It was meant to be the best way out of a bad situation.
In other words, Lan Qiren reflected, it had been a stupid idea the entire time, they had known it was a stupid idea, and they’d all collectively decided to charge straight forward into it regardless.
And the worst of it was: it had been his idea, too.
Perhaps in another lifetime he had been less stubborn about continuing to go out to night-hunt, an activity he had never particularly enjoyed to begin with and was strongly recommended against continuing given the state of his health after the Sunshot Campaign – perhaps he had been less worried about Lan Wangji, who had emerged from his healing seclusion wan and lifeless, unable to reconcile to the world, even quieter and more reserved than he had been before. Who didn’t respond to anything, not even little Lan Sizhui, who adored him, who neglected his duties as a teacher to the younger generation of Lan disciples in favor of seemingly endless meditation that was little more than moping, and who went out constantly on night-hunts, earning himself a reputation for ‘being where the chaos is’ that was widely praised as virtue, but which Lan Qiren feared was merely another form of self-destruction.
At any rate, in this life, Lan Qiren had seen Lan Wangji heading back out on yet another night-hunt less than a week after arriving back from the last one, and had impulsively announced that he would be joining him. It had been worth it at the time just for the expression Lan Wangji had made, resembling nothing more than a startled rabbit or a child caught breaking curfew.
That expression had more life in it than anything that had graced Lan Wangji’s face for months.
It had made it worthwhile for Lan Qiren to insist on it, despite all entreaties by others – Lan Xichen, his doctors, the other elders – for him to stay back and take it easy. After enough such entreaties, he’d even lost his temper enough to forbid them from sending attendants with them and headed out with Lan Wangji alone, something he swiftly regretted after the burst of temper had passed and his ill health reasserted itself with force. Not that Lan Wangji wasn’t solicitous and perfectly capable of caring for him, but Lan Qiren did hate to be a burden to his nephews. It wasn’t like he was actually contributing anything to the trip, either.
He’d thought, briefly, that his presence might be helpful when they ended up crossing paths with Jiang Cheng, out hunting down demonic cultivators again. Jiang Cheng’s mere presence caused Lan Wangji to bristle like a dog that had scented something bad, and it wasn’t much better the other way around. It was plainly evident that Jiang Cheng remembered Lan Wangji stealing away Wei Wuxian at the massacre of Nightless City, although he didn’t have proof of it or of the fact that he had been helping Wei Wuxian in doing so, and that he had noticed Lan Wangji’s absence during the siege that had followed; it was equally evident that he held it against Lan Wangji in the same way that Lan Wangji held Jiang Cheng’s participation in the same event against him. Still, they hadn’t needed him; a testament to their increased maturity, they had both managed to remain civil enough, at least on the surface.
It wasn’t until they encountered each other again later, at the end of the night hunt – the events thereof having very unfortunately turned out to be caused by the same demonic cultivator Jiang Cheng had been chasing, rather than a wild yao the way the description had made it sound, and there had been a disagreement as to how to resolve the situation – that the simmering conflict between them had abruptly burst out into the open, and even if his name was never spoken and indeed was deliberately avoided, as if saying it would only highlight his absence, the cause of it was Wei Wuxian.
There was nothing to be done about it, Lan Qiren deduced quickly enough. All of them that were not Lan Wangji and Jiang Cheng – all those who did not love Wei Wuxian the way they did, though Lan Qiren suspected only he and Lan Wangji knew the truth of the depth of Lan Wangji’s regard for the man – could only stand back and wait for the storm to pass.
“ – a coward like you isn’t the one who has to deal with him!” Jiang Cheng snapped, Zidian crackling to life around his clenched fist as all of his attendants pretended not to look at him. The fearsome Sandu Shengshou was notorious for his temper, and equally notorious for losing that temper whenever a demonic cultivator was involved. Seeing it in person made clear that the rumors were completely true – Jiang Cheng was a complete mess.
