as if he’d turned to speak to someone next to him.

But of course no one was there.

With Sect Leader Jiang’s back turned to him, Lan Jingyi couldn’t see the expression on his face. After a moment, Sect Leader Jiang let his arm fall back to his side and returned his attention to cleaning up.

Somehow, the slightly bent figure of Sect Leader Jiang sweeping mechanically felt like the loneliest sight Lan Jingyi had ever seen.

Before he could check the impulse, he was already bouncing over to Sect Leader Jiang’s side, where he cheerfully set to work attacking some of the remaining rice-paper bunnies.

“Well,” he said in as bright a tone as he could muster, “that was fun, wasn’t it? Did you see the twirl the one girl did when she saw the glitter headed for her soup? I give her full points for style! And that Li Jinguang! She kills me.”

“Jingyi!” Sizhui hissed, making an insistent motion with his hands, which Lan Jingyi knew from long experience meant Now is not the time to be impertinent!

But Sect Leader Jiang slowly lifted his head from where he had been staring unseeingly at the glitter, and a small smile spread across his face.

“Yeah,” he said softly. “It was fun.”

Chapter Text

Jiang Wanyin was a man of his word. On that, even his enemies could agree. After all, if he said he was going to hunt you down and destroy you, it was a pretty safe bet that your days were numbered.

So Lan Xichen was not at all surprised when, having decided to take Jiang Wanyin up on his offer to host him at Lotus Pier, he found himself welcomed with a cheerful greeting of “Sect Leader said you might visit!” and an entire afternoon of Jiang Wanyin’s time, during which he was taken on a very thorough tour of the rebuilt Lotus Pier.

He’d been to Jiang Wanyin’s Lotus Pier once or twice before, of course, but as a diplomatic visitor he’d been restricted to the guest quarters and the public halls. By contrast, this time around, Jiang Wanyin led him through everything from the grandest of receiving halls to the most back-alley routes used by the servants, pointing out every single detail that he thought might interest Lan Xichen.

After every explanation—how he had replaced a strut here, why he had decided to use bamboo instead of another wood there, how long it had taken to find a stoneworker who had the skill to match the original carvings on the eaves of this pavilion—Jiang Wanyin turned his head to look at Lan Xichen, as if seeking approval. Lan Xichen didn’t think he even realized he was doing it.

It wasn’t an unfamiliar notion. Lan Xichen remembered looking at Nie Mingjue with similar eyes, desperate to earn the respect of this older boy who had always seemed unshakable and secure in his sense of self, first as a fellow sect heir and later as a sect leader in his own right. And when Lan Xichen had also been forced to step, shaking, into his father’s position, Nie Mingjue’s unwavering support had meant the world.

It hadn't been until much later, in the depths of the Sunshot Campaign when Nie Mingjue had begun to confide his fears to Lan Xichen, that he had realized how much of Nie Mingjue’s confidence was a brittle facade.

With that in mind, Lan Xichen resolved to be generous in his evaluation of Jiang Wanyin’s work, to reassure the younger sect leader that he had done a good job. But as the tour continued, he was genuinely astounded by just how much Jiang Wanyin had managed to achieve with so very little. 

There was a quiet pride in Jiang Wanyin’s every word—and rightfully so.

It was a rare anecdote that didn't include a variation on the phrase, “We managed to work something out.” When Lan Xichen pressed, he would grimace and admit that “working something out” involved furious haggling, or drawing on the thinnest of familial connections, or on one memorable occasion, sending Madam Lin with the entire orphanage to make puppy eyes at a stubborn artisan.

“It got a little easier once I managed to convince Jin Guangshan to send Jin Ling to me to raise in Yunmeng,” Jiang Wanyin said. “I wanted him here regardless, but it gave me an excuse to demand financial support from Lanling Jin.”

Whatever that support was worth. Lan Xichen remembered hearing about that particular negotiation from A-Yao, who had mused on Jin Guangshan and the (insultingly) low price he had set on his grandson’s upbringing. And when A-Yao had taken the position of sect leader, it had also benefited him to keep Yunmeng Jiang weaker than it could have been.

He had a suspicion that A-Yao might have been much more generous with the purse strings had Jiang Wanyin not been as headstrong as he was. If Jiang Wanyin had been the kind of sect leader to bend to A-Yao’s whims, he might have been able to gild every wall with Jin gold.

As strange a thought as it was, it was kind of nice to find a place where he could be certain that the shadow of A-Yao's influence wasn't lingering behind every corner. Much of the decision-making during the rebuilding of the Cloud Recesses had been driven by tradition and the mandate of the surviving elders, of course, but there were also innumerable small changes that A-Yao had convinced Lan Xichen to make, citing comfort’s sake, or affordability, or displays of resilience.

Some days, it was comforting to have those reminders of a time when A-Yao had been a beloved brother. But that comfort went hand-in-hand with an acute sense of guilt for feeling comforted.

On the worst days, when the paranoia crept in, Lan Xichen found himself overthinking all of his most beloved memories of A-Yao. On those days, he drowned in the possibility that every single word that had ever dripped from A-Yao's lips had been meant to manipulate him toward the brutal murder of their sworn brother and countless other deaths.

In a way, the aftermath of those days was more painful than the days themselves, as Lan Xichen trembled in his bed and tried to remind himself that A-Yao must have given at least some of his advice because he had genuinely thought it would be helpful. There must have been some grain of truth to the A-Yao that Lan Xichen had cherished and trusted.

(Mustn’t there? Mustn’t there?)

Lotus Pier was an extension of Jiang Wanyin’s will. Every inch of the place reflected Jiang Wanyin, and his disciples, and the civilians of Yunmeng. There was no room for anyone else.

Lan Xichen breathed deeply.

“Zewu-jun?” Jiang Wanyin looked quizzically at him, eyebrows scrunched together.

Lan Xichen let the tension fall away from his shoulders and smiled warmly. “My apologies, I lost track of my thoughts. Please, continue.”

Jiang Wanyin looked skeptical, but shrugged and gestured down yet another hallway. “This way to training fields,” he said. “Jin Ling and Ouyang-gongzi and your juniors should already be there—”

“Sect Leader!”

Jiang Wanyin and Lan Xichen whipped around as a young disciple came hurtling toward them. Jiang Wanyin’s mouth, which had been open to shout a reprimand, snapped shut with a click at the expression on the boy’s face.

“Sect Leader, it’s Jiang Han, her parents are—”

The expletive that came out of Jiang Wanyin’s mouth blistered the air. “I told them that if they ever dared to show their faces in front of her—” He visibly reined himself in for long enough to bow hastily to Lan Xichen. “Sect Leader Lan, I’m sorry, I need to go deal with this emergency. Xia Hei will show you to the training grounds and I’ll find you when I’m finished—”

Lan Xichen barely had a chance to get out a sound of agreement before Jiang Wanyin was almost sprinting away. Beside him, young Xia Hei was watching his sect leader’s rapid departure with worry writ large on his face.

“Xia-gongzi?" Lan Xichen glanced at him with concern.

The boy did as Lan Xichen had seen Jiang Wanyin do before, taking a deep breath and visibly centering himself. The furrows on his forehead lightened, although the worry did not leave his face completely.

“Shimei will be fine,” Xia Hei said firmly, nodding to himself. “The others will hold them off until Sect Leader gets there.”

Aware that he was in no position to pry into a foreign sect’s affairs, Lan Xichen averted his gaze to hide the bloom of warmth in his chest at the sheer conviction in Xia Hei’s voice that Jiang Wanyin would be able to solve the problem simply by arriving on scene.

His eye caught on a set of plain doors, conspicuously locked despite being in the heart of the family quarters. The pale newness of the wooden door frame indicated that it had also been rebuilt, but there was dust on top of the lock.

Jiang Wanyin had not commented on the room or indeed even acknowledged that it existed when they had passed by it.

Perhaps eager to distract himself from worrying about his shimei, Xia Hei followed Lan Xichen’s line of sight and whispered conspiratorially, “It’s a mystery, isn’t it? When I first came to Lotus Pier, everybody warned me never to mention that room to Sect Leader Jiang. But he used to go in and clean that room once a month. Afterwards, he would come out and thrash us all on the training field for hours.”

Lan Xichen blinked. He knew he should cut this conversation off right here, but… “Used to?”

Xia Hei nodded, lowering his voice further. “Three years ago, he suddenly stopped. Shanyu-shijie doesn’t like letting rooms rot under her watch, so now she goes in and personally tidies up once in a while. Sect Leader Jiang hasn’t stopped her yet, but he won’t even look at the door these days.”

Lan Xichen considered that, and a memory drifted into his mind: a secret compartment under Wangji’s floor panels full of Emperor’s Smile and a red ribbon, which Wangji thought he had cleverly hidden.

That ribbon now fluttered against a bouncing ponytail as its owner traveled the world, but this room in Lotus Pier was still closed up tight.

He thought about the hole in his chest where his sworn brothers should have been, an ache that was numbed but not healed by the knowledge that Wangji was safe and happy in his travels. 

He thought, just briefly, about the three years that Wangji had spent locked away from the world. He had been raised to appreciate stillness and quiet, but the empty silence of the Jingshi during those years had howled like a rabid beast in his ears. As it had howled the day their mother had died. As it had howled from behind the door to their father’s quarters.

Lotus Pier was not a quiet place, and Jiang Wanyin was not a quiet man. But Lan Xichen thought he might know something of that terrible silence with the razor-sharp teeth.

“Well, now,” he said, giving Xia Hei his best, empty smile. “Why don’t we head to the training fields.”

 


 

By the time Jiang Wanyin arrived at the training fields with Jin Rulan and his friends trailing behind him, Lan Xichen had watched Jiang Tanhua run her current students through three sets of sword drills and no longer felt like he was floating away from his own body. Somehow, he had even managed not to fall off the bench.

Jiang Tanhua, her two assistant instructors, and all of the other disciples on the field offered their sect leader a crisp salute as soon as they caught sight of him. Jiang Tanhua waited to see if Jiang Wanyin had further instructions to give, but he waved her off and instead threaded his way through the ranks as she resumed training.

Jin Rulan led Ouyang Zizhen and the two Lan disciples over to sit beside Lan Xichen.

“Zewu-jun,” he said in greeting, bowing.

Lan Xichen was opening his mouth to respond in kind when a harsh clang sounded from the training field and caused him to nearly leap out of his skin. All five members of the tiny audience whipped around to see Jiang Wanyin with Sandu in his hand. The Jiang disciple in front of him had been disarmed.

“Look,” Jiang Wanyin said impatiently, but there was no trace of anger in his voice as he tilted Sandu to bring the blade closer to the disciple’s neck. “All I have to do is put a little muscle into it, and you’re dead.”

The young disciple swallowed and nodded, face pale.

His eyes, Lan Xichen noticed, were fixed on Jiang Wanyin’s face. Not once did they flicker down to where Sandu Shengshou’s infamous blade was mere inches away from the disciple’s throat. As if he had perfect faith in Jiang Wanyin’s control of the blade.

The rest of the lesson had paused as Jiang Tanhua directed the students’ attention to Jiang Wanyin and the disciple he had singled out. None of them seemed worried either.

In fact—Lan Xichen’s eyebrow rose of its own accord—several of the onlookers seemed almost envious of the disciple who had drawn their sect leader’s attention.

“Luo Yu, can you tell me what you did wrong?” Jiang Wanyin asked.

The disciple deflated, shaking his head ashamedly.

But Jiang Wanyin only drew Sandu back to his side and gestured to Luo Yu’s fallen sword. “Pick up your sword and do that form again.”

This time, Lan Xichen could see the slight instability in Luo Yu’s footwork, the split-second waver in his balance that allowed Jiang Wanyin to slide Sandu through his defenses. 

Luo Yu’s forehead scrunched up. “I… I still don’t get it, Sect Leader,” he admitted.

Jiang Wanyin nodded curtly. “Again.”

They ran through the exercise three more times, each time more slowly, and finally something seemed to dawn on Luo Yu. 

“I see it!” he said excitedly. “Sect Leader, one more time, please? I think I finally understand!” He broke into a dazzling smile when he saw that the adjustments he had made to his stance allowed him to successfully block the incoming strike from Sandu. “Thank you, Sect Leader!”

Jiang Wanyin scowled at him, sheathing Sandu. “If you think you’re going to get away with only doing it correctly once, you’re dreaming. Now do it again, and explain to everyone else what you fixed.” His glare swept over the rest of the disciples. “Anyone who makes this mistake again today will join Luo Yu in repeating the entire drill one hundred times before dinner.”

“You heard Sect Leader,” Jiang Tanhua snapped from the front of the group. “Everyone back to starting position! Luo Yu, call out the movements as you do them, and explain what you’re doing.”

As poor Luo Yu stammered through his understanding of the sword form with Jiang Tanhua’s patient assistance, Jiang Wanyin stalked through the disciples, knocking elbows back toward bodies and nudging feet into place.

When he was finally satisfied that everyone had absorbed the lesson, he made his way over to Lan Xichen’s group on the sidelines.

“I apologize for keeping you waiting,” he began, but Lan Xichen waved him off.

“Emergencies happen.” Lan Xichen smiled warmly. “And I’ve been enjoying watching Jiang-guniang teach.”

Jiang Wanyin lowered himself down onto the other end of the bench Lan Xichen had chosen, watching as the lesson drew to a close and the disciples saluted Jiang Tanhua before running off. Luo Yu and a few other unlucky souls moved to a remote corner of the yard, where they began the arduous task of repeating the form they had been practicing a hundred times under the watchful eye of one of Jiang Tanhua’s assistants.

“Is that the next group?” Ouyang Zizhen asked, eyes widening in surprise. “Wait, are there two groups coming for lessons now?”

Jiang Wanyin glanced over and nodded. “Now that we have multiple senior disciples who can teach, we overlap training sessions. It’s not like our training grounds aren’t big enough.”

