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All her life, Jiang Yanli had been called gentle.

Different people said it differently, of course. Some said gentle and meant ‘fragile’. Some said gentle and meant ‘weak’. Some had said gentle and meant ‘boring’. Some had said gentle and meant ‘weak-willed and submissive’. Some had said gentle and meant ‘kind’. Some had said gentle and meant ‘graceful’. Some had said gentle and meant ‘needing protection’.

She knows that she is not as physically accomplished as her brothers. She is sickly, her cultivation is low, she does not enjoy night hunting the way they do— doesn't think she would even if her cultivation was high. Her brothers had far surpassed her in this area, but that doesn’t bother her. She feels nothing but pride, watching her A-Cheng and A-Xian excel. They are physically strong, yes, but her strength comes from other things. She is the one they come to for comfort, she is the one who holds them together, she is the one who tempers them, she is the one who had shielded them from her mother’s disapproval and anger— or she had tried, at least. She knows the world does not see these as strengths, does not recognize this, but her brothers do and that is all that matters to her.

Some days, she feels like her brothers are the only ones who see her as a person, who look beyond her frail health and poor cultivation to see her mind, her desires, her feelings. Her brothers try to protect her too, but somehow, it never makes her feel suffocated. They protect her, but it feels different. To them, she is worth defending, worth protecting, worth cherishing, because she is precious. Their protection never feels condescending. They do not disregard her wishes because they think they know better than she does.

She had been young when she had been betrothed to Jin Zixuan. She had hoped, when she had been younger, that he would be another person who would see her for who she is. Instead, he had resented being tied to her, resented having to marry her. She had liked him, or what she had known of him, and he had been attractive, but he didn’t feel the same about her. She had hoped that their marriage would foster goodwill, that he would learn to like her the way her mother and Madam Jin kept saying, but a part of her was terrified to end up in a marriage like her parents’.

When their betrothal had been broken, she had not been as upset as she was expected to be, and definitely not as upset as her mother had been. Where her mother saw shame at a broken betrothal, Jiang Yanli had seen the end of a betrothal with at least one unwilling party. Her dear A-Xian had tried to lie to her about why he had hit her former fiance, tried to keep her feelings from getting hurt, but she had wheedled the truth out of him. It had not surprised her that Jin Zixuan had badmouthed her— it hurt, but it wasn’t unexpected.

It had hurt much more when he had accused her of taking credit for someone else’s deeds. The tiny part of her mind that was determined to see the good in Jin Zixuan had pointed out that if he had been right in his accusations, he would have only been doing the honourable thing, defending someone no one else would have stood up for. The rest of her, though, was hurt and angry that he thought so poorly of her character that he believed she would do such a thing. She had known he disliked her for her mediocre cultivation abilities and that he hadn’t been enamoured by her appearance either, but to think of her as the kind of person who would steal credit from someone simply because they were from a lower class? That, to her, had hurt more than anything else.

He had apologized, much later, after the end of the war, at one of the banquets the Jin sect had thrown to celebrate. He had been so sincere in his apology, so embarrassed, that she had accepted it. He had brightened and visibly sagged in relief, and she had taken pity and engaged him in conversation a little while longer. It had been a very short conversation, Jin Zixuan following his apology with a few questions about whether she enjoyed cooking, what she enjoyed about it, how she had started it. She was glad to answer, asking him a few questions about what he enjoyed doing other than cultivation— drawing and horse riding, she had discovered. When their conversation had ended, there had been a tentative peace between them, but Jiang Yanli had refused to get her hopes up about reinstating their betrothal.

She had been right to do that, as it turned out, as within a year, Jin Guangshan had strong armed Yunmeng Jiang into marrying A-Xian to Jin Zixuan.

She had merely been slightly upset— the little girl who had thought fondly of marrying Jin Zixuan one day would have been devastated, but she was not that girl any longer— but more than anything, she was furious on her brother’s behalf. She, after all, had come to terms with not marrying Jin Zixuan. She had long since made peace with it. She had dismissed him in her mind as her first love, and even if he was starting to be kind to her, she had kept him at arm's length. He was not dear enough to her heart that his marrying someone else would break her heart forever. It would ache, seeing him marry, especially if he married her brother, but she would recover.

