When Jiang Cheng told him about the offer, he had thought it was a joke. When he realized it was serious, he had felt a deep blinding anger, and it was only with great difficulty that he stopped himself from personally journeying all the way to Koi Tower to spit in Jin Guangshan’s face.
“Why would he even suggest this?” he demands, fuming. “What right does he have? How dare he?”
Jiang Cheng’s scowl deepens. “He said it was A-die’s wish for our families to be joined and it would be disrespectful to deny it. I pointed out that A-die had called off the engagement, because I thought he was trying to pressure us into marrying A-jie off, but then he agreed with me. He said it would be disrespectful to continue an engagement that A-die broke off, which was why he wasn’t suggesting that A-jie get married.”
“But… but,” Wei Wuxian splutters, “What about heirs? A sect leader needs heirs, Jiang Cheng! I can’t give birth!”
Jiang Cheng snorts. “I asked. Sect Leader Jin, in his infinite wisdom believes you can adopt the son of a cousin or something. Privately, I think he’s hoping for a few illegitimate children to legitimize.”
“Of course he is,” Wei Wuxian snorts. “You realize that this is a transparent attempt to get the Yin Tiger Seal for himself, don’t you? He thinks he’ll get it and me in one fell swoop. He’s not even trying to be deceptive about it anymore! Does he think I’m stupid? Does he think you’re stupid?”
“We are not in a position to refuse!” Jiang Cheng yells back. “Yunmeng Jiang is the only sect not allied to one of the other great sects now! We have to take this alliance!”
“Oh, I know that,” Wei Wuxian replies darkly. “If we refuse, all he needs to do is sow a few rumors about my violent temperament or how uncontrollable I am, and it’ll take a life of its own. People are already afraid of what I can do. Jin Guangshan is in a prime position to spin any story he wants about me and the Jiang sect. A few spilled words and all everyone will talk about is how I’m trying to undermine you as a leader, how you can’t even control one man. And oh, what should we have expected by someone who defies morality anyway?”
Wei Wuxian smiles mockingly, bitterly. “Now he just wants you to sell me off to Lanling Jin so they can have the power of demonic cultivation without an actual Jin cultivator sullying their hands with it.”
“Well, he’s going to get it. I can’t refuse him, Wei Wuxian. You’re going to have to do this. Congratulations, you’re marrying the peacock.”
“What about shijie?”, Wei Wuxian asks desperately. “She likes him, you know she likes him. How do you expect me to marry a man she likes, Jiang Cheng? I can’t betray her like that!”
“Well there’s no choice!” he yells in reply. “There’s no way Sect Leader Jin will approve of a marriage between them. If you don’t marry his son, who knows what he’ll do? He has enough assassins to slink around and do his bidding. Do you want to get A-jie killed because you couldn’t do this?”
He freezes. “He threatened shijie?”, he asks, his voice quiet and dangerous.
“He… made oblique implications about the security of Lotus Pier.”
“I’m going to kill him,” Wei Wuxian says darkly. “I’m going to kill him.”
“We don’t have proof that he’ll do anything! All we have to do is keep him content, and he won’t have a reason to move against us! If you do something, A-jie might be in even more danger.”
That gets Wei Wuxian. He will never do anything to endanger Shijie. He will have to do this, get married to Jin Zixuan of all people, live in Koi Tower, possibly raise a child with Jin Zixuan…
“I didn’t think I’d ever marry,” he admits. “My duty has always been to the sect first. But if I did, I thought I’d at least marry someone I loved.” Like his parents had. He doesn’t remember much about them, but he remembers that they had loved each other and him dearly. “I don’t even like Jin Zixuan, Jiang Cheng,” he whispers forlornly.
Jiang Cheng scowls. “You better learn to like him,” he says. “His father is sending him to Lotus Pier to court you next week.”
Wei Wuxian freezes. Next week. Jiang Cheng had said that so decisively. He comes to an awful realization. “So my opinion didn’t really matter,” he states blankly.
“Him coming here… that was planned before you even left Koi Tower. You were always going to marry me off to him. When you were telling me about it, you weren’t asking me to do it, it was an order wasn’t it?”
Jiang Cheng doesn’t reply. When Wei Wuxian turns to look at him, his jaw is clenched stubbornly, but he looks just the faintest bit guilty. Wei Wuxian feels the sharp sting of betrayal at that, at Jiang Cheng agreeing to this without even telling Wei Wuxian before he did. He can feel the familiar anger creeping back in. He needs to get out of here. He needs to leave now.
“Right,” he says, taking a step back, firmly tamping down on the rage he feels. “Right, I have things to do now. I’ll see you later.”
“Wei Wuxian!” he hears the call as he walks away, but he ignores it. If he stops, he might yell, but he might do worse than that. He cannot risk it.
He needs a distraction.
He goes to the one spot he had always loved to go to since he was a child first hiding from Madam Yu in one of her moods. A particular lotus pond that had overgrown with algae long ago from no one coming to care for it. He had tried, as a child, to clear it up, but the longer his duties kept him away from the place, the thicker the algae would have grown back when he returned. He stopped clearing it away, eventually, beginning to see the beauty in the algae too.
He sits there, by the little pond and plays Chenqing, plays the song that is so familiar to him, even if he can’t recall its name.
He thinks then, once he has calmed down. Thinks of shijie and how much she liked Jin Zixuan, no matter how many times he made her cry. Thinks of Jin Zixuan himself. From what Wei Wuxian knows of him, he is honourable, willing to stand up for what he believes in— he had shown that much in the Xuanwu cave. Unlike his father, he wasn’t a coward; he had been at the front lines with the rest of them. He was a skilled cultivator too, Wei Wuxian had to admit. Nowhere near Lan Zhan, or Wei Wuxian himself had been before, but still talented. Still, when Wei Wuxian thought of him, he could only think of the boy who had rudely snubbed his shijie without even knowing her, the one who had made her cry by publicly insulting her, the one he had punched multiple times, who had deserved it each time.
How could he ever bring himself to think fondly of the man who had caused his shijie such great heartbreak? How could he marry a man his shijie loved? She deserved so much better than him, but if he was who she wanted, how could Wei Wuxian take that away from her? How could he do that to her, to the one person who had always loved him unconditionally, to the one person who had been free with her affection, the one person who had always treated him as a part of the family no matter what? How could he do it?