From amidst the oncoming swarm of purple-robed figures, a cacophony of shrieks and giggles rang through the air. Two harried-looking senior disciples separated the round bodies from the taller class and herded them to the far end of the training grounds.

“Children?” Jingyi exclaimed.

Goddesses,” Ouyang Zizhen sighed dreamily.

And they were both correct. As the youngest disciples stampeded down the length of the training grounds, the more sedate group, almost entirely composed of women, settled in front of Jiang Tanhua. Most of them carried braided leather whips at their hips.

To his surprise, Lan Xichen recognized several of the disciples in front of him. During and after the Sunshot Campaign, he had personally received the forehead ribbons of five or six women who had renounced their married lives in Gusu to rejoin the sect of their birth.

“That’s—That’s a Lan forehead ribbon!” Jingyi gasped.

Lan Xichen followed his gaze, already knowing who he would find. And sure enough, there, wearing a white forehead ribbon that stood out starkly against the purple of his robes, was Lan Mengyu. Beside him stood his wife, Jiang Haitao.

Jiang Wanyin snorted. “You can take the Lan out of Gusu, but that forehead ribbon never changes.”

“Why is there a Lan in Lotus Pier?” Jingyi asked.

Jin Rulan rolled his eyes. “Aren’t you also a Lan in Lotus Pier?” he mocked, but he followed his teasing with a serious answer. “Auntie Haitao came back to help jiujiu rebuild. But she already had a husband and a son, so she brought them with her.”

“Most of my senior disciples survived because they had married out of Yunmeng Jiang before the Wen dogs attacked,” Jiang Wanyin said, eyes trained on the group as they drew their swords and began running through more advanced sword forms than the previous group had been working on.

Lan Xichen saw Sizhui flinch out of the corner of his eye. Reluctant to say anything out loud lest he draw undue attention to Sizhui’s discomfort, he settled for laying a reassuring hand on the boy’s shoulder. Sizhui shuddered once and then smiled shakily up at him.

“But those women came back,” Ouyang Zizhen said in a hushed voice. “The depths of the love that they must feel for their sect…” He sniffled.

“Not all of them brought their husbands with them, so maybe some of them took it as a convenient excuse to leave an unhappy marriage,” Jiang Wanyin said lightly, but Lan Xichen could see that the sacrifice his disciples had made weighed heavily on his heart.

“The women standing on either side of Jiang Haitao,” Lan Xichen said quietly to Jingyi and Sizhui. “The one on the left is the widow of my cousin Ruanwei, and the one on the right was married to Dongchen-daifu.” 

It had been sixteen years, but Lan Dongchen had never remarried.

They sat in heavy silence for a few minutes, until finally Jiang Wanyin broke the somber mood with a grunt.

“It’s not all tragedy,” he said shortly. “Half of those women are cultivators from Meishan Yu who joined because they thought they might have a chance to inherit Zidian if I died without any children.”

“Vultures,” Jin Rulan sniffed.

Jiang Wanyin smacked the back of his head, chiding, “Those are your cousins! Show some respect!”

Jin Rulan glared up at his uncle, rubbing the back of his skull and looking wronged. “You’re the one who said it first!” he cried indignantly. “Anyways, I was only talking about the ones who left as soon as you declared Tanhua-jie your heir. I don’t have any problem with the ones who stayed because they actually liked Yunmeng.”

Ouyang Zizhen perked up. “Is that why they have those whips? Will we get to observe some of Meishan Yu’s renowned whip-work?”

“Not today,” said one of Jiang Tanhua’s assistants, a gleam of sweat on her forehead as she bowed to Jiang Wanyin. With his permission, she took a standing position behind her sect leader, conversing with the rest of the group as she rested. “Sect Leader’s whip lessons are every other day, so if you’re around tomorrow you might be in luck.”

Lan Xichen looked at Jiang Wanyin in faint surprise. “You personally teach those classes?”

The tips of Jiang Wanyin’s ears went red as he refused to meet Lan Xichen’s eyes. “My mother wasn’t able to pass on all of her family’s techniques to me before—Well, I had to come up with something so I could use Zidian during the Sunshot Campaign, even if it wasn’t completely orthodox. I was hoping to learn the proper techniques from the cultivators who came from Meishan Yu, but it turns out they wanted to learn my techniques too.” He rolled his eyes, gesturing to the woman behind him. “Don’t let Yu Baizhu mislead you; I co-teach with one of my mother’s cousins.”

Yu Baizhu pouted. “Shijie is a great teacher, but it’s all very orthodox and boring and everyone in Meishan has been doing the same thing for decades. Sect Leader’s tricks are a lot more interesting! And useful.”

Jiang Wanyin rolled his eyes. “Your shijie’s instruction is the reason we still get new disciples from Meishan Yu even now.”

Lan Xichen had been planning to politely refuse Jiang Wanyin’s inevitable offer of a guest room to spend the night, but now he was intrigued. How impressive must this cousin of the late Madam Yu be, that young cultivators were willing to switch sect allegiances for a chance to study under her? And how impressive must Jiang Wanyin’s whip-work be, that she had come to serve under him?

“Not all of us!” Yu Baizhu insisted. “Some of us came because we wanted to learn from you. And some, like my er-jie and san-jie, came out of respect for the Purple Spider.”

Jiang Wanyin scowled, but he didn’t refute her claim. Instead, he leaned back to survey her face.

“Look at you, all exhausted from running around with the children,” he said. “Is minding the babies really more exhausting than teaching the advanced class?”

Yu Baizhu fixed him with an unamused stare. “You know they are, Sect Leader.” She patted Jin Rulan on the shoulder, although by the look on her face she would have ruffled his hair if they hadn’t been in the presence of a foreign sect leader. “You lost enough sleep because of this one to know that very well.”

Jin Rulan slapped her hand away and scowled. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he sniffed, crossing his arms. “I’m sure I was an angel.”

“Ha!” Jiang Wanyin surprised them all by letting out a bark of laughter. “When I first brought you back to Lotus Pier, you refused to sleep quietly by yourself, so I had to carry you the entire time I was teaching! I’ve had you strapped to my back, to my front, I’ve even had you strapped into the crook of one arm so I could demonstrate whip work without worrying I would drop you!”

Jin Rulan flushed. “I—”

“Well, at least you slept pretty reliably once we got that system in place,” Jiang Wanyin sighed, running a hand through his hair. “I never could figure out how you slept so soundly when I was shouting right over your head.”

“That explains so much about the Young Mistress,” Jingyi whispered cheekily to Sizhui, dodging Jin Rulan’s enraged kick.

Lan Xichen rubbed at his temples, but before they could erupt into serious squabbling, Yu Baizhu laughed. “Sect Leader says that,” she said to Jin Rulan, “but if he’d just let you cry yourself out when you first got here you would have gotten used to sleeping by yourself.” She giggled at Jiang Wanyin’s expression. “Sect Leader couldn’t bear to put you down, so then you got used to being bounced around while you napped.”

“It’s always like that with your first children,” said a new voice. An older woman bowed to Jiang Wanyin and pointed at Yu Baizhu. “Your break is over, Baizhu. Get back in there.”

Yu Baizhu’s face fell, but she obediently made her way back to the children’s class, which appeared to be practicing strikes with light wooden swords.

Jiang Wanyin raised an eyebrow at the newcomer. “That’s why I decided to adopt my heir rather than making a new one,” he said, deadpan. “I raised one fussy baby and that was enough to put me off children forever.”

He ignored Jin Rulan’s plaintive cry of “Jiujiu!

The cultivator snorted. "I'm amazed you can say that with a straight face, when you’ve helped to raise every single one of those children over there.” She sighed and set her sword down against one of the benches, freeing up both hands so she could adjust the sweaty mass of hair that had begun escaping from the bun atop her head.

“How are they doing?” The line of Jiang Wanyin’s brow softened as he glanced over at the children.

The woman made a face, sighing in exasperation. “We’re still working on holding onto your sword even when your hands are tired, but they’re much better at not hitting each other than they were at the beginning of the year.”

Jiang Wanyin chuckled, and Lan Xichen was charmed by the effect that it had on both this senior disciple and Jin Rulan, two sets of shoulders relaxing minutely and answering smiles curling up the corners of their lips.

“We work you hard, Yu Mingguang,” Jiang Wanyin said sympathetically. 

She nodded. “You really do, Sect Leader.” A groan. “Speaking of, you remember that new blocking move that Jiang Xiachen came up with? The one that got approved to be taught as part of the curriculum last week?”

Jiang Wanyin pinched the bridge of his nose. “I do. What has he done now?”

In the background, Jingyi hissed to Jin Rulan, “New move? Approved for the curriculum?”

“Do you ever listen when I explain things the first time?” Jin Rulan groused. “Any Yunmeng Jiang disciple can propose new additions to the sword style as long as it’s based on the fundamentals of the style and it’s practical. Once it gets tested and approved by jiujiu and the senior disciples, whoever came up with the move gets to name it.”

Lan Xichen’s eyes widened in surprise. No wonder Yunmeng Jiang had been so flexible on the front lines during the Sunshot Campaign. Jiang Wanyin had not only carried on the legacy of his family’s fighting style, but he was also actively improving on it.

Yu Mingguang looked just as tired as Jiang Wanyin sounded. “Jiang-shidi’s son just turned eight, so for a birthday present he decided to allow A-Hui to name the new move.”

Jiang Wanyin blew out a long breath, then looked over at Yu Mingguang. “Well? What move have we added to the Yunmeng Jiang sword style?”

Yu Mingguang’s lip twitched. “Starting next week, the older disciples will begin practicing the Fuzzy Butterfly Defense, courtesy of young Jiang Hui.”

Jin Rulan snickered. “Look at it this way, jiujiu, it could be worse. At least you put a limit on how long the names can be.” He shook his head. “Can you imagine if your disciples had to learn the My Dad is Cooler than Everyone Else’s Dad Because He Let Me Name His New Move Defense?”

Jiang Wanyin and Yu Mingguang shuddered in unison.

Lan Xichen spoke up, ducking his head apologetically. “Are all of your students around that age, Yu-guniang?”

“This group is the eight-to-twelve year-old group,” Yu Mingguang said proudly. “I’ve been teaching them almost their whole lives now.”

“This is a special group, isn’t it, jiujiu?” Jin Rulan blinked expectantly at Jiang Wanyin. 

Jiang Wanyin’s lips quirked upward. “It is.” He met Lan Xichen’s gaze and his chest puffed out a little. “Some of these children were adopted, of course, but most of them were born to Yunmeng Jiang disciples after the end of the Sunshot Campaign.” The brilliant smile that spread across his face sent warmth suffusing through Lan Xichen’s bones. 

“So they’re the first new generation to have lived in Lotus Pier their whole lives!” Ouyang Zizhen cried, eyes gleaming with excitement.

“That’s right.” Jiang Wanyin nodded, proud as any father.

Yu Mingguang sighed gustily, picking her sword back up and preparing to re-enter the fray. Before she left, she quirked an eyebrow at him. “It almost feels like we’ve finally managed to make this work, doesn’t it, Sect Leader?”

For a moment, Lan Xichen stared at Jiang Wanyin’s figure and tried to imagine how he must have looked at that time, young and terrified and responsible for the weight of his entire world. A Jiang Wanyin who had looked at the scorched bones of his home, understood what an endless road it would be to cultivate life again from those ashes, and had nevertheless taken that first step.

You’ve worked hard, Sect Leader Jiang.

And then Jiang Wanyin folded his arms behind his back and nodded back at Yu Mingguang, watching with an air of pride as the children’s class managed to make their way through the entire first form. Lan Xichen was old enough to remember the gentle strength of Jiang Fengmian’s shoulders, the flaring steel of Yu Ziyuan’s spine. For years that had been the core of Yunmeng Jiang.

But as the image of the young, desperate Jiang Wanyin scattered in the wind, neither of his parents’ forms took its place. There were elements of both in him, of course, in the clench of his jaw and the spread of his shoulders, the ring on his finger and the steadiness of his gaze.

And yet, Lan Xichen looked at Jiang Wanyin, and all he saw was Jiang Wanyin.

Chapter Text

Jin Ling barreled down the dock and screeched to a stop just before his toes left the furthermost plank, vibrating angrily as he waited for Lan Sizhui and Jingyi to step off the boat. Behind him, Ouyang Zizhen bounced nervously from foot to foot.

“Sect Leader Yao is here,” Jin Ling spat, before Lan Sizhui could attempt any kind of salutation. “He says he won’t leave until he talks to jiuijiu, and he won’t stay in his room. Sooner or later he’s going to actually bump into jiuijiu.”

“He’s really on the warpath, too,” Ouyang Zizhen said anxiously. “But if it’s because of the fishing rights he was griping to my father about yesterday, it’s a stupid reason to be so worked up.”

Lan Sizhui looked at Jin Ling’s face, listened to the silence that blanketed Lotus Pier as the Yunmeng Jiang sect wrestled with the memories of its own destruction exactly twenty-one years ago, thought of how Sect Leader Jiang reacted to stupidity on a good day, and said, “Fuck.”

On any other occasion, Jin Ling and Jingyi might have dropped dead of heart attacks. Today, however, they just nodded in grim agreement.

Jin Ling worried at his lip, scowling at the floor. “I knew today would suck, but usually people have enough common sense to read a calendar and leave jiujiu alone this time of year.” He looked up uncertainly at Lan Sizhui and Jingyi. “I’m sorry you’ve come all this way for nothing, but I shouldn’t drag you into this mess.”

Lan Sizhui stepped onto the pier and laid a soothing hand on his shoulder. “You invited us here to keep you company while you looked out for your uncle,” he said firmly, and although Jin Lin hadn’t worded it exactly like that, he didn’t deny it. “Just because the situation is more delicate than expected doesn’t mean we’re not up for the job.”

“He’s right, Jin-xiong,” Ouyang Zizhen piped up, hesitantly patting Jin Ling’s shoulder. “We’re happy to help.”