“There is no him left to deal with,” Lan Wangji replied waspishly, and Jiang Cheng hopped up and down as if he’d been stung by it.
“The stain he left behind is on my name!” he howled. “Who doesn’t know that my Jiang clan raised him! All those inventions, all those lookalikes and copycats, everything associated with him, it’s our responsibility to clean up! My responsibility! Do you think I want this piece of shit duty? Do you think I enjoy being left out of everything in the cultivation world because of it? Do you think –”
“You expelled him from your sect before he died,” Lan Qiren interjected, even though he knew it would be pointless.
Sure enough, Jiang Cheng waved him off dismissively. “So what? Do you think the ghosts of the victims of his self-named ‘disciples’ care about a couple of words? He never came officially to break ties. His soul, wherever it may be, is doomed to rest in the Lotus Pier forever.”
Lan Wangji pressed his lips together tightly. Anyone else might have thought it annoyance, irritation at losing an argument; Lan Qiren knew it to be agonizing pain at the truth of the statement – the fact that Wei Wuxian belonged to Jiang Cheng, who was tormented by the shadow of his shade, and not to Lan Wangji, who was equally tormented by the lack thereof…
It was, even at the time, a bad idea.
Lan Qiren went ahead and opened his mouth anyway.
“That is the case, but it need not stay that way,” he said, and Jiang Cheng looked at him in surprise. Everyone looked at him in surprise, including Lan Wangji. He folded his hands in front of himself, tucking them into his sleeves in his most proper manner, calling on years of teaching and being sect leader to garb himself with dignity meant to force them to listen to him. “Jiang Wanyin. You believe that my Lan sect wronged you by excluding you from the alliance set in place by the Venerated Triad, and that your association with Wei Wuxian was the cause of that exclusion, do you not?”
Jiang Cheng faltered at having it put so bluntly. “Teacher Lan…”
“You are correct. It may have been an unintentional slight, but you should never have been left out of the alliance between the sects; we are the four sects, unified, and if we are to prevent another Wen sect, unified we must remain. As we have wronged you, we should make reparations,” Lan Qiren said, ignoring him. This wasn’t actually about him, except in the way that it was, a little, incidentally. “You feel burdened by the weight of carrying Wei Wuxian’s spirit – so be it! Let that be our means of reparation: we will take him from you.”
“Take…take him from me?” Jiang Cheng echoed, staring blankly at him. “But…how? How can such a thing even be possible?”
“The same way families have sent off their children for a millennium or more,” Lan Qiren said, and tried not to look at the way Lan Wangji’s eyes had gone as round as saucers. “Marry him out to us in a ghost marriage. We will bear the stain of his crimes and cleanse them through our righteous conduct.”
“A – a ghost marriage?” Jiang Cheng asked, though he looked unwillingly intrigued. “To Wei Wuxian? You would impose such a fate on one of your own disciples?”
It did not take a genius to guess what would happen next.
“I will take upon this duty myself,” Lan Wangji said solemnly. “I will wed Wei Wuxian.”
Of course he would.
“I can’t even tell if it’s something you would have hated, or if it’s something you would have thought was absolutely side-splittingly hilarious,” Jiang Cheng said.
He was standing in the memorial hall of the Jiang sect, the one he’d prioritized in rebuilding even though they needed other things more, things for the living rather than the dead – his parents’ memorial tablets were here, and one for Jiang Yanli, too, even if her body was buried beside her husband’s back in Lanling. He visited them regularly.
He wasn’t visiting them today.
Today, he was in a small side room in the hall, a room with a door that was hard to find and even harder to squeeze into, what with all the arrays he’d put there to ward people off. It couldn’t be in the main hall, he’d always reasoned, because that would be an offense to those who were already laid to rest there –
But at the same time, he couldn’t not honor Wei Wuxian.