Marriage wasn’t something he had considered very often. It had been a hazy, abstract concept to him, something to do when he was older. Then, it had become something he thought of sometimes, but only in the vaguest of terms. He had never really been the type to extensively imagine what his future cultivation partner would be like, not like Jiang Cheng had done. In his mind, the only thing he had really thought about was that it should be someone he could be happy with. More recently though, any time his thoughts drifted to the idea of marriage, he could only think of Lan Zhan. When he thought of what he wanted in a partner, he thought of Lan Zhan’s qualities. When he imagined wearing red and taking his bows, he thought of how beautiful Lan Zhan would look in red. When he imagined a voice calling him “husband”, it was Lan Zhan’s voice.
He was aware that what he felt for Lan Zhan was far more than friendship. He was fairly certain Lan Zhan felt the same way too. It wasn’t one instant that made him realize it, of course. It was a series of moments, spread throughout the years— a glimpse at Cloud Recesses, a smile during their night hunting trip, a worried look at the Wen Indoctrination, a heavy silence in the Xuanwu cave, the way they fought tooth and nail through the Sunshot Campaign, but Lan Zhan still stubbornly stayed by his side at every fight, the look in his eyes after the final battle with Wen Ruohan. For years, he had known there was something more there, something neither of them acknowledged, though they were very aware of it.
For his own part, Wei Wuxian had been putting it off because there was never a moment of peace. Every time they were together, one of them had been mourning a lost home, or they were in the middle of a battlefield, or they were trapped in a dangerous situation where death seemed imminent, or they were rebuilding their respective homes, or Wei Wuxian was a demonic cultivator who was convinced that the only thing Lan Zhan could see him as anymore was tainted. It had taken too long for him to learn that Lan Zhan didn’t actually feel that way, but that had been time lost. Every time, Wei Wuxian had thought to himself, next time we meet, I’ll tell him. And inevitably, when ‘next time’ rolled around, something monumentally serious occurred, and that would become his priority over sorting out his feelings.
And now, he was going to be married to another man.
Whichever gods were deciding his fate, they were certainly having a laugh at his expense.
He sees shijie the next morning. She is sitting by one of the many lotus ponds around Lotus Pier, watching the way the sunlight ripples on the water. He walks straight to her and kneels in front of her, the guilt choking him.
“A-Xian,” she says gently, as she reaches out to stroke his hair. He wants to pull away— he does not deserve her comfort— but it will only hurt her more if he does so. He lets her tuck his hair behind his ear, lets her tip his chin up so she can see his face. He looks at her, and sees no judgement in her face, and he cannot bear it.
“Shijie, I’m sorry,” he chokes out. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, please forgive me.” If she hates him, if she is upset with him, he deserves it, but he selfishly doesn’t want that, he cannot bear it, it will break him.
“A-Xian, there’s nothing to forgive,” she says, gentle as ever. He wonders how she can sound so calm and unbothered when her heart must be breaking inside. “It’s not your fault,” she says.
“But shijie, I ruined your betrothal, and now I’m stealing your husband, aren’t you mad at me?” he asks. A part of him wishes she would be mad, wouldn’t grant him the forgiveness he feels so undeserving of.
“Why did you punch Jin Zixuan?” she asks.
He told her once, when he first returned. He tells her again. “He was insulting you, shijie. I couldn’t let that stand.”
“If you hadn’t done that, maybe I would have been married to him already,” she says.
He feels even guiltier. “Shijie, I—”
She holds up a hand to stop him. “He did not know me then, or like me. If we had married, he would have resented me and by now, my love for him might have withered. We would have been a miserable couple, because we did not marry on our own terms.”
“You don’t know that for sure,” he argues. They might have found a way to look past their misunderstandings and be happy together, but then he remembers the things Jin ZIxuan had said about her and thinks she is probably right.
She sees him come to the conclusion and gives him a knowing look.
“The betrothal wasn’t called off because you punched him, A-Xian. It was called off because the situation brought to light the fact that if we had married, it would have been an unhappy marriage. Don’t blame yourself for showing what was already there.”
She smiles gently at him. “As for you marrying Jin Zixuan…”
“I’m sorry shijie, I’m so sorry about that.”
“Did you ask for it?”, she asks.
“No,” he replies, frowning in confusion. “Of course I didn’t, why would I?”
“Then why would I be angry with you?”
The dam bursts. “Because it's all because of me! It’s my power that Jin Guangshan wants, that’s why he proposed this marriage! I was the one who became powerful enough for him to feel threatened! I did it to keep everyone safe, to protect everyone, but now it’s the reason all of this is happening!” He breathes harshly. “I was trying to do the right thing, shijie, I didn’t expect this to happen.”
“A-Xian, it’s true that Sect Leader Jin fears the power you wield, but that doesn’t make it your fault that he reacted as he did. He made this decision. He set this plan in motion. If you have to blame someone, blame him.”
“But shijie, aren’t you angry? Aren’t you upset?”
She half-scoffs, half-laughs, and her voice is steely when she speaks. His shijie never shows her anger openly, never lets her judgement be clouded by anger, so he has almost never heard this steel in her voice. “Of course I am! I’m angry that Sect Leader Jin is a greedy pig who hardly participated in the Sunshot Campaign, and that he’s using his influence to do things like this. I’m upset that Jin Zixuan and I never got to know one another and see if we really were incompatible, or if love could have bloomed between us. I’m furious that he is forcing my little brother into a marriage just to get his hands on more power!”
She cups his cheek gently. Wei Wuxian wants to melt into her touch. “I am angry and I am upset, but none of that is directed towards you,” she says, looking seriously at him. “I know this is painful for you, A-Xian. I do not blame you.”
He sags in relief. Somehow, his shijie always knew what to say. She isn’t angry with him. She doesn’t hate him. He feels like he can breathe again. He feels guilty that shijie has to absolve him of his guilt, rather than focus on the way she feels, but he can’t help it.
He puts his hand on hers. Her hand is small, but they are the firm ones that have held him up through the years. “Shijie, you don’t always have to take care of me, you know?”, he says solemnly. “I can take care of you too. If there’s anything you want to say, anything I can do to make you feel better, you can come to me any time.”