If Jin Ling dragged the trailing end of his sleeve across his eyes, none of them commented on it.

“Okay,” he said miserably. With some effort, he straightened up and forced his usual haughty expression onto his face. “I’ll go intercept Sect Leader Yao. Ouyang Zizhen, you know how he thinks. Will you come with me?”

“Of course!” Ouyang Zizhen nodded, face pale. “My father lets him get away with barging into our home and ranting about his problems whenever he likes, but that doesn’t mean he has a right to do it here.”

Jingyi glanced at Lan Sizhui and tilted his head inquisitively.

“Jingyi, you go and find Jiang Tanhua,” Lan Sizhui said decisively. “Tell her what’s going on. As Sect Leader Jiang’s second-in-command and heir, she should be able to meet with Sect Leader Yao so Sect Leader Jiang never has to see him at all.” 

Jingyi nodded. “And then I’ll run to the kitchens and see if they can give me some tea and snacks. Food always makes me feel better when I’m down.” He darted off without another word.

Lan Sizhui started, abruptly reminded that Jingyi had a lot more experience with this kind of bad day. It occurred to him that perhaps he should be the one looking for Jiang Tanhua, and Jingyi accompanying Sect Leader Jiang.

A little tendril of shame flickered in his chest. How could he, of all people, forget that his cousin was more than just a loud mouth and raucous laughter?

But by the time the thought had crossed his mind, Jingyi was already out of sight, leaving Lan Sizhui by himself.

There’s no time to lose, he told himself sternly. Maybe Jingyi would have been better, but you’re what Sect Leader Jiang has. Make it work.

Jin Ling, when he had extended the invitation to them a few weeks ago, had cautioned, “Usually jiujiu spends the whole day in the ancestral hall and this one pavilion that used to be his mother’s favorite. So we’ll have to stay near that part of Lotus Pier.” 

Jingyi had raised an eyebrow. “Your uncle spends an entire day being sad, and you want to hang out with us instead of with him? And you want to do it right in front of his face?”

Jin Ling had flushed. “He’s the one who told me not to follow him around this year!” he’d said defensively. More quietly, he’d muttered, “He said young people shouldn’t mope, and that I should spend the day with my friends.”

His friends, Lan Sizhui’s heart had whispered in pleasant astonishment. But this wasn’t the time to smother Jin Ling in a hug.

“You want to stay close,” Lan Sizhui had said instead, as gently as he could, “so that you can make sure you’re around if he needs you. But you don’t want him to worry that you’ll be alone, so you want us to come to Lotus Pier. Is that right, Jin Ling?”

Normally, Jingyi would have been crowing about the friends thing, and maybe making a fuss about being invited under false pretenses. But just this once, Lan Sizhui was not at all surprised when Jingyi held his tongue.

Jin Ling had nodded, and then Jingyi had nodded, and so here they were.

Just as Jin Ling had said, Lan Sizhui found Sect Leader Jiang sitting at the edge of a dock next to the late Madam Yu’s pavilion. His back was straight as ever and there were no tear tracks on his face as he stared out over the water, but he had removed his boots and socks and was dangling his legs in the water like a child.

In his lap, he held a half-filled bowl of peeled lotus seeds, and there was a massive canvas sack of lotus pods beside him.

He didn’t seem to notice when Lan Sizhui sat down quietly beside him. 

And yet, once Lan Sizhui had settled his robes around him, he said, without taking his eyes off the horizon, “I heard Sect Leader Yao’s voice as soon as he stepped through the front gate.”

Lan Sizhui ducked his head. “Jin Ling and Ouyang-xiong went to stall him until Jingyi can bring Jiang Tanhua-guniang to speak with him. Ouyang-xiong doesn’t think it’s anything urgent. Something about fishing rights?”

Sect Leader Jiang was silent for a long moment, and then he sighed. “Ah, well, Tanhua will have to get used to dealing with him eventually.” He made no move to stand up.

After a few more minutes of listening to the waves lap at the wooden pier, Lan Sizhui hesitantly broke the silence with the first question that came to mind.

“What’s the record for most lotus seeds eaten in one go?”

The second the words left his lips, he froze, wishing he could swallow them back down. He knew who held that record, and of all the people to bring up to Sect Leader Jiang’s face today, Wei-qianbei was perhaps the stupidest choice.

But contrary to anything Lan Sizhui could have expected, Sect Leader Jiang snorted and answered, “Between 169 and 173. He lost count halfway through but insisted that I was the one who had counted wrong. And then a-jie suggested that we meet halfway. As if counting lotus seeds is something you can compromise on.”

Faintly, hardly daring to believe his luck, Lan Sizhui said, “That’s a lot of seeds.”

Sect Leader Jiang shrugged, flicking a piece of seed skin into the water. “He’d never have been able to eat half that many if he’d had to peel them himself. My brother never peeled more than ten lotus seeds before he got bored and went off to find something more fun.”

It was the first time Lan Sizhui had ever heard Sect Leader Jiang refer to Wei-qianbei as “my brother” rather than “your Wei-qianbei.”

“My brother” carried the same bitter core as “your Wei-qianbei,” but there was a gentle give around the edges of the words that Lan Sizhui had only ever heard in Sect Leader Jiang’s voice when he was especially proud of Jin Ling or the youngest of the Yunmeng Jiang disciples.

“And what about you, Sect Leader Jiang? Did you have the patience to peel lotus seeds?”

Or did you develop it after your sister died?

Sect Leader Jiang let out a dry huff of amusement. “Of course. He never thought to leave me any of the seeds that a-jie peeled. If I hadn’t peeled my own seeds, I wouldn’t have had any to eat.”

Lan Sizhui’s heart lurched, but there was only exhaustion and the slightest wash of fondness in Sect Leader Jiang’s words.

“He didn’t manage to eat that many lotus seeds on his first try, of course,” Sect Leader Jiang continued. “Every year he would come to me and tell me he was going to break last year’s record, and somehow I always ended up helping a-jie peel the seeds while he splashed around in the water and did stretches to ‘help his digestion’.”

Lan Sizhui smiled. “Jingyi does that sometimes, when we stop by his favorite fried chicken shop.”

Sect Leader Jiang rolled his eyes. “That kid…” He dropped another seed into the bowl in his lap. “Did he ever tell you about the time we spent all afternoon catching a basketful of fish because he’d overheard that we were having important guests for dinner, only to find out they were from a vegetarian sect from the north?”

Dumbly, Lan Sizhui shook his head.

Sect Leader Jiang clicked his tongue and began peeling another lotus seed. “He spent all afternoon telling me how amazing dinner was going to be, how impressed everyone would be with our fishing skills. But all I really remember is that after our guests left, we ended up eating fish for every meal for an entire week.” He shook his head in tired exasperation. “Never learned to think things through.”

Lan Sizhui laughed softly. “That sounds like a cousin of mine. He has a big, soft heart, but sometimes he forgets that his face is a little scary. And then he ends up getting himself into trouble because he doesn’t think about how people will react to him.”

Sect Leader Jiang dropped a lotus seed into his bowl, scowling darkly. “A little thought about the consequences of his action is all I ever asked for, since I was the one who had to clean up after him.” He flicked an eye up at Lan Sizhui, pursing his lips thoughtfully. “You know how that goes, don’t you. Definitely with Jin Ling and the others, maybe your cousin too.”

“They’re getting better at thinking before they act,” Lan Sizhui defended them loyally.

“Hmph. I suppose they are, at that.” Sect Leader Jiang began tearing at a new lotus pod. He peeled three more seeds in silence and then said, softer than Lan Sizhui would ever have imagined could come from this loud, gruff man, “If I’d known that summer was the last time the three of us would be able to eat lotus seeds together, I would have picked every pod in the lake, and buried them in lotus seeds.”

Lan Sizhui nodded at the slowly filling bowl in Sect Leader Jiang’s lap. “Are those for your ancestral hall?”

Sect Leader Jiang raised an eyebrow, looking down at his lap. “That would be a waste of seeds,” he said dryly. He jabbed an elbow at a smaller bowl with exactly five seeds, hidden behind his hip, that Lan Sizhui hadn’t noticed. “Those are for the altar.”

He didn’t say what the large bowl was going to be for, and Lan Sizhui didn’t ask.

Instead, he said, “My cousin was on his own for a long time, back when I was very young.”

Sect Leader Jiang hummed but didn’t look up from where he was busily peeling yet another lotus seed.

Lan Sizhui took a deep breath and continued his thought. “I got sick and lost my memory as a child, you see, so he was the only one who remembered the family that we’d lost. There was no one to help him carry those memories." He glanced up at Sect Leader Jiang out of the corner of his eye. "I think it must have been very lonely and very painful for him.”

Still Sect Leader Jiang said nothing, but the motion of his hands paused for a moment. When they resumed, they were slower, and pensive.

“Jin Ling likes to tell us stories about his parents,” Lan Sizhui said. “Sometimes they’re actually interesting, but mostly I think he’s just proud that he has stories to tell.” He bit his lip, wondering if he was going too far. 

But Sect Leader Jiang continued to take deep, even breaths, eyes fixed on the seeds in his lap. He didn’t interrupt Lan Sizhui, or try to change the subject.

And suddenly, it seemed immensely, urgently important to Lan Sizhui that he speak the words that were swirling around in his head.

“I know I’ll never get back the first-hand knowledge that I lost,” he said desperately, fisting his hands in the skirts of his robes to stop them from trembling, “and I know that it hurts my cousin to talk about them. But I still—I need to learn as much as I can about our family so that I can help him carry the weight of their memories. And Jin Ling—”

He didn’t realize how close he was to choking on a sob until Sect Leader Jiang’s hand came down, heavy, on his back.

“It does,” Sect Leader Jiang said quietly. “It does hurt, talking about… those memories. But sometimes we need the pain, to remind us that we’re still here.” He let out a soft snort. “That the next generation is all grown up, with strong backs to share the weight.”

Lan Sizhui chuckled wetly. “At least you’re reasonable about it,” he said. “If Hanguang-jun and Xian-gege had their way, Jingyi and I wouldn’t be allowed to night-hunt on our own until we were thirty.”

The bowl thudded against the wood of the pier as Sect Leader Jiang set it down with unexpected force. His eyes were wide as he stared at Lan Sizhui, and his face was a bloodless white.

Lan Sizhui raised his head. “Sect… Sect Leader Jiang?”

Sect Leader Jiang’s lips barely moved as he said, so low Lan Sizhui almost missed it, “Xian-gege.”

The hand on his back spasmed, clenching around the fabric of his robes and causing his collar to constrict around his throat. 

Lan Sizhui froze, scared but mindful of the fact that he could still breathe.

For now.

A harsh gust of laughter tore itself from Sect Leader Jiang’s throat, so sudden and violent that Lan Sizhui jolted in shock.

“Of course,” Sect Leader Jiang shouted suddenly, letting go of Lan Sizhui’s robes as if the fabric had burnt his hand. He threw his arms in the air, knocking the nearly-empty sack of lotus pods into the water. “Of course! Every time I came to visit, you were talking about Rich-gege this and Rich-gege that—of course Lan Wangji would never have let Wei Wuxian’s child die! How did I ever miss it!”

“Sect Leader Jiang—”

“Even when you’re clean instead of covered in mud, it’s impossible to mistake that ridiculous smile,” Sect Leader Jiang snapped, his own eyes flashing wildly. “I’ve seen you laughing enough times… Every time you come here, Wen Ning is sighted lurking outside the walls—Don’t try to deny it,” he hissed, even though Lan Sizhui hadn’t said a thing. “Do you two really think that I, master of Lotus Pier, master of Yunmeng, don’t know what goes on inside my own fucking borders?”

He didn’t seem to be looking for an actual answer, which was good, because Lan Sizhui didn’t think he could force his frozen vocal cords to produce a single sound right now. Sandu Shengshou, whose skilled hands were stained with Wen blood, was breaking down in a way Lan Sizhui had never seen before. The man drew into himself, pulling his feet out of the water and curling into a childish ball, and perhaps Lan Sizhui was foolish to feel threatened by a gaze that was more anguished than hostile, but—

Porcelain shards cut so much deeper than an intact vase.

Sect Leader Jiang pressed a palm against his forehead, muttering under his breath. “If you’re—Then your cousin—Oh, Wen Ning, who else could it be. You were a cute kid, of course; even without Wei Wuxian’s bullshit about giving birth to you I thought maybe I had another nephew, but then he said your name and he might have loved you but you were still—”

He laughed so roughly that Lan Sizhui was surprised there was no blood welling up from his throat to stain his teeth. Lan Sizhui was certainly biting his own lip hard enough to taste copper. “And you’re a good friend to Jin Ling, I always thought you were a good kid, but you’re still—”

At least he left Sandu behind when he came out to grieve, Lan Sizhui thought to himself, but a distressed crackle from Sect Leader Jiang’s left hand was a sobering reminder that Zidian was never out of reach. Those eyes bored into him, hungrily, desperately.

“Too good to be true, I should have seen this, I should have known, I should have seen this…”

“Lan Sizhui?!”

Lan Sizhui almost collapsed with relief when he heard Jin Ling’s voice from the other end of the dock, quickly echoed by Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen. But Sect Leader Jiang was still staring at him as if he’d never seen him before, so Lan Sizhui sat very still and quiet as the others rushed to their side.

“Jiujiu, are you—”

“Sizhui, what happened—”

Sect Leader Jiang stood up abruptly as Jin Ling and Jingyi’s voices rang out over each other, and Lan Sizhui flinched at the movement.

And just like that, it was like something had cleared from Sect Leader Jiang’s eyes. He looked down at Lan Sizhui with a twisted smile, but Zidian lay quiescent against his knuckle, completely under that iron-fast control again.

Sect Leader Jiang laughed bitterly, ignoring Jin Ling’s insistent tugging at his sleeve. “You Wens really like coming into my own home and turning my world upside down without so much as a by-your-leave, don’t you? Is it fun for you?”

