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"Are you sure about this?" Lan Huan had asked him. He had been dubious about Lan Zhan's plans to go somewhere so remote.

"I am sure," he had said.

Looking at the dilapidated old cottage, he is... less sure.

But he needed to be less... easily reached, and this place is convenient to nowhere.

Lan Huan worries, he knows.

Lan Huan trusts Meng Yao. Lan Zhan does not. They each believe themselves justified.

Better to be elsewhere.

He gets his bags from the car and attempts to approach the cottage's front gate.

He does not succeed.

Trained cultivator reflexes are all that saves him from the thing that comes flying at his face, screaming like a demon. His sword is still in the car, so he evades rather than striking back, and he's glad of it when he processes the wingbeats and the shadow returning to the leaves of the tree that stands over the cottage gate.

Not a demon. A crow.

Lan Zhan stands very still and allows his energies to calm, then projects. He's known to be gifted with animals. He's never understood why others don't simply do this. Animals find him a non-threatening presence. Normally it does not require conscious choice, but his thoughts have been troubled.

Once he is certain he is a sufficiently soothing figure, he tries again.

His overconfidence costs him a few strands of hair as he just barely ducks the crow's talons in time.

Lan Zhan enters his new home via the back gate.

---

The cottage has been empty for some time. Unbothered by the profound silence, Lan Zhan unpacks, and cleans, and gently evicts a family of mice. He has more rooms than he needs; the cottage was built for families, not one man.

He continues to use the back gate. The front garden is badly overgrown, but Lan Zhan does not tidy it as he does the back garden. The back garden is also where he sits and reads.

The front gate has a wei, and the guard in the tower does not recognise Lan Zhan as the rightful occupant of his little palace.

He watches the crow from inside the house, behind the safety of his walls. He has to peer through the gap when he opens the window; he can't clean the outsides of the dusty glass.

He sees two reasons why the crow might be particularly aggressive.

Firstly, that the crow is injured. Flying is clearly laborious for it - Lan Zhan sees that the crow has at some point suffered injury to its wing that has not healed perfectly.

Secondly, that the crow has a chick. Lan Zhan hears it crying.

He thinks he hears only one, and he's confident he never sees another crow. What, he wonders, happened to the crow's mate and other chicks?

The crow must be lonely, Lan Zhan thinks.

When he has been living in the cottage for some weeks, he returns from a walk to the nearby village to find that the kitchen window is wide open.

This is surprising for two reasons.

Firstly, because he had left it open only the width of his hand; the window is very stiff, and he was wary of breaking it if he forced it open any further.

Secondly because the kitchen window opens onto the front garden, which is the domain of the crow.

He surveys the contents of the cottage.

Someone has taken a modest amount of food from the kitchen. Nothing else has been disturbed - not the cash he had left sitting openly on a table, not his valuable antique tea set, not the small box he keeps of jewellery that once belonged to his mother.

Lan Zhan does not begrudge the theft. Someone who forces entry to another's home to take only food, and not much of that, is someone who is in need, and Lan Zhan would give them more than that quite freely.

He can understand why the intruder did not close the window properly - it takes more strength than non-cultivators tend to have to shift the window down again.

He is more interested in the realisation that someone was able to get past the crow.

Lan Zhan turns on his phone, answers a weeks-old text from his brother, and goes to the internet.

He finds advice for making friends with a crow.

He has a strategy now.

---

The front door opens stiffly, but it opens.

"Here is food for you, Wei-xiong," he says, and places two peanuts on the step before retreating and closing the door. The advice he found included the benefits of a food sound.

It seems disrespectful not to have a name to address the crow, and silly to call him just Crow. Lan Zhan, after all, is not named Human.

He calls the bird Wei because his tree home is like a guard tower over the gate. It's not because he still misses Wei Ying with a raw, acute pain that refuses to lessen.

His brother can never know.

---

On the third day, the crow is watching him warily from the path.

"Here is food for you, Wei-xiong," Lan Zhan says, and places two peanuts on the step without making eye contact.

He retreats and closes the door.

