He stands a little way away and watches until Jiang Wanyin is safely inside the guest house, accompanied by Lianfang-zun, and then turns to head to the Jingshi. He feels very tired, very tired indeed, too tired now to fight the trained in urge to sleep as he has been doing recently.
Usually his brother and Uncle would council him about doing that, but right now, with what’s happening, they’ve stopped even nagging him about sleep. They need his assistance too much. It makes him feel less of a child in their eyes, but at the same time he almost misses their concern.
Life is turning out to be much more confusing than he expected it to be.
Perhaps things will be clearer in the morning. He hopes they will not be any more bewildering.
Once inside his rooms he gets ready for bed, but then discovers that, for all he is exhausted, he can’t bring himself to lie down and try to sleep just yet. He goes to Wangji, plucking the first few notes of the new version of Cleansing, before giving up, going to sit at a table by an open window and stare out at the blossoms on the nearby trees.
It has been an odd day, and one he finishes feeling unsatisfied.
Once more he has hurt Jiang Wanyin— on top of learning how much he has hurt the man in the past. He feels disappointed with himself. Angry. Guilty.
More guilty for the way he had been looking at the grey eyed man as they worked together. That had been inappropriate of him. Disrespectful.
It had not been his intention, of course. His intention had been to try and see Jiang Wanyin properly, to reassess the man without the blindfold of his biases obscuring his view, but trying to reassess Jiang Wanyin quickly turned to trying to see what Wei Wuxian must see in the man, only to find Jiang Wanyin’s positive qualities all to obvious, which had distressingly quickly led to him musing over the man’s beauty, and remembering what he had seen the night before.
All too often he’d found himself in that state, hoping for the concealment of robes and posture to prevent himself from thoroughly offending Jiang Wanyin any further.
This has been a very trying few days.
Perhaps if he has managed more sleep the night before—But he had slept very poorly, the few hours rest he got troubled by strange and violent dreams of the like he has never had before, not even after the Wens came to the Cloud Recesses, not even during the Sunshot Campaign.
He had dreamt of the entire Sect murdered. He had dreamt of the Elders reduced to obedient fierce corpses— and not just the Elders, everyone.
Worse yet, he had dreamt of his mother, but she was a fierce corpse too, holding him, speaking empty words of love and comfort, admiring the spouse he was bringing before her for her approval, the spouse with pale, cold limbs, whose face he never unveiled.
He woke unnerved, face wet with tears.
It was still dark, long before dawn, but it didn’t take long of lying on his bed and staring at the ceiling for him to decide that it was not only unlikely that he would be able to get any more sleep, but that he did not want to risk trying and falling into more nightmares.
So he’d gotten up, gotten dressed, and gone out into the Cloud Recesses, not sure if he was heading to see his rabbits or to see if either his brother or Uncle were awake, hoping the sight of them warm and living would dispel the memory of them cold and dead in his dreams.
He had found Xichen sitting on the edge of the Hanshi, cup of tea in hand, blank expression on his face. It was a relief when that all too corpse-like emptiness disappeared behind the gentle smile his brother so often looks at him with.
He had joined Xichen on the edge of the Hanshi, accepting a cup of tea when the man offered him one, listening as Xichen told him he had just finished revising the new version of Cleansing for the ritual— Did his brother sleep at all? All this work, all the time, how can Xichen cope?
Xichen had looked as exhausted as he felt, waving off his concern with a statement about bad dreams, and when he had pointed out he had also had bad dreams, his brother had given him a tired smile and said, ‘It’s understandable. I would be surprised if anyone involved in working out how to destroy the Stygian Tiger Seal slept well, knowing what it was, and reading about the uses such objects have been put to in the past.’
It was a good point.
They had sat together for a while, sipping the tea that Xichen had made with water heated with a fire talisman. A self-indulgent use of Cultivation his brother rarely indulges in, but on such a morning, during such a time, he could not even bring himself to comment.
It was during this conversation that Xichen had told him that he was going to ask Jiang Wanyin to assist them with developing the ritual. More specifically, that Xichen was due to have a very busy day preoccupied mainly with Sect business— as these things can only be put off for so long— and that their Uncle had remembered a few previously read facts about resentment contaminated iron that he wanted to pursue, which would leave him as the only one available to work on finding roles for Sect Leader Yao and the other, shameless, Sect Leaders and Head Disciples. A large and tedious task, and one that his brother felt required assistance, and the best person to lend that assistance Jiang Wanyin.