Jin Ling and Jingyi went silent. Ouyang Zizhen swallowed hard.

Sect Leader Jiang’s eyes swept over them, and his countenance hardened. “You already knew,” he said flatly. “Of course. I’m the last one to find out, what a surprise.”

He flicked Jin Ling’s hand away from his sleeve and stooped to pick up the two bowls of peeled lotus seeds. “Don’t tell Wen Ning that you compared him to me, hm? It might be a bigger insult than he can forgive. And that man may be slow to anger but he’s even worse than I am about holding grudges.”

“Jiujiu!”

“Jin Ling.” Sect Leader Jiang’s eyes pinned Jin Ling to the dock. “Unless you’re about to tell me that you had no idea you were bringing a Wen-dog into my Lotus Pier, you’ll shut up and be quiet.”

Jin Ling’s jaw snapped shut, a flash of hurt in his eyes.

Sect Leader Jiang turned his attention back to Lan Sizhui. “But then again, you were nothing but a puppy back then,” he said, and the anger in his voice was quickly drowned out by weary self-deprecation. He sneered. “And in the end, Wei Wuxian left you too. Just like he left us.”

“That’s not fair!” Ouyang Zizhen protested, but Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi placed restraining hands on his shoulders at the same time.

“Let it go, Ouyang-xiong,” Jingyi said under his breath, and Lan Sizhui was reminded that maybe none of this would have happened if he hadn’t spoken so rashly. If Sect Leader Jiang had been found by either of the two people most qualified to understand how you could love someone and know they had meant the best, but still resent them for leaving you behind.

“I’m so sorry,” Lan Sizhui said, blinking hard to force back tears. He tried to keep speaking, to explain himself, but his throat tightened and all he could do was repeat those three words.

Sect Leader Jiang stared at him for a long moment and then exhaled. Some of the tension left his shoulders, not like he was relaxing but more like he was deflating.

“I can’t do this today, Lan Sizhui,” he said, all of the emotion bleeding out of his voice. “Don’t—” He took a deep breath. “Don’t go running away overnight. Tomorrow will be a different day. We’ll talk about this, but not… not right now.”

“I won’t go anywhere,” Lan Sizhui said, voice shaking. He’d never wanted to run away more, but hadn’t he just been talking about doing things that hurt because they were the only way to move forward?

Sect Leader Jiang gestured vaguely with the small bowl of lotus seeds in his right hand. “I’m going to put these in the ancestral hall, and then I’m going to bed. If I see Sect Leader Yao anywhere in the vicinity, I’m going to gut him.”

Lan Sizhui could hear the absolute sincerity in his words, and he shot a panicked glance at Jin Ling and Ouyang Zizhen. Ouyang Zizhen gave him a shaky nod. Sect Leader Yao had left.

Thank the gods for that blessing.

As Sect Leader Jiang passed them on the dock, he pressed the larger bowl of lotus seeds into Jin Ling’s hand without missing a step.

Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen looked baffled, but Jin Ling accepted the bowl without a thought and reached in for a handful so automatically that Lan Sizhui thought, Ah.

Sect Leader Jiang has been trying to drown Jin Ling in lotus seeds every year since he was a baby.

Chapter Text

When Wen Ning had followed A-Yuan and the other boys to Yunmeng for the third time this month, he had not expected to be needed after they’d entered the gates. Who would dare to lay a hand on a guest of the Yunmeng Jiang sect, especially in the company of Jiang Wanyin’s own nephew? 

A-Yuan had offered to pay for a room at a nearby inn, saying that depending on how things went, Jin Rulan might need them to stay for quite a few days. But a fierce corpse had no need for soft beds or good food, and Wen Ning would rather be within shouting distance in case something happened. 

So he’d picked a tree and settled in to wait. He didn’t sleep, of course, but if he held very still and closed his eyes, he could achieve something that approached meditation. 

When knuckles rapped urgently against the trunk of his tree in the early afternoon of the second day, he was understandably confused.

To his surprise, when he poked his head out of the foliage, he found young Lan Jingyi staring up at him. A-Yuan was nowhere to be seen.

“Is A-Yuan okay?” Wen Ning asked anxiously. His unbeating heart flopped violently against his ribcage when Lan Jingyi hesitated.

Catching sight of Wen Ning’s terrified twitch, Lan Jingyi hurried to explain.

“It’s! It’s not an emergency, not like that,” he babbled. “But yesterday Sect Leader Jiang found out about Sizhui being a Wen—”

Wen Ning threw himself out of the tree.

“—and he asked me to bring you into Lotus Pier!” Lan Jingyi yelped. “To talk! Just to talk!”

Wen Ning stood up slowly, Lan Jingyi’s words finally sinking in. “A-Yuan isn’t in danger?”

Lan Jingyi laughed nervously. “Physically, he’s perfectly fine. He’s just scared that he’s fucked up our relations with Yunmeng Jiang.” He added emphatically, “Because he likes Sect Leader Jiang.”

Wen Ning paused. “Why… Why would Sect Leader Jiang want me there?”

He hadn’t personally taken part in the destruction of Lotus Pier twenty-one years ago, but for all his jiejie had always maintained that they could not be faulted for doing their duty as healers, neither of them had ever believed it wholeheartedly.

Lan Jingyi scratched the back of his head. “He said something about you bringing Sizhui soup when he was a child? And something about appreciating loyalty to your family? I don’t know, Wen-qianbei, I didn’t ask too many questions.”

But Wen Ning understood. His palms remembered the soothing warmth of a bowl of soup that he couldn’t enjoy, and his feet remembered the careful path he had traced up the mountain trying to make sure none of the soup spilled. He remembered the bright spark in A-Yuan’s dark, round eyes as he slurped enthusiastically at Wei-gongzi’s sister’s soup.

Jiang Wanyin had held onto his brother’s flute and his sister’s son for thirteen years before Wei-gongzi had come back to life. Wen Ning, who had been unconscious for most of that time, until Wei-gongzi’s flute had called to him on Dafan Mountain, thought that there were very few people who could even begin to understand the depths of that kind of devotion.

Perhaps only Hanguang-jun—though Wen Ning would never say that out loud in front of either of the two men in question.

Maybe Jiang Wanyin considered it just, that Wen Ning now spent his time protecting Wei-gongzi and his family. As recompense, too little and too late, for the role that he and his jiejie had played in Wei-gongzi’s downfall.

Regardless of Jiang Wanyin’s reasons, Wen Ning was grateful that he would be able to stand at A-Yuan’s side for this conversation.

 


 

Jiang Wanyin was not, to Wen Ning’s surprise, seated on the Lotus Throne. Instead, he had positioned himself at a low table with four cushions on the far side of the main hall. Jin Rulan was seated to his left, and there was a piping hot pot of tea in the middle of the table.

A-Yuan had been waiting silently outside the door of the main hall, and as Lan Jingyi led Wen Ning through the front gates, he hurried forward and bowed to Wen Ning.

“Wen-qianbei,” he said, voice quavering, “I’m sorry, I—”

Wen Ning laid a gentle hand on his head. “A-Yuan, it was going to come out eventually.” With some difficulty, he added, “It’s good that Sect Leader Jiang is willing to hear us out.”

Behind them, Lan Jingyi slipped quietly away.

“I don’t have all day,” Jiang Wanyin called grumpily from his place at the table, but the impatience in his voice was muted, as if he too dreaded the conversation to come.

As they drew near the table, Wen Ning noticed that Jin Rulan had scooted his seat just the tiniest bit closer to his uncle and was sitting with his arms crossed protectively.

Jiang Wanyin’s left hand lay on the table in front of Jin Rulan. Zidian was dormant for the moment, but Wen Ning knew it would respond to Jiang Wanyin’s command in an instant.

With a slight pang, Wen Ning took the seat furthest from Jin Rulan, even though it put him directly in front of Jiang Wanyin. Jin Rulan and A-Yuan’s shoulders tensed, but Jiang Wanyin inclined his head the slightest bit.

Jin Rulan, as the youngest person at the table, poured the tea. Then he sat back and looked at his uncle for guidance.

Jiang Wanyin frowned. “So.” He tapped a finger against his teacup, eyes fixed on A-Yuan.

“So…” A-Yuan echoed. He spoke more quietly than usual, but he met Jiang Wanyin’s piercing gaze and didn’t so much as glance at Wen Ning for help. Probably a good choice, given how the last exchange between Jiang Wanyin and Wen Ning had turned out, but Wen Ning still allowed himself to feel a warm rush of pride at this clear evidence of how much A-Yuan had grown up.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” A-Yuan said, “I know many things have been hidden from you that should not have been hidden from you.”

His voice was perfectly even and his eyes never left Jiang Wanyin’s, but Wen Ning would have flushed at the implied rebuke if he had still been able.

A-Yuan believed in holding people accountable for their actions, a sense of justice that he got directly from the Twin Jades who had raised him. As his friends knew very well, and as Wen Ning was now remembering, family ties and friendship weren’t a shield that could be hidden behind.

From the furrow between A-Yuan’s eyebrows, not even his own actions—or perhaps especially not his own actions—escaped his judgment.

Jiang Wanyin’s right hand twitched, and he lifted his teacup to his lips. 

A-Yuan soldiered on, taking Jiang Wanyin’s silence as permission to continue. “I’m sorry that we hid my identity from you, as well. I apologize for the way in which you learned the truth. It should not have happened when you were already in pain.” 

Jiang Wanyin’s lips tightened and he set the teacup down with a soft clank. He said nothing, perhaps sensing that A-Yuan was not yet finished.

“But Sect Leader Jiang,” A-Yuan said, his eyes clear and earnest, “I can’t apologize for having been born a Wen. And I can’t apologize for the fact that my family accepted the help that Wei-qianbei offered when we needed it most.”

He thought for a moment, and then took a sip of tea, clearly finished speaking for the moment.

Jiang Wanyin sighed, rubbing his forehead. “I commend you, Lan Sizhui,” he said finally, “for being the only person in your entire family, adopted or otherwise, who has ever spoken the apology I most wanted to hear.”

Wen Ning blinked. He was proud of A-Yuan for being so empathetic and apparently knowing exactly what to say, of course, but—

What?

Of all of the sins that he and his family had committed against Jiang Wanyin, this was what Jiang Wanyin held against them most fiercely?

Across the table, Jin Rulan was also staring at Jiang Wanyin, but there was a glimmer of understanding in his eyes.

“Even when I met you for the first time at the Mass Graves, I knew you couldn’t help being a Wen or appealing to Wei Wuxian’s bleeding heart any more than I could help being born to my parents. You were a child.” Jiang Wanyin’s lips pressed together tightly. “It—none of this has ever been about you, Lan Sizhui.”

A-Yuan nodded, swallowing hard. “I understand, Sect Leader Jiang. I… I still wanted to apologize—”

Jiang Wanyin refilled his tea cup and tossed it back as if it were something much stronger. “It’s not your fault that Wei Wuxian turned to demonic cultivation, it’s not your fault that he chose you and your family over us, it’s not your fault that he died. If there are any apologies to be had for those choices, they should be coming from somebody else anyways.”

Jin Rulan clicked his tongue quietly and refilled his uncle’s cup.

A-Yuan smiled wetly. “Nevertheless, please let me take responsibility for the part I played in hiding my identity from you.”

“Yesterday you said you lost your memory as a child.” Jiang Wanyin scowled. “I’m not in the habit of blaming people for what they do with information they don’t have.” He ignored the way Wen Ning’s hand clenched around his still-full teacup and the way Jin Rulan stiffened in response, and continued, “Even if you had remembered, children follow their parents’ lead. It’s only to be expected.”

“I’m old enough to use my own judgment now,” A-Yuan said firmly. 

Jiang Wanyin studied him for a long moment and nodded slowly. “I’ll hold you to it, Lan Sizhui.”

“Please do.” A-Yuan gave a half-bow from his seated position. Then he looked up at Jiang Wanyin, biting his lip uncertainly. “Sect Leader Jiang… Please, at the very least, will you let me apologize for springing all of this on you at the worst possible time?”

Jiang Wanyin rolled his eyes. “Just like my brother, always needing to take the blame for something.”

Wen Ning froze at those words, but A-Yuan and Jin Rulan didn’t seem surprised.

“Fine, I’ll accept your apology,” Jiang Wanyin growled. “But you’ll also have to accept my thanks for finally telling me.” At the widening of A-Yuan’s eyes, he leaned forward intently. “Listen to me. No matter how much it hurts in the moment, it is always—always—better to know these things than to be allowed to go about life, oblivious.”

He glanced sideways to Jin Rulan, sitting at his side, and said ruefully, “It’s something I’ve recently learned, myself.”

Jin Rulan’s brow furrowed and he wordlessly nudged his uncle’s hand with his own.

“I will remember.” A-Yuan gave that half-bow again. “Thank you for the guidance, Sect Leader Jiang.”

Jiang Wanyin rolled his eyes again. “Enough with the bowing and scraping,” he snapped, but both he and A-Yuan rolled their shoulders like an enormous weight had been lifted. “As if you’re not going to be right back here causing trouble with Jin Ling and the others as soon as I turn my head.”

Was that… was that it? A-Yuan had apologized, and Jiang Wanyin had just… forgiven him?

Was that fondness in Jiang Wanyin’s tone?

Wen Ning stared into the swirling surface of his tea, lost in the maelstrom of thoughts whirling around inside his head. He felt wrong-footed, like someone had replaced the volatile and vindictive Jiang Wanyin he’d always known with someone entirely different.

But A-Yuan wasn’t finished.

“The last time Wen-qianbei was here,” he began cautiously, and Wen Ning stiffened so quickly he heard his skin crackle in protest. Across from A-Yuan, Jin Rulan narrowed his eyes and shook his head emphatically. 