If this turn of events devastated A-Xian though, she would show everyone that gentle did not mean weak, that it did not mean timid, that being gentle was a choice that she made every day, that she could just easily choose not to make.

Lan Wangji has always known that Wei Ying was the kind of man who would set himself on fire to keep someone else warm. He is kind and selfless, too good for the harsh world that keeps taking and taking and taking from him.

He had thought it was brash arrogance, at first. He had thought Wei Ying believed himself infallible, that he believed in his abilities so much that he believed he was above getting hurt. The longer he spent with Wei Ying though, he had learnt how untrue that was. Wei Ying did not believe that he was untouchable, or that he was above consequences. Rather, he took a good look at any situation and decided that whatever the consequence, it was worth it, even at his own expense.

It was an admirable quality.

It was also a quality that Lan Wangji had despaired of often, terrified for Wei Ying, terrified that one day, the world would ask something of him that he would be all too willing to give, that Wei Ying would hurt himself beyond measure trying to do the right thing.

He had spent three months worried that he would never see Wei Ying again. It was an experience he never wanted to repeat.

When he was younger, Lan Wangji had often dismissed talk of love as frivolous and foolish. He had seen what had happened to his parents because of love, and he did not think it was selfish to want to spare himself some of that pain. But the second he had laid eyes on Wei Ying, all that had changed. The instant he had seen Wei Ying, he was gone.

It had irritated him beyond measure that he felt so strongly for a rule-breaking menace who seemed to thrive in making him glare in annoyance, a boy who was loud and had no regard for the rules that had governed Lan Wangji’s life, but was so bright and brilliant, a boy who paid no attention to lessons, but excelled at everything anyway, the boy who was a match for him in every way, something nobody had accomplished in all the years of Lan Wangji’s life. From the moment that blinding grin had entered his life, there was not a moment of the day that Lan Wangji had not basked in the warmth of Wei Ying’s regard. When he had gone back to Lotus Pier, it was like winter had fallen again.

As much as he had tried not to show it, Lan Wangji had immensely enjoyed their night hunting trip. In every town they stopped to help, Lan Wangji learnt something new about Wei Ying, and he treasured all of it. Every time he saw Wei Ying use his talismans, or confidently strike down a fierce corpse, or comfort a crying child, or argue with a street vendor about the price of a trinket, Lan Wangji could feel himself falling deeper in love. The more he saw evidence of Wei Ying’s good heart, his helpful nature, his strong sense of morality, the more he admired him, the more he loved him.

When Wei Ying had returned from the Burial Mounds, he had been different. Lan Wangji had no idea how to reach out to him, how to help him, except by taking him to Gusu to use their considerable resources and techniques. He hadn’t been able to convince Wei Ying though, the more he insisted, the sharper Wei Ying became in his refusals. They had argued loudly and quietly, in public and in private. Somehow, those days, every conversation they had had turned into a fight. Still, no matter how brutally he had been rejected, he spent the entire Sunshot Campaign fighting by Wei Ying’s side. Perhaps Wei Ying did not want his help, but Lan Wangji would be there anyway, to catch him if he fell, to bolster him if he faltered, to support him if he needed to. He had not been needed much, but being at Wei Ying’s side had given him comfort.

After the war was won, they had parted ways to help rebuild their own homes. The separation had done them good, because by the next time they had met, Lan Wangji had thought through every conversation they had had. Wei Ying did not want to go to Gusu, so he would not mention it. He would let him know that Lan Wangji was there to offer assistance if he needed it, but he would not pressure him to accept it. If he continued to be at odds with Wei Ying, if he kept pushing, he feared he would lose Wei Ying’s trust, lose their relationship.