He had been reminded, then, that the grey-eyed man had been permitted into the Room of Forbidden Books in the past, under their Uncle’s supervision, and that his own experiences assisting their Uncle with research alongside Jiang Wanyin proved the grey-eyed man to be a particularly diligent and thoughtful student, with an exceptional memory for obscure details. Exactly the kind of person suited to assist him with his unpleasant task.
He thinks Xichen had expected him to protest, but he had no intention of doing so. With his dislike of Jiang Wanyin proven to have a foundation of nothing more than bias and prejudice he did not even have the desire to come up with a reason they could not work together.
It had reminded him, suddenly, of the way Xichen had tried to encourage him to work with Jiang Wanyin after Wei Wuxian had been expelled from the Cloud Recesses— Perhaps his brother, always so much better at understanding people, had already been able to tell how well they could work together, how much a balm Jiang Wanyin’s presence could have been for the loss of Wei Wuxian’s company.
He’d been foolish back then, petulant, almost even rude to Jiang Wanyin, certainly dismissive, and the other hadn’t seemed to want to spend time with him alone— the reasons for which he now understands. The other hurting and jealous, and him being unwelcoming.
It seems a pity now. If he looks back and looks at all the opportunities— and his Uncle, also, encouraging him to spend time with the grey-eyed boy, though perhaps that was more that his Uncle had selected his two most obedient and diligent students to assist him, and they just happened to be him and Jiang Wanyin.
He wonders what will happen in the future, once the Stygian Tiger Seal is destroyed. Will Gusu Lan and Yunmeng Jiang collaborate again? Will he get another chance to work on something with Jiang Wanyin?
What had his brother been thinking, trying to insist he should not apologize to the man? Jiang Wanyin deserves that apology and more besides.
He has always believed his brother understands people better than he does, but he is sure in this case that Xichen was wrong. Perhaps not at first, perhaps at first he was going try and stop himself from apologizing, thinking that if Xichen thought it would hurt Jiang Wanyin it would not be worth it, but as the day had progressed so had his guilt, coming in fits and spurts in between his periods of— distraction.
And perhaps Xichen did have a point, his apology had first angered Jiang Wanyin, and then made him cry— But in the end he can’t believe he should not have done it, perhaps done it differently, but if he told himself he should not have apologized to Jiang Wanyin he would also be telling himself Jiang Wanyin was not worthy of his apology— Which would be shameful, unrighteous. He has wronged Jiang Wanyin, and the man does not deserve to have to go through life thinking he is unworthy of people showing remorse for their cruelties.
Perhaps his brother does not really see the man though, only the Sect Leader. It would make sense, considering the way the role of Sect Leader Lan sometimes seems to devour the reality of Lan Xichen.
After the misguided advice not to apologise his brother had then urged him to be kind to Jiang Wanyin, to treat the man gently, and to try not to be critical if the other didn’t seem to immediately understand him, or seemed like he was wilfully misunderstanding him the way some people seem to do. Unnecessary advice, he had thought even at the time.
Other than the misunderstanding about the nature of his relationship with Wei Wuxian that he had discovered during the apology, Jiang Wanyin’s impression that the two of them had become romantically entangled, he has rarely actually had problems communicating with Jiang Wanyin.
Most of the people who misunderstand him are idiots, and Jiang Wanyin really is very intelligent, he can see that now, intelligent and always very conscientious in their interactions— and, even if Jiang Wanyin ever has misunderstood him in the past, the man has never confronted him about it, or been rude, or snide, or lied about the matter, or exaggerated things, or spread gossip behind his back.
The grey-eyed man just is not that type, instead he is the type— Well, the type to say nothing in most cases. He is very well mannered most of the time, if a little brusque and abrupt. It has now been proved he may also react by being driven to tears and private revelations, but he cannot imagine the man weeping and saying such thing in front of an embarrassing audience. It is only when truly affronted by some act of unrighteousness that the man seems compelled to make his grievances public, and then he seems to do so by calling the person to account without lies and exaggerations.
Perhaps Jiang Wanyin is not sycophantically polite, but the man is forthright and righteous. Jiang Wanyin is one of those very rare good people.
He had dismissed Xichen’s concerns that he would be rude to the grey-eyed man, feeling a little offended at the suggestion, and then had decided to go even further in being considerate of Jiang Wanyin than what Xichen had urged— perhaps, at first, only to show his brother that he is not the beast implied by the other’s concern he’d be rude to a man he has so obviously wronged.