But Jiang Wanyin, though he clenched his left hand into a fist on the table in front of his nephew, waited for A-Yuan to go on.

“The last time Wen-qianbei was here, he said some cruel things to you.” For the first time since they had entered the hall together, A-Yuan looked directly at him. Wen Ning didn’t know how A-Yuan had found out the details of what had been said that night, but they hadn’t exactly been quiet.

“I—” Wen Ning’s lips opened and closed, but his throat tightened around his words.

Jiang Wanyin’s eyebrow shot up. “You really don’t hold back when you make up your mind on something, do you, Lan Sizhui?” Wen Ning’s disbelieving ears caught a thread of wry humor in the man’s voice.

“Wen-qianbei has taught me a little of his medical knowledge,” A-Yuan said seriously, still holding eye contact with Wen Ning. “Although I’m only a novice, I know that an infected wound must be lanced and cleaned out before it can begin to heal.”

Wen Ning struggled to find his tongue, desperate to show A-Yuan that he understood what was being asked of him but struggling to differentiate between the truths that he had felt needed to be spoken and the bitter words that he had loosed only because he knew they would hurt.

To his complete and utter surprise, it was Jiang Wanyin who put him out of his misery. “Don’t hurt yourself trying to apologize when you don’t mean it.” His lip quirked up in a humorless smile as his words dragged Wen Ning’s gaze away from A-Yuan to his own face. “Especially when I won’t accept it.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Wen Ning saw A-Yuan wince. “Sect Leader Jiang—”

Jiang Wanyin shook his head. “I know that anger makes people say the unthinkable, even if they don’t really mean it. But some things can’t be forgiven.” When A-Yuan’s shoulders slumped in dismay, he shrugged. “Listen, whatever feelings of gratitude or inferiority I do or don’t have toward Wei Wuxian, it’s nobody’s business but mine. So those words from that night—I don’t care about them. I don’t forgive you for them, but I’ll let them go. Just this once.”

Wen Ning looked away, turmoil churning under his ribcage. To one side, A-Yuan and Jin Rulan stared at each other helplessly. After a minute, Jin Rulan leaned forward to refill all of the empty teacups while the two older men stewed in their own thoughts.

Wen Ning suspected that, despite Jiang Wanyin’s brave words, there was a part of him that still resented Wen Ning for the words he had spoken over Wei-gongzi’s collapsed body. But, contrary to anything Wen Ning could have expected, it seemed like he was willing to forcibly put it all behind him for A-Yuan’s peace of mind.

He’d always thought Jiang Wanyin a straightforward man, easy enough to understand, but this—

His head snapped up when Jiang Wanyin said, “Wen Ning.”

Their eyes met, and Jiang Wanyin shook his head. “Wen Qionglin. Like I told Lan Sizhui, it’s better to know. So thank you, for telling me about the golden core transfer. No matter how much of an asshole you were about it.” 

His right hand twitched toward his stomach and then deliberately swerved to pick up his steaming teacup. His left hand tightened into a fist, and Jin Rulan laid a hand over it.

Jiang Wanyin did not shake him off.

Wen Ning nodded, feeling like a yawning pit had opened inside his stomach at the thought of accepting Jiang Wanyin’s gratitude when all he'd wanted was to make Jiang Wanyin feel a fraction of the pain Wei-gongzi had been suffering.

“A-Yuan was a child during the war,” he said to distract himself from that line of thought. But it was like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. “Granny and the others were civilians. But jiejie and I—”

Jiang Wanyin’s back straightened like someone had shoved a length of iron up his spine. “Don’t you dare try to apologize for what the Qishan Wen sect did like it's something that can be waved away as easily as a few insults,” he spat, and only Jin Rulan’s grip on his left arm kept him in his seat. “What use do I have for words when my family—when Jin Ling’s parents—are dead?”

A-Yuan looked like he was on the verge of tears, and Wen Ning was abruptly reminded that although he had had long conversations with the boy about what the Wen sect had left behind as its legacy, good and bad, A-Yuan was still coming to grips with what that meant in reality.

Jin Rulan grabbed Jiang Wanyin’s shoulder and wrenched him around until they were face-to-face. “Jiujiu, stop.” His voice was softer than Wen Ning usually heard it, and his hand around Jiang Wanyin’s wrist was less restraining than grounding. Pain and shame flickered across his face as he said, “The Ghost General’s family is dead too.”

Jiang Wanyin didn’t respond out loud, but some of the fire left him. His right hand came up to cover Jin Rulan’s hand on his wrist, clutching it tightly.

“Sometimes apologies are worthless, jiujiu, but—you know, don’t you? Wen-qianbei comes with us on night hunts and patches us up when we get hurt. He takes the night watch so we can all get a good night’s sleep. When he teaches Lan Sizhui about what herbs can be used for medicine, he makes sure he talks loud enough that all of us can hear. He’s the one who showed me that new bow gripping method last month. He’s saved my life more than once.” Then, in little more than a whisper, he added, “And when he’s not with us, he watches over Wei Wuxian.”

Uncle and nephew held eye contact for a long moment. Jiang Wanyin seemed to be searching for something in the depths of Jin Rulan’s soul, his gaze heavy and evaluating. Jin Rulan’s face was more open than Wen Ning had ever seen it, as if in response to his uncle’s unspoken demand.

Finally, Jiang Wanyin’s fist loosened, and he looked away with a soft sigh. 

Jin Rulan smiled shakily. “Look at it this way, at least he’s never told me I didn’t have parents to raise me.”

Wen Ning bristled instinctively, but A-Yuan shook his head just the slightest bit. Confused, Wen Ning paused and looked more closely at the two men sitting across the table from them.

He’d taken Jin Rulan’s words as a slight against Wei-gongzi, who hadn’t known who he’d been talking to when he’d said those words, but there was no anger in Jin Rulan’s face, only an accepting ruefulness.

Jin Rulan was the son of Wei-gongzi’s sister, and Wei-gongzi had always said she’d had a superhuman capacity for forgiveness.

Wen Ning looked at Jiang Wanyin, too, and remembered belatedly that Jiang Yanli had also been his sister.

Jiang Wanyin had loved her as much as Wen Ning had loved his own jiejie, and even with a heart that no longer beat, it hurt, deep in his chest, to think about her and all of the other people he had lost. 

Wen Ning remembered that bowl of soup, thoughtfully prepared for a man who could no longer eat, and he thought about Jiang Wanyin teaching A-Yuan how to swim, he thought about the way Jiang Wanyin looked at Lan Jingyi sometimes, when the boy laughed especially loud and carefree or said something exceptionally stupid. He thought about the way Jiang Wanyin had refused to let A-Yuan apologize for things that weren’t his fault.

Jiang Wanyin had also been Jiang Yanli’s brother.

And maybe the anger that had stewed and stewed under Wen Ning’s ribcage until it had boiled over into cruel truths about Wei-gongzi’s golden core, and other words that had been just as sharp but far less true, hadn’t been entirely because of Jiang Wanyin’s actions.

Maybe Wen Ning didn’t like thinking about how Jiang Wanyin had all the right in the world to be angry about a core transfer surgery that had been performed without his consent because then he would have to think about how he himself had woken up in a body that could no longer change or grow or heal.

“Even an emotionally repressed fierce corpse like you can love someone and still be angry at them,” Jiang Wanyin said suddenly, and then he busied himself taking a gulp of tea that was in no way realistic for the size of the teacup he was drinking out of.

Wen Ning had been on plenty of night hunts with Jin Rulan, and he thought he had figured out the trick to spotting what the boy was really trying to say through the thorns and the protective shell. Jiang Wanyin had decades more practice at hiding his vulnerability, but the theory was the same.

A-Yuan’s eyes lit up; he had obviously also understood Jiang Wanyin’s words as the peace offering they were meant to be.

“Sect Leader Jiang is wise,” Wen Ning said, forcing his stiff lips up into what passed for a smile these days. “I have a lot to think about."

Jiang Wanyin cleared his throat, finally putting down his tea cup. “It’s getting late,” he said firmly, and it was clearly not an invitation to stay the night. “You’d better escort the kids back to the Cloud Recesses before you get stuck traveling in the dark.”

A-Yuan finished the dregs of the tea he had been swirling around in the bottom of his cup and hastened to his feet, bowing. “Of course, Sect Leader Jiang, we’ll take our leave now. Thank you, for—Thank you.”

Jiang Wanyin harrumphed and rose to his feet as well. “Jin Ling will show you out,” he said. As he watched A-Yuan straightened his robes, the harsh lines of his face softened ever so slightly. “See you next time, Lan Sizhui.”

And then, just as they reached the threshold—

“Wen Qionglin. Come in the front door and announce yourself, next time, instead of lurking outside and scaring the shit out of my patrols.”

A-Yuan smiled.

Chapter Text

Jin Ling let out a shaky breath. He hadn’t thought jiujiu would actually start a fight with Lan Sizhui and the Ghost General in his own home, but their family’s luck truly defied all expectations.

And yet—somehow, against all odds, jiujiu had accepted Lan Sizhui’s apology and made it clear that he didn’t hold a grudge against him for what had happened in the past. 

It wasn’t that Jin Ling had expected jiujiu to come into the meeting today intending to lay blame on Lan Sizhui. He had been a baby, and jiujiu had both a soft spot for children and a strong sense of ethical logic when he was given a chance to sort through his thoughts in safety, away from the people whose presence touched the exposed nerve-endings of his trauma. 

But jiujiu had a temper, much like the one that burned in Jin Ling’s own chest, and his seemingly impervious outer shell was a minefield of barely-visible wounds, each one a potential trigger for a defensive explosion. People rarely minded their tongues as carefully as they ought to when speaking to a man who had lived through as much as jiujiu had, and—for reasons beyond Jin Ling’s understanding—they always seemed shocked when prodding at jiujiu’s sore spots elicited an undesirable result.

Lan Sizhui’s lineage and Wen Ning’s entire existence might as well have been designed to dance all over those sore spots, and despite having the best of intentions, Wen Ning’s tongue was clumsy when speaking to complete strangers, never mind someone whose life story he had mostly learned secondhand from Wei Wuxian of all people, so Jin Ling had been understandably pessimistic about how the conversation would go.

And yet.

Jiujiu had spent most of the conversation with his eyes fixed on Lan Sizhui, only addressing Wen Ning directly at the very end, but he’d listened when Jin Ling had asked him to look beyond the pain of the past to see the Ghost General as he was today. He had as good as invited Wen Ning inside Lotus Pier the next time the Lan juniors came to visit. 

Jin Ling knew there was nothing jiujiu held more closely to his heart than Lotus Pier and Jin Ling himself, and here he was, allowing Wen Ning access to both of them because Jin Ling had asked. That spoke more loudly than any exchange of pretty words ever could.

Jin Ling’s chest twinged with the memory of the fury and the hatred that had bubbled up in him when he’d stabbed Wei Wuxian with his father’s sword on the steps of Carp Tower. Three years later, all of the grievances he’d held against the man seemed less important than the fact that his mother's second brother was alive.

I'm tired, A-Ling, jiujiu had said last night when Jin Ling had come to wish him good night, still holding onto that bowl of peeled lotus seeds. I'm so tired.

Sixteen years was a long time to hold a grudge, even one as deeply rooted as jiujiu’s.

And yet, the absence of open hostility wasn’t the same as jiujiu extending an invitation to Wen Ning—not turning a blind eye, not tolerating his presence or reluctantly giving in when begged by Jin Ling or Lan Sizhui, but explicitly and of his own accord inviting the Ghost General into his home.

Because it was what was best for Jin Ling, and for Lan Sizhui.

When Jin Ling had been a toddler, the first time he had seen jiujiu wielding Zidian at the head of his whip class, he had been convinced that jiujiu was actually a lightning spirit who had taken human form to protect his family. When he’d been sent back to Carp Tower for the summer, he’d shouted at his cousins that they’d better leave him alone or face his jiujiu’s wrath, because his jiujiu was the strongest cultivator alive.

As an adult, Jin Ling had seen the helpless terror on jiujiu’s face when he’d realized his spiritual power was sealed away, had seen jiujiu sobbing as his deepest fears were brought to light and confirmed in the cruelest way possible. He had learned exactly how human jiujiu was, how flawed, how fallible. 

And now he knew with absolute certainty that jiujiu was the strongest cultivator he’d ever met.

As Lan Sizhui and Wen Ning stepped across the threshold of the main hall, Lan Jingyi and Ouyang Zizhen slunk out of the nearby hallway where they must have been hovering the entire time. The two Lans and Wen Ning exchanged several quiet words, and there were relieved tears in Lan Jingyi’s eyes as the three of them bade Jin Ling farewell in jiujiu’s place.

Once they had departed, Ouyang Zizhen stepped closer to Jin Ling and bumped their shoulders together in a silent question.

Jin Ling shrugged lightly. Jiujiu was as okay as he was going to get, but he wasn’t well.

“You’d better get going too, Ouyang-gongzi, if you don’t want to worry your father.” Jiujiu’s voice spoke up suddenly from behind Jin Ling, startling them both.

Ouyang Zizhen worried at his bottom lip, glancing at the gate through which the others had just departed and then to jiujiu’s face. 

“Actually,” he began bravely, “I’d like to stay in Lotus Pier for another day.” When jiujiu raised an eyebrow, he explained, “I have some more questions that I want to ask you about… logistics. The logistics that we talked about last month when I visited.”

“You do, do you?” Jiujiu didn’t sound convinced, but he did seem resigned. And maybe a little touched, because he wasn’t stupid and Ouyang Zizhen wore his heart on his sleeve. “If you can find Jiang Shanyu to tell her, you’re welcome to the room. And make sure you let your father know that you’re staying.”

Ouyang Zizhen chanced a hesitant smile. “I’ll send a message to him immediately,” he said obediently, then hesitated. “Perhaps afterwards, I could come and find you and Jin-xiong and we could have dinner together?”