---

On the sixth day, he retreats, but leaves the door open to watch, which is how he sees that the crow doesn't eat the peanuts. It takes them back to its nest, one at a time.

The hatchling, Lan Zhan thinks, but peanuts are surely not good food for a baby.

He does more research.

He buys more groceries.

He combines a complicated assemblage of ingredients into an appropriately high-protein, high-calcium food suitable for baby crows he can make into little pellets that should be easy enough for the crow to carry.

He stays up past his bedtime to do it, but it's worth it.

The next day he opens the door to see the crow is waiting for him. He says, "Here is food for you, Wei-xiong." He puts down the little baby food nuggets - on a small plate, he can't bring himself to put baby food on the ground - and adds: "This is more suitable for your child."

The crow cocks its head at him and caws before taking the little nuggets and flying laboriously to the tree.

Lan Zhan can see the nest. It's very low for a crow's nest - Lan Zhan could reach it from the ground, if he stretched.

It explains some of the crow's hostility.

---

Life at the cottage is restful now that Lan Zhan has befriended the crow. Out of courtesy, Lan Zhan still does not use the front gate. Knowing now how close it is to the crow's nest, with the chick he sometimes hears, he keeps his distance. But he tidies the front garden a little. He doesn't disturb the plants, but he cleans the mess of litter. It's an odd collection - it seems strange how many discarded, used-up chemical hand-warmers he finds.

In time he has company when he reads in the back garden.

The crow comes closer, tentative at first, but remarkably soon it is perching on his shoulder while he reads.

Lan Zhan dares not turn his head, but the crow appears to be watching what he's doing, staring intently down at his hands. It caws in protest if he turns a page too quickly - he humours it, taking care to wait a time between page-turnings and to move slowly and carefully.

He is content in a way he has not been since -

In a long time.

His crow friend is inquisitive enough that it sometimes follows him into the cottage, and watches bright-eyed as Lan Zhan plays his guqin.

---

His happiness doesn't last.

Late one morning, the crow screams. It doesn't stop.

Lan Zhan emerges from the cottage in haste to find that Meng Yao, of all people, is standing outside his cottage a short way from the front gate.

"- this far?" Meng Yao is saying, in a musing tone. "Your brother has been looking for you."

"My brother knows where I am," Lan Zhan answers curtly, and for a moment he thinks Meng Yao looks oddly startled, but then he smiles.

"Of course he does, Lan Zhan," Meng Yao replies. "And he misses you terribly."

Lan Zhan does not dignify that with an answer. "What do you want."

"From you?" Meng Yao's smile widens. "Nothing. You seem to be happy here. I'm glad of that. After all, the Lan and the Jin are as close as family." He glances up at the crow, which is still looking distinctly threatening, and takes a step backwards. "I'll be leaving now," he says. "I'm sure I'll see you again soon."

Lan Zhan hopes he is incorrect.

The crow watches Meng Yao get into his car and drive away, and then turns to stare suspiciously at Lan Zhan.

Lan Zhan is not in the habit of explaining himself, especially to animals, but he feels like he should.

"I am sorry, Wei-xiong," Lan Zhan says quietly. "He is a friend of my brother's, but I do not think he is a good person. I asked my brother not to tell him where I had gone. I am sorry he approached your nest."

The crow stares at him.

And then it hops down, gliding awkwardly to Lan Zhan's shoulder, and tugs on his hair with its beak.

Lan Zhan is very still.

The crow caws in his ear, unpleasantly loud, then tugs again.

Hesitantly, Lan Zhan steps forward.

Then again, as the crow keeps tugging, before he's standing by the tree that holds the nest, and this time Wei-xiong's call is softer.

A baby crow peers over the side of the nest.

Wei-xiong pecks at Lan Zhan's ear, and then takes off into the sky.

Lan Zhan watches it fly out of sight, feeling... troubled.

---

The crow does not return. Not even when the chick in the nest has begun pleading for food, has been pleading for food for hours, and -

Lan Zhan stands on a stepladder to examine it.

He has been hearing the baby's cry for months. According to the internet, it should be a fledgling by now. It isn't. It is small and covered in soft-looking black down.

