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Before the Morning Sun

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Jiang Cheng is trying to enjoy a nice breakfast and has only yelled at the servants twice this morning, when his wayward nephew comes in and ruins it all.

First, there is the fact that Jin Ling should be in Carp Tower right now, leading his sect instead of gallivanting around the world. Second, he’s red in the face, which makes Jiang Cheng all kinds of angry, since it’s very possible that Jin Ling has a fever and this sort of thing just wouldn’t happen if he heeded his uncle’s advice and dressed in warm clothes. Lanling may be known for its soft and thin fabric, but that’s no good when one is out night-hunting.

And third, there is a child in Jin Ling’s arms.

The sun has only been up for an hour or so, and Jiang Cheng already feels a strong headache forming behind his eyes.

“A-Ling,” he barks, while Jin Ling is attempting to bow, evidently realising that this is rather hard when holding a toddler. “You-“

“I can explain,” Jin Ling interrupts with the speed of one who has practiced this in his head many times on the way here. The child is still clinging to him, his face buried in Jin Ling’s neck. “There was a night-hunt, and Wei Wuxian-“

Of course, Jiang Cheng thinks. Of course his stupid brother is involved. He probably found this kid himself and then convinced Jin Ling to adopt him. It seems exactly like the sort of thing Wei Wuxian would think is a splendid idea. Why wouldn’t Jin Ling adopt him? he would tell Jiang Cheng blithely. Seventeen is such a good age for adopting kids! When I adopted A-Yuan, I was- and so on. Horrible. Horrible! Jiang Cheng must have committed grave sins in his past life, to be punished thus.

“-in Cloud Recesses,” Jin Ling is saying. “But then Hanguang-jun showed up! He was all, you know-“

“Use your words,” Jiang Cheng snaps. Even when faced with the random child his nephew is intent on raising, he can still instil some manners into Jin Ling. It hasn’t worked until now, but that’s no reason to give up hope.

“Scary! With his face, he’s just, you know-“ Jin Ling catches Jiang Cheng’s face and hastily adds, “-glaring, all the time, kind of like you, Uncle, but more if you were really intimidating, you know? And I asked him what he was doing there and he didn’t reply, but then he was like, Wei Ying sent me, which was really gross actually? Keep that in the bedroom! But obviously I didn’t tell him that, I told him, great, we could use your help, and I let him take the lead but only because he’s so experienced and he’s basically a sect leader too so it’s fine. And then, you know.”

It’s not a headache, it’s a migraine. A migraine dressed in the golden robes of Lanling Jin. A migraine Jiang Cheng made the mistake of raising personally.

“And then what?” he asks. “And then you found a kid and your no-good uncle told you to take him in?”

Jin Ling stares at him. In his arms, the child, perhaps disturbed by all the shouting, starts crying, although very quietly: no sound escapes him, but his small body is trembling. Weak! At that age, A-Ling was able to sleep through all kinds of noise.

“No,” Jin Ling says slowly, like Jiang Cheng is an idiot. “And then, a curse hit him, and he turned into a toddler.”

A very specific kind of dread is settling over Jiang Cheng. He almost doesn’t ask. Almost. But, just now as Jin Ling finished speaking, the kid turned his head a little, and Jiang Cheng could have sworn he saw the white flash of a forehead ribbon.

“Who’s he?”

“Hanguang-jun.”

***

Within half an hour, Jiang Cheng learns more about Lan Wangji – Hanguang-jun – whatever they called him as a kid, definitely not Lan Zhan because if Jiang Cheng even thinks that his brother is going to spontaneously manifest right here in Lotus Pier and make this whole thing even worse –, than he ever wanted to. He learns, for example, that Lan Wangji was a quiet child. Very quiet. Unnervingly quiet. Like- okay. Jin Ling spent large parts of his childhood in Lotus Pier, and Jiang Cheng never threw any of the stuff away. It’s not hard asking a servant to get all that stuff back from where they stored it, and then to dump a large pile of clothes and toys in front of Lan Wangji and tell him to pick something. That’s just called being decent, especially because Lan Wangji is still only dressed in Jin Ling’s over-robe, which – what happened to his own clothes? Did Jin Ling just leave them in the forest? Are Hanguang-jun’s very expensive, very fancy white robes just lying in a puddle of dirt somewhere?

But instead of going through the pile and picking out all the good stuff like any reasonable kid would, Lan Wangji – Hanguang-jun – just kneels in front of it, hands calmly resting on his thighs, unmoving. At least, Jiang Cheng thinks, he’s no longer crying.

He’s still thinking about how to handle this when Jin Ling, who apparently has no such compunctions, sits down next to the kid and says, “Hey, what’s your name?”

“A-Zhan,” the kid says, which, okay, that’s so weird.

“That’s so weird,” Jin Ling says, because he’s never developed a brain-to-mouth filter. “How old are you?”

“Six.”

Weird,” Jin Ling repeats. “You look much younger,” he adds judgementally. Jiang Cheng sees the gutted expression the kid – Lan Wangji – A-Zhan – makes at that proclamation and hastens to join them before more tears can happen, although he has to admit to himself that Jin Ling is right. The kid does look young. It’s even more obvious from up close, actually. Lan Wangji must have hit a growth spurt at some point, but at the age of six, he’s as short as Jin Ling was as a four-year old. Way thinner, too. Really thin. All kids are tiny, of course, but Jiang Cheng can tell the difference between a slender child and a child who has lost weight. He frowns.

While he’s been lost in thought, Jin Ling has found a robe that should probably fit a child of this size, even a skinny one. “Do you need help dressing?” he asks, sounding like he hopes the answer is no.

Hanguang-jun – fuck it, A-Zhan – shakes his head. He accepts the robe without complaint, but when Jin Ling directs him to a privacy screen, he hesitates, biting his lip.

“What is it?” Jiang Cheng asks, before Jin Ling can open his mouth again.

A-Zhan takes several seconds to answer. “It’s purple.”

He can only be referring to the robe. It is purple, with lotus flowers stitched on the sems in pale pink. Jin Ling had worn it a lot, but only in Lotus Pier, he remembers. Naturally, Lotus Pier was the only place he could have worn it. A future sect leader, even as a child, can hardly be seen in colours from other sects. And suddenly, he understands what the problem is.

“A-Ling,” he says, “go fetch a servant and tell them to go to the market and find a set of white robes for Lan-er-gongzi. If the merchants insist there aren’t any, pay them double, and they’ll find some soon enough.”

Jin Ling bows and leaves. And just like that, Jiang Cheng finds himself alone with a six-year-old child, who just so happens to also be Chief Cultivator, war hero, and, technically, his brother-in-law.

He gently extricates the purple robes from A-Zhan’s grip and puts them back on the ground. A-Zhan is staring at a spot on the wall, sitting utterly still in a way Jin Ling never did. It’s a little freaky, to be honest, although he supposes that it’s only normal for Lans. They probably encourage this sort of behaviour.

“Sect Leader,” A-Zhan says, “where am I?” He’s still not looking at Jiang Cheng.

A little surprised that the kid figured out his status, Jiang Cheng says gruffly, “In Lotus Pier. Do you know where that is?”

A-Zhan nods. “In Yunmeng. It’s the residence of Yunmeng Jiang Sect, lead by Sect Leader Jiang Fengmian and his wife, Yu Furen. It is known for-“

“That’s enough,” Jiang Cheng hastily says. A-Zhan’s shoulders droop, so he hastens to add, “Very good.” Is A-Zhan blushing? Gods above, he can’t take this. He needs to figure out how to get rid off this curse, and then he needs to go into hiding and never look Lan Wangji in the eye ever again.

First, though, he needs to deal with the fact that he is, at least for now, the sole caretaker of a small child.

A-Zhan is no longer looking at the wall, his gaze focused somewhere else. Following it, Jiang Cheng sees the breakfast table, still laden with food that the servants have not yet had a chance to clear away.

He thinks back: Jin Ling had interrupted his breakfast earlier. If he came here straight from whatever night hunt he was doing, it would have been sensible to stop at an inn somewhere for a meal and a quick rest first. Travelling with children is already a special kind of hell. Travelling with a tired and hungry child? It’s kinder running oneself through with one’s own sword.