“It won’t be anything fancy,” jiujiu warned, but Ouyang Zizhen had been around long enough to understand that meant “yes.” His smile brightened and jiujiu scoffed.

Jin Ling nodded gratefully to his friend, who was now going to have to come up with at least a few actual questions, just to maintain his cover story.

“I’ll go find Shanyu-jie and tell her you’re staying the night while you write to your father,” he volunteered. That would give him enough time to run some errands of his own.

Like hyperventilating into a pillow for a couple of minutes, away from jiujiu’s eyes, where he could quietly freak out without worrying anybody.

 


 

Jin Ling knocked on jiujiu’s door after dinner that evening, once Ouyang Zizhen had gone to bed like a sensible person. When jiujiu called out a grumpy Come in if you must, Jin Ling pushed open the door, stripped off his outer robe, and immediately crawled into jiujiu’s bed like he was five years old again.

During the day, Yunmeng Jiang’s sect leader was always immaculately dressed in the most sumptuous robes, silks and wools in deep purple and blue, subtle silver embroidery, the palest white jade. Nobody who saw Sect Leader Jiang, Sandu Shengshou, would ever underestimate the resurrected Yunmeng Jiang sect’s strength and wealth. But in bed, his plain zhongyi rustling as he waited for Jin Ling to find the most comfortable position, he was just Jin Ling’s jiujiu.

Jiujiu grunted as a stray elbow hit him in the side, but he didn’t chase Jin Ling out of his bed. Finally, when Jin Ling had settled, he spoke.

“I thought Ouyang Zizhen was just… but he actually had questions for me. Why is he still asking me for advice?” There was a note of bafflement in his voice. “Zewu-jun is out of seclusion now. He’s been a sect leader for far longer than I have, and he’s an actual teacher. He must know how to explain logistics strategy in a way Ouyang Zizhen would be able to understand.”

Jin Ling shrugged. “You’re less intimidating than Zewu-jun.”

Jiujiu snorted and jostled him with his shoulder. “Don’t speak nonsense.”

“It’s true!” Jin Ling laughed and ducked away from jiujiu’s grasp as he went for a headlock. “Jiujiu, no, jiujiu, stop! Okay, okay, it’s not that. It’s not just that, anyway. Don’t look at me like that, we only see Zewu-jun a couple times a year, and that’s usually on formal occasions or when we have to talk business!” He sobered a little. “Zewu-jun is nicer than you—jiujiu, don’t pinch!—but we know you.”

Jiujiu still looked skeptical, so Jin Ling sighed and tried to put his thoughts into words that jiujiu might be more willing to accept.

“If you ask Zewu-jun why he does something a certain way, a lot of times his answer is just ‘tradition’ or ‘the elders’.”

“Speaking from experience?”

Jiujiu,” Jin Ling whined. “Sometimes you’re really busy or really grumpy, so I thought I might as well try asking somebody else. But it didn’t really help.”

Jiujiu was silent for a moment. “Zewu-jun isn’t as inflexible as you make him sound,” he pointed out, sounding offended on Zewu-jun’s behalf.

“It’s not a matter of flexibility.” Jin Ling had given this some serious thought once he’d gotten over the disappointment. “Zewu-jun has always had all those ancient books and ancient elders, so he’s never needed to think about doing it a different way.”

“Keep insulting other people’s elders and you’re asking for a smack.” Jiujiu raised an eyebrow. “You and Ouyang Zizhen also have access to those kinds of resources. You’re not inheriting a burnt-down sect.”

There was a fire in jiujiu's eyes that promised it was going to stay that way, or by the gods jiujiu would make it so.

“He’s a good example,” Jin Ling dismissed, “but his experience isn’t great for learning. You have a lot more thoughts about trying new things. Even when your thoughts are ‘Don’t do that because it doesn’t work,’ it’s good to know why it doesn’t work.”

Jiujiu grumbled but didn’t voice any further protests.

Jin Ling had just snuggled into his pillow (he always missed the scent of lotus when he was in his own bed in Carp Tower, but bringing back sachets of dried lotus petals never seemed to do the trick) when jiujiu spoke again. This time, the lightness from earlier was gone, replaced by the sharp tang of bitterness.

“I’m surprised those Lan boys come by Lotus Pier so often nowadays,” he said. “You too. Now that Wei Wuxian is back in the world, shouldn’t you be eager to spend as much time as you can with your fun Wei-qianbei?”

Jin Ling was so surprised that his mouth moved without permission from his brain, and what flew out was a refrain that he had heard far too many times as a child.

“Don’t sulk, jiujiu, it’s unbecoming of a gentleman.”

Now they were both lying stock still in surprise. 

Jin Ling held his breath, waiting for jiujiu’s wrath to descend, but there was nothing.

He wrestled with the covers until he could flip himself over and stare at jiujiu. 

Jiujiu stared back at him, scowling expectantly.

Something soft thumped against the inside of Jin Ling’s ribcage as his eyes traced those familiar wrinkles on jiujiu’s forehead and between his eyebrows.

“We come to Lotus Pier because you’re here,” he said. “Wei Wuxian is fun, don’t get me wrong—Don’t growl at me, jiujiu, you’re the one who said it first—but he’s like… a seasonal festival. He blows into town once in a blue moon, tells some cool stories and takes us on a couple of interesting night hunts, and then he’s off in the wind again.”

Jiujiu continued to scowl, but the muscles in his neck and arms relaxed. “So I’m just convenient because I’m always here, is that it?” But Jin Ling could hear that there was no real hurt in his voice. Growing up, jiujiu had always emphasized the importance of reliability and keeping one’s promises.

He nudged jiujiu’s hip with his knee. “Also, when you aren’t threatening to break people’s legs, you’re definitely more fun than Hanguang-jun.”

That earned him a smirk.

“And…” Jin Ling hesitated. “Wei Wuxian and Hanguang-jun aren’t sect leaders.”

He actually suspected they would be terrible sect leaders, but he of all people knew it was hard to know that kind of thing for sure until circumstances required them to step up to the position.

“For Ouyang Zizhen and me—and even for Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi, whenever Zewu-jun gets around to declaring his successor—it’s good to have someone who understands the kind of stress we’re under.” He blushed, flopping onto his back so he didn’t have to look at jiujiu anymore. “And it’s nice, knowing that I’m not always going to be the only one changing our plans or calling things off because of last-minute emergencies. It feels more equal this way.”

Not to mention that when jiujiu called off their plans at the last minute, he knew it was for a damn good reason, and not just because someone had gotten carried away with mischief or—ugh—bedroom activities.

Jiujiu huffed. “Well, when you put it that way…”

But Jin Ling wasn’t done. The most embarrassing words were caught in his throat, choking him and turning his face redder than the shuizhuyu Madam Lin's orphans loved so dearly, but he knew he had to get them out or die trying. He tried to channel some of jiujiu’s bravery from earlier today.

“Jiujiu,” he managed at last.

“Jin Ling?” Jiujiu sounded worried. “A-Ling, what’s wrong? Are you breathing okay? Did you—”

“Jiujiu,” Jin Ling repeated. “Shut up and listen.”

Jiujiu reared back indignantly, but he must have seen something in Jin Ling’s face because he shut up and listened.

“Jiujiu,” Jin Ling said again. “I don’t understand everything that happened during the war—and I don’t need to. But I do know that Wen Ning and his family hurt you a lot, and I know it’s not easy to be kind when—”

Kind?” Jiujiu scoffed.

“Kind,” Jin Ling said firmly. “You’re always good to Lan Sizhui, but today you were kind to Wen Ning too. And I know how much strength that took. So I just wanted to say… I’m proud of you.”

Jiujiu scowled thunderously. “Who’s asking you to be proud of me?! I’m the adult here, it’s my responsibility to set a good example for you! What kind of nonsense are you spouting, being proud of me?”

“I’m an adult now too, and I am proud of you, and you can’t stop me!”

“How much of an adult can you be, squirming around in my bed like you’re five years old? You think being an adult means you can talk back to me?”

Jin Ling lunged forward to wrap his arms around jiujiu’s waist like the five-year-old jiujiu had just called him. He was alarmed to find that jiujiu was trembling, so slightly that it would have been imperceptible to the eye, but Jin Ling could feel it from where his face was squashed into jiujiu’s chest.

“I am going to talk to you, and you’re going to listen,” he said determinedly. They would both probably break out in hives from all the feelings tomorrow, but tonight the comforting darkness of jiujiu’s room and the soft fabric of jiujiu’s clothes hid his face as he forced himself to speak words he had never said out loud before and probably never would again.

Jiujiu grumbled, but his shaking hand landed gently on the crown of Jin Ling’s head and he stayed silent.

Jin Ling took a deep breath, begging the words to come out right. “You and I have thirteen years of memories that Wei Wuxian will never share. We can make new memories, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to forget about the old ones.”

The rise and fall of jiujiu’s chest under his cheek froze.

“You taught me how to swim by throwing me off the pier,” Jin Ling said, and grinned when he felt jiujiu huff out a little breath at the joke. “You taught me how to shoot arrows, how to do the braids in my hair, how to put the Jin family zhushazhi on my forehead so I could wear it even when I was living with you… Wei Wuxian has nothing to do with any of that.” He sniffled. “And Shanyu-jie and Tanhua-jie told me that when I was a baby you put up with a lot of bullshit from my Grandfather Jin so he’d let you bring me home more often.”

“Everyone had to put up with a lot of bullshit from your Grandfather Jin,” jiujiu muttered. He was still shaking.

Jin Ling pressed on. “You always look sad when you tell me stories about my parents, but you tell them anyway.”

And maybe jiujiu hadn’t told him the whole truth, growing up, but they’d had that argument in the wake of the debacle at the Guanyin Temple and Jin Ling had long since forgiven him. And jiujiu had told him the most important bits.

“Remember that one month when I was eight, and I asked you for a different story every night?”

The pressure on top of his head disappeared as jiujiu pressed his warm, callused hand against Jin Ling’s cheek. Jin Ling nestled into it, eyelids fluttering shut. 

“You put me through hell that month,” jiujiu admitted.

But the important part was—

“You did it. You managed to do it. You came up with a different story about my parents for every single night that month, and because of you, I know how my father looked when he confessed to my mother, I know that my mother’s favorite food wasn’t pork rib and lotus root soup but that she made it all the time anyway because she loved her little brothers so much—”

Jin Ling couldn’t breathe.

“Jiujiu,” he gasped, “of course I come to see you all the time. Of course you’re the one I come to when I have problems, or questions, or puppies.”

Jiujiu groaned. “If I never have to help you feed a litter of newborn puppies ever again, it’ll be too soon.”

That wasn't the point of what Jin Ling was saying, but the way jiujiu's arm came up around his shoulders and squeezed was acknowledgement enough.

“Anyways,” Jin Ling said through the snot that was suddenly clogging his nose, “you’re old. You need your beauty sleep. Go to sleep.”

The trembling of jiujiu’s body had begun to die down, and these words dealt the final blow. Jin Ling hurriedly let go of jiujiu and scrubbed a sleeve across his face.

You go to sleep, you little brat,” jiujiu snapped. “You think I won’t break your legs if you keep making so much noise?”

Jin Ling slipped into sleep with a grin on his face.

Chapter Text

They were three days away from the Discussion Conference, and Jiang Cheng was going to have a heart attack.

“Everything has to be perfect!” he repeated to the disciples who were decorating the conference hall. “This is the second Discussion Conference ever to be hosted by Yunmeng Jiang since the Sunshot Campaign, and we need to make up for the disaster from eight years ago!”

He caught sight of a teenage disciple mouthing along with his words, but she was busily scrubbing the floor as she mocked him, so he let it pass.

Even he was getting tired of his own repeated reminders.

But it was important that everything be perfect. Eight years ago, he and his fledgling sect had hosted their first Discussion Conference at the rebuilt Lotus Pier.

Afterwards, Jiang Tanhua and all of the elders had assured him that it had gone well enough, but Jiang Cheng had seen the disdainful sneer on Sect Leader Yao’s face, remembered how Jin Guangyao had pulled him aside after the conference and offered to lend them some of his staff for next time, you know, since we’re more or less raising A-Ling together now.

Jiang Cheng could read between the lines. He knew that Jin Guangyao really meant: “So that you don’t embarrass yourself or Jin Ling in this way ever again.”

Even with the bastard dead and rotting for years now, Jiang Cheng was determined to make him eat his words.

“Jiang Tanhua!” he barked. 

His second-in-command stepped forward, looking exasperated. “The disciples are still training twice as hard as usual, Sect Leader,” she said. “They’re more than ready for their exhibitions.”

“Why aren’t you at the training grounds? They need to be—”

“Perfect, yes, I know, Sect Leader.” She beckoned and suddenly there was a cup of tea in Jiang Cheng’s hands. “There’s only so hard we can push them, or else someone will get injured. You know that.”

Jiang Cheng tried to take a sip of the tea and cursed as he scalded his tongue.

Jiang Tanhua sighed. “All of our disciples know how important this conference is,” she said. “Everyone is working as hard as they can.”

“That’s correct,” came Jiang Shanyu’s sweet, placid voice. “All of the kitchens have been scrubbed and the cooking staff have been eating off the counters because they’ve been working nonstop. Almost all of the ingredients that I’ve ordered have been delivered by the boatload, and our junior disciples are being forced to clamber over baskets of seafood when they pull up to the front of the pier because the docks are so covered in supplies.”

Jiang Cheng groaned, scrubbing a hand through his hair. “Those docks—”

“Will be soaked tomorrow and scrubbed until they smell like perfume, yes, Sect Leader.” She raised an eyebrow. “If Sect Leader has so much energy, perhaps he’d like to join the disciples who will be doing the scrubbing.”

“I just might!” Jiang Cheng snapped.

“Jiujiu, scrubbing docks like a junior disciple being punished? Now this I’ve got to see.”

Jiang Cheng whirled around to find not only his nephew but also Jin Ling's friends and—Lan Xichen?!