It should be eating frequently. It should have supplemental warmth. It has neither of those things, because its sole parent still has not returned.

It is wrong to take baby birds from their nests, but -

Feeling like a monster, Lan Zhan lifts the shivering chick from its nest and carries it inside.

---

Weeks pass.

Lan Zhan tries not to think that he should never have called the crow Wei-xiong; that he is cursed to love creatures named Wei, and to be forever left behind by them.

The chick seems a little weak, at first, but Lan Zhan keeps it warm and fed according to the instructions on the internet, and it gradually perks up.

It grows very, very slowly. Lan Zhan runs many internet searches, a baby crow tucked soft and warm inside his shirt, but all of the sources he can find agree that it should be growing much, much faster than it is.

There is no way it should still be partially feathered and flightless as the winter begins to draw in, and yet it is.

Lan Zhan buys an electric heating pad and constructs a nest of soft cloth on it. He calls the chick A-Yuan - this curious little creature, still younger than it should be, gives him a hope he doesn't yet dare to identify.

A-Yuan is special. There must also have been something special about Wei-xiong. Perhaps he will return.

Perhaps he will not, and Lan Zhan will continue to care for it.

---

Lan Zhan has been on edge since Meng Yao's visit. Hypervigilance doesn't actually seem unwarranted.

Especially when he hears the sounds of furtive movement in his own garden.

In one swift, fluid sequence he yanks the door open and steps outside, locates the intruder by the soft gasp he hears and draws his sword, levelling it in that direction.

By the moonlight and Bichen's glare, he sees a dark figure just straightening from doing something that looks like digging under the overgrown roses.

And then Lan Zhan lowers his sword again, staring.

"Wei Ying," he breathes, not sure he believes his eyes.

He sees Wei Ying's throat work as he swallows. "Lan Zhan," he answers softly.

Lan Zhan can't find words. At some point he crossed the distance between them, and now he's holding Wei Ying's wrist. Bichen's sheath is lying in the long grass.

Wei Ying looks tired, too thin and dressed in rags.

"Lan Zhan, let me go," he whispers. "I'll - I need to get far, far away from here, I just needed - I buried -"

Lan Zhan's grip tightens without his conscious will, and Wei Ying winces, and Lan Zhan frowns, because he can feel -

He holds Wei Ying's arm up and examines it by Bichen's light.

Wei Ying's forearm looks - wrong. There's an angle where no angle should be, like it was broken once and set badly.

"Wei-xiong?" he asks uncertainly. "Wei Ying... are you a crow?"

Wei Ying laughs, but it sounds forced to Lan Zhan. "Lan Zhan, don't be ridiculous, I -"

Lan Zhan just looks at him, and he falters.

"Yeah. Yes. I am. Is the baby okay?" he finally asks, and his voice shakes.

"Come inside," Lan Zhan says, and ignores Wei Ying's weak protests as he ushers him in, picking up his scabbard on the way.

Wei Ying resists until he sees the warm little nest Lan Zhan built. It's then he stops, and approaches in careful silence.

"He looks good," he whispers. "I hoped - that you would. Take care of him."

He sounds like he's trying not to cry, and Lan Zhan hates it.

"What's his name?" he asks, in desperate search of something to say that isn't where have you been or why didn't you tell me or how dare you try to leave.

"He doesn't have - well." Wei Ying laughs, a tiny bit. "Have you been calling him anything?" He looks up. "Traditionally we give human names when the baby leaves the nest, but he left the nest with you."

"A-Yuan," Lan Zhan says. "I've been calling him A-Yuan."

"Then that's his name," Wei Ying says, and looks down at him.

Their voices have woken A-Yuan, who's blinking sleepily. He sees Wei Ying and makes a distressed sound.

Wei Ying backs away immediately. "He needs you," he says urgently. "He doesn't - this is the first time I've been human since he broke shell, Lan Zhan -"

Lan Zhan was already moving without conscious volition, and A-Yuan settles again safely cupped in Lan Zhan's palms.