He had spent enough time with Wei Ying to know how stubborn he was, but he also knew that at his core, Wei Ying was good. As violently as he had fought in the war, the aftermath showed that his heart had not changed. His light would not be dimmed by his cultivation path. Beyond all reason, Lan Wangji trusted him, and he trusted that if Wei Ying needed help, he would reach out. Wei Ying was not someone who would admit to needing help easily, but Lan Wangji had made him promise, and Wei Ying was honourable— he would not break a promise without good reason.

He had been proven right, too. When Wei Ying had come to ask for his help, he had been worried, of course, but he could not stop the feeling of elation at Wei Ying trusting him to help. Wei Ying’s situation had pained him, both for his own sake and Wei Ying’s sake, but his conviction had not wavered. He had followed Wei Ying into the Burial Mounds willingly. His heart had broken and he had been filled with terror and rage to think of Wei Ying there, alone, for all those months, but his admiration had grown too. Wei Ying had withsstood, had conquered a place that most cultivators spoke of with hushed voices, he had survived the worst place in the world and had come out on the other side.

Lan Wangji watched Wei Ying stride into a place as terrifying as the Burial Mounds with confidence and a sense of ownership. He listened as Wei Ying explained his cultivation path, thinking Wei Ying would make a good teacher. He watched, kept the corpses away, as Wei Ying destroyed the seal that had granted him so much power so that it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Wei Ying had changed, Lan Wangji had noticed. How could being thrown in the Burial Mounds not change someone? But despite it all, Wei Ying was still the person Lan Wangji had fallen in love with. That, at least, would never change.

When he had believed that Jin Guangshan would let his insane plan go with the destruction of the seal, he had felt the slightest bit of hope. Only later did he realize that he had been deluding himself. A man like that would have never backed down, not when it would have made him seem weak. But in his heart of hearts, he had hoped that it would settle down. Still, something deep inside him had hoped that he and Wei Ying would have their happiness.

There has always been something between them, even if neither of them has been in a position to acknowledge it out loud. Foolishly, Lan Wangji had told himself that they had time, that there would be many visits to Lotus Pier for him, even if there were no visits to Gusu from Wei Ying, that there would be summers and winters, and springs, and night hunts and meals, and discussions of cultivation theory.

But there wouldn’t, not for them.

His thoughts had screamed at him to run away with Wei Ying, elope with him before anything could be finalized, before Wei Ying could be promised to another man. They could be happy being rogue cultivators, he had thought. Their time night hunting had proven itself to be pleasant, and where Wei Ying had an adventurous spirit, Lan Wangji would be content to make his home wherever Wei Ying was. They could be happy together, free of the whispers about Wei Ying’s cultivation path and his terrifying power, free of worries about reputations or glory. It would be a good life.

But they were both dutiful, and they both had obligations towards their sects, and their families.

They could not escape to find their happiness.

And so, Lan Wangji had let Wei Ying go, had left him to do his duty and enter a loveless marriage, while he soothed his own broken heart by throwing himself into his duties. His brother had attended the wedding, but for Lan Wangji’s sake, he had refrained from mentioning anything about it. He wonders how Wei Ying would have looked in red, decked in jewellery, and his mind recalls the bright flash of colour Wei Ying had revealed when he had pulled off his outer robes in the Xuanwu cave, thinks of the robes he usually wears, the jewel-bright colour peeking out at the collar and sides. Wei Ying has always suited red, and Lan Wangji knows without a doubt that he must have been ethereally, incandescently beautiful in wedding robes. He will never get to see that sight, but he can imagine it.

He hears from his brother, who hears from Jin Guangyao, that Wei Ying is settling into life at Koi Tower, that he is making both enemies and allies. He hears that Wei Ying is more cheerful and agreeable than he had been during the war, but if Jin Guangyao makes the implication that the marriage has anything to do with it, Lan Wangji chooses not to interpret it that way. His brother only mentions Wei Ying occasionally, not wanting to remind Lan Wangji of what he has lost, but still intending to keep him updated.