This is why he had decided to try and make sure the grey-eyed man would at least find the food to his taste— knowing the loudly complained opinions of other outsiders, like Wei Wuxian, about Gusu Lan style cookery. So he had gone to his Uncle and asked the man what food Jiang Wanyin had liked when he studied with them, knowing Lan Qiren has always had a habit of observing the preferences of the people he actually likes, and then quietly keeping them in mind when it comes time to arrange food or drink for them. Knowledge in hand he had then gone to the kitchens to ensure that the lunch and dinner they would be served would be to Jiang Wanyin’s taste.
It had seemed vitally important to ensure that the man would be well taken care of during what, he had correctly assumed would be many long hours, they were to spend together. He had been right in his prediction that dealing with the task of assigning roles to the self-aggrandising Cultivators would take more than one day, though so far he has had every indication that he had been wrong in his assumption that it would take three or four.
He truly has underestimated Jiang Wanyin’s brilliance— but perhaps that is because of the quiet nature of it. It is not the revolutionary, world changing, boundary pushing, consequence ignoring, rapid-fire, thoughtless intelligence of Wei Wuxian, but something much more subtle, based on good research, observation, and respect for the proper way of things and consequences.
Have they ever worked on anything together, Jiang Wanyin and Wei Wuxian?— It’s difficult to avoid thinking that the deficiencies in one would be very well made up for in the other.
They could be a truly terrifying pairing on an intellectual level.
It must be considered a great boon to the world that Jiang Wanyin has never followed Wei Wuxian from the righteous path and into Demonic Cultivation. He can only imagine the ways that that diligent mind would perfect Wei Wuxian’s brilliant, but often un-thought-through, ideas.
Trying to ignore the concern that the idea rises in him he reminds himself that there is no evidence of them ever collaborating in any intellectual way— which he can’t understand, if he knew someone who so obviously complemented his own intellect it would be hard not to always be working on ideas— but perhaps they have a reason for it.
It little matters now. As things are it seems unlikely they will have much to do with each other in the future, unless Wei Wuxian somehow manages to seduce Jiang Wanyin back to his side.
He was honest when he told the grey-eyed man that he wasn’t sure that the other should enter into a relationship with Wei Wuxian again, and not just because of his own, increasingly complicated feelings. Any person should be treated better than the way the man he once loved— or possibly only once loved, possibly still loves, he is not sure, his feelings are strange to him and fraught— has treated Jiang Wanyin, but—
But in the last day the consequences of what he has learnt, and of his reassessment of Jiang Wanyin— not just in the moment, but looking back, re-examining their past interactions— has forced him to admit that he finds the grey-eyed man a person worthy of respect and esteem, and so it seems even crueller that such a person should have experienced such things from a person that claims to have loved them.
The violation of the matter with the Golden Core still sticks with him, feels like it sticks in his throat if he thinks about it. It is too easy to imagine himself in Jiang Wanyin’s place, tricked like that by a lover, rendered unconscious, cut open to have one of the most intimate, sacred parts of a body exposed to the light and to a stranger’s touch. It is a very disquieting thought.
What will happen when Jiang Wanyin discovers this violation? He cannot imagine a world in which the man will not feel betrayed by it. It was a selfish act of Wei Wuxian’s, admittedly prompted by something very like selflessness, but the motive does not change what the man conspired to do to his lover without his lover’s consent.
His brother has also been very insistent that he does not mention this truth to Jiang Wanyin, and unlike the matter of the apology, this time he does agree. It does not feel like his place— It is Wei Wuxian’s if it is anyone’s— and he has no desire to see Jiang Wanyin cry because of him ever again.
It is true that the man cries with peculiar— delicacy— But the fact that Jiang Wanyin cries with this delicacy, with dignity, and that his lips and cheeks and nose and the tips and lobes of his ears flush an attractive pink, does not change the fact that making the man cry makes him feel like a terrible person, no matter his intentions.
The narrowness of Jiang Wanyin’s shoulders, even with their layer of lean muscle, and the way the man had flinched only adds to the sense of the other’s vulnerability when hurt. His easy breakability. It was a terrible flinch, the type of flinch he is not used to seeing in a warrior as seasoned as Jiang Wanyin, not without some terrible cruelty in the person’s history— but then, Jiang Wanyin was captured by Wen Chao.
It is likely the grey-eyed man was tortured.
The people of Gusu Lan were remarkably lucky in that way, for all the death and injury— but then Wen Xu, for all his capacity for violence, never had the reputation for sadism that his father and brother earnt before their deaths.
What happened here, what happened to his father, his brother, his Uncle, his people, himself, is enough to disrupt his mind at times. The memory of pain. The memory of fear. The terrible sense of their history, their identity, the Sect itself, being destroyed as the library burnt— He knows it did something to Xichen, what happened then and after, he’s observed that his brother is not quite the same, though he can’t really explain in what way.