Shijie smiles fondly at him. “When did my Xianxian get so wise?” she teases.
“Xianxian can’t remain three years old forever, shijie,” he replies, offering her a thin smile.
“Oh, A-Xian,” she sighs before hugging him.
They stay like that, holding each other until the sun gets too scorching for them to stay outdoors. Wei Wuxian is still worried about so many things, angry about even more things, and shijie still looks melancholy occasionally, but he feels lighter than he did.
Shijie doesn’t hate him. That’s one less thing weighing him down.
There’s only everything else.
Jin Zixuan’s courting gifts arrive before he does. Wei Wuxian is still avoiding Jiang Cheng, so it is one of the older disciples that informs him of it. The boy asks nervously if Wei Wuxian would like them brought into his room, and Wei Wuxian lets out a laugh so derisive that the boy looks embarrassed.
“Tell Jiang Cheng he can do whatever he wants with them. He can send back whatever he wants too. He is already more involved in this betrothal than I am,” he tells the disciple before leaving to go into town to discuss rebuilding with some of the people whose shops had been destroyed during the war.
From the time they began rebuilding, Wei Wuxian has been purposefully ensuring that the duties he picks out for himself are things that get him away from Lotus Pier as much as possible. It’s far too hard to hide how he feels from shijie and Jiang Cheng when he spends too much time around them. He’s afraid too, that Jiang Cheng will make him train disciples, something he had loved doing before the war, something he absolutely cannot do without revealing that there is an empty space where his golden core used to be. He has thought through the excuses he might give— that the Burial Mounds had damaged it, that Wen Zhuliu had crushed it before throwing him into the Burial Mounds— but the risk that Jiang Cheng might find out the truth is too much. That his siblings might look at him and see someone useless, feeble, fragile, is too much. They cannot find out.
Now, Wei Wuxian is glad for his past self’s forethought. He is relieved to be away from Jiang Cheng who had decided to marry him off to shijie’s former fiance of all people without even talking to him, without asking if he could think of another option— Wei Wuxian would have thought up something without committing to this marriage. Jiang Cheng who had insisted that Lan Zhan had hated him, only to betroth him to a man who did genuinely hate him. Jiang Cheng who knew he would agree to anything to keep shijie safe, to keep Yunmeng safe if only Jiang Cheng had asked, who had known this and still decided to do this without asking.
He is glad to not have to spend time with his siblings together too— shijie’s sharp eyes would immediately figure out that there was a problem between the two of them and urge them to fix it. He doesn’t want to fix it. He feels hurt, betrayed, bitter. He wants to keep feeling that way for a little while longer. He thinks he’s earned that much at least, with everything he’s given and given and given since the beginning of this war.
He leaves early enough that his siblings will either not be awake, or too busy to stop him. He thinks Lan Zhan would be proud of him, for how early he is waking these days. Between that, the amount of modified meditation he’s having to do to keep the resentful energy at bay, and how much he’s broadening his horizons in terms of musical cultivation, he would fit well into Gusu. If not for the demonic cultivation, anyway. It doesn't matter, it isn’t like he is marrying into Gusu Lan.
When he returns that night, he finds a new set of robes in his room. They’re in the black he favours, but they’re edged in gold. The red inner robes also bear subtle gold embroidery where they would peek out at the neck and sides. There’s no mistaking where these are from. He assumes he’s meant to wear this when his fiance comes to visit, but he plans to disappoint. They are much more tastefully done than he had expected from Lanling Jin, but all he feels when he sees them is irritation and anger and an urge to set them on fire.
He does not belong to Lanling Jin, and he doesn’t belong to Jin Zixuan. He isn’t going to display their claim on him by wearing those robes.
He has to marry into their sect, but he isn’t going to go quietly. He is no meek, docile thing. He has sent armies fleeing in fear, he has slaughtered armies.
Lanling Jin has no idea what they’re asking for.
Jin Zixuan arrives in Yunmeng on a particularly nice day. Wei Wuxian immediately feels irritated at that, like the weather itself is conspiring against him, betraying him by not being as angry and harsh as he feels. Shijie is nowhere to be seen, which was expected. Unfortunately, it makes for a rather awkward welcome for Jin Zixuan, where he and the two disciples he had brought with him— thankfully not that cousin whose name Wei Wuxian keeps forgetting— sit across from Wei Wuxian and Jiang Cheng, who still aren’t speaking, and a number of Jiang disciples who can clearly tell how tense this situation is.
They sit in incredibly awkward silence. Wei Wuxian isn’t wearing a single one of the courting gifts Lanling Jin had sent, and if Jin Zixuan is wearing anything Yunmeng sent, Wei Wuxian doesn’t know about it, because he has no idea what they did send. Jin Zixuan seems intent on not making eye contact with him, which frankly, Wei Wuxian can’t blame him completely for. None of them make conversation— Jin Zixuan is too awkward a conversationalist, Jiang Cheng is too abrasive, Wei Wuxian is deliberately keeping his mouth shut because he’s icing out both of them, and the disciples are all too nervous.
Eventually, Jiang Cheng breaks.
“Wei Wuxian, take Young Master Jin for a walk through Lotus Pier,” he says. “He might appreciate the view.” His tone suggests that Jin Zixuan better appreciate the view if he knows what’s good for him. “Maybe you can show him what we in Yunmeng do for fun.”
“Don’t we need a chaperone, Sect Leader Jiang? ” Wei Wuxian asks sarcastically, taking immense joy at the way both Jiang Cheng and Jin Zixuan flush— in anger and embarrassment respectively. “I wouldn’t want to be accused of impropriety.” If he has to do this, he is going to make it excruciating for everyone else.
“Just go,” Jiang Cheng snaps.
“As you wish, Sect Leader,” Wei Wuxian says, even mockingly bowing in a way that makes Jiang Cheng roll his eyes. “Young Master Jin,” he calls, pasting on an overly sweet smile, “Would you like to join me?”
Jin Zixuan nods quickly, following Wei Wuxian out of the room, keeping pace with him even though Wei Wuxian is purposefully walking much faster than one would while guiding a guest.