“Are you hungry?” Jiang Cheng asks. “Or did my nephew actually remember his manners for once, and got you something to eat?”

The questions do not have the intended effect. Realising that he has been caught looking at the food, A-Zhan stiffens, eyes dropping to the floor. “I’m sorry,” he mutters, which isn’t an answer.

Fuck it, Jiang Cheng thinks. Whatever weird hang-ups the Lans have managed to instil in their disciples at such a young age, it doesn’t matter. Jiang Cheng is good with children. He’s not going to let Lan Wangji take that away from him if it kills him.

He stands, holding out a hand to help A-Zhan up. A-Zhan’s blank face indicates that he does not know what to do with it; when he rises, it’s without any help. Whatever. Whatever.

Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath, and then does what he always did when A-Ling was being difficult. He starts being manipulative as hell.

“Well,” he says loudly, “I, personally, am starving. Probably comes from having such a high level of cultivation. Have you started cultivating yet?” It’s a redundant question; of course A-Zhan has started cultivating. Developing a golden core takes time, so starting young is crucial. Gusu Lan is known for taking on disciples earlier than most. At six, Lan Wangji would have been taking lessons for at least two years now.

Still, A-Zhan nods. “Yes.”

“Then of course this young master knows all about the importance of a healthy diet, right? Nutrition is vital for a strong golden core. In fact, skipping even one meal is disastrous. So I’m going to finish eating breakfast, just to keep up my strength. But if you feel that you’re already strong enough…“ Jiang Cheng meaningfully trails off, waits a few seconds, inwardly counts to ten.

Sure as clockwork, he has just finished the count when A-Zhan says, “May I have breakfast, too?”

Score.

By the time Jin Ling comes back with child-sized white robes that probably cost an exorbitant amount of silver, Jiang Cheng has successfully convinced A-Zhan to eat two filled crepes and one piece of fruit. He’s also personally refilled A-Zhan’s teacup multiple times, because while serving your elders is all good and well, sometimes it’s just more important to stay hydrated. Throughout it all, A-Zhan has not said a single word, which was vaguely unsettling until Jiang Cheng remembered that it’s a Lan thing. He still recalls his own days in the dining hall of Cloud Recesses with a sort of abject horror: nothing but the clatter of chopsticks against bowls, oppressive silence in every corner, everyone sufficiently cowed into muteness except for his brother, who would keep giggling until he was kicked out, first out of dinner, then out of school.

“Uncle!” Jin Ling shouts, dropping into a chair as loudly as humanly possible. It’s a good thing they stopped the whole foreign disciples experiment at the Cloud Recesses, Jiang Cheng reckons, because if they didn’t, they’d have another Wei Wuxian at their hands right now. In terms of noisiness, Jin Ling is able to rival his uncle. “I got the robes!”

“Settle down,” Jiang Cheng says warily. He has already noticed that A-Zhan tends to flinch at loud noises. Lan Wangji must have grown out of this eventually; otherwise, how would he ever be able to handle that husband of his?

Jin Ling glances at A-Zhan, who is currently sipping his tea with a grace unbefitting of any six-year-old, and says, “Hey! I got your robes. The merchant wanted to give me really old, crappy ones first, but I told him that I’m a sect leader and I won’t accept anything but the best, and so he gave me these ones instead. Try them on!”

It takes Jiang Cheng a second to realise that A-Zhan is looking at him, and another second to realise that he’s looking at him for permission. “What are you still sitting here for? Go do as he says. Jin Ling, go take him into a guest room or something, Lans probably spontaneously combust if they get changed in public. And no running!”

Jin Ling, for once, doesn’t argue. He offers to carry A-Zhan, the kid says no, he offers to hold A-Zhan’s hand, the kid says no, he tells A-Zhan to call him Ling-gege, the kid seems undecided but follows him out the room without further protests. Jiang Cheng is left alone for the first time since this morning, and allows himself a moment of wallowing in self-pity.

It's just – he thought he’d be done raising kids. But of course, it’s utterly typical of Lan Wangji to go and ruin that. And what is Jiang Cheng supposed to do now, huh? Write to Zewu-jun? Write to Old Man Lan? Write to Wei Wuxian? And then what? Have them come here? No. Word would get out, is the thing. Not even a sect leader can count on his correspondence being secret. Especially not a sect leader. Even if he could be sure that his letters won’t be opened, what are people going to think if two high-standing members of Gusu Lan go to Lotus Pier? After the Chief Cultivator disappeared?

No way. Any curse can be broken. It will be broken, once he sends some disciples out to investigate it. Hell, he will even investigate it himself. But first, he must make sure that no one is going to find out what happened. Because, well. He may, on a personal level, wish that Hanguang-jun would choke and die, ideally in a painful and publicly humiliating manner. But right now, he isn’t dealing with Hanguang-jun. He's dealing with A-Zhan. Jiang Cheng is man enough not to hold that against him. Will everyone else be? Or will they jump on this chance to get rid off a bothersome public figure once and for all?

Jiang Cheng can’t be sure. But he is damn well not going to give anyone the opportunity to find out.

***

Fed and finally dressed in clean and fitting clothes, A-Zhan grows bold enough to ask for a brush and some paper. He asks this very politely, very properly, making every parent everywhere weep in joy without knowing why.

Jin Ling, who is listening in on this exchange, asks, “Are you going to draw something? Can you draw a dragon? When I was a kid I drew so many dragons, Uncle, do you remember? Do you want me to show you how to draw one?”

“No thank you,” A-Zhan says.

Visibly disappointed, Jin Ling says, “No? Well, what else are you going to draw?”

Jiang Cheng is ready to intervene on A-Zhan’s behalf (just because Jin Ling is used to bothering people doesn’t mean it’s always appreciated), but then the kid says, “I’m going to copy rules” and Jiang Cheng just stops. Because, what?

“What?” Jin Ling asks.

As though fed up with their stupidity, but patiently willing to educate them anyway, A-Zhan explains, “The rules. My sect rules. I need to copy the chapters on conduct and self-restraint.”

Why?”

“As punishment,” A-Zhan says, looking almost as confused as Jin Ling.

Suddenly, Jiang Cheng is filled with a burst of relief that he hasn’t written to Zewu-jun and the Grandmaster. If he did, and if they had actually come, it’s very possible that he’d have punched something. Or someone. Possibly Zewu-jun and the Grandmaster.

“Punishment?” echoes Jin Ling who, unlike Jiang Cheng, never spent a few excruciating months in Gusu and doesn’t realise that yes, Gusu Lan Sect really is this messed up.

“Mn,” A-Zhan says, although he doesn’t quite have his older counterpart’s ability yet to make it sound completely nonchalant. “For how I acted.”

“For how you acted?”

“Jin Ling,” Jiang Cheng barks, because he can’t listen to this any longer, “stop that, you’re not a parrot.”

Jin Ling’s face turns an unhealthy shade of red that would be worrying if it didn’t turn that colour approximately eleven times a day. “Didn’t you hear what he said? He said that-“

“Yes, thank you, I’m not actually deaf. Go get a brush and some paper.”

“Uncle-“

“Go!”

Jin Ling goes. Sending him away to fetch stuff probably won’t work a third time – frankly, Jiang Cheng is impressed that his nephew obeyed even two times. Must be his guilty conscience over the whole curse thing, which reminds him that he still needs to question Jin Ling about that. But not now.

“A-Zhan,” he says, causing the kid to look at him questioningly. “I told you we’re in Lotus Pier, right?” He waits for A-Zhan to nod. “Well, in Lotus Pier, we don’t punish people by making them copy rules.”

Why is A-Zhan paling? He’s trying to be comforting.

“You-“ A-Zhan says, breaking off again almost immediately. He drops his gaze, takes a deep breath and tries once more, this time with his eyes on the floor. “You use only the discipline whip?”

It takes almost physical effort not to start cursing. “No,” Jiang Cheng says, not even caring how horrified he sounds. “I meant that we don’t punish people at all.” This is not, strictly speaking, correct, but it’s true enough for this purpose.

A-Zhan looks unconvinced, so Jiang Cheng changes tactics. From the corner of his eye, he can see Jin Ling approaching with his arms full of paper; he jerks his head to keep his nephew away for now, and says to A-Zhan, “Remind me - have you ever been here before?”