He also knows his Uncle’s peace has been permanently disturbed by it. Knows his Uncle is using the Disciples to copy every book in the library, new and old, while pretending it’s punishment in order to create a backup library in case this one is burnt again and not so much preserved this time around— is even copying the works from the Room of Forbidden Books himself, when he has the time.
If he is right and Jiang Wanyin was tortured, it was, as Xicehn had reminded him, in the process of losing everything— or at least the everything other than his sister and Wei Wuxian, but his sister then married into Lanling Jin, and Wei Wuxian left him to become Sect Leader Wei.
Jiang Wanyin really has had a very tough time.
It all feels a little pointless now, his concern about the food, the way that had quickly spread to a desire to serve the grey-eyed man, some strange emotion overtaking him, getting stronger with every graceful bite— something like guilt but also a peculiar delight in seeing food he had provided, himself, disappear between pink lips, their colour, their plumpness, making his heart race, making him want things.
He has been a fool. He had thought himself much wiser, much more in control, than he is.
It is all disquieting. He feels like all his peace is gone.
He sighs, actually letting himself slump until his head is resting on his hand, propped up on the table.
Before he and Xichen went their separate ways, both to practice this new version of Cleansing, his brother had said something that has stuck with him all day. Xichen had said that sometimes people mistake the first romantic attraction they feel for another person as love, and that by doing so they miss out on the real, true love they may find later.
He knows Xichen meant it as a comfort, considering what they’ve learnt about Wei Wuxian, considering that he would have to be very foolish— and willing to almost betray Jiang Wanyin— to pursue a relationship with the man, and that his brother will probably try to set him up with the kind of sweet, dutiful girl that his Uncle sometimes wishes they would both marry, but—
He cannot deny to himself that he is very much attracted to Jiang Wanyin, which deeply confuses him, especially now he also esteems the man.
He also— Well. His feelings for Wei Wuxian are not as clean and concise as he would wish them to be.
After several hours of mastering Cleansing he had gone to do as he had promised the night before, eat breakfast with Wei Wuxian and discuss things further, even if it was the last thing he wanted to do.
The Wei Wuxian he had found had seemed small, very tired, and very sad. For all they were supposed to talk, Wei Wuxian had said very little, instead staring off into the distance with a look of grief on his face, barely eating, and every now and then declaring, “I am an idiot,” without any follow up.
His own confusing emotions, the unwanted sympathy he’d felt, his anger, his disgust, the memory of strong hands around his throat and the polluting sense of resentment radiating from the man— it had all overwhelmed him until any idea of what to say had completely vanished.
It had been a relief to leave.
He’d felt strange afterwards, restless, causelessly guilty, which is why he’d gone to the field of the rabbits, hoping their innocent company would at least distract him from everything.
There he had found Jiang Wanyin with Lianfang-zun.
For a split second he’d felt the urge to rush and rescue his rabbits, assuming that Jiang Wanyin would be like Wei Wuxian— and every fantasy he’d ever had of showing that man the colony of rabbits that had sprung up from the first two gifted ones had always ended in him imagining Wei Wuxian licking his lips and talking about how plump and juicy they look, and not coming over all soft and snuggling them like he secretly wished— but a moment’s observation had found Jiang Wanyin was not plotting a bunny roast, and was instead swarmed by rabbits eager for what looked like very enjoyable pets.
Jiang Wanyin’s gentleness had struck him, profoundly struck him, the way the man was not grabbing at the rabbits, was not making them do anything they didn’t want to, was instead waiting for them to come to him, and was observing how they liked to be petted and doing that instead of just sticking his hands anywhere on them.
Lianfang-zun seemed to be observing what Jiang Wanyin was doing and then emulating him, the other man obviously not quite having the grey-eyed man’s natural instinct or inclination for petting rabbits, but willing to learn anyway, willing to enjoy the moment, the two of them both seeming delighted by the attention of the little animals.
Perhaps he should talk to his brother about Lianfang-zun, the man seems to have a good nature underneath it all, and he is very pretty, very clever— A little hard to know, but Xichen has always been better at reading people than he is. He would like his brother to be happy.
It’s selfish, it’s stupid, but part of him wants to be happy too.
He wants things to be easy, he wants things to be nice, he wants a world without his complicated morass of feelings—
But that is not this world.
This is the world where he looks at Jiang Wanyin petting rabbits and feels—
If Jiang Wanyin was a woman he would have thought the man would make an excellent mother, if he was a woman he would have thought the man would make an excellent father, as it is he found himself—
Well. It only added to the many charms Jiang Wanyin had shown him by the end of the day.