The world wobbled on its axis. What were they even doing here when everything was a mess and he was too busy to entertain them and had that disciple on the left just ruined an entire half-hour of work by smudging fingerprints on that polished brass plate

“You’ve done all of the planning and coordinating, Sect Leader,” Jiang Tanhua said calmly, watching Jiang Cheng spin with a vindictive light in her eyes. Clearly she had not forgotten Jiang Cheng waking her up before sunrise to demand a status report.

“That’s right,” Jiang Shanyu agreed, smiling more kindly. “You’ve done your part, so we invited Sect Leaders Jin and Lan and these other fine young men to take your mind off things while we do our work.”

When Jiang Cheng continued to sputter, Jiang Tanhua sighed. “People get nervous when their sect leader is hovering over them like the scariest, most brooding mother hen.”

Behind Jiang Cheng, it sounded like one of the Lan boys had choked on his own spit.

“Sect Leader.” Jiang Tanhua looked him directly in the eye. “You might have chosen us all those years ago because you didn’t have any other choice, but you’ve kept us this long because you trust us. So trust us.”

Jiang Cheng knew he could hardly continue to argue with her without sounding exactly like the kind of overprotective mother hen she’d just compared him to, and from the hard glint in her eye and the unamused tilt of her lips, he knew she was only a step away from making clucking noises to prove a point. But his pride wouldn’t allow him to back down from this kind of a challenge.

Suddenly, before Jiang Cheng knew what was happening, Lan Xichen had tucked a gentle hand into the crook of his elbow and was turning him away from his stand-off with Jiang Tanhua. Jin Ling was on his other side, yanking more aggressively on his sleeve.

“We’ll come back and help you scrub the decks tomorrow if you really want, Sect Leader Jiang, so today you have to entertain us!” Lan Jingyi wheedled, with a wide grin stretching across his face.

Ouyang Zizhen groaned quietly, muttering, “Don’t sign us up for that kind of thing without asking, Jingyi-xiong…”

Jiang Cheng’s eyes snapped to Lan Jingyi’s cheeky expression. “You’re all staying far away from here tomorrow!” he ordered. “I can’t afford to have extra bodies in the way!”

“We won’t disturb you tomorrow,” Lan Xichen said soothingly. Then he gave Jiang Cheng a soft smile. “Does that mean Sect Leader Jiang will make some time for us today?”

Jiang Cheng groaned. Even Zewu-jun is a little shit.

He slipped his arm out of Lan Xichen’s barely-there hold and shook Jin Ling off his other arm. “Stop jostling me, you brat!”

Jin Ling sneered and raised his pointy little nose in the air to show that he’d meant to let go anyway.

Behind them, the two Lan kids and Ouyang Zizhen closed ranks as if they thought they had to herd Jiang Cheng toward the nearest pavilion. Like he was some kind of sheep that was too stupid to know what was going on.

“Sect Leader Jiang,” Lan Xichen said, and now there was an attempt at a distraction if Jiang Cheng had ever heard one. “Knowing first-hand how stressful it is to coordinate a Discussion Conference, I took the liberty of bringing a short list of tricky problems that I’ve run into myself, along with some suggestions for dealing with them. With your permission, I would like to leave it with your very capable second-in-command.”

That was… way more useful than Jiang Cheng had been expecting.

The last time Gusu Lan had hosted a Discussion Conference, Lan Xichen had been about Jiang Cheng’s age now, hadn’t he?

And he’d had Jin Guangyao on his side. As much as Jiang Cheng hated to take even secondhand advice from the man… This Discussion Conference had to be perfect.

Jiang Cheng stopped his halfhearted glaring contest with Jin Ling to face Lan Xichen fully and bow in thanks. “I will humbly accept Sect Leader Lan’s guidance.”

The corners of Lan Xichen’s eyes crinkled. “It is my honor.” He waved a servant over and handed over a delicate scroll with careful instructions. As they watched the woman hurry off toward the main hall, he hummed thoughtfully. “...In the meantime, I have heard from a little bird that the seeds from lotus pods with the stems still attached are sweeter than normal lotus seeds. I admit I’ve always hoped to find out for myself.” He looked beseechingly at Jiang Cheng, and out of the corner of his eye Jiang Cheng could see Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi replicating the expression like creepy warped mirrors.

Little shits, all of them.

Jiang Cheng knew exactly what kind of black-and-red bird had been squawking in their ears, and for a moment he was blindingly furious that someone who hadn’t stepped foot in the place since that fateful night three years ago would dare to consider himself some kind of publicity agent for Lotus Pier.

The thing was—

The thing was, he wasn’t wrong.

And even after sixteen years away from the warm waters of Yunmeng, the taste of fresh lotus seeds didn’t fade easily from one’s tongue.

A-Xian is your brother now, a-die had told him a lifetime ago. Lotus Pier is too big to belong to one person, so you have to share your home with him.

But a-niang had also taught him, Lotus Pier is your birthright. Do not allow that boy to steal what is yours.

And a-jie, stuck in the middle of a squabble about whether a cloud looked like a dog or a rabbit, had said, Both of you can be right if I squint a little.

A-jie had very rarely been wrong.

Jiang Cheng’s heart was rooted deeply in the muddy waters of Yunmeng, and that didn’t change just because his people decided to come or go.

He blinked hard, and when he came back to himself, he found that Jin Ling had already reached out over the edge of the dock to pluck a lotus pod from the water. He popped a few seeds out and distributed them, then demonstrated how to peel a lotus seed.

But instead of eating the seed he had just peeled, he dropped it into Jiang Cheng’s palm.

When Jiang Cheng looked at him, he flushed. “So what?” he snapped. “I eat these all the time. Besides, I had lunch before I came here!”

Beside Jin Ling, Ouyang Zizhen was waxing poetic about the sweet freshness of a freshly-picked lotus seed. Lan Jingyi was listening with a manic grin on his face.

“If Sect Leader Jiang is willing, maybe you should take some back to give to the young lady you’re courting,” Lan Sizhui suggested.

Lan Jingyi laughed loudly. “He’s not courting her, Sizhui, she’s courting him!

His words were boisterous but not mocking, and Ouyang Zizhen smiled sappily.

“She is, Jingyi-xiong, and I’m the luckiest man alive.”

Jiang Cheng had seen that expression before, slapped across his peacock of a brother-in-law’s face. He shook his head in exasperation, crunching on the lotus seed Jin Ling had peeled for him.

“This is the second young lady of the Baoqing Jia family?” he asked, just to confirm. He didn’t think Ouyang Zizhen was the kind of man to move from lady to lady that quickly, but you never knew.

“Sect Leader Jiang is correct,” Ouyang Zizhen sighed. “Jia Hongmei, of the delicate hands and deft brush. I never knew how good my face could look until she showed me with a painting.”

“Don’t forget the poem,” Jin Ling snickered.

Ouyang Zizhen sighed again. “And wrote me an accompanying poem.”

Lan Xichen, finally free to speak now that he had finished eating his lotus seed, congratulated him. “Your parents must be very happy.”

“Mother is ecstatic,” Ouyang Zizhen nodded. “She thinks I’ll be the first of her children to be married, even though san-jie and si-jie have been engaged forever. My sisters may never forgive me.”

“Is your entire family as overdramatic as you?” Jiang Cheng grouched, but there was no point in asking. He’d met most of the Baling Ouyang clan, and Sect Leader Ouyang was the lone member of his family who could sit through an opera without soaking through multiple handkerchiefs.

“Speaking of families,” Jin Ling interjected, his expression lightening, “Fairy’s just had her puppies!”

Another round of congratulations followed, and Lan Jingyi demanded to see them.

“Do I look like I’m carrying any puppies in my sleeves?” Jin Ling rolled his eyes. “They’re too young to travel right now, stupid. Besides…” He glanced sideways at Jiang Cheng, whose face didn’t move at all. “Dogs aren’t allowed at Lotus Pier.”

Technically speaking, that wasn’t strictly true. Fairy had visited with Jin Ling when both boy and dog had been much younger, and Jiang Cheng hadn’t been cruel enough to separate them. Jin Guangyao had smirked like he thought he’d won something, but in the battle between Jiang Cheng and his own memories, he barely figured as a bump in the road.

“Awww,” Lan Jingyi groaned, as if he hadn’t been told this every time they stopped by Lotus Pier on their way home from a night hunt and had to send Fairy away before they stepped through the gates. “Next time we come to Carp Tower, then.”

Jiang Cheng raised an eyebrow at the casual manner in which Lan Jingyi had just invited himself into Jin Ling’s home. He exchanged a glance with Lan Xichen, and Lan Sizhui flushed in mortification, but neither Lan Jingyi nor Jin Ling seemed to notice anything amiss.

“You’d better bring her a nice gift,” was all Jin Ling said.

That set off a new round of arguing, as Lan Jingyi exclaimed that the Young Mistress was spoiled if he expected his guests to present gifts to his dog, and Jin Ling retaliated by threatening to bar Lan Jingyi from Carp Tower until Fairy’s pups were fully grown.

At one point, the two troublemakers actually rose from the table, ducking around the servant who had come to pour tea for them in order to make comically threatening gestures at one another. Ouyang Zizhen began narrating their every move.

Amidst the backdrop of playfully raised voices, Lan Xichen looked serenely at Jiang Cheng. He nodded gratefully at the servant and raised his cup of tea to his lips.

“This is delicious,” he said in delight, inhaling appreciatively. Upon taking his first sip, his eyes began to sparkle. “Is this lotus tea, Sect Leader Jiang?”

“Zewu-jun has a good nose.” Jiang Cheng nodded. “Grown right here in the waters of Lotus Pier. We’re going to be serving it at the conference, which is why the kitchen has it easily to hand right now, so thank goodness you find it palatable.”

“More than palatable,” Lan Xichen assured him. “Perhaps someday we might grow lotuses in the Cloud Recesses so I can drink this tea whenever I wish.”

The words were a lightly-spoken hypothetical, as if Lan Xichen knew he was perfectly welcome to drop by Lotus Pier for tea whenever he wanted, no lotus growing required. Jiang Cheng might grumble about being drunk out of house and home, but these five idiots never paid him any mind.

“I think your waters are too cold for that,” he said finally. “Otherwise your brother would undoubtedly have already done it as a gift to—as a wedding present, or something.”

Lan Xichen’s smile widened. “Why, surely I can count on Sect Leader Jiang to help me find a way to make it work. If only to see the look on Wangji’s face.”

Jiang Cheng snorted, but his mind was already racing with calculations about which plants he might be able to breed to be more cold-resistant. “You’re a menace, Zewu-jun. You’re just as ridiculous as the rest of these miscreants.”

Lan Jingyi gasped with a hand clutching at his chest. “You take that back, Sect Leader Jiang!” he cried, and Jin Ling exclaimed, “You don’t have enough white hair to talk like such an old man, jiujiu!”

When Jiang Cheng raised a threatening eyebrow at him, he yelped and hurried to say appeasingly, “Lanling is colder than Yunmeng too! Zewu-jun, you and jiujiu are welcome to visit anytime and take a look at the lotus pond my father built for my mother! Perhaps it will give you some ideas.”

“Who do you think helped your father build that pond in the first place?” Jiang Cheng rolled his eyes, but Lan Xichen’s eyes curved into gleeful crescents. Jiang Cheng groaned, knowing there was no escaping now. 

“We will happily accept your invitation, Sect Leader Jin.”

 


 

By the time the sun began meandering back toward the horizon, plots had been hatched, everyone had been thoroughly insulted at least once, and several lotus pods (plucked from the water with the stems still attached) had been relieved of their seeds.

The group that Jiang Cheng shooed out the front gates was still bickering gaily as their swords rose into the air, pointed in different directions.

When at last Jin Ling and Lan Jingyi’s voices faded out of earshot, the white and gold specks of their robes blinking out in the distance, Jiang Cheng exhaled, a relieved little smile curling at the corners of his lips as peace and quiet descended upon him.

Then he sobered a little and his brow knit together lightly. He hadn’t managed to get anything conference-related done after those menaces had shown up, so why wasn’t the silence screaming at him? Normally, right before important events, he had to pace up and down the hallways for hours before the buzzing in his bones went away, but he’d been sitting around all day—and yet there was no itch under his skin.

As he stared at his hands, wondering why they were steadier than they had any right to be so close to the Discussion Conference, Jiang Roumei paused mid-stride as she passed him. No doubt she was on her way to shout the display weapons into a brilliant shine.

“Sect Leader,” she said, and her hand came down on his back like a medium-sized boulder. It failed to break him out of the daze he was standing in, still thrown by how stable he felt.

“Sect Leader,” she said again, more insistently.

“Hm?” He looked up at her, and his eyes widened at the rare sight of her stern face cracking into a smile.

She said, simply, “I’m glad you’re happier these days.” Her hand slapped his back twice, like two claps of thunder, and then she was heading up the steps toward the armory and disappearing around the corner.

“...Huh,” Jiang Cheng said.

He stood in the evening light until the glow faded from the sky and all that was left was the warmth of the stone beneath his feet.

Chapter Text

Wei Wuxian was, though he knew people often found it hard to believe, a dutiful husband to his Lan Zhan.

Three years ago, shortly after the events at the Guanyin Temple, invitations had arrived from Qinghe Nie announcing that year’s Discussion Conference. With Zewu-jun in seclusion and Lan Zhan determined to travel the world with Wei Wuxian, it had fallen upon Lan Qiren to lead the delegation from Gusu Lan.

But Lan Zhan had taken one look at Lan Qiren’s expression, seen the exhaustion of a man who had already spent a lifetime attending Discussion Conferences on behalf of a beloved sect leader in seclusion and who was now facing an endless future with more of the same, and told Wei Wuxian that he could not allow his uncle to take up that burden again.

So they had pushed their travel plans back, and nobody had dared to comment when it was the Second Jade of Lan rather than the sect leader, official or acting, who attended the conference at the Unclean Realm.