Wei Ying smiles, though there's a hint of sadness in it. "He'll start turning human in about a year," he says, soft. "You can teach him not to change. If - I didn't mean to just dump a child on you. If you don't want him just please let me -"

"Wei Ying," Lan Zhan cuts him off. "Do not speak as if you will leave him. You should stay with him." He takes a breath. "And with me."

He's not sure he could survive losing Wei Ying again.

Wei Ying is looking confused.

"What do you mean, stay?" he asks. "Aren't you arresting me?"

Lan Zhan stares at him.

"No."

"Then - why are you here?"

"I needed... solitude. And space. Away from my brother and his connection to the Jin. I wished to grieve in peace."

Wei Ying's eyes widen. "Grieve? Who did you lose?"

Lan Zhan resists the urge to shake him. "You." He takes a deep breath. "Your sister was sympathetic. She -" He stops. "Wei Ying. What is this place?"

Wei Ying's brow furrows. "This was Uncle Jiang's holiday cottage. He used to bring us kids here sometimes when he and Auntie Yu -" He clears his throat. "It was a long time ago."

The pieces are clicking into place. "Who knows about it? The connection to your family?"

"Well. Jiang Cheng, and Jiejie. It's belonged to the Jiangs forever, but no-one's been here for at least fifteen years."

Lan Zhan nods. "So you came here to hide, after -"

"I came here to hide while I healed up, and then I didn't dare try and move the egg again so close to hatching. I didn't think anyone would find me here. At least not before the - before A-Yuan was a fledgling."

Meng Yao must have been talking to - and looking for - Wei Ying, Lan Zhan thinks.

And Jiang Yanli must have offered Lan Zhan the use of her family's old cottage - it's probably a bit dusty, but it's very cozy, she'd said - in the hopes that if Wei Ying did come here, he'd find Lan Zhan.

"Why didn't you tell me? Why didn't you trust me?" he asks, trying not to sound plaintive and probably failing.

Wei Ying's shoulders drop. "I knew you'd be obligated to turn me in."

Lan Zhan stares at him. "Wei Ying. Never."

"I thought you'd caught me when you called me Wei-xiong. But then Meng Yao found me, and I just hoped that you could save A-Yuan." Wei Ying's mouth twists. "I went to Jinlintai to try and draw their attention away from here, but I'd left Chenqing here. It's buried in the garden."

"Wei Ying." Lan Zhan takes a deep breath. Priorities of action. "You are needed. You are the only remaining witness to what happened in Yiling."

Wei Ying flinches. "Lan Zhan. Don't - I can't. The Jin have the Lan and Nie on their side, the Jiang Sect will be destroyed. I can't do that to Jiang Cheng."

Lan Zhan shakes his head. "No." A-Yuan shifts in his hand, undoubtedly responding to the intensity of Lan Zhan's emotions. "The Nie have broken with the Jin since the death of Nie Mingjue, and Jiang Cheng has rebuilt to strength. My brother will not bring the Lan against you or the Jiang before you have had a chance to say what happened."

Wei Ying frowns. "Are you sure? Why not?"

Lan Zhan is too tired to hold back the words. "Because he knows I am in love with you," he replies. "I must dress."

"You're what?" Wei Ying screeches, his voice taking on the timbre it has when he is a crow.

Lan Zhan ignores his spluttering. Wei Ying heard what he said. They can discuss it when he is calmer; Lan Zhan must pack for a journey.

---

"Wei Ying. I must fetch supplies. It will be faster if I go alone. Will you be here when I return?"

"Lan Zhan, we have to talk about -"

"Wei Ying."

"Ugh. Fine. I'll be here."

---

"Lan Zhan. That's a baby capsule."

"Yes. For the car."

"Lan Zhan..."

"Wei Ying. Our son must be safe. I will build a nest in it."

"Our - One of us is a bird and it's not you, Lan Zhan. I'll build the nest."

"Very well."

"In a baby seat."

"For the baby, Wei Ying."

---

Wei Ying has lost control of his life (even more than usual), but at least the baby is safe.