Wei Wuxian does not want to do this, does not want to show Jin Zixuan around Yunmeng, or go picking lotus pods, or hunting for pheasants, or do anything he thinks of as fun. He doesn’t want to share it with Jin Zixuan. There is only one person he wants to share that with, and he has summarily rejected the offer. Perhaps if he asked again, Wei Wuxian would get a different answer, but it doesn’t matter any more. Jin Zixuan does not get to do those things with him.
Then he remembers that Jin Zixuan is going to be doing a lot more than just picking lotus pods with him and he feels sick.
Wei Wuxian leads them quickly to a secluded area by an abandoned lotus pond. It is not personal to him— he could not bear to bring Jin Zixuan somewhere that is meaningful to him— but it is private, which is necessary for this conversation. When they are both in the clearing, Wei Wuxian fires off silencing talismans in every direction. Only when they take effect does he turn to Jin Zixuan.
The man sighs. “Wei Wuxian.”
Wei Wuxian lets some of his anger bleed into his voice and onto his face. “Jin Zixuan, unlike your cowardly reprobate of a father, you fought at my side during the Sunshot Campaign, didn’t you?” he asks.
“Uh… yes?” Jin Zixuan replies warily. He seems nervous. Good.
“Then you know what I’m capable of doing to my enemies, don’t you?” he smiles. It is not a nice smile at all. That smile had been the last thing Wen Chao had seen before he died horribly.
“I know,” Jin Zixuan says. He swallows, but to his credit, he doesn’t look openly terrified.
“Then you believe me when I say that if I find out that you were involved in concocting this bullshit plan to marry me, I will have no trouble making myself a widower?”
Jin Zixuan gulps. “This was not my idea, trust me,” he says hurriedly. “My father—”
“Good,” Wei Wuxian smiles the same dangerous smile again. “Because if you did this for power, or if you decided I was a better prize than my shijie, I will end you, and it will not be pretty.”
“What? No! I—, ” he stammers, before blurting out, “I love her! I love Lady Jiang!”
“What?” Wei Wuxian asks, incredulously. “Then why were you such an asshole to her?”
“I didn’t know her at first,” Jin Zixuan says blushing, now that his brain seems to have caught up to realize what he just admitted. “And later, I tried, but whenever I tried to speak to her, I would keep saying the wrong thing and I kept offending her. But I love her! I really do! I wouldn’t do something like this!”
Wei Wuxian sighs deeply. Jin Zixuan is very easy to read, there’s no way he’s lying.
Except now Wei Wuxian can’t be mad at the peacock either, if he didn’t want this marriage any more than Wei Wuxian did.
“So, one more time, you don’t want this either?” he asks, just to confirm.
“Wei Wuxian, I respect you, but there is no way I could fall in love with you, so no, I don’t want this either.”
He hadn’t expected the peacock to be a romantic, but it did explain a lot about how opposed he had been to the betrothal. But that does spark another question.
“Why did you agree to marry me, then?”
Jin Zixuan snorts. “Agree makes it sound like I had a choice. My father made it clear that if I didn’t go through with it, he’d replace me as his heir.”
“So you did do this for political reasons,” Wei Wuxian narrows his eyes.
Jin Zixuan shakes his head, before hesitantly explaining. “My cousin, the one I would have been replaced with… he’s too much like my father and he has a vindictive streak. I wouldn’t like the place Koi Tower would become under him. It wouldn’t… it wouldn’t be what a cultivation sect is meant to be.”
Jin ZIxuan meets his eyes. “Wei Wuxian, I know you have no love for Lanling Jin, and I understand it. But I grew up believing I could make it a better place for future generations of cultivators. If I am to do that, I need to play nice with my father. In this case, I had to agree to marry you. But I promise you, I will be your ally in Koi Tower. I will treat you with respect. I will make sure my father doesn’t do anything… rash.”
“And if I want to look for a way to break the engagement?”
“Go ahead,” Jin Zixuan says quickly. “I haven’t been able to do it, but you might have better luck. Just… be prepared in case it doesn’t work out.”
Surprisingly, knowing Jin Zixuan’s motivations actually makes him feel much better about this situation. This way, there are no expectations. They can have a strictly platonic marriage.
Except, it would be better if they could at least tolerate each other.
“Well, peacock, what do you say to a truce then?” he proposes, sighing again at the thought. “We are to be married, assuming neither one of us can find a way out of it.”
Jin ZIxuan sighs too, rolling his eyes. “Fine, but you have to stop calling me that.”
“What, peacock? But it suits you so well! Besides,” he grins mischievously, seeing the humour in this situation for the first time, “Isn’t it only expected that I should have a nickname for my beloved husband?”
“Please shut up,” Jin Zixuan says, but the corner of his lip twitches. It delights Wei Wuxian.
“Well, peacock, maybe this marriage won’t be so bad.”
“I already hate it.”
Once Jin Zixuan leaves, Wei Wuxian goes back to devoting his attention to the plan he has for the Yin Tiger Seal. He has theorized over and over, and he thinks he finally has a workable solution, but he needs some help with it. And truly, there is only one person he can ask. It’s not like he can avoid him for the rest of his life either. So he leaves Yunmeng, claiming he’s going on one last solo night hunt before he’s married, which nobody questions, because everyone can see the way he’s been chafing at the idea of this marriage.
He reaches Caiyi Town by boat by mid-morning, but he doesn’t really want to make his presence known in the area. And he really doesn't want to show his face in the Cloud Recesses. He instead hires a local to take a letter up the mountain for him, quickly scribbling one down as he speaks to the man. His handwriting is abysmal, but that should only further prove that he is who he says he is. He shoves the letter in the man’s hand, promising half the pay upfront and half when he returns from delivering it. The man leaves, and Wei Wuxian settles himself in a teahouse, ordering a pot of tea while he waits.
Soon, he hears the familiar voice calling his name from behind him. He huffs out a laugh. Trust Lan Zhan to be able to recognize him from the back.
“Wei Ying, are you well?” Lan Zhan asks earnestly when he turns around. Lan Zhan is always so kind— so sincere, even when he was fighting Wei Wuxian on his methods. He has given up on convincing Wei Wuxian to pick up the sword nowadays, thankfully. He still insists on playing music for Wei Wuxian, but he’ll take his victories where he can get them.