His father had loved him, his sister had loved him, his mother had…barely tolerated him, though she’d always approved of how he won acclaim for their sect. Wei Wuxian had helped avenge Jiang Cheng’s parents, his sect, and he had been like a brother to Jiang Cheng, once. They had once dreamt of being the Twin Prides, working together side-by-side, and Jiang Cheng had never wanted anything more.
No, Jiang Cheng couldn’t fail to honor Wei Wuxian, in his own way – by painting a memorial tablet for him, by putting Chenqing in pride of place beside it, by lighting incense for him and remembering him.
In the end, he loved Wei Wuxian, too, even if sometimes he also hated him.
“I mean,” he said, starting to pace again. He’d been pacing half the night at this point. “I mean, it’s Lan Wangji. The one you always enjoyed tormenting the most, even before the war! And during the war, too, you always fought the most with him…you’d probably think it was funny if he ended up being your spouse. ‘An old ice-block stone-face like him, married!’ – I can hear you even now. And to you!”
Jiang Cheng shook his head.
“I shouldn’t do it,” he said. “It’d get me benefits, to be sure, and help the sect, and in all honesty I think you’d like that..? The you you used to be would, anyway. It’d fix the imbalance in the cultivation world: not three sects unified against mine, with my tie to the Jin sect limited just to the fragile branch that is Jin Ling, but all of us bound together. Me to the Jin through Jin Ling and to the Lan through you…that would give me two allies, too, just the same as the rest, and I’ve always been on good terms with the Nie anyway, there’s nothing to fear there. Having the Lan on my side would also give me the strength to fight a little more equally for custody of Jin Ling…I mean, you’d probably agree to do the marriage just for that, wouldn’t you?”
Wei Wuxian would. Wei Wuxian had always been willing to do anything for Jiang Yanli, even if he wasn’t willing to do the same for Jiang Cheng, and that is why Jiang Cheng couldn’t understand how he could let her die like that, killed her like that through his own negligence and recklessness…
“But how could I sell you for benefits? You are – you were my shixiong. If you’d only said the word, if you’d only given me the time of day and tried to meet me in the middle, I would have done anything to defend you, anything and everything. Even after you left me behind, rejected me and my sect, didn’t I still try to speak up in your defense whenever I could, right up until the end when you went too far? Didn’t I do my best for you..?”
His best hadn’t been enough. In the end, Wei Wuxian had gone mad, and murdered countless others, and died.
“I just want to honor you,” Jiang Cheng said to Chenqing, to the memorial tablet that shouldn’t be there. “I just want you to be part of my family again for real, to be the person you used to be, for everything to be the way it used to be. But you…”
He shook his head, thinking of the Wen sect remnants. Thinking of the awful Burial Mounds that Wei Wuxian had apparently preferred over the rebuilding of the Lotus Pier.
“You don’t want to be here,” Jiang Cheng concluded. “Not really. The first moment you could, you ran away…you wanted to be anywhere else, even a place like that, as long as it’s not here.”
He was silent for a long moment, then turned away.
“Fine,” he said bitterly. “Fine. Let it not be said that I don’t want to honor you the way you want to be honored. I’ll grant your wish at last, and send you out of here for good. Go torment Lan Wangji to your heart’s content! Let everyone think I did it for benefits, let them think what they like…”
He closed his eyes and turned back to kneel once again, reaching out to re-light the incense that had nearly burned out.
“Just…be at peace, all right?”
Lan Qiren looked up at his nephew, surprised to see him standing there. It was late, and Lan Wangji had long been excused from assisting on patrols – though he had been doing much better this past month, color returning to his cheeks, appetite restored, his energy levels slowly recovering to something closer to what they had once been.
“What is it, Wangji?” he asked, beckoning him to come inside, which he did, shutting the door behind him. “Come and sit, have some tea. Is something the matter?”
Lan Wangji was silent for a long moment, but then he did sit where Lan Qiren had indicated.
“It has been difficult for you,” he said, and Lan Qiren blinked at him, not understanding. “Arranging my marriage. The other elders disapprove.”
