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- oꕥo -

 

The moment he sees the young man beneath the moonlight, two jars of Emperor's Smile balanced upon his sword and a bright, quicksilver grin to match his eyes, Lan Wangji knows that he is lost. 

He had always known that his Lan heart would one day anchor itself to another, that his love would be as sudden and all-encompassing as a summer storm. And yet, as the young man draws his sword and his blade meets Lan Wangji's, he is not ready for himself to fall deeper than he already had mere seconds ago. And deeper still as the boy laughs, tinkling silver bells in the night air, as he calls him gege.

 

Lan Wangji lets the boy slip away into the night one jar of wine lighter, the curve of his smile burning a mark upon his skin. 

 

- ooo -

His name is Wei Wuxian.

Wei Ying, he had offered, a cheeky grin unfaltering upon his red lips even when he realised who Lan Wangji is. Aren't we close already, Lan Laoshi? We crossed blades so well, don't take me for a stranger now!

His name is Wei Ying, the Head Disciple of the Yunmeng Jiang sect and one of the many visiting disciples under his care, now that Shufu has settled into his appointed retirement. He is loud and boisterous and flouts common courtesies with an almost deliberate precision. He is quick to be distracted by mischief and the brief thrill of rule-breaking, and terrible in meditation and anything that would have him sitting still. 

But Wei Ying is also brilliant - His mind seemingly in a constant bid to learn and solve anything and everything within his reach, far outpacing his peers in his comprehension and learning of new things. He is unfailingly loyal and kind, and more often than not, he sees the young man quietly tutoring fellow disciples before tests, helping them with their forms and giving encouraging pats on the back.

One of the first thing Lan Wangji had done upon assuming Shufu's place had been to rework the frame of their teaching regimen, making space and adjustment for different ways of learning instead of the rigid path he and Xiongzhang had been subjected to - Where questions were forbidden and individual characters were stamped down. And as such, he offers Wei Ying free reign of the Lan library, the chance to explore things he might be interested in under his supervision. A much better use of his time, considering how quickly he goes through the materials provided for the other visiting disciples.

"Lan Laoshi," Wei Ying's eyes widen, the younger man beginning to rock back and forth on the balls of his feet, as he is wont to do when he is uncertain, "Are you serious? Like, the whole whole library? Even if I need like, the more restricted stuff?"

Lan Wangji doesn't miss the flicker of wariness in Wei Ying's voice, that almost calculated edge to it when it seems like he's feeling out the extent of one's tolerance towards himself. 

"That is why I would be there, to supervise. But Wei Ying would only have to ask, and I shall try to accommodate his studies."

"Thank you, Laoshi" Wei Ying finally says, something small and hopeful amidst the wariness, and Lan Wangji wants to nurture that small, fledgling thing - Wants Wei Ying to see him and feel only trust and safety to be himself, to be anything he wants, "I promise I won't be a burden."

"Learning comes first," he quotes serenely, "Wei Ying is always willing to learn, and so he is never a burden."

The smile Wei Ying gives back is small and tentative, nothing like the bright sunshine of his usual grins. But Lan Wangji thinks it's the most honest one he has seen on his beloved's face yet.

 

- ooo -

 

Lan Wangji knows that most unseen scars are inflicted by one's own family. He is well aware that he himself and his Xiongzhang carry their own worth of scars - Fears and worries and a lingering longing for warmth and care that died with their a-niang. And so within mere weeks, he is quick to notice how Wei Ying's family had figuratively, and quite literally made him a whipping post filled with such scars. 

Gossip is forbidden in the Cloud Recesses, but Gusu Lan maintains a respectable network of spies in places where it matter, and it's enough for him to know the precarious balance of Yunmeng Jiang's main family - Of the Purple Spider's long-standing grudge against Wei Ying's late parents and Jiang Zongzhu's complacence in the face of his wife's ire. Of the eldest child set aside for her weak cultivation and the ward that unwittingly outshines the Jiang's rightful heir. 

It shows, in Jiang Wanyin's constant dressing down of his own Shixiong, in how both Jiang Yanli and the rest of the Jiang disciples place themselves between them, always expecting Wei Ying to brush everything off and bear the brunt of each and every conflict to appease the Jiang heir's volatile temper and sense of pride. 

Were he younger, less used to the tangled emotions of his students and the people he has had to deal with as Hanguang-Jun, the Second Jade of Lan, he would have missed all of the signs, would chalk Wei Ying's incongruities as the brashness and arrogance of youth. Would be easily distracted by the way Wei Ying uses his smile and bright laughs like a folding screen, like one of Huaisang's many fans. 

But as he is right now, Lan Wangji sees. He sees the network of lightning and raised skin on the boy's back upon his visit to the Cold Springs, sees his smile falter with every barbed reprimand from Jiang Wanyin and the way he constantly skirts around the border of things, as if he has to constantly know the point where he is unwanted.

He looks at Wei Ying and sees a future of squandered potentials and a brightness curbed at every turn, of a life making himself less in a Sect that would always see him as a servant's son and the reflection of their own inadequacy. And he laments that Wei Ying could not seem to see that, see past the sense of debt and false belonging his so-called family had ingrained into him. 

But Lan Wangji is a patient man, and even as he sees Jiang Wanyin pull Wei Ying aside for another round of berating, he knows he would make the younger man see in time. Even if it means using the insecurities of Wei Ying's own family against him. 

 

- ooo -

 

"Your Wei-gongzi is making quite the stir amongst the teachers," Xiongzhang says over a game of weiqi in the Hanshi, a tradition they have kept between them ever since receiving the mantle of Gusu Lan's leadership many years ago and something they both cherish amidst their responsibilities. 

"The array he suggested to reinforce our wards were impressive," Lan Xichen pauses, a white stone in hand as he sends a gently teasing smile Lan Wangji's way, "I suppose it helped that he had firsthand experience with said wards, hadn't it?"

"Mn," Lan Wangji keeps his expression neutral, even if Xiongzhang would be able to note the slight uptick of his lips, "Wei Ying is particularly adept in talisman structure. He finds it natural to break them down to their basest components and radicals first before reconstructing and modifying them for other purposes."

Lan Xichen places his stone and gestures for Lan Wangji to continue, pouring tea to both their cups - Its contents piping hot still courtesy of another of Wei Ying's impromptu inventions.

Laoshi drinks tea a lot, doesn't he?  Wei Ying had said, something tentative and almost shy in his normally bright countenance, the piece of talisman paper offered between them like a gift. This one is easy to replicate, see? It's just this character here for fire tweaked a bit, so Laoshi could keep his tea warm as he grades or recite rules for fun!

It had been hard not to say anything more than his usual succinct praise as Wei Ying's face flushes a lovely shade of camellia-red, to merely tuck the design carefully beneath his robes as the younger squirms in his seat. If only Wei Ying knew half of the things he wanted to do for him, all the things he would rightfully give to him. 

"He seems to be good for the other disciples as well. Would you believe that he has A-Sang actually studying in the library with him?"

Lan Wangji had indeed seen the younger Nie getting drawn into their study sessions, after one too many instances of him whining that his Wei-xiong never wants to have fun with him anymore. Wei Ying had heard of Nie Mingjue's worsening temper and quickly thrown out a few theories on how regular application of musical cultivation customised to one's energy frequency could be used to curb the potential of abnormal Qi flow instead of merely treating its effect. Huaisang had latched on to the idea to bury himself in texts, now himself an occasional presence in the library. 