“Well, that depends on how you define well, Lan Zhan,” he drawls.
Lan Zhan frowns almost imperceptibly. “Is something wrong, Wei Ying?” he asks.
Wei Ying doesn’t answer that question. He cannot. “I have a question for you, Lan Zhan,” he says instead. “Will you come back to Yunmeng with me?”
Wei Wuxian convinces Lan Zhan to take a boat to Yunmeng instead of flying on their swords by making something up about wanting to show him the scenic route, which Lan Zhan thankfully doesn’t argue with. He chatters on about inconsequential things through the trip, occasionally offering to buy Lan Zhan some fruit or a snack or a drink they come across, only for him to refuse, and then buy them for Wei Wuxian instead, pushing them into his hands with a soft “for Wei Ying”.
When they reach Yunmeng, Wei Wuxian wishes this were the social visit he had invited Lan Zhan on all those years ago. He would give anything to walk around with him, showing him Wei Wuxian’s favourite spots to eat, where he used to play as a child, what he used to enjoy doing. But he cannot. There is too much riding on this trip, too much he has to ask of Lan Zhan, so he buries these desires deep and instead takes Lan Zhan somewhere private. He takes him to his favourite lotus pond and silences the place with his talismans.
“How much do you hear about Lanling?” he asks. He needs to ascertain exactly how much background information Lan Zhan knows.
Lan Zhan frowns. “Nothing much. Gossip is forbidden. Jin Guangyao communicates with brother often, but we do not talk about it.”
He lets out a deep sigh. “So I need to tell you everything. Alright.”
He hesitates for long enough that Lan Zhan looks worried again.
“Jin Guangshan wants the Yin Tiger Seal,” he blurts out before Lan Zhan can ask if he’s alright again. “His newest ploy to get it is marrying his son to me.”
A number of emotions pass across Lan Zhan’s face. He wonders how he ever thought him expressionless. There is shock, anger, heartbreak, and finally, resolution in that face.
“I’m hoping that if I can destroy the seal by then, he’ll have no reason to push for this marriage,” he continues quickly, seeing the hope light up Lan Zhan’s eyes. ““Even if I succeed,” he adds, “He might not call it off. He won’t want to let people know that he orchestrated this for the seal, and he would probably hate for his son to be known as someone who’s had two broken betrothals. But if the marriage still happens, I can’t let Jin Guangshan get his hands on the seal. It’s too powerful for him, he can’t be trusted.”
He sighs again. “I have to try, Lan Zhan. Neither of us want to marry— Jin Zixuan confessed he was in love with shijie after all, after all the complaining he did about having to marry her, and I… well…” he steals a quick glance at Lan Zhan before looking away. “Anyway, I’m the only person who might be able to do something about it, so I have to.”
He looks at Lan Zhan once again, sees the calm, resolute look on his face which has a calming effect on him too. He wishes he could stare at Lan Zhan forever. “Will you help me, Lan Zhan?” he murmurs.
“I will always help Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan replies.
They go to Yiling. Wei Wuxian needs to be in the Burial Mounds for this. It is probably unwise to do this without informing anyone else, but he cannot trust anyone else with this secret. Besides, all he needs is Lan Zhan. Between the two of them, they can handle this.
Lan Zhan is quiet as they enter. He has realized, by now, that Wei Wuxian was actually in the Burial Mounds for those months he was missing. He doesn’t say anything, but Wei Wuxian can tell how tense he is from the way the corners of his eyes tighten, the way his grip tightens on Bichen. He follows Wei Wuxian steadfastly into the Burial Mounds, not hesitating to go where he does. The unflinching faith Lan Zhan has in him would make him light headed on a good day, but he cannot afford distractions today.
They finally reach the place that Wei Wuxian had hollowed out for himself when he was thrown in here. There is less resentment here, but the impression of it lingers, stains the very air they breathe. Wei Wuxian is used to it, he has known it worse, he has cleansed it with his own will— he will not choke on it. Lan Zhan endures it admirably, his discomfort barely visible.
Wei Wuxian pulls out the Yin Tiger Seal. The two halves pulse in his hand, the power roiling inside them, begging him to use the seal, to destroy his enemies, to take what he is owed. He ignores it. He silences it. He turns to Lan Zhan, whose gaze is fixed, not on the seal— the evidence that Wei Wuxian is dangerous, that his methods are disgustingly powerful— but on Wei Wuxian’s face. His traitorous heart flutters just a little bit at that, at the idea that even with the Yin Tiger Seal in his hand, Lan Zhan trusts him enough to look at him instead.
“I’m going to destroy it,” he says without preamble. “I can do that part on my own. But when I do, it’s going to cause a backlash. Every resentful thing, every corpse in the vicinity is going to come right here when I do that. I need you to make sure they don’t kill me before I destroy both halves.”
Lan Zhan listens patiently. “Why bring us to the Burial Mounds then?” he asks when Wei Wuxian finishes. “Why bring us somewhere with so many resentful creatures? Isn’t it more dangerous?”
“Good question!” Wei Wuxian replies cheerfully. He can’t help himself, really. Demonic cultivation is so fascinating, and if he could talk about the way it works all day, he would. But no one wants to hear about it. This has been his first opportunity to teach, to explain. He hopes Lan Zhan will indulge him. “There’s two reasons for that.”
“One,” he puts up a finger. “The seal was forged using resentful energy in a place high in resentful energy. It needs to be destroyed in a place similarly high in resentful energy. I need to draw on the energy of the Burial Mounds to destroy it.”
“It cannot be destroyed by spiritual energy?” Lan Zhan asks. He sounds genuinely curious, not condemning, and Wei Wuxian feels even more thrilled at the idea that Lan Zhan is listening, even asking relevant questions.
“It can’t. The seal might overpower any spiritual energy. I did design it to fight against cultivators, you know?” Lan Zhan nods. “No, it needs to be destroyed by resentful energy. Nothing else can break it apart.” That, and he doesn’t exactly have a source of spiritual energy anymore, but he isn’t going to tell Lan Zhan that.