Lan Wangji might have – back when Jiang Cheng was a child, sect leaders would often take their kids for a visit. Jin Zixuan spent whole summers here, sulking and not talking to any of them while their fathers discussed trade agreements, and whenever a discussion conference was held in Lotus Pier, the whole place was bustling with people.

Whether he truly hasn’t been, or he simply does not remember as part of the curse, A-Zhan shakes his head.

“See, that’s just ridiculous,” Jiang Cheng says with as much conviction as he can muster up, which is a lot. “Has no one ever told you that Lotus Pier is the most beautiful place in the world? Much better than your Cloud Recesses. What, you don’t believe me? Does Cloud Recesses have lotus lakes, then?”

“No.”

“No? What about a dock? We have a dock where you can rent a boat, if you have the money, and then you take that boat right to the middle of the lake, where you can pick lotus seeds. Do you have that in Gusu?”

“No.” A-Zhan looks vaguely upset, like he’s questioning the unfairness of the fact that Gusu doesn’t have such marvels to offer. But he no longer looks like he’s about to cry because he thinks Jiang Cheng is going to beat him, so that’s progress.

“No? A market, then. We have a market right outside our gate, where everyone can buy as many toys as they like. Don’t tell me Cloud Recesses doesn’t have such a market?”

“We don’t,” A-Zhan says. With this much teasing, Jin Ling at that age would have already thrown a tantrum, but the only sign of distress A-Zhan shows are his lips, which are turned downwards at the corners.

Jiang Cheng makes a show of sighing in exaggeration. “I guess it’s no use, trying to compete with Cloud Recesses like this. You probably don’t even want a tour, not when you’re used to such superior beauty.”

Silence. Then A-Zhan says, reluctantly, like the words are being ripped out of him, “I don’t need a tour. I should stay here.”

Damn, Jiang Cheng thinks. This is harder than he expected. “Of course,” he says understandingly. “You’re very busy. What self-respecting six-year old wouldn’t be? So I’ll just show you to a guest room and leave you alone until lunch, shall I?”

More silence, followed by a slow nod.

Jiang Cheng grits his teeth. “Unless,” he says, “Lan-er-gongzi cared to remember his manners and realised that when on a diplomatic visit at a different sect, it’s prudent to participate in some of the local traditions. Are you going to shame your family, or are you coming to the market with your seniors?”

“I’m shaming them?” A-Zhan asks, his eyes wide and unhappy.

Jiang Cheng crosses his arms and says, “Not if you go to the market with me.” He holds out his hand. This time, A-Zhan takes it.

***

On the way to the market, Jiang Cheng takes to subtly questioning A-Zhan about what he remembers. The answer is: nothing from his adult life; in fact, nothing beyond the age of six. He seems to think that Jiang Cheng is Jiang Fengmian until told otherwise, and apparently doesn’t know what to make of Jin Ling at all. He is unable to any question on how he got here, except that he just woke up in the forest with Jin Ling standing over him.

“And before that?” Jiang Cheng presses. A-Zhan’s hand is still in his, and abruptly tightens at the question.

“Nothing.” It’s obviously a lie, but also they’ve just gone through the gates and stepped into the crowd, and so Jiang Cheng decides to drop the matter.

As always around midday, Lotus Pier is bustling with life. Vendors are shouting at potential customers and each other, people everywhere are haggling over prices, a street musician is playing a merry tune on his flute, there’s an omnipresent smell of fish and fried food, and somewhere, a tired mother is consoling her crying child. Some people are staring at Sect Leader Jiang and the child he seems to have acquired, but mostly people are minding their own business, which he appreciates.

Next to him, Jin Ling is practically bouncing on his heels in a way that is entirely unbecoming of a sect leader and also just a cultivator in general. He’s infinitely more embarrassing than Jiang Cheng ever was, even at seventeen. “Can we get meat buns?”

“You just ate breakfast! Don’t be greedy.”

“Yes, but they’re so good here. A-Zhan wants some meat buns, right, A-Zhan? Or do you want something else? Ice cream? Uncle, can we get ice cream?”

A-Zhan frowns at Jin Ling. “It’s not noon yet,” he says, even though he has perked up at the mention of ice cream. Even if it were noon and therefore a Lan-approved time for a meal, ice cream probably wouldn’t be okay. Something about health, or gluttony, or the inherent sin of eating for anything but nutritional value.

Ugh, Jiang Cheng thinks. “We’re getting ice cream!”

“Fine, gods,” Jin Ling says. “You don’t have to shout. You’re so embarrassing!” This accusation is pretty rich, coming from someone who is currently wearing eyeliner because he thinks it makes him look badass. Whoever Jin Ling is hoping to impress with this, it’s not going to work, at least not on his uncle. Jiang Cheng already knows that Jin Ling is and forever will be inherently uncool.

He leads the way to a food stand near the docks that sells glazed nuts, crepes, and ice cream. A-Zhan is too short to look at the different flavours and so Jiang Cheng lifts him up without thinking, hoisting him up against his hips and angling him so that he can read the sign. A-Zhan goes stiff at first, but quickly relaxes against him. “May I have chocolate?” he asks, so quiet that Jiang Cheng has so strain his ears to hear.

The saleswoman proves herself to be in possession of the kind of impeccable hearing only displayed by merchants and bats, and promptly hands A-Zhan an ice cream cone with two scoops of chocolate, plus sprinkles and whipped cream, which they haven’t ordered but which obviously they have to pay for now. Even if Jiang Cheng was inclined to make a scene, which he isn’t because he’s not a complete asshole, he would be changing his mind right about now, since A-Zhan’s eyes are round and he’s looking at the ice cream like it’s the fifth yin iron piece. Wordlessly, Jiang Cheng hands over enough silver to buy fifty more scoops.

He should probably let the kid walk on his own again, but A-Zhan is so focused on eating his ice cream that he doesn’t remember to ask, and Jiang Cheng just kind of forgets. It’s instinct, anyway, walking around the market carrying a child like this. A-Zhan is light enough that it’s no trouble, and also, Jiang Cheng had to carry Jin Ling until he was at least eight years old, just to keep him from running off everywhere. He would have carried him even after that, except Jin Ling took to kicking him until Jiang Cheng would drop him. It’s just nice, having a kid who’s honouring his elders and being respectful. Makes for a good change.

Jin Ling, meanwhile, is still trying to get A-Zhan to call him Ling-gege. He’s already finished his ice cream and is now pestering the kid in a way not wholly unfamiliar to Jiang Cheng. “Ling-gege,” Jin Ling says. “Why not? What’s wrong with that?”

A-Zhan, his face miraculously free of chocolate so far, doesn’t reply.

“I just think it would be nice,” Jin Ling says, the very picture of hurt pride. “Uncle, can you tell him to call me gege?”

“Jin Ling, I want you to think about how a six-year old is disobeying you, and draw conclusions about your authority as sect leader. Pathetic!” Jiang Cheng switches A-Zhan to his other hip and stalks off, so that Jin Ling has to run after them to catch up.

A lot of vendors are selling toys, so Jiang Cheng makes a point to stop at every one of them, trying to check A-Zhan’s face for a reaction over what he likes best. Just after Wei Wuxian had come to live with them, they’d go to the market every day to look at the wooden swords, wanting nothing more than to have one right up until the day when they both received their real swords. It’s why Jiang Cheng had given Jin Ling at least a dozen wooden swords, getting him a new one for every visit. What good is being an uncle if you can’t spoil your nephew?

He takes A-Zhan to the very same stalls now, pointing out all the fake swords and daggers and crossbows. A-Zhan is decidedly uninterested in all of them, even after Jiang Cheng puts him down in order to demonstrate how this sword, look, can be used to just cut a man in half, isn’t that impressive?

A-Zhan starts crying.

“Uncle!” Appalled, Jin Ling starts ineffectively trying to wipe away A-Zhan’s tears with his own sleeves. It’s not really working, since new tears keep coming. Jiang Cheng hastily puts the wooden sword back in the basket, bows to the vendor in apology, and tries to fix this.

He taps A-Zhan’s arm to get his attention and points at yet another market stall. It’s just meant to serve as a distraction, a tried-and-trusted method he did all the time with Jin Ling and that, a lifetime ago, A-Li used to do with him and Wei Wuxian. In his experience, kids don’t really have the attention span to keep up a tantrum for very long, so it’s just a matter of distracting them well enough to make them forget all about it.