A-Yuan, he thinks. Lan Zhan gave him a name, because Lan Zhan thinks like a human, and humans name what they love. A human would name a nestling. Even though nestlings are fragile, especially when they grow so slowly they must survive their first winter before their feathers come in, and not all nestlings survive.

Wei Ying had planned to go inside the cottage when the weather turned. Risk getting caught, being trapped indoors where no crow should be, because without someone else to keep the baby warm, it would freeze when he left it or starve when he didn't. It had been hard enough hatching the egg, packing stolen warmth around it when he went to find food.

It had been all he could save.

Lan Zhan drives smoothly. Every so often he glances in the rear-view mirror, but cranes his head for the angle to see the baby capsule.

Why can't you just tuck him in your shirt, Lan Zhan?

He would have no protection in an accident. He might be injured by the seatbelt.

He'd called A-Yuan our son. He'd said he knows I am in love with you.

Who did you lose?

You.

Wei Ying is having to recontextualise his entire life. Past and future, because it seems pretty clear that Lan Zhan is determined to co-parent the baby - the baby he knows is a shapeshifter.

if the Jin find out Lan Zhan has been harbouring -

It's hard to think clearly when he hasn't been human in a while. Why did he leave the baby with Lan Zhan in the first place? It's all very well to think Lan Zhan can be trusted, but the danger to Lan Zhan is -

"What," Lan Zhan says.

"Eh?" Wei Ying turns in his seat to look at him.

"You are fretting."

"Lan Zhan. The Jin will -"

"The Jin will not be a threat to you now."

"I'm worried about you."

"They were never a threat to me."

Lan Zhan only pulls over to feed the baby. Wei Ying can't risk shifting in public view to reintroduce himself to A-Yuan and demonstrate that this human is the parent A-Yuan knew before Lan Zhan, just looking different, but it does something to his chest to watch the careful tenderness with which Lan Zhan feeds him.

It's -

It's not like they're house crows, with their ugly, weird-looking babies. (Wei Wuxian has never met a human who could be a house-crow. He can judge.) A-Yuan is cute. But he is a cute baby bird.

Our son, Lan Zhan said.

It's rare, Wei Wuxian knows, for humans to be as attached to children who can't be human - yet, or ever. He remembers the old, ugly jokes. What do you get if a shifter woman marries a human? Pets.

But having a human-shaped baby is so difficult, so uncomfortable, requires such endurance not to shift during pregnancy, even if it means the child's shifter status will be hidden -

Did Madam Yu have an idea of what was coming?

Lan Zhan pulls up at an imposing gatehouse and opens the window.

"Name?"

"Lan Zhan."

"ID?"

Lan Zhan hands something over. There's a long, long delay before it's handed back.

"You're cleared to enter. She says to come to the main house."

"I understand."

The heavy gates swing open, and Wei Wuxian's breath catches as they drive forward.

He hadn't been paying attention to where they were going.

This is Lotus Pier - just, apparently, now enclosed in a high-security compound.

"Breathe," Lan Zhan says, and Wei Wuxian realises he had started hyperventilating.

Outside, the late afternoon sun is painting the neighbourhood surrounding Lotus Pier in gold, and it's so familiar it hurts and so strange he can't understand it. He doesn't recognise any of the people he catches glimpses of as they pass.

The main house looks just the same, even though he remembers it in ruins.

Lan Zhan parks, and the urge to fly away as hard and fast as he can is almost more than Wei Ying can bear, but he can't. Not when Lan Zhan is looking at him like that.

And not when the door to the house is opening.

Not when he can see Jiejie looking out, looking hopeful, and the way her face lights up when she sees Wei Ying.

He can't leave now. He'll have to wait for Jiang Cheng to throw him out.

Wei Ying forces himself out of the car and catches Jiejie when she throws herself into his arms, tells himself to remember this, because his heart aches with how much he's missed her.

There's hugs, and tears, and Lan Zhan is getting the baby capsule out of the car and Jiejie doesn't blink when Lan Zhan says this is our son, just coos over her nephew like Wei Ying or the baby can stay here, like they can be around enough to have any kind of relationship happening here.