“That brings us to the second reason,” he says, putting up his fingers again. “No matter where I destroy it, there would be a backlash of energy. If I did it anywhere else, who knows what it might rouse? Buried corpses that were resentful? Ghosts? It might even turn normal corpses into fierce corpses! I can’t predict exactly what it would do. It might harm innocent people, and we might be facing a threat we don’t have full knowledge of.”
“Here,” he gestures around the Burial Mounds. “I know everything here, I know what will happen, what will be awakened. At the very least, everything here is already dead, we wouldn’t be hurting poor defenceless non-cultivators.”
“Mn,” Lan Zhan replies, nodding carefully. “Wei Ying is very thoughtful.”
“Of course, Lan Zhan,” he exclaims. “I’m the first one to walk this path, you know? I have to think through any potential dangers before I do something— especially something big like this. No one else can tell me when something might go wrong, I have to prepare for the possibility myself.”
“I understand,” Lan Zhan murmurs.
Wei Wuxian beams at him. Then, he turns a solemn gaze around. “Shall we?” he asks.
Lan Zhan gives him a decisive nod.
Wei Ying takes a deep breath, then crushes the seal with all his power.
It is a long, brutal fight. Wei Wuxian can barely remember all of it, only his strong intent to push, push, keep pushing until the seal crumbled in his hands. He remembers feeling the surge of resentful energy, the cry of the Burial Mounds as he pulled from it, taking as much of the energy as he could into his body. He remembers the pressure and the ringing in his ears, the spots in his vision as he forcefully channeled the energy through his body, used himself as a conduit for the energy around him. He remembers Lan Zhan between him and a mob of corpses, keeping everything away from him as he worked so hard to destroy his own creation.
When he comes to, he is kneeling, Lan Zhan hovering worriedly by his side. Despite fighting an army’s worth of fierce corpses, Lan Zhan looks ethereal as ever— his white robes unstained by the filth of the Burial Mounds, or blood. He wonders absently if there is something woven into the Lan sect’s clothes to keep them pristine. Wei Wuxian, on the other hand, can feel the way the mud is undoubtedly staining his robes at his knees, can feel the trickle of blood from his mouth. In front of him, the Yin Tiger Seal lies in pieces— he can feel that they are powerless, and relief floods him.
“We did it, Lan Zhan,” he slurs, blinking to clear his vision. For a second he feels unimaginably weak, like he is going to faint, but he barely even sways before the feeling is abruptly gone, leaving him feeling just as well as he did when he first got here. It is odd to say the least, but he attributes it to the resentful energy. Clearly, its after effects seemed to come and go unexpectedly. He needs to study it further.
“Wei Ying, are you alright?” Lan Zhan asks, reaching out to hold him by the shoulders.
“I’m perfectly fine Lan Zhan, don’t worry,” he replies, smiling a little at Lan Zhan’s disbelieving expression. “Ah, what’s with that face? I promise I’m fine! Really!”
He stands, offering Lan Zhan a jaunty grin, leaning down to pick up the pieces of the broken seal. Collecting them and carefully placing them in a qiankun pouch, he gestures back the way they came.
“Shall we?” he asks. One nod from Lan Zhan, and they’re off.
Lan Zhan spends the journey back to Lotus Pier fussing over him. Wei Wuxian only complains a little bit. Truth be told, he basks in it.
When they part ways in Lotus Pier, Lan Zhan going to an inn while We Wuxian heads home, Lan Zhan squeezes his wrist slightly. His touch burns through three layers of cloth.
“Take care, Wei Ying,” he mutters.
“You too, Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian replies.
They don’t have to say anything more.
When Wei Wuxian crosses the threshold, he is confronted by an angry Jiang Cheng, a sight so commonplace that it doesn’t even ruffle him anymore.
“Where have you been, Wei Wuxian?” he hisses. “Do you know how worried A-jie was?”
“I told you I was leaving,” Wei Wuxian protests. “Everyone knew I was going!”
“It doesn’t matter,” he whisper-yells. “Sect Leader Jin is here to meet his future son-in-law. We can’t keep making excuses any longer.”
“Excellent timing,” Wei Wuxian says. “I have some news for him that will certainly make him see things in a different light.”
Jiang Cheng only huffs and drags him into the receiving room.
“Sect Leader Jin,” he greets. “Wei Wuxian has just returned from a successful night hunt.”
Wei Wuxian bows as he is meant to, though he does not believe that Jin Guangshan deserves the courtesy.
“Sect Leader Jin,” he says. “It is fortuitous to have you here. As Chief Cultivator, there is a matter I believe requires your notice.”
“Indeed?” the man asks, looking amused, indulgent, like he is speaking to a particularly precocious child.
“Yes. You see,” Wei Wuxian tips the pouch over, allowing the broken pieces of the Yin Tiger Seal to fall to the floor. “I believe you were concerned about the existence of my Yin Tiger Seal. Rest assured that it has been destroyed. Its power no longer threatens to overwhelm anyone.”
For a moment, Jin Guangshan’s faux affable mask cracks and Wei Wuxian sees the dismay and rage that crosses his face, before he plasters that mask on again. For a moment, Wei Wuxian thinks he’s done it, he’s made himself seem like a bad bargain, like a fool, like someone not worth marrying into the Jin sect, but the hope is crushed immediately.
“There is no need to be so formal with me, Wei Wuxian,” Jin Guangshan says, recovering far too quickly from the surprise. Even Jiang Cheng still looks surprised, and he has known that Wei Wuxian has been working on this since the end of the war. “After all, we will be family soon. It would not do for my son-in-law to address me this formally.”
Wei Wuxian has to stop himself from gritting his teeth. Of course Jin Guangshan isn’t going to let himself lose face by calling off the marriage! It wouldn’t do for him to be exposed as the greedy, power-hungry monster he is!
“Sect leader Jin, you are too kind,” he says. “I’m afraid I am unworthy of such concessions.”
The thought of having to call this man his father-in-law makes his blood boil.
He is going to have to, one day.
He is going to have to marry Jin Zixuan.
He has done the only thing he could do, and he has failed to make Jin Guangshan budge.
The smug man begins to say something flowery and inane, some pleasantary about how Yunmeng and Lanling will be so close to one another, as Jiang Cheng responds in his usual blunt fashion. They say something about sending out the wedding invitations within the month, about tailoring the wedding robes, about the dowry, but Wei Wuxian cannot focus on it.