He'd barely looked at the stall before pointing at it, but miraculously, it works way better than he imagined: A-Zhan stops crying instantly. Curious to see what possesses such power – is someone handing out free bowls of bland congee? Are they offering portraits of Wei Wuxian’s stupid face? –, Jiang Cheng takes A-Zhan’s hand again and leads him over to the merchant, where he finally sees what a six-year old’s keen eyes have, of course, spotted immediately: stuffed animals, lots of them. A-Zhan seems transfixed by them, not daring to touch but clearly wanting to.

He opens his mouth to tell A-Zhan to pick something, anything, but this time, his nephew is faster. “Do you like them?” Jin Ling asks, already searching for his purse. “Go on, take one! I’ll pay.”

Jiang Cheng spends a moment being oddly proud that over the course of less than six hours, Jin Ling has already learned that when it comes to dealing with children, bribery is the best way to go.

He's half-expecting A-Zhan to refuse, but it turns out that not even Lan children are above the magical pull of toys. Glancing back at them as if to see whether they’ll take back their words, and satisfied with the realisation that they won’t, A-Zhan carefully inspects the dozens of stuffed pandas, dragons, and monkeys, and eventually reaches for – a plush watermelon. It has, horrifyingly, arms and legs, as well as one single glass bead as an eye. The other eye is missing, probably fell down out of shame over being part of such a crappy toy.

“That one,” A-Zhan says.

Although he has learned a lot today, Jin Ling proves that he still has a long way to go by saying, “Really? Are you sure? But they have way better ones!”

Jiang Cheng wholeheartedly agrees, but he also knows this is not going to work. Predictably, A-Zhan shakes his head, clutches the creepy watermelon thing to his chest, and repeats, “That one.”

Fine,” Jin Ling says, paying for it like he promised while A-Zhan cuddles the toy triumphantly. One of its arms falls off; undeterred, A-Zhan picks it up, brushes off the dirt, and clumsily reattaches it. Watching him like this, Jiang Cheng is suddenly struck by a revelation. For the first time, he thinks he knows just how Lan Wangji could fall in love with someone as terrible as Wei Wuxian.

They do end up having meat buns for lunch, and after that, A-Zhan is so tired from today’s excitement that he can hardly walk, so that Jiang Cheng has to carry him home. He falls asleep halfway through, his head dropping heavily onto Jiang Cheng’s shoulder, which means that Jiang Cheng is finally able to talk freely with Jin Ling about what happened.

Jin Ling gives a very succinct report of the night hunt, which in itself is highly suspicious. Apparently, he and a few Jin disciples came to the border to investigate reports of a demon sighting.

(“What border?” Jiang Cheng asks.

Jin Ling’s face tells him that he’d been hoping to avoid this question. “Just the border, Uncle! You don’t know what a border is? Gods.”

“I meant, which border was it? Lanling has several. The one to Yunmeng? The one to Yiling? Or perhaps the one to Gusu?”

Anyway,” Jin Ling says, ignoring him.)

Anyway, they had invited Wei Wuxian to join them, but because the demon was said to prey on coreless people especially, he’d sent Hanguang-jun instead.

(“Wait,” Jiang Cheng says. “You invited Wei Wuxian? Why? Why not me?”

“It’s just that Wei Wuxian knows a lot about, you know. Stuff.”

“Night hunts? That asshole’s idea of a successful night hunt is only getting stabbed once! And you think he can help you with that?”

“No, I think he knows a lot about-“ Jin Ling says, and stops, colouring. Immediately, Jiang Cheng knows he’s onto something.

“Yes?”

“Boys.”

What,” Jiang Cheng says loudly, going from semi-calm into nearly-apoplectic rage, except A-Zhan chooses this moment to shift in his arms and mumble something, so he reminds himself that he’s holding a child and angry shouting would not be appropriate. Jin Ling, cleverly sensing this, moves on.)
Hanguang-jun had shown up alone, gave them instructions to be quiet and stay behind him at all times, and lead them to the river where the demon was supposed to be. He lured it out with his guqin, got hit by a curse in a moment of carelessness, and got turned into a kid. The demon disappeared again, so Jin Ling swore his disciples to secrecy, sent them back to Carp Tower, and decided to come to Lotus Pier for help.

“For help,” Jiang Cheng repeats.

Jin Ling gives a sharp nod.

“To make it my problem, you mean.”

Jin Ling rolls his eyes, but doesn’t dare to argue, presumably because Jiang Cheng has hit the nail on the head.

Hm,” Jiang Cheng says suspiciously. “Why not go to Cloud Recesses? Being scared of the Lans because you got the Chief Cultivator turned into a toddler is one thing, but what about Wei Wuxian? He would have helped.” More than helped. Wei Wuxian would be loving this. He’d be having the time of his life. He always loved bothering Lan Wangji, always thought his glares and his silences and his lack of personality were cute rather than dull. A six-year old Lan Wangji would probably be the best thing that’s ever happened to him.

But Jin Ling only says, “I just thought you’d be the best option,” and honestly, that strokes Jiang Cheng’s ego enough that he stops questioning his nephew for now. Jin Ling thinks he was the best option to help with a complicated curse? Good. He is. Jiang Cheng is going to solve this without any help from Gusu Lan, because he’s the best, and his nephew agrees.

First, though, he is going to put A-Zhan down for a proper nap. Then he will deal with the curse.

***

It's nearing dinner when the next problem arises. Jiang Cheng has spent the past two hours or so in the library, going through any and all reports that have ever mentioned the forest Jin Ling named as the location of the night hunt. He has not yet found anything, but this may be because his thoughts keep drifting and he has to actively resist the urge to go check on the kid that is currently sleeping in one of the guest quarters. He used to do this a lot, after both A-Li and her husband died and left behind a helpless little new-born for him to take care of. He would spend the day cuddling Jin Ling, changing his diapers and snapping at the nannies who tried to help him feed the baby, and then he would spend the night lying restlessly in bed, unable to sleep, until finally he’d give in and go check that Jin Ling was still there, still breathing.

Jiang Cheng turns another page and thinks about how probably it wouldn’t make sense for A-Zhan to just randomly die in his sleep. Then again, sometimes kids do that! It happens more often than one would think. He knows all about this, because for some time during Jin Ling’s early childhood years, he was part of a letter-exchanging group that consisted of mothers, expecting mothers, and Jiang Cheng, and that would regularly send out helpful, educational notes on how to get children to eat their greens and what kind of illnesses were going around right now.

He has just convinced himself that maybe checking in on A-Zhan just once is fine, when a servant enters, bows, and says, “Sect Leader Jiang, you have a visitor.”

“A visitor?” Jiang Cheng asks, with a horrible sense of foreboding.

“Your brother. Wei Wuxian,” the servant adds unnecessarily. Jiang Cheng stalks past him without another word.

He should have seen this coming. Wei Wuxian always had a knack for turning up at the worst possible time. He probably woke up (mid-afternoon, since he has lost control over his life) and thought, what a nice day it is, I’m going to go bother Jiang Cheng for a bit until he goes into qi-deviation. Isn’t that great?

Or maybe – and it’s this thought that makes something tighten in Jiang Cheng’s throat, because. Because maybe, Wei Wuxian woke up this afternoon, expecting to see his husband returned from the night hunt, and instead found out that Lan Wangji never came home, and came to Lotus Pier for any help he could get. Jiang Cheng himself is very familiar with this kind of dread. Twenty years ago, he’d been expecting to see his brother after one week, and waited three months.

Lan Wangji, he thinks suddenly, waited sixteen years.

If Wei Wuxian is panicked, he’s not showing it. When Jiang Cheng enters the main courtyard, Wei Wuxian is busy showing some of the Jiang disciples how to improve their sword figure. Since he cannot actually lift a sword himself, he’s demonstrating it with a stick. The disciples are all hanging on his every word. Jin Ling, Jiang Cheng notes sourly, is also among them.

“Wei Wuxian! What nonsense are you teaching here?”