As Wei Ying is dear to Lan Wangji's heart, so is the Nie Sect leader to Xiongzhang. If Xiongzhang's interest in Wei Ying had ben piqued by Lan Wangji's own, then Wei Ying's potential role in keeping Da-ge safe is most likely what had settled his investment on the younger man. 

"I have of course heard of Yunmeng Jiang's capable Head Disciple from hearsays in Yunmeng, but to think that this is the first time I've actually met him. Previously Jiang Zongzhu only seems to take his heir with him to formal intersect settings."

He hears the unspoken implication in Xiongzhang's voice. It's almost unheard of for Sects to leave behind their Head Disciples for Discussion Conferences and gatherings. That Yunmeng Jiang, or most probably Yu Ziyuan, was deliberately holding back their Head Disciple from the eyes of the Cultivation World is something that is becoming glaringly obvious in light of their own exposure to Wei Ying and the Jiangs. 

"He seems very taken with you, Wangji. Do see if there is anything we could provide him with, as Wei-gongzi seems very devoted to his home sect otherwise," at this Xiongzhang smiles, something sharp and knowing in his otherwise warm hazel eyes - The same smile he gave the day they managed to dismantle the Elder Council who had taken their mother from them, the same smile he had as they sat Shufu down and asked him to withdraw from Sect matters.

"It would be a shame if such talent and kindness doesn't get the chance to be nurtured."

Lan Wangji places his stone, halting his brother's expanding white even as he finally lets a smile grace his own lips.

A shame indeed.

 

- ooo -

 

Jiang Wanyin is an easy place to start. Almost too easy, with how the Jiang heir wears the fear of his own shortcomings on his sleeves and wields his temper to distance himself from the fact. 

A mere word of praise for Wei Ying already has Jiang Wanyin bristling quietly, even as Wei Ying fidgets uncertainly in his own seat and Lan Wangji carries on with the lesson as if nothing happened. 

"I expect Wei Ying to keep up his good work," Lan Wangji says at the end of one of their study sessions, one hand reaching out to pat gently at the boy's head, the way he's seen Wei Ying's Shijie do when the boy seeks her comfort, "While Wei Ying is here, it would gladden me to see him try his best in his studies."

It would not do to have Wei Ying deliberately hold himself back for Jiang Wanyin's comfort, and Lan Wangji knows that Wei Ying is secretly eager to please, eager to be good without the hanging threat of being unwanted. Knows already that his want to please Lan Wangji would triumph over Jiang Wanyin's discomfort, here in the safety of the Cloud Recesses.

He repeats the pattern throughout the following weeks, subtly urging the other teachers to be freer with their encourgements towards this batch of disciples and watching as they too, are quick to appreciate Wei Ying's work in their classes. Notes the mounting ire and frustration in Jiang Wanyin's face as Wei Ying is spurred to do better still, as he apparently did not allow himself to do in Lotus Pier. 

His Wei Ying being what he is, his rapid progress merely makes him more eager to share with his peers, and more and more Lan Wangji sees his beloved surrounded by small groups of disciples - Discussing tricky homeworks or getting the workings of a form just right for a disciple's specific way of cultivating. There is an ease to his instructions, both analytical yet kind at the same time, something that must have made him the clear choice for a Head Disciple despite whatever objections Yu Ziyuan might have had.

He's on his way to class when he happens upon one such gathering, just as Jiang Wanyin barges into the quiet courtyard - Face thunderous as he glares at Wei Ying and the Ouyang and Yao disciples around him.

"There you are! Our next class is barely a ke away, and you're still fooling around here!"

"We're just revising a few things, Jiang Cheng," Wei Ying says, a new tightness on the edges of his smile even as he eyes his Shidi carefully, warily, "You know the materials last week were a bit tricky to grasp, but we need it to understand the upcoming stuff."

"Revising," Jiang Wanyin spits, as if the word had offended him personally, "Are you a teacher or something? You get a few praises and suddenly you're better than all of us, is that it? Hah, what a joke! You barely ever opened a book when we were still at Lotus Pier!"

"Jiang Cheng, it's not like that-" Wei Ying moves to place a playful hand on the Jiang heir's shoulder, but it seems to be the very thing that makes the younger man snap - The rage he must have been cultivating for weeks now finally coming out fully-fledgled. 

"Just admit it, you're enjoying all this attention, aren't you? You enjoy lording it over all of us that you're so much better than everyone else! You're probably trying to show that you're better than your own Sect Heir in front of all the Cultivation world to see!"

Wei Ying's face had gone pale by the end of Jiang Wanyin's tirade, his silver eyes heartbreakingly wide even as the disciples behind him shift uneasily, none of them brave enough to risk angering the heir of their Principal Sect. It's apparent that Jiang Wanyin is used to being appeased, used to people excusing his volatile temper due to his status and avoid potential spectacles that could result in a loss of face for many. 

Lan Wangji has no such compunctions. Perhaps once, when Shufu was in charge, Gusu Lan had time to nurse the pride of young masters and maidens under their care in the name of courtesy and sect relations. But he is not his Shufu, and another look at Wei Ying's ashen face finally spurs him to step into view. 

"What seems to be the problem here?" He says, and sees five pairs of eyes snap towards him, each a picture of bewilderment and panic. 

"No-nothing, Laoshi," Wei Ying is quick to answer, even as his smile still trembles at the edges, "Just a theory discussion gone too spirited, ha! You know how it is!"

"Lying is forbidden," Wei Ying flinches at his words, and Lan Wangji has to stop himself from reaching out to embrace the shaken boy before he pins his gaze at Jiang Wanyin, "And so is making noise, slandering, as well as making assumptions of others. Jiang Wanyin, you will stay behind after classes end tomorrow to be handed your punishment." 

He turns back towards Wei Ying, but not before catching the look of utter outrage on the Jiang heir's face, "Wei Wuxian, you will serve your punishment in the Library Pavillion later this evening. I shall see all of you in class."  

Lan Wangji steps away from the courtyard, and barely has to wait until Jiang Wanyin's accusation of his Shixiong bringing shame to their Sect breaks the fraught silence once more. 

 

- ooo -

 

Wei Ying trudges into the Library Pavillion that evening with markedly less of the usual bright cheer that Lan Wangji has gotten used to - The lines of his shoulders sloped downwards and a wariness to his gait that clenches something in Lan Wangji's chest. 

He keeps his expression carefully neutral as Wei Ying takes his customary place across him, giving him a still-bright smile in greeting nevertheless. 

"So," the younger man sighs, and Lan Wangji doesn't miss the almost amused acceptance in his voice, as if it was just a matter of time that he would be punished eventually, "What would it be, Laoshi? Don't go easy on this one just because we're so close, hmm?"

"Wei Ying's punishment for lying," Lan Wangji says, holding his beloved's gaze in his, "Is to tell me the truth of what happened today and why it happened."

Wei Ying blinks, "What kind of punishment is that?"

"One does not lie without a reason, or the awareness that whatever truth there is is terrible enough that one would rather lie," Lan Wangji softens his voice, "As one normally sees punishments as something to avoid, won't being made to do the thing Wei Ying had sought to avoid from the very start - to tell the truth - be an apt punishment?"

Wei Ying blinks again, and then again before a sudden bark of laughter escapes from his lips, and before long Wei Ying has the palm of his hand over a once again smiling mouth, trying to stifle his laughter amidst the silence of the library.

"Aiyah, Lan Laoshi, you're truly too much for this humble disciple. Alright, alright, what Laoshi wants Laoshi gets, I suppose!"