And Wei Wuxian, aware that his presence was likely to derail the conversation in unproductive ways, had painted the nearby town red as he tried to keep his mind off his poor husband, suffering all alone deep within the walls of the Nie sect’s fortress.

Lan Zhan, perhaps worried about Nie Huaisang and the pain he had caused Zewu-jun, perhaps reluctant to let Wei Wuxian get too close to the suddenly competent Sect Leader Nie just in case, had not objected to being separated from his new husband for almost a week.

Shortly after the end of the Discussion Conference, they had left Lan Zhan’s home in the Cloud Recesses to follow wherever the road took them. But Lan Zhan had kept a careful eye on the position of the sun and the moon in the sky, and they had returned to Gusu in time for him to again take his uncle’s place at the Discussion Conference hosted by Meishan Yu. By that time, new squabbles had sprouted from Jin Guanyao’s ashes, and Wei Wuxian’s attendance as part of Lan Zhan’s retinue went mostly unremarked.

Last year, the Discussion Conference had been hosted by a young upstart sect in Pengcheng, and the uproar that had resulted from that decision had wiped the existence of Wei Wuxian from everyone’s minds.

This year, Zewu-jun was freshly out of seclusion. 

Lan Zhan, who did not appear much relieved by Zewu-jun’s announcement of his decision to rejoin the world, insisted on accompanying his brother to Yunmeng.

Wei Wuxian had managed to convince Lan Zhan, through argument and seduction in turn, that he needed to come as well. He highly suspected that Lan Zhan wanted him away from this Discussion Conference even more than he had wanted him away from Qinghe Nie’s conference three years ago, but how could he bear to stay away when he didn’t know if he would ever get another chance to walk the halls of Lotus Pier?

Zewu-jun fixed both of them with a long, assessing look.

“Sect Leader Jiang cannot afford for trouble to break out at this year’s conference,” he said evenly. Then, more emphatically, with a pointed glance at Lan Zhan: “I cannot afford for anyone’s actions to reflect badly on our sect.”

Wei Wuxian drooped guiltily, but when Zewu-jun didn’t continue, he perked up. “That wasn’t a no, was it, Zewu-jun?”

“No,” Zewu-jun said softly. “It was not.”

He continued to gaze steadily at Lan Zhan’s stony face, waiting with a patience that Wei Wuxian thought more than earned him the nickname of “Jade.”

Finally, Lan Zhan nodded once. “Wangji understands, xiongzhang.”

Zewu-jun smiled, and it was like the sun had broken out from behind clouds. “Good. Then be ready to leave at dawn tomorrow.”

 


 

“Hey, Lan Zhan.” Wei Wuxian tilted his head back as he relaxed into his husband’s strong arms, the wind whipping through his hair as they hurtled toward Yunmeng.

“Mn?”

Wei Wuxian smiled unhappily. “Your brother really expects the worst of me, doesn’t he?”

Lan Zhan was quiet for a long moment, and then, to Wei Wuxian’s surprise, he shook his head.

“Xiongzhang is not angry,” he said, but he sounded just as bewildered as Wei Wuxian felt.

“Then what?”

“...Protective.”

“Protective?” Wei Wuxian squinted up at the backlit form of his husband. “Of who—of Jiang Cheng?

“...Mn.”

Before Wei Wuxian could dig deeper into that mystery, a shout of “Lan Jingyi! Lan Sizhui! Sect Leader Lan!” cut through the air.

The voice was familiar.

Zewu-jun slowed his blade and smiled. “Sect Leader Jin,” he greeted warmly.

Sure enough, Jin Ling pulled level with them, dressed in an outfit embroidered with so much gold that it was a miracle he was staying afloat. In the distance, his entourage trailed behind him like a swarm of gilded bees.

“Sect Leader Lan,” Jin Ling responded politely. “I hope you’ve been well since the last time we saw each other.”

“It’s been like three days!” Lan Jingyi called from the back of the group, and Wei Wuxian’s eyebrow winged upward.

Jin Ling scowled. “Shut up, Lan Jingyi.” Then, as if remembering that he was here in his capacity as a sect leader, he clamped his lips shut and settled for glaring.

Zewu-jun hid the widening of his smile behind his sleeve. “May I invite you and your party to travel with us, Sect Leader Jin?”

Jin Ling coughed. “We might as well. I mean, we would be happy to accompany you.” He waved impatiently at his followers, and slowly the two groups merged.

Lan Jingyi and Lan Sizhui put on a moderate burst of speed and drew level with Lan Zhan, just a little behind the two sect leaders.

“Hey, Y—uh, Sect Leader Jin.” Lan Jingyi grinned. “Do you think we’ll be the first ones to arrive?”

Jin Ling snorted inelegantly. “Are you kidding me? Ouyang Zizhen probably made his father get up while it was still dark just so he can watch everyone else arrive.”

Lan Sizhui chuckled. Helplessly, Wei Wuxian felt an answering smile spread across his face.

“Ouyang-xiong is very enthusiastic about learning how to run a sect,” Lan Sizhui said easily.

Lan Jingyi rolled his eyes. “What does that have to do with running a sect?” he scoffed. “You don’t see Sect Leader Jiang arriving stupidly early to things just to look cool.”

No, Wei Wuxian reflected privately, Jiang Cheng had always been torn between the need to be punctual and the urge to make an impression by arriving fashionably late.

But more importantly, since when is Jiang Cheng the kids’ exemplar of how to be a sect leader?!

Even as he thought it, Wei Wuxian knew he was being unfair. Yunmeng Jiang was engraved on the bones under Jiang Cheng’s skin, and his family was the heart that beat within his chest.

Wei Wuxian was jolted from his thoughts by the changing slope of Bichen’s trajectory as they prepared to descend. Lan Zhan, steady as the stone on which his sect’s Wall of Discipline was carved, held him so tightly that he didn’t so much as shift as they rocketed toward the ground.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of pale skin and plain black robes.

“Wen-qianbei!” Lan Sizhui exclaimed joyfully, tucking his sword behind him as he hurried over to Wen Ning. “Are you coming in today?”

Wei Wuxian’s heart clenched, but Wen Ning shook his head.

“Today’s not a good day,” he said softly, ruffling Lan Sizhui’s hair. His fingers ghosted over the band of Lan Sizhui’s forehead ribbon, and Lan Sizhui’s eyes curved into crescent moons as he smiled.

“Let’s go,” Jin Ling said impatiently from the front gates.

Wei Wuxian, who had half-expected to have to grab his nephew before he lunged, gaped as Jin Ling nodded ever so slightly at Wen Ning.

Wen Ning didn’t seem surprised. He produced a limp bundle of greens, wrapped carefully in a clean scrap of cloth.

“A-Yuan, will you give this to Jiang Shanyu-guniang for me? Last time, Sect Leader Jiang asked me about these medicinal herbs, but I couldn’t describe them very well.”

Lan Sizhui nodded and accepted the bundle. “I’m sure Jiang-guniang will come out to thank you personally on Sect Leader Jiang’s behalf,” he said as he tucked it into his sleeves. “Sect Leader Jiang sounded very excited when you first explained their use to him.”

Wei Wuxian’s eyes bounced from Wen Ning’s face to Lan Sizhui’s face, to the guards posted at the front gates of Lotus Pier, who were clearly unfazed by the sight of the infamous Ghost General not fifteen feet away. He felt like he was reading a book, knowing all of the words but not understanding how they fit together.

“Zewu-jun is going inside,” Lan Jingyi warned, hopping impatiently in place. “Come on, Sizhui!”

Wen Ning chuckled, the sound a little raspy due to his damaged vocal cords. “Go on, A-Yuan.”

Lan Sizhui and Lan Jingyi hurried through the gates, with Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan following close behind.

Jiang Cheng was standing in front of the steps to the receiving hall with his arms crossed. He had clearly already greeted Zewu-jun, and he raised an eyebrow at the trailing Lan disciples.

Before he could say anything, Lan Jingyi looked around and, reassured that the only people in the courtyard at the moment were the Lan contingent, several Jiang disciples, Jin Ling, and a single young man clad in Baling Ouyang colors, took a long, exaggerated whiff.

“I don’t smell any fish at all, Sect Leader Jiang!” he said cheerfully. “You must have been scrubbing the docks all day, huh?”

Wei Wuxian’s jaw dropped. Behind him, Lan Zhan’s robes rustled as he stepped forward, but he stopped short as he realized that Zewu-jun, the person who should have taken charge of either disciplining such an insolent disciple or rescuing him from an enraged Jiang Cheng, was only watching with an expression of indulgent exasperation.

The young man who could only be the Ouyang heir also sniffed the air. His eyes widened and he whipped around to look at Jiang Cheng.

“Jingyi-xiong is right! You and your disciples must have worked very hard to get the docks clean, Sect Leader Jiang!” And the strangest thing was, he sounded completely sincere in his praise.

Instead of summoning Zidian to break some legs as Wei Wuxian had expected, Jiang Cheng just rolled his eyes. It was completely out of character for the image of the stern and powerful sect leader that he had initially been projecting, and Wei Wuxian thought his eyeballs might pop out of his head from the shock.

“It’s almost like we knew we were going to be receiving guests here and laid down cloth to protect the wood from the dirty water,” Jiang Cheng said sarcastically. “Anyway, why are you goggling at the docks, of all places? Go inside the hall, I didn’t have Jiang Shanyu running my disciples like a small army of decorators for you to not look at the inside.”

His words didn’t hold the anxious tone that Wei Wuxian had so often heard, desperate for the person he was addressing to approve of his actions. Instead, Jiang Cheng sounded… proud, like he knew he had done a good job and was demanding recognition for the effort he had put into it.

“We’re going, we’re going!” Jin Ling huffed and made his way inside, his ponytail slapping against the doorframe as he went.

Zewu-jun gave Jiang Cheng a commiserating smile as he went past, and Jiang Cheng’s face softened.

“Don’t drink all of the tea before I get any, Sect Leader Lan,” he said lightly. “Right now, I’m still your only source.”

Was that a joke?!

And indeed, Zewu-jun was laughing as he stepped over the threshold. “I’ll do my best, Sect Leader Jiang, but I make no promises.”

Wei Wuxian turned his head as Lan Zhan led him forward, following the path that Zewu-jun had taken. He barely registered where he was putting his feet, too busy staring at this friendly, confident version of a little brother he hardly recognized.

His steps faltered and he could see Jiang Cheng’s shoulders tighten in anticipation as he slowed to a stop. But before he could so much as open his mouth, the two disciples on either side of Jiang Cheng shifted their weight and crossed their arms menacingly.

Wei Wuxian vaguely recognized their faces. Probably he had been introduced to them when they had first been recruited during the Sunshot Campaign. But as much as he wracked his brain, he couldn’t come up with a single name. 

These fierce-looking women with their vivid purple robes and well-grounded stances were clearly pillars of the Yunmeng Jiang sect, the senior disciples who were most qualified to stand behind their sect leader as a show of strength. A short distance away, several more purple-robed disciples were glaring at him over Jiang Cheng’s shoulders.

He didn’t know any of these cultivators. They didn’t know him, not in any way that mattered, but they clearly knew Jiang Cheng.

He was pretty sure that if anyone so much as moved a finger in Jiang Cheng’s direction, at least seven whips would immediately tear them to pieces. And Jiang Cheng would be safe without even a crackle from Zidian.

Wei Wuxian had never known when to admit defeat, but today he was making a calculated retreat. After all, Zewu-jun had asked them not to make a scene. Lan Zhan’s hand on his waist had become more and more insistent the longer he spent staring at the clench of Jiang Cheng’s jaw, and finally he allowed his husband to tug him inside.

He spent the entire first half of the day’s session with his eyes fixed on Jiang Cheng’s face, and didn’t absorb a single word of the proceedings.

A few times, he thought that maybe Jiang Cheng had been looking at him too, but only for a heartbeat. Like the aftermath of a lightning strike, those stormy eyes inevitably flickered away.

Wei Wuxian ate the midday meal in a daze, barely tasting the food even though just yesterday he had been whining about missing these exact spices, this exact tea. Even the small bowl of fresh lotus seeds, he consumed without much thought.

“Wei-gongzi,” Zewu-jun said, setting down his empty bowl. He took a sip of tea and his eyes fluttered shut. After a moment of quiet enjoyment, he opened them again and continued. “You have attended several Discussion Conferences with Wangji in the past, so perhaps you already know. The midday break is meant to be an opportunity for less formal conversation between participants.”

Sect leaders liked to cautiously sound each other out before asking anyone to commit to an official decision. It was a common enough occurrence during meals at Discussion Conferences, but Wei Wuxian wasn’t a sect leader, so why was Zewu-jun—

Wei Wuxian followed his line of sight to the empty cushion on Jiang Cheng’s left, which had just been vacated by Sect Leader Ouyang.

“Thank you, Zewu-jun, for the reminder,” he said, but it took him several tries to convince his legs to hold his weight.

Lan Zhan looked up with a worried frown on his face, but Wei Wuxian shook his head. This was something he had to do on his own.

“I’ll be back in a bit.” He smiled shakily down at his husband. 

Even with Mo Xuanyu’s short legs, the distance between the Gusu Lan tables and Jiang Cheng’s seat only took seconds to cross.

Wei Wuxian felt like he was moving through an ocean of honey, fighting his own limbs the entire way, but then he blinked and suddenly he was there, hovering awkwardly in front of Jiang Cheng.

Jiang Cheng said nothing.

Slowly, gingerly, he sank down onto the cushion. It was embroidered with nine-petaled lotuses and it smelled like home.

“I’m sorry to disturb you, Sect Leader Jiang,” he whispered. “Is it all right if I sit here?”

Jiang Cheng studied him for a long moment. 

Then, without a word, he reached for the bowl of lotus seeds that had been placed on the far end of his table and slid it over so that both of them could reach it.