Desire is a peculiar thing. One moment he would be admiring Jiang Wanyin’s intelligence, or the graceful line of his body, and the next he would be imagining clearing the table of paper to deposit the grey-eyed man on it, to strip him of his robes, and to put his mouth on that pout of flesh he had seen the night before.
Again and again that impulse had intruded on his thoughts, disturbing his mind and the line of his robes.
The last time he had felt something of this intensity in someone’s company was the constant urge to kiss Wei Wuxian when they were younger, but that was just kissing, this is something far beyond that.
Part of him, at least, wants to take Jiang Wanyin to bed.
A one-way desire if ever there was one. He can’t imagine a world where Jiang Wanyin would reciprocate, would wish to be touched like that by a man he has thought of as an insensitive love rival for years.
It’s a kind of insanity on his part, made worse by the fact he does not understand his feelings for Jiang Wanyin.
He had never thought himself the kind of man who could go to bed with someone he didn’t love, but if that’s true then— Is Xichen right? Was he wrong about his feelings for Wei Wuxian?
Perhaps, in the morning, he should track that man down again for breakfast, sit with him for a while, see if any part of himself is still moved by Wei Wuxian’s presence—
All before going to spend the day with Jiang Wanyin.
How complicated his life has become.
He does not like it.
He can only hope he retains his self-restraint, and does not lose it like he did that time he kissed Wei Wuxian. If he does touch Jiang Wanyin when the man does not wish to be touched— not only will he have his own conscience to contend with, but his brother will be angry with him, and he thinks his Uncle may very well attempt to disown him.
The man was so very happy to hear that Jiang Wanyin will be helping with the ritual, and even happier when he had asked about the foods the grey-eyed man liked. His Uncle’s favouritism has reached the point that Lan Qiren even made a comment about how much of a pity it was that Jiang Wanyin was not born to a Sect that would appreciate him, like Gusu Lan— but perhaps that was also his Uncle’s exhaustion loosening his tongue.
He is not a fool, nor totally unobservant, no matter what the two of them think. He knows that his visit to Lanling Jin with Xichen would have left their Uncle in charge, and he knows that when Xichen is gone the Elders become even more audacious in insisting they get their way, so even before they all become preoccupied with destroying the Stygian Tiger Seal it is unlikely Lan Qiren was being permitted much rest, and now he is sure his Uncle is not sleeping at all.
Perhaps when Jiang Wanyin has finished helping him the man will agree to assist him in assisting his Uncle with the older man’s own work on the ritual.
He worries, sometimes, about both his Uncle and his brother. They are very overworked, and for some strange reason they cannot seem to simply deny the irrational demands of the Elders, as he would if he was in their position.
Life really is very confusing.
Eventually he convinces himself to go to bed, lifting the covers and lying down to his cold, lonely bed, feeling that loneliness for once in his life.
Wouldn’t it be easier to sleep with a warm body beside him?
Which warm body? That is a question. Whether the owner of the warm body would want to lie beside him is another.
Is Wei Wuxian lonely this night, sleeping alone? Is Jiang Wanyin?
They must have made a lovely sight, curled up together.
It takes a long time to fall asleep, and when he does it’s back into terrible dreams, blood soaked dreams, his mother reaching for him, an empty smile on her dead face, him leading a veiled spouse through the Cloud Recesses, the red of silk robes dragging the red of the spilled blood of his Sect behind, his Uncle and Brother kneeling, silent, dead, obedient, beside his seat at the head of the table, Xichen’s place now his —
He wakes a little later than he did the day before, but he wakes just as unsettled, if not more so. For a moment he wants to go find his brother, describe his dreams to Xichen, make the man make sense of them, but his brother has enough on his plate as it is, and is still probably right.
Knowing the reality of the Stygian Tiger Seal is more than enough to give anyone nightmares.
He repeats that to himself as he goes to the family bath house, bathes, dresses, and then goes to find Wei Wuxian as he told himself he would the night before.
Wei Wuxian is not in his rooms. Huh. He heads to the bronze workshop that has been assigned the man. Wei Wuxian is not there either— Though the last time he was there he seems to have left a bit of a mess. Things have been moved around, left lying in odd places.
Puzzled he heads for the kitchens. Maybe the man woke early and went to find some breakfast by himself— Again, no Wei Wuxian.
He looks all over every public part of the Cloud Recesses and does not find the man. Could Jiang Wanyin have forgiven him and invited him to spend the night in his room? Somehow he doesn’t believe the idea.
Perhaps Wei Wuxian is walking in the forest. He changes direction, heading to where he found the man earlier.