Wei Wuxian straightens, tells the Jiang disciples that the lesson is over, and only then turns around to face Jiang Cheng, scratching his head with the stick he’s still holding. “Just giving a bit of friendly advice,” he says, although his heart doesn’t seem to be in it, since he has not yet lectured Jiang Cheng on how the world is ending with the sad lack of knowledge in these youngers, etcetera, etcetera. His spirit can’t be too deflated, however, because he winks, points the stick at Jiang Cheng, and says, “If you’ve kidnapped my husband, you’d better tell me now, so that I can come up with a dashing rescue plan.” His eyes are twinkling, like he thinks there’s a perfectly normal explanation here. How he knows that Lan Wangji is even here, Jiang Cheng has no idea. Did Jin Ling snitch? Unlikely. He focuses his nephew with a glare anyway, just to be safe. Jin Ling, his jaw jutted stubbornly forward, glares back.

Jiang Cheng snatches the stick away, lets it drop to the floor (“Hey!”) and says, “Not here. Come with me.”

Wei Wuxian follows him to the wing that houses most of the guest quarters, Jin Ling close on their heels. “Jiang Cheng! You’re scaring me now. When Lan Zhan didn’t return I thought, there’s probably a good reason, but just to be safe, I’m going to use the tracking talisman that I sewed into his forehead ribbon when he wasn’t looking. And it turned out he was in Lotus Pier! So I thought, okay, there’s probably a good reason, but just to be safe, I’m going to come here and make sure Lan Zhan hasn’t gone on a revenge mission and killed Jiang Cheng. And I can see that he hasn’t! Success. Where’s Lan Zhan? I need to kiss him and tell him what a great job he’s done, not murdering you in cold blood.”

Jiang Cheng says, “About that,” and carefully opens the door to the guest bedroom. He can feel Wei Wuxian peeking in over his shoulder, curious, but his own attention is mostly captured by the child sleeping peacefully in the bed. He’d half been hoping that the curse would have reverted by now, that maybe time or Wei Wuxian’s arrival and like, some bullshit about true love, were enough. But Lan Wangji is still gone, and in his place is a kid who Jiang Cheng – not hates.

“This is-“ he starts, but Wei Wuxian has already shoved him aside and entered the room.

“Lan Zhan,” he says, but quietly, as though he doesn’t actually want to disturb the child, more like he just wanted to say the name. “That’s Lan Zhan?”

From behind Jiang Cheng, Jin Ling says, “We’ve actually been calling him A-Zhan? Because anything else was just super weird and offputting? And that’s how he introduced himself, so.”

“Lan Zhan,” Wei Wuxian says again, ignoring him. At last, he looks at Jiang Cheng, who has gone to stand beside him by the bed. When their eyes meet, it strikes Jiang Cheng how wrong he was. Wei Wuxian doesn’t look thrilled by this new adventure. He looks terrified. And just like that, Jiang Cheng feels bad for ever assuming that he wouldn’t be.

“Is he hurt?” Wei Wuxian asks.

“No. He also doesn’t remember anything – not you, not us, nothing past the age of six.”

“Oh,” Wei Wuxian says, softly, like it’s been punched out of him.

On the bed, A-Zhan starts stirring. He startles when he sees two grown men standing over him, relaxes somewhat as he recognises Jiang Cheng, and then just stares at Wei Wuxian, looking intimidated.

“Gege, who is that?” he asks.

Silence. Then Jin Ling elbows him, and Jiang Cheng realises that he’s the one being addressed.

“Gods,” Jin Ling mutters from somewhere behind him, “that is so unfair.”

Jiang Cheng hastily clears his throat, ignoring Wei Wuxian’s comically shocked expression, and says, “This is Wei Wuxian. He’s a friend.”

A-Zhan nods, accepting this, and gets up from the bed in order to perform a somewhat clumsy bow. Wei Wuxian bows back, more serious in this greeting of a six-year old than he ever was with any high-ranking cultivator, ever. But this isn’t new, Jiang Cheng realises. There’s a reason all the junior disciples used to adore Wei Wuxian, back in the day. It’s because, in between all the teasing, he always treated them as his equals.

“Young master,” Wei Wuxian says, “this weary traveller has only just arrived, and needs someone to keep him company during dinner. Will Lan-er-gongzi do me the honour?”

Before Jiang Cheng can warn Wei Wuxian that this is probably not going to work, A-Zhan has already said, “Yes.”

Both Jiang Cheng and Jin Ling stare at him. Wei Wuxian, oblivious to all the protesting they heard today at every meal that wasn’t at precisely the time recommended by Gusu Lan, says, “Excellent! Let’s go bother the cooks, and then you can tell me all about how you got here. Does Lan-er-gongzi want me to carry him?”

Again, the child who has only willingly let people carry him when he was too tired to walk, says, “Yes.”

Wei Wuxian smiles brilliantly and lifts him up, at least remembering to wave vaguely at his brother and nephew before he’s off. Watching them walk away, Jiang Cheng feels, for the first time, a sort of kinship with Lan Qiren. He almost feels ready to instal a Wall of Discipline, just so he can add a few rules about not interacting with Wei Wuxian and make A-Zhan memorise them.

***

“I can fix it,” Wei Wuxian says, much later, when the sun has set over Lotus Pier and they’re taking a walk by the lake, just the two of them. A-Zhan has gone to bed for good, and Jin Ling, insisting on standing guard “just in case”, had fallen outside the door to the guest room when they left.

A wave of relief crashes over Jiang Cheng at these words. Thank the gods, Wei Wuxian can fix it.

“It’s going to take another day or so,” Wei Wuxian continues, “but really, it’s no big deal. I just need to set up an array of talismans, wait for the demon to walk into the trap, and exorcise it. Problem solved.”

“Good,” Jiang Cheng manages roughly. “That’s good.”

“Yes.” They walk in silence for a while. Every now and then, Wei Wuxian seems like he’s about to say something, changing his mind every time. It gives Jiang Cheng a headache. Once upon a time, he would have pushed Wei Wuxian in the lake for this.

“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says finally, “I think it’s probably best if I don’t go back to Lotus Pier with you tonight.”

Jiang Cheng frowns, not understanding. “I thought you said making the talismans would take at least a day. Do you need to be in close proximity to the demon for that?” If that’s the case, he will send a group of disciples with his brother for protection. Jin Ling, too, maybe. It will be good practice for him.

But Wei Wuxian shakes his head slightly. They have arrived at one of the smaller docks, away from the main part of the town, with only a handful of boats tied to it. They used to steal one, drive it to the middle of the lake and eat lotus seeds until their bellies were full or until the owner found them and threatened to beat them with his belt. These were the good times, before everything went to hell.

“It doesn’t matter where the talismans are made. But – he’s six. Six, Jiang Cheng, and earlier, he called me Wei-gongzi and didn’t say another word unless spoken to. I never realised – I met him when we were sixteen, you know? That’s different. And Zewu-jun told me, but I just didn’t think about it at all until now, and then there’s this little kid who doesn’t even want to talk to me and can’t look me in the eye.”

It takes some effort to sort through the mess of jumbled-up words Wei Wuxian has just said, but when he’s managed it, Jiang Cheng feels the blood boiling in his veins, his anger ignited instantly. “Wei Wuxian! Are you crazy?”

Wei Wuxian’s mouth has dropped open. “Jiang Cheng-“

“Don’t Jiang Cheng me,” Jiang Cheng says sharply. “You want to leave because dealing with A-Zhan is too difficult for you? Because he has the audacity to not be enough like your husband? Well, you can go fuck yourself, because it’s one day. And even if it wasn’t, even if it was one year, or one decade, you’d just suck it the hell up anyway, because that’s how it works. When you have a kid, everything else stops mattering. You didn’t sign up for this? Neither did he. Neither did I, for that matter, but do you see me complaining?”

Wei Wuxian has stopped walking. He looks shocked, and uncomfortable, and a little sad. “I only meant-“

“I don’t care,” Jiang Cheng interrupts. “He likes you. It took us all day to get him to warm up to us, and he took one look at you and decided that he liked you. But if you decide to leave now, it’s fine. I’ll make up an excuse for you, and in 24 hours, he will wake up and whether he remembers today or not, he will still like you, because he’s your husband and because he’s been in love with you since he was sixteen. So do whatever you want. I don’t care, and neither will Lan Wangji.” But A-Zhan will care, he thinks to himself. Lan Wangji may wake up in two days and not bear one iota of ill will towards Wei Wuxian. But A-Zhan will wake up tomorrow and ask where Wei-gongzi went, and Jiang Cheng will have to give a reason that doesn’t make it sound like A-Zhan wasn’t good enough.