Somehow he's getting ushered into the house.

Where he nearly drops to his knees from the weight as a huge snake drops from he's pretty sure the chandelier onto his shoulders, coiling fast around his upper body and coming to a halt with its fangs pressing into his shoulder not quite hard enough to break skin.

Wei Ying freezes. Holds very, very still.

Jiang Cheng is venomous. If he's anything like his mother - and Jiang Cheng is, in most things, very like his mother - one bite could kill an elephant.

"A-Cheng," Jiejie says reprovingly.

Jiang Cheng draws his head back, slitted eyes regarding Wei Ying. His tongue flicks out, scenting the air, and then his coils loosen, he slides to the floor, and ripples up into the shape of a man.

"I should have just bitten you," Jiang Cheng says, scowling. "Where the fuck have you been?"

---

It's later.

Wei Ying has been berated, shouted at, hugged, cried on, and shouted at some more.

Things aren't like he expected at all. Wen Qing and Wen Ning are still alive, even - Wen Ning has mostly recovered, and Wen Qing has married Jiang Cheng, and is going to break Wei Ying's wing again - to set it properly, but Wei Ying still isn't looking forward to it.

Wei Ying was disappointed to discover that Jiejie married Jin Zixuan after all, but pleased to meet a tiny, tiny noodle of a baby snake who twined curiously around his fingers. His name is Jin Ling, and Jin Zixuan is apparently ready to fight his own sect for him.

He's starting to think there might be a future again after all.

"Most of the surviving shifters came here," Lan Zhan says softly, when they're finally alone. A-Yuan is settled in the cozy warmth of the hatching room - a nice one, with adjustable incubators and warming beds, because Jiang Cheng and Wen Qing want kids, apparently, and have no way to know whether their kids will arrive with wings or scales or both. "Lotus Pier was a haven. Numbers gave them strength."

"I didn't know," Wei Ying says. He's so tired. "Lan Zhan. I need to know." He takes a breath. He wants to ask did you mean it, but Lan Zhan never says anything he doesn't mean. "What do you want?"

Lan Zhan looks at him. Softly, warmly, so intense it hurts.

"You."

They're standing very close together, and if Wei Ying just leaned forward a little, he wonders, would -

He's not sure if he's the one who kisses Lan Zhan, or if Lan Zhan kisses him, but they're kissing, and he never wants to stop, and he thinks he never will.

epilogue

Lan Zhan hears screaming. "I will call you back later," he tells his brother, even as he leaves his study to hurry downstairs.

"Is something wrong? I don't mind staying on the line," his brother replies. There's two voices screaming now.

Lan Zhan reaches the scene and surveys it.

Wei Ying is holding A-Yuan, who is clinging to him and sobbing. Jin Zixuan is sitting by a naked infant lying face-down on the floor, arms and legs moving wildly and jerkily, who is also screaming. Jin Zixuan is wringing his hands and looking conflicted, while Jiang Cheng is standing next to Wei Ying, rubbing A-Yuan's back.

"I... don't know," Lan Zhan says. "I will call you back." He hangs up as he goes to Wei Ying and A-Yuan, puts his arm around them both. "What happened?"

"A-Ling just shifted for the first time," Wei Ying explains. "He isn't enjoying it."

"It's hard," Jiang Cheng says with a shrug. "Everyone hates limbs the first time they try them. I had a cousin who didn't shift voluntarily until he was six."

"Arms are weird," Wei Ying agrees. "A-Yuan was startled and tried to fly away, but, well, arms. He fell over."

A-Yuan is still new to taking human form and does not have full control over his shift. Lan Zhan's son is a sweet and adorable child in either form, but he has seemed to be finding it to be an adjustment.

(Lan Zhan has a framed still from the video Wei Ying took of A-Yuan's first flight on his desk.)

"It's okay," Jin Zixuan says, sounding almost desperate. "I - you get used to them, A-Ling, I promise."

"Ugh," Jiang Cheng says. "I've got to -"

"Yeah," Wei Ying agrees. "I'll explain it."