Sometimes this brings him comfort, but other times, he wants to ask more and more questions, desperate for any news of Wei Ying. Is he well? Is he taking care of himself? Is he happy? Are his smiles real or faked? Does he miss the lakes of Lotus Pier? Does he miss the freedom of the open road? Does he miss Lan Wangji?

He doesn’t dare to ask any of these questions. He does not know if he can handle the answers.

He wonders sometimes, which one of them got the worse deal— Lan Wangji, who has to watch the love of his life marry another and yearn from afar, or Wei Ying, who has to resign himself into a loveless marriage, all while pretending to be happy.

He wonders if it even matters any more.

It takes Jin Zixuan three months to come to the horrifying conclusion that he actually likes Wei Wuxian.

When they were children, Wei Wuxian had been the annoying little brother to the girl he was being forced to marry, and that was all Jin Zixuan had seen him as. When they were fifteen at Cloud Recesses, he had to admit, he was a little… envious. He had noticed, of course, the ease with which Wei Wuxian could get any student— guest disciple or Lan sect member— to talk to him. It had annoyed him immensely. Jin Zixuan was a sect heir, someone who was expected to make connections with others, especially other sect heirs, but everytime he tried to talk to someone, he ended up saying the wrong thing. That is, if he managed to get up the courage to talk to them in the first place. Wei Wuxian, on the other hand, had no need to build connections or engage in diplomacy, yet somehow, he was able to charm every single student he spoke to, without even meaning to. They all hung on his every word and stared at him starry-eyed, though he never seemed to notice.

Jin Zixuan had felt an odd sort of kinship with Lan Wangji, those few months. He had thought Lan Wangji was the only other person in all of Gusu within their age group who was annoyed by Wei Wuxian. Later, he learnt that Lan Wangji and Wei Wuxian were night hunting together. The next time he observed them really interact in the Xuanwu cave, he had realized what Lan Wangji felt for Wei Wuxian wasn’t annoyance after all. It made him feel quite betrayed, that he was alone in his dislike of Wei Wuxian.

It had also bothered him— though he would never admit it, not even on the pain of death— that despite making an effort to befriend everyone else, Wei Wuxian had never given him a second chance, not after he had insulted Jiang Yanli, which he now acknowledges was a terrible thing to do.

There is something different about Wei Wuxian now. He is older, and there is something darker burrowed under his skin, and he often wakes up with nightmares, screaming soundlessly, but the way he acts is different too. He isn’t like he was during the war. Then, he was quick to anger and brutal in his vengeance against the Wens. He seems much calmer now, much less likely to murder someone for irritating him. He is… nicer, somehow, more understanding, more willing to offer advice without scoffing at Jin Zixuan. They take their meals together, and the experience is almost pleasant, despite the fact that Wei Wuxian methodically checks his food for poison before they start eating. He still calls Jin Zixuan a peacock and ribs him constantly about anything and everything, but it lacks the venom that once accompanied it, and slowly begins to be paired with teasing smiles instead.

It doesn’t hurt, of course, that for all that Wei Wuxian had irritated him when they were younger, he did respect the other man’s abilities. He had always been talented— Lan Wangji was the only one who had ever stood a chance of beating him— and despite the careless appearance he appeared to exude, Jin Zixuan knew firsthand that he adhered strictly to his morals. If nothing else, he could be trusted to do the right thing— the noble thing— and living in Koi Tower had taught him how valuable that made a person. Even now, when he refused to carry a sword and the shadows seemed to cling just a little too closely to him, when whispers and rumors dogged his footsteps, his particular brand of mockery is never cruel or vicious— at least not when it is aimed at Jin Zixuan.