After a few seconds of silence, Wei Wuxian asks, “Does he really call you gege? How did you manage that?”

It’s a peace offering. It means, Jiang Cheng thinks, that his brother got his head out of his ass and will stay.

He says, “It’s a secret.”

***

The next day, Jiang Cheng enters the pavilion where breakfast is traditionally served for the sect leader and their family, and finds said family already present and in the middle of a loud discussion.

“Is this the attitude of sect leaders nowadays? How terrible, I’m so ashamed for all of you.”

“The nerve of you! When’s the last time you had a crush on someone, anyway?”

“A-Ling! I’m ancient, I’m old and cranky, and I’m married. Married men don’t have crushes, you know!”

“Exactly! So you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m just going to-“

“-explain what this is about?” Jiang Cheng asks as he sits down. Someone, probably Jin Ling, pours him tea; he’s too busy glaring at Wei Wuxian to pay attention. “You’ve been here less than twenty-four hours and you’re already turning this place into a circus, I see.”

“There’s nothing wrong with circuses,” Wei Wuxian replies promptly. “If you want to know more, ask your nephew.”

Jin Ling looks betrayed. He violently stabs at his congee with a chopstick, only succeeded in spraying it all over the table. Jiang Cheng is already prepared to lecture him, when he realises that if Jin Ling can try to murder his breakfast, this means that the person who is very, very slowly pouring tea for him, is A-Zhan. He glances at the boy just in time to see him put down the heavy teapot with hands that are trembling with the effort.

“Thank you,” Jiang Cheng says. A-Zhan barely looks at him, too focused on Wei Wuxian, of course. This is getting ridiculous.

The argument has come to a halt now that Jiang Cheng has joined them. Wei Wuxian and Jin Ling want to have secrets? Fine. Jiang Cheng doesn’t care. A-Zhan is still staring at Wei Wuxian’s face, even though Wei Wuxian has done nothing to deserve this kind of attention? That’s fine, too. Jiang Cheng doesn’t care about that, either.

He’s so busy not caring about things that he almost misses it – A-Zhan has just asked a question.

“What day is it?”

Jin Ling chokes on his tea, and Jiang Cheng understands the sentiment, because what is he supposed to reply to this? The truth? Of course not. But he’s also not going to lie to a little kid, who does that?

While Jiang Cheng is still busy worrying about whether he can justify telling a six-year old that he got cursed, it turns out that Wei Wuxian has no such compunctions.

“We are fifteen days into the month. Today is the sixteenth.” Wei Wuxian’s voice is gentle, which strikes Jiang Cheng as odd. It’s also strange that Wei Wuxian even remembers what season it is, let alone the month and day.

It’s something to think about later, since right now, A-Zhan’s hands are trembling again, though this time not under the weight of a teapot. He drops them to his lap and says, “I see. May I-“ He breaks off. Whatever request he had has not made it past his lips.

“May you what?” asks Jiang Cheng, harsher than he meant to. In the periphery of his vision, he can see Jin Ling shaking his head at his uncle’s regrettable lack of manners, his embarrassing nature, or both.

A-Zhan presses his lips together and does not reply. There is surely in the rules of Gusu Lan something about not answering a direct question, but Jiang Cheng has no interest in enforcing these rules in Lotus Pier.

“Hey,” Wei Wuxian says, still in that uncharacteristically gentle way, “it’s only morning. If we go now, we can be in Cloud Recesses by mid-afternoon.”

“What-“ Jiang Cheng starts, falling silent when A-Zhan speaks up instead.

“Wei-gongzi, will we take your sword?”

“Ah,” Wei Wuxian says, laughing awkwardly. “Ah, well, I’m afraid I can’t fly the sword. But your Jiang-gege is powerful enough to make the journey in just a few hours! You’ll be there in no time. And I’ll be right behind, getting a ride from my favourite nephew.” He stands, brushes off some dirt from his robes, and says, “Everyone, let’s go!”

“Hold up,” Jiang Cheng says, after Jin Ling and A-Zhan have already gotten up and are on their way back to the main residence, “what’s happening? Who said you can just dictate where we go?” His grip is tight on Wei Wuxian’s shoulder, preventing him from following the others just yet.

Suddenly, Wei Wuxian just looks tired. He doesn’t attempt to shake off Jiang Cheng’s hand as he says, “Today is the day Lan Zhan got to see his mother every month. Zewu-jun told me that after she died, Lan Zhan still continued to wait outside the Jingshi. Every month.”

Jiang Cheng has to clear his throat before he’s able to speak, his mouth too dry for words. “When did she die?”

“When Lan Zhan was six.”

“So in his memory-“

“-she only died a few months ago. So we will go Cloud Recesses, and he will pay his respects, and I will be busy making talismans but if anyone disturbs him, I’m going to kill them.” Wei Wuxian says it very simply, very carelessly, like he’s talking about the weather. For the first time since Wei Wuxian arrived, Jiang Cheng’s eyes dart to the ever-present flute in his brother’s belt.

He says, “In that case, let’s not waste time.”

***

Jiang Cheng has been back to the Cloud Recesses a number of times in his role as sect leader over the years. It has yet to stop feeling strange, being back in the place he studied at as a teenager and finding nothing about it changed. Walking through the gates takes him back to being sixteen, every single time without a fail, and for the first moment, it’s always like he’s here with Wei Wuxian and A-Li, trying to get in without an invitation.

They don’t have an invitation now, but the disciples standing guard outside recognise them, of course: Sect Leaders Jin and Jiang, Senior Wei, and – a junior disciple? The disciple who’s greeting them sounds unsure about the last part. He also looks vaguely familiar, and it hasn’t escaped Jiang Cheng’s notice that next to him, Jin Ling has started blushing.

Wei Wuxian, naturally, has noticed this as well. “Alright!” he says, way too loud. “Jiang Cheng and I are gonna go ahead. Jin Ling, you can catch Sizhui up on what happened!”

“Traitor,” Jin Ling hisses. The disciple – Lan Sizhui, apparently – smiles faintly, and lets them in without protest. At least, Jiang Cheng reasons to himself as he follows Wei Wuxian inside, this one isn’t wearing eyeliner. That’s a point in his favour, even if he is a Lan.

Speaking of Lans: during the journey, A-Zhan had nodded off within minutes, but he’s slowly waking up again, looking around and relaxing once he sees that they’re in Cloud Recesses. Jiang Cheng lets him down, waiting for him to lead the way, and indeed, A-Zhan immediately takes off in the direction of the Jingshi.

Uncertain whether A-Zhan wants to be alone, Jiang Cheng follows a few steps behind, until he decides that, screw it, Lan Wangji will spend enough time in seclusion later in life, there’s no need to get him started early.

Before the Jingshi, A-Zhan falls to his knees. Lan Wangji has always held himself rigidly straight, and at six years old he still does, but his head remains bowed, his hands clenched.

“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian says, quiet enough that A-Zhan won’t pick up on it, clutching Jiang Cheng’s elbow like a lifeline, “I need to draw talismans. I can’t – it’s going to take a few hours, at least. Will you stay?”

“Yes,” Jiang Cheng promises. He will.

Wei Wuxian disappears into the library. Presumably Jin Ling is still outside the gates, flirting or at least attempting to. There must be some Lan disciples around somewhere, and Jiang Cheng should probably go find Zewu-jun and the Grandmaster. Now that they’re safely in the Cloud Recesses and this is all going to be over by tomorrow, there is no real reason not to inform Lan Wangji’s relatives about what happened, especially since they’re already here, anyway.

Later, Jiang Cheng thinks. Later he’ll tell them. For now, he’s going to stay close to A-Zhan while he kneels in the dirt, waiting for doors that will never open.
Did he really do this every month? For how long?

In a flash, Jiang Cheng remembers something: Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji, coming to Lotus Pier and visiting the Ancestral Hall. At the time, he’d thought of it as an intrusion. If Wei Wuxian had no right to pay his respects to Jiang Cheng’s family, then Lan Wangji had even less.
His eyes are drawn back to the kneeling figure.