"Mn," Lan Wangji tries not to let the satisfaction show in his face, both for bringing laughter back to Wei Ying's somber face and for the way his last sentence affected him. 

Wei Ying talks. Haltingly at first, of Jiang Wanyin's confusing ire towards him and how it has been escalating ever since they got to the Cloud Recesses. Of his own excitement upon finally finding things, of being allowed to challenge himself, the joy of sharing it with others who share the same excitement and goals with him. And then more haltingly, in vague bits and snatches, of how he has always been careful not to take away time and attention from Jiang Wanyin back under Madam Yu's watchful eyes, of the rules he breaks to draw the bad kind of attention away from his Shidi. 

When Wei Ying's words have finally been dried out of him, the sun has long nestled back behind the Gusu hills, the warm glow of talisman fires casting gentle shadows across his beloved's face. 

"At first I thought I had to be like that just to stop Madam Yu from being angry. I just…I just don't understand why it makes Jiang Cheng so angry too. Like, perhaps it would just be easier…to go back to how I was in Lotus Pier? Do you…do you think that would stop Jiang Cheng from being so angry, Laoshi?"

For a brief moment, Lan Wangji has to draw a deep breath - Quelling the quiet tempest that had brewed steadily in his chest as Wei Ying recounted his plight, his own seething rage filling in the worst parts that Wei Ying had carefully left unsaid.

"I presume Wei Ying is aware that my Xiongzhang and I are known as the Twin Jades of Lan," Lan Wangji says instead, and receives only a befuddled nod from the younger man.

"Is Wei Ying also aware that many people, upon meeting both of us, found me lacking in comparison to Xiongzhang, especially in terms of personability and social graces?"

"What? Who said that?!" Wei Ying sputters in indignation, all of his own grief seemingly forgotten as he straightens in his seat, and Lan Wangji has to struggle to keep his expression neutral, "Laoshi might be quiet, but Laoshi is so kind and considerate! And so good with the disciples too!"

"I must thank Wei Ying for his confidence in me," This time, Lan Wangji does let his lips curve the slightest bit up as Wei Ying winds himself down from his small tirade, face flushed a lovely rose in the warm glow of the lamp-glow beside them, "But it had been something I myself had to learn. To know that I have attributes and affinities of my own, separate from Xiongzhang's no matter what others might say. And that is something that Jiang Wanyin is yet to learn."

Wei Ying's eyes are rapt on his, unconsciously nodding along at his words. 

"But before anything else, this should not be a matter that makes one resent another they have been compared with, especially when it is a person one cares about."

"Were your positions to be reversed, and Jiang Wanyin is to gain a better mastery of things compared to you. Or if one of Wei Ying's other Shidis were to be such, would Wei Ying feel slighted? Would Wei Ying resent them?"

"Laoshi, of course not! I'd be happy for them!"

"Because Wei Ying loves his Shidi. Because Wei Ying cares for them," Lan Wangji says softly, knowing it to be as true as anything. Anyone who has seen Wei Ying with the younger Yunmeng Jiang disciples would see how soft his eyes would become around them, "In the same way that I did not grow to resent Xiongzhang, because he is my brother and I love and care for him, no matter what others might say. What I feel within myself is not Xiongzhang's responsibility, not his duty to set to rights."

Lan Wangji finally reaches out across the table, to where Wei Ying is still holding him in his wide, silvery gaze, placing a gentle hand on Wei Ying's head. 

"When someone truly cares for you, they would learn to overcome such resentments. As I did, and many more before and after me,"

Lan Wangji motions Wei Ying to rise from his seat afterwards, leads him to the kitchens for a late meal of warmed leftovers that the aunties gladly portions out for them. 

And all the while, he lets the unspoken question hangs heavy around Wei Ying's shoulders - Whether or not Jiang Wanyin cares about him enough to even start learning. Whether Jiang Wanyin cares for him at all. 

 

- ooo -

 

Jiang Yanli is a less apparent weakness in the Jiang's hold over Wei Ying, but Lan Wangji sees more than most. He sees that despite her visible affection for Wei Ying, she is silently complacent for all the visible wrongs done to him, that in her bid for peace and compromise, it is often Wei Ying she expects to bear the heaviest burdens, Wei Ying she leaves undefended and alone in the crossfire of everyone's ire. Wei Ying she has primed to simply fold over and make way for their younger brother and mother's insatiable anger - Trusting herself to soothe whatever damage they might have wrought on the boy afterwards. 

But the farce of a bond she has woven between herself and her two brothers are too deep-rooted yet for Lan Wangji to slip into, and it's only after a minor altercation between Jiang Wanyin and Jin Zixuan does he find his way in. He takes a few day to observe both Jiang Wanyin and Wei Ying's apparent animosity towards Jiang Yanli's bethrothed, and Jin Zixuan's own unspoken disdain towards the eldest Jiang. 

It's also apparent how the Jiang maiden's heart seems intent on pursuing the Jin heir, from the soft, longing looks she sends Jin Zixuan's way, to her constant reprimanding of her two siblings for antagonizing her betrothed's quiet dismissal of her. 

In the end, it takes only little prompting to tip the balances in his favor. A brief observation about the oftentimes ineffectual tradition of Sect betrothals at the end of their class of Sect Relations and Politics is enough to start the stray tongue wagging as the disciples trickle slowly out of the Lanshi. 

Lan Wangji stays in place, putting his papers into order slowly even as a thread of qi sharpens his hearing as the murmuring outside spikes up several times before a loud crack resounds throughout the courtyard.

"Wei Wuxian! How dare you!" Someone shouts, loud enough now to go through the walls of the Lanshi, even as another indignant cry resounds back. Lan Wangji rises from his seat, and emerges into the main courtyard to find Jin Zixuan rising from the ground with the help of his fellow Jins, Wei Ying being held back by his shidis and several other Sect disciples across the Jin heir, even as Jiang Yanli looks on helplessly amidst everything. 

"No, you apologize to my Shijie!" Wei Ying snarls, even as a Nie disciple tries unsuccesfully to hold him back by his robes, "What courtesy? What manners? When you can't even be respectful towards your own betrothed?"

The chaos is such that it's Xiongzhang who manages to break it apart, his brother seeing Lan Wangji by the sidelines and imparting an amused arch of his eyebrow over the ruckus. Lan Xifeng, an Inner Disciple who happened to pass by but was unable to prevent the altercation, recounts the happenings and Lan Wangji finally steps in to direct most of the crowd along to their next classes, leaving behind the still enraged pair of Jin Zixuan and Wei Ying, and a silent Jiang Yanli. Jiang Wanyin had fought particularly hard to stay - his rage seemingly torn between Jin Zixuan for insulting his sister and Wei Ying for besmirching the name of Yumeng Jiang in his eyes - But Lan Zhan has no patience for him to complicate things today.

Xiongzhang herds the three into the Hanshi, taking Jin Zixuan aside towards his office with another amused glance at Lan Wangji to follow, reading his intentions like a familiar book as only Xiongzhang knows how to. A slide of the doors, and a silencing talisman drawn into the wood, and soon it's the two of them across the sulking Jin heir - Red and purple already blooming on his cheek. 

"This will not take long, Jin-gongzi, so rest assured our healers will be able to take care of you very soon," Xiongzhang smiles - That warm, effusive smile he had perfected ever since they realized that they only had each other after mother was taken away. A smile meant to mislead and disarm in equal measures. 