All Wei Wuxian can think of is Lan Zhan, in that inn, the press of warm fingers to his wrist, his gentle words, how it had been a goodbye of some kind.
He sneaks out early the next morning, makes his way to the inn, wanting to get there before Lan Zhan leaves. He makes it there just as Lan Zhan is preparing to mount his sword, and he calls out, breathless, needing Lan Zhan to stop there.
When Lan Zhan sees him, he sheathes his sword immediately and walks towards him quickly. He stops a little distance away from him, Wei Wuxian wants to close the gap, bury himself in Lan Zhan’s arms, but he restrains himself.
“Could I bother you for another talk, Lan Zhan?” he asks, smiling weakly. Lan Zhan only nods.
This time, he doesn’t bother leading him back to somewhere truly private. It is early enough that no one will be around, and truly, he needs to be alone with Lan Zhan as quickly as possible. The minute they are secluded enough and he has ensured their privacy, he slumps against a nearby tree. Immediately, Lan Zhan looks concerned.
“Wei Ying?” he asks. “What is wrong?”
Wei Wuxian wills the words out loud. “The marriage is still on.Jin Guangshan is here. He knows the seal is gone, but he won’t call off the marriage.”
Lan Zhan’s eyes widen— he looks torn between speaking and reaching out to touch Wei Wuxian and steady him. This unspoken thing between them grows until Wei Wuxian cannot bear the intensity of it. He cannot imagine a life without Lan Zhan by his side, but he cannot ask for that now. He is broken and empty and now he is no longer free to give his love away. He looks at Lan Zhan, and he knows he can read what’s on his face. They know each other too well for it to be otherwise.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan whispers incessantly. “Wei Ying.”
“Lan Zhan,” he chokes out in reply. “Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan, Lan Zhan.”
They are silent then, merely studying each other's faces. There is a tension in the air, it feels ready to ignite. Eventually though, it fades, leaving behind two lonely men and a number of unspoken broken promises.
“They’re sending the invitations out within the month,” Wei Wuxian says eventually. “All the sects will be invited.” He looks at Lan Zhan. He has to tilt his head just the slightest bit to look at him— they are nearly the same height, but Lan Zhan is just tall enough that he has to look up at him. It is an odd thing to notice now of all times. “Will you come?” he asks.
Lan Zhan merely looks at him for a long moment, then shakes his head, looking down. He looks back up eventually, the intensity of the golden gaze captivating Wei Wuxian. “I cannot,” he says. “I cannot watch Wei Ying wear red for another man.”
Wei Wuxian’s throat tightens. He does not want to wear red for another man either. And if he could spare Lan Zhan the pain of having to watch, he would. Of course he would. There is no question.
“It’s probably for the best,” he says. “Shijie has to be there, as my family, but if I could spare her the pain of watching the man she loves marry someone else… it’s good if you don’t come, Lan Zhan.” He has laid it bare, the implication. That he and Lan Zhan are to each other what shijie and Jin Zixuan are to each other. He does not dare to say it out loud now, of course, but it is true.
“I have… considered it,” Lan Zhan says after a long pause. “To see Wei Ying in wedding robes… even for someone else… but I found that I could not bear the thought of it.” He says it so sincerely, so matter-of-fact, like it is an incontestable truth, what he feels for Wei Wuxian. For all that he is a man of few words, they certainly are bold words.
“If you came, I might jilt Jin Zixuan,” he replies. “I don’t think I could stop myself.”
He nearly asks before he stops himself.
Would you run away with me?, he nearly asks.
It is an unfair question.
Because Lan Zhan would. He would do it. They both would, if one of them spoke it into existence.
But Wei Wuxian has his duties to his sect, to his family.
He has been ready to sacrifice his life for them. He has sacrificed his golden core for them. What is the sacrifice of love when compared to that?
As the sun rises higher in the sky, they are both increasingly aware of the limited time they have. Neither of them wants to, but they have to part ways. Lan Zhan has to go back to Gusu, help his sect, support his brother, who needs help as a new sect leader. Wei Wuxian has to go back, help the Jiang sect for as long as he can before he is married out into Lanling Jin.
They have their own paths to walk.
He knows the time of parting grows near.
“Wei Ying,” Lan Zhan calls.
“I must leave,” he says simply, though his eyes speak volumes. This is the end for us, they say. Our story comes to a close here. Here on out, we are acquaintances, friends even, but nothing more— never anything more.
“I suppose you must,” Wei Wuxian agrees.
“Yes, Lan Zhan?”
“Will you… will you let me tell you how I feel before I go? What I feel for you? What I’ve always felt for you?”
He wants that. He wants it so badly that he aches with it. But if he knows one thing, it is that he cannot have it.
“Please don’t,” he begs, grabbing Lan Zhan’s wrist. “Lan Zhan, I know how you feel, but please don’t say it.”
Lan Zhan looks stricken. Wei Wuxian wants to wipe the look off his face, but he can’t. “Do my feelings make you uncomfortable?” he asks quietly, almost subdued.
Wei Wuxian’s eyes widen. “No!” he exclaims. “Of course not!” his voice softens. “Lan Zhan, I feel the same way, but I don’t want you to say it, please.”
“If you say it, I won’t be able to walk away from you Lan Zhan. If you say it, I will not be able to resign myself to a loveless political alliance. If you say it, I won’t be able to marry Jin Zixuan. I know that probably pleases you, but you and I both know what has to happen. So for both of our sakes, please don’t say it out loud. Please.”
Lan Zhan nods. “Alright,” he says. “If that is what Wei Ying wishes.”
That is not what Wei Ying wishes. Wei Ying wishes to demand that Lan Zhan say the words that have been hanging around them for years now. Wei Ying wishes for Lan Zhan to kiss him, hold him, never be parted from him. Wei Ying wishes to run away with Lan Zhan to some small corner of the world where the two of them can live out the rest of their days in peace.
But what Wei Ying wishes does not matter. It never has.
So he says goodbye to Lan Zhan with a heavy heart. They have parted under more dire circumstances before, each riding out to certain death, but somehow, this goodbye seems a little more permanent.
The wedding is a blur.
Wei Wuxian cannot honestly say he remembers anything about it.