He hears the sound first, someone sobbing, loud and wet and messy and half-hysterical sounding. Then his nose picks up the scent of strong wine. Emperor’s Smile, he’d guess.
Following the scent and the sound he soon stumbles upon a clearing, Wei Wuxian stripped down to just trousers and the top of his under robes, sitting slumped in the middle of the space, struggling with a cloth wrapped bundle in his lap, and surrounded by a truly alarming number of empty wine jars and a Jade Token, lying almost discarded on the ground.
‘Lan Zhan,’ the man wails when he spots him, tears stopping, though their evidence is obvious on his cheeks and dribbling from his nose. ‘I can’t stand it. Come take it away. It keeps biting my fingers.’
Cautiously approaching he peers at the bundle of cloth and the bowl the man is struggling with, blinking as what he’s seeing suddenly resolves itself into an exceptionally filthy puppy with matted fur, wrapped in Wei Wuxian’s black robe, affectionately nibbling at his fingers as he tries to get it to drink milk from the bowl.
‘Why do you have a puppy?’ he asks, reflexively reaching out and taking the little creature when Wei Wuxian thrusts it at him.
The man shudders, edging away from him and the tiny dog— injured, he now sees as he examines it, its right front leg bound up in a splint with the red ribbon from Wei Wuxian’s hair. ‘I found it,’ Wei Wuxian eventually slurs, ‘In the gutter. I though it was dead at first but it’s not dead, you can see it’s not dead— I think someone hurt it.’
Listing over sideways the man eventually comes to rest against the trunk of a tree, speaking ponderously, like a man very, very, very drunk. ‘Was gonna give it to A-Cheng, to make up for the ones Uncle Jiang made him give up, but when I got back here I realised that was pretty much emotional manipulation, tryna buy back his love even though I don’t deserve it and he’s with Jin Guang—Guang— Jin Guangyao now, but then I still had the puppy and I’m so fucking scared of dogs, but it’s just a puppy and someone hurt it so I don’t know what to do-o-o-o-o-o!’
‘You’re scared of dogs?’ he asks, even though that is probably not the most important thing to focus on right now. The most important thing to focus on is the fact that Wei Wuxian has obviously stolen a Jade Token and gone and brought an exceedingly large amount of wine into the Cloud Recesses.
Also, what does he mean by Jiang Wanyin is with Jin Guangyao?
Aside from how that news makes him feel, it will no doubt devastate Xichen.
Wei Wuxian nods, a slow, exaggerated movement. ‘It’s why Uncle Jiang got rid of A-Cheng’s dogs.’ A pause, and then, ‘He shouldn’t have done that. It hurt A-Cheng.’ Another pause, and then, ‘I really don’t wanna havta take care of the puppy. Lan Zhan, you take care of the puppy. I don’t like puppies.’
‘I don’t have time to take care of a puppy right now,’ he points out, ‘And neither would Jiang Wanyin, as he is assisting me to find roles for the remaining Sect Leader and Head Disciples in the ritual to destroy the Stygian Tiger Seal.’
‘But he would have later,’ Wei Wuxian corrects, though possibly not accurately. ‘Because he loves puppies. Dogs, all dogs, even ugly dogs. He used to chase them away for me, but it’s not like I didn’t sometimes catch him petting them before he saw me. He just— He loves dogs, and he hasn’t been able to have a dog because of me, and I’m a terrible lover that deprives my beloved of dogs, and he’s never going to forgive me, but even if he doesn’t I just want him to be happy and to be able to have a do-o-og,’ and now Wei Wuxian is crying again.
‘Then why not give him the dog?’ he does not know what to do right now. He can’t even feed the puppy as Wei Wuxian is still clutching the bowl of milk.
‘Because it would be wrong,’ the man sobs. ‘He’d think I was trying to bribe him or coerce him or maybe he’d even forgive me, because puppy, he loves puppies, he just loves puppies, and I don’t want him to forgive me just because I gave him a puppy, because he’s worth so much more than that. He’s lovely. Lan Zhan he’s lovely, and I took him for granted, and now Jin Guangyao is probably treating him the way he deserves, and I’ll never get him back, and you know how clever Jin Guangyao’s tongue is, he’s probably got A-Cheng sitting on his face right now, and I never did that, because I’m stupid and selfish and couldn’t even see how devoted he was—’
‘Stop!’ he blurts out, backing away from the man as if he can retreat from the image Wei Wuxian has just given him. His traitorous dick twitches at just the mental connection between a tongue and that part of Jiang Wanyin’s body. Still, it is highly improper for Wei Wuxian to say such a thing, and disrespectful of Jiang Wanyin.