It's easy enough to talk Jin Zixuan into keeping the matter a personal one - A regular youthful spat instead of the intersect conflict it could have been. Indulgent as he is towards his only heir, Yunmeng's vast waterways and silk and dye trade has been something that Jin Guangshan coveted for years, and Jin Zixuan would still gain a significant reprimand for jeopardising his father's sure way towards that. Easy enough to gently talk him through the faults of putting down someone else for attributes that are beyond their control, such as one's base level of Cultivation or the circumstances of their birth. It's less so when Jin Zixuan finds that his punishment is a public apology to Jiang Yanli, in the eyes of the people he had insulted her before.

"Wei-gongzi would also be punished accordingly, of course," Xiongzhang's eyes crinkle warmly, a picture of kind assurance in the face of Jin Zixuan's sullen uncertainty, "Although having a brother myself, I am quite familiar with how the urge to defend one's siblings could blind one to some things at the heat of the moment."

The words land right where Xiongzhang must have aimed it as the younger man's face shifts minutely. Jin Zixuan probably has more half-siblings than any other man in the Cultivation world, but none who has been allowed to be by his side. Unlike the other Great Sect heirs, Jin Zixuan had grown up alone, in a place that is little more than a glorified viper's den. He has seen Jin Zixuan look longingly towards the Jiang pair sometimes, or to the Cangsha Zhang's rowdy brood of brothers.

Jin Zixuan merely nods, rather glumly, even as his gaze lands towards Lan Wangji's own silent presence beside Xiongzhang - The longing look clear in his eyes. Lan Wangji sees his own brother's smile shift, like a tiger in tall grass. 

"Jin-gongzi, you are young yet. But your path is a difficult, yet infinitely important one. If this one may extend a word of advice, from someone who has had a similar responsibility to yours?"

Jin Zixuan's eyes widen a fraction, so transparent even with where he was raised. He nods slowly, tentatively,   something small and hopeful in it that Xiongzhang easily slips into. 

"As I have Wangji, in the future Jin-gongzi would do well to find someone like Wei-gongzi to be at your side. Who would stand with Jin-gongzi, with family regardless of courtesy or what is considered appropriate or beneficial."

"I have known that our world is a place of shifting loyalties and sometimes arbitrary values. So it would be a boon to have someone who would act for their loved ones, even when it's inconvenient or when doing so would make them lose face."

For the first time since he's entered the room, the Jin heir looks pensive as he bows in gratitude for the advice, even as Xiongzhang easily smiles and pats his shoulder. The wards around the room dissipates with a flick of Lan Wangji's hand, and he catches the tail end of Jiang Yanli's hushed, disappointed voice from the other room.

"- A-Cheng had been right! A-Xian, why do you have to do all this? Why won't you stop making trouble?"

Xiongzhang catches it too, from the flicker of something sharp across his eyes before Lan Wangji slides the door open, ending the hushed conversation before Wei Ying could answer his Shijie. 

Jiang Yanli quickly folds herself back into her cushion, even as Wei Ying's eyes stays fixed on the floors before him - His mouth a thin, compressed line that looks altogether wrong in his usually joyous face. 

"Jin-gongzi," the Jiang maiden bows as soon as Jin Zixuan steps into view from behind him, "On behalf of Yunmeng Jiang, we regret our Head Disciple's transgression towards the Jin Sect. Clearly our A-Xian is in the wrong and he will extend his deepest apologies to you," at this, Jiang Yanli subtly nudges her Shidi, who stiffens in his own seat, eyes still downcast.

Something troubled and complicated passes over Jin Zixuan's features as he takes in the two Jiangs before him. If previously the Jin heir's eyes had always passed over the Jiang maiden in disinterest, now there is a hint of uncertainty flickering there - a fledgling seed of distrust. 

"I was at fault for insulting Jiang-guniang first, and I shall be offering a formal apology tomorrow," he says as he bows back stiffly. 

"Shall - Shall I accompany Jin-gongzi to the infirmary? It is still the fault of our Sect after all-"

"It's nothing," Jin Zixuan cuts her off, even as Wei Wuxian's head finally snaps up to look sharply at the Jin heir's raised voice, "I don't see why you're making such a big deal out of it when I am fine with it."

Jiang Yanli's eyes are wide and crestfallen in her pale face as Jin Zixuan turns on his heels and leaves, even as her hand flies to hold Wei Ying still - His beloved's righteous anger a bright, steady thing only for ones who barely ever deserves it. 

 

- ooo -

 

When Wei Ying steps into the library pavillion the following evening, he is more somber than Lan Wangji has ever seen the younger man. There is something heavy and resigned in the lines of his face as they again sit across each other in the familiar space. 

"Before Laoshi says anything, I know this one's probably the big one. No fighting without permission is rule number thirty-three, right? That's pretty high on the list! So-" at this, Wei Ying tries to smile, only succeeding halfway through before it falters, "So this one would understand whatever punishment he'd be given."

The rage Lan Wangji has simmering inside him flares at that, the one that was first ignited when he saw the scars on Wei Ying's back. He takes a deep breath and tries to compose himself, knowing that any trace of the anger that shows through would merely be interpreted as him being angry at Wei Ying. 

"Does Wei Ying think that rule is important as well?"

Wei Ying gives a slight, almost exasperated frown - as if he simply wants the whole thing to be done with. Lan Wangji knows the feeling, had often felt it whenever the Elders made a show of deliberating and expressing their disappointment with both him and Xiongzhang, only to forbid them to see a-niang for the month in the end. But he also needs Wei Ying to understand. 

"I mean, I suppose? If everyone just swordfights all their problems out all the time then nothing would get done, right?" Wei Ying gives a little wry smirk - One Lan Wangji had seen many times before during the early days of knowing Wei Ying, one he has on whenever he knows that any form of authority would only end up having him be wrong by default. It's something Wei Ying has done less and less during his stay in the Cloud Recesses, but Lan Wangji could see why it's making a reappearance right now.

"Wei Ying is not far off in his answer," Lan Wangji says smoothly, even as Wei Ying's frown twitches, "Conflicts oftentimes culminate in physical clashes when there is no more possibility for compromise. But when one party resorts earlier to physical action, oftentimes the source of the problem becomes muddled or forgotten entirely."

Wei Ying's frown deepens before him - But it has slowly transformed to one where Wei Ying is ruminating on something, his mind dissecting anything that comes its way.

"In this world, there would be some matters that would inevitably end in physical conflict, but many of those could be resolved just as well in other ways. The reason we forbade fighting in our grounds is because the Cloud Recesses is meant to be a place of safety, where our disciples could feel safe entertaining other means of resolving matters before they are forced to physically attack or defend."

He stops, as if in a lecture, and looks gently upon his beloved - silver eyes inscrutable as he takes in his words, as he finally nods, slow and deliberate. For all of Jiang Wanyin's scoffing that his Wei Ying is careless and impatient, he holds words and knowledge with such care in his restless hands. 

"Wei Ying confronted Jin-gongzi because he insulted Jiang-guniang in public, and that in itself is a commendable thing, to stand up against slander and disrespect for one's own kin. And yet the original insult might potentially be overshadowed by the physical altercation it caused, as people are prone to latch on to such memorable things."

The silence following Lan Wangji's word is longer still, more wrought even as Wei Ying starts to fidget in his seat, the restless fingers of his hand scrabbling, tapping against the wooden floors below them in an erratic pattern.

"Was it really - " Wei Ying halts, swallows before he looks at Lan Wangji, eyes wide and heartbreakingly vulnerable, "Was it really commendable?"