Jiang Cheng takes a deep breath, walks up to him, and kneels.

So far, A-Zhan has not moved even an inch from his original position. Now, he lifts his head, glancing at Jiang Cheng questioningly.

“Gege?” he asks.

“We will wait together,” Jiang Cheng tells him. “It’s important not to disrespect the dead.”

A-Zhan nods, turning back to the Jingshi. This time, his head stays high.

They kneel together for hours, until the sun sets and beyond. And finally, when A-Zhan stands up at last and gently touches Jiang Cheng’s shoulder to alert him, the first touch he’s given freely, Jiang Cheng turns and sees Zewu-jun watching them from the line of trees at the edge of the forest.

“A-Zhan, come here,” Jiang Cheng says, taking A-Zhan’s hand to make sure he stays close. Together, they go to meet Zewu-jun, who comes to meet them halfway. They bow, and Jiang Cheng says, “Sect Leader,” by way of greeting. A-Zhan is looking at Zewu-jun with curious eyes, and Jiang Cheng thinks how this must look to him: surely, even a junior disciple would know all the Gusu Lan elders. Zewu-jun’s forehead ribbon with the cloud embroidery sewn into it marks him as a main family member, something that A-Zhan must have picked up on immediately.

“Sect Leader Jiang, welcome to Cloud Recesses,” Zewu-jun says with a pale smile. “I heard strange noises coming from the library, which I’m taking to mean that your brother has returned from his trip. And I can see that he has brought visitors with him. We have assigned the usual guest quarters to you and Sect Leader Jin, and-“

“So you left seclusion?” Jiang Cheng interrupts bluntly. The last he heard, Zewu-jun was secluding himself and not talking to anyone, not his uncle, not his brother. Now that he’s spent the past few hours kneeling with A-Zhan, he finds himself distinctly less willing to be open-minded when it comes to these matters.

Zewu-jun’s smile fades away as quickly as it had arrived. “Just for today.”

“You-!”

“Sect Leader Jiang, your blunt nature is one of your strongest qualities as a sect leader. You have my full, honest admiration. However, may I remind you that a child is present?” Zewu-jun meaningfully glances at A-Zhan, who is still staring, seeming as fascinated with Zewu-jun as he was with Wei Wuxian.

Jiang Cheng scoffs. “Children are tough. He can handle it. He’s – A-Zhan?”

A-Zhan is bowing again. He says, “Qingheng-jun?“

Zewu-jun freezes. “Wangji?”

A-Zhan, who is still years away from receiving his courtesy name and to whom this address would mean nothing, does not react. “Qingheng-jun, this disciple apologises for not knowing that it’s you.”

Seeming overwhelmed, Zewu-jun says, a little helplessly, “It’s of no consequence. You’re forgiven.”

“I wrote to you,” A-Zhan continues. “Did you read my letters?”

“I-“ Zewu-jun breaks off. He must have put things together by now, and doesn’t appear to know what to do with them. Everything about him speaks of inexperience on how to handle children. Jiang Cheng never understood this. Kids are easy. Raising them is hard, but talking to them is the easiest thing in the world.

He decides to rescue Zewu-jun before he can say something insensitive. He may have only heard vague rumours about Qingheng-jun, what with Gusu Lan keeping the whole thing under tight wraps, but he can guess well enough. He puts an arm around A-Zhan’s narrow shoulders and says, “The sect leader is tired, and we mustn’t keep him up. We should go find Wei Wuxian and tell him that bedtime is at, what, midnight?”

A-Zhan is startled out of his staring at the promise of correcting him on the rules. “Nine.”

“Even worse! If we don’t tell Wei Wuxian, he’s going to break so many rules. How about this: you go on ahead to the library, while I talk to Qingheng-jun for a few minutes? He’ll want to know about your time in Lotus Pier.”

Accepting this, A-Zhan bows to both of them and leaves, although he keeps glancing back at Zewu-jun until he’s no longer in sight. Once he’s out of earshot, Jiang Cheng catches Zewu-jun up on what happened. By the end of it, Zewu-jun’s face is pale and drawn, making him look older.

“I see. And Wei Wuxian-“

“-is working on it. But before you thank me and go back to hide away from the world for another two years until the next problem arises, let me just make something clear. Your brother is arrogant, cold and just generally unpleasant to be around. But from what I’ve seen over the past two days makes me think that it’s not entirely his fault. With all due respect, Zewu-jun, Gusu Lan seems pretty messed up. I don’t think that the sect leader secluding himself helps with that. It clearly didn’t help Lan Wangji.” With that, Jiang Cheng leaves, not bothering to say goodbye. He’s suddenly very tired of the Lans.

In the library, Wei Wuxian has apparently decided to revive old times by making a public nuisance of himself and being generally noisy. He must have finished the talismans, all of them in surprisingly neat stacks on one of the tables, and now he’s standing in front of A-Zhan, who is sitting cross-legged on the floor, and playing a song on his flute. Jiang Cheng recognises this tune. He’s heard Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji play it countless times, on their own and as a duet. So far, he has only ever heard it in the faint distance; a distant tune played in another room, not meant for his ears.

This one isn’t meant for his ears either, but he still feels comfortable in leaning against one of the bookshelves and listening in. He doesn’t know much about music, but it sounds nice, he thinks. A very good song. Very – with a lot of – and like, some notes, maybe. Good rhythm.

Wei Wuxian finishes and does an exaggerated bow for A-Zhan’s sake, who asks if he can hear it again and in the next second looks appalled at his own boldness.

“Not tonight,” Wei Wuxian says. “Tomorrow! Lan Zhan, I promise when you wake up tomorrow, I’ll play it for you as often as you like.”

A-Zhan hesitates, then says, “I am learning to play the guqin. I will learn this song, and play for you.”

Wei Wuxian winks at him and says, “Mark your words.”

***

That night, Jin Ling and Wei Wuxian go back to the forest to set up the talisman array that will capture and exorcise the demon. Wei Wuxian goes because he’s the only one who knows how this will work, and Jin Ling goes because the demon was reported to prey on coreless people specifically, and when Jiang Cheng stated that they would need to send someone as protection, Jin Ling took one look at Lan Sizhui and volunteered. More and more, the story of the original night hunt is coming together in Jiang Cheng’s mind. The Lanling Jin sect leader travelling to the border between Lanling and Gusu to take care of a single demon? Weird. Jin Ling travelling to the border between Lanling and Gusu because that’s the most convenient place to ask Wei Wuxian for advice about boys? Still weird, but slightly less so. When the esteemed Hanguang-jun got hit by a curse that Jin Ling neither blocked nor was able to get rid of, he must have thought about how weak and pathetic this would look in front of his crush, and decided to go to Yunmeng instead. Jiang Cheng also thinks this is weak and pathetic, but at least he’s Jin Ling’s uncle and therefore, like Jin Ling never grows tired of telling him, does not count.

Jiang Cheng thought about going with them as added protection, but in the end opted to stay in Cloud Recesses. Just in case that- just in case.

Before he goes, Wei Wuxian stops by Jiang Cheng’s room. He is very calm, his hands still by his sides, and that is how Jiang Cheng knows that this is serious. Wei Wuxian is always fiddling with something, whatever is closest in reach: his flute, his robes, his ribbon or his hair. Sometimes he fiddles with Lan Wangji’s hair, and Lan Wangji always lets this happen without complaint.

Right now he holds himself still, nearly motionless. “After this is over,” he says, “Lan Zhan and I are going to come visit you in Lotus Pier. If you don’t want us there, I’m very sorry, that must be terrible for you, but we’re still visiting.”

“Fine,” Jiang Cheng snaps.

“And you have to be nice to Lan Zhan!”

“I’ll be nice if he is nice,” Jiang Cheng says, which isn’t childish if it’s true.

“He’ll be super nice,” Wei Wuxian promises, obviously lying. He adds, “He’ll be nice if I tell him to be nice,” which is slightly more probable.

“So, anyway,” Wei Wuxian says, and now he is fiddling with the hem of his robes, after all, “that’s all I came to say.”

“Fine. What are you still doing here, anyway? These talismans are not going to put up themselves.”

“Going, going,” Wei Wuxian calls over his shoulder.