It still is disconcerting, to say the least, when he realized that his grudging respect for Wei Wuxian has turned into a grudging liking of him. In hindsight, it shouldn’t have been surprising— his husband was charismatic after all, and Jin Zixuan had often seen people drift towards him like moths to a flame. Wei Wuxian may be quieter now, more withdrawn and intimidating, but his quick wit has not lost its sharpness, and his smiles, while smaller and less frequent, seem to be increasing in both frequency and intensity, especially when he’s actively trying. Of course, Jin Zixuan never thought he would be among those who admired these qualities in Wei Wuxian— he had spent the entirety of their acquaintance scoffing at the way boys and girls alike swooned at the flirtatious charm— but he had never actively tried to build a relationship with the other man before. It pained him just a little bit to admit that he understood how Wei Wuxian seemed to make friends so easily.

A year ago, if someone had told him that he would be married to Wei Wuxian, and that he would appreciate it, he would have laughed in their face. The revelation almost sends him into fits of hysteria now. But it is true. Wei Wuxian is both clever and loyal, and he has decided that Jin Zixuan is one of his people, for better or for worse. So when someone tries to condescend to him, Wei Wuxian is there to knock them down a peg. When he needs to turn an old associate of his father’s to his side, Wei Wuxian is by his side, his honeyed words persuading them that progress is what Lanling Jin needs, and that Jin Zixuan will herald that progress. When Jin Zixuan inevitably says something overly harsh or blunt, Wei Wuxian is there to soften the blow, spin his words in a more flattering way.

“A-Xuan was very influential in defeating the Wens, as I’m sure you know,” he says to a minor sect leader under Lanling Jin who definitely knows no such thing because he didn’t participate in the Sunshot Campaign, on his father’s recommendation.

“My husband simply means that it would be unbecoming for Lanling Jin to take over your territory,” he says, when Jin Zixuan abruptly refuses a night hunt request which is just a blatant way of shoving responsibility onto his plate.

“And who exactly are you?” he asks when a cousin of Jin Zixuan’s who is particularly irritating says interrupts Jin Zixuan with a pointlessly self-aggrandizing diatribe for the third time that morning.

Surprisingly, Wei Wuxian does seem to have a good grasp on politics and diplomacy. As someone who had watched Wei Wuxian spend the entirety of the Sunshot Campaign acting oddly, loudly fighting Lan Wangji, snapping at anyone who asked him too many questions, and bluntly insulting anyone who tried to get close to him, Jin Zixuan was surprised to see him play nice with people he knows for a fact Wei Wuxian is irritated by. The man no longer seems as temperamental as he was during the war— which was understandable, war changed people— but the shock of seeing Wei Wuxian smile fake politely at someone despite his eyes screaming that he wanted to punch the man in the face had thrown Jin Zixuan.

Indeed, Jin Zixuan had found that diplomacy was much easier with Wei Wuxian on his side. No matter what approach he needed, Wei Wuxian was there to assist. When he wanted to build rapport, Wei Wuxian would deliver. He had made Jin Zixuan like him after all, and that was after he had punched him multiple times— admittedly deservedly. On the other hand, he also hadn’t realized at first how immensely satisfying it would be to watch Wei Wuxian shut down so many of his problems for him. It reminds him of the simpler time of the Wen indoctrination camp— and what had his life come to that he thought of that as a simpler time?— when he couldn’t stop the amused huff from escaping his mouth even as Wei Wuxian deliberately goaded Wen Chao. The man’s ability to verbally eviscerate someone was deeply satisfying as long as it was directed at someone else.

For all that they had firmly been rivals when they were younger, Jin Zixuan had noticed the ease with which Wei Wuxian could achieve a balance between formality and familiarity to achieve his goal. Sometimes though— just sometimes— he thinks that the grudging fondness might go both ways, especially once their bickering turns from arguing seriously to simply arguing on principle, but he resigns himself to feeling unrequited friendship for Wei Wuxian if need be.

It horrifies him truly, but he is beginning to like his husband.

And for once in a long time, cleaning up the corrupt mess that is Koi Tower no longer seems like an impossible task.

For the long years that she had been Madam Jin, she had not worn the title with pride.

She had hated it, the reminder of who her husband was. The title she carried that linked her to him. She still hates it dearly, that reminder.

When her son had been born, she had one thing in mind when she raised him— her son would be nothing like his father.