He decides to tell the man so. ‘If you really do love him, and you really are sorry, you will not speak of your past sexual relationship with him in public, or speculate about any current sexual relationship he is involved in. Jiang Wanyin is modest, such idle talk would deeply embarrass him.’
This seems to just make the man cry harder, blubbering something about how now even he knows Jiang Wanyin better than Wei Wuxian knows the man himself.
It is all very embarrassing.
He wishes that seeing Wei Wuxian’s distress over Jiang Wanyin did not make him feel a little sympathy, but it does, as much as he tries to fight the emotion. It must be a wretched feeling, to have such a lover and to have driven them away, mistreated them, and only then realised what you’ve lost.
Wei Wuxian is right about one thing, the man is as much of a idiot as he had insisted the morning before.
He sighs, going to pick up the Jade Token and examine it, noting it belongs to one of the Disciples set guard duty on the tool storehouse, before sticking it in the pocket of his sleeve and turning his attention back to Wei Wuxian. ‘Come, you are very drunk,’ he says, ‘I will help you back to your room so you can rest. I do not think the state you are in right now is helping you think clearly, and I do not think Jiang Wanyin will appreciate it if you encounter him while you’re like this.’
Who knows what a pathetically drunk and remorseful Wei Wuxian might say. He might even let slip the truth of the Golden Core, and then be unable to help in the aftermath.
It takes longer than he’d like, but eventually he manages to convince the man that he’s right. It is difficult to get Wei Wuxian upright and keep the injured puppy comfortable, but somehow he manages it, and then even manages to get the man back to the Cloud Recesses without him wandering off or tripping over his own feet and breaking his neck.
The two of them earn some dark looks from Gusu Lan Disciples, and a couple of the Elders they’re unlucky to pass, but what is he supposed to do? Wei Wuxian is drunk, yes, but not with his authority to be so, and beyond that Wei Wuxian is a Sect Leader, and he is not so arrogant to think he can just assign a punishment to a Sect Leader that has transgressed the rules.
When they get back to Wei Wuxian’s room they find it just as disarrayed as the bronze workshop, which seems to confuse the other man as much as it does himself, but then Wei Wuxian has obviously been drinking for some time, so perhaps he has returned to these places at some point before deciding where he wanted to drink was actually the forest.
He does try to question the man about it, and about how he got the Jade Token, but doesn’t manage to get any sense in response. Later, or tomorrow, when the wine has worn off, he will try again— as well as remind Wei Wuxian of the rules, even if the man no longer has any obligation to follow them.
After making sure Wei Wuxian is lying on his side, as he has heard is what you are supposed to do with someone so drunk, he places the soiled robe on the floor, folded because he cannot help that impulse, and leaves, carrying the puppy.
He feels very strange, yet again. Exasperated and annoyed but also—
A glance at the puppy and he can’t deny how cute it is, how much the gift would be a sweet gesture if Wei Wuxian and Jiang Wanyin were still together and the former hadn’t transgressed so badly against the latter, or how he can’t help respecting Wei Wuxian, just a little, for deciding not to give the puppy to Jiang Wanyin to try and make the man forgive him.
It’s all such a mess, and now he has a puppy to deal with on top of everything else. Part of him is tempted to see what happens if he just goes and gives it Jiang Wanyin himself, but—
A sigh. He will take it to the physicians to be treated, and then ask his brother what to do with it. If Jiang Wanyin does like dogs as much as Wei Wuxian had insisted perhaps there’s some way they can give it to him, without the complication of knowing who it was from.
The physician on duty is one of the few Elders he actually likes. She insists everyone call her Auntie, even though at her age Granny would be more appropriate, and is always smiling, always friendly, but with a sensible mind, and a personality not prone to gossip or intrusive questions.
She coos over the puppy, taking it from his arms with the gentle calmness that meant she was the only physician he would let treat him when he was a child.
After examining it for a moment she asks where he got it, and when he tells her someone found it in the gutter in the town and brought it back she nods. ‘Broken front leg, an injury to the ribs, some bruising— people can be cruel, as we both know all too well Wangji— fleas, and in need of a good bath.’
‘Can it be treated?’
She nods. ‘The injuries are very recent, perhaps a day or so ago, and while painful they should heal with no lasting issues with such prompt treatment. I’ll give her something for the pain, before I give her a bath to deal with the fleas, and the dirt, and then treat the leg and those ribs. I’ll give you some medicine to help her heal faster, and to strengthen her up, which you can give her with her milk— She’ll need to be fed a lot and very often, but the kitchens will be able to help you out there—the whole staff took turns raising that litter of puppies Xiao-Yi found in the wood shed, so they’ll know what you need.’