Alone again, Jiang Cheng sits down by the window. He stays there all night, unable to sleep, unable to form any coherent thought besides vague worrying. He sits by the window until the moon slowly gives way to the sun, until Cloud Recesses is bathed in the soft light of the morning, until Wei Wuxian and Jin Ling come back, exhausted and sweaty, until Wei Wuxian asks, “Did it work?”, until the sound of a guqin echoes through Cloud Recesses, giving an unspoken answer to Wei Wuxian’s question.

It's done.

It's done, and it’s morning, and everyone is happy, and Wei Wuxian has already disappeared in the direction of where the music is coming from.

Jiang Cheng, unseen by anyone, goes home.

***

There is a commotion somewhere near the front gates of Lotus Pier. Someone is talking very fast and very loudly, with a donkey braying in between, making its dismay clearly known. Jiang Cheng knows instinctively that Wei Wuxian has arrived.
It figures that Wei Wuxian wouldn’t just leave him in peace for even two weeks. Frankly, he’s surprised it’s taken this long at all. But probably his brother was too busy – reuniting with his husband, in all the gross ways that Jiang Cheng doesn’t want to imagine and that he will soon hear about, anyway.

By the time he has rushed to where the noise is coming from, the donkey has been silenced. As he turns a corner, Jiang Cheng realises that this is because Lan Wangji is slowly stroking its mane, calming it down. Of course Wei Wuxian brought Lan Wangji, too. Why not? And why not just bring the whole of Cloud Recesses while he’s at it? It’s not like Jiang Cheng isn’t busy enough as it is.

“Jiang Cheng,” Wei Wuxian calls out when he spots him, waving at him with his flute. “Have you met Lil Apple? He was a bit upset at all the noise in the market outside, but then I told him it was alright, so he stopped. I’m really good with him! Lan Zhan says so.”

Jiang Cheng does not know what face he is making, but it’s enough to prompt Lan Wangji into saying loyally, “Wei Ying is very talented in many areas.”

Wei Wuxian beams and kisses his cheek. Jiang Cheng, somewhat more sceptical at how Lan Wangji’s words were intended, rolls his eyes and barks, “What are you doing here?”

Wei Wuxian looks hurt. “Aiyoh, Jiang Cheng, don’t you remember? You invited us! I told you, when this is over, Lan Zhan and I are going to have a fourth honeymoon because our third one was at least six months ago, and you said, Wei Wuxian, you simply must come to Lotus Pier and visit me, I’m so old and lonely and I want to bond with my brother-in-law.”

Fascinated by his brother’s ability to rewrite history as he pleases, and at the same time horrified at the implication of that last bit, Jiang Cheng looks around for help. The only other person present is, naturally, Lan Wangji, who is staring into the distance and doing a great job of avoiding his gaze. He looks like himself again – not just age-wise, but also in the way he holds himself, Jiang Cheng notes. This is a man who has known grief. Then again, that’s not quite right, is it? Even at six years old, Lan Wangji knew grief. At the time, he probably thought this to be the worst thing that had ever happened to him. Thirty years later, they both know better.

“Are you really going to turn us away?” Wei Wuxian asks. Turning to his husband, he says, “What will we do? Are we going to live on the street? Is that our fate?”

“No.”

“No? Is Lan-er-gege paying for a room in an inn?”

“Yes.”

“Just one? For us to share? Lan Zhan! So shameless of you!”

“Enough,” Jiang Cheng interrupts, because if he listens to even one more second of this, he is going to impale himself on his sword. “No one needs to go to an inn! You’ll stay in Lotus Pier, in however many rooms as you please, just don’t tell me about it.” Jiang Cheng crosses his arms and glares at them, daring them to argue.

Well, daring Lan Wangji to argue, if he’s honest. During their very, very few previous visits to Lotus Pier, Lan Wangji had taken to switching between stoic silence and short, yet nevertheless passive-aggressive comments on everything Jiang Cheng had to say.

Today, Lan Wangji merely bows in thanks. He is still not quite looking at Jiang Cheng, even as he quietly says, “Thank you, Sect Leader Jiang.”

Has Wei Wuxian really done as he promised and convinced Lan Wangji to be civil? Or is this unexpected politeness due to something else?

“Wei Wuxian,” Jiang Cheng says after Lan Wangji has risen, “you should take that donkey to the stables, it looks thirsty.”

“Ah, he’s fine” Wei Wuxian says, attempting to pet the donkey affectionately and hastily withdrawing his hand after the donkey tries to bite it. “Alright! I’m sorry, we’ll get your water! So ungrateful, if you continue in this manner Lan Zhan and I might see what you taste like when cooked over a fire- joking, Lan Zhan! Don’t look at me like that, you know my heart can’t take it.”

Lan Wangji is not, as far as Jiang Cheng can tell, looking at Wei Wuxian with anything other than his usual facial expression, but it’s enough to get Wei Wuxian to take the lead and pull the donkey in the direction of the stables. This is a feat that apparently takes a lot of strength, a lot of scolding, and at least a little desperate begging, and it’s still a few minutes until Wei Wuxian has even made it to the next corner.

“You realise,” Jiang Cheng tells Lan Wangji who, like him, has been watching this spectacle in silence, “this probably would have gone faster if you had helped.”

“Wei Ying, as he never grows tired of telling me, is good with animals,” Lan Wangji replies serenely and despite all evidence to the contrary. It sounds like a joke, but Jiang Cheng decides that it couldn’t possibly be, because Lan Wangji doesn’t make jokes. He probably locks them up in his bedroom and forces them to listen to him playing sad songs on his guqin all night. “Also,” Lan Wangji continues, “I was under the impression that you wished to talk to me.”

“What an astute observation,” Jiang Cheng says sarcastically. “Since when do you comply with my wishes?”

Lan Wangji tenses. “I have come,” he says, his voice firm and self-assured even though he’s visibly uncomfortably, “to apologise.”

“You – what?”

“Given the choice, I would have had Sect Leader Jin take me to Cloud Recesses. As I was unable to make decisions at the time, I was taken to Lotus Pier instead, where I used up your resources and your time. You have my apologies.” Lan Wangji bows his head.

“What the fuck,” Jiang Cheng says. “Did you rehearse that?”

Lan Wangji does not reply, clenching his jaw instead. Probably didn’t plan for follow-up questions, Jiang Cheng thinks spitefully.

“Let’s make something clear. Gusu Lan may think of helping people as using up time and resources, but luckily for you, Yunmeng Jiang does not. There’s no debt to be repaid here, no apology needed.” Jiang Cheng thinks he’s said it uncourteously enough to end the conversation altogether. But Lan Wangji really must have rehearsed it, since it turns out that he is not finished, Jiang Cheng’s words having had seemingly no effect.

“Your kindness is appreciated nevertheless. I am told I was a difficult child. I-“

“You weren’t difficult,” Jiang Cheng interrupts. “Whoever told you otherwise is an asshole, and hasn’t met any kids besides. You were six, you had just been taken in by complete strangers, and-“ He breaks off as a thought occurs to him that is making his lips twitch. Lan Wangji has raised an eyebrow, so Jiang Cheng explains, still half-caught in the flash of memory, “I just realised. For two days, your experience was able to match Wei Wuxian’s, only thirty years too late. Congratulations, Hanguang-jun. You have just started the journey towards becoming the ever-feared Yiling Patriarch.”

“A dubious honour,” Lan Wangji notes, but from the right angle, it almost looks like he might be smiling a little. He bows again, though this time it’s much more relaxed. “We must go help Wei Ying, now. Little Apple is a difficult companion to manage.”

“I bet,” Jiang Cheng mutters, although he doesn’t disagree. Undoubtedly Wei Wuxian has not even made it halfway to the stables. If he wasn’t married to someone who is so intent on fixing all his problems, Jiang Cheng would despair for his brother’s fate.

Not someone, he thinks. Lan Wangji. If Wei Wuxian wasn’t married to Lan Wangji, Jiang Cheng may have even more despairing to do.

He calls out, “Lan Wangji!”

Lan Wangji turns, meeting his eyes for the first time today. And it turns out that Jiang Cheng was wrong, because now that he’s looking straight at him, he does see some similarities to A-Zhan after all.

He says, “My brother can wait a little while longer. Let’s go get ice cream first.”