"Shijie was - was upset, said I did an unecessary thing, caused trouble when I should have stayed quiet and let things go. I - I understand when it's me, I know how to keep quiet when -" Wei Ying's lips thin, in that way he does when he remembers that some things are for him to hide, "But I don't understand why she would let Jin Zixuan do that when she's her and everyone could see."

There is a wealth of unspoken things every time Wei Ying speaks of his adopted family, but it feels particularly heavy in his words just then - dragged out of his lips like a cart through muddy soil. 

"Wei Ying was not wrong. Everyone deserves to be treated well and respected, to not be hurt - Whatever their station in life and whether or not others could see," he watches the words sink in, watches Wei Ying's brilliant mind grapple with familiar denial, "That Jiang-guniang felt that such thing is not a courtesy to be extended to everyone, even herself, is concerning. But as we have discussed many times now, some matters can only be solved by oneself and not the responsibility of others to right, nor justify."

He rises from his seat, then. Motions Wei Ying to do the same and follow him along the tranquil corridors deeper into the Cloud Recesses, until they reach a courtyard cushioned with soft green grass, shaded beneath a large cypress tree and rife with the sound of laughing children. 

"Laoshi, this is-" Wei Ying looks up at him, even as a particularly high-pitched happy squeal sounds from within the walls, "I thought-"

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says softly, "Did you think you would be beaten?"

Wei Ying's mouth clamps shut with an audible click, his eyes wide and guilty. Lan Wangji can no longer help himself, and puts a gentle hand on Wei Ying's head, tries not to show his contentment as Wei Ying unconsciously pushes his head against his palm. 

"Every punishment has to have a reason, a lesson. As with solving conflicts with physical means, if one is beaten for every transgression, nothing is instilled but fear. And once one is beaten one too many times, even fear will lose its hold over them eventually and nothing is learned,"  he moves his hand slowly along the silk of Wei Ying's hair, the touch barely a whisper as Wei Ying shivers - And Lan Wangji has to wonder if it is from his touch, or the memory of Zidian and countless discipline sticks upon his back, "When nothing is learned, then what is the point of beating other than cruelty and spite? This is what Gusu Lan seeks to avoid in our punishments."

The moment is cut short as the door to the wooden building before them slides open, letting out a small stream of tiny, pattering feet in white robes. One of them notices Lan Wangji on the courtyard, and toddles over on wobbly feet, throwing himself with much aplomb at Lan Wangji's knees. 

"Lao-shi!" A-Xue grins up at Lan Wangji, giggling happily as he scoops the little boy up to balance him in his arms. A-Xue turns to look at a seemingly stunned Wei Ying, and grins at him too, "Laoshi bring friend?"

"Mn," Lan Wangji tries to keep his expression neutral as he passes A-Xue to Wei Ying - Who, to his credit, readily embraces the child securely in his arms despite the lost look he still has, "This is Wei Ying, and he will play with us today."  

"Today, Wei Ying will learn that when one is growing still, it's hard not to resolve conflicts - Or any aspects of life without resorting to physical action," this he says to Wei Ying, "And then perhaps, to be more aware and thankful of our own ability to deliberate conflicts in a calm manner."

As if to enunciate his point, an annoyed wail sounds somewhere behind them, followed by the sound of a crying child as Wei Ying's silver eyes finally finds Lan Wangji's, and starts to crinkle in a warm smile. 

 

- ooo -

 

The first time Lan Wangji met Huaisang, he had caught the younger boy halfway through putting an early end to a tedious banquet in honor of the Jins - An admittedly impressive scheme involving a bag of seeds, a reed flute, and a questionable number of magpies. Lan Wangji had been seventeen at the time, newly pushed towards a world of intersect functions and gatherings he had no interest nor patience for. 

Their eyes had met in the darkness of the Unclean Realm's hallways, and Lan Wangji had merely nodded before he walked away to his given quarters, glad to be spared the ensuing feathery mayhem. 

The secret of the younger Nie's well-hidden competence has been something they shared ever since, so much so that Lan Wangji had allowed Nie Huaisang to return a second time for his study year despite knowing him to be well-versed in things that matter already. 

"The Cloud Recesses is so beautiful all year round, Wangji-ge," Nie Huaisang had said, tapping one of his many fans against his curled lips, "It gives me inspiration to think, you know? Without all the practicing and shouting and running around the courtyard and such."

Whatever Huaisang is planning would no doubt be beneficial for his da-ge, and thus for Lan Wangji's own Xiongzhang. And it puts Huaisang so conveniently close for his own needs, as well. 

Lan Wangji finds the younger Nie deep amidst the back hills, crouched on all fours amidst the grass, eyes intent on a lone dai sheng bird, its red crest bright against the verdant landscape. 

"Huaisang," he says, when the bird is gently clasped between the younger man's fingers, making his tread known.

"What brings the esteemed Hanguang-Jun to seek out this lowly one?" Huaisang tilts his head to the side, carefully running a finger along the striped length of the bird's delicate form. The dai sheng trills softly, not yet a song, but the start of one - if Nie Huaisang's past little friends were any indication. 

"I need word spread around Yunmeng that Jiang Fengmian is considering having his Head Disciple to succeed him instead of his son."

"Oh," Huaisang's eyes finally flicker with interest, the dai sheng momentarily forgotten, "Oh that's a good one, Wangji-ge. Ah, I should have thought about that earlier!"

Lan Wangji gives a minuscule lift of his eyebrows, even as Huaisang laughs softly, as not to startle his tiny charge. 

"You think I haven't tried to poach Wei-xiong for Qinghe Nie myself?" Huaisang snorts, "It's ridiculous how Yunmeng Jiang has just been like, hiding him in a lotus pond or something! The things he comes up with, ge! And such fun to be around!"

"But ah, the loyalty on that Wei-Xiong, really. Terribly, terribly inconvenient thing, to such an undeserving crowd too! I suppose if anything could get him to look another way, it would be Wangji-ge and his jadelike good looks, yes?"

Lan Wangji raises his eyebrow a fraction higher, and this time Huaisang does laugh wholeheartedly, fingers quick to soothe the dai sheng in the cup of his palms.   

"Oh, I'm so sorry, Wangji-ge, I truly know nothing about matters such as that, truly! So is that all you need?"

Lan Wangji folds himself on the grass beside Huaisang, reaching out to gently trace a line along the bird's bright plumes even as the younger man looks at him with equally bright interest. 

"I am open to suggestions." 

 

- ooo -

 

By the time the study year nears its completion, Nie Huaisang has woven a web of rumors and hearsays around Yunmeng of Jiang Fengmian's potential new heir - So much so that even the people of Lotus Pier and Yunmeng have subtly taken sides on the matter. Lan Wangji is highly amused when his own spymaster brings back the apparently rampant rumor of Yunmeng Jiang's inner struggle for power, even as Xiongzhang chuckles outright over their shared weiqi game. 

Even unknowing to what awaits them at home, the rift Lan Wangji had seeded between Wei Ying and his adopted siblings has only grown, and as Lan Wangji walks the departing class towards the docks of Caiyi, Wei Wuxian is surrounded by the young masters and disciples of other clans instead - Clamouring for him to write them and meet them for joint night hunts. Jiang Wanyin glares silently on the sidelines, even as the Yunmeng Jiang disciples tiptoe helplessly around them both. 

Lan Wangji takes his beloved aside, safe beneath the shade of a water-willow, before he presses a jade token into Wei Ying's hand - identical to his own, carved with the gentians dear to him. 

For a moment, Wei Ying is silent - his mouth agape as he stares at the piece of jade in his hands, and Lan Wangji entertains the amusing thought that he had finally rendered his loquacious beloved speechless. 