Naturally they disapproved, and loudly and vociferously at that. When Lan Qiren had pointed out that there was nothing to do be done about it now, being as he’d already reached an agreement with another sect leader and revoking it now would lose face for the sect, they accused Lan Qiren of having lost his mind, of being less than impartial – of rampant favoritism, of forgetting righteousness, of flagrantly breaching any number of rules. There had even been murmurs that Lan Qiren was unwilling to yield up his power as interim sect leader and that his actions were an attempt to undermine Lan Xichen’s authority by making contracts on behalf of the Lan sect without authorization.
Ridiculous, of course, but the disdain of others was difficult to eradicate. There had been a reason Lan Qiren had taken such extraordinary steps to preserve Lan Wangji’s reputation even at the cost of his agony and pain; torn flesh healed in time, leaving only scars, but a blemished reputation followed in your heels forever, dragging you down like an anchor.
“It’s nothing,” he said. It wasn’t really nothing – he suspected he would be dealing with the repercussions of this act for years to come, and truly the rules were right about Do not act impulsively – but it wasn’t anything he minded doing. Even if the other side eventually won and had him sent to the discipline hall to bear any number of strikes on his own back as punishment for his transgression, even if he would be the next one kneeling before the discipline whip, he would bear it without complaint.
It would be worth it, just for having so obviously resulted in such an improvement for Lan Wangji.
“It is not. Shufu has exerted himself on my behalf, and for that I thank you,” Lan Wangji said, serious as ever, and even raised his hands to bow. “I only wish to know…why?”
“What do you mean?” Lan Qiren asked, stroking his beard and frowning. “Surely you know that I have always sought to act for your benefit, even when we disagree on what that is.”
“Of course. And yet…shufu does not like Wei Ying.” Lan Wangji lifted his head to meet Lan Qiren’s gaze, and his eyes were a little red-rimmed. “Why would shufu help me win him like this? Now that it is…that he is…”
Lan Qiren sighed.
“Wei Wuxian was a troublesome boy, and a terrible student,” he said, because those were true. “But he was brilliant, and he was well-meaning. His loss is a loss to the cultivation world at large, and to you personally. After what he did at the Qiongi Path, Jinlin Tower, then the Nightless City, with his madness and his violence, there was no question that righteousness demanded that he had to die. So he has died, and you have mourned him.”
Lan Wangji nodded.
“I can do nothing to change that now, and I do not regret my actions then. As I do not regret, I will not apologize, no matter how much it pains me to have caused you pain…but at the same time, there is little point in holding grudges against the dead. If it can bring you joy to have his name bound to yours, why not?”
“It does,” Lan Wangji said. “I do not know why, because it changes nothing, and yet…it does.”
Lan Qiren nodded, satisfied that he had achieved what he had wished, no matter how much it made him wince to think of Wei Wuxian’s spirit resting alongside his ancestors – or worse, having to put up with him when he, too, eventually joined them. It was worth it for his nephew, though, and at least he didn’t have to deal with Wei Wuxian alive.
Though there was one point Lan Wangji had gotten wrong.
“I would think that it changes quite a bit,” he remarked, and Lan Wangji looked at him in askance. “Now that Jiang Cheng has given his approval and the auspicious day has been set, the world will know that he is your wife. They will likely fail to understand the significance of such a thing; they may ascribe your actions to some stratagem, or laugh at your recklessness in thinking that you can expunge his crimes with your good conduct…but the fact will be known. Dare they then continue to speak ill of him then?”
Lan Wangji’s shoulders straightened. “Are you suggesting that I stand up for him?”
“You are certainly not to defend what he did – the murder of his brother-in-law and countless others is unforgivable. But at the same time, we are required to uphold our sect’s face. Are we to allow the cultivation world to mock our second young master’s wife?”