And she had succeeded, mostly. Her son is utterly guileless, incapable of glibly charming and seducing women like his father did. He is not a philanderer, a disgracefully promiscuous adulterer. He is honourable and cares for those less privileged than him. Despite being stubborn and stiff and a little arrogant, her son has a heart of gold. He is a good man in the way his father certainly is not.

Unfortunately, living in a viper pit like Koi Tower, that has made him vulnerable.

She has worried, since the end of the war, that her A-Xuan will have trouble replacing his father one day. That Koi Tower will not accept a man as forthright and honest as her son, not after her husband has spent years ensuring that money and favours are what make things happen here. She fears for his life, worried that someone may find a more fitting candidate in the line of succession— someone more like her husband— and try to clear the way by assassinating her son. She fears that he will be manipulated or distrusted by his advisors, reduced to a puppet in the hands of their machinations.

She does not know what to make of Wei Wuxian.

She has heard of him, of course, the Jiang Sect’s prodigious head disciple who shot up through the ranks in the years since he was first taken in. She has heard the occasional tale of him from Yu Ziyuan too— disrespectful, ungrateful, undisciplined, she had said, though even she could not bring herself to dispute his status as Yunmeng Jiang’s head disciple. Yu Ziyuan had hated him dearly, but even her closest friend had been unable to tell if it was residual hatred for Cangse Sanren, or if it was anger that he was outdoing Yu Ziyuan’s son. No matter which it was, Yu Ziyuan would have hated him to the bitter end— her friend had always been singular in her hatred.

Through the war, she hears stories of him, terrifying stories, stories that sound exaggerated, that the Jin disciples insist are true. Then the war is over, and the stories taper away, but the fearful whispers of his name do not stop. There is anger too, at his arrogance, his presumption, his disregard for societal norms. He thinks he is above it all, she hears them say, just because he can control corpses. Does he think he is so powerful that he can do as he pleases?

When she hears that her husband has betrothed her beloved son to Wei Wuxian, she screams at him so loudly that every disciple is frightened away to the opposite end of Koi Tower. She yells and argues for days, curses her husband, threatens him, tries to make him see reason.

Her husband does not budge, foolish, greedy, stubborn man. He disgusts her more and more every day.

Her son accepts it, and she nearly screams at him too— how he had constantly shown is displeasure at having to marry Jiang Yanli who was a perfectly nice girl who would have made a good wife, but now, he is willing to marry a demonic cultivator, someone below him in status, someone outspoken, brash, rude, someone who had physically fought him on multiple occasions. She fears for the briefest moment that he has somehow become like his father, caring only for power, but her A-Xuan is not like that, he never has been.

The wedding happens, and she is wary. She fears for her son. She will not allow harm to come to her son. She will protect him from anyone— insanely powerful demonic cultivator, or the man she had married. Her son is trusting and good, and she will not allow that to be his downfall.

The tides turn.

Hearing whispers is nothing new— to live in Koi Tower is to hear whispers every moment of the day. But these are different. They speak of her son, not with derision, but with respect.

She sits up to pay attention.

Honourable, she hears. He bravely fought in the Sunshot Campaign even though his father was deeply worried about him, because it was his duty.

Honest, she hears, and it does not sound mocking. He speaks in pursuit of justice, and he believes in the value of truthful words. He does not care to hide his meaning, because he knows it is important to ensure the message is received correctly.

Thoughtful, she hears. He wishes for Lanling Jin to guide the sects under their protection, but he does not want to control them or overpower them.

He will be an excellent sect leader when the time comes, she hears. Even as young as he is, even as his opinions may challenge his father’s, his ideas have merit.

They speak of her son in glowing words, describe him as a leader they would one day look to and respect.

Her son, for all his good qualities, is not a good politician. He is too straight forward for that— she knows, because that is how she raised him to be.

She knows exactly who is responsible for this chain of events.

She supposes, that as far as sons-in-law go, Wei Wuxian is hardly the worst choice.