"Lan Laoshi!" Wei Ying whispers, when he finally collects himself, "This is, I mean I can't accept-"

"Wei Ying will always be welcome in the Cloud Recesses," he says softly, firmly, closing Wei Ying's own fingers over the token, "Wei Ying may also write to me, if he'd like. Inform me of what he is learning, what he's looking into amidst his duties, so I may still send relevant reading materials to Yunmeng."

This time, Wei Ying's gaze upon him is wavering and vulnerable - Likely registering that he is coming back to Lotus Pier, where his duty holds a heavier yoke than merely ones of a Head Disciple's. 

"Really?" He whispers again.

"Lying is forbidden." 

Wei Ying smiles, at that. Bright as sunshine, even as Jiang Wanyin yells at him to get moving, even as he gets into the boat and waves at Lan Wangji until he disappears over the horizon. 

Wei Ying's first letter comes but a mere week after he departed the Cloud Recesses, and already Lan Wangji itches to hear Wei Ying's voice, to simply step on his sword and bring himself there, bring Wei Ying to his side. But Lan Wangji has always been a patient man, has always played the long game even when all the stones are arrayed on his side, and so he waits. 

Wei Ying tells him of night hunts and the little disciples forming their core under his supervision, of how useful Lan Wangji's punishments to him in the Lan nursery had been. Wei Ying tells him of the curious case of water ghouls in a river a few towns over, his theories of what might have caused it and a tentative request of books regarding lake spirits. 

He knows enough of Wei Ying's tells to read between the lines of his haphazard penmanship, could see the tension etched into the words, the way he writes of the Yunmeng siblings less and less.

In the end, it takes three months for the fabricated power struggle in Lotus Pier to reach a boiling point, and after sending a missive to the men he had planted in Yunmeng, Lan Wangji requests his brother for an official visit to Lotus Pier. 

"Ah," Xiongzhang smiles, the white of his stones glinting in the Hanshi's warm light, "I was just thinking how Wuxian would enjoy the lantern festival they'll have in Caiyi next week."

Lan Wangji places his own black stone, and allows himself a smile in return. 

 

- ooo -

 

It's clear that something is amiss in Lotus Pier as they land on its gates, and are only attended to after almost a ke, two harried-looking disciples on guard duty rushing to bow deeply towards them even as they steal worried glances behind them and at each other. 

The Nanyang Zhou is one of the many subsidiary sect of Yunmeng Jiang - Small, if prominent for the amount of trade that passes through its gates, including a vital route connecting to Qinghe. Over tea and a shared love of poetry, Nie Huaisang had talked Zhou Zongzhu to invite Jiang Zongzhu and his heir presumptive for their annual archery festival, as a token of gratitude and support for the future of Yunmeng Jiang. 

The letter was marked to arrive this morning, addressed to Jiang Zongzhu and Wei Wuxian, and already Lotus Pier is in such a state - Weeks upon weeks of tension finally spilling out into its wooden decks. 

"Forgive us for the unannounced visit," Xiongzhang smiles and salutes, "But we were in the area, and are wondering if Yunmeng Jiang might spare Gusu Lan some time for a cup of tea and talks of our shared borders. It has been too long also since I have met Jiang Zongzhu and pay my respects."

The older disciple practically blanches, while the younger starts to visibly fidget. Faintly, the sound of a door slamming resounds from within the compound, followed by dead silence.

"It - It is no trouble, Lan Zongzhu, but this humble disciple must beg forgiveness, for today we're, we're-"

Xiongzhang's smile doesn't waver in the face of the Jiang disciple's apparent distress, gentle and almost encouraging. The guard is saved, however, by a ruckus on the receiving courtyard behind him as several younger disciples notices them and runs towards the gates themselves. 

"Lan Laoshi!" Lan Wangji quckly recognizes the speaker, one of the disciples that had been in Cloud Recesses with the Jiang contingent. Ping Hongliang is one of Wei Ying's favorite Shimei, bright and quick with a bow, and loves Wei Ying like one would a real brother, "Lan Laoshi, please, it's da-shixiong! Yu Furen-"

Despite his own knowledge of what is happening, cold dread still grips Lan Wangji's chest at the fear on Hongliang's voice, his fingers tightening around Bichen's hilt.

"A-Liang, what are you doing, we can't -" the disciple who greeted them hisses, before he too, is cut off by his fellow guard, the younger's face set in a determined line, "No, Shixiong. Please, this has gone long enough. This time, Yu Furen is really serious, this time da-shixiong could really be in danger -"

"If Wei Ying is truly in danger, it would be best to bring us to him," Lan Wangji himself finally cuts in, using a tone he does in class that brooks no argument for his former students. It takes but a quick glance between the Jiang disciples before both of them are ushered inside the Jiang Sect compound proper, led through a maze of wooden decks and floating pavilions. 

"A letter came to Lotus Pier today, misnaming da-shixiong as the Yunmeng Jiang heir instead of the Head Disciple, and it got Yu Furen really angry. But it really wasn't da-shixiong's fault, there was nothing he could do about it—" Li Shuang, another of his former student has started to babble, as one often does when finally faced with a safe, trusted figure of authority during a stressful incident, "Things have been really tense lately, but we didn't think - Laoshi, please, you'll have to stop her. Last time, da-shixiong was hurt quite badly, we're afraid-"

Fear seizes Lan Wangji's heart in earnest, just as they reached the ornate wooden doors of Yunmeng Jiang's sword hall. The disciples leading them stops abruptly, a kindred fear clear in their faces. 

Xiongzhang turns to the disciples, "If asked, you led us to the Sword Hall, where you know the Lady of Lotus Pier currently is. Lan Zongzhu was very insistent, for it was an urgent matter with the borders, and you were unable to refuse the leader of your allied Sect and your Laoshi out of courtesy," and opens the doors to the Sword Hall. 

The gall of that woman, Lan Wangji hisses inside his mind as the door parts easily with a simple push, not even bothering to ward the doors for what she was about to do. Yu Furen knows without a doubt that none in Lotus Pier would dare question her, knows that no one would lift a hand to stop her as she flays the skin off her own ward, her own head disciple whenever she likes. 

What must it be to live as a disciple under such casual cruelty, knowing you might never be safe in your own home when that cruelty decides to land on you. What must it be to live as Wei Ying.

Lan Wangji's breath catches as the door swings fully ajar and he takes in the scene before him. Yu Ziyuan is standing, red faced and raising Zidian in her hand, in the middle of the room. Across her, Wei Ying is knelt on the floor, back facing her, stripped down to his waist and both arms outstretched, each held by two stern-faced women in a firm grip. There is the smell of burned flesh and lightning in the air, the crackle of Zidian a terrible hint to the angry, red lash on the pale, scarred skin of Wei Ying's back. 

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji breathes in the silence following their entrance, even as his beloved's head snaps back to look at the doorway in disbelief. Relief floods him as he sees that the lash had only been the first one Yu Ziyuan managed to land on Wei Ying's back, even as his blood boils that the lash was there at all, at the sight of newer, fresher scars bisecting the ones he had seen in the Cold Springs, the blood dripping still from his split lip, the fresh bruises on his cheeks and jaw. 

"Lan-Zongzhu, Hanguang-Jun," Yu Furen barely recovers from her own shock as she addresses them, eyes flaring with rage, "I hope there is a good reason that you have barged into our Sect when we are conducting private Sect business."