Lan Qiren had thought long and hard about what had happened with his unhappy brother and his even unhappier wife in the years he had spent running the sect in his brother’s name, and he did not wish to see such a thing happen ever again. He Kexin had been kept a secret, hidden away in a dignified matter, and that secret had become a burden upon them all. Rather than hide their shame and suffer alone, he would rather that Lan Wangji stood upon his dignity and insisted upon respect. Respect for himself, for his sect, and even, yes, for Wei Wuxian, now that he was one of them.
(He still couldn’t believe that he himself had enabled such a thing.)
“Shufu,” Lan Wangji said, and his voice was thick with emotion. He seemed very near to tears.
Lan Qiren couldn’t resist reaching forward as he had when Lan Wangji was young, brushing the line of his hair beneath the forehead ribbon that he no longer permitted himself to touch; he had felt that he had lost the right to consider himself as Lan Wangji’s parent after they had had such a serious dispute. Causing such pain and refusing to regret having done it was not, he believed, the act of a parent, whose primary duty ought to be to love his child – and he did, too; he loved his nephews more than anything, only he did not know if they knew that.
“I only wish for you to be happy, Wangji,” he said, and then nearly forgot to breathe when Lan Wangji caught his hand and lifted it up to his forehead ribbon – forgiveness, he thought, nearly dizzy with relief, forgiveness in truth. “Wangji…”
“I will live up to shufu’s instruction,” Lan Wangji promised. “I will make you proud again. Thank you for this, shufu. Thank you.”
“Don’t say it so many times,” Lan Qiren said, retreating back into grumpiness like a shield. “What am I, an outsider? Go on, finish your tea and return to your room; you still require rest and food, to gather your strength. There are still tasks you need to accomplish…Sizhui has been asking whether you will resume your instruction of him in guqin language. Shall I tell him that you will be available?”
Lan Wangji nodded, and then added, “I can also assist with shufu’s classes, if that would be convenient.”
Anything that got Lan Wangji back into the daily life of their sect would be convenient.
Lan Qiren might not like Wei Wuxian – had never much liked him, would never much like him – but returning him to Lan Wangji had given him back his nephew, and for that, he supposed, he would begrudgingly agree to put aside his distaste for him and thank him. He might even burn a stick of incense in his honor.
After all, the rules did say Do not hold grudges…
“Hanguang-jun can’t be with Senior Mo!” Lan Sizhui was insisting as Wei Wuxian snuck by in search of some way out of the Cloud Recesses before anyone figured out who he was. “He wouldn’t!”
“Why not?” Lan Jingyi asked. “Just because of Second Madame Lan, you mean?”
Wei Wuxian stopped dead.
Lan Wangji…was married?
That old iceblock stone-face had found someone who was willing to put up with him?
…what must she be like?
Wei Wuxian shook his head firmly, and put it out of his mind. He put it out of his mind very effectively, which meant he only thought about it every few moments (married! Lan Zhan! Impossible!) and didn’t say a single word about it (sure, he quizzed Lan Wangji about the type of girl he’d be into, but that was subtle! He was so subtle! So subtle he hadn’t figure out anything useful, in fact…) and didn’t give a single hint that he knew, not one bit.
Which was, he supposed, what made the moment when Jin Guangyao backed him into revealing who he was quite so awkward.
“Wei Wuxian? It’s Wei Wuxian?” people were shouting. “It must be! Suibian wouldn’t respond to anyone – it must be him! It’s the Yiling Patriarch, back at last!”
Lan Wangji took a step forward and cleared his throat.
“Hanguang-jun, what are you doing? He must have been enchanted. He can’t possibly be defending –”
Lan Wangji cleared his throat even more pointedly.
“Is he trying to say that he disagrees with our conclusion? That he doesn’t think –”
“He’s objecting to how you’re referring to him, obviously,” Jiang Cheng snapped, looking immensely put-upon. “If this is Wei Wuxian, then Hanguang-jun married him, didn’t he? You should be calling him Second Madame Lan!”