It’s not long before he is leaving her rooms with a now clean, and very tired puppy, looking much better for having her fur cleaned to reveal its pale grey colour.
He has no idea what kind of dog she is, she doesn’t look like the usual breed of spirit dog, and since she was from the street in the town he imagines she could be a mix of anything.
Xichen finds him wandering towards the kitchen, looking at him with surprise when he notices the puppy. Speaking quietly he tells his brother the story of how he came to have a puppy, and then asks whether Xichen agrees that some way should be found to give the puppy to Jiang Wanyin.
For a moment his brother just looks at the little dog, before suddenly nodding, decisive. ‘I think that would be a very kind thing to do.’
Surprisingly his brother comes with him to the kitchens, where they watch in some surprise as the cook mixes up some strange concoction of things instead of just giving them plain milk, though milk is a large part of what the cook prepares— along with the medicine from Auntie.
When the puppy milk has been poured into a bowl they are shooed out into the outside world, alongside a Disciple carrying a table with tea and pastries for them to eat while they feed the dog.
‘We shall return to the Hanshi,’ his brother decides. ‘I would like to hear how you got on with Jiang Wanyin yesterday. Uncle said things went well, but I would prefer to hear it from your own mouth.’
Though before they’re even halfway back to the Hanshi the man in question appears, walking side by side with Jin Guangyao— a sight that makes his earlobes burn, Wei Wuxian’s words suddenly echoing in his head.
He doesn’t need to worry that he will behave strangely towards Jiang Wanyin, because the moment the man spots the puppy it’s like everything else vanishes before those grey eyes. The man lets out the softest, sweetest little coo, and then hurries over, leaning in close to let the little dog sniff his fingers, before beginning to pet it gently, murmuring at it about how sweet it is, how soft, how much of a good dog.
Jin Guangyao also approaches to examine the animal, then turns to Xichen, ‘I though pets were prohibited?’
His brother smiles at the man, ‘It’s hardly our pet. Wangji rescued her last night, she’s been injured, see—’ the words prompt Jiang Wanyin into even more cooing and telling the puppy how brave she is, before glancing up at him with large, grey eyes.
‘That was very kind of you,’ the man says, ‘Very kind,’ and then, ‘Could I hold her?’
‘O-o-of course,’ he manages, helping the man to gently take the puppy, enthralled by the way Jiang Wanyin is in turn enthralled by the dog. He looks so lovely.
After a moment Xichen speaks up to say, ‘Would you like to keep her, Sect Leader Jiang? As you said A-Yao, pets are prohibited, and even if they weren’t, neither myself nor Wangji feel we are up to raising a puppy, even if she is such a sweet little thing. In fact Wangji was just saying he would like to find her a good home, somewhere he knew she’d be well looked after, and you seem just the man for the job.’
‘Keep—’ Jiang Wanyin breathes, staring from his brother to the puppy and then back to his brother. A moment later disappointment comes over that pretty face, the man’s pink lips parting— and then Jiang Wanyin pauses, frowns, glances back down at the dog. ‘I can, can’t I?’ the man says very softly, ‘It won’t cause any problems—’ a moment later the frown deepens, ‘Though I can’t, not right now, I don’t have time to look after a puppy and help with the ritual.’
‘If you wish to keep her I can look after her during the day, when you’re busy,’ a deep voice says from behind him, almost making him jump. Chifeng-zun. ‘There is little for me to do until the ritual, and it is always worthy to try and preserve innocent life.’
An honest, open, delighted smile comes over Jiang Wanyin’s face— oh, pretty is an understatement, Jiang Wanyin is outright beautiful— for a moment he feels stupefied, but when his mind is working again he can register that Jiang Wanyin will be keeping the puppy, Chifeng-zun will be babysitting the puppy, Jin Guangyao thinks Chifeng-zun babysitting the puppy is a very good idea, and that his brother has an odd kind of smile on his face— but maybe he is just imagining the latter.
They all decide to eat breakfast together under that blossoming tree, or, maybe more accurately, Xichen decides that they’ve all decided.
He knows he drinks tea, knows he lifts pastries to his mouth, bites into them, chews, swallows, but he has no idea what any of it tastes like, or the texture in his mouth. Jiang Wanyin sits opposite him, sandwiched between Lianfang-zun and Chifeng-zun, feeding the puppy, petting the puppy, pink cheeked and happy in a way he has never seen the man before.
If only Jiang Wanyin could always look like this.