"Yu Furen," Xiongzhang steps fully into the room, his eyes flashing in anger for the briefest moment when it lands on Wei Ying, before the placid facade of his smile slips back in place, "Forgive us for the untimely intrusion, as we thought we were not intruding on such grave matters. I was not informed that Yunmeng Jiang is currently conducting such a heavy trial."

Something ugly and amused twists Yu Ziyuan's mouth, "As I said, it is a private everyday matter of the Sect, nothing for Lan Zongzhu and Hanguang-Jun to trouble themselves with."

"My apologies stand, Yu Furen, our courtesy has been lacking and for that we are regretful. Although I was under the impression that as with other respectable Great Sects, punishments with spiritual weapons are only reserved for the heaviest offense towards the Sect," Xiongzhang inclines his head gently at the mass of lightning-wrought scars on Wei Ying's back, at Zidian still crackling on Yu Ziyuan's hand. 

"I don't know what you're implying, Lan Zongzhu, but as the Lady of this Sect, I am well within my rights to punish my disciples as I see fit." 

"It would be an interesting topic for the upcoming Discussion Conference, won't it? The merits of casual punishment towards growing disciples with a first-class spiritual weapon? Perhaps Yu Furen herself could present her case and see what others would think." 

"You, how dare you -"  Yu Ziyuan's eyes are wild as she steps towards Xiongzhang, purple sparks flying around her trembling hand even as Xiongzhang's smile stays, calm as a lotus lake's surface. Lan Wangji keeps his hand on Bichen nevertheless, gaze fixed upon Wei Ying's dazed silver ones like a lifeline. 

"San-niang," the tension is finally broken as Jiang Fengmian rushes to the room followed by a group of disciples, only a brief flicker of surprise crossing his face before it settles into resignation, "Lan-Zongzhu, Hanguang-Jun. I was just informed of your arrival by my disciples - Forgive us for the lackluster welcome, and for - getting caught up in our inner Sect matters."

"San-niang, if you would accompany me to properly accommodate our honored guests?" The question sounds as resigned as everything else Jiang Fengmian seem to feel regarding the whole situation, as if he does not actually have hope that his words bear any weight anymore. True to form, Yu Furen scoffs openly at her husband, although Zidian finally retreats back to coil around her wrists with a sharp, dissatisfied crack.

"Yinzhu, Jinzhu, if you would please let A-Xian get back to his quarters? Lan-Zongzhu, Hanguang-Jun, if you would kindly follow this one," Jiang Fengmian nods at them, head inclined politely towards the door.  

Rage spikes anew in Lan Wangji's chest as Wei Ying is released from the two women's hold, the young man staggering to fall on his shaking elbows before trying unsuccesfully to clamber to his feet. Lan Wangji's own feet takes him towards his beloved without a thought, even as Wei Ying falls toward his embrace and Xiongzhang steps between him and the Jiangs, something infinitely sharp in his amicable smile.

The sheer idiocy of Jiang Wanyin and his mother to think that Wei Ying is loved and cherished more than the Sect heir, when Jiang Fengmian would not even raise a single word against his wife even as the child entrusted to him was bleeding in front of his eyes. What good are a few stray words of praise compared to a childhood of abuse whilst everyone around you looks the other way?

"Before that," Xiongzhang says, almost pleasantly, "If no one is going to get your Head Disciple the medical attention that he clearly needs, it would be no trouble at all for this one to care for him briefly. Gusu Lan is quite adept in healing, even wounds inflicted by first-class spiritual weapons such as the famed Zidian."

Jiang Fengmian blanches visibly, perhaps finally, finally realizing how deeply he is entrenched in this situation. How the implications of their transgressions and neglect are now laid bare to the eyes of another Sect and potentially the whole Cultivation world. 

Wei Ying shifts inside Lan Wangji's arms, as if trying to rectify the situation somehow - perhaps throw himself in the middle of everything as he so often did to protect his family. Lan Wangji stops him with a gentle, yet firm hand on his shoulder, blanketing Wei Ying with a veil of cool, soothing energy to take away the stinging edge of his pain. His beloved slumps back against Lan Wangji's chest, relief evident in his pale face even as he stays quiet, as he must have done so many times before in his pain. 

"There is no need, Lan Zongzhu, Hanguang-Jun" Jiang Fengmian says tersely, eyes wary on a seething Yu Ziyuan, "Our disciples will ensure that he's well taken care of. Wanjun, Wanli, please escort your da-shixiong to the infirmary."

Lan Wangji's arms uconsciously tighten around Wei Ying before he notes the familiar faces of the twin siblings, another of Wei Ying's brood of juniors. Jiang Wanjun kneels slowly beside them, carefully slinging Wei Ying's already reaching arm across his shoulder even as his twin sister hurries to support Wei Ying from the other side. The motion looks frighteningly practiced, as if it's not the first time the two has done this in tandem, and Lan Wangji's stomach churns even with what he already knows. 

"We'll get him to the healers immediately, Laoshi," Wanli whispers at him, something fiery and determined in her eyes, "Head Healer Nuying will keep da-shixiong safe while he's there. We'll keep a few disciples around just in case."

"Aiyah," Wei Ying chastises weakly, "What nonsense are you saying to Lan Laoshi, A-Li? It's just one lash-"

The glare Jiang Wanli directs Wei Ying would probably make Gusu Lan's elderly Head Healer proud, and Wei Ying clamps his mouth shut as he lets himself be led away by his juniors, shooting one last inscrutable gaze at Lan Wangji. 

Yu Ziyuan ended up storming off entirely, citing an urgent Night Hunt as she sweeps out of the room in a flurry of jade and violet silks. Jiang Fengmian heaves another resigned sigh as he finally leads them to the receiving hall proper for tea, and a clearly half-hearted attempt at talks of the Anhui border. 

"Another reason for our visit is an invitation for your Head Disciple from Gusu Lan," Xiongzhang finally says, and Jiang Fengmian's face tightens, "There is to be a symposium in Gusu regarding talisman study, and as Wuxian has proven to be brilliant with his inventions and understanding of talisman structure when he was studying with us, it would be an honor for us to host him for a series of classes to teach there. As this is something that Yunmeng Jiang does not focus their education upon, we would also be honored to host Jiang disciples for the length of the symposium."

There is the slightest of twitch in Jiang Fengmian's placid face, even as Xiongzhang sips serenely at his cup of dark Yunmeng tea. Lan Wangji inclines his head at the Jiang sect leader.

"Far be it from my place as an outsider to comment on private Sect matters, but as Wei Ying's former teacher, I feel that perhaps it might be safer and better for him to be away from such conflicts and immidiate danger as we have seen him in today," he regards Jiang Fengmian with a hard gaze, "Perhaps some time away from Lotus Pier would be good for Wei Ying as Zongzhu resolves the matters accordingly."

Lan Wangji almost wants to laugh at his own words. As if the matter between Yu Furen and Jiang Zongzhu would ever have hope to be resolved. As if one would simply put to rest decades of resentment and insecurity and the other to simply pick up the basest form of accountability and courage. 

"A-Xian has many responsibilities in Yunmeng Jiang," Jiang Fengmian says at long last, clearly struggling to master himself, "It is his home, after all, where he is most happy to be. But Yunmeng Jiang is honored with the offer, and I shall talk to him about it." 

Lan Wangji sees the tightness of Jiang Fengmian's jaw, sees the hurt look on his eyes, and hides a smile behind his own cup of tea.