Wei Wuxian blinked and wondered when Jiang Cheng had lost his mind.
“That is correct,” Lan Wangji said, and – what? “The first person to seek to lay a hand on my wife dies.”
Everyone suddenly went very quiet.
Lan Wangji grabbed Wei Wuxian by the hand and walked out, head held high.
They made it all the way back to the Cloud Recesses before Wei Wuxian finally blurted out: “You did what? When?!”
His memory was bad, yes, but it wasn’t that bad!
“Who is making a racket out here?” Lan Qiren asked, the grouchy old teacher sticking his head out. “Wangji, Senior Mo – what’s the meaning of this?”
“The cultivation world has uncovered that Senior Mo is Wei Ying,” Lan Wangji said, with admirable boldness and absolutely no tact, given that Wei Wuxian was pretty sure Lan Qiren hated him. “We require sanctuary.”
Lan Qiren closed his eyes for a moment, looking like he’d just developed a sudden headache.
Just when Wei Wuxian was almost hoping for an explosion, if only because that would be normal, the old teacher heaved a long sigh.
“Yes, very well,” he said, then turned and barked at some nearby patrolling disciples: “Go raise the sect’s defenses, and monitor anyone who tries to enter. If you have any reason to suspect that they represent a threat to the Second Madame, don’t let them in.”
Wei Wuxian’s jaw dropped. Even Lan Qiren was in on this?
“At least he’s not actually Mo Xuanyu,” Lan Qiren said reproachfully to Lan Wangji once he was done barking out orders. “It’s one thing for you to enter a ghost marriage with Wei Wuxian –”
Lan Wangji had done what?!
“ – and to defend him to the cultivation world –”
“ – and, as I assume you intend, to go on and claim that the marriage remains valid now that he’s been resurrected – ”
It was what?!
Wait. Did that mean…he was the Second Madame Lan that was married to Lan Wangji? Him? Currently?!
“ – but I would most certainly draw the line at infidelity.”
“Shufu,” Lan Wangji hissed, and even Wei Wuxian could tell that beneath his reserve he was hideously embarrassed.
“Do you know how worried we’ve all been about this spectacle of you trying to take on a second wife?” Lan Qiren complained, completely ignoring his nephew’s distress. “The juniors have spoken of nothing else. They’ve been quite disappointed in you. Such a thing is beneath your dignity as a Lan…”
Wei Wuxian decided to be a magnanimous wife – er, that was, a magnanimous friend – and save Lan Wangji from expiring on the spot.
“Teacher Lan, you’re taking this whole thing remarkably well,” he interjected, smiling toothily. “Don’t you hate me?”
“It doesn’t matter what I think about you,” Lan Qiren said stiffly. “You never officially broke ties with the Jiang sect, having not conducted all the rituals necessary for such a thing. As a result, Sect Leader Jiang was well within his rights to give you away to Wangji as a ghost bride to win an alliance sufficient to protect his rights to help raise his nephew –”
Okay, Wei Wuxian could see that.
“ – and rid the Jiang sect of having to carry the taint of your reputation – ”
Also that. Jiang Cheng in a bad mood would be capable of anything.
“ – and since you have married into the Lan set, you are our responsibility and our responsibility alone. No matter who it is in the cultivation world, do they dare claim to be able to discipline our people?!”
“Shufu is right,” Lan Wangji said. “We will stand beside you.”
“Reluctantly,” Lan Qiren interjected, huffing.
“We will defend you,” Lan Wangji continued, implacable. “You will not be alone.”
Wei Wuxian stared at him.
“…but why would you marry me?” he asked blankly. “I wasn’t even – I was a ghost. Why marry me?”
“Oh no,” Lan Qiren said, suddenly sounding deeply alarmed. “I will not be forced to be present for this. You two are to go to the jingshi at once and deal with this little revelation yourselves. Do not emerge until you have resolved it between yourselves.”
(Later, of course, they were interrupted by the ensuing events, but ah, until then..!)