Jiang Cheng moves towards his nephew and brother-in-law, crumpling to the floor as he goes. In snake form, he darts forward and wraps himself around Jin Ling until the baby's arms and legs are clamped in his coils. Jin Ling's sobs begin trailing off.

"You have to wrap him up until he's calm," Wei Ying explains to Jin Zixuan. "Let him process the sensory differences before he has to cope with movement."

"So when my wife gets home, I'm telling her that she missed our son's first shift, and also I handled it wrong," Jin Zixuan replies glumly.

"Well..." Wei Ying hesitates. "It's not your fault?" he tries, but he sounds unconvinced, and Jiang Cheng hisses in a way that sounds like disagreement. "Look, you're literally only human." Wei Ying passes A-Yuan - now also just sniffling - to Lan Zhan and goes over to his brother and nephew.

"Ow," A-Yuan says plaintively, pointing at his nose. Lan Zhan obligingly kisses it. There is a system. "A-Ling shitted."

"Shifted," Lan Zhan corrects.

"Mn!"

"I'm hoping for both," Wei Ying says, from where he's kneeling stroking Jin Ling's wispy hair. Jiang Cheng, surrounding Jin Ling completely, hisses.

"What happens next?" Jin Zixuan asks fretfully.

Wei Wuxian ignores him in favour of pulling out his phone and snapping a picture of Jin Ling, who is beginning to look sleepy-eyed. "Well, any second now," Wei Ying finally says, speaking softly, "he'll have calmed down completely, and then..."

Jin Ling disappears.

Jiang Cheng's coils loosen, and Wei Ying carefully plucks the tiny snake from among them.

"... he'll revert," Wei Ying finishes. Jin Ling curls up in his palm. He is still, as a snake, remarkably small. Wei Ying passes him carefully to Jin Zixuan.

"It's not his nap time yet," Jin Zixuan says, gently running a fingertip over his son's head.

"It is today. Shifting is tiring, he's already had a big day."

"If A-Li isn't pleased I'm telling her it's your fault. Send me that picture?"

---

Lan Zhan glances up as Jin Zixuan enters the kitchen. Jin Zixuan gives him a weary nod.

Lan Zhan tries not to look like he's questioning the other man's presence. He feels a certain solidarity with the only other human in the household, but Jin Zixuan is not normally inclined towards cooking for himself. Jiang Yanli actively enjoys cooking.

Usually.

It's a tense time.

The kitchen door opens again as Jin Zixuan is looking in the fridge, and Jin Zixuan actually flinches before he steps hurriedly aside.

Wen Qing takes a bottle of calcium enriched milk and raises an eyebrow at Lan Zhan.

"Forty-five minutes," he tells her calmly, and she nods and leaves.

"Are you cooking for her too?" Jin Zixuan asks cautiously.

"It is no more trouble," Lan Zhan replies. "There is enough for you, if you wish."

Jin Zixuan looks conflicted.

"You are not required to join us for the meal," Lan Zhan adds, taking pity on him, and Jin Zixuan almost wilts with relief.

"Thank you," Jin Zixuan says fervently. "They're all wonderful people, but -"

"I understand," Lan Zhan says, because he does.

It is unfortunate, but many events have aligned at once.

The annual moult of the crows is making them somewhat stressed and testy. This would be less of an issue than it is were it not that Jiang Yanli and Jiang Cheng - whose cycles do not usually align - are also due to moult. (As is Jin Ling, but he is young and growing; he moults relatively frequently.)

The snakes are also stressed and testy, and actively opposed to being in the presence of food.

And Wen Qing is pregnant, which appears not to be helping.

Lan Zhan is remaining calm, and doing his best to take care of the crows. (Including Wen Qing. She is Wei Ying and A-Yuan's family, and therefore his own, and he is sympathetic to Jiang Cheng's current aversion to food and his consequent limitations in supporting his wife at this time himself.) He's sure it will all be over soon.

---

The hatching room is always warmer than the rest of the house.

Lan Zhan has been permitted to come and greet his new niece.

There is another egg still incubating. Lan Zhan is told it is normal for snakes of this family's type to take longer. Lan Zhan's niece is a crow like her mother.