 

- ooo -

 

They only got to see Wei Ying in the evening, smuggled into their rooms by a suspiciously well-coordinated cadre of Jiang disciples. He is pale still, his movements stiff even as Lan Wangji rises to bully him into a comfortable seat on his bed and Xiongzhang fusses so the pillows doesn't jostle his still-healing back. 

"Wei Ying," Lan Wangji says softly, noting the way the younger man had not released his hand, like a child afraid of letting go, "How are you feeling?"

"I'm- I'm fine," he says quietly, and falters at Xiongzhang's skeptical stare, "I'm healing. It's - I have had worse?"

The words have the reverse effect from what Wei Ying probably intended, and Xiongzhang draws a sharp breath even as Lan Wangji's hand clenches minutely around Wei Ying's. 

"I - I would also like to apologize," Wei Ying soldiers on, before his free hand slips into the folds of his robes, carefully laying down  familiar jade token on his lap, broken into several pieces. 

"Uncle Jiang took it from my belt and - and broke it, when I said I would like to accept Gusu Lan's invitation," Xiongzhang shifts in his seat, expression thunderous now beneath the seemingly placid lines of his smiling face, "He was - He wasn't pleased. Said that - Said how easy it was for me to flout my responsibilities to follow my selfish whims. Said that I was just like my father. That I have no care for Yunmeng Jiang's love after all they did for me -"

 A drop of water lands on the broken piece of jade on his lap, and Lan Wangji realizes that Wei Ying is crying - Wei Ying, who had merely laughed and weathered his way through everything, who had always smiled and put on a brave face towards the world. Lan Wangji squeezes Wei Ying's hand once more, traces vague patterns on the back of his hand to soothe his beloved as much as to soothe himself, to prevent him from simply picking up Bichen and storming into Jiang Zongzhu's quarters and be done with it. 

"Is that - Is that true, is Uncle Jiang right?" Wei Ying is sobbing now, fat tears streaming down his face as if the first drop has loosened something old and enormous inside him, and Lan Wangji gathers the younger man  carefully against his chest, letting him burrow into the whites of his robes, "I - I've always tried my best, I really do, Laoshi. I have never looked for anything else but to be of use to Yunmeng Jiang, to be good - but why, why is it so hard?" 

"Wei Ying is good," Lan Wangji says firmly, running one hand along Wei Ying's hair, "I, we have known Wei Ying as he represented his Sect, as he protected his siblings and took care of the juniors under him, and we know that Wei Ying has done his best, has only ever done his best."

Wei Ying makes a vague sound of protest from somewhere around Lan Wangji's chest, and he sushes the younger man with a firm pat on his head, "And if even then others are not satisfied, it is not Wei Ying's responsibility, nor is it within Wei Ying's power to change. Wei Ying understands this already."

"Whatever debt or responsibility is said to be present, people's lives are never meant to belong to others," Xiongzhang says softly, carefully settling himself beside them on the edge of the bed, "And ones who do hold the care for others' livelihood should not treat it so callously in the name of being paid their dues."

"Wuxian's life is his, and only his, even as a Jiang Disciple. Had he not done his best in being a disciple and a ward, a shixiong and a brother, while he is one? What manner of people would have a child beholden to them forever for not letting him die?"

Wei Ying nods weakly from his place inside Lan Wangji's embrace, and Xiongzhang gives a gentle smile as he reaches out to pat Wei Ying's hair in kind - Eyes soft as he remembers it from their childhood, from the way he braided little Huaisang's hair whenever the younger Nie comes for a visit. 

"Thank you, Laoshi, Lan Zongzhu," Wei Ying whispers, before he slowly peeks from the folds of Lan Wangji's now rumpled robes, "And - And sorry, for the token. Laoshi has gone through all the trouble making it for me, and I-"

"Tokens can always be remade," Xiongzhang soothes, "But our welcome towards you stays the same always, Wuxian. If I may suggest, it might be good for you to stay with us in Gusu for awhile, at least until all this is resolved."

"And," Wei Ying says slowly, tentatively, eyes barely daring to meet either of theirs, "And if I were to stay there for - For a while more? Perhaps for a long while?"

"Then Gusu Lan would be lucky to gain a brilliant and kind disciple such as Wei Ying, for as long as Wei Ying would like to stay."

His beloved's answering smile is tentative and small still, like the morning sun peeking through the hills. But Lan Wangji thinks its' good enough of a start. 

 

- ooo -

 

Without the shadows of his erstwhile home looming over him, Wei Ying thrives under the gentle sunlight of Gusu's mountains, amidst the tranquil paths of Lan Wangji's home. Whenever Lan Wangji sees his beloved now, he sees a bright smile on full, flushed cheeks, sees the flutter of his fingers as he reads and writes and gives life to small miracles with but paper and sticks of cinnabar, sees the slow gentling of his oftentimes frantic steps without anything hounding him.

He sees a future of endless possibilities, a life meant to nurture knowledge and protect the weak, free of all the notions of debt and constraints Wei Ying had willingly escaped from.

Lan Wangji is grading the last of the disciples' Night Hunt reports when he hears the now familiar, hopping steps against the stone path outside the Jingshi, Wei Ying's smiling face a warm, bright thing amidst the snow starting to fall behind him as Lan Wangji turns to regard him. 

"Zhan-ge!" Wei Ying calls out as he sheds his boots on the entryway, and Lan Wangji's heart blooms with the endearment, as it does every time Wei Ying calls him so in the hushed cocoon of their time together, "The ducklings did so well today! You should have seen them, A-Jing even managed to channel enough energy to activate a basic-level talisman! I know excessive pride is forbidden, but isn't that impressive of her?"

"Mn," Lan Wangji inclines his head gently, pouring a cup of tea for Wei Ying to warm his fingers around, "It's not excessive pride when it's true. Just as how I know the little ones had a good teacher guiding them."

Red blooms high on Wei Ying's cheeks, complementing the cold-kissed blush on the tip of his nose even as he cries for his Zhan-gege to give him a warning before saying such nice things. 

"Really Zhan-ge, you're too much for this poor Wei Ying! One day my heart would simply collapse from all your nice words, and then where would gege be, huh?"

It would take time still for Wei Ying to be able to fully appreciate himself, to be fully comfortable with having the appreciation and affections of others upon him, to consider being with someone without putting debt and responsibilities into the equation. But Lan Wangji is a patient man, and even if the flush on Wei Ying's cheeks and the small, tentative gazes he steals whenever he thinks Lan Wangji is not looking never comes to anything else, his own heart is content to simply have Wei Ying here. To have Wei Ying be himself and free, and still choose to be here.

Wei Ying shivers at a particularly strong gust of wind, rubbing his arms for warmth as he fidgets in his cushion. Brilliant as his beloved is, he is still slowly learning many given comforts for himself - including actually remembering to wear all the thicker robes Xiongzhang had commissioned for him for the settling winter. Lan Wangji lets out a gentle huff of air before he rises, about to slide the door shut and pile some more wood on the brazier when Wei Ying lets out a protesting whine. 

"Gege, don't close the door, the snow is so pretty when you watch it from here," Wei Ying pouts from where he's sitting, silver eyes wide and pleading, "I'm not cold, really!"

"Lying is forbidden," Lan Wangji tells him with barely concealed amusement, but leaves the door to the porch ajar, and drapes his own outer robes around Wei Ying's shoulder - The white and blue painting the younger man in his colors even as Wei Ying smiles brightly in its embrace. Outside, snowflakes fall gently upon the Cloud Recesses, burying the black stone path that leads to Lan Wangji's house in pristine white. 

 

- oꕥo -