He has vague memories of shijie doing his hair, of red, red, red, everywhere, of bowing and pouring tea, but nothing more than that. His mind resents having to go through this, so it decides simply to not register anything that occurs. His body goes through the motions absently. The banquet is probably lovely, but he can’t tell, sitting there eating and drinking absently with his new husband by his side. It’s only when they stand to leave that Wei Wuxian even begins to register what’s happening.
The bedchamber has been decorated just as gaudily as Wei Wuxian had expected. There is gold everywhere. Even Jin Zixuan looks a little embarrassed at how it looks. He should be, it really is a travesty. For all their money, the Jins seem to have no taste, simply thinking that throwing gold around makes for a beautiful appearance.
“If we are to share rooms, I sincerely hope your taste is better than this, peacock,” Wei Wuxian says drily as they drink the ceremonial wine.
Jin Zixuan rolls his eyes, settling heavily on one side of the bed. Wei Wuxian moves towards the table instead, beginning to undo the beautiful, elaborate, and highly uncomfortable updo his hair is in, setting down each removed pin and ornament with a sigh of relief.
“Shouldn’t you ask me which side of the bed I want?” he asks as he methodically removes his headdress.
“Do you really have a preference or are you just trying to argue with me?” Jin Zixuan asks.
“If you think this is arguing, you wouldn’t last a day in Lotus Pier,” Wei Wuxian finally frees his hair, starting on removing the extravagant amount of jewellery next. “And no, I don’t have a preference, but isn’t it polite to ask?”
“I’ve never shared a room before,” Jin Zixuan admits. Wei Wuxian can’t help but snort, only for Jin Zixuan to give an indignant huff.
“Not even while night hunting?” he asks, his mind already working out how many delightful ways he can tease Jin Zixuan for being spoiled.
Jin Zixuan only glares and refuses to engage. Wei Wuxian pouts. How unfair!
Jin Zixuan goes off behind a privacy screen to change, leaving Wei Wuxian to do the same. He sets his wedding finery in a small corner off the room— it could probably feed a family for a month— before settling on the bed, the side Jin Zixuan hadn’t picked. By the time he returns, Wei Wuxian has made himself comfortable. If there is one good thing he can say about Koi Tower, it is that they do have comfortable beds.
Jin Zixuan looks at the bed, resigned. “I’ll take the floor,” he says.
“The floor? Don’t be ridiculous,” Wei Wuxian responds. “The bed’s big enough for both of us.” The bed is indeed huge— clearly the Jin sect has made every attempt at ostentation for this sham of a wedding.
“Peacock,” Wei Wuxian cuts him off firmly. “I have had a very long day. As much as I love disagreeing with you, I don’t want to argue about this. We’re both grown adults. We can handle sharing a bed.”
“Are you sure?”
“We’re married, Jin Zixuan. Do you plan to never sleep in the same bed as me for the rest of your life?”
He sighs. “I guess you’re right,” he says as he slips into the bed.
They don’t speak again as they turn out the lights, nor do they acknowledge the other person. The bed is big enough that they don’t touch like this. They could go on pretending they were each alone if they wanted to.
Jin Zixuan breaks the silence. “Should we… you know… should we fake a consummation?”
Wei Wuxian snorts. “Isn’t it more of a statement if we don’t?”
Jin Zixuan hums in agreement. Silence stretches on until he speaks again.
“Wei Wuxian,” he calls.
“Don’t you think it would be a bit odd if I kept calling you that? Calling my husband by his courtesy name?”
Wei Wuxian snorts and turns to look at Jin Zixuan. “What would you call me instead? Airen?” He nearly laughs out loud at the grimace that appears on Jin Zixuan’s face. Then he actually thinks about what Jin Zixuan said and sighs.
It would be extremely awkward. People would talk, and while Wei Wuxian cared nothing for what people said of him, Jin Zixuan wasn’t the same. And as future sect leader, it did actually matter what people said about him.
He knew what he would not offer to be called, that was too much, too private, too intimate. There was only one person in the world who called him that with fondness, and that address belonged to him and him alone.
But Jin Zixuan did need to call him something.
“A-Xian,” he offers finally. “You can call me A-Xian.”
“You can call me A-Xuan then,” comes the reply. Wei Wuxian hums in agreement.
They stay in silence once again, before Wei Wuxian breaks it this time.
“Jin Zixuan,” he calls. “Did you mean what you said before? About being my ally here?”
“I did,” he responds quickly. “I still mean it.”
“We would have to be a team,” Wei Wuxian muses. “Present a united front, always. We can fight in private all we want, but we can’t get into a public disagreement.”
“How are you saying this when you’re the one who’s punched me on two separate occasions?”
“I’m just thinking out loud!” he exclaims indignantly. “And besides, you deserved those punches for being mean to my shijie.”
Jin Zixuan sighs. “Yeah, I did.” Then he sighs again. “You’re right, about the united front. We can’t bicker. You can’t punch me again.”
“Are you going to insult my shijie again?” Jin Zixuan shakes his head quickly. “Then I won’t have to punch you again.” Then Wei Wuxian’s tone softens. “I’ll be your ally too.”
“Thank you,” Jin Zixuan whispers.
“Don’t thank me, peacock, just do what you said and make Lanling a better place.”
“I will, and you can help if you think I’m not doing it right.”
“You’d let me correct you? You?”
“I’m open to advice.”
Wei Wuxian turns to look at his new husband again, then shakes his head slightly. He can’t imagine the arrogant pompous boy he had punched at Cloud Recesses would have even considered saying that. For all of his faults, Jin Zixuan at least seemed to have learnt something in the years of the war. Suddenly, Wei Wuxian is hit with how tired he is, of how different everything is, but he does have to say something before he lets himself drift off.
“You really have changed, huh?” he says softly.
After a little while, Jin Zixuan responds. “Do you mean that as a compliment?”
“Surprisingly, yes,” Wei Wuxian says, as he turns away to sleep. Sleepily, he mutters. “Wonders will never cease.”
“Good night, Wei Wuxian,” Jin Zixuan says in response, and Wei Wuxian can feel him move around, presumably until he’s faced away too.
“Good night, peacock.”
They wake up the next morning, cuddling.
They do not speak of it.