She's pleading for food, and he finds himself smiling in fond recollection at the sound. It will be nice, he thinks, to have a little one around the house again.

Jiang Cheng is holding food for his daughter.

"I'm feeding you," he mutters aloud. "Can I get a little trust I won't let you starve?"

"Tch, it's normal," Wei Ying says lightly. "Didn't A-Ling do this?"

"No." Jiang Cheng gives him a look. "We don't have vocal cords, Wei Ying. Why won't she eat?"

Wen Qing caws from where she is brooding over the other egg, and Wei Ying laughs.

"What did she say?" Jiang Cheng asks suspiciously.

"Bird joke, you wouldn't understand," Wei Ying replies breezily. "She's not eating because you're doing that wrong."

"What? How am I supposed to do it?"

Wei Ying shifts and leaps to the side of the nest with the easy grace he has regained since his wing healed. He takes the morsel from Jiang Cheng's fingers and puts it in the baby's mouth, then looks up at Jiang Cheng.

"That's really helpful," Jiang Cheng says, with strained sarcasm, "but I'm not sure she'll be happy to wait while I just go and change species."

Lan Zhan steps forward. His niece is hungry, and Wen Qing's temper will not be improved if her child's father does not participate appropriately in childcare. "May I?" he asks.

Wei Ying jumps down again and becomes a human. "Great idea, Lan Zhan! You're the only one here who's fed a baby with his hands."

Lan Zhan remembers, with something that borders on nostalgia, how terrified he was the first time he did this. It seemed so wrong.

A-Yuan required feeding several times an hour for months. It's now the easiest and most natural-seeming thing in the world to put food on the tip of his finger and then poke it down his niece's throat.

"You must trigger the swallowing reflex," he explains, and does it again.

"Won't it hurt her?" Jiang Cheng asks, and Lan Zhan has to reconcile Jiang Cheng sounding anxious and fretful.

"If you're worried, I can do it," Wei Ying says. "You know. If you can't handle being a crow's father."

Jiang Cheng glares. "Watch me," he snaps, and jabs food down his daughter's throat.

---

The cottage does not look as bad as it did the first time Lan Zhan arrived. The garden is still overgrown, but it's free of rubbish, at least.

Looking at it, he feels a rush of warmth and familiarity.

"Look, A-Yuan," Wei Ying says as they approach the gate. "This is where you were born."

Cultivator strength makes it easy for Lan Zhan to lift A-Yuan to his shoulders for a better view of the somewhat tattered remains of the nest.

They enter their holiday home by the front gate. It's been empty for some time - it took a while for the political situation to settle to a point where it would be safe to leave Lotus Pier. Lan Zhan listens to his husband and son talking and laughing as he unpacks and cleans and wonders if the family of mice he evicts are descended from the ones he removed before.

Wei Ying and A-Yuan were helping with the unpacking, and the cleaning, but Wei Ying got distracted and distracted A-Yuan in turn. Lan Zhan doesn't mind. He gets the bedrooms usable, and puts the toys A-Yuan selected in the playroom.

The light hasn't faded yet when he's done, and Lan Zhan goes out into the front garden.

He had little opportunity to investigate it when he was here before. The tangled, overgrown roses are still there - digging Chenqing and Suibian out from under them doesn't seem to have done lasting damage - but on the other side of the garden are some blackberry bushes. In time he will have to tame those too, but for now fresh berries might be nice to have.

Wei Ying and A-Yuan's voices are inaudible when he closes the front door behind him. They were at the back of the cottage, and Lan Zhan doesn't think much of it until there's a flutter of wings from above as he's picking berries, and two crows land on his shoulders.

Wei Ying pecks lightly at his ear.

"This is food for you, Wei-xiong," Lan Zhan says, deliberately sweet and deliberately reminiscent of his first approaches to the crow he did not then know he loved, because Wei Ying loves to hate it when he's like that, Lan Zhan, my poor heart, Lan Zhan.

Wei Ying caws at him in furious outrage, and Lan Zhan smiles.